Video-streaming service Netflix gives you a vast number of films, TV shows and documentaries to choose from – and that can be a problem.
More often than not, you find yourself spending your entire evening shuffling through the selection trying to pick something suitable – before realising that you no longer have time to actually watch a film.
Never fear. We’ve rifled through the Netflix catalogue to bring you our top picks, from side-splitting comedies to action-packed adventures. Let Stuff be the sherpa on your cinematic journey.
PART 1: NETFLIX ORIGINALS
The Crown (S1-5)
Ranking as one of Netflix’s finest original series to date, The Crown is a glossy but grown-up retelling of Queen Elizabeth II’s early years. Over £100 million was invested in this extravaganza, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith (and later Olivia Coleman, Tobias Menzies, Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce), and that all adds up to a swanky amount of period detail.
Even those of a staunchly republican bent might find themselves sucked in to the two full seasons, which chart a series of major national events as well as delve deeply into the personal lives of the royal family, and the pressures they face as the public personifications of an entire country.
Russian Doll (S1-2)
The brainchild of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, this comic drama series feels like Groundhog Day by way of Girls: prickly, substance-abusing New York video game designer Nadia (Lyonne) finds herself living the same day over and over, repeatedly dying in increasingly bizarre accidents merely to wake up once again in a bathroom at her own birthday party. Has she lost her mind, or is there something more profound at work?
Better Call Saul (S1-6)
Everyone’s favourite sleazy-yet-likeable lawyer Saul Goodman (well, Jimmy McGill) returns to Netflix, in a series (now in fact four series, with a fifth on the way) that throws us back seven years before the explosive events of Breaking Bad.
Bob Odenkirk slips into his cheap 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 fun 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 while being aware of the dark things to come. Yet another belting Netflix Original.
The Queen’s Gambit (S1)
Despite arriving with little fanfare, The Queen’s Gambit may well be Netflix’s best original series of 2020. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as chess champion Beth Harmon, a child prodigy with a preternatural inclination for the game – as well as a tendency for addictive behaviour. Set mostly in the 1960s, the sumptuous period details (so many gorgeous hotel lobbies!) and soundtrack occasionally bring to mind Mad Men, but this series has a necessarily more focussed approach to telling its story. Inspiring, funny and evocative, this is a character-driven success that reminds us of Netflix’s superb early run of original shows.
The Last Dance (S1)
Arguably the biggest sporting icon of all time, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a series of NBA championships in the 1990s, was the face of one of history’s most popular sneaker ranges and the star of a Hollywood movie. By 1998, however, it seemed like the Bulls’ era of dominance – and Jordan’s place at its heart – was in the balance. 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.
Stranger Things (S1-4)
Only 80s kids will understand this. Actually that’s not true at all, but Stranger Things is a love letter to many of the movies, TV shows and books that children who grew up in that decade will cherish: it’s replete with references to E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons and Poltergeist, and the mood and feel is sure to dredge up nostalgia aplenty.
Take away the retro vibes though, and the show can still stand on its own as a decent sci-fi drama-thriller. And it doesn’t mess about too much – unlike a lot of Netflix Original Series, its episodes are reasonably tight (around 40 minutes each), and there are only eight of them in the entire fantastic first season, and nine in the (almost as enjoyable) second.
I Think You Should Leave (S1-2)
Sketch shows, once kings of TV comedy, have fallen out of favour of late. But I Think You Should Leave is proof positive that there’s plenty of life left in the old format: it just needed a refreshing jolt of weirdness.
Former Saturday Night Live cast member Tim Robinson co-writes and appears (along with a parade of familiar guest faces like Bob Odenkirk, Tim Heidecker and Andy Samberg) in a collection of crude, inventive and hilarious skits that rarely end up where you expect them to. The humour usually comes from a character “committing to the bit” by taking a social miscue or bizarre personality trait to extremes. It sounds simple enough, but Robinson and co have done nothing less than reinvent the comedy skit.
Featuring some of the most bum-clenchingly tense scenes witnessed on a TV screen since Breaking Bad, Ozark follows Jason Bateman and Laura Linney’s squabbling Chicago couple as they launder money for a brutal and merciless drug cartel. When Bateman’s put-upon financial advisor happens on a risky plan to “wash” the dirty cash in rural Missouri, he and his family must immediately up sticks for a brand new life in one of America’s most deprived places. All of a sudden, murderous Mexican narco-barons become just one of many problems for the family.
Filmed in muted, washed-out tones with bags of brooding and squalor on show, Ozark doesn’t always make for a pretty watch. But if you like your drama series perpetually poised on a knife edge, it’ll be right up your street.
