194 Best Thought-provoking Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

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

It comes as no surprise that former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen won Best Actor in Cannes for delivering on this challenging role. In this merciless thriller by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, the ice-eyed actor plays Lucas, an out-of-luck high school teacher struggling to start a new life. After a bitter divorce, he returns to the close-knit community he grew up in to work as a kindergarten teacher.

A few weeks before Christmas, a child from his class, who has an innocent crush on the popular teacher, hints to a colleague that he had exposed himself to her. The young girl’s intimation galvanizes the small hunter’s town into a witch-hunt that leaves Lucas’ life hanging from a string. Trapped in the lies, the more he fights back, the more irrational the mob becomes. In all its brutal honesty, The Hunt is one of those rare thrillers that will haunt you for days. Extraordinary and thought-provoking!

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

Aptly named ‘Rupert Grint on speed’ by one critic, Antoine-Olivier Pilon plays Steve, an abusive ADHD adolescent who just got out of a juvenile care facility for setting fire to the school cafeteria and injuring a fellow student. Similarly, his mother Diane, played by Anne Dorval, is a type of Lorelai Gilmore on speed – and to say that sparks fly when they clash is an understatement. But help comes from unexpected places: ‘Die’ makes friends with Kyla, an anxious teacher living across the street, who then gets sucked into this crazy, volcanic mess.

Mommy is the fifth feature film by French-Canadian don’t-call-him-a-hipster director Xavier Dolan and won the Cannes Jury Prize for its originality. It is shot in the 1:1 ‘portrait’ format, but every now and then a moment of exhilaration will crack open the frame. The brutality on screen is sugar-coated by an all-over-the-place soundtrack that includes the Counting Crows, Celine Dion, and Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65.

Shrill, violent, and demented, this out-of-control dark comedy will punch you in the guts. But it also aims straight for the heart and doesn't miss. Prepare to be continually torn between laughing out loud, clawing your seat, and covering your mouth in shock.

The Great Beauty is a film of superlatives! Originally titled La Grande Bellezza, this movie by Italian star director Paolo Sorrentino is so replete with lush, opulent cinematography, it sometimes borders on sensory overload. Having won Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, as well as the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA award in the same category, The Great Beauty is also a critics' darling and an award-show sweeper – in addition to being hailed as Paolo Sorrentino's greatest work to date.

Essentially a tragicomedy, it is both a study and a celebration of the hedonism and decadence of its main protagonist – the bon-vivant and modern-day Roman socialite Jep Gambardella (played by an electrifying Toni Servillo). Instead of honing the craft of writing, Gambardella at some point decides to become the self-proclaimed “king of high life” of Rome. After his 65th birthday, he experiences a shock that changes him for good, prompting him to look past the parties and the nightclubs and to discover the sublime beauty of his hometown, the eternal city. In this way, The Great Beauty is a meditation on art, regret, and pleasure – and Sorrentino's love letter to Rome.

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.

Former activists Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie drop out from modern consumerist society to raise their six children in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They teach them how to raise and kill their own food, to survive in nature through boot-camp-like workouts, and homeschool them in literature, music, and left-wing philosophy. Instead of Christmas, they celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. Then, one day, this unusual family life is shaken by a phone call and they are forced to leave their life of adventure to reintegrate into American life.

Directed by Matt Ross, who also brought you Good Night, and Good Luck, the film offers a poignant look at alternative living, the effects of modern technology, and the nature of good parenting. Viggo Mortensen is indeed fantastic as the grizzled father and was rightly nominated for a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actor. George MacKay and the entire cast of “children” also deliver terrific performances. As emotionally raw and thought-provoking as it is funny, Captain Fantastic will have the viewer decide if Ben Cash is the best father in the world or the worst.

Phenomenal and heartbreaking, Wind River is a true masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan, the man behind Sicario and Hell or High Water. In a Native American Reservation, a local girl is found dead and a young detective (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to uncover the mystery. She is accompanied by a tracker (Jeremy Renner) with his own dark history in the community. It’s not a very rewarding movie at first, so don’t expect an incredibly fast-paced story from the get-go. However, when everything unfolds, it’s not only action-packed, its reflections on indigenous communities are deep and poignant. How this remains a relatively known movie is shocking, it has to be one of the best mysteries of the past 20 years.

Director Bryan Fogel, who you might know as the guy behind Jewtopia, initially set out to chronicle his exploration of doping to win an amateur cycling race. He starts off by reaching out to experts to help him with obtaining and administering said drugs, one of which points him towards Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov eagerly agrees to help him out.

Little did he know that his Russian acquaintance would transform Fogel film from a self-experiment documentary into a true-crime political thriller, when the scientist admits to being involved in a state-sponsored doping scheme of epic proportions on camera. Putin is obviously not amused.

Aside from all the madness that unfolds in this Netflix production, it's Rodchenkov's likeable and eccentric personality that makes the story more relatable and human as well as giving you a rare glimpse into the upper echelons of a country like Russia. As the plot thickens, one can't help but think that Fogel too is in over his head. Rightly award-winning, this is gripping stuff even if you're not into sports!

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.
Echoing Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesmen, Oscar-winning writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, About Elly) tells the story of a loving middle-class couple who live in Tehran, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are forced to move out of their apartment. After arriving at their new place, violence erupts, upending their life and straining their previously happy relationship. Farhadi does what he does best here, delivering simmering tension, complex realism, and unaltered emotion. Originally titled Forushande, every scene of The Salesman is a privileged look for Western viewers into Iran's collective consciousness. And even with all that aside, the film still stands out as an extraordinary drama with a tense plot and outstanding performances across the board. Another incredible addition to Farhadi's first-class filmography.
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.

Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer, who plays in a band and lives in a tour bus with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Quickly after meeting the couple, we witness the touring musician drastically losing his hearing. As recovering addicts with little financial means, they soon run out of options. Lou desperately wants to prevent Ruben's relapse into addiction and so she helps him retreat to a deaf community group home, run by the illustrious Joe, a truly amazing character played by the equally amazing Paul Raci, himself the hearing son of deaf parents. There is something deeper going on though: the question of what disability is, and how, despite how it drastically changes Ruben's life, it might not be his biggest problem. In addition to the stellar acting and delicate writing, we experience his condition through the incredible sound design used by director Darius Marder, complete with muffled conversations, garbled noises, and piercing silence. This is a movie to be taken in completely. Above all, it's about Riz Ahmed's performance. He learned to play drums, sign language, and studied deafness ahead of the shooting, and he does not strike a wrong note.