Ever sat down for a nice pleasant evening of Netflix-and-chilling – only to buckle under the pressure of choice? Fear not! Your friends at Empire have picked out – in no particular order – 50 of the finest movies the streaming service has to offer. Some are classics, some deeper cuts; all are worthy of your sofa time.
Before Rian Johnson found himself swept up in a galaxy far, far away, he directed this fiercely smart slice of science-fiction thrills, which pitted Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young Bruce Willis, forced to kill his older self, played – yes! – by Bruce Willis. Like Brick, Johnson and Gordon-Levitt’s earlier collaboration, this is a tough, noirish, down-to earth thriller – albeit one with time-travel, telekinesis, and cars with solar panels on them. Watch this and get excited about Johnson’s next gig: a little indie by the name of The Last Jedi.
This is not, as you might first imagine, a story about some heavily-tattooed baristas looking to make a mark in Brooklyn’s up-and-coming slam poetry scene. John Crowley’s film depicts the New York borough at a formative stage in its history, when a new swell of postwar Irish immigration changed the city forever – and by telling an intensely personal story, of a young Irish girl caught between cultures and romances, he shows the immigrant experience with charm and humour. And not a barista in sight.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Close Encounters may be his most groundbreaking, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark his most entertaining, but by most accounts, Schindler’s List is Steven Spielberg’s ultimate masterpiece. Agonising for years over whether he had the head for such heavy-going Holocaust material, the director ultimately reached a maturity in his career here, juggling deeply emotional storytelling with rigorous historical accuracy – and all at the peak of his artistic powers, as that stark, gobsmacking black-and-white photography proves. It’s a tough watch, and at 184 minutes, sometimes gruelling, but it demands to seen.
Shortly before Alejandro G. Iñárritu nearly killed himself and his cast and crew in the wilds of northern Canada for The Revenant, the visionary director set himself the only marginally less ambitious task of shooting a movie in a New York theatre in one (almost) continuous take. The result is something surprising, funny, and rather magical, offering a skewering hot take on modern culture – and boasting, arguably, the best Michael Keaton performance to be found on screen. (Yes, you heard, Beetlejuice.)
Groundhog Day (1993)
Bing! One of the best collaborations between Ghostbusters alumni Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, this timeless comedy can be revisited endlessly, with new details on every rewatch. Bing! One of the best collaborations between Ghostbusters alumni Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, this timeless comedy can be revisited endlessly, with new details on every rewatch. Bing! One of the best [continues ad infinitum]
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Read it as a fairytale, a cry against fascism, a horror or a fantasy or a tale of a strangely beautiful mental illness: whichever way you look at it, this twisted masterpiece still packs an emotional punch that would floor Chuck Norris. The story of young Ofelia's quest, against the poisonous backdrop of post-Civil War Spain, to survive three fantastical tasks and prove herself a Princess could have been trite, but in Del Toro's sure hands becomes magnificent. Creepy and beautiful in equal measure.
Watchmen overcame a twenty-year period development hell, multiple directors, an irascible writer and some extremely silly-looking costumes to become one of the all-time great superhero movies, and one that (despite his best efforts) remains to this day Zack Snyder’s Best Film™. Largely faithful to Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel, it enraged comic book purists but electrified the screen genre with its visual ambition and brutal moral compass. The oddly hilarious airborne sex scene is worth the place on your Netflix watchlist alone.
Mean Streets (1973)
The film that announced Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel as cinematic talents who might be worth keeping an eye on, actually. Mean Streets is not Scorsese’s best crime film (that honour surely goes to Goodfellas) but it laid the groundwork for his later career – and in hindsight, the mafia genre as a whole. To witness the slow-motion bar entrance of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy is to witness the advent of a new era.
Son Of Saul (2015)
There have been plenty of films that tackled the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, so it takes a filmmaker of singular vision to place a fresh spin on it. Son Of Saul is no less harrowing or soul-searching than those that came before it, but in its riveting story of the Sonderkommando’s revolt, it presents a tale of resistance rather than victimhood, and frames it almost entirely via a close-up of Géza Röhrig’s extraordinarily emotive face.
