Sign up for our Watching newsletter to get recommendations on the best films and TV shows to stream and watch, delivered to your inbox.
The sheer volume of films on Netflix — and the site’s less than ideal interface — can make finding a genuinely great movie there a difficult task. To help, we’ve plucked out the 50 best films currently streaming on the service in the United States, updated regularly as titles come and go. And as a bonus, we link to more great movies on Netflix within many of our write-ups below. (Note: Streaming services sometimes remove titles or change starting dates without giving notice.)
‘Glass Onion’ (2022)
The writer and director Rian Johnson follows up his Agatha Christie-style whodunit hit “Knives Out” with this delightfully clever comedy-mystery, featuring the further adventures of the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, still outfitted with neckerchiefs and a deliciously Southern-fried accent). Johnson constructs a “classic detective story with equal measures of breeziness and rigor,” again focusing on the haves and have-nots, as a gang of rich pals (including Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Dave Bautista and Kathryn Hahn) meet up on the isolated island of a Silicon Valley millionaire (Edward Norton). Janelle Monáe, not unlike Ana de Armas in the original, steals the show as the interloper who’s not what she seems. (If you like your mysteries a bit more serious, stream “Side Effects.”)
‘White Noise’ (2022)
The writer and director Noah Baumbach expands his typical small scale into something resembling spectacle — without sacrificing his customary attentiveness to the details of character and dialogue. His protagonists are Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Greta Gerwig), two intellectuals doing their best in the middle of the Reagan era to cling to their progressive principles — and later, their very lives, after their surrounding area is driven into panic and paranoia by an “airborne toxic event.” Don DeLillo’s acclaimed novel of the same name was published in 1985, but you don’t have to read too closely between the lines to see its parallels with current events, particularly as DeLillo’s and Baumbach’s characters stumble into something resembling normal life. Our critic called it “a frequently funny movie that is also utterly in earnest.” (Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” are also on Netflix.)
‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway turn in career-high performances in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name about the 20-year romance between Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), two rough-edged cowboys who meet in the summer of 1963. The men are required, by the times and the expectations of those around them, to hide their love. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana renders their passion, longing and loneliness with clarity and sensitivity; our critic called it a “moving and majestic film.” (For more critically acclaimed international drama, try “Happy as Lazzaro,” “Everybody Knows” or “On Body and Soul.”)
‘Emily the Criminal’ (2022)
The thumbnail summary — “Aubrey Plaza becomes a thief” — conjures up a bone-dry comedy in which her deadpan persona creates ironic friction with the criminal underworld. But “Emily the Criminal” isn’t that movie at all; it’s a “chilly, assured thriller,” a Michael Mann-ish procedural with nary a wink in sight, and it absolutely (albeit surprisingly) works. The writer and director John Patton Ford creates moments of real tension while also giving what feels like an insider’s view of this world of thieves and hustlers. And if Plaza’s turn as a deep-in-debt temp worker trying her hand at life on the margins sounds like novelty casting, think again — she’s spectacular. (For more indie drama, try “Leave No Trace” or “We the Animals.”)
‘Addams Family Values’ (1993)
With Netflix’s new “Wednesday” attracting scores of new fans, it’s a fine time to revisit the O. G.s (Original Goths). Barry Sonnenfeld’s original, 1991 big-screen adaptation of “The Addams Family” (alsostreaming on Netflix) was surprisingly sharp and tasty, thanks in no small part to the leading performances of Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston, who go at the roles of Gomez and Morticia Addams with gusto, playing up both their cheerful morbidity and their gothic sensuality. But this second chapter, released in 1993, is a rare example of a sequel that’s more than equal to the original. The director Barry Sonnenfeld refines his cockeyed comic-strip look and sensibility, Joan Cusack is a screamingly funny addition to the mix and Christina Ricci (sporting the best cinematic deadpan this side of Buster Keaton) turns her Wednesday into a rich comic creation, particularly when she takes over the re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving pageant at camp and burns it to the ground.
‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ (2010)
Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”) helms this unique action/comedy with a zippy graphic-novel aesthetic. Though it’s based on a comic book series and filled with video game-inspired sequences, viewers need not be familiar with either; Wright merely borrows the high-energy visual language of those genres to tell his sweet story more exuberantly and playfully. “Pilgrim” snaps and crackles. A.O. Scott praised its “speedy, funny, happy-sad spirit.” And it’s a “before they were stars” extravaganza, presciently filled with talented young actors (Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Pill, and many more) who were just about to pop. (For more action and comedy, queue up “The Mask of Zorro” and “The Quick and the Dead.”)
Early in his career, the director Mike Nichols scored one of his greatest critical and commercial successes with “Carnal Knowledge,” a savagely funny and brutally candid account of the war between the sexes, as seen through the broken relationships of two men and two women. Near the end of his career, Nichols revisited the subject matter with a similar cast makeup, adapting the play “Closer” by Patrick Marber into a tough four-hander of sexual desire and emotional betrayal. Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts play a full range of ruthlessness, cruelty, sensitivity and brokenness. It’s a challenging movie, but a great one.
‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise joined forces for the first time for this adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story, envisioning a future in which elite police officers use psychic predictions to stop crimes before they happen — which is all well and good until the chief of the unit (Cruise) is accused of a “pre-crime” himself. The premise is clever, mixing action-infused, post-“Matrix” sci-fi with a classic Hitchcockian “wrong man” conflict. It is, per our critic, “a muscular and dense exercise of skill and verve,” but Spielberg also poses thoughtful questions about surveillance and profiling that have grown only more relevant since.
A struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone became a worldwide superstar when he wrote himself the plum role of a C-list boxer who gets a shot at the championship. And it’s a star-making performance, with a vulnerability that the actor shed far too quickly. (This work is closer to Brando than Rambo.) John G. Avildsen directs in a modest, unaffected style that underlines the palooka’s solitude. The supporting cast is stunning, particularly Burgess Meredith’s turn as Rocky’s tough trainer, Mickey, and Talia Shire’s heartbreaking work as Adrian, the painfully shy object of Rocky’s affection. (The first and best of its sequels, “Rocky II,” is also on Netflix.)
‘Shutter Island’ (2010)
Between their best picture-winning collaboration on “The Departed” and the best picture-nominated “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the director Martin Scorsese and the star Leonardo DiCaprio teamed up for this thriller — also adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel. It was generally seen as a castoff, a stylistic exercise allowing the filmmaker to play in the moody genre sandbox of the B-movie masters. But there’s a bleakness to the picture, an existential despair, at which those movies only hinted, particularly in the implications of its shattering closing scenes. DiCaprio shines throughout in a performance of increasing complexity; the more we know about this character, the clearer DiCaprio’s achievement becomes. (Scorsese and DiCaprio’s “The Aviator” is also on Netflix.)
‘Sing Street’ (2016)
The writer and director John Carney combines the nostalgic ’80s coming-of-age story with the big-screen musical in this sweetly nostalgic tale of a wistful Irish kid who imagines that his amateur rock band will get him out of his dingy hometown and into the arms of the perfect girl. The performers are likable, particularly Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as the kid with big dreams, Lucy Boynton as his main squeeze and Jack Reynor as his big brother. And the songs are both exciting and convincingly of their period, particularly the sublime centerpiece musical sequence — an imagined music video in which a great song solves everything.
‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)
Assembling an enviable ensemble cast of hard-boiled character actor types, a movie-savvy young writer and director named Quentin Tarantino shook up the clichés of the heist movie with this blood-soaked cult hit. Telling the story of a jewelry store robbery gone sideways, Tarantino’s clever script skipped over the robbery itself entirely, focusing instead on the assembly of the crew and their frayed nerves at a meet-up afterward. He further kept viewers off-balance with a scrambled chronology that reveals new complexities of plot and character with each scene, resulting in one of the most electrifying debut features of the ’90s indie scene. Our critic praised its “dazzling cinematic pyrotechnics and over-the-top dramatic energy.”
