For many, Netflix is the default streaming service. It’s become synonymous with TV for some, but the service has also put plenty of money behind producing original movies. Those Netflix movies run the gamut from children’s entertainment to sophisticated art movies, with some having been more successful than others.
On the whole, though, Netflix has become a reliable producer of several remarkable films every year. Those films sometimes compete for awards, but other times, they’re great for reasons that have nothing to do with the prestige that the Oscars bring with it. Netflix makes plenty of TV, but these original movies prove that it also knows how to put money behind worthwhile movies.
Few comedians have the same artistic skill as Burnham, who filmed Inside over the course of COVID-19 lockdown alone in his guest house. The special features plenty of songs and the self-reflexive humor that Burnham has become known for, but it’s also an examination of what being alone does to a person’s brain. Inside is painfully funny, but sometimes, it’s willing to emphasize the pain as much as the funny.
Director(s): Bo Burnham
Main Cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish
Runtime: 87 minutes
IMDB Rating: 8.7
Read more: Best Comedy Movies on Netflix
An underseen gem released in the first months of 2021, The Dig is about excavating the past and allowing it to inform the present. The film stars Carey Mulligan as a wealthy landowner who hires an amateur excavator (Ralph Fiennes) to dig up the mounds of dirt on her property. Although the film is ostensibly about archaeology, its 1930s setting transforms it into a riveting depiction of England on the verge of yet another World War. The Dig is a subtle, humanist film about the small part individuals have in the enormous swath of history, and the beauty and pain of being alive.
Director(s): Simon Stone
Main Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James
Runtime: 112 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.1
Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, and The Irishman is proof that his movies translate to the small screen. The film, which stars Robert De Niro as a gangster who dedicates his life to organized crime, is really about the hollowness of that life. It features terrific supporting turns from Joe Pesci and Al Pacino and feels like the culmination of the gangster films that have been the cornerstones of Scorsese’s career. If Goodfellas is about the wild ride, The Irishman is about the wreckage that ride leaves behind.
Director(s): Martin Scorsese
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Runtime: 209 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.8
There are plenty of dark, heartbreaking movies on this list, but Private Life may be the most quietly devastating. The movie follows Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a New York couple who are trying to have a baby. After numerous, expensive attempts at IVF, they decide to use a surrogate, even as they fight to keep their marriage from falling apart. Private Life is a small, intimate film about the pains of wanting a child, and it’s beautifully performed by its two leads, who don’t get to flex these muscles as often as they should.
Director(s): Tamara Jenkins
Main Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Gabrielle Reid
Runtime: 123 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.2
The obvious joke about Marriage Story is that it’s very poorly named. The movie opens with divorce and chronicles the messy legal battles that come when two people decide to stop sharing their lives. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play the couple on the road to divorce, and the movie chronicles their uncoupling as it becomes more and more acrimonious. Even as they battle with one another, though, director Noah Baumbach makes sure both characters remain sympathetic and human. These are not monsters at war. They’re people who are trying to reorient their lives in the wake of a relationship that’s come to its end.
Director(s): Noah Baumbach
Main Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern
Runtime: 137 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Carey Mulligan is the queen of the period piece, and Mudbound is another great team-up between the actress and Netflix. Mudbound tells the sprawling story of two families, one white and one Black, as they attempt to work and live together in rural Mississippi around the time of the Second World War. The film takes on multiple perspectives and is unflinching about the racism that was so common in the South at that time. Mudbound is a bracing, difficult watch, but a rewarding one. It’s a reminder of all the good things humans are capable of, and all the petty resentments that often stand in the way of common decency.
Director(s): Dee Rees
Main Cast: Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke
Runtime: 134 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.4
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not weighty or particularly serious. Its premise, which features the release of an introverted, romantic girl’s secret love letters to the world, is as silly as they come. What makes the first entry in the To All the Boys series work, though, is that it’s a deeply effective teen romantic comedy about allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable, even if it means you might get hurt. Featuring star-making performances from Noah Centineo and Lana Condor, the film is remarkably well directed, and it’s a sensitive portrait of the beauty and frustrations of young love.
Director(s): Susan Johnson
Main Cast: Bo Burnham
Runtime: 99 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.1
Netflix has been able to poach some of the world’s biggest filmmakers in the years since it began making original films, and getting Spike Lee to make Da 5 Bloods for them was one of their biggest coups to date. The film follows four Black Vietnam veterans who reunite in Vietnam 50 years after the fighting to dig up a treasure they buried in the countryside long ago. From there, the personalities and politics of each member of the ensemble begin to unravel their bond, even as Lee makes salient points about the way Black soldiers are used and thrown out by their country. Delroy Lindo didn’t even get an Oscar nomination for his work in the role, and that in and of itself was an injustice worthy of protest.
Director(s): Spike Lee
Main Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters
Runtime: 154 minutes
IMDB Rating: 6.5
Over its years of dominance, Netflix has put money behind plenty of questionable projects. For every Kissing Booth movie, though, there’s something like Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal movie about a housekeeper to a wealthy family living in Mexico City during the 1970s. Roma is not a movie filled with plot, but it sweeps you up in part through the verve of its direction. Cuarón is one of the best directors working today, and his dedication to this small-scale story is what really makes it sing.
Director(s): Alfonso Cuarón
Main Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
Runtime: 135 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.7
First as a writer and now as a director, Charlie Kaufman has always made films that felt both experimental and deeply personal. The writer behind Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind knows how to weave a compelling, moving story, but those stories take plenty of weird turns along the way. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman focuses on the relationship between two characters played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemmons as Buckley’s character contemplates a breakup. Things spiral out of control from there, creating a kaleidoscopic film about the impossibility of ever really knowing someone else.
Director(s): Charlie Kaufman
Main Cast: Jesse Plemmons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette
Runtime: 134 minutes
IMDB Rating: 6.6
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