Of course every movie technically features some drama in it, but that doesn’t make it a drama per se. Wikipedia calls it a “film genre that depends mostly on in-depth development of realistic characters dealing with emotional themes.” To us, that opens the door up for plot-heavy war movies and dialogue-filled mob movies, as well as biopics and the traditional stuffy drama that always seems to woo the Academy voters. Yes, some of those are actually good too.
Drama is the heavyweight genre; no superheroes or laser guns allowed—no matter how great The Dark Knight was. They’re often based on excellent literary works or the lives of significant people, and the best ones leave you not only analyzing the film you just saw, but your own beliefs as well.
So with apologies to your mama, please, save the drama for us. We actually enjoy it. Here’s our list of the 50 best drama movies of all time, in no particular order.
To call The Godfather the granddaddy of all gangster films is like calling Michael Jordan one of the best Chicago Bulls. Francis Ford Coppola works Mario Puzo’s mafia novel like a virtuoso, with the masterful Marlon Brando commanding the camera’s respect as Don Vito Corleone, and a fresh faced Al Pacino shining as he rises to power as Michael. It’s the ultimate peek inside the life of Mafia family, and all of the wickedness that comes with it.
From start to finish, Boogie Nights is almost always entertaining you each second. In the talented hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, this porn industry tale crackles with intensity, laughs, tension, and a killer disco and pop soundtrack. Mark Walberg is solid as Dirk Diggler, but the supporting cast is crazy strong, with the likes of Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and John C. Reilly adding to the film’s depth.
On the Waterfront
“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody…” Those famous lines from Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, a former boxer-turned-longshoreman, are some of the most revered in Hollywood history. Elia Kazan’s masterpiece about corrupt union bosses not only has Brando’s legendary performance, but also the fascinating backstory involving Kazan’s testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
12 Angry Men
If anyone ever tells you a film is nothing if it doesn’t have axction, sit them dowen in front of 12 Angry Men. Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Reginald Rose put on an absolute clinic in terms of direction, dialogue, and depth—all taking place within a small room, as a jury decides the fate of a man facing a murder charge. Tense, thought-provoking, and the finest courtroom drama of them all.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman light up the screen in this treasured classic that brings more suspense and tension than it’s usually remembered for. With the backdrop of World War II and the imminent Nazi threat, Bogart must fight through his feelings for Bergman while also trying to advance the cause of freedom. With sterling supporting performances and that intangible pizazz, Casablanca remains in the rarified air of Hollywood’s best.
One does not just flip through the channels and watch Schindler’s List. No, Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed historical drama brings with it a sense of dread, sorrow, and weight that makes it a viewing experience one can only handle every 10 years or so. Filmed in black & white, yet as disturbing as mainstream movies get, this tale of German businessman Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) efforts to save Jewish refugees from the Holocaust stands tall as a brilliantly made and deeply moving piece of art.
Many film aficionados who are far more knowledgeable than us rank Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time. We’ve seen it several times, and while we just can’t justify that lofty ranking on our terms, we do fully appreciate the level of mastery shown by star and first-time director Orson Welles. The film famously shows the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper publishing tycoon whose story more than slightly resembles that of real-life magnate, William Randolph Hearst. A haunting tale that technically blazed new trails for moviemaking when the art form was still in its infancy.
The Shawshank Redemption
Shawshank is the Citizen Kane for Generation X. It’s ranked #1 on IMDb’s Top 250. Stephen King’s novella gets treated with supreme grace by director Frank Darabont in this prison-bound tale of hope and redemption. In a marvelous career, this is Morgan Freeman’s finest hour, and Tim Robbins leaves it all on the floor as well. When you settle in for Shawshank, you do so knowing you will be both drained and rejuvenated by the end credits—a sign of a great dramatic film. The real crime: It only made $28 million.
Saving Private Ryan
Are there any 27 minutes of film more intense, more brutal, and more startling than the first 27 of Saving Private Ryan? Steven Spielberg’s masterful depiction of the Omaha Beach landings is the greatest battle scene of all time, and this might be the greatest war movie of all time too. Tom Hanks is excellent as the beleaguered Captain John H. Miller and is surrounded by an accomplished cast. It’s visceral, scary, and heartbreaking. Is there any movie that can inspire patriotism more than this?
The Hurt Locker
For a war that lasted more than twice as long as World War II, there aren’t many Iraq War movies (not counting non-fiction) that stand out. Perhaps that’ll change over time, but as of right now, The Hurt Locker is the definitive one. It’s full of furious tension and action. But when it slows down, director Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner is still a riveting dramatic film, putting the viewer unnervingly close to the life of an Army bomb squad unit.
