Netflix grew from a DVD rental service to a streaming giant releasing original content with 36 Academy nominations and counting to its name. Although some filmmakers who prefer the cinematic experience over streaming services remain reticent to the inevitable industry change happening before our very eyes, that doesn’t take away from the fact that streaming platforms such as Netflix produce equally as quality films as those traditionally in theaters.
Further, that isn’t to say there isn’t room for both the cinematic experience and streaming distribution, as both can coexist in harmony, with Netflix even releasing many of their original films in theaters, even before they do on their platform. They’ve attracted industry auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, and Bong Joon-ho, and continue to pave the way in this new frontier of film distribution. With several new original films releasing on Netflix this month including Night Teeth, we decided to rank the 12 best original films to come out of the streaming service.
Scorsese would expound upon the Leftist themes present in his under-appreciated Boxcar Bertha in his latest film, The Irishman. In the movie, Jimmy Hoffa fights for worker’s rights through his International Brotherhood of Teamsters, of which the film’s main character, Frank Sheeran, is a member, the president of Local 236, and a hitman, of sorts, for wayward and disloyal union members. Although The Irishman also shows the working class struggle, it is clouded by its setting in the milieu of the mafia. Frank and Jimmy were largely responsible for tainting unions with organized crime with the help of the Bufalino Crime Family led by Russell Bufalino. The Irishman sheds light on the corruption of unions and how any Leftist institution can be ruined in the worst corners of a capitalist society. It depicts the realistic nature of trying to implement “radical” change in a society excessively stuck in its ways; The Irishman shows how The Teamsters embraced capitalism, greed, and a dangerous hierarchy counterintuitive to unions. The Irishman proves how much Scorsese has evolved since even The Departed – it’s a daring film with an uncompromising artistic vision that only few studios wanted take a chance on. In a sense, The Irishman is Boxcar Bertha meets Goodfellas. Marxism meets Mafia.
Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film after a series of pensive blockbusters including Gravity and Children of Men, Roma is an homage to the women in his life. It’s a slice of life film about a middle class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s set against the backdrop of The Mexican Dirty War and the reign of Los Halcones (The Falcons), a right-wing paramilitary group trained by the CIA to suppress any form Guerrero guerrilla Marxist-Leninist and socialist groups and Leftist student protesters in Mexico City, committing war crimes and genocide. The film grossed $3 million, the first foreign language film to do so in the US since Ida, won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, making it the first film distributed by a streaming service to be nominated for best picture. Yalitza Aparicio, nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, gives one of the best performances of the 2010s.
3Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is one of his finest films, which speaks volumes when one considers his envious filmography that never fails raise its voice against injustice. The film tells the story of four Vietnam veterans who return to the country in order to retrieve both CIA government gold – intended to pay the Lahu people to help fight the Vietcong – that they found and buried and bring the remains of their friend back home. Torn between wanting to honor their fallen fifth Blood, played brilliantly by the late Chadwick Boseman, by obtaining the gold and giving back to the Black community and turning back when they run into a violent gang presence and hidden minds, they must decide whether putting their lives on the line for a cause they care for this time around in the heart of darkness is worth it. Featuring dizzying sequences, Lee’s signature dolly shot with the four adult Bloods dancing in a Vietnamese club brilliantly juxtaposed with a Marvin Gaye track, and an outstanding performance from Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods explores the perils of imperialism, democratizing people abroad, the horrid treatment of American soldiers (and veterans), particularly Black ones, who are seen as expendable, and the nuances of racism created by unnecessary cross cultural conflicts and wayward ideologies. Contrary to Scorsese’s The Irishman, Lee used the older Bloods in flashbacks to Vietnam instead of CGI de-aging, portraying how barred they were by war and their PTSD.
Marriage Story is perhaps the most realistic tale of marriage in the modern world, considering most marriages end in divorce (more than 50%). It follows the end of a marriage, with a plethora of arguing, marital issues, borderline verbal abuse, infidelity, and two people clinging on to the little bit of love they have left for each other. Part courtroom, custody battle, relationship, and family drama, Marriage Story is a precautionary tale about holding one’s feelings inside in lieu of taking a more formidable, nasty legal route in the process of divorce, often at the cost of a child’s emotional development. Charlie and Nicole each hire cutthroat lawyers who ultimately don’t know what’s best for their son Henry. A nasty battle ensues, taking a toll on a family of artists who ultimately want what’s best for their son. The film received six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
Directed by the acclaimed Dee Rees, Mudbound is a nuanced tale about racism and PTSD in the American midwest during the aftermath of World War II. There are commendable performances across the board in this film, but musician and actor Mary J. Blige is a clear standout. After its premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the prestigious A24 and Annapurna Pictures both fought for distribution rights for Mudbound, but ultimately Netflix beat it out, speaking volumes about the influence of the streaming service.The film saw a lot of firsts during awards season. At the 90th Academy Awards, Mudbound was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Original Song, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison the first woman to ever be nominated in this category). Rees also became the first Black woman to ever be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Further, Mary J. Blige became the first person to ever be nominated for both an acting Oscar and an original song Oscar during the same year. In 2019, The A.V. Club listed Mudbound on its 100 best movies of the 2010s.
