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The 40 Best Movies on Netflix You Probably Haven’t Seen

Midnight Special. Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

This article is regularly updated as movies enter and leave Netflix. *New additions are indicated with an asterisk.

As you have probably noticed by now, the major streaming services (and/or their algorithms) are often eager to promote the big films almost everyone has already seen. Yes, Pulp Fiction and Black Panther, two hugely popular titles, are available on Netflix. Feel free to rewatch them!

But what if you’re looking for something new? What if you want to watch a great movie you’ve never even heard of before today? Then this is the list for you: a collection of movies on Netflix that didn’t play theatrically in almost any city other than New York or Los Angeles and could easily be lost among the “bigger” movies that get pushed to the front of your Netflix page. There’s not a bad movie in here, and we’re willing to bet there are at least a few you haven’t seen. This is your chance to change that. (And for our main list of the 100 best movies on Netflix, click here.)

6 Balloons

Broad City star Abbi Jacobson proves she can handle drama as well as comedy in this harrowing story of addiction from writer-director Marja-Lewis Ryan. Jacobson plays Katie, sister to Seth, played by Dave Franco in his best career performance yet. Seth is a heroin addict, and he’s in a place Katie has seen him before, right on the edge of a relapse. While films about addiction aren’t rare, few recent ones are this effective at telling the story of not just the addict but the way addiction impacts loved ones. Netflix is very bad at promoting its original films, and this one was barely marketed after its 2018 SXSW premiere, dropping on the service before the festival was even over and then quickly being forgotten. Go find it.

Amanda Knox

Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s documentary about one of the most famous murder cases of the past decade has been relatively lost in the deep catalogue of true-crime stories on Netflix, with series like Making a Murderer and The Keepers getting the bulk of the promotion and attention. Trust us that any fan of crime documentaries should take the time to dig into this 2016 film about the investigation into the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007. The British student was brutally killed in her own apartment in Perugia, Italy, at the age of 21, and the authorities went after Kercher’s flatmate, Amanda Knox, and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, almost immediately, despite some conflicting evidence. The documentary is a fascinating look at how many other factors beyond evidence can influence an investigation, including public pressure and perception of the suspects.

Atlantics

Mati Diop directed this 2019 critical darling, the first film by a Black woman to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a riveting, haunting blend of genres, both finding something grounded in the way it captures the rarely seen reality of life on the Senegalese coast and something supernatural that emerges from the veracity of the storytelling. It’s about Ada, a woman who lives on the Atlantic Ocean with her partner Souleiman, who becomes one of many men who try to leave for more work opportunities. Working mostly with unknown actors, Diop’s filmmaking is personal and daring in ways you won’t really find elsewhere on Netflix.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown

Bill Pullman does some of his best later-career work in this Western written and directed by Jared Moshe, which was barely released by A24 back in 2017. What happens to all those sidekick characters in Westerns when their partners ride off into the sunset? That’s the basic idea here, tracking the journey of a man who has been a sidekick his whole life and now has to lead the way. Pullman is excellent, ably assisted by a cast that also includes Peter Fonda, Jim Caviezel, and Kathy Baker.

Blue Jay

On paper, this delicate character drama probably sounds like a movie you’ve seen dozens of times before (or hundreds if you go to Sundance). A relatively lost young man returns home in the middle of an emotional crisis and bumps into an old girlfriend. The man in this case is played by Mark Duplass, doing some of the best work of his career dramatically, and the ex-girlfriend is played by the simply always great Sarah Paulson. Like Richard Linklater’s Before movies, Blue Jay has a delicate, simple structure that’s based almost solely on dialogue that allows two performers to build completely three-dimensional characters, and Duplass and Paulson are totally up to the challenge.

Burning Cane

Writer-director Phillip Youmans became the first African American director to win the Founders Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. Also worth noting: Youmans was born in 2000. The teenage auteur impressed the fest jury with this lyrical debut about life in rural Louisiana. It’s essentially the story of a woman named Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) who is faced with difficult men in her life, including a self-destructive son, and an alcoholic pastor that’s played with searing power by the great Wendell Pierce of The Wire. Smart and original, Youmans’s films feels like the pronouncement of a major talent, even if it’s one that’s barely now old enough to drink.

