Netflix’s claim to the title of “New Age Entertainment King” has remained as strong as ever during quarantine. Even with the recent launch of several new streaming services such as HBO Max and Disney Plus—as well as the existence of longtime competitors like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video—Netflix has found a way to maintain their stranglehold on popular culture. Much like Google, their name has become synonymous with the experience they offer. People don’t “search” or “bing” things online, they google them. And similarly, nobody is putting the words “Apple TV+ and chill” in their tinder bios, nor are they immediately asking “is that on Prime Video?” when their friend tells them about a movie or TV show that they just watched. From normalizing the act of binge-watching new seasons of television series’ the day they are made available, to forcing award shows to create new eligibility rules for films released through unconventional methods—Netflix, and the rise of streaming in general, has altered our media landscape in an uncountable number of ways. For this blog in particular though, I just want to focus on Netflix’s original films. Specifically, I want to share my picks for the top ten original movies distributed by Netflix.
While Netflix may be more well-known for its many hit shows, they have also been one of the most prolific film distributors in Hollywood since the release of their first original movie, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, back in 2015. Since then, the popular streaming service has taken part in either the production or distribution of hundreds of films. They have released action blockbusters, family movies, and even made more than few splashes at the Academy Awards as well. And it is perhaps that varied success I’m referring to that has led film fans and Netflix users to find it somewhat difficult to clearly identify what a “Netflix movie” is, as well as what those movies will look like going forward. This is something that has fascinated me for a while now, primarily just because of the profuse nature in which Netflix is able to release films.
With the risk of sounding reductive, I think there are mainly two types of Netflix films. The first type usually comes from an acclaimed filmmaker—such as Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, or Spike Lee—being given a budget and an array of resources that they wouldn’t be able to receive from a traditional studio, in order to actualize a passion project or tell a deeply personal story. This has led to the creation of some of my favorite films in recent years. And honestly, I’m grateful that Netflix—like all movie studios—wants to win awards, because I don’t think we would get these films without the incentive of winning an Oscar being something that is meaningful for the streaming service.
The second type of Netflix movie is quite different though, and far less concerned with award show praise. This type of Netflix movie is usually a cheaply made, simple genre film that can sometimes be fairly enjoyable, but other times feel very unfinished. As those in charge at Netflix are aware that they have a massive amount of people subscribed to their service, these films can range from teen rom-coms to psychological horror thrillers. Because Netflix is a subscription service, they have the benefit of being able to target certain movies to certain subscribers. While traditional film studios have to be worried about their movie being widely appealing enough to bring in theater crowds in every city in America, Netflix can tailor some of their films for one specific demographic, and other films for completely different demographics. This is why everyone’s Netflix home screen looks different, they cultivate their content different for each individual subscriber. As I mentioned hinted at earlier though, this second kind of Netflix movie doesn’t always turn out great. Often times, these films feel like nothing more than elongated episodes of a television series. It seems as if Netflix even actively attempts to edit and film these movies in a way that is conducive to the at home viewing experience. But, this can sometimes just leave the films with a bizarre and un-cinematic feeling to them.
I do think it is important to note that all Netflix movies do not necessarily fit into the two categories I just mentioned. As time has gone on, and Netflix has grown as a movie studio, they have started to release a wider array of films. Truthfully, I enjoy a great deal of those films, which is one of the main reasons I decided to write this piece in the first place. That being said, I am slightly worried about what effect Netflix—and at home viewing in general—is going to have on the future of the film industry. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Netflix started giving us 60-70 minute movies in the near future, because they feel people’s attention spans are decreasing. I don’t want Netflix to completely change our perception of what a film is, nor do I want them to take down the movie theater industry. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I would like the future of Netflix to be more of an exciting addition to the filmmaking industry, rather than a catalyst of complete change.
Now that I’ve explored in some detail what constitutes a “Netflix movie,” it’s time to present my top ten list. When it came to making this list, I knew there were five films that had a guaranteed spot. After that though, it was incredibly difficult to decide which films should be included, and what the placement of those films should be. It was so difficult in fact, that I felt it was necessary to share 10 honorable mentions before I get to my actual list.
The Honorable Mentions: Atlantics, Okja, The Laundromat, High Flying Bird, Paddleton, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Icarus, Triple Frontier, Private Life and Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.
10. 13th (2016)
Ava DuVernay’s powerful and ever-relevant 2016 documentary, 13th, lands at the number 10 spot on my list. This film, which takes an in depth look at racial inequalities and the United States prison system, remains an incredibly important film in Netflix’s journey into the movie space. It garnered a ton of attention, led to a great deal of valuable discussions taking place in society, and was nominated for both an Oscar and an Emmy. While there may be certain honorable mentions that I’ve returned to more often than 13th, I thought this film was too well-done and too crucial to Netflix’s rise to leave it off my list.
