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The 20 Best Netflix Original Movies, From ‘Beasts of No Nation’ to ‘Strong Island’

From eye-opening documentaries to searing historical dramas, Netflix has quickly become one of the film industry's boldest distributors.

15. “Tramps” (Adam Leon)

Anchored by a ridiculously charismatic performance from actress Grace Van Patten, Adam Leon’s warm and winsome follow-up to SXSW 2013 winner “Gimme the Loot” offers a modern riff on classic Hollywood comedies like “It Happened One Night.” Danny (Callum Turner) is a sweet-natured kid who’s just trying to keep his head straight and do right by his family, so he’s not quite sure how to reconcile those agendas when his brother calls from prison and begs him to make a shady drop-off. One accidental switcheroo later, and Danny is snagged together with a girl named Ellie, the two kids falling in love as they’re sent on a wild goose chase around the outer fringes of New York City. Shot at the height of summer and sweltering in that singularly ripe Big Apple humidity, “Tramps” is delightful to the core, diverting by design but told with the confidence of someone who can endow even the lightest fare with a real sense of weight. Save it in your queue for a hot summer day and it’ll feel like a breath of fresh air. — DE

14. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Liz Garbus and Hal Tulchin)

Biographical documentaries rarely rise above hagiography, and it can be difficult to breathe new life into a beloved figure. The legendary Nina Simone wore her soul on her sleeve in her music, but the details of her darkness were rather murky to the average listener. In their revealing documentary, Liz Garbus and Hal Tulchin trace the way Simone’s natural born talent, impassioned activism, and fiery temper coalesced into the complicated figure we know and love today. Way ahead of her time, the ravages of fame proved too shallow for the truth-telling chanteuse, and she retreated to the safety of obscurity. Interviews with her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, reveal a tortured soul who never turned off the show. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a rare and invaluable look at one of our greatest American musicians. — JD

13. “Gerald’s Game”

As a book, Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game” is the alternately disturbing, grotesque, and absurd story of a woman handcuffed to a bed in a sex-gone-wrong scenario; director Mike Flanagan hits all those beats on cue. The unfortunate chained woman is Jessie (Carla Gugino), whose older husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) takes her to a remote lakeside house in a desperate shot at rekindling the flame of their sexless marriage. His weak attempt to arouse her with a rape fantasy quickly sours, and in the midst of a fight, he falls down dead. So Jessie’s stuck screaming for help, and possibly going mad in the process. That’s just the starting point for a visually engrossing psychological thriller that builds to a bloody payoff. Flanagan has been making waves as a major horror director for ages (see: “Oculus”), but “Gerald’s Game” is his most startling accomplishment — a shocking survival story in which the heroine must burrow into her own mind to figure out a way out, or go crazy in the process. —EK

12. “First They Killed My Father” (2017)

Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” is the film she wanted to make. Based on the 2000 memoir of Loung Ung, who was five when the Khmer Rouge forced her family into work camps, it required a $24 million budget, a 60-day shoot, a two-hour, 16-minute cut. The only place Jolie pitched the film is the only place that would let her make it: Netflix. While Jolie’s film may be traditional in some ways, it’s radical in many others. Netflix could have demanded what any studio would: shoot the film in English, cast a Chinese movie star as the mother, cut the script to meet a smaller budget. Instead, at every turn Jolie chose truth over gloss. Jolie and Ung whittled down her story into a lean screenplay, looking for the telling visual details. Unusually, the film is told from a young girl’s wide-eyed, realistic and very uncomfortable perspective. Young Loung Ung learns what it means to be unsafe and abused and starving. Along the way, she loses family members and trains to become a child soldier. And she is eventually separated from both of her parents and all but one sibling.  Agile Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s cameras take us close to Ung as she experiences what is going on around her. You see the flora and fauna, the beauty of nature, flowers and insects. On set, leeches were so commonplace in water scenes that everyone just flicked them off. And that’s a real giant fuzzy tarantula. — AT

11. “Winter on Fire”

The Maidan Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, told from the inside in astonishing detail. With up-close footage of police beatings and hordes of angry protestors calling for the country’s president to resign, “Winter on Fire” features the intensity of an action movie and the fury of a clear-eyed polemic. The filmmaker initially follows small scale protests against the government’s rejection of a free trade deal with the European Union, but their efforts quickly spread around the country. An exciting montage of the developing crowd ends with close to a million protestors gathered together at the center of town in a stunning act of defiance. That’s when police troops swarm in, hurling batons left and right, as blood fills the streets. Director Evgeny Afineevsky captures these moments with just as much clarity, illustrating the extent to which authorities assumed they could easily silence the opposition. It continues to be a relevant testament to the value of communal activism. —EK

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