En español | Here's a dirty little secret Netflix doesn't want you to know: Its movie backlist may be vast (3,700 and counting), but it's not exactly full of gold-star cinema. To make matters harder for film fans, the good stuff is largely hidden behind the Netflix suggestions wall full of its own originals and popular TV shows. But never fear! After careful combing through the complete list, we've unearthed 21 hidden movie gems that might have flown below your radar … until now.
A gentle shaggy-dog music biopic about Blaze Foley. Blaze who? An Austin, Texas, alt-country legend who was immortalized after his 1989 death in Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel.” Rocker Ben Dickey plays the man like a big, sweet bear beset by demons, Alia Shawkat plays his long-suffering wife, and musician Charlie Sexton is terrific as Townes Van Zandt, Foley's friend in music and substance abuse. Directed by actor Ethan Hawke, with an ear for the tall tale and just enough grit to sand off the sentiment.
Watch it on Netflix: Blaze
Concrete Cowboy (2020)
Did you know there were urban cowboys in Philadelphia? I didn't until I watched this drama based on the Fletcher Street stables and the modern descendants of the city's 19th-century African American hostlers and horse drivers. The storyline is pretty prefabricated — a rebellious teen Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things) learns to tame his anger by taming a bronco — but Idris Elba (who coproduced) is magnificent as his dad, and the glimpse of a hardy subculture struggling against gentrification is deeply moving.
Watch it on Netflix: Concrete Cowboy
The Death of Stalin (2017)
A comedy? Yes, but of the most satirical stripe imaginable, and it's unforgivingly sharp as wielded by director-cowriter Armando Iannucci (Veep). The dictator's death early in the film kicks off a rugby scrum for power, with an assortment of idiots, patsies and sadists all merrily stabbing each other and themselves in the back. Michael Palin, as Molotov, brings this into Python territory, but it's Iannucci's knowledge that tragedy and farce are two sides of the same coin that makes Stalin sting.
Watch it on Netflix: The Death of Stalin
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Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
Here's one that you will either want to celebrate or skip — a documentary in which filmmaker Kirsten Johnson deals with her aging, widowed psychiatrist father's decline by enlisting him in macabrely humorous and realistic-looking staged “deaths.” He's an awfully good sport, and the film is really about how grown children and elderly parents prepare themselves for the unthinkable and inevitable. A movie that runs quite a bit deeper than it first appears.
Watch it on Netflix: Dick Johnson Is Dead
The Dig (2021)
Carey Mulligan plays an upper-class widow in England, on the verge of World War II, wondering what history is buried beneath the downs out behind her manor. So she hires a self-taught archeologist played by Ralph Fiennes to dig it up. It's a Netflix original that seems to have fallen through the programming cracks, but how can you resist that cast? It's based on the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavations, and you'll have to watch it to learn what they found — because I'm certainly not going to tell you.
Watch it on Netflix: The Dig
Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
One of those movies about the making of a movie that's better than the movie that was made. Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a two-bit comedian who reinvented himself as a badass pimp character and created the endearingly terrible 1975 blaxploitation/kung-fu classic Dolemite (on Amazon Prime). It's the best role Murphy has had in years, and he conveys the joy with which Moore hustled his way to success and the anger and desperation behind it. A hilarious and pointed movie.
Watch it on Netflix: Dolemite Is My Name
Echo in the Canyon (2018)
The music that poured out of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon in the mid-1960s set a sonic benchmark whose reverberations we're still hearing 50-some odd years later. Sparked by Bob Dylan, the folk-rock revolution kicked off with the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and remains present and accounted for in every singer-songwriter streaming their wares today. Andrew Slater's documentary lays the groundwork of the movement's birth; seek out 2019's David Crosby: Remember My Name (on Amazon Prime) for the rest of the picture.
Watch it on Netflix: Echo in the Canyon
The Founder (2016)
Michael Keaton stars as McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc, and if you think this movie is a straight-up corporate hagiography, you probably think that title isn't ironic either. In this telling, Kroc's a restaurant supply salesman who sees the fast-food techniques pioneered by the McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) and steamrollers them on the way to megafranchise glory. It's a fine portrait of a great American shark, half dazzled and half damning.
Watch it on Netflix: The Founder
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Free Fire (2016)
An illegal arms sale is going down in 1970s Boston, and all the players — especially the IRA soldiers — are paranoid and trigger-happy. Another director might take it all seriously, but in Ben Wheatley's capable hands, it's like a bedroom farce with bullets flying instead of doors slamming. There's no real point, other than watching some very good actors having a very good time playing some very stupid people who literally shoot themselves in the foot. With Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and a very funny Armie Hammer.
Watch it on Netflix: Free Fire
Get On Up (2014)
When Chadwick Bozeman died a year ago, many mourned the fact that his career was finally taking off after an early run of biopics — but have you seen those biopics? They're pretty good! And the best of the bunch may be this hotfooted dance through the life and times of R&B godhead James Brown, presented as an impressionistic series of events that are welded together by Brown's rocket-fueled ambition and Black pride. Bozeman wholly disappears into the man; no wonder he didn't get the credit he should have.
