12 Movies Like Vivarium (2019)

Staff & contributors
While quite testing for viewers, this is one of the craziest, most high-energy movies you'll ever watch. In this incredible German drama, child actor Helena Zengel plays Bernadette aka Benni, a traumatized 9-year-old child who tends to lash out and has been repeatedly suspended from every school she went to. Benni is a so-called “Systemsprenger” (which is the original German title). A system crasher is a child so uncontrollable and aggressive that, over time, she falls through the grid of special schools, foster care, and social work facilities. Despite the best efforts of her designated social worker, Frau Bafané, played by Gabriela Maria Schmeide, she is turned down by everyone, testing the patience of her surroundings, wherever she goes. A trip with Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a tough boxer and anger-management trainer, turns out to be the last resort. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt, System Crasher is intense, punky, and wild with an almost eerie sense of authenticity. Its devastating effect is helped along by its unique, hyperactive camerawork. Much like the social workers themselves, you might have a hard time keeping professional distance to all this. This intense drama will stay with you for a long time.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Albrecht Schuch, Axel Werner, Barbara Philipp, Bärbel Schwarz, Bruno Thiel, Cederic Mardon, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Gisa Flake, Helena Zengel, Imke Büchel, Jana Julia Roth, Julia Becker, Lisa Hagmeister, Louis von Klipstein, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brenner, Melanie Straub, Moritz Thiel, Peter Schneider, Roland Bonjour, Steffi Kuhnert, Tedros Teclebrhan, Till Butterbach, Victoria Trauttmansdorff

Director: Nora Fingscheidt

Rating: 12

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) is back in full form with this three-hour movie based on a true story. His creation has one of the most beautiful depictions of happiness ever seen in film, portraying the simple yet joyous life of a farmer in the Austrian mountains. You'd have to see it for yourself to understand, but how Malick depicts this character's love for his wife (and her love for him), their children, and even their farming rituals are nothing short of cinematic wizardry. 

This peaceful existence changes when World War 2 intensifies and this farmer is called to serve for the Nazis. He refuses to enroll out of principle and puts himself and his family at great danger and alienation from their village. The question at the center of the film is one that other villagers and the church ask him a lot: what good can his actions do? And the title of the movie is taken from A George Eliot quote: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alexander Fehling, Alexander Radszun, August Diehl, Bernd Hölscher, Bruno Ganz, Chris Theisinger, Dieter Kosslick, Dimo Alexiev, Ermin Sijamija, Franz Rogowski, Joel Basman, Johan Leysen, Johannes Gabl, Johannes Krisch, Johannes Nussbaum, Jürgen Prochnow, Karin Neuhäuser, Karl Markovics, Katja Lechthaler, Leonard Kunz, Maria Simon, Mark Waschke, Martin Wuttke, Matthias Schoenaerts, Max Malatesta, Max Mauff, Michael Nyqvist, Michael Steinocher, Monika Lennartz, Moritz Katzmair, Nicholas Reinke, Sarah Born, Sophie Rois, Thomas Mraz, Tobias Moretti, Ulrich Brandhoff, Ulrich Matthes, Valerie Pachner, Waldemar Kobus, Wolfgang Michael

Director: Terrence Malick

Rating: PG-13

, 2018

This true story of a white-supremacist and the civil rights unit that tried to stop his group was so gripping. 

You might recognize the title from the Oscars ceremony, as a shorter version of Skin (same director but different actors) won the Academy Award for Best Short Film. 

The longer movie provides much more time for the characters to develop, and room for more of a commentary on the current political situation in the U.S.

Fun fact: see that scary man in the picture? That’s Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell who went through a transformation for the role, including always wearing a device to pull his ears closer to his head because they were “too cute”.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ari Barkan, Bill Camp, Cecil Blutcher, Colbi Gannett, Daniel Henshall, Danielle Macdonald, Jaime Ray Newman, Jamie Bell, Jenna Leigh Green, Joanna Herrington, Justin L. Wilson, Kylie Rogers, Louisa Krause, Maliq Johnson, Mary Stuart Masterson, Michael Villar, Mike Colter, Portia, Rob Figueroa, Rob Giumarra, Russell Posner, Samantha Jones, Seán Cullen, Vera Farmiga, Zoe Colletti

Director: Guy Nattiv

Rating: R

Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, and Tim Robbins star in this well-executed and eye-opening drama based on a true story. Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is a successful corporate lawyer in New York. He is visited by a distressed farmer from his hometown in Cincinnati whose cows have been developing strange behaviors and diseases. Robert decides to take on this case in what will become one of the biggest class-action lawsuits in the country: the use of cancerous chemicals by the company that commercializes Teflon (the stuff in pans). Excellent acting in an incredibly frustrating but necessary story that will trouble you more than any other legal thriller you have watched in the past: prepare to be outraged (and throw away your pans).

