Netflix’s catalog can be overwhelming, and browsing it isn’t easy — at least if you want to penetrate deeper than the latest aggressively mid Netflix Originals and nostalgic 1990s studio comedies that tend to dominate the top 10. It’s also constantly refreshed as licensing deals expire and are signed, making it difficult to keep tabs on. But the U.K. version of the service has a much better film library than you might think, with deep reservoirs of international cinema, anime, documentary, and thrillers, particularly from the 21st century.
This guide’s here to help you get straight to some of the very best movies on the service; we’ve tried to keep the selection short and focused enough to be useful, and diverse enough to surprise you. Every month we’ll also pick one movie that stands out to us in the current moment. If you’re looking for the best movies on Netflix in the U.S., we have you covered there, too.
This month’s editor’s pick
Castle in the Sky
Genre: Fantasy adventure anime
Run time: 2h 4m
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Mayumi Tanaka, Keiko Yokozawa, Kotoe Hatsui
Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky opened in Japan in 1986, the same year that Nintendo released the first Legend of Zelda game — and in the month that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom comes out, there’s no better film to pair with it than the Studio Ghibli anime classic. The Zelda series has always been strongly influenced by Miyazaki in its elegiac tone and some of its character designs (think of the cute, rattling little Koroks), but Castle in the Sky is a particularly clear blueprint for Tears of the Kingdom especially, with its city populated by ancient robots floating in the clouds, high above grassy plains.
On its own merits, this steampunk tale of a young miner and a mysterious girl falling in with a band of air pirates as they search for the mythical flying island of Laputa might be Miyazaki’s most purely thrilling adventure, with some of his most breathtaking aerial scenes (which, for a director so obsessed with capturing the sensation of flight, is really saying something). See Castle in the Sky at the right age and its imagery and feelings will stay with you forever, but then you could say that about most Miyazaki films (and the entire Studio Ghibli catalog is available to peruse on Netflix in the U.K.). —Oli Welsh
The best movies on Netflix UK
Lawrence of Arabia
Genre: Historical epic
Run time: 3h 47m
Director: David Lean
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Fans of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune may experience a little double vision if they dive into David Lean’s gloriously sprawling, Oscar-dominating 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia in the 2020s: Dune the novel and Lawrence the movie were heavily based on the same book, and they have a great deal in common. The real-life Colonel T. E. Lawrence documented his life and his part in the 1916 Great Arab Revolt in his 1926 autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a bestseller that may glamorize his role as a bridge between the Bedouin people and the British, but does tell an appealing story of an outsider finding a home far outside his culture.
Lean’s film — much like Dune, the book and movie — is an epic about forbidding and lethal landscapes, dense politics and violent prejudices, and a culture of desert survivors who resist outside rule but embrace foreigners who aren’t too proud to learn from them and accept their ways. Peter O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence has an eternal adventurer appeal: He’s an overgrown boy charging through a fascinating world, ignoring the adults who tell him no. But the real draw in Lawrence of Arabia is the astounding scope and spectacle, all shot in an era before the kind of digital effects that give Dune its grandeur. It’s a big, big movie, and even today, it’s still startling on the screen. —Tasha Robinson
Genre: War movie
Run time: 2h 32m
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Quentin Tarantino’s pop culture remix project acquired a new wrinkle in his sixth film from 2009; with Inglourious Basterds, the director started a series of revisionist revenge fantasies, continued in Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that would remix history itself. On the face of it, this is a typically violent, suspenseful, and entertaining riff on cynical men-on-a-mission war romps like The Dirty Dozen, but as is often true of Tarantino, there’s a strong current of twisted yet earnest morality under the surface that keeps it real and earns the film its extraordinary, history-defying, cathartic payoff.
Inglourious Basterd’’s loquacious dialogue setpieces are some of Tarantino’s very best and most agonizingly tense, especially when Christoph Waltz’s electrifying Nazi villain Hans Landa is on screen. But the film’s angry, tender, cinephile soul resides in Mélannie Laurent’s Shoshanna, a Jewish cinema owner living incognito in Paris, whose Nazi-killing plans rival those of Brad Pitt’s undercover death squad. This is top 3 Tarantino, and might even be his masterpiece. —OW
Genre: Music documentary
Run time: 2h 15m
Director: Brett Morgen
Netflix is crammed with great documentaries, but none of them is quite like Brett Morgen’s phantasmagoric exploration of the music, style, and philosophy of David Bowie. Eschewing narration, or indeed any kind of narrative structure, Morgen stitches Bowie’s own words from interviews together with archival and concert footage and psychedelic visual stylings to form an impressionistic but powerfully authentic collage-style portrait of a great artist. Overwhelming in cinemas (the film was designed for IMAX), Moonage Daydream is still an enveloping audiovisual treat at home, and of course the music is timeless. —OW
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
Genre: Romantic comedy
Run time: 1h 55m
Directors: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai
Cast: Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, Gao Yuanyuan
There’s nobody quite like Johnnie To.
