Feature films are a relatively new area for Hulu, so to come up with this list, we also considered its much larger collection of documentaries, its horror movie series Into the Dark, and a some of the great catalogue titles that make the service worthy of a subscription.
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Updated October 8, 2021 to add six more film recommendations in alphabetical order, starting with About Endlessness. Our previous film picks follow, also in alphabetical order, starting with The Act of Killing. More interested in Hulu’s TV shows? Click over to this story for our top top choices.
The Act of Killing
The documentary The Act of Killing (2012) is a tough watch, but you’ll be glad you did, and you will never forget it. Three filmmakers, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and “Anonymous,” interview two men who served on death squads, and who killed Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. The killers, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, seem to have little remorse for what they did, comparing themselves to badass gangsters and American movie heroes, full of swagger and bravado.
The filmmakers try a most unusual tactic; they convince the men to re-create their most memorable killings for the camera, complete with costumes and makeup. The effect is both chilling and highly revealing, as well as strikingly visual. The sheer number of crew members who chose to use “anonymous” in the closing credits suggests just how dangerously bold this film really is. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on as executive producers. Director Oppenheimer continued telling the story with The Look of Silence (2014).
In 1972, Aretha Franklin was at the height of her powers, when she decided to record a live gospel album, recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Director Sydney Pollack was tasked to film the sessions, but since he somehow neglected to use clapboards, the sound could not be easily synced. The film sat for years, until Alan Elliott painstakingly put it all together, but Franklin sued for appropriating her image without permission, and the film was shelved again.
Finally, after Franklin’s death in 2018, her family allowed it to be released. And now Amazing Grace (2018) can be enjoyed in all its rapturous glory, as Franklin’s powerful vocals lift and soar through traditionals like the title track and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as well as covers like Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Even Mick Jagger and the late Charlie Watts turn up to listen and learn.
This searing, austere drama will leave your soul in smoking ruins. Alfre Woodard gives a profoundly affecting performance as prison warden Bernadine Williams, who oversees a string of executions. The latest one goes horribly, gruesomely wrong, as the prisoner dies in agony. From there, Bernadine tries to hang on to her crumbling marriage, works through the constant drone of angry protesters outside her office, and drinks a little too much each night. Meanwhile, a kind, but worn-down lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) puts what energy he has left into preventing the next prisoner (Aldis Hodge) from going to the chair.
Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the overlooked Clemency (2019) moves with a reflective observant quietness, peering inward at the characters’ layers of pain and lost hopes with an undeniable power.
A huge hurricane hammers Florida. University student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) learns that her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), isn’t responding to phone calls. She goes to his house and finds him injured and stuck in the crawlspace under his house, the flood waters slowly rising. Worryingly, two hungry alligators are also down there. Aside from a message about climate change, Crawl (2019) isn’t any deeper than it sounds, but it’s so skillfully made, so relentlessly terrifying that it’s practically a master class.
French-born director Alexandre Aja uses space and rhythm to an intense degree, avoiding jump-scares and employing props like a slowly sinking radio and a hand-cranked flashlight to brilliant effect. It’s so tense that even the much-earned rest breaks aren’t very restful; viewers might feel more worn-out than exhilarated, but it’s one hell of a water ride. (Aja also directed the fun remake of Piranha in 2010; maybe he should stick exclusively to aquatic monster movies!)
An electrifying, drum-tight thriller from Denmark, The Guilty (2018) focuses largely on one character, Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a police officer who has been temporarily assigned to manning the phones at dispatch while awaiting a misconduct trial. It’s his last day before the trial, and he is hopeful that things will go well and he can return to his job. He answers a few routine calls before hearing from a woman who seems to have been kidnapped. Using only the phone and his instincts, he attempts to rescue her, but discovers that something much bigger is going on.
Director Gustav Möller stays razor-focused on Asger, never leaving the dispatch office, with only a few other characters moving in and out of the picture. The voices on the phone are never seen. Even with such a limited palette, Möller keeps things moving with expertly chosen close-ups, wider shots, and cuts, and especially the lights on the phone banks. (An American remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal is due October 1 on Netflix, but catch this exciting original first.)