*Christine

In 1974, Florida reported Christine Chubbuck shot herself on the evening news. Four decades later, Antonio Campos made a film about this startling tragedy, and gave the great Rebecca Hall the platform to give the best performance of her career. Hall is mesmerizing, adding depth and nuance to what could have been a clichéd portrayal of mental illness and depression. Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and J. Smith-Cameron co-star in a drama that can be tough to watch but is ultimately enlightening and rewarding.

Cut Throat City

Wu-Tang Forever! The amazing RZA of the Wu-Tang never gets enough attention for his musical genius, and the same holds true for his cinematic contributions, whether it’s acting in films like The Dead Don’t Die or composing the scores for films like Kill Bill. Even his directorial efforts are underappreciated — like this film that got lost in the pandemic after an aborted SXSW premiere. An old-fashioned action flick with social purpose, it stars Shameik Moore as one of four friends in New Orleans whose life is forever upended by Hurricane Katrina. With few options, they turn to a crime lord played by T.I. and are asked to participate in a heist. A tough, challenging, ambitious movie, this one also has a great supporting cast that includes Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke, and Wesley Snipes.

*Elizabeth Harvest

Abbey Lee (Old) stars in the title role of this truly twisted treat from writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez. Based loosely on the folk tale “Bluebeard,” Elizabeth Harvest is the tale of a young woman who recently married a mysterious older man, a doctor played by Ciaran Hinds. On her first day at her new house, Elizabeth is given a tour and told there is only one room that she is never allowed to enter. As boredom gets to her, she gives into temptation and discovers something unimaginable. Lee and Hinds are great, as is Carla Gugino as the doctor’s housekeeper. It can be something of a slow burn, but it’s ambitious and innovative enough to pay off.

Girl on the Third Floor

If you miss the days of grisly body horror like we do, check into this gnarly 2019 about a man remodeling a house who makes some very bad decisions and uncovers something more than mold hidden in the walls. Wrestler C.M. Punk is legitimately excellent as the lead, channeling a “Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead” energy. He plays Don Koch, a man who should have considered remodeling his personality before he started tearing down the walls of a haunted house.

The Grandmaster

All hail Wong Kar-wai. One of the best filmmakers of his era directed this period piece starring Tony Leung as Ip Man, the legendary martial-arts expert who would notoriously go on to teach Bruce Lee a thing or two. This film was treated horribly by Harvey Weinstein, and so denied the international attention it deserved. It’s a lavish, gorgeous epic that features both Wong’s incredible eye for detail and his romantic sense of storytelling.

I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary about James Baldwin gained new fame and relevance in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, during which it was often cited as must-watch material to understand where the country is now by reflecting on Baldwin’s insight about where it’s been. Available on Netflix, Peck’s film works from an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin titled Remember This House, which examines the history of racism in this country. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film moves through Baldwin’s memories of the civil rights movement, including leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary (and it probably should have won).

Kicking & Screaming

No, not the kiddie soccer movie with Will Ferrell. This is the breakthrough debut of a major talent that Netflix has come to love, Noah Baumbach. Long before he directed Netflix originals like The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story. Baumbach wrote and directed this 1995 ensemble comedy that’s largely based on his life and friends in college, starring Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Parker Posey, Olivia d’Abo, Elliott Gould, and Eric Stoltz. Fun trivia: Baumbach’s college roommate helped get the film produced by attaching a praise-filled letter from Steve Martin to the script when he submitted it to financiers. That smart producer? Jason Blum.

The Kindergarten Teacher

Sara Colangelo’s 2018 remake of Nadav Lapid’s hit 2014 Israeli film was one of the most-buzzed movies at Sundance the year it premiered, but it feels like one of those Netflix Originals that got lost in a service that releases something new every week. A character-driven drama like this is bound to get lost in the shuffle. Dig in and find the story of Lisa Spinelli, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in one of the best performances of 2018. She’s a Staten Island kindergarten teacher who is startled when one of her students, a sweet boy named Jimmy, starts reciting beautiful poetry. Has she found a new child prodigy? Can she save him before society destroys his artistic impulses? What would the modern world do to someone like Mozart? Gyllenhaal perfectly balances the passion and potential danger within a character who becomes obsessed with a child. You won’t forget this one.

Lingua Franca

Isabel Sandoval wrote and directed this phenomenal drama about an undocumented Filipina trans woman who works in Brooklyn named Olivia, also played by Sandoval. She has been caring for an elderly Russian woman there in Brighton Beach but she’s running out of chances to become a legal immigrant when she meets Alex (an excellent Eamon Farren), Olga’s grandson and begins a romance. This is a warm and nuanced study of the immigrant experience and trans rights that we don’t often see in American indie dramas and announces Sandoval as a talent to watch.

