103 Best Thought-provoking Movies On Netflix UK

Staff & contributors

Challenging movies serve beyond entertainment, pushing us to ask new questions about humanity and the world around us. If you’re hungry for some food for thought, here are the best thought-provoking movies and shows available to stream now.

It comes as no surprise that former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen won Best Actor in Cannes for delivering on this challenging role. In this merciless thriller by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, the ice-eyed actor plays Lucas, an out-of-luck high school teacher struggling to start a new life. After a bitter divorce, he returns to the close-knit community he grew up in to work as a kindergarten teacher.

A few weeks before Christmas, a child from his class, who has an innocent crush on the popular teacher, hints to a colleague that he had exposed himself to her. The young girl’s intimation galvanizes the small hunter’s town into a witch-hunt that leaves Lucas’ life hanging from a string. Trapped in the lies, the more he fights back, the more irrational the mob becomes. In all its brutal honesty, The Hunt is one of those rare thrillers that will haunt you for days. Extraordinary and thought-provoking!

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alexandra Rapaport, Allan Wibor Christensen, Anne Louise Hassing, Annika Wedderkopp, Bjarne Henriksen, Daniel Engstrup, Frank Rubæk, Jacob Højlev Jørgensen, Josefine Gråbøl, Jytte Kvinesdal, Lars Ranthe, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Mads Mikkelsen, Mona C. Soliman, Nicolai Dahl Hamilton, Ole Dupont, Øyvind Hagen-Traberg, Rasmus Lind Rubin, Sebastian Bull Sarning, Søren Rønholt, Susse Wold, Thomas Bo Larsen, Troels Thorsen

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Rating: R

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley, Chad Michael Murray, Chris Riedell, Christina Elmore, Denzel Worthington, Destiny Ekwueme, Joey Oglesby, John Burke, Jonez Cain, Keenan Coogler, Kevin Durand, Laurel Moglen, Liisa Cohen, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Melonie Diaz, Michael B. Jordan, Nicole Maxali, Noah Staggs, Noah Zavala, Octavia Spencer, Robert Ajlouny, Ruben Rivera, Ryan Coogler, Tamera Tomakili, Trestin George, William Armando

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rating: R

Former activists Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie drop out from modern consumerist society to raise their six children in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They teach them how to raise and kill their own food, to survive in nature through boot-camp-like workouts, and homeschool them in literature, music, and left-wing philosophy. Instead of Christmas, they celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. Then, one day, this unusual family life is shaken by a phone call and they are forced to leave their life of adventure to reintegrate into American life.

Directed by Matt Ross, who also brought you Good Night, and Good Luck, the film offers a poignant look at alternative living, the effects of modern technology, and the nature of good parenting. Viggo Mortensen is indeed fantastic as the grizzled father and was rightly nominated for a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actor. George MacKay and the entire cast of “children” also deliver terrific performances. As emotionally raw and thought-provoking as it is funny, Captain Fantastic will have the viewer decide if Ben Cash is the best father in the world or the worst.

Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alan Humphrey, Ann Dowd, Annalise Basso, Charlie Shotwell, Elena Stecca, Elijah Stevenson, Erin Moriarty, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Greg Crooks, Hannah Horton, Kathryn Hahn, Matt Ross, Mike Miller, Missi Pyle, Nicholas Hamilton, Rex Young, Richard Beal, Samantha Isler, Shree Crooks, Steve Zahn, Teddy Van Ee, Trin Miller, Viggo Mortensen

Director: Matt Ross

Rating: R

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

Orlando von Einsiedel's epic documentary is at once a stunning natural film, an intimate human drama, and an intense political thriller slash investigative report. The titular Virunga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site in Eastern Congo, serves as the magnifying glass through which we witness the natural, human, and political crisis of this embattled and volatile region. There are poachers killing endangered gorillas, the bloody business of Big Oil companies, government forces fighting a myriad of militias, and, lastly, the three individuals struggling to protect Virunga and its mountain gorillas from death and destruction. The result is a snap-crackle-pop-type situation, like sitting on a powder keg. The film captures all this superbly with great editing, compelling real-life material, and gripping action. Virunga's intensity can rival a well-made fictional thriller any day of the week.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: André Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Mélanie Gouby, Orlando von Einsiedel, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rating: Not Rated

In this powerful documentary, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa intertwines her own family history with the democratic journey of her home country. As she says herself, Costa and her country's democracy are of the same age. This is not the only reason why she was uniquely positioned to make a film like this: her parents were left-wing activists in the 1970s, who went to jail for their beliefs, while her grandparents were part of the ruling class have made Brazil's strong-man politics and right-wing backlash possible. Her mother was held at the same prison that ex-president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) was sent to. Costa tells the story of Rousseff's demise as well as that of Luiz Inácio da Silva (2003-2011) aka Lula, whose future remains up in the air. The Edge of Democracy is thus a gripping and urgent warning that democracy in the world's sixth most populous country is under attack. In content and form, Costa is obviously opinionated, but she makes a strong point.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Aécio Neves, Barack Obama, Dilma Rousseff, Eduardo Cunha, Elena Andrade, Jair Bolsonaro, Jean Wyllys, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva, Michel Temer, Nelson Mandela, Paulo Maluf, Petra Costa, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Sérgio Moro

