26 Movies Like 21 Grams (2003)

Staff & contributors
In 2008, legendary and controversial director Darren Aronofsky delivered yet another unforgettable allegory, starring Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aging professional wrestler long past his prime, who is struggling to retain a sense of identity, purpose, and dignity later in life. Rourke, who worked as a professional boxer in his 90s and, like his protagonist, almost hung his hat at the time the movie was shot, delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance that rightly earned him a Golden Globe. Everybody talked about this movie when it came out! Marisa Tomei's performance, who plays the mid-40s stripper The Ram pursues a serious relationship with, was also deemed iconic by some critics. Shot on 16mm film, The Wrestler's cinematography, like its acting, feels incredibly raw, intimate, and realistic. It is essentially about bouncing back, making amends, and growing old and features acting performances that will be remembered for a long time. One for the books!

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Abraham Aronofsky, Ajay Naidu, Alex Whybrow, Alyssa Bresnahan, Andrea Langi, Armin Amiri, Ben Van Bergen, Bernadette Penotti, Bill Walters, Brandon DiCamillo, Brian Heffron, Charlotte Aronofsky, Claudio Castagnoli, Cobian, Daniel Healy Solwold Jr., Daniel Solwold Jr., Darnell Kittrell, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Douglas Crosby, Dustin Howard, Dylan Keith Summers, Dylan Summers, E.J. Carroll, Emmanuel Yarborough, Eric Santamaria, Erika Smith, Ernest Miller, Evan Rachel Wood, Felice Choi, Giovanni Roselli, Gregg Bello, Jamar Shipman, Jeff Chena, Jen Cohn, Jess Liaudin, John Corson, John D'Leo, John Zandig, Jon Trosky, Judah Friedlander, Lloyd Anoa'i, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Marisa Tomei, Mark Margolis, Matt Cannon, Michael Drayer, Mickey Rourke, Mike Miller, Nate Hatred, Nicholas K. Berk, Nick Papagerio, Olivia Baseman, Paul E. Normous, Paul Thornton, Peter Conboy, Rebecca Darke, Rob Strauss, Robert D. Siegel, Robert Oppel, Ron Killings, Ryan Lynn, Ryan Tygh, Sakinah Bingham, Scott Franklin, Steven Haworth, Sylvia Kauders, Todd Barry, Tommy Farra, Vernon Campbell, Wass Stevens

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rating: R

Winner of a Golden Bear and a slew of awards at the European Film Awards in the early noughties, Head-on is named after the suicide attempt of Cahit Tomruk (played by the late Birol Ünel), a Turkish-born German in his mid-40s. At the psychiatric clinic where he is treated, he meets the equally damaged Sibel Güner who is also of Turkish descent. (The first ever feature film of famous German actress Sibel Kekilli, who you might know from Game of Thrones.) Sibel persuades him to marry her in an attempt to break away from her traditional-minded parents.

If you think this plot summary was tough stuff, it gets even grimmer from there. Directed by famous German filmmaker Fatih Akın, the intensity with which Kekilli and Ünel perform the character's unhinged self-hatred is as raw as it gets. Head-on is a brutal, gritty, and heart-wrenching story about the violence of love and hedonism – and the struggle of third-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Bousdoukos, Aysel Iscan, Birol Ünel, Catrin Striebeck, Cem Akin, Demir Gökgöl, Feridun Koç, Güven Kiraç, Hermann Lause, İdil Üner, Maceo Parker, Mehmet Kurtuluş, Meltem Cumbul, Mona Mur, Orhan Güner, Philipp Baltus, Ralph Misske, Selim Erdoğan, Sibel Kekilli, Stefan Gebelhoff, Tim Seyfi, Tugay Erverdi, Tulga Serim, Zarah Jane McKenzie

Director: Fatih Akin

Rating: R

The Station Agent is about loneliness, change and friendship. Sounds corny right? It’s not. The characters are developed, they have their own reasons for the choices they make and nothing feels forced, neither actions or conversations. It’s a small and wonderful movie about a little man that moves out of the city and his comfort zone when his only friend dies, moves to said friend’s old train station and sets his life there. From there on it follows his social interactions with a slew of people, the relationships he forms with them. Oh, and the little man? Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), who pulls off a great performance, albeit a quiet one.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Bobby Cannavale, Ileen Getz, Jase Blankfort, Jayce Bartok, Jeremy Bergman, Joe Lo Truglio, John Slattery, Josh Pais, Lynn Cohen, Maile Flanagan, Marla Sucharetza, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Benjamin, Paula Garces, Peter Dinklage, Raven Goodwin, Richard Kind

