Christmas is a fantastic time of the year for watching films, you’ve even got that strange period leading up to the New Year where nobody has a clue what they should be doing, so why not spend some of this time catching up on some of cinema’s classics. I hear a lot of people saying that Netflix, whilst having a great selection of television programmes, doesn’t offer much in the way of top films, and admittedly there is a huge amount of crap on there. There are however, some of cinema’s finest moments, if you know where to look, so in no particular order, here are 21 of the best films on Netflix…
(Side note: please ignore the star ratings on Netflix as they are largely voted for by morons)
1. Touch of Evil (1958) Dir. Orson Welles (Thriller, Film Noir)
Orson Welles’ seminal film noir is generally regarded as the genre’s epitaph, released in 1958; it more or less marked the end of the genre that dominated American cinema during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Touch of Evil takes place in the sleazy Mexican-American border town of Los Robles, a neon-lit town filled with strip joints and cheap motels. We follow narcotics detective Charlton Heston as he tackles degenerate cop Welles in a game of corruption and sabotage. Welles’ Hank Quinlan is one of cinema’s greatest psychopaths, and Welles’ stylistic direction has made Touch of Evil an undeniable masterpiece from the classic Film Noir cannon; it also boasts arguably the greatest opening scene of all time as Welles’ camera soars and swoops through the air in one of the most cinematically impressive long takes in history.
2. Everything you Wanted to Know About sex * but Were Afraid to Ask (1972) Dir. Woody Allen (Comedy)
Before Woody Allen got all serious and existential, he created a number of fantastic comedy films that deftly blended silent cinema’s slapstick humour with witty one-liners. Everything you Wanted to Know about Sex… is one of his best early funny films, it plays out in a series of seven vignettes that are only connected by the fact that they all originate from a David Reuben book of the same name. This is a fairly hit and miss comedy, some of the vignettes are much funnier than others, but some are unforgettable – notably, a hilarious rendition of what happens during ejaculation and a brilliantly funny Gene Wilder as a doctor who falls in love with a sheep (in a segment called ‘What is Sodomy?). This short sequence now also acts as a timely reminder of what a great talent we lost this year.
(Also check out Bananas 1971, another great early Allen comedy)
3. Mean Streets (1973) Dir. Martin Scorsese (Gangster, Thriller)
Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ranks amongst his best, starring Scorsese stalwart Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel as two friends growing up around gangsters and the criminal underworld in New York’s Little Italy. Mean Streets has since become a staple of Hollywood’s New Wave Auteur cinema of the late 60’s and 70’s, mixing influences from the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism with American gangster films of the 1930’s such as Scarface and Little Caesar. It also showcases Scorsese’s unmatchable record collection, featuring a killer soundtrack including The Marvelettes and The Ronettes – this is where The Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Mean Streets’ line in ‘Knee Socks’ takes its influence.
4. Network (1976) Dir. Sidney Lumet (Drama, Comedy)
Sidney Lumet’s biting satire on the world of television and broadcasting news was unbelievably ahead of its time in its cynical representation of a television production company that will go to lurid lengths to ensure maximum ratings. In Network, ratings rule the roost, and Faye Dunaway’s vice president of programming will do literally anything to boost the ratings. This includes sending out a maniacal, suicidal Howard Beale (Peter Finch won the first ever posthumous Best Actor Oscar for his performance) to read the news. Beale’s rants are now legendary: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” and they make brilliant viewing. Network makes you want to unplug your television set and throw it out of the window, but the film’s point is that we can’t, it is its excess and ridiculousness that keeps us coming back.
5. Cinema Paradiso (1988) Dir. Guiseppe Tornatore (Drama, Romance)
Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 1988, Italian director Guiseppe Tornatore’s largely autobiographical epic is nothing short of a masterpiece. The film follows the youth and adulthood of Toto, a young, troublemaking projectionist who finds solace with father figure Alfredo (his mentor and friend in the projection booth). At the heart of the picture is a nostalgic adoration for cinema, and the power that film possesses, echoing Truffaut’s equally biographical The 400 Blows. Whilst Paradiso’s sentimentality may be a bit much for some viewers, the film remains essential viewing as it was one of the first Italian films to reach mainstream audiences throughout the world.