Director: Petra Costa

Rating: TV-14

Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later (and 28 Weeks Later). It tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson from About Time), an IT developer who is invited by a billionaire CEO to participate in a groundbreaking experiment—administering a Turing test to a humanoid robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Meeting the robot with feelings of superiority at first, questions of trust and ethics soon collide with the protagonist's personal views. While this dazzling film does not rely on them, the visual effects and the overall look-feel of Ex Machina are absolutely stunning and were rightly picked for an Academy Award. They make Ex Machina feel just as casually futuristic as the equally stylish Her and, like Joaquin Phoenix, Gleeson aka Caleb must confront the feelings he develops towards a machine, despite his full awareness that 'she' is just that. This is possibly as close to Kubrick as anyone got in the 21st century. Ex Machina is clever, thrilling, and packed with engaging ideas.

Genre: Drama, Science Fiction

Actor: Alex Garland, Alicia Vikander, Chelsea Li, Claire Selby, Corey Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Elina Alminas, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, Symara A. Templeman, Symara Templeman, Tiffany Pisani

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: R

More simply called La Vie d'Adèle in its native language, this French coming-of-age movie was hugely successful when it came out and was probably one of the most talked-about films of the time. On the one hand, the usual puritans came to the fore, criticizing the lengthy and graphic sex scenes. On the other hand, Julie Maroh, who wrote the source material that inspired the script, denounced Franco-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche for directing with his d*ck, if you don't mind me saying so, while also being an on-set tyrant. Whatever you make of this in hindsight, the only way to know is to watch this powerfully acted drama about the titular Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and her infatuation with Emma, a free-spirited girl with blue hair, played by Léa Seydoux. The film beautifully and realistically portrays Adele's evolution from a teenage high-school girl to a grown, confident woman. As their relationship matures, so does Adèle, and she slowly begins to outgrow her sexual and philosophical mentor. Whatever your final verdict on the controversial sex scene, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without doubt an outstanding film as are the performances from Exarchopoulos and Séydoux.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Alain Duclos, Alika Del Sol, Alma Jodorowsky, Anne Loiret, Aurélien Recoing, Aurelie Lemanceau, Aurélien Recoing, Baya Rehaz, Benjamin Siksou, Benoît Pilot, Benoît Pilot, Bouraouïa Marzouk, Camille Rutherford, Catherine Salée, Catherine Salée, Éric Paul, Fanny Maurin, Halima Slimani, Jérémie Laheurte, Jérémie Laheurte, Judith Hoersch, Justine Nissart, Karim Saidi, Klaim Nivaux, Léa Seydoux, Maelys Cabezon, Maud Wyler, Mona Walravens, Quentin Médrinal, Salim Kechiouche, Samir Bella, Sandor Funtek

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Rating: NC-17

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

Miles Teller plays Andrew Nieman, an ambitious young jazz drummer striving for greatness, who is edged towards breaking point by the sadism of his teacher and conductor, Terence Fletcher, played expertly by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher insults him, pressures him, and makes him cry in front of all his peers. Directed by Damien Chazelle, who was one of the youngest people to receive a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the powerful La La Land, the aptly titled Whiplash poses some intense questions about artistry and ambition. Will Andrew survive? Will it lift him to a higher artistic level? Can his tormentor be appeased through accomplishment? It's almost impossible to single out the best part of this film, considering the flawless performances, masterful script, and meticulously crafted soundtrack. Cherishing the existential artist without giving easy answers, Whiplash is an inspiring watch.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Adrian Burks, April Grace, Austin Stowell, C.J. Vana, Calvin C. Winbush, Charlie Ian, Chris Mulkey, Clifton 'Fou Fou' Eddie, Damon Gupton, Henry G. Sanders, J.K. Simmons, Janet Hoskins, Jayson Blair, Jocelyn Ayanna, Joseph Oliveira, Kavita Patil, Keenan Allen, Keenan Henson, Kofi Siriboe, Marcus Henderson, Max Kasch, Melissa Benoist, Michael D. Cohen, Michelle Ruff, Miles Teller, Nate Lang, Paul Reiser, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Stephen Hsu, Suanne Spoke, Tarik Lowe, Tony Baker, Tyler Kimball, Wendee Lee

Director: Damien Chazelle

Rating: R

From Steven Spielberg, Munich is the sharp and thrilling depiction of Mossad agents on a mission to avenge the Munich Massacre, the killing of 11 Israeli Olympic team members at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Despite being based on real events, it’s a work of fiction. This allows the film to stand on clear yet nuanced grounds, focusing on the moral dilemmas that may rise for the secret agents and the perpetrators, now targets. The ensemble cast including Daniel Craig and Eric Bana allow Spielberg to deliver the film you can tell he wanted to make. A personal and striking effort.

