15 Movies Like They Live (1988)

Staff & contributors

Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is the kind of film that you come away from being more honest with yourself. That effect is thanks to the contagious directness of its protagonist: Delphine (Marie Rivière), a newly single young French woman whose summer vacation plans have just been unceremoniously upturned after the friend she was going away with takes off with a man instead. Now at a loose end, the indecisive Delphine meanders between her home in Paris and several gorgeous holiday spots, but that old saying — “wherever you go, there you are” — proves true. Neither the beaches of Cherbourg and Biarritz nor the lofty beauty of an Alps resort can soothe her restlessness or give her what she’s looking for, probably because she doesn’t quite know what that is herself.

Delphine’s is an achingly familiar search for anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve drifted off of life’s path, but blessedly, the conversation-driven Green Ray doesn’t leave us wallowing in that despair. That’s partly thanks to its final moments — which rank among cinema’s most stunning — but mostly because Rivière, who improvised much of her incisive dialogue, puts into words things that so many have felt but few would admit. In that sense, The Green Ray feels as much like a miracle as its last shot does.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Béatrice Romand, Carita Holmström, María Luisa García, Marie Rivière, Rosette, Vincent Gauthier

Director: Éric Rohmer

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush, Chuck Jeffreys, Clebert Ford, Cliff Gorman, Damon Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Frank Adonis, Frank Minucci, Gano Grills, Gary Farmer, Gene Ruffini, Harry Shearer, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Jamie Hector, Jerry Todisco, John Tormey, Jonathan Teague Cook, José Rabelo, Joseph Rigano, Paul Diomede, Renee Bluestone, Richard Portnow, Roberto Lopez, RZA, Scott Bryce, Sharon Angela, Tony Rigo, Tracy Howe, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Vince Viverito, Vinny Vella

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R

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

La Cérémonie is the kind of thriller you can watch repeatedly and glean new insight from each time. Right from its first scene, there’s something puzzling about the buttoned-up Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) that narrows your focus and pulls you in. What’s remarkable is that, even after the secret Sophie's keeping that seems to explain her strangeness is revealed, our intrigue never dips. Director Claude Chabrol and his cast construct a gripping twin character study and biting social commentary around that initial hook, as Sophie finds a kindred spirit in the equally uncanny Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who opens her eyes to the slyly patronizing way Sophie’s employers treat her.

The film’s study of class relations is always subtle, never veering into over-pronounced territory. That much is clear from the fact that, although some of Sophie’s employer’s family are quite likable, you still understand the ways they’re inextricably embroiled in the film’s quiet indictment of the power dynamics that rule this lofty mansion. More nuance comes by way of the strikingly nonchalant ways evil is depicted in La Cérémonie — just another example of the movie turning something expected (violence is foreshadowed early on) into something that remains viscerally shocking, no matter how many times you watch it.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Christophe Lemoine, David Gabison, Dominique Frot, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-François Perrier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Julien Rochefort, Sandrine Bonnaire, Serge Rousseau, Valentin Merlet, Virginie Ledoyen, Yves Verhoeven

Director: Claude Chabrol

Rating: NR

This slow-burning drama is set in an Indigenous reservation in South Dakota, where Johnny is a teenager who dreams of moving to L.A. with his girlfriend. He would have to leave behind his little sister, who is just grappling with the recent loss of their father. 

Director Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Nomadland) worked with amateur actors whose lives mirror the characters, often adapting the script to the actors' stories. She filmed 100 hours of footage that she then distilled into an hour and a half. 

The result is a film shot from the outside but which is grounded in local stories. And these stories are rough, sad, complex - but so important to listen to and understand. It's an incredible feat to make an observational film that's so grounded in reality - only a genius could: that's Chloé Zhao, and this mature work is -somehow- her first feature film.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Cat Clifford, Derrick Janis, Eléonore Hendricks, Irene Bedard, Jashaun St. John

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rating: Not Rated

This gorgeous Scandinavian movie is based on a true story and stars the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard. He plays the governor of a strict youth correctional facility in Norway in 1915. The arrival of a feared kid kickstarts events that are very famous in Norway but little-known elsewhere: an uprising within the facility that will eventually require the army to get involved. A strong movie with stellar (Stellan) performances.

Genre: Action, Drama

Actor: Benjamin Helstad, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Frank-Thomas Andersen, Kimmo Rajala, Kristoffer Joner, Magnar Botten, Martin Slaatto, Per Gørvell, Stellan Skarsgård, Trond Nilssen

Director: Marius Holst

Rating: Not Rated

British director Adrian Lyne (9 1/2 Weeks) is famous for his uncompromising treatment of seedy eroticism and charged stories. Fatal Attraction is a staple of the erotic thriller genre and with good reason, it's steamy and very 1980s in the best possible way. Like a good vintage, it has the whiff of old times, but with the pleasure of a spectacle that belongs to the past. That's the lens through which you can view the story of a deranged mistress who won't stop at anything to ruin your life and marriage, and still savour some sanity in the 21st century. Seen from a slightly removed perspective, the film becomes a stylized variation on conservative AIDS panic and a provocation to conservative heteronormativity. It has to be said that not all of the film has aged well, especially the gender politics at play. But if you can soothe yourself with a revisionist reading, it pairs well with Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct: the things Michael Douglas's characters do for (extramarital) thrills...

Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Anna Thomson, Anne Archer, Barbara Harris, Carol Schneider, Christine Farrell, Christopher Rubin, David McCharen, Ellen Foley, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, Faith Geer, Fred Gwynne, Glenn Close, Greg Rhodes, J.D. Hall, J.J. Johnston, James Eckhouse, Jan Rabson, Jane Krakowski, Judi M. Durand, Justine Johnston, Larry Moss, Lois Smith, Lynnanne Zager, Marilyn Schreffler, Mary Joy, Meg Mundy, Michael Arkin, Michael Douglas, Mike Nussbaum, Rocky Krakoff, Sam Coppola, Stuart Pankin, Tom Brennan, Vladimir Skomarovsky

Director: Adrian Lyne

Rating: R

The shiver-inducing talents of Stephen King, David Cronenberg, and Christopher Walken meld to produce this supremely chilly supernatural thriller adaptation. Schoolteacher Johnny’s (Walken) perfect life is overturned when a horrific car accident puts him in a coma that robs him of five years of his life — and with them, his job and girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams), who moves on with someone else.

For anyone familiar with Cronenberg’s films, the director’s involvement might lead you to expect results from this premise as idiosyncratic as Crash or Videodrome’s, but The Dead Zone takes a decidedly more mainstream path than those works. In the place of graphic body horror is more palatable — but no less affecting — emotional bleakness, as Johnny contends with losing Sarah and a reality-warping new ability: he now has the power to see into the future of anyone he touches. While being forewarned about house fires and nuclear war might be a blessing for those whose lives he saves, Johnny struggles with the emotional burden of being responsible for preventing these future tragedies. More than any of the chilling setpieces — a frantic hunt for a serial killer, the attempted assassination of a demagogue — it’s Johnny’s grappling with this gift-slash-curse that gives The Dead Zone its fierce intensity.

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller

Actor: Anthony Zerbe, Barry Flatman, Brooke Adams, Chapelle Jaffe, Christopher Walken, Cindy Hinds, Claude Rae, Colleen Dewhurst, David Rigby, Géza Kovács, Hardee T. Lineham, Helene Udy, Herbert Lom, Jackie Burroughs, James Bearden, John Koensgen, Ken Pogue, Leslie Carlson, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Campbell, Peter Dvorsky, Ramon Estevez, Roberta Weiss, Roger Dunn, Sean Sullivan, Tom Skerritt, William B. Davis

Director: David Cronenberg

Rating: R

Amongst the google searches for this one you'll find "Is Slotherhouse a real film?" and that says a lot. When the first poster and trailer dropped, I suspected it the work of AI, but now that the film is out on streaming, we should be glad it exists. A ludicrous horror-comedy that hits all the right notes in gore, cringe, and puns, Slotherhouse is quintessential fun cinema. It may be set in a college where internalized misogyny is completely off the charts as young women bruise and batter each other's egos in service of the queen bee Brianna (Sydney Craven) and may attempt just a tiny bit of character development to keep the ball rolling, but honestly, who cares? It's a film that completely leans into the absurd, the over the top, the ridiculous, and it does it surprisingly well.

Genre: Comedy, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Andrew Horton, Annamaria Serda, Bianca Beckles-Rose, Bradley Fowler, Cady Lanigan, Grace Patterson, Jelena Rakočević, Juliana Sada, Kelly Lynn Reiter, Lisa Ambalavanar, Milica Vrzić, Olivia Rouyre, Stefan Kapičić, Sydney Craven, Tiana Upcheva, Tiff Stevenson

Director: Matthew Goodhue

Rating: PG-13

In The Kid Detective, Adam Brody stars as Abe Applebaum, a once-beloved child prodigy turned pathetic P.I. stuck in the glory days of his past. At 32 years old, he’s still solving petty mysteries and coasting on his parents’ money, but things start to change when he is finally dealt with a real, adult case: a murder that confounds even the local police. As Abe uncovers more details about the case, he also unwittingly finds a connection to his traumatic past and begins a long-overdue coming-of-age journey. 

