Before I continue with my series of essays on Citizen Kane (i.e. the best movie I’ve ever seen, and probably will ever see), I must respect the wishes of a few people who have made a special request. I always play requests, even if that means I delay whatever plans I may have had for a post or a page. That is, I will always play requests until that time that this blog actually gains a real following and I won’t be able to keep up with the demand. But, until that time, bring ’em on.
Why is it that I am so respectful of the requests of readers? Because the point of this blog is to help the casual movie-goer become the competent movie-connoisseur. The point is not to indulge myself. If I can help on the path to competency, than I will do so.
And this request I have been given is certainly helpful on that path. After all, we live in a day and age where many of our movies are obtained digitally (sometimes, the obtaining of these movies is done through shady—or outright illegal—means, which I will not advocate here). The availability of good movies is often brought into question when it comes to this digital library we call the Internet. I think that one reason why so many people watch TV shows on Netflix and Hulu is because they have “run out” of everything good to watch in terms of actual movies. This is too bad, because, I’ll tell you, cinema has way more to offer than television. Granted, some shows like Sherlock and Breaking Bad enjoy some seriously good film conventions; but there is even more available in the world of film. Really, where TV really finds its advantage is in the sitcom: this is the only comedic genre where an inside joke can really be utilized. Therefore, if you’re going to watch a show on Netflix, I would recommend Cheers before I recommended anything else.
Anyway, if you couldn’t tell already, the request I have been given is to help all you, my readers, to know what is good to watch on Netflix. There exist many lists online (just Google them) that have answers to that query, but these lists don’t give you plot synopses and statements on the the movies’ overall qualities. How are you supposed to pick what to watch without a little plot synopsis? These lists of great movies become just another pointless list of movies. So, in this post, I will try to point you to the good films, and help you pick the ones that you would like to see the most.
Before I begin, I would like to refer you to another web-option that you have often overlooked: Hulu Plus. I highly endorse getting a Hulu Plus account. Last I checked, it’s 8 dollars a month to give you near complete access to the films of the renowned Criterion Collection. Seventh Seal? The Rules of the Game? City Lights? Bicycle Thieves? The Passion of Joan of Arc? Cinema Paradiso? Yes to all of the above. Almost all those foreign films that you’ve never heard of that seem to crop up every time you look up great movies on Google can be found on Hulu Plus. So, don’t get turned off just because The Dark Knight Rises isn’t available. Godard’s Breathless is. Oh yeah. Good stuff.
Anyway, back to the Netflix thing. After all, the Hulu Plus option is so “artsy”. Perhaps you’re not interested in watching Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, a minimalist film about the life of a donkey in France. It is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I’m not going to say that the casual movie-goer would necessarily love it. They might be bored at first. We’ll save movies like that for later. Which is why, again, I am referring to Hulu Plus only briefly, and will instead focus on the much more accessible selections on Netflix. Here it goes:
Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: There has been ample reference to this movie thus far in my blog. It was nominated for quite a few of my Fantasy Academy Awards, including acting nominations for both George C. Scott (who plays an eccentric General) and Peter Sellers (who plays a prim British exchange officer, an insane ex-Nazi nuclear physicist, and the President of the United States). This movie is quite possibly the funniest movie ever made (particularly if you know anything about Cold War politics), featuring an all-star cast of Sellers, Scott, Slim Pickens, and Sterling Hayden. They all play a group of key players in a potential nuclear disaster when a crazed general orders a nuclear strike on the USSR.
Airplane!: Where Dr. Strangelove—though definitely outrageous and goofy at times—may have a few jokes that go over your head, Airplane! shouldn’t have too many. It’s the most well-known example of slapstick parody around. It is full of classic one-liners and is considered one of the funniest movies ever. A parody of all the old disaster films, it features a few famous comedians (most significantly Leslie Nielsen) and a lot of crazy situations. While it is time quite stupid (and I mean that in the nicest way possible) you’ll definitely like it. Just be aware, though it is rated PG, it would probably get a PG-13 or R rating for a very brief instance of female flashing.
Mud: A great movie from two years ago, part of Matthew McConaughey’s recent ascendance in the realms of dramatic acting. He’s just as good in this movie as he was in Dallas Buyers Club as a man that two young boys find in a boat in a tree (an allusion, it would seem, to Aguirre: the Wrath of God, which I’m sure you could find on Hulu Plus). He is a fugitive from the law on the run from men who would want him gone. The boys promise to help him. It’s got an air of Huckleberry Finn about it that I think you’d find very enjoyable.
The Breakfast Club: You know this one. You’ve heard of it or seen it a million times. It’s terribly overrated, but still good, and you can’t participate in many modern conversations without exposure to this iconic 80s “Brat Pack” film about a group of decidedly different kids in detention. These movies (and the S.E. Hinton movies that preceded them) suffer from their over-simplification of teenage angst, and you’ll find better examples of such angst in other films (check out Rebel Without A Cause) but I have always liked this movie anyway.
