Feature films are a relatively new area for Hulu, so to come up with this list, we also considered its much larger collection of documentaries, its horror movie series Into the Dark, and a some of the great catalogue titles that make the service worthy of a subscription. Enjoy!
Updated August 24, 2021 to add 10 more film recommendations. More interested in Hulu’s TV shows? Click over to this story for our top picks.
Many sci-fi movies are essentially war movies with humans fighting aliens, humans teaming with aliens to fight other humans, or some variation thereof. Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, the amazing Arrival (2016) is something very different. It may not appeal to all comers, but if you tune into its thoughtful, meditative mode, it’s a great film. Amy Adams plays a linguist, Louise Banks, who is called into duty when 12 alien pods mysteriously arrive and hover over 12 seemingly random places all over the planet. It’s her job, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to learn the alien’s language and find out what they want.
In a normal movie, the answer would mean the end of the mystery, but here, it’s only enhanced. The timely message is one of empathy and understanding, rather than panic and destruction. Director Denis Villeneuve does remarkable things with shapes and light and dark, as well as a use of quiet and diegetic sounds; it’s pure poetry. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died in 2018, provided the astoundingly beautiful music score.
The Wachowski siblings did not always make futuristic movies about a “chosen one” that saves the world. In their directing debut Bound (1996), they created a twisty, character-driven crime film that was good enough to evade comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. In it, ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) tries to go straight with a job as a painter and a plumber, but she meets gangster’s moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who seduces her. Together they cook up a plan to steal $2 million from Violet’s volatile husband, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano).
The movie includes a famous sex scene between Gershon and Tilly that is celebrated for its beautiful frankness and passion. Otherwise, the movie’s accomplished use of dialogue, rhythm, sound design, and color palette are all highly inventive. The movie was credited to Larry and Andy Wachowski, but since then the brothers have transitioned to Lana and Lilly. Hulu offers the unrated cut, which runs 14 seconds longer than the theatrical cut.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) was released in-between his Godfather Parts I-II, a three-year feat of excellence that has hardly been equaled. This movie centers on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance man in San Francisco who may be the best in his field. He sometimes sees a girlfriend (Teri Garr), but doesn’t really let her into his life, and he even keeps his own colleague Stan (John Cazale) at arm’s length. Harry becomes obsessed with his latest job, recording a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk around Union Square, trying to look and sound normal, but clearly wary, or afraid, of something.
As Harry re-jiggers the recording, and raises red flags for his employers (played, in brief scenes, by Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall), he finds that his own existence is not entirely opaque, much like the weird see-through raincoat he wears throughout the film. Walter Murch’s powerfully precise editing and haunting sound design are just two more parts of what emerges as a masterful film.
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers (1989) is the pinnacle of 1980s black comedy, taking themes like bullying, popularity, and social status in high school and bringing them to an entirely new level. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has recently been allowed to join the most elite group of girls on campus of Westerberg High, consisting of three Heathers (one played by future TV star Shannen Doherty). Meanwhile, a mysterious, cool new guy at school, J.D. (Christian Slater), turns Veronica’s head. He introduces her to a whole new way of dealing with the cool kids, and it involves murder made to look like suicide.
The movie’s finishing touch is a popular song about teen suicide (“don’t do it!”) that sweeps the school. Lehmann and Waters manage to get big laughs while digging into the blackest reaches of the human soul and coming up with a fairly accurate portrait of high school. The movie has since inspired both a TV series and a musical.
Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) features striking, black-and-white widescreen cinematography, but not used for beauty; rather, it emphasizes sleazy, low-down rooms, late nights, sweat, exhaustion, and desperation. Paul Newman stars as Fast Eddie Felson, a small-time pool hustler who goes up against the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and loses.
Hitting the absolute bottom, he re-groups with sleazy gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) and his new girlfriend Sarah (Piper Laurie) and prepares to build himself back up again for a rematch. Boxer Jake LaMotta appears in one scene. The movie received nine Oscar nominations and won two Oscars, for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Newman was nominated, but had to wait 25 years to win—for playing the same character in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986).
Nicholas Ray’s “Freudian” Western is one of the weirdest horse operas ever made, and yet it has inspired a cult following of viewers who watch it again and again to peel away its various, strange layers. Joan Crawford stars as Vienna, who owns a remote saloon, waiting for the day the railroad comes through. She gets trouble from cattle rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), an unstable, shrieking villainess that makes your fists clench. By contrast, the title character (Sterling Hayden) doesn’t really do much.
