20 Best Smart Movies On Kanopy

Staff & contributors

Good movies serve beyond entertainment, to expand perspectives and improve our understanding of humanity and the world. If you're hungry for some food for thought, here are the best smart movies and shows available to stream now.

Find the best smart movies to watch, from our mood category. Like everything on agoodmovietowatch, these smart movies are highly-rated by both viewers and critics.

A hot summer night, around 2 a.m. You're outside talking with a close friend about life, happiness, and the human condition. That quality and depth of conversation, which you reach at best a couple of times a year is present throughout the 106 minutes of The End of the Tour.

In the case of this movie, you become the witness of five days of conversation spent between two fine writers: the once-in-a-generation American author David Foster Wallace and best-selling Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, as they travel the US during the 1996 publicity tour for the former's magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Twelve years later Wallace will commit suicide.

Like a good podcast, the James-Ponsoldt-directed road movie makes you feel being part of a deeply personal conversation of the kind you would have with a long-time friend. At times, it can feel like eavesdropping on a genius at work. This effect is helped along by a flawless Jason Segal, who delivers an award-worthy performance as DFW. The fierce intelligence exuded by Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky is also nothing short of amazing. As they stuff their faces with junk food, their conversation is insightful, immediate, and unpretentiously relevant, making The End of the Tour a rare and important film.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anna Chlumsky, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Cusack, Joel Thingvall, Johnny Otto, Mamie Gummer, Mickey Sumner, Punnavith Koy, Ron Livingston, Ryan J. Gilmer, Stephanie Cotton

Director: James Ponsoldt

Rating: R

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane, Chris Smith, Courtney Love, Danny DeVito, David Letterman, Elton John, George Shapiro, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Judd Hirsch, Michael Stipe, Milos Forman, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bonerz, Randall Carver

Director: Chris Smith

Rating: TV-MA

Do today's political talk shows often feel like meek, scripted, and predictable affairs to you? Would you rather have that euphoric feeling you get when watching someone smart and eloquent talk about important ideas? Multiply that by two and you get Best of Enemies. In 1968, ABC covered the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the historic Democratic National Convention in Chicago by airing a 10-part series of nationally televised debates between two ideologically opposed and sharp-minded public intellectuals: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. The former was an ardent and openly bisexual liberal and progressive. The latter an elitist cultural conservative, whose magazine, National Review, vowed to always support the most far-right candidate viable for office. This confrontational set-up is not only credited with ushering in an era of pundit politics, but also with producing some of the most entertaining intellectual debate ever to be seen on TV. When's the last time you saw anybody unironically being called a “crypto-Nazi” on national television?

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, Gore Vidal, John Lithgow, Kelsey Grammer, Noam Chomsky, William F. Buckley, William F. Buckley Jr.

Director: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon

Rating: R

In a stunning and vivid (re-) introduction to the Black intellectual, author, and social critic, James Baldwin, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It tells the story of America by telling the story of “the negro” in America, based on a book Baldwin started to write, which would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote about 30 pages before he passed away in 1987. Haitian director and activist Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into a movie, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro highlights, at the same time, Baldwin's genius, his unique eloquence, and the beauty of his soul as a human being. It is a sad truth that Baldwin's denouncements feel as relevant today as they did 50 years ago. As such, this movie serves as a sobering reminder of how far America still has to go. A mesmerizing experience!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bob Dylan, Dick Cavett, H. Rap Brown, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Joey Starr, Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Weiss, Ray Charles, Robert F. Kennedy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: PG-13

Clocking in at just over four hours and shot in vivid color, Norte, the End of History stands not only as Filipino auteur Lav Diaz's best work since his earliest films, but as the easiest entry point into his unique filmography. Told on a sweeping yet intimate scale, the film has all the trademarks of Diaz's work: slow, lengthy shots; bursts of dense dialogue and philosophizing; and copious amounts of human despair and systemic corruption. As our three protagonists' souls (who rarely share the screen, if at all) are pushed to the limit after a terrible crime is committed, everything heads toward universal truths—the perseverance of love, and the inevitability of divine justice.

It can be difficult to recommend any film of this length and deliberate pace, but Norte remains a masterful example of how to use time itself to build a monumental story.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania, Hazel Orencio, Mae Paner, Mailes Kanapi, Moira Lang, Noel Sto. Domingo, Perry Dizon, Sheenly Gener, Sid Lucero, Soliman Cruz

Director: Lav Diaz

Here’s a biopic that focuses on capturing the feel of the era it depicts, rather than all the facts — and is all the better for it. 24 Hour Party People takes the same punk approach to storytelling as its subjects did to music, playfully throwing off the dull constraints that often make based-on-a-true-story movies feel like uninspired celluloid translations of a Wikipedia page. 

