Streaming video has turned our living rooms into an endless video store with a truly bewildering array of options to peruse.
Netflix alone has thousands of titles, taking in everything from rom-coms to action movies, TV shows and documentaries; and that can be a problem. It’s called the paradox of choice; faced with an endless array of options, people freeze up. Before you know it, you’ve spent an hour scrolling through the possible choices, and you’ve run out of time to watch a movie.
Fear not, reader: we’ve done all the hard work for you, picking out the cream of the streaming crop on the US edition of Netflix. Read on…
The Power of the Dog
This drama from Jane Campion (for which she received both a BAFTA and an Oscar) stars Benedict Cumberbatch as an abrasive Montana rancher who takes issue with his brother’s new wife and her teenage son. Is he jealous of his brother’s newfound happiness? Worried about the newcomers’ intentions for the family business? Or is there something else about them that’s got him so worked up?
This is a film that leaves much open to interpretation, working against the viewer’s expectations in an unsettling and disarming way – it has all the trappings of a Western, but it’s certainly not conventional. Nor is it a barrel of laughs by any stretch of the imagination, but the beautifully shot landscapes and the performances from a cast that also includes Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst will keep you glued to the screen regardless.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal, best known as an actor, moves behind the camera for her first film as writer-director with this superbly tense adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel. Leda, a prickly middle-aged academic (Olivia Colman, once again proving herself to be among the best actors in the world) arrives on a Greek island for a quiet working holiday, only to find the serenity disrupted by the arrival of a large and brash family group – including a young mother (Dakota Johnson) who sits strangely apart from the rest, and who causes Leda to re-examine her own youth and motherhood with a critical eye.
Full Metal Jacket
Notorious for Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s (a terrifying R. Lee Ermey) unrelenting beasting of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle, Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam epic follows a group of green U.S. Marine recruits through basic training and onto the battlefield. As with all of Kubrick’s films, there’s much to unravel, plenty of room for interpretation, career-best performances (from Ermey and Matthew Modine, among others) and a striking visual style. The whole thing was shot in England, though you’d never know it.
Blade Runner 2049
The sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic cyberpunk thriller was a long time coming (30 years in fact), but it’s worth the wait: Blade Runner 2049 is among the best-looking movies ever made, with Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography bringing director Denis Villeneuve’s nightmarish vision of a future Los Angeles to life.
As a whole, the film isn’t quite as spectacular as its visuals. At nigh-on three hours it’s too ponderous for its own good, despite retaining the original Blade Runner’s spirit through a mixture of thrilling action sequences, philosophical pondering and memorable characters – including a few familiar faces. It’s all tied together by a compelling detective yarn, in which Ryan Gosling’s latest-gen replicant seeks answers to a deadly riddle.
Quentin Tarantino’s western (or, more accurately “southern”) takes its cues both from Sergio Leone and the blaxploitation genre. Set in the antebellum Deep South, Django Unchained pits Jamie Foxx’s freed slave against the plantation owners, traders and overseers who’ve separated him from his wife.
He’s accompanied by bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (an Oscar-nominated Christoph Waltz) but equally impressive are Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, who hides the barbarity of his gladiatorial slave fights beneath a veneer of civilisation, and Samuel L Jackson as Candie’s house slave (and trusted advisor) Stephen.
Foxx plays Django as a modern Man with No Name – though in his case his reticence is more the result of tightly-wound fury than stoicism; when, at last, he unleashes vengeance on his oppressors, it’s beautifully, bloodily cathartic.
Christopher Nolan’s recreation of the British and French armies’ evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 is an audio-visual masterpiece, richly served with moments of both quiet grandeur and epic spectacle.
With comparatively little dialogue, few CGI effects and an enemy that’s never directly seen, Nolan conjures up the hopelessness of the surrounded British Expeditionary Force, trapped between the sea and the German army and prey to horrifying attacks from the air, and the heroism of soldiers, sailors, pilots and civilians caught up in a desperate situation. Hans Zimmer’s score, meanwhile, remains a masterclass in understated power.