You might think you know what a Satanist is, but Penny Lane’s amazing documentary Hail Satan? (2019) will surprise you in all the best ways. The group is really just a bunch of outsiders dedicated to fighting for religious and democratic equality for everyone; they’re more atheists than devils. Their tenets include “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason,” “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone,” and “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.”
Part of the movie deals with the group trying to get a statue of the goat-headed Baphomet installed in front of the Arkansas state capitol building, to offset another statue of the Ten Commandments. The attempt is more an attempt to stir up conversation about religious freedoms than any hope of succeeding. By the end of the film, you’ll be glad these forward-thinking misfits are out there.
The Hate U Give
Based on a young adult novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give feels a great deal more relevant and more powerful than all the Twilights, Divergents, and Maze Runners in the world. Amandla Stenberg gives an immense performance as Starr, a teen who lives in a tough, black neighborhood and commutes to an all-white prep school. She carefully keeps two separate identities for the two places, but her efforts are undone when she witnesses a white cop shooting her childhood friend; she must decide whether to risk everything and come forward.
The late screenwriter Audrey Wells and director George Tillman Jr. take their time to flesh out the story and a host of layered supporting characters. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby are particularly excellent as Starr’s parents. The title, inspired by Tupac Shakur, may sound off-putting and angry, but it’s a positive, empowering movie.
How much does Hulu cost?
As of 2021, Hulu’s basic pricing plan is $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year (averaging about $5 per month) with ads, or $11.99 per month without ads. (The ads are so frequent and repetitive, you’ll quickly consider upgrading.) The special Hulu + Live TV service, which includes dozens of other TV channels, is $64.99 per month with ads, or $70.99 without ads. Additionally, streamers can get a bundle that includes Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+, for $12.99 per month. Free trials are available for each of these choices.
In case you missed Jeff's earlier recommendations...
Many sci-fi movies are essentially war movies with humans fighting aliens, humans teaming with aliens to fight other humans, or some variation thereof. Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, the amazing Arrival (2016) is something very different. It may not appeal to all comers, but if you tune into its thoughtful, meditative mode, it’s a great film. Amy Adams plays a linguist, Louise Banks, who is called into duty when 12 alien pods mysteriously arrive and hover over 12 seemingly random places all over the planet. It’s her job, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to learn the alien’s language and find out what they want.
In a normal movie, the answer would mean the end of the mystery, but here, it’s only enhanced. The timely message is one of empathy and understanding, rather than panic and destruction. Director Denis Villeneuve does remarkable things with shapes and light and dark, as well as a use of quiet and diegetic sounds; it’s pure poetry. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died in 2018, provided the astoundingly beautiful music score.
Olivia Wilde’s feature directing debut Booksmart (2019) is bound to become a classic of the John Hughes-like high-school party movie, yet bracingly modern (and without all the cringy moments that those 1980s films got away with). On the last day of high school, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) realize that, despite being studious and walking the straight-and-narrow for four years, most of the slackers around them seem to have made it into prestigious schools or enviable jobs. So they decide that they deserve one blow-out party, and hit the road to try to find the biggest bash in town.
Wilde’s direction is vibrant and alive, employing everything from animation and musical numbers to dizzying camerawork. The movie is awake to various genders and cultures, and yet still knows how to have fun with its mix of brainy and raucous humor. Jessica Williams is wonderful as a sympathetic teacher, and Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Forte, co-star.
There are two Groundhog Day-like “stuck in a 24-hour time loop” movies on this list, and both are in the top five, proving that you can always approach an old idea with a fresh angle. Directed by Joe Carnahan, Boss Level (2021) comes right out swinging as our hero, ex-soldier Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), wakes up dodging a machete in his apartment, and seconds later, machine-gun fire from a helicopter outside his windows. Roy must hit the ground running, every morning, to avoid a team of elite assassins who are trying to kill him. He has never survived past 12:47 p.m., and has mainly decided to spend his last moments at the bar.
But this time, he finds a clue that will help him figure out why this is all happening to him, and perhaps also save his wife (Naomi Watts) and son (Rio Grillo, Frank’s real-life son). The 94-minute movie pulses along like a beast on adrenaline. It’s paced just right so as to be exciting without being exhausting, and yet doesn’t leave much time to ask questions. Mel Gibson co-stars as a sinister bad guy, and with Will Sasso, Michelle Yeoh, and Ken Jeong.
