Netflix sucks. I’ve been arguing it for years now. I only occasionally use it because I can piggyback on my mother’s account without paying a dime. Then I see an article on a popular newspaper’s Website listing the 100 best movies to watch on Netflix and I lose my shit all over again. 100?! I can barely think of 100 movies worth watching, much less 100 movies accessible on Netflix. Their selection is painfully limited and it grows increasingly limited as they delve ever deeper into exclusive content that almost invariably sucks. Every few months though, I go through Netflix and see what’s actually worth watching because I spend so much time recommending movies that can be somewhat challenging for people to even find. Well, if it’s on Netflix, it’s a bit harder to make the accessibility argument.
Obviously, the recommendations I’m about to make are only guaranteed to be on the American version of Netflix due to all manner of bullshit licensing issues, but they’re worth checking out regardless. I’m also not limiting this one to movies. Television is also on the agenda. As it turns out, television is also where I find a lot more common ground with people because Americans actually make some really great television; that said, not everything here is going to be American because I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t perpetually exploring what France and South Korea and the UK are doing.
Without further ado, let’s start with the movies.
District 9 (2009)
Countries: South Africa, New Zealand, USA, Canada | Director: Neill Blomkamp | Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James | Runtime: 112 minutes
An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent (Sharlto Copley) who is exposed to their biotechnology.
One of the very best science fiction movies in recent years, District 9 also happens to be the last (mostly) English-language film that left my jaw on the floor. I remember sitting down to watch it in 2011. I just wanted some dumb movie to watch while I turned my brain off for a couple of hours. What I got instead was a thought-provoking, hilarious, and just plain badass apartheid parable shot in a documentary style and it was utterly unlike anything I had ever seen or have seen since. There have been some complaints about the way in which Nigerians are depicted in the film, but, frankly, I couldn’t care less. With films like District 9, Shinjuku Incident, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince alongside South Korea’s Castaway on the Moon and Thirst, 2009 was one of my personal favorite years in cinema.
Countries: China, Hong Kong | Director: Ronny Yu | Starring: Jet Li, Dong Yong, Nakamura Shidō II, Collin Chou, Betty Sun | Runtime: 104 minutes (theatrical cut)
A renowned martial arts champion (Jet Li) must come face-to-face with the most ferocious fighters in the world as part of a difficult path to redemption.
I may be an East Asian cinema enthusiast, but I’m no martial arts film aficionado. I actually tend to dislike most films in the genre outside of 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and this one. Fearless was the film that made me a Jet Li fan. Yeah, the martial arts stunts are incredible, but my favorite parts of the film are those that take place in the rural village with Yueci (Betty Sun). I was drawn in so much more by the story of a man’s repentance and redemption. That kind of character arc and evolution is what really gets my juices flowing. I found Fearless emotionally impactful to the extreme. Even my mother enjoyed it. There are only two times my mother ever walked into the living room (when I was still living at my mother’s house) to see me watching a film and she found herself glued to her chair. One was Spirited Away and the other was Fearless and I can assure you she is no martial arts aficionado either. One of the film’s strengths is its ability to appeal to those who aren’t generally interested in martial arts films.
The version available on Netflix is the theatrical cut, which is a staggering thirty-seven minutes shorter than the director’s cut. Normally, this would bother me, but I’ll be honest: The cuts made to the theatrical version were warranted.
King Kong (2005)
Countries: New Zealand, USA | Director: Peter Jackson | Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody | Runtime: 187 minutes (theatrical cut)
In 1933 New York, an overly ambitious movie producer (Jack Black) coerces his cast and hired ship crew to travel to the mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who is immediately smitten with leading lady Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts).
