12 Good Movies on Netflix Right Now

Something for everyone: Comedies, drama, B-movies, and art films

12 Good Movies on Netflix Right Now

Not long after I started the Watch List in July, I did a deep dive into the Netflix catalogue in an effort to figure out why their film pickings are so slim. (Short answer: Movies aren’t really part of the company’s streaming business plan anymore; TV series and Netflix “originals” are.) Out of the 3,800 or so feature films offered by the service, I identified 93 as movies that I knew to be good or better. But titles are always coming and going, so I went back yesterday for another look. Rather than run the entire list, I’m highlighting twelve – a dozen movies playing right now on Netflix that you may not have heard of but that you certainly might enjoy.

“Atlantics” (2019) – One of my favorites from the past few years, Mati Diop’s drama unfolds somewhere in the uncanny valley between global reportage and magical realism. A young woman in Dakar, Senegal, is torn between her wealthy fiancé and a working-class lover forced to seek work in Europe; what starts as a sharp-eyed tale of modern Africa (and its modern women) subtly shifts into a detective film, a ghost story, and a feminist cri de coeur. It’s photographed and scored as if in a dream, and Mame Bineta Sane is radiant in the lead.

“Bright Star” (2009) – I mentioned this in my write-up of “The Power of the Dog” yesterday, and what do you know, there it is on Netflix. Jane Campion stands the Great Artist bio-pic on its head by focusing less on the early 19th-century poet John Keats (a limpid Ben Wishaw) and more on his 18-year-old lover and muse, Fannie Brawne, who is played by Abbie Cornish as a hard-headed Jane Austen heroine seduced by a heady new era of Romanticism. It’s a movie about the precise cultural moment that sense tumbled helplessly (and happily) into sensibility.

“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) – One of the first movies to signal that something special was happening in Romanian cinema, Cristi Puiu’s bleak black comedy follows an old man (Ion Fiscuteanu) through the country’s broken health system over one long, chaotic night. As he’s bounced from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital, the movie slips quietly into the allegorical, with Mr. Lazarescu an ailing Everyman and a luminous Luminita Gheorghiu as the one medic who sees a person to be cared for rather than a problem to be kicked down the line.

“Don Jon” (2013) – The only feature film (so far) written and directed by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a rather daring comedy-drama that wonders what online porn is doing to a generation of young men. Not all of the movie works, but Gordon-Levitt is winning as the New Jersey lothario of the title – think Tony Manero from “Saturday Night Fever” with a laptop instead of a dance floor – and Scarlett Johansson has a ripe role as a local tootsie whose ideas about romance – gleaned mostly from romcoms – are as rigid as his. A very smart movie that should be required viewing for all 15-year-old boys.

“The Edge of Seventeen” (2016) Lord no, not another indie coming-of-age comedy about a disaffected teen. What make the difference here are a fully felt script and empathetic direction from first-time filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig, Woody Harrelson turning the contractually required supportive teacher role inside out with sadistic wit, and especially Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit,” “Dickinson”), who’s gloriously messy and mortified in the lead.

“Happy as Lazzaro” (2018) – A poetic, ambiguous parable from Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher, with one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in tomorrow. A group of peasants toil in the fields of a lady of the manor, as if feudalism were still a thing – she’s told them it is – and among them is the holy fool of the title (Adriano Tardiolo), who takes the story’s mid-film lurch into the city in stride. A movie that brushes mysteriously against ideas of borders and belonging.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”(2016) – Before he moved on to “Thor” movies and “Jojo Rabbit,” writer-director-Tasmanian devil Taika Waititi made this scrappy adventure-comedy about a foul-mouthed kid (the unforgettable Julian Dennison) and his foster uncle (a grizzled Sam Neill) running from the law in the wilds of New Zealand. Waititi locates a unique wavelength between the rudely funny and the cheerfully heartwarming.

“The Incredible Jessica James” (2017)  – A cozy romantic-comedy charmer about a New York playwright looking for love and success, this owes its success to the  charisma of its leading actress, Jessica Williams, late of the Jon Stewart edition of “The Daily Show.” She’s paired with the deadpan Chris O’Dowd as a curmudgeonly love interest and there’s the always welcome LaKeith Stanfield (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) bopping around the edges. No big shakes but it goes down easy, and sometimes that’s all you want.

“Synchronic” (2020) – Maybe the best introduction to the enlightened B-movie universe of co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, where time-streams tend to trap characters in loops of their own making. This one involves a designer drug that ports the user to some point in the past – problematic if you’re a Black Louisiana paramedic (Anthony Mackie) who finds himself in the post-Reconstruction era. There’s some splendid drive-in philosophizing here to go with the rickety special effects.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” (2020) – When I published that first Netflix list, a number of people wrote in to ask if I meant “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”. Nope, this is the right title and it’s a wry Netflix original about a stalled New York playwright (writer-director-star Radha Blank) who tries to reinvent herself as a middle-aged rapper. The black-and-white cinematography perfectly complements the movie’s wise and weary comic vibe.

“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” (2010) – A blissfully silly horror comedy that asks whether the kill-crazy redneck maniacs might actually just be rural sweetie pies with terrible luck and shouldn’t be blamed if the college kids keep falling into the wood-chipper. Tyler Labine and the peerless Alan Tudyk are aces in the title roles and director Eli Craig keeps this high-spirited nonsense aloft longer than he has any right to. Bloody good fun. (UPDATE: I’m chagrined to report that, as of Dec. 1, “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” is no longer available on Netflix. It can still be streamed and rented elsewhere.)

“Wind River” (2017) – A young woman is found murdered on a Native American reservation, with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen as, respectively, the game tracker and raw FBI agent called in to solve the mystery. What could be just an episode of “CSI: The Rez” is instead given a mournful awareness of larger historical crimes, with some storied indigenous actors filling out the cast: Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, Gil Birmingham. Might have been an even better movie with Birmingham in the lead.

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