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The sheer volume of films on Netflix — and the site’s less than ideal interface — can make finding a genuinely great movie there a difficult task. To help, we’ve plucked out the 50 best films currently streaming on the service in the United States, updated regularly as titles come and go. And as a bonus, we link to more great movies on Netflix within many of our write-ups below. (Note: Streaming services sometimes remove titles or change starting dates without giving notice.)
Few expected James Cameron’s dramatization (and fictionalization) of the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic to become a nearly unmatched commercial success and Academy Award winner (for best picture and best director, among others); most of its prerelease publicity concerned its over-budget and over-schedule production. But in retrospect, we should have known — it was the kind of something-for-everyone entertainment that recalled blockbusters of the past, deftly combining historical drama, wide-screen adventure and heartfelt romance. And its stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, became one of the great onscreen pairings of the 1990s. Our critic called it a “huge, thrilling three-and-a-quarter-hour experience.” (For more Oscar-winning drama, stream “Ray.”)
‘The Imitation Game’ (2014)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley star in this Oscar-nominated biopic about the British mathematician Alan Turing, who went to work as a German code-cracker in World War II and, in the process, created a machine that many consider the first incarnation of the modern computer. Cumberbatch adroitly conveys the tortured brilliance of Turing, who helped save his country, and was later prosecuted by it for his homosexuality. The efficient direction by Morten Tyldum captures the immediacy and intensity of its subject’s work, yet cleverly folds in his later mistreatment as tragic counterpoint. “The Imitation Game” never quite explodes the conventions of the big-screen biopic, but it’s a sleek, well-made example of the form. (For more Oscar-nominated drama, try “Dunkirk” and “Living.”)
This hit family adventure, the first film adaptation of the beloved 1981 children’s book, stars Robin Williams as a child trapped for decades in a board game, Bonnie Hunt as a friend who barely made it out and Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce as the contemporary children who help him escape — and must then finish the game. Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) directs with the proper mixture of childlike enthusiasm and wide-eyed terror, and the special effects (of wild animals and swarms of insects descending on suburban enclaves) remain startlingly convincing.
Kristen Wiig stars in and wrote (with her frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo) this “unexpectedly funny” comedy smash from the director Paul Feig. Wiig is Annie, an aimless baker whose lifelong pal, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), is getting hitched. When Lillian asks Annie to serve as maid of honor, it sets off an uproarious series of broad comic set-pieces and thoughtful introspection. The comedy and drama are played to the hilt by an ensemble that includes Rose Byrne, Jon Hamm, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role.
‘Magic Mike’ (2012)
Channing Tatum stars in this “funny, enjoyable romp”(per the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis), based on Tatum’s own early-career exploits as a stripper — or, as the film puts it, a “male entertainer.” The director Steven Soderbergh offers a fairly traditional story about a young performer who must learn the ropes of show business, but he adds a few twists: a preoccupation with economic systems, for one, and a convincing portrayal of feminine lust — rare for a mainstream movie, particularly one directed by a man. Matthew McConaughey is hilarious as the ringleader of the bump-and-grind roadshow at the movie’s center. (The delightful sequel “Magic Mike XXL” is also on Netflix.)
‘Mean Girls’ (2004)
A high school comedy has rarely been told with a rapier wit or the surgical precision of this teen outing from Mark Waters, directing a script adapted by Tina Fey from the Rosalind Wiseman book “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” Fey turned Wiseman’s youth-focused self-help book into the fabulously funny story of a new girl (Lindsay Lohan) who must quickly learn how to navigate a tricky social stratum. Rachel McAdams is deliciously despicable as the most popular (and thus, the most powerful) girl in school, while the “Saturday Night Live” veterans Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer and Fey herself delight in supporting turns. (“The Breakfast Club” offers a similarly insightful look at high school angst.)
‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
Once upon a time, “The Terminator” was just a one-off sci-fi action flick — a pulpy, low-budget but tremendously profitable film that gave a considerable boost to its co-writer and director, James Cameron, and its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it didn’t scream “sequel potential,” at least not until Cameron directed “Aliens” and figured out how to raise a sequel’s stakes by amping up the story’s scope and intensity. “T2” did that and then some, mixing state-of-the-art special effects, bruising action sequences, genuine emotional interest and a fair amount of winking (“Hasta la vista, baby”) to make that rarest of cinematic beasts: a follow-up that tops the original. (The Schwarzenegger-fronted “Conan the Barbarian” is also on Netflix.)
Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, “The Price of Salt,” is sensitively and intelligently adapted by the director Todd Haynes into this companion to his earlier masterpiece “Far From Heaven.” Cate Blanchett is smashing as a suburban ’50s housewife who finds herself so intoxicated by a bohemian shopgirl (an enchanting Rooney Mara) that she’s willing to risk her entire comfortable existence in order, just once, to follow her heart. Our critic said it’s “at once ardent and analytical, cerebral and swooning.” (If you like modest relationship dramas, try “To Leslie.”)
‘Glass Onion’ (2022)
The writer and director Rian Johnson follows up his Agatha Christie-style whodunit hit “Knives Out” with this delightfully clever comedy-mystery, featuring the further adventures of the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, still outfitted with neckerchiefs and a deliciously Southern-fried accent). Johnson constructs a “classic detective story with equal measures of breeziness and rigor,” again focusing on the haves and have-nots, as a gang of rich pals (including Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Dave Bautista and Kathryn Hahn) meet up on the isolated island of a Silicon Valley millionaire (Edward Norton). Janelle Monáe, not unlike Ana de Armas in the original, steals the show as the interloper who’s not what she seems.
‘A League of Their Own’ (1992)
Penny Marshall directed this wildly entertaining sports comedy based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, who barnstormed the United States while its boys were off fighting in World War II. Geena Davis is in top form as “Dottie” Hinson, the catcher and star of the Rockford Peaches, while Tom Hanks is uproariously funny as Jimmy Dugan, the team’s ostensible (and reliably drunken) manager. Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz and Madonna round out the ace ensemble cast, with the latter winningly and winkingly using her real-life good-time-girl persona to earn several big laughs. Our critic called it “one of the year’s most cheerful, most relaxed, most easily enjoyable comedies.” (Hanks also shines in “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Captain Phillips.”)
‘The Squid and the Whale’ (2005)
Two young men growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, weather their parents’ nasty divorce in this ruthlessly intelligent and mercilessly evenhanded coming-of-age story from the writer and director Noah Baumbach, who drew upon his own teenage memories and put himself, not altogether appealingly, into the character of the 16-year-old Walt (a spot-on Jesse Eisenberg). Laura Linney is passive-aggressive perfection as his mother, while Jeff Daniels, as the father, captures a specific type of sneeringly dissatisfied Brooklyn intellectual. The film is “both sharply comical and piercingly sad,” A.O. Scott wrote, as Baumbach dissects this family’s woes and drama with knowing precision. (Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” are also on Netflix.)
‘Uncle Buck’ (1989)
Two years after their celebrated collaboration on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” the writer and director John Hughes and the comedian John Candy reunited for this rough-and-tumble comedy. Candy is the title character, the black sheep of a well-to-do nuclear family who is brought in as a last-choice babysitter when the parents leave town for a medical emergency. Candy’s Buck at first seems like a rehash of his “Planes, Trains” character, a vulgarian chatterbox hilariously out of his element. But Hughes’s savvy script slowly reveals that Buck is wiser than he seems, and Amy Madigan lends welcome support as his best girl. Hughes was so taken by the performance of little Macaulay Culkin that he wrote the kid his own vehicle — “Home Alone.” (For more wild comedy, try “This Is the End” and “Liar Liar.”)