Despite being one of the most important and influential figures in modern US history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has not received as much big-screen attention as perhaps he deserved. That changed in 2014 with Ava DuVernay’s soaring film about the Selma civil rights marches, the events which directly spurned President Johnson to enact the historic Voting Rights Act. In the end, it took a British actor – David Oyelowo – to portray a complex American hero acting during a shameful chapter in the history of a country still learning difficult lessons.
Ryan Gosling’s 2011 breakthrough, morphing from teen heartthrob to icily cool leading man, reached its peak with Drive. Barely a word passes Gosling’s lips – which spend far more time negotiating a toothpick, James Dean-style – but he leaves quite an impression. The opening chase, the bank robbery gone wrong, and the bloody encounter in a lift will all linger long in the memory.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
If you’ve ever been told that a rug really tied the room together; if someone has ever insisted than this aggression will not stand, man; if you’ve ever been told to shut the fuck up, Donny, chances are you’ve had The Big Lebowski quoted at you. While it is destined to forever be quoted by its legion of stoner fans (fans still organise an annual Lebowski Fest in several cities), don’t let the cloud of cult status mask what remains one of the Coen brothers’ most purely entertaining films, a surreal and twisty diversion into a strange corner of 1990s LA: strikes and gutters, ups and downs.
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” With that rousing rallying cry to the masses, Peter Finch’s furious news anchor kicks off a landmark satire from director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Brutally and brilliantly skewering the culture of the time while also proving horrifyingly prescient, Network set a high watermark for the 1970s new wave of American cinema.
Before Arrival arrived, and Blade Runner’s 2049 revival, there was Sicario, a film which confirmed French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve as one of the most important and exciting directors working today. This pulsating, morally ambiguous thriller bears some resemblance to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic in its angry indictment of the War On Drugs (and its fruitful use of Benicio Del Toro), but with Villeneuve twisting expectations in every direction, and Roger Deakins on lensing duties, it stands well apart. Also features the most intense cinematic traffic jam since The Cannonball Run.
The coming-of-age formula has rarely been executed as warmly or as likably as this quietly brilliant little comedy-drama from Superbad director Greg Mottola. Jesse Eisenberg is the nebbish high school graduate hoping to earn a few bucks in the summer before college; Kristen Stewart is the cynical-but-kind object of his infatuation who stands firmly on her own two feet. Together they negotiate an eccentric 1980s theme park, and their own awkward adolescent feelings, in a rollercoaster of emotions and amusements.
Don’t know who Vincent Vega is? Then you haven’t witnessed John Travolta at his absolute best. This ultra-violent, ultra-intertwined masterpiece is one of five Tarantino films available on UK Netflix. Jackie Brown, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and – as mentioned earlier – Reservoir Dogs are also ready and waiting for you.
Once director John Carney, a former pupil of Synge Street school in Dublin, heads back to his old stomping ground for this stonking ‘80s-set musical comedy drama, which sees a gaggle of nerdy schoolboy misfits and an aspiring model transform themselves into a eyeliner-drenched New Romantic band. Come for the toe-tapping period soundtrack (Hall & Oates! The Jam! Duran Duran! A-ha! Spandau Ballet) and original songs, stay for the emotional depth and all-round feel-goodery.
The Big Short
A true story about collateralised debt obligations from the guy who directed Talladega Nights? The Big Short was always something of an incongruous proposition. But with effervescent scattershot direction, and dynamite performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and a jacuzzi-dwelling Margot Robbie, it is at once instantly entertaining and extraordinarily disturbing. We follow three groups on the fringes of the financial industry during the mid-noughties as they slowly uncover the house of cards propping up the mortgage industry, just as it’s about to tumble. Comedy, and real-life horror, in the same gold-plated spoonful.
The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. But apparently it’s okay to stream it into people’s living rooms. David Fincher’s knowing, subversive masterpiece sees Edward Norton as the unnamed protagonist who’s sucked into a vortex of anti-consumerism, bare-knuckle fighting and domestic terrorism by Brad Pitt’s enigmatic Tyler Durden. Poignant, prescient and achingly stylish, this darkly comic satire is as irresistible as it is iconic.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi followed up his sublime vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows with this charming and hilarious adventure through the New Zealand bush, which plays like an Antipodean Up, casting Sam Neill as the irritable old man, and newcomer Julian Dennison as the precocious juvenile he learns to love. In 2016, the annual poll among Empire writers decreed it the best film of the year. Isn’t it about time you chose the skux life and saw what all the fuss was about?
It may have become a punchline for cheesy melodrama, but to remain as the second highest-grossing film in history, two decades after its initial release, Titanic has to be doing something right. The plot is corny, the ending is predictable (spoiler: it sinks) and the Jack and Rose romance is as sickly sweet as a gallon of chocolate sundaes but James Cameron is a master of his craft and the end result is not only a disaster spectacle without peer but throws a hefty emotional body-blow as well.
The King’s Speech
For a stuffy English period drama, The King’s Speech plays like a bombastic American sports drama: King George VI (Colin Firth) is the star quarterback down on his luck – or, in this case, stuttering monarch, unable to speak in public – and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) must coach him back to success. The final act triumph is as thrilling as any Super Bowl victory.
The first in Tim Burton’s extremely-unofficial ‘Big’ series (along with Big Eyes, though there’s a chance we’re reading too much into this), Big Fish sees the Gothmaster General tone down his usual greys and blacks in favour of something more colourful and whimsical. There’s bank robberies, werewolves, circus acts, and giants, but it’s ultimately a story about storytelling, and familial reconciliation through the medium of tall tales.
Under The Skin
An A-list Hollywood star like Scarlett Johannson roaming the streets of Glasgow is akin to an alien visitor, so it makes sense that she does indeed play an alien in Under The Skin: an extraterrestrial seductress who lures unwitting Scotsmen to a gloopy doom. Jonathan Glazer’s long-gestating arthouse sci-fi is a disturbing, affecting, intoxicating watch, brilliantly buoyed by Mica Levi’s eerie electronic score. The scene in which a baby is left alone on a beach, presumably to die, will likely live longer in your memory than you might prefer.
The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Coming-of-age films tend to focus on male misfits. Here was a brutally frank and frequently funny tale of a 15-year-old female, reaching sexual and emotional adulthood ahead of time, in bohemian 1970s San Francisco. Marielle Heller’s dramedy pulls few punches in its depiction of the adolescent experience, and at its centre, there is a brave, bold, and bare performance (figuratively and literally) from newcomer Bel Powley.
Before Scary Movie, before Austin Powers, before even The Naked Gun, there was Airplane! – a film which set the template for spoofs and parodies, with a relentless machine-gun ratio of visual gags and razor sharp puns. The writing-directing team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker bought the rights to forgotten 1957 disaster B-movie Zero Hour! and effectively rewrote it entirely, adding jokes every thirty seconds or so. We’re serious when we say that this is one of the best comedies ever made. And don’t call us Shirley.
Annie Hall is Peak Woody Allen; the zenith of the filmmaker’s career, at the mid-point between his earlier, zanier comedies and his later more sober, philosophical work. All of the usual Woodyisms are in there: a postmodern treatise on romance; Allen’s nebbish, Jewish protagonist pseudo-intellectualising; and Manhattan looming large in the background and foreground. Roger Ebert once called it "just about everyone's favourite Woody Allen movie”; watch it and see why.
There was a time when folk scoffed at the idea of a seventh film in the Rocky series, quickly dismissing it as a cash-in. What a happy surprise to find this was actually one of the most thoughtfully-calibrated reboots in memory: affectionately doffing a cap to the spirit of the original, while ploughing its own muscular, confident furrow. Creed is smart, surprising, entertaining, joyful, emotional, and has important, timely, powerful things to say. Get in the ring before the mooted sequel arrives.
In 2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary profiled the orca named Tilikum, kept in SeaWorld Orlando and ultimately responsible for three people’s deaths. The message here was clear: SeaWorld was committing animal cruelty on an industrial scale. Following the film’s release, attendance to the park began to fall; revenues began to fall; sponsors wary of bad publicity ended partnerships; and in 2015, SeaWorld announced it would phase out its orca shows. This is cinema as genuine, tangible, real-life change.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Peter Sellers warned us not to fight in the war room. But he didn’t say anything about laughing until our sides split during Stanley Kubrick’s hysterical political satire. When General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) declares nuclear war on the Soviet Union without telling anyone, said war room descends into a state of unadulterated panic. As Joint Chiefs of Staff President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) and General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) rush to stop the B-52 bombers reaching their target, a whole bunch of wild, infectious characters (including Sellers’ titular former Nazi) get caught in the crossfire. Kubrick at his absolute best.
Battle Royale (2000)
Katniss and her fellow tributes had it tough, but the annual Hunger Games aren’t a patch on the Battle Royale Act. Shipped off to a deserted island, a bunch of Japanese high-school students face a fight to the death with only a randomly selected weapon and their wits to get them through. If you like your films emotional, action-packed and foreign, this should be top of your list. (We recommend you swerve the dire sequel, though.)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
William Gates and Arthur Agee dream of the NBA big leagues in this Oscar-nominated documentary. Both from dilapidated areas of Chicago, the pair are scouted by a private school in Westchester, Illinois. School work and injuries threaten to get in the way, but the boys' dreams never falter. Winning the Audience Award at Sundance and filmed over five years, if you’re ever in desperate need of a jolt of inspiration, look no further.
It’s terrifying to think there’s a generation who were introduced to Al Pacino via Adam Sandler and Sky Broadband adverts. But journey back four decades and you’ll find Serpico, earning Pacino his first lead actor Oscar nomination after being up for Best Supporting in The Godfather the previous year. Pacino is the titular police whistleblower in Sidney Lumet’s true life crime drama, a man who puts his life in danger by threatening to expose the corruption of his fellow New York policemen.
The Look Of Silence (2014)
If you’ve not seen 2012’s The Act Of Killing, return to this when you have. Seen it now? Good. Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his critically-lauded and genuinely harrowing documentary is just as acclaimed and just as painful. This time Oppenheimer’s focus turns to a specific family who were affected by the 1965 Indonesian communist genocide and now live their life in silence. Not for the easily upset.
Beasts Of No Nation (2015)
Cary Joji Fukunaga assembled a cast of mainly non-actors for this Netflix Original Film set in fictional, war-torn West Africa. A harrowing tale of growing up before your time, Beasts Of No Nation follows young Agu (Abraham Attah) as he is torn from his family and enrolled into child soldier ranks under Idris Elba’s Commandant. Boasting two central performances that will stay with you long after the credits, Beasts proves Netflix aren’t just serious about their original television content: they want to dominate film, too.
With two series of FX’s Fargo done and dusted, now is as good a time as any to catch up with the source material. As Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) plan to get rich quick falters at every turn, he soon finds himself pursued by the very persistent – and very pregnant – police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Sublime.
