The Essentials: Netflix – December 2014

The Essentials: Netflix – December 2014
24 great movies to make the daunting selection process easier.

For more and more of us these days, services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are the default ways to access TV and movies. Other than heading to the cinema to catch new releases, odds are that most of the films you watch are through one of the big streaming services. And for the most part, that’s great. Having instant access to a huge library of films and TV is pretty liberating, but it comes with a price: you have to sort through that huge library to find the stuff worth watching. Netflix’s prediction algorithms are pretty good at throwing out recommendations for the most part, but you always risk missing some classics.

With that in mind, here are some of the best films available on the service right now. Just about every major genre is covered, with a mix of old classics and more recent works of genius. The hope is that by the time you’ve watched every one of these films, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a cinephile.

Mud

Matthew  McConaughey has seen an astonishing career resurgence over the last few years, starting with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, through Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective and up to a central role in Interstellar. Mud is one of his less well known performances from the last few years, but also one of his strongest. McConaughey’s morally ambiguous fugitive befriends two young boys, who help him evade the law. As with all of his recent work, this is a great chance to watch an actor truly in his prime.

Carrie

Make sure that you watch the 1976 original adaptation of the Stephen King book of the same name, rather than the lacklustre 2013 remake, as both are on Netflix at the moment. Brian De Palma’s film is a landmark horror classic, and one of the rare cases of an adaptation that might beat the original. Sissy Spacek is convincingly alien to her classmates as the troubled teen at the film’s center, while Piper Laurie is genuinely terrifying as her fundamentalist mother. Don’t write this off as “just” horror – Carrie is an undisputed classic.

Fargo

The Coen brothers have made an incalculable contribution to cinema, and Netflix currently has one of their best films yet available to stream. A black comedy of a crime film, Fargo finds the funny side in some dark subject matter while taking the time to both celebrate (and gently mock) the characters’ homely Minnesotan values – and accent. It manages to both be remarkably sweet and almost unrelentingly dark, which remains an accomplishment that few other films have managed.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The only “kids’ film” on this list, The Nightmare Before Christmas has ambitions beyond its childish audience. Produced by Tim Burton, though before he got all rubbish, the film is simultaneously perfect viewing for both Halloween and Christmas, and is ideal for entertaining any kids with ghoulish sensibilities (which tends to be all of them, really). More importantly, it’s great for entertaining absolutely anybody, from its beautiful stop motion animation to catchy songs and ingenious design.

Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s 1927 film was the first feature length sci-fi film ever made, and remains a startling vision today. Silent films can occasionally make gruelling viewing for modern audiences, but Metropolis is worth the effort. Some of its technical achievements remain impressive today, and its futuristic take on art deco architecture has been widely influential in the decades since its release. Netflix has both a standard re-issue of the film and a 1984 restoration scored by Giorgio Moroder. Stick to the original.

Annie Hall

Woody Allen remains one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers, and his back catalogue can appear slightly daunting. Annie Hall makes a great entry point, as both one of his best films and one that is representative of his style. Intelligent, thoughtful and absolutely hilarious, the film sees Allen’s Alvy Singer dissecting his relationship with the titular Annie Hall, played to perfection by Diane Keaton. If you’ve never seen any Woody Allen films before, watch this and prepare to fall in love with it.

Stand By Me

Hollywood seemingly has an endless capacity for coming of age films, but this adaptation of a Stephen King novella is one of the all-time greats. As a group of young boys set out to find a dead body in the woods, they grapple with friendship, expectations and growing up. Every man will see something of himself in at least one of the central kids, and the film speaks almost uniquely to the experience of being a young boy and facing up to the looming realities of adult life.

Cinema Paradiso

Admittedly one of the lesser known films on this list, this Oscar-winning Italian film shouldn’t be overlooked. Following a young boy’s experiences growing up in a rural Sicilian town in the ‘50s, the film is in many respects a love letter to cinema itself, but its appeal goes far beyond that. Poignant and touching, it’s unlikely to leave you with dry eyes by the end, with the major emotional beats pushed home in part by the exceptional score by Ennio Morricone, of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly fame. Don’t miss this one.

Pretty in Pink

There aren’t many rom-coms that most men will admit to enjoying, but Pretty in Pink is one of the few that might (and should) make the cut. One of the highlights of the ‘Brat Pack’ era, this John Hughes’ film comfortably rivals The Breakfast Club in both the comedy and drama stakes. It’s funny enough to serve as a great pick-me-up, and romantic enough to be an ideal date movie. Plus, James Spader absolutely steals the show as a scowling rich boy, and is worth the price of admission on his own.

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern masterpiece is dark, grimy and oppressive. It’s a hard film to summarize, but follows Daniel Day-Lewis as a prospector during the Californian oil boom at the turn of the century. Day-Lewis gives a towering performance that you won’t forget anytime soon, and the cinematography is flawless. Add in a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and you have arguably the best film of the last decade.

In Bruges

Occasionally a film comes along that just nails its tone perfectly, from beginning to end, and In Bruges is just such a film. It epitomizes the black comedy, equal parts tragedy and wit. Colin Farrell delivers a performance that few at the time thought him capable of, and his arc is genuinely moving. Writer/director Martin McDonagh went on to create the also-excellent Seven Psychopaths, but In Bruges is comfortably the better film, as it visits some truly dark places along the way to making you crack up.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s

One of Audrey Hepburn’s most famous roles, this film remains iconic, and for good reason. Ideal for the old-fashioned romantic lurking inside all of us, but grappling with darker themes than your average rom-com, it’s a film that rises above genre restrictions. One word of caution though: Mickey Rooney’s ‘yellowface’ portrayal of Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi is a relic of the time, an offensive caricature that modern viewers must learn to look past to enjoy the rest of the film.

Trainspotting

Director Danny Boyle’s grim take on a group of Glaswegian heroin addicts has a rep for being dark, difficult viewing. What people often forget is the film’s inventive direction and cinematography, from Renton’s (Ewan McGregor) hallucinatory visit inside a toilet to the memorable withdrawal scene towards the film’s end. The film is ultimately optimistic, but never afraid to face the realities of heroin use and the culture around it.

Let The Right One In

This Swedish vampire film deftly ignores almost every cliché of the genre you can imagine to deliver that rare thing: a film that feels utterly new. Don’t let the 12-year-old lead character fool you into thinking that this is in any way a childish film, as it instead offers a dark, nuanced and adult take on childhood bullying, with the supernatural presence used to expand on more relatable, human themes. There’s a perfectly capable English-language remake (Let Me In), but the Swedish original is by far your best bet.

Airplane!

Some comedies aim for credibility through sophistication or dark themes. Airplane! is not one of them. This disaster film parody is packed wall-to-wall with jokes, and takes pride in its occasionally simplistic humor. Almost every detail of the film feels planned to elicit laughs, and you’re likely to spot something new on every viewing. Airplane! is one of the funniest films of all time, and the perfect antidote to an excess of seriousness.

Amélie

This light-hearted, surrealist French comedy is sweet, uplifting and inventive. Audrey Tautou has been rightfully praised for the central performance, but it’s the script and direction that really shine here. There’s a touch of magical realism to Amélie’s colorful, bright world, and it’s ultimately hard not to love a film so utterly devoted to celebrating kindness.

The Graduate

The Graduate is now almost as famous for its Simon & Garfunkel-packed soundtrack as it is for the film itself, and it’s from this film that the duo’s famous hit ‘Mrs. Robinson’ came. Don’t let the music overshadow the movie, however, as it’s really something special in its own right. Dustin Hoffman plays a 20-year-old graduate who is seduced by an older woman, only to fall for her daughter. While that may not be what most people go through fresh out of college, the film perfectly captures the ennui a lot of people go through after graduation.

City of God

This tale of organized crime in the violent Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Cidade de Deus has had no shortage of critical acclaim, including four Oscar nominations. The dark depiction of violence and crime inside Brazil’s slums shows how hard it is to keep your hands clean of bloodshed when it’s all around you. It may be bleak at times, but it’s beautifully shot, and doesn’t let you go until the credits roll.

