Movies are slowly coming back to life at the cinemas. You can see it with each glowing report about a Godzilla vs. Kong or Mortal Kombat doing solid business. And for those with more discerning tastes, films like In the Heights and Those Who Wish Me Dead are definitely going to make their release dates.
Nonetheless, there are many who are understandably not ready to go back to theaters (or have yet to get an HBO Max subscription). Thus Netflix remains an old reliable option. While the Netflix movie selection can be narrow, each month offers some worthwhile gems to revisit or even discover. And May has a surprisingly robust group of Hollywood films from the last 40 years coming to the streaming service on May 1. Here are the best ones.
Back to the Future (1985)
Great Scott! Back to the Future is coming to Netflix. As one of the most beloved films of the 1980s—if not ever—it’s doubtful we need to explain in great detail why this is exciting news. From its star-making turn by Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly to the grand musical score by Alan Silvestri, everything about this movie justworks. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script is like a Swiss watch in precision, paying off every single setup in the film’s first act when Marty commandeers a time machine made by Doc Brown (a lovable Christopher Lloyd) and accidentally travels from 1985 to 1955… to meet his parents as teenagers!
More time has passed since the movie’s release than the once massive generational gap between the film’s primarily ‘50s setting and 1985. Yet it still plays as a timeless story about family, time travel, and manure. Large piles of manure. By the way, the rest of the Back to the Future trilogy is coming to Netflix, too.
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)
Forget about all the “sad” dog movies of the last decade where canines have funny voiceover narrations and then die on repeat. Hachi: A Dog’s Tale is a very bitter, bittersweet dog’s journey based on a harder truth. A remake of the 1980s Japanese film, Hachikō Monogatari, this American movie is based on the real events surrounding Hachikō, an Akita dog who lived in 1920s Japan. Every day Hachikō would run to the train station, awaiting his master’s return from work. One day, after a fatal stroke, his master never returned. Yet for another 10 years, the dog would escape its various new owners and spend the afternoon waiting at the station.
Directed by The Cider House Rules’ Lasse Hallström, Hachi captures this anecdote about a dog’s loyalty with grace and genuine sweetness. But you’re not going to get through it dry-eyed.
The Land Before Time (1988)
Before it birthed a string of straight-to-video movies meant to babysit pint-sized millennials, the original Land Before Time was a generational touchstone for childhoods in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Overseen by Don Bluth at the height of his talent, and in partnership with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, The Land Before Time is a marvel in animation from the period before Disney Animation’s renaissance. It follows an assortment of baby dinosaurs, including a recently orphaned “longneck” named Littlefoot, after a horrible earthquake has rained devastation on all the isolated herbivores. But together they may just find salvation in a land called the Great Valley.
Essentially a dinosaur road movie for children, to the modern eye it’s told with a surprisingly delicate sensitivity. There is no fourth-wall breaking humor and sideways smirks here. It’s a very earnest fairytale captured in the lost art of hand-drawn animation.
The Lovely Bones (2009)
Based on Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestselling book of the same name, The Lovely Bones has a tough premise: a teen girl is raped and murdered, and goes to heaven where she watches her loved ones attempt to process and move on after her disappearance. The debut novel was not only very popular, but generally well-received for its treatment of trauma, sexual assault, and grief.
The movie, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Saoirse Ronan, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, and Stanley Tucci, among others… was not as well received, fairly criticized for its prioritization of CGI heavenly visuals over a nuanced, character-driven story. You may wonder, then, why we’re recommending a movie that wasn’t great? Because The Lovely Bones is a fascinating watch for those interested in the limits of adaptation and, in particular, how a great filmmaker with expansive resources (including a very talented cast) can fail if they’re not the right person for the job.
Mystic River (2003)
As one of Clint Eastwood’s best films as director, Mystic River was the first cinematic adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, and the author’s hardboiled vision of Boston’s tragically seedy underbelly is well realized here. As much about the hard luck community on the South Side as the story of three men, it nonetheless tracks how neighborhood lives intersect.
