42 Spellbinding & Smart Movies to Transport You From Everything

Cover image via Häxan (1922) – Public Domain

*

I used to never watch movies. I thought reading was “smarter.” Then, someone I deeply respect explained to me that great cinema involves everything that goes into a great book, and more: smart writing, subtle acting, skillful songwriting—and with great direction and cinematography, every frame is a painting. After watching the films he recommended to me, I became a believer.

Now, of all times, is the time to watch some exquisite films!

Samuel Nightengale and I worked together to curate this list of top-notch, intellectually stimulating, deeply human films, a little off the beaten path. These movies will not only provide escapism, but could also enrich your life forever.

Titles link to their IMDb pages. You can use Just Watch to find out where to stream/rent these.

Serpico (1973)

An honest New York cop named Frank Serpico blows the whistle on rampant corruption in the force only to have his comrades turn against him.

Watch it because it’s a true story about NYC’s history of corruption, and it may be the best cop movie ever made.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

A laid back Southern man is sentenced to two years in a rural prison, but refuses to conform. 

Watch it because it’ll teach you how to win—by laughing.

Hamlet (2009)

The Royal Shakespeare Company puts a modern spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this filmed-for-television version of their stage production. The Prince of Denmark seeks vengeance after his father is murdered and his mother marries the murderer. 

Watch it because using the play’s full text, expert Shakespearean scholarship, and formidable acting talent, this film’s creators truly did justice to Shakespeare.

Paris, Texas (1984)

Travis Henderson, an aimless drifter who has been missing for four years, wanders out of the desert and must reconnect with society, himself, his life, and his family. 

Watch it because it’s an eternal story led by one of the greatest actors of all time, Harry Dean Stanton.

Brazil (1985)

A bureaucrat, in a retro-future world, tries to correct an administrative error and becomes an enemy of the state.

Watch it because it’s a witty adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 directed by Terry Gilliam, who’s also one of the brains behind Monty Python.

Capote (2005)

In 1959, Truman Capote learns of the murder of a Kansas family and decides to write a book about the case. While researching for his novel In Cold Blood, Capote forms a relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith, who is on death row.

Watch it because Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote during one of the most important times in literary history.

Chinatown (1974)

A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder. 

Watch it because it’s the last great film noir.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

A man robs a bank to pay for his lover’s operation, which turns into a hostage situation and a media circus. 

Watch it because Al Pacino brings his best to a true story about a tense and bizarre bank robbery.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

A New York City doctor embarks on a harrowing, night-long odyssey of sexual and moral discovery after his wife reveals a painful secret to him.

Watch it because it’s Stanley Kubrick’s last, and possibly best, film.

Barton Fink (1991)

A renowned New York playwright is enticed to California to write for the movies and discovers the hellish truth of Hollywood. 

Watch it because it’s the life of a writer, as explored by the Coen brothers.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of movie star John Malkovich. 

Watch it because it’s beautiful, absurd, hilarious.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

After a car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesiac, she and a perky Hollywood-hopeful search for clues and answers across Los Angeles in a twisting venture beyond dreams and reality. 

Watch it because you’ll never forget it.

On The Waterfront (1954)

An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses. 

Watch it because this classic starring Marlon Brando is one of the best depictions of class struggle against corruption.

Birdman (2014)

A washed-up superhero actor attempts to revive his fading career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway production. 

Watch it because it’s smart, incisive, relevant, and darkly funny.

Raising Arizona (1987)

When a childless couple of an ex-con and an ex-cop decide to help themselves to one of another family’s quintuplets, their lives become more complicated than they anticipated.

Watch it because it’s hilarious, heartfelt, and endlessly quotable.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.

Watch it because it’s eternally profound and relevant, and it’s one of Ingmar Bergman’s early masterpieces.

Breathless (1960)

French title: À bout de souffle

A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy. 

Watch it because if you haven’t experienced the crown jewel of new-wave French cinema, it’s about time.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

An American grandson of the infamous scientist, struggling to prove that his grandfather was not as insane as people believe, is invited to Transylvania, where he discovers the process that reanimates a dead body. 

Watch it because it’s profoundly funny and possibly Mel Brooks’ magnum opus.

American Beauty (1999)

A sexually frustrated suburban father has a midlife crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.

