Each month, Netflix closes the door on more than a few films that we absolutely love. (If you didn’t see Taxi Driver while it was available on the streamer, sorry friend.) But in return, it also gives and gives, stocking its library with an overwhelming volume of comedies, original films, and Oscar winners. How do you choose? Well, you might call on a friend. That’s kind of the role we’re hoping to play here. Not to make it awkward, but let us be your friend. Let us sift through the madness and give you a glimpse into the best of the best. The films that are going to keep you culturally sound.
You have Chadwick Boseman’s Golden Globe-winning (and Oscar-nominated) final performance in Ma Rainey‘s Black Bottom. Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7, and then some mainstays like Monty Python. Don’t sleep on some Monty Python, now. Plus, if you really need to space out for a couple hours, Red Notice is there to put a Ryan Reynolds-sized smile on your face.
We perused Netflix for the best films on the platform, and now, the choice is yours.
21 Jump Street
In a world of remakes and reboots, there are only a few bits of recently recycled IP that stand out. Fueled by lovably manic performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street is by far one of the best action comedies of the last decade.
Want to see Jake Gyllenhaal sweat? Want to see Jake Gyllenhaal shout various things into a headset? Want to see Jake Gyllenhaal vomit like The Exorcist kid? We knew it. The Guilty is one of our favorite rides of the year.
“You should have never let us make bunk beds! It was a terrible idea! There’s blood everywhere! Dad, Nancy, it’s so bad. There’s blood everywhere. Those bunk beds were a terrible idea. Why’d you let us do that? It’s so bad!”
i’m thinking of ending things
If you’re part of the rather large group of Netflixers who slept on Charlie Kaufman’s i’m thinking of ending things, let’s fix that now. The book-to-film treatment is just as weird, true to life, and deeply unsettling as its source material.
You know the feeling: When you pull up a title on Netflix, see the first three actors on the bill, and immediately press play. How about Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, and Jharrel Jerome? Easy choice.
Million Dollar Baby
Starring Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank (in her second Oscar-winning role), the film follows a squirrely boxer who fights (literally) against the odds to break into female boxing. Determined and gritty, the pair work together until the unthinkable happens and the once steely duo become two of the only people in the world who understand one another.
The combination of Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise could have gone either way, but in Rain Man, the two are pitch perfect as estranged brothers. When Charlie (Cruise) has to return home following his father’s death, he’s rocked to his core when he realized that he has an autistic brother to tend to in Raymond (Hoffman). The duo ends up being electric though, with the film winning Best Picture and three of its other seven Academy Award nominations.
I Care A Lot
Is this a true story? Is it actually possible? Is she really still alive? How do I choose between human trafficking and abusing the elderly?
These are all questions you will ask while watching I Care a Lot. Starring Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, and Chris Messina’s very specific suit line up, the crime thriller from Netflix is one of the most egregious, devious films to debut in years. And it’s delicious.
Netflix tells you that this movie is Gritty. But Training Day is also Denzel. And that’s all you need to know.
You might remember the kid from your middle school who thought he was the goddamn shit because he knew his way around a Rubix Cube. Now, that kid has a Netflix documentary. Fuck that kid.
Malcolm & Marie
Sure, Malcolm & Marie didn’t quite live up to the hype built by Euphoria mastermind Sam Levinson. But that doesn’t mean Malcolm & Marie—which, to warn you, is basically a two-hour-long couple’s fight—should be slept on. The black and white film is worth a watch, if only for the powerhouse performances from leads Zendaya and John David Washington.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
In this film adaptation of one of August Wilson’s most unforgettable plays, Chadwick Boseman delivers his final performance. Starring alongside a just-as-stellar Viola Davis, Boseman plays the troubled trumpeter Levee, which should squarely put him in the favorite position for an Oscar this year.
The Trial of the Chicago Seven
Aaron Sorkin’s newest creation for Netflix is proving to be a massive contender at the 2021 Oscars. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Rylance in award-winning turns, the film is based on the story of seven defendants charged with conspiracy against the government.
There Will Be Blood
He! Drinks! Your milkshake! He drinks it up!
Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic from 2007 is an instant classic. Starring Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano, the film dives into the dark early days of oil tycoons. Unnerving and haunting, the film is a slow burn of how greed and prosperity eventually overcomes good will.
David Fincher was never out of the game—just merely waiting in the wings for the next perfect project. That came in the form of Mank, the story of how Citizen Kane was written. With big performances from Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, Fincher captures the Golden Age of Hollywood and the drama between Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.
