Top 50 greatest drama films

JEP film critic Tom Ogg selects his top 50 favourite drama films

ONLINE streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon UK have made it easier than ever to access thousands of films with the click of a few buttons.

And with Cineworld Jersey temporarily closed (although hopefully due to reopen ASAP), there has never been a better time to indulge in watching films in the comfort of your own home.

As such, I’ve been running a series on the JEP's weekly film pages in which, every Saturday, I pick my top 50 must-see films from a particular genre – not necessarily the greatest ever made (although many of them certainly qualify as such), but the ones that I personally most recommend watching.

To date, I have covered crime, comedy, sci-fi, war, romance, horror, action/adventure, film noir, drama, westerns, children’s films and even so-bad-they're-good films, and you can read my Top 50 Drama Films list below.

For reasons more to do with OCD than anything else, I never allow the same film to appear in more than one list, thus ET is absent from my top 50 children's films list because it already appears in my top 50 sci-fi films list, and so on.

All films are listed in order of personal preference, and all feedback is welcome, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my choices:

Will Sampson and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (29284605)


DRAMA now, and admittedly this category is rather more flexible than other categories of which I've compiled lists – and by flexible, I mean vague. Honestly, I spent far more time than is healthy debating whether or not Taxi Driver could be considered primarily a drama, before ultimately deciding it could (according to Wikipedia, it’s a ‘neo-noir psychological thriller drama’, but they can do one).

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)

‘A MIRACLE’. Such was how Steven Spielberg described David Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning epic, although the bearded wunderkind could equally have been referring to the incredible true-life events that inspired the film.

Released in 1962, Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of T E Lawrence, the young British military officer who successfully united warring Arab tribes against the Turks during the First World War.

Then relatively unknown, Peter O’Toole was chosen to portray Lawrence on-screen and the young British-Irish actor perfectly captures Lawrence’s evolution from ‘overweening, crass lieutenant’ to the battle-worn, emotionally scarred hero of lore (it helps, of course, that O’Toole – who, like all the best people, was raised in Leeds – looks so remarkably similar to the young Lawrence as seen in wartime photographs).

The film begins with a lengthy overture showcasing Maurice Jarre’s goosebump-inducing theme music, before a beautifully-shot opening scene depicts the 46-year-old Lawrence’s untimely death while motorcycling in Dorset – a death that seems all the more cruel once we learn of the many perilous situations Lawrence had hitherto survived.

We then flashback several decades to the British Army headquarters in Cairo. There, Lawrence is summoned by the Arab Bureau and instructed to travel to western Saudi Arabia to assist Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) in defeating the Turks – a task which Lawrence delightedly accepts (‘it’ll be fun’, he naively predicts).

Cue one of the most celebrated jump-cuts in cinema history: Lawrence, seen in profile, holds a lit match to his lips and blows – whereupon Lean immediately cuts to the sun rising across the desert horizon.

Certainly, few directors, if any, have ever captured the deadly oppressiveness of the desert as acutely as Lean does here, with cinematographer Freddie Young’s wide-angle shots of the ‘burning, fiery furnace’ proving simultaneously awe-inspiring and unnerving.

The famous shot of Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali emerging through the desert haze is a case in point, with the actor first appearing as an undefinable shape on the landscape before slowly riding into view. Today, such an effect would be achieved with CGI, but here, what you see is what was shot.

The battle scenes are equally impressive, having lost none of their power in the intervening decades, while individual moments are often surprisingly brutal. There's the did-he-didn't-he rape scene, of course, but also the horrifying moment when a likeable young sidekick is swallowed by dry quicksand.

The film isn’t all action and perfectly-composed panoramas, however, and the dialogue scenes are among the best in the film, with Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson’s screenplay littered with quotable lines.

‘You answered without saying anything – that’s called politics’ is a particular favourite of mine, and I always look forward to the quietly authoritative wisdom of Guinness’s prince, who is sceptical of ‘desert-loving Englishmen’ like Lawrence (‘no Arab loves the desert – we love water and green trees’).