The Silence of the Lambs: This movie features the best acting performance cinema has ever seen that happened to be delivered in the English language, and that performance is by Anthony Hopkins for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. You’ve heard of him. He’s a super-genius ex-psychologist who is now an incarcerated cannibal. Jodie Foster (in a superb performance) must enlist his help to find a serial killer. This is the only horror film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s really good.
Fargo: absolutely brilliant movie from the second-best directing team in history, standing behind only Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the dominant British pairing of the 1940s and 50s). And I mean it when I say that the Coen brothers are that good. If you really want to be a competent movie-connoisseur, you need to watch their movies (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Inside Llewyn Davis, and this one). This movie is like a Tarantino movie without all the absurdity, and its way more funny. It’s about a man (William H. Macy, one of my personal favorite actors) who organizes a faux-kidnapping to get the ransom money from a father-in-law he hates, but the plan goes wrong when a cop gets murdered. From there, a lovable and pregnant police officer takes over, and she is fantastic. Really great movie-making. Plus, it takes place in Minnesota. I love Minnesota.
Roman Holiday: you can’t claim to know movies without watching this classic from William Wyler. Wyler had an ability to make very epic movie like Ben-Hur but also very simple and intimate movies like this one, which follows the escapades of an American newspaper man and a princess. It’s like the first part of Aladdin made into a whole movie. It’s a love story that begs the question: what would you only do with one day? It’s got Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, which is good enough reason to watch it in my eyes.
Skyfall: This movie came out a couple years ago, and I’ve got to say it might be the best James Bond movie ever (Goldfinger is the only real competition). No need to give a plot synopsis here. It’s a Bond movie. And he uses a Nitro Express at the end, which is one of the coolest rifles ever.
Taxi Driver: You’d be insane not to like this one. It’s about a man named Travis Bickle who becomes so disillusioned with the city wherein he works as a cabbie that he is driven to violence. It is full of symbolism and depth, yet it is so fast-paced and exciting that you can watch it both as a superb examination of human psychology or just a great vigilante flick. If you liked The Dark Knight, you’d love this one. It’s one of my very favorite movies.
The King’s Speech: This one won Best Picture a few years ago, and deserved it. It is, first and foremost, a mammoth exposition of British acting talent, containing a superb acting ensemble that includes Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and Bellatrix LeStrange—I mean, Helena Bonham Carter. It is a really well-done period piece, alerting the viewer to one of the most important moments in contemporary British history. And no, Sirius Black does not die at the end of this one.
Sunset Boulevard: Awesome movie. It’s not scary, but haunting is a good word for it. You wouldn’t think that you’d be so disturbed by it while watching it: it’s just an old movie with really over-the-top acting. But, I’ve said it before, that over-the-top acting has a terrifying degree of intention to it all. This is most manifest in the movie’s most important character, ex-silent movie star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson—who was once a great silent film actress herself—in a Fantasy Academy Award-nominated performance). Her manipulation and obsession with the hack screenwriter she takes in is startling similar to something Hitchcock would make; but this was made by Billy Wilder, who is quite well represented on Netflix right now.
Double Indemnity: As long as I’m talking about Billy Wilder, I might as well write about his other movies on Netflix. This one is the ultimate example of film noir, full of the witty dialogue and interchanges. It’s about a woman who ropes an insurance salesman to help her pull of the murder of her husband to get back a huge insurance return. They get caught. Gasp! “How could you give the ending away?” you ask. Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. The movie’s not about the ending. Like Sunset Boulevard, Wilder basically gives away the end of the movie at the very beginning. What really matters is everything that goes on leading up to it.
Some Like It Hot: Named by the American Film Institute as the most funny movie ever, this Billy Wilder movie features Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as a couple musicians who cross-dress and join an all-girls band to get out of town after witnessing the Valentine’s Day massacre. Their plans meet a hitch as they have a hard time controlling themselves around a band full of attractive women, including Marilyn Monroe.
Witness for the Prosecution: Agatha Christie wrote a lot of really great mystery books, but she also wrote plays. This movie is Billy Wilder’s adaptation of one of her plays. If you like court movies, or law movies, you’ve absolutely got to watch this one. It may get a little slow in the middle, but don’t give up on it. You won’t regret it.
The Apartment: I’m still on the Billy Wilder movies. It’s a lot, I know. Obviously, Netflix signed a contract with his estate or something. This movie is the first real “Dramedy” of American pop-film. It’s very funny, but you might be a little too caught up in the melancholy nature of it all to notice. It’s about a man who uses his apartment to host the affairs of his co-workers to help himself get ahead in the workplace, but is faced with a dilemma when it is about to be used by a woman he has a serious crush on.
Capote: this movie is a bio-pic about the man who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You’ll probably know him best for that. He was actually one of the most significant personalities of his generation, and one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. It’s one of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s best performances (and Phillip Seymour Hoffman had his fair share of great performances). Since he just passed away, you should send him some respect by checking this one out.
