26 Movies Like The Tree of Life (2011)

Staff & contributors

Not one but two Oscars as well as a Golden Globe are among this movie’s never-ending list of accolades. It was the first Iranian film ever to get an Oscar and the first non-English film ever nominated for Best Screenplay. Originally titled The Separation of Nader from Simin in Persian, it homes in on the dissolving relationship of a middle-class couple from Teheran – and the unintended consequences of tragic events.

However, this film is so intense, well-acted, and well-written, it defies categorization. To be sure, the movie does offer a painful look at a deteriorating marriage. It’s also timely, dealing with the politics of theocracy, economic underdevelopment, and social alienation. It presents tense moral dilemmas without pointing a finger. If you’re curious to learn about the humans of Iran and, by cultural extension, the humans of the Middle East beyond the scope of global politics, A Separation is also for you.

But please don’t call it world cinema, because this is no Slumdog Millionaire. Above all, it is a searing portrayal of human conflict, relationships, and morals. It is an almost perfect depiction of how many bad people are simply good people running out of options.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Bahareh Riahi, Kimia Hosseini, Leila Hatami, Merila Zare'i, Payman Maadi, Peyman Maadi, Peyman Moaadi, Sahabanu Zolghadr, Sare Bayat, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rating: PG-13

Legend has it that director Derek Cianfrance had the co-stars and co-executive producers Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling live together in the same house for a month in preparation of their roles. The fictional couple they play in Blue Valentine lived in the same house. True or not, this created the harsh proximity, intensity, and claustrophobia that is a hallmark of this production. Blue Valentine brings us painfully close to the couple's attraction as well as their agony.

In this way, Blue Valentine is a heart-breaking examination of the decaying shell of a once-bright marriage. As sad as it is sexy, it mixes intense flashbacks of past desire with the grim reality of married life's monotony. It boasts an electrifying performance from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who seamlessly combine tenderness and lust, rage and sadness. This is a guaranteed tear-jerker, so make sure you've brought your Kleenexes!

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alan Malkin, Ashley Gurnari, Barbara Troy, Ben Shenkman, Carey Westbrook, Enid Graham, Faith Wladyka, Ian Bonner, James Benatti, Jen Jones, John Doman, Joseph Basile, Mark Benginia, Marshall Johnson, Maryann Plunkett, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, Robert Russell, Ryan Gosling, Tamara Torres

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Rating: R

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

Nebraska is a poem distilled into a film. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone says "is it a comedy or a drama? Both at the same time, as life itself." Everything about it is perfect: the acting, the photography, the story. In case that's not enough and you need to know the plot to get convinced, I'll tell you that it's a road movie about a senile old man and his son. If you still want more information, you can Google it, but come on! You'll just be wasting time that would be better spent on watching this masterpiece.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Actor: Angela McEwan, Anthony G. Schmidt, Bob Nelson, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Dern, Devin Ratray, Franklin Dennis Jones, June Squibb, Mary Louise Wilson, Missy Doty, Rance Howard, Stacy Keach, Tim Driscoll, Will Forte

Director: Alexander Payne

Rating: R

An absolutely beautiful film about superficiality, arrogance, and heartbreak. It focuses on the life of Aydin, a retired actor who now lives very comfortably managing a small hotel and a number of other small properties. Throughout the film Aydin's image shifts as he tackles the problems of his rather typical life. Having said this, there is nothing else typical about this film. It captures human relationships with an almost frightening precision. It almost feels as though you have an inside view into someone's actual life as Aydin battles it out with his sister Necla and his young wife Nihal. To me this is easily one of the best dramas of the decade, and if you so much as like movies that focus on humans and their interactions, it will be that for you too.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan will make 3 hours pass more quickly than they ever have before.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ayberk Pekcan, Demet Akbag, Ekrem İlhan, Emirhan Doruktutan, Haluk Bilginer, Mehmet Ali Nuroğlu, Mehmet Ali Nuroğlu, Melisa Sözen, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nejat İşler, Nejat İşler, Serhat Kılıç, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç, Tamer Levent

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

The Kid With A Bike is a deceptively simple title for a film this stirring. At 12 years old, Cyril (Thomas Doret) has been abandoned to social care by his father (Jérémie Renier) — but what’s really heart-wrenching is that he’s in denial about the finality of their separation. Cyril’s muscles are seemingly always coiled, ready to spring him away from his carers and onto the next bus that’ll take him to his disinterested dad, who has secretly moved away to “start anew.” It’s only through the random force of Cyril’s few words — like the moment he asks the first stranger to show him some kindness (Samantha, played by Cécile de France) if she’ll foster him on the weekends — that we get to sense the depth of his desperation, because neither the film nor Doret is showy in that regard.

The film pulls off transcendency because of these restrained performances and its unfussy realism. In the quietness of the storytelling, emotion hits unexpectedly — and deeply. The everyday tragedy and miraculous hope of Cyril’s life are set off by some enormously moving orchestral Beethoven, the very grandeur of which underscores the effect of the humanist filmmaking: affirming the inherent preciousness of his troubled, oft-rejected child.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Cécile de France, Fabrizio Rongione, Jérémie Renier, Myriem Akheddiou, Olivier Gourmet, Thomas Doret

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

A very intelligent and nuanced movie that relentlessly asks unpleasant questions. It's a story about a woman seeking freedom by turning away from her own family and finding something she did not expect. The main character of the movie, Martha, is taken in by a cult and the movie depicts how this experience shapes and warps her life, thoughts, and actions. The time she spent with the cult ultimately also shapes her own personality, which raises questions about her identity and the place she now fits in. Every actor is well cast, and especially Elizabeth Olsen (playing Martha) puts on a stand-out performance, which proves that she is an actor to watch out for in the years to come.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Adam David Thompson, Allen McCullough, Brady Corbet, Christopher Abbott, Elizabeth Olsen, Gregg Burton, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Julia Garner, Lauren Molina, Louisa Krause, Maria Dizzia, Sarah Paulson, Tobias Segal

Director: Sean Durkin

Rating: R

Robert Ford is an aspiring gangster who idolizes Jesse James, leader of the notorious James gang. When that admiration reaches a level where it can transform to challenge and resentment, he starts considering the unthinkable. The cast is excellent- Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt. Brad Pitt delivers an amazing performance which truly captures the presence that Jesse James brought to a room, one that seemed to overcome those around him. In addition the soundtrack is superb, one of the most memorable I have ever heard. This is a very unique, thrilling, and well-shot movie, it is easily one of the most underrated films of the past 10 years.

Genre: Action, Drama, Western

Actor: Alison Elliott, Anthony Harrison, Brad Pitt, Brooklynn Proulx, Casey Affleck, Dustin Bollinger, Garret Dillahunt, Hugh Ross, James Carville, James Defelice, Jeremy Renner, Jesse Frechette, Kailin See, Laryssa Yanchak, Mary-Louise Parker, Matthew Walker, Michael Copeman, Michael J Rogers, Michael Parks, Nick Cave, Pat Healy, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Sarah Lind, Ted Levine, Tom Aldredge, Zooey Deschanel

Director: Andrew Dominik

Rating: R

Mars One is a tender, wholesome drama that centers on The Martins, a family of four living on the fringes of a major Brazilian city. Their lower-middle-class status puts them in an odd position—they’re settled enough to have big dreams and occasionally lead lavish lives (the mother and the daughter like to party) but they barely have the means to pursue that kind of lifestyle. As a result, they’re always searching and wanting, aiming high but almost always falling flat on the ground.

There is no actual plot in Mars One. Instead, it studies its characters in a leisurely and almost offhand manner. The approach is so naturalistic, you’ll almost forget you’re watching a movie. But it’s still gorgeously shot and staged, Brazil being an inevitably striking background. At once gentle and vibrant, this big-hearted film is a must for those who are suckers for well-made family dramas.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Camilla Damião, Carlos Francisco, Cícero Lucas, Rejane Faria, Russo Apr

Director: Gabriel Martins

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) is back in full form with this three-hour movie based on a true story. His creation has one of the most beautiful depictions of happiness ever seen in film, portraying the simple yet joyous life of a farmer in the Austrian mountains. You'd have to see it for yourself to understand, but how Malick depicts this character's love for his wife (and her love for him), their children, and even their farming rituals are nothing short of cinematic wizardry. 

This peaceful existence changes when World War 2 intensifies and this farmer is called to serve for the Nazis. He refuses to enroll out of principle and puts himself and his family at great danger and alienation from their village. The question at the center of the film is one that other villagers and the church ask him a lot: what good can his actions do? And the title of the movie is taken from A George Eliot quote: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alexander Fehling, Alexander Radszun, August Diehl, Bernd Hölscher, Bruno Ganz, Chris Theisinger, Dieter Kosslick, Dimo Alexiev, Ermin Sijamija, Franz Rogowski, Joel Basman, Johan Leysen, Johannes Gabl, Johannes Krisch, Johannes Nussbaum, Jürgen Prochnow, Karin Neuhäuser, Karl Markovics, Katja Lechthaler, Leonard Kunz, Maria Simon, Mark Waschke, Martin Wuttke, Matthias Schoenaerts, Max Malatesta, Max Mauff, Michael Nyqvist, Michael Steinocher, Monika Lennartz, Moritz Katzmair, Nicholas Reinke, Sarah Born, Sophie Rois, Thomas Mraz, Tobias Moretti, Ulrich Brandhoff, Ulrich Matthes, Valerie Pachner, Waldemar Kobus, Wolfgang Michael

Director: Terrence Malick

Rating: PG-13

Tilda Swinton stars in this gorgeous Italian production by Luca Guadagnino, part of the director’s “Desire Trilogy”, together with Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash.

