Stop the endless scrolling and start the actual watching with our hand-picked list of the streaming service's most essential movies
Endlessly scrolling through the Netflix menu has become an unexpected curse of this modern age. It's something nobody ever sets out to do, yet the sheer amount of choice on display often makes it impossible to make a decision. Some evenings are genuinely destined to result in all scrolling, no watching (the worst!).
Really, though, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there aren't a huge amount of actually great films on Netflix. There are plenty of good ones, some okay ones, and lots of bad ones. But truly worthwhile movies? That's a much shorter (and far more manageable) list.
Which is why I've combed through the database to bring you a selection that's far easier to traverse: the best 50 films showing on Netflix in the UK (at the time of the publication). There's something for every taste here, though I made sure – because variety is the spice of life! – to include just one film per director. What all these films have in common is that they're well worth a couple of hours of your time.
An unclassifiable gem from actor-turned-filmmaker Mati Diop, who blends elements of gothic romance, sci-fi, and police procedural for this strange and quietly powerful exploration of young love. Set in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, and gently touching on themes of globalisation and migration, watching Atlantics genuinely feels like “floating” through an alien world.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Only Charlie Kaufman could have come up with an idea as existentially batty as the one driving Being John Malkovich, a surrealist comedy about a puppeteer (played by John Cusack) who finds a secret door leading into the mind of actor John Malkovich (played by – duh! – John Malkovich). Spike Jonze, making his directorial debut, proves the perfect fit for Kaufman's idiosyncratic musings.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Tom Hanks reaffirms his place as America's moral conscience in Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller, based on a true story (with a script by the Coens). Hanks is excellent, as usual, nursing cinema's most realistic sniffle – though it's Mark Rylance who steals the picture as a Soviet spy who forms an unlikely friendship with his American lawyer.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
A playful riff on the countless “hot teenagers go to a cabin in the woods and get killed off one by one” movies, this reinvention of the horror genre is an absolute blast to sit through. A clever and witty – Joss Whedon co-wrote the script – subversion of tropes, with one of the most exhilarating and unexpected third acts in horror cinema history.
Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón creates what is arguably the 21st century's boldest vision of dystopia with this adaption of P.D. James' socially conscious novel. A highly immersive, vérité-esque look at a future filled with xenophobia and hate of the “other,” set in a world where no children have been born in 18 years. Clive Owen gives his best screen performance as the film's accidental hero, caught up in a conspiracy in which the fate of mankind rests squarely on his ability to narrowly dodge explosions. It's as smart as it is nail-biting, as humane as it is bleak, posing important questions about how we might live in a world without hope.
Ingeniously transposing Jane Austen's classic Emma to an American high school, Amy Heckerling's cult classic is just as fun now as it was back in '95. With its eccentric colour palette, bold fashion, and loveable characters, Clueless somehow manages to make a story about a meddling teenager falling in love with her step brother seem not that weird.
This brilliantly empathetic and challenging coming-of-ager found itself as the target of a totally unwarranted smear campaign earlier in the year – despite the fact that most of the naysayers hadn't even bothered to watch it. Ignore any bad press you've heard about Cuties, though: it's a dazzling debut from first time director Maïmouna Doucouré.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Tapping into the timeliness of the Black Lives Matter movement while digging into the legacy of the Vietnam War, Spike Lee delivers one of his best films with Da 5 Bloods – an explosive meditation on America then and now, its story of Black veterans returning to Vietnam to grapple with the ghosts of their past. Delroy Lindo gives a standout turn.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
One of the best and most original documentaries of recent times, Dick Johnson Is Dead clings to an irresistible conceit in which filmmaker Kristen Johnson stages elaborate versions of her father's death to help them both come to terms with his dementia diagnosis. It's incredibly moving stuff, the sort of film that makes you appreciate life in all its shades – and the people in yours.
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
Definitely not big and certainly not clever, this irreverent and infinitely stupid comedy from the Farrelly brothers is plain, dumb fun. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels find just the right spot between insufferable and endearing, playing two hapless best friends who embark on an ill-fated road trip to Aspen.
Ex Machina (2014)
The Beach and Judge Dredd writer Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this twisty techno-thriller starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. Set in a remote facility somewhere in Scandinavia, it tells the story of a dangerous experiment involving a computer coder, a beautiful A.I, and the man with a God complex with brings them together.
