There was a time when tales of aliens, space travel, and robots were believed to be the strict province of four-eyed basement dwellers, but the truth is that everybody can find something to enjoy in the weird world of science fiction. The best sci-fi works in both universal truths and hyperspecific detail, using fantastical yet fully-realized worlds to tell stories about our own.
Netflix's selection of good sci fi movies isn't exhaustive, but there's still plenty worth exploring nestled among the sequels and paycheck-generators. Keep on scrolling for 10 of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix streaming to watch right now, all taking you from the moon, the farthest reaches of space, and to the outer fringes of reality itself.
Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller breathed new life into the tired A.I. trope when it landed in theaters a few years ago. The film focuses on a naïve young programmer Domhnall Gleeson who's selected amongst a pool of applicants to evaluate a new A.I. lifeform. The poor kid is whisked away to a remote villa to spend time with the eerily-human-looking robot, Ava Alicia Vikander and her eccentric, often cruel creator Nathan Oscar Isaac, a genius with an ego to match his talent. The film takes some twists you don't expect, and Isaac gives cinema one of its greatest dance sequences, in case you needed more reason to watch.
There's always going to be backlash when a studio decides to revive a beloved franchise and take it in a new direction but The Last Jedi continues to anger space fanboys everywhere and honestly, we're not sure what their gripe is. Rian Johnson gave us a masterclass in how to take something old and make it new again with his interpretation, injecting a bit of fun and fantasy into the age-old story. Mindblowing Jedi fights, Force connections, Porg, and Arctic Foxes, the movie has something for everyone and it challenges both old and new characters alike with interesting arcs and climactic moments. Plus, did we mention Porgs?
Spike Jonze imagines a world in which Artificial Intelligence can become something more than just a personal assistant program. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a depressed introvert going through a divorce who starts up a relationship with an OS named Samantha. Things get serious before Theodore begins to realize that romance with an A.I. is more complicated than he thought. What follows is a thoughtful exploration of love, relationships, and the ways human beings find connection in a plugged-in world.
Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving star in this sci-fi action flick about a dystopian world ruled by tyranny and fascism. Portman plays Evey, a frightened young woman thrust into a world of cloaked rebellion after a meeting with the mysterious V Weaving, a man who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and plans to blow up Parliament in one year. The British government has utilized a military state to purge itself of “undesirables,” homosexuals, free-thinkers, those of a different race and religious background than they deem worthy. V seeks to correct this by punishing the government, slashing up police, burning down buildings, and inciting others, including Evey, to riot. It's an action-filled romp that packs a philosophical punch.
5. Okja 2017
Run Time: 120 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
Bong Joon-Ho's send-up of corporate farming and environmental abuses isn't subtle. Tilda Swinton goes all-out as the CEO of an evil corporation only to be outdone by Jake Gyllenhaal's broad turn as an unstable TV host. But its tale of an endearing, genetically modified “super pig” and the girl who loves him is effective and contains both some terrific action set pieces and the most affecting child/strange beast relationship this side of E.T.
6. Snowpiercer 2013
Run Time: 126 min, IMDb: 7.1/10
Chris Evans stars in this sci-fi thriller from auteur Bong Joon-ho. The film, set years into the future following a devastating ice age caused by mankind, follows Evans' Curtis who lives in poverty on a train that continuously circles the Earth and contains all that remains of human life. Curtis is part of the “scum” the people relegated to the back of the train while the “elite” enjoy the privilege of weh and status that comes with living in the front. Curtis sparks a rebellion that ends in bloodshed and a devastating reveal when he makes it to the train's engine room and discovers just how the elite have been fueling their operation. It's a dark, grimy action piece that should give fans a new appreciation for Evans' talent.
7. Equilibrium 2002
Run Time: 107 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
Christian Bale and Sean Bean star in this sci-fi drama set in an oppressive future where all forms of emotion are outlawed. Bale plays a man named John Preston, who's charged with enforcing the law, but when he accidentally forgets to take a dose of the medicine that suppresses feelings and artistic expression, he begins to question the system he upholds and, eventually, leads an uprising.
