When Netflix began streaming directly to customers’ screens in 2007 (yes, it really was that long ago), it fundamentally changed the way we watch movies. Where once you had to drive down to the local Blockbuster or wait for discs to arrive in the mail — to say nothing of actually purchasing hard copies of films in various formats — Netflix unfurled a wealth of shows and movies to watch right from your couch, all for a meager monthly fee.
It took a few years, but eventually, Netflix realized producing and commissioning exclusive content could prove to be not only lucrative, but also necessary to dominate the streaming marketplace. As you might expect, Netflix wasn’t satisfied with just creating TV series, so it began to produce movies as well. By now, the list or originals is extensive, and it can be hard to judge what’s worth watching, so we’ve picked out the best Netflix original movies for your perusal (and potential enjoyment). Chill on, Netflixers.
Beasts of No Nation
Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) wrote, co-produced, and directed Beasts of No Nation, a drama based upon the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala. The film follows Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy who finds himself unwillingly conscripted into an army of children under the fist of a ruthless Commandant (Idris Elba). Beasts pulls no punches, depicting horrific scenes of violence unflinchingly, and does an incredible job of making us empathize with Agu — even as he and his contemporaries are murdering their own countrymen in cold blood.
Elba conveys a sense of quiet intensity, channeling religious fanaticism and calm determination in equal measure for a masterful performance (one which earned him a SAG award), and Fukunaga’s sharply contrasting direction effectively mirror’s Agu’s descent into militaristic hedonism. Beasts qualifies as Netflix’s first big feature hit, forecasting many more to come.
Tallulah is a low-stakes dramedy carried by an impressive cast who imbue the film with a sense of authenticity. When petty thief Tallulah (Ellen Page) finds her partner in crime has gone missing, she heads to New York in pursuit, but ends up impulsively abducting a small child before ending up at the apartment of her erstwhile partner’s mother, Margo (Allison Janney). The movie focuses primarily on the relationship between ‘Lu’ and Margo, as both women work to overcome their personal problems while Lu tries to hide the child’s true identity.
Meanwhile, Tammy Blanchard is excellent as the child’s mother, who’s too concerned with herself to truly feel worried about her missing kid. The movie never quite feels as lived-in as some of our favorite indie films, but Tallulah is full of heart, and its two leads are phenomenal.
Imperial Dreams premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award, but didn’t see the light of day until appearing on Netflix’s digital shelves in early 2017. John Boyega (Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi) plays Bambi, a young felon who returns to the treacherous Imperial Courts apartments of Watts, Los Angeles after being released from prison. Bambi must care for his son Daytone, whose life has fallen into chaos after Bambi’s girlfriend (Keke Palmer) is sent to jail. Meanwhile, Bambi must balance his own passions to be a writer against the demands of his old crew, who want his services as a drug mule.
Director Malik Vitthal, born and raised in L.A., wanted to contrast the life of a father against the life of a gangster to show that the two lifestyles are not mutually exclusive. For Star Wars fans, it’s just fun to see Boyega in a much different, more nuanced role.
There’s nothing hotter than Stephen King adaptations right now. Compared to big-budget blockbusters It and The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game might be easy to overlook — especially as a Netflix production which never even saw the inside of a theater. Still, it’s one of the best of the bunch, eschewing set-piece action and CGI scares in favor of more psychological horror. In the film, based on King’s eponymous novel, middle-aged couple Gerald and Jessie Burlingame retreat to a remote Maine cabin to rekindle their relationship.
When Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) handcuffs Jessie(Carla Gugino) to the bed and then dies of a heart attack, Jessie begins to hallucinate, unable to free herself from shackles both physical and otherwise. Gugino’s performance is extraordinary, a career-defining turn loaded with emotion and genuinely unsettling realism.
First They Killed My Father
Rogerebert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz has reviewed countless movies, so when he calls First They Killed My Father “as fine a war movie as has ever been made,” you know it’s worth watching. Directed by Angelina Jolie, the film — set in 1975 Cambodia — follows 7-year-old Ung (Sreymoch Sareum), who is forced into service as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge while the rest of her family are imprisoned or killed. Jolie’s work behind the camera is sparkling, with serene, rose-tinted scenes of dreams or flashbacks in sharp contrast against the brutal reality that Ung suffers through.
First They Killed My Father is a somber affair, one with more concern for the actions on screen than the greater political implications of the conflict. That reduced sense of scale helps to vivify Ung’s story and effectively hone in on the emotions and (horrifying) events which shaped her experience.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
If you browse Netflix often (and we’re betting you do, because who doesn’t?), you’ve no doubt found yourself confronted by several new Adam Sandler projects like The Ridiculous Six or Sandy Wexler, which are classic Sandler vehicles reliant on goofy, lowbrow humor. The Meyerowitz Stories is far different, an understated, thoughtful dramedy which explores the relationship between a retired artist (Dustin Hoffman) and his dysfunctional children (Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel).