6Dolemite Is My Name
One of the films that launched the Eddie Murphy renaissance, Dolemite Is My Name! is a biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, a relentlessly optimistic rap artist and the persona behind Dolemite, who was a character in the influential Blaxploitation films Moore made in the 1970s. Murphy turns in a legendary performance reminiscent of his 80s and 90s comedies, and even shows excellent dramatic depth. He mimics Moore’s intonation, hardworking drive, and mannerisms perfectly. The film also boasts an envious supporting cast including Keegan Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and Chris Rock. Perhaps most importantly about the film, aside from its celebration Black excellence, is that it introduces Moore’s timeless work to a new generation of filmgoers. The film holds a 97% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating.
7The Meyerwitz Stories
With a trio of brilliant performances by Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and, particularly, Adam Sandler, The Meyerowitz Stories is a much brighter Noah Baumbach film than Marriage Story. Following three generations of family with a musical gift running through their blood, it depicts adult children, childhood issues unsolved, and the facade of expectations meeting reality. As a family reunites to celebrate the artistic achievements of their father, who’s held a jealous grudge against one of his contemporaries, and refuses to even attend the celebration at the college at which he used to teach. As with most Baumbach films, The Meyerwitz Stories portrays family dysfunction at its most awkward, quirky, and often hilarious moments. As his sons compete for his affection, things hit a boiling point, and an eccentric cast of characters unite to patch up old wounds. The film was in the running for the Palm d’Or, and, to boot, its dog, Einstein, won the Palm Dog award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
8Always Be My Maybe
Set in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area, one of the food capitals of the world, Always Be My Maybe is a romantic comedy done right, with honest, realistic ethos and pathos, relatable relationship interactions, and refreshing cross-cultural portrayals, particularly cuisine. It marked the impetus of Randall Park as a lead – a romantic lead, for that matter, rather than the supporting character actor he’d been playing for so long, and featured a hilarious cameo from Keanu Reeves, who plays a douchier version of himself. Co-writers Ali Wong Park met in the 1990s, and she and Park had been working create their own version of When Harry Met Sally for years. It became a reality thanks to a brilliant script and Netflix’s bet on their success. They had no intention of Reeves actually agreeing to their cameo, but he was instantly on board, as he’s an avid fan of Wong’s standup. Original music by Park – based on his 90s Bay Area hip-hop group named “Ill Again” – and Dan the Automator is icing on the cake in this winning film.
Everyone love Bong Joon-ho and his films. Okja is no exception. A bizarre, almost gonzo-esque tale about the perils of extreme capitalism and overproduction, the film gives us an unlikely hero to root for – a pig. It features an exceptional cast that includes Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Yoon Je-moon, Choi Woo-shik, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Okja is a super pig bread by the Mirando Corporation, who lives in peace with Mija and her grandfather in South Korea. When Okja is taken away to Mirando for slaughter, an animal rights group helps expose their corporate mistreatment and reunites Okja with Mija. The film received a four-minute standing ovation at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.
If you, a family member, or a loved one has ever experienced the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) as a means to have a child, Private Life will be all too relatable, but immensely profound. It can be a grueling process. It’s a quiet film about a couple who unsuccessfully undergo IVF, then consider adoption, then set their sites on egg donors to increase their chances of becoming pregnant together. When a relative moves in, the egg donor option becomes a reality. However, bumps along the road lead to more disappointment and marital disillusionment. Although this film deals with heavy subject matter – including a marriage put through the ringer – it does so with grace and a refreshing comedic approach, with pitch-perfect performances from Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. Even though libidos are put through the test in place of the tunnel vision of procreation, the love this couple has for each other overpowers any cynical undertones throughout the film. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay Nominated, and Best Supporting Female at the Independent Spirit Awards, holds a 94% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating, and an astounding 83 out of 100 on Metacritic, signifying “Universal Acclaim.”
Written by Academy Award nominee Eric Heisserer (Arrival), Bird Box, based on the eponymous novel by Josh Malerman, was an international sensation upon its release. It is a film in which a strange epidemic of suicides become tied to one of the human race’s most precious gifts – that of sight. Ultimately, the film is a survival tale about a mother and her two children trying to escape to safety in a post-apocalyptic world. One of the best aspects of the film, aside from Sandra Bullock’s performance, is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ typically poignant score, which enhances the film’s foreboding tone. In July 2020, Netflix revealed the film was viewed by 89 million households over the first four weeks of its release, the second highest for one of their original films behind Extraction.
Written by Joe Russo, Extraction was viewed by 99 million households on Netflix over its first four weeks. This no-holds-barred thriller is about a former SASR operator-turned-black market mercenary who is sent on the most high-risk extraction of his career when he must rescue the kidnapped son of an infamous international crime lord. This time, the extraction is especially personal for the mercenary, who lost his own son to lymphoma while he was tour in Afghanistan – he doesn’t want to lose another child on his watch and have that on his conscience, so he’ll do anything to complete this mission. Perhaps most impressive about the film, along with the many exciting stunts, is the 12-minute, one-shot chase scene in which director Sam Hargrave puts himself front and center of the action, strapping himself to a car as he follows Chris Hemsworth in a car ahead, unstraps himself during a car’s J-turn, almost getting hit in the process, and getting into his car, all while making the camera seamlessly feel as though its a fly on the wall of the action. It’s a breathtaking technical feat. It’s scenes like this which make Extraction a must-see film to watch on Netflix.