TechHive's film critic names the best new movies Netflix has to offer for streaming.
By Jeffrey M. Anderson, TechHive
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.
Updated January 10, 2022 to add five recommendations and remove several that have rotated off Netflix. Jeff’s previous picks follow in alphabetical order, starting with The Beguiled.
Don’t Look Up
Wildly popular and aggressively divisive, Adam McKay’s follow-up to his The Big Short and Vice, Don’t Look Up (2021), is building awards momentum even as it rocks a rotten 55 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a satire that isn’t particularly funny—Jonah Hill, as the United States President’s idiot son, provides the movie’s precious few laughs—and doesn’t really skewer anything so much as it simply points and rages righteously.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers who discover a planet-killing comet headed directly toward Earth; yet, they find they can’t get anyone to pay attention or do anything. The U.S. President (Meryl Streep) only leaps into action when it suits her, image-wise, and then, when the comet is discovered to contain valuable minerals, an internet billionaire (Mark Rylance), takes over, risking humanity to preserve the comet’s riches. Whichever way you feel about the movie’s manipulations, it’s difficult to watch without being affected.
The Hand of God
Director Paolo Sorrentino is Italy’s go-to man when it comes to making the annual “official entry for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards.” But he also loves copying the works of Federico Fellini. His last Oscar-winner, The Great Beauty, was modeled after Fellini’s great 8 ½, and his new one, The Hand of God (2021), seems to be inspired by another Fellini masterpiece, Amarcord, with its coming-of-age story of tragedy and sexual longing.
The wandering film tells of young Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), growing up in the 1980s with Walkman headphones permanently on his head, and a love for footballer Diego Maradona (whose hand the title refers to). His imagination is stirred when he sees his voluptuous aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) naked. For a long time, the movie meanders maddeningly, and, like Fellini, Sorrentino seems to have an unsettling taste for the grotesque, but things snap into focus when tragedy strikes, and we wind up with a vivid and loving portrait that stays with us.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her feature writing and directing debut with The Lost Daughter (2021), based on a novel by Elena Ferrante. It concerns a professor, Leda (Olivia Colman), who takes a solitary beach vacation and finds her quiet interrupted by the arrival of a large family. Leda helps Nina (Dakota Johnson) find her lost daughter, but also decides to steal the child’s beloved doll.
In flashback, young Leda (Jessie Buckley) faces the overwhelming challenges of being a new mother and finds a kind of freedom when she attends a conference and meets a charismatic colleague (Peter Sarsgaard). Gyllenhaal films with a confident dreaminess and slowness, though the flashback sequences feel more rushed and cluttered. Even if occasionally frustrating, it’s an accomplished film, which has the courage to assert—against the grain of traditional Hollywood movies—that motherhood might not be for every woman.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Based on a 1981 children’s book, a collection of little urban legends by Alvin Schwartz with horrific illustrations by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) takes place on and around Halloween, 1968, when horror-loving outcast Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her two misfit best friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), discover a book that once belonged to Sarah Bellows, who is now said to be a ghost that makes children disappear. Lo and behold, Sella’s friends also begin disappearing.
Co-written by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Norwegian director Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), the movie perfectly uses its period setting, both social and political, to paint an unsettling atmosphere, and the movie’s use of space, especially inside a haunted house, a creepy hospital, and in a cornfield, create genuine surprises and shocks. The movie’s innovative monster designs are also guaranteed to raise the hairs on your neck.
Twenty-six years after their own debut, Joel and Ethan Coen gave newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a shot at the Mattie Ross character in their remake of True Grit (2010). She pulled it off brilliantly, earning an Oscar nomination for her work. A bandit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), kills Mattie’s father in cold blood, so she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, taking over an iconic role from John Wayne with no trouble) to catch him and bring him back for a proper hanging.
Mattie is prim and balanced and with a pristine vocabulary, while Rooster is a one-eyed wreck, a drunk teetering in his saddle, and the Coens have great fun with the extreme juxtaposition between the two. (Their hilarious, precocious dialogue comes largely from the novel by Charles Portis.) The snowy setting makes the movie seem slower, more like an odyssey than an adventure; this is one of the few remakes that’s better than the original; it’s is masterpiece in its own right.
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.
The Beguiled (2017) takes place during the Civil War in the Deep South, where a girls’ school continues to operate with a small staff and a handful of students. Nicole Kidman, in a clever performance, plays the headmistress, Kirsten Dunst is a teacher, and Elle Fanning is a coy, young flirt, experimenting with her newfound sexuality. Colin Farrell plays a wounded soldier nursed back to health by the women. While recuperating, he begins to romantically and sexually manipulate the other women, a game that turns slowly darker.
