What a year it has been for the biggest streamer in the world.
While the first half of the year was largely known for its widely seen star-studded critical failures (Apologies to Your Place or Mine, You People, The Mother, etc), the second half of the year brought many successes. From a hit franchise blockbuster to multiple awards season contenders, Netflix’s year in films was turned around completely and may help them garner some hardware as we march towards the Oscars in March.
While this list may not represent the most-watched films of the year, I believe these to be the best Netflix had to offer over the past 12 months.
So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Netflix Original Movies of 2023.
Please note that this author has not seen Best International Feature contender, Society of the Snow, as it will not be on Netflix until 1/4/24. This list will also not consider the Wes Anderson/Roald Dahl short films as he only considered feature-length films.
Blood & Gold
Director: Peter Thorwarth
Cast: Robert Maaser, Marie Hacke, Alexander Scheer, Jordis Triebel
Directed by Peter Thorwarth (Netflix’s Blood Red Sky), Blood & Gold continues the success of Netflix’s modern Westerns while clearly wearing its 21st-century pulp movie influences.
Set during the Spring of 1945, the story centers around German deserter Heinrich (Robert Maaser), a young and courageous farmer Elsa (Marie Hacke) – and a whole host of Nazis. On his way home from the front to his daughter, Heinrich stumbles into the clutches of a marauding SS troop. Their leader (Alexander Scheer) leaves him hanging in a tree for his desertion only to be discovered and saved at the last minute by Elsa, who hides him on her farm. Meanwhile, the SS is searching for a Jewish treasure hidden in a nearby village, meeting bitter resistance from the fed-up villagers who want to keep the treasure for themselves. Soon, Heinrich and Elsa are unwillingly dragged into an action-packed hunt for the gold, culminating in a bloody showdown at the village church.
The film maintains the quintessential elements of the classic Western style – White Hat/Black Hat dynamics, small-town standoffs, buried gold, methodical pacing, signature scores – and presents them with a modern ultra-violent flair typically reserved for Tarantino and his growing list of disciples. If you love killing Nazis in the bold and pulpy action style of Inglorious Basterds and Overlord, then this is your type of film. Spoiler Alert – it is mine as well.
While the film hinges on the story arc of Heinrich (executed in a remarkably steady way by Robert Maaser), its rich blend of supporting characters make the film a deeper and more satisfying watch. Marie Hacke’s Elsa, Jordis Triebel’s Sonja, and Alexander Scheer’s Lt. Colonel von Starnfeld elevate the less demanding revenge plot and engage us with the charm and fortitude its audience deserves without leaning into cartoonish absurdity. Alexander Scheer knows all about that absurdity with his performance as Eight Ball in Blood Red Sky.
Blood & Gold is an impressive and enjoyable addition to the growing list of variations on the classic Western. Bloody, but not grotesque. Methodical but never boring. Happy to see it still made the list as the only representative from before the summer kicked off officially with our #4 selection.
Director: Sam Hargrave
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Olga Kurylenko, Golshifteh Farahani, Adam Bessa, Tornike Gogrichiani, Idris Elba
For better or for worse, the Extraction film series is the best movie franchise Netflix has produced to date (slight apologies to the To All The Boys and Kissing Booth series). The original film burst onto the scene during the height of the pandemic in 2020 by combining multiple key players from the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Extraction leveraged the names of Chris Hemsworth and the Russo Brothers (Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame) along with the impressive stunt work resume of director Sam Hargrave (Captain America: Civil War, Infinity War/Endgame) to entice 99 million Netflix viewers to watch it in the first four weeks of release.
Director Sam Hargrave and screenwriter Joe Russo could have done what many filmmakers do with their sequels and rolled out the same blueprint with increased budgets, more lavish stunts, and an even more diminished plot line as if to say “we know why you’re here and here it is”.
While it does have more money and more firepower, Extraction 2 also has more heart and deeper connections that serve to increase the stakes of its ultra-violent buffet. To put it plainly like a 1990s movie trailer voiceover, Tyler Rake is back … and this time, it’s personal.