The ’70s Broadway smash harked back to the poodle skirts and leather jackets of the 1950s, and this big screen treatment doesn’t fix what isn’t broken. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John create sparks aplenty as a would-be couple whose summer fling grows a bit more complicated once the school year starts anew. But the plot is not the selling point here. It’s the songs — catchy and energetic numbers like “Greased Lightnin’,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “We Go Together” — and the charismatic cast, which also includes Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Lorenzo Lamas and Frankie Avalon.
‘The Sting’ (1973)
Few onscreen pairings have conveyed affection and camaraderie as effortlessly as that of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and they easily recaptured the magic of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in their second onscreen collaboration (again under the guidance of “Cassidy” director George Roy Hill). Set in the 1930s, this sparkling, comedic con caper finds our handsome heroes mounting a giant operation to swindle a corrupt banker (Robert Shaw), all to the ragtime sounds of Scott Joplin’s piano. There are turns and reversals aplenty, along with endless charm. (For more buddy comedy, stream “The Nice Guys” and “21 Jump Street.”)
‘Road to Perdition’ (2002)
Tom Hanks found a rare opportunity to explore his darker side in this moody adaptation of the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins (itself inspired by the classic manga “Lone Wolf and Cub”). Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan Sr., a Depression-era enforcer for the Irish Mob who must flee his Illinois home with his 12-year-old son when he crosses the erratic son (Daniel Craig) of his longtime boss and father figure (an Oscar-nominated Paul Newman, in one of his final roles). The director Sam Mendes joins his “American Beauty” cinematographer Conrad L. Hall to create a picture that’s both gorgeous and melancholy, pushing past the surface pleasures of its period genre setting with timeless themes of family, morality and mortality. (Hanks’s Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump” is also on Netflix.)
‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996)
The writer and director Cameron Crowe nabbed five Oscar nominations for this charming romantic comedy, notable for its “disarming acting, colorful writing and true generosity of spirit.” One of those nominations was for Tom Cruise, at his very best as Jerry, a slick sports agent whose crisis of conscience changes the way he conducts his work — and by extension, his life. Cuba Gooding Jr. picked up the trophy for best supporting actor for his top-notch turn as Rod, Jerry’s star client, and Regina King is magnificent as Marcee, Rod’s no-nonsense wife. Renée Zellweger’s heart-on-her-sleeve performance as Dorothy, Jerry’s unlikely romantic interest, turned her into a major star. (The similarly funny and truthful “This Is 40” and “Parenthood” are also streaming.)
‘The Conjuring’ (2013)
The director James Wan made his name with the bloody “Saw” movies, but he takes the early 1970s setting of this story to heart, and comes up with a movie that is not just set in that era, but made in its style. He doesn’t want to gross us out — he wants to frighten us with good old-fashioned suspense. And he gets a big assist from his talented cast, particularly Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson’s matter-of-fact ghost hunters and Lili Taylor’s good-hearted mom, who pivots into a possessed monster with scary ease. The performances are convincing enough to bring us along, and it features one of the single best jump-scares in recent memory. (For white-knuckle thrills straight from the ’70s, try “Play Misty for Me.”)
Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams star as members of a strict Orthodox Jewish community whose shared past forcefully returns in this powerful drama from the director Sebastián Lelio (adapting Naomi Alderman’s novel). Ronit (Weisz), estranged from the community, returns following the death of her father and resumes her romance with Esti (McAdams), who has repressed her desires and entered a loveless marriage. Lelio approaches the material matter-of-factly, refusing to either sensationalize or desexualize the relationship; it’s a rare mainstream portrayal of same-sex attraction that considers both emotional and physical attraction on equal footing.
