Including Bong Joon-ho's Okja, Academy Award winner Roma and frenetic Adam Sandler thriller Uncut Gems
Streaming platforms like Netflix have become some of our new best friends during this period of lockdown. With so much choice and new releases popping up all the time, sometimes a Netflix Original is just the ticket for an afternoon or evening of entertainment. To help you decide what to pick, we've put together a list of recommendations featuring some of our favourites.
If you weren't a vegetarian or animal rights activist before watching Okja, you may just become one after. Parasite director Bong Joon-ho's coming-of-age fantasy-adventure follows young Mija, who lives in the mountains of South Korea, and her best friend Okja, a 'super-piglet' that has been created by the multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation as a solution to world hunger. Mija and the gentle Okja are inseparable, until Mirando CEO Lucy (a brilliant Tilda Swinton) decides to retrieve Okja to compete in a porcine beauty pageant in the US. Mija heads to New York to rescue her pal, and in the process, meets Jay (Paul Dano), the leader of the Animal Liberation Front, who has his own plans for Okja which involves infiltrating Mirando's awful slaughterhouses. But ultimately, Mija just wants to bring Okja home and is willing to do whatever it takes to save her companion. Bong Joon-ho's film combines drama, humour and surrealism to tell a story that traverses themes of animal liberation, capitalism and friendship. Despite Okja being a CGI creation, you can't help but be in awe of the actions of this sweet and innocent creature and her unbreakable bond with her teenage friend. (Arusa Qureshi)
After traversing space and the Potterverse, Alfonso Cuarón digs deep into his own childhood backyard in Roma, which is set during 1970 and 1971 in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, where Cuarón was raised. Instead of centring the film around his own youthful memories, however, Roma takes as its protagonist Cleo Gutiérrez (played by Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous live-in maid for a middle-class family with four young children. Cleo looks on silently as the husband and wife's marriage rapidly deteriorates, but also must cope with her own unplanned pregnancy. Shot in black and white, Roma brims with the sights, sounds and rhythms of everyday life in Mexico City during this period, capturing issues of class and politics both on the streets and in the intimacy of home. Upon its release, Roma was lavished with accolades, winning Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, while also sparking a backlash against films originating on streaming platforms being eligible for Academy Awards. But no matter how and where you watch it, it's impossible not to be pulled under by the quiet strength of the film's scene-setting and performances.
To All The Boys I've Loved Before (2018)
As bright, lightly-spun and sugar-sweet as candy floss, To All the Boys I've Loved Before adapts Jenny Han's teen romance series to the small screen, with Lana Condor playing high school junior and introvert daydreamer Lara Jean Covey, and Noah Centineo as her faux-boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky. When someone mysteriously mails out a trove of love letters that Lara Jean has written to various crushes throughout her life – including her older sister's ex-boyfriend, Josh – she and Peter decide to pretend to be in a relationship, in order to keep Josh at bay and make Peter's ex-girlfriend, Gen, jealous. This tropiest of rom-com tropes is given new life through Condor and Centineo's excellent chemistry, as the film leans wholeheartedly into the fizzy sweetness of first love. An excellent supporting cast also keeps things fresh and buoyant, including Anna Cathcart as Lara Jean's meddling younger sister Kitty, and perennial 90s heartthrob John Corbett playing the girls' down-to-earth single dad. For more pastel romps and teenage heartbreak, follow it up with To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You. (Deborah Chu)
Marriage Story (2019)
Although over the last two decades Noah Baumbach has proven repeatedly that he has a uniquely realistic eye when it comes to human nature and relationships, Marriage Story puts his filmmaking on a whole new level. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a married couple in the middle of a divorce that starts out as a reasonable goodbye between two adults then turns into nasty business hugely because of the influence of the lawyers involved. Writer-director Baumbach captures the true essence of love with nuanced and powerful touches and real-life dialogue, without any of Hollywood's artificiality. Instead we have exemplary emotional intelligence, raw human conflict and two actors who manage to stay effortless and believable. The chemistry between Johansson and Driver highlights a bittersweet situation almost everyone in the entire world can engage with: parting with someone you love is hurtful, unjust and in many cases simply incomprehensible. We mourn the love we felt, the love the other felt for us and the love we shared. (Julia Kajdi)
The Irishman (2019)