Like District 9, 2005’s King Kong remake was a film I sat down to watch in the hope of being able to just turn my brain off for a couple of hours. Now, King Kong isn’t as thought-provoking as District 9 and you can get away with turning your brain off, but it’s actually a really fun movie. I should probably state for the record that I have never seen the original 1933 film or any of the other remakes and I don’t know whether or not that would have influenced my opinion one way or another. All I know is I had a blast. I’d say it’s probably the adventure aspect of the film that appealed to me the most, the idea of exploring a lost island populated with ostensibly extinct creatures, a place where insular gigantism has run amok. The film gets a lot of flak for some reason or another, but that hasn’t dissuaded me from finding a lot to love here.
The version available on Netflix is the theatrical cut, which is thirteen minutes shorter than the extended edition. Like Fearless the material that was cut doesn’t really bother me and I’d say the cuts made were warranted.
Little Monsters (1989)
Country: USA | Director: Richard Alan Greenberg | Starring: Fred Savage, Howie Mandel | Runtime: 101 minutes
A boy (Fred Savage) befriends a real-life monster (Howie Mandel) under the bed and discovers a secret world of monsters who sneak into children’s bedrooms at night to pull pranks on them.
People talk a lot of trash about Little Monsters and it may or may not be justified. I just know that I saw this film repeatedly as a child and it engraved a spot in my soft heart. It’s actually a joy to go back to and watch to see how wonderfully free we used to be from the dark influence of political correctness. The film is delightfully irreverent in a way you just don’t see anymore in films targeting a young audience. If you enjoyed Monsters, Inc. (2001), be sure to check out Little Monsters to see the film Monsters, Inc. ripped off and made so much less interesting. At the very least, Little Monsters is a must for ’80s nostalgia fans like yours truly and it demonstrates all that wonderful ’80s creativity so absent in Hollywood today.
The Pianist (2002)
Countries: France, Poland, Germany, UK, USA | Director: Roman Polanski | Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Michał Żebrowski | Runtime: 150 minutes
A Polish Jewish musician (Adrien Brody) struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II.
I’m always cautious around World War II and Holocaust films because the hype surrounding them is so often misguided. There’s this Holocaust effect that gives people the tendency to overrate films that deal with serious subject matter as The Pianist does. The Pianist is slightly overrated, but it’s still a great film with excellent performances all around. I saw it in the theater in 2003 and, overt the years, it has steadily grown on me. Definitely worth a watch.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Country: USA | Director: Steven Spielberg | Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley | Runtime: 195 minutes
In German-occupied Poland, German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) becomes an unlikely humanitarian, spending his entire fortune to help save over a thousand Jews from Auschwitz.
Yeah, it’s another WWII/Holocaust film. Schindler’s List has been on Netflix for ages. Since I last wrote a post like this one some fourteen months ago, every film I recommended has since departed from Netflix with the sole exception of Schindler’s List, which is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. I don’t know if I’d go that far and the whole black-and-white thing never did much for me, but it’s still a film that builds up to an emotional release that cripples its audience, myself included. Again, what hits me hardest is seeing the character arc and evolution of Oskar Schindler as portrayed by Liam Neeson. Steven Spielberg’s best film.
Country: USA | Director: David Fincher | Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey | Runtime: 127 minutes
Two detectives (Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman) track a brilliant and elusive killer who orchestrates a string of horrific murders, each kill targeting a practitioner of one of the seven deadly sins.
Until films like South Korea’s The Chaser (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010) came along, Se7en was the indisputable best serial killer movie ever made and it might still be. Se7en stands alongside 1999’s Fight Club as one of the two best films director David Fincher has ever made, with Se7en being my pick. Even my wife liked it and she gets creeped the fuck out by movies like Se7en, which one might describe as a neo-noir crime thriller. For me, the star of the show are the phenomenal set designs. I think Se7en might still take the cake for best set designs I’ve ever seen in any film. The intricacy and attention to detail is on another level as I think some of the accompanying documentaries with the film’s Blu-ray release illustrates. Also, I won’t spoil it, but the ending was perfection.
