Hidden Gems: The best films you (probably) haven’t seen on Netflix UK
Matthew Turner | On 26, Apr 2020Reading time: 16 mins
Stuck with that tricky “What should I watch next on Netflix?” decision? With the streaming service adding new titles all the time, it’s increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately, help is at hand, as there’s nothing we love more at VODzilla.co than throwing some great film recommendations your way. Here then, are Netflix UK’s best hidden gems.
This list will be updated regularly to reflect new releases and removals.
Mistress America (2015)
Noah Baumbach’s second collaboration with Greta Gerwig (his creative and romantic partner) is this captivating college comedy, which buzzes with screwball energy. Lola Kirke stars as Tracy, a lonely college freshman in New York whose life is upended when she meets her impetuous soon-to-be step-sister Brooke (Gerwig) and is pulled into various adventures, including score-settling and cat-theft. The script crackles with witty, back-and-forth dialogue and the characters are an effervescent delight, while the film finds interesting ways to explore themes of female friendship and finding your artistic voice (the title comes from a story Tracy starts writing about Brooke).
Outside In (2017)
Jay Duplass (who co-wrote the script with director Lynn Shelton) stars as Chris, a 38 year old man who returns to his home town of Granite Falls, Washington after serving 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Estranged from his younger brother (Ben Schwartz), Chris has become fixated on forging a romantic relationship with his former high school teacher, Carol (Edie Falco), who helped campaign for his release. Meanwhile, Carol struggles with her stagnant marriage and becomes resentful of Chris’ burgeoning friendship with her teenage daughter (Kaitlyn Dever). Beautifully understated and superbly acted, this is a stirring smalltown out-of-prison drama that ranks with Shelton’s best work.
Mr. Roosevelt (2017)
The debut feature from writer-director-star Noël Wells (Master of None), this charming indie comedy centres on twenty-something Emily (Wells), a would-be comedian who returns from Los Angeles to her home town of Austin, Texas when her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) informs her that the cat they once shared is very sick. Upon arrival, Emily is shocked to discover that Eric is now co-habiting with his new girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom she takes an instant dislike. Wells proves a real talent to watch, both in front of and behind the camera – the script is frequently funny and there’s a real feel for the time and place. Above all, the film is worth seeing for a white hot supporting turn from Daniella Pineda (as a waitress-slash-musician who befriends Emily) and for Wells’ inspired impressions of Holly Hunter and Kristin Wiig.
This low-key indie romance-slash-crime caper has a huge amount of charm, thanks to director / co-writer Adam Leon’s lightness of touch and lovely performances from its two leads. Callum Turner plays Danny, a naive young New Yorker whose older brother (Michal Vondel) coerces him into carrying out a shady bag-swap deal at a subway stop. Danny’s designated getaway driver is Ellie (Grace Van Patten), who’s agreed to take part in order to get dodgy friend Scott (Mike Birbiglia) off her back. When Danny messes up and snatches the wrong bag, the pair frantically try to correct his mistake, growing closer in the process. The central crime may appear ridiculously contrived (its true nature is only revealed later), but this has real heart at its centre and the chemistry between Turner and Van Patten is genuinely touching.
Ask Dr. Ruth (2019)
Never released theatrically in the UK, Ryan White’s entertaining documentary lets sex therapist Ruth Westheimer tell her remarkable story in her own words, with occasional talking head contributions from friends, family and colleagues. Using some terrific archive footage, as well as animated segments to illustrate her childhood memories, the film charts Dr. Ruth’s journey from Holocaust survivor to licensed sex therapist to beloved cultural figure. Dr Ruth proves delightful company (the extra material during the credits is priceless) and the film includes several jaw-dropping revelations, such as the fact that she was a sniper in the Israeli army in her late teens/early 20s. By turns heart-breaking, inspirational and laugh-out-loud funny.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
“There’s no sense in nonsense, not when the heat’s hot!” So says Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a grumpy magazine intern who finds her world view softening when she’s sent to interview a man (Mark Duplass) who has placed a classified ad looking for a companion for time travel. Brilliantly written and superbly directed, this is a genuinely hilarious and unexpectedly moving comedy with a star-making turn from Plaza and a terrific supporting turn from New Girl’s Jake Johnson.
