5 Best Classic Dramas Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

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

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

Stand By Me follows four young friends as they journey around their small town searching for a rumored dead body. On the surface, it moves like an adventure story. The boys narrowly avoid guard dogs and leeches, speeding trains and tough teen gangs. But along the way, they also learn much about each other, in particular about the stark reality of their home lives and the growing depths of their inner struggles, so that beneath all the small-time thrill is a beating coming-of-age story. 

Based on a novella by horror master Stephen King, Stand By Me is terrifying in its ability to evoke the unique thorniness of passing through the gates of adulthood, but also warm and comforting in its reminder of the universality of this feeling.

Genre: Adventure, Crime, Drama

Actor: Bradley Gregg, Bruce Kirby, Casey Siemaszko, Chance Quinn, Corey Feldman, Dick Durock, Frances Lee McCain, Gary Riley, Jason Naylor, Jason Oliver, Jerry O'Connell, Jerry O'Connell, John Cusack, Kent W. Luttrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Korey Scott Pollard, Madeleine Swift, Marshall Bell, Matt Williams, O.B. Babbs, Richard Dreyfuss, River Phoenix, Scott Beach, Wil Wheaton, William Bronder

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: R

Known for showcasing the grittier side of New York in his films, Martin Scorsese shifts to its upper echelons in The Age of Innocence. Based on the 1920 novel, the film follows society attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts and marries the respectable May Welland (Winona Ryder), despite his desire for childhood friend Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Undeniably gorgeous and impressively shot, what ultimately makes the film stand out among Scorsese’s work is how well the three leads embody the complex characters of the novel on multiple levels. Day-Lewis skillfully turns a corrupt, arrogant lawyer into someone who admirably refuses to be anything but himself, while Pfeiffer hides a stubbornness and frustration within Olenska. But it’s Ryder who best portrays her character's complexity, Welland’s wide-eyed gaze concealing secret manipulations. All of them drive this story that not only mourns for lost love, but acts as a mourning for a lost Golden Age.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alec McCowen, Alexis Smith, Brian Davies, Carolyn Farina, Catherine Scorsese, Charles Scorsese, Cindy Katz, Clement Fowler, Daniel Day-Lewis, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Erskine, Joanne Woodward, John McLoughlin, Jonathan Pryce, June Squibb, Linda Faye Farkas, Martin Scorsese, Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Gough, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miriam Margolyes, Norman Lloyd, Pasquale Cajano, Patricia Dunnock, Richard E. Grant, Robert Sean Leonard, Siân Phillips, Siân Phillips, Stuart Wilson, Thomas Barbour, Thomas Gibson, Tracey Ellis, W.B. Brydon, Winona Ryder

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: PG

Remarkably, Steven Soderbergh was only 26 years old when he directed this coolly assured debut, the searingly candid script of which he also wrote in just eight days. Despite the pornographic implications of its title, this is more concerned with exploring whether honesty — not sex — is the means to real intimacy. In fact, the only nakedness glimpsed here is of the emotional kind, as twenty-something drifter Graham’s (James Spader) total aversion to lying has an infectious influence on everyone around him.

The primary recipient of that disarming effect is Ann (Andie MacDowell), the wife of Graham’s old college buddy who is blasé about sex and neurotic about everything else. Talking to Graham has a therapeutic effect on her, but he takes something else away from conversation: chronically impotent, he simulates the sexual experience by conducting erotically themed interviews with women on videotape. Preferring to sublimate his desires through his camcorder, Spader’s physically aloof character is a disturbingly prescient one for what it suggested then about technology’s future impact on human relationships. That Soderbergh managed to conduct such a complex psychosexual drama all through dialogue — on his first feature, no less — makes him exceedingly worthy of the record this earned him of the youngest solo Palme d’Or-winning director ever.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexandra Root, Andie MacDowell, David Foil, Earl T. Taylor, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, Peter Gallagher, Ron Vawter, Steve Brill, Steven Brill

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R