The Irishman represents septuagenarian Scorsese's return to the genre that cemented his credentials as one of the greatest directors around. Like Goodfellas, it follows the travails of a low-rank hoodlum as he rises the mob ladder using violence and intimidation, before broader events supersede his ambitions. It's also the first time Robert De Niro has appeared in a Scorsese film since 1995's Casino, while Al Pacino makes his debut for the director just shy of his 80s. Age is the keyword to The Irishman: the normally effects-shy Scorsese employs extensive use of de-aging digital effects to make his cast appear younger (and occasionally older), a technique that drew plaudits and criticism in equal measure. By persuading the legendary Joe Pesci to cancel his retirement, and by reuniting De Niro with Pacino and Harvey Keitel, Scorsese's epic gangster yarn is a huge achievement, Netflix's biggest but probably safest ever gamble. (Murray Robertson)
Always Be My Maybe (2019)
Netflix have become pretty adept at producing feel-good, hilariously self-aware rom-coms in recent years, and Always By My Maybe is arguably one of their more successful projects. Nahnatchka Khan's film follows childhood friends Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park), who drift apart following a one-night stand but reunite later in life when they're both leading hugely contrasting lives. Celebrity chef Sasha is opening a restaurant in San Francisco, and runs into Marcus who is still living at home, working for his dad and playing in the same local band. But despite their differing lives, they soon rekindle their connection, finding something more than just friendship in the process. The charming and swoon-worthy pairing of Ali Wong and Randall Park is what truly makes this film, as they add their own vulnerability and culturally specific humour to the characters of Sasha and Marcus. And there's also the cameo to end all cameos from ultimate good-guy Keanu Reeves. If you're looking for something uplifting and easy to watch, with added slick social commentary, this is the film for you.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie serves as an epilogue to the critically acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad and was one of Netflix's hottest releases last year, winning Best Movie Made for Television at the Critics' Choice Television Awards and Motion Picture Made for Television at the Satellite Awards. Written and directed by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, the two-hour film follows former meth cook Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) and reveals the events that take place immediately following the Breaking Bad series finale, along with numerous flashback sequences throughout. Similar to the TV series, El Camino is an all-consuming and panic-inducing viewing experience, but entirely worth enduring the pain for its ingenious narrative and stellar performances, particularly by Aaron Paul. Several other actors from the hit series reprise their roles for the film: the show's star Bryan Cranston (meth kingpin and Jesse's former partner Walter White), as well as Jesse Plemons (playing Todd Alquist) and Robert Forster (playing Ed Galbraith), who eerily passed away on the day of the film's release in October. When Breaking Bad ended in 2013, many fans were left wondering 'What happened to Jesse Pinkman?' and thankfully El Camino provides a satisfying answer to that burning question. The film would be difficult to follow or fully appreciate for those who haven't seen Breaking Bad – if somehow you haven't binge-watched it yet, all five seasons are also available to stream on Netflix. (Megan Forsyth)
If you have seen the Grinch a hundred times and are tired of those average Christmas rom-coms and family movies that use second-hand stories and forever put their main characters in red and green sweaters to emphasise holiday spirit, then Klaus is the film for you. It's an incredibly charming and original animation that is truly enjoyable both for kids and adults no matter the season. Sergio Pablo's tale tells the story of a young, spoilt boy who is sent to the end of the world as a postman to experience some honest work and learn some humility. Here he meets an old man living in complete isolation who, when Christmas comes, surprises the wee ones in the village with hand-made gifts. And while the boy at first only sees their partnership as a business opportunity to ask for money from the kids in exchange for gifts, it's not hard to figure out how the story unfolds. Jesper and Klaus soon come up with the whole idea of Santa Klaus alongside the now well-known traditions like the reindeers in front of the flying sleigh, the coal in the stocking or that only good children get a present. It is highly entertaining with lovely visuals and the necessary but not in your face moral message that we need to help each other in order to build a better world. And of course, to get that toy or game we've wanted for a long time. (Julia Kajdi)
The Two Popes
The Two Popes (2019)
Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins both received well-deserved Oscar nods for their portrayal of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known as Pope Francis to you and I) and Pope Benedict XVI in this bio-drama adapted from Anthony McCarten's play, which follows the Pope's decision to step down as the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church – the first to do so since the 15th century. Though the film did receive criticism for not sufficiently delving into the issue of child sexual abuse in the Church, Fernando Meirelles' film is a deeply humane – and often very funny – glimpse into the inner lives of the men of the cloth, and the petty politicking that pervades even the hallowed upper echelons of the Holy See. The Two Popes centres around imagined conversations between the more radical Cardinal Bergoglio and staunch conservative Pope Benedict XVI on the eve of him announcing his resignation, as the two men crack open a Fanta and debate faith and truth in the modern era, the evolving role of the Church in people's everyday lives, their personal failings and football. A gentle, thought-provoking and optimistic film about the power of self-reflection and the slow journey to progress. (Deborah Chu)
Uncut Gems (2019)
Directed by the Safdie Brothers (Good Time), Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a loud and obnoxious New York City Jewish jeweller and gambling addict who purchases a rare black opal from Ethiopia which he believes is worth over $1 million and immediately tries to sell it to Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Throughout the film, Howard struggles to balance his business, his gambling addiction, his estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and their kids, as well as his girlfriend and employee Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Meanwhile, Howard can't stop making big bets and also owes $100,000 to his loan shark brother-in-law Arno who he is continuously dodging and deceiving. Uncut Gems is a frenetic thriller filled with some seriously headache-inducing shouting and drama, but Sandler is incredibly convincing as Howard and it's undoubtedly the actor's finest performance in years, earning himself Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. (Megan Forsyth)
Renowned chef Sasha (Wong) returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant and reconnects with childhood bestie Marcus (Park). The story isn’t always convincing, with rushed character development, but Wong and Park are terrifically talented, even if Wong is lumbered with having to play too straight.
Cast: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
UK release: 28 June 2017
Lucy (Swinton) is the CEO of a vast agrochemical company which is developing an environmentally friendly super-pig, but 13-year-old Mija (Ahn, endearingly understated) befriends one. Brash, cartoonish satire with great special effects but mannered performances from Swinton and Gyllenhaal, which uneasily tries to mix an ET…
Cleo (Aparicio) is the loyal servant of a middle-class family headed by Sofia (de Tavira), in the Roma district of Mexico City in 1970-71. Beautifully crafted family drama that mixes quiet intimacy with observation of the tumultuous times in the nation, melancholy but thoroughly absorbing and gently touching.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a jeweller and compulsive gambler who finds himself pursued by collection men. A surging, sometimes very funny 80s-infused thriller; Sandler is sensational as the disreputable Howard and the film captures the anxiety and pace of the big city. Stressful but engrossing.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin
UK release: 8 November 2019
The story of mob enforcer and union official Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his relationship with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and Mafia string-puller Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The de-aging technology is easy to forgive thanks to the masterly filmmaking, and although there’s no room for a complex female character…
Cast: Merritt Wever, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern
UK release: 6 December 2019
Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) are a married couple separating, squabbling over their son Henry (Robertson). Baumbach’s approach is variously cool, clean, hilarious, devastating, discreet and confrontational; Johansson remains sympathetic even as she hides behind her lawyer, while Driver brings affable charm.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín
UK release: 20 December 2019
Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) hangs out with the man who will become his successor, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pryce). Set against the backdrop of the church’s sex abuse scandals, the story is more about the difficulty of being Pope. A buoyant film with Hopkins and Pryce on award-worthy form.
Picking up exactly where the finale of Season 5 of Breaking Bad left off, Jesse (Paul) escapes from the compound where he’s been caged for months and tries to make a new start. An emotional, highly satisfying postscript to a wonderful show, with expert storytelling and a shoot-out Sergio Leone would be proud of.