23 Best Smart Movies On Netflix

Staff & contributors

Good movies serve beyond entertainment, to expand perspectives and improve our understanding of humanity and the world. If you’re hungry for some food for thought, here are the best smart movies and shows available to stream now.

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane, Chris Smith, Courtney Love, Danny DeVito, David Letterman, Elton John, George Shapiro, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Judd Hirsch, Michael Stipe, Milos Forman, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bonerz, Randall Carver

Director: Chris Smith

Rating: TV-MA

In a stunning and vivid (re-) introduction to the Black intellectual, author, and social critic, James Baldwin, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It tells the story of America by telling the story of “the negro” in America, based on a book Baldwin started to write, which would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote about 30 pages before he passed away in 1987. Haitian director and activist Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into a movie, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro highlights, at the same time, Baldwin's genius, his unique eloquence, and the beauty of his soul as a human being. It is a sad truth that Baldwin's denouncements feel as relevant today as they did 50 years ago. As such, this movie serves as a sobering reminder of how far America still has to go. A mesmerizing experience!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bob Dylan, Dick Cavett, H. Rap Brown, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Joey Starr, Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Paul Weiss, Ray Charles, Robert F. Kennedy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: PG-13

Given the title, it isn’t surprising that Falling in Love Like in Movies would be a metanarrative with the main romance mirroring the filmmaking and the filmmaking reflecting the main romance. It’s a familiar approach, and at first, Falling seems to follow the inevitable ending where the couple falls in love, but right on time, in around Sequence Four, writer-director Yandy Laurens chooses a more honest, less chosen path– a path that plenty of previous romance films hasn’t examined– that still falls within the eight sequence screenplay structure Bagus talks about. While Bagus is pitching his film to Hana, and to his producer, Jatuh Cinta Seperti di Film-Film pitches a new way of thinking about love, grief, and of course, filmmaking.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Abdurrahman Arif, Alex Abbad, Dion Wiyoko, Ernest Prakasa, Julie Estelle, Nirina Zubir, Ringgo Agus Rahman, Sheila Dara Aisha

Director: Yandy Laurens

This searing allegation of sexual abuse against Def Jam Recordings' Russell Simmons unfolds with the intelligence and tenacity of a world-class prosecution. But more importantly, On the Record remembers to fight for a justice that's restorative, too—paying proper tribute to Drew Dixon and many other equally creative and talented women behind the scenes in the American hip hop industry. With every new argument it introduces, this documentary encourages us not only to be open to new information, but to rewire our very way of thinking about race, intersectional feminism, and the music business. It may be a bit of a cliché, but On the Record really does leave you smarter than when you started, with a heightened awareness of how the present moment is inseparable from our history.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Shanita Hubbard

Director: Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick

In the year of the Netflix TV Show Maniac, another absurdist title stole critics’ hearts. Sorry to Bother You is a movie set in an alternate reality, where capitalism and greed are accentuated. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) is a guy called Cassius who struggles to pay his bills. However, when at a tele-marketing job an old-timer tells him to use a “white voice”, he starts moving up the ranks of his bizarre society. A really smart movie that will be mostly enjoyed by those who watch it for its entertaining value, and not so much for its commentary. It is like a Black Mirror episode stretched into a movie.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Actor: Annie Chen, Armie Hammer, Damion Gallegos, Danny Glover, David Cross, David Fine, Dawayne Jordan, Ed Moy, Eric Jacobus, Forest Whitaker, James D. Weston II, Jermaine Fowler, John Ozuna, Kate Berlant, Lakeith Stanfield, Lily James, Marcella Bragio, Michael X. Sommers, Molly Brady, Omari Hardwick, Patton Oswalt, Robert Longstreet, Rosario Dawson, Safiya Fredericks, Steven Yeun, Terel Gibson, Teresa Navarro, Terry Crews, Tessa Thompson, Thessaly Lerner, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tony Toste, Val Garrahan, W. Kamau Bell, William W. Barbour

Director: Boots Riley

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

Two storylines take place in this Parisian animation: one of a Moroccan immigrant who works as a pizza delivery guy, and the other of his hand, somehow no longer part of his body, but also going on a trip around Paris.

