153 Best 20th Century Period Pieces Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
How do you make a film about the Holocaust feel new? How do you make the terrors feel fresh, like it was just in the news, without sounding redundant or without giving into the sensationalized and emotionally manipulative? For Director Jonathan Glazer, the answer lies in not what you show but what you don’t show. The Zone of Interest is shot from the point of view of Nazi Officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live a dreamy life right next to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Glazer frames them plainly and without flourish as they ignore (or, arguably, revel in) the glow of burning bodies, the howls of pain, and the billows of smoke coming from the torture chamber a wall away. It’s a powerful, nauseating contrast that turns the question from “How can they do this?” to “Who among us is committing the same things right now?” Who among us is casting a blind eye to the atrocities and genocide being committed at this very moment to our neighbors? The film, which is also a technical feat in terms of the way it’s shot (the crew and cameras remained hidden so that the actors were free to roam, as if in a play) is chilling and thought-provoking, and it will unnerve you for days on end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Anastazja Drobniak, Christian Friedel, Daniel Holzberg, Freya Kreutzkam, Imogen Kogge, Jakub Sierenberg, Johann Karthaus, Klaudiusz Kaufmann, Lilli Falk, Luis Noah Witte, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Maximilian Beck, Medusa Knopf, Nele Ahrensmeier, Rainer Haustein, Ralph Herforth, Sandra Hüller, Sascha Maaz, Shenja Lacher, Thomas Neumann

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Rating: PG-13

With cardboard houses, sugar winters, and broccoli trees, No Dogs or Italians Allowed at first seems lighthearted, playful, and not too serious. Alain Ughetto casts himself asking his grandmother Cesira about his family, but we only see his hands moving and interacting with the characters as if he was crafting clay model miniatures. However, the whimsical approach sugarcoats the very tragedies that struck his family– from the multiple wars to the discrimination they’ve faced as immigrants– with excellent animation and puppetry that feels much more lifelike than 3D CGI. In telling his family’s story, Ughetto also retells 20th century European history, reframing the worldwide events and movements through a personal perspective.

Genre: Animation, Drama

Actor: Alain Ughetto, Ariane Ascaride, Bruno Fontaine, Christophe Gatto, Diego Giuliani, Laura Devoti, Stefano Paganini

Director: Alain Ughetto

Thirty years after its release, the first ever Chinese language Palme d’Or winner has finally been made more accessible through Criterion Channel through its uncut 4K restoration. Farewell My Concubine is one of those classical epics that is considered essential viewing, but even with its near 3 hour runtime, the film still holds up all these decades later with its startlingly heartrending love story and depiction of the tumultuous shifts of 20th century China. Director Chen Kaige masterfully balances both sides, tapping into the pain Dieyi (Leslie Chung) chooses as he clings to the classical opera, the very art form that allows him a sliver of his unrequited love to be realized, but that is also limited depending on whichever government is in charge at the moment. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful and most miserable films ever made.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Dan Li, David Wu, Fei Zhenxiang, Ge You, Gong Li, Huang Lei, Jiang Wenli, Lei Han, Leslie Cheung, Lu Qi, Yang Lixin, Ying Da, Zhang Fengyi, Zhi Yitong

Director: Chen Kaige

Rating: R

Wise, superbly acted, and gorgeously put together, all of these apply to Nightmare Alley. In a world where remakes are more in vogue than needed, Guillermo del Toro shows us how it's done. A sumptuous tale of a man's rise and fall guarantees some spectatorial pleasure, but having both Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in the same film (plus unsung genius Toni Collette and all-round-favorite Willem Dafoe) pushes us into talent overload, in the best possible way. In addition to its thrilling plot and studded cast, Nightmare Alley is also psychologically literate enough to make a carnival out of the human soul. It's no surprise that in 2022, it got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture where it certainly would have had my vote.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bill MacDonald, Bradley Cooper, Caleb Ellsworth-Clark, Calvin Desautels, Cate Blanchett, Catherine McGregor, Charles Langille, Clifton Collins Jr., Clyde Whitham, Dan Lett, Dani Klupsch, Daniel Falk, Danny Waugh, David Hewlett, David Strathairn, Dian Bachar, Holt McCallany, James Collins, Jesse Buck, Jim Beaver, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Lili Connor, Linden Porco, Mark Povinelli, Martin Julien, Mary Steenburgen, Matthew MacCallum, Natalie Brown, Paul Anderson, Perry Mucci, Peter MacNeill, Richard Jenkins, Romina Power, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Sarah Mennell, Stephen McHattie, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Post, Toni Collette, Troy James, Vikki Ring, Walter Rinaldi, Will Conlon, Willem Dafoe

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: R

In Aftersun, Sophie recalls a holiday she took as an eleven-year-old in the ‘90s with her father. Video recordings help jog her memory, but she’s looking for more than just a blast from the past. Rather, she seems to be seeking answers to fill in the gaps between who she knew as her father and who he really was: an immensely nice but deeply troubled man.