9. The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
The Fundamentals of Caring, which was released on the platform in the summer of 2016, was one of the first films Netflix ever put out. Despite it being one of Netflix’s first attempts though, this Paul Rudd led dramedy remains one of their most underrated films to date. It was directed by Rob Burnett and based on a Jonathan Evison novel entitled The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. It contains one of Rudd’s most understated and best performances, as well as some incredible work done by co-star Craig Roberts and a surprisingly good turn from Selena Gomez as well. Unlike some other Netflix films that fall under the same genre as The Fundamentals of Caring, this film feels like an actual, completed movie. More people need to see it.
8. Set it Up (2018)
Similar to the previous entry on this list, Set it Up is the best version of something Netflix has tried to do over and over again. The company has been cranking out rom-coms on a pretty consistent basis for years now, but none of have them have reached the heights that Set it Up did. This is mainly due to the charisma and chemistry of the film’s stars, Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell. When I saw Set it Up, I was already familiar with both of these actors from the incredibly underrated Everybody Wants Some!! that came out two years earlier. However, Set it Up is probably when both of them gave their true star-making performances. Set it Up is also a film that just works really well with the at home viewing experience … even though it, like all films, would be better in a theater.
7. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Netflix has had a lot of success with documentaries over the years, but Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond remains one of my absolute favorites. In fact, this film is probably one of my favorite documentaries from the last five years or so in general. It chronicles the way Jim Carrey adopted the persona of Andy Kaufman on the set of 1999’s Man on the Moon, and it is utterly fascinating. If you’re at all interested in comedy, acting, moviemaking, or just people’s creative processes in general, then Jim & Andy is a must watch for you.
6. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
The Meyerowitz Stories is the first of two Noah Baumbach films that will appear on this list. Because I already knew there was going to be another Baumbach film in the top five, I thought about placing The Meyerowitz Stories lower on the list, but ultimately I just couldn’t deny how much I love this film. It contains some of the best work of a lot of different actor’s careers, including Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, and Elizabeth Marvel. Like all of Baumbach’s films, it has an incredibly personal and touching feel to it. It is a film that was made for and about fathers and sons, and it sheds a light on those relationships in ways that sometimes feel almost too honest.
5. American Factory (2019)
American Factory is the third and final documentary on my list, making it my number one Netflix doc of all time. This film, which takes a look at how cultures collide in a factory in Ohio after it’s bought by a Chinese billionaire, was truly one of the best films of last year. It deserved the Best Documentary Feature win it received at the Oscars. While some Netflix documentaries are incredible solely because of the stories they tell, American Factory was sensational because of both its subject matter and the form in which it was told. It’s rare for any documentary to give viewers the real-life access that American Factory did. Like the next four films on my list, I knew I had to find a spot for this film.
4. Roma (2018)
Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal 2018 film, Roma, was responsible for Netflix getting its first Best Picture nomination. And it was one of many nominees that would have made for a more satisfying winner than Green Book. Alas, this is still a great film. And in terms of its historical importance for Netflix, this film really helped launch the company as a serious name in the prestige filmmaking game. It earned 10 Oscar nominations, and three wins—including a Best Director win for Cuarón. I can’t imagine Roma losing its place as one of Netflix’s best any time soon.
3. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
The most recent film on my list, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, lands at the number three spot on my list. This film was released just 12 days ago, so there’s a chance its high placement could be due to some sort of recency bias. Perhaps Da 5 Blood‘s position on this list could change slightly over time, but I doubt my love for it will lessen that much honestly. If you’d like to read some of my thoughts on this film, my formal review can be found here.
2. The Irishman (2019)
Martin Scorsese’s 2019 crime epic, The Irishman, was one of my four favorite films of last year. I actually believe that we will look back on this movie in several years and realize that, despite it receiving six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, it was under-appreciated in the moment. Too much was made about this film’s length when it was released—as if no movie has ever been 3+ hours before, or as if somehow spending an extra 40 minutes with Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci is a bad thing. This film was absolutely brilliant, and many of its finest moments actually came within the final hour. I’m thankful that Netflix finally gave Scorsese a chance to make his vision a reality, after many years of trying.
1. Marriage Story (2019)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, or read my top ten favorite films of 2019 list, to learn that Marriage Story is my number one Netflix original film of all time. Baumbach is one of my favorite directors working today, and I consider this film to be one of the two greatest works of his career. Much like with Scorsese and The Irishman, I’m grateful that Netflix gave Baumbach the opportunity to make this film a reality. Not only is the acting and writing magnificent, but this film also felt like a late career step-up in terms of directing for Baumbach. It’s heartbreaking; It’s hilarious; It’s deeply personal; It’s incredibly emotional; And it’s even uplifting at times. Essentially, if you haven’t seen Marriage Story yet, you should.