In an ernate version of 1941 where France has been led by a line of Napoleons and leading scientists mysteriously disappear, young April, her talking cat Darwin, and the shady Julius go searching for April's missing parents. It's an interesting take on a history where technological advancement isn't a thing, where “steampunk” is reality and TVs and cars don't exist. April's journey starts in the dreary, stuck-out-of-time France but leads her to fantastical advancements that still make sense in the world we're presented with. The heart of the film lies in the love that plucky, stubborn April has for those she cares about, and the film's driven by charming animation and a genuinely interesting concept. It's enjoyable action that's just out-there enough for adults while being accessible for the young and young at heart.
Scarlett Johansson stars in this sci-fi thriller about an other-worldly woman with a dark agenda. The film sees Johansson using her sex appeal to lure unsuspecting men to their watery doom while beginning to contemplate her own existence with every new partner she seduces. It's a subtle reverse of rape culture, with themes of race and immigration mixed in, but if all of that goes over your head, you'll at least enjoy seeing Johansson off a bunch of frat bros and rapists.
10. Advantageous 2015
Run Time: 90 min | IMDb: 6.1/10
This futuristic drama from Jennifer Phang tells the story of a single mother named Gwen, who works for a high-tech cosmetic company. When she loses her job because of her age, she becomes desperate to afford the lifestyle she enjoys, including her daughter's elite private school education. Gwen decides to volunteer for an experimental procedure that would transfer her consciousness to a new, younger body, ensuring she'll get her old job back and her family would be taken care of, but things go horribly wrong, and Gwen 2.0 is left to wrestle with the consequences.
Along with its slate of Emmy-nominated TV series, Netflix is churning out some high-quality feature-length content as of late. The streaming platform has been building a deep well when it comes to film, filling it with everything from period dramas and millennial romcoms to quirky biopics, sci-fi love stories, and enthralling deep-dive documentaries. In other words, if you thought TV was the only thing the binge-heavy subscription service had to offer, think again.
We've sifted through a slew of titles to pick the cream of the crop when it comes to Netflix's original lineup so make sure you have some space in your queue. These films deserve to be there.
Related: The Best Netflix Original Series Right Now, Ranked
1. Roma 2014
Run Time: 135 min | IMDb: 7.8/10
Oscar-winning writer/director Alfonso Cuaron delivers what may be his most personal film to date. The stunningly-shot black-and-white film is an ode to Cuaron's childhood and a love letter to the women who raised him. Following the journey of a domestic worker in Mexico City named Cleo, the movie interweaves tales of personal tragedy and triumph amidst a backdrop of political upheaval and unrest.
2. Mudbound 2017
Run Time: 134 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
Netflix spent much of 2017 trying to establish itself as an alternative to movie theaters as a place to find quality new films. The results were mostly strong, and none stronger than Mudbound, Dee Rees' story of two families — one white and one black — sharing the same Mississippi land in the years before and after World War II. Rees combines stunning images, compelling storytelling, and the work of a fine cast that includes Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Garett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, and Mary J. Blige to unspool a complex tale about the forces the connect black and white Americans and the slow-to-die injustices that keep them apart.
3. Beasts of No Nation 2015
Run Time: 134 min | IMDb: 7.8/10
It's hard not to like a guy as talented and charismatic as Idris Elba but the actor plays a morally-corrupt psychopath to perfection in Beasts of No Nation. As the Commandant, Elba recruits young boys to his rebel army fighting the government of Ghana by forcing them to undergo a brutal initiation process. Agu, a young boy who saw his father and older brother murdered at the hands of the government, is captured and indoctrinated into the Commandant's army, suffering through terrible torture, both physical and psychological, before he eventually escapes.
4. Okja 2017
Run Time: 120 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
Bong Joon-Ho's send-up of corporate farming and environmental abuses isn't subtle. Tilda Swinton goes all-out as the CEO of an evil corporation, only to be outdone by Jake Gyllenhaal's broad turn as an unstable TV host. But its tale of an endearing, genetically modified “super pig” and the girl who loves him is effective and contains both some terrific action set pieces and the most affecting child/strange beast relationship this side of E.T.
5. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie 2019
Run Time: 122 min | IMDb: 7.8/10
The basic gist of this follow-up to Vince Gilligan's beloved TV show is that it picks up right after the events of the series finale, with Jesse Pinkman Aaron Paul on the run and looking a bit worse for wear. He seeks shelter with Skinny Pete and Badger, long enough for a shower and a shave, before heading off to confront the people who destroyed his life. To give anything more away would be to spoil the excellent work that Gilligan and Paul put into this thing.
6. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs 2018
Run Time: 133 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
The Coen brothers are back with a slick new Western romp, one that serves as an ode to all of the tropes present in Hollywood's best Wild West adaptations. Split into six parts, each story is loosely connected although thematically and tonally different. Tim Blake Nelson stars as the titular hero, a sharpshooting songster who takes part in the film's opening musical portion. From there, we get stories of outlaws getting their due, prospectors mining for gold, ghostly hauntings, and wagon trails. Forget trying to follow the thread and simply enjoy the ride with this one.
7. The Fundamentals Of Caring 2016
Run Time: 97 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
Paul Rudd is at his most charming and charismatic here. He plays a newly trained caregiver to a distant teenager with muscular dystrophy named Trevor. After some ice breaking, the two set out on a trip to see some of the most boring roadside attractions middle America has to offer. If you're feeling down, this one will pick you up.
Plus... it's Paul Rudd. That dude is always a ray of sunshine.
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8. Amanda Knox 2016
Run Time: 92 min, IMDb: 6.9/10
It seems as though we're all now more aware than ever of how utterly screwed any of us can be in an instant if the system places us in its crosshairs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not behaving in a way perceived to be “normal” in the immediate aftermath. Recent true crime documentaries like The Staircase, Making a Murderer and Serial have certainly played a part in illuminating this frightening and unfortunate slice of reality. We can now add Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn's Amanda Knox to that list. Prepare to be terrified and infuriated as the filmmaker's detail how an overzealous Italian prosecutor and a global tabloid press thirsty for a sensational story joined forces to wreck a young woman's life, largely for their own benefit.
As Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa freely admits on camera — without any trace of remorse or shame — about his work covering the case, “A murder always gets people going... And we have here this beautiful, picturesque hilltop town in the middle of Italy. It was a particularly gruesome murder; throat slit, semi-naked, blood everywhere. I mean, what more do you want in a story?”
9. To All The Boys I've Loved Before 2018
Run Time: 99 mins | IMDb: 7.3/10
Netflix's original flick is being hailed as the best teen rom-com of the decade and for good reason. The story stars Lana Condor as Lara Jean Covey, a junior in high school who tends to write her crushes love letters but never actually send them. After those same letters are anonymously sent, she's forced to do damage control by carrying on a fake relationship with one of her former love interests. It's a sweet, oddly empowering twist on the classic rom-com trope, and you won't be able to scroll through Twitter without coming across a Peter Kavinsky stan account, thanks to this one.
10. Always Be My Maybe 2019
Run Time: 101 min | IMDb: 6.8/10
Ali Wong and Randall Park star in the latest rom-com from Netflix. This time around, the plot follows two childhood sweethearts who've spent the last 15 years apart and try to reconnect when one moves back home. Wong plays a successful chef opening a new restaurant in San Francisco while Park plays her former best friend still living at home and working for his dad. Both have some growing up to do, but the film eschews classic romcom tropes for bits that are funnier and more poignant than your average lighthearted fare.
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11. Bird Box 2018
Run Time: 124 min | IMDb: 6.6/10
Sandra Bullock's apocalyptic sci-fi saga has spawned more than just a ridiculous internet challenge, it's also renewed our love for monster-driven thrillers. Sure, we never actually see the otherworldly beings that cause people to commit suicide if they open their eyes, but the danger they pose and the fear they instill is still viscerally real. Bullock plays a mother trying to protect her two young children and survive amidst a group of strangers with their own agendas and issues. The supporting cast in this one — Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, and Tom Hollander — are fantastic, which distracts from some of the more questionable story choices.
12. Set It Up 2018
Run Time: 105 min | IMDb: 6.5/10
Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell star in this office rom-com with a bit of a twist. Instead of the two young co-stars falling in love, it's Deutch and Powell who try to set up their overbearing, workaholic bosses with each other so that they can get a break from their demanding jobs. Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs play the employers from hell, and Deutch and Powell put themselves through the wringer to make the pair fall in love, and to make us laugh. It's superficial and cute so really, the perfect movie binge for a Friday night.
