Netflix has a massive movie catalog these days, both original productions and entertainment licensed from studios across the globe. Not all of it is great—for every The Irishman you’ll encounter two or three bombs like The Kissing Booth—so finding something worthwhile to watch can be a challenge if you don’t have the time or patience to sift through thousands of titles. Here we focus on the best that Netflix has to offer, so you can spend more time watching and less time searching.
Based on a novel by Greg Neri, Concrete Cowboy (2021) moves with a most familiar story arc, but its setting is wonderfully unusual. Teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, from Stranger Things) has been in one fight too many in his Detroit high school, so his mother sends him to live with his father, in Philadelphia. The father, Harp (Idris Elba), is part of a community that raises and rides horses amongst the big city hustle-bustle. Of course, father and son are going to clash and Cole will get into more trouble, and then, eventually the son will fall in love with horses, bond with one horse in particular (a troublemaker named Boo), connect with his father, and become a better person.
But the setting—the ramshackle, slightly illegal stables—and the connection to the past (many American cowboys were Black, a fact that white history tends to overlook) make it endlessly fascinating and lovable. A scene with a man in a wheelchair riding a horse may have viewers wiping away tears. Clifford “Method Man” Smith, of the Wu-Tang Clan, plays a sympathetic cop.
Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler made a powerful feature debut with Fruitvale Station (2013), based on the New Year’s Day, 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by police in the BART train station of the title. Coogler’s carefully researched screenplay depicts the events of the day leading up to the tragedy. Michael B. Jordan gives a star-making performance as Oscar, who already has a difficult day, trying to get his grocery store job back so he doesn’t have to deal drugs, trying to placate his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who has caught him cheating, and trying to buy food for his mother’s birthday party. (Octavia Spencer is extraordinary as the mother.)
Coogler takes his time with the day’s details, dropping in moments of beauty, reflection, and heartbreak, resulting in a surprisingly tender, thoughtful movie, rather than one based on outrage. Additionally, Coogler’s choice to show the white cops (Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray), but not give them a backstory, is a bold one. Despite strong acclaim and many awards, the movie somehow failed to earn even a single Oscar nomination.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible, humanistic, century-ending epic Magnolia (1999) is beautifully sustained, with sharply drawn characters, and yet its worldview is cosmic, and nearly lunatic. A narrator (Ricky Jay) begins the three-hour-plus film by describing several astounding coincidences before we meet the characters.
Philip Baker Hall plays the host of a kids’ TV quiz show, and William H. Macy plays a grown-up former contestant. Jason Robards plays a man dying of cancer, Julianne Moore plays his younger wife, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the male nurse looking after him. John C. Reilly plays a cop investigating a possible murder and falling for Melora Walters. Then, there’s TV motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who does an uncomfortably revealing sit-down interview with a reporter. Things progress, with the characters discovering things about each other before something truly astonishing happens. Anderson was only 29 when he made it, and it shows the skill of a much more seasoned filmmaker.
The Old Ways
Journalist Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) finds herself locked in a room. She had traveled to Veracruz to do a story. She’s of Mexican heritage but can’t speak Spanish. She tries to understand what’s going on as an old woman (Julia Vera), face covered in paint, and an unsmiling man (Sal Lopez) with floppy gray hair, occasionally look in on her. Suddenly Cristina is shocked to see her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés), who explains in English that she, Cristina, has a demon inside of her, and they hope to exorcise it.
That’s the start of The Old Ways, an outstanding horror film written by Marcos Gabriel and directed by Christopher Alender, that crosses cultural commentary with powerful, creepy tension. The film equates the confined space of the room with Cristina’s limited knowledge of her culture, and cleverly builds the mystery of just what the demon inside her could be (if there is one). The brilliant ending only increases the mystery and expands the discourse.
Under the Shadow
Written and directed by Babak Anvari, the horror movie Under the Shadow (2016) is all the more powerful for being steeped in world affairs, and for vividly capturing the emotional sense of what it might be like to be caught in a war. It’s the 1980s, during the long Iran-Iraq conflict, and Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is forbidden to re-enter medical school because of her past as a political demonstrator. Her husband has been called off to serve in the war effort, and she must take care of her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone, with the threat of Iraqi bombs falling on their Tehran home. Worse, a djinn has become attached to Dorsa, and the girl, sick with fever, refuses to evacuate until her missing doll is found.
