I think it's nearly impossible to define what makes a movie just a drama. Drama is one of the most versatile words in all of cinema. It supposes the stakes in real life, and it introduces us to some of the most memorable characters of all time.

When I'm writing a spec, I usually do my drama pass last. That's when I go through to find those small, human moments that I can bring to the forefront. No matter what genre I'm writing, I always do this pass because it really rounds out the people and the stakes.

Today, I want to get into the best drama movies of all time and explore what you can learn from them.

Let's dive in.

What is a Drama Movie?

What is a Drama Movie?


CREDIT: New Line Cinema

Drama films center on serious, realistic situations and conflicts, often rooted in interpersonal relationships, emotional turmoil, or societal challenges.

The stakes are high, with characters facing obstacles that resonate deeply on a personal and universal level. Unlike genres like action or comedy, drama movies don't necessarily guarantee a "feel-good" ending, but they always offer a thought-provoking journey.

Tropes of the Drama Genre

Tropes of the Drama Genre

The Graduate

Credit: United Artists

When writing a drama, you want to know which tropes you can play with and subvert to make your script shine. Remember, you unique screenwriting voice is what will make your spec stand out, but these tropes will help clue people in that you're writing a drama.

Let's examine them closer.

Character Tropes

  • The Flawed Protagonist: Drama loves characters who aren't perfect. They may be haunted by past mistakes, driven by unhealthy obsessions, or struggle to overcome internal demons. These flaws make them relatable and their journeys compelling.
  • The Underdog: We root for those facing long odds. Whether it's social injustice, illness, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the underdog battling against all expectations is a classic drama staple.
  • The Mentor: Often a wiser, older figure who guides the protagonist, offering insights, support, and sometimes a bit of tough love.
  • The Tragic Figure: Some characters are fated for sorrow. Their struggles may be due to their own choices, societal constraints, or forces beyond their control, adding a layer of poignancy to the drama.

Relationship Tropes

  • Forbidden Love: Love that crosses social boundaries, faces staunch opposition, or is simply ill-timed provides intense dramatic tension.
  • Complicated Families: From simmering resentments to deep-rooted trauma, family ties can be a major source of conflict and emotional growth.
  • Friendships Tested: Betrayals, misunderstandings, or life taking friends in different directions can fracture even the strongest bonds.
  • Mentor/Student Dynamics: These relationships can be fraught with power imbalances, admiration, and rivalry.

Thematic Tropes

  • Social Issues: Dramas often tackle racism, poverty, addiction, inequality, war, and other ills, raising awareness and prompting reflection.
  • Moral Dilemmas: Characters forced to make agonizingly difficult choices where there's no clear right or wrong answer.
  • Loss and Grief: How characters cope with the death of loved ones, the end of relationships, or the loss of dreams are explored with depth.
  • Redemption: Can a character who has done wrong find forgiveness and change their path? This theme offers complexity and potential hope.

Other Dramatic Elements

  • Heightened Stakes: In dramas, even seemingly small events can have dire consequences, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
  • Symbolism: Look for objects, colors, or recurring motifs that carry deeper meaning throughout the film.
  • Emotional Climax: A pivotal turning point where the protagonist faces their greatest fears or reaches a breaking point.
  • Ambiguous Endings: Not every drama provides neat resolutions, leaving the audience to ponder the characters' fates or the larger message.

History of the Drama Film

History of the Drama Film


| YouTube

The drama genre has been around for ages and ages. It started with the stories of Homer and has transcended time and space, coming all the way through literature and now being a huge part of film and television.

The origins of drama in film can be traced back to the silent era. Masterpieces like D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) (yes, it's very racist, but important to history. There's a lot of nuance here!) and Intolerance (1916).

In the 1930s and 40s, films like Gone with the Wind (1939) solidified the epic historical drama with its sweeping romance and portrayals of societal upheaval.

The post-World War II era saw a wave of gritty realism infuse drama films.

Post-War Realism and Social Consciousness (1940s-1950s)

  • Italian Neo-Realism: In the wake of WWII, directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini rejected studio polish for stark depictions of working-class struggles. Films like Bicycle Thieves showcased desperation with untrained actors and on-location shooting.
  • Social Issue Dramas: American cinema tackled topics like alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), racism (Intruder in the Dust), and mental institutions (The Snake Pit). Films became more daring, questioning societal norms.
  • Rise of the Method Actor: Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and others brought emotional intensity and a 'rebellious' edge to the screen, changing dramatic acting forever.

The 1960s and 70s: New Waves & Introspective Dramas

  • French New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, and others broke traditional cinematic rules. Films like The 400 Blows and Breathless felt improvisational, with jump-cuts and existential themes.
  • The "Golden Age" of American Cinema: Inspired by European cinema, filmmakers pushed boundaries. Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Midnight Cowboy reflected societal upheavals and disillusionment.
  • Auteur-Driven Dramas: Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others left their distinct marks on the genre. Think of the gritty realism of Taxi Driver, the epic scale of The Godfather, and the psychological complexity of Nashville.

