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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
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.
Noah Baumbach has successfully usurped Woody Allen’s title as the greatest living director of New York comedies. His latest love letter to the Big Apple comes in the form of The Merowitz Stories (New and Selected), a thoughtful meditation on the challenge of letting the pain caused by a parent go. Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz is an aging sculptor, largely overlooked in his time. His children, played respectively by Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Elizabeth Marvel, are all semi-dysfunctional, thanks to Harold’s over or under-involved parenting. As a comedy, it certainly isn’t a laugh riot, but it absolutely leaves an impression. —C.O.
4) Boogie Nights
Several Paul Thomas Anderson films from this century (There Will Be Blood, The Master) are so routinely referred to as masterpieces that one can almost forget he had a career before the year 2000. But not only was Anderson as a much a product of the ‘90s indie explosion as fellow auteurs Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, he debatably made the best film out of all of them with 1997’s Boogie Nights. It’s a sprawling, multifaceted depiction of the porn industry in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The rise and fall of Dirk Diggler proved to be a coming-out moment for star Mark Wahlberg too, not to mention a brief redemption for Oscar-nominated supporting actor Burt Reynolds, working alongside many of Anderson’s usual players, who all give career highlight performances. The music, the setting, the acting, the story: Boogie Nights is an American story unlike any other. —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.
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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
Ennui, violation, ham-fisted vengeance: It all comes together in Macon Blair’s directorial debut, starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as two amateur detectives looking for justice in a world gone mad. —Audra Schroeder
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 minuscule 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) To the Bone
It may be hard to convince yourself sit down for a harrowing story about a young woman’s struggle with anorexia. Despite To the Bone’s dour subject matter, Marti Noxon’s script has enough humor to act as a release valve. The performances from lead actress Lily Collins to supporting players Alex Sharp, Keanu Reeves, Retta, and Lily Tomlin are great. The story is based on Noxon’s past experiences and that comes through in the intimate and empathetic approach she takes. —E.S.
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 the 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 Twicefailed 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.
21) 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 what makes Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 comedy and its 2014 sequel, The Trip to Italy, 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. But 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. —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 backward, 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.
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.
24) Before Midnight
Midnight is probably the hardest film to watch in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but it’s also probably the best. Released nine years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, Before Midnight finds Celine and Jesse, the couple at the trilogy’s center, having moved past adolescent romance and youthful desire into middle-aged love… or something like it. The film suggests that ennui, complacency, and resentment are as much a part of growing old with someone as all that “happily ever after” stuff.” But in making Celine and Jesse an actual couple, it also finds a surprising beauty in its realism. —C.O.
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 quaint 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.
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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 to go on a road trip with them 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, scatological 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.
Phoenix follows disfigured Holocaust survivor Nelly, who returns home with a brand new face to live in a country she no longer recognizes. This may sound heavy, but the film is also quietly pulpy, wearing cinematic influences like Vertigo on its sleeve. As Nelly becomes entangled with the man she used to love—and who may have betrayed her—the movie weaves a tight web that eventually collapses in a devastating final scene. It may be the best foreign language noir in years. —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.
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After learning about the news of Princess Diana’s death, a shy waitress discovers a metal box belonging to a boy who used to live in her apartment. Upon returning it to him she strives to better the lives of people around her in a series of elaborate schemes, and in the process, she ends up procuring some happiness in her own life in true romantic comedy fashion. —Michelle Jaworski
32) Force Majeure
In the aftermath of an avalanche, a wife accuses her husband of trying to save himself over his own family as the audience gets a raw and sometimes uncomfortable look at a marriage on the brink of falling apart. It’s a gripping character drama, and there’s even a familiar face in Game of Thrones’s Kristofer Hivju. —M.J.
Based on the Japanese manga, conspiracy and violence are close to the surface as a man is released from a prison cell 15 years after being kidnapped. He’s given money, clothes, a phone, and has a thirst for revenge against the person who kept him captive all those years. —M.J.
34) Little Evil
Evil comes home to roost in Eli Craig’s horror-comedy Little Evil, which follows a stepdad (played by Adam Scott) and his complicated relationship with his stepson, who happens to be the Antichrist. Fun times. I don’t mean that sarcastically. Despite a few tense moments, the movie is more comedy than horror. Craig takes a tired premise and injects life (and plenty of jokes) into it. Aside from Scott, the pitch-perfect cast also includes Evangeline Lilly, Bridget Everett, Donald Faison, and Chris D’Elia. —Eddie Strait
35) City of God
This 2002 Brazilian film about growing up under corruption, poverty, and violence in Rio de Janeiro moves as fast as a Martin Scorsese gangster movie despite containing enough tragedy for 10 depressing documentaries. Director Fernando Meirelles (with help from co-director Kátia Lund) imbues the film with such a sense of gritty realism, it could only be based on real-life experiences. At the same time, the film is so highly stylized, it’s also a cinematic experience, whether you watch it at home or in a theater. Instead of being buried under the weight of these contradictions, City of God thrives on them. For anyone interested in doing a deep dive, check out City of God: 10 Years Later, a documentary about the lives of the film’s young actors, which is also on Netflix. Beware though, the follow-up is almost as emotionally draining as the first go-around —C.O.
Still not sure what to watch tonight? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and comedy specials when you really need to laugh.
Editor’s note: This article is updated regularly for relevance.
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