Fish Tank (2009)
A teenager living on a British council estate becomes entangled with her mum's boyfriend in this brilliantly- observed realist drama from the great Andrea Arnold. Michael Fassbender gives one of his best performances as said boyfriend, but it's Katie Jarvis who makes it all so convincing as 15-year-old Mia. Gritty and gripping, Fish Tank also avoids the inherent miserablism one tends to associate with this kind of film.
Game Night (2018)
Is Game Night the last great big-budget studio comedy? Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a married couple whose competitive nature gets them into increasingly frightening situations. It's rare that a comedy film actually looks good, also, yet viewers will be sure to appreciate the inventive, kinetic cinematography on display here, too.
The Great Escape (1963)
You can hum the theme song. You've seen the clip with the bike more times than you can count. But have you actually taken the time to watch The Great Escape in its entirety? Luckily, this classic – starring the one and only Steve McQueen – is as good as its reputation suggests: an old-fashioned yarn that really does make for perfect Sunday afternoon viewing.
The Handmaiden (2016)
A gorgeous, sumptuous, and erotic thriller from South Korean master Park Chan-wook, based on the novel The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Haidmaiden tells the twisty tale of a young woman's integration into a rich household as part of a wider scam. It's a brilliantly controlled, gripping, and sexy, told in three parts that continually flip the narrative on its head to reveal new surprises.
Christopher Nolan broke a lot of brains with his now iconic sci-fi heist movie, about a crack team of dream thieves who set about an elaborate plan to plant an idea in the head of a corporate heir. Listening to people explain what's happening on screen for the sum of two hours has never been so entertaining. BRAAHM!
Into the Inferno (2016)
In this fascinating documentary, Herzog teams with scientist Clive Oppenheimer to probe the mysteries of the world's biggest volcanoes – all with his typically existential approach. Herzog's most recent foray into the natural world, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, is also well worth a watch (but streaming on Apple TV+).
The Irishman (2019)
Now all the discourse has settled down, alongside the conversations about The Irishman's ungainly length (it runs at a whopping 3 and a half hours), we can finally appreciate Scorsese's film for what it is: a near masterpiece, a funeral for the gangster genre, and a complex meditation on reaching the end of all things. Plus, De Niro's best performance in decades.
The Karate Kid (1984)
The Karate Kid is the purest hit of 80s nostalgia. The songs (“You're the Best”), the quotes (“Wax on, wax off”), the hair – this is comfort movie brilliance of the highest order, a coming-of-ager whose cheesiness is made endearing on account of the great chemistry shared between leads Ralph Macchio and the late Pat Morita.
La La Land (2017)
Ignore the naysayers: this modern – but decisively old-fashioned – musical works as a glorious ode to Hollywood's glittering past. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the wannabe actress and the jazz musician who fall in love amidst Los Angeles' studio backlots, dimly-lit bars, and iconic landmarks. Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, has a great time riffing on Hollywood history. But his masterstroke is to imbue La La Land with a deep melancholy that means it resonates long after the curtain comes down.
The great David Bowie brings his unique brand of oddness (and a jock strap) to this endlessly rewatchable musical-fantasy about a young girl (Jennifer Connelly) who enters a perilous maze to rescue her baby brother. The puppetry is marvellous weird; the songs catchy; the tone… very, very weird, but in the best possible way.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Bill Murray gives his best performance ever in Sofia Coppola's hazy Tokyo travelogue as the jaded film star who strikes up an unlikely friendship with an alienated newlywed, played by Scarlett Johansson (also her best ever performance?). Understated and dream-like, it also features one of cinema's greatest karaoke scenes.
Scarlett Johansson stars in this bonkers sci-fi thriller about a woman who accidentally ingests a drug that allows her to access 100% of her brain capacity. Director Luc Besson put it best when it described the film as “the beginning is Léon, the middle is Inception, and the end is 2001: A Space Odyssey.” A real blast – and less than 90 minutes in length!
Marriage Story (2019)
A deeply sad and frequently funny meditation on the disintegration of marriage that also happens to be a brilliant ode to “being alive,” loosely based on director Noah Baumbach's own divorce. Adam Driver gives a career-best performance as a theatre director who falls out with Scarlett Johansson's actress, resulting in a bitter custody battle nobody saw coming.