1980s - 1990s: Dramas Go Mainstream, Then Indie

  • Blockbuster Dramas: Films like Rain Man and Terms of Endearment found box office success by balancing emotional stories with star power.
  • The Rise of the Brat Pack:The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, and similar films spoke to teenage angst in the 80s, launching the careers of young stars.
  • Indie Spirit: Against the grain, directors like Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) and Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) brought fresh, often edgy, perspectives to the drama.

2000s to Present: Blending Genres, Global Influence, and Streaming

  • The Superhero Boom: While action-packed, films like The Dark Knight delve into morality and psychological complexity, redefining their genre with dramatic elements.
  • Global Cinema's Impact: Dramas from South Korea (Parasite), Iran (A Separation), and across the world gain wider audiences and critical acclaim.
  • Streaming Changes the Game: Platforms like Netflix and Amazon fund prestige dramas, giving directors greater freedom to experiment and explore niche topics.
  • Hybrid Dramas Thrive: Films blend genres, defying categorization: Get Out (horror-social commentary), Moonlight (poetic coming-of-age), Lady Bird (dramedy with depth).

Global Drama Films

Global Drama Films

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

| YouTube

Cinema isn't limited by borders, and some of the most powerful dramas come from all over the world. This is just a taste of the dramas being made globally.

  • Japan: Masterful directors like Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Rashomon) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) crafted timeless dramas on themes of family, societal shifts, and honor.
  • France: The French New Wave brought a fresh energy to dramas with films like The 400 Blows and Breathless. More recently, films like Amélie (2001) offered quirky, heart-warming stories.
  • India: Bollywood is known for its lavish dramas alongside gritty social explorations (Mother India, Slumdog Millionaire).
  • South Korea: A recent surge of brilliant dramas like Parasite (2019) and Oldboy (2003) showcase their unique blend of social commentary and genre-bending storytelling.

The Best Drama Movies of All Time

The Best Drama Movies of All Time


Credit: Warner Bros.

Drama movies cover so many other genres, that it was hard to make a list of the best all time. Drama is so malleable and so prevalent, it made it hard to disqualify certain titles.

As always, this list is in no particular order and purely subjective. they're just the best movies I think everyone should spend the time watching.

