Netflix’s track record when it comes to original movies is spotty at best, so you can be forgiven if you haven’t been paying much attention to their slate of recent releases.
For a while, their movies barely registered for me even when a banner as large as my screen advertising their latest star-driven, algorithm-approved motion picture greeted me whenever I opened the app.
However, Netflix has put out some gems over the last few years—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), The Irishman (2019)—and the quality of their recent releases have been much more in line with those films than their typical fare.
In case you’ve missed them, we pulled together a list of five of Netflix’s most intriguing, watchable, and/or challenging new films for your viewing pleasure.
The Old Guard
Gina Prince-Bythewood knocked it out of the park with her action film debut, an adaptation of the Greg Rucka comic of the same name.
Starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, the movie follows a group of immortal mercenaries on a revenge mission, but transcends its genre trappings by humanizing its characters, committing to the more gruesome aspects of their “resurrections,” and certifying Charlize Theron as a dyed-in-the-wool action star for anyone who still had their doubts.
The Old Guard is almost certainly the start of a franchise (thankfully), but this plays perfectly well on its own, with a talented cast, an enjoyable premise, and an assured director.
One of my favorite character actors working today, Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter franchise), turns in an excellent performance as the profit-minded pharmaceutical-type villain, a welcome opportunity to see him in action.
From start to finish, this is a blood-soaked blast that’s perfect for Saturday night viewing.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
This is easily the least accessible film on this list, but it was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, the singular talent who wrote Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) in addition to writing and directing the incomparable Synecdoche, New York (2008), so it’s worth bringing to everyone’s attention.
The movie is, on the surface, about a young woman going to meet the parents of her boyfriend whom she’s thinking about breaking up with, but it’s a strange trip—both for her and the audience. The film is blessed with an all-star cast consisting of Jessie Buckley (young woman), Jesse Plemons (her boyfriend, Jake), Toni Collette (the goddess, as Jake’s mother), and David Thewlis (as Jake’s father).
Ultimately this ends up being a film less about a weekend at your s.o.’s parents’ house and more about the inevitability of time and lost love.
There are references to musicals throughout—as well as a surreal, rather engaging musical number—and many, many literary/film references that will either enthrall you or make you say, “I get it, Charlie Kaufman, you’ve read a David Foster Wallace book.”
Either way, you owe it to yourself to give Kaufman’s unfiltered artistic vision a chance.
The Devil All the Time
Another literary adaptation, The Devil All the Time most notably stars Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson in a bleak southern gothic tale of twisted religion and revenge. While the movie’s dark tone will turn off some viewers, those who are able to tune into its wavelength will find more than enough to enjoy in this thriller. Robert Pattinson’s “southern voice” alone is enough to warrant a watch-through, even if he doesn’t make an appearance until the 50-minute mark.
I had low expectations for this one, but I was pleasantly surprised by its direction, the performances throughout (there’s a Murderers’ Row of talent onscreen here), and the story’s structure (told out of sequence, but told well).
Worth noting as well is the film’s use of voiceover, something that generally feels like a crutch meant to make up for deficits in the writing or filmmaking, but works well here—thanks in part to the movie’s use of the source material’s author, Donald Ray Pollock, to serve as the Narrator.
Don’t turn this one on if you’re looking for a pick-me-up, but if you’re in the mood for something grittier and more challenging, The Devil All the Time is for you.
Millie Bobby Brown, the star of Netflix’s Stranger Things, plays the titular Enola Holmes in this Sherlock Holmes spinoff, which features the dashing Henry Cavill as the famous detective. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Holmes’ mother and Sam Claflin (continuing to carve out a healthy niche for himself as “Severe British Character Actor #1”) plays Mycroft Holmes.
Enola Holmes is a fresh and fun adventure with daring and wit to spare—a perfect film to watch with kids in the room, but one that will also enchant adult viewers thanks to Brown’s charismatic performance and Henry Cavill’s… everything.
The Social Dilemma
This is the only documentary on the list, but what a documentary it is. Aside from some cringe-worthy afterschool special segments, The Social Dilemma is filled to the brim with information on how social media is reshaping human society and the effect it has on the human psyche.
The documentary’s participants are all Silicon Valley aficionados with bona fides to spare, and they all agree on one thing: without proper regulation, too much technology is a very bad thing.
It’ll make you reconsider your relationship with your Facebook account, your cell phone, and the world around you, but it also makes a point that that may be exactly what we need.
And at 90 minutes The Social Dilemma is a quick, informative watch that you’ll be quoting at dinner parties for years to come (when we’re allowed to have dinner parties again).