Watch it because it’s beautiful.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

An Irish rogue wins the heart of a rich widow and assumes her dead husband’s aristocratic position in 18th-century England. 

Watch it because Stanley Kubrick defines the period piece with the help of NASA.

Blue Velvet (1986)

The discovery of a severed human ear found in a field leads a young man on an investigation related to a beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer and a group of psychopathic criminals who have kidnapped her child. 

Watch it because you’ll see the other side of Norman Rockwell’s coin.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

An examination of the machinations behind the scenes at a real estate office.

Watch it because David Mamet defines modern drama.

Häxan (1922)

Fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft, from its pagan roots to its confusion with hysteria in modern Europe. 

Watch it because it’s one of the best documentaries you’ll ever see.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Italian title: Ladri di biciclette

In post-war Italy, a working-class man’s bicycle is stolen. He and his son set out to find it.

Watch it because it’s a brilliant examination of the human condition in times of hardship.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Tom Regan, an advisor to a Prohibition-era crime boss, tries to keep the peace between warring mobs but gets caught in divided loyalties.

Watch it because it’s the Coen brothers’ neo-noir crime drama.

Network (1976)

A television network cynically exploits a deranged former anchor’s ravings and revelations about the news media for its own profit. 

Watch it because of incisive social commentary, brilliant performances, and writing that comes close to Shakespeare’s.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and more than two million dollars in cash near the Rio Grande. 

Watch it because this brilliant Cormac McCarthy adaptation set new standards for modern cinema.

Persona (1966)

A nurse is put in charge of a mute actress and finds that their personae are melding together.

Watch it because Ingmar Bergman’s influential classic is in the thoughts of every great director. It’s also where Camille Paglia got the title for her paradigmatic book Sexual Personae.

Sin City (2005)

A movie that explores the dark and miserable town, Basin City, and tells the story of three different people, all caught up in violent corruption.

Watch it because it’s pulpy, brilliant, violent and fun.

Jackie Brown (1997)

A middle-aged woman finds herself in the middle of a huge conflict that will either make her a profit or cost her life.

Watch it because it’s Quentin Tarantino’s nod to subtlety.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

An allegorical tale about a man fighting the good and evil within him. Both sides are made flesh—one a sophisticated woman he is attracted to and the other his wife.

Watch it because it’s a silent film that’s anything but silent, and it won 3 Oscars 93 years ago.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

A naïve business graduate is installed as president of a manufacturing company as part of a stock scam.

Watch it because it’s one of the best comedies ever made.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Hypnotist Dr. Caligari uses a somnambulist, Cesare, to commit murders.

Watch it because it’s an entire artistic movement (German Expressionism) on film.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Dictator Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel’s regime. 

Watch it because it’s proof that comedy can stand up to genocidal maniacs and win.

Lost Highway (1997)

After a bizarre encounter at a party, a jazz saxophonist is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison, where he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life.

Watch it because it’s a modern noir horror film that explores fear, identity, and darkness.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

A screenwriter develops a dangerous relationship with a faded film star determined to make a triumphant return.

Watch it because it embodies Hollywood just as well as it did in the ‘50s.

Taxi Driver (1976)

A mentally unstable veteran works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City, where the perceived decadence and sleaze fuels his urge for violent action by attempting to liberate a presidential campaign worker and an underage prostitute. 

Watch it because Robert De Niro kills in Scorsese’s atmospheric urban masterpiece.

The Game (1997)

After a wealthy banker is given an opportunity to participate in a mysterious game, his life is turned upside down when he becomes unable to distinguish between the game and reality. 

Watch it because you’ll be reminded that money isn’t everything.

Goodfellas (1990)

The story of Henry Hill and his life in the mob, covering his relationship with his wife Karen Hill and his mob partners Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito in the Italian-American crime syndicate. 

Watch it because it’s a quintessential mob film inspired by the Godfather.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

A story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business. 

Watch it because it’s powerful and utterly immersive, and Daniel Day-Lewis will blow you away.

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet. 

Watch it because believe it or not, Back to the Future isn’t the only great movie about time travel!

Winter Light (1963)

A small-town priest struggles with his faith. 

Watch it because Ingmar Bergman captures suffering and the human condition in this existential masterpiece.