Swinton learned to speak Italian and some Russian for the movie, where she plays - to absolute perfection - the wife of a Milan textile mogul who starts having an affair with a cook.

It’s an elegant family drama that’s definitely more concerned with aesthetics than substance, but the setting in snowy Northern Italy and lush 35mm film make that very easy to look past.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alba Rohrwacher, Diane Fleri, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Flavio Parenti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Honor Swinton Byrne, Maria Paiato, Marisa Berenson, Mattia Zaccaro, Pippo Delbono, Tilda Swinton, Waris Ahluwalia

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rating: R

Happy-Go-Lucky is a Mike Leigh feel-good movie tells the story of Poppy, a North London teacher, whose story we follow through a number of different situations: driving lessons, solving work issues, having fun with friends, all while trying not to lose her optimism. The acting is superb, Sally Hawkins is a gem as Poppy, and one cannot describe it, one simply has to see it and enjoy it, because it leaves you smiling :)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Caroline Martin, Eddie Marsan, Elliot Cowan, Joseph Kloska, Karina Fernandez, Kate OFlynn, Nonso Anozie, Oliver Maltman, Philip Arditti, Rebekah Staton, Sally Hawkins, Samuel Roukin, Sarah Niles, Sinéad Matthews, Stanley Townsend, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Trevor Cooper, Viss Elliot Safavi

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

This is the most practical romantic movie I have seen though many would disagree with its ending. It's a triangular love story that trades cashable means of storytelling with a much more sensible approach. After a failed relationship, Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) returns to live with his parents only to find himself torn again between an exciting neighbor and a woman his parents set him up with. Phoenix delivers an impeccable performance as it goes without saying but Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw really steal the show as the two love interests. They both deliver honest and very interesting portrayals. All in all, Two Lovers is a complex and very well-acted film that goes as far as examining the notion of love, and what we look for in people, through seemingly a simple story.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anne Joyce, Bianca Giancoli, Bob Ari, Carmen M. Herlihy, Craig Walker, David Cale, David Ross, Don Hewitt Jr., Elias Koteas, Elliot Villar, Geronimo Frias, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Jeanine Serralles, Joaquin Phoenix, John Ortiz, Julie Budd, Mari Koda, Marion McCorry, Mark Vincent, Moni Moshonov, Nick Gillie, RJ Konner, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Samantha Ivers, Shiran Nicholson, Uzimann, Vinessa Shaw

Director: James Gray

Rating: R

Before The Rain is a very intriguing and unique film, to say the least. Its cyclical narrative structure may not be for everyone, it will puzzle most, leaving some in wonder while others fume at the illogicality of it all.

While the film's general production values have not aged very well, its intercut story of war and romance is a timeless one, makes this film one that is essential viewing for all international cinema lovers, and serves as a great introduction to Macedonian cinema as a whole.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Abdurrahman Shala, Aleksandar Mikic, Daniel Newman, Džemail Maksut, Gabrielle Hamilton, Grégoire Colin, Ilko Stefanovski, Jay Villiers, Josif Josifovski, Katerina Kocevska, Katrin Cartlidge, Kiril Ristoski, Labina Mitevska, Meto Jovanovski, Milica Stojanova, Mladen Krstevski, Petar Mirčevski, Peter Needham, Phyllida Law, Rade Serbedzija, Rod Woodruff, Silvija Stojanovska

Director: Milcho Manchevski

Rating: Not Rated

A great example of frank, emotionally honest filmmaking with three totally vulnerable lead performances, Passages takes a subject that can so easily be reduced into clichés—infidelity—and approaches it with a genuine sense of melancholy. It can still be frustrating to watch fully developed adults refuse to communicate more clearly about their feelings, but director and co-writer Ira Sachs also understands the nuanced gender dynamic that informs some of these bad decisions. Tomas understands that his commitment to Martin may not give him the "easy" satisfaction of a traditional romance, but there is also a sense that his attraction to Agathe (supposedly the first time he's truly fallen for a woman) might be more of an impulsive attempt to settle for something safer, something that he has more control over.

Ben Whishaw is reliably sympathetic as Martin, and Adèle Exarchopoulos carries herself with the unembellished authenticity that many of the best French actors do. And Franz Rogowski makes Tomas both entirely pathetic and still so very heartbreaking in the predicament he's put himself into. There are no cheap histrionics or outbursts of emotion here—just performers living fully within each moment and selling us on the situation they're in.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Arcadi Radeff, Ben Whishaw, Caroline Chaniolleau, Erwan Kepoa Falé, Franz Rogowski, Olivier Rabourdin, Radostina Rogliano, Théo Cholbi, William Nadylam

Director: Ira Sachs

Rating: NR