There is too much streaming content these days. There, I said it. For all the handwringing about Max canceling this movie and Paramount+ erasing that show from human memory, the onrush of new entertainment still outpaces our ability to take it all in. Your backlog is probably already huge—and those are just the movies you know about. Because thanks to the increasingly fragmented media landscape, there are plenty of them you have never heard of—even if you consider yourself a film buff.
Netflix in particular has proven itself a leader in spending a ton of cash to produce or acquire films and then doing absolutely nothing to let you know they exist, other than dropping them on streaming and leaving them to the whims of the algorithm. Even films with big stars and accomplished directors have seemingly vanished into the cloud, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of rediscovery. Here are 25 largely unheralded “Netflix Originals” that are definitely worth adding to your queue.
Though Numa Perrier’s film hits plenty of the traditional rom-com beats, lead Gabrielle Union provides the spark that ignites the whole film. She’s never been better than she is here, playing Jenna, a woman in her 40s making a clean break of a long-term relationship and taking on a high-profile, high-stakes career on beauty journalism…only to wind up in a one-night stand with Eric (Keith Powers), 15 years younger and the son of her boss. If some of the beats are familiar, it’s smartly written and acted—just a lot of fun.
From the true story of competitive swimmers Yusra and Sarah Mardini, The Swimmers smartly kicks off by offering up scenes from the very typical teenaged life of the sisters in Damascus in the clead-in to the Syrian civil war, a conflict that saw millions flee the country. Their talents as swimmers helped them save the lives of others on a raft to Lesbos, before the two joined the first Refugee Olympics Team. It’s dramatic, for sure, but also plays as a celebration of the sisters’ bravery and desire for better lives.
When nursing assistant Ruth (a fabulous Melanie Lynskey) comes home to find that she’s been burglarized, she sets out with her neighbor (Elijah Wood) to get her stuff back, and get revenge, in the most incompetent manner possible. as a vigilante farce, it isn’t quite Coen-brothers level, but it hits a lot of those beats while alternately challenging and confirming our worst instincts about our fellow humans.
With (very likely) the most stunning cinematography of any film on this list, the period drama (inspired, in small part, by Amadeus) follows singer Qala Manjushree (Tripti Dimri), whose twin brother was stillborn, a tragedy that her mother, Uremia (Swastika Mukherjee) has never recovered from. Uremia raised Qala to follow in her father’s musical footsteps, but has never entirely forgiven her daughter for surviving. There are big emotional beats, but at its heart the film is a finely observed portrait of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, one that never ignores the societal misogyny that complicates their lives even further.
Based on Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 children’s novel of the same name, and geared toward even younger audiences than the other all-ages animated movies on this list, My Father’s Dragon still has plenty to recommend it to just about anyone…along with more emotional intelligence than many movies made for adults. In the film, a boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) and his shopkeeper mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) leave their tight-knit town in favor of a bigger city…though the promise of better circumstances doesn’t quickly materialize. Elmer’s patience is rewarded, though, when a talking cat invites him to take a beautiful, candy-colored adventure. The movie is from the director of the The Breadwinner, set in modern-day Afghanistan, and Carton Saloon, production company behind animated movies like the beautiful Irish folktale, Wolfwalkers.
OK, the metaphor is a little heavy-handed: in a large tower, euphemistically referred to as the “Vertical Self-Management Center,” food is delivered in a shaft that stops on each floor from the top down: those near the top get to eat their fill; those at the bottom get scraps. The Spanish-language thriller is wildly violent, but inventive, and it’s not as if real-life capitalism is particularly subtle in its deprivations.
Whether it’s The Bear, The Menu, or Triangle of Sadness, some of the most intense dramas on TV and in film are centered around preparing or eating food. Restaurant-related anxiety is deep in the zeitgeist right now, perhaps reflecting our deep understanding that the food is running low, whether we care to acknowledge it or not. Here, Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays Ayo, a young woman working in a family noodle shop who finds a mentor in the dictatorial Chef Paul (Nopachai Chaiyanam). It’s worth it, she figures, even as her climb exposes her to a world for which she’s not prepared.
Camila Mendes and Maya Hawke star in this dark teen comedy, loosely based on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, that also takes aim at the teen comedies of yore. Think Scream, but for fans of She’s All That and Mean Girls. It’s filled with references, but the comedy is biting enough that it stands on its own among classics of the “high school is hell” genre.
This one wasn’t completely ignored, at least among genre fans, but still deserves more eyes than it got. And, as fraught as the term “elevated horror” has become, it’s a good reminder that a movie can have deep emotional resonance and a social conscience without sacrificing the haunted-house chills. Here, Bol and Rial (Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku), with their daughter, Nyagak flee war-torn Sudan to find refuge in a quiet English town, only to find that there’s evil waiting there for them.
As with His House, this Bong Joon-Ho film wasn’t exactly ignored, particularly after the director’s follow-up, Parasite, won one of the best-justified Best Picture Oscars in recent memory. Still, a Korean-language sci-fi fantasy about a girl and her genetically modified pig isn’t necessarily the easiest sell. The darkly whimsical film that challenges the norms of the American meat industry is very much its own thing, but fans of Parasite will recognize Bong’s mix of dark comedy, action, and hard-to-ignore social commentary.
