Netflix has spent the last few years and several billions of dollars on a crusade to be taken more seriously. The online video-streaming platform first got some hair on its virtual chest in September 2013, when it racked up a whopping 14 Emmy nominations in its first year of eligibility, minting House of Cards as a bona fide contender and proving once and for all that computer-native programming was here to stay. Still, though, content head Ted Sarandos felt there was something left to prove. While the evolving service figured out what to do with the pair of serialized hits that had fallen in its lap (Orange Is the New Black had also emerged as must-see programming, despite missing that year’s Emmy cutoff by a nose), Sarandos was casting his gaze on a new, more hostile horizon. TV was Netflix’s lingua franca; the service had always been geared to the smallness and bingeability — a word Netflix ushered into the public lexicon — of the format. Mastering the multiplex, however, would prove a far bitterer ground war.
Since it began branding its logo on original films in 2015, Netflix’s primary goal has been to divorce itself from the “digital dollar bin” reputation it established upon first pivoting from the snail-mail service, now an unsettlingly faint memory, to streaming. It was not so long ago that the service formerly known as “Netflix Instant” well, sucked; it was a repository for direct-to-DVD sequels, little-seen stand-up specials, and candy-colored kiddie cartoons seemingly plucked from Lisa Frank’s more vivid night terrors. And so Sarandos made a dignified selection for his first narrative go on the silver screen: Beasts of No Nation, a movie about child militias in Africa, with a well-pedigreed creative team (Cary Fukunaga was comin’ in hot off his True Detective stint, Idris Elba was a brand-name star) and their according awards potential. It’s a real movie, and by my count, a pretty good one.
The second film they released was the one where a donkey explosively sharts all over Adam Sandler.
Since then, Netflix has bagged an Oscar, elbowed its way into Cannes, and spent more than Panama’s gross national product on content. These days, Netflix is made up of a fair amount of movies that attain mere forgettability instead of outright awfulness. But it’s produced some genuinely good films, as well. Below, we attempt to rank every single Netflix original movie ever made (excluding documentaries, in the interest of this list remaining … bingeable).
62. The Do-Over
Let’s start with the most noxious entry in Sandler’s fruitful collaboration with Netflix. David Spade plays a henpecked beta cuck unsatisfied with his pitiful existence, which makes him receptive to an intriguing offer from old buddy Sandler when they meet up at their high-school reunion. A flimsy scheme to reinvent their lives by pinching a pair of dead guys’ identities goes about as poorly as one could reasonably expect, and mostly just cues up tired gags about being tired. That’s the one faintly redemptive feature of this otherwise barren movie: The Sandler filmography gets a rare flash of self-awareness when Spade’s emasculated loser screams, “I’m so tired of women lying to me and fucking me over!” while in a full-on fist fight with yet another “untrustworthy female.”
61. You Get Me
An erotic thriller neither thrilling nor erotic, filled out with a cast of post-Disney starlets and Vine stars temporarily separated from their handlers, this poor-man’s Fatal Attraction plays like a rich symphony of bad choices. We all know the drill: Guy steps out on girlfriend, guy breaks things off with side piece, side piece turns psycho and wreaks vengeful havoc on guy. That time-tested formula gets sullied here by awe-inspiringly dumb dialogue (“I love Tumblr,” one character says, in a subtle reminder that we all someday shall die), and an inability to impose the sexual maturity the story calls for onto the teen characters enacting it. Most troubling of all, this film inadvertently makes the argument that the erotic-thriller tradition necessarily can’t survive in the millennial generation. Up until Lohanian — Lohanesque? — star Bella Thorne gets all stabby, the tensest moments see our boy dramatically sending a text message and his sleuthing girlfriend dramatically checking Facebook. The kids have no idea what they’re doing. Get off my sexy, homicidal lawn!
60. True Memoirs of an International Assassin
Q: When is an Adam Sandler movie not an Adam Sandler movie? A: When it’s a showcase for his regular associate Paul “Kevin James” Blart, Mall Cop. Though the Sandman does not show his face in this feature — a dime-store espionage flick that casts Blart as a spy novelist who stumbles into one of his own stories — his authorial fingerprints of passive chauvinism and total stylistic indifference have been smeared all over the frame. More to the point, this film presents a grossly inaccurate depiction of the writer’s creative process. For starters, who deletes a sentence by repeatedly pressing the ‘delete’ key for each individual letter? Highlight and delete, man, or at least hold the key down! Who’s got that kind of time?
59. The Ridiculous 6
Sandler stretched himself a little bit by getting into genre work with this Western. Springing this viciously unfunny John Ford riff on America two weeks before Christmas 2015 like a present nobody especially wanted, Sandler portrays a leathery cowpuncher on a search for his wayward Pa with his legion of half-brothers. Their ramble through the countryside mostly exists to cue up collar-tug-worthy cracks at Native Americans and an inexplicable number of “jokes” revolving around donkey feces.
58. The Fundamentals of Caring
That this film could actually manage to be worse than its title is a grim sort of accomplishment. Its pathos is so disingenuous and suffocating that not even Human Embodiment of Charm Paul Rudd can salvage it. He plays a depressed writer (red flag No. 1) who’s going through a divorce (red flag No. 2) following the untimely death of his son (red flag No. 3), and coping by taking new work as a live-in caregiver (red flag No. 4) for a smart-aleck teen (red flag No. 5). Together, they set out on a cross-country road trip (red flag No. 6) and pick up a potential love interest for the boy in a streetwise drifter girl (red flag No. 7), who is also Selena Gomez (red flag No. 8). By starting with a premise so rich with potential for overcooked emotional manipulation, the film sets an uphill battle for itself so steep that it can fall right off the mountain.