In short, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest, most influential and most visually stunning motion-pictures ever made.

There is, though, one question that remains unanswered: from where, in the middle of the desert, does Peter O'Toole get his eyeliner?

Film fact: Marlon Brando was initially asked to play Lawrence, but he turned the role down, and it went instead to O’Toole.

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (28831682)

2. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Miloš Forman)

4. Lolita (1962, Stanley Kubrick)

5. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

6. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)

7. The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)

8. Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

IT’S a cliché to say of a well-made film that every shot looks like a painting. However, when it comes to Barry Lyndon, for once the cliché is true.

Released in 1975, Stanley Kubrick’s stately period masterpiece depicts the travails of the charismatic but unscrupulous Irish rogue of the title (played by the decidedly un-Irish Ryan O’Neal).

As majestic as the 18th century paintings it evokes, Barry Lyndon is split into two distinct halves, each of which is roughly the length of a conventional film. The first section – snappily titled ‘By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon’ – begins in the 1750s and sees the ‘idle, dissonant and undisciplined’ Barry forced to leave his home in rural Ireland, after having fallen in love with his beautiful cousin, Nora (Gay Hamilton), and bested her would-be suitor in a duel.

From here, Barry decamps from one opportunistic misadventure to another, lying and deceiving as he goes, until he eventually meets and marries the wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), whose money and title he clearly craves more than he does her.

The second and more narratively conventional half of the film documents Barry and Lady Lyndon’s marriage, a relationship doomed to failure thanks to Barry’s shameless philandering and the dislike Lady Lyndon’s ten-year-old son feels towards his mother's new husband, a dislike that Barry returns in spades (or rather, whips). All of this ill-feeling culminates in a stunning and darkly comic duel between the pair that is all the more believable for being so ludicrous.

A reluctant traveller, New York-born Kubrick shot only in the UK from the mid-1960s onwards (he lived in England until his death in 1999), but retained an outsider’s eye for capturing the rural beauty of his adopted home. As such, many of the countryside-set scenes in Barry Lyndon look so immaculate you would swear you were looking at a matte painting – but no, as with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, what you see is what was shot.

More impressive still are the scenes in which Barry becomes acquainted with the Chevalier de Balibar (Patrick Magee), a professional gambler with whom Barry embarks on a gambling spree across Europe, and whose scenes Kubrick shot entirely by candlelight. In fact, so committed was the director to maintaining the look and feel of 18th-century life that he almost entirely dispensed with artificial lighting throughout production. Watching the results, it is almost impossible to believe you're looking at England in the mid-1970s.

The film's soundtrack only adds to the sense of time travel, being a combination of traditional Irish ballads and powerful classical pieces, the latter of which are often used to ironic effect, such as when the triumphantly upbeat Hohenfriederberger March is heard as Barry heads to and from his various dishonourable misdemeanours.

At over three hours in length, Barry Lyndon is time-consuming indeed, but if you’re prepared to set aside an entire Sunday afternoon and commit yourself to Kubrick’s vision, it is about as immersive and rewarding a film experience as you could hope to find.

Film fact: Kubrick often incorporated the talents of eccentric British character actors in his films, and Barry Lyndon is no different, with a laugh-out-loud performance from Leonard Rossiter. The Rising Damp star’s petrified facial expressions as his cowardly Captain Quin reluctantly prepares to fight a duel are as hilarious as any Rupert Rigsby or Reginald Perrin ever mustered.

Barry Lyndon (28831690)

9. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

ADAPTED from Harper Lee’s novel of the same name, To Kill a Mockingbird remains as timely today as it was upon release, as recent events have sadly demonstrated.

Set during the Depression era, the film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a widowed and liberal-minded lawyer living in the fictitious Southern town of Maycomb with his two young children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham).

