To watch, or not to watch? That is the question.
The great thing about streaming services like Netflix is there’s something for everyone. The downside (if you can call it that)? With so much content on Netflix, it can be difficult to decide what to watch and which ones are worth the time.
Look no further! We’ve compiled a running list of some of the best must-watch series, documentaries and movies to stream on Netflix. (Sorry, rom-com and slapstick comedy fans, this is not the list for you.) And for your handy reference, all the recommendations include a “why you should watch it” section.
Binge-able, best shows/series on Netflix:
1. BoJack Horseman (2014 – 2020)
This adult animation series tells the story of an anthropomorphic horse named BoJack Horseman and his washed-up, post-fame life in Hollywood. Horseman wishes to return to his “celebrity status” attained during his hit ’90s sitcom Horsin’ Around, and has since grown deeply jaded and depressed about his life, post fame. Throughout the series, BoJack is constantly in the search for happiness, desiring to reclaim that “spark” he once had.
Why you should watch it: Of all the comedy sitcoms we’ve seen, this series has one of the best uses of humour as a medium, making it feel all too real. Widely recognised for its ingenious depiction of reality through satire, BoJack Horseman is able to weave and capture the essence of difficult topics like existentialism, depression, anxiety, abuse, addiction, racism and other social issues, without forcing it down your throat. If you need another reason to start on this series, we’ve got three words: good character development.
2. Itaewon Class (2020)
Itaewon Class tells the story of Park Sae Ro Yi, a seemingly harmless and not-so-bright bar owner who plots revenge against the man who killed his father. Although fuelled by a strong vindictive desire, Park has a soft heart but harbours a fierce capability for perseverance and tenacity.
Why you should watch it: This South Korean show is not your typical revenge story. If there was an accurate statement to sum up the show, it’s this: Revenge is a dish best served cold. Plus, Itaewon Class inserts many pockets of quiet truths – via Park’s personality – that bring a lot of hope and comfort into a cutthroat world.
3. Japan Sinks: 2020 (2020)
Based on a disaster novel of the same title written by Sakyo Komatsu in 1973, Japan Sinks: 2020 is an anime remake about a major earthquake that nearly destroys Japan. The story is set after the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, where a catastrophic earthquake thrusts the Mutou siblings Ayumu and Gou, into extreme survival conditions.
Why you should watch it: Japan Sinks: 2020 is co-directed by Masaaki Yuasa, a well-known Japanese director behind the creation of Crayon Shin-chan (1992 – present). What makes this series so special? Yuasa’s ability to balance human insignificance in the face of nature and the insurmountable quality of the human spirit. If you ever feel like you can’t overcome adversities, this series will remind that you can.
4. Squid Game (2021)
Squid Game enters the fray with other similar survival game concept plotlines like the Saw film franchise, Battle Royale (2000), As the Gods Will (2014) and Alice in Borderland (2020). Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game is a story about debt-ridden contestants who risk their lives in a survival game to win 45.6 billion Korean won.
The plot revolves around protagonist Seong Gi-hun, who after living through many years of debt, gets invited to enrol as a contestant to play traditional children’s games for a chance at financial freedom. The catch? With only one winner out of 456 players, each will have to play to their death.
Why you should watch it: Unlike other similar plotlines in the movies mentioned earlier, this show has an interesting take on free will and how one chooses to exercise it. A cautionary tale reflecting on human fallibility and gravitation to self-interest, this show will leave you questioning whether humans have at all, any capacity for goodness. The verdict? We’ll leave that up to you.
5. The Chair (2021)
If you’ve got thoughts on the usefulness of “cancel culture”, this show puts that at the spotlight by critiquing the concept of “free speech” in academia. In The Chair, Sandra Oh plays Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly appointed head of the English department at Pembroke University where she is tasked to improve enrolments. Why? The department’s senior professors are tired of keeping up with their passionate, no-BS-taking, not-afraid-to-be-controversial students, contributing to burgeoning faculty-student tensions. Expect furious debates, possible triggering subject-matter and a whole lot of academic theory jargon and references.
Why you should watch it: It’s honest and doesn’t take sides. The Chair is able to resonate and objectively critique the very convention of free speech while trying its best to resist making either side look bad.
