70 Best Drama Movies of All Time
Searing emotional sagas, intimate personal portraits, and gripping inspirational tales—these emotional movies are all the drama you need in your life.
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Drama movies that give you all the feels
While there is a time and place for a good comedy belly laugh, an edge-of-your-seat thriller, a terrifying horror movie, a whimsical musical, and other good movies, there is something to be said about a powerful, emotional drama that refuses to leave you long after the theater lights come up (or your streaming service is already firing up the next recommendation on your playlist).
Drama movies hit hard because they tend to deal with things nearly every human being can relate to in one way or another. While we’d all like to think we could punch a meteor into space or survive the night against a holiday-themed slasher, we’re never going to experience that kind of thing in our real lives. But we will fall in love. We will experience loss. We will have challenges in our lives that force us to dig deep and find the fortitude inside to carry on. Dramas hit us in those areas that feel the most real—and for that reason dramas hit everyone a little differently based on their own personal experiences. On that note, this is by no means a ranked list—we’re not trying to say one movie here is better than another. This is just a celebration of 70 movies you need to see to fully understand the power of the drama.
1. The Right Stuff
Director: Philip Kaufman
A gripping story about the birth of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff is most often remembered as the inspiration for the “crew slo-mo walking towards the camera as they prepare for their defining mission” shot that has been imitated and spoofed in everything from kids’ movie Monsters, Inc. to the TV series Community. But the film is an enthralling historical epic, even if history has spoiled the ending. It also features a cast of Grizzled Actor All-Stars at their scowling best: Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, and Lance Henricksen.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Jimmy Stewart as a former police detective suffering from an acute fear of heights as well as the titular sense of dizziness and disorientation, this drama movie follows Stewart’s “Scottie” Ferguson as he trails a mystery woman played by Kim Novak. This is Hitchcock at his finest— leading you along while constantly forcing you to question everything you’re seeing. Is Ferguson becoming dangerously obsessed? Is Novak’s Madeleine crazy? This classic thriller keeps you guessing and second-guessing all the way until the unforgettable ending.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Moonlight tells the story of a young black man named Chiron coming of age in Miami, but everything from its quiet intensity to its distinct “three chapters” structure defies expectations and takes you on a true emotional journey. Full of absolutely astounding performances—especially from Oscar winner Mahershala Ali—it’s the kind of movie that reminds you what the art form can do so well, rolling out Chiron’s life and the lives of those in his community with grace and style.
Director: Ridley Scott
The tale of a Roman general who is betrayed, left for dead, and then begins a slow and violent road towards vengeance as a gladiator, Ridley Scott’s movie is epic in every sense of the word. From the painstaking recreation of ancient Rome in all its magisterial and architectural glory to the breathtaking action sequences, it’s visually huge—and emotionally just as grand. Russell Crowe is magnetic as the vengeful Maximus, and Joaquin Phoenix drips menace as the sniveling Emperor. This drama movie is a breathtaking journey.
5. The Social Network
Director: David Fincher
A dramatization of the birth and rise of Facebook, The Social Network pairs Aaron Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue with David FIncher’s precise visuals and gift for raising tension, resulting in a story that is more gripping than you might expect about something you use to keep up with old high school classmates. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg, and the movie pulls no punches in showing the selfishness, arrogance, and greed that turned a campus directory into an unstoppable cultural force.
6. Tokyo Story
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
A seemingly simple tale of a retired couple who travel from the countryside to Tokyo to visit their grown children and the widow of their (missing and presumed dead) middle son, Tokyo Story is about elevating the quiet moments and the things unsaid. Director Ozu’s camera stays low to the ground (almost as if the audience is sitting in on the conversations on a traditional Japanese tatami mat) and hardly ever moves, maintaining a carefully slow pace and allowing the dialogue to linger. A slow burn, but a beautiful and touching drama.
