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If you’re stuck in the endlessscroll, hopefully this list will help you decide what to watch. Occasionally Netflix brings in big directors to serve up originals that make it all the way to the Oscars. But it’s also got an abundance of smaller stories perfect for a modestly sized screen. Fingers crossed you’ll find something here that hits the spot.
Pieces of a Woman
Falling into the movies that make you cry category, Pieces of a Woman is an emotional well that’ll steep you in melancholy. Martha’s home birth leads to a schism in her marriage as her life falls to pieces. Known for its opening 24-minute childbirth one-shot, this portrait of grief will ultimately take you to poignant places. Plus, see Vanessa Kirby put in her career best performance. Just give her the Oscar already.
His House is a horror flick that hits close to home. Revealing its supernatural evils through a harrowing human story, it follows Bol and Rial, a refugee couple from Sudan, who struggle to adapt to their new life in an English town. Don’t expect straightforward jump scares — His House plays into the psychological specters of the past, adding even more corridors of torment. A heartrending, powerful piece.
Two movies named The Call came out in 2020. Watch the South Korean one, a time travel thriller revolving around, yep, a phone call. Twenty-eight-year-old Seo-yeon finds a phone buried in a closet in her childhood home. It rings — and the caller, it turns out, is living in the same house 20 years earlier. Twists right up to the final moment, plus a wild cat-and-mouse chase that alters the past and present make this a must-watch.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
An Aaron Sorkin drama based on a true story? The Trial of the Chicago 7 lives up to its pedigree, following the real-life trial of a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors charged with conspiracy to incite riots. With a stellar ensemble cast, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is both topical and full of compelling theatrical energy.
With Fleabag’s director, the star of Stranger Things and Superman (Henry Cavill) playing Sherlock Holmes, Enola Holmes is a guaranteed good night in. The titular hero is Holmes’ kid sister, played by an effortlessly engaging Millie Bobby Brown. She’s just as talented when it comes to mystery solving and doesn’t shy from getting stuck into scuffles with Victorian-era adults twice her size. If you’re in the mood for something light and fun, this is a big yes.
A movie about divorce might not sound like the best viewing experience, but Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a journey you’ll want to take. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver give two of the best performances of their careers as Nicole and Charlie, a couple who embark on the emotionally and logistically complicated legal processes involved in prying a partnership apart. Painted with an emotional complexity that includes poignantly funny moments along with the painful ones, this is happy-sad at its best.
2017’s Okja comes from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho — which should be incentive enough to watch it. Part cheeky dark comedy, part surreal environmental thriller, Okja follows a young South Korean farmer girl whose pet pal is a genetically enhanced super-pig. But Okja is the target of a big corporation that wants her delicious flesh. With an English supporting cast including the likes of Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, Okja sucks you in with its sweetness before showing you a distressing close-up of the meat industry.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
If you’ve had a bad day, this might be the movie for you. When the police refuse to help with a robbery, nursing assistant Ruth and her weird neighbor Tony take matters into their own hands. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore spots the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, before escalating its story into dark places with even darker humor. With a touch of Coen Brothers flair, its perfectly packed 96 minutes will leave you surprisingly emotional.
Adam Sandler’s Oscar buzz-worthy performance didn’t see him nominated, but his turn in Uncut Gems is remarkable. Uncut Gems is a blistering odyssey following a diamond jeweler who’s addicted to gambling. Scraping in Martin Scorsese-style ’70s crime grit, the Safdie Brothers take you on a frenetic, anxious dash through New York as Sandler’s Howard Ratner must retrieve a precious opal to pay off his debts.
From Netflix’s impressive stash of international films comes Spanish sci-fi horror The Platform. Its high-concept story centers on a tower that delivers food to people on each of its many levels via a platform. Those at the top get the best and most abundant spread, which is devoured as the platform lowers down the levels. Social commentary rings throughout this dystopian thriller, which takes shocking, occasionally gruesome turns all the way to the bottom.
Beasts of No Nation
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga gives you a sobering look at the life of a boy who becomes a child soldier in a West African country embroiled in civil war. Idris Elba stars as the ruthless Commandant along with the astonishing Abraham Attah as the young Agu. A confronting yet quietly hopeful snapshot of war from a human perspective, Beasts of No Nation needs to be on your radar if it isn’t already.