Warm Bodies (2013)
Based on the novel by Isaac Marion, this zombie romantic comedy (or rom-zom-com) stars Nicholas Hoult as R, a sentient zombie with feelings and an interior monologue who falls in love with human Julie (Teresa Palmer) after he saves her from a zombie attack. However, there are a couple of problems: firstly, he’s just eaten her boyfriend (Dave Franco) and secondly, her militaristic father (John Malkovich) is intent on wiping out the remaining zombie population. Hoult and Palmer have great chemistry, especially considering he’s a zombie, and writer-director Jonathan Levine’s inventive and funny script has a lot of fun putting a zombie-themed spin on the usual rom-com staples.
The very definition of a Hidden Gem, this overlooked teen comedy is up there with the likes of Mean Girls, which came out the same year. Jena Malone stars as a popular student at a Christian high school, who gets pregnant and finds herself alienated by her former best friends, including domineering singing group member Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). The performances are terrific across the board (the cast includes Macaulay Culkin, Heather Matarazzo and Eva Amurri) and the characters actually seem like real people rather than high school movie clichés, while the intelligent, well-written script crackles with laugh-out-loud funny dialogue. More importantly, though the film might initially seem like a straightforward satire of Christian fundamentalism, it’s actually a lot smarter than that, in that it pulls off the difficult balancing act of delivering a genuine, heartfelt message of tolerance and acceptance whilst also hitting all the bases required for a teen comedy. Also, extra praise is due to whoever cast Mary Louise Parker as Jena Malone’s mother, because they genuinely look like they’re related.
A Royal Affair (2012)
Mads Mikkelsen delivers a magnificent performance in this superbly directed Danish period drama that’s by turns gripping, thought-provoking and powerfully moving. He plays German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, a close advisor to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who begins an affair with the English-born young Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander, superb). Together they manipulate the ineffectual King into implementing a series of far-reaching liberal reforms, until the repressive aristocracy work out what they’re up to, putting both their lives in great danger.
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo (best known for twisty, low-budget time-travel flick Timecrimes), this blackly comic oddity plays like a cross between a small-town indie romance and a Godzilla-style creature feature. Anne Hathaway plays a troubled young woman who seems to have something to do with a gigantic monster that’s stomping all over South Korea. Hathaway and co-star Jason Sudeikis both deliver complex, multi-layered performances and the clever script uses its bonkers central idea to explore intriguing compelling themes of addiction, empathy, toxic male attitudes and the collateral damage of destructive behaviour.
Shimmer Lake (2017)
Written and directed by Oren Uziel, this clever crime thriller unfolds in reverse order over the course of a week, as a small town Sheriff (Benjamin Walker) tries to get to the bottom of a bank heist that’s gone horribly wrong. The strong cast includes reliable character actors such as Rainn Wilson (as the Sheriff’s ne’er-do-well brother), Ron Livingston, Rob Corddry and John Michael Higgins, while Narcos’ Stephanie Sigman impresses as a key figure in the mystery. Uziel clearly knows his way around a tricksy thriller and he ensures that his reverse-time gimmick has a satisfying pay-off that rewards close attention.
The Domestics (2018)
Sound-designer-turned writer-director Mike P. Nelson makes an auspicious debut with this gripping and inventive post-apocalyptic thriller. With half the population of the US decimated by a poison gas attack, society has fractured into various cult-like gangs, with the non-affiliated known as Domestics. Tyler Hoechlin and Kate Bosworth star as two such Domestics, an on-the-outs couple who undertake a terrifying drive across the country in order to reunite with family, dodging several murderous encounters along the way. Nelson maintains a breathtaking pace and strikes the perfect balance of thrilling action and nail-biting suspense sequences. Basically, it’s The Warriors meets The Road, seasoned with a dash of Mad Max.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
This charming stop-motion children’s adventure from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman) is a delightfully imaginative and beautifully designed tale about a boy who is kidnapped as a baby and grows up thinking he’s a boxtroll (literally, a race of trolls who wear boxes and have names like Fish, Knickers, Shoe, Wheels and Bucket). Stuffed full of wonderful details that will reward endless rewatches, the film also boasts some top-notch voice work, particularly from Ben Kingsley as hissable villain Archibald Snatcher. Whatever you do, don’t switch off before the fabulous mid-credits sting.