7. Schindler’s List
Director: Steven Spielberg
Although legendary for big, explosive, crowd-pleasing popcorn movies, every now and then Steven Spielberg reminds you of what a powerful dramatic filmmaker he can be. His take on the life of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who used his influence and business to help save the lives of Jewish people during the Holocaust, is grand in scope, but also deeply moving, somber, and often darkly beautiful. Liam Neeson shines in the lead role, but this is also the movie that put Ralph Fiennes on the map as a sadistic German concentration camp commandant.
8. Hidden Figures
Director: Theodore Melfi
Telling the real-life story of three brilliant African-American women working at NASA in the 1960s—Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae)—Hidden Figures gives these women their long-past-due credit as the real brains behind getting astronaut John Glenn into orbit. This feminist movie is a well-crafted and engaging tribute to women whose names should be known, respected, and an integral part of the lore of the U.S. Space program.
9. Shattered Glass
Director: Billy Ray
Based on a true story, Shattered Glass stars Hayden Christensen (in a role that allows him to flex more acting muscles than Anakin Skywalker did) as young journalist Stephen Glass, who was discovered to not only be fabricating stories for The New Republic magazine, but to be making up sources and contacts to cover his trail, too. You never knew that weekly magazine edit meetings could be this tense, and Peter Sarsgaard absolutely shines as a fellow editor who starts to pick apart Glass’s illusions.
10. Lady Bird
Director: Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird strikes a note-perfect balance between drama and comedy, with most of the humor coming from the (often cringey) sense of recognition of what it’s like to be a young adult on the cusp of maturity, warts and all. The story of a young soon-to-be high school graduate who longs to start her life far from her home of Sacramento, Greta Gerwig’s film is carried largely by the dynamic between star Saorise Ronan and Laure Metcalf, as a mother/daughter duo that butt heads in ways that are tense, hilarious, and all too familiar.
11. All About Eve
Director: Joseph Mankiewicz
A classic story of fame, vanity, and betrayal, All About Eve is full of meaty show business drama. Starring Bette Davis as an aging Broadway star who unwittingly allows a ruthlessly ambitious young actress into her home, the film is chock full of scathing (and witty) dialogue and true tension—a real masterwork that has stood the test of time, and still resonates decades later like these classic movies.
12. Sunset Blvd.
Director: Billy Wilder
An aging silent film star (Gloria Swanson) hires a young screenwriter (William Holden) to help set up her movie comeback. What follows is simply one of the greatest movies about Hollywood and the double-edged sword of fame. It plays in parts like a classic film noir, at other times it can be darkly funny. And, of course, the closing line “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up…” is haunting and iconic.
Director: James Mangold
The “comic book movie” has certainly come of age in recent years, telling stories that are epic but also emotionally resonant and complex. Despite its ties to the X-Men universe, Logan, one of the best action movies, barely feels like a comic book movie at all in the traditional sense for most of its run time. Dark and gritty, it’s a fitting last hurrah (if indeed it is) for star Hugh Jackman and the character he has embodied since the X-Men hit movie screens in 2000. Watching the unkillable kill machine break down and face his mortality is gripping and heartbreaking.
14. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Director: Celine Sciamma
Set in France in the late 18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about a female artist who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a countess’ daughter. The two develop an attraction, which grows despite societal pressure. Director Celine Sciamma crafts an absolutely stunning and sumptuous romance that feels old-fashioned and modern at the same time. This LGBTQ film is a stirring and gorgeous achievement from start to finish.
15. Dancer in the Dark
Director: Lars von Trier
If you’re already familiar with the name Lars von Trier, then you know Dancer in the Dark won’t be a whimsical journey. True to form, this drama movie is a slow churning descent into darkness, buoyed by a surprisingly heartfelt and affecting performance by Icelandic musician Bjork in the lead role. She plays a lonely immigrant factory worker who is slowly going blind and is desperate to save enough money to get treatment for her son who is suffering from the same illness. This is not an easy watch, and the end absolutely wrecks you. But you can’t say it’s not effective and beautifully done.
