We’re almost halfway into the Netflix Movie Year, so let’s check in once again to see how it’s going and what has been the best of the bunch so far!
When I wrote my last Top 5 of this variety back in early April, the trend of big stars making middling to bad movies was in full effect. The Netflix movies to that date had averaged a 6.1 on IMDB, with none reaching above a 7.
Unfortunately, the trend has continued in the 2nd quarter as the scores have remained the exact same, and still no one film has cracked the mighty seven threshold.
However, as you will see in my rankings below, some standout films from the past few months are worthy of their high status on this list. Maybe we can work together, like the internet knows it can, and we can get those IMDB scores up a little higher.
So, without further ado, let’s check out my current Top 5 Netflix Original Movies of 2023.
5. Luther: The Fallen Sun
Director: Jamie Payne
Cast: Idris Alba, Andy Serkis, Cynthia Erivo, Dermot Crowley
Four years after the final episode of the Luther TV series, Idris Elba and company are back for another high-profile case.
Written and produced by Luther showrunner Neil Cross and directed by Season 5’s Jamie Payne, The Fallen Sun sees an emotionally damaged John Luther working the case of a young man’s mysterious disappearance after calling the police. The man behind the disappearance grows concerned with Luther’s involvement and digs up enough dirt on his past exploits to get him fired, prosecuted, and sent to prison. After receiving a transmission from this new serial killer while in captivity, Luther must break out of prison to go on the hunt for this new terror roving the streets of London.
While it is a movie based on a television series, the film does just enough to stand on its own. Featuring striking, macabre visuals & more cinematic compositions, The Fallen Sun steps up from its small screen roots and earns the limited theatrical release it was granted from Netflix. Also, the story does not rely on watching every season of the show and features a more straightforward cat-and-mouse game between Luther and omnipresent mastermind David Robey played by Lord of the Rings and Black Panther star Andy Serkis.
While the chemistry between Luther and Robey may not always work, The Fallen Sun has enough visual flair and persistent threats from its villain to make for a satisfying enough film to satiate the desire of fans to see Elba adopt the Luther character once more.
4. The Pale Blue Eye
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall
After many years and many drafts of the screenplay, accomplished writer/director Scott Cooper (Hostiles, Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart) brings his “Edgar Allen Poe Origin Story” adapted from Louis Bayard’s historical fiction novel of the same name to Netflix.
Starring Academy Award Winner Christian Bale & Netflix stalwart Harry Melling (The Old Guard, The Queen’s Gambit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) as Edgar Allen Poe, the film centers around local detective Augustus Landor (Bale), who is brought in to investigate the mysterious death of West Point Military Academy’s cadets. When it becomes clear that Landor won’t be able to crack the case alone, he enlists the help of an eager yet eccentric cadet named Edgar Allan Poe.
While the story does get fed to us by Bale’s Landor, the film itself belongs to Melling and his performance as Poe. His look, his demeanor, and his accent draw you in at every turn. The more he is in the center of the film, the more the film benefits from his presence. Melling continues his impressive accent as a strong character actor building on his previous roles and delivers my favorite performance in a Netflix film at this point in the year.
The cinematography by Cooper’s long-time Director of Photography, Masanobu Takayanagi, is right beside Melling as the backbone of the movie. The cold, gray tones and dense fog offsetting the more vibrant blue uniforms strikes the proper tone for such an unsettling tale. The look and feel remind me of comparable works such as Gareth Evans’s Netflix Original Apostle and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
While it may not live up to the hype of its Awards Season tipping release date or its star and director combo, The Pale Blue Eye will get a lot of mileage from fans of Poe and the film’s creator Scott Cooper while creating new fans for the impressive Harry Melling.
Co-Writer & Director: Morgan S. Dalibert
Cast: Alban Lenoir, Eric Cantona, Thibault de Montalembert, Sveva Alviti
The success of 2020’s Lost Bullet not only opened the door for a potential franchise but also put its star Alban Lenoir on a bigger stage.
Lenoir’s latest French language Netflix film, AKA, brings him back into the roles of co-writer & lead actor as he once again blends between the worlds of police enforcement and the criminal underground.
