8 Best Movies to Watch by Viola Davis

Staff & contributors

In the sexy, slick, and sharp-witted Out of Sight, a never-better George Clooney plays Jack Foley, a career bank robber who pulls off heists based on pure charm alone. His charisma is so powerful it even turns the cat-and-mouse game he plays with federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) into a seductive dance. Karen is no easy mark, though: she’s a tough agent who’s used to being underestimated by the men she works with. The sizzling connection that sparks between her and Jack is gripping precisely because it threatens to break the basic logic both live their lives by: he a slippery criminal, she a no-nonsense professional. Clooney and Lopez’s naturally electric chemistry is supercharged by the fact that the film never slips into sentimentality, always keeping their will-they-won’t-they amour at a tantalizing distance until the decisive moment. A crime caper with many strings to its bow — among them sizzling romance and brilliant dialogue brought to life by a dazzling supporting ensemble — this is a masterfully entertaining ride from director Steven Soderbergh.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Romance

Actor: Albert Brooks, Betsy Monroe, Brad Martin, Catherine Keener, Chic Daniel, Connie Sawyer, Deborah Smith Ford, Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Isaiah Washington, James Black, Jennifer Dorogi, Jennifer Lopez, Joe Chrest, Joe Coyle, Joe Hess, Keith Hudson, Keith Loneker, Luis Guzman, Manny Suárez, Mark Brown, Michael Keaton, Mike Gerzevitz, Mike Malone, Nancy Allen, Paul Calderon, Philip Perlman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Ives, Steve Zahn, Thelma Gutiérrez, Ving Rhames, Viola Davis, Wayne Pére, Wayne V. Johnson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R

This adaptation of a tragedy by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson might retain the mostly minimal setting of its source material — two rooms in a Chicago recording studio — but the searing performances at its heart more than warrant the translation to the big screen. A ferocious Viola Davis plays the titular ‘Mother of the Blues’, a fiery artist whose diva-ness is powerfully revealed to be a matching of the same transactional energy with which she’s treated by her white managers. 

On a steamy day in the roaring 1920s, one of Ma’s recording sessions morphs into a tinderbox of debate on art, race, and these exploitative power dynamics that exist at their intersection. As her band awaits her characteristically late arrival, its members tease, and then bicker, and finally erupt at one another. The youngest musician, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), is the most hot-headed — in his older band-mates’ eyes, he’s an arrogant young upstart with delusions of grandeur, but Levee’s ambitions are powered by real pain, as revealed in a blistering monologue. The film is unabashedly stagy in many respects, a quality that can work both ways — but, ultimately, the crackling current that runs through Davis and Boseman’s acting gives the movie all the blazing, goosebump-inducing immediacy of a live performance.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Daniel Johnson, Dusan Brown, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Joshua Harto, Michael Potts, Quinn VanAntwerp, Taylour Paige, Viola Davis

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rating: R

, 2016

There is a chance we will be known as the generation that perfected mixing the two mediums of movie and theater. Think Hateful 8, Horace & Pete, Wild Tales, and Fences! A movie not only packed with Broadway talent, it's also based on a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson. The play element is both strong and visible, the movie is dialogue packed, and takes place almost exclusively in the characters' house, not to mention most of the events happen within the span of a few days. The movie element comes through beautiful aesthetics and rich scenery, as well as some of Hollywood's best talent: Denzel Washington (who is also the director) and Viola Davis. They had both actually won Tony Awards for their performances reviving the play back in 2010. Denzel is a black garbage collector who was once a promising baseball player and a victim of racial discrimination. His psyche is as rich as it is determined and he is used to taking out his deep-rooted feelings of anger on his loved ones. His wife (Davis), his son, and his friends are the targets of this hurt and anger, but they also have a lot to deal with on their own. A beautiful if maybe slow play-movie. Do not watch it expecting "things to happen", but watch it to be mesmerized by the acting, the writing, and the underlying tensions it addresses. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Christopher Mele, Denzel Washington, Joe Fishel, Jovan Adepo, Lesley Boone, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Stephen Henderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Viola Davis

Director: Denzel Washington

Rating: PG-13

Anyone who's seen All That Heaven Allows will naturally be skeptical that a movie claiming to be an homage to Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous masterpiece will live up to the heights of its inspiration. It’s a ballsy move, molding your film so closely to a peerless classic, but Todd Haynes transcends thin pastiche to be a genuinely great film of its own. Where Sirk’s movie charts the social scandal caused by an upper-class widow (Jane Wyman) falling in love with her gardener (Rock Hudson), Haynes sharpens the conflict by recasting the couple as an interracial one (played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert). What’s more, Haynes brings her husband back from the dead and into the closet to give Far From Heaven another angle through which to tackle the repression and stigma and explore the characters' rocky pursuit of happiness. If that sounds like the stuff of melodrama, it is — Far From Heaven is proudly of that genre, cracking through the veneer of suburban perfection to find roiling tension and repressed desire underneath.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Barbara Garrick, Betsy Aidem, Bette Henritze, Brian Delate, C.C. Loveheart, Celia Weston, Chance Kelly, Declan Baldwin, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid, Duane McLaughlin, Ernest Rayford, Geraldine Bartlett, J.B. Adams, James Rebhorn, Joe Holt, Johnathan McClain, Jordan Nia Elizabeth, Julianne Moore, June Squibb, Kevin Carrigan, Lindsay Andretta, Michael Gaston, Mylika Davis, Olivia Birkelund, Patricia Clarkson, Ryan Ward, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Susan Willis, Ted Neustadt, Viola Davis, Virl Andrick

