12 Movies Like The World to Come (2021)

Staff & contributors

Sisters Martine and Filippa, daughters of a founder of a religious sect, live a simple and quiet life in a remote coastal village in Denmark. Throughout the course of their lives, they reject possible romances and fame as part of their commitment to deny earthly attachments. This is upended by the sudden arrival of a French immigrant named Babette, who served as their house help to escape the civil war raging in her country.

Babette’s Feast is an inquiry into simplicity and kindness, and whether these would be sufficient to achieve a life of contentment. The religious undertones perfectly fit with the film’s parable-like structure, where bodily and spiritual appetites are satisfied through a sumptuous feast of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Asta Esper Hagen Andersen, Axel Strøbye, Bendt Rothe, Bibi Andersson, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Cay Kristiansen, Ebbe Rode, Else Petersen, Finn Nielsen, Gert Bastian, Ghita Nørby, Ghita Nørby, Holger Perfort, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Lars Lohmann, Lisbeth Movin, Pouel Kern, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Stéphane Audran, Stéphane Audran, Therese Hojgaard Christensen, Thomas Antoni, Vibeke Hastrup, Viggo Bentzon

Director: Gabriel Axel

Rating: G

The Dardenne brothers deliver one of their characteristic tests of empathy with this social realist tale centered around an apparently irredeemable soul. Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and his girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) are childish teenagers who have just welcomed their first baby, a boy named Jimmy. But the fact that he’s now a father and jointly responsible for a new life doesn’t seem to register with Bruno, a small-time criminal whose thoughts don’t extend beyond his next job and what he’ll buy with the takings.

Sickeningly, Jimmy’s birth gives the vacant-headed, impulsive Bruno an idea for a quick buck: he’ll use the black market to sell the baby to a family hoping to adopt. This awful act sets in motion a frantic set of events as Sonia’s horrified reaction signals to Bruno that he might have gone too far this time. Strikingly, though, we’re never sure if Bruno is experiencing a moment of genuine reflection — perhaps the first of his life — even up to the film’s dam-break of a final scene. The ghastliness of Bruno’s actions makes this a challenging watch, but the Dardenne brothers’ restraint and resolute refusal to moralize about their easily condemnable protagonist open it up to being a compelling reflective exercise on the limits of redemption.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Bernard Marbaix, Déborah François, Fabrizio Rongione, François Olivier, Jérémie Renier, Jérémie Segard, Mireille Bailly, Olivier Gourmet, Stéphane Bissot

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

This Oscar-nominated drama tells the story of the events leading up to the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8372 Bosnian Muslims were killed. It focuses on one U.N. worker who was caught between trying to protect her family, herself, and helping people in need.

The film is as horrific as it is relevant: up until the actual killing starts, people are constantly being assured that everything is under control and that there is no reason to panic. This gives an eerie feeling of resemblance to the tone many minorities in distress receive nowadays.

Still, Quo Vadis, Aida? stops at depicting any of the acts that were committed that day. Instead, it focuses on Aida’s unrelenting race against the clock to save whatever she can.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alban Ukaj, Boris Isaković, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrović, Dražen Pavlović, Emina Muftić, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Ermin Bravo, Ermin Sijamija, Izudin Bajrović, Jasna Đuričić, Job Raaijmakers, Joes Brauers, Johan Heldenbergh, Juda Goslinga, Micha Hulshof, Raymond Thiry, Reinout Bussemaker, Rijad Gvozden, Sanne den Hartogh, Sol Vinken, Teun Luijkx

Director: Jasmila Žbanić

This unique romance is set during a time when a man would be sent the painting of the woman he was to marry before the wedding could take place. Héloïse, secluded with her mother and a maid on a remote island, doesn't approve of her upcoming wedding and refuses to be painted. Her mother sends for a new painter, Marianne, to try to paint her without her noticing. Marianne has to take on this near-impossible task when she starts having feelings for Héloïse. This makes for a riveting romance where Marianne has to choose between her heart and her art while keeping a huge secret from her love interest.

Genre: Drama, History, Romance

Actor: Adèle Haenel, Adèle Haenel, Armande Boulanger, Christel Baras, Clément Bouyssou, Clément Bouyssou, Guy Delamarche, Luàna Bajrami, Luàna Bajrami, Michèle Clément, Noémie Merlant, Noémie Merlant, Valeria Golino

Director: Céline Sciamma, Céline Sciamma

Rating: R

Peter Jackson made the transition from splattery gross-out movies like Braindead to more respectable fare with Heavenly Creatures, the true story of an intense relationship between two teenage girls that culminates in the murder of one of their mothers.

