Streaming services have 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 Deepest Breath
This absorbing feature-length documentary explores the sport of freediving, in which swimmers descend to incredible depths without scuba equipment – merely the air in their lungs.
It’s an extreme sport by any definition – potentially deadly but also meditative, mindful and transcendent – and it attracts a certain type of personality. Two such people – champion freediver Alessia Zecchini and expert safety diver Stephen Keenan – form the narrative heart of the film, and their shared story is inspiring, emotional and ultimately heartbreaking. A riveting and moving window into a strange, deep and dangerous sporting subculture.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron is renowned for pushing special effects technology, and in Terminator 2 he conjured up the most advanced computer-generated character yet seen on the big screen: the murderous T-1000. This liquid-metal assassin, sent back in time to murder tearaway teenager John Connor, used every CGI trick in the book to help sell the reality of the character. And it still doesn’t look half bad more than 30 years later.
Audiences in 1991 were wowed by the digital creation as it morphed from one character to another, emerged from a tiled floor and formed knives from its arms. Ultimately, though, this movie succeeds for other reasons: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic performance as the ‘good’ T-800 Terminator sent to protect Connor; the equally impressive practical SFX; and its fast-paced summer blockbuster plot.
Michael Mann’s 1995 action-thriller is perhaps best known for putting Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a movie scene together for the first time but, even leaving aside this impressive feat of casting, it’s a belting, influential film that everyone should watch at least once.
An understated, brooding De Niro plays a master thief planning the perfect pre-retirement robbery, while a loud, turbocharged Pacino plays the veteran cop trying to stop him. It’s a simple setup, but the two legendary leads’ performances, the grudging respect between their characters and the film’s exceptional heist scenes add depth aplenty.
Netflix’s best show of 2023 (so far) stars Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as two LA residents who, over a wonderful scene in the opening episode, turn from total strangers into mortal enemies. Ostensibly, this hostility springs from a minor road rage incident, but as the series goes on and we get to know the characters, the true motives behind their rage and spite start to emerge – even as the pair’s lives start to unravel as a result of the ongoing feud.
If this all sounds a bit heavy, don’t be put off; Beef is also witty, stylish and ultimately ends in a very different place to where it begins. A welcome reminder that Netflix can still occasionally make a great original TV show. More of this, please – although that’s not to say we need a second season; this first one is perfect just as it is.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 English language debut is a taut and riveting suspense thriller that also works as a family drama and character study. When two young girls go missing and the chief suspect is dismissed as an odd but ultimately harmless crank, a father (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands in search of the truth – all while a obstinately driven detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues his own theories about the case. Raw, tense and with a fresh twist around every corner, this is a crime mystery with real weight.
Dan Harmon’s sitcom about a diverse and quirky group of students attending an American community college is packed with exactly the sort of clever pop culture references, smart subversion of cliché and memorably over-the-top characters that film and TV geeks adore.
It’s small wonder it quickly established itself as a cult favourite (despite failing to attract the sort of ratings creators NBC might have desired). Why not find out what all the fuss is about yourself by binging the entire thing? All six seasons and 110 episodes are available for streaming on Netflix.
Derry Girls (S1-3)
All three seasons of this raucous sitcom (first shown on Britain’s Channel 4) are now available on Netflix, giving you the opportunity to be whisked away to early 1990s Northern Ireland and into the lives of four Catholic girls (and one English boy) as they navigate their teenage years against the background of the province’s sectarian Troubles. Not that Derry Girls takes itself in any way seriously – the sectarianism is merely another source of humour to be mined in this joyous, hilarious coming-of-age comedy.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Incredibly, Guillermo del Toro hasn’t made a single animated movie in his illustrious career. Until now, that is. For his debut animated feature, the Mexican master of the macabre has tackled something a little less disturbing than his usual fare: a musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale about a wooden boy, rendered in gorgeous stop-motion.
Reportedly a lifelong passion project for del Toro, the film proves an intriguing counterpoint to Disney’s recent (and frankly unnecessary) live-action remake of its own Pinocchio adaptation. It’s much, much better too, with plenty for grown-ups to enjoy as well as kids. Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard are among the voice cast.
