325 Best Thought-provoking Movies to Watch (Page 6)

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.

, 2021

In the first few minutes of Mass, hushed tones, solemn movements, and awkwardly averted eyes hint at an unspoken tragedy that haunts everyone in the film. The four main characters discuss it during a sit-down, but even then it remains unspeakable; such is the dedication of first-time full-length director Fran Kranz in depicting the reality of tragic events. Not much is done in the way of plot twists and shocks, but in place of those, Mass makes clever use of close-up shots and unmoving settings to portray the privacy and paralysis of grief. For this reason, Mass often feels like a masterful play brought to life, but also more than that, a brilliant portrait of healing—or at the very least, coping with the everlasting aftermath of loss. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ann Dowd, Breeda Wool, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Michelle N. Carter, Reed Birney

Director: Fran Kranz

There’s much to despair at in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's drama set in Chad, where abortion is illegal, female genital mutilation isn't, and single mothers are ostracised. Amina's (Achouackh Abakar) 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) has just been expelled from school because she’s pregnant. Like Amina, Maria has been abandoned by the child’s father — but, having witnessed first-hand the stigma that comes with being an unmarried mother, she refuses to let history continue repeating itself, and declares she wants an abortion.

But underground abortions are expensive, and the duo are barely scraping by as it is, in spite of Amina’s backbreaking manual work. Their situation is dire — and there are more disturbing revelations to be had — but, despite the bleakness of Lingui’s plot on paper, the film isn’t miserabilist. As Amina searches desperately for a safe abortion provider, she takes us with her into a furtive underground network of solidarity, one that offers the mother and daughter all the compassion and aid that the government and their imam should be providing. This is a film in which acts of kindness are quietly delivered on the understanding that that’s what we owe each other, and one where sisterhood is alive — making this, paradoxically, a simultaneously enraging and heartening watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Briya Gomdigue, Rihane Khalil Alio, Saleh Sambo, Youssouf Djaoro

Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

There are only two main characters in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: Nancy, a retired teacher who was recently widowed, and Leo, an adept sex worker with a mysterious past. They're almost always in one place and work on a single goal: pleasure. But despite the seeming monotony, the movie is crackling with wit and sensuality every step of the way. It doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter. Nancy and Leo go back and forth about their past, with Nancy divulging much about the stigma of aging and Leo about the stigma of sex work. They also dive into the shame attached to pleasure, ultimately revealing more than just their naked bodies to each other and to the audience.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Daryl McCormack, Emma Thompson, Isabella Laughland, Les Mabaleka

Director: Sophie Hyde

Rating: R

Director Ziad Doueiri is one of the first filmmakers to successfully break through to the global stage out of Lebanon, and West Beirut, which was selected as the country’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 1999 Academy Awards, is one of his most accomplished films.

The film stars the director's son Rami Doueiri as Tarek, a young Lebanese boy who loves to shoot with his Super 8 camera and go on small adventures with his friends Omar and May in the streets of Beirut. But one day, he is faced with the ugly truth of the Lebanese civil war. As he learns more and more about the divided state of his country, he sets out on a mission in search of any lingering hope to help keep the beautiful idea he has of his country locked safe and sound in his brain. “Whoever asks about your religion, you tell them I’m Lebanese.”

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Carmen Lebbos, Mohamad Chamas, Rami Doueiri, Rola Al Amin

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Everything about This Is Not a Film revolves around state censorship. Documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb records Iranian cinema giant Jafar Panahi’s life under house arrest, maneuvering through the legal loopholes on Panahi’s 20-year ban on filmmaking and screenwriting. Here Panahi describes one of his unmade films that was rejected by the Iranian ministry, creating makeshift sets out of tape and his apartment’s living room, further emphasizing the ridiculousness of the state-imposed limitations on his artistic freedom. The result is a quasi-documentary that functions paradoxically, its un-cinematic quality essential for aesthetics as well as narrative. That this film had to be smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake is a testament to political cinema’s power to be a vessel of pro-democracy sentiments, a fist raised proudly against state censors.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Jafar Panahi

Director: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Exploring morality, conscience, and the death penalty, There Is No Evil tells four interconnected stories about men tasked with carrying out executions. The film excels at creating a sense of unease and tension as their reality contends with their beliefs about capital punishment and loyalty to the state. Director Mohammad Rasoulof (known for his films that explore social and political issues in Iran) allows each narrative to center both the subject and the institution, maintaining suspense but never straying from its argument. The sum - and its part - are undeniably profound.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Mahtab Servati

Director: Mohammad Rasoulof

Ryan Gosling plays a Jewish Neo-Nazi in this extremely riveting window into the definition of inner conflict. It is a prime example of how character development should be done and it put Gosling on the map for me. He starts out as an exemplary student in Hebrew school until he starts questioning his teachings and exploring alternative ideologies, leading him to the neo-Nazi movement. Won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance

Genre: Drama

Actor: A.D. Miles, Billy Zane, Chuck Ardezzone, David Bailey, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Elizabeth Reaser, Garret Dillahunt, Glenn Fitzgerald, Heather Goldenhersh, Henry Bean, Joel Garland, Joel Marsh Garland, Jordan Lage, Joshua Harto, Kris Eivers, Lucille Patton, Michael Port, Peter Meadows, Ronald Guttman, Ryan Gosling, Sascha Knopf, Sig Libowitz, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, Tibor Feldman, Tommy Nohilly