Squid Game (S1)
Subtitle-haters are missing out if they choose to avoid this dark drama series on account of it being Korean (yes, we know you can watch it dubbed into English, but please… don’t do that). The gripping story of a heartless life-or-death tournament in which desperate contestants compete in souped-up playground games for the prospect of a fat winner’s cheque, Squid Game has already become not only one of Netflix’s most popular foreign language series, but its most popular debut series full stop. A grim commentary on late capitalism and how it encourages screwing each other over to get by? Sure, but it’s also entertaining as hell.
Black Mirror (S1-5)
Black Mirror has made the move from Channel 4 to Netflix in sumptuous, unsettling style.
Not only has the platform given Charlie Brooker and his team the freedom to tell more stories (the two Netflix-made series have six episodes rather than the usual three) and let each one run without ad breaks for as long as it needs to, it’s also given them a budget big enough to expand the scale, scope and special effects.
The feature-length final episode, Hated in the Nation, is a perfect case in point. What hasn’t changed is the overall theme. Each episode may tell a standalone story, but they’re all connected by the threads of modern humanity’s relationship with technology, the internet and social media.
Make no mistake, this is unnerving stuff, enhanced by the fact that the stories are generally set in a very near future that’s all too recognisable. But fear not, the trademark blacker-than-black humour has also been retained, so you’ll guffaw almost as much as you’ll squirm. This is must-see television for anyone who’s obsessed with tech.
BoJack Horseman (S1-6)
A Netflix exclusive, this animated series features Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett as the titular Horseman, a, er, “horse man” who enjoyed success while in a popular 1990s sitcom but now lives in a haze of booze and self-loathing as a washed-up former star.
Set in a skewed version of Hollywood in which humans live alongside anthropomorphic animals, BoJack Horseman features a strong cast (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul plays BoJack’s best friend Todd) and strong writing, and there are now five seasons plus two specials available: perfect for binging.
Sex Education (S1-3)
Using the word “raunchy” to describe a comedy-drama series makes us feel like 1970s tabloid journalists, but what better term to sum up a bunch of teenage sexcapades tied up by a fun plot and relatable, well-rounded and likeable characters? We’ll be calling it a “romp” next (which it also is) – but Sex Education is a genuinely inventive, engaging, insightful and occasionally moving series, and extremely easy to binge-watch.
Cobra Kai (S1-5)
A series that started life on YouTube Red as a giggle-worthy, nostalgia-fuelled spin-off of The Karate Kid movies, Cobra Kai is now firmly established as a fan-pleasing comedy-action-drama that arguably surpasses the beloved films that inspired it.
Back in the 80s, few could have imagined Karate Kid villain Johnny Lawrence being the nuanced, relatable protagonist of his own TV show over three decades later, but here we are. Johnny is just one of several characters from the movies now firmly ensconced in this new life, and being given far more depth as a result.
Orange Is the New Black (S1-7)
Arguably Netflix’s second-best original series after House of Cards, this is a prison show that goes its own way: less brutal than Oz, less daft than Prison Break and more compelling than Prisoner Cell Block H, it’s a fish-out-of-water drama (based on a true story) in which a white, middle-class Brooklynite ends up in a low-security women’s jail for a crime committed almost a decade previous.
A character-driven show that uses Lost-style flashbacks to explore the pre-prison lives of the cast, Orange Is the New Black proved such a hit that it spawned a full seven seasons.
David Fincher’s slick period drama series follows the efforts of two FBI agents to better understand how serial killers think. This sort of profiling wasn’t considered useful by law enforcement top brass in the late 1970s (when the first season of the show is set) but our protagonists believe that working out how murderers’ brains function is the key to stopping them.
If this all sound overly grim, don’t worry – Mindhunter isn’t all doom and gloom, being peppered with moments of comedy (often black, admittedly) and underpinned by the dynamic of the main characters’ strained relationship. It sadly appears to have been put on permanent hiatus since its second season, but rumours of a revival simply won’t go away. Fingers crossed.
Arrested Development (S1-5)
Dysfunctional families have been done to death on both the big screen and TV, but the Bluths are up there with the most self-centred, destructive and, well, downright hilarious bunch of the lot.
Straight man George Bluth desperately tries to keep his family and fortune intact as their company is hit by the US government for embezzlement.
Superb performances from the likes of David Cross, coupled with tonnes of re-quote potential make this a must-watch. It gets a little lost after the first three seasons thanks to the actors’ other projects clashing with filming, but a recent “remix” re-edit of the poorly-received fourth season and a new fifth season have sparked interest in the Bluths once more.
