Since it launched its first original movie in 2015, Netflix has become a true force in the entertainment biz, outpowering its contemporaries, seriously competing with big movie studios and the theater-going experience, racking up Oscars and Emmys, and even earning the honor of having a handful of its films released on Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays.
With new films and new shows coming every week, and all of Netflix’s original content archived for customers to look at again any time, the streaming service’s library of exclusive content now outweighs whatever licensed content it has. Here’s our rundown of the best Netflix original movies worth watching (and re-watching).
This story was updated on July 28 with nine additional picks, presented in alphabetical order. Our previous 18 picks follow.
While the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement were great moments in American history, Ava Duvernay’s shattering, essential 13th (2016) argues that they are connected by a long string of whites in power, cultivating a fear of Black people and using that fear to acquire not only more power, but wealth.
Named after the 13th amendment of the constitution, the movie argues that since slavery was a financial situation, the U.S.A. needed a way to regain those lost profits, and the wording of the amendment itself—“except as a punishment for crime”—provided the answer. In order to make money from a prison system, fear of Black people had to be created and spread. The film makes strong connections between many events of history, beginning with the amendment in 1865, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, activities of most of the U.S. Presidents, the War on Drugs, and up to today. Many scholars, a few politicians, and activist Angela Davis are interviewed, and the presentation is thorough, calm, logical, and devastating. It’s an absolute must-see.
This beautiful movie from Senegal is an old-fashioned romantic tragedy that could have been written for a silent-era film, a social commentary, and a supernatural ghost story, all at the same time. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and several like-minded colleagues decide to take a boat to Spain to look for better work opportunities. He leaves behind his true love, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who is set to be married to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). On their wedding day, their bed catches fire, and a detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is assigned to investigate the case as potential arson. Meanwhile, at nightfall every night, several people seem to be possessed by spirits, their eyes turning into white orbs.
Directed by Mati Diop—who became the first Black woman with a film in competition at the Cannes Film Festival—Atlantics (2019) is quiet and poetic, seeing its images with an ethereal gaze, and moving through its familiar story threads with a fresh kind of mystery.
Bo Burnham: Inside
There will no doubt be many things written, recorded, and filmed about the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, but Bo Burnham: Inside (2021) will be among the most penetrating. The former stand-up comic turned director (Eighth Grade) and actor (Promising Young Woman) was about to take to the stage again when the pandemic hit, so he made this collection of funny, dark songs and sketches and clever lighting FX entirely in his home, entirely by himself.
There are laughs here, but Inside is largely a dispiriting dive into a suffering psyche, as potent as Pink Floyd The Wall. It’s impossible to tell where Burnham’s creative whirlwind begins and his descent into anxiety-ridden madness ends, but it feels like a true, unfettered unburdening of the soul.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Certainly one of the greatest TV series of all time, Breaking Bad wrapped up almost perfectly in 2013, but a few years later, Vince Gilligan offered this 122-minute coda. Essentially, it details Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) escaping from his captors and spending the entire movie trying to get the hell out of Dodge. And that’s it.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) might be almost totally unnecessary, and it feels as if virtually nothing happens in it, and yet it’s like a riveting, masterful neo-Western, making incredible uses of sparse, vast, unfriendly spaces and creating rippling tension and emotional cascades. Some old familiar faces—including Badger (Matt Jones), Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks)—turn up, as well as some new ones. Robert Forster, who, astonishingly, passed away the day this premiered, is terrific.
Happy as Lazzaro
This acclaimed Italian film is somewhere in the realm of Forrest Gump and Being There, perhaps darker than the former but not as dark as the latter. Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is the simple farmhand, working tirelessly on a tobacco plantation, bossed around by everyone, but with a constant open-faced expression in his big eyes, forever trusting and hopeful.
When it is discovered that the farm’s owner has been illegally sharecropping, all the workers are displaced and sent away, although Lazarro, having fell over a cliff, missed this news. He goes on a kind of odyssey to find his former friends, and discovers corruption, connections, cruelty, and other strange things. Writer/director Alice Rohrwacher lets her Super 16 footage retain its rawness around the edges; she also allows Happy as Lazzaro (2018) to drift into unreality to help tell its deeply bittersweet tale.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The one-of-a-kind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) offers his third film as a director (after Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa), a twisty, shifting, dreamlike thing about a woman (Jessie Buckley) who goes with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to his parents’ house for dinner. They have strange, existential conversations in the car. Then, the parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) and a dog seem to age forward and backward, and food is consumed and then not consumed.