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, twin titans of their acting generation, had never shared the screen before the writer and director Michael Mann put them on opposite sides of the law in this moody, thrilling cops-and-robbers story from 1995. (Although they appeared in separate sequences of “The Godfather Part II.”) Mann gives that matchup the proper weight: By the time it arrives halfway into this expansive, three-hour movie, we’re expecting fireworks, and we get them. But the best surprise is that there’s so much more to “Heat” than The Big Scene — it features a cool-as-a-cucumber heist scene, a heart-stopping shootout on the streets of Los Angeles, multiple meditations on the nature of obsession, stylish cinematography, and a jaw-dropping deep bench of supporting players. That scene, though. It’s really something. (If you love crime epics — and Al Pacino — try “Donnie Brasco.”)
‘The Italian Job’ (2003)
F. Gary Gray’s fleet-footed remake isn’t terribly faithful to the source: He keeps the title, the broadest of story strokes and the Mini Coopers but jettisons the rest in favor of a mustachioed Edward Norton, who double-crosses his fellow thieves, prompting them to reunite to take revenge. Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron generate some sparks, Mos Def and Seth Green get some laughs, and Jason Statham does his best slow burns, but the Coopers steal the show with a thrillingly staged climax that manages to one-up the original’s.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005)
Jane Austen adaptations aren’t terribly hard to come by these days, but the filmmaker Joe Wright (making his feature directorial debut) rendered this take on Austen’s classic novel into something new and noteworthy. He takes an earthy, borderline erotic approach to the material, eschewing the starchiness and formality of many a period drama to focus on the timeless quality of its attractions and frustrations. And he gets a big boost in the endeavor from its stars, Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, who tune in to the picture’s specific sensuality with gusto. Our critic called it “satisfyingly rich and robust.”
‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)
The journalist Mark Bowden wrote about the 1993 United States military raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, in his 1999 nonfiction book of the same name. That book took its title from the downing of two American helicopters that raised the stakes of the mission, and this film adaptation from the director Ridley Scott dramatizes that harrowing episode and the battle that followed with horrifying immediacy and visceral terror. Scott manages, as few filmmakers have, to capture the feeling of helplessness that armed conflict can provoke and the camaraderie that becomes the foot soldier’s last hope. Marshaling a large cast of up-and-comers (including Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana and Tom Hardy) and first-rate character actors (Sam Shepard, Tom Sizemore and Zeljko Ivanek), Scott comes up with one of the most powerful war films of recent years.
‘Chicken Run’ (2000)
Aardman Animations, the British stop-motion studio behind the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit shorts, made its feature debut with this delightful cross between barnyard farce and prison escape caper, in which a headstrong hen enlists a cocky circus rooster to help her and her friends flee their henhouse before the evil farmer turns them into pies. The animation is, per the company’s standard, breathtakingly meticulous. But parents will enjoy this one as much as their kids do, as the directors Nick Park and Peter Lord inject copious doses of British wit and winking nods to classic adventure movies. Our critic called it “immensely satisfying, a divinely relaxed and confident film.” (For more family viewing, try “The Wiz” or “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.”
Steven Soderbergh won the Academy Award for best director for this tough, wise and somewhat cynical take on the war on drugs. He tells it in three interlocking stories, all captured with the energy of a ground-level documentary. The result is a panorama of a film, its variety of styles and aesthetics masterfully matching the geopolitical complexity of its subject. The performances are stunning, with standout turns by Benicio del Toro (who won an Oscar for the role) as a good cop trying to play both sides of the fence, Catherine Zeta-Jones as a California housewife whose husband’s arrest brings out her inner kingpin, and Michael Douglas as the political expert who discovers exactly how much he doesn’t know.
‘Starship Troopers’ (1997)
The director Paul Verhoeven pulled one of the great bait-and-switches of the modern blockbuster era with this 1997 sci-fi and action hybrid, which lured in viewers with the promise of laser-toting heroes vaporizing giant bug creatures. It delivered that action, but then surrounded it with a merciless satire, in which a futuristic authoritarian government uses propaganda and jingoism to convince its youth to die cheerfully for the flag. His young, pretty cast — including Denise Richards, Casper Van Dien, Neil Patrick Harris and Dina Meyer — plays the material absolutely straight, which somehow renders it especially disturbing.