Director: Tom McCarthy

Rating: R

Directed by David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is at times brutal—such is the famous Canadian director's trademark—and operates at a fever pitch of grim violence and revenge. Starring a tattooed, ruthless, and terrifying Viggo Mortensen as a very convincing Russian strong-arm gangster as well as Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, it features intense psychological drama and a gritty crime story. Midwife Anna (Watts) delivers the baby of a 14-year-old Russian prostitute, who dies while giving birth, and later learns that she was forced into prostitution by the Mafia. To keep this knowledge from seeping out, she gets entangled deeper into London's criminal underbelly, whose various factions and languages are aptly showcased by Cronenberg. Add to all this a smart script and Mortensen's daring performance and you have yourself an intense auteur thriller in signature Cronenberg style.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Aleksandar Mikic, Aleksander Mikic, Alice Henley, Armin Mueller-Stahl, David Papava, Donald Sumpter, Elisa Lasowski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Josef Altin, Mina E. Mina, Naomi Watts, Raza Jaffrey, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sinead Cusack, Tamer Hassan, Tatiana Maslany, Tereza Srbová, Tony Cook, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel

Director: David Cronenberg

Rating: R

There are movies that leave you matured after you finished watching. You mature because you are forced to walk in someone's shoes and confront yourself with issues that you are not affected by. The Sea Inside is one of those movies –⁠ and won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for it. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, who you might know as the director of The Others, it tells the true story of Ramón Sampedro's decade-long fight for the right to end his own life. After he became quadriplegic after a diving accident, he was confined to the same bed in the same room for 26 years, except when he visited the hospital. Not an easy subject to say the least but Amenábar helps the fascinating story along with stylish directing, while Javier Bardem delivers a stellar performance to go with it. Thanks also to Ramón Sampedro's sunny real-life nature, this heart-wrenching watch also has plenty of uplifting moments.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adolfo Obregón, Alberto Amarilla, Alberto Jiménez, Alberto Jiménez, Andrea Occhipinti, Belén Rueda, Belén Rueda, Celso Bugallo, César Cambeiro, Clara Segura, Federico Pérez Rey, Francesc Garrido, Javier Bardem, Joan Dalmau, Jordi Ballester, José Luis Rodríguez, Josep Maria Pou, Julio Jordán, Lola Dueñas, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Marta Larralde, Tamar Novas, Xosé Manuel Olveira

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Rating: PG-13

Directed by celebrated artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who won an award in Cannes for it, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the true story of the Parisian journalist and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of 43. Paralyzed almost completely by what is termed locked-in syndrome, his left eye was the only part of his body that he was still able to move. In a Herculean effort, Bauby learned to blink in an alphabet code that eventually enabled him to communicate. The film alternates between Bauby's interaction with his visitors and caretakers (including painstakingly dictating his memoir, the titular Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) and dream-like fantasies and memories of his life prior to paralysis. The title alludes to this juxtaposition: the diving bell representing his final state of isolation, akin to a deep-sea diver under a bell, and the butterfly as a symbol for his blinking eye and the freedom he has in his mind, dreams, and imagination. Shot from Bauby's perspective, we see what he sees. Be it his divorced but loyal wife and his family visiting him, or his old father, played by Max von Sydow, which is probably the scene in this fascinating movie that will make you lose it and weep like the rest of us.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Agathe de La Fontaine, Anne Alvaro, Anne Consigny, Emma de Caunes, Emmanuelle Seigner, Fiorella Campanella, Françoise Lebrun, Gérard Watkins, Isaach De Bankolé, Jean-Philippe Écoffey, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Lenny Kravitz, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Mathieu Amalric, Max von Sydow, Michael Wincott, Nicolas Le Riche, Niels Arestrup, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Patrick Chesnais, Talina Boyaci, Zinedine Soualem

Director: Julian Schnabel

Rating: PG-13

A very poetic film by Tony Kaye (American History X) about an English Literature teacher (Adrien Brody - "The Pianist") who only works as a substitute in schools which are located in very poor urban areas. The reason behind his choice is that he doesn't want to bond too much with his students and colleagues because he is trying to control his dark emotions about life and the triviality of our existences (although it sounds depressing it is absolutely not). He also takes care of his last family connection, his grandfather, to whom he is very close and who lives in an elderly home. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is very emotional and deep. Every time you think about your existence, your place in the world, your interactions with other people; watch Detachment.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrien Brody, Betty Kaye, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston, Celia Au, Chris Papavasiliou, Christina Hendricks, Isiah Whitlock Jr., James Caan, Josh Pais, Louis Zorich, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Joy, Patricia Rae, Ralph Rodriguez, Reagan Leonard, Ronen Rubinstein, Samantha Logan, Sami Gaye, Sami Gayle, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen

Director: Tony Kaye

Rating: Not Rated

A period comedy set in New York in the summer of 1994, the Wackness is a coming of age story about Luke Shapiro (Joshua Peck), as he deals with family trauma, love, and economic hardship while selling pot to his strange psychologist. Rescued from a somewhat typical bildungsroman plot by sharp character acting, a firm directorial hand and an absolutely fitting soundtrack that evokes the golden age of rap music.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aaron Yoo, Alexander Flores, Ben Kingsley, Bob Dishy, David Wohl, Famke Janssen, Jane Adams, Joanna Merlin, Josh Peck, Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man, Olivia Thirlby, Roy Milton Davis, Shannon Briggs, Talia Balsam

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rating: R

A woman yearns to find her biological mother, another woman struggles with infertility, a third wants to connect with her rebellious daughter. Director Mike Leigh has the prowess to seamlessly weave these stories together, and part of the joy is knowing, that like clockwork, these narratives are set on a spectacular collision course.

As melancholy as it is optimistic and as funny as it is tragic, Secrets & Lies is a perfect example of Leigh’s oeuvre and earned him a Cannes’ Palme d’Or. The film features a full cast of his regulars with the fantastic addition of Marianne Jean Baptiste as Hortense - the woman who sets the wheels of the film in motion.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alison Steadman, Amanda Crossley, Angela Curran, Annie Hayes, Anthony O'Donnell, Brenda Blethyn, Brian Bovell, Claire Rushbrook, Clare Perkins, David Neilson, Denise Orita, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Frances Ruffelle, Gary McDonald, Gordon Winter, Grant Masters, Hannah Davis, Jane Mitchell, Janice Acquah, Jean Ainslie, Joe Tucker, Jonny Coyne, Kate O'Malley, Keylee Jade Flanders, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville, Linda Beckett, Liz Smith, Lucy Sheen, Margery Withers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Metin Marlow, Mia Soteriou, Michele Austin, Nitin Ganatra, Paul Trussell, Peter Stockbridge, Peter Waddington, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Phyllis Logan, Rachel Lewis, Richard Syms, Ron Cook, Ruth Sheen, Sheila Kelley, Stephen Churchett, Su Eliott, Su Elliot, Su Elliott, Terence Harvey, Theresa Watson, Timothy Spall, Trevor Laird, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

Told with grace and maturity without sensationalizing its subject matter, Dead Man Walking expertly walks the line between taking a moral stand and keeping the messy humanity of its characters intact. Though it may seem just like a legal drama or prison film on the surface, writer/director Tim Robbins weaves in commentary on class and the role religion is expected to play in middle class Southern communities—especially in the context of justice and crime. Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon (in the role that won her her Oscar) play every side to this drama with remarkable control, building an unlikely rapport that culminates in a finale that's as moving as any great tear-jerker. It may be tough to watch at times, given the raw emotions that are laid bare, but Dead Man Walking remains relevant even today.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adam Nelson, Adele Robbins, Anthony Michael Frederick, Arthur Bridgers, Barton Heyman, Celia Weston, Clancy Brown, Codie Scott, Cortez Nance Jr., Dennis Neal, Eva Amurri Martino, Helen Prejean, Jack Black, Jack Henry Robbins, Jenny Krochmal, Jeremy Knaster, Joan Glover, Jon Abrahams, Kevin Cooney, Larry Pine, Lenore Banks, Lois Smith, Marcus Lyle Brown, Margo Martindale, Michael Cullen, Miles Robbins, Missy Yager, Molly Bryant, Nesbitt Blaisdell, Pamela Garmon, Pete Burris, Peter Sarsgaard, R. Lee Ermey, Ray Aranha, Raymond J. Barry, Robert Prosky, Roberta Maxwell, Scott Sowers, Scott Wilson, Sean Penn, Steve Boles, Steve Carlisle, Susan Sarandon, Thomas McGowan

Director: Tim Robbins

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Frédéric Bodson, Mireille Bailly, Olivier Gourmet

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rating: R

Alejandro González Iñárritu's cleverly layered directorial feature film debut follows three persons whose lives are connected by a car crash in Mexico City. It directly involves two of them: a young man who enters the world of dogfighting to earn enough to elope with his sister-in-law, and a supermodel whose life is changed for the worse after she is fatally injured. The third segment of the film centers on a mysterious homeless man on the street who witnesses the crash.