Arguably the greatest living director in two extremely different genres (romantic comedies and Triad gangster dramas), the Hong Kong director is a versatile filmmaker of unmatched skill, and every movie he makes is a must-see event.
One of his standout romantic comedies is 2011’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, a high-water-mark in cinematic love triangles. Fresh off the end of a long-term relationship, Chi-yan (Gao Yuanyuan) is an analyst for an investment bank who finds herself in the middle of a love triangle. On one side, there’s Sean (Louis Koo), a CEO who works across the street from Chi-yan and yearns for her through the tall corporate glass windows that separate them. On the other, there’s Kevin (the always-dreamy Daniel Wu), an alcoholic former architect who helps Chi-Yan move on and is inspired by her to start creating again. What follows is a sincere, funny, and truly charming romantic time. —Pete Volk
Run time: 1h 53m
Directors: Kristina Buozyte, Bruno Samper
Cast: Raffiella Chapman, Eddie Marsan, Rosy McEwen
Truly novel science fiction visions aren’t so easy to come across these days, but 2022 Lithuanian co-production Vesper qualifies — despite what sounds like a fairly standard post-apocalyptic set-up. Bioengineering has rendered the Earth almost uninhabitable, and a wealthy elite has shuttered itself in giant enclosed citadels. Teenage Vesper is part of an underclass of survivors outside the citadel walls, struggling — and, in the case of her uncle Jonas (the great Eddie Marsan), doing unspeakable things — to get by. What sets the film apart is its gorgeous, organic design, strikingly good effects (for a low-budget indie), and the powerful world-building of directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper. —OW
Genre: Psychological thriller
Run time: 1h 57m
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
One of the best movies of the 2010s — and one of the all-time great movies about Los Angeles at night, which is a pretty crowded field — 2014’s Nightcrawler is a lean, seedy thriller that prowls the mean streets in the company of an amoral antihero, 1970s style.
Hollywood’s favorite weirdo Jake Gyllenhaal, his haunted eyes staring unblinkingly out of sunken sockets, is Lou Bloom, a loner who decides to become a freelance cameraman, recording violent events on the streets and selling them to a local TV station. Lou, who has no filter and no conscience, will stop at nothing to get the shot; his soullessness is exploited by Rene Russo as a ratings-hungry TV exec, while a hapless Riz Ahmed gets dragged along for the ride. Dan Gilroy (brother of Bourne and Andor’s Tony Gilroy) writes and directs a sour, unpretentious B-movie masterpiece, while the great cinematographer Robert Elswit captures L.A.’s sickly sodium glow. —OW
Genre: Fantasy adventure
Run time: 1h 41m
Director: Jim Henson
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Frank Oz
It’s pretty easy to take Jim Henson’s Labyrinth as a standard coming-of-age fantasy where an imaginative girl named Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) takes a trip to a magical land full of singing puppets. But the more you think about Labyrinth, the more complicated the story becomes. Is it a Total Recall-style mind game, where everything we see onscreen is just a mildly sexual fantasy Sarah builds for herself? Is Jareth the Goblin King meant to be a “real” creature she encounters and defeats, or does she invent him out of the play she’s reading and her own fevered adolescent feelings? (These days, she’d just write and post fanfic.) You’ll have to watch the movie to work it out for yourself — or just to check in on David Bowie glamming and camping it up in the villain role, and famously shaking his moneymaker without the modesty of a dance belt. —TR
Blades of Glory
Genre: Sports comedy
Run time: 1h 34m
Directors: Will Speck, Josh Gordon
Cast: Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Will Arnett
Hailing from the mid-2000s heyday of delightfully stupid Will Ferrell movies — sandwiched right in between Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers — this figure-skating comedy is as broad as they come, and all the better for it. Ferrell and Jon Heder are the rival champions who are banned from the sport after an unseemly brawl sets the World Games mascot on fire; later, they discover a loophole that will allow them to compete as the first same-sex pair in the history of the sport. Blades of Glory gets great mileage from contrasting the flamboyant image of ice-skating with the macho, heteronormative culture that lies beneath it, but it’s no joke — in the real world, they would never have been able to dance together, a restriction the sport is only now starting to reconsider, making the movie oddly topical. Look out for Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as sibling skaters Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg, and pair it with Margot Robbie’s trashy-but-tragic real-life drama I, Tonya, also on Netflix, for an ice-dancing double bill. —OW
Genre: Crime thriller
Run time: 2h 9m
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez
Steve McQueen’s modern heist classic was the victim of a poor marketing campaign that did not adequately sell this movie for what it is. After a heist gone wrong leaves their husbands dead and themselves in debt to some bad men, a group of women in Chicago (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki) look to pull off a caper of their own to set things straight.
