We’ve all made the mistake of firing up Netflix with the intention to “just find something to watch.” Fast forward to 30 minutes later and you’re still searching.
It’s the virtual equivalent of getting lost in the woods. The stakes may be nonexistent on the Netflix walkabout, but the lost time is real. As a woodsman, I’m nearly incompetent, but as a Netflix nomad I’ve emerged from the forest with 20 great recommendations—surely enough to save you from the abyss.
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Here are the 20 best movies you can stream on Netflix right now.
If you’re burnt out on Steven Spielberg’s recent run of historical dramas, there’s no better antidote than E.T. It reminds you why you love movies in the first place—swooshing drama, humanist optimism, and one of the most nostalgic, heartbreaking endings of the last 40 years. It’s also an essential primer for Spielberg’s upcoming The BFG.
2) Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder is a pantheon filmmaker who isn’t the household name he deserves to be. All of his powers are on display in this 1950 Hollywood satire. Wilder’s films are often darker than an empty back lot, but they’re film-school staples for a reason.
3) The Truman Show
It took me longer than it should have to recognize the genius of this movie. I’ve caught it on cable a handful of times over the last few years and now I can’t turn away from it. Jim Carrey's first career masterwork is prescient in a way that’s unsettling in our current state of reality TV, but the thing that makes it timeless is its humanity.
4) The World of Tomorrow
Don Hertzfeldt makes beautiful movies that get way darker than you expect from an animated project. His stripped-down style often features stick figures, but his work is as ambitious as anything the major studios release. It’s only 16 minutes to boot, so if you like what you see here make time for his longer work, It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
5) Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino has to be the leader in the clubhouse as the most copied filmmaker of the last 25 years and with good reason. His dialogue has defined and given voice to a generation. Whether that’s good or bad, you just can’t argue with sprawling epics like Pulp Fiction.
6) Scream 2
Speaking of '90s movies that inspired way too many knockoffs, Scream revitalized the slasher genre long past its expiration date. Netflix doesn’t have the original, but that’s OK because the sequel is just as good. Scream 2 set a gold standard for sequels before Scr3am and Scre4m came along to erase all that good work.
7) The Good, the Bad, and the Weird
South Korea’s cinematic output in the 2000s is staggering. Directors like this film’s Kim Jee-woon, along with Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-Ho, and Lee Chang-dong delivered a dense wormhole of modern classics. This riff on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is funny, violent, and the action is impossibly good.
It’s hard to remember a time before Shia Labeouf was an insufferable agitator, but movies are nothing if not time capsules. Holes doesn’t dumb itself down for kids and it doesn’t get so silly that it loses older viewers. Fun for the whole family—seriously.
9) World’s Greatest Dad
This one is for the more cinematically adventurous. It’s a comedy so dark it would make Billy Wilder proud. Robin Williams gives a grand performance as a failed writer who finds fame after writing a fake suicide note to cover up the real reason for his despicable son’s death. It will rewards viewers willing to go out on a limb.
10) The Imposter
Documentaries like this prove that real life will always be stranger than fiction. It’s about a man who pretends to be children. Specifically, it recounts his attempt to assume the identity of a missing Texas teenager. The imposter lives with the family for a while before he’s found out, but more the truth comes out the more bizarre the story becomes.
11) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
This is a film based on the real-life account of a man who suffered a debilitating stroke and went on to publish a memoir. Director Julian Schnabel does a miraculous job of making you feel every bit of the main character’s condition, but as the movie goes on its world opens up. A movie about a paralyzed man whose only way of communicating is blinking his left eye shouldn’t feel this alive.
12) Tell No One
Harlan Coben is one of America’s most popular mystery writers. He’s renowned for his byzantine plots that deliver the goods more often than not. For some reason that popularity hasn’t led to much in the way of American adaptations, but this French take on one of Coben’s top-shelf books is a crackling work.
13) Drug War
Johnnie To has 66 directing credits on his IMDB page. He’s 61 years old. That kind of prolificacy is as impressive as it is exhausting. Don’t let his age fool you. Drug War is action filmmaking of the highest order.
14) Jurassic Park
The sequels remain less important than the life of a Jurassic Park construction worker, but the 1993 original is every bit as spiraling, tense, and inventive as it was then. And when the sports-utility vehicles come off the track, and the T-rex gets to eating the lawyer, you best have the popcorn handy.
15) Princess Bride
Like you, I've put off seeing this Princess Bride's reputation is as impeccable as it gets, so there’s not much to say about the 1987 comedy. The main reason I’m putting it here is so that I’ll feel the appropriate amount of shame and be compelled to watch it this weekend—and you should too.
16) The Emperor’s New Groove
I fire up this movie fairly often under the guise of putting it on for my sons. It’s an obvious ploy. They’re both under three and have neither the time nor inclination to watch anything without Elmo. But they’re helpless when I start Emperor and put the remote on the top shelf—kid tested and sturdy, this underrated Disney hit is forever.
17) Boogie Nights
Paul Thomas Anderson is well represented on Netflix. There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, and The Master are all available and all worthy of your time. If there’s such a thing as a less divisive PTA film, Boogie Nights is it. The film and its maker are legends so it’s best you make sure you're hip to it.
18) Beyond the Lights
The perfect movie for people clamoring that “they don’t make them like they used to” or those who bemoan the lack of diversity in Hollywood. This is a throwback romance about two people who find each other at the exact right time. The movie was criminally ignored by audiences when it came out in 2014, but those who have seen it love it.
19) His Girl Friday
Screwball comedies are hard as hell to pull off and His Girl Friday is still the gold standard 76 years after its original release. The dialogue is as spry as ever and the chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is as electric as a Tinder hookup.
20) Short Term 12
This film marks the jump-on point for the Brie Larson bandwagon. It's primarily set in a group home; before you jump to the conclusion that it’ll be depressing, it’s a movie that navigates its darker waters well and offers enough hope to make it a rewarding experience.
Editor's note: This article is regularly updated for relevancy.