Co-written and directed by Lost Bullet cinematographer Morgan S. Dalibert, the film centers around a steely special ops agent (Lenoir) who finds his morality put to the test when he infiltrates a crime syndicate and unexpectedly bonds with the boss’s young son.
Unlike the more standard fare from the genre in America, AKA has a much slower, subtle, and methodical approach to its storytelling and character development. So many American action films rush to tell you as much as you need to know about their lead character so they can get right to the elaborate fight sequences and quests for complete annihilation of some criminal organization. This film may show you the prowess of Adam Franco’s fieldwork fairly early, but the backstory of who he is, why he chose this line of work, and where his allegiances truly lie all come in small fragments scattered throughout the 2-hour runtime. The conspiracy plot seemingly unravels at the same rate of speed as the Adam character, which serves for a cohesive balance that leads to the quite revealing and explosive finale.
AKA is a solid entry for fans of Lenoir and the Lost Bullet film series with enough guns blazing to satisfy any fan of action-laden crime thrillers. With a more reserved approach, a dash of heat and heart, and a passable conspiracy plot, this film stands out amongst its fellow French Netflix offerings.
2. The Magician’s Elephant
Director: Wendy Rogers
Voice Cast: Noah Jupe, Mandy Patinkin, Brian Tyree Henry, Benedict Wong, Aasif Mandvi, Natasia Demetriou
Based on the children’s novel of the same name by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo (“Because of Winn-Dixie”), The Magician’s Elephant is the entertaining and heartwarming story of young orphan boy Peter who lost his mother and sister during the Great Foreign War. Raised by Vilna, the aging soldier who saved him many years ago, Peter always thought his sister might still be out there despite the insistence of his guardian that she has passed on. After a chance encounter with a fortune teller, he is told he can find his sister by simply “follow(ing) the elephant”. What follows is a layered “wish-fulfillment” tale with heart, humor, and a series of impossible tasks that keeps its audience engaged with this game element throughout.
Featuring quality animation from newly acquired studio Animal Logic (Lego Batman Movie, Peter Rabbit) and steady direction from longtime Visual EFX Supervisor Wendy Rogers (Shrek, Puss In Boots), the film’s most impressive aspect may be in its all-star lineup of voices.
The film is narrated by the previously mentioned Fortune Teller voiced by the perfectly snarky Natasia Demetriou (Nadja in What We Do In The Shadows). Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place films) provides relentless hope and youthful exuberance with his performance of Peter. Legend of stage and screen Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Homeland) graces us with the range of emotions required to bring life to Sgt. Lutz. Oscar nominee Brian Tyree Henry (Causeway, Bullet Train) stirs up the whimsical nature of this film with the unreasonably hopeful Officer Leo. MCU star Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) brings his mystical art prowess to his role as The Magician. And last but certainly not least, former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi breathes life at the perfect time with his fun-loving, eccentric characterization of The King who makes Peter fulfill the impossible tasks that keep the audience engaged throughout the story.
The Magician’s Elephant gives us an original fairy tale that brings out the child in all of us. The central themes of Hope and the Belief in the Impossible mixed with indelible characters make this film a cut above for Netflix Original Animation.
1. Blood & Gold
Director: Peter Thorwarth
Cast: Robert Maaser, Jordis Triebel, Marie Hacke, Alexander Scheer Rated: TV-MA
Netflix knows how to produce a solid Western-style film that appeals to the modern cinema audience. From Oscar-winner The Power of the Dog to star-studded features like The Harder They Fall, the streamer never shies away from new slants in the genre.
With Blood & Gold, Netflix moves the setting from the American Old West to Germany in the final throes of World War II.
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 gold, culminating in a bloody showdown at the village church.
Directed by Peter Thorwarth (Netflix’s Blood Red Sky), Blood & Gold continues the success of Netflix’s modern Western takes while clearly wearing its influences from the more pulpy versions of the 21st-century films in the genre.
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 & Overlord, then this is your type of film. Spoiler Alert – it is mine as well.
Bloody, but not grotesque. Methodical but never boring. This is my favorite Netflix film of 2023 so far, and I hope it has enough mass appeal to cross over to American audiences.
Want to see even more movie recommendations from myself? Check out the 2022 best-of recommendations here.