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.