It’s been a mixed year for Netflix’s movie stable. Seemingly guaranteed hits such as Hillbilly Elegy and The Prom received indifference from critics, and their most blatant attempt for Oscar glory from 2019, The Irishman, went home empty-handed.
To us, Netflix's movie stable seems like it's becoming as synonymous with corny Hallmark Channel-esque romcoms as prestige pictures, these days. Still, in this year of all years, having a near-constant stream of things to watch was greatly appreciated.
Amid the near-200 feature-length movies and documentaries the content powerhouse dropped in 2020, there were still a whole host which helped to maintain the service's leading position in the streaming wars. Here are 10 of the best Netflix Original movies from 2020 – don't miss our list of Netflix hidden gems (opens in new tab) from this year for more recommendations.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Taking the director’s chair for only the second time in his career, Aaron Sorkin returned to the courtroom dramatics of his first Hollywood venture, A Few Good Men. This is a vital period piece which inevitably draws parallels with a more contemporary wave of civil unrest, exploring the tenuous and politically motivated trial of anti-Vietnam War protestors in 1968.
Sacha Baron Cohen shines as the most antagonistic of the seven defendants threatened with jail for simply exercising their right to protest, but each member of the impressive ensemble cast handles Sorkin’s signature lightning-quick dialogue with aplomb. Meanwhile, unflinching reenactments of the group’s demonstrations and real-life documentary footage help to further amplify the shocking sense of injustice. Unmissable.
The Old Guard
Best known for her romantic melodramas (Beyond the Lights, Love and Basketball), Gina Prince-Bythewood initially seemed an unusual choice to helm a comic-book adaptation about a group of ass-kicking immortal mercenaries. Yet it was her ability to craft nuanced characters, and give them room to breathe, too, that made The Old Guard stand out from the usual cookie-cutter superhero fare. Not that she slacked on the action, though: the hand-to-hand fight sequences and another bravura performance from Charlize Theron cementing her position as Hollywood’s ultimate heroine ensured there was still plenty to satisfy the shop-bought popcorn crowd.
Hollywood loves nothing more than rewarding films about Hollywood, so expect this well-crafted peek behind the curtain of cinema’s golden age to feature heavily at the 2021 Oscars. Adapted from his late father’s screenplay, David Fincher’s long-awaited new movie documents Herman J. Mankiewicz’s quest to meet the scriptwriting deadline for a little-known picture called Citizen Kane.
Mank is undoubtedly more of a cinephile’s film than crowd-pleasers like La Land and The Artist. But even those with only a passing interest in the machinations of Tinseltown can appreciate its monochromatic cinematography and superlative performances from Gary Oldman as the titular, self-destructive drunk and Amanda Seyfried as the radiant mistress of his archnemesis.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Possibly the most bewildering Netflix original to date, I’m Thinking of Ending Things almost makes David Lynch seem a conventional storyteller. Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) has always prided himself on subverting audiences’ expectations, of course, but he takes his dreamlike approach to new disorienting heights with this adaptation of Iain Reid’s same-named novel. Further distancing herself from her BBC talent show roots, Jessie Buckley particularly impresses as a young woman who suffers an existential crisis while on a trip to meet her boyfriend’s parents. Even after multiple watches, it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s real, if indeed anything is. Yet somehow Kaufman’s brand of weird still manages to get under your skin.
The Social Dilemma
Undoubtedly 2020’s most-talked about documentary (that isn't called Tiger King, anyway), this eye-opening insight into the soul-sapping powers of social media inspired many viewers, however briefly, to take a digital detox. Fronted by various ex-Silicon Valley bods attempting to atone for their tech sins, Jeff Orlowski’s call-to-arms revealed in terrifying detail how Instagram, Twitter etc. constantly keep us glued to our smartphones.
And the exploration of such platforms’ damaging effect on the political landscape, particularly with the spread of fake news, proved to be just as perturbing. Sure, the dramatic interludes may have hammered home the point a little too literally. But in a year when misinformation was more dangerous than ever, who needs subtlety?
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Eyebrows were raised when Will Ferrell announced he’d be making a love letter to Eurovision. Surely a Hollywood celeb wouldn’t understand all the nuances of a European pop culture phenomenon that’s been entertaining/baffling audiences for 64 years?
Well, the Anchorman star soon proved his unlikely long-time fandom with an affectionate lampooning of the song contest, which nailed its mix of high camp, high drama and high notes. Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens also throw themselves wholeheartedly into an enjoyably ridiculous saga involving wayward giant hamster wheels, murderous elves and a ghostly Demi Lovato. Just be warned: you’ll still have “JaJa Ding Dong” bouncing around your head until the next real thing.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
After picking up an Oscar with their first ever feature, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company continued its early golden streak with another empathetic portrait of a Stateside revolution. Whereas American Factory explored the impact of reverse globalization, Crip Camp focuses on the disability rights movement sparked from a 1970s New York hippy retreat.
Combining archival footage with talking heads from activists galvanized by their time at Camp Jened (including co-director James LeBrecht), the Sundance hit allows this marginalized community to tell their own little-known against-all-odds story. Soundtracked perfectly by the classic rock of the Woodstock era, it’s also an inspiring one which warms the heart without ever descending into schmaltz.
Guy Ritchie’s two Downey Jr movies, that disastrous Will Ferrell spoof, the BBC’s intermittent series and 154 episodes of Elementary: even the most ardent fan of Baker Street’s finest could be forgiven for experiencing Sherlock Holmes fatigue. Thankfully, this energetic adaptation of Nancy Springer’s young adult novels brings something new to the super-sleuth’s universe, namely a younger sister.
In one of her first post-Stranger Things leading roles, Millie Bobby Brown grabs the opportunity to play a character more vibrant than the muted Eleven. Her Enola Holmes is charismatic, empowering and, as her quest to discover her missing mother shows, just as resourceful as her brother. It's little wonder a second family-friendly adventure is already being touted.
The Half of It
A studious Chinese-American girl agree to pen a jock’s love letter, only to fall for the object of his affections herself. Alice Wu’s first film since 2005 initially seems like another generic addition to the YA romance genre Netflix has cornered the market in – yet there’s much more depth here than in The Kissing Booth and its ilk.
Following in the footsteps of teen movie great Clueless, The Half of It takes a literary classic (Cyrano de Bergerac) and transports it to today’s high school halls with aplomb, aided some fine naturalistic performances from a relatively unknown cast. Hopefully Wu won’t wait another 15 years for a follow-up.
Da 5 Bloods
Equal parts immersive military drama, thrilling heist movie and enthralling Black history lesson, the generation-spanning Da 5 Bloods proves once again that Spike Lee remains as audacious as ever.
Following up his Oscar-nominated BlacKkKlansman, the auteur revisits the early 1970s from a rarely-seen perspective, namely that of four African-American Vietnam vets. As they return to their old battlefield to recover both the body of their fallen commander (played in flashback by the late Chadwick Boseman) and the vast amount of gold they buried, Lee explores how their war experiences have shaped their lives with the kind of freewheeling energy we’ve come to expect from one of Hollywood’s most kinetic filmmakers.