56 Best Challenging Movies On Netflix

Staff & contributors

One of the cinema’s most noble roles is to challenge pre-conceived perceptions and tackle difficult questions about humanity and the world. Here are some of the most important and topically challenging movies to stream right now.

A wealthy paraplegic needs a new caretaker. His choice is surprising -- an ex-con down on his luck. Both of their lives are changed forever. Based on a true story, it is funny, touching, and very surprising.  It will have you rolling on the floor laughing one minute and reaching for your hankie the next. Intouchables is one of those perfect movies, that will easily and instantly make anyone's all-time top 10 list.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Absa Diatou Toure, Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi, Alba Gaïa Bellugi, Anne Le Ny, Antoine Laurent, Audrey Fleurot, Benjamin Baroche, Camila Samara, Caroline Bourg, Christian Ameri, Clotilde Mollet, Cyril Mendy, Dominique Daguier, Dorothée Brière, Elliot Latil, Émilie Caen, François Bureloup, François Caron, François Cluzet, Grégoire Oestermann, Hedi Bouchenafa, Ian Fenelon, Jean-François Cayrey, Jérôme Pauwels, Joséphine de Meaux, Joséphine de Meaux, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Michel Winogradoff, Nicky Marbot, Omar Sy, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, Pierre-Laurent Barneron, Renaud Barse, Salimata Kamate, Sylvain Lazard, Thomas Solivérès, Yun-Ping He

Director: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache

Rating: R

A follow-up/companion piece to the award-winning The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is another compelling documentary from Director Joshua Oppenheimer. Both films aim attention at the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66, when the military government systematically purged up to one million communists. While the first film's focus was on the culprits and on providing facts, the second one lets us meet the victims. One victim in particular: a soft-spoken optician named Adi Rukun, who meets with various members of the death squad who murdered his elder brother Ramli, under the guise of giving them an eye test. As he questions them about the killings, the murderers, again, show little remorse and eagerly provide the lurid details to the many executions. It's a stunning and provocative look at the legacy of historical mass killings, along with the insidious propaganda that provokes them, and continues to justify them to younger generations. A testament to the power of cinema to remember the forgotten.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Adi Rukun, Amir Hasan, Amir Siahaan, Inong, Joshua Oppenheimer, M.Y. Basrun

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating: PG-13

Orcas killing people? Saving whales? There was indeed a time when these issues were frontpage news and that might be the reason why this sounds like a 90s cliché to you. You might agree that this issue should be staunchly dealt with once you've watched Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 documentary. Orcas still being held captive by marine parks like SeaWorld to perform stunts and to parade around swimming pools to entertain ticket-buying families. Blackfish is the story of one of them in particular: a bull Orca named Tilikum, who has killed several people as a result of their immoral imprisonment. Similar incidents tend to be covered up by the parks' operators and management. They are, however, attributable to the fact that the animals are quiet simply driven mad by the unnatural conditions they are subjected to. They are not born as killers, they are turned into them. First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, elaborating on their remarkable intelligence and social behaviors. For those unaware of this, this passionate documentary makes for a chilling watch.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Anderson Cooper, Carol Ray, Dean Gomersall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, James Earl Jones, John Hargrove, John Jett, John Sillick, Mark Simmons, Mercedes Martinez, Nadien Kallen, Samantha Berg, Tamarie Tollison, Thomas Tobin, Tilikum, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rating: PG-13

Difficult but essential viewing, Procession tracks the progress of six men undergoing art therapy—specifically, by creating short filmed scenes to process their trauma from being sexually abused by Catholic priests. The resulting films we get to see are wildly varied in the emotions they express, forming a rich and powerful tapestry of the effects abuse can leave on individuals. And to see these men confront the worst events of their lives through filmmaking begins to feel like validation for filmmaking itself, that it can truly be an art form that changes and saves lives. But even more striking, somehow, is the unbreakable bond that forms among these survivors throughout this entire process, captured with reverence and overflowing compassion by director Robert Greene.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dan Laurine