After a young black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is wrongfully accused of raping the daughter of a local drunk, Finch agrees to defend him in court, despite a guilty verdict being an all but foregone conclusion. This leads to some of the most gripping and emotionally charged courtroom sequences ever filmed, including the celebrated scene in which an impassioned Finch delivers his famous ‘all men are created equal’ speech.

Of course, it could reasonably be argued that the talented, successful and impossibly handsome Gregory Peck is proof that, actually, not all men are created equal, and the actor here gives the finest performance of his career – a fact he himself readily acknowledged (he remained vocal about his love of both the film and his role in it until his death in 2003).

Elsewhere, Brock Peters is calmly affecting as the doomed Robinson, while Robert Duvall makes a memorable film debut as the reclusive Boo Radley. Nine-year-old Mary Badham's spirited turn as the tomboyish Scout, meanwhile, would see her becoming the then-youngest Best Supporting Actress nominee in Oscar history (she really should have won, too).

Film fact: Badham enjoyed working on the film so much that, while shooting her final scene outside the jailhouse, she kept repeatedly and deliberately getting her lines wrong in order to prolong the experience. A telling off from her mum eventually rectified her behaviour.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird (28831693)

10. The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont)

11. American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas)

12. The King of Comedy (1982, Martin Scorsese)

13. Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)

14. On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)

15. Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)

16. Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)

17. Stand By Me (1986, Rob Reiner)

18. Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

19. Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

20. Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)

21. About Schmidt (2002, Alexander Payne)

22. Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)

23. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

24. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)

25. Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)

26. The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg)

27. The Last Detail (1973, Hal Ashby)

28. The Verdict (1982, Sidney Lumet)

29. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, James Foley)

30. Kes (1969, Ken Loach)

31. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)

ON paper, Vittorio De Sica’s foreign-language classic has a fairly uninspiring and threadbare plot: a working class father-of-two (Lamberto Maggiorani) searches post-War Rome for his missing bicycle, and... that’s it.

Yet De Sica makes this deceptively simple story curiously gripping, mixing gritty on-location shooting with believable performances from a cast of non-actors (Maggiorani was, until then, a factory worker) to create a sense of fly-on-the-wall realism rarely equalled in non-documentary cinema.

Film fact: Rather bizarrely, Bicycle Thieves later provided the inspiration for Tim Burton’s wacky 1985 comedy Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

The Bicycle Thieves (28831700)

32. 12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)

33. Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)

34. The Insider (1999, Michael Mann)

35. Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford)

36. Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)

ONE of Steven Spielberg's finest latter-day films, this Cold War-based espionage thriller boasts a screenplay co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen and features compelling turns from two of the finest film actors working today.

Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies takes place in New York in the 1950s and tells of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an English-born Soviet spy – real name William G Fisher – who is captured by the FBI and put on trial.

All-American lawyer James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) is reluctantly persuaded to defend Abel in court (‘I’ll be the most hated man in America,’ he complains); however, to the surprise of both men, an instant bond forms between them and soon Donovan is fighting for an acquittal, much to the chagrin of the judge, his family and the country as a whole.

Reliable as always, Hanks gives one of the most nuanced performances of his career as the moralistic Donovan. The character is forever desperately trying to appear at ease, whether in the company of his superiors or his family, yet his clenched fists and uptight posture constantly belie his true feelings, as do the occasional flashes of steel that momentarily rise to the surface.

Rylance’s Abel is similarly complex and, much like Donovan, seeks to project an outward calmness that is at odds with the all-too evident emotion in his sad eyes (‘Will it help?’ he replies when asked if he’s frightened).

Bridge of Spies’ plot rivals Spielberg’s own Munich (2005) in terms of complexity, yet the director handles it all with his usual clear-headed aplomb. Particularly impressive is the lengthy wordless sequence that opens the film and which sees Abel trailed across New York by a group of stumbling FBI agents. To me, the scene brought to mind the famous scene in William Friedkin’s The French Connection wherein Gene Hackman’s Detective 'Popeye' Doyle subtly stalks Fernando Rey’s wealthy drug smuggler through a New York subway.

