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Underappreciated Netflix gems you need to watch

Netflix may seem like a pioneer and market leader in the realm of streaming entertainment, but what the service actually did was create a time machine. Every day, tens of millions of people around the world fire up their laptop or smart TV, hit up Netflix… and soon hours have disappeared after they've binge-watched 11 episodes of a cool new TV series or wiled away the hours while watching nothing much of anything at all. Netflix offers so many options — thousands of episodes, films, imported series, and original movies — that choosing the perfect thing to watch at right that moment can be too much to deal with.

Sure, you can just follow your "List" or check out the "what's new" or "what's hot" tabs, or you can dig a little deeper into the Netflix archives to find some truly outstanding, under-the-radar films made by familiar actors and innovative filmmakers. Here's a look at some of the best stuff to add to your queue for the next time you don't know what to watch on Netflix.

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Polar (2019)

What if John Wick were an '80s movie, by which we mean more violent, more nihilistic, more violence-soaked and with more absolutely unnecessary nudity, all with a gleeful undercurrent of shock humor permeating the whole thing as well as an honest exploration of the mental effects of a violent life? That's Polar, the bonkers, messy story of one man's quest to relax and secure his pension. Mads Mikkelsen, the fascinating Danish actor best known for his starring role on the stylish TV version of Hannibal, stars as Duncan Vizla, a.k.a. the Black Kaiser, a highly effective assassin forced by his oddly corporate bosses to retire at age 50 and enjoy his golden years. Of course, his company plans to kill him off to avoid paying his payout. From a lovely cabin in Montana, Duncan has to fight off some violent attacks while also dealing with PTSD and forging a friendship with a neighbor (Vanessa Hudgens) with demons of her own.

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Hold the Dark (2018)

It seems like every possible idea for a movie about werewolves that could be made has already been made — Jack Nicholson played an old, upper-middle-class one in Wolf and there are two Teen Wolf movies and a hit MTV series about adolescent basketball-playing ones. Kudos then to Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair, director and screenwriter of the terrifying, claustrophobic thriller Green Room, who team up again on Hold the Dark, a compelling take on the man-to-wolf mythos. Wolf researcher Russell (Jeffrey Wright) heads to a small town in Alaska to help the locals (led by Riley Keough) hunt and kill the wolves they think are behind the deaths of three kids. But this small town isn't quite what it seems, as some of the residents are werewolves; the werewolves may not even know about their own tendency to become spiritual, stylish, next-level killing machines. Or, you know, maybe it's a demon. If you're into werewolves — as well as creepy wolf masks and mystical hot springs — Hold the Dark should very much be your thing.

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I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

There's an old adage that advises writers to "write what they know," and in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) apparently did that. Now plagued by dementia, the former writer of horror novels retires to a spooky country house in America's ghost capital of Massachusetts, where the stuff she wrote about for years literally comes back to haunt her. Live-in nurse Lily (Ruth Wilson) also moves in, and she becomes the first responder for her employer, spotting ghoulish figures, growing splotches that may or may not be black mold, out of place objects — your usual haunted house frights. It's arguably creepier that Iris calls Lily by the name "Polly," the heroine of one of her novels who just might be based on a real, doomed individual… who also makes a ghostly appearance in the house which Lily should definitely leave before things get even worse in this deeply unsettling, understated horror movie written and directed by Osgood Perkins… son of Anthony Perkins, who starred in this film's spiritual (pardon the pun) predecessor, Psycho.

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ARQ (2016)

Groundhog Day may seem like a comedy — what with a career-best performance by Bill Murray, annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, and ironic usage of "I Got You, Babe" — but it's actually a horror movie. Seriously: A guy is such a nasty person that the universe spontaneously conspires to make him shape up by sticking him in a time loop from which he cannot escape. That's a living nightmare — déjà vu but psychologically devastating. ARQ takes Groundhog Day for what it is — sheer terror — and runs with it. Robbie Amell stars as an engineer responsible for a world-changing technology (a fabled perpetual motion machine), only to find himself dealing with a home invasion brought on by bad dudes who want this "ARQ" for their own means. But that's the problem with inventions that violate the laws of space and time: they mess up space and time. Our protagonist gets stuck in a time loop, forcing him to experience his horrible situation over and over again, tweaking it just so until he can find a way out.

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Extinction (2018)

Alien invasion movies are among the most crowd-pleasing and satisfying of all science-fiction sub-genres. Sure, they're predictable — the humans always successful defend Earth from interplanetary evil — but after audiences feast on a sensory buffet of explosions and fights, they get a happy, hopeful ending. Plus, whenever Hollywood churns out a new one, there's usually a new twist or angle: Independence Day is very different from Arrival, which is very different from Extinction. Michael Peña, best known for his comedic work in the Ant-Man movies, stars in this deadly serious movie — emphasis on the deadly. He plays Peter, an engineer and philosopher very worried about mankind's diminishing sense of identity in a futuristic, dehumanized landscape, made all the worse when he starts having dreams of an alien killing spree. Guess what? The visions were accurate, and his concerns about humanity's future justified… just not in the way that he (or the audience) could ever have predicted.