  • The Godfather (1972): A sprawling American crime family saga exploring power, corruption, and the weight of legacy.
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994): An uplifting story of hope and unwavering friendship within the confines of a brutal prison.
  • Schindler's List(1993): A harrowing yet essential portrayal of the Holocaust and one man's courage in resisting unspeakable evil.
  • 12 Angry Men (1957): A tense courtroom drama where a single juror fights against prejudice to ensure justice.
  • Casablanca (1942): Love, sacrifice, and impossible choices set against the backdrop of World War II.
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003): A breathtaking fantasy epic showcasing the enduring battle between good and evil.
  • Citizen Kane (1941): A complex character study and cinematic masterpiece exploring the enigmatic life of a media tycoon.
  • Pulp Fiction (1994): Tarantino's ultra-stylish crime drama with iconic dialogue and unforgettable, intertwining stories.
  • Tokyo Story (1953): A poignant Japanese film about generational divides and the quiet beauty of familial bonds.
  • The Seventh Seal (1957): Ingmar Bergman's philosophical masterpiece where a knight plays chess with Death while grappling with faith.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962): A visually stunning historical epic portraying T.E. Lawrence's complex role in the Arab Revolt.
  • The Apartment (1960): Wilder's bittersweet dramedy about office politics, loneliness, and finding love in unexpected places.
  • Moonlight (2016): A tender coming-of-age story exploring the life of a Black, gay man in Miami.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson's whimsical caper, a delightful comedy with undercurrents of loss and longing.
  • Bicycle Thieves (1948): A heartrending neo-realist masterpiece about a desperate father's search for his livelihood.
  • Parasite (2019): A darkly comedic South Korean thriller about class disparity, with a shocking twist you won't see coming.
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991): A chilling psychological thriller with iconic performances and a terrifying villain.
  • The Pianist (2002): Adrien Brody's haunting performance as a Polish Jewish musician fighting for survival in WWII.
  • Manchester by the Sea (2016): A devastatingly beautiful exploration of grief, loss, and the lingering weight of past tragedy.
  • Thelma and Louise (1991): A feminist road movie defying expectations as two women embark on a life-changing journey.
  • City of God (2002): A raw, electrifying look at life in the Rio de Janeiro favelas, tracing young men trapped in cycles of violence.
  • Network (1976): A darkly satirical and prophetic look at the television industry and the pursuit of ratings at any cost.
  • The Worst Person in the World (2021): A darkly comedic Norwegian film dissecting the complexities of modern adulthood and relationships.
  • Raging Bull(1980): A Scorsese classic with a towering performance by DeNiro as boxer Jake LaMotta, exploring themes of obsession and self-destruction.
  • Blade Runner (1982): A neo-noir sci-fi masterpiece about a hunter of rogue replicants, questioning existence and the line between human and machine.
  • Stand By Me (1986): A nostalgic coming-of-age story about four boys on a journey to find a dead body.
  • The Princess Bride (1987): A beloved fantasy-comedy classic filled with sword fights, giants, and true love.
  • Rain Man (1988): A road trip drama where a selfish man discovers a newfound connection with his autistic brother.
  • Thelma & Louise (1991): Two women escape their mundane lives in a road trip that takes a fatal turn - a feminist classic.
  • The Remains of the Day (1993): A poignant tale of a dedicated butler whose repressed emotions impact his life.
  • Fargo (1996): The Coen brothers' crime dramedy, where a kidnapping plot goes comically, gruesomely wrong.
  • Magnolia (1999): Intertwining narratives in LA, exploring regret, connection, and the unlikely ways our lives intersect.
  • Cries and Whispers(1972): Ingmar Bergman's visually striking exploration of mortality and complex familial bonds.
  • There Will Be Blood (2007): Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a powerhouse performance as a ruthless oil tycoon in turn-of-the-century California.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): A mind-bending romance exploring the lengths we'd go to erase memories of heartbreak.
  • Spirited Away (2001): Miyazaki's animated wonder about a girl lost in a fantastical spirit world, full of imagination and heart.
  • The Lives of Others (2006): A tense German thriller about the Stasi's pervasive surveillance and its subtle impact on a playwright's monitor.
  • Amour (2012): A French film unflinchingly depicting an elderly couple facing decline, illness, and their enduring love.
  • In the Mood for Love (2000): Wong Kar-wai's visually poetic romance about two lonely people drawn together by unspoken longing.
  • Children of Men (2006): A bleak yet gripping dystopian thriller where hope hinges on protecting a miraculously pregnant woman.
  • Do the Right Thing (1989): Spike Lee's vibrant and powerful film about simmering racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood.
  • The Killing Fields (1984): A harrowing true-life story of a journalist and his interpreter caught in the brutal Cambodian genocide.
  • The Deer Hunter(1978): A stark portrayal of the Vietnam War's devastating impact on a group of blue-collar friends.
  • The Wrestler(2008): A gritty comeback story about a washed-up wrestler desperately seeking connection and a shot at redemption.
  • American Beauty (1999): A darkly satirical and visually stunning look at suburban malaise and the warped pursuit of happiness.
  • The Matrix(1999): A mind-bending sci-fi action film that questions the nature of reality and explores themes of free will.
  • The Wages of Fear (1953): A suspenseful French thriller about desperate men transporting volatile explosives for a chance at escape.
  • Brokeback Mountain (2005): A heartbreaking love story about two cowboys whose forbidden romance spans decades.
  • The 400 Blows (1959): A seminal French New Wave film portraying a troubled adolescent's struggle against an uncaring world.
  • 12 Years a Slave (2013): A brutal yet essential depiction of slavery based on the true story of Solomon Northup.
  • Good Will Hunting (1997): A heartwarming film about a troubled genius grappling with vulnerability and finding guidance from an unconventional therapist.
  • The Dark Knight (2008): Redefining the superhero genre, this Batman film delves into chaos, morality, and the psychological battle of good vs. evil.
  • Pan's Labyrinth (2006): A dark fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, where a young girl escapes into a fantastical world.