13. The Incredible Jessica James 2017
Run Time: 83 min | IMDb: 6.5/10
Anyone who caught Jessica Williams during her tenure on The Daily Show knows that she's destined for greatness. Despite being so young, she had a confidence, a voice, and a commanding presence that you just can't fake. The Incredible Jessica James is her first starring vehicle since her time as a correspondent, and it is a true testament to where she's headed. In a clever look at the life of a struggling playwright who is getting over a breakup, The Incredible Jessica James allows Williams to unleash her fire in the most charming way possible, and she and Chris O'Dowd have an easy chemistry that makes you root for them to make it despite not having a thing in common. Having just come out last year, The Incredible Jessica James is still one of the best comedy movies Netflix has delivered.
14. Private Life 2018
Run Time: 123 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star in this dramedy about a middle-aged couple trying desperately to have a baby. Hahn plays Rachel, Giamatti her husband, Richard. The two undergo all kind of in vitro treatments in order to get pregnant but quickly realize the process is draining on their marriage and their intimacy as a couple. When their 25-year-old niece comes to stay with them, they're forced to re-think the idea of having children of their own and dig into what's really fueling their desire for offspring. Hahn is brilliant as usual, but she finally gets the starring vehicle she deserves, and Giamatti is her capable screen partner. What's really refreshing about this film, though, is its refusal to treat a subject that's been overdramatized so much on screen with kid gloves, instead giving us a funny, heartbreaking look at infertility that feels much more real than any sappy tearjerker.
15. Gerald's Game 2017
Run Time: 103 min | IMDb: 6.6/10
Stephen King's 1992 novel transpires mostly in one isolated lake house's bedroom where its protagonist, Jessie, lies bound to a bed after her husband dies in the midst of a sex game. That makes it a tough story to film, which may explain why it took 25 years to get turned into a movie. But the wait was worth it: director Mike Flanagan delivers a resourceful, disturbing adaptation anchored by a great Carla Gugino performance with some fine supporting work from Bruce Greenwood. Forced to find a way out of her situation, while confronting her own past, Gugino's Jessie is made to go to extremes, which leads to, among other things, one of the squirmiest scenes in recent memory.
Box office history was made this weekend, breaking records all around. In a year when specialized and foreign-language films have been underwhelming, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” Neon has rewritten the standards.
Its $125,000 per-theater average in three New York/Los Angeles theaters is the biggest specialized limited opening of the year. And it marks the biggest platform release in three or more theaters since “La La Land” in 2016. Neon has effectively positioned the film for maximum excitement and attention, making important choices that maximized the results.
On its initial expansion, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” Sony Pictures Classics is also over-performing for a subtitled film, and looks steady as they go ahead.
Meanwhile, “Judy” Roadside Attractions is holding well in its third week. The awards season is in full swing, with multiple high-end titles arriving every weekend. Coming this week is Taika Waititi’s TIFF audience-award-winner “Jojo Rabbit” Fox Searchlight followed next week by Cannes breakout “The Lighthouse”A24.
Parasite Neon Metacritic: 95; Festivals include: Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, New York 2019
$376,264 in 3 theaters; PTA per theater average: $125,421
“Parasite” could be the “Avengers: Endgame” of subtitled films in the sense that the Marvel film topped any opening weekend ever in April, not by any small degree but a huge increase above the past record. The same holds true for Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed South Korean movie. No foreign-language film has ever opened close to these numbers.
Positioned in three New York and Los Angeles theaters followed on Wednesday by Manhattan’s Film at Lincoln Center booking with director and cast appearances at all locations, “Parasite” since Thursday has racked up staggering numbers. The IFC Center in New York has been a sellout across the board on multiple screens. The Arclight Hollywood with greater seating has at times shown the movie on six screens, while The Landmark also in Los Angeles also has sold out multiple shows on its three screens. It has performed consistently across all days, with or without Q&As. This is the real deal.
Among all-time limited openings and adjusted numbers, this looks to rank #13 of all time among all films for PTAs with three or more theaters. “Parasite” sits between “The Imitation Game” and “The Revenant,” both $100-million-plus grossers.
Among subtitled films, the best adjusted all-time number openers with three or more theaters have been “The Motorcycle Diaries” $77,000 and “Amelie” $72,000. In recent decades the top subtitled specialized grosser “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” boasted $69,000, but in 16 theaters, the film was a bigger total opener.
The opening number for “Parasite” doesn’t guarantee anything like the ultimate results of those films, though “Motorcycle” at $25 million could be a target. Some initial platform blockbusters didn’t resonate with audiences - “The Master” and “Steve Jobs” both opened bigger, then failed to reach $20 million.