We meet three boyhood friends in the movie’s unnerving opening and then jump to their bitter middle age. Oe of them, reformed gangster Jimmy (Sean Penn), has a daughter who’s been found murdered in a gutter. His onetime pal Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a detective, swears he’ll figure out who the killer is, and both men’s estranged acquaintance Dave (Tim Robbins) knows more than he’s letting on. All three’s fates are interlinked in this operatic passion play about the traumas we keep hidden until we’re drowning in regret.
Notting Hill (1999)
Though Four Weddings and a Funeral might have put writer Richard Curtis and star Hugh Grant on the map as the kings of ‘90s British romance, Notting Hill is arguably their true pinnacle. Grant plays a foppish bookshop owner who happens to meet the most famous actress in the world, Anna Scott (played by Julia Roberts who might just have been the most famous actress in the world at that time) when she stumbles into his shop.
From the sympathy brownie competition, the junket where Grant’s William Thacker has to pretend to be a journalist from Horse & Hound, and Rhys Ifans in his pants, there are plenty of funny, moving moments. But it’s the two montage scenes—a walk through Notting Hill as seasons change to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and the final montage to Elvis Costello’s “She”—that would melt the hardest of hearts. Rom-com perfection.
Reviews were not initially kind to Scarface, director Brian de Palma’s explosive three-hour remake of the 1932 gangster classic starring Paul Muni (that in turn was based on a novel which loosely chronicled the rise of Al Capone). Written by Oliver Stone and starring Al Pacino as psychopathic Cuban refugee-turned-drug-kingpin Tony Montana, the 1983 film was excoriated by critics for its relentlessly graphic violence, excessive foul language, and over-the-top performances, especially by its leading man. But critics at the time missed the point: Scarface was a reflection of its time—the hedonistic, greed-driven, cocaine-fueled ‘80s—and was appropriately and utterly crazed as a result.
The film did mark the moment when Pacino transitioned from intense, thoughtful character actor to (mostly) histrionic circus barker, but he leaves it all on the field and his mania drives the fast-paced film to its epic, bloodsoaked, and unbelievable (in all aspects of the word) conclusion. As a metaphor for the insane decade of excess that birthed it, Scarface is riveting, breathless, occasionally shocking and often unintentionally hilarious. It’s the gangster movie on coke.
State of Play (2009)
Kevin Macdonald’s remake of a British miniseries by the same name turned out to be a strong thriller in its own right. With a whip smart script by Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, this movie doubles as both an enjoyable investigative procedural and a love letter to journalism just as newspapers were beginning to die out in the 2000s. Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey in the film, the last of the old school guard of reporters, but his ethics will be challenged when the congressman with a dead young woman on his staff turns out to be his old college buddy (Ben Affleck). Rachel McAdams also stars as a young blogger who learns the thrill of chasing a story that takes more than an afternoon to research. Helen Mirren, Robin Wright, and Jeff Daniels also star.
The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Remember when they made comedies for adults? The Whole Nine Yards is one such anomaly. Really a buddy film about a suicidal dentist (Matthew Perry) and a gangster living under a phony alias who moves in next door (Bruce Willis in one of his last truly charming performances), this giggles and gangsters laugher is a secretly delightful ensemble movie with a deep bench of talent. Indeed, Kevin Pollack, Amanda Peet, Nastsha Henstridge, and Michael Clarke Duncan, as the cuddliest gangster you’ll ever see punch your protagonist in the balls until he’s pissing blood, all get to shine. With a twisty plot, it’s an R-rated throwback to the type of screwball shenanigans that were once Hollywood’s bread and butter.
It’s rare when calling something the second best zombie comedy ever made is high praise, but in a horror subgenre that also includes Shaun of the Dead, this is high praise for Zombieland. As an R-rated teen comedy, one suspects the filmmakers almost lucked into the absurdly talented cast they assembled with Emma Stone, Jessie Eisenberg, and Woody Harrelson. In the years since this movie’s release, all three were nominated for Oscars (Stone even won one), but in ’09 they’re just having a blast with this goofy stoner hybrid about a dysfunctional makeshift family having fun during the zombie apocalypse.
Also, it features arguably the greatest comedy cameo ever conceived. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to spoil it for you here either…