57. A Christmas Prince
I’ve got a theory that if you showed this Yuletide rom-com to someone who had never seen a movie before — ideally, someone who had never even heard of movies — it would positively charm them. Few movies cycle through the clichés of their genre with such a rigorous lack of imagination, and if someone hadn’t already grown tired of the klutzy but cute workin’ girl who falls for a debonair, rich Adonis, they’d feel for our gal Amber (Rose McIver). They wouldn’t bat an eye at the ludicrous plot sending this newly minted reporter on her first-ever assignment to report on the royal family of a fictitious European nation, and they wouldn’t think twice about the improbable mix-up that brings Amber closer to the dashing prince under the pretext of mistaken identity. They wouldn’t roll their eyes at Amber’s conniving brunette-haired foil, or the last-minute deus ex machina that brings the leads — who met earlier that week — together in marriage. This theoretical person would take it all at face value and love it. Sadly, we cannot be so naïve.
56. The Babysitter
This ’80s-throwback slasher from notorious Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle director McG is an inexplicable Satanic-panic flick that pits a nail-biting kid against his hottie coed caretaker and the rest of her death cult. Why, when he first catches an eyeful of the group (which also includes Bella Thorne, suddenly everywhere) turning a game of spin the bottle into a bloodbath, do the words “WHAT THE FUCK” suddenly fly onto the screen in giant red text? And then later on, when he uses a handy knife given to him by his good pal Anton Chekov in the first act, why does McG throw the phrase “POCKET KNIFE … BITCHES!” in our faces? Why does the film break up its PG-13 comedy with geysers of gore that John Woo might call “a little much?” Why, after getting shot in the chest, is Bella Thorne unconcerned about her own health and wholly preoccupied with her cans no longer being perfect? Why is there so much trouble in the world?
The primary utility of this rinky-dink attempt at a superhero movie (I’ll say this but once: Do not produce an effects-driven action film if you do not have the budget to make those effects look good) is to determine Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams’s viability as a big-screen quantity. That’s really the only intriguing question in this unattractive, rote squandering of a neat concept, namely, a crime-fighter with the power to interface with all electrical devices. While some of us might use technopathy to redistribute wealth or expose covert wrongdoing, our hero Tom (Bill Milner) instead goes after neighborhood toughs like a USB-enabled Kick-Ass. Williams, as Tom’s inevitable love interest, is fine.
54. Sandy Wexler
This biopic of a fictitious, incompetent, ill-mannered talent manager benefited from the subtle handicap of lowered expectations, exceeding the likes of The Do-Over with a handful of decent one-liners and some amusing celebrity cameos. One gets the impression that Sandler’s actually trying in this train wreck, as opposed to the more passive train wrecks that preceded it. But praising the “best Adam Sandler movie for Netflix” is like choosing your favorite dental procedure. Either way, by the time it’s over, you won’t be able to feel part of your face.
One day, Congress will pass a bill rendering hashtag movie titles punishable by law, but until then, we’re stuck with this utterly clueless Clueless wannabe. (Or Easy A. Hell, even The DUFF. This is the saddest kind of bad movie, one that feels like a worse version of so many wonderful movies.) The latest in a long line of films that know teenagers use social media but utterly fail to understand how, this pat after-school special dispenses nuggets of wisdom about being true to yourself and knowing who your friends are that possess all the depth and nuance of a tweet. I pray that today’s teens, for their own sake, will get better nostalgia objects than this one.
52. Death Note
After slogging through this American anime adaptation, the best thing a viewer can say about director Adam Wingard is that he’s a master of misdirection. We were all so focused on the question of whitewashing in this originally Asian property that the media narrative almost entirely ignored how defiantly uninteresting this movie is. How could a story that reimagines Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov as a hot genius teen on a lethal mission to cleanse the world of evil and features real-life god of death Willem Dafoe as an apple-munching CGI god of death, possibly turn out so dull? It’s not just the visual flatness that trades the bustle of metropolitan Japan for permanently grey Seattle, but that this morality tale’s moralizing is fundamentally inconsistent. It contradicts itself too many times to make any lucid point.
51. Special Correspondents
While drumming up publicity during postproduction, director-writer-star Ricky Gervais said of this motion picture, “Even though it would certainly be billed as a comedy, it’s not a big, broad, loud, obvious, one … It’s a bit satirical.” One gets the sense Gervais knew, deep down, how dismal his reviews would be, and moreover, the specific nature of that dismalness. For this big, broad, loud, obvious comedy does indeed aspire to satire with its harebrained plot about two thick-skulled news-radio journalists ginning up a bogus Ecuadorian revolution from the safety of a guest room in America. But Gervais cannot muster either the brains or balls to say anything substantive about the anything-goes state of modern media or hectic banana republics in South America. The heroically distasteful Gervais of The Office feels so far away.
50. The Most Hated Woman in America
This biopic of atheism activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a platform for Melissa Leo that would’ve been an abandoned Oscar horse ten years ago, and barely exists now. Leo gets to chew a whole lot of scenery as she takes the fight to remove prayer from public schools into court, attracts scorn from every corner of society, and eventually gets herself abducted. Melissa Leo diehards will relish the chance to see her don all manner of creative hairpieces and coke-bottle glasses that I’m pretty sure get a little bit bigger with every passing scene. Regular people will wonder how a film ostensibly dealing with First Amendment rights could possibly generate zero original insight.
