Netflix essentially redefined how we consume home media, turning our internet connections into the pathway to the original subscription streaming network and, eventually, its competitors. But with competitors came the need to stand out from the crowd, so Netflix needed a new hook: original programming. Most of the attention for Netflix Originals has been focused on Netflix’s original television series, but Netflix first started distributing original film content in 2015, and they have since developed an extensive catalog of exclusive titles that are among the best films of the past decade. Here are just a few of our favorites.
Right before going on to win the Academy Award of Best Picture for Parasite, Korean film auteur Bong Joon-ho teamed up with Netflix to write and direct Okja, the story of a girl and her genetically-enhanced super pig. Framed initially as a heartwarming tale of human and animal companionship, Bong Joon-ho gradually lays the groundwork to deconstruct the evils of factory farming, the purposeful obfuscation of corporate bureaucracy, the hollowness of entertainment that justifies normalized atrocities, and the greed that drives the engine of capitalism. Featuring stellar performances from Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano, Okja will change the way you think about eating meat.
Gareth Evans might be best known for the Indonesian martial arts film The Raid, but he also proved to be a gifted horror story crafter as well, with 2018’s Apostle. Taking cues from folk horror, Apostle follows a man (Dan Stevens) who infiltrates a cult to rescue his abducted sister, posing as a prospective member. What follows is a twisted tale of intrigue that blooms into scenes of gruesome violence, personified by the twisted visage of The Grinder, one of the more disturbing horror antagonists of recent memory. Though not for the faint of heart, Apostle proves to be one of the most interesting horror offerings in Netflix’s collection.
The Night Comes For Us (2018)
However, if you were hoping that Gareth Evans might follow up The Raid with something more akin to its intense martial artistry, you might be much more satisfied with Timo Tjahjanto’s Indonesian action-thriller The Night Comes For Us. The film follows a criminal (Joe Taslim) who abandons his life in the Triad to rescue the last survivor of a massacred village, only for the Triad to send an up-and-coming gangster (Iko Uwais) to eliminate them both. The plot is never not important in films like this, but it certainly takes a backseat to the absolutely bonkers martial arts on display in this bloodier-than-thou film. The Night Comes For Us is the kind of ultraviolent spectacle that needs to be witnessed to be fully believed, and we fully recommend that you do so.
Sex workers do not receive nearly enough credit for the hell that society makes of their lives, so it’s frankly pretty incredible that a film like Cam exists at all. Written by former camgirl Issa Mazzei, Cam follows a camgirl (Madeline Brewer) whose account has seemingly been taken over by a woman who looks just like her. As the apparently hacked account takes on a life of its own, its breaks down the barriers between her personal and professional life. Exploring questions of internet privacy, parasocial relationships, and duplicitous senses of oneself, Mazzei’s screenplay draws upon real experiences to tell a horror story that doesn’t condescend to sex workers or make them out to be pitiable or unwitting. The real terror of Cam originates not from a ghost in the machine, but from society’s judgment and the toll it takes on one’s psyche.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Coen Brothers are some of the best and most prolific directors of the past thirty years, so it was something of a surprise to see them come to Netflix with an anthology film of all things. True to the duo’s love of Westerns, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs tells a collection of six short stories that range from the comedic day in the life of a singing cowboy to the terrors of being a frontierswoman in a land dominated by armed men, to passengers’ stagecoach ruminations of inevitable mortality. Of course, your mileage may vary from story to story, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs serves as a tonal and thematic smorgasbord of the Coens’ styles and sensibilities that makes it a modern must-see.
The Perfection (2019)
The Perfection is one of those films that one should really see with as little foreknowledge as possible before diving in. Drawing inspiration from the twisty machinations of Korean thrillers like those by Park Chan-wook, The Perfection follows the exploits of two cellists (Allison Williams and Logan Browning) in their pursuit of achieving perfection in their musical craft. The twisting narrative is alternately sexy, gruesome, gorgeous, and time-bendingly absurd, but the cumulative whole is a wild swing for the fences that knocks it out of the park. Read nothing more and dive right in if you think that sounds like your jam.
The Irishman (2019)
Martin Scorsese is one of the most popular and perhaps most misunderstood filmmakers ever, celebrated by general audiences for reveling in violence and American decadence when his films are aimed at deconstructing the psyches of despicable people, not to glamorize them. Though whether he succeeds in that differentiation from film to film is debatable, The Irishman is an opus that feels specifically targeted at demonstrating what his oeuvre attempts to achieve. Following the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) over the course of his entire adult life — and three and a half hours of screentime — Scorsese deconstructs the supposed good life of a killer to show that it is ultimately hollow, devoid of meaning, and lonely. It takes a long, heartbreaking path to get unveil that thesis, but in the end, isn’t that the tragedy of a wasted life? That we only know it’s wasted once it’s over?
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee came out swinging this year with the exceedingly timely Da 5 Bloods. Following four present-day veterans (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) on their return to Vietnam in the present day, Da 5 Bloods initially presents itself as a quest for closure as the brothers in arms seek to recover the lost remains of their commander (Chadwick Boseman) and a stash of gold they hid after recovering it on a mission. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Lee is engaging in his usual multi-faceted approach to storytelling, drawing a definitive line between US imperialism, the worship of military service, and the conversion of Black men into soldiers for a country that never follows through on its promise of equality. This is one of the most powerful and vital films of 2020 and Netflix should consider itself so lucky as to have it rank among its best exclusives.
Get the What to Watch Newsletter
The latest updates, reviews and unmissable series to watch and more!
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.