‘The Karate Kid’ (1984)
This rah-rah sports drama has been so thoroughly embedded into popular culture, it’s easy to forget that it was once as much of a scrappy underdog as its hero, a New Jersey teenager who moves to California and stumbles into the cross-hairs of a gang of local bullies. The director, John G. Avildsen, was an old hand at stories like this; he directed the original “Rocky,” and as is true of that classic, the power of “The Karate Kid” lies less in the conflict at its conclusion than in the complex relationships that lead its characters there. (If you love classic coming-of-age stories, try George Lucas’s “American Graffiti.”)
‘Emily the Criminal’ (2022)
The thumbnail summary — “Aubrey Plaza becomes a thief” — conjures up a bone-dry comedy in which her deadpan persona creates ironic friction with the criminal underworld. But “Emily the Criminal” isn’t that movie at all; it’s a “chilly, assured thriller,” a Michael Mann-ish procedural with nary a wink in sight, and it absolutely (albeit surprisingly) works. The writer and director John Patton Ford creates moments of real tension while also giving what feels like an insider’s view of this world of thieves and hustlers. And if Plaza’s turn as a deep-in-debt temp worker trying her hand at life on the margins sounds like novelty casting, think again — she’s spectacular. (For more indie drama, try “Leave No Trace” or “We the Animals.”)
‘Inside Man’ (2006)
An armed robber (Clive Owen) takes over a Wall Street bank, holding its clerks and customers hostage, but this is no mere “Dog Day Afternoon” riff. The gunman’s exact motives are a puzzle, confounding the brilliant N.Y.P.D. hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) at its center. The director Spike Lee gives what could’ve been a bank-job retread a palpable sense of time and place, and fills his frames with New York characters: wiseguy cops, seen-it-all looky-loos, and slick power brokers (Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer). But his most fascinating character is Owen’s master criminal. It’s a dazzling and rambunctious crime movie, with a humdinger of an ending.
In the aftermath of a raging zombie apocalypse, it’s kill or be killed. And the primary pleasure of this double-barreled action comedy is the extent to which the screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have worked through the logistics of this hellscape, as articulated by the hero (Jesse Eisenberg) and his rules for survival. An introverted college student, he joins forces with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a gunslinging cowboy type, and the sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) on a journey through the chaos. The director Ruben Fleischer keeps the laughs and gore coming at a steady clip — so thoroughly adopting the hip approach of “Ghostbusters” that Bill Murray even shows up to play along. (Action/comedy fans should also give “The Nice Guys” a spin.)
‘Smokey and the Bandit’ (1977)
The collaborations of the superstar Burt Reynolds and his best buddy, the stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, were widely derided in their time (and to be fair, the likes of “Stroker Ace” are indefensible). But this fast-paced chase comedy, their biggest hit and most duplicated effort, is a good old-fashioned hoot. Reynolds is at his charismatic best as the Bandit, a good ol’ boy with a Trans Am and a heavy foot, and Sally Field (his offscreen partner as well, for a time) is charming as a runaway bride who ends up in the passenger seat. But Jackie Gleason steals the show as Bandit’s nemesis, the sputtering Sheriff Buford T. Justice. (Field would subsequently make her way to more dramatic fare like “Steel Magnolias,” also on Netflix.)
‘The Raid 2’ (2014)
If you’re looking for breathless, relentless action, you can’t do much better than Gareth Evans’s sequel to his 2012 cops-and-crooks extravaganza “The Raid: Redemption” (also on Netflix). Evans is a master of the bone-crunching set piece — the more participants and more unlikely the location, the better. The best of them is hard to pin down, but the extended subway confrontation between our hero, a man with a baseball bat and a woman with two furiously flying hammers is certainly a highlight. As our critic noted, “Neither its undercover drama nor its two-and-a-half-hour length bog down the bracing, and numerous, fight fests.”
‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993)
Tom Hanks is a sensitive widower who pours out his heart in a searching monologue on a radio call-in show; Meg Ryan, listening in, is so smitten that she travels across the country to track him down. That’s the premise of this “feather-light romantic comedy” from the writer and director Nora Ephron, who infuses her tale of love lost and found with plentiful homages to the classic tear-jerker “An Affair to Remember,” including a climactic meet-up atop the Empire State Building. This was Hanks and Ryan’s second onscreen collaboration (after “Joe Versus the Volcano”), though they spend most of it apart — amusingly so, as their near-misses prove both funny and poignant. (Rom-com lovers should also check out “The Five-Year Engagement.”)
‘Julie & Julia’ (2009)
This “breezy, busy” comedy-drama from Nora Ephron is an adaptation of two books: one by Julie Powell, a blogger who attempted to work her way through all the recipes in Julia Child’s influential “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”; the other by Child, a memoir she wrote with Alex Prud’homme that details the development of those recipes. The juxtaposition is ingenious, giving the viewer two funny — and mouthwatering — movies for the price of one, and the performances (particularly by Meryl Streep as Child, Amy Adams as Powell and Stanley Tucci as Child’s devoted husband, Paul) are first-rate.
‘Begin Again’ (2014)
Seven years after his microbudget smash “Once,” the director John Carney took a big step up in size and scope for “Begin Again,” which features slick production value and marquee stars (specifically, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo). Still, Carney maintains the indie spirit and storytelling style of his earlier film, spinning a tale of a romance that cannot be — instead manifesting itself in its protagonists’ shared love of music and the charge they get from creating it. It’s a feel-good, pick-me-up kind of a movie, one that lifts the spirit while avoiding conventional (and simplistic) happy endings.
A struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone became a worldwide superstar when he wrote himself the plum role of a C-list boxer who gets a shot at the championship. And it’s a star-making performance, with a vulnerability that the actor shed far too quickly. (This work is closer to Brando than Rambo.) John G. Avildsen directs in a modest, unaffected style that underlines the palooka’s solitude. The supporting cast is stunning, particularly Burgess Meredith’s turn as Rocky’s tough trainer, Mickey, and Talia Shire’s heartbreaking work as Adrian, the painfully shy object of Rocky’s affection. (The first and best of its sequels, “Rocky II,” is also on Netflix, as is Stallone’s “Cliffhanger.”)
‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)
Assembling an enviable ensemble cast of hard-boiled character actor types, a movie-savvy young writer and director named Quentin Tarantino shook up the clichés of the heist movie with this blood-soaked cult hit. Telling the story of a jewelry store robbery gone sideways, Tarantino’s clever script skipped over the robbery itself entirely, focusing instead on the assembly of the crew and their frayed nerves at a meet-up afterward. He further kept viewers off-balance with a scrambled chronology that reveals new complexities of plot and character with each scene, resulting in one of the most electrifying debut features of the ’90s indie scene. Our critic praised its “dazzling cinematic pyrotechnics and over-the-top dramatic energy.”
‘Easy A’ (2010)
This winking update to “The Scarlet Letter” has much to recommend it, including the witty and quotable screenplay, the sly indictments of bullying and rumor-mongering and the deep bench of supporting players. But “Easy A” is mostly memorable as the breakthrough of Emma Stone, an “irresistible presence” whose turn as a high-school cause célèbre quickly transformed her from a memorable supporting player to a soaring leading lady — and with good reason. She’s wise and wisecracking, quick with a quip but never less than convincing as a tortured teen.
Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams star as members of a strict Orthodox Jewish community whose shared past forcefully returns in this powerful drama from the director Sebastián Lelio (adapting Naomi Alderman’s novel). Ronit (Weisz), estranged from the community, returns following the death of her father and resumes her romance with Esti (McAdams), who has repressed her desires and entered a loveless marriage. Lelio approaches the material matter-of-factly, refusing to either sensationalize or desexualize the relationship; it’s a rare mainstream portrayal of same-sex attraction that considers both emotional and physical attraction on equal footing. (“Call Me By Your Name” is a similarly intense romantic drama.)
