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.
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.
Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal and Charlie Hunnam play ex-special forces troopers robbing a ruthless Colombian cocaine baron in one of Netflix’s biggest original movies of 2019, and it has all the makings of a doozy.
Aside from the star-spangled cast and the promise of lots of explosions, it’s stylishly directed by auteur JC Chandor from a script by the writer of The Hurt Locker – so sharp character work and heartfelt drama season the thrills and spills as our heroes weigh their post-combat lives – and their principals – against a big pile of drug money.
Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray Romano gives an uncharacteristically understated performance in this low key indie comedy, playing the neighbour and friend of the equally impressive Mark Duplass. The duo’s quiet, enjoyably mundane routine of martial arts movies, jigsaw puzzles, pizza and their invented pastime of “paddleton” is cruelly disrupted by a terminal cancer diagnosis – and a subsequent momentous decision.
What might have been a depressing, overwrought domestic drama instead serves as a beautifully unsentimental and utterly convincing depiction of male friendship.
Russian Doll (S1)
The brainchild of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, this comic drama series is like Groundhog Day by way of Girls: an acerbic, substance-abusing New York video game designer (Lyonne) finds herself living the same day over and over, repeatedly dying in increasingly bizarre accidental deaths merely to wake up once again in a bathroom at her own birthday party. Has she taken something trippy, simply lost her mind – or is there something more profound at work?
Funny, outrageous and inventive, this is precisely the type of series that cuts through the piles of cookie cutter filler now accumulating on streaming services – a reminder of those halcyon days when every Netflix-made series was a top notch banger. At just eight half-hour episodes, it’s also refreshingly brisk, so you won’t need to live the same day over and over just to get it finished…
By some stretch the best Netflix-produced movie yet, Roma is its first movie to make the Hollywood establishment really sit up and take notice. The evidence? Its ten 2019 Academy Award nominations, which resulted in wins for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film.
As you’d expect from Alfonso Cuarón, previously responsible for the likes of Gravity and Children of Men, Roma is both immensely impressive on a technical level (beautifully shot by Cuarón himself in black and white) and emotionally rich, resulting in a movie that’s every bit as powerful as anything made primarily for the cinema screen. Inspired by Cuarón’s own childhood in Mexico City, the film follows an indigenous maid to a wealthy middle-class family as she experiences a series of events – at first, seemingly unlinked, but which create a moving tapestry that expertly blends life on a personal and macro scale.
“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
This drama series tracks the efforts of two FBI agents to better understand the inner workings of serial killers’ minds. It was a field of research not considered useful by law enforcement top brass in the late 1970s, when the show is set, but our protagonists believe that learning how murderers’ brains function is key to being able to catch them.
If the subject matter sounds overly grim, don’t worry – Mindhunter isn’t all doom and gloom, being peppered with moments of comedy (often black comedy, admittedly) and underpinned by the interesting dynamic of the main characters’ often-strained relationship.
Helmed by True Detective co-creator Cary Joji Fukunaga, Maniac stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as emotionally damaged strangers who, desperately seeking solace from their tortured psyches, enter a strange experimental drug programme.
This trial plunges the pair’s minds into fantastical situations, each designed to force them into facing down their fears – but as you can probably guess, things don’t quite go to plan. It’s powerful, thought-provoking stuff, and its recreation of modern day New York – set in a parallel universe, seemingly – is a visual triumph.
The Haunting of Hill House (S1)
Horror movie maestro Mike Flanagan nails the tricky transition to television with this glossy 10-part ghost yarn about a weird old mansion and its effect on a seemingly regular family who moves in.
Flitting deftly between the past and present, it’s as much a family melodrama as it is a horror story, delving into the troubled adult lives of five siblings and the traumatic childhood events that shaped them. Horror aficionados needn’t fret, however: there’s plenty of supernatural creepiness on show – we just get a heap of context to go along with those jump scares.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
This brisk and breezy teen rom-com makes for a welcome antidote from the usual Netflix Original fare of gross-out comedies or gloomy sci-fi epics.
Based on the insanely beloved YA novel by Jenny Han, it tells the story of a reserved high school girl whose life is turned upside down when the secret love letters she’s written to her various crushes – never intended to be sent – end up in said crushes’ hands.
Aside from the ensuing crippling embarrassment, the main issue is that one of the boys is her sister’s ex, sparking off a series of events including subterfuge, jealousy, heartbreak, self-discovery and, eventually, true love. Awwww.
Better Call Saul (S1-4)
The best spinoff since Frasier puts the spotlight on Breaking Bad’s sleazy-yet-likeable lawyer Saul, in a series (now four seasons deep) that begins seven years before Walter White’s descent into crime and mayhem.
Bob Odenkirk slips into Saul’s garish suit with remarkable ease, and his superb performance allows his character's desperation, tenacity and humour to seep through the screen and grab our attention with both hands.
It's always easy to root for the underdog, and from the very first episode you're right there alongside Goodman, wanting him to fight to the top - all the while being aware of the dark things to come.