Hulu is a streaming service still very new within the landscape of original movie programming, especially in regard to narrative fiction. While Hulu has been noteworthy for a while now for their original television series, their first movie, a middling zombie comedy starring Lupita Nyong’o titled Little Monsters, premiered in just 2019. Since that time, Hulu has released 24 original films, ranging widely in genre, subject, and quality. There are, however, a few throughlines you can’t help but notice.
The first is in star power. Throughout the studio’s filmography, there exists a pretty impressive track record in regards to the actors Hulu brings on for their movies. Even when the subject matter or genre may not be particularly prestigious, they seem able to draw some big talent. There’s Kristen Stewart, Ben Affleck, John Cena, Pete Davidson, Andy Samberg, and Emma Thompson, just to name a few. And it makes sense, especially when you consider the timing of their original movie programming which coincided — probably not accidentally — with Disney’s acquisition of the streamer. The influx of money that provided probably went a long way toward gaining the services of their impressive roster of performers.
The other throughline you see from this wide variety of films is more thematic. Whether it is horror or romantic comedy, coming-of-age or thriller, again and again these movies feature an absolutely toxic relationship at their center. As we run down our list of Hulu’s best movies, we will touch on the specifics of some of the relationships — some romantic, some otherwise — but the fact remains, these characters need to do a bit of soul searching. This toxicity, of course, leads to some fantastic stories, whether that be the unhinged sci-fi romance of Palm Springs or the nail-biting tension of Fresh. We ranked Hulu’s 10 best original movies, from worst to best.
10. ‘Bad Hair’ (2020)
Satire is not always an easy thing to pull off effectively, and while Bad Hair is far from perfect in its execution, its premise is intriguing enough to keep the whole thing together. From the mind of Justin Simien, whose debut feature Dear White People was a smash critical hit, Bad Hair is the story of a killer weave.
That not killer in the slang but the literal killer, as in a weave that murders. What Simien is ultimately focused on is the idea of the film’s hero, Anna (Ella Lorraine), having to change her mind and body, i.e. her hair, in an attempt to cater to white people’s warped and often offensive expectations. It’s an interesting metaphor, one that leads to classic creature-feature fare as the weave begins to claim its victims.
To its credit, Bad Hair features a long bench of side characters, everyone from Jay Pharoah to Lena Waithe to James Van Der Beek to Laverne Cox make memorable appearances. It might not hit the highs of satirical comedy of something like Get Out, but Bad Hair does a good job of presenting several different types of horror all at once.
9. ‘Plan B’ (2021)
Sometimes it seems like every teen-comedy romp to come out in the past decade-plus lives in the shadow of Superbad, perhaps the pinnacle of heartfelt, crass, manic storytelling. While Plan B, from actor-turned-director Natalie Morales, tries its best to remove itself from that sizable shadow, it can’t quite do it.
That doesn’t mean this story of two best friends, Lupe and Sunny, who must search desperately for the titular morning-after drug, doesn’t have plenty to recommend. Aside from the gender-swapped nature of the film compared to Superbad, the movie does a good job of addressing more political and social issues than most teen movies would care to confront. Race and sexuality are key to the story here, as Sunny’s Indian upbringing and Lupe’s burgeoning queer relationship are driving forces behind the narrative. Where the movie falters is when it leans too heavily into its gross-out humor set pieces, becoming more American Pie than the smart, illuminating comedy it is at its best.
8. ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ (2022)
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is Hulu’s newest original movie, released on June 17. Starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a very much a two-hander, relying heavily on the charm, charisma, and chemistry between its two leads. In it, Thompson plays Nancy, a recently widowed woman who, looking to spark her sexuality, hires a sex worker named Leo (McCormack). The film progresses in four distinct parts, each a meeting between the two, and tackles a whole range of subjects as the two become closer and Nancy finds a way to open up both sexually and emotionally. The way Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is able to address such often untouched subjects as sex work and the sexuality of aging women is its most impressive feat, able to be both sensitive and sexy, often at the same time.
7. ‘Deep Water’ (2022)
There is, and I cannot stress this enough, a lot to unpack here. First off, there’s Deep Water the movie, a bonkers attempt to revive the kind of erotic thriller that was so popular in the 1980s and ’90s. Adapted from the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, Deep Water centers on Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas, respectively), a couple with, well, a non-traditional relationship. Melinda is the life of the party, the antithesis to Vic’s brooding silence, and so, understandably with De Armas’ overwhelming beauty, receives plenty of attention from the opposite sex. Does she politely decline their advances because, you know, she loves her husband and he is literally in the same room? Not exactly.
What ensues is a twisted cat-and-mouse game in which Melinda parades her many, many affairs in front of Vic, practically daring him to snap. Perhaps no actor is better at looking like he is about to snap than Affleck and thus does an excellent job playing Vic, whose deadly stare should be enough to give Melinda some pause. It doesn’t. But that’s fine, because the characters in Deep Water very rarely do anything you would expect real humans to do, so it’s best to leave that expectation at the door.
The other factor you cannot ignore is the fact that it was during the filming of this movie that De Armas and Affleck started their relationship, one that has, famously, since ended. The tension between the two, and the strange, heated chemistry, is especially fascinating given their real-life romantic entanglement. Deep Water might not be a great movie, or even good for that matter, but it is pretty entertaining and entirely intriguing.
6. ‘Big Time Adolescence’ (2020)
“I don’t know why my son likes you so much,” says Jon Cryer’s Reuben toward the end of the coming-of-age comedy Big Time Adolescence. The movie relies on us knowing and understanding the answer, and so relies heavily on Pete Davidson’s performance as Zeke, the poor influence Reuben wishes to remove from his son Monroe’s life.
To Monroe (Griffin Gluck), Zeke represents a big brother/best friend figure, one whose advice is gold and whose influence is huge, if nefarious. For this to work, Davidson’s Zeke must toe the line between charming and pathetic, which, incidentally, appears to be his sweet spot. The viewer knows he is a barely redeemable loser who comes awfully close to abusing this poor kid, but we also recognize why this modern-day take of Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” would be so appealing to a high school loner. The plot progresses largely as expected, with Monroe slowly coming to the realization that Zeke’s charm might be a bit hollow and life less desirable than it appears on the surface.
5. ‘Run’ (2020)
Run was a big hit for Hulu, the company reporting that the movie was the most-watched original film in its history at the time of its release in November of 2020. Of course, there was a pretty big reason people were looking for something scintillating to help escape the rampant boredom of fall 2020, so that didn’t hurt. As it turns out, though, this story of a wheelchair-bound teenager and her overprotective mother was just the ticket. Starring Sarah Paulson and newcomer Kiera Allen, Run is extremely engrossing, the kind of movie where the mystery is solved slowly, unfolding scene by scene in a way that glues eyes to the screen.
This movie marks writer/director duo Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s second feature — their first being the equally absorbing Searching — and you get a distinct sense these are filmmakers who will make a mark on thrillers and horror movies for years to come. To give away too much of Run’s plot would spoil things, but to say that things don’t quite appear as they seem is an understatement.
4. ‘Happiest Season’ (2020)
Happiest Season is a movie on autopilot, the kind of movie where everything you suspect might happen ultimately kind of does. And yet, sometimes you just want to sit back, relax, and get where you’re going, and in that, Happiest Season thrives.
Happiest Season centers on the relationship between Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart), two twenty-somethings a year into a budding relationship. Things get predictably messy when Abby joins Harper on a trip home for the holidays. Harper’s parents, you see, are not aware of her sexuality or her relationship with Abby, made more complicated by her father’s mayoral candidacy. There is a lot of toxicity within this relationship, to be sure. Harper is not exactly the most generous girlfriend, mostly ignoring Abby when she isn’t parading ex-lovers in front of her face with casual indifference. Whether you want these two to work it out during our Christmas Eve conclusion is highly debatable but, ultimately, things go about how you might expect.
So then why does this movie transcend its Hallmark Channel set-up? Kristen Stewart is the first and most important reason, quickly followed by Davis and the absolute Murderers’ Row of actors playing a whole assortment of side characters. We have, among others, Aubrey Plaza absolutely commanding the screen, Alison Brie, prissy and pissy, Dan Levy playing the best best friend, and Mary Steenburgen throwing 102 miles per hour throughout. There’s muddled politics, questionable choices and schlocky gags a plenty, but there’s enough charm to smooth all of this over. Sometimes watching beautiful, talented people be beautiful and talented is enough — Happiest Season is a prime example of this notion.
3. ‘Fresh’ (2022)
As we discussed, this list is absolutely chock full of toxic relationships, but even in this crowded field, Fresh takes the cake. Fresh stars Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People) opposite Sebastian Stan (Captain America) in what could easily be described as the strangest, most warped comedy-thriller of the year — or any year for that matter.
It’s difficult to talk too much about this movie without revealing some of its juiciest twists and turns but it’s safe to say that what starts out as your typical meet-cute rom-com quickly devolves into something much more nefarious. Edgar-Jones and Stan have a kind of quirky chemistry that works to set up some of the movie’s later scenes quite well. Edgar-Jones, especially, is hard to ignore here, continuing the run she started on Normal People which has no sign of stopping.
It was recently announced that Fresh’s director, Mimi Cave, will be directing another feature, this time for Amazon, and it will star none other than Nicole Kidman, so even the behind-the-scenes talent of Fresh seems to be getting some recognition.
2. ‘Fire Island’ (2022)
The romantic comedy formula has been repeated so many times that it seems almost impossible to create something new and original within its constraints. And then, something like Fire Island comes along, both defiantly original and winkingly timeless. One of Hulu’s newest films, Fire Island comes from the mind of Joel Kim Booster, who also stars in the movie as Noah, and is based heavily on the classic Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice.
Of course, Austen knew nothing of Fire Island, a thin island running along the south shore of Long Island, New York, or the gay party scene that has been present there since the 1970s. It’s here that Booster stages his loose adaptation of Austen’s novel, a vacation town where Noah and his friends/chosen family spend a week each summer. It’s here that we see the romantic entanglements and “novel of manners” elements that anyone familiar with Austen will recognize.
What’s fascinating — especially for a cis straight man such as myself — is how these ideas are transposed onto Fire Island, where what one character calls a “gay heirarchy” exists in a way I’ve never seen portrayed before on film. Noah and his friends are not the norm on Fire Island, which is chock full of ridiculously rich, very white, slightly stuck-up young professionals. Noah is very aware of these differences and is stubborn to accept their point of view as anything but offensive. Things get tricky, then, as Noah tries his best to get his best friend Howie (played excellently by Bowen Yang) some much-needed action. From here we get a satisfying blend of Austenian twists and classic rom-com tropes, each with their own refreshing spin and culminating in the ending any true rom-com deserves.
1. ‘Palm Springs’ (2020)
When the hit Bill Murray 1993 comedy Groundhog Day first made waves, I doubt anyone would have predicted it would inspire an entire genre of “time loop” fiction, but here we are. Palm Springs clearly owes a debt to Murray and company, but puts a refreshing spin on the premise, to be sure. In this case, we have two unfortunate souls stuck repeating the same day over and over, Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti). Nyles and Sarah are in Palm Springs attending a wedding and so live that wedding day over and over after getting sucked into a vortex housed within a nearby cave.
The movie is very much built on the two’s chemistry, and the best scenes invariably involve Samberg and Milioti testing the limits of the loop, falling headfirst into gluttony and nihilism in a way Phil Connors would surely admire. Yet, Palm Springs is remarkable not only for the comedic elements but just as much for the heart at its center. This inherently absurdist set-up leads to genuinely touching pathos, even as the science-fiction elements continue to escalate. All this makes Palm Springs the high water mark for the streamer’s original film department.