When the remains of the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States, were discovered off the shore of Mobile, Ala., in 2019, it was physical evidence of a long-told piece of local lore — an illegal operation, long after such ships were outlawed, five years before emancipation. So this amounted to the excavation of a crime scene, prompting a giant question for the descendants of those victims: What does justice look like? Margaret Brown’s spellbinding documentary asks that question, which opens up many more thornier conversations about history, complicity and legacy. Our critic called it “deeply attentive” and “moving.” (Documentary lovers will also enjoy “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Sr.”)
It’s understandable to look upon a period literary biopic starring Keira Knightley and presume an object of arid stuffiness. But the director Wash Westmoreland gives us anything but — this is a rowdy, ribald picture, about a woman who wrote rowdy, ribald stories. She went from a shy innocent to a proud hedonist, and Westmoreland eagerly takes that journey alongside her. But he also dramatizes her intellectual awakening, and her insistence on being regarded as both a real writer and a full person. Manohla Dargis praised its “light, enjoyably fizzy approach to its subject.”
This forceful biopic from the director Antonio Campos dramatizes the life and death of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news personality who killed herself on live television in 1974. What was, for years, a grisly footnote in television history is here rendered as a wrenching snapshot of mental illness, thanks to Craig Shilowich’s sensitive screenplay and Rebecca Hall’s stunning work as Chubbuck, a deeply felt turn in which every harsh word and casual slight lands like a body blow. (For more indie drama, try “The Swimmers” or “Happy as Lazzaro.”)
‘Richard Pryor: Live in Concert’ (1979)
In December of 1978, Richard Pryor took the stage of the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, Calif., and delivered what may still be the greatest recorded stand-up comedy performance in history. It captures the comic at his zenith; his insights are razor-sharp, his physical gifts are peerless, and his powers of personification are remarkable as he gives thought and voice to household pets, woodland creatures, deflating tires and uncooperative parts of his own body. But as with the best of Pryor’s stage work, what’s most striking is his vulnerability. In sharing his own struggles with health, relationships, sex and masculinity, Pryor was forging a path to the kind of unapologetic candor that defines so much of contemporary comedy.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (2018)
Barry Jenkins followed up the triumph of his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” with this “anguished and mournful” adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. It is, first and foremost, a love story, and the warmth and electricity Jenkins captures and conveys between stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James is overwhelming. But it’s also a love story between two African Americans in 1960s Harlem, and the delicacy with which the filmmaker threads in the troubles of that time, and the injustice that ultimately tears his main characters apart, is heart-wrenching. Masterly performances abound — particularly from Regina King, who won an Oscar for her complex, layered portrayal of a mother on a mission. (Other Oscar winners on Netflix include “Girl, Interrupted” and “Darkest Hour.”)
‘Straight Up’ (2020)
When Todd (James Sweeney) and Rory (Katie Findlay) first meet, they bond over a shared love of “Gilmore Girls.” That show’s rat-tat-tat dialogue, pop culture savvy and unabashed sentimentality are all over this unconventional romantic comedy. Sweeney also wrote and directed, augmenting the normally drab rom-com template with a cornucopia of quirky and unexpected visual flourishes, and his screenplay is painfully astute, displaying an enviable ear for how, with the right partner, the affectations and witticisms of dating give way to confession and vulnerability.
‘The Lost Daughter’ (2021)
The actor-turned-filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal writes and directs this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, starring Olivia Colman as a professor on vacation whose strained interactions with a large, unruly American family — particularly a young, stressed mother (Dakota Johnson) — send her down a rabbit hole of her memories, a switch-flip intermingling of past and present. There is a bit of back story to untangle, which turns the film into something like a mystery. But “The Lost Daughter” is mostly noteworthy for its willingness to explore the darkest moments of parenthood, the horrible feeling of giving up and longing for escape. Colman brings humanity and even warmth to a difficult character, while Jessie Buckley beautifully connects the dots as her younger iteration. Our critic calls it “a sophisticated, elusively plotted psychological thriller.” (The Gyllenhaal vehicle “The Kindergarten Teacher” is similarly unnerving.)