The title, Amores Perros, refers to the characters’ love of dogs as well as love being a source of misery, and it’s a hint of the chaotic, unforeseen circumstances they each face. Iñárritu’s film shows his brilliance in direction. Despite the film being an early work, his ingenuity shines through and the compelling performances propel all three stories to gritty heights.

Cut-throat editing, handheld cinematography, and Guillermo Arriaga’s intricate screenplay flesh out each character. The viewers are pushed to the edge of their seats as we navigate the gripping miseries of life along with the rest of the cast. The tightly woven film is a painful must-watch, a brutal and uncompromising look at despair and animalistic aggression among humans that is also mirrored in the cruelty their dogs suffer.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Adriana Barraza, Alvaro Guerrero, Dagoberto Gama, Dunia Saldívar, Emilio Echevarría, Gael García Bernal, Gerardo Campbell, Goya Toledo, Gustavo Muñoz, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Humberto Busto, Jorge Salinas, José Sefami, Laura Almela, Marco Perez, Mauricio Martínez, Patricio Castillo, Ricardo Dalmacci, Roberto Medina, Rodrigo Murray, Rodrigo Ostap, Rosa María Bianchi, Vanessa Bauche

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Rating: R

Ever wondered how much your life will change when faced with the reality that death is about to come? That’s normal, and not nearly as life-altering as being told you only have a few more moments to live. Because of a terminal illness, Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is driven to this situation and tries to right his wrongs in the wake of modern Barcelona. This melodrama is supercharged by Bardem’s unearthly performance as the story’s only hero, demonstrating the selfless love of a destroyed and dying father to his children – paired with cinematography unlike any other, this film is exceptionally beautiful. Directed by González Iñárritu' (Babel, Birdman, The Revenant).

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adelfa Calvo, Ailie Ye, Alain Hernández, Ana Wagener, Annabel Totusaus, Cheikh Ndiaye, Cheng Taishen, Diaryatou Daff, Dunia Montenegro, Eduard Fernandez, Félix Cubero, George Chibuikwem Chukwuma, Guillermo Estrella, Hanaa Bouchaib, Isaac Alcayde, Javier Bardem, Jin Luo, Karra Elejalde, Luo Jin, Manolo Solo, Maricel Álvarez, Nasser Saleh, Rubén Ochandiano, Sophie Evans, Taisheng Chen, Tomás del Estal, Violeta Pérez

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Alejandro González Iñárritu

Rating: R

, 2004

Director Wong Kar-Wai made this loose sequel to one of the best films ever made, his 2000 classic In the Mood for Love. Much of the story is set around Christmas eve.

In the far future, people take a train to the world of 2046, where no sadness or sorrow can be experienced. No one has ever returned from that world except for a lonely Japanese writer, who narrates the first part of the film.

There are four acts to the story and as is common to Wong Kar-Wai, they are listed in non-chronological order. Not that you will care but 2046 is far from confusing. Instead, it functions as a dazzling visual poem on unreciprocated love.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction

Actor: Akina Hong, Akina Hong Wah, Ben Yuen, Ben Yuen Foo-Wah, Benz Kong To-Hoi, Berg Ng, Carina Lau, Chang Chen, Chen Chang, Ching Siu-Lung, Dong Jie, Farini Cheung, Farini Cheung Yui-Ling, Faye Wong, Gong Li, Jie Dong, Li Gong, Maggie Cheung, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Ping Lam Siu, Ronny Ching Siu-Lung, Siu Ping-lam, Takuya Kimura, Thongchai McIntyre, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Ziyi Zhang

Director: Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Rating: R

A riveting take on one of the most prestigious forms of modern art, The Best Offer is a film laced with symbolism and thick, posh accents. Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) ends up pursuing a socially inept woman through Robert (Jim Sturgess), who guides him in winning her heart, albeit, rather unconventionally. What starts out as something Oldman brushes off to be some poor laid-out scam ends up a mystery he begins obsessing over, turning his life to shambles of sorts. This uncanny film by Academy Award-winning director Giuseppe Tornatore delivers sharp twists and appropriately-timed surprises in a suspense-thriller served on a silver platter.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Amanda Walker, Brigitte Christensen, Dermot Crowley, Donald Sutherland, Gen Seto, Geoffrey Rush, Giuseppe Tornatore, Hannah Britland, Jim Sturgess, John Benfield, Kiruna Stamell, Klaus Tauber, Laurence Belgrave, Liya Kebede, Maximilian Dirr, Miles Richardson, Philip Jackson, Rita Davies, Sean Buchanan, Sylvia Hoeks

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Rating: R