Director: Christopher Nolan
A master at delivering spectacle with brains and substance, Christopher Nolan turns his attention to a little-known corner of history (at least to most outside Britain) and crafts a grand war film that is satisfying and gripping. Set in 1940 during World War II, the movie is the story of British, French, Belgian, and Dutch troops who were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk by the German army, and who were miraculously evacuated by civilian vessels provided by locals. A story that’s so perfectly cinematic it’s incredible to think it’s based on truth.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Featuring an absolutely knockout cast—Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup just to name a few—Spotlight is an intense newsroom drama about The Boston Globe’s 2001 probe into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. It’s a tough and compelling story, brilliantly told by a juggernaut cast all bringing their A-Games. Thoroughly engrossing.
18. The Farewell
Director: Lulu Wang
An aspiring writer (Awkwafina) and her family travel back to China to visit their matriarch, who is terminally ill—but she’s the only one who doesn’t know. Lulu Wang’s film is warm and often funny but also deals with loss and love and connections (both to one’s family and one’s heritage). A really lovely movie, and an exceptional turn from Awkwafina, who handles the intricate balance between comedy and drama with aplomb.
19. Revolutionary Road
Director: Sam Mendes
Based on the acclaimed novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road is gorgeously shot, painstakingly captures the 1950s details, and features a standout cast in Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, and Kathy Bates. So far, so good. The movie’s problem is that it takes you so perfectly and so uncomfortably close to a marriage that is dying from the inside out that you probably won’t feel much like revisiting the story once it’s over. Not a fun ride, this is an emotionally devastating story that does not pull its punches.
Director: Richard Linklater
If you’ve heard of Boyhood, you’ve likely heard about its unusual gestation: The film was shot over the course of 12 years, so lead actor Ellar Coltrane could age in real-time. But don’t think of this movie as just a gimmick, Richard Linklater has created a coming of age film like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Sad, funny, awkward, and everything in between, it’s a journey that is rewarding and engaging.
21. 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
There have been numerous films and TV series detailing the horrors and shame of slavery in America, but Steve McQueen’s film takes a slightly different approach. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave tells the incredible true story of how Solomon—a free man—was kidnapped and forced into slavery by ruthless slave traders. Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreaking and magnetic as Northrup (the pain and hopelessness that plays in his eyes is deeply affecting), and he is matched by a stellar cast including Michael Fassbender, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, and Lupita Nyong’o, who took home an Academy Award and launched her career.
22. The Asphalt Jungle
Director: John Huston
If you’re curious to learn more about the sub-genre known as film noir, this film should be one of your first homework assignments. Directed by Hollywood legend John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle is about a heist gone wrong—because don’t all heists have to go wrong?—and features all of the hallmarks of a classic noir: dark shadows falling across shadowy people, double- and triple-crosses, and loads of dramatic tension.
23. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino has publicly flirted with retirement for the last couple of years, and if, in fact, he does call it quits, it’s hard to think of a better swansong than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s a coming together of all things Tarantino loves: revisionist history, dark humor, and, of course, old Hollywood, meticulously and lovingly recreated. Partly about an aging actor struggling with relevance, partly a skewed take on the tragic murder of Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, and partly an excuse to pen a darkly sweet love letter to L.A. at the twilight of the 1960s, it’s an entertaining and captivating ride. (But don’t retire yet—the “visit to the Spahn Ranch” sequence proves QT needs to make at least one straight-up horror movie before he walks into the sunset).
24. Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
There are some dramas that have gut-punch endings, then there are some that just seem to be comprised of a series of gut punches for two straight hours. Manchester By the Sea, starring Casey Affleck as a man suffering from depression who takes in his nephew following his brother’s death, is as gray and cloudy as a Massachusetts winter, and nearly as emotionally grueling. But it’s carried by incredibly subdued but powerful performances (not just from Affleck, who is great, but also from Michele Williams as Affleck’s ex-wife and Lucas Hedges as the nephew), and leaves you with some glimmer of hope at the end (which is the least it could do to make up for the journey to get there).