Genre: Drama, History, Thriller

Actor: Abi Van Andel, Aidan Brogan, Amy Morse, Amy Warner, Angel Kerns, Anita Farmer Bergman, Anne Hathaway, Barry G. Bernson, Barry Mulholland, Bill Camp, Bill Pullman, Bret Aaron Knower, Brian Gallagher, Buz Davis, Caleb Dwayne Tucker, Carly Tamborski, Chaney Morrow, Clara Harris, Courtney DeCosky, Daniel R. Hill, David Fultz, David Myers Gregory, Denise Dal Vera, Elizabeth Marvel, Geoff Falk, Glen Yrigoyen, Greg Violand, Jason M. Griggs, Jeffrey Grover, Jim Laprelle, Joanne Popolin, John Newberg, John W. Harden, Jon Osbeck, Karen Koester, Kathleen Ellerman, Keating P. Sharp, Kelly Mengelkoch, Kevin Crowley, Lea Hutton Beasmore, Louisa Krause, Lyman Chen, Marcia Dangerfield, Mare Winningham, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Hudson, Michael Joseph Thomas Ward, Michael King, Mike Seely, Ming Wang, Ramona Schwalbach, Richard Hagerman, Robert Gerding, Scarlett Hicks, Sheryl Annette Colley, Steven Schraub, Teri Clark, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, William "Bucky" Bailey, William Jackson Harper, Wynn Reichert

Director: Todd Haynes

Rating: PG-13

Dick Johnson Is Dead is a heartfelt and unconventional portrait of how one can live life to the fullest even in their darkest days. Kristen Johnson’s follow-up to the highly acclaimed documentary Cameraperson, Johnson shows that her skills are no fluke as she crafts a witty film where she masterfully balances surreal tonal shifts to create a compelling experience. While it does have a repetitive nature, the final thirty minutes are heartbreakingly comedic, and make this one worth a watch!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Brett Eidman, Fredi Bernstein, Ira Sachs, Kevin Loreque, Kirsten Johnson, Mary Page Nance, Michael Hilow, Vasthy Mompoint

Director: Kirsten Johnson

Rating: PG-13

, 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

Jia Zhangke (who NPR critic John Powers once called “perhaps the most important filmmaker working in the world today"), directed this movie based on the story of a gangster he knew while growing up.

And he is far from being the only noticeable talent here. Actress Tao Zhao shines as a character called Qiao, a dancer who infiltrates the crime scene in Northern China by way of her boyfriend (the gangster). When a boss leader is assassinated, Qiao finds herself in jail after she refuses to incriminate her boyfriend. 

This is a gangster movie but it’s also about how Qiao processes her time in jail and what she does once she gets out. It serves more as a character study and a picture of modern-day China.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Casper Liang, Diao Yi'nan, Ding Jiali, Dong Zijian, Fan Liao, Feng Xiaogang, Jiamei Feng, Kang Kang, Liao Fan, Tao Zhao, Xu Zheng, Yi'nan Diao, Zhang Yi, Zhang Yibai, Zhao Tao