The Shawshank Redemption
Banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is handed a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit – and in the dingy confines of Shawshank Penitentiary, you could forgive him for giving in to despair. But thanks to a series of small victories against the prison bureaucracy, the mentorship of old lag Red (Morgan Freeman) and an interest in geology, he’s able to chip away at the walls that threaten to crush him.
Frank Darabont’s adaptation of a lesser-known Stephen King short story failed to set the box office alight but (appropriately, given its theme of persevering against the odds) it found a strong following on home video. Its story of hope in the face of impossible odds, and a slow-burning style that recalls the classics of the ‘30s and ‘40s, has won it a place at the top of countless best films lists. You owe it to yourself to watch this one.
It might adhere to one of the main horror movie rules outlined in Scream – having sex more often than not ends in your grisly demise – but the stylishly shot alt-horror It Follows is anything but formulaic.
The movie’s killer curse stalks victims slowly but incessantly, disguised as a normal passerby, a family member or a friend (which is perhaps the creepiest part) and there’s apparently only one, horrible, way to lift it. That gives this indie chiller a sense of helpless, looming dread that doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical Lady Bird was nominated for no fewer than five Oscars. It didn’t win any (bagging a couple of Golden Globes instead), but the fault probably lies with the Academy rather than the movie, which is a fantastic indie comedy full of heart, drama and believable characters.
Saoirse Ronan shines in the title role, an artsy 17-year old looking to break away from what she sees as her stifling town and stifling mother. If you think you’ve seen this story played out on screen a hundred times before, don’t worry – Lady Bird manages to defy expectations to dig much deeper than your average quirky coming-of-age comedy.
I Think You Should Leave (S1-2)
Sketch shows are a bit like luncheon meat, tank tops and hostess trolleys: unwanted, outmoded relics from the 1970s. But I Think You Should Leave is proof positive that there’s life in the old format yet – it just needed a refreshing jolt of surrealism forced down its gullet. In fact, we’d go so far as to say this is the funniest thing on Netflix by a country mile.
Former Saturday Night Live star Tim Robinson co-writes and appears (along with a parade of familiar guest faces) in a collection of crude, inventive and ultimately hilarious skits that rarely end up where you expect them to. The humour usually comes from a character “committing to the bit” by taking a social miscue or personality trait to extremes; it sounds simple enough, but Robinson and co have done nothing less than reinvent the comedy skit.
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Cobra Kai (S1-4)
A series that started life on YouTube as a giggle-worthy spin-off from The Karate Kid movies, Cobra Kai has now established itself as a fan-pleasing comedy-action-drama that arguably surpasses the films that inspired it. Back in the 80s, how many viewers could have imagined Karate Kid villain Johnny Lawrence being the nuanced, relatable protagonist of his own TV show over three decades later? And yet here we are, with several characters from the movies now firmly ensconced in this new life – and being given far more depth as a result.
Featuring some of the most uncomfortably tense TV scenes since Breaking Bad (also on this list), Ozark follows Jason Bateman and Laura Linney’s squabbling Chicago couple, forced to run a money-laundering scheme for a merciless Mexican drug cartel. When Bateman’s put-upon financial advisor conjures up a risky plan to “wash” the dirty cash in rural Missouri, he and his family up sticks for a new life in one of the USA’s most deprived locations. All of a sudden, murderous narco-barons become just one of many problems for the family.
Filmed in muted, washed-out tones with bags of brooding and squalor on show, Ozark doesn’t always make for a pretty watch. But if you like your drama series perpetually balanced on a knife edge, it’ll be right up your street.
Attack on Titan (S1)
Set in a world where naked flesh-eating giants roam the land while the remnants of humanity cower behind their city walls, Attack on Titan is a compelling dark fantasy tale based on the manga comics of the same name. When a devastating attack on his city leaves young Eren Yeager with his life in tatters, he enlists in the military and vows to mete out revenge on the shambling titan hordes. In a common anime trope, there’s a coming-of-age story running parallel to this epic tale of heroism and sacrifice, with Eren and his companions learning about themselves as they uncover the mystery of the titan menace.