The hand storyline is not gory by the way, except for one or two very quick scenes. Mostly, this is a film about loneliness and not being able to find your way back, both as an immigrant who misses how they were raised and as a hand who misses its body.

Sporting some of the most beautiful animation work this year, this movie premiered at Cannes where it became the first-ever animated film (and Netflix film) to win the Nespresso Grand Prize.

Genre: Animation

Actor: Alia Shawkat, Dev Patel, George Wendt, Hakim Faris, Jérémy Clapin, Jérémy Clapin, Patrick d'Assumçao, Patrick d'Assumçao, Patrick d'Assumcao, Victoire Du Bois

Director: Jérémy Clapin, Jérémy Clapin

Rating: TV-MA

After 2019's The Souvenir—a drama about a toxic, suffocating relationship—director Joanna Hogg brings back her protagonist (played by a superb Honor Swinton Byrne) and sees her attempting to communicate the experience of this failed romance through her thesis film. Anybody with an interest in the production process of cinema should glean a ton of useful advice from The Souvenir Part II's mundane on-set interactions and difficult conversations about the line between compromise and practicality. And through increasingly surreal images of stages within stages and reflections within reflections, Hogg paints a complex, intelligent portrait of cinema as a place of ultimate self-examination.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alice McMillan, Amber Anderson, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Anna Calvi, Ariane Labed, Ben Hecking, Byron Broadbent, Charlie Heaton, Chris Dickens, Crispin Buxton, Davide Albonetti, Erik Wilson, Frankie Wilson, Gala Botero, Harris Dickinson, Honor Swinton Byrne, Inès Rau, Jack McMullen, James Fox, Jaygann Ayeh, Joe Alwyn, Lydia Fox, Richard Ayoade, Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke, Tosin Cole, Yasmin Paige

Director: Joanna Hogg

This is a hilarious political comedy starring the ever-great Steve Buscemi. Set in the last days before Stalin's death and the chaos that followed, it portrays the lack of trust and the random assassinations that characterized the Stalinist Soviet Union. Think of it as Veep meets Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator. Although to be fair, its dark comedy props are very different from the comedy that comes out today: where there are jokes they're really smart, but what's actually funny is the atmosphere and absurd situations that end up developing.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

Actor: Adam Ewan, Adam Shaw, Adrian McLoughlin, Alla Binieieva, Andrea Riseborough, Andrey Korzhenevskiy, Andy Gathergood, Cara Horgan, Dan Mersh, Daniel Booroff, Daniel Chapple, Daniel Fearn, Daniel Smith, Daniel Tatarsky, Daniel Tuite, Dave Wong, David Crow, Dermot Crowley, Diana Quick, Elaine Caxton, Ellen Evans, Emilio Iannucci, Eva Sayer, Ewan Bailey, George Potts, Gerald Lepkowski, Henry Helm, James Barriscale, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Jeremy Limb, Jonathan Aris, Jonny Phillips, June Watson, Justin Edwards, Karl Johnson, Leeroy Murray, Luke D'Silva, Michael Ballard, Michael Palin, Nicholas Sidi, Nicholas Woodeson, Oleg Drach, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Paul Ready, Paul Whitehouse, Phil Deguara, Richard Brake, Ricky Gabriellini, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Rupert Friend, Sebastian Anton, Sheng-Chien Tsai, Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Tim Steed, Tom Brooke, Yulya Muhrygina

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rating: R

A wonderful, witty teen comedy—possibly the best the genre has known in a long time! In a powerhouse performance, Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a high school junior at peak angst and awkwardness. Her roller coaster journey through family, friends, lovers, or lack thereof, gives her that all-too-common impression for people her age that life is unbearable. Things get more complicated when Nadine's dad passes and her only friend hooks up with an unexpected person. Her temperament and humor will help her see past her demons to understand what's important in life, putting you in privileged spectator mode to this highly smart and exciting coming-of-age story.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alexander Calvert, Ava Grace Cooper, Blake Jenner, Chris Shields, Christian Lagasse, Christian Michael Cooper, Daniel Bacon, Eric Keenleyside, Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Hayden Szeto, Jena Skodje, Katie Stuart, Kavandeep Hayre, Kelly Fremon Craig, Kirsten Robek, Kyra Sedgwick, Laine MacNeil, Laura Ward, Lauren K. Robek, Lina Renna, Lyle Reginald, Meredith Monroe, Nesta Cooper, Woody Harrelson