Shot in bold, garish colors and full of blood and lust, and with Ray’s remarkable use of space to unlock the psychological states of the characters, Johnny Guitar (1954) plays with Western conventions (familiar faces Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine appear in smaller roles), but packs an odd, upside-down sexual approach to the story. Along with the director’s In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause, it’s a masterpiece that continues to fascinate.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Many consider this king-sized movie by Sergio Leone to be the greatest Western ever made. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) opens with an astonishing, 10-minute sequence as three sinister-looking men in duster coats wait at a train station. Leone cuts together huge, wide landscape shots and smashes them with close-ups, and similarly slams together dark with light. Finally, a man known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) arrives and easily dispatches the three would-be killers (two of them played by Woody Strode and Jack Elam).
Then, ex-prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) attempts to join her new husband and his family but finds them all slaughtered. Trash-talking bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is accused, but the real villain is the cold-blooded low-down dirty dog Frank (Henry Fonda). Ennio Morricone’s amazing, startling harmonica-based music score occasionally wails under the action, ramping things up to monumental heights. Two other notable directors, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, worked on the story.
Shadow in the Cloud
Arriving on the first day of 2021, Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud is still the most demented, unpredictable, and entertaining “B” movie of the year so far. It’s 1943, and a woman named Maude (Chloë Grace Moretz) boards a bomber called The Fool’s Errand, mysterious package in hand. Over cries of “no dames on the plane!” she informs the men that she’s on a top-secret mission, and that the package is officially the most important thing on the plane.
From there, with no place for her to sit, Maude must crawl into the Sperry turret in the belly of the plane, where the camera stays on her until about the 50-minute mark. After the 50-minute mark, be ready for anything as the plane is attacked by both Japanese zeroes and gremlins, and Maude does her best to save the day while clinging to the outside of the plane. The pieces of this incredible, bonkers movie don’t always seem to go together, but there’s hardly a wasted moment in its 83-minutes. Even the ending is as incredible as the rest of it.
The Social Network
David Fincher’s icy, precise direction, interested in dark nights of souls, and Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, crackerjack dialogue collide perfectly in this brilliant biopic of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). The Social Network (2010) is framed by two different depositions, as Zuckerberg is being sued by Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the Winklevoss twins (played onscreen by Armie Hammer, with offscreen help by Josh Pence).
Fincher builds the story in flashback of how Facebook came to be, as well as the almost-instant accumulation of Zuckerberg’s wealth and power. As with Fincher’s other films, especially Zodiac (2007), the pieces are intricate, and fascinating, but Fincher knows that they will add up to something less than expected. In short, Zuckerberg connected the whole world, but he himself doesn’t understand a thing about actual connection.
The Thin Red Line
At the end of 1998, critics fought their own war over which was better, the popular Saving Private Ryan or the artistic The Thin Red Line; both are great films, but Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is something a little more. The former is a technical masterpiece, but this one is cinematic poetry. Based on a 1962 novel by James Jones, the movie depicts the U.S. taking Guadalcanal from the Japanese, but it’s really more interested in a bigger picture, in a sense of how man fits into nature, and how nature is bigger than any war.
John Toll’s glorious cinematography shows the soldiers among tall, wavy grass, against a huge sky. Images such as a bird being born, and then dying, in the midst of battle are more potent than the outcome of that battle. It’s not exactly a movie for everyone, but for daring viewers, it’s immensely powerful. The cast—some of whom appear onscreen only for a few minutes—includes Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta.
How much does Hulu cost?
As of 2021, Hulu’s basic pricing plan is $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year (averaging about $5 per month) with ads, or $11.99 per month without ads. (The ads are so frequent and repetitive, you’ll quickly consider upgrading.) The special Hulu + Live TV service, which includes dozens of other TV channels, is $64.99 per month with ads, or $70.99 without ads. Additionally, streamers can get a bundle that includes Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+, for $12.99 per month. Free trials are available for each of these choices.
I Am Greta
Nathan Grossman’s documentary I Am Greta (2020) follows Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg from her humble beginnings, staging a solo walkout from school on Fridays to call attention to the threat of climate change, to her international celebrity as she begins being recognized and invited to speak publicly. (Her speeches are boldly terse, scolding the old white men who have refused to take action.)