Spanning the lives of its mobsters over multiple decades, The Irishman pulls off a 3-and-a-half-hour crime saga. But don’t worry — you can break up this tour de force if you need to. Always clever and entertaining, with Martin Scorsese favorites Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci commanding the screen, The Irishman creeps up on you, offering a haunting look at ageing mobsters and the havoc they wreak.
Alex Garland began crafting his particular brand of trippy, existential sci-fi with Ex Machina and continues that train with Annihilation. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation follows Natalie Portman’s biology professor Lena as she wades through the grief of losing her husband by taking on a job at a mysterious army facility on the outskirts of a meteor landing site. With a cast of female scientists exploring the dangerous zone, Annihilation is a heady plunge into darkness on multiple levels. It’s a movie to ponder long after the credits roll.
Always Be My Maybe
A rom-com with a Keanu Reeves cameo and a deep love of food, Always Be My Maybe might just have everything you could wish for. Chef Sasha and musician Marcus reconnect long after their brief fling as teenagers. Always Be My Maybe wraps you up in warm comedy that doesn’t always go to expected places.
Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical snapshot of the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City tells a small story with staggering prowess. Let Cuaron steer you through the ups and downs of a live-in housekeeper of a middle-class family. His lens captures intricately beautiful scenes in an album that quietly envelopes you with wonder and grace.
The Meyerowitz Stories
The Meyerowitz Stories is a bittersweet comedy-drama told through Noah Baumbach’s grounded lens. The titular stories concern dysfunctional adult siblings, played by Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, trying to live in the shadow of their father. An effervescent cast, including Dustin Hoffman, play these intelligent, albeit miserable, characters as they weave their poignant tales.
Mudbound gives you a historical look at class struggle through the lens of a black veteran and a white veteran who both still have one foot stuck in World War II. Dealing with PTSD and racism in the Mississippi Delta, with a cast that includes Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell, Mudbound’s tempest will rivet you to the spot.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
The YA book adaptation that rocketed Noah Centineo to heartthrob status. Playing off a charming concept, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before sees Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a half-Korean, half-white girl growing up in Portland, Oregon, write letters to all the boys she has crushes on. Then her fun little sister sends them off without her knowing. While it hits all the comforting rom-com beats, there’s a layer of rare representation that gives this an edge over your average teen flick.
Willowdean “Dumplin'” Dickson is the daughter of a former beauty queen, but you wouldn’t know it given they’re nothing alike. When Dumplin’ decides to join a pageant out of spite, she learns a thing or two about self-confidence and confronts her rocky relationship with her mother, played by an always-watchable Jennifer Aniston. Casting a warm, albeit familiar glow, Dumplin’ makes the most of its reliable formula.
The Two Popes
Set primarily in Vatican City, this biographical drama follows Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the aftermath of the Vatican leaks scandal. It’s as fascinating as it sounds. The Two Popes carves up a slice of real-life drama with a first-class two-hander featuring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers kick up the western dust with an anthology film that gives you six vignettes all set on the American frontier. One of them is about the titular Buster Scruggs, a chipper singing cowboy who casually sets off a shoot-up in a cantina. But there’s a dark twist that keeps you on your toes. Sewing the rest of its stories together with a constant black humor, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Coen Brothers winner.
Dolemite Is My Name
Eddie Murphy returned from his acting break with a glorious performance as Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian who played a character called Dolemite in stand-up routines and blaxploitation films from the ’70s. Dolemite Is My Name follows Moore from his job at a record store to the big screen. Tracking Moore’s rise to fame and its bizarre and enthralling turns, Dolemite Is My Name does justice to both Moore’s and Murphy’s talents.
You guessed it — this one’s about Christmas. But Klaus isn’t a conventional Santa tale. It spins an alternative origin story for the big guy with inspiration from history’s Saint Nicholas of Myra. In a fictional 19th-century island town to the Far North, we follow a postman who befriends a reclusive toymaker named Klaus. Along with its beautifully hand-drawn animation, Klaus is a unique, complex take on holiday generosity.
