Hidden Gems: The best films you (probably) haven’t seen on Netflix UK
Matthew Turner | On 02, Jan 2021
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.
Saint Frances (2020)
This utterly captivating indie comedy-drama is one of the very best films of 2020. Kelly O’Sullivan writes and stars as Bridget, a directionless 34 year old woman who takes a job as a nanny to six-year old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), the rambunctious daughter of a lesbian couple (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu) who are deep in preparation for the birth of their new baby. Directed by O’Sullivan’s partner Alex Thompson, the film takes a refreshingly casual, no-nonsense approach to the female experience, effortlessly normalising such previously taboo subjects as menstruation, abortion and post-natal depression, while telling its touching story with warmth and humour. Rounded off with pitch-perfect performances from O’Sullivan and Williams, this is an utter joy from start to finish. Bump it right to the top of your Netflix queue.
Haifaa Al Mansour’s warmly emotional coming-of-age drama earned the distinction of being the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia – as well as the first made by a female Saudi director. Talented newcomer Waad Mohammed plays Wadjda, a spirited 10 year-old girl in Riyadh who schemes to earn money so she can buy a bicycle and race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), even though girls aren’t allowed to ride bikes. The script is excellent, cleverly pulling off the subtly provocative feat of telling a wider political story within a coming-of-age context, without ever resorting to heavy-handed preachiness or sugary sentimentality. This is worthy of a place alongside the very best kid-with-a-bike movies, such as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and, yes, the Dardennes’ The Kid With a Bike.
Kindred Spirits (2019)
Lucky McKee’s delightfully twisted thriller is a genre-savvy throwback to the sort of Fill-In-The-Blank From Hell thrillers that were all the rage in the 1990s. Thora Birch and Sasha Frolova play Chloe and Nicole, a mother and teenage daughter whose lives are upended by the arrival of Sadie (Caitlin Stasey), Chloe’s troubled younger sister, who soon turns out to have a deadly agenda. Stasey delivers a knock-out performance, casually flipping from charming and fun to downright monstrous in a heartbeat, while Birch (in a welcome comeback role) is convincing and compassionate as Chloe. Packed with fun film references, the film is further heightened by an atmospheric score and strong visual design, while McKee ratchets up the tension to enjoyable effect.
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.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Before Jennifer Lawrence was Katniss Everdeen, she was Ree Dolly in this compelling slice of country noir based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. Set in the remote Missouri Ozarks, the film sees 17-year-old Ree stirring up trouble when she tries to track down her bail-skipping father before the courts seize her family home. Structured like a traditional detective story and featuring an Oscar-nominated performance from Lawrence, this is a thoroughly absorbing thriller that exerts a tight emotional grip.
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.
Writer-director Jamie Patterson’s moving drama is one of the best British films of the last five years. Set in Brighton, it centres on the May-December friendship that blossoms between 80-year-old drag queen Jackie (veteran British actor Derren Nesbitt) and new-to-the-scene 21-year-old Faith (Rizzle Kicks’ Jordan Stephens), a bond that intensifies when Jackie is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Patterson’s warm and funny script continually finds new takes on otherwise familiar scenes and his sensitive direction gets the tone exactly right, nimbly side-stepping mawkish sentimentality at every turn. A richly rewarding British drama, full of heart, hope and humanity, anchored by a pair of note-perfect performances.
Little Boxes (2016)
Rob Meyer’s feel-good indie comedy-drama stars Melanie Lynskey and Nelsan Ellis as Gina and Mack, an interracial New York couple who move to an overwhelmingly white suburban neighbourhood in Washington state with their 11-year-old son, Clark (Armani Jackson). The plot revolves around each member of the family attempting to forge connections in their new community, with exquisitely awkward results, particularly in the case of poor Clark, whose precocious new friend Ambrosia (a scene-stealing Oona Laurence) immediately decides she’s going to make him her boyfriend. All three leads are utterly charming, sparking likeable chemistry with each other, as well as their various co-stars, while the subtle script squeezes in various points about privilege, presumption and prejudice alongside plentiful low-key laughs.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Destined to be a teen classic, this heartfelt comedy marks a brilliant debut for writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, an anxiety-ridden high school outsider whose life is plunged into chaos when her BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). The witty script skilfully subverts expectations, cleverly playing on echoes of previous troubled teen movies (eg. Ghost World, The Diary of a Teenage Girl), while Steinfeld is an utter joy as Nadine, finding deep sympathy for the character even when we disapprove of her behaviour. Moving, laugh-out-loud funny and packed with great scenes and dialogue, this is a treat from start to finish.
The Cured (2017)
Written and directed by David Freyne, this powerful, provocative thriller imagines what would happen if a cure was found for those affected with a zombie virus. Set in post-zombie apocalypse Ireland, it stars Sam Keely as Senan, a former zombie who’s released from undead rehab and goes to live with his American sister-in-law (Elliot Page). Meanwhile, Senan’s fellow former zombie Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) foments a violent underground resistance movement, in protest at the way the cured are treated in society. Bracingly original, superbly acted and rich in thematic resonance, this is a genuinely chilling zombie movie that delivers high tension and strong emotion.
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.)
Your Name (2016)
Body-swap comedy meets sci-fi romance in this utterly charming anime from Japanese writer-director Makoto Shinkai. The plot centres on two Japanese teenagers – small-town high-school girl Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Tokyo boy Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) – who find themselves inexplicably waking up in each other’s bodies several times a week. After finding inventive ways to communicate, the pair begin an unconventional romance, but their happiness is threatened by an imminent comet-related disaster. Shinkai’s genre-blending pays off beautifully, with a touching and inventive story that’s consistently surprising, deeply moving and frequently very funny. It’s also beautifully animated, with a level of detail that takes your breath away.
Fish Tank (2009)
Beautifully written British drama from director Andrea Arnold (Red Road), starring then-newcomer Katie Jarvis (who has gone on to play Hayley Slater in EastEnders) as Mia, an angry young teenager whose life changes when her flighty mother (Kierston Wareing) brings home a new, charismatic boyfriend called Connor (Michael Fassbender), who may or may not be a wrong’un. Jarvis is sensational as Mia (aside from her knockout performance, she has some great dance moves) and there’s terrific support from Fassbender, while Arnold’s stunning direction ensures that the story is by turns heart-in-your-mouth suspenseful, laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving. An extraordinary, unforgettable film.