Director: Robert Greene

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an impromptu freelance videographer who begins covering the crime world in LA for a local TV station. Almost as dark as a mystery can get, it is disturbing, and plays out as a combination of "Drive" and "The Network". The film is visually stunning as well as immensely suspenseful. It then becomes almost impossible to look away, even when you're the most horrified by just how far Bloom is willing to go to reach success. Gyllenhaal's performance is widely compared to that of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, which should give you an idea of its caliber.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alex Ortiz, Ann Cusack, Bill Blair, Bill Paxton, Bill Seward, Carolyn Gilroy, Chris Wolfe, Christina De Leon, Dale Shane, Dan Gilroy, Dig Wayne, Eric Lange, Holly Hannula, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Huang, Jamie McShane, Jonny Coyne, Kathleen York, Kent Shocknek, Kevin Dunigan, Kevin Rahm, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Leah Fredkin, Marco Rodriguez, Merritt Bailey, Michael Hyatt, Michael Papajohn, Myra Turley, Pat Harvey, Price Carson, Rene Russo, Rick Chambers, Rick Garcia, Riz Ahmed, Sharon Tay, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Viviana Chavez

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rating: R

To Leslie follows the eponymous Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a Southern woman who finds herself at the bottom of the barrel after finally using up every penny of her $190k lottery win. Out of work, friends, and family, she drowns herself in alcohol—that is until a kind soul in the form of motel owner Sweeney (Marc Maron) takes her in and gives her a shot.

To Leslie starts off a bit slow, and its premise may seem like it’ll give way to weepiness, but it’s worth sticking by till the end. The film only gets better, especially with the arrival of Maron, whose presence lends the film a much-needed buoyancy. It's also worth noting that unlike many of its kind, To Leslie avoids the poverty porn trap by depicting issues like addiction and indigence with nuance, honesty, and humanity.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alan Trong, Alan Wells, Allison Janney, Andre Royo, Andrea Riseborough, Arabella Grant, Blake Robbins, Brandee Steger, Catfish Jean, Chris Coy, Derek Phillips, Drew Youngblood, Jack O'Connor, James Landry Hébert, Jeanette O'Connor, John Gilbert, Juan Carlos Cantu, Lauren Letherer, Mac Brandt, Maggie Carney, Marc Maron, Matt Lauria, Micah Fitzgerald, Owen Teague, Paula Rhodes, Pramod Kumar, Scott Peat, Scott Subiono, Sewell Whitney, Stephanie Wong, Stephen Root, Tom Virtue

Director: Michael Morris

Rating: R

Art is a hobby for most people, but for musician Jon Batiste and writer Suleika Jaouad, art is part and parcel of this thing called life. Of course, it’s part of their work, and it’s how they make a livelihood, but it’s more than that– it’s almost a spiritual ritual they cling to, especially when Jaouad finds out that her leukemia has returned. American Symphony mainly depicts the creation of said orchestral work, but director Matthew Heineman translates the symphony into cinematic form, culminating in a performance played over the intimate moments between Batiste and Jaouad. It’s not just a documentary of a performance, but a documentary about art, about creation despite life’s pains, perhaps to survive life’s pains. It’s a powerful work that makes it easy to believe in art as imperative for life, and vice versa.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Anna Wintour, Billie Eilish, James Taylor, Jon Batiste, Jonathan Dinklage, Justin Bieber, Lenny Kravitz, Louis Cato, Questlove, Simon Helberg, Stephen Colbert, Stevie Wonder, Suleika Jaouad, Trevor Noah

Director: Matthew Heineman

Rating: PG-13

The Kings of the World is a surreal coming-of-age movie that follows Rá, Culebro, Sere, Winny, and Nano, street kids who are on their way to claim land that’s rightfully theirs. Their one goal is to finally make a home after living without one for so long, but they’re hindered by the inevitable tragedies that befall kids of their kind: impoverished, alone, and abandoned.

The title is ironic, but it also hints at their state of mind: these boys are unstoppable, rabble-rousers who live like there’s no tomorrow. They tear down private property and invade inns not out of spite, necessarily, but out of a knowledge that whatever they do they’re gonna be put down anyway, so they might as well live without rules.