6. Black Mirror (2011 – 2019)
Not afraid of exploring the macabre and deeply disturbing truths about the human condition? This British speculative fiction series is known for its sci-fi, dystopian take on the future. Written by Charlie Brooker, each season of Black Mirror comprises of stand-alone plotlines directed by various filmmakers.
Why you should watch it: If you aren’t afraid of watching your fears take form, this series does an amazing job at questioning morality. Plus its depictions of science fiction often blur the lines of reality. Some episodes have even been dubbed by fans as “harrowingly prescient” – given how its events seem entirely conceivable in the near future. Warning: Some episodes can be very disturbing. An advice is to look up a summary before watching.
7. The Good Place (2016 – 2020)
This critically acclaimed series is praised for its creative exploration of ethics and philosophical concepts surrounding what constitutes good and bad, and life and death. The Good Place is premised in the afterlife, where humans – depending on their numerical morality score accumulated based on their lives on earth – are sent to “the Good place” (heaven) or “the Bad Place” (hell) upon death.
The story centres around Eleanor, an amoral loner who gets killed in a shopping mall freak accident and gets sent to “the Good place” after being wrongly identified as a righteous lawyer. Aware that she is in fact not a “good person”, Eleanor recruits fellow “Good place” resident Chidi, a past Professor of Ethics and Moral Philosophy, to teach her the fundamentals of being a “good person”.
Why you should watch it: It’s hopeful and aspirational. The Good Place explores the many ways “goodness” can be defined – it reminds us that actions are not set in stone as long as there is capacity and willingness for change. Also, if you love learning about philosophical and existential concepts, you’ll learn aplenty from this show. Need more convincing? Quite simply: There’s plot twist bonanza.
8. Unorthodox (2020)
Unorthodox is a four-part German-American miniseries based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (2012). The show revolves around Etsy, a 19-year-old Hasidic Jewish woman who lives an unhappy and unfulfilled life in an arranged marriage to a man from the Satmar sect – a highly Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In desperation to escape the extreme religious conservatism and gender subjugation forced upon her by her community, Etsy flees to Berlin in search for her estranged birth mother.
Why you should watch it: The show provides a rare and authentic glimpse into one of the most conservative communities of today that still follow extremely specific gender roles. Unorthodox sheds light on the limited opportunities women in the Hasidic community have, while also doing its best to represent the cultural specificities with care and respect.
9. When They See Us (2019)
Based on real events of the 1989 Central Park jogger murder case, When They See Us is a miniseries revolving around the lives of five young, black male suspects who were falsely charged for the rape and assault of a white woman. This series exposes the corrupt and failing justice system, and how its own workers mangle with evidence by abusing the suspects into confessing to a crime they never did.
Why you should watch it: The brutal representation of racism and abuse might be triggering, but it’s necessary to bring across the message that no amount of remedy or rehabilitation can undo the damage that’s already been inflicted upon the five young suspects. Created and written by female black filmmaker Ava DuVernay, When They See Us is an important reiteration of the fight to end prejudice of any form.
Must-watch, best documentaries on Netflix:
10. 13th (2016)
Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, 13th tackles the ever-present issue of discrimination against the black community in the United States. Titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that abolished slavery, the series brings to light the various loopholes and tyrannies perpetuated by white supremacy advocates. Following the George Floyd protests in June 2020, 13th experienced a surge in viewership, by nearly 5,000 percent.
Why you should watch it: It doesn’t get rawer than this. Also written, directed and produced by a black filmmaker DuVernay (When They See Us, see above), she meticulously untangles the issue of “Black criminalisation” – in which black people are demonised by the state, creating rules that effectively perpetuate internalised subjugation within its own people. Also important: Getting educated is the first step against racism.
11. Born In Gaza (2014)
Taking place shortly after the 2014 Gaza war that left more than 500 innocent children dead and more than 3,500 others injured, Born in Gaza follows the lives of 10 young children as they recall horrific, traumatizing events relating to the war. Filmed in a span of three months, this documentary pays utmost importance to the main victims of the war: the children – bringing to light their personal stories that often get glossed over in the news.
Why you should watch it: The overwhelming proliferation of media reporting can leave desensitising reactions on social issues, but this documentary forces you to listen. The children need to be heard, and Born In Gaza upholds that right. It sidelines political debate or media sensationalism and, instead, reflects the reality of the children, the ones who have suffered the bulk of the consequences.