Key & Peele (S1-3)
Jordan Peele might be killing it as a horror filmmaker these days, but this television sketch show in partnership with Keegan-Michael Key (which began in 2012 and ran for five seasons on Comedy Central – three of which you’ll find here) is packed with fantastic gags that’ll have you cracking up rather than hiding behind the sofa.
Taking on a myriad of themes including (but certainly not limited to) race relations and Black culture, the pair write and perform pretty much everything here. Some of the subjects feel a bit ‘of their time’ when watched today (Barack Obama was president when the show was made – and the show would be a lot different and darker if the subsequent incumbent had been in the White House during production), but in general it’s a fast-moving and funny show that makes for an easy binge watch.
It might feature Florence Pugh in a big dress as an English nurse transplanted to rural Ireland, but Sebastian Lalo’s meditation on the power and importance of stories isn’t your typical period drama.
Pugh’s character has been hired to maintain near-constant vigil over a seemingly healthy young girl who insists that she doesn’t need to eat food – that all the nourishment she requires is manna from heaven. Is the girl lying? Or a living saint? Or is something else at work? The Wonder is a quiet but forceful film in which Pugh delivers a typically brilliant performance.
The most lavish and expensive Indian film ever made, this historical epic is an absolute blast. Fictionalising the lives of two (real) pre-independence revolutionary heroes, it’s far more interested in action, excitement, emotion and ‘vibes’ than it is historical accuracy – and make no mistake, there’s plenty of all of the above packed into its three-hour running time.
The portrayal of India’s British colonial overlords couldn’t be called nuanced (they’re all sneering, murderous bullies or worse), but that makes seeing them getting their comeuppance at the hands of our heroes all the more enjoyable.
The Great British Baking Show (S8-13)
Before being snapped up by Channel 4 – much like a cooling apple pie being snatched from a windowsill by a passing opportunist – The Great British Baking Show (known as The Great British Bake-Off in its native land) was the jewel in the BBC’s reality TV crown, an international export that wowed audiences at home and abroad with its tasty mixture of quirky humour, tense competition, mouth-watering cakes and, of course, schadenfreude at the contestants’ many disastrous bakes. Even judge Paul Hollywood’s somewhat sinister presence wasn’t enough to ruin the resulting pudding.
All five Channel 4-made series of the nicest show on television are available on Netflix US, which might be the perfect audio-visual comfort food for anyone enduring a dreadful hangover/breakup/cold (delete as appropriate).
The Nice Guys
Remember the buddy cop movies of the 1980s and 1990s? Weren’t they great? Shame they don’t make them anymore. But wait! What’s this? It’s a buddy cop (ok, private detective) movie! From Shane Black – the guy who wrote the first two Lethal Weapon films! And it stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as rival 1970s P.I.s who are forced team up to tackle a dark conspiracy within Los Angeles’ halls of power!
If that sounds like a great recipe to you, you’re going to love The Nice Guys. It’s brilliantly silly at times, gloriously action-packed at others, and the fact that it has never had a sequel is nothing short of a travesty. We’re begging you, movie studios: we don’t need more superhero films; give us more of this instead.
A decade on from There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson and leading man Daniel Day-Lewis reunite for this gothic romance story – as immaculate and precisely made as the gowns created by Day-Lewis’ character, the fastidious fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock.
Reportedly Day-Lewis’ final performance, his Woodcock is a fussy genius with an explosive temper. He’s no less obsessive than There Will Be Blood’s monstrously power-hungry Daniel Plainview but instead driven by a desire to create – and possess – pure beauty. He finds his latest muse in waitress Alma (brilliantly played by Vicky Krieps) but rather than bend to his will, she eventually pushes back and exerts power in her own way.
The direction and camera work, Jonny Greenwood’s wonderful score and the lead actors’ performance make this a worthy swan song for Day-Lewis – but don’t be surprised if Anderson manages to coax him out of retirement for another stellar turn one day.
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.
I Think You Should Leave (S1-3)
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.
Cobra Kai (S1-5)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Better Call Saul (S1-6)
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 (S1-4)
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 (S1-5)
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.