Available on: Amazon Prime
25. Call Me By Your Name
Director: Luca Guadagnino
A coming-of-age romance set in Italy in the 1980s, Call Me By Your Name is about a 17-year-old boy living in rural Italy who begins a romantic relationship with a 24-year-old graduate student who has been hired to assist the boy’s archeology professor father. The yin and yang chemistry between Timothee Chalamet’s shy and bookish boy and Armie Hammer’s brash and confident grad student is undeniable, and the movie is filled with moments that are both achingly beautiful and uncomfortably real. A real gem that established Chalamet as a star.
26. The Bridge on the River Kwai
Director: David Lean
The story of British POWs trapped in a Japanese prison camp during World War II and forced to build a railway bridge, this David Lean film is both a grand and explosive (literally) war movie and an incredibly tense mental chess match between Alec Guinness’ Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa’s Col. Saito. A musing on the madness of war, Bridge on the River Kwai is a drama filled with moments both big and small that are affecting and powerful.
Director: Sean Baker
Another example of a movie that is more than just the gimmick it’s remembered for. Yes, Sean Baker’s breakout film about a transgender prostitute scouring Los Angeles for her pimp was shot entirely on iPhones—but once you actually see Tangerine you realize the iPhones weren’t just a neat trick, but a way for the story to unfold intimately and sometimes uncomfortably close to its characters. You feel like you are right there with them, and the results are both gloriously and tragically messy.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Making the everyday seem epic is what director Alfonso Cuaron did with the intimate and personal Roma. The film follows the day-to-day life of a woman named Cleo, a live-in housekeeper working in Mexico City who must negotiate her employers’ demands with her own life. Cuarón, who wrote, directed, and edited the movie, and partly based the story on his own real-life nanny growing up. A beautiful and stirring portrait.
Available on: Netflix
Director: Fritz Lang
It’s incredible to think that a film made in the early 1930s by a director experimenting with sound for the first time could hold up so well more than 90 years later. But M is a masterpiece psychological thriller that was so far ahead of its time it still reigns as one of the best examinations of criminal psychopathy and how a community can get caught in the grip of fear and panic. Fritz Lang innovated a lot of techniques that are still used today, and Peter Lorre’s naturally unsettling presence has never been put to better use.
30. One Night in Miami
Director: Regina King
After young fighter Cassius Clay (Eli Goree)—soon to be known to the world as Muhammad Ali—pulls off one of the biggest upsets in boxing history against heavily-favored champ Sonny Liston in 1964, he celebrates the event with a rare gathering of cultural icons: political activist Malcolm X ((Kingsley Ben-Adir), R&B legend Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Director Regina King doesn’t just present a historical wax museum, though, she finds the heart and humanity behind the icons, and delivers a heartfelt, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engrossing drama.
Available on: Amazon Prime
Director: Delbert Mann
Written by acclaimed playwright and novelist Paddy Chayefsky, Marty tells the story of a man in his 30s still living with his mother in the Bronx who fears he’ll never find love. Star Ernest Borgnine is incredible in the lead role, selling Marty’s insecurity while also making him warm and likable— someone you’re rooting for. After meeting a nice school teacher and seeing his chance at happiness, Marty must contend with his disapproving mother. A warm slice of life that definitely should be appreciated.
32. 12 Angry Men
Director: Sidney Lumet
Taking place almost entirely in one room, 12 Angry Men is a masterclass in building tension and ramping up feelings of claustrophobia as it follows the 12 members of a jury who must deliberate over a murder trial featuring an inner-city teen. Starring Hollywood legend Henry Fonda, the film is an actor’s dream—reliant entirely on well-drawn characters and sharp dialogue. Still impressive to this day, it’s a tense and uneasy experience but undeniably a great one.
