416 Best Thought-provoking Movies to Watch (Page 3)

Staff & contributors

Challenging movies serve beyond entertainment, pushing us to ask new questions about humanity and the world around us. If you’re hungry for some food for thought, here are the best thought-provoking movies and shows available to stream now.

Winning him Best Director at the Academy Awards, Kenneth Lonergan's drama Manchester By the Sea is a delicate and profound study of loss and grief—and a true triumph. Its focus on characters, well-paced unfolding as well as world-class acting are only equal to the very best of European dramas. This type of quiet exploration of the possibility that grief cannot be overcome has rarely been successful in American cinema, if ever. The last best attempt was probably You Can Count on Me. Originally a playwright, this is Lonergan's third film and Manchester by the Sea is where he unveils his full potential. It follows a depressed handyman, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who leads a quiet but angry life. After his brother dies, he returns to his hometown only to discover that he is the only left to take care of his teenage nephew. There, he is confronted with his past and the blue-collar community from which he was raised. Co-produced by Matt Damon, it grossed around $80 million on a budget of $8.5 million. One of the most noted films of 2016.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Allyn Burrows, Anna Baryshnikov, Anthony Estrella, Ben O'Brien, C.J. Wilson, Carolyn Pickman, Casey Affleck, Christian J. Mallen, Danae Nason, Ellie Teves, Erica McDermott, Frank Garvin, Gretchen Mol, Heather Burns, Jackson Damon, Jami Tennille, Joe Stapleton, Josh Hamilton, Kara Hayward, Kenneth Lonergan, Kt Baldassaro, Kyle Chandler, Lewis D. Wheeler, Liam McNeill, Lucas Hedges, Matthew Broderick, Michelle Williams, Missy Yager, Nellie Lonergan, Oscar Wahlberg, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Richard Donelly, Robert Sella, Ruibo Qian, Shawn Fitzgibbon, Stephen Henderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Susan Pourfar, Tate Donovan, Tom Kemp, William Bornkessel, Zain Ullah

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Rating: R

This Oscar winning documentary is no standard film. Even by being beautifully crafted and having an amazing soundtrack--soundtracks are important--it does not miss its core story for a second. A delivery so good and so crisp that it will make you go "the sons of b" and "those motherf" more times than Joey from Friends got laid in 1999. On a more serious note, Inside Job is a great and complete technical overview of the financial meltdown. I know the word "technical" scared you there, but it shouldn't! The movie is simple, uses charts and colors for all of us who once thought figures and formulas were too complicated to understand -- it even makes you go, "hey, this is not so difficult to understand. Them motherf.' The movie is also very exciting: no spoilers but all I can say is that there are b*s trippin in there.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andri Snær Magnason, Ann Curry, Barack Obama, Barney Frank, Christine Lagarde, Daniel Alpert, David McCormick, Eliot Spitzer, George Soros, George W. Bush, Gillian Tett, Gylfi Zoega, Jonathan Alpert, Matt Damon, Scott Talbott, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, William Ackman

Director: Charles Ferguson

Rating: PG-13

, 2017

Named after a slur for people of Asian descent, this 2017 film put Justin Chon on the map as a director. More than that, he also starred as the main lead in this raw and uncompromising period drama about Asian-Americans and the LA riots in 1992. Shot completely in black and white, it tells the story of Eli, a scrawny Korean-American, who runs his family shoe store with his brother, Daniel (David So), in several vignettes. They strike up an unlikely friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), a black kid from around the way, whose family is not happy with her hanging out with the two brothers. Amidst the ubiquitous violence in LA at the time, the Rodney King riots as well as a tragic shooting of a black teenager by a Korean convenience store owner, it shines the light on America's intra-minority race relations and the more unseen stories behind them. A topic that has come back to haunt America in the 2020s. The film is fierce as it is funny, harsh as it is playful. Uplifting and unsettling.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ben Munoz, Curtiss Cook Jr., David So, Isaiah Jarel, Justin Chon, Natalie Sutherland, Omono Okojie, Sang Chon, Simone Baker

