105 Best Thought-provoking Movies On Netflix

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.

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, Hafid Abdelmoula, 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

Phenomenal and heartbreaking, Wind River is a true masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan, the man behind Sicario and Hell or High Water. In a Native American Reservation, a local girl is found dead and a young detective (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to uncover the mystery. She is accompanied by a tracker (Jeremy Renner) with his own dark history in the community. It’s not a very rewarding movie at first, so don’t expect an incredibly fast-paced story from the get-go. However, when everything unfolds, it’s not only action-packed, its reflections on indigenous communities are deep and poignant. How this remains a relatively known movie is shocking, it has to be one of the best mysteries of the past 20 years.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Althea Sam, Apesanahkwat, Austin R. Grant, Blake Robbins, Chris Romrell, Dallin Tusieseina, Devin Hansen, Duy Beck, Elizabeth Olsen, Eric Lange, Gabe Casdorph, Gabriel Casdorph, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Gus Sheridan, Hugh Dillon, Ian Bohen, Ian Roylance, James Jordan, Jeremy Renner, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, Martin Sensmeier, Mason D. Davis, Mason Davis, Matthew Del Negro, Norman Lehnert, Tantoo Cardinal, Tara Karsian, Taylor Sheridan, Teo Briones, Teresa Duran-Norvick, Tokala Black Elk

Director: Taylor Sheridan

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

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

On Body and Soul is the impeccably crafted winner of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival and an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Is it possible that two people dream the same dream? And meet each other in that same dream? This unique drama directed by Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi studies this possibility against the unlikely backdrop of a slaughterhouse. Middle-aged, inconspicuous manager Endre (Géza Morcsányi) can't help but noticing a new girl at work, Maria (Alexandra Borbély), the abattoir's new hygiene manager. They fall in love, but not, as you might suspect, during a fateful mandatory hygiene inspection, but in their dreams—in the shape of two deer in a mysterious, snow-covered forest. The Hungarian director had taken an 18-year break from making movies, which was probably the prerequisite for making something as striking and unconventional as On Body and Soul.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Alexandra Borbély, Ervin Nagy, Eva Bata, Géza Morcsányi, Itala Bekes, Júlia Nyakó, Morcsányi Géza, Nora Rainer-Micsinyei, Pal Macsai, Reka Tenki, Tamás Jordán, Zoltán Schneider, Zsuzsa Jaro

Director: Ildikó Enyedi

Rating: Not Rated

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

While quite testing for viewers, this is one of the craziest, most high-energy movies you'll ever watch. In this incredible German drama, child actor Helena Zengel plays Bernadette aka Benni, a traumatized 9-year-old child who tends to lash out and has been repeatedly suspended from every school she went to. Benni is a so-called “Systemsprenger” (which is the original German title). A system crasher is a child so uncontrollable and aggressive that, over time, she falls through the grid of special schools, foster care, and social work facilities. Despite the best efforts of her designated social worker, Frau Bafané, played by Gabriela Maria Schmeide, she is turned down by everyone, testing the patience of her surroundings, wherever she goes. A trip with Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a tough boxer and anger-management trainer, turns out to be the last resort. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt, System Crasher is intense, punky, and wild with an almost eerie sense of authenticity. Its devastating effect is helped along by its unique, hyperactive camerawork. Much like the social workers themselves, you might have a hard time keeping professional distance to all this. This intense drama will stay with you for a long time.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Albrecht Schuch, Axel Werner, Barbara Philipp, Bärbel Schwarz, Bruno Thiel, Cederic Mardon, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Gisa Flake, Helena Zengel, Imke Büchel, Jana Julia Roth, Julia Becker, Lisa Hagmeister, Louis von Klipstein, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brenner, Melanie Straub, Moritz Thiel, Peter Schneider, Roland Bonjour, Steffi Kuhnert, Tedros Teclebrhan, Till Butterbach, Victoria Trauttmansdorff

Director: Nora Fingscheidt

Rating: 12

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

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

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

A thoughtful drama about the financial crisis, Margin Call is gripping. Seriously, even something as convoluted as the 2008 global economic meltdown is not only accessible and understandable, but it's gripping. Margin Call transports you to the heart of Wall Street, both the financial institutions and the street, literally. It is exciting, well-acted and informative. Uh, also: Kevin Spacey.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Aasif Mandvi, Al Sapienza, Ashley Williams, Demi Moore, Grace Gummer, Jeremy Irons, Jimmy Palumbo, Kevin Spacey, Maria Dizzia, Mary McDonnell, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Paul Bettany, Penn Badgley, Peter Y. Kim, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, Susan Blackwell, Zachary Quinto

Director: J. C. Chandor

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