The Wachowski siblings did not always make futuristic movies about a “chosen one” that saves the world. In their directing debut Bound (1996), they created a twisty, character-driven crime film that was good enough to evade comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. In it, ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) tries to go straight with a job as a painter and a plumber, but she meets gangster’s moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who seduces her. Together they cook up a plan to steal $2 million from Violet’s volatile husband, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano).
The movie includes a famous sex scene between Gershon and Tilly that is celebrated for its beautiful frankness and passion. Otherwise, the movie’s accomplished use of dialogue, rhythm, sound design, and color palette are all highly inventive. The movie was credited to Larry and Andy Wachowski, but since then the brothers have transitioned to Lana and Lilly. Hulu offers the unrated cut, which runs 14 seconds longer than the theatrical cut.
Crime + Punishment
Stephen T. Maing’s documentary Crime + Punishment (2018), which made the shortlist for the 2019 Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary, seems even more relevant now than it was when it first appeared. It deals with quotas within the New York Police Department, which were made illegal in 2010, but which still exist. Police officers are expected to make a certain number of arrests per month, and they are encouraged to target mostly Black and Latinx citizens.
Maing captures audio and visual evidence of this, as well as evidence of punishments doled out to officers who refuse to comply. The main focus is a harrowing trial in which brave officers, known as the NYPD 12, come forward and attempt to sue the department, while the main subject is a former officer-turned-private investigator, Manny Gomez, a bear-sized, highly persuasive, old-school New Yorker who is as devoted to fighting corruption as he is to tasty lobster roll pastries.
Culture Shock (Into the Dark)
Arguably the best of the feature-length Into the Dark episodes, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Culture Shock” (2019) grapples with America’s shameful treatment of immigrants, as well as anticipating a show like Disney+’s WandaVision. Marisol (Martha Higareda) is a Mexican woman who has already made one failed attempt to get to the United States. Now pregnant, she must try again, at any cost. She hires a coyote (Sal Lopez) for the trip, and along the way she befriends a young boy, Ricky (Ian Inigo), and the tough-looking Santo (Richard Cabral), who seems determined to protect her.
They are nearly caught, but then Marisol wakes up to find herself in a perfect, pastel-colored vision of the suburban American dream, with American flags and fireworks and community barbecues. Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) plays a woman who smiles too broadly (creepy, David Lynch-style), and Shawn Ashmore plays the mayor. Where it goes from there definitely tingles the synapses. This is a nimble, wise, and deeply effective horror-satire.
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers (1989) is the pinnacle of 1980s black comedy, taking themes like bullying, popularity, and social status in high school and bringing them to an entirely new level. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has recently been allowed to join the most elite group of girls on campus of Westerberg High, consisting of three Heathers (one played by future TV star Shannen Doherty). Meanwhile, a mysterious, cool new guy at school, J.D. (Christian Slater), turns Veronica’s head. He introduces her to a whole new way of dealing with the cool kids, and it involves murder made to look like suicide.
The movie’s finishing touch is a popular song about teen suicide (“don’t do it!”) that sweeps the school. Lehmann and Waters manage to get big laughs while digging into the blackest reaches of the human soul and coming up with a fairly accurate portrait of high school. The movie has since inspired both a TV series and a musical.
Filmmaker Peter Nicks directed the eye-opening documentary Homeroom (2021) in the same vérité vain as his previous works, The Waiting Room (2013) and The Force (2017). Unlike those two, this one was nearly derailed, twice, first by the death of Nicks’s teen daughter Karina, and then, months later, by COVID-19. It was meant to follow a group of seniors, the graduating class of 2020, through their final year at Oakland High School. The focus was going to be on teen mental health, but after COVID, the focus instead became Denilson Garibo, a student member of the School Board, who continues to fight to have police removed from the school. (The board meetings are outrageous free-for-alls, which tend to devolve into shouting and rage.)
There’s no way to know what the original film might have been like, but this one—tying uniquely into the other events of 2020, such as the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter marches, and the “defund the police” movement—uncovers the unending well of resilience and strength that today’s teens actually have.
I Am Greta
Nathan Grossman’s documentary I Am Greta (2020) follows Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg from her humble beginnings, staging a solo walkout from school on Fridays to call attention to the threat of climate change, to her international celebrity as she begins being recognized and invited to speak publicly. (Her speeches are boldly terse, scolding the old white men who have refused to take action.)
