21 must-watch indie movies on Netflix

Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me

Photo via Welcome to Me

Expand your horizons with these modern classics.

Some nights you turn to Netflix for a bit of comfort food, courtesy of a beloved movie you’ve already seen a million times. Other times, however, you’re looking for something a little more off the beaten path. Maybe it’s an offbeat indie comedy, a challenging documentary, or even a foreign film that widens your perspective on the world. Watching Legally Blonde for the 20th time is great, but if you’re going to pay $9.99 a month for Netflix (or let’s be honest, ask for your roommate’s password), you may as well use it to expand your horizons every once in awhile.

1) Welcome to Me

Kristen Wiig has quietly matured into a very fine character actress. Since breaking out in Bridesmaids in 2011, the former SNL cast member has carved out a niche playing troubled women, particularly ones grappling with mental illness. In The Skeleton Twins, Wiig played a woman dealing with depression and infidelity, but Welcome to Me—about a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery—provides the finest showcase yet for the comedian’s gifts. What makes Welcome to Me, which walks a delicate tightrope between satire and mockery, work so beautifully is how deeply empathetic Wiig’s portrayal is. Alice Krieg, who uses the money to buy her own talk show, is a character created with love and deep affection. Welcome to Me is incredibly painful in its acute observations about narcissism and entertainment culture, but at times, it’s almost sweet in its embrace of difference. —Nico Lang

2) In Bruges

Few movies balance the darkness and the comedy that necessitates a “dark comedy” as well as In Bruges. Blisteringly funny but essentially nihilistic at its core, the debut feature from playwright Martin McDonagh cemented his status as a director to be reckoned with. Unlike most scribes who make the jump from stage to screen, McDonagh’s work has always felt cinematic, and with In Bruges, he puts his stamp on an well-worn Hollywood story—that of two misfit hitmen, played here by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Gleeson is likable as always, but the real revelation in In Bruges is Farrell—who, as the conflicted Ray, does his best acting while also doing his least acting. It’s a refreshingly restrained turn from the often hammy star and worth taking a look at for anyone who was disappointed in the second season of True Detective (read: everybody). —Chris Osterndorf

3) The One I Love  

I mean no disrespect when I say that The One I Love is like the best episode of The Twilight Zone never made. Starring Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Charlie McDonnell's feature debut is a perfectly executed exercise in economical weirdness. A married couple (played by Moss and Duplass) on the verge of a split go to a secluded house for the weekend to save their marriage. The two soon find, however, that in the grand tradition of Rod Serling, the estate isn’t what it seems—and neither are they. What elevates the thriller from a gimmick is the nimble writing, which has the feel of a great off-Broadway play. The One I Love dares to ask painful questions about the state of modern relationships. We all want to push our partners to be the best version of themselves, but what would you give up for perfection? —N.L.

4) In the Loop  

Just because the reality of American politics now rivals most political satire in terms of absurdity doesn’t make In the Loop any less sharp or any less brutally funny. Spunoff from director Armando Iannucci’s BBC series The Thick of It—as well as a spiritual predecessor to his HBO creation, Veep—this 2009 Oscar-nominee for best original screenplay depicts a transcontinental struggle between Great Britain and America to prevent an impending war. Starring familiar faces such as Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi and Veep’s Anna Chlumsky, In the Loop is the kind of gem of a movie that hides in plain sight. It’s only gotten more incisive in the years since its release, and you’ll have no idea how you lived without Malcolm Tucker’s wonderfully artful swearing once it enters your life. —C.O.

5) Happy Go-Lucky  

Happy-Go-Lucky is nothing short of a miracle. Directed by Mike Leigh, the film was developed through the British auteur’s trademark method of workshopping the script with his actors. From Another Year to Secrets and Lies, Leigh’s films appear to take place on the fly, as if we’ve dropped into the lives of other people by accident. But that description masks how meticulously crafted and profound they are. Happy-Go-Lucky is an unbelievably funny meditation on the challenges of optimism, featuring one of the decade’s best performances. Sally Hawkins, who won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of a chipper schoolteacher, makes Poppy an unforgettable creation, the kind of character you hold close to your heart for years. Her ebullient, infectious laugh is worth the price of admission alone. —N.L.

6) We Are the Best!  

