There’s never been a better time to chill out on the couch and put on a great movie. People are ditching traditional free-to-air TV and cinema, instead staying at home both to save a buck and avoid the hassle of having to go out. This has given rise to subscription video on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix. We’ve highlighted the worst movies to watch on Netflix, but if you’re strapped for time, you don’t want to be stuck watching something you hate. At the same time, Netflix’s huge log of movies makes it a nightmare for an indecisive person – such as this author – to decide what to sit down and watch.
Back in the day you paid $5 for an overnight video rental, so you were pretty much pigeonholed into watching it. Nowadays Netflix gives you possibly too much choice, and all for a low price. At Canstar Blue, we endeavour to help people make better-informed decisions about what they’re buying, and movies are no exception. Here’s a list of the top 10 movies to watch on Netflix, and it’s unashamedly subjective.
10) Mystic River
Not to be confused with the teen flick ‘Mystic Pizza’, Mystic River is definitely something that you wouldn’t want your pre-teen daughter to be watching at a slumber party. A Clint Eastwood directing masterpiece, Mystic River is a movie with no holds barred, and is likely a film you’ll remember forever.
Mystic River is set in dreary South Boston, a neighbourhood known for tough types and gritty streets. It’s a story of vengeance, and it’s beautifully violent. Eastwood takes the time to develop characters’ storylines, with the film’s 2hr 17min run time giving ample opportunity for the characters to flesh out, and tension to develop until the film’s final crescendo. Sean Penn plays the main character, Jimmy, and the film is one of his most iconic performances to date. Mystic River is based on the book of the same name, released in 2001 and penned by Dennis Lehane. The story remains largely true to its roots. It’s a moral/cop/vengeance thriller that’s gripping from start to finish.
9) The Babadook
If you’re a parent whose child has an imaginary friend or who claims monsters scare them, you might want to stay away from this one. The Babadook is an Aussie psychological horror film released in 2014. Directed by Jennifer Kent, the Babadook’s cinematographer Radek Ladczuk also did a marvellous job constructing beautiful shots, and somehow makes grim Adelaide neighbourhoods look starkly gorgeous.
The Babadook follows the story of single mum Amelia and her son Sam, whose overly active imagination turns out to be a reality. The film touches on the particularly haunting effects of insomnia, prescription pill abuse, and paranoia. It’s got all kinds of flavours to keep you hooked. And, there’s a huge almost laughable twist at the end. This author suspects this film is a huge metaphor for ‘The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’, and you won’t know what to believe by the end of it.
8) Back to the Future
A cult classic we all know and love, you’ll be wishing your car had a flux capacitor and more gigawatts all over again. As always, the first movie in the series is undoubtedly the best. While 2 and 3 are great, they can’t touch the first one for its perfectly timed storyline and unbeatable 1950s nostalgia trip. Netflix thankfully has all three available to watch, however there is rumour of the series being removed, so get in your Delorean and hit 88 miles an hour ASAP.
Directed by icon Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future is one of those films that transcends decades and can be enjoyed by the whole family, even today over 30 years later. It features Michael J Fox as the affable Marty McFly, a teenager persuaded by mad scientist ‘Doc’ – played by Christopher Lloyd – to head back in time to the year 1955. The ensuing caper is hilariously haphazard and endearing. Netflix has really nailed it by including the Back to the Future series in their line-up.
Trivia: What name does Lorraine mistakenly give Marty McFly back in 1955?
7) Amanda Knox – Netflix Original
Although not strictly a movie, Netflix’s own Amanda Knox documentary is as compelling as any of these other movies in the list. The documentary tells the story of Amanda Knox – an American exchange student in Italy whose housemate is murdered and the blame initially was laid squarely on Knox, albeit without any concrete evidence. However, it was Knox’s behaviour immediately after the murder that set the Italian police onto her – canoodling her new Italian boyfriend outside the crime scene, and being uncooperative and oddly unemotional. It’s a story of how police doggedly pursue someone without evidence, even when the cards are stacked up against their case.
Not only this, it’s also a story of how the British tabloids feasted on Knox and her dubious sexual history. Really, if you want to see journalism breaking all kinds of ethics, along with police ineptitude, this is the documentary for you. It’s a compelling watch, and even when the evidence points to ‘Not guilty’, you can’t help but feel that her odd behaviour was a front for something more sinister. Amanda Knox is a chilling documentary that Netflix has really gotten ‘just right’.
6) The Witness – Netflix Original
While we’re on the topic of Netflix Originals, The Witness is an understated yet compelling documentary you might have initially glossed over. The Witness follows the true story of the murder of young woman Kitty Genovese in a quiet Queens, New York neighbourhood in 1964. She was brutally stabbed in two separate frenzied attacks by the same perpetrator, and the most shocking fact of all was that up to 38 witnesses saw or heard the attacks, and did nothing. It’s a shocking case that shook New York City and prompted the birth of the 9-1-1 emergency calling system.
The documentary follows Bill Genovese – younger brother of Kitty – as he tries to piece together what really happened in 1964, and how it differs from his perception 50 years on. He states that the murder (understandably) changed his life, and he is willing to endure the pain to piece the puzzle together. Bill also discovers some unknown truths about Kitty that somewhat changed his perception of her as a bright and bubbly 20-something. It’s a slow-burning documentary that makes you think – definitely not one for light family viewing or one to watch before bed.
Supplementary reading: “Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case” by AM Rosenthal, a New York journalist at the time.