Miami Vice (2006)
Few movies require a “just go with it” disclaimer as much as Michael Mann's Miami Vice. Loathed by the critics upon release, but now viewed as something of an underrated gem, this filmic remake of the '80s TV series is largely (and purposely?) impenetrable on a plot level. But forget about the specifics of the story; instead let the gorgeous digital cinematography, lush romance, and high-octane action wash over you in an all-consuming splash of ocean spray. It really is an experience like no other – if you allow it to be.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Owen Wilson takes a trip to the French capital (and back in time) in this charming exploration of nostalgia from writer-director Woody Allen, featuring a plethora of famous faces – Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston – as some of history's most lauded writers and artists. As magical as the title suggests.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
How many franchises can you genuinely say seem to get better with every movie? The latest in this explosive series might be the best one yet, a truly kinetic and inspired testament to lead star Tom Cruise's insane dedication to doing his own stunts. This one has a helicopter chase, a bike pursuit through Paris, and a skydive sequence that basically blows every other contemporary action movie out of the water. The biggest mistake one could make about the Mission: Impossible franchise is to assume it's old hat; in fact, it's about as cutting edge as action franchises come.
This slick and insightful drama, written by Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin, draws the line between the world of sports and the world of data as Brad Pitt – his usual charming self – assembles a winning baseball team using an unusual sabermetric system. This was also the movie in which Jonah Hill established himself as a serious screen presence, garnering an Oscar nom for his role.
Like Lord of the Flies dialled up to 11, Monos is a weird and brutal fever dream about a group of teenagers who await orders from a mysterious benefactor while stationed at the top of a mountain. A visually stunning and beautifully scored descent into the heart of darkness, directed by the talented Brazilian filmmaker Alejandro Landes.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
This irreverent classic from the iconic British comedy trope still holds up miraculously, despite being over forty years old. Graham Chapman stars as the titular Brian, who is forced to spend his life being mistaken for the Messiah due to the close proximity of their births. A look on the bright side of life.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives arguably his best performance to date as a wiry lech who trawls Los Angeles at nighttime in a bid to capture the most disturbing footage so he can sell it to hungry TV stations. It's an uncomfortable yet exhilarating ride through the squalor of humanity, the movie equivalent of witnessing a car crash and not being able to look away.
The Nightingale (2018)
Following her work on the brilliant horror movie The Babadook, Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent returned with this brutal exploration of colonisation, set in 19th century Van Diemen's Land. Its story of a young woman out to kill the men who murdered her family might be familiar, but the execution is brand new. Brilliant, but not for the faint hearted.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers deliver a perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's masterful novel and wind up with a masterpiece of their own. In their hands, it's an impeccably paced and crafted neo-western starring Josh Brolin as the Vietnam vet who steals a bag of cash, Javier Bardem as the relentless, unstoppable embodiment of evil who sets out to track him down, and Tommy Lee Jones as the sheriff trying to make sense of it all. It's hard to think of a more precise and watchable thriller than this one.
Notting Hill (1999)
Hugh Grant is a bumbling travel bookshop owner. Julia Roberts is the world's biggest movie star. Then there's an unfortunate incident with some orange juice that triggers an unlikely romance. Richard Curtis' best film (yeah, you read that right) now feels like the most defining British rom-com of the '90s. Put it down to the flawless casting, unforgettable one-liners (“Happiness isn't happiness without a violin-playing goat”), and an inherent re-watchability that somehow means it's just as entertaining the fiftieth time as the first. The formula perfected, basically.
Before there was Parasite, there was Okja, Bong Joon-ho's barmy meditation on meat-eating and capitalism. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton are the villains out to capture the titular Okja, a loveable elephant-like creature in a tale that unfolds with the energy of the wildest comic book adaption (though it isn't based on one). Basically a live-action Studio Ghibli film.
Only Yesterday (2001)
This beautiful, melancholy animated film from Studio Ghibli's other master, Isao Takahata, weaves an unforgettable tale of memory and misplaced potential, as a young woman takes a summer job and find herself reflects on her childhood. Packed with intimate details and gorgeous visuals, it also has an ending guarantee to make you cry.
Out of Sight (1999)
If you're in the mood for sexy people putting themselves into increasingly sexy scenarios, look no further than Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight. George Clooney gives what might be his most seductive performance, while his chemistry with Jennifer Lopez (her greatest screen role, for sure) is off the charts. Cold shower, please.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
Nothing about this offbeat comedy-drama should work, from its quirky title to its plot about two mismatched companions taking a Huckleberry Finn-like trip to find a famous wrestling school. Yet somehow, against the odds, The Peanut Butter Falcon will charm the pants off you anyway. Put it down to the unfakeable chemistry between Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen.
