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The 50 Best Movies on Netflix Instant

May 23, 2012  |  4:14pm
We love the convenience of streaming movies on Netflix Instant, but we don’t always love the navigating through the countless films in the service’s ever-expanding catalog to find something to watch. So we’ve compiled our list of recommended titles for you—whether you love classics, comedies, documentaries or just good ol’ fashioned kung-fu.

The genres vary greatly here—and range in age from brand new to 87-years-old—but all 50 of these films come with the Paste stamp of approval. The list is up to date as of February 2013, but we’ll update the list from time to time as Netflix Instant changes its offerings.

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15. The Last Emperor
Year: 1987
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Epic barely begins to describe the scope of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning masterpiece which follows Pu Yi, Emperor of China at the age of three before the Ching Dynasty gave way to the first and second republics, Japanese occupation and eventually Communist rule.—Josh Jackson

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14. Hugo
Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese
With Hugo, director Martin Scorsese has created a dazzling, wondrous experience, an undeniable visual masterpiece. In his adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese weaves together his many passions and concerns: for art, for film, and for fathers and father-figures. He retells the story of a boy (Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield) in search of a way to complete his father’s work. Alongside Hugo’s tale is the true story of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), one of the world’s first filmmakers.—Shannon Houston

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13. Bottle Rocket
Year: 1996
Director: Wes Anderson
Bottle Rocket introduced us both to the singular world of Wes Anderson and the unique charm of the Wilson brothers. All of his films have their critics, but we’ll go ahead and say that the director not only gave us a new kind of humor, but a new kind of joy in the stylistic quirks that have little changed seven movies later. Most adults who’ve forgotten to grow up are either repulsive in their adolescent behavior or the butt of the joke, but Dignan retains that boyish likability for all his crazy scheming.—Josh Jackson

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12. Half Nelson
Year: 2006
Director: Ryan Fleck
The debut feature film by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden is a compelling personal story about a high-school teacher who’s failing himself and his students. It’s a rich political allegory for the liberal malaise of the Bush era, and it’s a sly subversion of a tired Hollywood cliché. Fleck and Boden wrote the script, edited the footage and directed at least three best-of-decade performances from their young cast (Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie and Shareeka Epps) earning a place on our “must see” list for years to come.—Robert Davis

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11. The King’s Speech
Year: 2010
Director: Tom Hooper
Acting is a funny thing to judge. Often, the performances we most admire are those where actors stretch themselves the furthest by taking on roles with handicaps. Portraying the stuttering Prince Albert, who would become King George VI of Britain, Colin Firth maintains a constant aura of frustration. It’s not the way that a non-stuttering actor stutters that makes him believable, but the pitch-perfect emotional resonance of gifted actor. And while the performances of his co-stars—Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as the king’s Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue—aren’t highlighted by such an obvious physical obstacle, they’re both subtly brilliant. It’s the interplay between all three actors—and the brief scenes with Michael Gambon as King George V—that make Tom Hooper’s film such a joy to watch.—Josh Jackson

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10. Raising Arizona
Year: 1987
Director: Joel Coen
Understated dramatic performances are all well and good, but it takes pinpoint control on behalf of both directors and cast to deliver the sustained overstated performances found throughout Raising Arizona. From its opening courtship sequence to the struggles of H.I. (Nicholas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) to form a family by borrowing an “extra” from another to the final battle with the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, the Coen brothers’ film remains an immensely beguiling and quotable farcical fable.—Michael Burgin

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9. Metropolis
Year: 1927
Director:Fritz Lang
Though in hindsight the actual story proves pretty wacky, Fritz Lang’s last silent film—before his second masterpiece M—could be called the blueprint for all sci-fi films that followed it. Whether the groundbreaking special effects, the visual scope or the intricate set design, greats such as Ridley Scott, George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick have borrowed from it (Lucas modeled C-3PO directly after the Maria robot). Metropolis, heavily influenced by the books of H.G. Wells, also stands as the first dystopian film in history.—David Roark