Tackling powerful themes like land restitution and youth neglect, The Kings of the World is one of the most agonizing movies you'll ever see. It’s also Colombia’s official Best Foreign Language Film entry in the 2022 Academy Awards.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Actor: Brahian Acevedo, Carlos Andrés Castañeda, Cristian Campaña, Cristian David Duque, Davison Florez

Director: Laura Mora

Rating: TV-MA

This coming-of-age story based on the bestseller by the same name starts fun but veers towards darker territory. It's about a high-schooler who makes two older friends, played perfectly by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson. But as he gets closer to one of them, his anxieties and past trauma come to the surface. The impressive depth to which the makers of The Perks of Being a Wallflower were able to take it is what elevates it to greatness. It's the perfect mix between easy and challenging. If there is ever such a thing, it's this movie.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Adam Hagenbuch, Brian Balzerini, Chelsea Zhang, Dihlon McManne, Dylan McDermott, Emily Marie Callaway, Emma Watson, Erin Wilhelmi, Ezra Miller, Joan Cusack, Joe Fishel, Johnny Simmons, Jordan Paley, Julia Garner, Kate Walsh, Landon Pigg, Leo Miles Farmerie, Logan Lerman, Mae Whitman, Mark McClain Wilson, Melanie Lynskey, Morgan Wolk, Nicholas Braun, Nina Dobrev, Patrick de Ledebur, Paul Rudd, Reece Thompson, Stacy Chbosky, Stephen Chbosky, Tom Savini, William L. Thomas, Zane Holtz

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Rating: PG-13

This documentary starts with Alex Lewis, who gets into a motorcycle accident and wakes up in the hospital not knowing who he is. He doesn’t remember anything (not even what a bicycle or a TV is, or who his mother or father are), but he remembers his twin brother, Marcus. When Alex gets back into his childhood home, he’s full of questions, and Marcus is full of answers. However, slowly, Marcus realizes his power to reshape Alex’s version of their past. Marcus leaves one important detail from Alex’s life that makes this documentary (as if it wasn’t already) such an insane story. I know I said it’s a sad movie, but it’s also fascinating and, ultimately, humanizing of the brothers’ experience.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Alex Lewis, Andrew Caley, Evan Milton, Kathleen Rainey, Laura Obiols, Marcus Lewis |, Thomas Mulhurn

Director: Ed Perkins

Rating: TV-MA

Real life tragedies, especially one that's as sensationalized as the Miracle in the Andes, can be tough to depict on screen. On one hand, the film has to keep true to the story but also maintain some form of spectacle to keep people watching. Past depictions of the 1972 crash are preoccupied with the cannibalism portrayed by big name actors, but Society of the Snow takes a different route. The actors are newcomers, the threats to their lives don't require daring action stunts, and the cannibalism is limited to small chunks indistinguishable from animal meat. Instead, the spectacle of Society of the Snow is the human spirit– the vulnerability, the respect, and the generosity they've given each other in order to survive. It’s still an uncomfortable watch, especially since we get to know some of the survivors before the crash, but it’s definitely a transcendent addition to the genre dedicated to the miracle of existence.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Agustín Berruti, Agustín Della Corte, Agustín Lain, Agustín Pardella, Alfonsina Carrocio, Andy Pruss, Benjamín Segura, Blas Polidori, Carlos Miguel Páez Rodríguez, Daniel Patricio Antivilio Acuña, Diego Vegezzi, Emanuel Parga, Emanuel Sobré, Enzo Vogrincic, Esteban Bigliardi, Esteban Kukuriczka, Esteban Pico, Facundo Roure, Fede Aznárez, Federico Formento, Felipe González Otaño, Felipe Otaño, Felipe Ramusio, Felipe Ramusio Mora, Fernando Contigiani García, Francisco Bereny, Francisco Burghi, Francisco Romero, Gustavo Zerbino Stajano, Jerónimo Bosia, Juan Caruso, Juandi Eirea Young, Julian Bedino, Lautaro Bakir, Louta, Lucas Mascarena, Luciano Chattón, Mariano Rochman, Matías Recalt, Pablo Tate, Paula Baldini, Rafael Federman, Roberto Suárez, Rocco Posca, Santiago Vaca Narvaja, Simon Hempe, Sofía Lara, Tea Alberti, Tomas Wolf, Toto Rovito, Valentino Alonso, Virgínia Kauffmann

Director: J.A. Bayona

Rating: R

The key to what makes this apocalyptic thriller from Mr Robot and Homecoming showrunner Sam Esmail so unnerving is how resolute it is about not taking place in an alternate timeline. Making references to memorable events in recent history and namechecking real brands and cultural touchstones (like Tesla and Friends), Leave the World Behind is uncannily familiar — which, when combined with the film’s meticulous crafting of tension, makes it all the more unsettling.