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.
James Wan graduated from the gore of Saw (2004), to the sophisticated, intriguing horror of this film, whose success launched an ongoing series of interconnected chillers (“the Conjuring Universe”). The Conjuring (2013) takes its story from the case files of real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson). In the early 1970s, the Perron family, Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters, begin to experience all kinds of creepy things in their new Rhode Island home.
The Warrens think there’s a demon at work, but when Carolyn becomes possessed, Lorraine’s clairvoyant abilities may not be able to withstand an exorcism. Wan’s brilliant directing, editing, and use of space, bring fresh, soul-chilling energy to all the old scares. This is perhaps partly thanks to the superb, eerie score by Joseph Bishara, and also because of the metaphysical awareness that this comes from a true story.
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.
A definite contender for the best horror movie of the last 10 years, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) contains a simple, terrifyingly primal idea. A pretty, blonde teen, Jay Height (Maika Monroe) decides to sleep with a boy she likes; when she does, he informs her that he has passed something on to her. There’s a force, a thing, that walks toward you. It never speaks, never runs, and it can look like anything. You do not want it to touch you, so you must sleep with someone else and pass it on.
The “following” theme is right out of nightmares, but coupled with the complex concept of sexual awakening, it becomes something more, perhaps the subject of term papers or of a therapist’s office. Mitchell has clearly been inspired by John Carpenter, using expertly staged widescreen frames and natural locations (no shaky cam), as well as a deeply unsettling score by the composer known as Disasterpiece.
The Harder They Fall
An exciting mess of a movie, lit as if shining the frontier sun through a prism, Jeymes Samuel’s bold, kinetic all-Black Western The Harder They Fall (2021) is a must-see for anyone who can handle gore in the name of art. The complex 139-minute tale has Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) seeking revenge against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) for killing Nat’s family when he was a child (and also carving a small cross in the boy’s forehead). They each form gangs—Stagecoach Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz) and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) join up with Nat, and Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) are on Buck’s side—and go to war, with bloody headshots aplenty.
Director Samuel emerges full force, with fluid, confident use of color, space, and rhythm, where characters sizing one another up is as important as the shooting, and it all becomes a rumination on violence itself. While the story is fictional, and practically unreal, the characters’ names come straight out of the history books.Marshall
The late, great Chadwick Boseman plays one of his best heroic roles, a young Thurgood Marshall in this powerful, entertaining biopic. Unlike many other biopics, Marshall (2017) is not flashy or pandering. Instead, director Reginald Hudlin, who started his career back in the early 1990s with House Party and Boomerang, concentrates on a crisp, workmanlike flow and on organic, balanced storytelling. The story takes place early in Marshall’s career, when he was an NAACP lawyer, and well before he became the first Black Supreme Court justice.
Like John Ford’s classic Young Mr. Lincoln, it focuses on a single court case. In Connecticut, a Black man working as a chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping his employer, a white woman (Kate Hudson). Marshall enlists the aid of local Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who has no experience in criminal cases. The future of the NAACP is at stake, and our heroes must face off with a white, racist judge (James Cromwell) as well as other obstacles. Rather than a story about greatness, it’s a story about a quality of character that leads to greatness.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
An animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation, The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021) is a zany, lunatic scramble, but it’s also endlessly creative, lots of fun, and kinda lovable. The eldest daughter of a Simpsons-like family of misfits, Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is getting ready to go across the country to film school and leave her annoying family behind. (She uses the vacant-eyed family dog for a series of creative videos called Dog Cop.)
On the day of her flight, her well-meaning, doofus dad Rick (Danny McBride) decides to take a family road trip and drive there instead. Unfortunately, the machine apocalypse has just begun, and flying robots (commanded by a renegade Siri-like operating system voiced by Olivia Colman), are imprisoning all humans. Through sheer luck, and maybe some stupidity, the Mitchells survive, and it’s up to them to save the world. Maya Rudolph voices mom Linda Mitchell, and Mike Rianda voices the young dinosaur-loving son Aaron.No One Gets Out Alive
Ambar (Cristina Rodlo) is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico; she dropped out of school to take care of her sick mother, and now she’s trying to make a go of it in Cleveland, working at a sweatshop, desperate to earn enough money to purchase a phony American ID. She finds a cheap place to live, in a huge house run by the grumbly, matter-of-fact Red (Marc Menchaca) and his sinister brother Becker (David Figlioli). Before long, she begins hearing strange noises, and creepy figures lurk in the dark.
