58 Best Smart Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Find the best smart movies to watch, from our mood category. Like everything on agoodmovietowatch, these smart movies are highly-rated by both viewers and critics.

A hot summer night, around 2 a.m. You're outside talking with a close friend about life, happiness, and the human condition. That quality and depth of conversation, which you reach at best a couple of times a year is present throughout the 106 minutes of The End of the Tour.

In the case of this movie, you become the witness of five days of conversation spent between two fine writers: the once-in-a-generation American author David Foster Wallace and best-selling Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, as they travel the US during the 1996 publicity tour for the former's magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Twelve years later Wallace will commit suicide.

Like a good podcast, the James-Ponsoldt-directed road movie makes you feel being part of a deeply personal conversation of the kind you would have with a long-time friend. At times, it can feel like eavesdropping on a genius at work. This effect is helped along by a flawless Jason Segal, who delivers an award-worthy performance as DFW. The fierce intelligence exuded by Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky is also nothing short of amazing. As they stuff their faces with junk food, their conversation is insightful, immediate, and unpretentiously relevant, making The End of the Tour a rare and important film.

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Cure is about a mad society, where both cure and sickness might be one and the same. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa subverts the police procedural into an interrogation without definite answers, an abstract study on the evil that resides and is suppressed in every person’s heart. Unlike most horror films, Cure’s scares are left in plain sight, hypnotically mesmerizing as they are gruesome, with a sense of mundanity associated with other Japanese masters like Ozu or Kore-eda. “At the time it just seemed the right thing to do,” a man answers when asked why he killed his wife, and it is this contradictorily calm, nonchalant demeanor that creates a feeling of unease in the film’s horror aesthetic.

Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals from around the globe, Zero Days is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus. Originally codenamed “Olympic Games” by the people that fathered the worm, Stuxnet is a virus in the true sense of the word. It not only maliciously feeds off the host, but it also replicates itself as soon as it is implanted, which is exactly what it did when it was used by the US and Israeli secret services to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran's Natanz nuclear plant—making them spin out of control. All this is brilliantly unpacked by renowned documentary maker Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), who manages not only to detail the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative manner, but also to send out a well-researched alarm call about the future of war. Ultimately, the message here is that cyber warfare is very much part of our new shared reality. This film deserves to be seen by anyone who is even remotely concerned about global security in the 21st century.
The title of this 2018 Palme D'or winner is not to be taken metaphorically: Shoplifters is about a marginalized family of day workers, crooks, and small-time outlaws, who live on the fringes of Japanese society. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) both have jobs but spruce up their low-wage income by committing petty crimes. One day in winter, Osamu takes in a bruised girl he finds outside in the cold and introduces her to the family in his ramshackle house. But when the second-youngest member of the family, Shota (Kairi Jyo), finds himself teaching her how to shoplift, he faces a moral dilemma that threatens to unravel the family's fabric. If you were hitherto unfamiliar with the unique storytelling and social realism of Hirokazu Koreeda, we really recommend checking it out—as well as his other movies, namely, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, I Wish, and After the Storm. His 2018 outing features the last ever performance of Kirin Kiki, who plays the elderly matriarch and passed away that same year. Like many of Koreeda's works, Shoplifters is an understated, beautiful, and mysterious study of the effects of poverty and trauma and a delicate portrait of a family in Japan's urban underbelly.
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?
Named after a slur for people of Asian descent, this 2017 film put Justin Chon on the map as a director. More than that, he also starred as the main lead in this raw and uncompromising period drama about Asian-Americans and the LA riots in 1992. Shot completely in black and white, it tells the story of Eli, a scrawny Korean-American, who runs his family shoe store with his brother, Daniel (David So), in several vignettes. They strike up an unlikely friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), a black kid from around the way, whose family is not happy with her hanging out with the two brothers. Amidst the ubiquitous violence in LA at the time, the Rodney King riots as well as a tragic shooting of a black teenager by a Korean convenience store owner, it shines the light on America's intra-minority race relations and the more unseen stories behind them. A topic that has come back to haunt America in the 2020s. The film is fierce as it is funny, harsh as it is playful. Uplifting and unsettling.

What happens when Banksy, one of the most famous ambassadors of street art, meets Mr. Brainwash, an egocentric aspiring French artist? Well, one of the funniest, interesting and exciting documentaries ever made about art, commercialism and the apparent gulf between them. But is it really a documentary? This confident and zany film will leave you guessing.

Capernaum is both the highest-grossing Middle Eastern movie of all time and the highest-grossing movie in Arabic of all time. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki was the first female Arab director to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Capernaum is thus duly considered a masterpiece, as it follows an angry 12-year-old kid in Lebanon, who leaves his negligent parents and tries to make it in the streets on his own. It's a tale of grinding poverty as experienced by a boy with a good heart, who meets many kindly people on the way as well as sinister characters. An acting tour de force by the fierce child actors, especially Zain Al Rafeea, Capernaum is harrowing, emotional, and, maybe, a touch melodramatic. However, it doesn't compromise when asking some hard questions about parental failure and love, putting them into the context of the bigger regional picture. It can be a tough watch, but the furious acting and pitch-black humor, ultimately, make this an uplifting movie, likely to stir up some debate.
In a stunning and vivid (re-) introduction to the Black intellectual, author, and social critic, James Baldwin, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It tells the story of America by telling the story of “the negro” in America, based on a book Baldwin started to write, which would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote about 30 pages before he passed away in 1987. Haitian director and activist Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into a movie, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro highlights, at the same time, Baldwin's genius, his unique eloquence, and the beauty of his soul as a human being. It is a sad truth that Baldwin's denouncements feel as relevant today as they did 50 years ago. As such, this movie serves as a sobering reminder of how far America still has to go. A mesmerizing experience!

In Drive My Car, a widowed artist travels to Hiroshima for his latest production. There he meets a young woman enlisted to drive him around the area. They forge an unexpected bond and soon share pithy observations and long-buried secrets, which culminate in a touching scene of catharsis and forgiveness.

Not a lot is said in this three-hour film, but when words (and signals) are shared, they are always underlaid with simple but transcendent truths. Drive My Car is a gripping film that explores love and loss in its own quiet way, at once intense and intimate.

The original Swedish mystery thriller that was later remade by David Fincher. It's the same story of a wealthy man hiring a journalist and scrappy hacker to solver a murder, but told better. This version is slower, has more attention to detail and pace. In casting, authenticity triumphs over good looks. In staging, aesthetics are given as much importance as thrills. And in the story, intelligence wins over plot. This gives the main character of Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace) better space to deploy her full mysticism and enigmatic nature. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev masterfully brings everything together to make for a movie that will forever be remembered.

A quirky and lovely coming of age film, the Kings of Summer celebrates the beauty and madness of adolescence and the sheer joy of long summer days. The plot follows three teenage friends, who, in the ultimate act of independence, decide to spend their summer building a house in the woods and living off the land. The house soon becomes a microcosm of their relationships with each other and the world at large, prompting conflict and mirroring their own transformations as they grow. Simple yet powerful, the Kings of Summer has a lot to say.