Nothing pushes today’s worries out of the mind better than a story about the society of tomorrow’s trials and tribulations. Except maybe a tall tale of deep, inhuman—though metaphorically representative of a part of humanity—threat facing an old-timey kingdom. Or an understated character study of someone who lives in a world very much like this one—except for one big, weird difference. With the mundane stress of the everyday, these kinds of movies hit the spot.
Netflix has popped off 2019 by loading a ton of high-octane sci-fi and dreamy fantasy into its chimeric catalog. There's comic book movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Black Panther, Hellboy, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen, plus blockbusters like the most recent Star Wars movies. Expired licensing contracts are constantly snuffing out other titles to the point that it’s impossible to keep track of what’s still on the platform, so we scrolled all the way to the bottom of the feed to find the best of the new stuff and the site’s classics that won’t quit all in one place.
There’s also all four Indiana Jones movies, which swung into Netflix’s archives in January as if hanging from an inexplicably prehensile whip. While these 80s movies are almost unavoidably a problematic fave, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s action serials inspired series has always been a cooler sibling to their Star Wars franchise. Even seeing the picture can trigger John Williams’ infectious do do doodoo, do do doooo theme and inspire shouting about what does and doesn’t belong in a museum.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Spielberg's dramatic first contact story kicked off a trend in Hollywood of films imagining aliens that are truly foreign to humanity, yet approachable with effort and empathy. These extra-terrestrials aren’t merely humans with fur or scales or odd head protrusions, they’re the precursors to films like Denis Villeneuve's Arrival that really examine how differently life might develop on other worlds. Even though its climax is like fanfic written by the president of the A/V club, that music still slaps.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
For some reason, the first is the only available installment of Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations is the first one, but it’s also the chillest. Pack your pipe with some Old Toby and enjoy.
The Mummy Trilogy
Brendan Fraser’s disappearance from the silver screen is all the more tragic when you look back and remember how great he is in the original Mummy from 1999. Watching his facial expressions as he sees the cursed pharaoh for the first time and then blasts it with his shotgun is *chef’s kiss.*
The Original Ghostbusters
If there's somethin' strange in your neighborhood...
(Ghostbusters II is also on the platform. The female reboot dipshit men's rights activists were mad about is not.)
There have been 34 Godzilla films since the mother of all monster movies debuted in 1954. Netflix has four stories about the giant mutant dinosaur, including TriStar’s incredibly campy 1998 adaptation starring Matthew Broderick and an awesome futuristic computer-generated anime trilogy.
Yorgos Lanthimos most recently turned heads with his baroque drama The Favourite, but The Lobster was the movie that put him on the map. It’s a romantic drama that ups the ante over your typical rom-com with drastic stakes for those who don’t fall in love: they turn into animals forever. Despite the absurd sci-fi element, it's an earnest story about very real emotions and represents the best of what sci-fi fantasy has to offer.
Before he won an Oscar for the fish sex movie, but after he directed the first Hellboy film starring Ron Perlman, Guillermo del Toro made Pan's Labyrinth. The guy with the eyes on his hands in this movie is one of the freakiest things ever put on screen. It's in Spanish, but the language of shit this scary is universal.
Duncan Jones still hasn’t managed to recreate the introspective beauty of his character study about Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) coping with the loneliness of being sealed away in a tin can on the moon, appropriately and simply titled Moon. It’s made even more perturbing in 2019, since his robot companion GERTY is voiced by Kevin Spacey, who is in the midst of legal proceedings around a slew of alleged assaults that came to light in 2017. If his vocals were dubbed over with, say, Christopher Plummer’s, the film would be perfect.
How will humans respond to computers that can think and act just like us? That’s the question director Alex Garland’s stunning and claustrophobic dig at artificial intelligence and tech industry hubris asks. Oscar Isaac is hypnotic as a Zuckerberg-like social media billionaire who has created as a life-like android by parsing countless online reactions. Alica Vikander is transfixing as his alluring Frankenstein’s monster, and Domhall Gleeson is a joy as the hapless programmer Isaac has lured to his remote estate to test his creation. Ex Machina is a must watch.
Every few years Spike Jonez seems to make a soulful feature film that cuts to the uncanny heart of human relationships. His foray into science fiction is a romance between a man and an artificially intelligent operating system that is so utterly convincing that it feels hopeful about the future. It’s a great antidote to the paranoia-inducing Ex-Machina, with tearjerking performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson’s voice, and Amy Adams.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Arguably, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Jim Carrey’s last great dramatic performance. After meeting Michel Gondry and making the experimental short Pecan Pie, they teamed up with Charlie Kaufman and Kate Winslet to make one of the most devastating and surreal stories about star-crossed lovers since Romeo and Juliet. It isn’t familial friction that keeps young Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski apart. It’s a new technology that lets them erase each other from their minds with a simple procedure. It turns out, however, that breakups aren’t that simple.
Children of Men
Humans have stopped being able to have kids, and society has predictably collapsed as nobody has any reason to plan for the future in Alfonso Cuaron’s devastating epic about climate change, immigration, terrorism, activism, Children of Men. The hope for a future of humanity is expertly performed by Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. It also has more than one of the greatest long shots in the history of the game.