Director: Justin Chon

Rating: Unrated

There are two auteur directors that we recommend more than anyone else on this site. One is Hirokazu Koreeda, the Japanese master of intricate drama, the other is Asghar Farhadi. Mr. Farhadi is an Oscar-winning, Iranian filmmaker and one of the most recognisable directors out there. His third film, Fireworks Wednesdays, paved the way for him to become one of the hidden champions of international cinema. As is often the case with the stories he tells, the film portrays the life of a couple in turmoil, Mozhdeh and Morteza Samiei, played by Hedye Tehrani and Hamid Farokhnezhad. She suspects him of cheating on her with their neighbor, a beautician, and sends the maid, a soon-to-be bride named Roohi, to the salon to spy on her. When Roohi takes matters in her own hands, the couple can't help but watch things spiraling out of control. This happens against the backdrop of Chaharshanbe Suri, an Iranian holiday celebrated with fireworks on the Wednesday before the Iranian New Year, hence the title. Will it make for an explosive ending? From what you have heard so far, this could easily be melodramatic, but Fahradi is too good. He's very, very good.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Behshad Sharifian, Hamid Farokhnezhad, Hamid Farrokhnejad, Hedie Tehrani, Hediyeh Tehrani, Houman Seyyedi, Pantea Bahram, Sahar Dolatshahi, Tarane Alidousti, Taraneh Alidoosti

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rating: Not Rated

Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later (and 28 Weeks Later). It tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson from About Time), an IT developer who is invited by a billionaire CEO to participate in a groundbreaking experiment—administering a Turing test to a humanoid robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Meeting the robot with feelings of superiority at first, questions of trust and ethics soon collide with the protagonist's personal views. While this dazzling film does not rely on them, the visual effects and the overall look-feel of Ex Machina are absolutely stunning and were rightly picked for an Academy Award. They make Ex Machina feel just as casually futuristic as the equally stylish Her and, like Joaquin Phoenix, Gleeson aka Caleb must confront the feelings he develops towards a machine, despite his full awareness that 'she' is just that. This is possibly as close to Kubrick as anyone got in the 21st century. Ex Machina is clever, thrilling, and packed with engaging ideas.

Genre: Drama, Science Fiction

Actor: Alex Garland, Alicia Vikander, Chelsea Li, Claire Selby, Corey Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Elina Alminas, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, Symara A. Templeman, Symara Templeman, Tiffany Pisani

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: R

A very poetic film by Tony Kaye (American History X) about an English Literature teacher (Adrien Brody - "The Pianist") who only works as a substitute in schools which are located in very poor urban areas. The reason behind his choice is that he doesn't want to bond too much with his students and colleagues because he is trying to control his dark emotions about life and the triviality of our existences (although it sounds depressing it is absolutely not). He also takes care of his last family connection, his grandfather, to whom he is very close and who lives in an elderly home. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is very emotional and deep. Every time you think about your existence, your place in the world, your interactions with other people; watch Detachment.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrien Brody, Betty Kaye, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston, Celia Au, Chris Papavasiliou, Christina Hendricks, Isiah Whitlock Jr., James Caan, Josh Pais, Louis Zorich, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Joy, Patricia Rae, Ralph Rodriguez, Reagan Leonard, Ronen Rubinstein, Samantha Logan, Sami Gaye, Sami Gayle, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen

Director: Tony Kaye

Rating: Not Rated

In 2009, Departures surprised everybody by winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, instead of everyone's favourite, Ari Folman's Waltz of Bashir. This is even more surprising since this Japanese comedy almost never saw the light of day because many distributors refused to release it at first for its humorous treatment of a very human, but weirdly taboo subject: what happens when you die. Daigo Kobayashi (played by former boyband member Masahiro Motoki) just bought an expensive cello when he learns that his Tokyo-based symphony orchestra is going bankrupt. Daigo and his wife Mika, played by Ryôko Hirosue, decide to move back to his hometown, where he applies for an opening at what he thinks is a travel agency, hence the departures. You might have guessed by now that what he was applying for was, in fact, the job of an undertaker—a profession considered unclean in Japan. It's one of those rare movies that will make you laugh, to making you cry, and laugh again. It's dead-on!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Justin Lukach, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Maisie Williams, Masahiro Motoki, Nina Dobrev, Ryoko Hirosue, Ryosuke Otani, Sanae Miyata, Scott Wilson, Takashi Sasano, Taro Ishida, Tatsuo Yamada, Tetta Sugimoto, Tōru Minegishi, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Tyler Hoechlin, Yukari Tachibana