Released during the first year of the pandemic, The Kid Detective understandably flew under the radar when it first came out, garnering sufficient critical praise but not enough fanfare. It will no doubt find a second life among film lovers, though; it’s too smart and riveting to go unnoticed. Most impressive is how director Evan Morgan, in his feature debut, deftly balances multiple genres in a movie that often feels as if Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, and modern stoner humor were somehow rolled into one. The gags consistently amuse, the drawn-out mysteries pay off, and the human element persists throughout. Adam Brody, himself a kid celebrity back in the day, expertly carries this delightful and sobering film. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Adam Brody, Alan Catlin, Alicia Brand, Amalia Williamson, Avery Esteves, Barbara Rajnovich, Bethanie Ho, Brent Skagford, Bruce McFee, Dallas Edwards, David Rosser, Deborah Tennant, Devin Myler, Giovanna Moore, Isaac Kragten, Jake Bell-Webster, Jesse Noah Gruman, Jonathan Whittaker, Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato, Kaleb Horn, Kevin Hoffman, Kira Gelineau, Lisa Truong, Marcia Bennett, Marcus Zane, Marlaina Andre, Maurice Dean Wint, Peter MacNeill, Sarah Sutherland, Sharon Crandall, Sophia Webster, Sophie Nélisse, Sophie Nélisse, Steve Gagne, Tracy Rowland, Tyler Duke, Tzi Ma, Wayne St-George, Wendy Crewson

Director: Evan Morgan

Rating: R

It’s a bit on the sensational side, but this Netflix documentary about a family torn apart by the medical industry is fascinating and empathetic enough to bring justice to its delicate subject matter. Director Henry Roosevelt takes care to use as many angles as possible in presenting the documentary’s central mystery —why is the hospital so insistent on separating Maya from her mother Beata?—while also leaving enough room for the audience to come to their own conclusions. I only wish they would probe into that question a bit more and get experts to hypothesize, for instance, what exactly would the hospital get out of allegedly lying and if it’s an occurrence that’s been happening in many places other than Florida. Painting it as a systemic problem might’ve given it more punch, though admittedly, it’s already stirring and powerful as it is.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Henry Roosevelt

Rating: TV-14

To call Going to Mars a somewhat shapeless documentary isn't a criticism. If anything, its flexibility of structure feels entirely appropriate for the woman at its center, who doesn't necessarily defy categorization so much as she remains on the pulse of history as it continues to shift in unexpected ways. Nikki Giovanni is a person who knows who she is and knows that she stands for the essential dignity of Black people, and it's inspiring to see how she not only remains hopeful and articulate through every critical moment, but that she insists on being ambitious for what Black people deserve to achieve in the future. As her son tells her at a speaking engagement, Giovanni doesn't just dream of going to space; she feels that it is her people's imperative to be there.

Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson tell her (still ongoing) life story in a strikingly impressionistic way—cleverly playing with archival footage, but more importantly having Giovanni's candid words blending seamlessly into her poetry. This is a credit to how connected to the milieu Giovanni's work actually is, of course, but the film does a very good job defining her as someone who can bring beauty and grace out of every experience.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Kai Giovanni, Nikki Giovanni, Novella Nelson, Taraji P. Henson, Thomas Giovanni, Touré Neblett, Virginia Fowler

Director: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson

Robert Downey Jr. and James Woods star in this movie about a Lawyer who, along with his staff, attempt to get an Asian man out of jail after their office is visited by the convicted man's mother. In my opinion, this is one of the best performances by James Woods in his entire career. This film went unnoticed by many, however it stands among some of the best films I have seen over the years.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Charles Hallahan, Deborah Offner, Gerry Bamman, Graham Beckel, James Woods, Joel Polis, John Snyder, Kurt Fuller, Kurtwood Smith, Luis Guzman, Margaret Colin, Miguel Fernandes, Richard Fancy, Robert Downey Jr., Sully Díaz, Thomas Wagner, Tom Bower, Woody Harrelson, Yuji Okumoto, 柯特伍德·史密斯

Director: Joseph Ruben

, 2016

The unbelievable true story the first mass-shootings in America, and a documentary made with so much attention that it is almost impossible to forget. The animations might put you off if you watch the trailer, but they are what makes this movie so amazing. Added to old tapes and current statements from survivors and heroes, they perfectly fill the gaps in the enactment of what happened. An equally sad, gripping and incredibly well-made work on an event that happened 50 years ago and to which there are still no solutions.

Genre: Animation, Crime, Documentary

Actor: Aldo Ordonez, Blair Jackson, Chris Doubek, John Fitch, Josephine McAdam, Louie Arnette, Monty Muir, Rebecca Beegle, Reece Everett Ryan, Steve Eckelman, Vicky Illk, Violett Beane

Director: Keith Maitland

Rating: TV-14

Sometimes all a movie needs to be entertaining is a character having a really bad day. Breakdown might not have the most story or thematic depth to it, but having Kurt Russell try to track down the men who kidnapped his wife leads to one tension-filled scene to the next. It's a great showcase for the small towns and empty stretches of highway that make up so much of America, lending to the film the feel of a western, with violence and stuntwork that feel edgier than most '90s action fare. There are no guarantees here that our hero will win the day, which makes the danger he's in that much more exciting.

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Ancel Cook, Gene Hartline, Helen Duffy, J.T. Walsh, Jack McGee, Jack Noseworthy, Jonathan Mostow, Kathleen Quinlan, Kim Robillard, Kurt Russell, M.C. Gainey, Moira Harris, Moira Sinise, Rex Linn, Rick Zieff, Ritch Brinkley, Thomas Kopache, Vincent Berry

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Rating: R