Whether they’re slice-of-life stories like The Florida Project or tense war epics like Dunkirk, every good drama has one thing in common: the ability to evoke a deep emotional reaction from its audience. These intricately woven worlds can make us laugh or cry, flood us with endorphins or keep us up at night. At the center of them all, though, is humanity. In no particular order, these are our favorite drama films of all time.
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12 Years a Slave (2013)
The incredible true story of one man’s survival, this film follows a free Black man from upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into the slave trade in the Antebellum South. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon. Already enslaved when the story begins, he relives his past through a series of flashbacks.
It might be the remake of a remake of a remake, but Lady Gaga is flawless in this modern adaptation of A Star Is Born. She plays Ally, a singer-songwriter whose talent impresses famous musician Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) when he encounters her at a small bar. She goes on tour with him, they fall in love, and as her success soars, their relationship is tested time and again by his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Emotionally fragile Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives at her sister Stella’s apartment in New Orleans to start a new life. But she is soon tormented by her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley (played by Marlon Brando), and cracks in her perception of reality begin to form. The legendary film is based on the equally iconic play by Tennessee Williams.
There’s probably not a soul alive who didn’t want to become a rock journalist after seeing this movie. A teenage boy is given the assignment of a lifetime: to profile an up-and-coming band for Rolling Stone magazine on their tour of the United States. A dynamic cast of characters, the paradoxical realities of fame, and Philip Seymour Hoffman: What more could you want?
This gritty drama brought Jacki Weaver her first Oscar nom as the matriarch of an Australian crime family. When 17-year-old J’s mother dies of an overdose, he moves in with his estranged grandmother (Weaver) and gets entangled in the family business of armed robbery. He learns that once you’re in, violence is the only way out.
Set during the 1930s in Britain, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) mistakenly believes she’s witnessed her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), being raped by Robbie (James McAvoy). He’s arrested and later released from prison on the condition he serves in the military during the Battle of France. This award-winning film is about the naivety of childhood, love torn apart by conflict, and how to cope with lifelong regret.
Based on two memoirs from the same family, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff, this film is a moving portrayal of a father-son relationship as the two navigate the challenges of drug addiction.
Walking and talking have never been more interesting. When Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Céline (Julie Delpy) in Vienna the night before he’s due to return home to the United States, he convinces her to spend the night roaming the city, getting to know each other, and sharing pieces of themselves.
The young son of a coal miner in mid-’80s Britain takes an interest in ballet, but due to his father and brother’s traditional views on masculinity, he is forbidden to learn how to dance. Billy takes classes in secret, nonetheless, with a teacher who believes he’s got potential to join the Royal Ballet School in London.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Released in 1999, Boys Don’t Cry was the first mainstream film to feature a trans man at the center. Based on the tragic true story of Brandon Teena, who was raped and later murdered in Humboldt, Nebraska, the movie earned Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar. It has been celebrated for shedding light on LGBTQ+ issues in a way that was rare at the time, though some contemporary viewers have criticized it for featuring a cisgender woman in the lead role.
Children of Men (2006)
It’s 2027. Due to widespread infertility over the last two decades, the human race faces extinction, and society is on the brink of collapse. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a former activist, must help refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) flee the chaos when he learns she might be the last and only pregnant woman on Earth.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
The first film directed by an African-American woman, Julie Dash, to be distributed to U.S. cinemas, Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women, survivors of slavery, who prepare to migrate from their Sea Island home to the mainland.
My mom said nothing happens in Christopher Nolan’s epic yet brilliantly sparse WWII film. And she’s kind of right, but that’s also kind of the point. With the help of a Hans Zimmer soundtrack, Nolan builds tension masterfully as we watch ordinary Brits evacuate more than 300,000 troops, who had retreated from the Nazis with nowhere to go.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Clementine (Kate Winslet) undergoes a procedure to erase the memories of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey), with whom she’s experiencing a painful breakup. He undergoes the procedure, too, in order to forget the woman he once loved. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a beautifully written, award-winning story about memory, romance, and loss.
In 1950s Philadelphia, garbage collector Troy Maxson dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. But when the major leagues start accepting Black athletes, he’s told he’s too old. Played brilliantly by Denzel Washington, Troy must come to terms with his unrealized dream while raising his family.
Russell Crowe plays a once-powerful Roman general who’s betrayed and is forced to become a gladiator. His name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and he will have his vengeance in this life or the next.
When Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his home turned upside down and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing, he becomes the chief suspect in her disappearance. A media circus ensues, and Nick becomes “the most hated man in America” But all is not as it seems in this thrilling adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best seller of the same name.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
This ultimately uplifting drama would launch Ben Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s careers, and cement Robin Williams as an international treasure. When a janitor at MIT (Damon) solves a graduate-level math problem, his incredible talents are discovered and nurtured by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), who is on a mission to help the troubled young man reach his potential.
