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The 50 Best Dramas

Life with the dull bits cut out

Good movies bring art to life, combining audio and visuals (and occasionally smells, as in the case of 1959’s disastrous AromaRama and 1960’s Smell-O-Vision, may they forever rest in peace) in ways that push the limits of human imagination. They require little effort to watch, yet have the power to change a life. They represent eras, cultures and states of mind. Of course, for the less philosophically inclined, they provide good reason to cuddle on date night or kick it with your friends. No matter your reason for choosing a movie, they’re accessible in a way that books — which take hours to read — and great works of art — often hidden in private collections or distant museums — are not.

This week, we pick our 50 favorite dramas. Why start here? Dramas encapsulate many of film’s best aspects. They pull back the veneer of everyday existence to get at the core of life’s big questions. Some make us laugh; some make us cry; some manage to make us do both — when it comes to a good drama, the only certainty is that you’ll walk away a little more enlightened.

Now, without further ado, grab some popcorn, sit back, and dim the lights. The show’s about to start.

Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.


A History of Violence
Viggo Mortensen plays a humble and unassuming man who runs a diner in a small Indiana town. His current life and his rather colorful past clash after a run-in with two criminals at his diner, and he exercises some, shall we say, lethal skills. Good blood and bloody good.
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Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
A captivating fictional account of the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE) and the corruption and crime within the special police force and the government.
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Grand Prix
Four Grand Prix drivers live, love and, most importantly, race, with some amazing track driving scenes that defy the era it was made.
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A young boxer from Philly gets a chance at the heavyweight title. We see his quest, his simple life, his awkward pursuit of a girl and more heart than just about any film character this side of Forrest Gump.
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The Shawshank Redemption
It didn’t make our list because everyone says it’s one of the best dramas of all time — it’s on here because it is one of the best dramas of all time.
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A Few Good Men
Tom Cruise plays a young lawyer tasked with clearing several Marines of murder charges. You’ve heard the quote — “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” — so now see where it originated.
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Good Will Hunting
Janitors, take note: if you have a hidden talent, say, you’re really, really good at math, find Robin Williams. He’ll help sort your life out.
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De Niro and Pesci return to Scorsese’s screen after a short five year hiatus to pull off a movie that challenges Goodfellas and The Godfather for the title of best gangster film of all time. It’s a familiar formula — crime, sex, drugs, gambling, extreme pen violence — with one special twist [spoiler]: when the credits start rolling, Ace Rothstein is still alive.
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Forrest Gump
Winning the Oscar for Best Picture over competition that included Pulp Fiction and the The Shawshank Redemption speaks directly to the power of Zemeckis’ crowning achievement. Thanks to its fantastical story that connects many of 20th-century America’s most defining moments to the fast-legged, slow-witted Gump, it’s easily one of the most loved and widely watched Oscar winners in the history of the awards. Of course, an equally fantastic soundtrack and granting TNT the rights to play it on infinite loop probably helped.
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In his Newsweek review, Jack Kroll described Kingsley’s portrayal of Ghandi as “possibly the most astonishing biographical performance in screen history”, and we couldn’t agree more. Details like the opening paragraph, in which the film makers explain the challenges of doing justice to the life story of a man as complex and inspiring as Ghandi, are what make this movie the benchmark by which all other epic biographies are measured.
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Nolan is today’s perfectionist darling, but director Michael Mann’s zeal for authenticity set the precedent through movies like Heat. The film’s detailed depiction of police and criminal tactics — which Mann demanded include live ammunition shootouts and flight traffic rerouted at LAX — literally inspired a crime spree of its own in the form of the infamous North Hollywood Shootout. Welcome to the downsides of life imitating art.
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12 Angry Men
Eleven white male jurors are ready to convict a Puerto Rican teenager of murder. One white male juror believes he’s innocent. All the action takes place in one room. This is a drama, through and through.
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Deceit, corruption, and the water supply. Directed by Roman Polanski, and starring a young(er) Jack Nicholson, this detective drama hits all the right notes.
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The Thomas Crown Affair
