At this point in the pandemic, we’ve probably all exhausted our Netflix watch lists a few times over. It gets dark early, nights are long, and there’s nothing to do but be bored in the house. How many rewatches of Stranger Things can one person truly handle?
Luckily, Netflix’s expensive offerings go beyond reruns of mediocre sitcoms: the streaming service actually seems to have a near-endless amount of content despite much of it being hidden by the company’s algorithm.
We’ve picked out 40 films and TV shows that might not pop up on your “Recommended” list if you haven’t been searching specifically for them. From unexpected reality competitions to obscure anime to underground LGBTQ+ cinema, here’s our (unranked!) list of Netflix’s best-hidden gems.
An impeccably choreographed martial arts tetralogy that traces the legendary career of Bruce Lee’s master as he defeats Westerners and Japanese foes alike. Sure, the whole series is not-so-subtle Chinese propaganda, but it’s worth watching for the exciting action sequences.
Forget Game of Thrones. Dark Crystal is the high fantasy series worth watching. The Jim Henson Company’s high-concept puppet show is a dazzling example of a dying medium. The content is more adult than you’d expect from literal muppets, and the Tolkienesque world’s lore is both dense and allegorical.
Black Mirror became a viral hit with its prescient predictions about the panoptic power of social media. The short animated film collection Love, Death + Robots covers a lot of the same territory as Charlie Booker’s infamous sci-fi series, but with a bit more humor. Although it’s occasionally juvenile and sometimes overtly sexist, each episode takes on a different aspect of our nightmarish future with a totally different visual aesthetic.
Comedian Maria Bamford uses surreal humor to explore a recent nervous breakdown in this honest, creative, and self-reflexive series about living with bipolar disorder. Your average comedy aficionado might find Bamford’s aesthetic too off-beat, but there’s a lot of smart commentaries and earnest emotionality in this show.
Cuties faced a bizarre media cycle after receiving backlash from American conservative critics who objected to the sexual content of the film, and then it faded into semi-obscurity. That being said, it’s easily one of the best films of 2020 — dealing with the complex emotional lives of teenage girls navigating a deeply misogynistic world.
A beautifully shot short documentary film about female Sumo wrestlers and their commitment to their sport. It’s only about 20 minutes long, but it’s impossible not to form an immediate attachment to the impossibly strong and impossibly adorable protagonist.
Although the content is extremely disturbing, Shot in the Dark is a fascinating delve into the lives of stringers: videographers who capture footage of car crashes and violent crimes to sell to news stations at frighteningly high prices. The rogues gallery of people featured are patently deplorable, yet absurdly compelling.
Laverne Cox is a heavily featured talking head in this exhaustive and insightful exploration of the history of transgender people in Western cinema. The movie traces specific tropes of anti-trans violence and how they developed within a culture that is largely intolerant of sexual difference — but it also shows how there’s hope for the future as more trans people take to the big screen.
This ultra-violent, dystopian thriller serves as a poignant metaphor for the inhumanity of capitalism. A student voluntarily enters a near-future disciplinary complex, but it seems likely he won’t survive the impossible cruelty of this system. It’s a frightening allegory and a warning about the power of unchecked greed.
Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka play students at a private Catholic school becoming increasingly oppressed by Satanic forces. It’s a bit on the nose for the two starlets — both have played devil-worshipping witches in other franchises — but their acting here is surprisingly subtle and the plot structure is fascinatingly poetic.
The ebullient and colorful Walter Mercado was the most beloved astrologer in Latin America before disappearing from the public eye. This earnest documentary traces his career with deep love and respect, positioning the fortune-teller as a queer legend and a beacon of kindness.
How, exactly, did a married heterosexual couple come to own one of the most infamous gay porn shops in the entire United States? Circus of Books tells the story of unlikely homosexual icons, Barry and Karen Mason, at the final moments of the eponymous adult shop’s closing. The story shows the conflicted morality of the Masons and is directed by the duo’s daughter as she explores the psychology of her parents who stunningly rejected their own gay child before seeing the error of their ways.
