There has been another massive churn in the Netflix Netflix pond since last we drew up a list of essential features. Clint Eastwood has been almost entirely purged. Billy Wilder is nowhere to be had. A few older favourites – the eternal The Great Escape for one – have crept back on to the service, but this has never been the place for golden-age cinema. Savour canny acquisitions and ambitious original productions. And catch the classics while you can. They may not be there next month.
Ava DuVernay, 2016
An urgent, scholarly dissection of the prison system in the US. Multinationals and presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton, do not emerge well.
Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016
Faultless, engaging Brazilian film following an ageing intellectual as she resists developers in her seaside apartment building. Sônia Braga eats up the screen.
Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze, 1999
In an annus mirabilis for US independent cinema, Jonze, working from a legendary script by Charlie Kaufman, delivered a masterpiece with this journey into the mind of a famous eccentric.
The Big Lebowski
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1998
Jeff Bridges’s bowling stoner seeks restitution for a stolen rug that really “tied the room together”. Unexpected consequences include scheming nihilists, an unexpected romance and a toe in the mail.
Birds of Passage
Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra, 2018
One of the century’s great films, this Colombian epic melds family saga with magic realism to tell the tale of that country’s drug wars. Singular.
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.
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.
Harry Bradbeer, 2020
Nobody expected Netflix’s take on Sherlock Holmes’s younger sister to be such an unqualified delight. Millie Bobby Brown is unstoppable as the young sleuth, Henry Cavill charming as Sherlock.
The Great Escape
John Sturges, 1963
The greatest bank-holiday afternoon film ever made. Steve McQueen leads a packed cast in the story of a famous prisoner-of-war breakout. “I can see perfectly!”
Ari Aster, 2018
Forget that silly “elevated horror” tag. Aster’s film blends the macabre with the tragic in a film that is not afraid to lunge beyond normal limits. Toni Collette is transcendent as a woman laid low by grief.
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.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman, 2020
Typically morose, intellectual twisty drama from Kaufman. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons drive towards a meeting with existential despair. As you do.
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 deageing.
Martin Brest, 1988
Riotous buddy comedy featuring Charles Grodin as a white-collar criminal and Robert De Niro as the bounty hunter dragging him across the country. Beautifully complementary performances.
Rob Reiner, 1990
“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!” Oscar winner Kathy Bates grasped a school of obsessive fandom that only got more extreme in the imminent internet age.
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.
Nick Cassavetes, 2004
Some years before we got sick of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, Cassavetes directed this irresistibly weepy adaptation of his breakthrough novel. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams grow into James Garner and Gena Rowlands.
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.
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 Welles’ chaotic, imaginative clatter around Hollywood’s decadent armpits. Also check out the excellent doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Both essential.
A Quiet Place
John Krasinski, 2018
Oh, for a beautiful concept played out to perfection. The director stars opposite Emily Blunt (his real-life wife) in a desperately tense horror concerning a world where sound kills. Flawless.
Quentin Tarantino, 1992
Quentin Tarantino has never matched the economy and discipline of his first completed feature. Kick-started the 1990s.
Alfonso Cuarón, 2018
Netflix’s production department stepped up with this stunningly ambitious, monochrome study of 1970s family life in Mexico City.
Lenny Abrahamson, 2015
The Irish director went international in 2016 when his adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel – concerning a woman held captive with her young son – gathered four Oscar nominations. Brie Larson deservedly won best actress.
Brian De Palma, 1983
De Palma was never known for restraint, but he threw all caution to the wind with this attack on the Miami cokeocracy. Indifferently received on release, Al Pacino’s unhinged performance helped it towards later cult success.
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 (Peter Sellers). All the key elements are in place. Cato, not now!
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.
Hayao Miyazaki, 2001
Oscar-winning fantasy. Chihiro is travelling to her new home when a detour leaves her stranded in an otherworldly bathhouse. After her parents are transformed into pigs, she encounters many magical beings. One of many Miyazaki films to savour on Netflix.
James Cameron, 1984
We forget how raw and uncompromising the tougher version of Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed in 1984. James Cameron’s film invented the Reaganite blockbuster.
Alfred Hitchcock, 1958
An agoraphobic former police detective (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with the woman he is hired to follow (Kim Novak). Voted the best film of all time in Sight & Sound’s most recent decadal poll.
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.
Wild at Heart
David Lynch, 1990
Lynch won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his characteristically bizarre, blackly comic crime flick. Laura Dern and Nic Cage are passionate, but Willem Dafoe and Diane Ladd steal the show.
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.
Makoto Shinkai, 2016
A delightful spin on the body swap comedy in which a high school boy in Tokyo and a high school girl in a rural town periodically wake up in the other’s body. Rightly one of the highest grossing anime films of all time.
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.
David Fincher, 2007
Many critics’ choice for Fincher’s best film, this epic traverses decades in its search for the identity of the Zodiac killer, who terrorised San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lovely sense of place. Great atmosphere.