I Lost My Body
This award-winning French film begins with a severed hand escaping a refrigerator in a laboratory and embarking on a Paris-wide search for the rest of its body. What an opening! With a few flashbacks and elegant animation, this strange, satisfying story delves into loss, both physical and emotional, in the most poetic of ways.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s fierce war drama follows a group of ageing Vietnam War veterans who return to the country in search of the remains of their squad leader — as well as buried treasure. With a frenzied energy coursing through it, Da 5 Bloods gives you a look at the Vietnam War through black experiences, delivering an all-too-timely critique of racism and warfare.
Tennis-playing buddies Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) receive devastating news: Michael has terminal stomach cancer. Struggling to let go of his dying friend, Andy joins Michael’s road trip in search of medication to end things before they get too painful. Folding comedy into melancholy, Paddleton eases the touching friendship at its core into deftly-affecting places.
Knock Down the House
Even if you’re not into politics, this behind-the-scenes look at what it took for a young woman to represent her community and make a difference is overwhelmingly inspiring. Knock Down the House follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other female candidates as they run for Congress in 2018. The obstacles that buffet her campaign and how she deals with them are all captured fly-on-the-wall-style, with fist-pumping results.
Athlete A is a deep-dive into one of the largest scandals in sporting history. It follows the investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star who broke the story of doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of young female gymnasts in the US. The culture of assaults persisted for decades, but there’s also light at the end of the tunnel, after brave athletes spoke out.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the US justice system meticulously covers America’s racial history from the abolition of slavery to the present prison structure. If you’re in search of educational material, this expansive look at the horrors of mass criminalization of Black people gives you a powerful synthesis of everything you need to know.
I Am Mother
I Am Mother might cover familiar sci-fi territory, but if you’re after some James Cameron and Ridley Scott-channeling thrills, you’re in the right place. We follow a young girl named Daughter, who lives in a post-apocalyptic bunker with her robot, named Mother, whose purpose is to aid the repopulation of Earth. This intriguing premise and setting is ripe for suspense and dark twists, which I Am Mother delivers in style.
The Half of It
This original YA movie tells the story of Ellie Chu, a shy Asian-American in the remote town of Squahamish discovering her sexuality. A straight-A yet friendless student who has a side-hustle writing papers for her classmates, Ellie helps footballer Paul Munsky write a love letter to Aster Flores. But it turns out Aster’s perfect for Ellie instead. A story of self-acceptance told with a delicate touch, The Half of It is a joy.
Set It Up
Set It Up is a rom-com leveled up by the sparkling Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, as well as an ever-brilliant Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. Harper Moore is a twentysomething assistant to an editor of a sports media empire. Charlie is an assistant to a venture capitalist. Bonding over their shared workplace mishaps, they concoct a plan to connect their two high-strung bosses, thinking it’ll lead to lightened workloads. This romance within a romance hits the expected beats but that makes it no less entertaining to watch.
If you liked The Haunting of Hill House, then check out Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King novel Gerald’s Game. Carla Gugino is immense as Jessie, who goes on holiday with her husband at an isolated lake house in Alabama. Largely sticking to a bedroom setting, we see the couple’s troubles go from bad to worse, with Jessie ending up in the impossible situation of being handcuffed to the bed with no one to help her escape. Gerald’s Game leads to narratively and emotionally satisfying conclusions, with Flanagan’s melancholy-suffused horror that surges into quiet triumph for its haunted characters.
Bryan Fogel’s influential documentary explores the dark side of sports doping. It sees Fogel plan to enter a cycling race after taking banned substances in a way that will avoid detection, all to highlight the insufficiencies in sports drug testing. But things take a turn when Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov exposes a state-sponsored Olympic doping program that he oversees. Icarus is as gripping as it sounds, even if you’re not a cycling aficionado.
The Incredible Jessica James
The Incredible Jessica James introduces a delightfully self-possessed main character played by an equally delightful Jessica Williams. The confident and independent Jessica James goes on a blind date where she ends up talking about nothing but her ex. A fresh take on the breakup movie with an empowering lead, this is an easy hit for an entertaining night in.
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