Remakes are usually a terrible idea, but 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair is a notable and surprising exception from the director of Die Hard, Predator and The Hunt For Red October. Rene Russo at the top of her sultry game and a non-Bond Brosnan prove to be an electric duo capable of holding an audience’s attention through countless misdirections and luxurious excursions.
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The Wrestler
Critics said hello again to Mickey Rourke, we said hello again to Marisa Tomei, and Darren Aronofsky proved that his obsession with pain could translate to the mainstream world beyond drug abusers, math prodigies and mystical trees.
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Lawrence of Arabia
Everyone gets all excited for movies about WWII and Vietnam, though this movie (and brilliant acting by Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif) proves that WWI provides plenty of ammunition for the silver screen.
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Mystic River
Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon play three childhood friends brought together by tragedy — first as boys and again as adults. Few dramas better illustrate the effects that our pasts play on our presents.
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The Bridge on the River Kwai
Before Nolan, Kubrick and Spielberg, there was Lean. His seminal works, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, feature vast landscapes and characters that seem to burst from the silver screen. His movies have only grown better with age, leaving the slightly uneasy feeling that we may never again know a movie quite as sweeping as this.
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The Departed
It’s not the movie that should have finally won Scorsese an Oscar — it’s the third or fourth. Watch DiCaprio (among others) showcase some wicked good acting.
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City of God
Fernando Meirelles’ acclaimed portrait of what growing up in Rio de Janeiro. Buscapé tries to find himself amidst crime, violence, friendship and love.
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When Clive Owen gets bored with life, he becomes a croupier and — maybe unsurprisingly — finds his way into trouble. On the bright side, he still looks good in a tuxedo.
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Lost In Translation
Bill Murray gets all bamboozled by Japan and then meets dime piece Scarlett Jo. They experience the sensation of being bamboozled together.
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Apocalypse Now
It’s no accident that Francis Ford Coppola’s opus has the scale of a Homerian epic poem or Shakespearean tragedy — it’s based on Joseph Conrad’s brooding novel, Heart of Darkness. Martin Sheen is at his absolute best as Captain Willard, a burned-out Special Ops soldier tasked with tracking down and eliminating the decorated Colonel Kurtz, played magnificently by Marlon Brando, who has gone native deep in the jungle. Willard’s journey takes him deep into the dark interior of not only the war and the jungle, but himself. Note: Skip the overly long and ambitious (read: “rambling”) Director’s Cut or Redux editions and watch the originally released theater version.
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A moody soundtrack, an engaging plot and a whole lot of Ryan Gosling (known throughout the movie only as “The Driver”). With this film, you also get the benefit of seeing pre-Breaking Bad finale Bryan Cranston in a supporting role.
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The English Patient
With scruffy, lean men decked out in leather and linen doing adventurous things, this stylish, moody film is like a J.Crew catalog come to life. Based on a gorgeous Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient is the story of what happens when a group of people of different backgrounds, beliefs and motivations are thrown together in a time of war. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.
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The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields is based on a true story and follows New York Times war reporter Sidney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian friend and fellow journalist Dith Pran. Schanberg witnesses firsthand the horrors that the Khmer Rouge is inflicting on its own people — a horror that soon ensnares Schanberg’s Cambodian friend.
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The Right Stuff
While Top Gun may have done more for military aviation recruitment, it pales in comparison to the epic sweep of The Right Stuff, which cemented the test pilot/fighterjock/astronaut in our collective male psyche. From Chuck Yeager’s cool swagger to John Glenn’s scrubbed righteousness, this movie covers American aviation from the dawn of the jet age to the heart of the space race. If you don’t walk away from this movie wanting to don a pair of aviators and a chronograph, you should turn in your man card.
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Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood breaks out a gritty performance as Korean War Vet Walt Kowalski. A retired Ford factory worker still living in Detroit, his mint Gran Torino is his prized possession. When his neighbor, a young Hmong teenager, tries to steal his muscle car, Walt begrudgingly sets out to reform him.
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After Ellis and his best friend Neckbone find Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious stranger living on a Mississippi island, they decide to help him find his true love. Beautifully shot, Mud combines The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with difficult lessons about growing up.
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The Great Escape