At first, Aftersun looks like a simple but beautiful story about father and daughter bonding over the course of a summer trip. But within minutes, it’s clear that there are layers to Aftersun, emotionally and editorially, that aren’t always explained but nonetheless enrich the movie with profound meaning. Stirring, complex, and surprisingly inventive, it’s not surprising that Aftersun is one of the most beloved films of the past year. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Celia Rowlson-Hall, Frankie Corio, Harry Perdios, Kieran Burton, Paul Mescal, Sally Messham, Sarah Makharine, Sophia Lamanova, Spike Fearn

Director: Charlotte Wells

Rating: R

You might have to wipe some sweat from your forehead once you've finished watching this blistering political thriller. It doesn't make any sense to us that this 2006 movie by documentary director Kevin Macdonald made less than 20 million in box office revenue when it came out, but that makes it even more A Good Movie to Watch material. In addition to being thrilling entertainment, it offers insight into an easily overlooked chapter of recent world history and taut moral dilemmas. The dramatization of Giles Foden's novel features two intense performances: James McAvoy plays the sometimes naive (and maybe a bit too enthralled by power) Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, who becomes the personal physician of none other than Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Nicknamed “The Butcher of Uganda”, Amin is played by Academy Award-winning character actor Forest Whitaker, who perfectly captures his mood-swinging, crazy brutality. He also completely nails his Ugandan-English accent. An amazing watch!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga, Adam Kotz, Barbara Rafferty, David Ashton, David Oyelowo, Devon Diep, Dick Stockley, Forest Whitaker, Giles Foden, Gillian Anderson, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Martina Amati, Sam Okelo, Simon McBurney, Stephen Rwangyezi

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rating: R

Poignant, delightful, and simply gorgeous, Licorice Pizza just might be Paul Thomas Anderson's best work to date. The period dramedy follows two young people, one in her 20s and one in his teens, as they strike an unlikely but lovely friendship and try to find their place in the world. They may be 10 years apart, but they're stuck in the same swirl of rejection and confusion that trap a lot of ambitious people like them. The premise is far from original, but Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman turn in captivating performances (made even more impressive by the fact that this is both their film debut). There is an ease and naturalism to both their chemistry and onscreen performances that’s hard not to love.

The thick and wistful patina of the ‘70s, the comedic asides, and the colorful supporting cast all also help paint an overall charming picture that shouldn't be missed.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Somner, AJ Carr, Alana Haim, Alex Canter, Alex Herschlag, Allegra Clark, Anna Cordell, Anthony Molinari, Ariel Rechtshaid, Benjamin Barrett, Benny Safdie, Bottara Angele, Bradley Cooper, Cassandra Kulukundis, Charlotte Townsend, Christine Ebersole, Ciara Williamson, Cooper Hoffman, Craig Stark, Dan Anderson, Danielle Haim, Danielle Miller, Delaina Mitchell, Demelza Cronin, Destry Allyn Spielberg, Dick Rudolph, Eloy Perez, Emily Althaus, Emma Dumont, Erica Sullivan, Este Haim, Fatimah Hassan, George DiCaprio, Gerren Hall, Harriet Sansom Harris, Hazel Schaffer, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Isabelle Kusman, Iyana Halley, Jeff Willy, John C. Reilly, John Michael Higgins, Jon Beavers, Jonathan Goetzman, Joseph Cross, Karen Kilgariff, Kat Barnette, Kimiko Kasai, Kirk Saduski, Lakin Valdez, Laura Gary, Laura Louise Richardson, Liz Cackowski, Louis Delavenne, Mark Flanagan, Mark Wolfson, Mary Eileen O'Donnell, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Max Mitchell, Maya Rudolph, Mick Giacchino, Nate Mann, Paige Locke, Patrick Salway, Pearl Minnie Anderson, Ray Chase, Ray Nicholson, Richard B. Larimore, Rogelio Camarillo, Ryan Heffington, Sasha Spielberg, Savannah Ioakimedes, Sean Penn, Skyler Gisondo, Steven Herrera, Tim Conway Jr., Tom Waits, Tyler Young, Waylon Richling, Yumi Mizui, Zoe McLane

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

With Howards End, the magic trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala converted yet another turn-of-the-19th-century EM Forster novel into exquisite cinematic form. Ravishingly shot and performed to career-best heights by many of its cast, Howards End loses nothing of the elegance we expect from a period drama, and yet it also feels thoroughly modern. The film charts the tragic entwining of three families: the progressive and intellectual middle-class Schlegel sisters, the much more traditionally minded and wealthier Wilcox family, and the Basts, a down-on-their-luck working-class couple. It’s the liberally minded Schlegels who cross the class divide of 1910 London to bring these two distant social circles so close to each other, but it’s the old-world values of the Wilcoxes that make that meeting a tragic one. Simmering with rich emotion and crackling with class politics, Howards End is the crowning glory of the Merchant Ivory powerhouse and the rare perfect period drama.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Ross Magenty, Allie Byrne, Anne Lambton, Anthony Hopkins, Barbara Hicks, Brian Lipson, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Gerald Paris, Helena Bonham Carter, James Ivory, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Jo Kendall, Joseph Bennett, Margery Mason, Mark Payton, Mark Tandy, Mary McWilliams, Nicola Duffett, Patricia Lawrence, Peter Cellier, Prunella Scales, Sally Geoghegan, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Susie Lindeman, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