33. The Wrestler
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Director Darren Aronofsky made his name with intense, surreal psychological thrillers filled with fantastical elements—think Pi, Black Swan, and Requiem for a Dream. With The Wrestler, he keeps things real, and the results are just as incredible. Starring Mickey Rourke as an aging pro wrestler trying to hold on to his meager fame even as his health is failing, the movie is sweet and funny and sad all at once—with every scene feeling genuine and real, even when it’s most uncomfortable. A quietly affecting film.
34. Uncut Gems
Director: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Adam Sandler—yes, that Adam Sandler—stars as a fast-talking jewelry dealer with a gambling problem in what is not only his finest dramatic role but one of the most white-knuckle dramas made in the past decade. Once it gets going, the film never eases up as you join Sandler’s Howard Ratner for a night of frantic hustling. The kind of movie that makes you feel sweaty and out of breath even while you’re sitting on your couch. Sandler is matched beat for beat by an impressive cast that includes LaKeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Julia Fox, and former NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett. Worth seeing; just remember to hydrate.
35. The Lighthouse
Director: Robert Eggers
A movie that feels like a waking nightmare (which is something of Robert Eggers’ specialty), The Lighthouse is a tense, claustrophobic drama that is tinged with elements of horror. Not cheerful or fun or especially pretty—in fact, it’s impressive in its commitment to damp ugliness—but definitely worth a look. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson both give their all, and the imagery and story, essentially, two lighthouse keepers on a remote island in New England struggle to maintain their sanity, will stick with you.
36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Director: Milos Forman
In a career filled with iconic roles, it’s saying something that Cuckoo’s Nest‘s Randle Patrick McMurphy is perhaps the most quintessential Jack Nicholson role. The story of a rebellious con who gets transferred to a mental institution and ends up in a battle of wills against a sadistic nurse, Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel is as powerful and moving as it was when it debuted in the 70s. And Nicholson has never been more Nicholson.
37. Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
A fictional look at the CIA’s efforts to track Osama bin Laden following the terrorist attack on 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulously-crafted procedural led by a gripping lead performance by Jessica Chastain as a determined analyst heading up the operation. Director Kathryn Bigelow is money in the bank when it comes to intense thrillers, and she once again delivers a thoughtful, nuanced knockout.
38. The Departed
Director: Martin Scorcese
There are all-star casts and then there’s Martin Scorcese’s Boston-set crime drama: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, and Vera Farmiga. It’s a formidable group, and they all step up in this cat and mouse game pitting a crime lord’s mole inside the Boston PD (Damon) against a Boston PD mole inside the crime lord’s organization (DiCaprio). A crime and punishment tale from a master of the subgenre.
39. A Woman Under the Influence
Director: John Cassavetes
Raw and powerful, A Woman Under the Influence is a landmark of American indie cinema and a big reason why John Cassevetes casts such a long shadow. A tale of a marriage rocked by the specter of mental illness, it’s an acting tour de force from leads Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. An interpersonal drama with the emphasis on “personal,” this film stays with you long after it’s over.
Director: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
An animated gem based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (who also co-directs), Persepolis is a story filled with humor and drama from a unique perspective. Satrapi based the story on her own life in pre-and post-Islamic Revolution Iran, following her growth from little girl to rebellious, punk rock-loving teen set against the political upheaval of the 1970s and 1980s. Funny and emotional and tragic, it’s a deeply felt story, beautifully told.
41. To Kill a Mockingbird
Director: Robert Mulligan
An Academy Award-winning acclaimed drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird is simply a classic of American cinema. The film stars Gregory Peck as the forthright and admirable lawyer, Atticus Finch, a widowed father of two who defends a Black man against fabricated charges of rape in 1930s Alabama. A rare literary classic turned cinematic classic, it deserves its spot among the greatest dramas of all time.
42. The Silence of the Lambs
Director: Jonathan Demme
On the surface, the idea of a fledgling FBI agent trying to track down a serial killer sounds like the stuff of pulpy B-movies. But director Jonathan Demme, and stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, elevate it into something cerebral and intense and utterly enthralling. Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter became an instant horror icon, and his psychological ping-pong matches with Foster’s Agent Starling are impossible to look away from (even when there are times you may want to).
