74 Best History Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

If you're a fan of the Beach Boys' legacy, or you want to find out more about Wilson, the person, this movie will give you what you need. It has been widely praised as being true to the facts – even by Bryan Wilson himself. But thanks, in part, to the incredible writing by Oscar-nominated Oren Moverman and the work of director Bill Pohlad, this is much more than a fact-based fictionalization of a famous musician's biography. It is a singularly convincing account of the artistic process and the effects of mental illness.

Love and Mercy tells the tale of two Bryan Wilsons: the first of a young and slightly square-looking musical pioneer in the 1960s, when Wilson was working on Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' most ambitious and ground-breaking album. Paul Dano's performance here is nothing short of perfect. And, second, the tale of the tormented, middle-aged Bryan Wilson, played by John Cusack, during a time when he was under treatment for his deteriorating mental health in the late 1980s. The juxtaposition of these two very different people and the brilliant performances of Cusack and Dano will completely absorb you and change the way you look at things. A unique and beautiful film!

From Aaron Sorkin, the creator of every liberal's favorite 2000s political drama, The West Wing, The Social Network, and the master of the “walk and talk”, comes the dramatization of a sadly true American story from the mid-last century. In 1968, different groups from all over the country travelled to Chicago to protest the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. The Chicago police greeted them in full riot gear, purposely attacking the peaceful protesters. Five months later, eight of them (charges against Black Panther leader Bobby Seale were dismissed) were arrested for inciting riot. As the title suggests, the film details the trials that followed, which highlight the still ongoing battles within American society and politics: racism, ineptness, corruption, complacency, you name it. On a lighter note, while you wouldn't necessarily call this an ensemble cast, the number of unlikely familiar faces in this film is off the charts: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sascha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne. It also features some of the greatest supporting actors in American TV history like John Carrol Lynch, Frank Langella, and the amazing John Doman aka Bill Rawls from The Wire.
A follow-up/companion piece to the award-winning The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is another compelling documentary from Director Joshua Oppenheimer. Both films aim attention at the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66, when the military government systematically purged up to one million communists. While the first film's focus was on the culprits and on providing facts, the second one lets us meet the victims. One victim in particular: a soft-spoken optician named Adi Rukun, who meets with various members of the death squad who murdered his elder brother Ramli, under the guise of giving them an eye test. As he questions them about the killings, the murderers, again, show little remorse and eagerly provide the lurid details to the many executions. It's a stunning and provocative look at the legacy of historical mass killings, along with the insidious propaganda that provokes them, and continues to justify them to younger generations. A testament to the power of cinema to remember the forgotten.
Do today's political talk shows often feel like meek, scripted, and predictable affairs to you? Would you rather have that euphoric feeling you get when watching someone smart and eloquent talk about important ideas? Multiply that by two and you get Best of Enemies. In 1968, ABC covered the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the historic Democratic National Convention in Chicago by airing a 10-part series of nationally televised debates between two ideologically opposed and sharp-minded public intellectuals: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. The former was an ardent and openly bisexual liberal and progressive. The latter an elitist cultural conservative, whose magazine, National Review, vowed to always support the most far-right candidate viable for office. This confrontational set-up is not only credited with ushering in an era of pundit politics, but also with producing some of the most entertaining intellectual debate ever to be seen on TV. When's the last time you saw anybody unironically being called a “crypto-Nazi” on national television?
Directed by celebrated artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who won an award in Cannes for it, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the true story of the Parisian journalist and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of 43. Paralyzed almost completely by what is termed locked-in syndrome, his left eye was the only part of his body that he was still able to move. In a Herculean effort, Bauby learned to blink in an alphabet code that eventually enabled him to communicate. The film alternates between Bauby's interaction with his visitors and caretakers (including painstakingly dictating his memoir, the titular Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) and dream-like fantasies and memories of his life prior to paralysis. The title alludes to this juxtaposition: the diving bell representing his final state of isolation, akin to a deep-sea diver under a bell, and the butterfly as a symbol for his blinking eye and the freedom he has in his mind, dreams, and imagination. Shot from Bauby's perspective, we see what he sees. Be it his divorced but loyal wife and his family visiting him, or his old father, played by Max von Sydow, which is probably the scene in this fascinating movie that will make you lose it and weep like the rest of us.