‘My Girl’ (1991)
Those who know Anna Chlumsky only from her wickedly funny (and deliciously foul-mouthed) work on “Veep” may be surprised by this, her debut film, a sweet coming-of-age drama set in the summer of 1972 and released when she was only 11 years old. She stars as Vada, a hypochondriac whose father (Dan Aykroyd) runs the local funeral parlor. Jamie Lee Curtis co-stars as a potential romantic interest for Vada’s dad, while Macaulay Culkin is heartbreaking as Vada’s summer pal, and first kiss.
“Turn the music down,” the neighbor barks. “Don’t make me have to call the cops.” Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) hasn’t even made it to the door of his home in Washington, D.C., but the warning from his new (white) neighbor makes it clear that the old block has changed. But urban gentrification isn’t the only subject of Merawi Gerima’s “challenging, engrossing” debut feature; as Jay reconnects with his neighborhood and its people, stories, sins and childhood traumas bubble back up to the surface, making “Residue” less a conventional narrative than a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the ongoing conversations between past and present.
‘Up in the Air’ (2009)
George Clooney turns in one of his most nuanced performances in this sharp and affecting comedy-drama from the writer and director Jason Reitman ( “Juno”). Clooney uses his movie-star good looks and charisma in service of the supremely confident Ryan Bingham, a man who specializes in being the corporate bad guy (he is brought in to handle the layoffs), but whose confidence slowly deteriorates. Anna Kendrick is pitch-perfect as a young woman who is seeking to streamline their profession, and consequently put him out of a job. Our critic praised this “laugh-infused stealth tragedy.”
When the remains of the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States, were discovered off the shore of Mobile, Ala., in 2019, it was physical evidence of a long-told piece of local lore — an illegal operation, long after such ships were outlawed, five years before emancipation. So this amounted to the excavation of a crime scene, prompting a giant question for the descendants of those victims: What does justice look like? Margaret Brown’s spellbinding documentary asks that question, which opens up many more thornier conversations about history, complicity and legacy. Our critic called it “deeply attentive” and “moving.” (Documentary lovers will also enjoy “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Sr.” )
It’s understandable to look upon a period literary biopic starring Keira Knightley and presume an object of arid stuffiness. But the director Wash Westmoreland gives us anything but — this is a rowdy, ribald picture, about a woman who wrote rowdy, ribald stories. She went from a shy innocent to a proud hedonist, and Westmoreland eagerly takes that journey alongside her. But he also dramatizes her intellectual awakening, and her insistence on being regarded as both a real writer and a full person. Manohla Dargis praised its “light, enjoyably fizzy approach to its subject.”
The phrase “ahead of their time” is bandied about with abandon, but it certainly applies to the 1980s output of Jim Henson, who expanded his reach with non-Muppet, dark fantasy entertainments that were met with critical and commercial indifference but have gained considerable cult followings with the passing years. “The Dark Crystal” was one example; “Labyrinth” is another, a 1986 musical fantasy, made in collaboration with George Lucas, which Henson directed from a screenplay by the Monty Python member Terry Jones. Jennifer Connelly stars as a slightly spoiled teenager who takes a journey into a dark world to rescue her baby brother; David Bowie is unforgettable, scary and seductive as the Goblin King who stands in her way. Our critic deemed it “a remarkable achievement.” (For more of a classic musical vibe, try “White Christmas.”)
This forceful biopic from the director Antonio Campos dramatizes the life and death of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news personality who killed herself on live television in 1974. What was, for years, a grisly footnote in television history is here rendered as a wrenching snapshot of mental illness, thanks to Craig Shilowich’s sensitive screenplay and Rebecca Hall’s stunning work as Chubbuck, a deeply felt turn in which every harsh word and casual slight lands like a body blow.
‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (1975)
The British comedy troupe Monty Python created its funniest, wildest and cult-friendliest feature-length comedy with this uproarious sendup of the legend of King Arthur — and of medieval literature in general, and of big-screen epics. Graham Chapman is the ostensible lead as Arthur, leading his Knights of the Round Table on a quest for the grail, but the plot is merely a clothesline on which to hang blackout sketches and self-aware gags, and there are many. Our critic called it “a marvelously particular kind of lunatic endeavor.” (The similarly irreverent ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ is also on Netflix.)