43. Before Sunrise
Director: Richard Linklater
An American traveling abroad (Ethan Hawke) meets a student returning home to Paris (Julie Delpy) and convinces her to spend the night wandering the streets of Vienna with him. That’s literally it. Two people walking and talking, occasionally meeting random (and colorful) Viennese characters, and then walking and talking some more. But the joy is in the details of this romantic movie; how the conversation ebbs and flows and how initial flirting evolves into true attraction. A beautiful love letter to being young and in love.
Director: Milos Forman
The life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) told from the perspective of rival composer Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham), Amadeus is a story of jealousy and bitterness but also inspired talent and, of course, some of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Hulce’s lively and energetic performance will make you rethink everything you think you know about Mozart, and Abraham’s disdainful glares say more than 100 lines of dialogue ever could.
45. No Country for Old Men
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
On the surface, this is the story of a man who unwittingly stumbles upon the remains of a drug deal gone bad and wittingly helps himself to a bag of cash left behind, thereby putting himself in the crosshairs of a cold-blooded killer on the money’s trail. Since it’s the Coen Brothers, though, there is more bubbling under the surface than meets the eye. A slow-burn meditation on old west themes of justice and revenge, No Country for Old Men is filled with unexpected turns and memorable scenes.
46. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Director: Julian Schnabel
Based on the memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby, A French magazine editor who had a stroke at age 43 and ended up with “locked-in syndrome,” a rare condition that results in a person being completely paralyzed but mentally aware. The story of how he is able to dictate his life’s story through blinking his one functional eye is juxtaposed with fantasies and flashbacks back to his earlier life. A starkly beautiful and inspiring movie.
Director: Mike Leigh
It’s a testament to both David Thewlis’ performance and Mike Leigh’s direction that a film about a surly, unemployed, and clearly over-educated man wandering the streets of London pontificating about his twisted worldview to anyone who will listen is so incredibly watchable. Thewlis’ Johnny is not a good or even likable person, but he seems to be the walking embodiment of the 1990’s nihilistic and pessimistic worldview, and his midnight ramblings veer from nasty to oddly enlightened. A really unique and challenging watch.
Available on: Amazon Prime
48. The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
Robert Mitchum delivers one of the most memorable performances of his storied career as Rev. Harry Powell, a ruthless serial killer attempting to recover money stashed away by a former prison mate. Oozing calm menace with the iconic “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos across his knuckles, Mitchum’s Powell is scarier than any masked slasher or supernatural monster. A dark and twisted but worthwhile film to seek out and experience.
49. Three Colors: Red
Director: Kryzstof Kieslowski
Really, you should also watch the first two installments in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy—Three Colors: Blue and Three Colors: White, each based on a color in the French flag and the accompanying themes of Liberty and Equality. But the finale, Red (“Fraternity”), is perhaps the most satisfying, and definitely the most sumptuous. Following a young dancer who sparks up an unlikely friendship with a bitter and aging judge (after accidentally hitting his dog with her car), Red is the most optimistic of the three films but still wrestles with themes of connection, chance, and redemption. Oh, and every frame of this film is simply gorgeous.
Director: David Fincher
You would think that a true-crime drama in which the murderer isn’t unmasked and brought to justice would be incredibly anti-climactic and disappointing, but you’d be wrong. Even though David Fincher’s meticulous take on the real-life Zodiac killer and his reign of terror over Northern California from the 1960s until the 1980s doesn’t present any definitive answers, it is nevertheless an engrossing story filled with painstaking period details and an amazing cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chloe Sevigny, and Anthony Edwards. For our money, the scene where Gyllenhaal’s political cartoonist-turned-amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith finds himself wandering in the basement of a possible Zodiac suspect is one of the tensest sequences ever committed to film.