Director: Todd Haynes

Rating: PG-13

Stressed by adolescence, 16-year-old Craig Gilner checks himself into a mental-health clinic. Unfortunately, the youth wing is closed, so he must spend his mandated five-day stay with adults. One of them, Bobby, quickly becomes his mentor -- and him his protege, while Craig finds himself drawn to a fellow teen, Noelle, who just may be the cure he needs to forget an unrequited crush. Starring Keir Gilchrist and Zack Galifianakis, It's kind of a Funny Story is based on a novel of the same name.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aasif Mandvi, Adrian Martinez, Alan Aisenberg, Ato Blankson-Wood, Bernard White, Billy McFadden, Dana DeVestern, Daniel London, Emma Roberts, Jared Goldstein, Jeremy Davies, Jim Gaffigan, Karen Chilton, Keir Gilchrist, Lauren Graham, Leo Allen, Lou Myers, Macintyre Dixon, Matthew Maher, Molly Hager, Morgan Murphy, Roddy Skeaping, Rosalyn Coleman, Stewart Steinberg, Thomas Mann, Viola Davis, Zach Galifianakis, Zoë Kravitz, Zoe Kravitz

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Rating: PG-13

, 2023

In 1984, Michael Jordan was a rising star and Nike had yet to make its mark in the basketball industry. With nothing to lose, Nike had to make a choice: settle behind the far more successful Adidas and Converse or shoot its shot and bet everything they have to win Jordan? 

You don’t have to be an NBA fanatic to know what Nike went with. The real-life story of how Air Jordans came to be is compelling in itself, but the dramatized version of it in Air is told with extra verve and charm, with director Ben Affleck and writer Alex Convery successfully turning a business pitch into something funny, moving, and highly watchable, predictable beats and all. 

Air covers the big hits and misses of business (which it buoys with lighthearted jokes and tender backstories), provides an addictive 80s soundtrack (without caricaturing the era), and gives us likable, rootable characters (an impressive feat given that this is, essentially, a Nike ad campaign). Matt Damon and Viola Davis, especially, turn in performances that elevate Air into something quite special. And while this film may be more about the Air than the Jordans, it is still a champion's story—familiar and cheesy at times, sure, but feel good, inspiring, and truly winning. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

Actor: Al Madrigal, Albert Stroth, Andy Hirsch, Ari Davis, Asanté Deshon, Barack Obama, Barbara Sukowa, Ben Affleck, Billy Smith, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Damian Young, Dan Bucatinsky, Deloris Jordan, Dempsey Gibson, Gabrielle Bourne, Geoffrey Gould, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jackson Damon, Jason Bateman, Jay Mohr, Jerry Plummer, Jessica Green, Joel Gretsch, Joshua Funk, Julius Tennon, Mackenzie Rayne, Marlon Wayans, Matt Damon, Matthew Maher, Michael Jordan, Michael O'Neill, Richard Allan Jones, Tami Jordan, Tom Papa, Ure Egbuho, Viola Davis

Director: Ben Affleck

Rating: R

, 2008

The 2008 film Doubt offers a haunting peek into the crisis of pedophilia within the Catholic church. Featuring an all-star cast of Amy Adams,  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, it is more than just a fictional tale. With performances that will make you question your intuition and cast a shadow of doubt on your own instincts, Doubt is a difficult film to grapple with. 

I fell in love with this film very early on into the duration of it because it was so honest and it allowed the characters to navigate the nature of their suspicions. With Doubt, however, comes denial, and Viola Davis’s eight-minute monologue is simply smeared with it. Doubt is a fantastic story that has left me stunned for over a decade. 

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Actor: Alannah Iacovano, Alice Drummond, Amy Adams, Audrie Neenan, Bernadette Lords, Brian Hopson, Bridget Megan Clark, Carrie Preston, Evan Lewis, Felicia Tassone, Frank Dolce, George Aloi, Gerard Adimando, Helen Stenborg, Jack O'Connell, Jackie Brown, James P. Anderson, Jennifer Lauren DiBella, Jenny Paul, John Costelloe, Jonathan Castillo, Lydia Jordan, Margery Beddow, Marylouise Burke, Matthew Marvin, Meryl Streep, Michael Puzzo, Mike Roukis, Molly Chiffer, Paulie Litt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Seth Donavan, Steph Van Vlack, Susan Blommaert, Suzanne Hevner, Tom Toner, Valda Setterfield, Viola Davis

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Rating: PG-13

The story of Antwone Fisher as told by Denzel Washington (in his directorial debut) may be a bit too straightforward for its own good, but it only proves the strength of his eye and ear for performance. In addition to turning in his own understated yet authoritative performance, Washington gets a powerhouse turn out of Derek Luke, who allows every new revelation about Fisher to strengthen every aspect of his work. What the film gets right about talking about mental health (that other movies get so wrong) is that it knows that providing an explanation for why someone is the way they are shouldn't be a dramatic climax. What Antwone Fisher emphasizes is healing, community, and the dignity of the person working through these issues.

Genre: Drama, History, Romance

Actor: Charles Robinson, Cory Hodges, De'Angelo Wilson, Denzel Washington, Derek Luke, Earl Billings, Gary A. Jones, James Brolin, Joy Bryant, Kente Scott, Kevin Connolly, Kim Johnson, Leonard Earl Howze, Malcolm David Kelley, Novella Nelson, Rainoldo Gooding, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Stephen Snedden, Sung Kang, Vernee Watson-Johnson, Viola Davis, Yolonda Ross

Director: Denzel Washington