Escape from Alcatraz

This Clint Eastwood classic dramatizes what may have been the only successful escape from San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison, and is one of the ultimate prison movies. Eastwood reunites with Dirty Harry director Don Siegel as they explore the grim realities of prison life, and what it takes to risk an escape that might well mean death. It may not be as widely watched as Dirty Harry or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but this is another great example of why Eastwood remains an icon of ‘70s masculinity.

Zodiac

When it comes to David Fincher films, most modern men think of Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network. Film critics, however, often jump straight to Zodiac, his epic-scale thriller following San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer. Fincher reportedly spent 18 months researching the mystery serial killer to prepare for the film, and it shows in the meticulous detail throughout. Jake Gyllenhaal leads a cast which also includes Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Brian Cox, and the film serves as a reminder that no other modern director can make thrillers quite like Fincher.

Watch it Again:

You’ve probably seen these before, but there’s no harm in revisiting old favorites. And if you haven’t seen one of these? There’s no better time to fix that…

The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element tends to inspire a bit of a love/hate reaction in people. Some deride it as a campy, over-the top mess, while for others it’s a campy, over-the-top masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the less serious takes on grand sci-fi out there, but between the astonishing costuming (by Jean-Paul Gaultier, no less), the larger-than-life plot and a scenery-chewing turn from Gary Oldman, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

While I may often be found extolling the unappreciated virtues of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body of work, Terminator 2 is one of the few films of his that people don’t often need convincing of. Even the Austrian man-mountain’s fiercest detractors tend to admit that this sci-fi sequel from director James Cameron (Aliens, Avatar) is one of the genre’s greats. Sure, it’s an action flick first and foremost, but it remains smart throughout, and gave us one of cinema’s biggest female badasses in Sarah Connor, which is enough to make it worth celebrating by itself.

Wayne’s World

The Nightmare Before Christmas may be aimed at kids, but it’s Wayne’s World that’s truly juvenile, but with a wit rarely seen in films of its ilk. Arguably Mike Myers’ crowning achievement, this comedy about a public-access TV host with a rock music obsession boasts a near-perfect combination of referential, absurdist and downright crude humor. It may not look sophisticated, but there’s a surprising amount of intelligence behind Wayne’s World, and its influence can be felt in a hell of a lot of comedies made since.

Pulp Fiction

It’s likely no surprise to see a Tarantino film make this list, and Netflix boasts what remains the director’s most iconic output. Unlike the simple setup of Reservoir Dogs (also on Netflix, and well worth a watch), Pulp Fiction features the complex interweaving plots and jumbled narratives seen in much of the director’s later work, while building pop cultural references into integral positions in the story. Whether or not this is Tarantino’s best film, it remains the purest distillation of his now infamous style.

A London-dwelling philosophy graduate with a penchant for films, gaming, and technology, with the occasional bit of tennis thrown in there.

  • Spencer Jenkins

    Good list! In particular I’d recommend Zodiac. It’s a long movie, so buy yourself a sixer of good beer, make a sandwich, and settle in for it. It’s by far my favorite movie of Fincher’s. It’s one of those movies that sticks around in your head for two weeks afterwards.

  • TCM

    I’m surprised “Good Morning Vietnam” isn’t on the list. Fantastic film with Robin Williams. Also, no documentaries? “Senna” is by far one of the best on Netflix right now, even if you don’t like cars and F1 racing.

  • jbird669

    Great list, but due to Woody Allen’s antics, I refuse to watch his films.

  • Amy Lloyd

    Found a pretty good list that appears to get updated Monthy – or at least it has for October and November http://www.vunify.com/netflix

  • Hagbard Celine

    Snowpiercer is a fantastic film. Especially if you love trains.

  • Sidney Ricketts

    Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. All I have to say.

  • Christopher

    Great list! City of God especially. One of the best films I have ever experienced.

    • FIlip

      I second that. I also recommend Amores Perros, Days of Heaven, Nebraska, Battle Royale, Short Term 12, and the classic 12 Angry Men,