The man with the death wish from the first film (Chris Hemsworth as Tyler Rake) has survived the unthinkable and finds purpose in the form of a new mission requested by the only person left in his life in which he has something to prove: his ex-wife Mia (played by Olga Kurylenko) whom he left behind to take care of their son in the final days of his battle with Lymphoma. In the name of honor and redemption, we follow Rake and his team as they take on the head of a vicious crime family in order to save Mia’s sister and her children from his control.
Blending action movie staples like father/son relationships, revenge narratives, and ending cycles of violence with the aforementioned motives of Rake lends to a far more compelling tale than that of its predecessor. It’s also really, really useful if you blow up several helicopters or stab a bad guy with a pitchfork while doing it.
Extraction 2 does a great job of knowing what its audience wants while serving them a story that its central character and its burgeoning franchise hopes desperately needed. Hemsworth has found a suitable path forward as his role in the MCU may be diminishing and Hargrave looks more and more like a success as a director, taking his place among his former stunt crew turned director peers like Chad Stahelski (John Wick) and David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Bullet Train).
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard
Based on the French graphic novel of the same name created by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon, The Killer takes us into the world of an international assassin as he meticulously prepares for his latest assignment. After a fateful near-miss, he is on the run, ready to face his employers – and himself – as he embarks on a globetrotting manhunt he insists isn’t personal.
The film is a reunion of sorts for Fincher and his previous screenwriting collaborator, Andrew Kevin Walker, who worked on the screenplays for Seven and Fight Club in the mid-to-late 1990s. Fincher also brings back his more recent cinematographer of choice, Oscar winner Erik Messerschmidt (Mank, Mindhunter) and two-time Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
While he may have taken a small detour with his more personal project Mank, director David Fincher has returned to his love of society’s underbelly with The Killer. Contract killing under a network headed by an International Trade Attorney and his former student. Working for the wealthy elite. Covering their tracks with extreme precision. Utilizing modern conveniences like WeWork stations, Amazon pickups, and Postmates deliveries to complete missions. Sounds like the perfect playground for the man who made Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mindhunter.
What he may find even more appealing than its grittier and more brutal profession is the calculated approach and painstaking attention to detail that the job requires. The man known for his 50+ takes on one scene or scrapping solid performances because an extra wasn’t walking right may come to appreciate a man who needs to lower his heart rate down to below 60 to shoot his target from long range through glass windows. If the devil is in the details, then this movie is going straight to Hell. As the Assassin lead says after blowing up a house with a Molotov cocktail, “This is what it takes … What you must commit yourself to … if you want to succeed.”
Regardless of his motives or inspirations, Fincher surely found his muse with his lead, Michael Fassbender. An actor with the range to perform as a cold and careful intellectual in Steve Jobs AND a mysterious black ops cleaner in Haywire must have made him the top of Fincher’s must-hire list. Luckily for us, Fassbender took the assignment. He sucks us in with his monotone narration explaining the virtues of listening to music as a healthy distraction or his “not giving a f*ck” or “flying no flag” mentality and then blows us away with his athleticism & ferocity when duty calls.
While Fincher fans will revel in The Killer’s return to form as a dark, moody thriller, they should also embrace the increased volume of understated comedy that has been largely absent since the days of Andrew Kevin Walker’s early scripts. Even in the most frantic moments, Fassbender’s narration will turn to Fight Club-esque quips like “WWJWBD … What would John Wilkes Booth do?” or “How’s I don’t give a f*ck going?”. He’ll even launch into laments about his profession including “When was my last nice, quiet drowning?” or “It’s amazing how physically exhausting it is to do nothing” – a personal favorite of mine as it might be the Film Critic’s anthem. Viewers who enjoy the little details might also smirk at the sitcom character aliases The Killer has to utilize from time to time, though Archie Bunker might be a little much if you’re trying to be inconspicuous. And don’t forget the amazingly spot on use of the definitive British indie rock band The Smiths as the sonic wallpaper for all of The Killer’s endeavors. The steady melodies enhanced by the forlorn croons of Morrissey with lyrics so haunting that OF COURSE a contract killer would love. Lines like “I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does” from my personal favorite Smiths song “How Soon is Now?” almost serves as a quiet longing for The Killer as we subtly encounter his secret romance that motivates his revenge. The closing credits song “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” also serves as the most romantic a cold-blooded assassin can get with its darkly winking chorus “… to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die”.