Director: Yōjirō Takita

Rating: PG-13

More simply called La Vie d'Adèle in its native language, this French coming-of-age movie was hugely successful when it came out and was probably one of the most talked-about films of the time. On the one hand, the usual puritans came to the fore, criticizing the lengthy and graphic sex scenes. On the other hand, Julie Maroh, who wrote the source material that inspired the script, denounced Franco-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche for directing with his d*ck, if you don't mind me saying so, while also being an on-set tyrant. Whatever you make of this in hindsight, the only way to know is to watch this powerfully acted drama about the titular Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and her infatuation with Emma, a free-spirited girl with blue hair, played by Léa Seydoux. The film beautifully and realistically portrays Adele's evolution from a teenage high-school girl to a grown, confident woman. As their relationship matures, so does Adèle, and she slowly begins to outgrow her sexual and philosophical mentor. Whatever your final verdict on the controversial sex scene, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without doubt an outstanding film as are the performances from Exarchopoulos and Séydoux.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Alain Duclos, Alika Del Sol, Alma Jodorowsky, Anne Loiret, Aurélien Recoing, Aurelie Lemanceau, Aurélien Recoing, Baya Rehaz, Benjamin Siksou, Benoît Pilot, Benoît Pilot, Bouraouïa Marzouk, Camille Rutherford, Catherine Salée, Catherine Salée, Éric Paul, Fanny Maurin, Halima Slimani, Jérémie Laheurte, Jérémie Laheurte, Judith Hoersch, Justine Nissart, Karim Saidi, Klaim Nivaux, Léa Seydoux, Maelys Cabezon, Maud Wyler, Mona Walravens, Quentin Médrinal, Salim Kechiouche, Samir Bella, Sandor Funtek

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Rating: NC-17

Orcas killing people? Saving whales? There was indeed a time when these issues were frontpage news and that might be the reason why this sounds like a 90s cliché to you. You might agree that this issue should be staunchly dealt with once you've watched Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 documentary. Orcas still being held captive by marine parks like SeaWorld to perform stunts and to parade around swimming pools to entertain ticket-buying families. Blackfish is the story of one of them in particular: a bull Orca named Tilikum, who has killed several people as a result of their immoral imprisonment. Similar incidents tend to be covered up by the parks' operators and management. They are, however, attributable to the fact that the animals are quiet simply driven mad by the unnatural conditions they are subjected to. They are not born as killers, they are turned into them. First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, elaborating on their remarkable intelligence and social behaviors. For those unaware of this, this passionate documentary makes for a chilling watch.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Anderson Cooper, Carol Ray, Dean Gomersall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, James Earl Jones, John Hargrove, John Jett, John Sillick, Mark Simmons, Mercedes Martinez, Samantha Berg, Tamarie Tollison, Tilikum, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rating: PG-13

In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, documentarist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, My Country, My Country) lends her empathetic and incisive lens to a subject so passionate and imaginative, she ends up collaborating with Poitras to co-create the documentary about her life. The subject is Nan Goldin, one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century. 

The documentary captures Goldin’s work as a queer artist and anti-opioids activist, intertwining both aspects to tell a nuanced and incredibly important story about freedom, identity, and self-expression. This incredibly complex, encompassing, and vibrant feature won the top award at the Venice Film Festival, besting 19 other films from around the world.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Bernard Herrmann, Cookie Mueller, John Waters, Leonard Bernstein, Nan Goldin

Director: Laura Poitras

Having only made its way to the US six long years after its initial release, this is the long-awaited film from the Oscar-winning director of A Separation—Asghar Farhadi. First off, for full disclosure, Farhadi does not miss and we here at A Good Movie to Watch are unabashed fans of his. At the heart of his fourth film lies a haunting mystery. A group of old friends and relatives reunite for vacation in Northern Iran with one of them bringing Elly to the group, intent on introducing her to her friend Ahmad, a divorcee visiting from Germany. It looks like everything would work out as planned when, suddenly, Elly has vanished. In the habitual Farhadi style, the unfolding mystery and poignant questions about gender and politics are helped along by a subtle script, delicate directing, and on-point performances, including from one of the most well-known Iranian actors of today, Golshifteh Farahani. In addition to being an enthralling watch, it will let you catch a glimpse of the delicate balance struck by middle-class, modern-day Iranians, caught between their own expectations and those of society and tradition.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahmad Mehranfar, Golshifteh Farahani, Mani Haghighi, Marila Zare'i, Merila Zare'i, Payman Maadi, Peyman Maadi, Rana Azadivar, Saber Abar, Shahab Hosseini, Tarane Alidousti, Taraneh Alidoosti

