There has been an almighty turnover on Netflix since we last compiled this list, with more than half of our favourite films that time around disappearing. Disney is among the “content providers” reclaiming material for their own impending streaming services.
The good news is that Netflix’s original material has gone from strength to strength, with in-house releases such as The Irishman and Marriage Story brightening the roster. One thing hasn’t changed, however: the selection of older films is still appalling. There is not a single Bette Davis movie on the site. Oh well. Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we have the stars…
Ava DuVernay, 2016
An urgent, scholarly dissection of the prison system in the United States. Multinationals and presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton, do not emerge well.
Richard Curtis, 2013
Stay with us. Yes, the film is twee in a way only Richard Curtis can be. Yes, the time travels defy more logic than is usually the case. But Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams force it to work.
Mary Harron, 2000
Can you say transgressive? Both Bret Easton Ellis’s novel and Mary Harron’s adaption were coolly received on release. They now seem like classic satires on 1980s excess.
John Huston, 1982
Watch out. The dire remake is also on Netflix. John Huston’s musical is indulgent, but it’s packed with irresistible numbers.
Alex Garland, 2018
From the moment Alex Garland’s take on Jeff VanderMeer’s cerebral science-fiction novel dropped, its cult potential was undeniable.
Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016
Faultless, engaging Brazilian film following an aging intellectual as she resists developers in her seaside apartment building. Sônia Braga eats up the screen.
Mati Diop, 2019
Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is promised in marriage to a wealthy man, but she loves Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), a construction worker who disappears at sea in this Cannes Grand Prix-winning supernatural romance.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Joel and Ethan Coen, 2018
As with all episodic films, the Coens’ western anthology has its ups and its downs, but the invention never wavers.
Eliza Hittman, 2017
Harris Dickinson’s breakout performance as a young man, uncertain of his sexuality, in maritime Brooklyn established him as a rising star. Lovely sense of place.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013
The story of Tilikum, the killer whale that took the lives of several people while in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando, in Florida. Tilikum died in 2017, just before Seaworld announced the end of all Orca shows.
Jeremy Saulnier, 2014
A drifter (Macon Blair) returns to his hometown with revenge in mind in this subversive, award-winning thriller.
David Lynch, 1986
After a hiccup with Dune, David Lynch returned with a surreal tale of small-town corruption that inspired a generation of film-makers. Horrible, but flawless.
Boyz n the Hood
John Singleton, 1991
This landmark Bildungsroman lured viewers with the promise of urban warfare, only to plead with them to “increase the peace”.
The Cabin in the Woods
Drew Goddard, 2012
A group of college students go to a remote forest cabin where they face zombies and sinister technicians. The film was much hyped and much delayed; its jokes hold up well.
Call Me by Your Name
Luca Guadagnino, 2017
Baking Italy offers a sultry backdrop to one of our era’s great gay love stories. Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet could hardly make a more handsome couple.
Kitty Green, 2017
In 1996 the body of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was found strangled in the basement of her family’s home. Twenty years on, this riveting project investigates by holding auditions in the community.
Gaspar Noé, 2018
A unique, noisy entertainment about a dance party that veers into madness. A musical. A horror story. A drug romp. There is nothing like it.
Nacho Vigalondo, 2016
Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis’s gigantic emotional problems unleash a wave of monster attacks in Seoul in this inventive sci-fi comedy.
Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater, 1993
A terrific coming-of-age film that helped launch many of the key talents in 1990s independent cinema. Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Parker Posey are there among the dope smoke.
Emile Ardolino, 1987
The very model of a film that initially played to modest hurrahs before hardening into an indestructible cult. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey are a couple for the ages.