But “Parasite,” backed by noisy awards talk, is headed for a level for a subtitled film that should be higher than anything in recent years. The range is substantial, and we’ll have more about that this week. But for now, look on in awe.
What comes next: Patience is required for a film that could be hurt by too much, too soon. The plan for now is adding seven cities as well as a few new theaters in New York/Los Angeles this week, with 15 more the following, and up to 100 theaters in 25 cities by the end of the month.
“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie”
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie Netflix Metacritic: 72; also streaming
$est. 40,000 in 12 theaters; PTA: $est. 3,333
Amazingly, 12 of the some 125 theaters showing Netflix’s already streaming coda to Vince Gilligan’s AMC series reported grosses. These don’t include any of the Alamo locations, which likely scored higher. The shows were limited to two for just the weekend, and it appears the bulk of the interest was Friday night. Netflix’s expected breakout theatrical dates ahead are “The Irishman” and “A Marriage Story.” The inclusion of important chains like Arclight and Harkins with these bookings suggests a deeper penetration ahead, though still without most top chains. That said, these are curious and somewhat positive numbers for this film, given that it’s showing parallel to streaming, unlike the early exclusive platforms planned for other top titles.
What comes next: Catch it on Netflix.
The King Netflix Metacritic: 63; Venice 2019; Festivals include: 63
$est. 10,000 in est. 2 theaters; PTA: $est. 5,000
Timothée Chalamet as Henry V costars with Robert Pattinson in “Animal Kingdom” director David Michôd’s Shakespearean drama “The King,” which played in at least two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. No grosses were reported, but spot-checking individual show sales suggests around $10,000 total in these.
What comes next: Netflix showings start on November 1.
Mister America Magnolia Metacritic: 42; also playing on Video on Demand
$est. 10,000 in 2 theaters; PTA: $:$5,000 Cumulative: $est. 115,000
Tim Heidecker’s political mockumentary had event screenings prior to the weekend in over 100 theaters. Its two regular dates this weekend added to the total.
What comes next: This also debuted on VOD, where most of its action will be.
“Pain and Glory”
Sony PIctures Classics
Pain and Glory Sony Pictures Classics
$289,147 in 23 theaters +19; PTA: $12,572; Cumulative: $574,571
The huge initial numbers for “Parasite” –which tripled the PTA for “Pain and Glory” in one less opening weekend theater - should not obscure the impressive early results for Almodovar’s latest film.
Second weekend comparisons: among SPC’s recent fall awards releases, the PTA is about what “The Wife” did its second weekend, a third more than “Whiplash,” and about 75% of “Call Me By My Name.” All were crossover, wider-play films.
For subtitled films, it’s a level rarely seen. “PAin and Glory” is currently playing mostly at theaters that respond well to foreign-language fare– the handful of top crossover multi-screen locations are somewhat less impressive. But early in its expansion, which is will likely be slower and not as broad as “Parasite,” this looks like it should be SPC’s biggest foreign-language title since Oscar-winning “Amour.”
Lucy in the Sky Fox Searchlight
$73,000 in 198 theaters +161; PTA: $369; Cumulative: $154,612
As bad as the initial grosses were for this astronaut romance starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm, the expansion was much worse. Going forward under Disney, we must assume that the respected and autonomous Fox Searchlight will take a disappointing project like this straight to streaming without an initial theatrical initial play. The PTA works out to around 40 patrons per theater for the weekend.
This short film compilation has grossed close to $3 million already. Seven short films are cobbled together to glorify the Chinese Revolution. That’s a pittance compared to it multi- hundred-million home-country haul in just over two weeks, but nonetheless it’s both impressive and unsettling.
Ongoing/expanding Grosses over $50,000
Judy Roadside Attractions Week 3
$3,225 in 1,627 theaters +169; Cumulative: $14,974,000
The per-theater average dropped a modest 30% in a week with a little expansion. This strong Best Actress contender has already reached almost $15 million, approaching or passing a level early in its run reached by Oscar-winners “Room,” “Still Alice,” and “La Vie en Rose.” The early-season release is working in terms of achieving a decent total, though most winners open later. The trick ahead, after a few more weeks of decent numbers, will be to sustain a later presence.