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rating: N/A, Unrated

Miles Teller plays Andrew Nieman, an ambitious young jazz drummer striving for greatness, who is edged towards breaking point by the sadism of his teacher and conductor, Terence Fletcher, played expertly by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher insults him, pressures him, and makes him cry in front of all his peers. Directed by Damien Chazelle, who was one of the youngest people to receive a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the powerful La La Land, the aptly titled Whiplash poses some intense questions about artistry and ambition. Will Andrew survive? Will it lift him to a higher artistic level? Can his tormentor be appeased through accomplishment? It's almost impossible to single out the best part of this film, considering the flawless performances, masterful script, and meticulously crafted soundtrack. Cherishing the existential artist without giving easy answers, Whiplash is an inspiring watch.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Adrian Burks, April Grace, Austin Stowell, C.J. Vana, Calvin C. Winbush, Charlie Ian, Chris Mulkey, Clifton 'Fou Fou' Eddie, Damon Gupton, Henry G. Sanders, J.K. Simmons, Janet Hoskins, Jayson Blair, Jocelyn Ayanna, Joseph Oliveira, Kavita Patil, Keenan Allen, Keenan Henson, Kofi Siriboe, Marcus Henderson, Max Kasch, Melissa Benoist, Michael D. Cohen, Michelle Ruff, Miles Teller, Nate Lang, Paul Reiser, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Stephen Hsu, Suanne Spoke, Tarik Lowe, Tony Baker, Tyler Kimball, Wendee Lee

Director: Damien Chazelle

Rating: R

From Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi comes another film featuring long drives, thoughtful talks, and unexpected twists. An anthology of three short stories, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ponders over ideas of love, fate, and the all-too-vexing question, “what if?” 

What if you didn’t run away from the one you love? What if you didn’t give in to lust that fateful day? What if, right then and there, you decide to finally forgive?

Big questions, but without sacrificing depth, Hamaguchi does the incredible task of making every single second feel light and meaningful. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy will leave you with mixed emotions: excited, startled, dejected, hopeful. But one thing you won’t feel is regret over watching this instant classic of a film.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Aoba Kawai, Aoba Kawai 河井清叶, Ayumu Nakajima, Fusako Urabe, Hyunri, Katsuki Mori, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Kotone Furukawa, Shouma Kai

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Rating: R-13

Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is the kind of film that you come away from being more honest with yourself. That effect is thanks to the contagious directness of its protagonist: Delphine (Marie Rivière), a newly single young French woman whose summer vacation plans have just been unceremoniously upturned after the friend she was going away with takes off with a man instead. Now at a loose end, the indecisive Delphine meanders between her home in Paris and several gorgeous holiday spots, but that old saying — “wherever you go, there you are” — proves true. Neither the beaches of Cherbourg and Biarritz nor the lofty beauty of an Alps resort can soothe her restlessness or give her what she’s looking for, probably because she doesn’t quite know what that is herself.

Delphine’s is an achingly familiar search for anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve drifted off of life’s path, but blessedly, the conversation-driven Green Ray doesn’t leave us wallowing in that despair. That’s partly thanks to its final moments — which rank among cinema’s most stunning — but mostly because Rivière, who improvised much of her incisive dialogue, puts into words things that so many have felt but few would admit. In that sense, The Green Ray feels as much like a miracle as its last shot does.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Béatrice Romand, Carita Holmström, María Luisa García, Marie Rivière, Rosette, Vincent Gauthier

Director: Éric Rohmer

Nothing Compares weaves a poignant story about one of the most misunderstood artists of our time, Sinéad O’Connor. The iconoclast first made waves in the '80s with her catchy music, but she quickly reclaimed the reins of her own fame and used her platform to champion marginalized causes, long before pop stars were expected to do so. 

The documentary zeroes in on this part of O’Connor's life: what prompted her to music and how she used it as a tool of activism. The answers are multi-faceted and handled here with extreme grace. Like the many from her generation, O’Connor struggled with religion and abuse, such was the Catholic Church's hold on Ireland at the time time. 

The film contextualizes her once-shocking moments and reveals how they were all grounded on things she cared about. It’s a beautiful piece of work that reassesses and redeems a wronged artist who was ahead of her time.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, Music

Actor: Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Chuck D, George H. W. Bush, Joe Pesci, John F. Kennedy, John Maybury, Kathleen Hanna, Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence, Sinéad O'Connor, Tim Robbins

Director: Kathryn Ferguson

Rating: Not Rated