Pretty much anytime we hear about an actor putting their body through hell for a role, we think of the definitive example: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. De Niro famously gained 60 pounds to play the older Jake LaMotta after previously being tight and toned to portray the former middleweight boxing champ. There’s not really a likable character in the film, but De Niro’s legendary performance under Martin Scorcese makes it crackle.
It’s barely heard of today, so imagine the chutzpah it took to run for office in 1977 as an openly gay man. Milk tells the pioneering and tragic story of Harvey Milk and his fight for gay rights. Sean Penn nails it in the lead role, there’s a scene-stealing performance by Josh Brolin, and given the film’s 2008 release and the surge of the gay marriage issue, the film’s prescient nature makes it all the more powerful.
A Beautiful Mind
OK, so it appears the story of the real-life John Forbes Nash Jr., a mathematical genius who suffers from schizophrenia, varies significantly from what screenwriter Akiva Goldsman came up with for A Beautiful Mind, but we can’t deny the emotional power that this film delivers. That enormous plot twist hit us hard the first time, and Russell Crowe does a great job portraying a difficult subject. Ron Howard’s finest behind the lens.
Life is Beautiful
Just go ahead and grab the whole box of tissues for this one. Life is Beautiful is strangely enough, like two separate movies put together. The first portion resembles a romantic comedy, as Chaplinesque star and director Robert Benigni looks to win the heart of Nicoletta Braschi. But then, the film takes a drastically dramatic turn, as anti-Semitic fascists send Italy’s Jews to death camps. It’s an unforgettable movie that everyone should see.
We won’t delve into the dozens of quotable lines from Forrest Gump—we all know them by heart. But we will say that we’re thankful Bill Murray, John Travolta and (eesh) Chevy Chase all turned down the lead role. Tom Hanks is simply awesome as the slow-minded but warmhearted Forrest, who somehow always seems to wind up in the middle of historical moments. Much credit also goes to director Robert Zemeckis for the memorable magic he created in this 90s classic.
Carlito’s Way is one of the most underrated movies of all time. It made only $36 million in the US, and critics like Gene Siskel gave it a thumbs down—why, we have no idea. Calling Brian DePalma a poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock is certainly not an insult, given Hitch’s untouchable reputation, and here DePalma masterfully weaves an increasingly tense tale around Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), an ex-con trying to walk the straight and narrow. He falters, in part due to his coke-addicted lawyer buddy played brilliantly by Sean Penn, but the film never does.
The Godfather Part II
We try like the Dickens to stay away from sequels on these lists, but come on, it’s The Godfather: Part II, the sprawling gangster epic that slugs it out with The Empire Strikes Back for the best sequel of all time. While we lose Marlon Brando, we gain the great Robert De Niro, and the flashback-focused script remains as airtight as the original. But it’s Al Pacino as Michael Corleone that commands the attention, in one of his best performances ever.
Lawrence of Arabia
Before people started overusing the term “epic” for things like turkey sandwiches and exhibition hockey games, it was reserved for films like Lawrence of Arabia. Based on the life of British Army officer and his extraordinary exploits in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, Lawrence of Arabia takes its time (222 minutes) in telling its tale, but the spectacular cinematography and Peter O’Toole’s charisma carry this seven-Oscars-owning classic though.
The private eye trope is taken to near-perfection in Chinatown by Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, an investigator who gets entangled in a nasty little web of L.A.-based corruption and murder. Director Roman Polanski makes a disturbing cameo, and he also crafts a poignantly dark gem that has endured for 40 years.
This famous film noir by esteemed director Billy Wilder features Fred MacMurray as an insurances salesman who gets talked into a doozy of a fraud scheme. Yes, the dad from My Three Sons will kill for cash! If you think movies with downright dastardly plotlines weren’t hatched until the 60s or later, the snappy and shadowy Double Indemnity is one of the best rebuttals to that theory.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The 1976 Academy Awards should’ve just been called the “The One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Show,” as this riveting adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel deservedly swept all five of the big Oscar categories. This is the movie that cemented Jack Nicholson’s legacy, but the film’s powerful story about a rebellious group of mental patients is much more than a one-man showcase. With a multitude of deep themes at play, Cuckoo is a movie that stays with you. Also, like half the cast of Taxi is in there.
Is Pulp Fiction a drama? Honestly, we’re not sure. Now, we do know some dramatic stuff goes down in Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, but despite the stylized violence, it’s the razor-sharp dialogue that seems to have emerged as the enduring legacy from the film—and we’re not just talking about the “royale with cheese.” Samuel L. Jackson is unforgettable as hit man Jules Winnfield, and the tension is thick throughout.
