165 Best History Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

, 2010

If you're not a fan of F1 racing, you might not know who Ayrton Senna is. If you are, there is no way you don't know. However, this 2010 British-French documentary packs so much thrill and emotion, you don't have to be a racing enthusiast to be engrossed by it.

So, who is Ayrton Senna? At a time when F1 cars were +1000HP fire-breathing monsters and the grid was stacked with world champions, the Brazilian racing driver rose above the rest to take 3 world championships and win the fabled Monaco Grand Prix a record 6 times. At the age of 34, a devastating car crash took his life.

Director Asif Kapadia develops a compelling, emotional, and exhilarating portrait of F1 racing and the man that was Ayrton Senna. He is still considered by many to be one the best and most exciting racing drivers to have ever stepped into an F1 car. The documentary too, is a thrilling pursuit: moving, psychological intriguing and absolutely nerve-wracking!

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Adriane Galisteu, Alain Prost, Arnaldo Jabor, Ayrton Senna, Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Gerhard Berger, Jackie Stewart, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ron Dennis, Sid Watkins, Viviane Senna, Xuxa, Xuxa Meneghel

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: PG-13

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!

Genre: Drama, History, Music

Actor: Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Brian Wilson, Carolyn Stotesbery, Dee Wallace, Diana Maria Riva, Dylan Kenin, Elizabeth Banks, Erica Jenkins, Erik Eidem, Erin Darke, Fred Cross, Gary Griffin, Graham Rogers, Haylee Roderick, Jake Abel, Jeff Galfer, Jeff Meacham, Joanna Going, John Cusack, Johnny Sneed, Kenny Wormald, Max Schneider, Misha Hamilton, Nick Gehlfuss, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Ragon Miller, Tyson Ritter, Wayne Bastrup

Director: Bill Pohlad

Rating: PG-13

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.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Adi Rukun, Amir Hasan, Amir Siahaan, Inong, Joshua Oppenheimer, M.Y. Basrun

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating: PG-13

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?

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, Gore Vidal, John Lithgow, Kelsey Grammer, Noam Chomsky, William F. Buckley, William F. Buckley Jr.

Director: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Agathe de La Fontaine, Anne Alvaro, Anne Consigny, Emma de Caunes, Emmanuelle Seigner, Fiorella Campanella, Françoise Lebrun, Gérard Watkins, Isaach De Bankolé, Jean-Philippe Écoffey, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Lenny Kravitz, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Mathieu Amalric, Max von Sydow, Michael Wincott, Nicolas Le Riche, Niels Arestrup, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Patrick Chesnais, Talina Boyaci, Zinedine Soualem

Director: Julian Schnabel

Rating: PG-13

Between 1967-1975, a group of Swedish filmmakers traveled to America to document the Black Power movement. The resulting archival footage of Black activists and intellectuals, including Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the amazing Angela Davis, was hidden in an archive until it was unearthed and woven together by Göran Olsson, a Swedish director. Angela Davis also supplies some contemporary voice commentary alongside many others, such as Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, and The Roots drummer and rap culture's No. 1 record keeper Questlove, who also co-scored the film. This adds to the mixtape feel of the film as does the raw and unfiltered piecing together of the historic footage, giving the viewer an authentic impression of the movement and the struggles of the time. Being Swedish, the filmmakers dared to go where American mainstream TV might have never gone.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, John Forte, Kathleen Cleaver, Melvin Van Peebles, Sonia Sánchez, Stokely Carmichael, Talib Kweli

Director: Göran Olsson

Rating: Not Rated

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.

Genre: Animation, Drama, History, War

Actor: Arié Elmaleh, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux, François Jerosme, Gabrielle Lopes Benites, Mathias Mlekuz, Simon Abkarian, Sophie Arthuys, Tilly Mandelbrot

Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

Rating: PG-13

One of the most thrilling biographical films to come out of Hollywood in the 2020s, Shaka King's exhilarating take on a truly remarkable leader within the Black Panther Party—and the young man who would eventually be twisted into betraying him—also provides a respectful, honest space to voice out progressive views that still aren't fully embraced in the United States. Much of the film is made up of beautiful, powerful rhetoric, contrasting in fascinating ways with scenes of violence or deception that only remind us how ahead-of-his-time chairman Fred Hampton was and still is. And in a thunderous, Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Kaluuya brings all of Hampton's words roaring to life while still reminding us of how tragically young this inspirational figure was at the time of his death.

