Sometimes you just need a comfy comedy to enjoy as you lounge on the couch — others, a fun popcorn thriller to watch with friends and family. But what about those times when you crave a life-changing film, something that totally shifts your perspective well after the credits roll? Transformational movies have the power to inspire real change in the people who make the simple decision to press “play.” Fortunately, from documentaries to tearjerker true stories, spiritual journeys, and even lighthearted road movies, there are many such movies that will change the way you think streaming on Netflix. A number of them take on a dual role as entertainment and education: Movies like Philomena, for example, can be emotionally cathartic while also shining a light on a disturbing part of history, one you may never have known about if not for stumbling upon the Oscar-nominated film.
Of course, thanks to the rollout of the COVID vaccine, many movie lovers will be swapping their streaming routine for the much-missed theater experience — or finding other fun ways to have a “shot girl summer.” But there’s still something to be said about the quiet contemplation of a thought-provoking movie at home, especially after the year we’ve all had. If you need a new perspective, here are 21 life-changing films you can stream on Netflix today.
1. About Time
You might not think a sweet, rom-com-esque time travel fantasy from the creator of Love, Actually and Notting Hill would make you cry both sad and happy tears, much less deliver a life-changing (and affirming) new outlook. You would be wrong, though.
2. The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank is the star, writer, and director of this charming, heartfelt film in which a playwright turned budding-rapper undergoes an exciting artistic reinvention and considers what it means to lead a creative life.
3. My Octopus Teacher
This Oscar-winning documentary doesn’t just deliver beautiful views of the South African sea and one of its most intriguing, eight-legged residents — it’s also about the life-changing journey of getting back to nature and oneself along the way.
4. The Fundamentals Of Caring
Paul Rudd, Selena Gomez, and Craig Roberts are an unlikely road-tripping trio in this inspirational film about friendship and facing grief in unexpected ways.
This disturbing noir will cure you of your TV news infotainment addiction for good.
6. Soul Surfer
In this true story, surfer Bethany Hamilton survives a shark attack but loses an arm — and her journey of (literally) getting back on board is sure to help you face your own challenges with a new perspective.
7. Crip Camp
This powerful documentary showcases the friends who turned into activists at Camp Jened, a summer camp for teens with disabilities.
8. Eat, Pray, Love
If you can’t go on your own international adventure and rediscover yourself along the way… maybe watching Julia Roberts do that is the next best thing? Based on Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, this charming film is equal parts fun and inspiring, encouraging you to mix things up to find true passion.
9. The Florida Project
This critically acclaimed film follows a group of young friends on their misadventures throughout the outskirts of Orlando, Florida — the part you don’t see on your theme park vacation. Both tragic and extremely fun, The Florida Project invites you to look at the world like a kid again, for good and for bad.
Based on the Boston Globe’s early-aughts investigation into rampant child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, Spotlight is a powerful acknowledgment of the journalists who work tirelessly to hold institutions accountable.
The independent drama Pariah is about a teenage New Yorker coming to terms with her sexuality and embracing her identity without fear.
What happened to the real Philomena and other women like her is unforgivable, which is what makes her forgiveness so powerful.
13. Beasts Of No Nation
There is a responsibility to be aware of the atrocities committed daily in places you may never even visit. Beasts Of No Nation is a Netflix original that dramatizes the plight of child soldiers in Ghana.
Enter the stylized world of 1970s Mexico City, where we observe a housekeeper’s mundane, day-to-day life until realizing that it’s anything but. The dreamy, black-and-white cinematography lends a meditative feel to Roma that’s sure to help you rethink how you see your surroundings.
15. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
If you’re one to think about what your dreams might mean, this dark, bizarre Charlie Kaufman film will have you looking for symbols and surrealities in your everyday life like never before.
16. The One I Love
Not to get too spoiler-y, but the twisty narrative of The One I Love makes it so much more than a straightforward romance. Prepare to see your life and relationships in an all-new way after watching.
17. Period. End Of Sentence.
This Oscar-winning short doc proves that periods can be a catalyst for change among women in rural India.
18. Fruitvale Station
Michael B. Jordan stars in the adaptation of a true story that's far too familiar: the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a police officer. It's a difficult but necessary film that predates the Black Lives Matter movement by only a few years.
19. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet
For most of his life, David Attenborough has been quite literally changing the way we see the world — and in this 2020 doc, he takes his iconic voice and love of nature to a new level, detailing his personal passion for the environment and giving us a glimpse at what unchecked climate change could do to our beautiful, blue planet.
This insightful documentary explores the complex challenges revolving around trans representation in Hollywood. Its sweeping approach — from the earliest days of TV and film through today — will help you see the industry with fresh, critical eyes.
A hero’s journey doesn’t have to be super high-stakes for it to be life-changing. Thus is the sweet charm of Chef, where a disillusioned chef falls in love with food (and life) again by selling Cuban sandwiches on a cross-country food truck adventure. This delightful movie might just make you appreciate life’s simple, delicious pleasures in a new way.
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