In the near future, an introverted, depressed writer (Joaquin Phoenix) buys an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) with which he develops an intimate and ultimately romantic bond. It could have had comedic undertones, but instead, director Spike Jonze presents this original story as a touching exploration of loneliness and isolation in the age of technology.
Based on the incredible true story, this Best Picture nominee follows three brilliant Black women at NASA who team up to solve an equation that would play a pivotal role in the Space Race. Set during a time of racial and gender inequality, the film dramatizes the untold history of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson).
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk paints a bleak picture of racial injustice, but a moving picture of love in the face of adversity. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) plan to get married, but their future is upended when Fonny is accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Based on the John Ball novel of the same name, the film stars Sidney Poitier as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs investigating a murder in a small town in Mississippi. But the murder mystery is not the central narrative here; rather, it explores the odd-couple relationship between Tibbs and local police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) in the racist South.
A killer shark threatens the vacationing population of Amity Island, and the most iconic use of F and F sharp in the history of musical scores signals he’s on the hunt again. Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a classic, but it demonized sharks so powerfully that Peter Benchley, the book’s author and co-writer of the film’s screenplay, wished he’d never written it. “No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction,” he later said.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Fred Hampton was an activist and the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. In the late ’60s, Hampton was betrayed by William O’Neal, an FBI informant who had infiltrated the Black Panthers, and ultimately shot and killed during a raid. Starring Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal, Judas and the Black Messiah tells their story.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Based on the James Ellroy novel of the same name, this film follows a group of LAPD officers in 1953 as they investigate a murder at a downtown Los Angeles coffee shop and, in doing so, uncover a rich tapestry of corruption.
Five-year-old Saroo finds himself in Calcutta, India, after being separated from his brother and family in Khandwa, nearly 1,000 miles away. His family cannot be located, so he is taken to a local orphanage and, after three months, adopted by an Australian family. Twenty-five years later, now-adult Saroo (played by Dev Patel) begins the long journey to find his biological family. Lion was based on the incredible memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley.
Lost in Translation (2003)
An actor in the twilight of his career and a conflicted newlywed form an unlikely yet intimate bond while visiting Tokyo. Sofia Coppola’s film is a melancholy masterpiece.
This one is a beautifully stripped-back film that makes no apologies for ripping your heart out. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as a creative couple trying to navigate the challenges, and nuances, of divorce with their young son at the center.
The Best Picture–winning story of a young Black man who struggles to find his place in the world, this film is told in three chapters that cover childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, as Chiron navigates his identity and sexuality growing up in a rough neighborhood in Miami in the ’80s.
One Night in Miami… (2020)
Director Regina King brings us this fictionalized account of a real meeting that took place in a hotel room in 1964 between Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X. All four are in Miami for Cassius Clay’s boxing bout against Sonny Liston. On the invitation of Malcolm X, these legendary men reflect on their achievements—and where they want to go next.
Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece was the first non-English film to take Best Picture. And with good reason. A South Korean family struggling to make ends meet infiltrates the lives of a wealthy family by assuming new identities to get jobs within the home. But a mysterious presence threatens to upend their plot.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
In the year 1900, a group of boarding school students in rural southern Australia go for a picnic on Valentine’s Day. Four of them go to explore the enigmatic Hanging Rock formation nearby, never to be seen again. The discussion around this movie is almost as fascinating as the film itself: Members of the cast and crew recall odd things happening on set, for one thing, and the gauzy girls-in-white-dresses aesthetic has influenced a range of fashion designers.
Professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is recovering from a broken leg and confined to a wheelchair in his apartment that looks over a courtyard and other apartment buildings. With his neighbors keeping their windows open during a heat wave, Jeff gains an intimate understanding of their lives—and sees more than anyone should.
A beautiful, socially anxious young woman weds the mysterious aristocrat Maxim de Winter—his second marriage—and goes to live with him at his glorious seaside mansion Manderley. But the memory of his first wife, Rebecca, who we’re told drowned while sailing, still haunts the estate in more ways than one. Alfred Hitchcock directs Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in this classic example of film noir, which was also his first American project.
Remember the Titans (2000)
At a Virginia high school in 1971, the football team is struggling with integration. Remember the Titans is based on the true story of Coach Herman Boone, who united the group and led them on a 13–0 season. Denzel Washington stars as Coach Boone, and the film features one of the best soundtracks of all time.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Hosea Williams led voting rights marches along the 54-mile highway from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. Selma is a poignant historical drama based on the events, directed by Ava DuVernay and with David Oyelowo starring as King.
Initially released as The Magnificent Seven, this epic samurai film by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa takes place in 1596. A desperately poor village hire seven rōnin (masterless samurai) to protect them against bandits who threatened to steal their crops once the harvest is over.