Imagine Nashville (the Robert Altman movie, not the TV show where Hayden Panettiere is secretly Taylor Swift), but with EDM instead of country-western music. Now remove that film’s soul-sickness over the fluctuating American character and replace it with a pat star-is-born narrative that was already done to death when We Are Your Friends dropped the beat one year earlier. Throw in a handful of barely identifiable TV players, such as That Cute Girl From Modern Family, Wasn’t He On The Good Wife?, and Chris D’Elia. Then take a tab of MDMA, wait about 40 minutes (30 if it’s pure), and tape a tablet playing the Coachella livestream on a loop to your head. For all intents and purposes, you have now seen the film XOXO.
Those in search of English filmmaker Mike Leigh’s stupendous 1993 portrait of one unmoored drifter’s search for meaning in life are in for a big surprise. They are also in for a whole lot of Marlon Wayans’s bare ass. That’s pretty much the whole joke in this Groundhog Day disciple: trapping the funnyman in an hour-long temporal loop that always begins with him waking up, birthday-suited, in an elevator. The tired “immature guy learns to sack up and accept the responsibility of adult love” arc might be forgiven if the movie ensconcing it had the decency to be funnier.
47. Sand Castle
After a few cinematic treatments, a sense of character begins to crystallize for America’s major wars: WWII was a noble mission, the brutality of which nobody could anticipate; Vietnam was an anything-goes quagmire of senseless chaos; and the post-9/11 war on terror has been defined by its lack of definition. This account of one American squadron’s FUBAR efforts to repair a water pump in 2003 Iraq parrots back the analysis already put forth by other fictive postmortems: that sketchily defined parameters made this an unwinnable war, an occupation with no clearly demarcated start date, exit strategy, objective, enemy, or battles. Nicholas Hoult, to his credit, plays his reluctant soldier as a bit savvier than the usual bumpkin on a collision course with shell shock. But otherwise, Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Coimbra contributes nothing novel to the conversation.
46. What Happened to Monday
There’s no denying that Noomi Rapace certainly does a lot of acting in this sci-fi dud, playing identical septuplets forced to live underground in a future society under a one-child policy. Each septuplet gets to stray out in the world under a shared identity for one day of the week, though they all have one distinctive character trait, Multiplicity-style. A ludicrous conspiracy plot linking government officials and nefarious schemes to control the populace through resource withholding gives the film shape, explained through endless and interminable dumps of exposition and implausible turns of plot. (Of course Glenn Close did it. Glenn Close always did it!) Director Tommy Wirkola’s fatal error was evidently blowing his entire budget on hairpieces; this film’s wig budget makes RuPaul’s Drag Race’s wig budget look like Key and Peele’s wig budget.
Everybody knows therapists are just as unwell as their patients, but Dr. Jane Mathis (Vinessa Shaw) has a little bit more going on upstairs than the usual head-case shrink. She’s still haunted by the memory of a patient she couldn’t save, and in a more literal capacity, by the girl’s ghost. A new patient (Mad Men’s Kevin Rahm, unrecognizable beneath his disfigured-face prosthetics) dredges up these painful remembrances for Jane, and might just create some new ones while he’s at it. The horror elements are about as fearsome as lukewarm tapioca pudding, but the movie earns a couple points for experimenting with an unorthodox parallel structure of storytelling, as Jane’s plot unfolds in tandem with her patient’s recounting of his own tribulations.
Adult children tend to show their true colors when their parents reach their deathbed. But divvying up possessions with Post-it notes is nothing compared to the lengths four half-brothers are willing to sink to just to get at their deteriorating mama’s money. The “big broken family” subset of drama gets an injection of horror when a gang of masked intruders storm the house, their employer and motivations unclear. They’re obviously in cahoots with one of the brothers, and director-writer Chris Sparling posits which one made the call as the suspense-generating question, but he’s made one fatal miscalculation: For that approach to work, the audience must first be given a reason, any reason at all, to care about what happens to these people. With each brother blander than the next, however, the big reveal wields all the dramatic heft of a balloon.
43. Shimmer Lake
Smarter than the average Coen Brothers ripoff (looking at you, Cut Bank), this one has the good sense to also be a Memento ripoff. Moving in reverse for no apparent reason, writer-director Oren Uziel squanders a handful of wonderful character actors (Michael Stuhlbarg has his fun even though his character belongs in a different, more interesting movie; Oliver Platt does a bang-up job with his haughty inspector) and some attractive photography on an ill-fated crime saga that resolves itself before it’s even begun. As Uziel’s clear inspiration Marge Gunderson might say, “And for what? A little bit of money.”
What we have here is an expensive concept for a film (a small platoon of soldiers gets picked off by invisible foes, a conflict dutifully outed by critics as a variation on “Aliens goes Xbox”) that has been granted perhaps half of the budget it needed to succeed. Throwing more money at a production rarely solves problems, but for a premise that wholly orients itself around the near-pornographic gazing upon military weaponry — much of it fantastical, engineered with futuristic technologies explained at length — looking good is everything. Without the required aesthetic polish, all that’s left is a scrawny weakling flexing technical muscles it doesn’t have.
41. Coin Heist
Coins are amazing — designed using lasers, mass-produced through an elaborate assembly line of casting and forging, inspected down to the tiniest detail for flaws so minute only professionals can see them, and all for something we keep in our pockets only to trade for chewing gum. That said, it is a bad sign indeed when a viewer finds himself more interested in the quiet dignity of coin-making than in the plot of the film he’s currently watching. This caper about a gang of high-schoolers who overcome their clique divisions to save their school by stealing $10 million is so tiresomely familiar — both as a heist movie and a teen movie — that watching it even for the first time already feels like a remote memory.