American Murder The Family Next Door
In case you’re one of the few who does not know about the Watt family murders (Don’t feel bad! You’re not alone), this 90ish minute documentary uses found footage to unravel the devastating deaths of Shannan Watt and her two daughters. What starts out as a heartbreaking disappearance quickly takes an even more gruesome turn, especially when you consider that it’s Shannan’s social media videos that narrate a large part of the documentary.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet
Just that name alone should sell this film. Attenborough has been doing environmentally-focused documentary work for years, and in a time where we really could be paying more attention to our environment, his Netflix documentary is a must watch. Not only does it offer some keen perspective on Attenborough’s life, but it highlights just how much nature has changed since the natural historian has been alive.
Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash alone should be enough to get anyone onboard with Uncorked, one of Netflix’s best reviewed dramas of the year. It tells the story of a young man caught between his parents’ expectations that he take over the family barbecue restaurant and his dream of becoming a master sommelier.
The Old Guard
For super heroes, the humanity-protecting members of the Old Guard aren’t really all that super. They can be shot or stabbed, and they’re not super strong or fast. But what they can’t do is die: The band of warriors, led by Charlize Theron’s Andy, is fated to walk across millennia as guardians for mankind. Until, that is, a corrupt pharma exec gets ahold of their billion-dollar secret.
A Secret Love
Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel fell in love in 1947 and built a relationship that spanned six decades, all while hiding the truth of their romance from friends and loved ones in the face of rampant homophobia. You might think you’re made of tough stuff if you can make it through the trailer without welling up, but there’s no way anyone could sit through the whole film without getting teary.
Before she told us America’s story of mass incarceration through the eyes of the Exonerated Five in When They See Us, Ava Durvernay took it on in 13th. Featuring interviews with Van Jones, Grover Norquist, and Lisa Graves, 13th compares our criminal justice system to American slavery—showing how for-profit systems have corrupted our jails, with corporations making money from the mass incarceration crisis.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Stonewall was a riot first and foremost. Those with an interest in the LGBTQ rights movement know that on that fateful June day in 1969, it was Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman of color, who threw a brick and helped launch the Stonewall riots into the annals of history. What most don’t know is that her suspicious death in 1992 has gone unsolved, and the NYPD has neglected to provide answers for her untimely end. The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson looks into the mysterious passing and all the stones left unturned by those who were responsible for solving her murder.
Man, is Adam Sandler ever going to get that Oscar he’s due? Uncut Gems is probably the closest he’s gotten so far. Playing a smarmy, yet lovable New York City jeweler, Sandler dives into the world of dirty gambling in hopes of making big money and saving himself and his family from financial ruin. By the time he’s in the thick of his own scheme, he comes to realize the payoff may not even be worth the risk.
Featuring interviews with Laverne Cox, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Billings, Jamie Clayton, Chaz Bono, and many more, Disclosure looks at Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people on screen told by the artists and storytellers who are making great strieds for inclusion today.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s first memoir, Becoming, was an instant success and New York Times bestseller, so it’s no surprise that her documentary of the same name is equally compelling. The Netflix original documentary takes viewers on a deeper dive of her life, beginning in the Southside of Chicago through her time as First Lady. Living under a microscope, she accurately notes that much of the world only knows her for the eight years she spent living in the White House. Becoming seeks to offer the truths of what happened on her way there.
Saiorse Ronan has had more incredible performances in her 26 years of life than most actors will have in their entire career. Toward the top of the heap is her role as Christine McPhereson, a bull-headed teenager who prefers to be referred to by her chosen name, “Lady Bird.” Determined to escape the throes of suburban life, the film follows Lady Bird through her senior year and the complex relationship she has with her mother.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a tour de force of the acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s affinity for all things phantasmagorical. Set in post-Civil War Spain, the film follows a young girl through her discovery of an underground realm of which she realizes she might be the princess. No big deal.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution tells of the spirited and subversive history of Camp Jened in the 1970s. A camp based in the Catskills for young adults with developmental disabilities, Camp Jened became known for its liberating approach to fostering community and empowering its campers.
The Florida Project
The Florida Project is a true A24 film in all the best ways: gorgeous color palettes, perfectly-executed shots, nuanced characters, and, in special cases, an appearance from Willem Dafoe. Set in Orlando, Florida, at a motel nestled just before the highway exit for Disney World, The Florida Project is a distinct portrait of childhood amidst warm, vibrant, and harsh surroundings.
Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell’s bittersweet comedy about mental illness is one of the best of the past decade. Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, the film tackles the struggle of loss, the joy of finding new love, and the very complicated path that is being a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Go birds.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a glorious mess. Part gay fantasia, part art snobbery, and part horror, the film manages to be so uneven and ridiculous that it’s a perfectly acceptable wild ride. Bonus: Toni Collette is perfect.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Let it be noted: Adam Sandler can be a good actor. This literally had Oscar buzz. An Oscar. For Adam Sandler.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before came out after Set It Up to prove that Netflix knows how to put together a rom-com. Based on the book of the same name, the film is a pitch perfect look at what the rom-com genre can be in 2018.