The Usual Suspects: This movie will blow your mind. Roger Ebert hated it. I loved it. That shows that I actually don’t just agree with Ebert on everything. It is particularly good because, with all the hundreds (it seems like hundreds) of plot twists that are being thrown at you, it handles narration and montage with dexterity and deftness. Very well choreographed editing. And, it’s a just a really good crime film.
Spider-man: I don’t care what your opinion of this movie is now. For some reason, everyone has decided they hate the original Spider-man trilogy. This is very weird, because when these movies came out they got rave reviews (well, not the third one, but I’m not standing up for that one—just the first two). Everyone changed their minds because of groupthink. “It’s too comic-booky,” they say. In response, I want to say, “It’s a superhero movie, you moron.” But instead, I think I’ll just refer them to my various pages on the “A Slice of Cake” theory. Looks to me like Christopher Nolan, despite all the good he has done as a movie maker, has made us want too many slices of life in our obviously fake superhero movies.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: This movie is not the best Python film, but it is still a riot. It is very irreverent and at times sacrilegious, but you may like it. It is what it sounds like it is: an analysis of life in all its stages.
A Fish Called Wanda: This is not a Monty Python movie, but could be considered one, since half the comedy group is in it and it was written and produced by much of the same people. Basically, a heist goes terribly wrong and in order to get their dues, a group of thieves must set about seducing lawyers and killing old ladies before they all end up in jail. Supposedly, a man literally died laughing watching this movie at a British movie theater.
The African Queen: This movie is always at the top of any list of great American movies. Most of its clout comes from the fact that it featured great acting performances by the two people that you could argue are the biggest stars in the history of Hollywood: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The rest of its clout comes from the fact that it was directed by John Huston, a very preeminent figure in the directorial world. I, personally, find the movie quite overrated, but I still like it. I’m sure you will too.
His Girl Friday: When people talk about the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, there are generally three that come to the forefront: Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and His Girl Friday. Cary Grant stars in two of them, including this one. A woman must pick between her ex-husband and another, rather boring, man. It really is funny.
As Good as It Gets: Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt are scene-stealers (is it possible to have two scene-stealers) in this movie about an OCD writer who learns a lot about life as he gets drawn into the lives of his neighbors. Really quite funny and has some great insights on life.
Das Boot: Netflix isn’t exactly a treasure-trove of great foreign films, but this movie out of Germany is one of the most well-known foreign movies ever. It is long, and submarine movies make me claustrophobic (and I’m not a claustrophobe), but I can’t deny that this is a good movie that you should check out. Somewhat overrated, but it’s a good war flick if you’re in the mood for a war flick.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?: I’ve got to say that Roger Rabbit is one of my favorite Disney characters, and I really like his ride in Toontown in Disneyland. He’s manic and unpredictable. This movie is equally manic and unpredictable. My favorite line: “A toon killed his brother. Dropped a piano on his head.” Love it.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: This is the pinnacle example of a “Spaghetti Western,” a title drawn from the fact that it was an American cowboy movie made by an Italian, Sergio Leone. It was even released in Italy first. This is actually part three of a trilogy, but you don’t have to watch the first two movies (A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More) to know this one. The only continuity in these movies is Clint Eastwood, playing the famed Man With No Name. Actually, the movies feature performances by various actors, but they play different characters from movie to movie, so it is obviously not necessary to watch all three in order. This movie is about three people, one bad, one good, and one ugly (an American man playing a Mexican as interpreted by a bunch of Italian makeup artists is ugly, I guess), who use feeble alliances and manipulations as they race to claim a buried treasure. Stylistically, this movie is awesome. You’ll recognize the theme music instantly. It is one of those R-rated films that would not merit such a rating according to today’s system.
The Truman Show: if you haven’t seen The Truman Show, you haven’t seen Jim Carrey really show you what he’s made of. He plays a man whose entire life has been a reality show: he lives in a gargantuan dome that has been manipulated to look like a world. He is completely unaware of his true existence, which is being watched every week by millions of literally life-long fans. Funny, but far more dramatic than the movies he had made leading up to this one. Since The Truman Show, we have been exposed to his dramatic side in such movies as The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but this one is definitely worth remembering.
M*A*S*H*: the movie that started a multi-generational television phenomenon, this Robert Altman movie is absolutely hilarious. It’s a raging and explicit satire of American foreign policy, particularly the Vietnam conflict (even though it takes place during the Korean War). It follows a MASH unit (medical army surgical hospital) as they deal with the horrors of war through practical jokes, sex, martini, and cards.
How to Marry a Millionaire: Marilyn Monroe establishes herself as one of the finest comedic actresses ever with her performance alongside Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall as the three of them plan to use their particular skill set to rope a few millionaires into marrying them. What skill set? Well, these three perennial pin-ups play models. Duh.
All About Eve: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter turn in what may be the best female one-two punch in American cinema with this one. It is pretty girly, but I still love it. Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Bette Davis plays a character that is decidedly like herself: a fading actress, once a superstar, who is watching her world slip away to young talents in a new generation. Davis’ character is not as haunting, though. Baxter, on the other hand, is very haunting. You wouldn’t think so while watching; she’s so sweet and simple. But, once the movie’s over, you see how cut-throat she really was.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Everyone likes this movie. Everyone. It’s about the real-life criminals, Butch Cassidy (played by Paul Newman) and, you guessed it, the Sundance Kid (played by Robert Redford). “Wait a minute,” you say. “Robert Redford organized the Sundance Film Festival!” Coincidence? No. One of the best endings you’ll ever see in a movie. See also: Taxi Driver.