The Peanut Butter Falcon Roadside Attractions Week 10
$278,567 in 304 theaters -319; Cumulative: $19,513,000
This sleeper success is heading toward $20 million. And with “Judy” adding up totals quickly, it means Roadside soon will have two films reach that level in a short period of time.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice Greenwich Week 6
$262,080 in 168 theaters -36; Cumulative: $$3,231,000
Greenwich has maximized this boomer music nostalgia documentary with a rapid release that could still see it reach $4 million.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? Sony Pictures Classics Week 4
$101,815 in 57 theaters +31; Cumulative: $361,474
Likeable subjects and nostalgia work best for documentaries these days. The returns for this one, about an evil character and bad memories, continues to show the ability to attract serious adults although not at the same level of other recent successes.
Brittany Runs a Marathon Amazon Week 8
$66,679 in 110 theaters -238; Cumulative: $6,978,000
One of Amazon’s big Sundance acquisition is winding down far from its hoped-for pace. It will limp to $7 million, which both makes a case for reduced festival spending and elevated streaming priorities for similar films.
Fantastic Fungi A23a Week 3
$63,134 in 6 theaters; Cumulative: $143,182
This visually stunning documentary about the role of fungus plants in nature boasts an inventive release pattern. In its third week the movie opened in New York, with Los Angeles still to come. The main element in this weekend’s gross was a sold-out event presentation at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theater.
The Farewell A24 – $34,160 in 39 theaters; Cumulative: $17,623,000
Official Secrets IFC – $33,841 in 43 theaters; Cumulative: $1,883,000
First Love WellGo USA – $33,010 in 40 theaters; Cumulative: $159,309
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool Abramorama – $17,171 in 16 theaters; Cumulative: $516,836
Director Quentin Tarantino, who directed Robert Forster in his Academy Award-nominated role of Max Cherry in Jackie Brown, remember the late actor today as a “straight shooter” and “good man.”
“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen,” said Tarantino. “One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brownwas one of the best choices I've ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.
Robert Forster — Jackie Brown — 1997
“Bye bye Max. Bye bye Miles. Bye bye Bob. “
Tarantino's statement was but the latest in an outpouring by Hollywood following the well-respected actor's death on Friday from brain cancer.
Forster appeared in more than 100 films, including his latest, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, released Friday via Netflix.
Forster completed three projects in 2019: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, StevenSpielberg's Amazing Stories and Werewolf.
Details of a memorial service have not yet been announced.
Deadline's Pete Hammond interviews Robert Forster on his craft.
Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we go behind bars for a look at great films that take place in jails, prisons, and other places of involuntary incarceration.
Most of us will never spend time behind bars, incarcerated for a crime we did or didn’t commit, and that lack of first-hand experience might be part of what makes movies about prison life so popular. They come in all forms and genres from Stephen King-penned The Shawshank Redemption, 1994 to horror Prison, 1987 to comedy The Longest Yard, 1974 to exploitation The Big Bird Cage, 1972 to action Boyka: Undisputed, 2016 to the effortlessly engaging and entertaining Cool Hand Luke, 1967, but not all of them get the attention they deserve.
So consider this a down and dirty primer on some less popular prison movies that are all well worth your time despite their absence from the general conversation.
Cell 211 2009
Juan Oliver is cautiously excited to begin his new job as a prison security guard, but he’s not even through orientation yet when a riot breaks out leaving guards dead and the prison in the hands of the prisoners. He’s mistaken for a fellow inmate at first, and with no way out Juan is forced to play along while trying to stop further carnage. Things only grow more complicated for him from there.
Director/co-writer Daniel Monzón balances drama and suspense equally though much of the film as characters fall into place amid the chaos and carnage. Juan’s struggle to stay alive soon shifts gears in the hopes of getting he and others out with as few casualties as possible, but as the story builds he shifts again in response to information about the authorities he’s worked for and alongside. There’s plenty of moral judgement to go around with “bad” guys on both sides of the wall, and as new truths emerge it challenges Jaun’s own label as hero or villain.
The story turns in the back half of the film offer some genre thrills, but they do lessen the weight of the drama that precedes them. The variety is part of the film’s charm, though, as character work and serious commentary on the prison/justice system give way to conspiracy-happy, B-movie plot shenanigans. The whole works by holding and building suspense with occasional bursts of bloody brutality punctuating the drama. See it before the inevitable Hollywood remake.
Cell 211 is currently available on DVD.