On the way home, they stop for a milkshake, and then at Jake’s old school, where a creepy janitor works and where a musical number happens! Kaufman fully inhabits the unstable, off-center world of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) with both intelligence and warmth of character. It does have a point, though, and the Iain Reid novel it’s based on might offer some clues.
David Fincher’s ode to old-time Hollywood, adapted from his own late father’s screenplay, is perhaps exclusively for film buffs. But if you’re in that club, it’s a treasure trove of riches, presented in a glorious, black-and-white, widescreen frame. Mank (2020) tells the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his journey to writing Citizen Kane (certainly viewers should be familiar with that classic before tackling this).
Mank crosses paths with powerful newspaperman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress, Hollywood performer Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The film also deals with the 1936 gubernatorial election in California and the underhanded fakery by conservatives that led to the defeat of the progressive candidate. Fincher does his best to make the passive story dynamic, and the film’s lush look, the old-fashioned, sparkly dialogue, and the performances by Oldman and Seyfried go a long way toward making it work.
Dee Rees’s follow-up to her remarkable debut Pariah, the excellent Mudbound (2017) is like a Gone with the Wind for the streaming age, a sweeping slice of Americana, epic, but intimate. It’s based on a novel by Hillary Jordan and features Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Jonathan Banks. The story follows two farming families, one black and one white, over several years in and around WWII. In one crucial plot thread, a member of each family, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), returns from war; they form an unlikely friendship, much to the rage of the rest of the community. (Ronsel is forced to duck down in the front seat of Jamie’s truck to avoid being seen in a place of equality.)
Mary J. Blige steals the movie in her role as Ronsel’s mother, a strong, caring midwife glaring from behind sunglasses, and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination (as well as one for Best Song). Many of the characters narrate their inner dreams, hopes, and fears in whispered voiceover, adding Malick-like poetry to the images. The 134-minute movie focuses on small incidents, having to do either with survival in the muddy farmland, or with the deep, frightening racism of that time and place, and never feels too overstuffed or too long.
Director Tamara Jenkins last gave us The Savages (2007) and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, but for some reason, didn’t or couldn’t make a follow-up until the equally excellent Private Life (2018), eleven years later. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play a middle-aged New York couple, Richard and Rachel, trying every conceivable method to have a baby, flitting back and forth between adoption centers and fertility treatments, until they come upon a plan.
Uneasy with the idea of an anonymous egg donor, their sort-of niece Sadie (Kayli Carter)—the child of Richard’s brother’s wife from a former marriage—begins to look like a good candidate. To their joy, Sadie agrees, but then the fallout starts. Jenkins is brilliant at juggling the unruly emotions of smart people, and somehow making their stories universal, funny, and heartbreaking. This is a wonderful film. John Carroll Lynch, Molly Shannon, and Denis O’Hare co-star.
How much does Netflix cost?
Netflix subscription prices have been on the rise over the past few years, but the service remains a strong entertainment value, especially when you take into consideration some of the great films that have been produced by and for Netflix. And if you enjoy the superior video resolution you’ll get from Blu-ray discs, you can opt for an added-cost subscription that includes disc rentals by mail, which was Netflix’s entire business model before streaming came into vogue.
A Netflix Basic subscription costs $8.99 per month and entitles you to watch an unlimited number of movies and TV shows in standard definition on one screen at a time. You can also download most, but not all, Netflix content to a single smartphone, tablet, or computer for watching when you’re not connected to the internet (such as while traveling by car, mass transit, or airline).
Most people opt for the Standard subscription at $13.99 per month, because it increases streaming resolution to HD, allows you to download allowed content to two devices for offline viewing. If you want 4K Ultra HD video, and your internet connection is fast enough to deliver it (you’ll need broadband service of at least 25Mbps ), sign up for the $17.99-per-month Premium plan. In addition to the higher resolution (it’s worth noting that Netflix doesn’t stream everything in 4K), you’ll be able to watch on four screens at once, and you can download video to four devices.
Renting DVD and Blu-ray discs from Netflix isn’t the value it once was, but no one would argue it isn’t convenient (albeit not as instantly gratifying). The cost to add disc rentals to whatever subscription tier you select is the same as subscribing to a Netflix disc-only plan: $7.99 per month entitles you to rent an unlimited number of DVDs (or Blu-ray discs if your chosen title is available in that format and you opt in to that choice) delivered to your door. There are no late fees and Netflix pays for postage in both directions. The catch is that you can have just one disc checked out at a time. A $11.99-per-month subscription increases that to two discs out a time.
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