When unemployed, recently separated Danny (Sandler) moves back in with his dad, he must contend with his frustrating whims amidst increasingly strained family dynamics. Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale) imbues the film with an almost Royal Tenenbaums-esque sense of surrealism, but weighs it back down with the all-too-real stresses and issues its characters face.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
You might at first feel skeptical about the idea of a documentary about a documentary, but trust us: Jim & Andy manages to be just as engrossing as Man on the Moon, and perhaps even more so. Like Andy Kaufman’s manically method performances as Tony Clifton, Carrey relates his experience during the filming of Man on the Moon as one of complete and total immersion, which is shown to be true in the many hilarious (and often uncomfortable) backstage videos depicting Carrey in character as Kaufman or Clifton.
Carrey’s dedication was such that his portrayal of Kaufman became even more absurd and odd than Kaufman himself, and he was curiously far more combative than Kaufman, especially while interacting with wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. Director Chris Smith excellently cuts footage of Carrey’s on-set antics against modern-day interviews, showing the great lengths to which Carrey went for the film.
Director Bryan Fogel (Jewtopia) set out to make a unique film about the world of cycling, then ended up with something completely different. In an effort to learn more about doping in sports, Fogel began taking cycling steroids and performance-enhancing drugs to improve his ability while trying to avoid discovery by sport officials. Then, Fogel’s star interviewee — Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov — reveals his part in a program designed to hide Russian athletes’ drug use from the Olympic committee and other governing bodies. Thereafter, Rodchenkov makes some bold claims about Russian leadership’s involvement in the program, and even fears for his life after a colleague dies mysteriously.
Icarus morphs seamlessly from a doping doc into a thriller, with Fogel sliding knowingly out of the spotlight in order to push Rodchenkov as the story’s centerpiece. The whole film operates in morally gray areas, and Fogel smartly hides his hand there, avoiding any grand claims to the moral high (or low) ground.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
In I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (snappy title, right?), Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is having a rough go of things. She’s had to deal with racist old people, insensitive drivers, and home invaders, and she’s finally decided enough is enough. So, Ruth recruits her eccentric neighbor (Elijah Wood) and sets out to find the jerks who broke into her house for some good, old-fashioned revenge.
The movie is a diverse mash-up of genres and film styles, veering from comedy to drama to thriller in the span of a few minutes, but thanks to Lynskey’s impressively relatable performance and consistent presence throughout, it never becomes confusing or disjointed. When I Don’t Feel At Home is at its darkest, it’s also at its best, but it never gets too depressing to enjoy.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball
One of the first feature-length films released as a Netflix original, The Battered Bastards of Baseball tells the story of the Portland Mavericks, a unique minor-league baseball team which played independently — that is, not affiliated with any major league franchise — during the 1970s. Bing Russell (father of Kurt and a huge baseball fan) bought the team in 1973 for pennies on the dollar, and proceeded to hold open tryouts, hiring Kurt on as both VP and designated hitter.
Somehow, the ragtag team managed to stay competitive while leading a collective lifestyle reminiscent of Bull Durham, led in part by ex-Yankee Jim Bouton, whose 1970 tell-all book Ball Four laid bare many dugout tales and engineered his exile from the major leagues. A combination of interviews, archival footage, and training films produced by the Russells help to make this one of the most entertaining and unique sports documentaries you’ll ever see.
Kid-focused pet movies are a dime a dozen, but Okja offers a little more in the way of grown-up themes; in fact, we wouldn’t recommend it for small children at all. In the face of overpopulation and dwindling resource pools, the Mirando corporation — led by neurotic CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) — develops a “super pig,” sending these huge hippo-like creatures to farmers across the world for a ten-year maturation process, at the end of which a Best Pig will be named. One of these pigs, Okja, is sent to the South Korean countryside, where young Mija (the excellent Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown up alongside it.
When the ten years are up, Mirando arrives to collect Okja, and Mija takes off with the animal. On the way to New York, Mija encounters a varied, colorful cast of characters including a crazy Steve Irwin-type (Jake Gyllenhaal) and some odd animal rights activists (Paul Dano, Steven Yeung). The film is at times both horrifying and heartwarming, underscoring the serious chops of director Bong Joon-ho (The Host).
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Before her death in 2003, Nina Simone was one of the most iconic voices of the 20th century, a supremely talented vocalist capable of adjusting to fit many genres, from blues to R&B to pop. Veteran biopic documentarian Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn, Bobby Fischer Against The World) utilizes every tool in her arsenal — interview recordings, diary excerpts, performance footage, and more — to paint an accurate picture of Simone, who is a cultural icon both because of her contributions to the arts and her contributions to the fight for racial equality.
The movie tracks Simone from her upbringing in North Carolina, where her prodigal musical gifts were overlooked and marginalized thanks to her gender and skin color. Rather than collecting present-day musicians to wax poetic about Simone’s legacy (which likely would have drummed up bigger interest and viewership), Garbus is content to allow Nina to stay at the center of her own story. Even if you have no idea who Nina Simone is, you should watch this documentary.