12. Icarus (2017)
This documentary dives first-hand into the world of doping – the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Director and avid cyclist Bryan Fogel consults Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian scientist and director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, to devise an experiment to use these performance-enhancing drugs in a way that will escape detection from standard drug-testing procedures. Why? Following Lance Armstrong’s doping investigations despite never failing a drug test, Fogel is set to uncover the truth. The experiment seeks to prove that current drug-testing procedures for athletes in international sports competitions are insufficient.
Why you should watch it: The World Anti-Doping Agency made a unanimous decision to ban Russia from participating in the Olympics from 2019 to 2022. This documentary unearths the truth to what led to that decision that shook the sporting world.
13. Inside The Children’s ICU (2018)
This documentary follows the daily struggles of the children warded in Singapore’s KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital. Channel News Asia (CNA) was given unprecedented access to one of the busiest and important departments of the hospital – the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) – where kids as young as 3 are being treated against life-threatening diseases.
Why you should watch it: The rare all-access pass enables CNA to capture real, vulnerable and heart-breaking moments of patients and families, a pertinent reminder of life’s significance. It also gives the public a look into the lives of medical workers having to make important decisions – something that can’t be emphasised enough in our present Covid reality. Do note: Watch with care as topics and scenes of struggle and death are present.
14. Misha and the Wolves (2021)
Based on the literary hoax published in 1997, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years written by Misha Defonseca, Misha and the Wolves is a documentary that uncovers the truth of the fraudulently published book. The book supposedly told the “true” story of how Misha survived the holocaust as a young Jewish girl by wandering across Europe and being adopted by a pack of wolves. Of course, this story isn’t true – and neither was Misha.
Why you should watch it: In an age where “fake news” pervades across mediums and truth can often be a slippery concept that’s malleable to one’s intentions, this documentary dives head-first into uncovering Misha’s real identity and how she got away with her entire ruse.
15. Period. End of Sentence. (2018)
This is a short documentary film telling of the fight to end taboo sentiments surrounding menstruation in India. Period. End of Sentence. follows a group of Indian women dedicated to making low-cost, biodegradable sanitary pads. Their aim? To provide more women with basic and affordable access to feminine hygiene products.
Why you should watch it: This is an important documentary that aims to help end prejudice and taboos against female bodies and menstruation – a common reaction in certain cultures that deem the latter as “unholy” or “dirty”.
16. Pray Away (2021)
Pray Away is one of those documentary films that might leave you questioning about everything you’ve been fed as “true” your entire life, even if it might not resonate with you. Directed and produced by Kristine Stolakis, this documentary opens an important conversation surrounding the Christian-led, anti-LGBTQIA+ movement that promotes “conversion therapy” – a pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation to fit heteronormative standards using psychological, physical or spiritual intervention. More specifically, conversion therapy often involves abusive and traumatic treatments that undermine an individual’s right to free will. Pray Away follows the survivors of conversion therapy, all while holding accountable the very institutions that endorse it.
Why you should watch it: The traumatic and destructive effects of conversion therapy remain true till today, and this documentary exposes everything that’s wrong with trying to deny an individual the right to be who they are.
17. Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons (2016 – present)
Inside The World’s Toughest Prison originally aired on UK’s Channel 5 and is now streaming on Netflix. Presented by Paul Connolly (season 1) and Raphael Rowe (seasons 2 to 5), this documentary series follows the lives of prisoners around the world – giving viewers a glimpse into the lives of the inmates and prison guards, and how the two interact to dictate the prison’s internal political structure.
Why you should watch it: Not all prisons are made equal, and this series exposes the cracks within a country’s justice system. Some prisons cramp their inmates in terrible inhumane conditions, while some create systems that unfairly offer “influential” and “powerful” inmates privileges that others don’t have access to. This documentary will truly question the ethics of the extent to which punishment fit the crime, and if there’s even any room for negotiation.
Best movies to watch on Netflix
18. 3 Idiots (2009)
Directed by Indian filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, 3 Idiots is a Hindi coming-of-age comedy film surrounding the lives of three best friends (Rancho, Farhan and Raju) attending a prestigious Indian engineering college. The film satirically critiques the demanding Indian education system by following the lives of the three friends as they grapple with the overbearing societal pressures of academic excellence.