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig

Rating: R

Although Descendant is built around the finding of the Clotilda—the last ship to bring African slaves to the United States—this documentary knows that there's so much more potent drama in the stories of the ordinary people of Africatown, Alabama. As this painful reminder of the roots of their community is salvaged from the water, their view of history itself begins to change. Now they face the responsibility of making sure that the Clotilda doesn't just become a tourist attraction, and that their call for reparations unites the Mobile region of Alabama more than anything else. Its a gripping, complex documentary that feels like reading a great novel.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History

Actor: Cleon Jones

Director: Margaret Brown

Although Who We Are is essentially a professionally recorded masterclass interspersed with additional interviews, it only emphasizes Jeffery Robinson's skill as an orator and his compassion as a teacher. In a clear and levelheaded manner, he lays out how even the historical documents that formed the blueprint of the United States are exclusionary in key ways. Robinson does this not to condemn his country, but to challenge the way we view traditions as sacred, and to see how modern-day white nationalism is upheld by these institutions, intentionally or not. The new interviews that accompany Robinson's talk take these lessons on the road, reminding us of those who are directly affected by these centuries-old decisions.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Jeffery Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr.

Director: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler

Demonstrating that a great stand-up routine should always stem from strong writing first and foremost, Brian Simpson makes common subjects for ridicule feel fresh again—just through how clever his writing is. Simpson seems to position himself from the same place where more controversial comedians punch down at women and at queerness. But he manages to push against expectations by keeping his focus on those who normally don't get the brunt of the criticism, or by drawing us toward broader cultural problems that make people act the way that they do. None of this is all that novel, of course, and Simpson does end up dwelling on certain subjects for too long. But every line he speaks feels considered and is deployed with the perfect matter-of-factness, keeping the laughs consistent without ever complaining or intentionally trying to provoke.

Genre: Comedy

Actor: Brian Simpson

Director: Baron Vaughn

Inspired by the Spiniak case, Blanquita reimagines the infamous scandal through mirrored interrogations and disorienting viewpoints. Blanquita rewrites the original witness, whose fictional variant, in turn, rewrites the abuse faced by victims as her own. She is transformed from a clueless liar, into someone still a liar, but one that did so when every other possible witness has been discarded for being unreliable, for being too traumatized to go through the judicial process unflinchingly. The film takes on a provocative subject matter, at a time when real life sexual abuse allegations are treated with the same scrutiny Blanca faces. However, Blanquita does so in a way that gives its complexities the weight it deserves. It’s a fascinating thriller, a quandary that tests the idea of ends justifying the means… But it’s one that’s disturbing, given the consequences to each crime.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alejandro Goic, Alex Quevedo, Amparo Noguera, Claudio Troncoso, Daniela Ramírez, Hernán Lacalle, Jaime Vadell, José Luis Aguilera, Karen Bejarano, Laura López Campbell, Marcelo Alonso, Nelson Polanco, Nicolás Durán, Roberto Farías

Director: Fernando Guzzoni

Like a Wes Anderson movie, The Last Black Man in San Francisco takes artistic risks and nails every one of them. There are many quirky, aesthetically well-studied, and even funny aspects to this moving story.

Jimmie has been maintaining a typical San Francisco Victorian house, regularly painting the windows and watering the plants. One small problem: other people live there and they don’t want him around. It turns out this was once Jimmie’s family house, having been built by his grandfather in 1948, and he misses it deeply.

This story is based on writer Jimmie Fails’ life, as he tried to reclaim his family home in SF. However, it’s not a movie that limits itself to gentrification. It transcends that to being about the universal yearning to find a place to call home.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Andy Roy, Daewon Song, Danny Glover, Finn Wittrock, Isiain Lalime, Jamal Trulove, Jello Biafra, Jimmie Fails, John Ozuna, Jonathan Majors, Mari Kearney, Mike Epps, Rob Morgan, Thora Birch, Tichina Arnold, Tonya Glanz, Warren Keith

Director: Joe Talbot

Rating: R