It would be easy to dismiss glass sculpture as a kind of decorative kitsch but Blown Away, a competition reality show about glass blowing, showcases the artistry, talent, and intellectual thought put into this misunderstood art form.
Trixie Mattel is the second most popular drag queen in the world — right behind Mother RuPaul — who forged her own path as a country singer after snatching Drag Race’s giant bejeweled crown. This documentary follows her post-show career and investigates fans’ deep attachments to their unlikely hero. It’s a shockingly humanizing film that explains the power of gender performance as a kind of emotional healing.
David Lynch interviews a very creepy monkey in this 17 minute, black and white, non-narrative short. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the beloved auteur, whose noir-influenced surreal works have spawned a cult following amongst arthouse cinephiles. Don’t expect a coherent story, just spooky vibes.
A twist-filled horror-thriller, The Perfectionist is a very strange revenge story filled with deeply unexpected moments and extremely bizarre celebrations of bloodshed. It somehow feels like eight movies are packed tightly into this 90-minute nightmare, and the ending is sure to leave you both nauseated and satisfied.
What begins as an extremely caustic critique of the high art world devolves into an unsettling supernatural thriller. Starring an inexplicably buff Jake Gyllenhaal as a bisexual art dealer haunted by murderous painting, Velvet Buzzsaw combines smart satire with campy thrills.
Oddly endearing and only somewhat condescending, Behind The Curve follows the friendships forged between Flat Earthers — yes, people who believe (despite the entire history of science) that the earth is flat. It’s an interesting thesis on the dangers of misinformation and demonstrates how communities are formed through shared delusions.
Shonen anime (Japanese cartoons meant for teenage boys about plucky fighters learning new skills to defeat outsized foes) can be somewhat predictable — Food Wars! switches up the formula by using cooking battles instead of samurai sword fights as its main set piece. Many scenes are absurdly sexual (sometimes misogynistically so) but the culinary combat is both exciting and mouth-watering.
A few clips from this eccentric documentary went viral — who could resist a very mannered old man brought to tears by the beauty of an absurd looking cat! — and the film itself is actually quite sweet and sincere. The heartwarming bonds made at cat shows are matched only by the cut-throat competitiveness of the feline-obsessed protagonists.
A young sex worker’s life begins to unravel when she spots her doppelganger gaining popularity on cam shows. Is she losing or mind, or is someone trying to destroy her life? Both erotic and extremely frightening, Cam is intelligent feminist horror for the 21st century.
Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki made his directorial debut with this jaw-droppingly gorgeous adventure anime from 1979. Beyond charming characters chase each other through lush fantasy steampunk scenery in hand-animated action sequences. Castle of Cagliostro is quite possibly one of the greatest animated movies ever made.
When a struggling student accidentally finds herself accepted into a secret society, she begins unfurling a series of mysteries about the cult’s practices and her own lineage. This Dutch horror series is masterfully suspenseful and beautifully shot. You don’t need to pick up on the social criticism pertaining to the villainies of colonialism to be enthralled by the show’s dark story.
Japan is known for its abundance of micro-subcultures that exist nowhere else. This includes the vibrant — and somewhat problematic — world of teenage idols: young female pop stars with rabid male fanbases. Tokyo Idols is a documentary that looks into the obsession with these cute singers and treats the fans who adore them with both curiosity and humanity.
It’s hard to imagine that the frivolous world of flower arranging could be even remotely exciting, but The Big Flower Fight uses the formula of The Great British Baking Show to display the immense skills and aesthetic power of landscaping and floristry. The diverse cast are imminently lovable and you’ll absolutely have a favorite by the finale — even if you don’t care about plants at all.
One of Stephen King’s lesser-known works was transformed into a deeply eerie horror movie by director Mike Flanagan in 2017. In it, a married couple’s experiments in BDSM are interrupted when the husband suddenly dies, leaving the wife handcuffed to her bed. As she struggles to escape, she is visited in the night by wolves and giants: Is she going insane or is she being stalked?