The film doesn’t dig very deep, and anyone who has followed the news knows the story, but it’s still filled with amazing moments that let us in on the way her brain works, from her insistence on a meat- and dairy-free diet to taking a small boat across the Atlantic rather than take an environment-destroying airplane. After seeing this, it’s difficult to deny that climate change is a pressing crisis, or that Miss Thunberg deserves our admiration for leading the fight.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins follows up his glorious Moonlight (2016) with this drama, and while it doesn’t quite match up— not much could—it’s still an elegant, meticulous film, heartbreakingly alive, and flowing with poetry. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) is about a young woman, Tish (KiKi Layne), who becomes engaged to her childhood friend Fonny (Stephan James) and becomes pregnant, but then Fonny is arrested and jailed for a crime he did not commit.
The movie is filled with virtuoso sequences, handsome camera moves and disquieting use of sound, and it contains at least one truly great performance, by Regina King as Tish’s mother. (She won an Oscar for her work.) This is a highly accomplished piece of filmmaking that may yet stand the test of time.
Yes, it’s another zombie movie, but Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters (2019) is likely the sweetest zombie movie ever made. It works largely due to its contagious good nature, and largely thanks to the awesome presence of the mighty Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Black Panther, Us), who manages to be both adorable and badass. Alexander England co-stars as Dave, a struggling metal musician who has gone through a savage breakup and is now staying with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her five-year-old tractor-loving son Felix (Diesel La Torraca).
Dave takes Felix to school and immediately crushes on his teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o). He volunteers to chaperone a field trip to a farm, hoping for a chance to flirt with her. But a bloody zombie attack forces the field trip to hole up in the gift shop, where they must placate the children and figure out a way to escape. Josh Gad co-stars—and parodies his own image—as a famous kids’ TV star, Teddy McGiggle, who is an absolute scoundrel off-camera.
Memories of Murder
Bong Joon-ho’s great second feature, Memories of Murder (2003), is ostensibly based on a true story about a serial killer in Korea, but it’s also quite a bit more: a sly comedy, and a story about problems and solutions, about searching and not searching. It’s set in a farming community in Hwaseong Province, where several murders have occurred. Bong’s frequent leading man Song Kang-ho (Parasite) effortlessly steals the show as shaggy detective Park Doo-man, in charge of the case. He claims he can spot a criminal by sight, but he’s not above bullying a suspect to confess or casually falsifying a bit of evidence here and there.
Park’s partner is the hair-trigger Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha), and the more polished, professional Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from the big city (Seoul) to help. They run through false leads and wrong suspects, pick up clues, fail, and keep trying. Bong fashions the perfect ending, bittersweet, ironic, and unforgettable. Indeed, on paper its parts shouldn’t come together in any way, but they do, and beautifully.
Pooka! (Into the Dark)
Certainly the weirdest and most divisive of the Into the Dark horror movies, “Pooka!” (2018) was apparently popular enough to warrant a sequel (“Pooka Lives!”) in season two. An out-of-work actor, Wilson Clowes (Nyasha Hatendi), takes a job wearing the giant-sized “Pooka” suit to help promote a weird new Christmas toy. The toy repeats whatever it hears, in either “naughty” or “nice” mode. The launch is a success, and Wilson is finally doing well. He even meets and begins dating a pretty real-estate agent and single mom, Melanie (Latarsha Rose).
But Wilson begins to experience strange, violent events when his suit seemingly switches to “violent” mode, and he becomes increasingly dependent on it. The creepy eyes and massive size of the suit make for some truly unsettling images, and the talented director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Colossal) and Bear McCreary’s eerie score exploit them for all they’re worth.
This incredible horror film popped up at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, but, due to COVID-19 didn’t arrive in U.S. theaters until January of 2021. Saint Maud (2021) is the feature writing and directing debut of Rose Glass, from the UK, and it’s one of the great portraits of obsession from an interior point of view; it’s perhaps something along the lines of Polanski’s Repulsion, but it’s a searing indictment of religious fervor, rather than moral.