Why you should watch it: It’s funny, serious and far from boring. 3 Idiots manages to interject the right amount of humour and critique into the conversation, all while still maintaining the very classic conventions of song and music that make Indian cinema so charming. To add, its unique plot will keep you glued to the screen.
19. Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Beasts of No Nation is an American-Ghanaian war drama film that follows a young boy named Agu who gets recruited by the rebel army as a child soldier in the wake of a civil war. Led by The Commandant (played by Idris Elba), Agu is adopted into the rebel army and trained to kill using guns and machetes. The film zooms into the exploitation of innocence, where young children are ideologically brainwashed into becoming ruthless killing machines, only for them to be tormented with guilt and trauma.
Why you should watch it: For a film that centres around the atrocities of war and conflict, it does a good job at showing the sheer vulnerability of innocence and how easy it is to taint a child’s moral compass. After all, a child’s innocence is a glass that once shattered, can never be put back together beautifully as it once was. Warning: Scenes of extreme violence are present. Do watch with care.
20. Forrest Gump (1994)
Speaking of innocence, Forrest Gump is the now iconic film brimming with quiet truths via the child-like optimism of a young man with low intelligence and an incredibly gentle soul. Forrest, the film’s protagonist (played by Tom Hanks), recounts his life story to various strangers who sit next to him on a bench while he waits for a bus that he never seems to board.
Why you should watch this: Apart from Hanks’s incredible portrayal of the character, the events of Forrest’s life are filled with many “as luck would have it” moments – of which many involve real-life references that are cleverly woven into the plotline. But one of the best descriptions of the film was written by Winston Groom in the LA Times, “[The film] touches people with its sweeping story about a gentle soul who perseveres, insisting to anyone who’ll listen that, ‘life is a box of chocolates…You never know what you’re gonna get.’” Verdict: No matter what life throws at you, you always have the option to turn it around. And Forrest Gump shows you exactly how.
21. Her (2013)
Imagine Black Mirror (see above), but with a dash of rom-com. Her is an American sci-fi romance drama directed and written by Spike Jonze. Set in the near future of Los Angeles, the film tells the story of Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and depressed man who develops a relationship with his virtual AI assistant named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha lives in Theodore’s ear, quite literally, as he is only able to hear her (like we would with Siri and Alexa). The two enter a relationship like no other, and struggle to navigate a connection that transcend physical form and boundaries.
Why you should watch it: As a critique on our existing obsession and reliability on assistive technologies, this show further exceeds its own ingenuity and complicates this dynamic by exploring and questioning our ideas of “love” and what makes love real. The best part? Jonze is able to take a concept that sounds conceivably ridiculous, and turn it into an empathetic and genuine depiction of a human simply craving for love and connection, in whatever way, form or shape that is.
22. Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2019)
You may have already heard of the original South Korean film of the same name, released in 2013. But in case you haven’t, you won’t miss a thing with this Turkish adaptation. Miracle in Cell No. 7 centres the life of a mentally challenged but good-hearted man (Memo) who was wrongfully convicted for a murder he did not commit. Memo gets separated from his young daughter, Ova, and is sent to prison where he encounters and eventually befriends his fellow inmates.
Why you should watch it: If you cried buckets during the original film, you’ll cry even more in this one, but for reasons we shall not divulge. Cinematically, this adaptation wasn’t afraid to explore conventions of storytelling that made sense for its Turkish audience, all while making it equally appealing and digestible for international viewers. Verdict: Grab a box of tissues – you’ll need it!
23. Shutter Island (2010)
Directed by renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese, this psychological thriller, based on Dennis Lehan’s 2003 novel of the same name, is a true mind-bending film dealing with concepts of reality and severe mental disorders (though the latter might take the backseat for the bulk of the film). Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Edward “Teddy” Daniels, a US Marshal sent to Shutter Island to investigate a psychiatric facility together with his partner Chuck (played by Mark Ruffalo), after a patient goes missing. Teddy and Chuck engage in a cat-and-mouse chase, working with the psychiatric team to find the missing patient (who was deemed dangerous for murdering his entire family).
Why you should watch it: The ending is known for harbouring one of the best open-ended twists that begets many conversations even years later. The best thing about it is: It all happens in just one line. Try to see if you can catch it, if you can.
24. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s feature directorial debut telling a true story based on William Kamkwamba’s memoir of the same name. The film follows William, a not-yet-discovered child prodigy from Malawi who uses his love for electronics to build a DIY windmill, all in hopes to save his village from famine.
Why you should watch it: This is one of those films that gets you really invested in William’s journey of trial and error. The portrayal of William’s tenacity is a powerful testament to the success of this film, leaving a deep, but undeniably powerful stamp of triumph at the end that the audience gets to revel in, too.
25. The Platform (2019)
The Platform is a Spanish sci-fi horror film directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. The story is set in a dystopian-looking large tower called the “Vertical Self-Management Centre”, also known as “The Pit”, where people live. The residents of The Pit are fed through a platform, where food is aplenty at the top floor, and gradually lessens as it descends with each floor, leaving only leftovers for the residents living at the bottom. Eventually, this flawed system generates conflict, with many residents resorting to brutal violence in order to ensure their own survival.
Why you should watch it: Although the graphic violence gets really disturbing, the purpose is to send a shocking but much needed message about the unequal distribution of wealth and resources in present society. Director Gaztelu-Urrutia explains, in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, that “the hole is a reflection of our society, it couldn’t hide the violence. It had to show how we rip each other apart.” In short: This show is not for the faint heart.
26. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
This all-time classic perhaps needs little explanation. Directed by Frank Darabont and based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the plot follows banker Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) who is sentenced to life imprisonment in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover in 1947, despite his claims of innocence. As the years pass, Dufresne befriends fellow inmate Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman), who leads a money-laundering operation and becomes instrumental in helping the former adapt to prison life.
Why you should watch it: It’s one of the greatest examples of no-frills, good storytelling that will leave you at the edge of your seat. Good pacing, good character depth, great script and Roger Deakins’s nearly unrivalled cinematography makes The Shawshank Redemption an ensemble that leaves you fully invested into its narrative.
The film explores themes of justice, prison brutality, human institutionalisation, friendship and the soul’s ever-present capacity for perseverance. As a supposed “crime thriller”, it resists the definition of a single genre, making it an enjoyable watch for any viewer – mainstream cinema lover or not. Verdict: Don’t let its subject-matter scare you. Give it a chance, you may just enjoy it.
27. The Truman Show (1998)
Directed by Peter Weir, this psychological comedy-drama follows the life of Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey), who goes by his daily routine oblivious to the fact that he is the unsuspecting main character of his own TV show. The show slowly unravels elements that leave Truman questioning if his life is nothing but a ruse, prompting the exploration of topics like simulated reality, existentialism, surveillance and the conventions of reality television.
Why you should watch it: With a plethora of reality TV shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Real Housewives franchise, Big Brother, The Bachelor and more, watching The Truman Show in this day and age may result in the film seeming almost prescient. With allusions to product placements, “a day in the life” footages, exclusive access to one’s “private spaces”, The Truman Show begs the quandary that’s ever so pertinent in today’s digital age, where lives can be “curated” (or created) online via social media: To live for oneself, or for an audience?
28. The Two Popes (2019)
The Two Popes is biographical drama film directed by Fernando Meirelles that was The Two Popes is a biographical drama directed by Fernando Meirelles, adapted from Anthony’s McCarten’s play The Pope. Set in the Vatican City, the film picks up after the controversial Vatican leaks scandal in 2012, where Pope Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) attempts to get then archbishop Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) to reconsider his decision to resign. The two Popes engage in intimate conversations surrounding morality and duty as the scandal begins to cripple the faith of believers, to which Pope Benedict XVI then reveals his intention to abdicate the papacy.
Why you should watch it: The film calls for many quiet moments of introspections on the relevance of religion in a secular world, and whether purity from sin is a non-negotiable prerequisite for the Papacy. The two popes confide in each other, admitting harsh truths in their own spiritual journey, including struggles with preserving celibacy.
Ultimately, Meirelles is able to strip beneath the pageantries of the Papacy and anchor the plot to the premise that argues human fallibility as one of the promising qualities that make man capable leaders. Rohan Naahar of Hindustan Times encapsulates this perfectly, “They’re men of God, but they’re men.” It’s less the need to be right, but the willingness to right wrongdoings that determine a good heart.
By Willaine G. Tan