Some movies are just like popcorn — light, fluffy, buttery, and with a dash of salt, they’re addictive. You watch them over and over, and quote them repeatedly at parties, borderline annoying all your friends (ahem, Anchorman). Or some of them are like warm fuzzy blankets — lulling you to dream with epic scores, beautiful characters, and inspiring stories that you’ll watch again and again to immerse yourself further in their world (you know, like Harry Potter or Star Wars).
Others leave you speechless, amazed, but at the same time, totally wrecked. They’re the rare seven-course dinner at a Michelin restaurant in a country you’re only visiting. Every bite pushes you to wonder, satiating your hunger down to your bones. These films feed your soul just as much as your intellect, but they also hurt. And after the credits roll, it’s only the beginning. These kinds of movies coalesce into our being, becoming a place we visit in our subconscious, pushing us to meditate on timeless truths about the human condition.
Cruelty, sacrifice, love, and redemption — yes, these films have it all. But we can’t experience a foreign Michelin dinner every night. One watch is all you’ll need, and most likely stomach, but these films will stay with you forever.
1. Roma (Rotten Tomatoes 95%)
This critically-acclaimed 2018 black-and-white movie follows the life of a live-in housekeeper of a middle-class family in Mexico during the 1970s. Despite the quotidian setting, this film is magical and breathtaking. As critic Own Glieberman put it: “Roma is no mere movie — it’s a vision, a memory play that unfolds with a gritty and virtuosic time-machine austerity. It’s a Proustian reverie, dreamed and designed down to the last street corner and scuffed piece of furniture.”
2. 12 Years a Slave (Rotten Tomatoes 95%)
Right before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a free black man living in upstate New York — that is, until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. With stunning cinematography and a score by Hans Zimmer, “12 Years a Slave is likely the most painful, clear-eyed feature ever made about American slavery,” as Christopher Orr wrote in his review in the Atlantic.
3. Of Gods and Men (Rotten Tomatoes 92%)
This heartbreaking French masterpiece is based on the true story of a group of Cistercian Trappist monks during an event that takes place in Algeria in 1995, and it will inspire as much as it will shake you. “Of Gods and Men strives for simplicity; cinema is usually about dynamism, attraction, ego, but this movie concerns the renunciation of these things, in art and life,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian. “But it is also about the question of how to act when this life is violently challenged.”
4. A Beautiful Mind (Rotten Tomatoes: 74%)
If you haven’t seen this award-winning drama, I won’t give away the twist, but it’s well worth a watch. One arrogant Princeton intellect finds his way into discovering his “big idea” during grad school, but it is only through finding love that he transcends the complexities of his mind. As one critic shared, it’s “good, old-fashioned storytelling, with both a twist and a heart.”
5. Manchester By The Sea (Rotten Tomatoes: 96%)
Lee’s life has faced tragedy before, but with his elder brother’s death, his world falls apart yet again when he’s assigned to serve as the guardian for his 15-year-old nephew. As Paul Asay shared in PluggedIn: “Wonderfully acted and deeply felt, Manchester by the Sea is also a difficult movie in every way. And it is perhaps at its most difficult when it reminds us that our lives are both comedy and tragedy. That, in our finite eyes, they all end in ellipses.”
6. Requiem for a Dream (Rotten Tomatoes: 79%)
If you or anyone you’ve loved has suffered from addiction — or if you’ve always wanted to understand addiction — Requiem for a Dream is a journey through that landscape. As one audience reviewer wrote: “This is one of those rare films that only comes along once in a blue moon; it will immediately have you re-evaluating some of your most dubious life decisions… Aronofsky’s use of cinematographic elements and visual effects to convey both ecstasy and horror are superb, bar none.” My suggestion? Don’t watch it alone.
7. Calvary (Rotten Tomatoes: 89%)
It’s not easy to be a priest in any age, let alone the current one. When a man in the confessional tells an Irish priest that he plans to kill him in one week’s time — not because he’s evil, but because he’s completely innocent — we’re given a brilliant murder-mystery in reverse. The Father knows who the “confessor” is, but we don’t, as the drama (and even sometimes comedy) unfolds. As Moira MacDonald told The Seattle Times, director “McDonagh’s love of symmetrical compositions and the target rich environment of the scenic Irish countryside keep the proceedings visually interesting, but it’s [actor] Gleeson’s understated performance as a man trying to follow Jesus’ example while everyone around him says, ‘What’s the point?’ that elevates Calvary to the realm of the divine.”
8. Precious (Rotten Tomatoes: 91%)
Precious is routinely shown that her life is worthless — by those who are supposed to protect and love her the most. Pregnant by her father for a second time, and living with a mother who shows her nothing but cruel abuse, the illiterate 16-year-old is given a second chance. Her journey lets us see an incredible courage that is beautiful even as the movie is haunting. As A.O. Scott told The New York Times, “Precious is a hybrid, a mash-up that might have been ungainly, but that manages to be graceful instead. It’s partly a bootstrap drama of resilience and redemption, complete with a hardworking teacher … wrangling a classroom full of disadvantaged girls. It’s also the nearly Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults, as lurid as a Victorian potboiler or a modern-day tell-all memoir.”
9. Hacksaw Ridge (Rotten Tomatoes 85%)
If you can handle the gore — just once — this WWII movie is as inspiring as it is intense. The film forces us to re-evaluate what heroism and cowardice really look like in the complex context of war. Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), religiously objects to violence (for which he is brutally teased), but enlists as a medic, and saves 75 men during the battle of Battle of Okinawa, Japan. Based on a true story, this film “is one of the best Second World War movies since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. It is also a wildly contradictory affair, combining folksiness with a pathological quality,” Geoffrey Macnab shared in The Independent.
10. Pan’s Labyrinth (Rotten Tomatoes 95%)
If you’ve ever read an OG fairy tale — you know, the Hans Christian Andersen sort — you’ll quickly realize that they’re a far cry from their optimistic Disney adaptations, and often incredibly dark and rather complex. Pan’s Labyrinth reminds me of just this, mixing reality with fantasy through the eyes of a little girl whose world has been turned upside down with her mother’s marriage to a cruel, Spanish Nazi. “Tragedy, the dark sister of comedy, is something we don’t see too often in mainstream film, so it can come as almost as a shock to the system,” wrote Dorothy Woodend in The Tyee. “The film is one of those rare beasts, with a sense of genuine permanency. It beds down in your mind, like it is preparing to live there for a while. It is not pretty, but it is, sometimes, very beautiful.” Indeed.