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The 20 best dramas on Netflix

Get serious for a change with our list of the best dramas on Netflix streaming, including Oscar winners and classics

Nightcrawler

In seeking the absolute best dramas on Netflix, we defined drama pretty broadly: If it doesn't make you laugh (comedies), if spaceships and horses don'tappear (sci-fi movies or Westerns) and if supernatural evil isn't confronted (horror), you're probably watching a drama. And good news: Netflix streaming has plenty of somber Academy Award winners to choose from, from Hollywood, the indie fringe and around the world. All 20 of the films below are great—of that we have no doubt—even if, after watching some of them, you'll want to take a trip to your favorite bar. Get serious with the best dramas on Netflix.

Best dramas on Netflix

1

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim

Insanely quotable and still carrying a sting, Billy Wilder's poison-pen letter to Hollywood is so good not even William Holden's occasionally hammy delivery can harm it. A great first shot is equaled by a sickeningly poignant ending. Gloria Swanson is ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Watch if you liked: Mulholland Drive

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2

The Conformist (1970)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin

Or: "Come out of the closet, lest you wind up becoming a political assassin for a fascist state." Bertolucci's first and finest masterpiece stars the great Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour), and features some of the most voluptuous cinematography you’ll ever see.

Watch if you liked: The Godfather

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3

Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

Bring on all the comparisons to All the President's Men you can muster. This quietly shocking Best Picture winner—about The Boston Globe's real-life exposure of child abuse in the local Catholic archdiocese—earns them and more. It’s an achievement like nothing else, an ensemble film that subtly stresses our interconnectedness to the higher cause of truth-telling.

Watch if you liked: The Verdict

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4

Phoenix (2014)

Director: Christian Petzold

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf

Germany's mercurial Nina Hoss is the face of her country's best cinema—an heir to Hanna Schygulla and the power of confrontation. Christian Petzold's swirling WWII psychodrama gives Hoss her finest role to date, as a survivor ruined by the Nazis, reconstructed by plastic surgeons and drawn back to the husband who destroyed her life with lies.

Watch if you liked: Vertigo

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5

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Director: Robert Mulligan

Cast: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton

Gregory Peck's mighty performance as attorney Atticus Finch—a decent man in a hellish place—is one of the more inspiring onscreen depictions of fatherhood. Meanwhile, watch for Robert Duvall in his film debut, as the mysterious Boo Radley.

Watch if you liked: The Night of the Hunter

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6

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Director: John Ford

Cast: Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver

Arguably Ford's greatest non-Western achievement, this quiet, dignified portrait stars Henry Fonda as a shrewd Springfield lawyer hoping to make a career for himself. The movie soft-pedals on the Great Man in Waiting stuff, which is a relief.

Watch if you liked: Lincoln

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7

Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton

A dazzling directorial debut, screenwriter Dan Gilroy's first gig behind the camera transformed the gory horrors of nightly news into a playground for a closet psycho, expertly portrayed by a hollowed-out Jake Gyllenhaal. Sick laughs got stuck in the throat; we were in the presence of a new Travis Bickle.

Watch if you liked: Taxi Driver

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8

Heaven Knows What (2014)

Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie

Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress

Even if you don't know that the place used to be called Needle Park, Josh and Benny Safdie's harrowing indie—about the young junkies of the Upper West Side—will put you in mind of that 1971 NYC classic. Star Arielle Holmes wrote the story from her own late-teen experiences and let the Safdies turn her life into a chaotic personal purgation, leavened by dreams of escape.

Watch if you liked: The Panic in Needle Park

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9

The Hustler (1961)

Director: Robert Rossen

Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie

Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason turn the pool table into an existential battlefield in this remarkably sordid, unsentimental drama. Try to imagine Hollywood making this movie today—it's near-impossible.

Watch if you liked: The Color of Money

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10

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds

One of the great American films (no time-specific qualifier seems necessary), Anderson's hilariously loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair'sOil! is a towering profile of the spirit that drives this country, often to its ruin. Get to know the guy who's drinking your milkshake.

Watch if you liked: The Social Network

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11

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo

Lisa Cholodenko's indie family drama drops a dopey sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) into the lives of a comfortable lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, both wonderful) and watches the relationship seismically shudder.

Watch if you liked: Juno

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12

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, David Brisbin

As the crusading title character, Julia Roberts shows off both her considerable acting chops and her cleavage, while Soderbergh's direction is self-effacing but handsome. Fine work from both paid off at the box office.

Watch if you liked: Norma Rae

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13

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Todd Field

Kubrick's final film was unfairly castigated for not living up to its ad campaign's promise of unbridled eroticism, but we predict that its deliberately hermetic virtues—not to mention Nicole Kidman's brilliantly mannered performance—will be appreciated in the fullness of time.

Watch if you liked: Birth

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14

The Truman Show (1998)

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney

The film now seems deeply prophetic: Our hero (Jim Carrey) lives an innocuous suburban life, completely unaware that millions of TV viewers are tuning in to his every cough and complaint. All this is lacking, really, is a Kardashian.

Watch if you liked: Nightcrawler

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15

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Cast: Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Forget for a second that this was the movie that officially spawned the legacy of Matt & Ben, and that its premise of a Harvard janitor who’s a math genius requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. There s still a sense of grace here that holds up remarkably well—much of it supplied by the late Williams in his finest performance.

Watch if you liked: Dead Poets Society

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16

James White (2015)

Director: Josh Mond

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi

Josh Mond's cancer drama is tough, worthy stuff, without the usual evasions. Built out of strongly acted moments of unflinching honesty, the UWS-set feature debut redeems the indie grief movie—take that as an endorsement and a warning. Cynthia Nixon commits wholly to her role's maternal patience and scattered mental decay.

Watch if you liked: Terms of Endearment

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17

Short Term 12 (2013)

Director: Destin Cretton

Cast: Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher Jr.

Cretton's indie drama follows two counselors working at a halfway house for troubled teens. Brie Larson got a staggering amount of attention for last year's Room but this is a superior performance, one that taps her character’s evolving sense of pain and compassion.

Watch if you liked: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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18

Sling Blade (1996)

Director: Billy Bob Thornton

Cast: Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh

Thornton became a household name with this touching Southern drama, which he not only dominated as the mentally slow Karl, but wrote and directed. The overall vibe—an Arkansas of crime, compassion and hope—was positively Clintonian.

Watch if you liked: Forrest Gump

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19

Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram

Our kind of Jungle Book: Visually inspired Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns to his earthy milieu with this hypnotic story about a chaste (yet meaningful) relationship between a nurse and her patient.

Watch if you liked: Tropical Malady

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20

Take This Waltz (2011)

Director: Sarah Polley

Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman

Writer-director Sarah Polley, following up her acclaimed 2006 feature, Away from Her, favors a sensitive approach to the tale of an illicit affair and a cooling marriage. There's so much that's right about this film: the Altman-like hustle and bustle of its party scenes, a ravishingly erotic "what I'd do to you in bed" monologue, the most pathos-infused use of "Video Killed the Radio Star" ever.

Watch if you liked: Blue Valentine

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