Pulp Fiction: This movie is incredibly indulgent, over-the-top, and violent. I don’t think it merits a fraction of the praise that has been heaped upon it over the last twenty years of so. With that being said, there is some good about it, particularly the dance scenes and the witty dialogue.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Audrey Hepburn plays a strange but charming socialite-dreamer in this movie written by Truman Capote (the guy that Phillip Seymour Hoffman played in Capote) and directed by Blake Edwards (the guy who made the Pink Panther series). Really romantic, kind of cheesy at times, but full of superb sequences. The “Moon River” theme and song by Henry Mancini create an eternal atmosphere.
A Shot in the Dark: As long as I’m talking about Blake Edwards, I might as well bring up this movie, which is the second installment in his famous Pink Panther series—and possibly the best. Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clouseau, who is, perhaps, the most famous officer of the law in comedic film. While this film is recommended, I would stay away from the other two Pink Panther movies that are available in Netflix. These do not feature Sellers’ Clouseau, and are therefore far inferior. However, one of the movies, Son of the Pink Panther, has Roberto Benigni. And speaking of Roberto Benigni…
Life is Beautiful: This amazing and emotional movie plays in two parts: the first is the very funny and endearing segment where Roberto Benigni (who not only stars in the film, but also directed it and wrote it) courts his “principessa.” The second part occurs years later, after they are married and have one son, when they are taken by Nazis into a Nazi concentration camp. Benigni tries to protect his son from the evils around him by trying to convince him that the whole thing is a game, and that the winner gets a real-life tank. This movie is incredibly comedic, yet terribly dramatic, and I guarantee that you’ll love it. With his various roles in this movie, Benigni joins Charlie Chaplin (City Lights), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky), Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Warren Beatty (Reds), and Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) in the club consisting of the only people to be nominated for writing and acting for the same film in the Academy Awards.
The Avengers: You should know this one, no need to say too much. It has a solid case as the best superhero movie ever made, alongside The Dark Knight and Superman: the Movie. Including this one on this list may be in vain, as I’m sure that this is one of those movies that everyone has already seen on Netflix. But, it’s worth watching again.
Charade: Someone once said that this is the best Hitchcock movie which was never made by Hitchcock. While that claim seems to ignore special cinematic elements, scoring, and motifs that make Hitchcock movies (at least a handful of them) better than this one, Charade is still quite Hitchcock-ian in its type of plot and the interactions of its characters. It is more funny than most Hitchcock movies (Audrey Hepburn is especially funny), and more absurd. But the absurdity is good. The movie is about a woman (Hepburn) who discovers that three men are out to kill her on the same day that she becomes a widow. Cary Grant plays her heroic (or is he?) companion.
Ghostbusters: Great 1980s comedy. Bill Murray is a scene-stealer, and you have to watch this one to consider yourself a true American.
Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl: Johnny Depp’s premier performance is as a charming yet corrupt pirate desperate to get his ship back. You’ve seen it already, most likely. If not, you’re really missing out.
West Side Story: This musical film is adapted from a musical play written in part by Leonard Bernstein. (Remember when they talk about him in R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”). The musical play was, in turn, adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Jets and Sharks (neighborhood gangs) are a modern equivalent of the Capulets and Montagues.
Feris Bueller’s Day Off : Another of those 1980s comedies (like Ghostbusters and The Breakfast Club) that you just have to see. It’s about a high schooler’s single day of playing hooky with two of his friends. According to Roger Ebert, this movie is a good springboard into Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, one of my all-time favorites.
Lost in Translation: Francis Ford Coppola directed The Godfather and had a daughter named Sophia. Two great things. Sophia went on to direct this movie about an actor (Bill Murray) who comes across a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) while staying in Japan. Their lives intertwine simply, but in profound ways. At least, I think they’re profound. In essence, it’s a coming-of-age film about grown people.
Manhattan: This is one of my very favorite movies by one of my very favorite screenwriter/movie-makers, Woody Allen. A man is challenged by issues of relationships, and is torn particularly between a small-town girl-turned-pseudo-intellectual and a minor. The movie is full of beautiful inter-shots designed to give homage to the borough. The ability of the city to bring people together is perhaps the most telling theme. It’s really about falling in love in the city.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: A man rushes to get home by Thanksgiving to his family, but weather delays every flight in the country. He joins another traveller, obnoxious, invasive, large and very friendly, on the trip. It’s an endearing movie, and very funny. One of the greatest of holiday standards, worthy of mention in my list of the top 555 films.
