“What should I watch on Netflix tonight?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves when the responsibilities of the day are done and we just want to relax. We’ve tried to answer that with our lists of the best movies, TV shows and stand-up comedy on Netflix, but we also wanted to give you a more personal curated list of recommendations. Each month, we’ll update this guide with fresh picks from the Paste Staff.
First up, a few Netflix original series, including the final half-season of Bojack Horseman, and it tackles the consequences of a lifetime of hurting other people, even as it finished one of the most beautiful redemption arcs on TV. No show has captured the zeitgeist of the last six years as Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated show full of flawed humans and anthropomorphized animals who lean on each other as they try to get it right.
Created by: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Stars: Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins
BoJack Horseman is one of the most underrated comedies ever made, and it almost pains me that it doesn’t earn more praise. Right from the title sequence, which documents BoJack’s sad decline from network sitcom star to drunken has-been—set to the beautiful theme song written by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney—this is one of the most thoughtful comedies ever made. Which doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious, of course. Will Arnett is the perfect voice for BoJack, and Paul F. Tompkins, who is in my mind the funniest man on planet Earth, could not be better suited to the child-like Mr. Peanut Butter. This is a show that isn’t above a visual gag or vicious banter or a wonderfully cheap laugh, but it also looks some very hard realities of life straight in the eye. There are times when you will hate BoJack—this is not a straight redemption story, and the minute you think he’s on the upswing, he will do something absolutely horrible to let you down. (There’s a special irony in the fact that a horse is one of the most human characters on TV, and the unblinking examination of his character makes “Escape from L.A.” one of the best episodes on TV.) So why isn’t it loved beyond a strong cult following? Maybe it’s the anthropomorphism that keeps people away, or maybe it’s the animation, but I implore you: Look beyond those elements, settle into the story, and let yourself be amazed by a comedy that straddles the line between hilarious and sad like no other. —Shane Ryan
Created by: Laurie Nunn
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, Connor Swindells
You’re an insecure, bright, sensitive teenage boy (Asa Butterfield) with a wildly uninhibited sex-guru mother (Gillian Anderson), an absentee dad (the epically hilarious James Purefoy), a chronically foot-in-mouth bully-magnet best friend, a limited social life and a clinically interesting fear of your own penis. You have a stealth crush on your school’s official Way Too Precocious girl, who’s hard up for money. So, naturally, you open a sex clinic for high-school students in an out-of-service school lavatory, right? Of course you do. Netflix’s Sex Education is a decidedly raunchy and thoroughly adorable coming-of-age dramedy. While it’s not exactly afraid of well-worn tropes, it also doesn’t rely on them to a detrimental degree… and it has Gillian Anderson as a sex therapist, which would be enough for a lot of us even if nothing else about the show worked. Luckily, that isn’t the case: A testament to the power of character development, the series is riveting. None of its superbly crafted characters waste a single frame. . The smart, diverse, colorful, affecting series is a great binge watch that, unexpectedly, also features so truly exceptional real estate… —Amy Glynn
Created by: Moira Walley-Beckett
Stars: Amybeth McNulty, Geraldine James, R. H. Thomson, Lucas Jade Zumann, Dalila Bela, Corrine Koslo
Anne with an E follows the well-trod story of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, but is at its best once it leaves its potent source material. With a darker tone and a more “woke” aesthetic, Anne with an E grows up immensely with its second season. But the late 19th-century tale is beautifully cinematic throughout as it captures the daily dramas of its young cast, led by McNulty as an orphan adopted by a middle-aged brother and sister who originally wanted a boy to help them work their farm. Despite her foibles, Anne’s charms won them over enough to allow her to stay, and the same charm ultimately works on viewers as well. Her wild imagination, always positive spirit, and desire to make life better for everyone around her in the wake of her own heartache makes the series a worthy and upbeat watch. —Allison Keene
Netflix’s excellent Anne with an E may have had a bit of a shaky start as an Anne of Green Gables adaptation, but the show has gotten better which each new season and truly come into its own. Tragically, this one (Season 3) is set to be its last. That’s a shame for a number of reasons, the foremost among them is that this is a show that understands teenagers so, so well, not just as the TV-trope of agents of camp and chaos, but as having heart and passion to set the world to rights. Each season of Anne has been increasingly triumphant as this core group of Canadian teens at the turn of the 20th century battle societal issues like racism, freedom of speech, and consent while navigating changing friendships, budding crushes, and studying for their college entrance exams. Anne is not always subtle—in fact, it almost never is—but it manages to meaningfully include the stories of people of color, LGBT narratives, and native peoples in a way that naturally extends the scope of its source material. At its core, Anne is a wonderfully optimistic and unique series that makes you feel better for having watched it, and we could certainly do with more of that. —Allison Keene
Next we have some of the Oscar nominees you can watch before the statues are handed out on Feb. 9 at the 92nd Academy Awards. Netflix had two films nominated in the Best Picture category (and one that should have been nominated):
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score