There’s nothing quite like a simple story well told. While We Are the Best! doesn’t feel revolutionary at first, this straightforward account of three young girls’ attempt to form a punk band in 1980s Stockholm resonates the more you think about it. From Together director Lukas Moodysson, this 2013 film captures the raptures of first friendships, crushes, and musical obsessions in a way that feels so real, it’s no surprise that it’s based on his wife Coco Moodysson own autobiographical graphic novel. Perhaps that’s why We Are the Best! doesn’t sensationalize or trivialize the experiences of young women the way Hollywood and cinema at large tends to. Although the movie is charming and a lot of fun (similar to this year’s Sing Street), it’s also quietly transgressive. And what’s more punk than that? —C.O.

7) Citizen Ruth  

Citizen Ruth is one of those movies that becomes a sacred object to those who love it, one you’ll force people to watch for years after you find out they haven’t seen it. Although the film received mixed reviews upon release, the 1996 black comedy has aged impressively, a perfect fit for our era of female antiheroes. When it comes to unlikable female leads, Ruth Stoops is a doozy: A pregnant sociopath with an addiction to huffing paint, she manipulates every person with whom she comes into contact. But as she finds, that goes both ways. Through a series of wacky misadventures (are there any other kind?), her pregnancy becomes a cause celebre among both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. This gives first-time director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) a chance to do some searing bipartisan skewering, but it wouldn’t work without Laura Dern’s fearlessly funny performance. —N.L.

8) Exit Through the Gift Shop  

Is it an elaborate prank or a piece of high performance art? Is it an inviting work of genius, or is it subtly poking fun at everyone who views it? These questions apply to both Exit Through the Gift Shop as a work of art and to the art world the film depicts. Directed by the ever-enigmatic Banksy, this documentary begins as a co-exploration of the street art movement, and the French shopkeeper who sought to capture it, Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash). But when Banksy decides halfway through the movie that Thierry might not be, so to speak, the ideal candidate to make the definitive movie on this movement, Exit Through the Gift Shop’s narrative takes an unexpected turn. The film eventually becomes a meditation on the idea of authenticity in an art culture that is increasingly commercialized. If that sounds too esoteric for you, don’t worry, Exit Through the Gift Shop is also riotously funny and at times utterly unbelievable. —C.O.

9) Iris  

A movie about fashion icon Iris Apfel should be as fabulous as her extraordinary life. On that front, Albert Maysles’ film is a smashing success. The legendary filmmaker has a way with larger-than-life subjects. With his late brother, David, Maysles directed Grey Gardens, the acclaimed documentary about a pair of faded socialites living in a condemned house in the Hamptons. In the film’s most famous scene, Little Edie Beale models her “revolutionary costume for the day,” a bathing suit with a makeshift headwrap and an American flag. Like Edie, Iris was a one-woman trailblazer, someone who refused to be defined by convention. The force-of-nature is a lively presence on screen, but Iris has a quiet poignancy to it, as the aging icon deals with the daily realities of growing old. Iris is so dazzlingly pleasurable that you might not realize how touching this love letter to oddballs everywhere truly is. —N.L.

10) Room 237  

Do you like movies? Better yet, are you obsessed with movies? What about one movie, specifically? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you have qualified as a prime candidate for watching Room 237. One of the most original documentaries of the past few years, director Rodney Ascher's exploration of fan theories swirling around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a testament to the power of cinema to captivate and consume. Native Americans, the moon-landing, and more fall in the crosshairs of various Shining truthers whom Ascher allows to expound on their theories at length here. What’s great about Room 237 is that it does not endorse any of these theories, although Ascher uses an objective style, so as not to condemn any of them either. Instead, the movie offers a meditation on how we project our own desires and politics into cinema. It’s essential viewing for movie buffs. —C.O.

11) Nightcrawler  

Jake Gyllenhaal might not be the best living actor, but he is certainly the hardest working. Since 2011’s Source Code, it would be difficult to find someone with a more diverse array of challenging roles—from the explosive boxing drama Southpaw (for which Gyllenhaal famously hulked up) to more sinuous work in Prisoners and Nightcrawler. In the latter, the 35-year-old actor particularly gets under the skin as Louis Bloom, a self-taught cameraman determined to make it in the news entertainment business. Louis gets a job working as a stringer for a producer, Nina (Rene Russo), working the graveyard shift of the lowest-rated network in Los Angeles. Bloom is willing to do anything to get the story, and desperate for ratings, Nina doesn’t realize the monster she’s creating to get it. Directed by Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy), Nightcrawler is a satire of our news media culture so spot-on you may need to shower after. —N.L.

12) Bronson  

Director of Drive and the upcoming The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s penchant for exploring themes of masculinity and violence may have reached its peak with this 2008 British film based on the story of the man oft thought to be the country’s most violent prisoner. In Bronson, 19-year-old Michael Peterson is sentenced to seven years behind bars for robbing a post office. He ends up serving 34, three decades of which he carries out in solitary confinement. During this time, Peterson adopts the alter ego of Charles Bronson (yes, like the actor), and the story only gets weirder from there. The center of it all is Tom Hardy in a performance that’s like watching a star about to go supernova. —C.O.

13) Tangerine  

So many movies are given infinite resources and still manage to feel so miniscule that they might as well not even exist. Sean Baker’s Tangerine, however, is a testament to how much filmmakers can achieve with very little. Shot on an iPhone, the movie cost relative pennies to make, but Tangerine is a hypnotic, extraordinary film about the friendship between two sex workers. That bond is tested over the course of a very long day, and the plot’s simplicity masks its power. After finding out her boyfriend isn’t faithful, Sin-Dee (Kiki Rodriguez) goes off on a quest to locate his mistress. Meanwhile, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) prepares for a performance at a local club. Filmed on a stretch of Santa Monica known as a nexus of prostitution in the city, Tangerine captures the feel of Los Angeles better than any film I’ve ever seen. It’s simultaneously stylish, low-key, and groundbreaking in its authentic depiction of life on the streets. —N.L.

14) I Am Love  

Where do you even start with I Am Love? There’s director Luca Guadagnino’s luscious visual palette, obviously. There’s Tilda Swinton doing classic Tilda Swinton (right before the chameleonic actor became a household name). But most importantly, there’s the overwhelming sense that camp has never been taken so seriously as it was in this 2010 Italian stunner. Receiving a much-deserved Oscar nod for best costume design, everything about this movie is gorgeously over the top. Like the very clothes she lives her life in, the story of Swinton’s Emma Recchi, who experiences love and loss amidst Italy’s upper crust, is fabulous, gorgeous, sumptuous, and completely unsubtle. But it also never blinks, and it’s that blind commitment to its own self-importance that makes I Am Love such a unique watch. —C.O.

15) The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover  

British director Peter Greenaway’s most famous film was also his most controversial, and this orgiastic feast of sex, betrayal, and cannibalism is just as incendiary today as when it was released. Filmed entirely on a stage, The Cook, The Wife, The Thief, and Her Lover envelops with a rich, painterly lusciousness, and this is not happenstance. The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company, by the Dutch artist Frans Hals, looms in the background of the film; the movie shares its color scheme—sable juxtaposed with a shocking scarlet. Everything about the film is a jolt to the senses, one that’s thrillingly alive. It’s also memorable for Helen Mirren’s ferocious turn as an unfaithful wife determined to get vengeance for the death of her lover. The film’s gruesome twist shouldn’t be spoiled, and it might not be to everyone’s tastes. But for the right kind of viewer, the meal is bloody delicious. —N.L.

16) Velvet Goldmine  

It does Todd Haynes a disservice to think of him merely as a master of queer cinema, because Haynes is simply a master filmmaker—period. Nevertheless, questions about identity often play a big role in Haynes’ movies. In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes explores what happens one’s persona overshadows who that person actually was. The film centers around a journalist (Christian Bale) who sets out to explore the relationship between between famed ‘70s rock stars Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), as well as his own relationship with music. Aliens, Oscar Wilde, Reagan-era politics, references to Citizen Kane and 1984, and a mysterious green broach are prominently featured in a film that equates homosexuality with an otherworldly kind of magic. But the plot isn’t the point of this movie. Velvet Goldmine is a feast for the eyes and ears, and finds the music-obsessed, visually masterful Haynes working in a frenetic energy, which he would largely turn over for a more restrained, subtle directing approach later in his career. —C.O.