That’s it for movies. On all of Netflix, I found seven movies I can honestly say I like. Now let’s talk television.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013-2018)
Country: USA | Starring: Anthony Bourdain | Episodes: 103
Anthony Bourdain travels the world uncovering lesser-known places and exploring their cultures and cuisine.
I’ve always been drawn to personalities like that of the late Anthony Bourdain, by people who tell it the way it is. That’s the way I go about my life. Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows were a different kind of travel show. He wasn’t afraid to stray from the beaten path or ask questions no one else would have the balls to ask. His mind was wide open, his horizons impossibly broad. When I watch Parts Unknown, I feel like I’m getting a genuine taste of that country or region. As a traveler, I always strove to be like Anthony Bourdain. I like to think I was successful from time to time.
Black Mirror (2011-present)
Country: UK | Episodes: 19
An anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.
Remember the Netflix exclusive programming I mentioned? Well, here’s one of the few Netflix creations that actually stand out amidst the sewage. As a tech enthusiast but also someone with deep concerns about where all of modern life’s tech conveniences are leading us, Black Mirror is a show that was bound to find me at some point or another. Sadly, its quality isn’t always consistent, but there have been some real gems, with Be Right Back, USS Callister, and Nosedive being my top three episodes. The episodes, by the way, are all self-contained, so you can start anywhere you like. I’ve heard that upcoming seasons of Black Mirror may present a somewhat less pessimistic view, which has me more than a bit concerned about the show’s future.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Country: USA | Starring: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Laura Fraser, Jesse Plemons | Episodes: 62
A high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future.
Breaking Bad isn’t just the best television show you can watch on Netflix, it’s one of the all-time best television shows you can watch anywhere. It’s a show I love and adore so much that I struggle even to discuss it in an intelligent manner. Aside from the fact that every single performance in Breaking Bad‘s five seasons were delivered to perfection, there are a couple of things that really set Breaking Bad apart. I was a fan of Lost back in the day and I still enjoy it for its outstanding character development. I never missed an episode, even after it started to really derail and it became apparent the show’s creators didn’t know what they were doing and they were just making shit up as they went along. Now I’m a fan of Game of Thrones and, beginning with its seventh season, it, too, began to derail by rushing through its plot at breakneck speed.
None of that ever happened to Breaking Bad. They knew it had to come to an end. Instead of milking it for every penny it was worth, they wrote a fitting ending to one of the greatest gifts that has ever been given to television. With every television show I watch now, I just keep hoping they all come to as clean a finale as Breaking Bad. The other thing that sets Breaking Bad apart is the five-season character arc of Walter White as portrayed by Bryan Cranston. The evolution of Walter White’s character is the finest I’ve seen. If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad in its glorious entirety, what the hell are you doing reading this? Go and watch it right now.
The IT Crowd (2006-2013)
Country: UK | Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade, Katherine Parkinson | Episodes: 25
The comedic misadventures of Roy (Chris O’Dowd), Moss (Richard Ayoade), and their grifting supervisor Jen (Katherine parkinson), a rag-tag team of IT support workers at a large corporation headed by a hotheaded yuppie
British comedy is really something special. Few cultures in the world have a sense of humor so quirky and so on point as the Brits. The only other two cultures that come to mind are the Czech Republic and South Korea, but so much humor gets lost in translation that a native English speaker like myself will find even more to love in a brilliant and hilarious British comedy like The IT Crowd, one of the funniest television shows of all time. Personal favorite episodes include Are We Not Men? and The Speech, both from the third season.
My advice to anyone who watches that shitty but inexplicably popular show by the name of The Big Bang Theory is to first punch yourself in the face and, secondly, to watch the true celebration of nerd culture that is The IT Crowd and, more recently, HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Oh My Ghost! (2015)
Country: South Korea | Starring: Park Bo-young, Jo Jung-suk, Lim Ju-hwan, Kim Seul-Gi | Episodes: 16
Timid Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young) gets possessed by the ghost of a confident young woman (Kim Seul-Gi) who seeks to solve her one unfinished business by hooking up with Bong-sun’s boss, famous chef Kang Sun-woo (Jo Jung-suk).