  • Rashomon (1950): Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece exploring the subjectivity of truth through the recounting of a crime from multiple perspectives.
  • Boyhood(2014): Richard Linklater's ambitious project filmed over 12 years, chronicling the life of a young boy with breathtaking authenticity.
  • The Truman Show (1998): Jim Carrey in a rare dramatic role, as a man unaware his entire life is a reality TV show.
  • Arrival (2016): A thought-provoking sci-fi drama where a linguist deciphers alien communication, challenging notions of time and language.
  • The Color Purple (1985): A powerful adaptation of Alice Walker's novel exploring themes of abuse, resilience, and sisterhood among Black women in the American South.
  • Room (2015): A mother and son held captive create their own world within a single room, in this intensely emotional drama.
  • Oldboy(2003): A shocking, twist-filled South Korean revenge thriller that pushes boundaries and will leave you reeling.
  • Persona (1966): Another Bergman classic, a psychologically complex story about identity, as a mute actress and her nurse intertwine.
  • The Florida Project (2017): A bittersweet slice of life, showcasing impoverished families living on the fringes of Disney World with surprising vibrancy.
  • Moonlight (2016): An exploration of a Black, gay man's journey to self-discovery, told in three lyrical chapters.
  • The Farewell(2019): A tender and funny look at cultural differences and family dynamics when a Chinese-American woman discovers her grandmother's illness has been kept secret.
  • Dead Poets Society (1989): Robin Williams inspires a new generation of students to "seize the day" in this moving drama.
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000): A disturbingly beautiful and unforgettable film about the devastating spiral of addiction, told in a visually compelling way.
  • The Celebration(1998): A Danish Dogme 95 film where a family reunion turns dark when buried secrets and accusations are brutally unearthed.
  • The Witch (2015): Folk horror at its finest, a chilling tale of paranoia, superstition, and the darkness lurking in an exiled Puritan family.
  • Blue Valentine (2010): A raw, heart-wrenching look at the deterioration of a passionate marriage, told in a non-linear fashion.
  • Black Swan (2010): Natalie Portman gives a chilling performance as a ballerina pushed to her psychological limits in pursuit of artistic perfection.
  • A Separation (2011): A masterful Iranian drama depicting the agonizing dissolution of a marriage and the fight for custody of their daughter.
  • Wild Strawberries (1957): Another Bergman masterpiece, this one finds an aging professor taking a road trip that prompts a journey of self-reflection.
  • Short Term 12 (2013): Brie Larson stars in this emotionally resonant drama about the staff of a group home for troubled teens.
  • Three Colors: Blue (1993): The first in Krzysztof Kieślowski's trilogy, this French film explores grief, withdrawal, and a tentative return to life after profound loss.
  • Before Sunrise(1995): The first in Richard Linklater's beloved trilogy about a young couple who spend a magical night in Vienna filled with endless conversation.
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007): Based on a true story, this film depicts the life of a magazine editor left with locked-in syndrome, communicating only by blinking an eyelid.
  • Incendies (2010): A devastating and complex Canadian mystery about twins uncovering their mother's hidden past in the Middle East.
  • Frances Ha(2012): A charmingly quirky black-and-white drama following a free-spirited dancer navigating friendships and dreams in New York City.
  • The Handmaiden (2016): A visually lush, twist-filled South Korean erotic thriller centered on a plot to defraud a wealthy heiress.
  • Prisoners (2013): A gripping thriller with incredible performances as a desperate father searches for his kidnapped daughter.
  • Taxi Driver(1976): A gritty neo-noir with an iconic performance by Robert De Niro as a disturbed Vietnam veteran spiraling into violence.
  • Thelma and Louise (1991): A feminist road movie defying expectations as two women embark on a life-changing journey.
  • The Green Mile (1999): A poignant supernatural drama set on death row, exploring themes of compassion and the possibility of miracles.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): A visually breathtaking wuxia film with graceful fight sequences and a story of love and sacrifice.
  • Lost in Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola's bittersweet comedy-drama about an unlikely connection between two lonely souls in Tokyo.
  • Million Dollar Baby (2004): Clint Eastwood directs this emotionally charged story of a female boxer determined to defy expectations.
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006): A dysfunctional family road trip dramedy filled with heart, humor, and surprising turns.
  • The Hunt (2012): A tense Danish film portraying the chilling consequences of a false accusation in a tight-knit community.
  • The Master (2012): A psychologically complex story exploring a troubled veteran's involvement with a charismatic cult-like leader.
  • Her(2013): A Spike Jonze masterpiece about a lonely man falling in love with an intelligent operating system.
  • Whiplash (2014): An intense, electrifying drama centered on the relentless battle between an ambitious jazz drummer and his abusive teacher.
  • Call Me By Your Name(2017): A sensual and tender coming-of-age love story set amidst the sun-drenched beauty of Italy.
  • Lady Bird (2017): Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, a funny and honest portrayal of a teenage girl navigating ambitions and her complex relationship with her mother.
  • Roma(2018): Alfonso Cuaron's semi-autobiographical, black-and-white drama about a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City.
  • The Irishman (2019): An epic, Scorsese-directed gangster film spanning decades, exploring themes of loyalty, regret, and mortality.
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): A visually stunning French period drama about a female artist and her forbidden romance with her aristocratic subject.
  • Nomadland (2020): A poignant look at modern-day nomads who choose a life on the road after economic hardship.
  • The Power of the Dog (2021): Jane Campion's western psychological drama explores toxic masculinity and repressed emotions on a Montana ranch.
  • Drive My Car(2021): A meditative Japanese masterpiece about a widowed actor grappling with loss and finding connection with a young driver.
  • Belfast(2021): Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical drama about a young boy's life in the midst of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments.