23 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) Boyhood

There’s not a lot to say about Boyhood that hasn’t already been said. It’s a masterpiece, an experience unlike any other, and one of the best movies of the century so far. Champion of the understated, director Richard Linklater casually follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to college, checking in with his actors as they aged over a 12-year shooting process. In the Linklater way, he eschews grand, life-changing moments in favor of the everyday business of just living, the film becomes extraordinary in its ordinariness. This is one person’s story, and the beauty in it is that the narrative never focuses on anything other than that person becoming himself—which is, of course, both one of the most ordinary and the most beautiful things anyone can ever achieve. To say that Boyhood works only as an experiment would be shortsighted, because while it does work as an experiment, it works as a complete and profound work of art on its own too. —Chris Osterndorf

3) The Invitation

If you missed 2016’s twisty The Invitation, you’re not alone. But you’re also in for a treat. Karyn Kusama’s thriller about a group of friends at a dinner party is simplistic in premise but precise in execution. It’s a movie so intimate, so perfectly claustrophobic, you’ll feel, almost like the characters in the movie, trapped by a kind of relentless dread while watching it. As the plot unfurls and the party stretches on, secrets and ulterior motives are revealed, all the way up to a breathtaking climax. Intense as the experience is, you may immediately want to watch it again, if not because it’s great then at least to make sure you got everything. —C.O.

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) The Trip/The Trip to Italy

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have taken a long trip with a close friend. During the course of said trip, you probably had some laughs, saw some sights, ate some food, and occasionally, got on each other's nerves. That's is what makes Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 comedy and its 2014 sequel such delights. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves, and their dynamic is jokey and light-hearted yet competitive. As Coogan and Brydon make their way first around the English countryside, and then around Italy’s, they spend a lot of time looking at their own lives, and attempting to tackle the big questions. It’s also fascinating how from movie to movie, one man will be up, and the other down, and then it’ll shift, as real life is also apt to do when it comes to close friendships. However, these movies are never more at ease than when they are simply letting the two men riff in their own language, as close friends do. You’ll want to go on more adventures with Coogan and Brydon, and fortunately, since a Trip to Spain is on the way, you’ll soon be able to. —C.O.

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) Victoria

Shot entirely in one take, Victoria, like Boyhood, could be accused of being a gimmick movie. But when the so-called “gimmick” is executed this effectively and thrillingly, who cares? Taking place over a single night in Berlin, the film follows the titular Victoria (Laia Costa) as she falls in love, commits a crime, loses everything, and then gains it back. German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper crams a lot into two hours and 18 minutes, but one of the best things about Victoria is that it still pauses to take the occasional breath. These quiet moments are what makes the film so impressive and help it transcend whatever gimmicky expectations audiences might have. —C.O.

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) Meek’s Cutoff

I’ve written about this movie elsewhere, so I’ll try to keep my thoughts here brief. Meek’s Cutoff is infuriating but imposing, and no matter what reaction you have to it, it’s likely to be a strong one. But it’s movies that elicit a strong reaction that are also the most worth watching. This western from Kelly Reichardt, one of the most important voices in American indie film, is an unshakeable piece of commentary on the history of America and an incomparable piece of modern filmmaking. Meek’s Cutoff is a must-watch for cinephiles who haven’t found the time yet. —C.O

16) The Babadook

Nothing says horror like a funny-sounding Australian children’s book. No, really, I’m not being sarcastic. Although the more supernatural elements of Jennifer Kent’s 2017 Aussie flick don’t enter into the story until later in the film, the whole thing is pretty horrifying from the get-go. Consider that even before the Babadook enters her life, leading lady Amelia (a superb Essie Davis) is facing another monster on a daily basis: her son. There have been movies about problem children before, but few have been both as annoying and as terrifying as Samuel. But when the movie really gets going, the audience's sympathies start to shift and Amelia becomes the scary one, all before arriving at a conclusion that makes astute statements about loss and motherhood. —C.O.

17) The Double

There’s a myriad of influences on display in Richard Ayoade’s The Double. David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam: It’s all there. And still, Ayoade manages to create something that feels all its own. Choosing to adapt Dostoevsky for your sophomore feature is no easy task, but Ayoade steps up and then some. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as a hapless government worker whose life gets better and then much, much worse when his exact look-alike shows up, this dark comedy is an absurdist fever dream that heralds Ayoade’s arrival as a major talent to watch. —C.O.

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.

22) Blue Is the Warmest Color

Steeped in controversy upon its release (and for good reason,) Blue Is the Warmest color is nevertheless a nearly unparalleled achievement in 21st-century filmmaking. Discussions about male gaze and directorial ethics are sure to follow many people's viewing, but we also don’t get many epic, three-hour lesbian love stories. There are elements of Blue Is the Warmest Color that still feel essential, if for no other reason than that we need more of what the film gets right, even while needing less of what it gets wrong. And of course, there are the performances from lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, who rightfully became the first actors ever to be awarded the Palme d’Or when the film premiered at Cannes. Playing the two halves of young couple Emma and Adèle, Blue Is the Warmest Color’s leading ladies are both so good, it’s not just that they have created an indelible cinematic love story—it’s as if they’ve reinvented the cinematic love story itself. —C.O.

23) The Overnight

There should be more movies about sexual fluidity. But in the meantime, we’ve got The Overnight, a sly little Sundance gem from 2015 by up-and-comer Patrick Brice. Aided by a terrific cast (Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwatzman, and Judith Godrèche,) Brice has made the rare comedy about sex that is smart but not preachy. The story centers on two married couples who meet up one night and let their inhibitions run wild. At just under 80 minutes, it’s a total breeze. Smart, funny, and underseen, skip this one if you don’t like sexual humor, but add it to your My List immediately if you do. —C.O.

Editor's note: This article is updated regularly for relevance.

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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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