Oh My Ghost! is a classic South Korean melding of genres, from comedy, fantasy, and drama to romance and thriller. With Korean movies and television, you get a little bit of everything and Oh My Ghost! is no exception. It’s both the show’s strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. At its core, Oh My Ghost! is a body swap comedy that grows increasingly dark and thriller-esque as it progresses. The thriller aspect is a real buzzkill with this show. I feel like it didn’t need to go there. That complaint aside, it’s a joy to watch and comes highly recommended. I’m not into the romance angle, but the comedy and drama bits are gold. Also, I’m completely obsessed with actress Park Bo-young’s eyes.
I love Korean movies, but Oh My Ghost! remains the only Korean television series, wildly popular as they are throughout Asia, that I’ve actually enjoyed.
Planet Earth (2006)
Country: UK | Starring: David Attenborough | Episodes: 11
This stunning television experience captures rare action, impossible locations, and intimate moments with our planet’s best-loved, wildest, and most elusive creatures. From the highest mountains to the deepest rivers, Planet Earth takes you to places you’ve never been to experience sights and sounds never before captured on film.
I’ve always enjoyed nature documentaries and they don’t get any better than Planet Earth. I don’t know what more I can say about it. There are animals and incredible camerawork with excellent narration courtesy of David Attenborough and his classy delivery.
The Returned (2012-2015)
Country: France | Starring: Anne Consigny, Frédéric Pierrot, Clotilde Hesme, Céline Sallette, Samir Guesmi, Grégory Gadebois, Guillaume Gouix, Jérôme Kircher, Laurent Lucas, Michaël Abiteboul, Pierre Perrier, Jean-François Sivadier, Alix Poisson, Yara Pilartz, Jenna Thiam, Brune Martin, Constance Dollé, Swann Nambotin, Ana Girardot | Episodes: 16
A small community in the idyllic French Alps is thrown into shock and confusion when loved ones who have been dead for years inexplicably return to their homes. With no awareness of their own deaths, the returned attempt to reintegrate with their families and past lovers, but chilling events begin to occur as the town grapples with this miraculous and sinister new reality.
The first season of the French television series The Returned was one of the best seasons of television I’ve yet seen, not to mention the gorgeous soundtrack courtesy of Glasgow post-rock act Mogwai (whom I’ve seen live, by the way). The sense of deep mystery and the intricate character development were breathtaking. I eagerly waited a couple of years to get my hands on the second season. When I did, disappointment would be an understatement for what I felt. I mean, it was good, but it felt a lot like the last season of Lost. It just kept raising more questions and answering none of them. As far as I can tell, the series is done. It’s still worth a watch though and I cannot recommend its first season highly enough. Just avoid the American ripoff by the same name. Leave it to the French to figure out how to make a show about zombies that doesn’t suck.
Wild China (2008)
Countries: UK, China| Starring: Bernard Hill | Episodes: 6
From the glittering peaks of the Himalaya to the teeming waters of the South China Sea, China encompasses a dazzling range of landscapes. The peaks, rainforests, deserts, and caves of this vast and enigmatic country are home to a diverse array of wildlife ranging from giant pandas, tigers, and golden snub-nosed monkeys to wild swans, whale sharks, and beautiful tropical flowers.
As we travel through the deepest river-gorge in the world, watch fisherman using captive cormorants to gather fish and discover the remarkable Pallas’ pit vipers that pluck birds from the air, it is clear that this amazing country is ready to reveal the most incredible wildlife surprises.
Wild China is one of the best documentary series I’ve seen. It’s a stunning dive into the natural beauty of China, from its landscapes and wildlife to its culture and ancient history. Highly recommended.