The film—best viewed in its original Persian with English subtitles—concentrates on realism and on small details of life rather than elaborate visual effects of scares, but the film nonetheless remains a satisfyingly unsettling experience.
Jeff’s picks from September 10
Based on the great Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) was recently voted in a poll as the greatest Korean film ever made. It’s a mysterious movie, yet entrancing, like a dream that you’ll want to try and remember. It focuses on three characters—the aimless Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), his old classmate Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and the handsome, sportscar-driving Ben (Steven Yeun, a recent Oscar nominee for Minari)—who may or may not have some kind of romantic or sexual connection, but it doesn’t matter.
Ben mentions that he likes to burn down greenhouses, and that he has selected a new one nearby, but that’s not exactly the plot either. The movie is really about its small moments—such as a play of light in a window, or Hae-mi miming the act of eating a tangerine—and the subtle, searching emotions they elicit.
Fear Street Trilogy
Based on a series of Young Adult novels by R.L. Stine and directed by Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), the three Fear Street movies achieve the neat trick of feeling like YA stories, but including grown-up gore to please more sophisticated horror fans. Fear Street: Part One - 1994 sets up the tale about a centuries-old witch, “Sarah Fier,” who possesses the bodies of teens and goes on murderous rampages (accompanied by some cool, vintage alt-rock tunes). Fear Street: Part Two - 1978 is a summer-camp movie with high socks (think Meatballs meets Friday the 13th). And Fear Street: Part Three - 1666 transports all the actors back in time, playing earlier incarnations of themselves, and ingeniously wrapping things up.
There’s lots of carnage and gore, but Janiak’s bright, robust tone keeps it from feeling too intense. Sadie Sink (Stranger Things), Gillian Jacobs, Kiana Madeira, and Benjamin Flores Jr. play just a few of the many characters.
A Ghost Story
This special movie casts a delicate spell, with the power to transport viewers to a soul-stirring place of cosmic poetry. A couple (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) lives together in a small house in Texas. They argue. The woman wants to leave and the man wants to stay. The woman likes living in lots of places and likes to leave little notes hidden in cracks in the walls. The man dies in a car accident and returns as a ghost. He’s really nothing more than a guy with a sheet over his head, and yet he can do nothing but stand and watch (he sometimes chooses to haunt, but mostly he watches).
Unexpectedly, the movie begins leaping through time, and what began as a rumination on death and place becomes something more profoundly existential. Directed by David Lowery, A Ghost Story (2017) uses slow, still cinematography, with heartbreaking music by Daniel Hart, to create this most unique experience.
Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) manages to tackle a controversial topic: Should we have the right to be taken off life support? But it does this swiftly, and without hemming and hawing, well after the characters have punched their way into our hearts.
Up to then, it tells the story of a tough, determined female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, who won her second Oscar), who asks to train with the crusty veteran Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Frankie runs his gym with ex-boxer Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), with whom he shares a warm bond, but a regretful past. Maggie has a meteoric rise, until something goes horribly wrong. Freeman narrates, giving the movie a classically masculine dime-store, pulp-fiction feel, and Eastwood directs with brisk simplicity, recalling old masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann; his mostly no-frills work results in some of the most powerful moments.
Adam Sandler rarely seems to be challenged as an actor, but when he is— as he is in Benny and Josh Safdie’s frantic, caffeinated Uncut Gems (2019)—he can be great. He’s brilliant in this twisted, over/under gambling story. It’d be too difficult to outline everything that happens, but it starts with Howard Ratner (Sandler), who runs a store in the Diamond District of New York City. He gets his hands on a rare, beautiful opal from Ethiopia. Howard’s assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) manages to get Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (as himself) into the store, and Howard can’t resist showing him the opal. Garnett wants to keep it as a good luck charm for that night’s game, leaving his championship ring as collateral. Howard hocks the ring and uses the money to bet on the game, hoping to buy the ring back with his winnings.
And thus, it begins. It’s unrelentingly tense, but the Safdie brothers (Good Time) are clever, vivid filmmakers, not only great with story mechanics, but also with movement and texture; this place feels genuinely lived in. The potent, spirited Julia Fox makes a most memorable debut as Howard’s extra-marital girlfriend.
Jeff’s picks from September 3
Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood follows roughly the same story, but with a subtler touch. Whereas Siegel’s film was almost like a psychological horror tale, Coppola not only fleshes out the female characters and makes their motivations more emotional, but also provides a more sensual, poetic touch, using elements of nature to provide a misleading comfort, and a disquieting confinement.