5) The Big Short
As we reach the halfway point of this list, why not emulate what the stock market did in 2008, and peak then crash? Only kidding, but the Big Short is a comedy/drama based on a true story that will make you think. It will get your blood boiling over the people and financial institutions that led to the greatest financial crisis in our lifetime. The Big Short follows one of the many GFC causes. Banks and lenders are selling subprime mortgages to unstable people who have almost no hope of paying it back. The banks are then packaging these mortgages up into bonds and selling them unscrupulously, with credit agencies in on the act too. The results are as you’d expect, and the main characters predict this.
It’s a film that will make you want to withdraw all your money, stash it under your pillow and go and live your life with some Tibetan Monks. If it weren’t for Margot Robbie explaining, you’d damn near need an economics degree to totally understand The Big Short. It’s a frustrating – yet powerful movie – with notable performances from Christian Bale and Steve Carell. It all ends on a chilling note and you will be left second guessing the pillars of capitalism and its downfalls.
4) Black Mass
If watching Mystic River didn’t extinguish your thirst for gritty Boston crime thrillers, Black Mass may be the remedy you need. After seeing Johnny Depp playing true-crime figurehead James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, you’ll want to turn off the TV and go have a shower after viewing. It’s dirty, it’s gritty, it’s bloody and oh-so insatiably addictive. The film follows Whitey’s rise to the top, with his Winter Hill Gang in South Boston. Whitey goes from small-time crook in the 1960s and 70s to one of the biggest kingpins in American crime history by the time the 1980s roll around – penny loafers and gold jewellery galore. It’s a cutthroat world, all aided by the hugely corrupt FBI Boston officer John Connolly – played by Aussie Joel Edgerton who is simply unforgettable, charming yet hateable. Whitey is just flat-out putrid, but you can’t look away.
If you became enamoured with the odd charm of South Boston in Mystic River, Black Mass will take it and stomp on it, leaving you to believe it’s a rat-infested hellhole. The gorgeous cinematography in this film will still leave you hooked on ‘Southy’, however. It’s like that rebel boy or girlfriend your parents warned you about; everyone is saying no, but you can’t help but say yes. What’s even better is, Black Mass is based on a true story, and is definitely not one for the kids.
Supplementary viewing: “Whitey: United States of America vs James J. Bulger” – documentary also on Netflix.
3) Hoop Dreams
Hoop Dreams is yet another gritty, endearing and classic documentary. It’s a sprawling, three-hour long masterpiece that follows the lives of two African American kids from rough suburbs in Chicago who have a knack for playing really good basketball. This is evident even from their young ages. They’re shipped off to a prestigious high school 90 minutes away. The school is predominately white and upper-class, but has an outstanding basketball program. The program is all spearheaded by a ruthless and results-driven head coach who runs the program more like a military academy.
Hoop Dreams doesn’t just juggle basketballs. It juggles questions of race, inequality, economic division and the importance of education. The boys don’t only have to juggle class and sports, they have to juggle poverty, crime and absent fathers – themes unfortunately all-too-common in African American life. The boys’ lives, although very similar, veer off in vastly different directions and the ending is not all sunshine and roses. Hoop Dreams is a 1994 classic directed by Steve James, and its three-hour runtime leaves no stone unturned. If you’re looking for the ultimate 1990s nostalgia trip with substance and style, Hoop Dreams could be the documentary for you. You’ll want to hit the court and blast your favourite Wu-Tang Clan album after watching it.
2) Good Will Hunting
If you haven’t got a sense that this author likes films set in Boston yet, then we’ve got news for you. Good Will Hunting is another all-time favourite that stars Matt Damon as a rebellious and reluctant genius roughhead from South Boston. Will Hunting (Damon) wants to just lead a normal life like his friends but his genius is inescapable.
Will’s life ebbs and flows as he largely avoids confronting his genius, until he meets a girl and fatherly figure. His love interest is played by Minnie Driver, whose oddball charm is irresistible. The most standout performer, however, is the late, great Robin Williams, whose character is a tortured-soul type psychologist who is frustrated by Will and wants to help him out. Good Will Hunting will have you nearly crying and then laughing, tugging at your heart strings until it ends on a cheeky note. It’s one of Williams’ finest performances ever, and the film cements his legacy as one of America’s greatest actors.
If you also haven’t guessed that this author likes thrillers and long movies yet, then I have some more news for you. Zodiac is another sprawling masterpiece – this time by dogged director David Fincher. Rumour is, he sometimes demanded up to 100 takes of the same scene to get it just right. The film stars an incredible line-up of Jake Gyllenhaal, playing cartoonist and journalist Robert Graysmith, Robert Downey Jr, playing enigmatic crime reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo, playing iconic homicide detective David Toschi. It’s another slow-burning, dialog-heavy film, and it’s based on a true story (again!).
The Zodiac was one of America’s most notorious serial killers of the 1960s and 70s. He killed couples in ‘lovers’ lanes’ in California and wrote to newspapers to boast about it and called police to report his own crimes. The murders are still unsolved today, and Fincher does a bang-up job of treading the line between preventing sensationalism and providing a thrilling story all at once. If you’re in it just for the violence, look elsewhere. While there is violence, Zodiac is more about the torturing investigation after the murders took place. The film spans from the first murder in 1968, all the way up to 1992 when some new information comes to light.
Zodiac builds tension slowly and sporadically enough to keep you hooked, and Fincher’s attention to detail for historical accuracy and scene accuracy is second to none. Think of the film in three parts – Toschi’s initial investigation, Avery’s reporting and decline, and Graysmith’s chase up of all the facts in hindsight. It’s a thriller, yet a thinker. Zodiac is one of the most comprehensive pieces detailing one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
Supplementary viewing “This is the Zodiac speaking” documentary that came with the original DVD.
While this list is incredibly subjective, we hope it gives you some idea as to what to watch next time you fire up Netflix. Though, it’s probably best to avoid watching these films on a stormy night alone, and they are best watched with the kids put to bed!