Le Trou 1960
Four cellmates deep into their respective sentences have been planning an escape for some time. Effort has been made, tunnels have been dug, and the right time is quickly approaching. A wrench is thrown into the mix, though, when a new prisoner is added to their cell. With no other option, they’re forced to share their plans with him, but when he’s promised an imminent release the others grow unsure if he’ll keep their secret.
Director/co-writer Jacques Becker channels a bit of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped 1956 here with some stark black & white photography capturing meditative sequences of time served and the process of escape, but the story is his own. It’s one told in quiet moments as much as it is with suspense, and stretches of the film see the men working diligently on their plan and the tunnel. We feel their painstaking work just as we feel the threat that it might all be for naught.
The core thread here is one exploring trust - trust between strangers, trust between a prisoner and the system, and trust between filmmaker and audience - and it all pays off in dramatic and affecting ways. It offers up a dilemma with no ideal answer, and with lives and freedom on the line it soon becomes clear that it’s going to be bad news for someone no matter the outcome.
Le Trou is not currently available.
The Platform 2019
In the future, a man arrives for a six-month sentence in a towering prison structure and discovers life inside is no guarantee. There are two prisoners per floor, and each day a slab with elaborately prepared meals begins its descent from the top moving through a large hole in the center of each floor. Those at the top eat well. Those below may not eat at all. And did I mention you’re moved to a randomly assigned floor every thirty days?
This Spanish slice of dystopian order and misery takes a familiar path for futuristic sci-fi in its existence as an allegorical tale about today’s world. The prison’s structure, and what happens with the food, is a metaphor for real-world classes, the attitudes of people towards those less fortunate, and the ridiculous concept of “trickle down economics.” Our hero struggles to convince those above and below that a coordinated effort by all would mean that every inmate would eat well, but his efforts fall on entitled, resentment-filled ears.
As simple as the metaphor is, the effect is immensely powerful. Sharp production design - fans of Cube 1997 will enjoy the sci-fi perfection - and strong performances go a long way, and there’s an intensity that powers the film forward. Suspense, action, and dark comedy all come into play as other characters enter the fray, and things only get more ferocious and terrifying the lower the film takes us. It’s a cynical yet honest take on humanity, but there’s a glimmer of hope here for those who need it. And yes, it is the film’s only lie.
The Platform is not currently available.
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Judging by the shows available on Netflix, '90s kids had it good.
The streaming platform has a handful of hidden gems — TV series that managed to capture the essence of the decade — from the era. From political dramas and Emmy-winning mysteries to stoner comedies, fantasy series, and a kids' show about a magic school bus, there's something for everyone who's feeling a bit nostalgic for the good ol' days of grunge, Tamagotchis, and dial-up.
Here are all of the best '90s shows on Netflix that will transport you back to the best decade ever.
Related: The Best '80s Movies On Netflix Right Now
2 seasons, 30 episodes | IMDb: 8.8/10
If small-town murder mysteries full of camp and supernatural phenomenon are your thing, well then why wouldn't you watch or re-watch Twin Peaks? The series, crafted all the way back in the '90s by David Lynch, is a cult-favorite and for good reason. With Kyle MacLachlan playing Special Agent Dale Cooper, a poor schmoe who's called in to investigate the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer, he's met with more than he bargained for. Conspiracy theories and otherworldly beings, time travel, and dwarves in red business suits soon follow. The original series may have ended with cliffhangers and unexplained plot-holes, but with the recent Showtime revival, now's as good a time as any to catch up on all the strange events that seem to plague this sleepy town.
The West Wing
7 seasons, 156 episodes | IMDb: 8.8/10
Television's all-time best political drama, The West Wing, is Aaron Sorkin at his absolute best, working with one of the finest ensemble casts in television history. The show wavers after the fourth season when Sorkin left, but it picks back up in its final season with Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda. It's celebration of the greatest fictional president of all time to get you warmed up for it.
10 seasons, 236 episodes | IMDb: 8.9/10
There are some who argue that Friends was an overrated sitcom, with protagonists as unrealistic as they were lily-white. But like a big bowl of mac and cheese, Friends is TV comfort food: not exactly great for you, but sometimes exactly what's needed. From classic episodes like “The One With the Embryos” and “The One Where Everybody Finds Out” to its sprawling cast of eccentric supporting characters, the enduringly funny series will be there for you when you need to kick back and forget about the real world for a while.