40. To the Bone
The words “anorexia comedy” rightly set off alarm bells, but a winning performance from Lily Collins nearly salvages this tonal tightrope walk. She’s biting and inviting as a young artist in recovery for an intense eating disorder. Unfortunately, two worthwhile performances have gotten trapped in this otherwise maudlin film: there’s Collins, and an unexpected turn from Keanu Reeves as a tough-love physician with a heart of gold. Ninety minutes of those two shooting sarcastic remarks back and forth would’ve been dandy, but Alex Sharp and his intolerable romantic subplot have other plans.
39. Bomb Scared
You thought eating disorders were a testy source for laughs? Here’s the terrorism spoof you asked for! This Spanish-language comedy focuses on a dunderheaded gang of Basque-separatist extremists, impatiently awaiting their next mission while Spain makes a run at the World Cup in the background. Director Borja Cobeaga treats their mission to await instruction in a safe house like a tedious office job and the characters like bumbling wage slaves instead of radicalized killers. If that sounds like a trivial approach to a serious topic, the film’s more mature understanding of how cells amass new members and perpetuate themselves saves quite a bit of face.
38. Take the 10
For those viewers in search of a scattershot, fitfully funny crime caper in which Tony Revolori spends one long day scrambling around the outskirts of L.A. trying not to get killed after a reckless friend pilfers a cache of expensive drugs from an unstable dealer, might I recommend the 2015 film Dope. At least that one had a more charming leading man in Shameik Moore than this one gets in Josh Peck, playing a sleazebag with the pretty face of a former child TV star. That movie had some entry-level commentary on race, too, and a nifty soundtrack from Pharrell. All this dime-store knockoff has is a Pulp Fiction-lite nonchronological structure, a closeted coke baron, and one great Danny Brown needle drop it unloads in the first 15 minutes. The most a critic can say is that its pop-culture references are very of-the-moment.
From the opening narration in which the culprit introduces himself and confesses to his crime, this comedy purports to be a different breed of murder mystery. And with a well-stocked cast — Jeff Garlin’s a lovable lout as the title detective, his sidekicks Natasha Lyonne and Chris Redd both consistently amuse, and Ricky Sargulesh himself, Steven Weber, portrays the prime suspect — it should be. The most pressing mystery of all, then, is why this film isn’t funnier. A game ensemble gets undermined by lackluster writing that halfheartedly teases noir clichés but never really does anything all that clever with them.
36. Little Evil
It’s a parody of The Omen where Adam Scott is convinced his new stepson is a vessel for the malicious spirit of Satan; to quote Barton Fink, “Whaddaya need, a road map?” The primary problem is that this has already been done sans Scott, in 2014’s thoroughly middling send-up Hell Baby. The other problem is that that film also happens to be funnier, going all-in on the demonic possession gags, where this film tries to mine its laughs from the lingering possibility that this could all be in Scott’s imagination. A strategic reserve of winning supporting performances (Bridget Everett playing a trans man is a questionable move, but damn if she isn’t hilarious) can’t enliven a diluted form of a solution that wasn’t all that strong to begin with.
35. The Incredible Jessica James
Perhaps the Sundanciest of all Sundance movies, James Strouse’s pedestal for former Daily Show truth-bomber Jessica Williams ticks all the requisite boxes on the “indie breakout” checklist: a comic talent from TV trying their hand with a little drama, the quarter-life-crisis getting-your-shit-together arc, the adoring photography of the Brooklyn setting, music that’s cool but not so cool that the score sounds like it’s trying too hard or anything. While Insecure and Issa Rae hold the game down on the opposite coast, Williams explores the travails of Tindering while young, black, and fabulous — but as she grows weary of the deadening repetition of dating, so too does her film follow a schematic that’s a little too familiar.
The first rule of this anti-corporate psychological thriller is do not talk about Fight Club. Otherwise viewers might start to notice how much DNA this peculiar cult film (and that’s in the literal sense, not the Rocky Horror sense) shares with David Fincher’s satire on the drudgeries of middle-class office-drone lifestyles. Joss Whedon utility player Fran Kranz steps in for the unstimulated desk-jockey role, and for his Tyler Durden, we’ve got a tattooed Adam Goldberg and his twitchy, coke-ranty energy. Goldberg breaks his pal out of a funk by inviting him to join a new movement of self-actualization he recently discovered, where instead of therapeutically punching the bologna out of one another, members chant creepy affirmations about accessing inner truth. There’s some bizarre, steamy fun to be had on the way to the revelation of what’s really going on here — if you’re gonna join a cult, at least you’re getting laid — but the destination can’t deliver the intrigue to justify the journey.
33. Burning Sands
Yet another clone movie, this one retreading the stomach-churning account of hazing gone too far undertaken by Goat the previous year. In their condemnation of the Greek system’s culture of complicit silence around the physical and emotional abuse heaped upon new pledges, both films hit a lot of the same beats, fingering an uncaring school administration and the toxic mentality of compulsory masculinity. The racial aspect (the film takes place at fictitious HBCU Frederick Douglass University) sets this picture apart, complicating the portrayal of fraternities by rightly noting that they’ve been spaces of solidarity, support, and pride for the black community. Ethical rot has tainted this structure designed for empowerment, but it’s still too valuable to write off entirely.
32. Brahman Naman
The societal mores of India collide with a distinctly American strain of adolescent horniness in this English-language throwback to such seminal raunchfests as Porky’s. During the ’80s (when else?), a gaggle of gangly nerds drool over hot ladies and scheme about how to lose their respective V-cards. But instead of tiptoeing around the jocks, prevailing attitudes of mandated prudence mean that our boys must tiptoe around their parents, their nation, and their own guilt. Even a fresh, culturally specific angle can’t totally revitalize the long-in-the-tooth genre of the libidinous-teen-com though.
31. O Matador
And now for something completely different: a Western by way of Brazil, where a scar-faced killer (those excited for a film about Spanish bullfighters are in for a rude awakening) plays the cowboy liberating a dusty village from a ruthless capitalist. Diogo Morgado cuts a commanding figure as our man Shaggy, a couple notches closer to feral than the usual gunslinger. His closest ancestor would probably be the Chilean Zen prophet in black, El Topo — both men have a haunted expression liable to turn cold at a moment’s notice, capable of terrible violence and deep introspection. The novelty only gets this film so far, however, when the production values could be best described as “lesser AMC drama.” Squarely shot and color-graded into next week under no discernible organized aesthetic code, it’s an unattractive film propped up by good bones.
30. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
That this sequel to Ang Lee’s award-festooned wuxia masterwork is written in the English language instead of the original Chinese tells you all you need to know. It’s the most glaring of a handful of artistic compromises made by director Yuen Woo-ping, who proves unable to replicate the delicate grace that made the original a sleeper hit even in subtitle-unfriendly America. The painterly photography has been supplanted by the flatness of prestige TV, and the long, pensive gaps in which viewers were once free to appreciate the rustling of tree branches or distant chiming of bells are now filled with meaningless exposition. The brisk fight choreography elevates Yuen’s film to a level of basic competency, but there are approximately 500 better martial-arts films a person could be watching — and a few of them are on Netflix!
29. Imperial Dreams
A curious specimen, this film was made and released in two dramatically different worlds. When the picture first premiered at Sundance in 2014, John Boyega was another handsome young Brit with a lot of promise and a stare capable of cutting metal. By the time Netflix unveiled it in 2017, he was an A-lister with a leading role in the biggest blockbuster franchise on the planet. Boyega stars here in the sort of small-scaled indie he’s now too expensive to appear in, as a recently freed gangster returning to L.A.’s volatile Watts neighborhood and learning how tough it can be to stay out of the game. Best-case scenario, this could have turned out to be a visual equivalent of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Boyega’s definitely capable of playing that ambivalence toward the city that raised and subsequently tried to kill him. But hackneyed dialogue and predictable plotting get in the way of this film’s bid for true excellence.
28. The Siege of Jadotville
Ever see a movie featuring a well-known actor with goofy facial hair and get the impression they’re trying more to hide from the audience than to blend in with the other characters? Fifty Shades of Grey todger-waggler Jamie Dornan dons a robust ’stache in this down-and-dirty war picture and fools exactly no one; we all know it’s you, Jamie Dornan. At any rate, this one’s pretty sharp about the geopolitical dimension of conflict, and overwrought when it comes to the personal. The retelling of one Irish U.N. peacekeeping force’s efforts to intervene in a Central African powder keg keenly understands how contradictory national interests must be resolved to foster a ceasefire, but cannot grasp the details of basic human behavior. That results in a weird dissonance, where the film works as a discrete whole but fails on a scene-by-scene basis.
Former Orange Is the New Black writer Sian Heder tries her hand behind the camera for this study in contrasts about three women all chafing under the demands of motherhood in their own way. In the title role, Ellen Page is a street urchin feeling lost after her good-for-nothing boyfriend abandons her, but finds new meaning in life when fate puts a helpless infant in her custody. With her own mother out of the picture, “Lu” goes to her ex’s mother (Allison Janney) for help, though she’s got plenty of regrets left over from her time with her son. (As the wayward baby’s thoroughly unfit original guardian, Tammy Blanchard completes the triumvirate of bad moms.) Well-measured restraint improves the acting across the board, which in turn keeps this film away from the treacly sentiment that occasionally rears its weepy head. Janney takes it in a walk, naturally.
26. A Message from the King
Roger Ebert once theorized that no film featuring a performance from Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh could be altogether bad. I’d add to that list Alfred Molina, who appears here in a typically stellar supporting turn as a rage-choked elder gangster. Casting’s really all that Fabrice Du Welz’s revenge thriller has going for it; Black Panther–to-be Chadwick Boseman busts out his South Afreekahn accent as a emigré who’s come to America from Cape Town in search of his lost sister. When he learns she’s recently been offed by some mobbed-up types, the rampage of vengeance begins, and as rampages go, it’s not half bad. Boseman’s an endlessly watchable performer, and Luke Evans holds his own as the primary baddie. Still, the script arrives at the same inevitable endpoint as any other movie about someone avenging a loved one. You know the old saying — before you embark upon a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
25. Win It All
A degenerate gambler (Jake Johnson) agrees to do one of his shadier buddies a simple favor: hold on to a sealed bag for the nine months the guy’s going to spend in prison, in exchange for a cool ten grand once he gets back. The rest of the movie writes itself: Of course he looks in the bag, of course it’s money, of course he uses that money to gamble, of course he loses it and gets himself into dangerous debt just as his pal’s come to collect, and of course he can only square himself up with one last big score. The grainy 16mm photography of the grittier streets of Chicago is a pleasure unto itself and Johnson plays the hangdog down-on-his-luck type with a lived-in believability, but still, you’ve all but seen the whole thing in the first ten minutes.
24. The Discovery
In the vast gulf between conception and execution, we have this down-tempo thought experiment from Charlie McDowell. In a world where Robert Redford has conclusively proven the existence of an idyllic afterlife, the suicide rate has mushroomed. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara are strangers with a mysterious attraction and conflicting opinions about what to do with this frightening new frontier. The kernel of an idea at the center of this film is sound, but it’s buried under several layers of metaphysical b.s. and hackneyed twists. The most compelling philosophical query posed by this film is whether Rooney Mara can make bleach-blonde hair work for her, to which the answer is of course “yes.”