‘Richard Pryor: Live in Concert’ (1979)
In December of 1978, Richard Pryor took the stage of the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, Calif., and delivered what may still be the greatest recorded stand-up comedy performance in history. It captures the comic at his zenith; his insights are razor-sharp, his physical gifts are peerless, and his powers of personification are remarkable as he gives thought and voice to household pets, woodland creatures, deflating tires and uncooperative parts of his own body. But as with the best of Pryor’s stage work, what’s most striking is his vulnerability. In sharing his own struggles with health, relationships, sex and masculinity, Pryor was forging a path to the kind of unapologetic candor that defines so much of contemporary comedy. (For more classic comedy, stream “The Nutty Professor” and “Fletch.”)
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ (2018)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Old West anthology film is a series of tales of varying length and style, some as brief and simple as jokes, others with the richness and depth of a great short story. Our critic wrote, “It swerves from goofy to ghastly so deftly and so often that you can’t always tell which is which,” and what seems at first like a filmed notebook of ideas and orphans instead becomes something of a workshop; it’s a place for the Coens to try things, experimenting with new styles and moods, while also delivering the kind of dark humor and deliciously ornate dialogue that we’ve come to expect. (The Coens’ “Hail, Caesar!” is also streaming.)
‘Zathura: A Space Adventure’ (2005)
The director Jon Favreau started his career making chatty indies like “Swingers” and is now the go-to guy for Marvel (“Iron Man”) and Disney (“The Lion King”). This family adventure was the bridge he built between those worlds. Based on a 2002 novel by the “Jumanji” author Chris Van Allsburg, it tells a similar story in which children are drawn into the world of a board game that is perhaps too immersive. The special effects are jaw-dropping, and the adventure elements are enthralling (particularly for young audiences), but Favreau’s background in small-scale, character-driven narratives shines through in the sweet and surprisingly moving conclusion. (For more family viewing, try “Paddington” or “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.”)
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (2018)
Barry Jenkins followed up the triumph of his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” with this “anguished and mournful” adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. It is, first and foremost, a love story, and the warmth and electricity Jenkins captures and conveys between stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James is overwhelming. But it’s also a love story between two African Americans in 1960s Harlem, and the delicacy with which the filmmaker threads in the troubles of that time, and the injustice that ultimately tears his main characters apart, is heart-wrenching. Masterly performances abound — particularly from Regina King, who won an Oscar for her complex, layered portrayal of a mother on a mission. (Other Oscar winners on Netflix include “Darkest Hour.”)
‘Men in Black’ (1997)
This “dryly clever” sci-fi/comedy hybrid plays, in many ways, like a sly satire of its star Will Smith’s “Independence Day” from the previous summer, treating an alien invasion not as a doomsday event, but an everyday fact of life — burdened mostly by the inconveniences of bureaucracy. Tommy Lee Jones stars as “Kay,” a longtime member of the agency in charge of tracking and regulating extraterrestrial visitors, while Smith stars as “Jay,” the new recruit who must learn the ropes. The screenplay (by Ed Solomon, a co-writer for “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) knows that the old-pro-meets-young-hotshot setup is a chestnut and treats it with the proper irreverence. And Barry Sonnenfeld’s inventive direction gracefully amplifies the absurdity in every scenario. The result is a rarity: a big-budget tent pole that displays both jaw-dropping effects and a sense of humor. (For more buddy comedy, stream “The Nice Guys” and “21 Jump Street.”)