In the film’s opening scene, Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson breaks the fourth wall to address us directly and semi-spoil the movie’s ending. But it doesn’t matter, because the ride is so fun: we’re taken on an immersive trip through the heyday of the Manchester music scene: the births of Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays, and Wilson’s Factory Records label and legendary Hacienda nightclub, an incubator for acid house and rave culture. The era’s hedonism is brought to life by the movie’s frenetic editing, documentary-style cinematography, and strobe-heavy visuals. For all its onscreen anarchy, though, the movie remarkably never feels loose or self-indulgent. Its irreverence is grounded by the ironic filter of the meta filmmaking, which frequently breaks the fourth wall to draw attention to its own conceits. A refreshing rejection of biopic tropes, but also a thrilling transportation into and evocation of the Madchester era.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music

Actor: Andy Serkis, Chris Coghill, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Lestuzzi, Danny Cunningham, Darren Tighe, Elizabeth Kelly, Enzo Cilenti, Fiona Allen, Helen Schlesinger, John Simm, John Thomson, Kate Magowan, Keith Allen, Kenny Baker, Kieran O'Brien, Lennie James, Margi Clarke, Martin Hancock, Naomi Radcliffe, Neil Bell, Paddy Considine, Paul Popplewell, Peter Gunn, Peter Kay, Ralf Little, Raymond Waring, Rob Brydon, Ron Cook, Sean Cernow, Sean Harris, Shirley Henderson, Simon Pegg, Smug Roberts, Steve Coogan, Toby Salaman

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Rating: R

“It is better to live miserable than to die happy,” or so says one of the characters in Jia Zhangke’s anthology film A Touch of Sin. On its surface, the “sin” referenced in the title might pertain to the acts of murder that the four protagonists commit, but in the context of China’s rapidly changing capitalist landscape (a theme explored in the director’s other pictures), it reveals itself as a malady shared by Chinese laborers treated as dispensable resources by the powers-that-be. Murder, then, is explored as an extremity, the effectual breaking point of people no longer able to contain the injustice within themselves. Beneath the splatters of blood is a plea for empathy and understanding, at once remorseful and full of conviction.

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Actor: Baoqiang Wang, Han Dong, Jiang Wu, Li Meng, Lu Liu, Luo Lanshan, Qiang Wang, Wang Hongwei, Zhang Jiayi, Zhang Jin, Zhao Tao

Director: Jia Zhangke

This is a hilarious political comedy starring the ever-great Steve Buscemi. Set in the last days before Stalin's death and the chaos that followed, it portrays the lack of trust and the random assassinations that characterized the Stalinist Soviet Union. Think of it as Veep meets Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator. Although to be fair, its dark comedy props are very different from the comedy that comes out today: where there are jokes they're really smart, but what's actually funny is the atmosphere and absurd situations that end up developing.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

Actor: Adam Ewan, Adam Shaw, Adrian McLoughlin, Alla Binieieva, Andrea Riseborough, Andrey Korzhenevskiy, Andy Gathergood, Cara Horgan, Dan Mersh, Daniel Booroff, Daniel Chapple, Daniel Fearn, Daniel Smith, Daniel Tatarsky, Daniel Tuite, Dave Wong, David Crow, Dermot Crowley, Diana Quick, Elaine Caxton, Ellen Evans, Emilio Iannucci, Eva Sayer, Ewan Bailey, George Potts, Gerald Lepkowski, Henry Helm, James Barriscale, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Jeremy Limb, Jonathan Aris, Jonny Phillips, June Watson, Justin Edwards, Karl Johnson, Leeroy Murray, Luke D'Silva, Michael Ballard, Michael Palin, Nicholas Sidi, Nicholas Woodeson, Oleg Drach, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Paul Ready, Paul Whitehouse, Phil Deguara, Richard Brake, Ricky Gabriellini, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Rupert Friend, Sebastian Anton, Sheng-Chien Tsai, Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Tim Steed, Tom Brooke, Yulya Muhrygina

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rating: R

Francois Cluzet, who you may remember from The Intouchable, plays a man whose wife is killed and is accused of murdering her. To make matters even more confusing, signs that his wife is actually still alive surface. This well thought out thriller is at all times the furthest thing from boring and has, among other great components, well crafted chase scenes as the protagonist looks for 8 years of unanswered questions.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alexandra Mercouroff, André Dussollier, Anne Marivin, Brigitte Catillon, Christof Veillon, Danièle Ajoret, Dorothée Brière, Éric Naggar, Eric Savin, Florence Thomassin, François Berléand, François Cluzet, Gilles Lellouche, Guillaume Canet, Hugo Sélignac, Jalil Lespert, Jean Rochefort, Jean-Noël Brouté, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Joël Dupuch, Kristin Scott Thomas, Laurent Lafitte, Ludovic Bergery, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Martine Chevallier, Mikaela Fisher, Nathalie Baye, Olivier Marchal, Philippe Lefebvre, Samir Guesmi, Sara Martins, Thierry Neuvic

Director: Guillaume Canet

Rating: Unrated

A unique movie about a near-future society obsessed with couples; viewing couples as the norm, as opposed to single people who are viewed as unproductive and undesirable. In that way, the film shows David (Colin Farrell), a newly single person who is transferred to the Hotel, a place where single people have just 45 days to find a suitable mate, and if they fail, they would be transformed into animals of their choice. While the film’s original premise may not be everyone’s cup of tea, The Lobster will prove a goldmine for people who are into a Kafkaesque, absurdist mentality, or anyone looking for an idea-driven experience.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Aggeliki Papoulia, Angeliki Papoulia, Anthony Dougall, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Ben Whishaw, Colin Farrell, Degnan Geraghty, Emma O'Shea, Ewen MacIntosh, Garry Mountaine, Jacqueline Abrahams, Jessica Barden, John C. Reilly, Laoise Murphy, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Rosanna Hoult, Sean Duggan

Director: Giorgos Lanthimos, Yorgos Lanthimos

Rating: R

This immersive documentary is about a beloved independent record store that opened in front of a major music chain in Manhattan in 1995. Its founders called it Other Music, a jab at the chain and a reference to the music it would carry.

Other Music would go on to become a mecca that welcomes music fanatics from around the world. Its clerks would become legendary for their shaman-like knowledge, many famous bands would have their start at shows in the store, and Other Music would even re-issue artists who were forgotten.

But in today’s hostile world towards independent cultural institutions, can anything, however influential or successful it may be, live?

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Benicio Del Toro, Dean Wareham, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Schwartzman, Jocelyn Samson, Keigo Oyamada, Martin Gore, Matt Berninger, Sharon Van Etten, Tunde Adebimpe, Yoko Ono

Director: Puloma Basu, Rob Hatch-Miller

In his last film, American Serb film historian Peter Bogdanovich celebrates silver screen legend Buster Keaton. The subject alone is compelling to watch. It would be easy to pull clips from Keaton’s works, dig through the headlines, pull in some celebrity interviews, and call it a day. However, in Bogdanovich’s hands, this documentary handles Keaton with respect. Instead of focusing on the scandals, Bogdanovich focuses on Keaton’s brilliant work. Instead of reciting facts, Bogdanovich highlights how his bits influenced film today. Excellent editing - cuts, structure, and scoring - helps us glide through Keaton’s work. The film truly understands Keaton’s life and exactly why he’s brilliant. Comprehensive yet very focused, this documentary honestly feels better than film school.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Drama

Actor: Ben Mankiewicz, Bill Hader, Bill Irwin, Buster Keaton, Carl Reiner, Cybill Shepherd, Dick Van Dyke, Eleanor Keaton, French Stewart, James Karen, Johnny Knoxville, Jon Watts, Leonard Maltin, Mel Brooks, Nick Kroll, Norman Lloyd, Orson Welles, Paul Dooley, Peter Bogdanovich, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Lewis, Tom Holland, Werner Herzog

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Rating: Not Rated

Like Someone in Love is a Japanese drama about identity and finding comfort. It tells the story of a young woman, Akiko, who leads two different lives, one she shares with her family and another which few know about. The movie opens in a restaurant where Akiko is hanging out with her friend, just as a man is trying to get her to leave, insisting that there is a really important “customer” she has to meet. Long taxi rides and Tokyo neon lights will accompany you as the story unfolds. One of the movie’s most evocative sequences involves Akiko seated in the backseat of a cab, listening to her grandmother's voicemails. Using very little dialogue, Like Someone in Love is a simple movie that captures loneliness, regret, and sorrow brilliantly as it depicts a woman and a man who are only trying to give and receive comfort from each other.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Denden, Koichi Ohori, Rin Takanashi, Ryō Kase, Seina Kasugai, Tadashi Okuno

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

For the longest time, American media coverage was skewed to justify the presence of US forces in Arab states. Control Room unveils that bias by following Al Jazeera at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. One of the biggest Arab media outlets at the time, Al Jazeera dared to cover both sides of the war, but by doing so put a target on its back. It was vilified by both the US government, which called it an Osama mouthpiece and the Arab world, which called it a Bush ally. 

Control Room shows the difficulty (if not sheer impossibility) of achieving journalistic balance, objectivity, and integrity. Through interviews with Al Jazeera reporters and US military officers, we witness how lines are blurred, loyalties are tested, and purpose is shifted in a state of war. A seminal work on media bias and press control, Control Room is vital and enlightening, a must-watch to understand the inner workings of the fourth estate. 

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Josh Rushing

Director: Jehane Noujaim

You know that the people you choose to follow for a documentary are great characters when the film itself can survive as straightforward coverage of their actions, no fancy directorial flourishes needed. But this is not to downplay what director Meg Switzgable does. In fact, her dedication to sticking by Frank Kaler and the other citizens of South Brunswick on the ground—and therefore capturing them as three-dimensional, inspirational human beings—is arguably the core value that all documentarians should possess. This also means that the access Switzgable has to this issue of government negligence is obstructed by the same red tape Kaler encounters, making the film (already just an hour long) feel too short. Still, a modest documentary like this shouldn't feel this thrilling. And by the end, all these New Jersey residents look like rock stars.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Meg Switzgable