Persepolis is the true story of Marjane Satrapi, the writer and illustrator whose graphic novels of the same name the film is adapted from. It details in vivid animation the trials of growing up in war-torn Iran, but also, crucially, the joys of being raised by a loving family and the significance of forming one’s own ideals and identity. In between revolving dictatorships and tightening restrictions, Marjane comes into her own and discovers what it means to live a meaningful life.

It’s a testament to Satrapi’s many talents that Persepolis never feels too flat or cynical given its 2D style and bleak backdrop. The drawings impressively morph with Marjane’s every thought, as if the ink itself were alive, and her wit persistently comes through in sharp observations and dialogues. Equally impressive is the film’s commitment to portraying war and conflict in a nuanced manner. In an autobiographical tale that is about Marjane’s coming of age as much as it is about her country’s survival, it’s never been more true that the personal is political.

From Steven Spielberg, Munich is the sharp and thrilling depiction of Mossad agents on a mission to avenge the Munich Massacre, the killing of 11 Israeli Olympic team members at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Despite being based on real events, it’s a work of fiction. This allows the film to stand on clear yet nuanced grounds, focusing on the moral dilemmas that may rise for the secret agents and the perpetrators, now targets. The ensemble cast including Daniel Craig and Eric Bana allow Spielberg to deliver the film you can tell he wanted to make. A personal and striking effort.

A relevant and deeply entertaining movie that only has the appearance of being about politics. In reality, it is about television, and one brilliant journalist’s pursuit of the perfect interview.  Richard Nixon stepped away from the public eye after the Watergate scandal, and was counting on a series of interviews three years later to redeem himself. His team assigns an unlikely reporter to sit in front of him, a British reality TV host named David Frost. Both men have everything to gain from this interview by going against each other, as Frost tries to extract a confession of wrongdoing in Watergate that Nixon never gave.  Who will win? The master manipulator or the up-and-coming journalist? Frost / Nixon was originally a play, and this adaptation is full of drama and boosts great dialogue.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a period epic that unflinchingly shows us the savagery and senselessness of war. Set at the tail end of World War I, it follows two main stories: that of German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), whose boyish eagerness for warfare is diminished with each bloody step he takes towards the frontline, and that of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German politician tasked to negotiate a ceasefire between the French and German forces.

Grim and sobering, the movie will leave you nothing less than stunned after viewing. Like 1917 before it, All Quiet on the Western Front relies on the juxtaposition of raw brutality and peaceful quiet to effectively forward its anti-war message. The film is Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards.

Summer of Soul would already be remarkable if it was just a collection of some of the greatest live performances ever put to film. Boasting a roster that includes Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone, the nearly-forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the documentary was an all-star catalog of some of the biggest names in popular music, all at pivotal moments in their careers. Seeing them at the height of their powers, in front of a Black audience that meant so much to them, makes for an unexpectedly emotional experience.

But Summer of Soul also expands beyond the actual concert, using the Harlem Cultural Festival to represent a turning point in Black culture and history, especially after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Through the film's pristine, electric editing and gorgeous archival restoration, music becomes a communal act of mourning, a rallying cry to face the uncertain future, and a celebration of a people and a heritage continuing to fight against erasure and persecution.

It's heartbreaking to realize that Happening, a film set in 1960s France tracking a young woman's journey to dangerously and desperately terminating her pregnancy, is still very much relevant and relatable to this day. Around the world, abortion is still inaccessible, if not completely illegal, and women still struggle to lay full claim to their bodies. A lot of girls grow up with pregnancy statistics meant to instill fear, but Happening brings all that to brilliant life in intimate and unrestrained detail. The fears and wants of our protagonist Anne (played precisely by Anamaria Vartolomei) are palpable throughout. Nothing is held back in this film, and if you find yourself sick in parts, then it has achieved its goal of realistically conveying what it's like to stay alive in a society that fails to recognize your needs.