The British comic actor Steve Coogan — best known for his long-running turns as Alan Partridge and as a fictionalized version of himself in the “Trip” movies and BBC series — made a surprising shift to the serious when he co-wrote and co-starred in Stephen Frears’s adaptation of the nonfiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Judi Dench received a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance (“so quietly moving that it feels lit from within,” per our critic) as the title character, an Irishwoman who is seeking out the son she was forced to give up for adoption a half-century earlier. Coogan (nominated for best screenplay) is the journalist who assists her and uncovers a horrifying story of religious hypocrisy. (For more fact-based drama, queue up “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”)
‘Straight Up’ (2020)
When Todd (James Sweeney) and Rory (Katie Findlay) first meet, they bond over a shared love of “Gilmore Girls.” That show’s rat-tat-tat dialogue, pop culture savvy and unabashed sentimentality are all over this unconventional romantic comedy. Sweeney also wrote and directed, augmenting the normally drab rom-com template with a cornucopia of quirky and unexpected visual flourishes, and his screenplay is painfully astute, displaying an enviable ear for how, with the right partner, the affectations and witticisms of dating give way to confession and vulnerability. ((For more romantic comedy, stream “Notting Hill.”)
‘The Lost Daughter’ (2021)
The actor-turned-filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal writes and directs this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, starring Olivia Colman as a professor on vacation whose strained interactions with a large, unruly American family — particularly a young, stressed mother (Dakota Johnson) — send her down a rabbit hole of her memories, a switch-flip intermingling of past and present. There is a bit of back story to untangle, which turns the film into something like a mystery. But “The Lost Daughter” is mostly noteworthy for its willingness to explore the darkest moments of parenthood, the horrible feeling of giving up and longing for escape. Colman brings humanity and even warmth to a difficult character, while Jessie Buckley beautifully connects the dots as her younger iteration. Our critic calls it “a sophisticated, elusively plotted psychological thriller.” (The Gyllenhaal vehicle “The Kindergarten Teacher” is similarly unnerving.)
‘The Power of the Dog’ (2021)
“I wonder what little lady made these?” Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) asks about the paper flowers created by Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — the first indication of the initial theme of Jane Campion’s new film, an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage. Phil is a real piece of work, and when his brother and ranching partner George (Jesse Plemons) marries Peter’s mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), it brings all of Phil’s resentment and nastiness to the surface as he tries, in multiple, hostile ways, to exert his dominance and display his dissatisfaction. That tension and conflict would be enough for a lesser filmmaker, but Campion burrows deeper, taking a carefully executed turn to explore his complicated motives — and desires in this film of welcome complexity and unexpected tenderness; Manohla Dargis called it “a great American story and a dazzling evisceration of one of the country’s foundational myths.”
The films of the director Robert Greene (including “Bisbee ’17” and “Kate Plays Christine”) live at the intersection of documentary, drama and process, intermingling fact, fictionalization and the difficulties of pursuing that most elusive of goals, truth. That mixture is particularly effective here, as the filmmaker spent three years collaborating with a professional drama therapist and six survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Midwest to create a series of scenes inspired by their experiences — and the considerable emotional fallout that ensued. It’s a deeply moving and blisteringly powerful account of survival and support. (Documentary aficionados may also enjoy “Misha and the Wolves.”)
“She’s a girl from Chicago I used to know,” Irene (Tessa Thompson) says of Clare (Ruth Negga) — a statement that is accurate on the surface but that contains volumes of history, tension and secrets. Irene and Clare are both light-skinned Black women who have made different choices about how to live their lives, but when they reconnect, they are both prompted to reckon with who, exactly, they are. The screenplay and direction by Rebecca Hall (adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel) delicately yet precisely plumbs their psychological depths and wounds, and the sumptuous costumes and immaculate black and white cinematography serve as dazzling counterpoints to what Manohla Dargis called “an anguished story of identity and belonging.”
In this powerful adaptation by the director Dee Rees of the novel by Hillary Jordan, two families — one white and one Black — are connected by a plot of land in the Jim Crow South. Rees gracefully tells both stories (and the larger tale of postwar America) without veering into didacticism, and her ensemble cast brings every moment of text and subtext into sharp focus. Our critic called it a work of “disquieting, illuminating force.” (For more period drama, queue up “The Beguiled” and “Crimson Peak.”)
