9 Movies Like On the Waterfront (1954)

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Not one but two Oscars as well as a Golden Globe are among this movie’s never-ending list of accolades. It was the first Iranian film ever to get an Oscar and the first non-English film ever nominated for Best Screenplay. Originally titled The Separation of Nader from Simin in Persian, it homes in on the dissolving relationship of a middle-class couple from Teheran – and the unintended consequences of tragic events.

However, this film is so intense, well-acted, and well-written, it defies categorization. To be sure, the movie does offer a painful look at a deteriorating marriage. It’s also timely, dealing with the politics of theocracy, economic underdevelopment, and social alienation. It presents tense moral dilemmas without pointing a finger. If you’re curious to learn about the humans of Iran and, by cultural extension, the humans of the Middle East beyond the scope of global politics, A Separation is also for you.

But please don’t call it world cinema, because this is no Slumdog Millionaire. Above all, it is a searing portrayal of human conflict, relationships, and morals. It is an almost perfect depiction of how many bad people are simply good people running out of options.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Bahareh Riahi, Kimia Hosseini, Leila Hatami, Merila Zare'i, Payman Maadi, Peyman Maadi, Peyman Moaadi, Sahabanu Zolghadr, Sare Bayat, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rating: PG-13

An absolutely beautiful film about superficiality, arrogance, and heartbreak. It focuses on the life of Aydin, a retired actor who now lives very comfortably managing a small hotel and a number of other small properties. Throughout the film Aydin's image shifts as he tackles the problems of his rather typical life. Having said this, there is nothing else typical about this film. It captures human relationships with an almost frightening precision. It almost feels as though you have an inside view into someone's actual life as Aydin battles it out with his sister Necla and his young wife Nihal. To me this is easily one of the best dramas of the decade, and if you so much as like movies that focus on humans and their interactions, it will be that for you too.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan will make 3 hours pass more quickly than they ever have before.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ayberk Pekcan, Demet Akbag, Ekrem İlhan, Emirhan Doruktutan, Haluk Bilginer, Mehmet Ali Nuroğlu, Mehmet Ali Nuroğlu, Melisa Sözen, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nejat İşler, Nejat İşler, Serhat Kılıç, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç, Tamer Levent

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

IRA terrorists kidnap a British soldier to negotiate an exchange for one of their own imprisoned members. Among them is Fergus (Stephen Rea), whose ambivalence is amplified by his interactions with the hostage soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker) while guarding him. After the terrorists' plan goes awry, Fergus tracks down a woman Jody spoke of during his captivity, only to become confronted with even more complications.

The film, its cast and crew won a slew of awards and nominations in 1993, including the Academy award for Best Original Screenplay. It's a knockout. Each act presents an increasingly challenging psychological and emotional conflict for Fergus: conflicts that require him to question the choices he makes and his beliefs, even about himself. It’s a dark but deeply touching thriller that is ultimately unforgettable.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Adrian Dunbar, Andrée Bernard, Birdy Sweeney, Breffni McKenna, Bryan Coleman, Forest Whitaker, Jack Carr, Jaye Davidson, Jim Broadbent, Joe Savino, Miranda Richardson, Ralph Brown, Ray De-Haan, Stephen Rea, Tony Slattery

Director: Neil Jordan

Martin Scorsese had just spent a year prepping for The Last Temptation of Christ when Paramount Pictures unceremoniously pulled the plug on the movie just one month before production was due to start. After Hours was Scorsese’s way of exorcising all that disappointment and frustration, and you can feel it: this black comedy vibrates with manic intensity as it charts a night from hell in the life of Paul (Griffin Dunne), a somewhat scuzzy yuppie living in ‘80s New York City.

In keeping with its title — which suggests the movie is suspended in temporal limbo — After Hours feels like it takes place in some mythological hellscape, a demonic underworld in which everyone Paul meets has been sent forth with the express mission to make his life more miserable. Surreal coincidences pile up, deepening his paranoia and turning his simple goal of returning home into a labyrinthine quest for survival on the deserted, rain-soaked streets of SoHo. It’s the kind of celluloid nightmare that terrorizes and thrills you at the same time (a la the Safdie brothers’ best works, which draw inspiration from After Hours). Only a director of Scorsese’s caliber could turn profound professional disappointment into such a win as this.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bronson Pinchot, Catherine O'Hara, Charles Scorsese, Cheech Marin, Clarence Felder, Dick Miller, Frank Aquilino, Griffin Dunne, Henry Judd Baker, John Heard, Larry Block, Linda Fiorentino, Margo Winkler, Martin Scorsese, Murray Moston, Paula Raflo, Robin Johnson, Rocco Sisto, Rockets Redglare, Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Tommy Chong, Verna Bloom, Victor Argo, Victor Bumbalo, Victor Magnotta, Will Patton