After failing to save a patient with CPR, a nurse has changed her name to Maud (Morfydd Clark), become deeply Catholic, and works as a palliative care nurse. Her patient is Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a noted American dancer and choreographer. After a seeming moment of connection, Maud becomes determined to convert Amanda before she passes. What follows are moments of Maud being humiliated, while desperately searching for signs or help from God to show her the way. The movie eerily reflects her state of mind with its confident, unwavering tone, teetering just on the edge of realism, drawn toward nightmarish longing.
Shadow in the Cloud
Arriving on the first day of 2021, Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud is still the most demented, unpredictable, and entertaining “B” movie of the year so far. It’s 1943, and a woman named Maude (Chloë Grace Moretz) boards a bomber called The Fool’s Errand, mysterious package in hand. Over cries of “no dames on the plane!” she informs the men that she’s on a top-secret mission, and that the package is officially the most important thing on the plane.
From there, with no place for her to sit, Maude must crawl into the Sperry turret in the belly of the plane, where the camera stays on her until about the 50-minute mark. After the 50-minute mark, be ready for anything as the plane is attacked by both Japanese zeroes and gremlins, and Maude does her best to save the day while clinging to the outside of the plane. The pieces of this incredible, bonkers movie don’t always seem to go together, but there’s hardly a wasted moment in its 83-minutes. Even the ending is as incredible as the rest of it.
The Social Network
David Fincher’s icy, precise direction, interested in dark nights of souls, and Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, crackerjack dialogue collide perfectly in this brilliant biopic of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). The Social Network (2010) is framed by two different depositions, as Zuckerberg is being sued by Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the Winklevoss twins (played onscreen by Armie Hammer, with offscreen help by Josh Pence).
Fincher builds the story in flashback of how Facebook came to be, as well as the almost-instant accumulation of Zuckerberg’s wealth and power. As with Fincher’s other films, especially Zodiac (2007), the pieces are intricate, and fascinating, but Fincher knows that they will add up to something less than expected. In short, Zuckerberg connected the whole world, but he himself doesn’t understand a thing about actual connection.
After a misstep in the James Bond series (Quantum of Solace), things bounced back in a huge way with one of its all-time best entries, Skyfall (2012). Academy award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049 and 1917) eschew the silliness of some of the earlier entries, allowing the mix to cool and thicken a bit, and offering up action scenes that have a snap.
Bond (Daniel Craig) must try to track down a hard drive containing the names of all the undercover MI6 agents in the world. His first clue leads him to a casino, a martini, and a Bond girl (Bérénice Marlohe). To be sure, Mendes doesn’t mess with the formula much, but the film has a genuine artistry and pride that makes it feel fresh and bracing. Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw joined the cast in this one, Judi Dench and Naomie Harris return from previous films, and Javier Bardem plays one of the sharpest villains in the series.
Support the Girls
Written and directed by indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, Support the Girls (2018) takes place over the course of one day at a Hooters-like restaurant called “Double Whammies.” General manager Lisa (Regina Hall) has her hands full, dealing with a robbery, the cable going out, a slightly unethical car-wash fundraiser to benefit one of the girls (a victim of abuse), and the temper of her quasi-racist boss (James Le Gros). It’s a hectic day, but not a hectic movie. Rather, it’s casually observed, and surprisingly nuanced.
Hall, who breaks out from her typical lowbrow comedy roles into a truly great dramatic one, handles everything organically, with some success and some failure, and some in-between; she sometimes sneaks out back for a smoke or a cry. Layered into the story are interesting commentaries about being judged or approved based on race or sex. The girls—Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), and others—don’t have a great deal of power, but at least, along with Lisa, they have each other.
The Thin Red Line
At the end of 1998, critics fought their own war over which was better, the popular Saving Private Ryan or the artistic The Thin Red Line; both are great films, but Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is something a little more. The former is a technical masterpiece, but this one is cinematic poetry. Based on a 1962 novel by James Jones, the movie depicts the U.S. taking Guadalcanal from the Japanese, but it’s really more interested in a bigger picture, in a sense of how man fits into nature, and how nature is bigger than any war.
John Toll’s glorious cinematography shows the soldiers among tall, wavy grass, against a huge sky. Images such as a bird being born, and then dying, in the midst of battle are more potent than the outcome of that battle. It’s not exactly a movie for everyone, but for daring viewers, it’s immensely powerful. The cast—some of whom appear onscreen only for a few minutes—includes Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta.