30 Best Thought-provoking Movies On Hulu

Staff & contributors

Challenging movies serve beyond entertainment, pushing us to ask new questions about humanity and the world around us. If you’re hungry for some food for thought, here are the best thought-provoking movies and shows available to stream now.

Nothing about Saint Omer is easy. A female Senegalese migrant (Guslagie Malanga) is put to trial for committing infanticide, but throughout the film, it becomes clear how much of a victim she is too, of an uncaring and deeply prejudiced society. “What drove her to madness?” Her attorney asks at one point. We’re not sure. We're not necessarily asked to side with her, nor answer the many hard-hitting questions brought up in the film, but we sit with the uneasiness of it all and, in that silence, confront our ideas about motherhood, womanhood, personhood. 

This confusion is what makes the film so compelling. Despite the court’s best efforts, Laurence isn’t meant to be understood. She’s meant to be an example of the ever-ambiguous, forever-complicated, always-hurt person. It’s human nature after all to be this complex and messed up. The film shows us that the best that we can do in situations like this is to listen, understand, and as our protagonist Rama (Kayije Kagame) does, make peace with the noise. 

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Adama Diallo Tamba, Alain Payen, Aurelia Petit, Charlotte Clamens, Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame, Louise Lemoine Torrès, Roald Iamonte, Robert Cantarella, Salimata Kamate, Seyna Kane, Thomas De Pourquery, Valérie Dréville, Xavier Maly

Director: Alice Diop

Orcas killing people? Saving whales? There was indeed a time when these issues were frontpage news and that might be the reason why this sounds like a 90s cliché to you. You might agree that this issue should be staunchly dealt with once you've watched Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 documentary. Orcas still being held captive by marine parks like SeaWorld to perform stunts and to parade around swimming pools to entertain ticket-buying families. Blackfish is the story of one of them in particular: a bull Orca named Tilikum, who has killed several people as a result of their immoral imprisonment. Similar incidents tend to be covered up by the parks' operators and management. They are, however, attributable to the fact that the animals are quiet simply driven mad by the unnatural conditions they are subjected to. They are not born as killers, they are turned into them. First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, elaborating on their remarkable intelligence and social behaviors. For those unaware of this, this passionate documentary makes for a chilling watch.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Anderson Cooper, Carol Ray, Dean Gomersall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, James Earl Jones, John Hargrove, John Jett, John Sillick, Mark Simmons, Mercedes Martinez, Nadien Kallen, Samantha Berg, Tamarie Tollison, Thomas Tobin, Tilikum, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rating: PG-13

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!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bob Dylan, Dick Cavett, H. Rap Brown, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Joey Starr, Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Paul Weiss, Ray Charles, Robert F. Kennedy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: PG-13

Before Turning Red and Crazy Rich Asians, there was The Joy Luck Club. Based on the bestselling novel, the film adaptation centers around the four Chinese-American women and their relationships with their mainland-born mothers. Explaining that the club isn’t particularly joyful or lucky, the film starts from June’s perspective, a perspective of a Chinese-American woman who’s lived all her life in America. However, through strategic screenplay structure and effective sequence arrangement, we learn the struggles of the founding club members, the struggles that brought them to another country, which forms the dynamics between them and their American daughters. Because of how comprehensive and layered the film is, this underrated film adaptation is a phenomenal take on the immigrant experience. Tears are inevitable with how they deal with difficulties, but so is hope.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Andrew McCarthy, Chao Li Chi, Christopher Rich, Diane Baker, Fen Tian, France Nuyen, Irene Ng, Kiều Chinh, Lauren Tom, Lisa Lu, Michael Paul Chan, Ming-Na Wen, Philip Moon, Rosalind Chao, Russell Wong, Tamlyn Tomita, Tsai Chin, Victor Wong, Vivian Wu, Yu Feihong

Director: Wayne Wang

Rating: R

Kimberly Peirce's first–out of only three—film was a smashing success, mostly due to her dedication to the subject matter. Peirce spent years researching the life and tragic death of Brandon Teena after reading an article about him in The Village Voice. She felt a particular kind of kinship as a queer person herself, and wanted to construct a story out of real facts that would put the spotlight on love and the desire for connection, and not that much on the violence which dominated the public discourse. In Falls City, Nebraska, the director conducted interviews with Lana Tisdale (Brandon's girlfriend) and her mother, while attending the ongoing trial. She took years to cast the lead and from hundreds of cis women, lesbians, and trans people, she chose the unknown actress Hilary Swank, who went on to win the Best Actress Academy Award (and the irony of that is not lost on us). The film features fantastic performances aplenty and very raw storytelling, visualized by neorealist style and low lighting. Direct references were the films of Martin Scorcese and John Cassavetes, but Boys Don't Cry has its own blend of beauty and cruelty to take pride in.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alicia Goranson, Alison Folland, Brendan Sexton III, Caitlin Wehrle, Cheyenne Rushing, Chloe Sevigny, Craig Erickson, Gabriel Horn, Gail Cronauer, Guilford Adams, Hilary Swank, Jackson D. Kane, Jeannetta Arnette, Jerry Haynes, Josh Ridgway, Libby Villari, Lisa Renee Wilson, Lou Perryman, Matt McGrath, Paige Carl Griggs, Peter Sarsgaard, Rob Campbell, Robert Prentiss, Shana McClendon

Director: Kimberly Peirce

Rating: R

, 2021

In the first few minutes of Mass, hushed tones, solemn movements, and awkwardly averted eyes hint at an unspoken tragedy that haunts everyone in the film. The four main characters discuss it during a sit-down, but even then it remains unspeakable; such is the dedication of first-time full-length director Fran Kranz in depicting the reality of tragic events. Not much is done in the way of plot twists and shocks, but in place of those, Mass makes clever use of close-up shots and unmoving settings to portray the privacy and paralysis of grief. For this reason, Mass often feels like a masterful play brought to life, but also more than that, a brilliant portrait of healing—or at the very least, coping with the everlasting aftermath of loss. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ann Dowd, Breeda Wool, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Michelle N. Carter, Reed Birney

Director: Fran Kranz

There are only two main characters in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: Nancy, a retired teacher who was recently widowed, and Leo, an adept sex worker with a mysterious past. They're almost always in one place and work on a single goal: pleasure. But despite the seeming monotony, the movie is crackling with wit and sensuality every step of the way. It doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter. Nancy and Leo go back and forth about their past, with Nancy divulging much about the stigma of aging and Leo about the stigma of sex work. They also dive into the shame attached to pleasure, ultimately revealing more than just their naked bodies to each other and to the audience.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Daryl McCormack, Emma Thompson, Isabella Laughland, Lennie Beare, Les Mabaleka

Director: Sophie Hyde

Rating: R

Fire of Love is a documentary that follows Maurice and Katia Krafft, a scientist couple who’ve dedicated their entire professional lives to studying (and marveling at) volcanoes. The two met at university and have been inseparable ever since, chasing explosions around the world until their death at the Mount Unzen eruption in 1991. 

The fiery passion the title refers to is as much about Maurice and Katia as it is about their dedication to volcanoes. Like any love story, it tracks how they were first wonderstruck by the formation and how that awe shaped their lives and led them to each other, as well as how they came to discover hard truths about it and dealt with the heartbreak that soon followed. 

Combining the breathtaking footage the couple left behind with lovely writing and artful animation, director Sara Dosa creates a moving documentary about passion, adventure, and the world itself. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Alka Balbir, Guillaume Tremblay, Katia Krafft, Maurice Krafft, Miranda July

Director: Sara Dosa

Rating: PG

You would expect a courtroom drama to be built around damning pieces of evidence, passionate speeches, or certain social issues lending weight to the investigation. But what makes Justine Triet's Palme d'Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall so remarkable is how direct it is. Triet doesn't treat this case like a puzzle for the audience to participate in solving; instead she fashions this trial into a portrait of a family being eroded by even just the suggestion of distrust. It ultimately has far less to do with who's responsible for the death of a man, and more to do with the challenge of facing the reality that the people we love are capable of being cruel and callous to others.

Which isn't to say that Anatomy of a Fall doesn't still possess qualities that make it a great courtroom drama—doubt only continues to pile up with every new piece of information that's revealed to the audience, until we begin to interpret characters' expressions and actions in a contradictory ways. But the way Triet executes these reveals is just so skillful, choosing precisely how to let details slip and obscuring everything behind faulty memory, intentional dishonesty, or any other obstacles that usually come up during an investigation.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alexandre Bertrand, Anne Rotger, Anne-Lise Heimburger, Antoine Bueno, Antoine Reinartz, Arthur Harari, Camille Rutherford, Christophe Devaux, Cyril Karenine, Emmanuelle Jourdan, Florent Chasseloup, Iliès Kadri, Isaac Abballah, Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Jehnny Beth, Judicaël Ajorque, Kareen Guiock, Laura Balasuriya, Maud Martin, Milo Machado-Graner, Nesrine Slaoui, Nicholas Angelo, Nola Jolly, Pierre-François Garel, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sacha Wolff, Samuel Theis, Sandra Hüller, Sandrine Chastagnol, Savannah Rol, Sophie Fillières, Swann Arlaud, Wajdi Mouawad

Director: Justine Triet

Rating: R

The Royal Hotel sees Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) resorting to take up a dire live-in job behind the bar in a remote desert part of Western Australia. Although they're warned that they'd "have to be okay with a little male attention" in the outcast mining town, their financial precarity overrides the potential fear. Curiously enough, the fiction film is based on a real story, already told in the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie by Pete Gleeson, but The Assistant director Kitty Green pulls no punches when representing how suffocating it must feel to be encircled by such unmediated male aggression. The brawls, the spilled beer, the c-word as a greeting all form the unnerving paraphernalia of life then and there. For Australian independent film devotees, there is actor Toby Wallace, who reprises his bad boy role from Babyteeth, and he's joined by the ranks of Herbert Nordrum (The Worst Person in the World) and an utterly terrifying Hugo Weaving (The Matrix).

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alex Malone, Barbara Lowing, Baykali Ganambarr, Bree Bain, Bruce R. Carter, Daniel Henshall, Herbert Nordrum, Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Jessica Henwick, Julia Garner, Kate Cheel, Patrick Frost, Toby Wallace, Ursula Yovich, Valerie Berry

Director: Kitty Green

Rating: R

To plenty of countries around the globe, democracy has become so ubiquitous that we forget it’s relatively new, at least relative to the rest of human history. Bhutan is one of the last countries that became a democracy, and writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji chose to depict a slice of how they made the shift in The Monk and the Gun. As Tashi sets out to obtain two weapons for his mentor, and Ron seeks a specific antique gun, Dorji presents slice-of-life moments of the beautiful Bhutan countryside, intercut with the subtle ways tradition still persists amidst modernity, and the funny ways change can clash with culture. It’s no wonder The Monk and the Gun was chosen as the Bhutanese entry for the Best International Feature at the 96th Academy Awards.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Choeying Jatsho, Deki Lhamo, Pema Zangmo Sherpa, Tandin Sonam, Tandin Wangchuk

Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji

The question mark in the title represents the central idea of this fascinating documentary: what if worshipping Satan is the only way of ensuring religious freedom for everyone?

That's what a group of young members known as The Satanic Temple believe, led by a determined and well-spoken Harvard graduate. They embark on a journey across the U.S. to challenge corrupt officials and the prevalence of religious biases in government agencies. They always request that their belief system (Satanism) is given the same favorable treatment as Christianity, effectively proving that authorities will really only accept a show of religion if it's one religion: Christianity.