Duck Soup: This is a Marx Brothers movie. It’s non-stop jokes that come in rapid progression. Throw in some goofy musical bits, and you have classic Marx Brothers mastery of the cinematic comedy. Groucho plays the dictator of a fictional land and leads them to war. There is a great political element to the satire as well. Perhaps the best part is Groucho’s brothers, Harpo and Chico, who play bumbling spies. Zeppo’s in it, too.
A Night at the Casablanca: Another Marx Brothers movie, not as funny as Duck Soup, but still really funny. The owner of a hotel tries to find a secret Nazi treasure-trove.
The Untouchables: The true story of Elliot Ness and his crack team, the guys that brought down Al Capone on tax evasion charges. This movie is entertaining and fun, though it is slightly overrated. Robert DeNiro—who plays Capone—has this surprising ability to make his gangsters new and fresh in every film.
20 Feet From Stardom: This documentary came out last year and turned a lot of heads. It’s about backup singers and their interesting and important role in music, as well as their own struggles to hit it big.
The Act of Killing: This is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, documenting the atrocities of the Indonesian genocides against the “communists”. You have never been so close to evil. It will haunt you, and educate you.
Grizzly Man: As long as I’m on documentaries, I’ll talk about this one. Werner Herzog is one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and he has two great documentaries on Netflix currently. This one is about the life and death of a man who made a life out of interacting with grizzly bears.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams: The other of the two Herzog documentaries on Netflix right now, this one is about a cave in southern France that houses the oldest paintings on earth on its walls.
The Square: This documentary was also nominated for Best Documentary in last year’s Academy Awards, and was produced specifically by Netflix, like House of Cards. It follows the uprisings in Egypt firsthand from the beginning of the revolution to the present day.
Easy Rider: I considered including this movie in my list of the most important movies in cinema history because it introduced a new generation of film in America. The counter-culture movement that Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper introduced in this movie, and the cinematic innovations that are included therein (for example, using already existent rock songs as the principle soundtrack), make this movie about two bikers going across America really worth your while.
The Blair Witch Project: Like Easy Rider, I almost included this one on my list of the most important movies in cinema history. It didn’t make the final list because the genre it created wasn’t all that important, but that does not remove the fact that it did invent a new genre. It’s cliche now, but that’s only in retrospect. I think it’s actually a better movie than it is often given credit for. Is it a great film? No. But’s it’s scary.
Amelie: This French film is one of the best out of France (long considered the best nation to make good film) in recent years, about a girl who is constantly interfering (usually for good) in the love affairs of the people around her and finds her own love affair blossoming. This mystery of secret admirers is jovial, sweet, and clever.
The Artist: This is tone of the best movies of the last decade, hands down. I think you’ll agree with me. A black and white silent film from the 21st century is perhaps the freshest thing in theaters in recent history. It’s funny, witty, dramatic, well-choreographed and an interesting story. Like Singin’ in the Rain, this movie deals with the difficult transition to sound film in cinema’s Golden Age.
There Will Be Blood: Another one of the best movies of the last decade, hands down. It follows the story of an oil baron who becomes increasingly distant from his adopted son as he becomes more and more corrupt in his thirst for power. His primary conquest: taking the land away from a religious sect in his area. Very dark, and Daniel Day-Lewis puts on a superb acting performance.
Footloose: Kevin Bacon plays a boy who takes on the rigidity of a small-town wherein dancing is forbidden. You’ve probably seen this one. Corny at times, but, again, it’s kind of important to watch if you want any real place in society.
Donnie Brasco: Johnny Depp and Al Pacino play in a true-life adaptation of the story of Donnie Brasco, an undercover FBI agent who befriends a high-up member of the local Mafia. His conflict comes from the friendship and the intensity of his occupation.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?: Another Johnny Depp film, this one starring Leonardo DiCaprio as his autistic little brother. Gilbert (Depp) lives a difficult life full of social traps and humiliation. His attempt to find his true role in a dysfunctional but loving family and a difficult community is the main premise of the movie.
The Great Gatsby: This is the best adaptation around of the famous Fitzgerald novel. Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Bruce Dern headline. The quality can get a little grainy, but it does a good job doing F. Scott justice.
The Iron Lady: Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher in this bio-pic. A superb acting performance.
The Pianist: Roman Polanski’s Holocaust movie won Adrien Brody the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance of a talented Jewish pianist and his attempts to survive the Nazi persecutions. Very moving and rewarding to watch.
The Grapes of Wrath: John Ford directed this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s book about a family from Oklahoma that moves to California during the Dust Bowl. Overrated, but still good. How is it overrated? Well, there was a time (before I was born, mostly) that critical circles considered the ultimate fixture of American cinema. That is not exactly true, in my opinion.
Raging Bull: The two best Martin Scorsese movies are on Netflix, this one and Taxi Driver. It follows the life of Jake LaMotta, the anger-riddled middleweight and his bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. Most importantly, it’s his bouts with his own masculinity that make up the movie.
Bull Durham: This is my personal favorite Kevin Costner baseball movie, followed by The Love of the Game. Then comes Field of Dreams. This is despite the fact that Susan Sarandon is in the movie. It’s about an up-and-coming baseball player signed on to save a “perennially pitiful” squad.