Director: Henry Bean

Rating: R

Challenging, strange, and utterly captivating from start to finish, Sanctuary takes the relationship between a pathetic, wealthy man and a desperate, plucky young woman—a relationship built on consensual acts of sexual humiliation—and makes it so much more dynamic and entertaining than it has any right to be. The film takes place entirely in one hotel suite over the course of one night, becoming a series of increasingly absurd psychological scenarios, as the characters wrestle over ideas of power, shame, and identity by concealing and roleplaying various parts of themselves. It's a wild take on several different genres that director Zachary Wigon is able to effortlessly weave together with excellent pacing, stunning visuals, and two truly committed performances from Christopher Abbott and a wonderfully unhinged Margaret Qualley.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Christopher Abbott, Margaret Qualley

Director: Zachary Wigon

, 1987

Vivid, seductive, and highly romantic, Rouge starts as an enchanting tale of a ghost courtesan that haunts a modern-day couple to look for her lost lover. It’s easy to be swayed by the ghostly lovers – the courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) and wealthy pharmacy chain heir Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung) start off the film courting each other (and the audience) through lush visuals, dramatic declarations, and Cantonese song. They agree to a suicide pact and promise to find each other in the next life. However, as Fleur haunts newspaper journalists Yuen and Chor, it’s clear how different Hong Kong has become. From its culture to its attitudes towards romance, Rouge suggests that while modern day Hong Kong may be more cold and standardized, the past as we know it is only a gorgeous dream. And that dream hides a tragic, sordid reality.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Alex Man, Anita Mui, Emily Chu Bo-Yee, Irene Wan, Kara Hui, Lau Kar-Wing, Leslie Cheung, Patrick Tse Yin, Ruby Wong, Tam Sin-Hung, Wong Yu

Director: Stanley Kwan

Rating: Not Rated

A flawless Daniel Day‑Lewis stars in this thought-provoking romance. He plays a successful dressmaker in post-second-World-War London who falls for a waitress while on an excursion to the countryside. It's hard to tell you what this movie is about without ruining the story for you but I can tell you how it made me feel: it kept me guessing the whole time. Day-Lewis' character is so masterfully played that I felt that every move he made was calculated and that every line meant something. Plus, expect stunning dresses, beautiful country-side sequences, and an all-around gorgeous aesthetic experience.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Brian Gleeson, Camilla Rutherford, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dave Simon, Emma Clandon, Eric Sigmundsson, Evie Wray, Gina McKee, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Jane Perry, Jordon Stevens, Julia Davis, Julie Vollono, Lesley Manville, Lujza Richter, Martin Dew, Michael Gabbitas, Niki Angus-Campbell, Philip Franks, Phyllis MacMahon, Richard Graham, Silas Carson, Tim Ahern, Vicky Krieps, Zarene Dallas

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating: R

This stagelike historical drama is about a meeting between Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Muhammad Ali, the night Ali became world champion and announced he became Muslim.

And here is the thing: Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali have been portrayed many times in film, but never with this much nuance. Their relationship with each other is often frictional and their relationship to their faith is recognizable: they're not always sure about it, and they take breaks.

Ali smuggles alcohol without Malcolm knowing, Malcolm is accused of being obsessed with celebrity (and later of colorism), Jim Brown is insecure about being an actor, and Sam Cooke wishes he wrote a Bob Dylan song.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aaron D. Alexander, Alan Wells, Aldis Hodge, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Beau Bridges, Christian Magby, Christopher Gorham, Derek Roberts, Dustin Lewis, Eli Goree, Emily Bridges, Hunter Burke, Jason Ament, Jeremy Pope, John Curran, Kevin Reid, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Leslie Odom Jr., Mark Allan Stewart, Matt Fowler, Michael Imperioli, Nola Epps, Randall Newsome

Director: Regina King

Rating: R

It's impossible to describe this incredible movie as one thing or the other. It's an epic three-hour saga that takes you through the Nazi era, the communist era, the rise of capitalism, and the East and West German divide. But more than its historic value, it's a coming-of-age story, one that is based on the experiences of famed German artist Gerhard Richter. It's also a romance, following his experiences finding love and being hit with loss (in no particular order). If you liked the director's other work, the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, you're sure to love this too.

Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Andreas Nickl, Anton Rubtsov, Bastian Trost, Ben Becker, Cai Cohrs, Chris Theisinger, David Schütter, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Florian Bartholomäi, Franz Pätzold, Hannes Hellmann, Hanno Koffler, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Hinnerk Schönemann, Ina Weisse, Jörg Schüttauf, Jacob Matschenz, Jeanette Hain, Johanna Gastdorf, Johannes Allmayer, Jonas Dassler, Jorg Schuttauf, Lars Eidinger, Luc Feit, Lutz Blochberger, Manfred Möck, Mark Zak, Martin Bruchman, Martin Bruchmann, Michaela Caspar, Oliver Masucci, Paula Beer, Pit Bukowski, Rainer Bock, Rainer Reiners, Saskia Rosendahl, Sebastian Koch, Stefan Mehren, Tom Schilling, Ulrike C. Tscharre

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Rating: R