But their intoxicating energy comes with costs: divisions within the organization and growing pains. This documentary perfectly illustrates not only a misunderstood religion (in the documentary it's referred to as "post-religion") but the difficulties of establishing grassroots movements in general.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Anton LaVey, Bill O'Reilly, Billy Graham, Cecil B. DeMille, Chalice Blythe, Charlton Heston, Chris Hayes, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Geraldo Rivera, Greta Van Susteren, Jex Blackmore, Lucien Greaves, Malcolm Jarry, Mamie Eisenhower, Megyn Kelly, Mike Pence, Nicholas Crowe, Penny Lane, Rick Scott, Sal De Ciccio

Director: Penny Lane

Rating: R

, 2019

Shot on a hand-cranked silent camera with all the sound and dialogue added in during post, Bait immediately stands out as a film that appears lost in time. With the visual texture and slightly displaced audio of an independent film made during Hollywood's infancy, the movie manages to convey its character and class conflicts with an additional air of surreality, even in its simplest sequences of shots. But writer/director/cinematographer/editor Mark Jenkin doesn't approach this project with an ironic or flippant attitude. Through the most fundamental techniques of an art form that's constantly changing, he crafts a story about the inevitability of change and those who really stand to lose the most from the passage of time.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Edward Rowe, Georgia Ellery, Giles King, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Tristan Sturrock

Director: Mark Jenkin

Bad Axe is an intimate documentary that follows the Sievs, a tight-knit family that runs a restaurant in the city of Bad Axe, Michigan. When the rise of COVID restrictions and racist hate groups put their business at risk, the Sievs try to hold on to each other while also carefully, in their own way, fighting back.

Mostly shot in the unforgettable year that is 2020, Bad Axe captures the fraught intensity and existential panic we all spiraled into during the global pandemic. It’s a charged film, but underneath all that buzz is a story about a family with its own tensions and histories and contradictions to deal with. Bad Axe is at once simple and complex, and like family, you just kind of love it, flaws and all.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Austin Turmell

Director: David Siev

So far, chemical waste hasn't mutated amphibious creatures enough to create giant monsters large enough to swallow people whole… yet. This sort of monster film premise is familiar, especially for fans of 1950s sci-fi movies, but in the hands of director Bong Joon-ho, The Host transforms what could have been B-movie schlock into a drama examining the ways generations within a family, as well as generations within a country and within the world, have failed each other. As the Park family try to save their own, the actions they take feel all the more important, knowing what’s at stake on multiple levels. While at the time, there were doubts that Bong Joon-ho and the Korean film industry could pull off the monster, The Host proved that there was more to come from the then emerging film giant.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction

Actor: Ah-sung Ko, Bae Doona, Baek Do-bin, Bong Joon-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Byun Heebong, Choi Dae-sung, Choi Jae-sup, David Anselmo, David Joseph Anselmo, Doona Bae, Go A-sung, Hae-il Park, Hie-bong Byeon, Jeong In-gi, Jeong Kang-hee, Jung Seo-yoon, Kang-ho Song, Kim Bi-bi, Kim Choo-wol, Kim Hak-seon, Kim Jin-seon, Kim Nan-hee, Kim Roi-ha, Ko A-sung, Ko Chang-seok, Koh Soo-hee, Kwon Byung-gil, Kwon Hyeok-Pung, Lee Dong-ho, Lee Dong-yong, Lee Eung-jae, Lee Jae-eung, Lee Jong-yoon, Min Kyung-jin, Oh Dal-su, Park Hae-il, Park Jin-woo, Park No-shik, Paul Lazar, Philip Hersh, Pil-sung Yim, Ra Mi-ran, Scott Wilson, Seo Young-ju, Shin Hyeon-jong, Son Jin-ho, Son Young-soon, Song Kang-ho, Yim Pil-sung, Yoo Seung-mok, Yoo Yeon-soo, Yoon Je Moon

Director: Bong Joon-ho, Joon-ho Bong

Rating: R