17) Carmen Jones  

The great Otto Preminger had a long and varied career. The Austrian director is best known for taut thrillers like Angel Face, Bunny Lake Is Missing, and Laura, with the latter ranking among cinema’s greatest film noirs. (It’s certainly the best movie ever made about a guy who wants to pork a painting.) Carmen Jones, though, shows what a marvelously eclectic director Preminger could be. The film reimagines Bizet’s classic opera as a musical drama with a nearly all-black cast, which would still sadly be a landmark achievement today. Its success heralded the rise to stardom of Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American woman ever nominated in the best picture category at the Oscars, as well as the remixing of genres that would later lead to the ‘70s blaxploitation era. The film remains so influential that Beyoncé remade it twice: both as a Super Bowl commercial and an MTV film. —N.L.

18) Tell No One  

The sophomore feature from French writer/director/actor Guillaume Canet, probably better known stateside as Marion Cotillard’s baby-daddy, Tell No One is the kind of sophisticated, Hitchcockian thriller they simply don’t make anymore—at least not in the U.S. Luckily, the French are there to pick up the slack. Starring François Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral)—as flawless in French as the British actress is in English—the movie features a fairly straightforward take on the archetypal “wrong man” plot. However, there are enough shocking twists and turns along the way to keep even the most astute viewer guessing. And for anyone who thinks of foreign films as “boring” or “inaccessible,” Tell No One is the perfect blend of entertainment and intellect to change your mind. —C.O.

19) The Guest

Adam Wingard has carved out a niche for himself as the maestro of movies that shouldn’t work. First there was You’re Next, in which an Australian warrior woman makes mincemeat of a group of masked attackers. His movies are absurd yet absurdly entertaining, pitched at just the right level of camp. The Guest may prove the idiosyncratic director’s master stroke. In the horror-thriller, a soldier named David (Dan Stevens) visits the family of a fallen comrade to send his regrets. They invite him to stay. It slowly becomes clear, however, that David is not who he says he is. Stevens, best known for his stint on Downton Abbey, is a commanding presence on screen, and Wingard gets incredible mileage out of the film’s ‘80s-tinged aesthetic, reminiscent of Drive and Donnie Darko. Not everything in the movie works, but when The Guest gets the kitsch to creep ratio exactly right, the movie cuts deep. —N.L.

20) We Need to Talk About Kevin  

I know what you’re thinking: school shooting movie, pretty tough sell. Well, you’re not wrong. But We Need to Talk About Kevin is worth watching for how it subverts the genre. From the always bold Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher), the film tracks the relationship between Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), from his birth to the incident in question. We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn’t pull its punches: Kevin is naturally disturbing and unsympathetic, and Eva is wary of him from a young age. Was Kevin always the way he was, or was it is mother’s inability to love him that made him that way? And more importantly, should Eva have been a mother to begin with? Some people aren’t meant to be parents. Those are the probing questions Ramsey asks in We Need to Talk About Kevin, ones made all the more haunting by a final scene where mother and son are forced to finally come together, having no one else left to turn to. —C.O.

21) Queen of Earth  

Alex Ross Perry does not make movies about people you would like to spend time with. His breakout feature, Listen Up Philip, is about a narcissistic writer (Jason Schwartzman) who spends the entire film alienating everyone. It’s a good film, acidic in its insights about human behavior, and his follow-up is even better. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane called Queen of Earth a film for “anyone who thinks that there are too many warm hugs in Strindberg,” but that overestimates the movie’s tenderness. No one in Queen of Earth has even heard of a hug. Like Gena Rowlands before her, Elisabeth Moss plays Catherine, a woman on the edge of collapse. She used to work for her father, a famous artist, but he has passed away. During a retreat at a lake house, her relationship with her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston), rapidly unravels as Catherine’s sanity slips away. Moss’s performance is as spellbinding as the movie. —N.L.

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6 of the best classic movies you can now stream on Netflix
Given its assembly line of new and original TV shows and films, it's easy to forget that you can also watch some of the best classic movies of all time on Netflix.  The current lineup available to stream includes notable titles from directors Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman. Whether you prefer heist films, World War II dramas, sci-fi, or adaptations of dystopian literature, there's something here for everyone.
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