House of Cards. Orange Is the New Black. BoJack Horseman. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Daredevil. Master of None. Jessica Jones. Over the past three years, Netflix has built an impressive roster of original content to rival the libraries of any major cable network. If you’re in the market for streaming serialized content, there are few better places to go.
But if you’re in the market for classic movies, you’re kind of boned.
Whether the studios are less willing to license their titles to Netflix, or Netflix is less willing to pay the studios for those titles, the streaming service’s vintage movie selection is now a lot less exciting than their original movie and TV offerings. Netflix currently streams only 33 out of the IMDb’s 250 top-rated movies. If you take out the filmographies of Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick (both of whom are well-represented on Netflix), that number dips down to just 26; a lowly 10 percent of one of the most widely referenced lists of classic movie titles. And when you search for one of the 217 movies from the IMDb Top 250 that Netflix doesn’t currently offer, the site’s recommendations for alternate viewing choices are weeeeird.
Occasionally Netflix’s alternatives make sense. But 9 out of 10 times, Netflix’s recommendations are worthless, repetitive, or borderline insane — and come in one of seven different varieties, which I have collected here, ranked from most to least valuable. If you look for a movie on Netflix and they don’t have it (and if you look for a movie on Netflix released before 2010, odds are they don’t have it), you will almost certainly recognize some or all of these seven recommendations.
Recommendation Type #1 - “Also By the Same Director”
Of all the non-useful Netflix recommendations, this is the least non-useful, because it at least comes from a rational place. Netflix doesn’t have There Will Be Blood at the moment, but they do have another Paul Thomas Anderson film, The Master. If you type in the former, they recommend the later.
There’s a substantial chance that in the absence of There Will Be Blood, you might actually watch The Master instead. Netflix, you’re actually sort of helping here. (But don’t get too cocky, because it’s going to go downhill very quickly.)
Recommendation Type #2 - “These Movies Star the Same Actor”
Along similar lines, Netflix sometimes assumes your interest in a film is star-based. You wanted to see a movie starring Actor X, so you might be okay with a different movie starring Actor X. So when you look for, say, Catch Me If You Can, Netflix’s first alternative is The Aviator, another movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Granted, one is a melancholic caper movie and the other is a Hollywood biopic about a great businessman’s descent into madness, but hey; Leo is Leo is Leo.
If you wanted to watch a DiCaprio movie after his big Oscar win (and weren’t looking to watch a Spielberg movie — Netflix doesn’t recommend Amistad or Hook, the two Spielbergs they do currently offer), this might get the job done.
Recommendation Type #3 - “This Movie Is Like the One You Want, Only Not as Good”
Although IMDb’s Top 250 contains its fair share of oddballs, misfits, and recent movies that are way too high on the list (looking at you, Deadpool, supposedly the #78 greatest film of all time), it still has a decent number of true masterpieces of world cinema. For the most part, Netflix offers none of them. In a shocking number of cases, Netflix doesn’t even seem to know these films exist; type in The Wages of Fear or Wild Strawberries or In the Mood for Love or Grand Illusion or City Lights (or almost any Charlie Chaplin movie except The Gold Rush, or even Charlie Chaplin himself, whose name yields 0 responses) and Netflix spits out the HTML equivalent of a blank stare.
In situations where Netflix at least acknowledges the existence of these films, it will periodically offer you a movie that’s thematically similar (but qualitatively inferior) to the great film you want to watch. If you look for The Princess Bride, for example, Netflix suggests fantasy and romance films like Stardust, Hook, and Shakespeare in Love. Are they as good as The Princess Bride? Hell no. But they’re at least in the same ballpark. Just the part of the ballpark that’s kind of crappy.
Recommendation Type #4 - “These Movies Have Some of the Same Words in the Title, Which Is Close Enough”
Here’s where Netflix’s picks start to get really stupid. For reasons that only the algorithm that fuels their search engine understands, the streaming service often suggests substitutes for missing titles based on shared words between the two films. Look for Billy Wilder’s comedy classic The Apartment, and Netflix volunteers the TV show Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23 and also the Spanish horror movie Apartment 143 about a parapsychology team investigating a haunted condo. Netflix doesn’t have the Ingmar Bergman drama Persona, but it helpfully offers the anime Persona 3 the Movie: #2 Midsummer Knight’s Dream. They don’t carry Pixar’s Inside Out, but they do carry another Inside Out starring WWE wrestler Triple H as “a parolee who’s determined to stay on the right side of the law.” So as long as you only care about watching any movie called Inside Out, you shouldn’t have a problem!
Want to watch Buster Keaton’s The General? Too bad; but Netflix does have the Chinese food documentary The Search for General Tso. I mean, that’s basically the same thing, right?
Recommendation Type #5 - “Netflix Made This, So Watch It”
Netflix has poured a lot of money into original programming, so it’s only reasonable that they would try to promote that original programming however they can. Sometimes, though, they really stretch the limits of what’s reasonable when trying to coax customers to sample their products. Like, sure, some people would want to watch Fuller House. But would someone who wants to watch the intense, cathartic Oscar winner Room want to watch Fuller House? (Maybe watching the show evokes the same feelings of claustrophobia and inescapable psychological abuse, I don’t know.)
If there’s a connection between the sci-fi adventure The Martian and Netflix’s true crime series Making a Murderer, I can’t find it, but Netflix seems to think it’s there. And pushing folks who want to want Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back to instead watch The Ridiculous 6? Really, Netflix?
Saying The Ridiculous 6 is a “title related to Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope” is like advertising the Filet-O-Fish as “a food related to the dover sole at Le Bernardin.” I’d tell you to go home because you’re drunk, Netflix, but you’re already at home. That’s why people are looking for Star Wars on Netflix. Because they’re too lazy to go anywhere else.
Recommendation Type #6 - “STFU, Here’s Good Will Hunting or Reservoir Dogs”
Browse through Netflix for any length of time, and you will invariably arrive at one of two movies: Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Looking for movies from the IMDB Top 250, Netflix suggested I instead watch Reservoir Dogs or Good Will Hunting dozens of times. The Reservoir Dogs mentions were fairly logical; mostly as a replacement for crime movies like The Usual Suspects, Goodfellas, Dog Day Afternoon. (And hey, that one’s a crime movie and it has the word “dog” in the title, so it’s a doubly smart recommendation!) The Good Will Hunting recommendations were a bit more random, and ranged from feel-good dramas (The Shawshank Redemption) to other movies about smart people (A Beautiful Mind) and prodigies (Whiplash), to other Matt Damon films (The Departed) and even Inception for some weird reason.
Reservoir Dogs and Good Will Hunting are both good movies, and in many cases, they’re a solid substitute for something else. But they and a bunch of other titles (like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Netflix’s go-to rec any time you ask them for a Western they don’t stock) are proffered way too frequently to be useful. Okay, Netflix, I’ve seen and rated Reservoir Dogs and Good Will Hunting, what now? Don’t you dare say Fuller House.
Recommendation Type #7 - “ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ”
At last we come to the final, darkest circle of Netflix recommendation hell: The recommendations that cannot be rationalized in any possible way. Why does Netflix think someone looking for Toy Story 3 would instead be satisfied by the Colombian telenovela Hasta que el dinero nos separe? I know Die Hard is set on Christmas, but are Love, Actually or A Very Murray Christmas really appropriate alternatives? Who goes searching for Cool Hand Luke and settles instead on The Last Days on Mars? Or wants Spotlight and gladly accepts Fuller House? Is there a lot of overlap in audience between people who want to watch Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino and Punit Malhotra’s Bollywood rom-com Gori Tere Pyaar Mein!? Also, why does Netflix think people searching for Diabolique actually want Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd? I know it’s about the Notorious B.I.G. but I’m not sure that’s reason enough to offer the documentary Biggie & Tupac to users who want Hitchcock’s Notorious.
That is a whole lot of shrug emoji for one website. Time to fix these recommendations, Netflix. And maybe get some more movies. Your hardcore users really need them.
For Your Reference: IMDb Top 250 Movies Currently Streaming on Netflix
#6 - Pulp Fiction
#13 - Forrest Gump
#20 - City of God
#27 - Leon: The Professional
#56 - Cinema Paradiso
#57 - Django Unchained
#58 - The Shining
#63 - American Beauty
#66 - Oldboy
#75 - Amelie
#76 - Reservoir Dogs
#84 - To Kill a Mockingbird
#88 - Full Metal Jacket
#89 - Amadeus
#98 - Inglorious Basterds
#106 - Scarface
#107 - Metropolis
#114 - Unforgiven
#116 - The Hunt
#118 - Good Will Hunting
#137 - Blade Runner
#157 - Trainspotting
#169 - Kill Bill: Vol. 1
#175 - Hotel Rwanda
#180 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
#196 - Hachi: A Dog’s Tale
#208 - Sin City
#218 - Groundhog Day
#219 - Infernal Affairs
#228 - Ip Man
#232 - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
#239 - Roman Holiday
#243 - Gangs of Wasseypur