As the girls’ friendship becomes unhealthier, they invent a secret world for themselves, amusingly including a heart-throb Orson Welles. This gives Jackson the opportunity to indulge in his love of fantasy, creating some dazzling hallucinatory sequences.

The fantasy element contrasts beautifully with the humdrum setting of ‘50s New Zealand, and the final tragedy is heart-breaking. The film also provided an auspicious debut for Kate Winslet, who is terrific as one of the misguided fantasists.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Barry Thomson, Ben Fransham, Clive Merrison, Darien Takle, Diana Kent, Elizabeth Moody, Geoffrey Heath, Gilbert Goldie, Glen Drake, Glenys Lloyd-Smith, Jed Brophy, Jesse Griffin, Kate Winslet, Liz Mullane, Lou Dobson, Melanie Lynskey, Moreen Eason, Peter Elliott, Peter Jackson, Ray Henwood, Sarah Peirse

Director: Peter Jackson

This lovely romance is about Ellie, a straight-A student who takes money from a classmate, Paul, to write love letters for him. Ellie does this to help with the household bills but there is one big problem: the girl Paul is in love with is also the girl Ellie has a crush on.

This might seem like the set-up for a standard Netflix comedy (and if you’re thinking Bergerac, you’re right, it is based on the famous play) but as the introduction of the film reads: “This is not a love story … not one where anyone gets what they want."

It is in fact, personal work from a brilliant and quality-focused director, Alice Wu. Her last movie, Saving Face, a pioneering lesbian romance set in an Asian American context, was released a long 15 years ago.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Abigail Donaghy, Alec Tincher, Alexandre Bagot, Alexxis Lemire, Becky Ann Baker, Billy Thomas Myott, Catherine Curtin, Collin Chou, Collin Chou Siu-Lung, Cronin Cullen, Daniel Diemer, Emma Diner, Enrique Murciano, Haley Murphy, Joan Jaffe, Joe Lanza, Leah Lewis, Logan Riley Bruner, Lucas Kane, Macintyre Dixon, Matt Meinsen, Patrick Noonan, Patrick T. Johnson, Spencer Wawak, Wolfgang Novogratz

Director: Alice Wu

Rating: PG-13

The Reader is a German-American drama from 2008, based on the best-selling novel by author Bernhard Schlink. The storyline begins with adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) reminiscing about his adolescence in post-World War II Berlin and his fateful relationship with an older woman named Hannah (Kate Winslet). 15-year old Michael is beset by Scarlet Fever and helped off the street one day by Hannah. Taken into her care, they soon begin a passionate affair, quickly forsaking family and friends for every opportunity to ensconce themselves in a world of lust and desire. As their time together progresses, Hannah begins urging Michael to read to her daily—to which he draws from many classic novels and delights in their rich interchange. Hannah suddenly disappears from Michael’s life, however, only reappearing several years later when young law student Michael is stunned to find her facing a World War II war-crimes tribunal. Tied to a real-life series of trials against former Auschwitz employees, The Reader is a strikingly original and exceptionally well-made film that is recommended to those who appreciate sophisticated, emotionally mannered cinema.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alexandra Maria Lara, Benjamin Trinks, Bruno Ganz, Burghart Klaussner, Carmen-Maja Antoni, David Kross, Fabian Busch, Florian Bartholomäi, Hannah Herzsprung, Heike Hanold-Lynch, Jeanette Hain, Jürgen Tarrach, Karoline Herfurth, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Block, Lena Olin, Linda Bassett, Ludwig Blochberger, Margarita Broich, Marie Gruber, Martin Brambach, Matthias Habich, Moritz Grove, Ralph Fiennes, Susanne Lothar, Sylvester Groth, Vijessna Ferkic, Volker Bruch

Director: Stephen Daldry

Rating: R

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck star in this comedy-drama as a small-town couple, one of whom gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. Their best friend (Jason Segel) puts his life on hold and moves in with them, picking up the husband when he faints at the hospital, shaving his head in solidarity with the wife, and even taking care of the dog who also gets sick.

It might seem like just another terminal illness drama, but Our Friend is based on a true story, and it’s as much about the illness as it is about how to be there for people, and reversely, the power of people being there for you.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Ahna O'Reilly, Azita Ghanizada, Casey Affleck, Chandler Head, Cherry Jones, Dakota Johnson, Denée Benton, Gerald Brodin, Gwendoline Christie, Hali Everette, Isabella Kai, Jacinte Blankenship, Jake Owen, Jason Bayle, Jason Segel, Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Jeronimo Spinx, John McConnell, Lindsey Reimann, Marielle Scott, Mark Costello, Michael Papajohn, Mike Lutz, Paige King, Reed Diamond, Richard Speight Jr., Ritchie Montgomery, Sampley Barinaga, Susan Williams, T.C. Matherne, Violet McGraw

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

As southern movies go, Fried Green Tomatoes is inoffensively sweet and realistic—it’s not afraid to touch on the genuine issues that plagued America in the 1930s while also cushioning some blows, as feel-good movies are wont to do. But the film seems less interested in presenting a clear picture of the past than it is in telling a specific tale: that of outsiders forming bonds and making it together in an unforgiving society. 