Fueled by the scene-stealing Joe Pesci and Martin Scorcese’s maestro-like tempo, Goodfellas whacks you harder than a spiked bat on the Jersey Turnpike. Based on the very real life story of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill, the film spans 25 years and holds you hostage the whole way through. Hill isn’t exactly a protagonist you feel compelled to root for, but in the dirty world of the mafia, he’s as good as it gets.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee of Monroeville, Alabama, wowed the literary world with To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and a couple of years later, director Robert Mulligan helmed that relatively rare bird: a big screen adaptation that matches the book’s power. This story about small town racism and childhood innocence features the unforgettable performance by Gregory Peck as the wise and compassionate Atticus Finch. Ahead of its time for its subject matter and filled with a timeless poise.
It’s a Wonderful Life
The holiday favorite that never fails to dampen your eyes while still lifting your spirits, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rides high on the strength of the ultimate everyman, Jimmy Stewart. George Bailey’s life has bottomed out, and he’s ready to throw it away until his guardian angel shows him just how valued he is by his family and community. Full of life lessons and more warm fuzzies than anyone can rightfully expect from a movie.
If war is really a descent into madness, no movie illustrates that better than Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic is a flat-out mind trip, with Martin Sheen as Benjamin L. Willard, the troubled special operations officer who needs to track down a colonel (Marlon Brando) who went rogue in the most bizarre of ways. Even if it runs a little long (and we’re not even talking about the 202 minute Redux version), it’s undeniably a classic.
Made for a measly million bucks in just one month, Rocky punches much harder than any of its guilty pleasure sequels. See, there’s no guilt involved in loving Rocky; it’s a very well-made underdog story with great music and a heart-tugging finish. Sure, Sylvester Stallone creatively peaked with this film, but we’re sure he doesn’t mind the fame and fortune it brought him.
All About Eve
With those eyes of hers, Bette Davis epitomized drama without even saying a word. But boy does she says a few words in All About Eve, the acclaimed dramedy that perhaps (unfortunately) set the stage for the type of bitchiness that rules on reality TV these days. Full of feisty dialogue that flies fast, the film was nominated for an astounding 14 Academy Awards, a record untouched until Titanic also had 14 in 1997.
My Left Foot
1989 was still way before most of knew Daniel Day-Lewis was a god among men, but as My Left Foot proves, yeah, he was already amazing. The film tells the true story of Christy Brown, an Irish man with cerebral palsy who overcomes his handicap with astounding success. The film is as inspirational as Day-Lewis is remarkable.
Before he was the “winning” freak show of the past decade, Charlie Sheen had a powerful performance as a young soldier in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, a graphic and haunting take on the Vietnam War. The camaraderie, courage, and chaos of the situation are fleshed out in full detail, with the war’s moral issues and atrocities also getting dealt with sharply. Strong stuff.
The King’s Speech
This 2010 Best Picture winner is carried by a sensational effort from Colin Firth as King George VI, whose stammering problem threatens to derail his legacy. Geoffrey Rush is the oddball speech therapist who helps undertakes the task of getting him throne-ready. Stirring, funny, and one of the best films of this decade.
Chuck Palahniuk’s punchy novel gets punched up even further by director David Fincher in this cult classic. Edward Norton is the unnamed everyman who suffers from insomnia and is fed up with his white-collar job. Brad Pitt is Tyler Durden, the mysterious soap salesman who wakes up Norton with a regular routine of bare-knuckled brawls. You can enjoy Fight Club for its old-school machismo, but the deeper message says more about rebelling against corporate numbness.
Prejudice is poignantly examined in Crash, but for whatever reason, it’s been bashed a bit as time has gone by. A handful of L.A. stories are interwoven with racial tensions as the common bond. The star-filled cast (Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillipe, Ludacris) might be a little distracting, but we still think Crash is a highly thought provoking film that deserves its 2004 Best Picture award.
If any real-life figure ever deserved a three-hour film, it was Mahatma Gandhi. In one of the finest casting choices we can think of, Ben Kingsley portrays the leader of India’s independence movement with sensational accuracy. Seeing how this man used peace as his greatest weapon takes some patience on the part of the viewer, but Kingsley and director Richard Attenborough rise to the task, resulting in a powerful film and required history lesson.
Gone with the Wind
We bite our lip a bit when adding Gone with Wind to the list because we do think it’s a bit overrated. But our small opinions aside, you can’t knock the impact. When adjusted for inflation, the 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel is the highest grossing movie of all time at $1.6 billion. And really, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh do nothing but bring the drama, so even for that reason alone, it has to be included.
James Cameron’s unforgettable epic is very much a romantic drama for its first two hours—a fact that often pleases women, but frustrates men. Of course, if the poor boy-rich girl relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were all this movie had to offer, we’d have forgotten it a long time ago. While we do wish more passengers had their stories told – like the elderly couple hugging on the bed while water floods their room, Ida and Isidor Strauss, the owners of Macy’s – Titanic delivers one of Hollywood’s greatest and most dramatic spectacles.