PART 2: FILMS
The movie that did more than any other to spark the West’s obsession with anime and manga, this Japanese cyberpunk classic – a tale of teenage biker gangs, political upheaval and creepy wizened psychic children played out against the backdrop of sprawling, crumbling megalopolis Neo-Tokyo – remains eminently watchable over 30 years after its release. The hand-painted animation is stunning, the grimy dystopian setting evocative and the soundtrack unforgettable. Very few animated movies have aged as well as Akira, or proved as influential. Our advice: watch this before Hollywood’s upcoming live action reimagining wrecks everything.
Not many horror movies get nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, but then Get Out isn’t your average formulaic slasher flick or ghost story – even if it features gallons of gore and isn’t short on otherworldly creepiness.
This is a satirical, genre-bending film that succeeds both as a straight-up scary movie and as a wry, insightful take on race and, as you’d expect from a film written and directed by Jordan Peele, it’s at times extremely funny. Add in Daniel Kaluuya’s fantastic lead performance (also Oscar-nominated) and its box office smash status, and you can see why it attracted the Academy’s attention. But hey: who needs Oscar’s seal of approval when you have Stuff’s?
The Irishman isn’t just Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the world of organised crime, it also unites the cinematic Great Triumvirate 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 several 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 delves into the mysterious disappearance of mercurial union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), who had links to both mainstream politics and the mob. It’s mainly told through the recollections of De Niro’s eponymous “Irishman” Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who becomes an enforcer for both Hoffa and Russell Bufalino, the mafia boss played by Pesci.
Call Me By Your Name
Taking place in the early 1980s over one hazy summer in Italy, Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story about an seemingly precocious teenager (Timothée Chalamet) who falls for an older American guest (Armie Hammer) at his family’s holiday home.
To reveal more would risk spoiling this wonderful movie, which drifts warmly, fuzzily and lazily along – just like those remembered summertimes of our youth. Evocative, funny and bittersweet, it conveys a universality and humanity that sets it among the best indie films of the past few years.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Clocking in at a butt-numbing 161 minutes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tends to elicit one of two reactions: unadulterated Tarantino worship or complaints of terminal boredom. As usual, a more considered response probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, there are looooong scenes of seemingly inconsequential dialogue that feel needlessly indulgent, QT’s weird obsession with women’s feet is more in-your-face than ever, and you’ll need a strong constitution to stomach the violence when it comes, but when have any of these things put people off his films before? Glossy, glitzy, cool, self-indulgent – it’s an event movie you probably shouldn’t miss.
Ang Lee’s meditative tale of a secretive, decades-long romance between two rugged American shepherds has lost little of its power in the years since its release. Quietly heart-wrenching, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted by Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger, to call it ‘the gay cowboy movie’ is a ghastly oversimplification. The freedom the pair feel together in the vast open spaces of the American West is juxtaposed with the suffocating claustrophobia of their home lives, and Ledger’s performance in particular as the stoic Ennis Del Mar, able to convey so much with so few words, is a career best.
Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winner showcases Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking at its very best: magical, thought-provoking and utterly absorbing. While the average Western animated movie is dubbed sophisticated if it throws in a couple of knowing references for any adults that happen to be watching, Spirited Away feels like it’s working on an entirely different plane of existence, confident enough to play by its own set of rules.
This beautifully animated tale of a coddled young girl unwittingly drawn into a strange parallel world of spirits, witches and demons effortlessly touches on universal themes like family, love, friendship and facing your fears, making it a compelling, engaging watch for viewers of any age.
Russell Crowe became a Hollywood A-lister off the back of this swords-and-sandals epic, in which he plays celebrated Roman general Maximus who, when cruelly betrayed by Joaquin Phoenix’s power-mad young emperor, must fight his way to vengeance via the blood-stained arenas of gladiatorial combat.
With the sort of stylish, timeless visuals you’d expect from director Ridley Scott, Gladiator is a stirring Hollywood blockbuster of the highest order, ticking off a whole range of boxes in its two and a half hours: sweeping vistas, rousing emotion, romance, brutal fight scenes and a truly hateful villain. Movies of its type don’t always age well – astonishingly, this is almost 20 years old – but thanks to Scott’s mastery behind the camera and Crowe’s Oscar-nominated performance, this is one that’ll still feel fresh in another decade or two.
The Power of the Dog
This Western-slash-family drama from Jane Campion stars Benedict Cumberbatch playing against type as a cruel but charismatic Montana rancher who takes issue with his brother’s new wife and her teenage son. Is he jealous of his brother’s newfound happiness? Worried about the newcomers’ intentions for the family business? Or is there something else – something darker – that’s got him so upset?