‘Middle of Nowhere’ (2012)
Ava DuVernay won the directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for this sensitive, thoughtful and moving drama. Our critic Manohla Dargis noted, “she wants you to look, really look, at her characters,” seeing past the clichés and assumptions of so many other movies, as she tells the story of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a young nurse whose husband (Omari Hardwick) is in prison. Ruby dutifully visits, and keeps a candle burning at home, but when a kind bus driver (David Oyelowo) takes a shine to her, she begins to question her choices and allegiances. Corinealdi is a marvelous presence, playing the role with empathy and complexity, and the considerable charisma of Oyelowo — who would team up again with DuVernay for “Selma” — makes her dilemma all the more difficult. (For more drama, queue up “The Swimmers” and “Phantom Thread.”)
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (2020)
The acclaimed stage director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winner to the screen, quite faithfully — which is just fine, as a play this good requires little in the way of “opening up,” so rich are the characters and so loaded is the dialogue. The setting is a Chicago music studio in 1927, where the “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band are meeting to record several of her hits, though that business is frequently disrupted by the tensions within the group over matters both personal and artistic. Davis is superb as Rainey, chewing up her lines and spitting them out with contempt at anyone who crosses her, and Chadwick Boseman, who died in 2020 and won a posthumous Golden Globe best actor award for his performance, is electrifying as the showy sideman, Levee, a boiling pot of charisma, flash and barely concealed rage. A.O. Scott calls the film “a powerful and pungent reminder of the necessity of art.” (For more character-driven drama, check out “The Two Popes” and “High Flying Bird.”)
‘His House’ (2020)
Genre filmmakers have spent the past three years trying (and mostly failing) to recreate the magic elixir of horror thrills and social commentary that made “Get Out” so special, but few have come as close as the British director Remi Weekes’s terrifying and thought-provoking Netflix thriller. He tells the story of two South Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in London, who are placed in public housing — a residence they are forbidden from leaving, which becomes a problem when things start going bump in the night. In a masterly fashion Weekes expands this simple haunted-house premise into a devastating examination of grief and desperation, but sacrifices no scares along the way, making “His House” a rare movie that prompts both tears and goose bumps. (For more horror, queue up “It Follows.”)
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ (2020)
“I’ve always wanted to be in the movies,” Dick Johnson tells his daughter Kirsten, and he’s in luck — she makes them, documentaries mostly, dealing with the biggest questions of life and death. So they turn his struggle with Alzheimer’s and looming mortality into a movie, a “resonant and, in moments, profound” one (per Manohla Dargis), combining staged fake deaths and heavenly reunions with difficult familial interactions. He’s an affable fellow, warm and constantly chuckling, and a good sport, cheerfully playing along with these intricate, macabre (and darkly funny) scenarios. But it’s really a film about a father and daughter, and their lifelong closeness gives the picture an intimacy and openness uncommon even in the best documentaries. It’s joyful, and melancholy and moving, all at once.
‘The Old Guard’ (2020)
Gina Prince-Blythewood’s adaptation of Greg Rucka’s comic book series delivers the expected goods: The action beats are crisply executed, the mythology is clearly defined and the pieces are carefully placed for future installments. But that’s not what makes it special. Prince-Blythewood’s background is in character-driven drama (her credits include “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights”), and the film is driven by its relationships rather than its effects — and by a thoughtful attentiveness to the morality of its conflicts. A.O. Scott deemed it a “fresh take on the superhero genre,” and he’s right; though based on a comic book, it’s far from cartoonish. (Prince-Blythwood’s “Beyond the Lights” is also on Netflix.)
‘Da 5 Bloods’ (2020)
Spike Lee’s latest is a genre-hopping combination of war movie, protest film, political thriller, character drama and graduate-level history course in which four African American Vietnam vets go back to the jungle to dig up the remains of a fallen compatriot — and, while they’re at it, a forgotten cache of stolen war gold. In other hands, it could’ve been a conventional back-to-Nam picture or “Rambo”-style action/adventure (and those elements, to be clear, are thrilling). But Lee goes deeper, packing the film with historical references and subtext, explicitly drawing lines from the civil rights struggle of the period to the protests of our moment. A.O. Scott called it a “long, anguished, funny, violent excursion into a hidden chamber of the nation’s heart of darkness.” (For more genre-infused drama, check out “Sleight.”)
Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) directs this wide-ranging deep dive into mass incarceration, tracing the advent of America’s modern prison system — overcrowded and disproportionately populated by Black inmates — back to the 13th Amendment. It’s a giant topic to take on in 100 minutes, and DuVernay understandably has to do some skimming and slicing. But that necessity engenders its style: “13TH” tears through history with a palpable urgency that pairs nicely with its righteous fury. Our critic called it “powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming.”
‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ (2020)
“This camp changed the world,” we’re told, in the early moments of James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary, “and nobody knew about it.” The most refreshing and surprising element of this moving chronicle is that, title notwithstanding, the subject is not Camp Jened, the Catskills getaway that offered disabled kids and teens a “normal” summer camp experience. It’s about how that camp was the epicenter of a movement — a place where they could be themselves and live their lives didn’t have to be a utopian ideal, but a notion that they could carry out into the world, and use as a baseline for change. (Documentary fans should also seek out “F.T.A.”)
‘American Factory’ (2019)
Documentary filmmakers have long been fascinated by the logistics and complexities of manual labor, but Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s recent Oscar winner for best documentary feature views these issues through a decidedly 21st-century lens. Focusing on a closed GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, that’s taken over by a Chinese auto glass company, Bognar and Reichert thoughtfully, sensitively (and often humorously) explore how cultures — both corporate and general — clash. Manohla Dargis calls it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor.” (Netflix’s documentaries “Icarus” and “The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson” are also well worth your time.)
‘The Irishman’ (2019)
Martin Scorsese reteams with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since “Casino” (1995), itself a return to the organized crime territory of their earlier 1990 collaboration “Goodfellas” — and then adds Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. A lazier filmmaker might merely have put them back together to play their greatest hits. Scorsese does something far trickier, and more poignant: He takes all the elements we expect in a Scorsese gangster movie with this cast, and then he strips it all down, turning this story of turf wars, union battles and power struggles into a chamber piece of quiet conversations and moral contemplation. A.O. Scott called it “long and dark: long like a novel by Dostoyevsky or Dreiser, dark like a painting by Rembrandt.”
This vivid, evocative memory play from Alfonso Cuarón is a story of two Mexican women in the early 1970s: Sofía (Marina de Tavira), a mother of four whose husband (and provider) is on his way out the door, and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s nanny, maid and support system. The scenes are occasionally stressful, often heart-wrenching, and they unfailingly burst with life and emotion. Our critic called it “an expansive, emotional portrait of life buffeted by violent forces, and a masterpiece.” (Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” is also streaming on Netflix.)
‘Private Life’ (2018)
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti shine as two New York creative types whose attempts to start a family — by adoption, by fertilization, by whatever it takes — test the mettle of their relationships and sanity. The wise script by the director Tamara Jenkins is not only funny and truthful but also sharply tuned to their specific world: Few films have better captured the very public nature of marital trouble in New York, when every meltdown is interrupted by passers-by and lookie-loos. “Private Life,” which our critic called “piquant and perfect,” is a marvelous balancing act of sympathy and cynicism, both caring for its subjects and knowing them and their flaws well enough to wink and chuckle. (For more character-driven comedy/drama, add “Friends With Money” and “The Four Seasons” to your list.)
Mati Diop’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner is set in Senegal, where a young woman named Ava (Mama Sané) loses the boy she loves to the sea, just days before her arranged marriage to another man. What begins as a story of love lost moves, with the ease and imagination of a particularly satisfying dream, into something far stranger, as Diop savvily works elements of genre cinema into the fabric of a story that wouldn’t seem to accommodate them. A.O. Scott called it “a suspenseful, sensual, exciting movie, and therefore a deeply haunting one as well.” (For similarly out-of-this-world vibes, try Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja.”)