6. Harold and Maude (1971) Dir. Hal Ashby (Comedy)
This irreverent comedy is a perfect example of a ‘cult’ film, a term that is now thrown around rather loosely. Detailing the strange relationship between Bud Cort’s 21-year old Harold and Ruth Gordon’s 76-year old Maude, Harold and Maude is a film that subverts the popular 60’s convention that youth represents the vital rebellion against the physical and spiritual paralysis that affects anyone over the age of thirty. This time, 76-year old Maude is the countercultural platform against traditional patriarchal society, and Harold is the straight-edged square. Ruth Gordon, fresh off her wonderfully eerie performance as a witch in Rosemary’s Baby, as usual, steals the show.
7. It Happened one Night (1934) Dir. Frank Capra (Comedy, Romance)
It Happened one Night is arguably the first ever ‘rom-com’, and in my opinion, remains the pinnacle of the genre it spawned. The film was also the first of only three films to win all five major Academy Awards (proceeding One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs). Its premise is extremely simple and inevitably predictable: Clark Gable’s Peter is a tough-talking journalist, Claudette Colbert’s Elle is a rich, spoilt heiress on the run from her father, and sure, they fall in love, but despite its predictability, Frank Capra’s film is movie magic. Colbert’s and Gable’s chemistry is electrifying, and the script is so sharp and witty that these two elements combine to create a simply unforgettable onscreen rapport that will be cherished for years to come still.
8. Double Indemnity (1944) Dir. Billy Wilder (Film Noir, Thriller)
One of the great ‘classic’ Film Noir’s, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a tour-de-force in Noir cinematic techniques. Barbara Stanwyck’s desperate dame is arguably the ultimate femme fatale. Fred MacMurray’s insurance salesman is the archetypal greedy male who bites off more than he can chew when encountering Stanwick’s Phyllis Dietrichson as they try and murder her rich husband in a crafty insurance scam. Adapted from a short novel by Hardboiled maestro James M. Cain, Double Indemnity secured Wilder’s status as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood and especially within the noir genre – later directing the classic Sunset Boulevard.
9. Raising Arizona (1987) Dir. The Coen Brothers (Comedy)
Moving away from their broody noir debut, Blood Simple, The Coen Brothers’ second feature is a wacky comedy filled with witty dialogue and endearing performances from Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter. Cage’s character is a lowlife thief constantly in and out of prison who falls in love with and weds Holly Hunter’s police officer. Living in their trashy trailer home, the pair decide to steal quintuplets from a local rich couple as they discover that Hunter’s Ed is infertile. Crazy, and wacky adventures ensue and Raising Arizona puts an early marker down for the immense talent the Coen Brothers possess in providing loveably eccentric characterization.
10. Manhattan (1979) Dir. Woody Allen (Romantic Comedy)
Although Annie Hall won all of the awards, Allen’s follow-up two years later is an equally brilliant addition to Allen’s ever-impressive oeuvre. Manhattan represents the pinnacle of the director’s famous love affair with New York City; the film is brimming with countless shots of the city, none as beautiful as the endearing shot of Allen and Keaton sitting on a bench below the 59th Street Bridge (also the image used for the promotional poster).
11. Clerks (1994) Dir. Kevin Smith (Comedy)
Whilst Tarantino was making waves with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, another Generation-X newcomer was also making a name for himself. Writer-director Kevin Smith’s debut feature Clerks was a hilarious insight into a day-in-the-life of two lazy shop workers, Dante and Randal who spend their time insulting customers, watching porn, or discussing the destruction of the Death Star. Shot in black-and-white, and on a shoestring budget of $27,500, Smith’s biographical film was filmed over the short span of twenty-one days at the grocery shop Smith had worked at since he was nineteen, and where he edited the film each night after his shifts.
