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 21 with nine additional picks, presented in alphabetical order. Our previous nine picks follow, also in alphabetical order.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The amazing Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, offer up this anthology Western with six strange stories, ranging from the hilarious—Tim Blake Nelson as the verbose sharpshooter in the title story—to the disquieting, i.e. Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in “Meal Ticket,” about an armless, legless actor. James Franco is very funny in a beautifully constructed episode about winding up at the wrong end of a rope, Brendan Gleeson plays a rider on a stagecoach whose destination is uncertain, and Zoe Kazan stars as a troubled woman on a wagon train.
Tom Waits appears in a wonderful episode, “All Gold Canyon,” faithfully adapted from a Jack London story, although Waits’ gravelly warbling of the song “Mother Macree” as he works is probably not something London envisioned. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) is as expansively beautiful as the Coens’ other Westerns True Grit and No Country for Old Men, but it’s also as dark and as mysterious as Barton Fink.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s grandiose Vietnam-set, treasure-hunting adventure Da 5 Bloods (2020) is full of many full-blooded themes and filled with righteous fury. Four war buddies who fought in Vietnam reunite, officially to locate the remains of their beloved squad leader (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman), but unofficially to collect a cache of buried gold. They are: the tormented, angry Paul (Delroy Lindo, in a great, ferocious performance), the kindly Otis (Clarke Peters), the pigeon-toed Eddie (Norm Lewis), and laid-back Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).
Into his heady brew, Lee throws in long-buried landmines, an old jungle temple, a MAGA hat, Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King Jr., the involvement of Black soldiers in a white war, and shocking revelations about the war itself. Terence Blanchard’s Oscar-nominated score—thick and lavish, sounding like beauty and sorrow entwined—makes the production seem even more operatic.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Playwright Radha Blank made her screenwriting and directing debut with the comedy-drama The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020), loosely based on her own life. She stars as, of course, Radha, a once-promising playwright who won a “30 under 30” award and now approaches 40 without having produced a follow-up. She’s teaching, while weighing a sellout job working on a musical about Harriet Tubman. But, in a strange epiphany, she suddenly decides to become a rapper called “RadhaMUSprime.”
The black-and-white film doesn’t always land its laughs, and it’s a bit too long at 123 minutes, but Blank does a truly remarkable job of translating her experiences and struggles to the screen without a hint of ego or self-consciousness. Her Radha character is, actually, delightfully clueless and honest. The rest of the cast, from Radha’s best friend and agent Archie (Peter Kim), to her flirty, horny writing students, are likewise delightful.
This devastating horror film, directed by Remi Weekes, tells the story of a couple, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), who flee South Sudan for a new life in England. They lose their daughter along the way, we learn, and they are placed in a wretched house, where they must live by several strict rules or be deported.
Bol tries to fit in, while Rial continues to embrace her traditions. But soon, scary spirits appear in the house, and before long, Bol is tearing at the wallpaper and bashing in the drywall to stop the torment. Filled with strange visions, powerful depictions of cultural divides, and impeccable storytelling, His House (2020) has a confident flow, placing us right there with this suffering couple, as it slowly unfolds their real story, and the real reason an apeth (night witch) has followed them. And it’s plenty scary, too.
A masterpiece from Martin Scorsese, The Irishman (2019) is both a summation of his long career’s worth of gangster movies, and a rumination on them. Using ground-breaking digital effects to de-age the actors, the film tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who narrates his tale from a rest home. He goes from being a truck driver to a hit man for crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and then a union president alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who snarls and barks and chews the scenery with fresh gusto).
The violence here is not intoxicating as it was in GoodFellas or Casino; it’s more reflective, and, indeed, has more in common with Scorsese’s faith-based movies (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence). It’s a reflective movie, wondering what all this means, and perhaps even aware that it might mean nothing at all. Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, and Harvey Keitel are also among the impressive cast.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Produced by Denzel Washington, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is the second of August Wilson’s plays to be adapted to the screen, after Washington’s own Fences. It’s an incredible film, far more dynamic than most adaptations of plays, and blasting through its 94 minutes with jumping, stomping, and sweating.
In the 1920s, blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band arrive to cut some sides in a white-run recording studio in Chicago. In her panda-bear makeup and sinister gold teeth, Ma is a fierce figure, wielding a certain amount of power, but only for her immediate gratification, and Davis’s performance is masterful. Even more powerful is the final work by the unparalleled Chadwick Boseman as the swaggering trumpeter Levee. Director George C. Wolfe uses the studio’s spaces, its high windows, its dank basement, and a mysterious door, as part of the movie’s fabric, all the pieces snapping together as it sings through its rage.
The Korean director Bong Joon-ho became something of a household name after winning multiple Oscars for his great Parasite. His earlier film, the slick, international, all-star Okja (2017), contains some of the same themes; i.e., humanity as monsters. It’s perhaps his busiest, but most playful work, offering laughs, thrills, weird visuals, and some disconcerting thoughts about food.
CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has developed a kind of super-pig designed to ease world hunger and bolster her company’s image. The pigs have been sent to the four corners of the world to be raised by local methods, to see which works best. A young girl in rural Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is clearly the winner, but she has also bonded with her pig, Okja. When Okja is picked up and shipped off to the city, she follows, like a pint-sized action hero. She meets a group of eco-terrorists called the Animal Liberation Front (members played by Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and others), who have a plan. Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito co-star, and Swinton has a dual role as her own twin sister, but Jake Gyllenhaal steals the show as an outlandish television host, in the looniest performance he has ever given.
Rolling Thunder Revue
Martin Scorsese took on Bob Dylan as a documentary subject once before, in 2005, with No Direction Home, perhaps as part of a long tradition of trying to discover the “real” Dylan. That nearly four-hour movie, made with the cooperation of Dylan himself, more or less concluded that the “real” Dylan can’t be pinned down, and, indeed, may not even exist. So, logically, Scorsese’s follow-up, Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), doesn’t even bother, and cheerfully includes passages that are total fabrications.
Based around a 1975 concert tour that involved weird costumes and make-up, the movie features plenty of great, classic songs and interviews with people who may or may not be telling true stories. (Hint: Michael Murphy appears here as a version of the politician character he played in Robert Altman’s mini-series Tanner ‘88.) Scorsese assembled the concert footage using restored outtakes from Dylan’s 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s long, complex re-telling of the trial following the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention is a surprisingly well-oiled machine. It moves slickly—and is even funny—as Sorkin’s trademark machine-gun dialogue punches cleanly through the details. Sorkin might have changed some facts here and there, but as a dramatic movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) still works like gangbusters.
The gist is that newly-empowered Republicans want to make an example out of a group of peaceful, liberal protestors, and conjure up a huge trial based on ridiculous “crimes.” Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show as the headline-grabber Abbie Hoffman, but the entire cast is excellent, riding high on Sorkin’s screenplay and brisk direction (much sharper than in his directorial debut Molly’s Game). Frank Langella is especially strong as the sinister, malevolent Judge Julius Hoffman, while the treatment of Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is just as shocking as ever.
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.
Click here to read our previous top nine picks!
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