Loving

It’s hard to say that any recent Oscar nominee is underseen, but this drama from 2016 feels like it’s been largely forgotten, and that’s a shame. Featuring two of the best performances of that year, this is Jeff Nichols’s telling of the story of the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, a Supreme Court decision that basically allowed for interracial marriage in this country in 1967. Yes, as recently as that date it was still illegal in many states for people of different races to marry. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (an Oscar nominee for Best Actress) play Richard and Mildred Loving, an unassuming couple who just wanted to live life in love and peace but had to fight to do so. This is a smart, empathetic drama that eschews flashy Oscar bait theatrics to present two completely genuine people.

Maps to the Stars

This is looking more and more as though it could be David Cronenberg’s last movie (frowny-face emoji). The masterful filmmaker behind A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and The Fly hasn’t made a film since this 2014 satirical drama, written by Bruce Wagner. When it was released, audiences barely paid attention to it, and big fans of Cronenberg wrote it off as being minor in his career. Sure, but “minor Cronenberg” is still worth seeing, especially when it stars Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, and Robert Pattinson. It’s a tapestry piece, kind of like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, that captures modern life in Los Angeles, and it features yet another great performance from Moore. It’s not perfect, but there are a lot of interesting ideas in this ambitious project, and the cast alone makes it worth your time.

Menashe

There aren’t many movies about the American Yiddish experience, and that’s only part of what makes Joshua Z. Weinstein’s 2017 indie drama feel so unique. Told in Yiddish with subtitles, this is the story of Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a widowed Yiddish man who is struggling to balance his life and faith as he seeks to regain custody of his son Rieven, who has been living with his aunt and uncle per a ruling from their rabbi that Menashe must remarry before he can be his father again. A smart character study, this is a window into a life that many pass on the street but rarely consider.

*Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols made a very special (sorry) sci-fi film in 2016, with his biggest budget and most impressive cast. Michael Shannon, who also starred in Nichols’s Take Shelter, plays a father who is introduced on the run with his son (Jaeden Martell) and another man, played by Joel Edgerton. It’s slowly revealed that the boy has been broken out of a government facility, where he was being held because he has unique abilities. An allegory for child illness, Midnight Special is a moving, fascinating piece of work that played wider than a lot of films on this list but also feels tragically underrated.

Mr. Roosevelt

The charming Noël Wells wrote, directed, and stars in this SXSW hit that was barely released in theaters, meaning you probably haven’t seen it. The former star of Master of None and Saturday Night Live plays Emily Martin, a young woman who returns to her hometown after the death of her cat, which gives the film its title. At home, she’s forced back into the life of an ex-boyfriend, played by Nick Thune. Not only is Wells sweet and funny, she has a strong voice as a writer-director, imbuing with honesty and heart a film that could have felt like hundreds of other fest hits. She may become a major independent filmmaker. Watch this before she does.

The Night Comes for Us

If you liked the Raid movies and you haven’t seen this 2018 Timo Tjahjanto film, then you’re doing something wrong with your life. Think of this as The Raid on Steroids. Sure, there’s a plot about a Triad soldier who makes people angry when he refuses to shoot a child, but it’s merely a skeleton for some of the most insane action you’ve ever seen. Imagine a kung fu movie in which people have knives and axes and other sharp objects instead of just their fists of fury. This is an angry, bloody mess, but there’s a rhythm and a beauty to the action choreography that’s inspired, too. It’s a movie that finds a way to make gore glorious.

The Outpost

Rod Lurie (The Contender) directed this intense adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name by CNN’s Jake Tapper. It tells the story of the Battle of Kamdesh, one of the most devastating attacks in the war in Afghanistan, in which 300 Taliban members assaulted an American outpost in the eastern part of the country. Lurie takes a very thorough approach, presenting key events leading up to the attack in an ensemble fashion, allowing various members of his excellent young cast to take center stage, including Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Jack Kesy, and Will Attenborough. But the real draw here is the assault itself, which is harrowing in ways that war films often aren’t allowed to be.

Outside In

The consistent Lynn Shelton co-wrote this drama with star Jay Duplass, and it marks the best work to date of either one. The Transparent star plays Chris, a 38-year-old just released from prison after spending more than half his life behind bars. Naturally, he’s still developmentally closer to being 18 than he is to 38, and this is reflected in a quick attachment to his former high-school teacher Carol, who supported him during his incarceration and is played by the always great Edie Falco. This is a nuanced, graceful character piece about two people with very different life experiences who find themselves drawn to each other. When people say they don’t make dramas for adults like they used to, point them to this movie.