Transit is based on a WWII novel — though you wouldn’t be able to tell from first glance. While the characters talk of German fascists occupying France, anachronistic details (like modern technology and clothing) suggest we haven’t gone back in time at all. Director Christian Petzold isn’t trying to confuse us: by blurring the backdrop, he’s making the terror and the desperation of the story more immediate — removing the distance that might have prevented us from really feeling what happens.

The uncanny historical echo effect works as intended, because the parallels Transit subtly draws between the past and today are horribly clear. What’s more, the movie’s intentionally ambiguous framing suffuses the plot with an otherworldly sense of mystery, a quality that gradually intensifies as Georg (Franz Rogowski) desperately searches for a one-way ticket out of hellish bureaucratic limbo before he finds himself waylaid by that most mysterious emotion of all: love. Unshakably haunting and undeniably poignant, this is a movie that will live under your skin.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Àlex Brendemühl, Antoine Oppenheim, Barbara Auer, Emilie de Preissac, Franz Rogowski, Godehard Giese, Grégoire Monsaingeon, Justus von Dohnányi, Lilien Batman, Louison Tresallet, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brandt, Paula Beer, Ronald Kukulies, Sebastian Hülk, Trystan Putter

Director: Christian Petzold

The last work by legendary American director John Huston is this exquisitely rendered adaptation of a James Joyce short story. The Dead is nestled inside an intimate festive dinner shared by the family and close friends of the Morkan sisters, two well-to-do elderly spinsters living in Dublin in 1904. The film is a family affair in more ways than just that, too: for Huston’s final feature, son Tony wrote the script and daughter Anjelica (as Gretta) was its star.

As with so many end-of-year gatherings, the prevailing mood of the dinner is one of sentimental nostalgia, as the hosts and their guests swap memories, toast each other, and tearily reminisce about the way things were. Anjelica Huston’s performance is also a quiet architect of that atmosphere, as Gretta slips in and out of dreamy reveries throughout the evening to the puzzlement of her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) — something that surges to the fore in an astonishingly moving final revelation. Huston directed the film on his proverbial deathbed, which infuses it with significance — but, even if it wasn’t the capstone to his illustrious career, The Dead would still stand as one of the finest treatments of mortality and longing ever committed to the screen.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anjelica Huston, Bairbre Dowling, Brendan Dillon, Cathleen Delany, Colm Meaney, Dan O'Herlihy, Donal Donnelly, Donal McCann, Helena Carroll, Ingrid Craigie, Kate O'Toole, Maria McDermottroe, Marie Kean, Paul Grant, Rachael Dowling, Sean McClory

Director: John Huston

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, 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, 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, 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, Sarah Mennell, Sasha Spielberg, Sharon Alexander, Shmuel Edelman, 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

The visceral pain at the center of this adaptation from period drama powerhouse Merchant-Ivory comes not from fading or unrequited love but unrealized affection. Try as he might to repress his feelings, devoted butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) can’t stifle the blossoming attachment he shares with housemaid Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). And yet, at every opportunity she gives him to do something about it, he balks, squandering the potential for something truly beautiful — something that actually belongs to them, not their aristocratic employer.

The Remains is partly told in flashbacks to the period leading up to the Second World War. From his stately home, Stevens’ master Lord Darlington and his peers play at international relations and try to avoid another war by pandering to the Nazis, but find they’re woefully under-equipped to decide the fate of Europe in this changing world. One of the many brilliant things about The Remains is the way this political drama doubles the devastation of Stevens’ die-hard commitment to his job — because now, he’s sacrificing his one chance at love for something that won’t even survive the decade. Sublime filmmaking and performances turn Stevens’ every minute choice into a pillar of profound tragedy, giving us a maddeningly heartwrenching life lesson for the ages.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anthony Hopkins, Ben Chaplin, Brigitte Kahn, Caroline Hunt, Christopher Brown, Christopher Reeve, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Ian Redford, James Fox, Jeffry Wickham, Jo Kendall, John Haycraft, John Savident, Lena Headey, Michael Lonsdale, Miles Richardson, Patrick Godfrey, Paul Copley, Paula Jacobs, Peter Cellier, Peter Eyre, Peter Halliday, Peter Vaughan, Pip Torrens, Rupert Vansittart, Steven Beard, Terence Bayler, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tony Aitken, Wolf Kahler

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG