The 25 best movies to watch on Netflix: May 2020 – Polygon


How many times have you sat down to find a movie on Netflix, only to spend the next 15 minutes scrolling through the streaming service’s oddly specific menus and then put on The Office again? Netflix’s huge catalogue of movies, combined with its inscrutable algorithm, can make finding something to watch feel more like a chore than a way to unwind.

We’re here to help. If you’re suffering from a case of choice paralysis, we’ve narrowed down your options to 25 of our favorite movies on the platform. These run the gamut from spaghetti Westerns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) to indie thrillers (Moon) to some of the best films produced outside the United States (you saw Parasite, but have you seen Bong Joon-ho’s Okja?). We’ll be updating this list as Netflix cycles movies in and out of its library, so be sure to check back next time you’re stuck in front of the Netflix home screen.


The Artist

Photo: Warner Bros.

Half Singin’ in the Rain, half A Star is Born, and all swoony love letter to cinema’s silent era, Michel Hazanavicius’ Best Picture winner The Artist drops Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo into the classic story of a big star on the wane, and a new star on the rise. The black-and-white film — mostly a silent feature, with a couple of sound interludes for specific effect — can be broad and corny, with the big gestures and bigger expressions of old silent movies, and equally big character archetypes. But like so many of the old silent comedies, The Artist plays on easily recognized, universal human emotions — longing, jealousy, embarrassment, and love — to tell a story that’s satisfying because it’s as simple and recognizable as a Punch and Judy show. It’s about acknowledging the bare emotional essentials of what people enjoy in cinema, and stripping away absolutely everything else. —Tasha Robinson


Baahubali: The Beginning

Baahubali: The Beginning - prabhas as baahubali carrying a giant fountain

Image: Dharma Productions

In Western terms, this Tollywood production, the most expensive Indian film at the time of its release, is like a biblical epic by way of Marvel Studios, with a little Hamlet and Step Up thrown in for good measure. The Beginning chronicles the life of Shivudu, a superhumanly strong adventurer who escapes his provincial life by scaling a skyscraper-sized waterfall, aiding and romancing a rebel warrior named Avanthika, then teaming up with her to rescue a kidnapped queen from an evil emperor. Exploding with hyper-choreographed fight sequences and CG spectacle (not to mention a handful of musical numbers with equal bravura), The Beginning is 159 minutes of mythical excess, going big like only Indian film can, and resting on the muscular shoulders of its hero, the single-name actor Prabhas. If you fall hard for it, get pumped — this is only part one. The twist leads into Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, another two-and-a-half-hour epic also streaming on Netflix. —Matt Patches


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Netflix

The Coen brothers’ most recent film tells six stories of the American frontier, all with varying degrees of bittersweetness. Even the most absurd of the stories — a mini-musical featuring Buster Scruggs, or Tom Waits holding a conversation with a pocket of gold — reveal deeper layers. The film focuses on mortality and the capricious nature of life, and while some of the outcomes may seem cruel, there’s always a touch of tenderness, even in the most tragic stories. —Karen Han


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

brad pitt and cate blanchett in the curious case of benjamin button

Photo: Universal Pictures

Watching Brad Pitt age in reverse is just one of the strange pleasures of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Another is watching a red-headed Cate Blanchett do ballet amidst an eerie fog. Yet another is seeing Mad Men’s Jared Harris, playing a tugboat captain, covered in tattoos. The odd details in a story about a man born elderly and growing younger his entire life, until he becomes an infant, only pile up, made odder by the aging and de-aging effects used on Pitt. —KH


The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin - a bunch of people looking up

Image: IFC Films

Master of comedy Armando Iannucci (Veep) tackles history with The Death of Stalin, a black comedy based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline. In the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death, his former loyal advisors all jockey to replace him. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale lead an all-star cast (Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough) on a journey that tips between horror and humor as the body count rises. —KH


District 9

Sharlto Copley looking out over a sci-fi Johannesburg in District 9.

Photo: TriStar Pictures

After the comparative disappointments of Elysium and Chappie, it can be hard to remember how writer-director Neill Blomkamp started out: with the strikingly original, distinctive science-fiction film District 9, which channels the stereotypes and prejudices around asylum-seekers into a story about aliens taking up residence on Earth. Blomkamp’s friend Sharlto Copley plays a hapless corporate man working with a race of insectoid aliens stranded on Earth and forced into South African slum districts, where they’re reviled and abused. He starts to gain some sympathy for them, though, when he’s exposed to an alien chemical that starts mutating his human form. District 9 is an open metaphor for apartheid, crafted with insight, sympathy for the victims, and open rage at the brutal effects of racism. But it’s also weirdly funny, and the fast-paced action and dizzying handheld camerawork make it edge-of-the-seat viewing. —TR


Django Unchained

King (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) walk down a muddy street in Django Unchained

Photo: Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained almost feels like a comic book movie in its stylization and how earnestly everything is presented. There’s no question that viewers are meant to find Django (Jamie Foxx) the epitome of cool, even less so when, following an explosion, he materializes out of the smoke to the dulcet tones of John Legend. As he works to secure the freedom of his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django teams up with the bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and faces off against plantation owners such as Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). —KH


The Florida Project

willem dafoe and brooklynn prince

Image: A24 Films

The title of The Florida Project refers to the original name for Walt Disney World. The park is a faraway dream for 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), even though they live so close to it. The two of them live in a motel run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and Moonee spends most of her time on her own or with the other children in the complex. Though Halley does her best to make ends meet, their circumstances grow more and more difficult, making moments of joy all the more magical. —KH


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

clint eastwood in a hat and poncho

Image: United Artists

Clint Eastwood is “the Good,” Lee Van Cleef is “the Bad,” and Eli Wallach is “the Ugly” in Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti Western. The three gunslingers cross paths as they search for a hidden stash of gold. Bullets fly as they encounter bounty hunters, Union and Confederate soldiers, and other dangers, culminating in perhaps the most famous cinematic Mexican standoff. —KH


Good Time

robert pattinson in good time

Photo: A24

The title of Uncut Gems directors Benny and John Safdie’s movie Good Time is misleading in that the experience of watching the movie is anything but. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a small-time bank robber trying to make bail for his brother. The movie moves at a breakneck pace, and includes everything from a case of mistaken identity to a forced LSD trip as Connie grows more and more desperate for the money. —KH


Hail, Caesar!

channing tatum and a group of sailors dancing

Image: Universal Pictures

Hail, Caesar! could easily feel like an indulgence, as the Coen brothers basically recreate various types of Old Hollywood movies based on their personal fandom. But they do it with so much love and skill that it’s hard to object. The story revolves around a fixer (Josh Brolin) trying to figure out what happened to a missing movie star (George Clooney). As he looks for clues, he goes from movie set to movie set, dropping in on all different kinds of productions — including a sailor musical featuring Channing Tatum — and bringing an idyllic vision of Hollywood’s past to life. —KH


The Half of It

a young woman and a young man look at a phone

Photo: KC Bailey/Netflix

Director Alice Wu takes Cyrano de Bergerac and gives it a fresh, modern update in The Half of It, a romantic drama that doubles as a coming of age story. Leah Lewis stars as Ellie Chu, whose high school existence so far has mostly involved writing essays for her classmates, for a small fee. When Paul (Daniel Diemer), a sweet jock, asks for her help in writing a love letter, things take a sharp turn, because the intended recipient of Paul’s letter, Aster (Alexxis Lemire) is the object of Ellie’s affection, too. Wu gracefully builds up the relationships between the characters as well as the experience of being queer and a person of color in a small, conservative town. —KH


The Irishman

Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and De Niro as Frank Sheeran across from each other at a bar in The Irishman

Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Martin Scorsese’s portrait of Frank Sheeran, the truck-driver union official who doubled as a career hitman for the mob, clocks in at nearly three and a half hours. That’s not a sign of indulgence. With a script by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and the eye of longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, The Irishman weaves together Frank’s stint in World War II, his early days under the wing of mafioso Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), his ascension in the labor movement as a loyalist and friend of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), his grisly milestones as a guy who “paints houses,” and occasional glimpses of the family he’s sworn to protect. By the end, when life comes into full view for the audience and Frank himself, the film rebukes every gangster idolizer with a Goodfellas poster on their wall. Robert De Niro’s Frank is dutiful to a fault, and his often vacant gaze, spanning de-aged smoothness to craggy wrinkles, offers perspective on the poisonous effect of moral failure. Not every scene “speaks” to the plot, but each one Scorsese composes sticks like a memory, taking on more meaning further into the runtime. The same effect will likely deepen The Irishman as we all grow into it. —MP


The Matrix

the matrix reloaded - neo flying

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix is a stone-cold classic, and now’s as good a time as any to reacquaint yourself with the movie, or finally get around to checking it off your to-watch list. The film is set in a future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulation called the Matrix, while in reality, humankind battles against monstrous machines for their freedom. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishburne star. —KH


Minority Report

tom cruise looks at a futuristic screen

Image: 20th Century Fox

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story stars Tom Cruise as John Anderton, the chief of PreCrime, a police department that arrests criminals based on foreknowledge, effectively preventing crime before it happens. When Anderton himself is accused of committing a murder in the future, he goes on the run, and must wrestle with the system he’s dedicated his life to. —KH


Moon

Moon - Sam (Sam Rockwell) on the moon base

Photo: Mark Tilles/Lunar Industries Ltd.

Duncan Jones’ Moon is one of the most gripping science-fiction films of the last few decades, perfectly capturing the isolation of being in space as well as the terror of being so isolated. As Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) comes to the end of his three-year solitary mining contract on the Moon, his mental health begins to deteriorate. Things get even stranger when it becomes clear that he isn’t actually completely alone. —KH


Moonlight

Juan (Ali) teaches Little (Hibbert) how to swim.

Photo: A24

Barry Jenkins’ tender three-part coming-of-age story Moonlight may ultimately be remembered for the Oscar-night kerfuffle surrounding it — Best Picture presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were handed the wrong winner envelope, Beatty mistakenly announced that La La Land had won Best Picture, and the film’s crew took the stage to start their speeches before they learned that Moonlight had actually won. At least all the surrounding drama and interest focused more widespread attention on Jenkins’ film, an intensely personal three-act story about a gay black boy dealing with his orientation as a child, finding first love as a teenager, and settling into his identity as an adult. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe offer particularly tender performances as the drug dealers who support him in childhood, but the real star of the show here is the vivid, lovely cinematography, as Jenkins uses intimate images and sharp visuals to suggest an active, aching mind behind the ever-evolving mask the central character presents to the world. —TR


Okja

Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Okja, her giant super-pig.

Photo: Netflix

The last movie Bong Joon-ho directed before Parasite was Okja, a South Korean-American co-production about a girl and her super-pig. As with all of director Bong’s films, Okja seesaws between tones, mixing poop jokes with commentary on the cruelty suffered by animals in the meat industry, as well as the importance of language and translation. The film is also a technical achievement — even though Okja the super-pig is a CG creation, it boasts a remarkable warmth and tangibility. —KH


The Other Guys

Mark Wahlberg pulls Will Ferrell’s tie in a screengrab from The Other Guys

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Adam McKay’s buddy-cop comedy never quite hit the comedy zeitgeist like his other Will Ferrell collaborations (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), which is a shame, because it’s one of their best. The Other Guys stars Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as “desk jockey” NYPD officers who get caught up in investigating a pyramid scheme that goes all the way to the top of Wall Street. In hindsight, The Other Guys can be seen as the fulcrum of McKay’s career, as he’s pivoted away from absurdist comedy to exposing systemic corruption in The Big Short and Vice. —Emily Heller


Public Enemies

christian bale in public enemies

Photo: Universal Pictures

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, an adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s non-fiction book of the same name, tackles the final years of bank robber John Dillinger’s life. Dillinger, portrayed by Johnny Depp, is being pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), complicating not only Dillinger’s relationship with singer Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) but his ties to fellow criminals, including Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Meticulously detailed and full of charismatic performances, the film is a fitting elegy for an era. —KH


Purple Rain

Few movies gush with libido, sweat, and pure genius quite like the rock musical Purple Rain. Prince stars as “The Kid,” the frontman of a rock group that’s currently sweeping the Minneapolis. But romance and professional ambition clash when The Kid’s girlfriend Apollonia joins a musical group competing for his slot at the local nightclub. From there, the movie strings together now-iconic tracks with a melodramatic premise, but the logic behind the movie is simple: Put Prince on stage and let him rip. The musician set out to make the ultimate star vehicle for himself and, in true Prince fashion, delivered something beyond legendary. —MP


Slow West

Jay (Smit-McPhee) and Silas (Fassbender) ride horses side by side.

Photo: Lionsgate

Coen brothers fans shouldn’t miss out on Slow West, which is … in no way a Coen brothers film. But with its quirky characters, straight-faced humor, and deep sense of understated melancholy around injustice and the inevitability of death, it sure feels like one. John Maclean’s anti-Western stars X-Men: Apocalypse’s Kodi Smit-McPhee as a young Scottish traveler who comes to America, following the woman he loves (Caren Pistorius), who fled the country after a fatal accident. His journey to find her leads him to various dangerous characters played by Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, and Rory McCann, among others. Neither a traditional Western nor a neo-style update, Slow West is cynical about the genre, about the power of cinematic love, and a lot of other things, and its ending will certainly frustrate some people. But Coen brothers movies should have prepped certain kinds of movie fans for this particular brand of grim absurdity, and the weird pleasures of such an unpredictable narrative. —TR


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Peni (Kimiko Glen), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) all turn in shock.

Sony Pictures Animation

Like its comic-book inspirations, every frame of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels meticulously and lovingly drawn. But Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just visually stunning — the story by Phil Lord is one of the most thoughtful superhero origin stories we’ve seen in years. Rather than rehashing Peter Parker’s origins yet again, Spider-Verse focuses on Miles Morales, a teenager who took over the Spider-mantle in Marvel comics’ Ultimate Marvel alternate universe. When the villain Kingpin activates a super-collider, opening a portal to the multiverse, Miles teams up with alternate versions of Spider-Man to destroy the device and close the portal. —EH


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Some of the cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seated around a table.

StudioCanal

I firmly believe that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the greatest movies ever made. Adapted from the John le Carré novel by Tomas Alfredson, it really shows off every aspect of filmmaking, from a beautiful script, to camera tricks that heighten tension (the use of a 2000mm lens is particularly great), to musical cues that add to rather than simply accompanying the action (Elgar’s “Salut d’amour,” the National Anthem of the USSR, etc.). Featuring a murderers’ row of a cast, it’s solid through and through, and heartbreaking as Cold War concerns give way to a story that’s ultimately about love and human connection. —KH


Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, sitting amongst giant candies.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Gene Wilder’s performance as eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka is one of the all-time greats, and more than worth revisiting (or catching for the first time). When young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) finds himself the bearer of one of five golden tickets allowing entry into Wonka’s chocolate factory, he’s thrust into a magical world that punishes bad behavior — and has been built to do more than just create wonderful candy. As it turns out, Wonka is looking for an heir. —KH


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