Director: Jia Zhangke, Zhangke Jia

Rating: Not Rated

A residential dispute spirals out of control into full, xenophobia-fueled tragedy in this straightforward and elegantly made film that comes from a now-bygone era of mid-budget dramas for adults. House of Sand and Fog may come off as excessively bleak to viewers today, but it manages to capture a very particular mood of paranoia and distrust common in post-9/11 American cinema. And if nothing else, the film is worth watching for a trio of powerful performances that never resort to overacting: from Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, English screen legend Ben Kingsley, and an always compelling Jennifer Connelly, who was arguably at the peak of her career in the early 2000s.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aaron Frazier, Aki Aleong, Al Rodrigo, Ashley Edner, Ben Kingsley, Bonita Friedericy, Brian Reed Garvin, Carlos Gómez, Cooper Thornton, Dan Brinkle, David Carrera, Dennison Samaroo, Elton Ahi, Frances Fisher, Frank Gallegos, Izabella St. James, Jennifer Connelly, Joe Howard, Jonathan Ahdout, Joyce Kurtz, Karl Makinen, Ken Kerman, Kia Jam, Kim Dickens, Marco Rodriguez, Mark Chaet, Matthew Waite, Max Jansen Weinstein, Michael Papajohn, Namrata Singh Gujral, Nasser Faris, Navi Rawat, Pamela Shaddock, Ray Abruzzo, Ron Eldard, Scott Kinworthy, Scott N. Stevens, Shani Rigsbee, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Spencer Garrett, Tom Reynolds, Zoran Radanovich

Director: Vadim Perelman

The Centre Will Not Hold explores the life of the famous Joan Didion – professional observer and cultural spectator. The film gives only a small window into the complexity of her mind and the space in which she processes and understands the world, which stems from her capacity to sit above everything that is happening around her and just observe. From writing for Vogue, to war journalism, to her famous novels – from watching a child do acid, to reporting on the first gulf war – Didion is as prolific as she is insightful and majestic in her writing. Throughout the documentary she gives her first hand perspectives on love, relationships, motherhood, and grief – beautifully articulating it as “a place we do not know unless we’ve been there.” A beautiful woman, and an incredible film.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Amy Robinson, Anna Wintour, Bobby Beausoleil, Calvin Trillin, Charles Manson, David Hare, Dick Cheney, Griffin Dunne, Harrison Ford, Hilton Als, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Joan Didion, Linda Kasabian, Oliver North, Patricia Hearst, Patricia Krenwinkel, Phyllis Rifield, Shelley Wanger, Susanna Moore, Tom Brokaw, Tuesday Weld, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: Griffin Dunne

Rating: N/A, Not Rated

The Platform is the closest thing to Parasite released so far. This interesting Spanish movie is about 90% a science-fiction drama and 10% a horror movie. It’s an allegory set in a future where prisoners live in vertical cells, and each cell has to wait for the cell above it to eat to get food. Depending on the floor where prisoners wake up, they might not get any food at all. This creates for disturbing situations that are hard to see as not representative of our modern societies.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller

Actor: Alexandra Masangkay, Algis Arlauskas, Antonia San Juan, Chema Trujillo, Emilio Buale, Gorka Zufiaurre, Iván Massagué, Ivan Massagué, Mario Pardo, Miren Gaztañaga, Miriam Martín, Txubio Fernández de Jáuregui, Zihara Llana, Zorion Eguileor

Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia

Rating: TV-MA

Watch this if you like weird movies. And don't be fooled by the first half, which serves just to set Jesse Eisenberg's character and the monotone life he leads. It's the calm before the storm, during which that character is attacked by a violent gang and decides to take self-defense classes in an unusual club. This is a movie about modern manhood and how it can lead to some pretty strange situations. Great performance from Eisenberg as usual.

Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Alessandro Nivola, Apollo Bacala, Caroline Amiguet, Dallas Edwards, Davey Johnson, David Zellner, Frederic Spitz, Hauke Bahr, Imogen Poots, Jason Burkey, Jesse Eisenberg, Josh Fadem, Katherine Smith-Rodden, Leland Orser, Lena Friedrich, Louis Robert Thompson, Mike Brooks, Phillip Andre Botello, Steve Terada

Director: Riley Stearns

Rating: R

The disturbing conceit of a housewife swallowing inanimate objects may push some away, but those that can stomach it will find a searing exploration of patriarchal control over women’s bodies - an issue more relevant than ever in the US, as anti-choice zealots push closer to overturning abortion rights nationwide. 

An odd twist towards the end, and a tone-deaf bit about a Syrian refugee, make the film uneven. But, the edge of the seat suspense, sumptuously colorful cinematography, and Haley Bennet’s resonant performance make this worth seeing nonetheless. 

Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Alyssa Bresnahan, Austin Stowell, Babak Tafti, David Rasche, Denis O'Hare, Elise Santora, Elizabeth Marvel, Haley Bennett, Kristi Kirk, Laith Nakli, Lauren Vélez, Luna Lauren Velez, Maya Days, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Nicole Kang, Olivia Perez, Zabryna Guevara

Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis

Rating: R