Though taking place amidst an ambiguous national emergency, the film is largely set in one house — a claustrophobic setting that puts the characters’ self-conceits and prejudices under a microscope and forces them to confront their own impotence in an analog world. If it all sounds a bit “we live in a society,” be assured that Leave the World Behind cleverly manages to avoid the pitfalls of seeming like a bad Black Mirror ripoff by sidestepping expectations and deploying all the atmospheric tools in its arsenal. Withholding key plot and character information to increase our own paranoia means the movie always runs the risk of disappointment when explanations are finally given, but its focus on the human drama and its well-set-up ending ultimately eclipse any niggling frustrations.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller

Actor: Alexis Rae Forlenza, Charlie Evans, Erica Cho, Ethan Hawke, Farrah Mackenzie, Josh Drennen, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Mahershala Ali, Myha'la, Myha'la Herrold, Orli Gottesman, Sam Esmail, Vanessa Aspillaga

Director: Sam Esmail

Rating: R

This documentary from journalist David Farrier, New Zealand’s answer to Louis Theroux, plays more like an out-and-out horror movie. But don’t be fooled by the serial killer connotations of its title — the real Mister Organ’s crimes are (mostly) psychological and have no obvious motive, making him quite a bit scarier than your usual screen villain. Described as a “parasite,” “terrorist,” and a “black hole” by the few traumatized victims of his who agree to talk on record about him, Organ is clearly a master at weaving a sticky web around everyone who comes near him — including, as it turns out, Farrier himself, who soon becomes a casualty of his own investigation.   Though the doc never really punctures the nebulous aura of this deeply creepy — and yet somehow deeply dull — character, that’s what makes it such an arresting watch: Farrier takes us along for the ride as he’s sucked into the disorienting orbit of an energy vampire, largely denying us the relief of a clarifying explanation so that we, too, get a taste of the claustrophobia and psychological torture that come with dealing firsthand with someone like Organ.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: David Farrier, Michael Organ

Director: David Farrier

There’s no easy way to talk about racism – it’s a nebulous set of ideas that shift and change and manifests in numerous ways that many people can’t even identify as racism because of how prevalent it is. But Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has been able to write down a fairly comprehensive narrative that outlines key historical moments that shaped the world’s concept of race and Blackness, and this narrative is brought to the screen through vivid animations and strategic sequencing by director Roger Ross Williams in new Netflix release Stamped from the Beginning. It’s a provocative, passionate investigation, and it’s one that should be required viewing.

Genre: Animation, Documentary

Actor: Alexa Rachelle Jennings, Angela Davis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Ibram X. Kendi, Jennifer L. Morgan, Julian Joseph, Rafa Marinho

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Rating: R

As a crime thriller, Holy Spider is taut and terrifying, a modern noir that manages to unnerve despite the familiar moves it employs. The cat and mouse chase between serial killer and investigative reporter, for instance, is a classic tale, but that doesn’t make Holy Spider any less gripping. The film benefits from artful camerawork, considered acting (as the daring journalist Rahimi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi nabbed the Best Actress award at Cannes), and most of all a nuanced take on the situation in Iran. 

Despite having a clear stance against violence and corruption, nothing in Holy Spider is black and white. Contradictions abound, and even when presented with brief moments of justice, we’re left scratching our heads looking for more. Such is the case when the system, and not just an individual, is the true pest. 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Alice Rahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Ariane Naziri, Majd Eid, Mehdi Bajestani, Nima Akbarpour, Sara Fazilat, Sina Parvaneh, Zar Amir Ebrahimi

Director: Ali Abbasi