One of the best dramas of the 80s, Rain Man soars on the back of Dustin Hoffman, who is simply unforgettable as the autistic savant, Raymond. Tom Cruise is the jerk of a brother who uses Raymond in a move to get his father’s fat inheritance. It’s a buddy-bonding movie filled with laughs, great acting, and a real soft spot at its core.
Spike Lee’s biopic on the life of perhaps America’s most fiery civil rights activist thrives thanks to the dynamic Denzel Washington who looks and speaks remarkably like Malcolm X. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the man born as Malcom Little was so fascinatingly turbulent and impactful. It’s a gripping and powerful work, and what the hell, let’s also give it some bonus points for featuring “Raj” (Enerest Lee Thomas) from What’s Happening.
Besides being the steely-eyed tough guy icon, Clint Eastwood has also directed a ton of movies, and Mystic River is one of his best. Dennis Lehane’s excellent novel provides the emotionally draining fodder here, involving a murder that reunites three men who were childhood friends. There’s a gut-punch mystery at the story’s core, with A-listers like Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon delivering the goods.
Dog Day Afternoon
Based on the true story of a New York City bank robbery gone awry, Dog Day Afternoon features stellar acting by Al Pacino and his Godfather buddy, the underrated John Cazale. Director Sidney Lumet elicits thrills and humor, and the screenplay by Frank Pierson is crazy good. One of the best of the 70s.
It’s hard to believe the genocide that occurred in Rwanda happened as most of us were watching Beavis and Butt-head and listening to Nirvana in 1994, but this shockingly tragic truth comes to light movingly in Hotel Rwanda. The true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who courageously housed more than a thousand refugees, saving them from certain death, is far too powerful to fail, and Don Cheadle and director Terry George turn it into an emotional journey that resonates deep and long.
American History X
“Hate is baggage.” It can take a long time to learn that lesson. In American History X, Edward Norton is a racist skinhead with an impressionable younger brother (Edward Furlong). There aren’t many other films that confront the issue of racism as head-on as this one does, and Norton’s performance as the nasty-then-evolving Derek Vinyard is beyond reproach. Director Tony Kaye may not have liked the final cut of the film that New Line Cinema released, but it stands as a powerful film.
From Here to Eternity
OK, so From Here to Eternity was slightly before our time, but the iconic scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr passionately rolling in the surf is still what we think of when we see a pretty girl at the beach. This World War II melodrama earned its eight Oscars with standout acting from the likes of Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift.
Often called the ultimate movie about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is a film noir that shows how ruthless a business show business can be. Acclaimed director Billy Wilder expertly juggles elements of black comedy and drama throughout the film, and its classic opening scene, with police cars rushing to a Beverly Hills estate while the narrator tells you how a screenwriter wound up dead in a pool, has pretty much been copied by every TV police procedural for the last 50 years.
“Are you talking to me?” Yes, we are, and we’re telling you that again, the combo of Scorcese and De Niro have earned their place on our list. Taxi Driver is a sparse, dark look inside the mind of a troubled veteran who drives a New York City cab for a living. De Niro as Travis Bickle is totally believable in being unhinged, and Scorcese expertly takes us down the rabbit hole of disillusionment with him, building dread for the inevitable crack in his fragile existence.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
On the short list of the greatest war movies ever made, The Bridge on the River Kwai hasn’t lost a step in the nearly 60 years since its release. Before he was Obi-Wan, Alec Guinness shined as the rigid Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in this epic saga about honor and the inherent insanity of war, notably shown here from different perspectives.
Do the Right Thing
1989’s the number for Spike Lee’s boiling-hot look at race relations gone awry in Brooklyn. The performances may be over-the-top, but there’s a sense of inner knowledge that’s also palpable here, probably because Lee was quite familiar with what a hot summer day feels like in a neighborhood that’s bubbling over with prejudicial tensions. It sticks with you.
Damn you, Wilson… every time… every freaking time you get us right here. Cast Away takes what could be a very dull premise – watching a man slowly go crazy on a desert island – and captivates you with its heart and the always lovable Tom Hanks. The opening plane crash is one of the best crash scenes we can recall, and the dramatic last 15 minutes of the film can generate hours of discussion.
City of God
Loosely based on real events that took place in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro, City of God devastatingly depicts how the cycle of violence and vengeance often never ends. Director Fernando Meirelles creates a remarkable pace in this violent crime drama that keeps you sweating throughout.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Before they teamed up for It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made movie magic with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a story about one man’s efforts to combat political corruption. Inspiring, if a tad corny, it’s a great tonic for the knapsack of cynicism most of us wade through life with.