Denis Villeneuve, the man behind Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming adaptation of Dune, also directed this strange and gripping thriller about a man's obsessive hunt for his missing daughter. Hugh Jackman plays the dad who will stop at nothing; Jake Gyllenhaal is the sharply-dressed detective caught up in the case. Violent, with heaps of atmosphere.
The Revenant (2015)
Come for the bear attack… stay for the gruelling revenge quest that obsesses Leonard DiCaprio's fur trapper as he tries to track down the men who killed his son and left him to perish in the wilderness. There is certainly a pretentiousness to The Revenant, but the stunning visuals and bleak tone are held together by a DiCaprio performance you can't keep your eyes off.
This moving drama about a young girl and her little brother who are left to fend for themselves on a London Council Estate feels like a minor miracle. Mixing improvisation with scripted scenes, and as funny as it is dramatic, Rocks portrays a sad situation without ever succumbing to bleakness. Few films capture the way teenagers actually talk and act like this one.
What people tend to forget – or refuse to admit – about Scarface is that it's unbelievably cheesy. Yes, it's violent, there are piles of cocaine, and a very disturbing scenes with a chainsaw. But really this is pulp fiction of the highest order, director Brian De Palma taking the chance to ham up every aspect of the film as Al Pacino chews the scenery to absurd levels. All of this is meant as a compliment.
The Social Network (2010)
The genius of David Fincher's Facebook movie stems from the fact that is isn't really about Facebook. Instead, the meticulous filmmaker – working from a flawless script from Aaron Sorkin – carves a hard-hitting drama about friendship and ego, and packs it with some of the best performances of the decade. An American masterpiece.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
An unexpected delight upon first release, this already feels like one of the most beloved animated films ever made. Blending together elements from multiple Spidey mythologies, it create a playful and visually stunning homage to everybody's favourite web-slinging, with awesome voice work from Jake Johnson and Nicolas Cage.
Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki is a filmmaker renowned for both meticulousness and masterpieces. Of all his movies, perhaps, Spirited Away exemplifies these traits more than any other. A kind of Japanese spin on Alice in Wonderful, it charts the adventures of ten-year-old Chihiro after she accidentally crosses into a parallel realm and winds up working at a bathhouse for spirits. Few films have ever managed what this one has – a perfect fusion of animation, music, and emotion that has resulted not just in one of the greatest animated films ever, but one of the greatest films full stop.
The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator franchise may have taken a beaten over the years, what with so many subpar sequels and a continuity it's impossible to wrap your head around. But what better time to go back and see what all the fuss was about to begin with? The Terminator – directed by none other than James Cameron – holds up entirely, pairing bone-crunching thrills with sci-fi smarts.
Training Day (1999)
Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his hyperactive performance in crime-thriller Training Day, about a morally bankrupt detective who pulls rookie Ethan Hawke into a nightmarish scenario (also nominated, for Best Supporting Actor) during the titular day of training. Maybe some of the elements play a little familiar nowadays, but this still packs a punch.
True Romance (1993)
A comic book store worker (Christian Slater) falls in love with a call girl (Patricia Arquette), after which the pair hit the road having accidentally stolen a ton of cocaine. Tony Scott's True Romance, based on a script by none other than Quentin Tarantino, was written as the “ultimate nerd fantasy.” Brilliantly slick and bloody, it also features great supporting turns from Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, and Gary Oldman, and is basically the only good film written by Tarantino that wasn't directed by him (and Hans Zimmer's iconic score is surprisingly sweet).
Uncut Gems now holds a reputation for being the most stressful film ever made. If that sounds like your cup of tea, this anxious, high-wire thriller from the Safdie brothers will put your nerves through the ringer for all its two hour runtime. It's an exhilarating and heart-pounding experience that seems like a lost film from the 1970s, telling the story of a New York jeweller – played by a never better Adam Sandler – who makes one bad decision after another as he attempts to cheat and gamble his way out of debt. There really is nothing else quite like it.
Alfred Hitchcock's strangest film? It might also be his best. James Stewart stars as the cop with a fear of heights who falls madly in love with the woman he's hired to follow in a tale that thrives on unexpected twists and turns. The lush cinematography, enigmatic performances, and Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable score cement Vertigo as a true classic.