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iBoy (2017)

Life in an especially dingy and crime-filled part on London is rough for Tom (Bill Milner), a shy and awkward teenager who just wants to go about his business and maybe take things to the next level with his friend Lucy (Maisie Williams). When he goes over to her apartment to study together, he's greeted by thugs (their identities concealed by masks) who have just savagely attacked Lucy and her brother. Tom runs away and tries to call the police, only for the thugs to shoot him in the head and leave him for dead. The good news: He survived! The bad news: He wakes up two days after the attack with bits of his phone stuck inside in his severely damaged noggin. The other good news: Like some kind of Silicon Valley Spider-Man, the advanced computing technology in the phone merges with Tom's brain to give him superpowers, such as the ability to visualize digital transmissions and hear phone calls. Or maybe our boy (or iBoy, rather) is less like Spider-Man and more like RoboCop, because he uses his newfound skills to track down the bad guys who nearly killed Lucy. 

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Gerald's Game (2017)

Based on a Stephen King novel from the early '90s, Gerald's Game begins like those countless "erotic thrillers" that populated late-night cable TV in that era: Married couple Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) go away for a sexy weekend in a cabin in the woods. But nothing good pretty much ever happens to anyone in a Stephen King story or in a cabin in the woods in a horror movie. They engage in some increasingly troublesome bedtime play, which involves handcuffs, Viagra, and Gerald's dark fantasy. The games pretty much end when Gerald dies of a heart attack while Jessie remains cuffed to the bed. With very little hope of escape or rescue, Jessie's mind rears up to attack her, presenting numerous hallucinations that feel real… especially the horrible memories that are real. Very few movies take place in one room, and Gerald's Game more or less does, making the horror that much more intense and palpable, creating an intimacy and emotionally powerful connection with Jessie as the film's events unfold.

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Wheelman (2017)

What if Baby Driver wasn't a soundtrack-driven action comedy, and was instead an unpredictable, intricately plotted suspense thriller about a getaway driver having his worst ever day of work? That's the logline for Wheelman, which also feels like the greatest Jason Statham movie Jason Statham never made. Frank Grillo (Zero Dark Thirty) portrays the unnamed, usually unflappable wheelman in a bank heist scheme, just out of prison and in debt to a Boston crime family. Everything that could go wrong does, but it's not all that funny — it's stressful enough riving a getaway car for a robbery, and it's even more nerve-wracking for the wheelman when he gets more or less carjacked by another band of mysterious criminals. Much of the action takes place inside the car and inside the head of the wheelman, speeding along from one high-pressure situation to another, but Wheelman also boasts one of the best "oh, it's that guy!" casts in recent memory. Among the always stellar character actors rounding the cast (and elevating the movie) are Garret Dillahunt (Winter's Bone, Deadwood) and Shea Wigham (True Detective, Fast & Furious).

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Spectral (2016)

James Badge Dale (Eric Savin in Iron Man 3) plays Clyne, one of the smartest people in the world, a DARPA scientist employed by the U.S. military to develop weapons technology to use in the ongoing Moldovan War in Eastern Europe. He's summoned to the front lines to consult on some strange findings captured by one of his best gadgets, hyper-spectral goggles. It would seem some troops wearing the goggles spotted some ghostly, humanoid, opaque figures out in the wild… ones which tend to kill whatever they come in contact with immediately. Before the military can report to their higher-ups, they need Clyne to figure out just what it is, and so off he goes into the wilderness to stalk the beast, alongside a special ops team and a C.I.A. operative (Emily Mortimer). What they find is way worse and more complicated than they thought possible. A harrowing war movie with elements of District 9 and Predator thrown in, Spectral is a clever and intense movie, not unlike screenwriter George Nolfi's 2011 film, the underrated and inventive The Adjustment Bureau.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)

Yes, there's a sequel (or at least a thematically similar follow-up) to 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, arguably the greatest martial arts movie ever made (and certainly the most beautiful). And, like so many other revivals of classic properties (Mystery Science Theater 3000, Queer Eye), it's just hanging out on Netflix. Loosely based on the same "Crane-Iron" series of books by Wang Dulu as the original Crouching Tiger, Sword of Destiny builds on its predecessor's magical combination of folk tales, multi-faceted characters, and visually stunning landscapes and physically impossible acrobatic fight scenes. Michelle Yeoh returns as You Shu Lien, fresh out of exile and locked in an important battle with the odious West Lotus clan for control of the Green Destiny sword (which belonged to Li Mu Bai, her dearly departed love, played by Chow Yun-fat in Crouching Tiger). Assisting her in her fated quest: a scrappy young warrior named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), the crafty thief Tiefang (Harry Shum, Jr., the best dancer in the Glee cast), and a bunch of eager fighters-for-hire. Directing Sword of Destiny is Woo-Ping Yuen, the martial arts choreographer on the first Crouching Tiger, and he certainly brings his prowess for creating gorgeous and soaring aerial combat sequences.