Director: Noah Baumbach
The way that Adam Driver ends “Being Alive,” which his character in Marriage Story has just sung in full (including dialogue asides from Company’s lead’s friends), is like watching him drain what’s left of his spirit out onto the floor, in front of his small audience (which includes us). The performance starts off kind of goofy, the uninvited theater kid taking the reins to sing one of Broadway’s greatest showstoppers, but then, in another aside, he says, “Want something… want something…” He begins to get it. He begins to understand the weight of life, the dissatisfaction of squandered intimacy and what it might mean to finally become an adult: to embrace all those contradictions, all that alienation and loneliness. He takes a deep exhalation after the final notes, after the final belt; he finally realizes he’s got to grow up, take down his old life, make something new. It’s a lot like living on the Internet these days; the impossibility of crafting an “authentic self,” negligible the term may be, is compounded by a cultural landscape that refuses to admit that “authenticity” is as inauthentic a performance as anything else. Working through identities is painful and ugly. Arguably, we’re all working through how to be ourselves in relation to those around us. And that’s what Bobby, the 35-year-old at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, is doing.
The current cultural landscape doesn’t know what to do with sincerity, especially as it relates to ideas of authenticity. In a late capitalist, postmodern world, everyone has a little bit of a jaundiced eye. If our entertainment is a little more cynical, it’s only because we became that way first. In a letter to director and producer Hal Prince, composer Richard Rodgers said, “I think Company is to cynicism what The Sound of Music is to sentimentality.” Sondheim’s music is for the cynic trying to be positive, the jaded person trying to confront what being authentic might mean in a material way. His characters are alienated and lonely; many of us are that way, too, pulled in as many ways as social media and the content machine want us to be pulled. “Being Alive,” when Adam Driver sings it in Marriage Story, forces the viewer to make connections about their humanity, the art they’re experiencing, and the ever deadening world in which it all exists. Charlie grabs the microphone, drained, realizing that he has to figure out what he has to do next, to re-put his life together again. All of us, we’re putting it together too. Or trying, at least. That counts for something. —Kyle Turner
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects
Director: Martin Scorsese
Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) watches her father, Frank (Robert De Niro), through a door left ajar as he packs his suitcase for a work trip. In go trousers and shirts, each neatly tucked and folded against the luggage’s interior. In goes the snubnose revolver, the ruthless tool of Frank’s trade. He doesn’t know his daughter’s eyes are on him; she’s constitutionally quiet, and remains so throughout most of their interaction as adults. He shuts the case. She disappears behind the door. Her judgment lingers. The scene plays out one third of the way into Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, named for Frank’s mob world sobriquet, and replays in its final shot, as Frank, old, decrepit and utterly, hopelessly alone, abandoned by his family and bereft of his gangster friends through the passage of time, sits on his nursing home bed. Maybe he’s waiting for Death, but most likely he’s waiting for Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who disowned him and has no intention of forgiving him his sins. Peggy serves as Scorsese’s moral arbiter. She’s a harsh judge: The film takes a dim view of machismo as couched in the realm of mafiosa and mugs. When Scorsese’s principal characters aren’t scheming or paying off schemes in acts of violence, they’re throwing temper tantrums, eating ice cream or in an extreme case slap-fighting in a desperately pathetic throwdown. This scene echoes similarly pitiful scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Rashomon: brawls between wannabe roughs afraid of brawling, but forced into it by their own bravado. The Irishman spans the 1950s to the early 2000s, the years Frank worked for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell (Joe Pesci, out of retirement and intimidating). “Working” means murdering some people, muscling others, even blowing up a car or a building when the occasion warrants. When disengaged from gangland terrorism, he’s at home reading the paper, watching the news, dragging Peggy to the local grocer to give him a beatdown for shoving her. “I only did what you should,” the poor doomed bastard says before Frank drags him out to the street and crushes his hand on the curb. The Irishman is historical nonfiction, chronicling Sheeran’s life, and through his life the lives of the Bufalinos and their associates, particularly those who died before their time (that being most of them). It’s also a portrait of childhood cast in the shadow of dispassionate brutality, and what a young girl must do to find safety in a world defined by bloodshed. —Andy Crump
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature
Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
The plight of the American Rust Belt in the era of globalization, mechanized labor and outsourced jobs is real but, also, a media construct that’s been simplified into a talking point. For those not experiencing that reality on a daily basis, it can very easily become an abstraction. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory sympathetically illustrates what those everyday pains look like, bringing us into the world of an Ohio automotive plant laid low by the 2008 recession. Several years after the factory closed, a Chinese company called Fuyao moved in, hiring back many of the employees of the old plant and offering hope to an economically depressed community. The American workers would help build windshields for cars and, ideally, along the way discover that Chinese and American employees can live together in harmony.