Director: Sidney Lumet
A biting satire that still has teeth, this story of a newscaster whose on-air breakdown only encourages his network to push the envelope towards more outrageous content is famous for Peter Finch’s “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech—and is still revered as a prescient forecast of what cable news would eventually become. It’s incredible—and more than a little depressing—how much of this film has renewed relevance now. But still, an amazing film.
52. Children of Men
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
When you think of brutal, dystopian futures, your mind likely veers towards leather-clad bikers with mohawks and other over-the-top elements culled from the likes of the Mad Max films. Children of Men, however, aims for unnervingly plausible and realistic in its depiction of a world where natural disasters, war, and terrorism have made most places unfit for life. With incredible performances by Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, this story of a man trying to save the world’s last fertile woman is harrowing and bleak, but mesmerizing – making it a top pick in the disaster movie category.
53. Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia is based on the memoirs of T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier who helped unify Arab tribes during WWI in a struggle against the German-allied Turks. A grand and sprawling epic that makes astounding use of the setting’s vast desert vistas and arid plains, this is the kind of movie they’re talking about when they say, “They don’t make them like this anymore.”
Director: Michael Curtiz
This tale of an American expat (Humphrey Bogart) running a gin joint in North Africa during WWII who runs into a former flame on the run has its share of memorable lines (“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.”), but when you look past the elements that are so iconic they seem cliche, you find a romance that is stirring and star-crossed and unexpected.
55. Apocalypse Now
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
The nightmare that was the Vietnam War is given a suitable nightmarish film treatment in Apocalypse Now. Director Francis Ford Coppola grafts Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness onto a tale of an Army officer tasked with bringing in a rogue Special Forces colonel who has disappeared into the jungle. The film’s iconic lines (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”) and sequences (the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter formation) have been seared into our collective consciousness, with good reason. Powerful and epic.
56. In the Heat of the Night
Director: Norman Jewison
This tale of a Black homicide detective (the late Sidney Poitier) investigating a murder in a Mississippi town in the 1960s is as powerful and bracing as it was when it was first released at the tail end of that decade. Facing racist hostility even from those who are helping him, Poitier’s Det. Virgil Tibbs is determined and courageous—and sadly the movie has lost none of its potency over the years as history continues to repeat itself ad nauseam.
57. The Godfather
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Yes, it’s pretty much Ground Zero for all subsequent movies about the mafia, and it’s been referenced and ripped off so many times that it might seem crushingly cliche at this point. But make no mistake, this is an epic filled with indelible and fully lived-in characters, brought to life by a cast that is still impressive all these years later: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, all at their best. A true landmark of cinema.
Director: Martin Scorcese
Based on the true-life story of former mobster turned informant Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Goodfellas is the kind of movie that makes you – if not exactly “root” for the bad guys – at least enjoy their highs as much as you appreciate their much-deserved lows. Rollicking and at times very funny, it’s also gritty and tough and violent – an exhilarating tour de force from a master filmmaker.
59. Chungking Express
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Although you could put any number of Wong Kar-wai films on this list (his In the Mood for Love is one of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, after all), Chungking Express is perhaps the best example of his sensibility and style. A meandering tale of love, regret, and missed connections, the movie is languidly paced but brimming with style, great music, and riveting performances. A movie unlike any you’ve seen, and one you should make a point of seeing.
Director: Damien Chazelle
The best movies are the ones that challenge you to rethink your preconceived notions about a subject, and few do it as thoroughly and unexpectedly as Whiplash. You might think the story of a young, aspiring jazz musician trying to make his name at a prestigious music academy might be slow and quiet and unassuming, but this is anything but. Featuring J.K. Simmons (as a sadistically demanding teacher) at his most peel-the-paint-off-the-walls intense, Whiplash is gut-wrenching and terrifying and exhausting. But absolutely spellbinding.