12. Searching for Sugar Man (2012) Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (Documentary)
The remarkably true story within this documentary is absolutely fascinating: a lowly Detroit musician lands a surprise record deal but his album ‘Cold Fact’ is a monumental flop in his home country. However, the record becomes a huge hit in South Africa of all places, becoming a musical beacon of hope for the masses fighting against apartheid and corruption in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The musician, Rodriguez does not receive any money from his huge sales (that rivalled Elvis at the time in South Africa), until one South African man decides to seek him out, and he receives a hero’s welcome upon his arrival in Africa. Searching for Sugar Man is a Fascinating and heart-wrenching story of a talented musician who has been shafted by the fat cats of the music industry, and a must watch for any music fan.
13. Dazed and Confused (1993) Dir. Richard Linklater (Comedy, Drama)
Richard Linklater’s breakthrough film could fall into the trap of being just another High School film, but thanks to a great soundtrack, a brilliant script by Linklater himself, and wonderful breakout performances, Dazed and Confused became a cult masterpiece. Following the drug and alcohol fuelled adventures of high school and junior high students on the last day of school in 1976, Linklater’s film has a biographical touch, but its underlying message of peace and love, and the idea that everyone can get along, from all walks of life, whether it be jocks, nerds, or stoners rings true and can be applied to life in general, not just high school life. “Alright, alright, alright”.
(Also check out Linklater’s ‘spiritual’ sequel to this film – Everybody Wants Some!! 2016)
14. Rear Window (1954) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (Drama, Thriller)
The 1950’s was arguably Hitchcock’s most prolific decade, directing a number of fascinating and thrilling films, and Rear Window is up there with his very best. James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, a photojournalist who is side-lined with a broken leg, stranded in a wheelchair, he has nothing better to do but to peer out of his apartment window and voyeuristically observe his neighbours. When he believes that one of his neighbours (Raymond Burr) has murdered their wife, his obsession begins to spiral out of control, much to the dismay of gorgeous girlfriend Lisa (one of Grace Kelly’s final roles before retiring). Rear Window is arguably the most accessible of Hitchcock’s films, it is the perfect combination of Hitchcock’s obsession with psychology and voyeurism and genuine entertainment and intrigue. (If you have never seen a Hitchcock film, I would argue that this is a good place to start).
15. Clueless (1995) Dir. Amy Heckerling (Comedy, Romance)
Often dismissed as just another ‘High School movie’, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is actually a class above the rest. The story is very loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel, Emma and follows the daily routine of Alicia Silverstone’s Cher, a rich spoilt and popular high school girl as she navigates her way through fashion disasters and potential interest from boys. Heckerling’s script is satirically bity, taking swipes at everything from contemporary LA culture (Cher is sure that she doesn’t need to practice parking because there is valet parking everywhere she goes) to the self-centred culture of twentieth century teens. Clueless is brilliantly witty, and laid down the foundations for any future High School flick, a foundation that has not yet been matched.
16. Anomalisa (2016) Dir. Charlie Kauffman (Drama, Animation)
Charlie Kauffman gained huge acclaim in the early noughties with a string of alluring and fascinating scripts (mostly for director Spike Jonze) in the form of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kauffman has since turned to the camera, and his latest film Anomalisa is nothing short of a masterpiece. Telling the story of a motivational speaker (David Thewlis) who is disillusioned with the mundanity of life, Anomalisa is made entirely from Claymation, it is a stop-motion animated feature À la Wallace and Gromit. Despite being made entirely out of hand-sized puppets, Kauffman’s film possesses a deftly human touch; it is a fascinating study of what it means to be human, and what it means to be truly alive.