This is a film that leaves a lot open to interpretation, but what’s clear is that it works against the viewer’s expectations in an unsettling and disarming way. It’s not a barrel of laughs by any stretch of the imagination, but the beautifully shot landscapes and excellent performances from a cast that also includes Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst will keep you watching regardless.
Quentin Tarantino’s bloody revenge story takes equal inspiration from spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation flicks. Set mostly in the Deep South, Django Unchained pits Jamie Foxx’s freed slave against the plantation owners, traders and overseers who’ve separated him from his wife.
He’s joined on his quest by German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) but equally impressive are Leonardo DiCaprio as racist villain Calvin Candie, who cloaks the barbarity of his gladiatorial slave fights beneath a veneer of civilisation, and Samuel L Jackson as Candie’s house slave (and trusted advisor) Stephen.
Foxx plays Django as a modern Man with No Name – though in his case his silence is more the result of pent-up fury than righteous stoicism. But when he finally unleashes vengeance on his oppressors, it’s astonishingly cathartic.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s handheld camera follows a hustling, gambling addict jeweller around 2012 New York, documenting his attempts to juggle the demands of his celebrity clients, wife, girlfriend and a circling pack of loan sharks.
If you’re looking for a relaxing watch before bedtime, Uncut Gems isn’t it. The shaky, up-close camerawork, enervating electronic score and Adam Sandler’s fantastic lead performance (he’s always been good at playing a man teetering on the edge – but mostly in bad films) all serve to conjure a feeling of unease and anxiety that barely lets up over the two-hour running time. It’s delirious, manic stuff: Netflix’s finest original film since Roma, certainly, and Sandler’s best performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.
Martin Scorsese’s masterful exploration of isolation, obsession and mania is certainly one of the best classic movies available on Netflix, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of cinema and hasn’t already watch it should drop everything, fire up their Netflix app of choice and settle down for 113 minutes of superb 1970s moviemaking, as Scorsese’s camera follows increasingly unhinged Vietnam veteran and cabbie Travis Bickle (long-time Scorsese favourite Robert De Niro in one of his best roles) as he navigates the sleazy, seedy streets of Manhattan.
An indie movie about jazz drumming might not sound like the most riveting way to spend an evening, but trust us: Whiplash is no ordinary indie movie about jazz drumming.
Miles Teller plays a New York music college student determined to become one of the skin-bashing greats. The problem is, try as he might, he’s never good enough to impress his insanely demanding band conductor, played in Oscar-winning form by J. K. Simmons. Simmons’ monstrous mentor looms over the film right through to the unforgettable final reel. We doubt you’ve ever seen a music movie that exhibits this much blood, sweat and tears.
You don’t need an interest in sport to get engrossed in this Oscar-winning doping exposé. Icarus is really two documentaries in one, with the first third of the film a kind of Super Size Me for performance-enhancing drugs: the filmmaker, a semi-pro cyclist, embarks on a hardcore doping program to show how flawed the drugs-testing process is.
But when his advisor, scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, suddenly finds himself in the eye of an international storm over Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, Icarus handbrake turns into an enthralling fly-on-the-wall thriller about the dangers of being a whistleblower in an authoritarian country. Cue mysterious deaths, tense interviews and a lot of hand-wringing as Rodchenkov goes into hiding from Putin’s cronies.
Lawrence of Arabia
With a butt-numbing running time of three hours and 47 minutes, David Lean’s biopic of mercurial, enigmatic British Army officer T.E. Lawrence is epic in every sense of the word; when first released back in 1962, it had an actual intermission in the middle allowing cinemagoers to stretch their legs and grab. It was subsequently cut down so that more screenings could be fitted into a day, but this edition restores every minute of Lean’s original cut. Hey, take your own intermission if you like – it’s Netflix!
Stunning desert vistas, grand battles, a cast of thousands and some of the best acting talent of the time all go towards making Lawrence of Arabia an unforgettable film exploring war, Empire, loyalty, individual brilliance and what happens when greedy foreign powers meddle in the affairs of the Middle East. There are few better ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
PART 3: TV SHOWS
Rick and Morty (S1-5)
This animated comedy series about a teenage boy, his mad scientist grandfather and the strange sci-fi adventures the two embark upon sounds like pretty wholesome stuff, but Rick and Morty is probably one of the dirtiest, most violent and most cynical shows on telly, regularly plumbing the depths of human (and alien) depravity for laughs. But it certainly does manage to get those laughs, which is the point – and it succeeds in posing lots of interesting questions about time, family, physics and existentialism while it does so.