Always Be My Maybe
In this rom com, two childhood sweethearts reconnect after years apart, and as you can imagine… the sparks return. But the most important part is that Ali Wong and Randall Park are incredible at carrying a rom-com.
Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation, a war film released in 2015, was one of Netflix’s first bona fide award contenders. Though it didn’t fully get off the ground, it was a great vehicle for Idris Elba and an even better flex for Netflix.
The story of President Barack Obama was always going to be clamored over, and though multiple films have come out about the president’s life, Barry is proof that Netflix can do a decent job with a biographical film.
In her most vulnerable outing to date, Taylor Swift is featured in the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, detailing the wild (and very public) ride the singer went on between creating Reputation and 1989.
Tallulah never got its due, but the Allison Janney/Ellen Page film follows a woman who takes a child from its irresponsible mother and raises it as her own.
In a way, Okja feels like Netflix’s first breakaway hit, an environmentalist tale that pits big business against environmental morality made Netflix worthy of being looked at as a contender in the film space.
Dolemite is My Name
There was a time when Eddie Murphy was one of the most famous actors (if not the most) in the world. And after over a decade of largely out-of-form work, it took Dolemite is My Name—where Murphy plays a struggling entertainer, full of heart and humor—to remind us of that.
I Lost My Body
In a category usually packed with children’s movies, I Lost My Body—the story of a… dismembered hand—was a pleasant surprise when it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Even though it didn’t take home the Oscar (it still takes a hell of an effort to dethrone Toy Story), the creative, weird, and brilliantly animated film is more than worth the watch.
Yes, we heard you: The Irishman is too long. Got it. If you’re willing to get over that, let us direct you to a holy grail of performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, in another all-timer of a mob epic from the mind of Martin Scorsese.
The Two Popes
There are few things that would make the film version of the complicated real-life relationship between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis a must-watch. Casting heavyweights Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, respectively, as the former (and current) leaders of the Catholic church is one of them.
In this moving film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver portray an actress and stage director slogging through a grueling, bi-coastal divorce, which forces them to confront the long-held resentments that simmered throughout their marriage. Compassionate, funny, and deeply specific, Marriage Story is a portrait of how marriage changes us over time, and of how divorce turns us into our worst selves.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers teamed up with the streaming service for this Netflix original, an anthology film featuring six stories set in the American west that’s full of outlaws, pioneer women, double-crossing, and one singing cowboy.
Decades after the still-unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey, director Kitty Green goes to Boulder, Colorado to cast local actors in a film about the murder—only to discover the lasting impact the little girl’s murder has left on the area’s residents.
This lush Merchant-Ivory adaptation of the classic E.M. Forster novel follows two families with opposing worldviews who are thrust together when their children become romantically attached.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Authurian legend get the parody treatment in this absurd—and endlessly quotable—cult classic in which the Monty Python players star as the Knights of the Roundtable on the search for the legendary treasure.
Dee Rees’s Academy Award-nominated drama tells the story of two families—one white, one black—who are linked by their neighboring land in post-World War II Mississippi and are caught in the complicated racial tensions of the era.
A gay man (Jesse Plemons) returns home to his conservative family to be with his cancer-stricken mom (Molly Shannon) in this sweetly comic semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Chris Kelly.
The Other Side of the Wind
Thought it wasn’t released until this year, Orson Welles’s infamous unfinished film—a mockumentary satire of the New Hollywood movement and starring legendary directors John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich—was the director’s passion project in the ’70s and has a particularly new Hollywood vibe
Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeous autobiographical film follows Cleo (Oscar nominee Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for a middle-class Mexico City family, throughout one year as both her life and the lives of her employers are changed forever.
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee’s first feature film is an indie black-and-white comedy starring Tracy Camilla Johns as a young woman in Brooklyn who juggles three potential boyfriends.
Director Yance Ford’s Oscar nominated feature looks into the 1992 murder of his brother William and the ensuing case, which saw an all-white grand jury chosing not to indict the white man who killed him.
If you can get past the fact that a cruise line definitely bought a share of this movie as sponsored content, then Like Father becomes a really touching tale of an estranged father and daughter played by two of the most likable performers in Hollywood today. But seriously: it’s very much sponcon.
Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later
This ensemble-driven cult classic spoofed raunchy ’80s teen comedies and made stars out of Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Paul Rudd. And Netflix has revived the film with the full original cast in two spinoffs, starting with 10 Years Later.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
This film examines the career of Nina Simone, the acclaimed singer, songwriter, and activist whose tumultuous life influenced her fierce and dynamic artistry—but, at times, proved too intense for Simone herself.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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