4 Best Historical Movies Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

You might expect a movie about the Irish struggle for independence from the British Empire during the 1920s to be a sweeping historical epic a la Braveheart, but The Wind That Shakes The Barley is instead a heartbreaking miniature portrait of the human impact that the brutal occupation has on the residents of a small County Cork village. Cillian Murphy is superb as Damien O’Donovan, a young medical student who is about to up sticks for London when he witnesses first-hand the savagery of British forces on his neighbors. Galvanized into action, he joins the local branch of the IRA, which is led by his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney).

What makes The Wind That Shakes The Barley so potent isn’t just its depiction of the fierce local rebellion that Damien and his comrades wage against the British forces — it’s also its gutting exploration of the cyclical war that began to rage amongst the freedom fighters once the British left. As Damien puts it, “It's easy to know what you're against, quite another to know what you're for” — a dilemma that wedges the two brothers apart to bitter ends.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Aidan O'Hare, Alex Dee, Anthony Mark Streeter, Antony Byrne, Bill Hurst, Cillian Murphy, Colin Parry, Damien Kearney, Denis Conway, Frank Bourke, Frank O'Sullivan, Gerard Kearney, Keith Dunphy, Liam Cunningham, Mark Wakeling, Martin Lucey, Mary Murphy, Myles Horgan, Neil Alan Taylor, Noel O'Donovan, Orla Fitzgerald, Pádraic Delaney, Roger Allam, Sabrina Barry, Scott Peden, Sean McGinley, Shane Casey, Siobhan McSweeney, Tom Charnock, William Ruane

Director: Ken Loach

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.

Genre: Drama, History, Thriller

Actor: Alan Metoskie, Alex Henderson, Alex Sharp, Alice Kremelberg, Ben Kass, Ben Shenkman, Blair Lewin, Brady Jenness, Brandon Fierro, Brendan Burke, C.J. Wilson, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Christian Litke, Damian Young, Danny Flaherty, David Fierro, Ed Flynn, Eddie Redmayne, Edward Fletcher, Frank Langella, Gavin Haag, J. C. MacKenzie, James Pravasilis, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, John Doman, John F. Carpenter, John Quilty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Juliette Angelo, Kate Miller, Kathleen Garrett, Keeley Morris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kevin O'Donnell, Larry Mitchell, Lex Elle, Mark Rylance, Max Adler, Meghan Rafferty, Michael A. Dean, Michael Keaton, Michelle Hurst, Mike Brunlieb, Noah Robbins, Sacha Baron Cohen, Shawn Parsons, Steve Routman, Tah von Allmen, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Wayne Duvall, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rating: R

2005 was a banner year for British period dramas, apparently: first, there was Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (still arguably the genre’s crowning achievement), and then came Under the Greenwood Tree, a delightful made-for-Christmas-TV romance loosely based on the eponymous Thomas Hardy novel. Anyone familiar with the author’s typically tragedy-tinged stories — think Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd — will find themselves surprised by the light, pleasant tone of this one, in which the closest anyone gets to violent revenge is sabotaging a church organ by pouring a flagon of cider into it.

The romance here is threefold: when Keeley Hawes’ spinster schoolteacher Fancy Day (genuinely her name) arrives in an English village, she ignites a rivalry between wealthy farmer Shiner (Steve Pemberton), haughty clergyman Parson Maybold (Ben Miles), and James Murray’s die-hard romantic Dick Dewy (again: the names in this are a choice). The trio’s simultaneous attempted courting of Fancy doubles as both the entertaining will-she-won’t-she stuff of romantic dramas and a conduit through which the movie explores the class dynamics in England during the 19th century. It’s this deft intertwining of satisfying romantic period drama tropes with genuine reflection on the historical period itself — all while remaining lighthearted — that makes this underseen adaptation worth watching.

Genre: Drama, Romance, TV Movie

Actor: Ben Miles, James Murray, Keeley Hawes, Richard Leaf, Steve Pemberton, Terry Mortimer, Tom Georgeson, Tony Haygarth

Director: Nicholas Laughland

This biopic of the little-known Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the world’s first prominent Black classical composer, opens with a fierce indictment of history’s ignorance of its subject. Even if it’s one example of the movie’s dramatic license-taking, the scene — in which the Chevalier (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) challenges his eminent contemporary Mozart to an onstage musical “duel” and easily bests him — is a dramatically thrilling statement of intent for the movie.

Unfortunately, the rest of its overlong runtime doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of that opener. That’s largely because of the writing, which leaves uber-talented performers like Harrison Jr. with only a limited range of notes to play. What’s more, Chevalier stops short of exploring some of the most fascinating facts of its multihyphenate subject’s life — like the role he played in the French Revolution, commanding the first all-Black regiment in Europe — in favor of hewing to a predictable screenwriting formula that demands a romantic element to the plot, even if the one in question is only thinly backed by actual evidence. Still, while some of Chevalier’s filmmaking choices seem to misjudge what makes its subject so interesting, the key facts of his life — his extraordinary skill at music and fencing, the role racism played in blocking his greatest ambitions — still get enough exposure here to make it an enlightening watch.

Genre: Drama, History, Music

Actor: Alec Newman, Alex Fitzalan, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jessica Boone, Jim High, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Boynton, Marton Csokas, Minnie Driver, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Samara Weaving, Sian Clifford

Director: Stephen Williams