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8. Hoop Dreams
Year: 1994
Director: Steve James
Seldom has a film, narrative or documentary, so probingly explored the American Dream. In this case, the version of the dream that young William Gates and Arthur Agee have bought into is redemption (and fortune and fame) through athletic achievement. That the odds are stacked so heavily against those dreams ever coming true only makes their dearest hopes that much more poignant. Steve James famously spent nearly eight years making the film, and despite its nearly three-hour running time, it doesn’t feel long at all. Every frame feels essential.—Michael Dunaway

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7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Year: 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
Paired with Robert Redford, Paul Newman tore into his part as the folk outlaw Butch Cassidy and created an instant touchstone of the genre. That Newman lent his star to a film with criminal heroes was a revolutionary act for an actor of his stature at the time, and for that it’ll likely remain his best-remembered role.—Jeffrey Bloomer

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6. True Grit
Year: 2010
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
In remaking one of the better cowboy films of the 1960s, the Coens have also taken on the genre’s biggest star—John Wayne, who played the irascible marshal Rooster Cogburn in the original ‘69 adaptation of Charles Portis’ straightforward and engaging novel. Casting, however, has never been a Coen weakness, and Jeff Bridges wholly embraces and reinvents the role for which Wayne received an Oscar. There’s a simplicity about the performances in True Grit that jives well with the rich landscapes and the authentically recreated, urban settings of nineteenth century Arkansas and the Indian Territory. That, and the genuine attire of the times, allows the Coens to create a world where the actors can play real characters, not caricatures of reality. It’s a talent that keeps begging the question, “What’s next?”—Tim Basham

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5. The Apostle
Year: 1997
Director: Robert Duvall
Insightful and real portraits of men of faith seem to elude filmmakers—it seems every preacher, especially, that appears on the silver screen is either a saint or a demon. There’s a whole lot of both—and then some—in Duvall’s Sonny Dewey. He’s simultaneously vain and humble, patient and hot-tempered, chaste and decadent. He’s a jumble of mixed motivations, as are we all. And he knows it. No wonder Robert Duvall refused to let anyone else take control of his beautiful script, and waited until he had the means to produce the film himself, with complete creative control. Only a man with so much passion for this project could have kept it safe from harm and brought such a masterpiece to the screen.—Michael Dunaway

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4. The Gold Rush
Year: 1925
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Alongside City Lights, The Gold Rush remains Charlie Chaplin’s pinnacle as a filmmaker and actor. He agreed, calling it a personal favorite amongst his immense body of work. With stunning set pieces and memorable scenes, including the famous roll dance and shoe-eating dinner, the film provides one of the earliest and profoundest examples of dramedy in cinema. In quintessential Chaplin fashion, it weaves together slapstick and melancholy, generating both laughs and cries for the lonely yet hilarious Little Tramp.—David Roark

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3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Year: 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry’s debut feature, Human Nature, was a whimsical dud, but his follow-up suggested a mature, disciplined director with his playful side intact. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind traffics in his signature sleights of hand, which serve two touching and tragic love stories: between red-haired Kate Winslet and a supremely sad Jim Carrey, and between headstrong Kirsten Dunst and a pining Mark Ruffalo. All of their performances—including Gondry’s—stay in your memory long after the credits have rolled.—Stephen Deusner

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2. Lost in Translation
Year: 2003
Director: Sofia Coppola
Fueled by Bill Murray’s impeccable performance, Sofia Coppola delivered a picture of sublime nuance for her sophomore effort. The physical and emotional unavailability of spouses, words left unspoken, life’s missing purpose, an affair devoid of sex—absence is the looming presence here, and Coppola perfectly captured the ineffable human conditions of dislocation and ennui. Lost in Translation is a testament to the power of a raised eyebrow, a gentle touch and a parting whisper.—Tim Regan-Porter

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1. The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette)
Year: 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
This tale of a father and son in poverty-stricken Italy is on of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. Part of the neo-realism movement, it was shot on the streets of Rome and was quickly recognized as a masterpiece by film critics around the world. There’s simply no better way to spend 89 minutes in front of screen.—Josh Jackson

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