The film doesn’t dig very deep, and anyone who has followed the news knows the story, but it’s still filled with amazing moments that let us in on the way her brain works, from her insistence on a meat- and dairy-free diet to taking a small boat across the Atlantic rather than take an environment-destroying airplane. After seeing this, it’s difficult to deny that climate change is a pressing crisis, or that Miss Thunberg deserves our admiration for leading the fight.
Pooka! (Into the Dark)
Certainly the weirdest and most divisive of the Into the Dark horror movies, “Pooka!” (2018) was apparently popular enough to warrant a sequel (“Pooka Lives!”) in season two. An out-of-work actor, Wilson Clowes (Nyasha Hatendi), takes a job wearing the giant-sized “Pooka” suit to help promote a weird new Christmas toy. The toy repeats whatever it hears, in either “naughty” or “nice” mode. The launch is a success, and Wilson is finally doing well. He even meets and begins dating a pretty real-estate agent and single mom, Melanie (Latarsha Rose).
But Wilson begins to experience strange, violent events when his suit seemingly switches to “violent” mode, and he becomes increasingly dependent on it. The creepy eyes and massive size of the suit make for some truly unsettling images, and the talented director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Colossal) and Bear McCreary’s eerie score exploit them for all they’re worth.
Created by writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and writer/producer Sev Ohanian, the team behind the intensely clever found-footage film Searching (2018), the thriller Run (2020) doesn’t try very hard to play up the “is she or isn’t she a psychopath?” angle, and Sarah Paulson’s icy, calculating countenance certainly disguises very little. But the focus here is not on the puzzle, but on the escape, by Kiera Allen as teen Chloe.
In a flashback, we see that Paulson’s Diane has given birth to a sick child, and 17 years later, Chloe is wheelchair bound, with heart troubles, asthma, and other maladies. When Chloe begins to suspect that something is amiss with her mother, she must overcome her physical limitations and use her cunning to hatch a plan. Chaganty and Ohanian craft a snap-tight, exhilarating, 89-minute package here, and a very satisfying stream.
Yes, it’s another zombie movie, but Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters (2019) is likely the sweetest zombie movie ever made. It works largely due to its contagious good nature, and largely thanks to the awesome presence of the mighty Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Black Panther, Us), who manages to be both adorable and badass. Alexander England co-stars as Dave, a struggling metal musician who has gone through a savage breakup and is now staying with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her five-year-old tractor-loving son Felix (Diesel La Torraca).
Dave takes Felix to school and immediately crushes on his teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o). He volunteers to chaperone a field trip to a farm, hoping for a chance to flirt with her. But a bloody zombie attack forces the field trip to hole up in the gift shop, where they must placate the children and figure out a way to escape. Josh Gad co-stars—and parodies his own image—as a famous kids’ TV star, Teddy McGiggle, who is an absolute scoundrel off-camera.
Crime + Punishment
Stephen T. Maing’s documentary Crime + Punishment (2018), which made the shortlist for the 2019 Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary, seems even more relevant now than it was when it first appeared. It deals with quotas within the New York Police Department, which were made illegal in 2010, but which still exist. Police officers are expected to make a certain number of arrests per month, and they are encouraged to target mostly Black and Latinx citizens.
Maing captures audio and visual evidence of this, as well as evidence of punishments doled out to officers who refuse to comply. The main focus is a harrowing trial in which brave officers, known as the NYPD 12, come forward and attempt to sue the department, while the main subject is a former officer-turned-private investigator, Manny Gomez, a bear-sized, highly persuasive, old-school New Yorker who is as devoted to fighting corruption as he is to tasty lobster roll pastries.
Culture Shock (Into the Dark)
Arguably the best of the feature-length Into the Dark episodes, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Culture Shock” (2019) grapples with America’s shameful treatment of immigrants, as well as anticipating a show like Disney+’s WandaVision. Marisol (Martha Higareda) is a Mexican woman who has already made one failed attempt to get to the United States. Now pregnant, she must try again, at any cost. She hires a coyote (Sal Lopez) for the trip, and along the way she befriends a young boy, Ricky (Ian Inigo), and the tough-looking Santo (Richard Cabral), who seems determined to protect her.
They are nearly caught, but then Marisol wakes up to find herself in a perfect, pastel-colored vision of the suburban American dream, with American flags and fireworks and community barbecues. Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) plays a woman who smiles too broadly (creepy, David Lynch-style), and Shawn Ashmore plays the mayor. Where it goes from there definitely tingles the synapses. This is a nimble, wise, and deeply effective horror-satire.