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Parasite starts out feeling like a black comedy about class differences, and it is that. But it also takes hard lefts into almost surreal darkness and keeps you guessing until the bitter end. Director Bong Joon Ho pulls absolutely zero punches, and each one of them lands hard. A movie you will think about long after it’s over.
Director: John Avildsen
Before the title character became a cartoon (and before he aged back into a human being in the likes of 2006’s Rocky Balboa or the two Creed movies), Rocky was a sweet and sensitive story about a low rent palooka who dreams of making his mark, even if it’s meager, and falling in love, even if it’s awkward and clumsy. It’s nice to remind yourself once in a while where it all started, and how much heart and humanity it all had at the beginning.
63. Dead Poets Society
Director: Peter Weir
There are few movies that took full advantage of the range of Robin Williams’ talent, but Dead Poets Society is absolutely one of them. Starring Williams as a young, energetic English teacher who inspires the students at a stuffy and repressed boarding school at the end of the 1950s, it’s funny, sweet, and melancholy—and a celebration of Williams’ ability to tickle your funny bone and pull at your heartstrings. Triumphant.
64. The Shawshank Redemption
Director: Frank Darabont
When it was released in 1994, The Shawshank Redemption took a lot of people by surprise. Despite being based on a story by Stephen King, it’s not a horror movie. In a landscape dominated by rule-breaking indie films, it was almost old-fashioned in its look and feel. And despite being about life in a dank and depressive Maine prison in the 40s and 50s, Shawshank is filled with hope and redemption. A truly moving experience.
Director: Roman Polanski
A twisty (and twisted) dark journey into the heart of film noir, Chinatown is still held up as a timeless classic, and for good reason. Jack Nicholson’s detective J.J. Gittes is an instant icon, and Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay fleshes out this seedy world with memorable lines and unforgettable characters. A movie you’ve likely heard of more than you’ve seen, it’s worth checking out any time.
66. Lost In Translation
Director: Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola directs this droll look at two people—an aging actor (Bill Murray) and a neglected young wife (Scarlett Johansson)—who find connection through their shared loneliness while in the unfamiliar terrain of Tokyo. The movie is slow and languid but manages to capture the hazy feeling of being jet-lagged and overwhelmed by a new city. It’s also sweet and funny and surprising by not always going where you think it’s going. A beautifully crafted film.
67. Boys Don’t Cry
Director: Kimberly Peirce
This telling of the true story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a transgender man living in Nebraska, is stark and unblinking—not always a fun watch, but a riveting one nonetheless. Swank and Chloe Sevigny (as Lana, a young woman Brandon falls in love with) are magnetic onscreen, and the slow roll to the story’s inevitable and tragic conclusion is one you won’t soon forget.
68. L.A. Confidential
Director: Curtis Hanson
Based on a sprawling epic novel of the same name by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential tells several concurrent stories of cops trying to resist the influx of organized crime into Los Angeles in the 1950s. The period details all feel lived in and genuine, and the story is both a great crime yarn and a riveting character study. Its all-star cast—including Russell Crowe (in his breakout role), Guy Pierce, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, James Cromwell, and Danny DeVito – is worth the price of admission alone.
Director: Chloe Zhao
Nomadland is almost like a documentary about real ruined lives in the wake of the Great Recession, but for the presence of lead actress Frances McDormand, whose remarkable acting plays off the film’s collection of non-actors and real characters beautifully. Nomadland is an up-close-and-personal look at personal devastation but also a search for identity and meaning in a world that seems intent on crushing both. A movie filled with indelible images that are all the more powerful for how truly real they feel, watch this film for a harrowing but worthwhile experience.
70. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Director: Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a rare example of a movie living up to the book it’s based on—and it’s even rarer in that the book’s author wrote and directed the screen adaptation as well. Chobosky’s closeness to the material is evident as the characters are sincere and richly-drawn, and the story is heartfelt and engaging from start to finish. All three leads—Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller—are given chances to shine in this moving teen movie, and they do. A true accomplishment in so many ways.