Friends? Fuggedaboutit. For us, Seinfeld is the definitive New York-set 1990s sitcom about a group of pals just working their way through this crazy little thing we call life. An inventive, absurd and hilarious examination of the trivialities of the modern world, never relying on slapstick or coddling its viewers with cheap sentimentality (the vast majority of its characters are clearly horrible people), Seinfeld is quite simply a must-watch for all fans of comedy. With each episode clocking in at a little over 20 minutes, it’s also great fare for binge watching.
People Just Do Nothing (S1-5)
This series will strike a chord both with mockumentary fans and aficionados of late ‘90s UK garage music (although you certainly don’t have to be into the latter to enjoy it). Ostensibly a fly-on-the-wall documentary about West London pirate radio station Kurupt FM, People Just Do Nothing is actually a cringingly funny (and not unaffectionate) examination of the same kind of self-delusion exhibited by David Brent in The Office. The fact that the Kurupt crew clearly know their Artful Dodger from their Pied Piper adds an extra layer of authenticity to the whole thing.
Peep Show (S1-9)
All nine seasons of Peep Show are streaming on Netflix, so if you haven’t yet watched Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s groundbreaking sitcom – the longest-running in Channel 4’s history, no less – now is the perfect time to venture into the minds of David Mitchell’s Mark and Robert Webb’s Jez, two best friends and flatmates who lurch from one disaster to the next.
Peep Show‘s “gimmick” is that we often see the action from Mark or Jez’s point-of-view, hearing their inner thoughts as audible voice-overs. In the great British comedy tradition self-delusion, self-hatred and social awkwardness loom large here, and though both the main characters are indisputably despicable, selfish idiots, it’s impossible not to get sucked into their (often horrifying) antics. Many a true word is spoken in jest, as they say – and Peep Show is as much a meditation on the human condition as it is a comedy show. As the joyless Mark internally remarks after his girlfriend takes him to a fairground, “I suppose doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.”
A James Bond-esque secret agent with the womanising, drinking and love of casual violence turned right up to 11, Archer is one of the greatest anti-heroes we’ve seen in an animated show. He’s in good company at private spy agency ISIS (in hindsight, an unfortunate choice of name) staffed as it is with a collection of selfish, bungling agents and perverts.
Perfect for Netflix binge-watching, thanks to its 20-minute episodes, it’s generously packed with snappy one-liners and Arrested Development-esque in-jokes. It’s just as good as it sounds.
Derry Girls (S1-2)
The first two series of Channel 4’s riotously funny and beautifully observed sitcom are now available on Netflix, so if you missed them the first time round (or just couldn’t deal with All 4’s terrible picture quality and proliferation of ads), now’s your chance to be whisked away to early 1990s Northern Ireland and into the lives of four Catholic girls (and one English boy) as they navigate their teenage years against the background of the Troubles. Not that Derry Girls ever takes itself too seriously or drifts into mawkishness; sectarianism is just another comic seam to be mined in this joyous and hilarious coming-of-age comedy show.
Schitt’s Creek (S1-6)
Every single episode of this beloved Canadian sitcom is available to stream on Netflix, which means many hours of strangely reassuring, utterly enjoyable telly lie before you. Schitt’s Creek stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as a once-wealthy couple who, after losing their entire fortune, must slum it in a tiny town they previously purchased as a joke. Managing to be both sharp and full of heart, this is a perfect show to binge-watch, especially if you’ve already made it through the older classics.
Breaking Bad (S1-5)
What, did you think we’d forgotten? Breaking Bad has been praised to the heavens by critics and those members of the public who clap their hands over their ears and shriek “spoilers!” when you start talking about it. So of course it’s going in this list.
Like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White is one of the great protagonists of 21st-century television; a mild-mannered chemistry teacher whose cancer diagnosis prompts him to turn his skills to creating crystal meth, enlisting wayward former student Jesse as his partner in crime. Series creator Vince Gilligan pitched the show as being the story of “a man who transforms himself from Mr Chips into Scarface” and while early episodes play up White’s faltering attempts to enter the drugs trade, as the series progresses he develops into a genuinely chilling character.
Watch Breaking Bad. Now. If only so that you don’t have to keep clapping your hands over your ears and shrieking “spoilers!” whenever anyone mentions it.
For the minuscule number of readers that don’t know, Friends is a long-running multi-cam sitcom about a sextet of… well, let’s call them “buddies”, “pals”, “amigos” or “compatriots” living in New York.
Yes, it’s packed with great gags and interesting series-arching plots, the show’s true pull is in its sharply drawn, likeable and relatable characters. Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Monica’s travails as they navigate love, career, life and everything in between are sure to suck you in, even if some of the writing now feels somewhat dated.