Forget Friends: for us, Seinfeld is the best New York-set (but clearly Hollywood-filmed) 1990s sitcom about a bunch of buddies just working their way through this crazy little thing we call life.
An absurd, hilarious and highly influential examination of the modern world’s trivialities, mores and conventions, never relying on slapstick or coddling its viewers with cheap sentimentality (most of its characters are objectively horrible, selfish misanthropes), Seinfeld is quite simply a must-watch for all fans of comedy. With each episode clocking in at a little over 20 minutes, it’s also perfect for binge-watching. So be warned: your Sundays will be slurped right up like a bowl of forbidden soup.
Squid Game (S1)
Subtitle-haters, you’re missing out if you choose to avoid this dark drama series on account of it being Korean (yes, you can watch it dubbed into English, but that just feels so utterly wrong). The gripping story of a sadistic life-or-death game show and the effects it has on its desperate contestants – each of whom willingly signed away their “bodily rights” for the prospect of a fat winner’s cheque – Squid Game has already become not only one of Netflix’s most popular foreign language series but its most popular debut series full stop.
Quite why it’s become such a phenomenon with viewers is something of a mystery to us – there’s nothing especially groundbreaking or shocking happening here – but far better for a genuinely thought-provoking series like this to become a record-breaker than yet another dire space drama or drawn-out, plodding teen thriller.
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The Queen’s Gambit (S1)
Despite arriving out of nowhere, this was Netflix’s best original series of 2020. Anya Taylor-Joy shines as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, a child champion with a preternatural inclination for the game – as well as a tendency for self-destructive behaviour.
Set mostly in the 1960s, the magnificent period details (so many gorgeous hotel lobbies!) and soundtrack occasionally bring to mind Mad Men, but The Queen’s Gambit has a necessarily more focussed approach to telling its story. Heart-wrenching, funny, inspiring and evocative, this is a character-driven success that reminds us of Netflix’s superb early original shows, where everything the company touched felt special.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This Taika Waititi-directed comedy-drama sees cantankerous farmer Hec (Sam Neill) and his precocious, wannabe-gangsta foster nephew Ricky (Julian Dennison) attempt to outrun and outwit the police in the wild New Zealand bush. We won’t be ruining much if we tell you that along the way the pair form an unlikely bond, but it’s the interplay between the two leads that forms the heart of this wonderful indie film. It’s an irresistible combination of sweetness and hilarity that should go down well with the whole family.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s indie movie follows a hustling jeweller and gambling addict around Manhattan as he struggles to juggle the demands of his celebrity clients, wife, mistress and a circling group of vicious loan sharks.
If you’re looking for a relaxing watch, Uncut Gems is not it. The frenetic handheld camerawork, Daniel Lopatin’s electronic score and Adam Sandler’s masterful lead performance (he’s always been good at playing a man teetering on the edge – but mostly in bad comedy films) all serve to conjure a feeling of unease and anxiety that barely lets up over the two-hour running time. It’s delirious, manic, vital stuff, and Sandler’s best dramatic performance since Punch-Drunk Love.
I Care a Lot
Proof that you can make an engrossing and enjoyable film even when none of the characters are likeable, “good” people, I Care a Lot stars the fantastic Rosamunde Pike as legal guardian Marla Grayson, a ruthless, driven predator who makes a killing by exploiting the elderly people she’s supposed to be looking out for. On first glance her latest ward (Dianne Wiest) seems to be a veritable goldmine, but she turns out to be a doorway to trouble thanks to her unlikely links to a seriously scary criminal network. Peter Dinklage and Eiza González also star in this viciously black but deliciously enjoyable comedy.
BoJack Horseman (S1-6)
A Netflix Original, this animated series features Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett as the titular Horseman, a, er, “horse man” who enjoyed success in a beloved 1990s sitcom but now wallows in boozy, druggy self-loathing as a washed-up former star. But don’t worry if we’ve made it sound too grim – the show’s serious:silly ratio is nicely balanced.
