There is too much streaming content these days. There, I said it. For all the handwringing about HBO Max canceling this movie or Netflix not giving that series a final season, the onrush of new entertainment still outpaces our ability to take it all in. Your backlog is probably already huge—and those are just the movies you know about. Because thanks to the increasingly fragmented media landscape, there are plenty of them you have never heard of—even if you consider yourself a film buff.
Netflix in particular has proven itself a leader in spending a ton of cash to produce or aquire films and then doing absolutely nothing to let you know they exist, other than dropping them on streaming and leaving them to the whims of the algorithm. Even films with big stars and accomplished directors have seemingly vanished into the cloud, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of rediscovery. Here are 15 unhearalded “Netflix Originals” released over the last few years that are definitely worth adding to your queue.
What Happened to Monday (2017)
Tommy Wirkola, director of the recent David Harbour Christmas-themed action movie Violent Night and the upcoming Spermageddon, helmed this high-concept science fiction story about the perils of overpopulation. In the near-ish future, a one-child policy sees spare kids frozen cryogenically until such a time as they can be either become colonists on another planet, or until Earth finds more resources…whichever comes first. Think Children of Men, but just a bit goofier. Glenn Close is in charge of enforcing the policy, while Willem Dafoe plays the grandfather of identical septuplets. He comes up with a plan to keep all the kids out of the freezer: they’ll take turns playing at being the same person (Noomi Rapace, in multiple roles). Ridiculous, but fun—and somehow flew under the radar, despite the major star power.
Concrete Cowboy (2020)
Idris Elba heads up this film based on the real-life Fletcher Street Riding Club, a one-time Philadelphia institution that’s been keeping the history of Black cowboys alive for over a century by teaching Black youth skills related to horse training and care. Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things) and Lorraine Toussaint join Elba for an impressively acted, feel-good story about a father and son reconnecting.
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The Willoughbys (2020)
From a book by Lois Lowry (The Giver), computer-animated fantasy The Willougbys follows the kids (Will Forte, Alessia Cara, and Seán Cullen—playing twins) of a couple of thoughtless parents (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) who really couldn’t care less. Luckily, Maya Rudolph is on hand as the unconventional nanny who shepherds the kids through a series of adventures in an occasionally grim, but mostly very fun story about the value of found family. The quirky animation style—crafted by the folks who made Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2—has a stop-motion feel that truly stands out.
Director Daniel Goldhaber (the upcoming How to Blow Up a Pipeline) teamed up with writer Isa Mazzei, who based this Black Mirror-esque story partly on her own memoir. Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black) plays online sex worker Alice Ackerman, aka Lola_Lola, who once night discovers there’s another Lola out there…a cam girl who’s identical to Alice in appearance and general vibe, but whose willingness to go further puts her out in front in terms of viewership. It’s a horror movie with a lot to say about the dehumanization of sex workers, with a great central performance from Brewer.
Through an unconventional lens, Shirkers deals with the promise and peril of confronting the past. In 1992, three friends in Singapore (Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique) made a film called Shirkers, with some help from the film teacher who quickly absconded with the finished product and was never heard from again. Following the man’s death, the film was returned to Sandi Tan, who used it to create this fascinating documentary.
Our Souls at Night (2017)
What’s this? Oh, just screen legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda paired in a well-reviewed romantic drama from a top-rate director (Ritesh Batra, of The Lunchbox and The Sense of an Ending). It’s sweet, despite the ominous title, but worthy of its stars. Why haven’t you heard all about it?
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)
A brisk, chilling, and effective gothic horror film starring Ruth Wilson as a live-in nurse who comes to believe that the creaky old house where she works is haunted. Director Osgood Perkins had similar success with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Gretel & Hansel.
I Am Mother (2019)
Oscar-winner Hillary Swank, Rose Byrne, and Clara Rugaard star in this thriller following a young girl, named only “Daughter,” who grows up in a post-apocalyptic bunker while being cared for by the titular robot, Mother. Daughter encounters a Woman (Swank) from the surface world who makes the younger woman question everything her robo-mom has ever told her (robots might be less benevolent than we think? This is the first I’m hearing of it). Consider it a more explicitly sci-fi warm-up for M3GAN.
Matilda the Musical (2022)
Roald Dahl’s very much in the news lately, which does little to detract from the slightly naughty charm of this dance-heavy adaptation of the classic character. Alisha Weir stars as Matilda, alongside Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch. This one got more buzz in the U.K., where it got a major theatrical release. In the U.S., you probably missed it unless you logged into Netflix on Christmas Day, when it was released. (The streamer was busier promoting Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.)
The Sea Beast (2022)
Chris Williams, an animator who’s either directed or had a hand in some of the best of the last decade (Bolt, Big Hero 6, Moana, etc.) about a young woman who stows away on the ship of a legendary monster hunter (Karl Urban). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award, so it’s perhaps not that obscure, but still seems to have gotten lost amid last year’s major animated releases.
A Sun (2020)
Completely overlooked until it made a couple of year-end best-of lists (and an Oscars shortlist), Taiwanese import A Sun is a masterful tale of two brothers, one a highly placed med school student and the other a juvenile delinquent, who gradually come to take each other’s place in their parents’ minds. The result is a genuinely moving meditation on the cost of expectations.
The Half of It (2020)
Writer/director Alice Wu made a splash with her queer classic Saving Face way back in 2004. Her followup, a comedy-drama inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac (friendless high schooler Ellie Chu is tasked with writing love letters to her crush, Aster, on behalf of a football player) is better.
The Pale Blue Eye (2022)
This broody mystery had the bad luck to come out in the wake of the much more fun Glass Onion, but it’s still a compelling (and twisty) historical mystery with Christian Bale’s retired and troubled detective teaming up with young West Point cadet Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling, who’s great) to solve a case involving dead students and creepy occult signifiers.
It’s a movie about a giant troll that wreaks havoc on the way to Oslo. I really don’t know what else you need to know, but there are a lot of ways for that sort of thing to go wrong. Troll mostly avoids the pitfalls, with solid special effects and character work just good enough to keep things from feeling too entirely silly. It’s a European take on the kaiju movie, and a well-made one at that.
From Attack on Titan and Death Note director Tetsurô Araki and an all-star creative team, Bubble finds Tokyo cut off from the rest of the world when reality-bending bubbles rain down on the city (shades of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, perhaps). Anime fans were almost certainly on the lookout for the gorgeous, parkour-infused love story, but anyone who loves animation (or great sci-fi films in general) should check it out.
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