*Pariah

Almost a decade before directing the Oscar-nominated Mudbound, Dee Rees made waves at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with a film that instantly felt important to everyone in Park City, Pariah. Adepero Oduye stars as a young teenager coming to embrace her lesbian identity. Stories about young gay people have rarely been rendered this empathetically, and there are even fewer of these films made about non-white youth. Even a decade later, Pariah feels special, tender and believable in ways American independent drama still isn’t often allowed to be.

Piercing

Nicolas Pesce (Eyes of My Mother) wrote and directed an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ryu Murakami, and it’s already developed something of a cult following since its 2018 Sundance premiere and brief 2019 theatrical release. Christopher Abbott is fantastic (he always is) as a serial killer who pretends to go on a business trip but it’s really to feed his need to kill so he can go back to his family again. He hires a sex worker, played by Mia Wasikowska, with the intention her being his next victim, but things don’t go exactly as planned. Tight and effective, this is a different kind of two-hander for a pair of wonderful young actors.

Prospect

Everyone seems to be in love with Pedro Pascal lately with his work on The Mandalorian, Wonder Woman 1984, and even the casting news that he’s going to star in HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Check out one of his most underseen performances in this effective 2018 indie sci-fi film that premiered at that year’s SXSW Film Festival. It’s an interesting piece of lo-fi sci-fi about a teenage girl and her father (played by Jay Duplass) who go to alien moon to find gems but encounter a pair of dangerous strangers when they get there.

Results

Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls got a lot of buzz in 2018, even winning some awards for its great central performance by Regina Hall. If you liked it, check out Bujalski’s last film, another movie about a very unique working environment. The irascible Kevin Corrigan stars as Danny, one of those zhlubs who suddenly finds himself wealthy and has no idea what to do with his money or his time. Why not get a personal trainer? This decision brings him into the lives of a local gym owner named Trevor (Guy Pearce) and his best employee, Kat (Cobie Smulders). The star of How I Met Your Mother is wonderful here in yet another Bujalski film that’s always about character and never quite what you expect it to be.

Roll Red Roll

In August 2012, a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was raped and then photographed by a group of teenage boys. The case came to light slowly, first through social-media posts by their peers and then through some investigative journalism by bloggers. Nancy Schwartzman’s documentary doesn’t examine the case itself as much as how it impacted a community. It turned out that some of the criminals were members of the very popular local high-school football team, a circumstance that influenced the way the case was investigated and reported to the public. There are a lot of true crime docs on Netflix but few that look at the impact of crime on an entire city the way this one attempts to.

Screwball

Billy Corben’s documentary comes that wonderful subgenre of films that could be called “stranger than fiction.” Someday, someone will make an award-winning black comedy about the Biogenesis scandal that rocked Major League Baseball, but it probably won’t be as hysterical as hearing the story straight from the mouths of the men who lived it. Even if you think you know all the details of the Florida company that fed performance-enhancing drugs to major athletes, you probably don’t know all of the wonderful details (especially when it comes to the insane life of Alex Rodriguez, whom you will never be able to look at the same way again).

Shadow

If you’re looking for an action movie on Netflix that you might not have seen, look no further than Zhang Yimou’s latest, a movie barely released in the States but one that made almost $100 million in the rest of the world. The director of Hero and House of the Flying Daggers returns to period action with this story of warring kingdoms. It’s not a film that you’ll appreciate for its storytelling as much as its daring visual style, one that turns action choreography into something closer to ballet or performance art. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful.

*Shutter

Skip the atrocious American remake and dig into the Netflix catalog for one of the best Thai horror films ever made. Released in 2004, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom co-wrote and directed a riveting ghost story about haunted images that start appearing in photographs after a couple commits a hit and run. Is it the ghost of the girl haunting them through their photography? Shutter was a worldwide hit, one of the best of a wave of horror films released in the ‘00s.

Sweetheart

The great Kiersey Clemons plays Jennifer, a woman who washes up on a deserted island after a shipwreck that kills her friend and sends the other passengers into the water. She’s alone, fighting against the elements and figuring out how to survive. And then she discovers, well, she’s not alone. A blend of monster movie plot points, gender commentary, and survivor story, this is a great indie horror gem that deserves a bigger audience. Watch it before your best friend tells you to.