The main narrator is Ninny, an 83-year-old woman seemingly forgotten by everyone except Evelyn, an unhappy housewife who is “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Ninny recalls the stories of Sipsey and Big George, Black laborers who dared to succeed in their deeply racist community; of Smokey, the town outcast, who still helped people even if he was denied it himself; of Ruth, the domestic abuse victim; and of Idgie, the tomboy who spat on the face of all decorum. Then, of course, there’s the unspoken relationship between Ruth and Idgie, which hint at something quite radical for its time. 

These are all the people conventionally denied happy endings, and in period films, you’d expect to be abandoned in tragedy. But here they sing; they win and lose in equal measure, and even though it might seem like light and familiar fare to some, it still goes down heartily and unforgettably—funnily enough, like a plate of fried green tomatoes.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Afton Smith, Bob Hannah, Carol Mitchell-Leon, Chris O'Donnell, Chris O'Donnell, Cicely Tyson, Constance Shulman, Danny Nelson, David Dwyer, Evan Lockwood, Fannie Flagg, Gailard Sartain, Gary Basaraba, Grace Zabriskie, Grayson Fricke, Haynes Brooke, Jessica Tandy, Jo Harvey Allen, Kathy Bates, Kathy Larson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Lois Smith, Macon McCalman, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Nancy Moore Atchison, Nick Searcy, Raynor Scheine, Reid Binion, Richard Riehle, Stan Shaw, Suzi Bass, Ted Manson, Tim Scott, Timothy Scott, Tom Even, Wallace Merck

Director: Jon Avnet

Rating: PG-13

Survivors are often painted in a brave light; they’re applauded for their resilience and toughness, and in the case of school shootings, many of them are also expected to take up arms and fight the good fight. While this is of course laudable, many survivors are simply trying to get by. Unable to process trauma and inexplicable loss, they become withdrawn, depressed, and reckless—not exactly noteworthy traits, but understandable and equally deserving of empathy.

The Fallout shifts the focus on this side of survival by following Vada in the aftermath of a school shooting. Unlike her peers, she fails to cope positively and becomes increasingly self-destructive. But it's through this unsentimental portrayal that The Fallout achieves a frankness and rawness that few films like it have. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Austin Zajur, Christine Horn, Elliott Roca, Jenna Ortega, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, Lumi Pollack, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Shailene Woodley, Will Ropp, Yindra Zayas

Director: Megan Park

Rating: R

On his first day of class in the remote village of Lunana, the city teacher Ugyen asks his students what they want to be when they grow up. One of the children, a young boy named Sangay, answers that he aspires to be a teacher “because a teacher touches the future.” Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, however, subverts this thematic by spending most of its runtime showing how the villagers touch Ugyen’s heart through genuine acts of kindness, forcing him to rethink his long-term dream of becoming a singer in Australia.

Not only does Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom succeed in its heartfelt dramatization of a Gen Z finding his place in the highlands, it also serves as a propagandistic validation of Bhutan’s “happiest country in the world” epithet. In doing so, the film presents the Bhutanese mountains in as breathtakingly picturesque a manner as possible, limning a paradise through the grassy meadows and children’s faces.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Kelden Lhamo Gurung, Kunzang Wangdi, Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Lhendup

Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji

Rating: Not Rated

The movie follows Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a young wife who loses her baby in a failed home birth. She tries her best to trudge through the aftermath of loss, but her coping attempts prove to be near impossible, not least because her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and mother Liz (Ellen Burstyn) continually domineer every aspect of her life.

Pieces of a Woman is harrowing and heartbreaking, with the actors giving their all in this realistic and revealing drama. But it's Kirby's performance as the unraveled yet apathetic Martha that is the film's immediate standout, rightfully earning her a Best Actress nomination at the 2021 Academy Awards.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alain Dahan, Benny Safdie, Domenic Di Rosa, Ellen Burstyn, Frank Schorpion, Gayle Garfinkle, Harry Standjofski, Harry Strandjofski, Iliza Shlesinger, Jimmie Fails, Leisa Reid, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Sean Tucker, Shia LaBeouf, Steven McCarthy, Tyrone Benskin, Vanessa Kirby, Vanessa Smythe

Director: Kornél Mundruczó, Kornél Mundruczó

Rating: R