The Recent Oscar Contender: At first I thought it was merely that there were two bleak, violent tales from the American West vying for Oscars in 2008. But it wasn't just No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood that kept popping up in your e-mails. Into the Wild, Last King of Scotland, Crash, and other recent Oscar bait showed up over and over, too. Each possesses that special, upper-middlebrow sensibility that thrills the academy, tantalizes the queue updater, and stymies the would-be viewer. A special acknowledgement is due to nominees in the Best Foreign Language category: Pan's Labyrinth and The Lives of Others were among the most common movies cited by Slate readers. You guys love it when the human spirit triumphs over adversity. You'd just prefer it happen in English.
Subtitles, great length, and difficult and/or depressing material can all grind a Netflix subscription to a halt. Movies that combine these elements are especially deadly. After Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List, the movie most commonly cited by Slate readers was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It insinuates itself into your queue with its good notices, Oscar buzz, and intriguingly artsy pedigree. It then defies your efforts to watch it with its depressing subject matter (man in his prime cut down by freak medical condition), subtitles (he communicates by blinking—in French!), and (the more you think about it) irritatingly artsy pedigree.
Violence is a particularly potent viewer-repellent. A good many of you reported renting The Passion of the Christ to see what all the fuss was about and then never working up the nerve for all that flagellation. (Or is there just something about Jesus movies? A bunch of you couldn't get through Last Temptation of Christ, either.) Several readers couldn't even make it through Un Chien Andalou, a film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel that, at 16 minutes in duration, is the shortest movie to make the poll. It wasn't that you couldn't spare the quarter-hour; you couldn't handle the graphic material (a woman's eye is slit open). C'mon, it's surreal!
The high frequency of the violence excuse among your responses pointed up another obstacle to efficient viewing: the old ball and chain. When, as is often the case, a Netflix subscription is shared by the family, things can get especially complicated. Jeff from Virginia is 38 and has never seen The Exorcist. But his wife won't watch it with him, and he's decided that the kids aren't quite old enough to appreciate Linda Blair's spinning-head trick. Things aren't necessarily any easier for folks still on the market. Several of you wrote in with stories of Netflix returns delayed by the vicissitudes of the dating game. "My ex was a huge hip-hop fan, so we watched Beef. He loved it, so I ordered Beef II," writes Sara from Nebraska. "A few weeks later we split, and moved out to go our separate ways. Beef II was packed up in a box of junk, and sat in my storage for about 5 months ... and I hate hip-hop."
So, how can you avoid developing a long-standing beef with a Netflix rental? You could simply eschew renting anything long, foreign, or potentially depressing, but the prospect of dumbing down your queue is itself depressing. Better to stay ambitious, but also be a little strategic. One thing I noticed is that readers on the more expensive plans—the folks who pay to have three or four movies out at a time—tended to be the ones holding on to discs for months and years. Those third and fourth slots are an invitation to rent something you don't actually plan on watching anytime soon. Consider saving your self some money and guilt and downgrading to a plan with only one or two movies at a time.
One final thought: Mailing back a DVD unwatched doesn't mean you'll never get another shot at it. And Netflix is the one paying the postage. Why not give yourself a week to see Hotel Rwanda. If you don't get to it, maybe it's because you're a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy. But maybe it's just because you're not quite in the mood for it right now. Perhaps in a few months the disc will again reach the top of your queue and you'll tear it out of the envelope and throw it into the Toshiba the day it arrives in the mail. In the meantime, you can get started on a good Paleolithic kick.