Genre: Action, Drama, History, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Abdelhafid Metalsi, Alexander Beyer, Amani Zain, Ami Weinberg, Amos Lavi, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Andreas Lust, Arturo Arribas, Ayelet Zurer, Baya Belal, Ben Youcef, Bijan Daneshmand, Brian Goodman, Carim Messalti, Charley Gilleran, Ciarán Hinds, Daniel Bess, Daniel Craig, David A. Hamade, Dianne Zaremba, Djemel Barek, Eric Bana, Faruk Pruti, Félicité Du Jeu, Geoffrey Rush, Gila Almagor, Guri Weinberg, Guy Amir, Guy Zo-Aretz, Hagit Dasberg, Hanns Zischler, Hiam Abbass, Hicham Nazzal, Hichem Yacoubi, Hisham Suliman, Igal Naor, Jalil Naciri, Jim McKay, Jonathan Avigdori, Jonathan Uziel, Joram Voelklein, Karim Saidi, Karim Saleh, Kevin Collins, Laurence Février, Lili Bordán, Liron Levo, Lisa Werlinder, Lyes Salem, Lynn Cohen, Mahmoud Zemmouri, María Casal, Marie-Josée Croze, Marie-Josée Croze, Martin Ontrop, Mathieu Amalric, Mathieu Kassovitz, Mehdi Nebbou, Meret Becker, Merik Tadros, Michael Lonsdale, Michael Schenk, Mihalis Giannatos, Moa Khouas, Moritz Bleibtreu, Moshe Ivgy, Mostefa Djadjam, Mouna Soualem, Mousa Kraish, Nasser Memarzia, Oded Teomi, Ohad Knoller, Omar Metwally, Omar Mostafa, Ori Pfeffer, Ossie Beck, Patrick Kennedy, Rad Lazar, Raffi Tavor, Renana Raz, Richard Brake, Rim Turki, Robert John Burke, Sabi Dorr, Saïda Bekkouche, Sam Feuer, Sami Samir, Samuel Calderon, Sarah Mennell, Sasha Spielberg, Sharon Alexander, Shmuel Edelman, Sonia Hell, Souad Amidou, Stéphane Freiss, Steven Spielberg, Tom Wlaschiha, Ula Tabari, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Valeria Bruni‑Tedeschi, Wojciech Machnicki, Yehuda Levi, Yvan Attal

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rating: R

The concepts of roads not taken and domino effects have received plenty of cinematic attention in their showier forms by way of multiverse comic book movies and dimension-hopping films like Everything Everywhere All At Once. But, though there’s no hint of sci-fi in Past Lives, Celine Song’s gentle film can count itself as one of the best treatments of that universe-spawning question: “what if?”

When her family moves from Seoul to Canada, teenage Na Young bids a loaded farewell to classmate Hae Sung and changes her name to Nora. Years later, they reconnect online and discover the spark still burns between them. This is no idealistic romance, though: Past Lives is told with sober candor. Song acknowledges real obstacles standing in the way of a relationship between the two — those pragmatic (distance) and, more painfully, personal (evolving personalities, American husbands).

Those two threads — unrealized romance and the transmutation of identity that so often takes place after migrating — are expertly entwined in Past Lives to produce a sublime, aching meditation on memory and time, practical love and idealistic romance, and all the complex contradictions that exist in between. That Song communicates so much and so delicately in only her first film makes Past Lives all the more stunning.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: An Min-yeong, An Min-young, Chang Ki-ha, Chase Sui Wonders, Choi Won-young, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Greta Lee, Hwang Seung-eon, Isaac Powell, Jack Alberts, Jane Yubin Kim, Jay Karales, John Magaro, Jojo T. Gibbs, Kristen Sieh, Moon Seung-a, Moon Seung-ah, Park Jun-hyuk, Seo Yeon-woo, Shin Hee-cheol, Teo Yoo, Yim Seung-min, Yoon Ji-hye

Director: Celine Song

Rating: PG-13

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

There are only two main characters in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: Nancy, a retired teacher who was recently widowed, and Leo, an adept sex worker with a mysterious past. They're almost always in one place and work on a single goal: pleasure. But despite the seeming monotony, the movie is crackling with wit and sensuality every step of the way. It doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter. Nancy and Leo go back and forth about their past, with Nancy divulging much about the stigma of aging and Leo about the stigma of sex work. They also dive into the shame attached to pleasure, ultimately revealing more than just their naked bodies to each other and to the audience.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Daryl McCormack, Emma Thompson, Isabella Laughland, Lennie Beare, Les Mabaleka

Director: Sophie Hyde

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