Barack Obama is the coolest commander-in-chief to have ever graced the Oval Office — this is fact. Vikram Gandhi’s chronicle of Obama’s swingin’ college years at Columbia confirms that much, showing the man who would be president as he plays basketball, smokes the occasional joint, and charms a politically engaged coed (Anya Taylor-Joy). Gandhi doesn’t go quite as hard on the prophetic rise-of-a-leader portentousness as rival Obama biopic Southside With You, instead focusing on the young man’s feeling of placelessness. A Chicagoan in New York, a mixed-race kid in Harlem, a street-smart student among the academic elites, Obama’s shown to wrestle with insecurity and self-consciousness. Remember back when those were qualities the president had?
22. Our Souls at Night
I showed my grandmother Brooklyn in 2015, after which she smiled and said, “That’s the best kind of movie — I call them ‘nice’ movies.” Here’s another “nice” movie, and that’s not a diss, either. Anyone over the age of 60 will most likely be charmed by this softly told romance between seniors-who-still-got-it Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, but everyone can share in the warmth this sweet-natured, if mild, film radiates. Adult children Judy Greer and Matthias Schoenaerts bring trouble into their geriatric Eden, but the prevailing tone is that of comfort.
Make no mistake, this conceptual sci-fi picture is made mostly out of pure mumbo jumbo, but it’s still an exceptionally high grade of mumbo jumbo. In the opening moments, a scientist wakes up beside his ex-lover. Masked men storm into their room a moment later, drag them into the basement, demand a huge payoff, and kill our man when he tries to escape. He then reawakens and begins the cycle anew, setting off a twisty logic puzzle tricked out with killer robots, glowing insignia tattoos, and a perpetual-motion machine capable of resetting time. (But only within highly specific parameters.) (And the time loops group together into larger loop clusters that then also loop themselves, but only if — you know what, just don’t worry about it.) It is a Groundhog Day–Primer bastardization full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It has its fun with the sound and fury, though.
20. War Machine
So many films on this list faltered due to bad ideas, but David Michôd’s war picture is the only entry that overcommits to too many good ones. Hiding in the story of General Stanley McChrystal’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan (fictionalized here as Glen McMahon by Brad Pitt, with the proud chin, slick hairdo, and can-do attitude of a Global War on Terror Ken doll), there’s a stirring meditation on America’s quagmire in the Middle East, a riotous satire about American exceptionalism coming to a bitter end, and a character study about one incompetent man on a tragic mission to prove himself. Michôd attempts to do all three at once and overextends himself, resulting in distracting gear shifts between scenes that could easily be ironed out into a fine picture.
19. Small Crimes
After buying one man’s self-debasement with the deranged Cheap Thrills in 2013, director E.L. Katz came back meaner than ever with another black comedy pushing a well-intentioned guy’s moral fiber to the breaking point. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau mounts a convincing argument for himself as a bona fide movie star with his turn as former corrupt policeman Joe Denton, struggling to stay on the straight and narrow while reentering society following a prison stint. The mere presence of Macon Blair (who also co-wrote the film) signals an enticing mix of gallows laughs and somber small-town crime drama, not too far removed from the films of Jeremy Saulnier and Blair’s own directorial debut — see below. But where those films were well-served by simple, leaner scripts, this one spirals out in its many knots of plot. With so many diverting characters, such as Gary Cole as a cop on the take who sees murder as a first and second resort, this could’ve thrived with a more minimal slice-of-life approach.
18. Girlfriend’s Day
Bob Odenkirk does some damn fine work in this black comedy as Ray, an out-of-work greeting-card writer so numbed by depression that he has to watch bum-fight DVDs just to feel something. Odenkirk skillfully navigates through an obstacle course of genres and tones, as his Garden State–ish melancholia mercifully gives way to a noir-inflected mystery that links skinheads, Stacy Keach, a ring of jailhouse murders, and a newly contrived holiday with suitable ridiculousness. The desaturated color scheme used to telegraph Ray’s bummed-out state of mind wears on the nerves after a few scenes, but that’s the sort of misstep a viewer forgives when the rest of the film — deft casting, writing that knows when to pull back — functions as it should.
17. 7 Años
The bad news is that this drama engages in the cardinal sin of chess metaphors, my number-one writerly pet peeve. The good news is that the rest of it is smart enough that we can fairly expect more. The Dardenne brothers would nod in approval at this black-box piece’s doozy of a premise: Four friends, all partners in a business facing some nasty tax-fraud charges, must agree on who among them shall take the fall for the crime. Their bitter deliberations over who’s to play scapegoat unearth longer-simmering resentments and tease out the personal dynamics between these sparingly traced characters with rigorous economy. (At a svelte 77 minutes and limited to a single room, it’s begging to be mounted as a play.) Incidentally, this Spanish-language import marked Netflix’s first foreign purchase, a key step on the road to complete global domination.
16. Deidra and Laney Rob a Train
There’s a good deal to like about this plucky crime comedy, even if director Sydney Freeland never ties it together into a fully satisfying, cohesive package. A pair of young sisters (Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow) need money for legal fees when their mother lands in the big house, dad’s nowhere to be found, and they don’t have a whole lot of options. So when a train all but rolls up and begs to be plundered, what are Deirdra and Laney supposed to do? Freeland’s still getting her sea legs as a director, but she has a keen understanding of American poverty and how it forces those affected by it into undesirable situations out of necessity. It is, first and foremost, an empathetic film.