‘The Power of the Dog’ (2021)
“I wonder what little lady made these?” Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) asks about the paper flowers created by Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — the first indication of the initial theme of Jane Campion’s new film, an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage. Phil is a real piece of work, and when his brother and ranching partner George (Jesse Plemons) marries Peter’s mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), it brings all of Phil’s resentment and nastiness to the surface as he tries, in multiple, hostile ways, to exert his dominance and display his dissatisfaction. That tension and conflict would be enough for a lesser filmmaker, but Campion burrows deeper, taking a carefully executed turn to explore his complicated motives — and desires in this film of welcome complexity and unexpected tenderness; Manohla Dargis called it “a great American story and a dazzling evisceration of one of the country’s foundational myths.” (For more frontier drama, stream “Legends of the Fall.”)
“She’s a girl from Chicago I used to know,” Irene (Tessa Thompson) says of Clare (Ruth Negga) — a statement that is accurate on the surface but that contains volumes of history, tension and secrets. Irene and Clare are both light-skinned Black women who have made different choices about how to live their lives, but when they reconnect, they are both prompted to reckon with who, exactly, they are. The screenplay and direction by Rebecca Hall (adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel) delicately yet precisely plumbs their psychological depths and wounds, and the sumptuous costumes and immaculate black and white cinematography serve as dazzling counterpoints to what Manohla Dargis called “an anguished story of identity and belonging.”
In this powerful adaptation by the director Dee Rees of the novel by Hillary Jordan, two families — one white and one Black — are connected by a plot of land in the Jim Crow South. Rees gracefully tells both stories (and the larger tale of postwar America) without veering into didacticism, and her ensemble cast brings every moment of text and subtext into sharp focus. Our critic called it a work of “disquieting, illuminating force.” (For more period drama, queue up “The Beguiled” and “Crimson Peak.”)
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (2020)
The acclaimed stage director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winner to the screen, quite faithfully — which is just fine, as a play this good requires little in the way of “opening up,” so rich are the characters and so loaded is the dialogue. The setting is a Chicago music studio in 1927, where the “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band are meeting to record several of her hits, though that business is frequently disrupted by the tensions within the group over matters both personal and artistic. Davis is superb as Rainey, chewing up her lines and spitting them out with contempt at anyone who crosses her, and Chadwick Boseman, who died in 2020 and won a posthumous Golden Globe best actor award for his performance, is electrifying as the showy sideman, Levee, a boiling pot of charisma, flash and barely concealed rage. A.O. Scott calls the film “a powerful and pungent reminder of the necessity of art.” (For more character-driven drama, check out “The Two Popes” and “High Flying Bird.”)
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ (2020)
“I’ve always wanted to be in the movies,” Dick Johnson tells his daughter Kirsten, and he’s in luck — she makes them, documentaries mostly, dealing with the biggest questions of life and death. So they turn his struggle with Alzheimer’s and looming mortality into a movie, a “resonant and, in moments, profound” one (per Manohla Dargis), combining staged fake deaths and heavenly reunions with difficult familial interactions. He’s an affable fellow, warm and constantly chuckling, and a good sport, cheerfully playing along with these intricate, macabre (and darkly funny) scenarios. But it’s really a film about a father and daughter, and their lifelong closeness gives the picture an intimacy and openness uncommon even in the best documentaries. It’s joyful, and melancholy and moving, all at once.
‘The Old Guard’ (2020)
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Greg Rucka’s comic book series delivers the expected goods: The action beats are crisply executed, the mythology is clearly defined and the pieces are carefully placed for future installments. But that’s not what makes it special. Prince-Bythewood’s background is in character-driven drama (her credits include “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights”), and the film is driven by its relationships rather than its effects — and by a thoughtful attentiveness to the morality of its conflicts. A.O. Scott deemed it a “fresh take on the superhero genre,” and he’s right; though based on a comic book, it’s far from cartoonish. (Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” and “Beyond the Lights” are also on Netflix.)