Watch Steve McQueen lead one of the best motorcycle chase scenes of all time. Based on the true story of an escape from maximum-security German POW Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape is both inspiring and horrifying.
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A Clockwork Orange
Alex and his gang of droogs walk around futuristic London committing a bit of the old ultraviolence. A case in which the movie lives up to the book upon which it’s based.
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American History X
Ed Norton is a Nazi. This is one of those movies that’s so gripping, so powerful and so raw that afterward you sit around and think and can’t say anything but “Whoa.”
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There Will Be Blood
Obsessed with success in the oil business, Daniel Plainview lets nothing — not family, not God, — stand in his way. He paves the path to fortune with blood, burned bridges and a fantastic mustache.
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Cool Hand Luke
Counterculture and rebellion, seen through the steely blue eyes of a young Paul Newman. He’s a man that just won’t quit, even with 50 eggs on the table.
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Sexy Beast
The allure of one last job proves to be too much for a retired gangster, so he enlists the talents of an old friend. Nobody swears like the British, and few do it better than Sir Ben Kingsley.
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Saving Private Ryan
Mrs. Ryan isn’t having the best day. Three of her sons have been KIA, and the fourth is…the fourth is alive! Follow Cpt. Miller and members of the 2nd Rangers as they try to find him — and prepare yourself for one of the most ghastly, chair-arms-clutchingly realistic war movie scenes ever, in the first ten minutes.
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Based on Irvine Welsh’s book of the same title, Danny Boyle showcases the lives of Scottish heroine junkies on the road to recovery, doom and all points in between. Ewan McGregor’s withdrawal scene, where he’s trapped in a bed while a baby crawls across the roof, grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go for a while.
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Full Metal Jacket
Kubrick’s examination of the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War on a group of Marines. A piercing glimpse into the obvious to be sure, but one that every man should see. Do you think I’m cute, Private Pyle?
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Fight Club
Fight Club grabs the pervading consumerist culture and beats it to a bloody pulp. Pitt’s best work since playing Floyd in True Romance. We’d like to say more, but even if you haven’t seen this one you probably know the first rule of Fight Club.
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The Road
What man will endure for survival of his child, based on the eponymous novel by the freakishly good Cormac McCarthy.
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Glengarry Glenn Ross
Alec Baldwin’s soliloquy provides the best motivational butt-chewing in a movie, ever. Living lives of quiet desperation, indeed.
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The Seven Samurai
What do you do if bandits threaten to steal your crops? If you’re a smart Japanese village, you hire seven masterless samurai for protection. Oh yeah. It’s as epic as it sounds.
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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
There’s treasure down in Mexico, but, as this movie shows, things were just as dangerous in 1948 as they are today.
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There’s only one way to work your way through the mob. In the words of Roger Ebert, “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime — not even The Godfather.
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Taxi Driver
This movie defines obsession, and drove an insane man to imitate the plot in order to impress Jody Foster. Its ironic twist showcases the subtle line that distinguishes villain from hero.
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Raging Bull
Rage, violence, guilt, redemption. De Niro’s portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta earned him the nod for Best Actor, and the animalistic violence with which he embodies the role is breath-taking.
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Layer Cake
An increasingly complicated plot revolves around an unnamed protagonist (Daniel Craig), the quintessential underworld rogue trying to to get out of the drug business. Of course, police informants, gangsters, and even Serbian war criminals attempt to reel him back.
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Do the Right Thing
This Spike Lee classic serves up a tranche de vie from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. If you want to know what race relations were like in 1989, look no further than this film.
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Schindler’s List
One of the most beautiful stories ever told comes out of one of the most horrific: this Spielberg flick tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved more than 1,100 Jews from deportation to Auschwitz.
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On the Waterfront
In the off-chance that you were wondering why Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1954, we’ve got your answer. On the Waterfront tells the story of ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy, who witnesses a murder by two of his corrupt boss’s thugs. The rest is all drama…and, of course, Brando at his second best.
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