One of the first companies to stream TV over the internet, Hulu has evolved considerably since its 2007 debut. Now majority owned—and fully controlled—by Disney, the service is increasingly producing original content to lure cord-cutters to sign up for subscriptions.
Feature films are a new area for Hulu, so its library is rather small right now. To come up with this list, we also considered its much larger collection of documentaries, as well as its horror movie series Into the Dark, which offers a new film each month. Into the Dark’s second season ends in March, which will leave a collection of 24 films to peruse.
Here’s a look at the 10 best movies you’ll find on the service to date, followed by nine runner-up picks.
10. 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.
9. 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.
Created by writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and writer/producer Sev Ohanian, the team behind the intensely clever found-footage film Searching (2018), the thriller Run (2020) doesn’t try very hard to play up the “is she or isn’t she a psychopath?” angle, and Sarah Paulson’s icy, calculating countenance certainly disguises very little. But the focus here is not on the puzzle, but on the escape, by Kiera Allen as teen Chloe.
In a flashback, we see that Paulson’s Diane has given birth to a sick child, and 17 years later, Chloe is wheelchair bound, with heart troubles, asthma, and other maladies. When Chloe begins to suspect that something is amiss with her mother, she must overcome her physical limitations and use her cunning to hatch a plan. Chaganty and Ohanian craft a snap-tight, exhilarating, 89-minute package here, and a very satisfying stream.
7. Little Monsters
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.
7. 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.
5. 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.
4. Boss Level
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.
3. Happiest Season
Performer Clea DuVall co-writes and directs this Christmas movie, an attempt to create a perennial classic for the LGBTQ+ community, and she succeeds so well that it could also become a classic for anyone with an open heart who loves the holidays. Happiest Season (2020) uses the old trope wherein one partner hasn’t yet “come out,” but DuVall fortunately digs into the characters’ emotions, rather than employing it as a slapstick device. On a romantic impulse, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) invites her partner Abby (Kristen Stewart) home to her family for the holidays.
It’s not until they’re halfway there that Harper admits that her conservative, politically active family doesn’t know about her sexual orientation, and could Abby please pretend to be her roommate? Abby is furious, but goes along with it, haphazardly navigating the next several days for a comically touching effect. The extraordinary cast includes Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber as Harper’s parents, Alison Brie and Mary Holland as her sisters, Aubrey Plaza as an ex-girlfriend (and a temptation for Abby), and Dan Levy as Abby’s comical best friend.
2. Palm Springs
Our second “time loop” movie, Palm Springs (2020) is so loose, cheerful, funny, clever, adorable, and thoroughly entertaining, that many film critics named it one of the best films of the year. (According to Metacritic’s roundup of lists, it was ranked the 12th best film of 2020.) It’s one of those films that was sorely needed during the pandemic year, a tonic for jangled nerves. Andy Samberg plays Nyles, stuck in a time loop on the day of a friend’s wedding. The movie cleverly lets us get through one day before letting us know that Nyles has been in this loop for a while, and has learned to just enjoy himself the best he can.
On this particular day, however, he accidentally brings Sarah (Cristin Milioti) along with him, and she becomes stuck too. As the couple deals with their feelings for each other, and Nyles’ past within the loop, they must decide whether to relax and enjoy, or try to break out. J.K. Simmons co-stars in a great performance as yet another time-looper with a different agenda.
1. Minding the Gap
Filmed over the course of 12 years in Rockford, Illinois, this great, Oscar-nominated documentary traces the nuanced, layered lives of three skateboarding friends as they grow and face life changes. Director Bing Liu is one of the trio, and with his camera so ever-present, the other two, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan never seem shy or guarded. We watch them grow from childish teasing to being able to confide in each other. We see Zack’s volatile relationship with his girlfriend Nina, complicated when Nina becomes pregnant. We see Keire begin to wrestle with his identity as an African-American. And we see Liu interviewing his mother about the relationship she had with the man who helped raise him, and abused him.
At the center of Minding the Gap (2018), however, are the beautiful, fluid skateboarding sequences, showing the three gliding through the streets like superheroes, escaping life for just a little while.
Best movies on Hulu: The runners-up
Once you’ve seen all the films on the top-10 list, here are a few runners-up: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a sometimes annoying, but ultimately clever documentary about the notorious magician/comedian; Bad Hair, a wry horror film about a Black woman in the 1980s who is pressured to get hair implants, with chilling results; Batman & Bill, a curiously touching documentary about the attempt to get proper credit for Batman’s co-creator Bill Finger; and Big Time Adolescence, a rough, but surprisingly sweet comedy with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson.
A Christmas episode of the Into the Dark series, “A Nasty Piece of Work” has two corporate-climbing employees over to the big boss’s house for a holiday meal that turns into a series of “tests.” Too Funny to Fail is an excellent documentary about the creation and ultimate failure of The Dana Carvey Show in 1996. And the Oscar-nominated The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a somewhat problematic drama about the great singer, but an incredible performance by Andra Day in the title role makes it worth seeing.
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.