Co-directed by Éric Summer and Éric Warin, this French-Canadian animation (known as Leap! on its US release) is surprisingly charming, despite its slightly rocky start. Set in the 1880s, it centres on Felicie (voiced by Elle Fanning), an orphan girl who flees rural Brittany for Paris, where she passes herself off as her bullying rival and gains a place as a student at the Paris Opera Ballet. The story hits all the expected notes, but it’s enhanced considerably by some gorgeously detailed production design (making strong visual use of an under-construction Paris), likeable characters and lively animation that pays close attention to authentic ballet moves.
Notes on Blindness
Co-directed by James Spinney and Pete Middleton, this extraordinary British documentary is based on the work of theologian John Hull, who began keeping an audio diary after losing his sight in 1983, recording his thoughts, feelings, experiences and observations. Using actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby to lip-synch along to Hull’s original recordings (which include conversations with his wife and young children, as well as recorded letters to his parents in Australia), the film is both insightful and profoundly moving. It’s worth seeing for its stand-out scene alone, an extraordinary sequence that illustrates Hull discussing how rainfall affects his immediate environment, combining visuals of rain in Hull’s garden with phenomenal sound design work. Read our full review
Eight Men Out
“Say it ain’t so, Joe!” Written and directed by John Sayles, this gripping sports drama depicts Major League Baseball’s Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. The note-perfect cast includes the likes of David Strathairn, John Mahoney, Christopher Lloyd and D.B. Sweeney (as illiterate outfielder ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson), as well as early roles for the very youthful trio of John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and Michael Rooker. The performances are superb across the board and Sayles tells a complex story in riveting fashion, regardless of whether or not you’re a baseball fan.
Written and directed by Onur Turkel, this acerbic, jet-black satire is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) and Anne Heche star as a pair of former college friends who get into a vicious, life-changing fistfight after running into each other at a party. From there, the film gets progressively darker and stranger – suffice it to say there are more fights to come, as the cleverly structured story goes to some extremely dark places, with both actors delivering fully committed performances. The fights themselves are superbly choreographed and given an extra wallop by some punchy sound design and some inspired soundtrack choices. Outrageous, shocking and weirdly moving, this is a cult movie waiting to happen. (Read our full review)
What Keeps You Alive
Cruelly denied a theatrical release, this gripping thriller is one of the best genre films of the year. Written and directed by Colin Minihan, it stars Brittany Allen and Hannah Emily Anderson as a lesbian couple whose first anniversary weekend at a remote lakeside cottage becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse after a shocking moment of violence. The two leads have terrific chemistry together and Minihan’s taut direction keeps the tension at nail-biting levels throughout, thanks to a delightfully twisty script that’s full of jaw-dropping rug-pulls, left turns and sudden shocks. Great fun.
The Young Offenders
Smartly constructed and packed full of great gags, this sweet-natured Irish comedy lead to an equally hilarious sitcom that’s currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer (read our review of the BBC Three series here). Written and directed by Peter Foote, the film centres on Jock Murphy (Alex Murphy) and Connor MacSweeney (Chris Walley), a pair of idiot teenagers who hit upon a fool-hardy get-rich-quick scheme after hearing that a bale of cocaine has washed up on the shore of West Cork. The two leads have an irresistible comic dynamic and Foote maintains a consistently high gag rate, ensuring decent laughs in every scene. He also has a strong sense of structure, planting throwaway details that pay off beautifully and building to a farce-like climax that will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear. (Read our full review)
Charlie Bartlett (2007)
This smart teen comedy from director Jon Poll stands as a worthy tribute to actor Anton Yelchin, whose accidental death earlier this year robbed Hollywood of one of its brightest young talents. Yelchin delivers one of his best performances as a bullied rich kid who becomes a self-appointed psychiatrist-slash-pharmaceutical drug dispenser to the students at his new school. Gustin Nash’s witty script is packed with great dialogue and weirdly offbeat scenes and there’s terrific work from a supporting cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davies and Kat Dennings.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Imaginatively directed by Marc Foster, this delightful Truman Show-esque comedy stars Will Ferrell as a tax agent who suddenly hears a voice narrating his life. After discovering that he’s a character in a novel and, worse, that the author (Emma Thompson) is planning to kill him off, he seeks help from a literary theorist (Dustin Hoffman), who suggests turning his tragic story into a comedy by romancing his attractive, tax-hating client (Maggie Gyllenhaal). First-timer Zach Helm’s brilliant script is richly detailed and packed with quotable lines, while Ferrell delivers a career-best performance. Intelligent, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, this is a stunningly original piece of work that’s brimming with ideas. It also features the most romantic scene ever set on a bendy-bus.
Carrie Pilby (2016)
Based on the novel by Caren Lissner and directed by Susan Johnson, this utterly charming comedy-drama stars Bel Powley as Carrie Pilby, a socially awkward, highly intelligent 19 year-old who begrudgingly takes the advice of her therapist (an excellent Nathan Lane) and attempts to tick a few simple goals off a list, such as going on a date, making a friend and doing something that made her happy as a child. Powley’s performance here is every bit as assured as her turn in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, consistently unearthing unexpected and touching layers in what could have been just the standard quirky girl performance. (She also nails the rather specific accent, perfectly capturing a Londoner who’s been raised in New York). In addition, the dialogue is often very funny and there’s strong comic support from Vanessa Bayer (as an over-sharing co-worker) and Jason Ritter as Carrie’s blind date.
Co-directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman, this gripping, fly-on-the-wall documentary follows disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner as he embarks on a bid to become Mayor of New York, two years after a sexting scandal forced his resignation. At first, he appears to be winning over voters, but then a new wave of sexting revelations emerges, dealing his campaign a powerful blow. Weiner emerges as a fascinating and complex figure, at once a gifted and passionate politician, yet continually undone by his own seemingly compulsive indiscretions. Offering a refreshingly non-judgemental stance, the film is utterly riveting, operating simultaneously as an intimate character study, a thrilling behind-the-scenes look at a troubled political campaign and a scathing indictment of the state of political journalism in the USA. Read our interview with the film’s directors, our our full review here.
The textbook definition of an under-the-radar gem, this unsettling found footage horror stars co-writer-director Patrick Brice as a videographer who answers a Craigslist ad for a one-day job. When he arrives at his remote mountain town destination he finds that the creepy client, Josef (co-writer Mark Duplass), has a series of increasingly unusual requests, and he begins to suspect that all is not what it seems. Effectively a two-hander, the film is heightened by an appropriately tense chemistry between Brice and Duplass, while the clever script finds some interesting ways to pay off the found footage conceit. Read our full review.
The Invitation (2015)
This powerfully intense psychological thriller serves as a masterclass in building suspense. When Will (Logan Marshall-Green) takes his new girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to an LA dinner party at the house of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), he becomes increasingly paranoid about the real reasons for his invitation, especially after Eden and her new partner (Michiel Huisman) reveal they are members of a happiness cult. The performances are superb and the cleverly structured script does a terrific job of creating and sustaining tension, gradually moving from the excruciating uncomfortableness of an awkward dinner party to something much more sinister. Read our full review
Debut director Houda Benyamina won the Camera d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival for this superb crime drama-slash-coming-of-ager that plays like a cross between La Haine and Girlhood. Newcomers Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena star as a pair of 15 year-old best friends who decide that the fastest way out of their run-down, outskirts-of-Paris neighbourhood lies in going to work for their local drug dealer. Benyamina draws terrific performances from her two young leads, while her stylish direction (which extends to some exceptional sound design work) marks her out as an exciting new talent to watch. Read our full review
Written and directed by Matt Palmer, this cracking thriller won the Michael Powell Award for best new British feature at the 2018 Edinburgh Film Festival and promptly went straight to Netflix. It stars Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) and Martin McCann (The Survivalist) as two best friends who head to a remote village in the Scottish Highlands for a hunting trip. After a tragic accident, the pair decide to cover it up, rather than reporting it to the authorities, leading to a tense situation with the increasingly suspicious villagers. Palmer’s impressive direction ensures the film grips like a vice, as the unbearable suspense gradually descends into sickening horror. A must-see for genre fans. (Read our full review – or click here to read our interview with director Matt Palmer.)