Set in a skewed version of Hollywood in which humans live alongside anthropomorphic animals, BoJack Horseman features a strong cast (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul plays BoJack’s best friend Todd while Alison Brie plays love interest Diane) and razor sharp writing, and with six seasons and a couple of one-off specials available, it’s perfect fodder for a weekend binge-watch blowout.
Chef’s Table (S1-6)
This series (now six seasons plus two spin-off seasons strong) shadows world-renowned chefs as they take viewers on a personal journey through their culinary evolution – providing an intimate, informative glimpse into what gets their creative juices flowing.
Lovingly shot in razor-sharp 4K quality (for those with the necessary Netflix subscription), Chef’s Table is so well-made that you can almost smell the aromas seeping out of your screen and tickling your nostrils. From glistening, perfectly-cooked cuts of meat to mouth-watering veggie dishes, this is food pornography of the highest order. Just try not to drool all over your TV.
Arrested Development (S1-5)
Dysfunctional families have been done to death on both the big screen and TV, but the Bluths are up there with the most self-centred, destructive and, well, downright hilarious bunch of the lot.
Straight man George Bluth desperately tries to keep his family and fortune intact as their company is hit by the US government for embezzlement.
Superb performances from the likes of David Cross, coupled with tonnes of re-quote potential make this a must-watch. It gets a little lost after the first three seasons thanks to the actors’ other projects clashing with filming, but it’s still well worth watching until the very end.
Master of None (S1-3)
Comedian Aziz Ansari plays jobbing actor Dev in this series about life, love and tacos. Actually, one suspects Ansari is really playing himself (his real-life parents even play his onscreen parents here) and a big part of the charm is watching him work through various subjects over the course of the series.
It’s very self-obsessed and some will find the whimsy hard to stomach, but it’s also funny, charming and occasionally thought-provoking. Well worth a few hours of your time.
Orange Is the New Black (S1-7)
One of the early Netflix original series that established the platform as a serious player in the TV business, this is a prison show that goes its own way: less brutal than Oz, less daft than Prison Break and more compelling than Prisoner Cell Block H, it’s a fish-out-of-water drama (based on a true story) in which a white, middle-class Brooklynite ends up in a low-security women’s jail for a crime committed almost a decade previous. Delving into the lives of its huge cast over a luxurious seven seasons, it’s a great women-driven show that managed to stay entertaining throughout.
House of Cards (S1-6)
Despite being inspired by the 1990s BBC series of the same name, House of Cards feels every bit the American megabucks TV show: it has the big name stars and executive producers; the superb writing, direction and cinematography; not to mention the necessary amount of scheming and backstabbery.
This was the show that started the Netflix Originals craze, so rather than being broadcast over a couple of months, each season was released in its entirety, allowing viewers to binge on it like a DVD box set. And believe us, you will binge, because once this tale of Capitol Hill intrigue and the lust for power gets its hooks into you, it’s hard to stop. That’ll generally happen about three episodes in.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to become enthralled by this Oscar-winning doping exposé. Icarus is effectively two documentaries in one, with the first third of the film a kind of Super Size Me for performance-enhancing drugs. The filmmaker, a semi-pro cyclist, embarks on a hardcore doping regimen to demonstrate the flaws in the drugs-testing process.
But when his advisor, Russian scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, suddenly finds himself embroiled in an international storm over Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, Icarus pivots into an enthralling fly-on-the-wall thriller about being a whistleblower in Putin’s Russia. Cue mysterious deaths, chilling interviews and a lots of hand-wringing as Rodchenkov goes into hiding from the new KGB.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball
When organised baseball decided to move its AAA club out of Portland, actor and baseball fan Bing Russell decided to fill the void with a totally independent team – the aptly-named Mavericks. This Netflix-produced documentary charts the Mavericks’ fortunes over their short-lived career. Although they only lasted from 1973 to 1977, they shook up the game with their antics; a ball-dog that ran onto the field, broom-waving spectators – and a string of victories that shook up the baseball establishment.