But Judas and the Black Messiah tells an equally powerful second story over this one: that of FBI informant William O'Neal who reluctantly agrees to sell Hampton to the feds, and quickly realizes that he's been scammed too. Rivaling—and, arguably, besting—Kaluuya's performance is LaKeith Stanfield, whose tortured and increasingly despairing performance as O'Neal is the stuff of pure Shakespearean drama. Together, both stories ask us what real freedom looks like, and that we believe we can still fight for it.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Algee Smith, Amari Cheatom, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ashton Sanders, Caleb Eberhardt, Chris Hahn, Daniel Kaluuya, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dominique Fishback, Dominique Thorne, Graham Lutes, Ian Duff, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Jermaine Fowler, Jesse Plemons, Khris Davis, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Linda D Gaines, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Velez, Nick Fink, Raymond Seay, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill

Director: Shaka King

Journalist LLoyd Vogel (Matthey Rhys) scoffs at the prospect of a profile commission, or a "puff piece", as he calls it. His self-respect and professional ruthlessness has driven people away and this assignment may well be a test from his editor. But it is serendipity that brings Lloyd to American TV host Mister Roger (Tom Hanks) and his child-oriented show, at a time when he, a new father, is confronted with his own paternal trauma. No heavy psychological lifting here, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might be one of the most profound films about father-son relationships ever made. Notably, the film is directed by a woman, Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl). In her film as in his show, Mister Roger doesn't have to do much: he listens, he speaks, he suggests, and while his kindness may seem frustrating at times, it is truly radical. Additionally, Lloyd's character is based loosely on writer Tom Junod, whose encounter with Rogers ended up a profile in Esquire magazine.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Alex Pérez, Chris Cooper, Christine Lahti, Enrico Colantoni, Fred Rogers, Gavin Borders, Gregory Bromfield, Gretchen Koerner, Jessica Hecht, Joanne Rogers, Joe Fishel, Kelley Davis, Kevin L. Johnson, Khary Payton, Kitty Crystal, Krizia Bajos, Maddie Corman, Maryann Plunkett, Matthew Rhys, Michael Masini, Noah Harpster, Patrick McDade, Susan Kelechi Watson, Tammy Blanchard, Tom Bonello, Tom Hanks, Wendy Makkena

Director: Marielle Heller

Rating: PG

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.

Genre: Action, Drama, History, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Abdelhafid Metalsi, Alexander Beyer, Amani Zain, Ami Weinberg, Amos Lavi, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Andreas Lust, Arturo Arribas, Ayelet Zurer, Baya Belal, Ben Youcef, Bijan Daneshmand, Brian Goodman, Carim Messalti, Charley Gilleran, Ciarán Hinds, Daniel Bess, Daniel Craig, David A. Hamade, Dianne Zaremba, Djemel Barek, Eric Bana, Faruk Pruti, Félicité Du Jeu, Geoffrey Rush, Gila Almagor, Guri Weinberg, Guy Amir, Guy Zo-Aretz, Hagit Dasberg, Hanns Zischler, Hiam Abbass, Hicham Nazzal, Hichem Yacoubi, Hisham Suliman, Igal Naor, Jalil Naciri, Jim McKay, Jonathan Avigdori, Jonathan Uziel, Joram Voelklein, Karim Saidi, Karim Saleh, Kevin Collins, Laurence Février, Lili Bordán, Liron Levo, Lisa Werlinder, Lyes Salem, Lynn Cohen, Mahmoud Zemmouri, María Casal, Marie-Josée Croze, Marie-Josée Croze, Martin Ontrop, Mathieu Amalric, Mathieu Kassovitz, Mehdi Nebbou, Meret Becker, Merik Tadros, Michael Lonsdale, Michael Schenk, Mihalis Giannatos, Moa Khouas, Moritz Bleibtreu, Moshe Ivgy, Mostefa Djadjam, Mouna Soualem, Mousa Kraish, Nasser Memarzia, Oded Teomi, Ohad Knoller, Omar Metwally, Omar Mostafa, Ori Pfeffer, Ossie Beck, Patrick Kennedy, Rad Lazar, Raffi Tavor, Renana Raz, Richard Brake, Rim Turki, Robert John Burke, Sabi Dorr, Saïda Bekkouche, Sam Feuer, Sami Samir, Samuel Calderon, Sarah Mennell, Sasha Spielberg, Sharon Alexander, Shmuel Edelman, Sonia Hell, Souad Amidou, Stéphane Freiss, Steven Spielberg, Tom Wlaschiha, Ula Tabari, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Valeria Bruni‑Tedeschi, Wojciech Machnicki, Yehuda Levi, Yvan Attal