Thelma and Louise: Speaking of Susan Sarandon, this movie featuring her and Geena Davis is one of the most iconic crime-spree movies you’ll ever come across. About two women who ditch their husbands for a little adventure, and end up becoming fugitives of the law.
It Could Happen to You: Contrary to everyone else’s opinion, Nicolas Cage is one of my favorite modern actors (see my first page on the concepts of acting and my page entitled “A Slice of Cake Theory (Revisited)”), and this is an oft-overlooked contribution to his oeuvre. It is about a man who, in a rush, promises a waitress that if he wins the lottery he’ll split his winnings with her because he has no time to get her tip. He wins the lottery. Quite a few legal cases ensue.
Harold and Maude: This movie is weird. If you’re not prepared, you might not like it. But if you’re ready, this movie about a depressed and semi-suicidal teenager who falls in love with life-loving old woman is actually a really good use of time. It’s funny and very thought-provoking, plus it is a superb platform for a bunch of really good Cat Stevens songs.
The Conversation: I actually have a review for this movie on my blog right now, as it is one of my favorite movies. Gene Hackman plays an obsessive-compulsive audio surveillance expert whose past comes back to haunt him when he records a conversation that, he suspects, will lead to murder.
Monkey Business: Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, and Marilyn Monroe team up for a great comedic film about a man who invents a youth serum. It’s not as funny as His Girl Friday or Some Like It Hot, so watch those first. But if you liked them, you should check this one out.
The Trip: Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are hilarious in this movie about two men on a road trip. Pretty simple, but the entire movie is about their dialogue. The movie feels like a documentary of sorts, and the slow pace is rather intimate.
The Lady Eve: Barbara Stanwyck, one of my favorite actresses, plays alongside Henry Fonda in a superb screwball comedy along the lines of His Girl Friday. She plays a swindler who tries to rope a scientist for his money, but it doesn’t work out as planned.
The Lady Vanishes: The only Hitchcock movie available on Netflix, this one starts out slow but gets really good after the first half hour. One of his earlier films from the Britain era, it is about a woman on a train who…guess it…vanishes.
Marathon Man: Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier star in this movie about a bunch of diamonds and the quest of a very evil dentist to get them. It’s a raw and unique action film, unlike any you’ve ever seen before. I really love this movie, and I think you would to.
Play It Again, Sam: Based on a play by Woody Allen, this movie starring Allen as the main character is about a movie critic who is obsessed with Humphrey Bogart. He often turns to an imaginary version of Bogie to help him solve his crises of identity and relationships. You should probably see Casablanca before watching this one, because it has quite a few references to that movie.
Battleship Potemkin: Considered by many to be the most important movie ever made, this propaganda film from the old Soviet Union is about a mutiny onboard the battleship Potemkin and the revolutionary atmosphere which resulted from it. While you’re probably not in the mood for an old foreign silent film if you’re asking what’s good on Netflix, I think that you’d likely enjoy it. It’s a necessary experience if you want to become the competent movie-connoisseur this blog is designed to help you become. You can also check out the review of the movie that I wrote a while back, as well as the rather thorough examination of its sequences that I included in my page on montage theory.
Strike: Eisenstein’s second film on Netflix is also very good, and contains some incredible montages. If you’re going to try and watch one of these Soviet classics though, you should definitely watch Battleship Potemkin or Man With a Movie Camera. With that being said, this one’s still worthwhile.
Man With a Movie Camera: This movie is incredibly influential, and another of the great Soviet silent classics. It is plotless, instead focusing on the world as director Dziga Vertov thought could be shown by the camera. He felt that the camera could show reality in all new ways, through many unique techniques and montage principles. This movie is also valuable as a documentary about Russian life.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart team up in this John Ford classic. Yes, I like to drop names. It’s about a lawyer from the east that tries to help a western region gain statehood while ridding it of the vile Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). John Wayne is the pinnacle of cool in this one.
True Grit: More John Wayne, this time in the form of an Oscar-winning portrayal. Rooster Cogburn is a hardened U.S. Marshall who agrees to help a spunky little girl find justice for the murder of her father. Glen Campbell costars as a young Texas Ranger. Not to be confused with the Coen Brothers remake, which was also good, but lacked one important element: the Duke.
A Fistful of Dollars: The first movie in the Man With No Name trilogy, this one is about a gunslinger (with no name) who manipulates two warring families to make off with a bunch of cash while bringing an end to a bloody conflict. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent samurai picture, Yojimbo.
Once Upon a Time in the West: Another of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, about three men and their relationship to a single girl. At the center of the conflict is the rivalry between Charles Bronson’s and Henry Fonda’s characters. Fonda plays a bad guy. Very rare.
Dumbo: A classic Disney animation picture about the elephant that can fly. If you’re short on time, this is the one to see.
Robin Hood: One of the best Disney movies for boys, the Robin Hood story is adapted for a furrier population.