There are two Groundhog Day-like “stuck in a 24-hour time loop” movies on this list, and both are in the top five, proving that you can always approach an old idea with a fresh angle. Directed by Joe Carnahan, Boss Level (2021) comes right out swinging as our hero, ex-soldier Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), wakes up dodging a machete in his apartment, and seconds later, machine-gun fire from a helicopter outside his windows. Roy must hit the ground running, every morning, to avoid a team of elite assassins who are trying to kill him. He has never survived past 12:47 p.m., and has mainly decided to spend his last moments at the bar.
But this time, he finds a clue that will help him figure out why this is all happening to him, and perhaps also save his wife (Naomi Watts) and son (Rio Grillo, Frank’s real-life son). The 94-minute movie pulses along like a beast on adrenaline. It’s paced just right so as to be exciting without being exhausting, and yet doesn’t leave much time to ask questions. Mel Gibson co-stars as a sinister bad guy, and with Will Sasso, Michelle Yeoh, and Ken Jeong.
Performer Clea DuVall co-writes and directs this Christmas movie, an attempt to create a perennial classic for the LGBTQ+ community, and she succeeds so well that it could also become a classic for anyone with an open heart who loves the holidays. Happiest Season (2020) uses the old trope wherein one partner hasn’t yet “come out,” but DuVall fortunately digs into the characters’ emotions, rather than employing it as a slapstick device. On a romantic impulse, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) invites her partner Abby (Kristen Stewart) home to her family for the holidays.
It’s not until they’re halfway there that Harper admits that her conservative, politically active family doesn’t know about her sexual orientation, and could Abby please pretend to be her roommate? Abby is furious, but goes along with it, haphazardly navigating the next several days for a comically touching effect. The extraordinary cast includes Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber as Harper’s parents, Alison Brie and Mary Holland as her sisters, Aubrey Plaza as an ex-girlfriend (and a temptation for Abby), and Dan Levy as Abby’s comical best friend.
Our second “time loop” movie, Palm Springs (2020) is so loose, cheerful, funny, clever, adorable, and thoroughly entertaining, that many film critics named it one of the best films of the year. (According to Metacritic’s roundup of lists, it was ranked the 12th best film of 2020.) It’s one of those films that was sorely needed during the pandemic year, a tonic for jangled nerves. Andy Samberg plays Nyles, stuck in a time loop on the day of a friend’s wedding. The movie cleverly lets us get through one day before letting us know that Nyles has been in this loop for a while, and has learned to just enjoy himself the best he can.
On this particular day, however, he accidentally brings Sarah (Cristin Milioti) along with him, and she becomes stuck too. As the couple deals with their feelings for each other, and Nyles’ past within the loop, they must decide whether to relax and enjoy, or try to break out. J.K. Simmons co-stars in a great performance as yet another time-looper with a different agenda.
Minding the Gap
Filmed over the course of 12 years in Rockford, Illinois, this great, Oscar-nominated documentary traces the nuanced, layered lives of three skateboarding friends as they grow and face life changes. Director Bing Liu is one of the trio, and with his camera so ever-present, the other two, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan never seem shy or guarded. We watch them grow from childish teasing to being able to confide in each other. We see Zack’s volatile relationship with his girlfriend Nina, complicated when Nina becomes pregnant. We see Keire begin to wrestle with his identity as an African-American. And we see Liu interviewing his mother about the relationship she had with the man who helped raise him, and abused him.
At the center of Minding the Gap (2018), however, are the beautiful, fluid skateboarding sequences, showing the three gliding through the streets like superheroes, escaping life for just a little while.
Best movies on Hulu: The runners-up
Once you’ve seen all the films on the top-10 list, here are a few runners-up: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a sometimes annoying, but ultimately clever documentary about the notorious magician/comedian; Bad Hair, a wry horror film about a Black woman in the 1980s who is pressured to get hair implants, with chilling results; Batman & Bill, a curiously touching documentary about the attempt to get proper credit for Batman’s co-creator Bill Finger; and Big Time Adolescence, a rough, but surprisingly sweet comedy with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson.
A Christmas episode of the Into the Dark series, “A Nasty Piece of Work” has two corporate-climbing employees over to the big boss’s house for a holiday meal that turns into a series of “tests.” Too Funny to Fail is an excellent documentary about the creation and ultimate failure of The Dana Carvey Show in 1996. And the Oscar-nominated The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a somewhat problematic drama about the great singer, but an incredible performance by Andra Day in the title role makes it worth seeing.
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