17. Fargo (1996) Dir. The Coen Brothers (Thriller, Comedy)
One of the key reasons why the Coen Brothers have been so successful and popular in contemporary cinema is their uncanny ability to twist and reinvent tried and tested genres of Hollywood into something totally unique and totally Coen Brothers-esque, whether it be Film-Noir, Screwball Comedy, or the Gangster flick. Fargo, you could say, is a mixture of all of these genres; we follow the story of an oppressed car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two goofy conmen to murder his wife in an effort to blackmail her rich father. Frances McDormand is on Oscar-winning form as the heavily pregnant and comically ordinary small-town cop who unravels the wacky mystery, and despite being set in the icy visuals of North Dakota, this is one of the Coen Brothers’ warmest and most humorous works to date.
18. Annie Hall (1977) Dir. Woody Allen (Comedy, Romance)
Netflix has a fairly impressive collection of Woody Allen’s films, all of which are highly recommended, it is undoubtedly Annie Hall that is the most critically acclaimed of the lot, and many consider it to be his pinnacle (I disagree, preferring Hannah and Her Sisters personally). Alvy Singer is Allen’s quintessentially neurotic, sexually awkward New Yorker (played inevitably by Allen himself) who falls for the eponymous Annie Hall (played by Allen’s real-life lover, Diane Keaton). Annie Hall represented Allen’s coming of age, it is also arguably his most honest work, and undoubtedly his most autobiographical. Interweaving the affair between the two leads with witty one-liners, postmodern conversations with the camera and cynical observations about love and sex, Annie Hall is a hilarious, and heart warming romantic comedy.
19. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) Dir. Stanley Kubrick (Comedy, Drama)
Stanley Kubrick’s only ever comedy film is predictably bleak as it is surprisingly hysterical. Made at the height of the Cold War, it explores the strange and supposedly plausible (although the US government would have told you otherwise at the time) scenario of a rogue US general who goes mad with power and sends nukes to Russia, with no apparent way of calling them back. Acting icon Peter Sellers legendarily played three of the main characters here, and is irresistibly hilarious in all three roles, however, the ensemble cast is equally brilliant: Sterling Hayden as the mad general Jack D. Ripper (get it?) and George C. Scott as rampant General Turigdson. Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant black comedy that rolls three habitually themes into one, political satire, suspense farce and the classic tale of technology running away from us.
20. Requiem for a Dream (2000) Dir. Darren Aronofsky (Drama)
Darren Arnofsky’s (Black Swan, The Wrester) breakthrough film is a remarkable journey into the world of drug addiction. Following four groups of characters who all deal with their addictions in different ways, they are joined together in the sense that they all represent a failure of the America Dream and despite their effects in redemption, for Arnofsky, the dream is already dead, and Requiem for a Dream offers a nightmarish vision for its victims. Although filled with fascinating Trainspotting-esque visuals and a foreboding score by Clint Mansell, the real reason to watch this film is for its unbelievably good performances in the shape of Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly, but no more so than in Ellen Burstyn’s staggering performance of a pill-popping mum (she unfairly lost out on an Oscar to Julia Roberts).
21. Vertigo (1958) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (Mystery, Thriller)
Netflix is not too vast when it comes to the master of suspense, but you can stream two of his greatest works – Rear Window and Vertigo. A huge commercial and critical flop at the time of its release, Vertigo is now generally considered as Hitchcock’s masterpiece (a statement I personally disagree with) and has been cited in Sight & Sound’s annual poll as the greatest film ever made. Vertigo is a fascinating and unsettling study of one man’s obsession with a female who seems to be forever just out of his reach (James Stewart and Kim Novak). The unsavoury and extremely unsettling relationship between the two leads is so disturbing its conclusion is almost as scary as Hitchcock’s infamous Shower scene two years later. The moral ambiguity of our protagonist by the end of the film only adds to the masterful sense of eeriness and disturbia that Hitchcock created (also listen out for one of Bernard Herrmann’s best ever scores).