*Sword of Trust

The wonderful Lynn Shelton died unexpectedly in 2020, but her last film is on Netflix waiting to be discovered. Shelton gave her partner Marc Maron his best film role to date, and dropped him into an ensemble that includes Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Jillian Bell, and Shelton herself, giving a fantastic performance that now feels all the more poignant. It’s the story of a couple who inherit a sword reportedly used by General Sherman in the Civil War. Maron plays the pawn shop owner who gets tangled up in the plan to sell it for a large amount of money. It’s a funny and smart character study.

*Synchronic

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead rock. The pair of filmmakers behind Spring and The Endless delivered their most ambitious film to date in 2019 when this sci-fi action flick premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie play a pair of New Orleans paramedics who get caught up in a new street drug that just so happens to offer time travel as one of its side effects. Complex and ambitious, it’s unlike most anything else on Netflix.

Take Me

Chicagoan Pat Healy has become one of the most consistent character actors of his generation, starring in terrific movies big (The Post) and small (Cheap Thrills). He’s constantly working, and he has used that capital to direct his first feature, a clever screwball comedy starring himself and Orange Is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling. Ray (Healy) runs a unique business that one can use for a sort of very intense intervention: People ask Ray to kidnap them. (For example, he absconds with a man who regularly cheats on his diet to force him to shape up.) But after Anna (Schilling) hires Ray, she starts to push the rules, and, well, things get truly odd. It’s sort of a screwball thriller, if there is such a thing. Well, there is now.

Tramps

This is a perfect example of a movie that feels truly buried by Netflix. If a studio had released this delightful romantic dramedy in theaters, even just in major cities, people would have noticed. It’s smart, funny, and contains a pair of wonderful young performances. But it got hidden on Netflix in April 2017, and no one talks about it. Get your search function going and find the story of Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten), two struggling New Yorkers drawn together over a mysterious briefcase. Even if the narrative gets a little goofy, the infectious energy of the two leads keeps this flick, which is basically a caper movie, humming.

We the Animals

Jeremiah Zagar’s adaptation of the hit Justin Torres book was a major player at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards and is the kind of film a streaming service like Netflix could really help bring to a wider audience. Sadly, it’s also the kind of film likely to get lost in an overcrowded streaming service if you don’t know to search for it. It’s a story of adolescence, a tough upbringing shown through the eyes of three brothers, although our perspective is mostly that of Jonah, who is forced to deal with an abusive and often distant father and the discovery of his own sexuality. It’s somehow poetic and genuine at the same time, which is no easy feat for any filmmaker. Zagar uses a grainy 16mm approach to ground the movie in something that feels tactile, while also allowing for what sometimes feels like magic.

What Happened Miss Simone?

Liz Garbus, one of the best documentary directors out there, pulls apart the life of the fascinating Nina Simone in this Oscar-nominated Netflix original that came out early in the days of the streaming service’s ascendance and so may have been missed by the millions of subscribers since then. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance film festival and tells the life story of Simone, who was way more than just a powerful singer to her fans, using her fame to fight for civil rights while also fighting to maintain her privacy. Garbus incorporates previously unseen archival footage with interviews with Simone’s daughter and friends in a way that feels respectful of Simone’s life and powerful impact on arts and humanity.

Whose Streets?

The best documentary yet about the uprising in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, this 2017 flick gained more relevance after the protests of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. It’s a striking on-the-ground look at life in the days following the Brown murder and the protests that became violent examples of the divisions in these communities, and around the world. It gains most of its strength by virtue of seeing through the eyes of the people who were there, often using their own footage of riots and protests, and focusing on the men and women fighting for civil rights in their own streets.

Wildlife

Actor Paul Dano co-wrote (with his partner Zoe Kazan) and directed this moving drama based on the novel of the same name by Richard Ford. Carey Mulligan gives one of the best performances of her career as a 1960 Montana woman who lives a normal life with her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and her son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). After Jerry is fired from his job, he decides to take a job far from home, fighting forest fires. The decision strains his marriage in every way, but the brilliance of this film is how much of it is seen through the eyes of their son, Joe. In many ways, this is a drama about that time when one learns their parents are flawed, imperfect people, and it’s anchored by deeply empathetic writing, directing, and performances.

The 40 Best Movies on Netflix You Probably Haven’t Seen