Watch it on Netflix: Get On Up
A Ghost Story (2017)
An art-house variant of the old Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost — meaning that it's slower and more contemplative and there's no Whoopi Goldberg. As a parable, though, writer-director David Lowery's muted drama is a haunting experience, with Casey Affleck hanging around long after his character's death — in a bedsheet, no less — and waiting for a closure he can't begin to guess. Rooney Mara plays his widow and has a scene in which she eats a condolence pie that is both endless and sublime.
Watch it on Netflix: A Ghost Story
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
If you love classic Hollywood movies and know enough of the era's history, the Coen brothers’ breathless comedy of studio chicanery and dim-bulb actors will seem peerlessly funny. If you have no idea who, say, Hedda and Louella were, this movie will seem more like one long inside joke you're not getting. Your loss! The performances by George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, a surpassingly silly Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich (as a western star miscast in a British-style comedy of manners) are picture-perfect. ... Would that it ‘twere so simple.
Watch it on Netflix: Hail, Caesar!
High Flying Bird (2019)
Steven Soderbergh did his career a favor when he agreed to make movies for Netflix: High Flying Bird, a sports drama that would have disappeared without a trace in theaters, now has a long tail of viewing on streaming. And it is not even a sports movie but a sports business movie, about a crafty young agent (André Holland) working a complicated con over the course of an NBA contract lockout. All he wants is his players to get paid and respected. A very savvy tale that's as much about black and white as it is about the green.
Watch it on Netflix: High Flying Bird
A foreign-language film set deep in America, in the heart of Brooklyn's Hasidic community, this low-key crowd-pleaser focuses on the title character, a hapless widower (played by Menashe Lustig) doing what he can to hold on to custody of his young son in a community that would rather see him remarried first. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish, but the situation is universal: the touching drama of a misfit in a culture that insists on fitting in.
Watch it on Netflix: Menashe
Midnight Run (1988)
There are hardly any “classics” on Netflix — meaning a movie that predates the 21st century — and most of them are acknowledged warhorses like Chinatown. But when was the last time you watched this fiendishly funny comedy about a rough-edged bounty hunter (Robert De Niro) who brings in an accountant accused of embezzling — presumably an easy job that turns into a much more complicated cross-country trek? See it if only to honor the memory of the recently deceased Charles Grodin, who makes the accountant a richly comic and neurotic schemer.
Watch it on Netflix: Midnight Run
In a quieter performance from Judi Dench — but one of her most rewarding — she plays a retired nurse who enlists a cynical journalist (Steve Coogan, who also cowrote the screenplay) to find out what happened to the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades earlier by Ireland's “Magdalene laundries.” Based closely on a true story, it's a movie to prompt righteous anger at an institution's cruelty and honest tears at one woman's forbearance.
Watch it on Netflix: Philomena
The Runaways (2010)
A scrappy, enjoyably outrageous rock biopic of the band that birthed Joan Jett (who coproduced), heavy metal guitarist Lita Ford and others. Dakota Fanning is fine as lost-girl lead singer Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon is his eyeball-spinning self as rock impresario Kim Fowley, who created an underage girl group just to drive the grownups crazy. The surprise, though, is Kristen Stewart: gruff, direct and lascivious as Jett.
Watch it on Netflix: The Runaways
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Probably the best star vehicle yet for Aubrey Plaza, whose dark-cloud charisma can be hard to showcase. It's a fluky comedy about a young, cynical journalist sent out to investigate the story of a rural oddball (Mark Duplass) who claims to have invented a time machine. A time-travel movie so strapped for cash that it takes place entirely in the present, it's really about the human urge to rewrite the past. A charmer.
Watch it on Netflix: Safety Not Guaranteed
A Single Man (2009)
Fashion designer Tom Ford's first stab at directing a movie is a pretty (and pretty good!) adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay professor mourning his lover in a closeted era — and the love and grief that dare not speak its name. What makes the movie special is its star Colin Firth, who gives a performance in which every repressed flicker of emotion feels seismic. Firth won an Oscar the next year for The King's Speech; he should have won it for this.
Watch it on Netflix: A Single Man
This nervy little heart-warmer, the first feature film ever to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, tells the story of a hardheaded 10-year-old schoolgirl (Waad Mohammed) who's scheming to buy a bike in a country where women aren't allowed to drive cars. Haifaa Al-Mansour sometimes had to direct the movie from a van so that onlookers wouldn't be upset by witnessing a woman order around a crew of men. Like all the best movies about children, it's really about the world the adults are handing them.
Watch it on Netflix: Wadjda
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
A welcome documentary on the life and times of Nina Simone, whose gifts encompassed jazz, blues, soul, folk and classical music, and whose refusal to be pigeonholed blunted her career. (Bipolar disorder and an abusive manager-husband didn't help.) Liz Garbus’ documentary tells the story, showcases the music as well as Simone's legendarily imperious stage presence, and gets out of the way.
Watch it on Netflix: What Happened, Miss Simone?
Ty Burr is a contributing writer who covers film and entertainment. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he previously was film critic for The Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly and is the author of several books, including The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together. He writes at Ty Burr’s Watch List.