At first, the idea of Netflix – essentially a video rental site – making its own TV shows and films sounded bizarre. This simply wasn’t how the industry worked, right?
Wrong. Fuelled by its vast piles of subscriber money, Netflix now wields the power of a Hollywood studio. With the resources to buy in the best new shows, acquire beloved brands, commission its own original series and hire Brad Pitt and Will Smith to star in its movies, the company is currently creating some of the best streamable stuff around. In fact, some of the best stuff around full-stop.
We’ve scoured through Netflix’s hundreds of original series, documentaries and movies to pick out 20 favourites. If you’re struggling to find something brand new on which to feast your eyes, read on.
Writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the fantastic Ex Machina was originally supposed to get a full release in cinemas worldwide, but in the end studio Paramount decided to give it a limited theatrical release in the US only, with the rest of the world getting their first chance to see it on Netflix. Why? Because they probably thought it’d flop in cinemas – it’s chilly, dark, complex and challenging and, rightly or wrongly, big studios don’t credit the average filmgoer with much intellectual curiosity.
Don’t let Paramount’s decision to offload Annihilation onto a streaming service put you off watching it though, because this is one of the most accomplished and interesting science fiction movies of recent years. It’s a visually and sonically brilliant film that’ll leave you with more questions than answers, but enough clues to work everything out, too.
When a strange “shimmer” engulfs a tract of land in the southeastern United States, the government is at a loss to explain it. Everything and everybody they send inside disappears, never to return – with one exception. Natalie Portman’s biologist finds herself personally drawn into the mystery, joins a team venturing into the Shimmer and slowly uncovers the shocking truth at its centre.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Netflix has sought out real quality with its original movies, as evidenced by this wry, intelligent indie comedy-drama written and directed by Noah Baumbach – one of the most perceptive chroniclers of modern human relationships working in cinema today.
Starring Adam Sandler (in his best “serious” performance since Punch-Drunk Love), Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) examines a dysfunctional New York family through the prism of several of its members, all of whom revolve around Hoffman’s preening, needy and manipulative patriarch.
Stranger Things is a love letter to many of the movies, TV shows and books that children who grew up in the 1980s will cherish: it’s replete with references to E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons and Poltergeist, packed with period music, and the mood and feel is sure to dredge up nostalgia aplenty.
Take away the retro vibes and the show still stands up as a fine sci-fi drama-thriller, concerning a small town, a missing boy and his friends and family’s attempts to find him.
It doesn’t demand too much of a time investment, either: unlike a lot of Netflix Originals, its episodes are reasonably tight (around 40 minutes each) and there are only eight of them in the first season, with nine in the second.
This seven-part miniseries is a dark, character-driven Western set in a tiny New Mexico mining town inhabited almost entirely by women.
Any mystery surrounding this demographic curiosity is cleared up quickly - the real pull of this story comes from the sense of impending doom as a merciless outlaw band (led by a magnificent, malignant Jeff Daniels) homes in on a defector seeking shelter among the women. Can the town’s ailing sheriff and the rest of its odd assortment of characters avert the incoming carnage?
Godless is a fantastic tension builder, and its colourful cast, snappy script and impeccable production values will please fans of similar series like Westworld, Deadwood and Lonesome Dove.
In the seven years that Prairie Johnson has been missing she's regained her sight and apparently changed her name to 'The OA' - and that's really just the start of this sci-fi drama series' unusualness.
Comparisons to Stranger Things come easily: most of the protagonists are young, and there's a hearty helping of fantasy mixed in with the sci-fi. Those comparisons aren't particularly favourable towards The OA, either, which lacks the coherence, charm and pace of the D&D-inspired sleeper hit. But just because The OA isn't as good as Stranger Things doesn't mean it's not worth a watch (after all, what is as good as Stranger Things?).
You will have to be prepared to go with some very out-there ideas and some unexpected shifts in tone. The OA definitely won't work for everyone, but it really is worth giving at least the first of the eight episodes a go to find out if it's up your street.