The Sword in the Stone: Another great Disney movie for boys, this is based on the famous book The Once and Future King, and focuses on young Arthur’s first lessons with his magical tutor, Merlin.
Serpico: The story of a straight cop in a world full of police corruption. It’s high drama and a great acting performance by Al Pacino. If you claim to be a Pacino fan, this movie is one you definitely have to check out.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Dick Van Dyke shows off his chops as one of the best physical actors in American cinematic history (alongside Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others) in this kid-friendly musical about a magical motor car and the joy it brings to one poor family in what appears to be Scotland, though everyone has London accents. Except Dick van Dyke, whose accent is undeniably Midwestern.
McLintock!: John Wayne was a very funny person in many roles, and this one is perhaps the most telling in that regard, about a man who must prove to his wife that he is faithful. Along the way, he comes across a widow in need, and things get fun.
12 O’Clock High: Gregory Peck puts on a great performance as a brigadier general in World War II. He must take his squadron and turn them into real soldiers. This movie is, perhaps, one of the best commentaries on leadership you can find in the movies.
Escape from Alcatraz: Clint Eastwood again dominates the screen in this movie about a prison break, which may be one of the most famous prison break productions ever made. Considering this movie to be about Alcatraz, a great and enigmatic American landmark, the movie is very interesting despite its relatively slow pace.
Rosemary’s Baby: Mia Farrow get pregnant with the spawn of Satan. A horror classic from Roman Polanski.
Planet of the Apes: Not to be confused with Tim Burton’s remake—which was, perhaps, the worst movie ever made—this Charlton Heston classic has what may be one of the most intriguing plot twists you’ll ever see. Its about a planet full of apes (no, that’s not the plot twist) and the space travelers who try and escape them.
Becket: If you’re in the mood for period pieces and such—if you’re into Downtown Abbey but would like to watch something good for a change—then check out this movie which I would have to call an acting tour-de-force, featuring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole as two best friends, one the King of the Britons and the other the Archbishop who must excommunicate him.
White Christmas: A great musical with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye about a pair of war buddies who become a famous musical act. They attempt to use their fame to save their old General’s financial situation.
The General: Buster Keaton’s finest performance and best film is The General. This movie isn’t only funny, but action packed and charming. It’s about a train engineer who must get his train back when Union soldiers steal it. Keaton does his own stunts; and you’ll be amazed to see what some of those stunts are.
She Done Him Wrong: Mae West, the famous and plump sex symbol of the early sound age was a little older when she made this movie about a cabaret singer who must deal with several male suitors, including a famous jewel thief. Mae West credited herself as the person who discovered Cary Grant because of his role in this movie.
Metropolis: Fritz Lang’s epic silent masterpiece about a futuristic dystopian society divided by an evil upper class oligarchy is one of the many staples of early Marxist cinema.
The Bicycle Thief: This is one of my favorite movies, a movie that I once heard referred to as a film that would “destroy your soul.” This sad film is the most important in the Italian Neo-realist drama about a man who must regain his stolen bicycle in order to keep his job in the depression that rocked Italy in the years following World War II.
Sherlock, Jr.: Another great Buster Keaton movie, this one is technically a short film. It’s about a man who works at a movie theater and imagines himself as a great movie hero.
Nosferatu: If you want to know about the origins of the horror genre in films, you’ve got to watch this one from Fritz Lang. While you probably won’t be scared, you will be able to see the beginnings of some of the most important conventions in horror. Very intriguing images pervade, as well as some of the coolest inter titles you’ll ever read in a silent film. If you want to know what this movie is about, Nosferatu is Dracula.
Brian’s Song: I’m not a big fan of movies that are all about someone dying, but this sports classic with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams is definitely worth a look.
The Birth of a Nation: Alongside Battleship Potemkin stands D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation when it comes to important movies, this film is about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. It is a long silent epic, consisting of some of the best battle sequences ever filmed.
The Men: Marlon Brando and Teresa Wright star in this often-overlooked classic. Brando plays a man who loses his ability to walk in the war, and Wright plays the girl who attempts to make him happy again. A very good acting performance from both, who are two of my favorite performers.
Intolerance: Another D.W. Griffith masterpiece, this film about intolerance spans twenty-five hundred years of history, ranging from the Babylonian collapse through the crucifixion of Christ and the Jacobin persecution to pre-war industrial America.
Broken Blossoms: Lillian Gish, the first great female star of Hollywood, stars in yet another D.W. Griffith masterpiece about an abused girl who enlists the help of an immigrant to set herself free from a dysfunctional family relationship.
A Story of a Love Affair: Michelangelo Antonioni stands in the upper echelon of Italian directors, and this movie about a man obsessed with suspicion that his wife was cheating on him.
Memento: One of the best movies to turn on the new millennium, Christopher Nolan’s thriller about a man with short-term memory loss attempting to avenge his wife’s murder plays entirely in reverse. If you liked The Dark Knight and The Prestige, you’ll love this one. It’s Nolan’s most intense picture.