Riz Ahmed stars as heavy metal drummer Ruben, who lives the life of a touring musician. But when a doctor finds Ruben has lost most of his hearing and that it will get worse, his trajectory shifts. As a recovering drug addict, Ruben found activity and noise a useful distraction from his demons, but now he must face the possibility of living a quieter life.
The Big Sick is based on the true story of how Kumail Nanjiani met his wife, Emily Gordon, and the events that followed. His Pakistani parents want him to give up stand-up comedy, take the LSATs, and enter an arranged marriage, but a one-night stand with a girl he meets after a show leads to a relationship. Things get infinitely more complicated when Emily falls ill and is placed in an induced coma.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)
In his directorial debut, Chiwetel Ejiofor tells the story of a teen growing up in a small village in Malawi. When his parents can no longer afford to send him to school, he convinces his science teacher to allow him to keep coming to class and use the library. Learning about technology and engineering, he devises a larger windmill to save his village from drought.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
British prisoners of war arrive at a Japanese prison camp in Thailand in WWII where they are forced to build a railway bridge over the river Kwai under horrific conditions. Though the characters, played by Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, and Sessue Hayakawa, are fictional, the film and the novel on which it’s based were inspired by construction of the Burma Railway, during which more than 9,000 POWs died.
The Dark Knight (2008)
There have been more than 10 films made about Batman, but none captures the bleak reality of Gotham as well as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy—and though others have tried, no one can do The Joker like Heath Ledger.
Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004)
It’s 1945, and the Red Army is closing in on the German capital of Berlin. Actor Bruno Ganz’s mesmerizing portrayal of Adolf Hitler in his underground bunker during the final days of World War II has been lauded by historians for its accuracy and attention to detail, though it’s uncomfortable to watch.
A family travel to China to say goodbye to their terminally ill grandmother, from whom they keep her diagnosis a secret. Starring Awkwafina, it’s a touching story about family and cultural differences that ultimately argues love is what ties us all together.
The Florida Project (2017)
Six-year-old Moonee lives with her unemployed mother, who is trying to stave off homelessness, at a budget motel. The stern-faced manager Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe) is protective of them, as Moonee’s mother struggles to make ends meet in this delightful and human look at childhood.
Widely regarded as the most perfect film in existence, director Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece presents a cynical view of the American Dream through the eyes of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who reluctantly joins the family business—organized crime. Under the leadership of his father, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), Michael gets sucked into a cycle of violence.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Kathryn Bigelow is the first female director to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and she did it with this incredible film, which follows an Iraq War Explosive Ordnance Disposal team and digs into the psychological impact of combat. The screenplay was written by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a U.S. EOD team in Iraq.
In the days following Princess Diana’s shocking death, the royal family initially wanted to treat the event as a private affair. Tributes flowed and thousands of bouquets of flowers piled up outside Buckingham Palace while the Queen Elizabeth II (played brilliantly by Helen Mirren) remained silent. This film dramatizes the inside story of the monarchy at a major inflection point in its modern history.
Novelist Holly Martins arrives in postwar Vienna to stay with a childhood friend, Harry Lime, only to learn Harry has died. Martins stays to investigate and becomes suspicious when he learns of a third man present at Harry’s death.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Best friends Thelma and Louise head out on a road trip. When a man tries to sexually assault Thelma at a roadside bar, Louise shoots him. Terrified the police won’t believe their story of self-defense, the pair flee for Mexico. Considered “anti-men” at the time of its release (puh-lease), this glass-ceiling-breaking film is an important piece of cinema for its portrayal of female friendship.
A young aristocrat falls desperately in love with a struggling artist while aboard the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it. And we’ve all seen the memes that confirm, yes, there was definitely room for Jack on that door.
To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry, To Sleep with Anger follows a middle-class L.A. family who, during their own personal crises, receive a surprise visit from an old friend (Danny Glover)—a calming, gentlemanly presence who likes to tell stories of the past.
Legendary comic Adam Sandler surprised basically everyone with his serious acting chops, picking up a Globe nomination for his frantic portrayal of jeweler Howard Ratner, who must retrieve a valuable gem in order to pay off his gambling debts.
A mind-bending psychological drama from Alfred Hitchcock, this film is widely considered a masterpiece but was initially not well-received. James Stewart plays an ex-police officer with an incredible fear of heights who is summoned to stop his friend’s wife from suicide. But something doesn’t add up, and what follows is a twisted story about romance, manipulation, and deception.
In San Francisco, 1969, The San Francisco Chronicle receives multiple encrypted notes from someone known only as Zodiac, while a serial killer terrorizes the Bay Area. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a cartoonist on the newspaper’s staff who tries to decipher the code and find the real identity of the sender.
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