At first, the idea of Netflix – essentially a video rental site – making its own TV shows and films sounded bizarre. This simply wasn’t how the industry worked, right?
Wrong. Fuelled by its vast piles of subscriber money, Netflix now wields the power of a Hollywood studio. With the resources to buy in the best new shows, acquire beloved brands, commission its own original series and hire Brad Pitt and Will Smith to star in its movies, the company is currently creating some of the best streamable stuff around. In fact, some of the best stuff around full-stop.
We’ve scoured through Netflix’s hundreds of original series, documentaries and movies to pick out 26 favourites. If you’re struggling to find something brand new on which to feast your eyes, read on.
The Queen’s Gambit (S1)
It might have arrived with little fanfare, but The Queen’s Gambit might be Netflix’s best original series of 2020. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, it stars the excellent Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan with an almost otherworldly inclination for the game – not to mention a tendency for self-destructive behaviour.
Set mostly in the 1960s, the magnificent period details (so many gorgeous hotel lobbies!) and soundtrack occasionally bring to mind Mad Men, but this miniseries is much more focussed on a single character. Heart-wrenching, funny and evocative, its quality and attention to detail reminds us of Netflix’s superb early run original shows, where everything the company touched felt special.
I’m No Longer Here
When a deadly misunderstanding puts his life at risk, Mexican teenager Ulises finds himself exiled in New York, wandering lost and dreaming of his old life – but can he ever go back?
This electrifying, beautifully shot indie film explores the cholombiana subculture of Northeastern Mexico, centred around traditional cumbia music, dance, baggy clothes and outlandish haircuts, as well as the immigrant experience and the beginnings of the Mexican government’s violent crackdowns on drug cartels and their associated gangs. Despite its wide-ranging scope, it’s brilliantly held together by young lead actor Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño.
David Fincher’s stylish biopic of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz looks utterly gorgeous – its starkly-lit monochrome visuals echoing the cinematography of the Hollywood era it depicts. Gary Oldman leads a star-studded cast as the eponymous scribe, a hard-drinking, sardonic satirist who clashed with both Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the press baron who inspired Mankiewicz’s best-known screenplay and Welles’ best-know movie: Citizen Kane. Oldman is in typically fine form as the acid-tongued Mank, agile of wit but beset by inner demons.
The Crown (S1-4)
The Crown's appeal is partly down to the astronomical production values that have been instilled in this retelling of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Many millions have been invested in this period extravaganza, and that all adds up to a dizzying amount of convincing detail.
Even those of a staunchly republican bent will find themselves sucked in to the four full seasons, which chart a series of major national events as well as delve deeply into the personal lives of the Windsors and those surrounding them.
With a superb cast including Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Matt Smith, Helena Bonham-Carter and John Lithgow injecting plenty of humanity into their larger-than-life roles, it's rumoured that even the real-life monarch has become a fan.
I Think You Should Leave (S1)
Sketch shows are a bit like luncheon meat, tank tops and hostess trolleys: unwanted, outmoded relics from the 1970s. But I Think You Should Leave is proof positive that there’s life in the old format yet – it just needed a refreshing jolt of surrealism forced down its gullet.
Former Saturday Night Live star Tim Robinson co-writes and appears (along with a parade of familiar guest faces) in a collection of crude, inventive and ultimately hilarious skits that rarely end up where you expect them to. A second season soon, please!
The Last Dance (S1)
Arguably the biggest team sporting icon in history, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a series of NBA championships in the 1990s. By 1998, however, it seemed like the Bulls’ era of dominance – and Jordan’s place at its heart – was in real danger as backroom intrigue started to take a toll. This engrossing, masterfully made 10-part documentary tells the story not just of that fateful season but of Jordan’s rise from green rookie to global superstar, and of how the Bulls planned and built their hegemony after years of underachievement.
The Last Dance will appeal not only to basketball and sport fans, but to anybody who appreciates a story well told and a glimpse into the strangely singular mind of mercilessly driven individuals like Jordan. Those looking for a nostalgic trip back to the 90s won’t be disappointed either – the era-appropriate soundtrack is superb.
A jeweller addicted to gambling and danger darts around 2012 New York in this frenetic drama from indie darlings Josh and Benny Safdie. The brothers’ shaky, handheld camera gives us an up-close window on this anti-hero’s attempts to juggle the demands of his celebrity clients, wife, mistress and a circling group of loan sharks.
If you’re looking for a relaxing watch, Uncut Gems ain’t it – the camerawork, Daniel Lopatin’s electronic score and Adam Sandler’s fantastic lead performance (he’s always found it easy playing a man teetering on the edge – but mostly in bad films) conjure a feeling of unease and anxiety that barely lets up over the two-hour running time. It’s delirious, manic, vital stuff: Netflix’s finest film since Roma, and Sandler’s best performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.
The Irishman isn’t just Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the world of organised crime, it also unites the cinematic Holy Trinity of tough guy gangster movie stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and an out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. Kind of like The Expendables, but with people who can actually act – and it’s undeniably great to see these legendary thesps delivering the best work of their late careers.
With a story spanning decades (this movie is showcase for how far CG de-aging technology has come – and perhaps proof that there’s still room for improvement) the film explores the events leading up to the disappearance of mercurial union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), a powerful figure with links to the mob and mainstream politics. It’s mainly told through the recollections of De Niro’s eponymous “Irishman” Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who becomes first a thief and then a ruthless enforcer for both Hoffa and Pesci's Russell Bufalino, a Philadelphia mafia boss.
The Witcher (S1)
Henry Cavill ditches Superman’s cape for Geralt’s white ponytail in this adaptation of the Polish fantasy novel series. If you’ve played any of the hugely successful video games, you’ll know what to expect: a hearty mix of monster slaying, mean people in taverns, potion-quaffing, grim-dark medieval warfare, swearing and nudity.
If that sounds like Netflix's answer to Game of Thrones, it could very well end up being that. The first season is enjoyable low fantasy fare that skilfully introduces characters like Ciri and Yennefer and sets up storylines, and Netflix has already commissioned a second. This could be the beginning of an epic series that, like GoT, is able to capture the attention of geeks and mainstreamers alike.
Always Be My Maybe
Calling this “Netflix’s best original romantic comedy” might sound like damning it with faint praise – let’s face it, the competition isn’t particularly strong. But Always Be My Maybe is an always enjoyable, sometimes hilarious riff on the well-worn genre starring (and written by) the intensely likeable Ali Wong and Randall Park.
It’s about two childhood friends, unexpectedly reunited many years after an awkward falling out, their lives having diverged onto wildly different paths in the intervening period. You can probably predict the ending from the first reel, but it’s the route we take to get there that’s important, and it’s always an enjoyable one – particularly when a certain beloved Matrix megastar proves himself an excellent sport in a scene-stealing guest appearance. Whoa.
Stranger Things (S1-3)
Stranger Things is a love letter to many of the movies, TV shows and books that children who grew up in the 1980s will cherish: it’s replete with references to E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons and Poltergeist, packed with period music, and the mood and feel is sure to dredge up nostalgia aplenty.
Take away the retro vibes and the show still stands up as a fine sci-fi drama-thriller, concerning a small town, a missing boy and his friends and family’s attempts to find him - at least, that's the first season, and there are now two more on offer. And such is the popularity of Stranger Things, we can see a few more arriving in the next few years.