21 Exceptional Dramas You Can Watch On Netflix Right Now

Esquire Editors
Photo credit: Netflix

From Esquire

When it comes to film genres, it's relatively easy to know what you're getting with a horror, a thriller or a romantic comedy, but dramas are a little bit harder to put your finger on. Rest assured that really all 'drama' means is entertainment set in the same world as our own.

Dramas portray the best and worst of humankind, telling our stories with plenty of emotional weight. It's a genre that lends itself to retelling the tales of real people, from monarchs with the weight of the country on their shoulders, to journalists fighting to expose the truth, to ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives.

There is a reason that so many films on this list picked up the major trophies during their respective award season runs, and that's because dramas are the traditional vehicle for telling the urgent stories about what it means to be human.

We've dug through the best dramas on Netflix so you don't have to waste a moment scrolling that you could spend watching.


The Cannes Jury prize-winning feature debut from director Mati Diop is a supernatural love story told between two different sides of Dakar: the wealthy suburbs and the dusty construction sites which young Ada and the construction worker Souleimane who she loves despite being promised to someone else. A modern kind of Romeo and Juliet which turns into a ghost story as their romance goes wrong, Atlantics offers a dark commentry on inequality and difference.


You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix should have won the Academy Award which he picked up for Joker for his turn in You Were Never Really Here, the Lynne Ramsay psychological thriller in which he plays a brutal enforcer who is tasked with hunting down a missing teenage girl. It's a performance which is hard to take your eyes off as he stalks across the screen with a hammer swinging from hand, his violent antihero a character who has us willing on his twisted kind of justice.


The Disaster Artist

An excellent ode to one of the worst movies ever made: The Disaster Artist is a meta exploration of the making of 2003 film The Room. Tommy Wiseau's bizarre character is bought to life by James Franco who manages to render him both charming and awful at the same time. There are moments that you're laughing at the toe-curlingly awful acting on display in the film, but mostly you're laughing along with the endearing and ridiculous Wiseau.



At five years old Saroo is separated from his family in India, eventually becoming adopted by a couple in Australia. Trying to piece together his childhood years later he uses satellite images to retrace where he went missing and find his family. A remarkable true story with a strong lead performance from Dev Patel as Saroo and a film which will give you a new found respect for Google Maps.



Greta Gerwig's breakout coming-of-age drama is about a pretentious but endearing teenage girl who demands her family call her 'Ladybird' as she navigates the awkward tail end of adolescence. What Gerwig's directorial debut so perfectly captures is the war of attrition between parents and children in these awkward years between childhood and being an adult.



This directorial debut from actor Jonah Hill follows a neglected boy who is drawn to a group of older kids who spend their days smoking, skating and indulging in reckless impulses. In the film 13-year-old Stevie's attempts to join in have, unsurprisingly, tragic consequences as, much like with skateboarding, he has to learn by falling over again and again. What might have been a clichéd look at the perils of boyhood is made more real by Hill leaning into the darkness and violence that has long been a hallmark of growing up amongst a group of men.


Dallas Buyers Club

The McConaissance came full circle when Matthew McConaughey picked up an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ron Woodruff, a rodeo cowboy who finds he has been diagnosed with AIDS. When Woodruff discovers that a banned drug could help patients live longer, he fights to help fellow suffers even as his health deteriorates. McConaughey is on never-better form and co-star Jared Leto also gives an Oscar-winning performance in this gritty story which is sombre but not without laughs.


Marriage Story

Director Noah Baumbach is an expert at unpicking relationships: whether that of siblings in The Meyerowitz Stories, children and their parents in The Squid and the Whale, or partners and their friends in While We're Young. His latest, Marriage Story, offers a compassionate portrait of divorce through couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Baumbach comes to the story from his own experience of separation and custody battles, describing one brutal boxing match of an argument scene between Nicole and Charlie in the film as, "one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a director"



Aaron Sorkin adapts Michael Lewis’s book of the same name in this biographical drama directed by Bennett Miller. Moneyball focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of Oakland Athletics, and his attempts to assemble a team based on players who are more impressive on paper than they appear while playing. With excellent performances from Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Moneyball is that rare sports film in which some of the most exciting action happens off the field.


The Social Network

Another Sorkin script, this time with David Fincher directing the story of how Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook from his dormitory room at Harvard University. Coming years before the data scandals and election swinging which would tarnish the social media company, Fincher's film cuts to the heart of the arrogance which the tech industry is founded upon, arrogance which has seen them cause so much damage with so little consequence.



Academy Award 'best picture' winner Spotlight tells the true story of how The Boston Globe's investigative team exposed widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. Though the subject matter is dark, Spotlight focuses on the journalists who worked tirelessly to expose the truth despite being intimidated, with the extended cast of Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber bringing these characters to life.



Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón's 2018 film Roma is about an indigenous domestic worker and the family she works for in Mexico City – a story loosely based on Cuarón's own childhood memories. The director handpicked unknown actors to bring the story to life, including Yalitza Aparicio who makes her astonishing debut as lead character Cleo. Shots of a floor being washed with the reflection of a plane overhead, a sweep across a department store to show a riot outside and – honestly – some genuinely stunning shots of dog poo are just a few of the memorable sights in this film that has its fair share of devastating moments too.



Shot to look like it's an off the cuff documentary recording rehearsals for a broadway play, Birdman focuses on the story of out of work actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his return to the stage while he is haunted by the superhero he used to play. A 'best picture' winner at the 2015 Oscars, Birdman's director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant) creates transfixing scenes: from shots looking out from the top of towering building to a bodega lit with twinkling fairy-lights. Strong performances come from cast members Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in this zany but compelling drama.


12 Years a Slave

Six years on and Steve McQueen's multi-Oscar winner remains one of the most unflinchingly honest and heart-wrenchingly human looks at slavery. Based on an 1853 memoir written by a fugitive slave, the film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a New York citizen who is tricked into slavery and made to work on a plantation in New Orleans for 12 years. The group of heroes and villains, made up by the extremely strong cast of Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt, make for an absorbing look at kindness and cruelty which will stay with you.


Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola's 2003 homage to Japan captures the vivid feeling of finding yourself in vast, bright Tokyo as a lonely foreigner. It follows the unlikely friendship between a travelling actor and a college graduate, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, as they find themselves jet-lagged and lonely in the same Japanese hotel. Whether it is the sky-high views from the karaoke booth or the strange restaurant menu where the pictures all look the same, Lost In Translation captures the brilliant strangeness of travel.



A piece of land in the Mississippi Delta ties two families together for better and worse. Though divided by race and class, both want better for their struggling families, a fact that forces them to work together on the shared farmland. After a man from each family goes off to war they return traumatised by combat and back to the same problems that war had freed them from. Mudbound is a haunting look at segregation featuring the directing of new talent Dee Rees and great performances from Mary J Blige, Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund.



Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir follows the downward spiral after her mother's death which leaves her wounded and alone. After hitting rock bottom she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, a near-three thousand mile route through deserts and mountain ranges which breaks her anew every day. This adaptation of her story uses compelling excerpts from the book to grapple with grief, loneliness and recovery, as well as featuring a strong lead performance from Reese Witherspoon.



The story of former President Barack Obama's early adulthood is recounted in this slow-burning drama which sees him arriving at Columbia University in 1981. "Barry" as he was known then, oscillates between studying politics and playing basketball and smoking weed in the segregated and crime-filled city, a dual life where he finds himself caught between a white world and a black one.


Captain Fantastic

Isolating before it was de rigueur, Captain Fantastic is about a couple who live off-grid with their six children in the middle of the wilderness of Washington state, learning practical lessons away from technology and traffic. When Ben's (Viggo Mortensen) wife Leslie dies it forces him to reconsider the way he is living and the family to assimilate to "normal" life.


The King's Speech

Colin Firth's Oscar-winning turn as King George VI sees the monarch thrust on the throne after his father's death and his brother's shocking abdication. George's debilitating stammer leads him to the door of voice coach Lionel Logue and a treatment which forces him to reckon with the demons he has been unable to face. Geoffrey Rush makes for a kind and thoughtful Logue and Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as his strong-willed wife Elizabeth.


Phantom Thread

Reynolds Woodcock, a temperamental but genius fashion designer during the Fifties, meets his muse Alma while ordering breakfast from her. So begins their love affair which sweeps her up into a world of high fashion, romantic late night dinners and life at the behest of his moods. The last film from actor Daniel Day Lewis and directed by the excellent Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread is visually spectacular and magnificently acted.


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