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Andy Milder, Clint Howard, Eloy Casados, Frank Langella, Gabriel Jarret, Gavin Grazer, Geoffrey Blake, Jenn Gotzon Chandler, Jim Meskimen, Kate Jennings Grant, Keith MacKechnie, Kevin Bacon, Mark Simich, Matthew Macfadyen, Max Elliott Slade, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Patty McCormack, Penny L. Moore, Rance Howard, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Simon James, Toby Jones, Wil Albert, Yvette Rachelle

Director: Ron Howard

Rating: R

A City of Sadness is a film set in 1945, after Japan is defeated in the war and Taiwan is subject to uncertainties of a changing sociopolitical landscape. It follows the four Lin brothers, who each struggle in this tumultuous period — from Wen-heung, the eldest who gets on the bad side of a local gang, to Wen-ching, who chooses to stand against the Chinese Kuomintang government despite being deaf-mute. 

Instead of turning to the usual machinations of a historical family drama, director Hou Hsiao-hsien shows the vast expanse of Taiwanese countryside through steady, beautiful cinematography. In urban areas, the camera moves in scenes of sudden violence, which it pans toward until it exits frame for us to only hear the screams of people offscreen. There are also quiet interludes that barely last a minute, where dynamics between characters depict the anxiety of the times. Tony Leung, who plays the deaf-mute brother, hasn't refined the craft of subtle acting with his eyes yet, but traces of brilliance are already there. 

The trauma of rapidly changing times, as a nation is exploited from one war to the next, is depicted so clearly. The authoritarian state erodes families, and Hou paints a picture of a society on the brink, a representation of 1940s Taiwan that feels more like a tragic poem than a film.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Chan Chung-Yung, Grace Chen Shu-Fang, Hsin Shu-Fen, Jack Kao, Kelly Ko, King Shih-Chieh, Li Tian-Lu, Mei Fang, Su-Yun Ko, Tai Bo, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tsai Chen-Nan, Wu Nien-Jen, 吴念真

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

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.

Genre: Action, Drama, History, War

Actor: Aaron Hilmer, Adrian Grünewald, Albrecht Schuch, André Marcon, Andreas Döhler, Anthony Paliotti, Anton von Lucke, Cyril Dobrý, Dan Brown, Daniel Brühl, Daniel-Frantisek Kamen, Devid Striesow, Edin Hasanović, Felix Kammerer, Felix von Bredow, Gregory Gudgeon, Hendrik Heutmann, Jakob Diehl, Joe Weintraub, Luc Feit, Marek Simbersky, Markus Tomczyk, Martin Němec, Michael Pitthan, Michael Stange, Michael Wittenborn, Moritz Klaus, Nico Ehrenteit, Peter Sikorski, Sascha Nathan, Sebastian Hülk, Sebastian Jacques, Thibault de Montalembert, Tobias Langhoff, Tomáš Weber

Director: Edward Berger

Rating: R