Tommy Wirkola, director of the recent David Harbour Christmas-themed action movie Violent Night and the upcoming Spermageddon, helmed this high-concept science fiction story about the perils of overpopulation. In the near-ish future, a one-child policy sees spare kids frozen cryogenically until such a time as they can be either become colonists on another planet, or until Earth finds more resources…whichever comes first. Think Children of Men, but just a bit goofier. Glenn Close is in charge of enforcing the policy, while Willem Dafoe plays the grandfather of identical septuplets. He comes up with a plan to keep all the kids out of the freezer: they’ll take turns playing at being the same person (Noomi Rapace, in multiple roles). Ridiculous, but fun—and somehow flew under the radar, despite the major star power.
Idris Elba heads up this film based on the real-life Fletcher Street Riding Club, a one-time Philadelphia institution that’s been keeping the history of Black cowboys alive for over a century by teaching Black youth skills related to horse training and care. Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things) and Lorraine Toussaint join Elba for an impressively acted, feel-good story about a father and son reconnecting.
From a book by Lois Lowry (The Giver), computer-animated fantasy The Willougbys follows the kids (Will Forte, Alessia Cara, and Seán Cullen—playing twins) of a couple of thoughtless parents (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) who really couldn’t care less. Luckily, Maya Rudolph is on hand as the unconventional nanny who shepherds the kids through a series of adventures in an occasionally grim, but mostly very fun story about the value of found family. The quirky animation style—crafted by the folks who made Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2—has a stop-motion feel that truly stands out.
Director Daniel Goldhaber (the upcoming How to Blow Up a Pipeline) teamed up with writer Isa Mazzei, who based this Black Mirror-esque story partly on her own memoir. Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black) plays online sex worker Alice Ackerman, aka Lola_Lola, who once night discovers there’s another Lola out there…a cam girl who’s identical to Alice in appearance and general vibe, but whose willingness to go further puts her out in front in terms of viewership. It’s a horror movie with a lot to say about the dehumanization of sex workers, with a great central performance from Brewer.
Through an unconventional lens, Shirkers deals with the promise and peril of confronting the past. In 1992, three friends in Singapore (Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique) made a film called Shirkers, with some help from the film teacher who quickly absconded with the finished product and was never heard from again. Following the man’s death, the film was returned to Sandi Tan, who used it to create this fascinating documentary.
What’s this? Oh, just screen legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda paired in a well-reviewed romantic drama from a top-rate director (Ritesh Batra, of The Lunchbox and The Sense of an Ending). It’s sweet, despite the ominous title, but worthy of its stars. Why haven’t you heard all about it?
A brisk, chilling, and effective gothic horror film starring Ruth Wilson as a live-in nurse who comes to believe that the creaky old house where she works is haunted. Director Osgood Perkins had similar success with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Gretel & Hansel.
Oscar-winner Hillary Swank, Rose Byrne, and Clara Rugaard star in this thriller following a young girl, named only “Daughter,” who grows up in a post-apocalyptic bunker while being cared for by the titular robot, Mother. Daughter encounters a Woman (Swank) from the surface world who makes the younger woman question everything her robo-mom has ever told her (robots might be less benevolent than we think? This is the first I’m hearing of it). Consider it a more explicitly sci-fi warm-up for M3GAN.
Roald Dahl’s very much in the news lately, which does little to detract from the slightly naughty charm of this dance-heavy adaptation of the classic character. Alisha Weir stars as Matilda, alongside Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch. This one got more buzz in the U.K., where it got a major theatrical release. In the U.S., you probably missed it unless you logged into Netflix on Christmas Day, when it was released. (The streamer was busier promoting Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.)
Chris Williams, an animator who’s either directed or had a hand in some of the best of the last decade (Bolt, Big Hero 6, Moana, etc.) about a young woman who stows away on the ship of a legendary monster hunter (Karl Urban). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award, so it’s perhaps not that obscure, but still seems to have gotten lost amid last year’s major animated releases.
Completely overlooked until it made a couple of year-end best-of lists (and an Oscars shortlist), Taiwanese import A Sun is a masterful tale of two brothers, one a highly placed med school student and the other a juvenile delinquent, who gradually come to take each other’s place in their parents’ minds. The result is a genuinely moving meditation on the cost of expectations.
Writer/director Alice Wu made a splash with her queer classic Saving Face way back in 2004. Her followup, a comedy-drama inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac (friendless high schooler Ellie Chu is tasked with writing love letters to her crush, Aster, on behalf of a football player) is better.
This broody mystery had the bad luck to come out in the wake of the much more fun Glass Onion, but it’s still a compelling (and twisty) historical mystery with Christian Bale’s retired and troubled detective teaming up with young West Point cadet Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling, who’s great) to solve a case involving dead students and creepy occult signifiers.
It’s a movie about a giant troll that wreaks havoc on the way to Oslo. I really don’t know what else you need to know, but there are a lot of ways for that sort of thing to go wrong. Troll mostly avoids the pitfalls, with solid special effects and character work just good enough to keep things from feeling too entirely silly. It’s a European take on the kaiju movie, and a well-made one at that.
From Attack on Titan and Death Note director Tetsurô Araki and an all-star creative team, Bubble finds Tokyo cut off from the rest of the world when reality-bending bubbles rain down on the city (shades of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, perhaps). Anime fans were almost certainly on the lookout for the gorgeous, parkour-infused love story, but anyone who loves animation (or great sci-fi films in general) should check it out.