The End of the F***ing World
If you prefer your quirky comedy-drama to remain mired on the bleak, dark and murderous side of the fence, this one-season Brit series co-created by Netflix and Channel 4 deserves to sit high up on your shortlist.
When a couple of misfit teenagers embark on an impromptu road trip, things quickly take a chaotic turn – and little wonder, given that one of them, believing himself to be a psychopath, plans on killing the other as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
With episodes running to around 20 minutes in length, it’s ridiculously easy to find yourself drawn into the pair’s deranged adventure and binge on this show – but just make sure you don’t miss out on the superior direction, camerawork, soundtrack and production design when your blitz through it in a weekend – because this is as well-made as it is addictive.
Circumventing the traditional studio distribution model – it was released on Netflix and in selected theatres simultaneously – got this big budget drama booed by cinematic purists at the beginning of its Cannes Film Festival premiere. By the end of the screening, the same audience was giving it a four-minute standing ovation.
It takes a lot to get us up off the sofa at the end of a movie, to be honest, especially for 240 full seconds of applause, but this tale of a huge genetically-modified pig, her devoted tween companion, big business and animal rights is a delight, benefitting from a fine cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton and Paul Dano among them), brisk narrative pace and fantastic visual effects that bring Okja herself convincingly to life.
Oh, and be warned: it’ll put you off sausages for a very, very long time.
House of Cards
One of its original Originals, House Of Cards is still perhaps the jewel in Netflix's crown.
With David Fincher behind the camera and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in front as scheming Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood and his equally devious wife Claire, its depiction of Capitol Hill as a cesspool of self-interested career politicians is light years away from (and let’s be honest, far more convincing than) anything you may have seen in The West Wing.
It’s slickly-paced, high production value prestige TV stuff, and seeing Spacey's Machiavellian plots unfold is a delight – even if the current occupants of the real life White House make the Underwoods look like George and Martha Washington by comparison.
With five full seasons now available to stream, it's a boxset built for binge-watching.
Dysfunctional families have been done to death on both the big screen and TV, but the Bluths are arguably the most self-centred, destructive and, well, downright hilarious bunch of the lot.
When their company is hit by the US government for embezzlement, and patriarch George imprisoned, it falls to “sensible” Bluth son Michael to both run the business and keep his squabbling siblings and mother from making matters far, far worse.
Superb performances from the likes of David Cross, coupled with tonnes of re-quote potential make this a must-watch. It gets a little lost after the first three seasons thanks to the actors' other projects clashing with filming, but it's still well worth watching until the very end – and Netflix is promising a new season in which all the characters will be brought back together once again.
Orange is the New Black
Arguably Netflix’s second-best original series after House of Cards, this is a prison show that goes its own way: less brutal than Oz, less daft than Prison Break and more compelling than Prisoner Cell Block H, it begins as a fish-out-of-water drama (very loosely based on a true story) in which a yuppie Brooklynite winds up in a low-security women’s jail for a crime committed almost a decade previous.
A character-driven show that uses Lost-style flashbacks to explore the pre-incarceration lives of the superb cast, Orange Is the New Black has proved such a hit that it's already – like House of Cards – five whole seasons strong.
This animated sitcom features Arrested Development’s Will Arnett as the titular Horseman, a… er… “horse man” who found fame in a beloved 1990s sitcom but now lives in a haze of booze and self-loathing.
Set in a skewed version of Hollywood where humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals, BoJack Horseman features a strong cast (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul plays BoJack’s best friend Todd), and offers a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of the “washed-up former star” trope. Most importantly, perhaps, it’s really, really funny. With 50 episodes available (four seasons plus two specials), its perfect for binging.
Making a Murderer
Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a horrible crime that he didn't commit, and the revelations about the police handling of that case could be a 10-part documentary series of their own, but here that's just the start.
You see, just two years after his exoneration and release, Avery is charged with a new crime: the brutal murder of a young woman. Given the circumstances of the previous case, the local sheriff's involvement is under serious scrutiny, and to say there are suspicious inconsistencies in the case against him would be a huge understatement.
Making a Murderer is a long, sometimes slow-moving series, but it's also fascinating, deeply troubling, and constantly capable of sending shivers down your spine.