Enter the Dragon
Robert Clouse, 1973
The film that introduced Bruce Lee to his widest audience is a ludicrous post-Bond melange of espionage and evil megalomania. But nothing can detract from Lee’s charisma and martial gifts.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*
Woody Allen, 1972
Nominally an adaptation of a bestselling self-help book, Allen’s real aim is to pastiche as many film genres as possible. *But were afraid to ask
Alex Garland, 2014
Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander duel in a science-fiction drama that asks worthwhile questions about our shallow definitions of consciousness.
Fiddler on the Roof
Norman Jewison, 1971
What was the highest-grossing film in the United States in 1971? You’re looking at it. Topol excels in a delightful musical that contains such treats as If I Were a Rich Man and Sunrise, Sunset.
The Five Venoms
Chang Cheh, 1978
Netflix ups its martial-arts credentials with Chang Cheh’s golden-era classic about five differently styled fighters. Spectacular punch-ups.
Martin Campbell, 2017
This Jackie Chan actioner set around the reignited Northern Irish Troubles is neither a classic nor a disaster, but Pierce Brosnan’s variation on Gerry Adams makes it indispensable.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Mike Newell, 1994
There are good reasons to deride the Richard Curtis aesthetic, but his debut feature as writer remains a delightful confection. The making of one H Grant.
Jack Hill, 1974
We’ve lived through so many pastiches of blaxploitation that it’s worth being reminded of how much fun the original was. Pam Grier is electric in a revenge thriller that doesn’t stint on the flashy fabric.
Friends with Money
Nicole Holofcener, 2006
Nicole Holofcener is fast becoming one of the era’s great storytellers. Her 2006 Sundance hit stars Jennifer Aniston and Catherine Keener in a spiky take on modern friendship.
Ryan Coogler, 2013
Before Creed and Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s compelling debut feature dramatised the events leading to the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by a transport-police officer.
Chris Smith, 2019
The film-makers claim they’re not going for Schadenfreude in this documentary about a famously disastrous luxury festival in the Bahamas, but it’s there for those who want it.
Martin Scorsese, 1990
After an up-and-down decade, Scorsese stamped his authority with the definitive gangster sonata. Still thrilling. Still blackly hilarious.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Sergio Leone, 1966
It’s easy to forget how weird these films once seemed. A European western starring three very different actors scored by an uncompromising avant-garde composer. Of such stuff are classics made.
Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017
Robert Pattinson’s desire to seek out interesting projects is commendable. He is at his best as a hopeless hoodlum in the Safdie brothers’ innovative, spooky New York drama. Great soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never.
John Butler, 2016
Energetic, passionate Irish comedy-drama about the friendship between two quite different oddballs at a posh rugby school. Breakthrough turn from Fionn O’Shea.
The Hole in the Ground
Lee Cronin, 2019
The Irish director Lee Cronin stakes a claim with this spooky horror about a mysterious portal in the woods. Seána Kerslake stars.
James Ivory, 1992
No, Julie Waters in Educating Rita, it’s not a dirty book. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant excelled their polite standards with their take on EM Forster’s novel of social mores.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Macon Blair, 2017
Macon Blair’s comic thriller became the first Netflix release to win the top prize at Sundance – and then promptly fell right off the radar. Melanie Lynskey is delightfully flattened as a nurse coping with a mysterious burglary.
I Lost My Body
Jérémy Clapin, 2019
A huge, unexpected hit at Cannes, Jérémy Clapin’s gorgeous animation concerns (among other things) a disembodied hand’s journey about Paris. Sweeter than that sounds.
Ingrid Goes West
Matt Spicer, 2017
An obsessive Aubrey Plaza cons her way into the life of an Instagram star (Elizabeth Olden), with comically unhinged results.
Wilson Yip, 2008
The first in the fast-flying series of Hong Kong biographical martial-arts films based on the life events of the eponymous Wing Chun master and Bruce Lee tutor. Starring Donnie Yen.
Martin Scorsese, 2019
Very different in tone from GoodFellas or Casino – quieter, more mournful – this huge gangster epic feels like the opening notes of a farewell symphony. Jury still out on digital deaging.