A Bronx Tale (1993)
Robert De Niro directs himself and Chazz Palminteri in this tale of crime and shifting loyalties. As Lorenzo’s (De Niro) son C (Francis Capra, Lillo Brancato) finds himself taken under local gangster Sonny’s (Palminteri) wing, the youngster struggles to veer away from inevitable tragedy. You’d have to wait until 2006 for De Niro's second directorial rodeo, The Good Shepherd.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might just miss it.” Wise words, Ferris. Matthew Broderick is the rebellious teen hell-bent on rubbing his principal up the wrong way in this John Hughes classic. Epic street parades, Ferraris, Charlie Sheen: bunking off has never been so fun.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar winner takes place in Italy - at the Cinema Paradiso, to be precise. Young Salvatore (‘Toto’, played by Salvatore Cascio) finds himself bewitched by the local picturehouse, falling under its spell and all it has to offer after losing his father in the World War II. A celebration of cinema and love, it’s also an ode to the dying art that is film projection.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
For Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and 'Red' Redding (Morgan Freeman), prison is a place for friends as well as enemies. Thought of by many as the greatest film of all time (calm down Citizen Kane, we said ‘thought of’…), Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s short story Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption demands your immediate attention if you are one of the lucky few yet to see it for the first time.
Another list, another great Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. Hoffman’s first and only Oscar was for his spookily accurate portrayal of writer Truman Capote. As a story about the murder of a Kansas family turns into his most famous book (In Cold Blood), Truman finds himself fascinated by one of the men responsible. You only need one incentive to add this to your watchlist: Philip. Seymour. Hoffman.
Into The Wild (2007)
Sean Penn directed this true-life tale of 24-year-old Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) as he gives up his worldly possessions and heads into the wilderness. Along the way, he encounters a wild Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart and Catherine Keener. Tautly directed and incredibly emotional, this begs the question, ‘Why isn't Emile Hirsch a massive star?’
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Racially-divided Alabama is rocked by lawyer Atticus Finch when he defends a young black man accused of rape in this adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Finch’s young children Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) find their childhood bliss turned on its head in a film that earned more than ten times its budget and made Atticus Finch one of cinema's greatest characters.
The Warriors (1979)
It’s all-out street war in New York City as The Warriors are blamed for killing the leader of rival gang, The Gramercy Riffs. And all leader Cyrus wanted was gang unity... So much for that. As The Warriors attempt to journey home without being slaughtered one by one, the night kicks off in spectacular fashion. It’s fair to say that Walter Hill’s cult film makes West Ham and Millwall fans look like happy families.
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford – Butch and The Kid, respectively – abscond to Bolivia after one too many US train robberies bring them to the attention of the law. Leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, the pair are actually very cordial, despite their profession. As the authorities close in on them, the duo find themselves in a bit of a sticky situation. Possible side effects include having Burt Bacharach’s Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head stuck in your brain for a fortnight.
Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
A fictionalised version of the 1962 prisoner escape on Alcatraz, Donald Siegel’s film casts Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan and Jack Thibeau on the island. As Eastwood’s Frank Morris attempts to bust out of the most secure (and apparently unbustoutable) prison on the planet, he and his fellow inmates hatch a plan involving flowers, spoons, and papier-mâché. Honestly, it’s like something off of Blue Peter. Escape From Alcatraz also marked Danny Glover’s film debut, fact fans.
One of the best horror films of recent years, It Follows never really discloses what the ‘It’ is, or why it’s following – except that it’s a mysterious entity that’s somehow sexually transmitted, manifesting as a variety of shuffling injured strangers, or sometimes as people known to the victims it inexorably pursues. It’s an interesting twist on the slasher movie "promiscuous teens get killed" trope, with the wrinkle that if you find yourself affected, you can just shag someone else and get rid of it, like a chain letter. That rule takes the film to some very dark places.
The Breakfast Club
You can name The Magnificent Seven - well, at least six of them - but can you list The Breakfast Club? John (the criminal), Claire (the princess), Andy (the athlete), Brian (the brain) and Allison (the basket case) are sent to Shermer High School's answer to Guantanamo on a fateful Saturday morning in March 1984 and emerged changed for ever... along with most of the rest of us. John Hughes' knack for portraying teens in a way that was insightful, generous and sensitive, while never missing a good boob-and-lippy based party trick, was basically supernatural. True fact: at no point does anyone eat breakfast.
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