The abundance of new material on streaming services – from television series to films – provides a bonanza for viewers eager to consume as much as possible and keep up with whatever is trending. But that sometimes means that older series and films sometimes disappear, or become difficult to watch. Moreover, new options often overshadow old ones that might provide familiar, even essential comfort, or in other cases, overshadow those must-see films gathering dust in our mental rolodex, soon to be forgotten despite their venerated merits as entertainment or art.
While downgrading its DVD service to focus on streaming choices and juggling its expansive slate of original programming, Netflix has not always preserved the same library for “the classics” – films celebrated for decades or which have otherwise earned a place in the cinematic firmament. So while you’re sorting through seasons of Queer Eye (hint: skip the ones in Japan) or side-eyeing that “bonus episode” of Too Hot To Handle you can’t quite bring yourself to watch, check out this list of stone cold classics you can watch right now with the click of a button on Netflix.
West Side Story (1961)
Ahead of Steven Spielberg’s updated adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, check out Robert Wise’s beautiful, brilliant (and occasionally dated) song-and-dance Romeo and Juliet story starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. The film won ten Academy Awards for creating the world of the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, a contentious urban landscape against which Maria (Wood) and Tony (Beymer) fall in love while touching delicately on a few racial and sociocultural issues that remain relevant today.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1967)
Sergio Leone wrapped up his “dollars” trilogy with this operatic masterpiece about three bandits (Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef) and their overlapping, frequently deadly race to uncover a grave filled with gold. The late Ennio Morricone’s score has become iconic enough for moviegoers to recognize it without even seeing Leone’s film, but amazingly the filmmaker makes it feel all the more unforgettable by pairing it with images that keep viewers coiled with suspense until they seem to leap off the screen.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Timing could not be more appropriate for this to become available on Netflix given the network’s debut of the new series Ratched, about its villainous head nurse. But in stark opposition to showrunner Ryan Murphy’s permanently theatrical storytelling, director Milos Forman depicts the story of the irreverent, troubled Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in naturalistic tones appropriate for what then was both a vividly believable character study but also a searing indictment of mental health care facilities (not to mention those head administrators). Supporting performances from Danny DeVito and Brad Dourif juggle stereotypes about the mentally unwell while reckoning with questions whether the treatment they receive could sometimes prove worse than their ailment.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese has made too many classics to keep track – leading up to, and including, his four-hour Netflix original The Irishman. Several of them, including his breakthrough Mean Streets, are also available on the service. But Taxi Driver is not to be missed, or forgotten: the story of an insomniac, PTSD-addled cabbie named Travis Bickle (Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Robert De Niro) and his mental disintegration on the streets of New York. Affected by the depravity he sees every day outside the windows of his cab – and sometimes in the back seat – Travis attempts to navigate an ordinary life with these experiences bearing down on every choice he makes, from attempting to date a politician’s aide (Cybill Shepherd) to becoming friends with a teen prostitute (Jodie Foster, in an astonishing breakthrough role). Bernard Herrmann’s jazzy, menacing score burrows into the viewer’s brain like the city’s degradation burrows into Travis’, creating an absolutely mesmerizing character study.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Miles certainly vary on the sequels – some love the mean-spirited Temple of Doom, while others prefer the dubiously-aged father-son shenanigans of The Last Crusade – but the original film, George Lucas’ tribute to the movie serials he loved as a child, offers absolutely peerless entertainment. Whatever Harrison Ford may have lacked in character development in Star Wars, he more than makes up for as globe-trotting adventurer Indiana Jones, taking a break from his duties as a professor of archaeology to chase down Nazis in a search for the Ark of the Covenant. (The remaining Indiana Jones films are also available, as well as other Spielberg films like Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.)
Back to the Future (1985)
Robert Zemeckis graduated to Hollywood’s big leagues with this brisk, unforgettable adventure about a trouble-seeking teenager (Michael J. Fox) dealing with life in the 1950s – and parents then still his own age – when his best friend, a brilliantly daffy scientist (Christopher Lloyd), builds a time machine out of a DeLorean. Dizzying, hilarious anachronisms and a defining performance by Fox makes this one of the 1980s most enduring films. Follow this one up with Parts II and III for a time-hopping odyssey with Marty and Doc Brown!
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter had already been portrayed once before Jonathan Demme decided to adapt the novelist’s book about a young CIA trainee who finds herself in a cat-and-mouse game with him for information about a serial killer on the loose. But with Anthony Hopkins behind those invisible inches of Plexiglas and Jodie Foster as Clarice, perched on the edge of a folding chair looking for answers the CIA seeks, serial killer movies took on a new level of art and respectability, winning multiple Oscars and cementing the careers of virtually everyone involved.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Several of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are currently available on Netflix, but the filmmaker’s 2007 film about a businessman selling his soul for oil seems to resonate the most strongly as a true “classic.” Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, building an oil empire with his bare hands and getting reluctantly into business with local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) as he manages both his business and his public persona. Day-Lewis won multiple awards for Best Actor for his performance as Plainview, while the film cemented Anderson among the top tier of American filmmakers with a story that feels as once deeply personal and irresistibly relevant to the contemporary fabric of America.
The Social Network (2010)
If the jury’s still out on whether Mark Zuckerberg’s social media platform Facebook has been a good or bad thing for humanity, David Fincher’s film, written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), provides a decidedly unflattering but complex portrait of Zuckerberg (played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) and his rise to became a Silicon Valley media mogul. Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer (playing twins!), and in a small but pivotal role, Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) play the other real-life individuals whose involvement, influence, and in some cases, scorn made Zuckerberg the man he is – according to the movie, anyway. (For another Fincher classic to watch before the arrival of his Netflix original, Mank, you can also watch his most underrated film, the true-crime masterpiece Zodiac.)
The Artist (2011)
Michael Hazanavicius led actor Jean Dujardin to a Best Actor award and himself Best Director for this tribute to silent cinema, about an older star and a rising actress whose career paths intersect during Hollywood’s Golden Age. If you’re worried about the filmmaker’s French background, there’s good news: the whole film is subtitled, owing to the fact that there’s no audible dialogue. Though it might have been dismissed as an exercise, the writer-director’s story, amplified by Dujardin and actress Berenice Bejo as veteran and starlet, transforms it into a beautiful love story that transcends not in spite of the technical limitations of the idea, but because of them.
Barry Jenkins directed Tarell Alvin’s unpublished, semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue to a Best Picture Oscar in 2016, tackling its complex ideas of race, masculinity and sexuality with a tenderness virtually unseen on screen before. Following Chiron through three periods of his life from childhood to adulthood, Jenkins explores the violence inflicted on young black men not just physically or economically, but ideologically as they attempt to navigate a world resistant, even hostile to their self-actualization. Devastating performances by not one but three actors in the main role – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and as an adult, Trevate Rhodes – further draws the audience into a story they probably do not know, but with a little help, come to understand and identify with intimately. Four years after taking top honors at the Academy Awards, the film’s cultural cache has thankfully become less of a focus with similar stories going into production, leaving a terrific opportunity for viewers to see and be affected by its beauty and humanity.
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