Killing is easy; it’s the living with it afterward that’s hard. The same truth that informed Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart takes on grimy new life in this solid adaptation of a Stephen King novella, the gnawing corrosion of guilt an eternal constant whether in the present, Poe’s era, or the pre–Dust Bowl plains. It’s there that a proud, stubborn farmer (Thomas Jane) hatches a plot with his semi-willing son (Dylan Schmid) to murder his wife (Molly Parker) when she makes plans to divorce him and sell her half of the family farm. The horrifying visions that then plague him amount to a sumptuous buffet of terror (trigger warning: so many rats), but the original text simply doesn’t provide enough story material to sustain a 101-minute feature without padding. Director Zak Hilditch puts the text he has through its paces, but a viewer still walks away with that haute cuisine dissatisfaction: It was great and everything, but such small portions!
14. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Oz Perkins established himself as an important new name in horror filmmaking when this staid ghost story and his girls’-school-set chiller The Blackcoat’s Daughter got releases within five months of one another last year. You won’t find the superior film on Netflix, but that’s not to denigrate what’s still a delectable exercise in atmospheric terror. Accomplishing a good deal with very little — keep your buckets of blood, monsters, and jump scares, thanks — Perkins conjures fear from thin air. Be forewarned, however: Those viewers who complained that “nothing happened” in The Witch (which is a crazy thing to think) will start to fidget after about ten minutes of slow-burn suspense building.
There must have been 50 ways to go awry when adapting this popular manga series for a feature film; losing basic coherence while condensing ten volumes of writing into a 90-minute package, sacrificing the essence of the art by making kinetic what was once stationary, hiring annoying voice actors. Director Hiroyuki Seshita does the Charleston around these many pitfalls, safely emerging on the other side with a beautiful dark twisted cyberpunk fantasy. Skittering android-spider abominations and hyperspeed gun-toting rebels populate this desolate post-industrial hellscape, where a band of rebels must beat back the advance of an approaching death-bot (storytelling often takes a way back seat to immersive set dressing) with a mix of futuristic weaponry and courage. A bit typical in its band-of-heroes narrative, but never in the stylistic means employed to tell it.
Collateral on the phone, Locke but with crime — we’ve no shortage of comparison points for this innovative action B-flick, but that’s not to detract from director Jeremy Rush’s own bright ideas. His first and best was tapping macho man Frank Grillo for the lead, a getaway driver taken hostage via phone and forced to run a series of increasingly hazardous jobs during one unending night. The second was constraining the camera to our man’s car for the entirety of the film, trapping the audience in the predicament right next to him. It’s a supremely unsettling effect, putting us close enough to the violence to see it clearly, even close enough to feel threatened by it, but not quite close enough to intervene. Like Grillo, we’re powerless, but at least he’s got the brass balls and five o’clock shadow to take a shot at reclaiming his life. Grillo’s in top form here, leveling up and acting as the major-league name-taker we all knew he could be.
Ten years after his last foray into long-form mockumentary, Christopher Guest returns to his wheelhouse with another inspection of a peculiar subculture as likely to induce squirms of discomfort as laughter. A collection of weirdos played by Guest’s usual gang of goofballs (Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, you know the lot) convene for a world-class mascot tomfoolery competition, cue magnificently uncomfortable improv. While not as conceptually involved as the constantly shifting For Your Consideration, it’s sure to delight those who were delighted by Guest’s past shenanigans, a camp of which this critic is a proud member. Newcomer Zach Woods, by the by, walks away with the MVP honors. There’s a gentle quiver in his voice when he mutters, “Do you prescribe antidepressants?” That quiver is art.
10. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
This is how it’s done, Shimmer Lake. Macon Blair works from a decidedly Coen-esque template in his directorial debut, but invests enough of his own idiosyncrasies into the story of two oddballs (a fed-up Melanie Lynskey and slightly unhinged, nunchuck-brandishing Elijah Wood) on the ineptly charted warpath for this to feel like a beast all its own. There’s a rickety punk energy to Blair’s indie-scaled production style and, moreover, the fuck-the-world frustration that drives Lynskey’s character to the edge after her house gets plundered. Blair more than earned the top prize he picked up at Sundance — though you’d never learn that from Netflix, which unceremoniously released the picture weeks after it was deemed the toast of America’s biggest independent film festival.
9. Gerald’s Game
A premise so simple and brilliant, you wonder why no one’s ever tried it before: A couple retreats to a secluded cabin, hoping to give their flagging marriage a shot in the arm with a sexy weekend excursion. But when he handcuffs her to the bed and promptly dies of a heart attack, she has to draw on all her ingenuity and confront some personal demons to take one last grasp at life. (The 127 Hours comparison is hard not to make, though Stephen King wrote the novel on which this is based long beforehand.) Maybe Hollywood was waiting for two actors as game as Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, put through their paces and then some in a hallucinatory night of the soul that dislodges some dark repressed memories and reorients their present. At least for performers, this all-in two-hander is worthy of study like Scripture.
8. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday
Eternal man-boy Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) stages his comeback in a more welcoming world, where the internet and its bolstering of cult fandoms has freed Reubens to go cheekier and weirder. The homoerotic undertones nearly broach the surface like a majestic humpback whale when Pee-Wee befriends Joe Manganiello and sets out on a cross-country odyssey to attend the ruggedly handsome actor’s birthday party. Reubens tosses in more winks to the kitsch-heads than ever, peaking with an interlude in which Pee-Wee crosses paths with a girl gang right out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! that includes Alia Shawkat and Stephanie Beatriz. And to think they put this in the Kids & Family section …
7. Beasts of No Nation
Netflix started strong with their first release, a muscular and intense coming-of-age narrative that doubles as a uniquely brutal war film. Though Idris Elba was the presumed award horse for his layered turn as an African warlord (snubbed by the Oscars in the year that precipitated the #OscarsSoWhite pushback), newcomer Abraham Attah racked up the most hardware for his harrowing lead performance. Weathering the slaughter of his family, forced enrollment in a child army, constant drugging, and a host of other traumas, Attah fights with all he’s got to maintain one last semblance of humanity. In this way, it’s almost a story of anti-maturation; As Elba grooms him to be a ruthless killing machine, Attah desperately clings to his remaining scraps of childhood. Shot in immersive yet never ostentatious long takes by director Cary Fukunaga, the film heralded a future for Netflix that hasn’t quite come to pass. Films like this were supposed to be the norm — instead, they ended up the glaring exception.
6. The Little Prince
Director Mark Osborne has devised a rather brilliant method of communicating the transportive quality of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s poignant fantasy novella. A frame story featuring an aged aviator and an inquisitive little moppet has been rendered in 3D computer-animation, and the pilot’s memories of his past with the melancholic prince are all stop-motion. Otherwise, Osborne plays it smart (if a bit safe) and sticks with the source material, relaying all the pocket profundities about compassion for our fellow homo sapiens and the unstoppable passage of time. I’d highly recommend it for parents unsure how to go about teaching their children the ABC’s of decency, and for adults, it’s pretty amusing that these philosophical fables occasionally come out of the mouths of Paul Rudd or James Franco.
On the grand spectrum of movies about kids falling in love over the course of one long day spent scrambling around New York, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist sits at one pole of quality and this superior indie from Adam Leon occupies the other. Danny and Elle (Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten, the latter the clear standout) first cross paths as accomplices on a cut-and-dried bag-drop-off job with a big payout. There’s no movie if it goes according to plan, so naturally Danny leaves the asset with a perfect stranger, and they embark on a quirky but not too quirky odyssey to get it back. Leon hits an elusive sweet spot, giving us all the things audiences love about small-scale romances — clever leads, hip street cred, offbeat dialogue — without ever overplaying that hand. It makes you want to get on a train and return a cute stranger’s smile.
4. First They Killed My Father
The reports of director Angelina Jolie’s unorthodox casting methods raised concerns that the vocal activist might not grasp the big picture of her sensitive topic — the Cambodian genocides under Khmer Rouge during the ’70s — despite her noble intentions. But what a relief to find that she has indeed done right by her subject and co-writer Loung Ung, the citizens she’s come to love and protect, and the terrible burden of history’s weight. Jolie goes all-in, working almost exclusively with locals from a script in the Khmer language, steeping the account of Loung’s gutting stint in the child militias in Cambodia’s native culture. She shows admirable self-awareness in her treatment of these shattering events, refusing to shy away from the most grueling details while steering clear of exploitation. She’s erected a tribute to suffering that doesn’t wallow or look for hope where there was none. It soldiers on, survives, and leaves us the pain.
Behold, the rare example of the film industry functioning properly as a meritocracy. Dee Rees showed promise with her 2011 narrative feature debut Pariah, proved herself ready for a bigger platform after marshaling HBO’s resources on Bessie in 2015, and then when Hollywood gave her a bigger budget, she crushed it. This adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s sprawling novel about two families — one black, one white — locked in a racially charged culture clash in ‘40s Mississippi attempts a lot, and astonishingly enough, pulls it all off. Replicating the narrative structure of the source text, Rees freely drifts between voice-overs from six different characters. The story spans years and traffics in huge swells of emotion that never spill over into melodrama, not to mention the stunning visual set pieces in the World War II passages. The sizable ensemble interlocks perfectly, with special considerations to Mary J. Blige as a long-suffering matriarch and Garrett Hedlund as a shell-shocked veteran, but Rees is the real star of the show. This is the coronation of a vital new voice in American filmmaking.
2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Just when the words “new Netflix movie starring Adam Sandler” had assumed synonymity with low quality, Noah Baumbach swooped out of his Brooklyn brownstone to redeem them. Sandler’s rage-choked man-child schtick takes on new depth and poignancy in the context of one big, fractious, dysfunctional New York family. After a lifetime of getting underestimated and ignored by his esteemed sculptor dad (Dustin Hoffman), Sandler and half-siblings portrayed by Elizabeth Marvel (an office drone for Xerox) and Ben Stiller (a successful business manager out in L.A., still a disappointment to Pops for following the money) act out in aggravated fits as a maladjusted assertion of independence. They laugh and fight and eke out a grain of self-actualization by the end credits, survivors of an oppressive household regime built on passive-aggression and guilt.
In which Netflix and Brad Pitt’s production house Plan B jointly pony up $50 million to produce two solid hours of furious anti-capitalist agitprop from radicalized hippie Bong Joon-ho. In the most satisfying reappropriation of establishment funds since Snowpiercer, Bong pulled off an E.T. homage that takes a hard left turn into corporate animal slaughter that makes PETA shock pamphlets look like the WeRateDogs account. A young girl in South Korea (Ahn Seo-hyun) forms a deep-seated bond with a hippo-pig-rabbit creature known as a “super-pig,” and when the nefarious Mirando conglomerate comes to take dear sweet Okja away, the sum total of a profit-driven culture’s evil comes into focus. Bong’s not subtle, but he has no inclination to be, not in a situation he feels is this urgent. Warhol said art is whatever you can get away with; Bong’s films feel seriously, substantively subversive in a way that nothing currently coming out of the studio system does. If films freely unencumbered by hegemony are the yield of Netflix’s famously permissive attitude toward its filmmakers, I suppose I’ll renew my subscription.