8 seasons, 179 episodes | IMDb: 7.1/10
Charmed is the OG fantasy series, a show about a trio of magical sisters who fight the forces of evil from their model Victorian home in modern-day San Francisco. Prue Shannon Doherty, Piper Holly Marie Combs, Phoebe Alyssa Milano, and later Paige Rose McGowan, are The Charmed Ones, the most powerful of good witches who protect innocent humans from warlocks, demons, and other nasty creatures that go bump in the night. Each sister has her own magical ability — telekinesis, teleportation, premonitions, and so on — but they're strongest when they fight their enemies together, even though doing so puts them at risk of discovery by non-magical humans.
That '70s Show
8 seasons, 200 episodes | IMDb: 8.1/10
Before Laura Prepon was causing trouble on Orange Is the New Black, before Mila Kunis was starring in spy comedies with Kate McKinnon, and before Ashton Kutcher was her husband, the gang was hamming it up on this stoner comedy series. The show centered around Erik Forman Topher Grace and his group of slacker friends, who spent most of their time getting high in his parents' basement and avoiding their responsibilities. Plenty of mishaps, love triangles, and ridiculousness ensued, but the show excelled when it focused on relationships between the main cast, giving us a somewhat realistic view of what it was like to grow up there in the decade of hippies, flower power, and free love.
The Magic School Bus
4 seasons, 52 episodes | IMDb: 7.9/10
Sure, technically The Magic School Bus is a children's educational program, but don't act like you haven't revisited this work of art as an adult. Lily Tomlin voices the heroine, Ms. Frizzle, an eccentric grade school teacher who treats her students to all kinds of inventive, informational field trips through her shape-shifting, logic-defying school bus. Whether it's a tour of the human immune system from inside the body of a student or a wild ride through the skies during a thunderstorm, Ms. Frizzle manages to make learning fun in the most unbelievable of ways. If you haven't checked this show out in a while, do yourself a favor and bask in the nostalgic fun it provides.
Star Trek: Voyager
7 seasons, 170 episodes | IMDb: 7.7/10
Voyager is rarely the first Star Trek installment on people's must-watch list, but there's still plenty to love about this iteration, even without Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart present. Kate Mulgrew helms this ship, leading a crew of capable heroes trying to return to the Federation after being stranded on the edge of the cosmos. Like other Star Trek storylines, this one relies heavily on character development, tackling big themes with some thrilling action sequences thrown in. Plus, Mulgrew in anything is worth your time.
11 seasons, 263 episodes | IMDb: 8.1/10
Frasier is one of those difficult to pin down shows, the ones that are brilliantly written with some memorable performance, but that often divide fans. You may cackle with glee at the dry wit of a series that focuses on the squabble between to intellectual siblings, brothers played by Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce. Grammar plays the titular Frasier, a radio host and therapist who moves back home to manage his aging father and try to get along with his pretentious brother, Niles. Grammar and Pierce have an electric sort of chemistry that totally sells this Two Grumpy Old Men act, so at the very least, you'll have a good laugh tuning into their arguments.
Sony Pictures Entertainment
5 seasons, 74 episodes | IMDb: 7.8/10
Another kids series that still feels just as watchable into adulthood, Goosebumps is a show that existed solely to give '90s kids nightmares. Watching it now, some of those show's more bizarre storylines seem even more f*cked up, and therefore, more thrilling than when they did when we watched it as kids. The show is an anthology series — a collection of stories from famed horror author R.L. Stine — but unlike recent film adaptations, the series manages to hold onto a bit of the original fright and delight Stine imagined for younger minds.
11 seasons, 275 episodes | IMDb: 7.8/10
Mike Schur, the creator of Parks and Recreation, is an avowed disciple of Cheers, citing the NBC sitcom as his favorite show and driving influence. It's not hard to see why: Cheers is a classic for a reason, a sitcom populated with colorful characters Norm!, complicated relationships Sam and Diane, and reliably hilarious hijinks that legendary Thanksgiving food fight that easily sustain its 11 seasons. Schur has often said that he modeled the protagonists of Parks on the characters of Cheers, people who genuinely liked each other in spite of their differences. Sure, Cheers frequently features caustic one-liners particularly those delivered by Carla and grating personalities why anyone hung out with Cliff is a bit of a head-scratcher. But despite the occasional unpleasantness, Cheers isn't just a place where everybody knows your name — it's where everybody's family, misfit barflies and all.