Following: Another Christopher Nolan flick, this one was made in 1998, making it one of his first pictures. This is a “neo-noir”, or new film noir, inspired by the old mystery pictures of the 1930s and 40s. It’s about a young man obsessed with following people. It gets problematic.
Reservoir Dogs: Another Quentin Tarantino film, which, like Pulp Fiction, is overrated but still worth a pretty good watch. Full of some of the quickest and wittiest dialogue sequences in popular film, this movie about a heist gone wrong is quite interesting.
Terminator II: Judgment Day: Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron teamed up for the sequel wherein, this time, Schwarzenegger plays the good guy. He comes back to protect Sarah Connor’s son from the assassination attempts of another, more advanced, Terminator.
The Expendables 2: This sequel was much funnier than its darker counterpart. These movies were not made to be examples of great cinema, rather, they are meant to be funny and violent strolls down memory lane. Funny and violent they certainly are.
The Grey: This movie was one of my favorite movies of 2012, behind Moonrise Kingdom, Amour, and Holy Motors. I know some people didn’t like it, but I must disagree. This survival movie starring Liam Neeson and some very scary wolves is unique and cunning.
Patriot Games: Harrison Ford cements his position among action movie greats—as well as the best everyman hero—as Jack Ryan in the movie based on Tom Clancy’s bestseller. Ryan and his family are witnesses to an assassination attempt, which Ryan helps to foil. Now, the IRA is out to get him.
48 Hrs.: Eddie Murphy’s first film is primarily an action movie, but it has some very funny moments. He plays an ex-con roped into helping main character Nick Nolte track down a couple cop-killers.
Another 48 Hrs.: the sequel to 48 Hrs. You probably guessed that one.
Beverly Hills Cop: Eddie Murphy’s best movie; about a super competent but often unorthodox cop from Detroit who helps out a case in Beverly Hills. The comedy is mostly based on the opposing traits of the two cities.
Beverly Hills Cop II: the sequel to Beverly Hills Cop. You probably guessed that one, too.
Coming to America: Eddie Murphy plays a spoiled African prince who comes to New York to find a bride. The best part of the movie is the barber shop sequences, where every character is played by Murphy and his co-star, Arsenio Hall.
Trading Places: (Disclaimer/Spoiler: You actually need to see this movie before you see Coming to America because there is a very important joke a little after the half-way point that depends on you having seen Trading Places). Two old billionaires bet that they can drive an upstart junior colleague of theirs to crime and make a con artist a savvy businessman. Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd play the pawns.
Black Hawk Down: Ridley Scott filmed this story about a crack job in Somalia and the battle that resulted. This movie is well-loved, and you would really like it too if you can handle the violence.
Tora! Tora! Tora!: Filmed by a Japanese crew and an American crew, this movie showing both sides of the Pearl Harbor attack is among the most beloved of war films. It can get a little slow, but it is incredibly educational, along the lines of a good documentary.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights: One of the best dumb movies ever made. This Mel Brooks film from the early 90s is good for a laugh.
The Emperor’s New Groove: You’ve seen this one, probably. Kuzco, a spoiled prince, is turned into a donkey and learns a new way to approach life when he enlists the help of a friendly peasant villager named Pacha.
The Seven Year Itch: Marilyn Monroe shows up just as a man’s “Seven year itch” is about to begin: the “head-turning” and the “fawning” that start to show up after seven years of marriage. It’s a very funny movie, and most known for the sequence when the subway’s passing rush blows wind up Marilyn’s white dress. Oh yeah, it’s a Billy Wilder movie, too.
Zoolander: You’ve probably seen this one, too. Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller, who also wrote and directed the movie) attacks an identity crisis after he is named runner-up to an up-and-coming male model named Hansel (Owen Wilson). Possibly the most funny movie of the 2000s.
Bernie: Jack Black’s best ever acting performance as a true-life character from a small Texas town named Bernie. The character is named Bernie, not the town. It’s a very dark comedy, but it is funny, dramatic, and telling.
Frances Ha: Two movies came out in 2012 that were released to a wider audience in 2013: Mud and Frances Ha. More than two came out, actually, much more, but these two were really good. This movie is a funny and introspective look at the life of college grads and their journeys of self-discovery in a competitive world were academia doesn’t carry the same clout as it does inside of a campus boundary. Greta Gerwig gave one of the best performances of last year.
AntZ: Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Walken, Dan Aykroyd, John Mahoney, and Danny Glover lend their voices to this riotously funny movie about a single ant and his attempts to become someone in a colony of billions.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil: Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor team up to play a blind man and a deaf man who, in their own special way, witness a murder and are now are on the run from people who would rather them not testify.
Stir Crazy: Another Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy explosion. See No Evil, Hear No Evil is better, and should take top priority, but this one is also a classic.
Okay, well, I think I’ve proven my point. I have provided for you 131 great films. There are even more, but, simply, I’m getting a little tired. I hope that this list proves helpful.
I will restate something I said earlier: get a HuluPlus account. The Criterion Collection has movies that will amaze you. Really.
So, anyway, the next time you hear someone say “there’s nothing good on Netflix,” you should probably question them.