Overall, The Killer is a carefully crafted & surprisingly playful look at a dark & vicious profession. Its brilliance lies in its mood, its level of detail, its humor, and its ice-cold performances. Fassbender delivers as only he can, blending stoicism, athleticism, and biting humor as he methodically weaves his way in and out of danger. While its execution is top-notch and frighteningly engrossing, the substance may leave you wanting more; But damn if it isn’t a worthwhile ride.
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton
Editor’s Note: The movie is only available on Netflix in the United States and Canada.
With multiple nominations from the likes of Critics Choice and the Golden Globes already in their back pocket, the latest film from director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven) looks to be a major contender in this year’s awards season.
Based in part on the 1997 Mary Kay Letourneau case, the story centers around a married couple, Gracie and Joe, who live in the suburbs of Georgia with their twin children. However, their story is not your average romance – Gracie and Joe met and fell in love when Joe was a 13-year-old part-time pet shop employee and Gracie was his mid-30s married employer.
Now, decades after their criminal beginnings, Gracie and Joe’s relationship will be under the microscope once again as an independent film will be bringing their story to life for the big screen. Though cautious and concerned about the project, Gracie and Joe agree to allow the lead actress who will be playing Gracie in the movie, Elizabeth Berry, to shadow their family and gain an understanding of how their relationship came to be. However, as Elizabeth digs deeper and Gracie and Joe’s marriage starts to buckle under the pressure, the story becomes less about the sensational past and more about the complicated present of a family in crisis.
In Gracie and her relationship with Joe, Haynes gets to return to one of his more familiar story elements: the decay under the seemingly perfect life. Mental and physical illness rearing its head in Safe. The crumbling marriage and hidden sexual desires in Far From Heaven. The loveless and convenient marriage turned ugly in Carol. In May December, Gracie and Joe appear to have a battle-tested marriage that thrives despite their past. Living in a picturesque community with friends, family, and careers, they appear to have it all. However, as the story unfolds, the audience is slowly made aware of all the cracks in the facade. Toxic manipulation and controlling behavior stemming from their initial relationship dynamic of adult and child. Secret relationships and one-night stands. Children cast aside or living in the shadow of the wrong type of fame & notoriety. All of this being wiped away or pushed down by the insecure yet suffocating puppetry at the command of Gracie.
Uncovering and adding to the toxicity, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Elizabeth Berry, her most interesting and enticing role since Black Swan, is a portrait of a woman who admires all the wrong aspects of her subject and uses those traits to delve deeper into their carefully crafted existence. Ranging from uncomfortable method acting to sociopathic levels of disregard, Portman’s Elizabeth blurs the lines between her own abilities to manipulate and dismiss those closest to her and the role of her sociopathic subject, which sheds guilt & shame at every turn.
Colliding these forces with a masterful direction, Todd Haynes creates one of the best films of his career. Evoking some of the dramatic flair of David Lynch’s view of suburbia and his past films’ history with the complicated roles we play in our own lives, Haynes weaves a rich tapestry of melodrama, madness, and metacommentary. Bold and stinging bursts of Marcelo Zarvos’ piano-laden score mixed with rich textures & hints of soft focus create a heightened yet sometimes soapy & comedic tone that draws our attention while the drama & the actions play out in a more subtle & tactical way.
The most radical way this movie shows its perfect execution is in its ability to never dip too far into the salaciousness of its back story and never allowing our minds to dwell on the criminal behavior of its subjects. Haynes presents it as a family crisis at a critical juncture on the eve of being exposed. 90s tabloid celebrity gives way to modern true crime dissection and humanizing family trauma.
May December is not just a top-tier Netflix film for 2023, but also a Top 10 film of the year. Burch and Mechanik’s empathetic, darkly funny, and deeply layered screenplay is a perfect match for Haynes’ fascination with the decay under pristine facades. Portman, Moore, and Melton play off each other perfectly in the most uncomfortable ways. I hope to see this film continue to be recognized as we get further into awards season.