Based on a novel by Adam Nevill, No One Gets Out Alive (2021) isn’t exactly even-handed in its attempt to combine real-world troubles and supernatural horrors, but it manages many potent moments in both camps, and Rodlo is appealing enough to draw us in. You won’t believe the truly strange thing that lies at the center of all the trouble; it has inspired both laughter and awe.
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.
A truly astonishing, impressively assured writing and directing debut by actor Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs. Kong, The Night House), Passing (2021) is based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. It tells the simple story of Irene (Tessa Thompson), who is able to “pass” for white while shopping or having tea, etc., but happily returns to her Harlem home with her Black husband (André Holland) and children. One day she runs into an old friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who is “passing” full time, with platinum-blonde hair, and even married to a handsome white racist (Alexander Skarsgård). After spending a little time with Irene, Clare begins to hunger for her real self, begins clawing at her carefully-constructed facade, making more and more frequent trips to Harlem.
The “waiting for the other shoe to drop” plot is a bit simple, but Hall handles it with incredible honesty and finesse, and it all feels just right. Best of all is the film’s look: plain black-and-white cinematography compressed within an old-fashioned 1:1.33 frame, emulating old movies while also suggesting the rigidity and constriction of the movie’s themes.
The Power of the Dog
Oscar-winner Jane Campion (The Piano) returns with her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star (she’d spent time working on the series Top of the Lake). The Western The Power of the Dog, based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, shows that Campion has lost none of her potency. She uses the landscape, and even the earth itself, to tell this primal, feral story. The Cain-and-Abel brothers are alpha-male Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who bathes only occasionally and uses his vast, drawling vocabulary and steely eyes to cut others down, and clean-cut, soft-spoken George (Jesse Plemons), whose carefully chosen words make him seem simple.
The two run a successful cattle empire, and while on a drive, Phil ridicules the thin, un-masculine young Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who waits on their table at an inn. George comforts the boy’s distraught mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and winds up marrying her. Back at the ranch, the power games ramp up, with subtle acts and wrenching moments, vanquishments tilting into defeats, with the twist of a rope.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
A truly great showbiz documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (2021) succeeds on three levels. First and foremost is the Puerto Rican-born Moreno herself, here a vibrant, energetic—and frequently hilarious—87.
She allows herself to be shot candidly, and she contributes fearless, no-nonsense on-camera interviews that reveal the personal horrors she has endured and survived (including racism, harassment, rape, and a volatile, destructive relationship with Marlon Brando). Secondly, the movie is a forward-thinking document for the 21st century, telling Moreno’s story in terms of representation and diversity; the clips of her early work are not viewed through a lens of nostalgia, but rather with a sense of dismay and embarrassment over their cultural cluelessness. “I did what I had to do,” she says. “I needed to work.” Thirdly, despite all this, the movie still celebrates the idea of showbiz itself, the excitement of it, and how it’s possible to look forward to things improving.
tick, tick… Boom!
Lin Manuel-Miranda was everywhere in 2021, and in addition to writing songs and acting, he made his feature directing debut with this extraordinary, emotional adaptation of a play by Jonathan Larson, best known as the creator of Rent. The semi-autobiographical tick, tick… Boom! was written before that hit, during the days of struggle. Jon (Andrew Garfield) is seen performing the play, which was conceived as a one-man show and later expanded, and he serves as narrator.
It’s 1990 in New York City, and he has been trying to stage his first play, Superbia. It has taken years, and his chance to workshop it is right around the corner. But, acting on the advice of Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), he realizes he must compose one more song to fully flesh out the play, and with his thirtieth birthday approaching, he’s stuck. Meanwhile, his friends are contracting AIDS all around him, and his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) is considering taking a job in Massachusetts. Garfield is the whirlwind at the center of this, giving a deeply enthusiastic, anguished performance, with enough energy for a dozen movies.
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.
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.
In this computer-animated film, the busy Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote new songs and provides the voice of the main kinkajou, named “Vivo.” Vivo is happy busking on the streets of Havana, but when his person Andrés (voiced by Juan de Marcos González, of Buena Vista Social Club) dies, he discovers he has a mission. He must get Andrés’s final song, a love song, to his long-lost amor, superstar Marta Sandoval (voiced by Gloria Estefan), who is giving her final performance in Miami.
Andrés’s yappy, free-willed grand-niece Gabi (voiced by Ynairaly Simo), however, decides to tag along, much to the chagrin of her mother (voiced by Zoe Saldana). Despite dragging a bit in the middle, Vivo (2021) is spirited and lovely and Manuel-Miranda’s energetic, vivacious songs are invigorating.
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