Steven Spielberg, 1975
The film that changed Hollywood. Not everyone would have guessed that the wunderkind whose second feature so unnerved the post-Watergate United States would become a great family entertainer.
The Lego Batman Movie
Chris McKay, 2017
If the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) could get just a little attention from the self-absorbed Caped Crusader (Will Arnett), Gotham City would be a much safer place.
Neil Burger, 2011
The Irish author Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, about a drug that grants near-super powers, is transformed into a cracking mainstream action flick with Bradley Cooper.
Garth Davis, 2016
Tearjerker in which five-year-old Saroo gets separated from his Indian family and ends up being adopted by an Australian couple. He returns to India 25 years later to search for his birth parents. Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman star.
Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola, 2003
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who is ignored by her photographer husband on a Tokyo assignment, befriends an older American actor (Bill Murray).
Noah Baumbach, 2019
The laureate of Brooklyn angst hits peak form with an analysis of the poisons that bubble up when marriages go wrong. Funny in even its darkest corners.
Martin Scorsese, 1973
Martin Scorsese’s brilliant third feature announced themes to which he has often returned over the following four decades. Sin. Crime. The discontents of gangsters. A Rosetta Stone for New Hollywood.
John Schlesinger, 1969
The first R-rated film to win the best-picture Oscar is now something of a period piece, but the depiction of New York at its most run down is a revelation. Dustin Hoffman tragic as poor Ratso.
Bennett Miller, 2011
It’s sort of about baseball. But it’s more about economics and the antidote to intuitive thinking. Bennett Miller is an undervalued director.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Terry Jones, 1979
The Monty Python team confirmed the breadth of their vision with a film that had as much to do with parodying Hollywood epics as poking religious hypocrisy.
Darren Aronofsky, 2017
Wildly divisive nightmare about a couple stuck in a remote house within which anything can apparently happen. The influences – Edward Bond, Samuel Beckett, Ken Russell – are as varied as the style is hectic.
Dee Rees, 2017
An epic of Mississippi life in the years after the second World War. Mary J Blige became the first person to be nominated for an acting and song Oscar in the same year. Searing.
Notes on Blindness
Peter Middleton and James Spinney, 2016
In 1983, when the philosopher John Hull started to lose his sight just before the birth of his son, he began making an audio diary, carefully curated here.
Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009
One of the great undervalued horror films of the century climaxes with a denouement of such chutzpah it deserves a standing salute.
The Other Side of the Wind
Orson Welles, 2018
It took Netflix to finally complete Orson Welles’s chaotic, imaginative clatter around Hollywood’s decadent armpits. Also check out the excellent doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Both essential.
Bong Joon-ho, 2017
The Korean veteran’s saga of a giant, genetically modified pig-thing is so diverting it’s almost possible to ignore Jake Gyllenhaal’s grating, high-pitched performance.
Tamara Jenkins, 2018
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn deserved more praise for their performance as a couple desperately trying to have a child late in life. Finds the humour in desperation.
The Private Life of Sherlock Homes
Billy Wilder, 1970
The only Billy Wilder film on Netflix is a late masterpiece deconstructing Victorian society through the medium of its greatest fictional detective. Robert Stephens excels in the lead role.
Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
Controversial-opinion alert: the second half of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller is a bit slack. The opening section is, however, so extraordinary – among the greatest 45 minutes in the medium – that it hardly matters.
James DeMonaco, Gerard McMurray, 2013
The original and best of the Blumhouse sequence stars Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as a couple trying to survive a night during which all crimes are temporarily legal.
Woody Allen, 1987
Lovely, nostalgic reverie on the golden days of radio, making excellent use of Julie Kavner in the gap between Rhoda and The Simpsons.
Quentin Tarantino, 1992
Quentin Tarantino has never matched the economy and discipline of his first completed feature. Kick-started the 1990s.
Rolling Thunder Revue
Martin Scorsese, 2019
Cheeky, cheeky Marty. This documentary (or is it?) on Bob Dylan’s 1975 tour combines electrifying footage with some wrong-footing fakery. Joni Mitchell a highlight among the trustworthy stuff.
Alfonso Cuarón, 2018
Netflix’s production department stepped up with this stunningly ambitious, monochrome study of 1970s family life in Mexico City.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Arthur Hiller, 1989
Richard Pryor is a blind man and Gene Wilder is a deaf man who work together to subvert a criminal gang is this amiably silly comedy.
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee, 1986
Spike Lee’s first feature is a stylish comedy about the romantic adventures of a hip Brooklyn woman (before all indie films were about such people).
A Shot in the Dark
Blake Edwards, 1964
The best Pink Panther comedy was, interestingly, adapted from a play that originally had nothing to do with Inspector Clouseau. All the key elements are in place. Cato, not now!
The Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme, 1991
Okay, maybe Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter is a little too hammy, but Demme unfolds the horrific mystery with compensatory restraint. Everyone won Oscars. Everyone!
A Silent Voice
Naoko Yamada, 2016
Shoko, a deaf girl, enrols in elementary school, sparking a sequence of bullying and regrets that goes on for years in this poignant, pertinent, hit anime.
Bong Joon Ho, 2013
After a failed climate-change experiment has killed all life, the only survivors are the passengers of the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe. And they’re getting restless.
Ruben Östlund, 2017
Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, this masterful oddity veers from the witty to the startlingly physical in its evisceration of the Swedish art scene.
Adam McKay, 2008
Will Ferrell and John C Reilly are squabbling siblings by marriage who enjoy “activities”, battering one another with tricycles, and attempting to break up their parents’ unwelcome union.
Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski, 2018
Regina Hall is the protective manager of a Hooters-style restaurant in this warm, witty, socially conscious comedy.
James Cameron, 1984
We forget how raw and uncompromising the tougher version of Schwarzenegger seemed in 1984. James Cameron’s film invented the Reaganite blockbuster.
Tony Scott, 1993
All hell breaks loose when a comic-book nerd, Clarence (Christian Slater), falls for a prostitute named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in this Quentin Tarantino-scripted crime flick.
The Two Popes
Fernando Meirelles, 2019
Who wants to see an extended conversation between Popes Francis and Benedict? You do when it’s performed with the amusing subtlety essayed here by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins.
Under the Shadow
Babak Anvari, 2016
There is always somewhere new for the horror film to go. Babak Anvari’s singular art shocker concerns a mother and son facing up to a malign force in 1980s Tehran. Unlike anything else in the genre.
Jung Byung-gil, 2017
Relax into mayhem with this terrific action flick from South Korea. Kim Ok-bin stars as a woman assassin who is reprogrammed by a sinister intelligence agency.
Brady Corbet, 2018
Wonderfully fruity drama starring Natalie Portman as a singer who survives an early school shooting to become an aggressive, though talented, nuisance. Scott Walker’s final score is magnificent.
West Side Story
Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961
The production was a tense, fractious affair, but Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s take on a Broadway sensation remains one of the greatest musicals. Romeo and Juliet among New York hardballs.
Whitney: Can I Be Me
Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal 2017
Nick Broomfield’s documentary on Whitney Houston was not so slick as Kevin Macdonald’s later effort, but it got closer to the emotional truth of her tragedy.
Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese, 2013
Seemed a bit too relentless on release, but the great man’s study of Jordan Belfort has bullied its way to a position as one of the decade’s signature films.
The Young Offenders
Peter Foott, 2016
Two hapless teenaged Corkonians venture westwards, for 160km, on stolen bicycles, in search of a missing bale of cocaine. They do extremely inappropriate things with a choc ice.
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay, 2017
The Scottish director casts Joaquin Phoenix as a deeply troubled private operative who rescues the victims of sex trafficking. Brief, propulsive and incomparably odd.