In the world of film, the drama genre is a bit of a catch-all. Any film that doesn’t necessarily contain the elements of another genre of film tends to be considered a drama. For instance, if a film isn’t scary (and isn’t a horror), isn’t full of explosions and car chases (and isn’t an action), isn’t thrilling (and isn’t a thriller), and isn’t very funny (and isn’t a comedy), there’s a pretty good chance that it’s considered a drama. This means that there’s a massive amount of variety within the drama genre. You can have a drama movie about a mathematician, about a boxer, or about a gangster.
However, the drama genre’s diversity and ability to elude definitions is one of its great strengths. Great drama films are often characterized as dramas because they are so wholly original that they defy any other genre. For this reason, some of the best drama movies of all time are some of the best movies of all time. Period.
So, in this article, we’re going to take a look back at the history of cinema and identify the 6 best drama movies of all time (in this writer’s opinion). Feel free to voice your praises and disagreements in the comments section.
1. The Godfather (1972)
While many would argue that The Godfather might not be the greatest drama film to ever hit the silver screen, I’m fairly partial to mob dramas, and I’m going to put it at the top of the list anyway. First of all, the film stars Marlon Brando (who is, potentially, the greatest actor of all time) as Vito Corleone, the don of New York City’s Corleone crime family, and Al Pacino as his youngest son, Michael Corleone.
The film centers around Michael’s struggle to remain separated from the family business as well as Vito’s struggles to keep the crime family tight-knit and functioning. All of this happens under the expert direction of Francis Ford Coppola. 1972’s The Godfather is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made, and the second installment in the trilogy, released in 1974, was just as iconic. While the third Godfather film was a bit of a letdown, that still doesn’t take away from the success of the first two and cement this film’s position as one of the best gangster movies ever.
2. Citizen Kane (1941)
All of the true film buffs already knew that Citizen Kane would appear on this list. This film is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time in any genre. And, in terms of a pure drama, I couldn’t think of a better example than Citizen Kane. The 1941 film centers on the meaning of the word “Rosebud,” which is uttered by the film’s main character Charles Foster Kane just before he dies.
The rest of the film is a series of flashbacks from Kane’s life. While Kane was able to rise to great wealth and prominence, it’s clear that he never truly felt happy, and his interpersonal relationships were often contentious. In terms of storytelling, acting, and structure, it’s easy to see why many consider this to be the greatest film of all time. Citizen Kane was directed, produced, and starring the incomparable Orson Welles.
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
When it comes to prison dramas, there’s no more well-respected film than The Shawshank Redemption. Based on a novel by the great Stephen King (perhaps the most prolific writer of the modern era), The Shawshank Redemption follows the journey of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), a man sentenced to prison for life after the murder of his wife and kids despite his claims of innocence. Over the next 20 years of his incarceration, Dufresne befriends another inmate named Red (played by Morgan Freeman).
As you probably know, Dufresne hatches a plan to escape from the prison after he becomes aware of the abuse and corruption inside the prison’s walls. This film carries such emotion and such a strong sense of morality that it will almost certainly bring you to tears. But, as the name of this film suggests, there’s a great redemption near the end of the film that will probably have you jumping for joy.
4. Casablanca (1942)
Set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II, the 1942 film Casablanca starred Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who owns a nightclub and gambling den in the foreign city. However, Blaine’s whole life changes when his former lover, Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), comes back into his life along with her new husband, Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid).
Blaine is put in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between the woman he loves and helping her husband Victor Laszlo, a renowned Czechoslovak Resistance leader, escape the city to continue fighting the Germans. And, in case you didn’t notice the date that this film was released, World War II was very much still being fought when Casablanca hit the big screen. And the Czechoslovak Resistance, which is the very subject of this film, was still pushing back against Nazi forces in 1942 as well.
5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was based on a novel of the same name by Ken Kesey. The concept for this film was so incredibly original that it was almost destined to be a classic right from the start. The film takes place inside a psychiatric facility and stars Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, an Oregon farm worker who gets arrested for statutory rape and pretends to be insane in order to avoid going to prison.
However, the facility’s head nurse (played by Louise Fletcher) is skeptical of McMurphy, and the two of them develop a tense relationship. McMurphy, who was once morally corrupt, begins to act as a shepherd for his fellow patients, which only strains his relationship with the nursing staff. This film can be hilarious and heartwarming at times and scary and sad at other times. Because of some incredible acting performances and the overall originality of this film, I believe it’s one of the greatest dramas of all time.
6. Raging Bull (1980)
Robert DeNiro’s career is full of iconic dramatic performances. But the greatest performance of his career may very well have been in the 1980 biopic Raging Bull. The film stars DeNiro as middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta. In fact, the film was based on the memoir Raging Bull: My Story by real-life boxer Jake LaMotta. The film adaptation was tragic, and the main character is definitely not likable. However, DeNiro’s performance is so masterful and truthful in this film that you simply can’t look away.
Raging Bull follows LaMotta’s success as an extremely aggressive and angry boxer in the ring as well as his turbulent life outside the ring. Jake marries a woman named Vickie, with whom he has a dominating and entirely unhealthy relationship. Jake’s relationship with his brother, Joey, also becomes strained as he begins to believe that his brother is having an affair with his wife. All the while, Jake’s anger continues to fuel him inside the ring, and he wins some major boxing matches. But, of course, his success only lasts so long, and the tragic fall of Jake LaMotta brings us to the end of the film.