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.
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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
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailers/YouTube (Fair Use)
2) 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.
3) 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.
4) 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.
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.
6) 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.
Screengrab via ENTRTNMNT/YouTube (Fair Use)
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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. —Nico Lang
8) 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.
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.
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.
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.
12) 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.
13) 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
14) 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.
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15) 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.
16) 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.
17) 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.
18) 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.
19) 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 Schwartzman, 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.
20) Don’t Think Twice
Although it was a hit with critics, Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice failed to become the crossover hit it should’ve in 2016. Using improv specifically to tell a story about the highs and lows of being a creative person in general, Birbiglia has made a mini-masterpiece, sure to resonate with anyone who has tried (and failed) to put their talent on display for the world to see. The film also gives us another powerhouse performance from Gillian Jacobs, who continues to be spectacular at playing damaged, complicated characters. —C.O.
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailers/YouTube (Fair Use)
21) 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.
Christopher Nolan’s crafty 2000 thriller is an early indication of future brilliance. It’s also refreshingly small compared to the blockbusters he would go on to make later in his career. Told backwards, Memento stars Guy Pearce as Leonard, a man with anterograde amnesia, a condition that erases short-term memory. Upon first viewing, the structure and the twist ending are enough to blow you away. But Memento is worth coming back to for its performances and philosophical themes. If you can’t remember the things you do, how do you know who you really are? —C.O.
Screengrab via LionsgateVOD/YouTube (Fair Use)
Milk is a sad movie because it shows you how hard the gay rights movement had to fight for the most basic respect. It’s a sad movie because the rights that were being fought for are still too often unrecognized in this country today. It’s a sad movie because Harvey Milk gave his life for what he believed in, and anytime a good man dies fighting for something he believes in, those that would carry on their fight must naturally mourn first. But it’s not an entirely sad movie, because Harvey Milk also lived a life worth celebrating. —C.O.
Screengrab via UniversalMovies/YouTube (Fair Use)
Beginners is not based on the story of a person who changed the world or even received national attention. Instead, it’s a more intimate and personal true-life tale, inspired by the relationship between the movie’s director and his dad. Filmmaker Mike Mills’ elderly father came out as gay following the death of Mills’ mother and just five years before his own passing. This relationship is depicted onscreen by Ewan McGregor, playing the gloomy Oliver, and Christopher Plummer, whose performance as Oliver’s frail but newly adventurous father Hal earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The movie also contains a great turn by Inglorious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent, playing Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, whose as instrumental in Oliver’s journey as his father is, not to mention one of the best dog performances of the past couple years (looking at you here, Cosmo). Heartbreaking but also life-affirming, Beginners is an onscreen reminder that it’s never too late for any of us to start living our truth. —C.O.
Screengrab via MovieClips/YouTube (Fair Use)
25) Little Sister
It’s strange that Little Sister’s examination of Bush-era politics should feel so distant; the country has changed a lot in just under 10 years, and what once felt like national crises almost feel quanit in comparison today. Yet Little Sister’s greatest triumphs are interpersonal, not political. It’s a film about relationships, about how people deal with loss and trauma, about how people change while also somehow staying the same. This 2016 indie dramedy from Zach Clark was too little seen at the box office. Perhaps the premise, revolving around a goth nun who returns home after her Iraq war hero brother is disfigured in combat, was simply to kitschy for some people. But Little Sister is more than quirk or weirdness; it’s a lovely little character piece that is well-acted and smartly written, proving that Clark is a talent to watch. Plus, “goth nun”… come on, you’re kind of interested now, right? —C.O.
26) Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach is having an incredibly prolific late career—churning out Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Mistress America, Margot at the Wedding, and While We’re Young in an amazing decade-long stretch. During that span, he also made Frances Ha, a riff on Annie Hall as seen through the lens of Godard, Truffaut, and the masters of the French New Wave. Instead of watching a couple slowly drift apart, Baumbach tracks the dissolution of a best friendship between Frances (Greta Gerwig in her star-making role) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner). It’s not only a lovely Woody Allen homage but one of cinema’s best portraits of millennial disaffection to date. —N.L.
27) Y Tu Mamá También
Back in the days when video stores were still a thing, I rented Y Tu Mamá También on a recommendation from a friend, not knowing what it was about. Given that it had “Mama” in the title, I figured that meant it was family-friendly and invited my mother to watch it with me. (Cut me some slack; I was 14 and really, really dumb.)
If you’re familiar with the plot of Y Tu Mamá También, you’re aware that decision was a big mistake: The 2001 Mexican-set drama is about a steamy love triangle between Tenoch (Diego Luna); his best friend, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal); and his cousin’s wife, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), who is dying of cancer. She accepts an invitation with them to go on a road trip to see a secret beach known as “Heaven’s Mouth,” and their journey quickly turns into a tangled mess of erotic fantasy.
The funny thing is that both my mother and I ended up adoring it—although for very different reasons. She liked how boisterous Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-nominated screenplay was (loaded with playful, scatalogical banter between carmates), and I enjoyed the film’s sexual politics, with the movie set against a time of governmental and social upheaval. This is a time in Mexican society when Tenoch and Julio’s gay male friends have boyfriends, which makes the pair’s own erotic encounter all the more dangerous.
Fifteen years after its release, Y Tu Mamá También remains a one-movie sexual revolution. Watch it with someone nice and stay inside with a bottle of wine. —N.L.
28) Moonrise Kingdom
If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson movie before, you know what to expect here. It’s quirky, it’s got snappy dialog, the images are rendered with painterly precision. But what separates Moonrise Kingdom from his other work is its depiction of childhood. Leads Sam and Suzy are not precocious or pandering, and their relationship is nuanced and honest, despite Anderson’s usual quirks. Just as he humanized high schoolers in Rushmore, Anderson again proves he has more respect for young people than most Hollywood filmmakers. -C.O.
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailers/YouTube (Fair Use)
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser, Riley Stearns’ Faults is in some ways a lot like Winstead’s 2016 thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Both take place in confined spaces, and both explore explore the terrifying power dynamics of captor/hostage relationships. The difference is that in 2014’s Faults, you’re never quite sure who that power belongs to. Orser plays Ansel, an expert on cults who has been hired by the parents of Winstead’s character, Claire, to rescue her from an organization that shares a name with the movie’s title. But after abducting her and trying to break whatever mind control spell Claire has supposedly fallen under, Ansel soon realizes that she is not like the other victims he’s “rescued.” Everyone is great in this movie, from the supporting players to the leads, but it’s Winstead who delivers a powerhouse performance unlike anything else she’s done before or since. —C.O.’
30) The Mend
Josh Magary’s The Mend is an unconventional story about the relationship between two brothers. After an extended introduction, Mat (Josh Lucas) shows up at a party hosted by Alan (Stephen Plunkett) and his fiancée, Farrah (Frances Ha’s Mickey Sumner.) The timing is strange, as Alan and Farrah are going out of town the next day. This seems like the perfect opportunity for Mat, who is virtually homeless, to crash for awhile. He invites his girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Own) over and they settle in, but they’re quickly interrupted as Alan ends up coming home early and without Farrah. What ensues is several days of drinking and debauchery, all mixed with a strange combination of sibling rivalry and affection. It’s hard to say what The Mend is about or what the point of the movie is, but it’s a strange, captivating, messy, and enticing piece of work nevertheless. —C.O.
Editor’s note: This article is updated regularly for relevance.
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