This fun, action-y fantasy with really big swords is a welcome reprieve from the dark predictions of social sci-fi. Based on the Japanese manga and anime of the same name, Bleach is director Shinsuke Sato’s latest in a string of live-action anime adaptations that capture the spirit of the medium in the way that big budget flops like 2016’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation do not. Bleach is an earnest tale of friendship and beating the shit out of giant ghosts with samurai swords. It’s like dunking the brain in feel-good juice.
Would you undergo experimental surgery that could make you look young forever? How do you explain it to your family? What does your choice say about the values of the society you’re in? Advantageous is a plucky, low-budget conceptual film that tackles these issues, in a dreamy, thought-provoking, and occasionally disjointed emotional tale. The joint project of writer-director Jennifer Phang and writer-actress Jacqueline Kim is unlike almost anything else Netflix has to offer.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Grab a towel, stick up your thumb, and don’t panic. Such is the nonsensical wisdom of Douglas Adams’ surreal comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The 2005 film by Garth Jennings convincingly adapts the classic book series into a highly watchable film starring Martin Freeman, Yasiin Bey (then Mos Def), Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell. It starts with Arthur Dent’s (Freeman) house getting bulldozed just before the planet Earth gets bulldozed. His quirky friend Ford (Bey) turns out to be an alien and saves him from the plight of his homeworld. Together they embark on a journey that leads them to find the meaning of the universe and reconnect with a girl Dent met at a party once and really liked. Cameos by John Malkovich, Bill Nighy, and the voices of Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, and Stephen Fry, and Mark Gatiss are more than just star power. This movie is some of the most onscreen fun on this planet or any other.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Wait... Is Monty Python and the Holy Grail fantasy? Isn't it black comedy or historical satire or something? The British comedy troupe’s feature length string of somewhat connected sketches does snipe at thousands of years of monarchical rule and religion ingrained in their country’s culture. But it also includes multiple fights with deadly mythical monsters, one of which is dispatched with a magical hand grenade.
Joss Whedon’s short-lived space western Firefly spawned such a devoted fan base that they decided they needed a name for themselves (Browncoats), and they were so persistent on burgeoning online forums the director got a chance to make a movie. Two years after the series ended with a cliffhanger, Serenity was released. The series tells the story of a chosen family trying to make space for themselves while an all-powerful empire grips the solar system in an iron fist. The movie ties up the loose ends left by a hastily-cancelled show. Both are full of pithy dialog and really good character development, aided by inspiring performances from Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, and the rest of the cast.
V for Vendetta
The Wachowskis’ action-packed tale of a country ushered into fascism has become a bit cliche, due to Anonymous’s appropriation of the titular character V’s Guy Fawkes mask. Nevertheless, the story based on Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s cult classic graphic novel is as pertinent as ever, though the evil dictators who engineered Britain’s rigid police state were far more competent than America’s current regime. Regardless of political ideology, the action scenes in V for Vendetta are *fire emoji*, and there’s a reason the movie helped to rehabilitate Natalie Portman’s reputation as a world class actress after George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels. It’s good.
Neill Blompkamp’s sci-fi metaphor for Apartheid isn’t subtle in District 9, but it doesn’t need to be. Alien immigrants get stranded in Johannesburg and are treated as second class citizens, living in squalor and poverty in ghettos. Even though they look different, they’re highly intelligent and communication with them isn’t that hard. It follows a low-level bureaucrat who gets embroiled in a conflict at the center of human relations with the “prawns,” as they call the extra-terrestrial race. It’s bold and fun, if a bit gorey, and well worth the watch for those into sci-fi with a blatant political message.
In 2013, Ilya Naishuller used the then-new technology of head-mounted GoPros to film an incredible first person fight scene music video for the Biting Elbows. The young director went on to use the technique for a feature film called Hardcore Henry. This thing is constant violence, and the plot is dubious at best, but there’s really nothing else like it out there. It feels like watching a speedrun of a video game with the best graphics in the world, since they’re real people. If you don’t get nauseous in the first few minutes, you’re good.
Lilo and Stitch
Disney’s take on a first contact with aliens story is one of the most adorable. It’s one of the first instances of the company casting indigenous Pacific Islanders in a nuanced, positive, humanizing light, and it has a powerful mix of catchy songs, themes of friendship, and action scenes involving chucking cars at the bad guys’ heads.
The Iron Giant
Brad Bird is a legend for directing Pixar’s blockbusting Incredibles films, but in 1999 he was making waves for a little story about a huge killer robot and the boy who befriended it. Looking back at The Iron Giant, you realize how messed up that a little kid almost inadvertently sparked World War III, but that in the biz is what they call tension [this reads clunky]. Seriously, though, if you don’t like crying at the plight of an anthropomorphized robot, then skip this movie. But if you do, you’re the monster.
Netflix Original Sci-fi
Netflix itself has produced and distributed a number of original science fiction and fantasy films that are worth a watch. Definitely check out Okja, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and What Happened to Monday. If you like memes, Bird Box is worth watching to know what everyone is talking about, and if you want to watch scary robot torture, Tau is your title. Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox are textbook straight-to-Netflix hot mess movies, so just be aware of that before smashing the watch button.
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