“I wanted it to go back to the straw hat and beer days when 250 towns had minor league teams and most of them were not supported by a major franchise,” explains Russell; and from the outset, it’s clear where the documentary’s sympathies lie. The Mavericks are the scrappy underdogs, made up of outcasts from professional baseball and amateurs who never got the big break they were hoping for. The baseball establishment are the villains, humiliated on the field and resorting to dirty tricks in search of victory.
The truth is probably more nuanced, but it’s a rousing story, told with panache by Russell’s grandsons – and his son, actor Kurt Russell, who took to the field with the Mavericks.
Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford wrote and directed this phenomenal thriller, which is far from just the exercise in style you might expect from a master of aesthetics. In fact, it’s one of those insidiously clever films that works its way into your head, leaving you thinking about it for days.
Ostensibly a story about the relationship between a couple played by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, it splits into two parallel plots that mirror and complement each other excellently. Emotionally charged, intelligent, frightening and tense, with excellent performances from the two leads and co-stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals is a treat for anyone who likes their movies challenging, uncomfortable and memorable.
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Better Call Saul (S1-5)
Everyone’s favourite sleazy-yet-likeable lawyer Saul Goodman (well, Jimmy McGill) returns to Netflix, in a series that throws us back seven years before the explosive events of Breaking Bad. Bob Odenkirk slips into Saul’s cheap suit with remarkable ease, and his superb performance allows his character’s desperation, tenacity and humour to seep through the screen and grab our attention with both hands.
It’s always fun to root for the underdog, and from the very first episode you’re right there alongside Goodman, wanting him to fight to the top – all while being aware of the dark things to come. Yet another belting Netflix Original.
Stranger Things (S1-3)
Only 80s kids will understand this. Actually that’s not true at all, but Stranger Things is a love letter to the movies, TV shows, video games and books that people who grew up in that decade will cherish: it’s packed with references to E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons and Poltergeist, and the mood and feel is sure to dredge up nostalgia by the bucketload.
Remove the retro vibes though, and the show still stands up as a stellar sci-fi drama-thriller. And it doesn’t mess about too much – unlike a lot of Netflix Original Series, its episodes are reasonably tight (a mere 40 minutes each).
Breaking Bad (S1-5)
The best TV show ever? That’s arguable, but Breaking Bad certainly belongs in the top ten: it’s an utterly, utterly compelling six-season masterpiece that’ll shock you again and again with its twists, its turns and its fantastically drawn characters.
Walter White, played to perfection by Bryan Cranston, is without a doubt one of television’s greatest characters, by turns vulnerable and menacing, pathetic and triumphant. As a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turns to methamphetamine production in order to pay his medical bills and safeguard his family’s future, you’ll be cheering him every step of the way… until suddenly you’re not anymore.
– Sam Kieldsen
Black Mirror (S1-5)
Not only has Netflix given Charlie Brooker and his team the freedom to tell more stories and let each one run without ad breaks for as long as it needs to, it’s also handed them a budget big enough to expand the scale, scope and special effects.
A collection of self-contained cautionary tales about our relationship with technology, Black Mirror is unnerving stuff, enhanced by the fact that the stories are generally set in a very near future that’s all too recognisable. But fear not, the trademark blacker-than-black humour has also been retained, so you’ll chuckle almost as much as you’ll squirm. Must-see TV for anyone obsessed with tech.
The Crown (S1-4)
Ranking as one of Netflix’s most impressive original series to date, The Crown manages to turn a decade of so of fairly recent history into enthralling, lush drama. That’s partly down to the phenomenal production values that have been instilled in this retelling of Elizabeth II’s early years starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith. Well over $100 million was invested in this extravaganza, and that all adds up to a swanky amount of period detail.
Even those of staunch republican leanings will find themselves sucked in to the four full seasons, which chart a series of major national events as well as delve into the personal lives of the Windsors.