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: R

Bad Lieutenant is no misnomer: Harvey Keitel’s policeman really is one of NYPD’s worst. Already corrupt, abrasive, and abusive at the film’s outset, the movie chronicles his coked-out descent into total depravity after he’s called to investigate a heinous crime amid rapidly worsening personal circumstances. The brilliance of Bad Lieutenant is therefore a counterintuitive one: as awful as the Lieutenant is, we can’t help but feel emotionally involved because, in Keitel’s bravura performance, we can see the glint of pain — and thus of a person — within.

Always one for provocation, director Abel Ferrara pushes our empathy to — and maybe even beyond — its natural limits, only to break with the film’s hitherto unrelenting grit and dangle the glinting possibility of transcendent redemption in front of us. Anyone familiar with Catholic guilt cinema (movies like Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets) will instantly recognize the same undercurrent running through Bad Lieutenant — even if Ferrara takes the idea of juxtaposing the profane with the sacred to the extreme here.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Bianca Hunter, Bo Dietl, Dana Dee, Darryl Strawberry, Eddie Daniels, Frank Adonis, Frankie Thorn, Gene Canfield, Harvey Keitel, Iraida Polanco, Jaime Sánchez, John Steven Jones, Leonard L. Thomas, Minnie Gentry, Paul Calderon, Paul Hipp, Peggy Gormley, Penelope Allen, Phil Neilson, Stella Keitel, Victor Argo, Vincent Laresca, Zoë Lund

Director: Abel Ferrara

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

Spike Lee burst onto the filmmaking scene with this, his groundbreaking debut feature. Low in budget but high in confidence, She’s Gotta Have It fizzes with unadulterated energy and style, from its kaleidoscopic opening montage of stills depicting life in Brooklyn (where the film is set) to the joyous direct addresses of its credits sequence.

The film helped to kick off the independent movie movement in the US, and it’s not hard to see why: Lee and his collaborators (including members of his own family) do so much with so little here. Along with its visual and formal inventiveness — including ample fourth wall breaks and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s momentary, audacious switch from black-and-white to vibrant color — She’s Gotta Have It also broke new ground with Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns), the young, Black, unapologetically polyamorous artist whom the film’s forthright exploration of sexuality and feminism is centered on. Lee has since expressed regret about one scene in the film — an ill-judged moment that unavoidably dilutes some of its brilliance — but this aside, She’s Gotta Have It stands overall as a radical, exuberant, and impressively assertive lightning bolt of an entry into the medium that Lee changed forever.

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Actor: Bill Lee, Cheryl Burr, Eric Payne, Erik Dellums, Ernest R. Dickerson, Fab 5 Freddy, John Canada Terrell, Joie Lee, Monty Ross, Raye Dowell, Reginald Hudlin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Spike Lee, Tiziano Cortini, Tommy Redmond Hicks, Tracy Camilla Johns

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: R

Warm, enchanting, poetic and delicate, this is an almost silent film about a poor Vietnamese girl who goes to work for a well-off family in Saigon. The film follows her experiences as she grows but is also very focused on the nature around her, and the beautiful little details of this nature, which the young girl seems attuned to and curious about. The feelings in the film come more from the excellent visuals rather than the plot itself.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anh Hoa Nguyen, Hoa Hoi Vuong, Keo Souvannavong, Man San Lu, Ngoc Trung Tran, Thi Loc Truong, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Vantha Talisman

Director: Anh Hung Tran, Tran Anh Hung

Rating: Not Rated

The Cuban bolero, not to be confused with the Spanish dance, is a Latin ballad form that spread all throughout the Americas, and even the whole world, that mixed and mingled with and influenced jazz in the 1940s and 50s. Chico & Rita celebrates this music, as well as the nightlife that made these sounds possible, through a stirring star-crossed romance that recalls the typical inspiration behind these songs. There are moments that do falter– like the way Chico tries to woo Rita back– but the familiar, if slightly cliché, beats work in this animation through a unique, thick-lined art style, and of course, excellent music. It's no wonder it was the first Spanish full-length animated film nominated for an Oscar.

Genre: Animation, Music, Romance

Actor: Eman Xor Oña, Jon Adams, Ken Forman, Limara Meneses, Mario Guerra, Ray Gillon, Renny Arozarena

Director: Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando

Rating: NR