Featuring an all-star cast too long to fully name – in addition to the three principle widows, the movie stars Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya (in a chilling and unforgettable performance), and Liam Neeson, among others – Widows is one of the best crime thrillers of the last decade. The combination of director McQueen (12 Years a Slave), screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and the outstanding cast is too good to pass up. –PV
Sense and Sensibility
Genre: Literary costume drama
Run time: 2h 16m
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet
The creative pedigree of this Jane Austen adaptation is impressive. Directed by Ang Lee, with a screenplay by Emma Thompson (who stars as Elinor Dashwood), Sense and Sensibility makes necessary tweaks to the original source material in order to emphasize the timelessness of Austen’s story. The sister relationship between Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Elinor is the driving force of this story, more so than the romantic entanglements. Thompson’s script takes great care to highlight both sisters and their personalities, instead of emphasizing one over the other.
As for those romantic leads, Lee made the great choice to have them appear in more scenes than their more limited book counterparts, who are gone for long periods of time. Both Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman (who play Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, respectively) infuse their roles with delightful yet awkward charm, which ultimately makes the romantic couplings way more satisfying. —Petrana Radulovic
Run time: 1h 56m
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang
Thomas Vinterberg got a Best Director Oscar nomination (and won Best International Feature) for this ambivalent, melancholic, but also life-affirming and extremely fun 2020 black comedy about booze. In its native Denmark it was called Druk, which means “binge drinking,” but that’s not where the story starts: A quartet of middle-aged men, all high school teachers, decide to experiment with microdosing alcohol during the workday, after reading a philosopher’s claim that it will improve their “social and professional performance.”
Predictably, it gets out of hand and goes wrong. Unpredictably, Another Round is neither a lads-on-a-bender gross-out comedy nor a harrowing depiction of the evils of alcohol. Instead, the film — which was reworked after Vinterburg’s daughter Ida, who had been set to star, died tragically during the first week of filming — is a tender, realist, open-ended dramedy that’s as honest as any film ever has been about the role drinking plays in our lives. In the central role of Martin, Mads Mikkelsen is magnificent, not least in an ecstatic closing scene which ends on one of the great cinematic freeze-frames. —OW
Genre: Historical epic
Run time: 3h 7m
Director: S.S. Rajamouli
Cast: N.T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, Ajay Devgn
An Oscar for Best Original Song is perhaps a strange form of recognition for an extravagant, three-hour action epic — not least because the number in question, ‘Naatu Naatu,’ is more memorable in RRR for its choreography than its melody. But it was still a fitting, celebratory endpoint for the swell of international enthusiasm that took S. S. Rajamouli’s uber-movie further into the global film consciousness than almost any Indian production before it.
Packed with earnest, manly melodrama and the most astoundingly extra action scenes since John Woo’s early-’90s heyday, RRR — about an unwitting friendship between a Raj officer (Ram Charan) and a rural revolutionary (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) — is powered by a fiery, anti-colonial rebel spirit. It’s also Polygon’s favorite movie of 2022. (Note: RRR is only available on Netflix in a Hindi dub.) —OW
Genre: Black comedy
Run time: 1h 32m
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham
The great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson might be best known for his two iconic pairings with Colin Farrell in Martin McDonagh movies — In Bruges and The Banshees of Inisherin. But it was Martin’s brother, John Michael McDonagh, who gave Gleeson his two best solo leading roles, as a doubting priest in 2014’s Calvary and as a crass, indulgent, and wildly insensitive police sergeant in this brilliant 2011 black buddy comedy.
Don Cheadle plays an FBI agent who recruits Gleeson’s Gerry Boyle to help him crack a drug trafficking ring operating in Boyle’s remote, rural area of western Ireland; it’s standard fish-out-of-water stuff, but beautifully written and executed by McDonagh, and uproariously funny in places. It’s Gleeson, though, who gives it depth, sustaining a comic caricature with a rich, complex, and unpredictable inner life, even as he nails the outrageous one-liners. —OW
The Night Comes For Us
Genre: Martial arts thriller
Run time: 2h 1m
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Cast: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle
Global action cinema has been having a moment recently. The success of movies like The Raid and the John Wick franchise have inspired more action movies that emphasize choreography, long takes, and brutal action with impressive stunts.
Among the litany of great action movies and promising directors, Indonesian sicko (complimentary) Timo Tjahjanto stands out. First making his bones in the horror genre, Tjahjanto took that energy and ran with it in The Night Comes for Us, one of the goriest action movies you will ever see. An absolute delight for the senses and a viscerally good time, The Night Comes for Us stars Indonesian martial arts superstars Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim, who face off in one of the greatest fights in recent memory.
Tjahjanto has since gone on to make The Big 4, a fun action buddy comedy for Netflix last year, and will direct The Last Train to New York, the remake of Train to Busan. Be warned: If gore is not your speed, The Night Comes For Us is probably not for you. –PV
Run time: 1h 59m
Director: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Joanna Hogg’s gorgeously layered 2019 memoir is about “Julie,” a young, upper-class film student in 1980s London, who enters into a consuming relationship with a difficult, charismatic, mysterious man (Tom Burke) that turns her life upside down. Hogg, who spent two decades directing mainstream TV soaps before a sudden, late flowering as a British arthouse auteur in the late 2000s, rebuilt her apartment from memory for The Souvenir; it’s a striking space that she carves up expertly with her incisive framing and editing.
Helping Hogg build this bridge to her own past is her friend and contemporary Tilda Swinton, who acted in Hogg’s student films and brilliantly plays Julie’s anxious, proper, but compassionate mother, while the terminally uncertain Julie is played by Swinton’s own daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne. Hogg’s follow-ups The Souvenir Part 2 and The Eternal Daughter doubled down on this metafictional approach, but it’s the first film’s painful honesty and emotional clarity that still linger. —OW
Touching the Void
Run time: 1h 46m
Director: Kevin Macdonald
The title says it all. On one level, Kevin Macdonald’s muscular 2003 mountaineering documentary is a simple but powerful exercise in real-life storytelling, using firsthand accounts from interviews together with tautly edited reconstruction. It’s exciting, suspenseful, and scarcely believable as it tells the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates making a disastrous descent in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, during which Simpson breaks his leg. (The movie is based on Simpson’s memoir of the same title.)
But Macdonald — and Simpson and Yates in their blunt, affectless voiceovers — take the viewer into an existential nightmare of insignificance in the face of unimaginable forces, of horrible moral quandaries, and what it means to be human. One of the most frightening, but also perversely life-affirming, documentaries you’ll ever see. —OW
In the Loop
Genre: Political satire
Run time: 1h 41m
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee
This movie is the bridge between Armando Iannucci’s two great TV satires — The Thick of It, about U.K. politics, and its American cousin Veep. In the Loop takes The Thick of It’s dyspeptic, foulmouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) to the U.S. capital, with a minister played by Tom Hollander in tow, after the minister’s hapless pronouncements embroil them in an internal Washington power struggle over interventionism in a nameless Middle Eastern war.
It’s a delight watching the venom-spitting Capaldi spar with James Gandolfini at his most implacably menacing as a U.S. General, and Iannucci is unsparing about the haphazard, plate-spinning, reactionary incompetence of both the British and American political systems. This scruffy, handheld 2009 movie’s focus on the War on Terror dates it, but also gives it an even fiercer bite than the TV shows, as Iannucci takes down one of his biggest and most deserving targets — the meaningless machinations behind the unjustified invasion of Iraq. —OW
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Genre: Animated dark fairy tale
Run time: 1h 56m
Directors: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Cast: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann
There’s a ton of great, exclusive animated features on Netflix, from I Lost My Body to The Sea Beast, and the crown jewel of the collection is Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning reimagination of the Pinocchio story. It’s a landmark of stop-motion animation, with a wonderfully careworn, handcrafted look, the product of a 15-year development process that every other studio refused to fund.
It’s also a moving, personal reckoning with faith, fascism and the beyond that sits neatly next to such sinister delights as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth in the director’s filmography. Del Toro is at his best when making films seen from a child’s perspective (if not films for children), and Pinocchio, macabre yet bursting with mischief and hope, is the perfect example. —OW
Genre: Sci-fi anime
Run time: 2h 4m
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Cast: Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama
Plenty of older anime ages poorly as styles change and animation technology improves, but Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s classic screen adaptation of his terrific manga series still looks as spectacular on the screen as it did when it debuted in 1988. Akira is a basic cultural essential — watching it suddenly makes decades of visual and narrative references in cinema and TV make more sense, particularly the famous “Akira bike slide,” which turns up all over the last 35 years of animation history.
But it’s also a powerful story about everything from curdled childhood friendship to political power abuses in a decaying society. In a near-future setting, two antisocial gang members, Kaneda and Tetsuo, run afoul of a secret government experiment that starts to change one of them. What follows is a stunning blend of teen drama, action movie, and sci-fi horror story, packed with memorable nightmare imagery and one of the greatest soundtracks in anime history. This one’s a classic for a reason. —TR