Director: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman
Originally set at Paramount Pictures with such high-profile directors as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg attached, Maestro is the long-awaited biopic chronicling the lifelong relationship of legendary conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein and actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. The film is the meticulously crafted 2nd feature from director Bradley Cooper, who also serves as producer, co-writer, and star much like he did in his debut feature A Star Is Born back in 2018.
Also much like A Star Is Born, Cooper seems to have aroused acclaim as it has already hit the Awards Circuit ground running with 8 Critics Choice nominations and 4 Golden Globe noms while also being named as one of the best films of the year by AFI and the National Board of Review.
However, the film has not been without its detractors. Some have criticized the narrowing of the Bernstein story to focus more on his courtship and marriage to Felicia, especially considering his homosexual lifestyle outside of that relationship. However, I found most of the decisions made in this film to be rather remarkable, including those that others have lamented.
The film never shies from any of Bernstein’s many lives and uses the focus of his constantly evolving partnership with his wife to portray them all. Cooper paints the picture of a tortured artist constantly moving between worlds and never truly finding satisfaction in any of them. Heralded by many as the greatest American conductor, but always looked to creation as a composer to keep him afloat. Punished by his own measure that he didn’t create enough, even though he composed several timeless pieces of music, including West Side Story & On The Waterfront. Outwardly, a gregarious social butterfly who could light up any room, while inside suffering from deep depressions that would have derailed his career without his people-pleasing work ethic and strong support system. And, of course, his relationship with Felicia; knowing full well of his homosexual desires, he’s drawn to her as she sees him for all that he is and is happy – for a time – to play the roles that suit their needs. Muse, caretaker, confidant, maternal figure, executive assistant, life coach. Even with all that she gave, he still took advantage and couldn’t strike the balance he so desperately needed.
The brilliance of the writing focusing on Bernstein’s life as shaped, shattered, and saved by Felicia is that we get to see all the angles of how his life unfolded and how it affected the people closest to him. For every step forward in Bernstein’s career or any new level of fame that is achieved, the audience gets to revel in his successes, marvel at his mastery of the various forms, but also get to see how it eroded the strength of Felicia; a woman who held everything together, take the necessary back seat, deny the rumors, lie to her children, and do what she thought was best for the sake of what mattered most.
While the first 2 acts of Maestro do well to show the emotional rollercoasters and weathered storms before it briefly comes apart, it’s the final act of the film that rewards us for our endurance. In a sequence loaded with Oscar Reel clips, Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman, She Said) gives her finest work to date in a restaurant scene where she comes to terms with her flawed dynamic with Bernstein. Her speech about being the one who’s being untruthful because she lied when she said she didn’t “need” is so captivating and powerful and punctuates her character’s selflessness to a massive fault. Her line “I miss him … that child of mine” shows her recognition of the true needs she still has for him and the dynamic that will propel her to take him back. This scene is punctuated by their embrace following a 6-minute live conduction by Cooper; a stunning and enrapturing performance that Cooper worked on for 6 years. The labor of love in everything that this movie accomplishes is felt so deeply as the film moves towards its final moments.
Overall, Maestro is a triumph as a biopic, a complicated love story, and a dissection of the life of an artist and his muse. Cooper’s direction weaves a delicate balance of all the permutations Bernstein’s life provides from being the mythical face of classical music in America to hiding in plain sight as a depressive and closeted creator at odds with his own choices. Cooper & Mulligan steal the show in almost polar opposite, but aptly suited roles. A deep cast, enthralling musical sequences, brilliant cinematography, and a deeply satisfying and moving screenplay tick all the boxes for an awards season contender. A worthy successor to A Star Is Born for Cooper that will put his name in any conversation for best directors working today. Along with May December, Maestro has a real shot at being nominated for Best Picture on top of many other well-deserved recognitions.
- Leave The World Behind
- The Magician’s Elephant
- Love at First Sight
- Fair Play
- They Cloned Tyrone