The Great British Baking Show became a viral sensation in the USA: the kind and gentle approach to reality competition was so starkly different from the bitchy, drama-filled spectacles we have on this side of the pond. Beloved contestants return for one-off Holiday-themed episodes in this spinoff showcase. Even viewers who vehemently oppose Christmas cheer can’t help but be charmed.
The true crime genre is often mind-numbingly violent and thoughtlessly sensationalist, but Casting JonBenet provides a sensitive and intelligent, postmodern twist on the standard formula. This documentary about the actors who play victims and murderers in true crime reenactments hits on the human element of crime stories in ways few other movies really can manage.
We all remember the cultural shunning of Paul Reubens following a series of overblown non-scandals, but Pee-Wee gets the last laugh with this triumphant return. The wacky world of perpetual childhood remains heartwarmingly innocent even decades after the eponymous hero’s Big Adventure.
Widely considered one of the worst horror movies ever made, Gothika is pure camp: a so-bad-it’s-actually-good classic that succeeds because it’s a total failure. Halle Berry does her best at playing a psychiatrist who one day wakes up to the realization that perhaps she was beyond sanity all along. Absurd dialogue and nonsense plot twists abound.
Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Parasite rightfully snatched Oscars in 2019, inviting a rewatch of some of the auteur’s earlier works. Snowpiercer definitely holds up as social commentary despite the film’s absurd premise: as the world freezes over following an attempt to regulate the planet’s temperature, the only survivors are trapped on a train in which occupants are separated by economic class — that is, until an ill-fated uprising.
Considered by many to be the greatest martial arts film ever made, Enter The Dragon was Bruce Lee’s final film before his untimely death. Both extremely exciting and intellectually sophisticated, it’s fine to watch this movie for the action or for its implicit critique of post-World War II colonialism.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is best comparable to Howl’s Moving Castle, and although it’s probably not quite as culturally important as Miyazaki’s high fantasy, it’s a welcome escape into a brightly colored steampunk kingdom.
The drag queen Divine was punk before punk was invented: as the Filthiest Person Alive she attracted an international cult following through her raunchy performance art and iconic anti-fashion. This documentary showcases the life of Harris Glenn Milstead and the ragtag group of rebels that helped him become, well, Divine.
In this wild horror-comedy, a sexy babysitter is revealed as the leader of a Satan-worshipping crew of ghouls. The only hope for their defeat is a pre-teen boy who must outsmart the demonic gang — but can he overcome his crush on his governess to thwart the devil? Director McG’s penchant for eye-popping visuals and Tarantino-esque hyper-stylization help uplift the movie’s extremely silly story.
Japanese reality dating shows are far quirkier than the endless slog of Western romantic travesties like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. In Love Wagon, singles have their phones taken away during weeks of international travel. The socially awkward men and women navigate competing crushes while visiting tourist attractions, complete with over-the-top narration and absurd commentary.
Slow-paced lesbian dramas aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea, but if that is what you’re seeking, Carol is probably the pinnacle of that sub-genre. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara dealing with sapphic sexual awakenings, the movie considers the emotional destruction a culture of homophobia left in its wake.
At this point there’s probably nothing more tired and expected than 90’s nostalgia — and quite frankly a lot of the things we loved as kids don’t hold up. Good Burger is an exception: Keenan Thompson and Kell Mitchell are iconic in their roles as good-natured fry cooks caught up in various fast food hijinks.
Anime purists might balk at the 3D CG animation of this science fantasy series but the fight scenes and endearing characters make a few questionable stylistic decisions forgivable. It’d be impossible to explain the show’s absurd and whimsical story in this summary. Suffice it to say, the main plot point is a magical battle between high-class sorcerers and the slums.
Sofia Coppola returns to her favorite themes and motifs (opulence, decadence, depression) in this slept-on excoriation of the morality of reality TV. Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga play a pair of sisters whose endless quest for glamor turns them into petty criminals who bungle their way into robbing the home of Paris Hilton. Based on the real-life crimes of Alexis Neiers and Tess Taylor, Coppola uses the thievery to show just how corrupting fame really can be.