Bognar and Reichert’s film chronicles how that wishful thinking collapsed, but this is not a simpleminded story in which we can grasp onto an easy rooting interest. While American Factory is certainly told more from the perspective of the Americans, there’s an evenhandedness to the filmmaking, which gives the material the sobering weight of grim inevitability. Early on, we can surmise that things may not work out: The Chinese bosses note derisively to their cohorts that the Americans have fat fingers, while the American workers feel alienated by motivational slogans put on the walls in fractured English. American Factory is a portrait of how two cultures clash—not violently or maliciously or even intentionally. Nonetheless, divisions start to form, and overriding financial interests take precedence over individuals, resulting in employment shakeups for both workforces.
A documentary as bluntly titled as American Factory may suggest a definitive take on a large socioeconomic situation, but Bognar and Reichert’s film succeeds because it stays micro. Even their conclusions are measured, if also dispiriting. American Factory doesn’t suggest that China is the future—or that America is in decline—but, rather, just how much power corporations have in shaping society and dictating our fates. One of this film’s most crushing ironies is that its true villain is a faceless, insatiable desire for higher and higher profits. Every person we meet in American Factory is at that monster’s mercy. —Tim Grierson
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature
Director: Petra Costa
Though her take is sweeping, her drone shots a tad too obligatory, director Petra Costa draws as many parallels as she’s able to line up the political roots of her family tree with those of her home country. The Edge of Democracy, then, is likely most compelling for viewers unfamiliar with Briazilian politics in pretty much any capacity. Costa intuits this reality—its Oscar nomination signals some Netflixian prestige for this kind of exceptionally well made documentary—and, without being explicit, makes a clear argument that Brazil is, at least, as deserving of its doom as those of us under Trump. Whether you feel that way or not—that everything is sad and fucked—as an American it’s difficult to not see the stories of these two relatively young world powers align with almost monomythical certainty. And yet, Costa allows her sadness to permeate the film, narrating frequently about her grandfather’s construction business, which flourished during the dictatorship while her mother and father put their lives on the line as revolutionaries, in between a wealth of footage and melancholy tracking shots. The moral poetry of it all tips every once in a while into the obvious, but Costa’s handle on the breadth of what she’s covering, aided by some intimate access to key political figures and Brazilian icons like Lula and Dilma Rousseff, bears impressive responsibility for all the personal connections, and self-serious gestures, she makes. —Dom Sinacola
Nominated for Best Animated Feature
Director: Jérémy Clapin
While we’re on board, at least passively, for however many sequels Pixar wants to give Toy Story, patient for however long another one takes, I Lost My Body is a singular animated film, increasingly of the kind that, frankly, don’t get made anymore. Partly because hand-drawn features made by small studios are rarer than ever, but mostly because it’s a defiantly adult animated film, wreathed in oblique storytelling and steeped in grief. Ostensibly about an anthropomorphic hand climbing and skittering its way across the city to find the person to whom it was once attached—the story of its severing slowly coming to light—the beauty of director Jérémy Clapin’s images, often limned in filth and decay, is in how revelatory they can be when tied so irrevocably to the perspective of a small hand navigating both its nascent life in the treacherous urban underground and the traumatic memories of its host body’s past. I Lost My Body is an unassuming, quietly heartbreaking achievement, one the Academy needs to prioritize now more than ever over expectedly competent big studio fare. —Dom Sinacola
Nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
Director: Fernando Meirelles
City of God director Fernando Meirelles points his attention to a very different holy locale in his latest for Netflix—Vatican City and real-life intrigue of the first pope to resign since 1415. With a pair of tremendous lead actors—Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis, both deservedly nominated for Oscars—the film peels back the mystery of the Holy See to reveal two mere mortals navigating the weight of tradition and leadership with very different styles. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship and unlikely humility that serves as something of a balm for a very divisive time without leaning into sentimentality or glossing over either man’s flaws. —Josh Jackson
Nominated for nothing, inexplicably
Director: Craig Brewer
“I want the world to know I exist,” Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) declares in Dolemite Is My Name. Awareness on a grand scale is an ambitious goal—but it didn’t stop Moore from trying. Rudy Ray Moore is a multi-hyphenate performer looking to propel his comedy career. After seeing Rico (Ron Cephas Jones), the local homeless man that visits where Rudy works, do stand-up, Moore decides to steal and refine Rico’s material. He assumes the character of Dolemite, a sharp, vulgar pimp who oozes confidence, and the “new” material kills in local clubs. Eventually, Moore signs a comedy record deal and charts on Billboard. Emboldened, he sets a new goal: to make a Dolemite film, exhausting all his personal expenses to do so. At the heart of Dolemite Is My Name is the smooth-talking man himself, played by Eddie Murphy. The actor has, since 2012, been quiet in the public eye, taking years-long breaks between films. In 2016, he resurfaced for the drama Mr. Church, his performance praised but the film critically panned. Being hailed as his “comeback” role, Dolemite finds Murphy in fit comedy shape, tackling this lead part with gusto. He embraces Moore’s slightly goofy enthusiasm and can-do attitude without a hint of mocking. For a character like Dolemite, so deeply rooted in the Blaxploitation era of the ’70s and frankly riddled with so many stereotypical elements, Murphy succeeds by being earnest, even when delivering Dolemite’s raunchiest lines. He reminds us he’s one of the best at balancing drama and comedy. A figure who could have been an offensive caricature in the wrong hands, Dolemite, in Craig Brewer’s film, is so much more; we go beyond the surface of the character, exploring one man’s quest for stardom and the entrepreneurial risks he took to be the talk of the town. We get a film befitting of Moore’s legacy while simultaneously reminding audiences the star power of Eddie Murphy. —Joi Childs
Netflix also just added “The Final Cut” version of Ridley Scott’s dystopian classic.
Director: Ridley Scott
Just as The Road Warrior set the look and tone for countless post-apocalyptic cinema-scapes to follow, so too did the world of Ridley Scott’s dingy, wet and overcrowded Blade Runner set the standard for the depiction of pre-apocalyptic dystopias. But he also had Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer and a cast of actors who all bring this Philip K. Dick-inspired tale of a replicant-retiring policeman to gritty, believable life. Beneath the film’s impressive set design and inspired performances lies a compelling meditation on the lurking loneliness of the human (and, perhaps, inhuman) condition that continues to resonate (and trigger new creations, like Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049) to this day. —Michael Burgin
Our picks for new comedy specials include a traditional stand-up set and whatever Sack Lunch Bunch is:
“You know who’s honest—drunks and children.” John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch opens with these immortal words by Erika Jayne of Real Housewives fame, which accurately sets up what you are about to watch: a kids show made by adults with kids present. But what Mulaney’s nostalgia-soaked special delivers is more honest than any children’s programming before it. How is it honest? Well, it’s mostly about death. Like, there is a lot of talking and singing about death, which seems odd for a children’s show until you remember every fairy tale you’ve ever seen Disney-ified.
The bigger question coming into this special was how the pre-teen actors would fair sharing the screen with one of the decade’s best stand-up comedians. The Sack Lunch Bunch’s collective performance wholly encapsulates the special’s overall aesthetic of being professional yet playful, equally balancing between adults-only and all-ages humor. The kids clearly establish themselves as talented actors and singers while still reminding viewers that they are in fact kids who just happen to also act and not mini Daniel Day Lewises who spend their Saturdays self-taping for A24 films. It’s less Dakota Fanning in Uptown Girls and more Amy Poehler as Dakota Fanning on SNL’s “The Dakota Fanning Show” sketch. They love Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and recognize Fran Lebowitz on-site but their dancing is just amateur enough to not feel overly-produced while their hilariously frank confessions in a series of interviews in which they are asked about their biggest fears are authentic and endearing. They keep the mood light and fun, just like a children’s show should. A joyous mixture of silly humor and niche references makes John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch the most entertaining Netflix original of last year. —Olivia Cathcart
About halfway through her new Netflix special Time Machine, Leslie Jones pauses mid-mock cigar puff. “This is so fun,” she laughs. And in so many words, she’s right: for an hour, the Saturday Night Live alum has an incredible time onstage, and this energy makes her set an infectiously joyous start to 2020. Unlike most comedians featured on the streaming giant, Jones goes all-in on crowd work from the start, sloughing off the sterility of some specials. At one point she leads a Tevin Campbell singalong, at others yelling into audience members’ faces about their perceived faults (namely, having a dick or not enjoying their 20s enough). The latter situation results in some of the most laugh-out-loud moments of the whole special, with Jones’ good-natured jokes trumping any initial awkwardness. Crowd work in televised sets tend to be one-offs to audience members, who are briefly spotlighted and occasionally used for a callback. The barrier between the crowd and the comedian remains intact, invisible but distinctly separating the parties. Jones never half-asses anything, though, even clambering off the stage to address one man face-to-face. It’s a method that’s as hilarious as it is jarring, propelling her humor to new heights. —Clare Martin
And finally, for those looking to escape from reality with reality TV, we recommend:
On paper, Netflix’s new reality series The Circle seems like a disaster waiting to happen. The show follows eight contestants sent to live in a fancy apartment building who are forbidden from interacting with each other except via an in-house, Alexa-like social media platform known as “The Circle.” Their goal? Become its most popular “influencer” to win a $100,000 prize. In short, it pretty much sounds like something that could only take place in a fairly deep level of hell.
In such an anonymous, competitive atmosphere, how long could it possibly take before the contestants start telling lies, backstabbing, and sabotaging one another? Or just straight up attacking their rivals for the most petty and superficial of reasons? Viewers can’t really be blamed for tuning in expecting a complete train wreck. The real surprise is that The Circle doesn’t give them one.
Instead, the series turns expected reality television tropes on their heads, ultimately shunning catty competition and calculated betrayal in favor of genuine emotion, real friendship, and a positive message about being and accepting who you are. No matter how they choose to play, many genuine moments of authenticity and connection take place, often times in what feels like a direct contrast to everything we expect from this genre.
Yes, The Circle is the sort of silly, addictive television that most will dismiss out of hand. It’s not exactly prestige television, and it won’t reinvent the way you understand the power of drama. But it might change the way you think about people, a little bit, and how we relate to one another in this increasingly scary modern world. No matter how much it wants to be a story about technology, The Circle is a warm, wholesome reminder that humanity and sincerity matters, even in the face of that which encourages our worst selves. And that’s a reality competition worth watching. Heart emoji. Praise hands emoji. Send message.—Lacy Baugher
Created by: Love Productions
Stars:Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Sandi Toksvig, Noel Fielding
Known across the pond as The Great British Bake-Off, the appeal of the wildly popular reality TV series—most seasons of which are now available on Netflix—is its refusal to go in for dramatic contrivances. Against Fox’s Gordon Ramsay-hosted properties, Chopped, even Top Chef, with their constant backbiting and broken dreams, the contestants on GBBS are sunny, mutually supportive amateurs (albeit extraordinarily skilled ones); in any given episode, the worst crisis is judge Paul Hollywood pressing a finger into a scone and pronouncing it “underbaked” (or literally pronouncing it “overwerked and oonderbaked”). Even with new hosts and new judge as the series moved to ITV from the BBC, GBBS remains a wonderful, inspiring, refreshing, whimsical and altogether happy series. —Matt Brennan and Allison Keene