‘Da 5 Bloods’ (2020)
Spike Lee’s latest is a genre-hopping combination of war movie, protest film, political thriller, character drama and graduate-level history course in which four African American Vietnam vets go back to the jungle to dig up the remains of a fallen compatriot — and, while they’re at it, a forgotten cache of stolen war gold. In other hands, it could’ve been a conventional back-to-Nam picture or “Rambo”-style action/adventure (and those elements, to be clear, are thrilling). But Lee goes deeper, packing the film with historical references and subtext, explicitly drawing lines from the civil rights struggle of the period to the protests of our moment. A.O. Scott called it a “long, anguished, funny, violent excursion into a hidden chamber of the nation’s heart of darkness.” (For more Vietnam-set drama, check out “Born on the Fourth of July.”)
Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) directs this wide-ranging deep dive into mass incarceration, tracing the advent of America’s modern prison system — overcrowded and disproportionately populated by Black inmates — back to the 13th Amendment. It’s a giant topic to take on in 100 minutes, and DuVernay understandably has to do some skimming and slicing. But that necessity engenders its style: “13TH” tears through history with a palpable urgency that pairs nicely with its righteous fury. Our critic called it “powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming.” (Documentary aficionados may also enjoy “Procession.”)
‘American Factory’ (2019)
Documentary filmmakers have long been fascinated by the logistics and complexities of manual labor, but Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s recent Oscar winner for best documentary feature views these issues through a decidedly 21st-century lens. Focusing on a closed GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, that’s taken over by a Chinese auto glass company, Bognar and Reichert thoughtfully, sensitively (and often humorously) explore how cultures — both corporate and general — clash. Manohla Dargis calls it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor.” (Documentary fans should also seek out “The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson” and “F.T.A.”)
‘The Irishman’ (2019)
Martin Scorsese teams up with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since “Casino” (1995), itself a return to the organized crime territory of their earlier 1990 collaboration “Goodfellas” — and then adds Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. A lazier filmmaker might merely have put them back together to play their greatest hits. Scorsese does something far trickier, and more poignant: He takes all the elements we expect in a Scorsese gangster movie with this cast, and then he strips it all down, turning this story of turf wars, union battles and power struggles into a chamber piece of quiet conversations and moral contemplation. A.O. Scott called it “long and dark: long like a novel by Dostoyevsky or Dreiser, dark like a painting by Rembrandt.” (For more period drama, queue up “American Hustle” and “Phantom Thread.”)
This vivid, evocative memory play from Alfonso Cuarón is a story of two Mexican women in the early 1970s: Sofía (Marina de Tavira), a mother of four whose husband (and provider) is on his way out the door, and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s nanny, maid and support system. The scenes are occasionally stressful, often heart-wrenching, and they unfailingly burst with life and emotion. Our critic called it “an expansive, emotional portrait of life buffeted by violent forces, and a masterpiece.” (Cuarón’s adaptation of “A Little Princess” is also streaming on Netflix.)
‘Private Life’ (2018)
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti shine as two New York creative types whose attempts to start a family — by adoption, by fertilization, by whatever it takes — test the mettle of their relationships and sanity. The wise script by the director Tamara Jenkins is not only funny and truthful but also sharply tuned to their specific world: Few films have better captured the very public nature of marital trouble in New York, when every meltdown is interrupted by passers-by and lookie-loos. “Private Life,” which our critic called “piquant and perfect,” is a marvelous balancing act of sympathy and cynicism, both caring for its subjects and knowing them and their flaws well enough to wink and chuckle.
Mati Diop’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner is set in Senegal, where a young woman named Ava (Mama Sané) loses the boy she loves to the sea, just days before her arranged marriage to another man. What begins as a story of love lost moves, with the ease and imagination of a particularly satisfying dream, into something far stranger, as Diop savvily works elements of genre cinema into the fabric of a story that wouldn’t seem to accommodate them. A.O. Scott called it “a suspenseful, sensual, exciting movie, and therefore a deeply haunting one as well.” (For similarly out-of-this-world vibes, try Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja.”)