Another equally great scene – or rather, moment – comes towards the end of the film and sees an emotionally exhausted Donovan spotting a group of children clambering over a garden wall from the window of a train. Instantly, he remembers a gang of wannabe escapees who he saw shot and killed while trying to scale the Berlin Wall earlier in the film.

A lesser director would have resorted to flashback to highlight the connection between the two scenes, but Spielberg, ever confident in his storytelling abilities, doesn’t need to. It’s all there in Hanks’s face.

Film fact: Actor Gregory Peck tried to bring Abel's story to the screen back in 1965, with Alec Guinness in the lead role, but MGM – aware that tensions over the Cold War were still high – declined to finance the production.

Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies (29285218)

37. The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)

38. Ford vs Ferrari [aka Le Mans ’66] (2019, James Mangold)

39. Captain Phillips (2003, Paul Greengrass)

40. How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)

41. One Hour Photo (2002, Mark Romanek)

THAT funnyman Robin Williams was also an accomplished straight actor was apparent by the likes of Dead Poet’s Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), The Fisher King (1991) and his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting (1997). Nevertheless, his skin-crawling turn as Sy Parrish in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo took many by surprise.

A photo technician working in a typically characterless US hypermarket, the mild-mannered, middle-aged Sy is secretly obsessed with the all-American Yorkin family, whose photos he has been using to create floor-to-ceiling montages in his otherwise nondescript apartment.

Upon discovering that husband Will (Michael Vartan) is having an extramarital affair, Sy’s idyllic conception of the Yorkins is shattered and he grows increasingly determined to avenge the wronged Mrs Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), no matter what the cost.

In truth, there was always something slightly unnerving about Williams, with his sad smile and Mr Punch-like beaked nose, and director Romanek incorporates these qualities to startling effect, coaxing a performance out of the former Mork that should have led to far more awards than it did.

The film is all the more affecting given what we now know about Williams’ own troubled temperament. The actor once said: ‘I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that’ – words that could easily have come from Sy Parrish himself.

Film fact: 2002 was clearly the year in which Williams decided to put the light-hearted wisecracks on hold. In addition to his role in One Hour Photo, he also portrayed child murderer Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and disgraced former children’s TV host Sheldon Mopes in Danny De Vito’s jet-black comedy Death to Smoochy.

Robin Williams in One Hour Photo (29251082)

42. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008, Mark Herman)

43. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962, John Frankenheimer)

44. The Misfits (1961, John Huston)

45. Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

46. Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)

47. The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

48. Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)

49. White Hunter, Black Heart (1990, Clint Eastwood)

50. Love and Death on Long Island (1997, Richard Kwietniowski)

THIS beguiling oddity from director Richard Kwietniowski is part-comedy, part-drama, all-fascinating.

Released in 1997, Love and Death on Long Island stars John Hurt as Giles De’Ath, a British writer and lonely widower with a love for arthouse films.

Visiting the cinema one afternoon, De’Ath accidentally wanders into a screening of Hotpants College II – a convincingly lame American teen comedy – and finds himself instantly captivated by the young heart-throb actor on screen: Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley).

Before long, De’Ath’s interest in Bostock has grown into infatuation, with the elderly wordsmith collating dozens of scrapbooks filled with magazine clippings of the clean-cut American star, until eventually he decides to travel to the US to track down the object of his obsession in person.

Jason Priestley is no-one’s idea of a great actor, and although he’s suitably wooden in the Hotpants College II footage, the former Beverly Hills 90210 actor doesn't quite have the gravitas to convince as Bostock.

But it doesn’t really matter. The film is all about De’Ath and Hurt is simply mesmerising, gaining our sympathy even as his character’s actions grow increasingly deluded and irrational.

Film fact: The film's soundtrack is provided by Richard Grassby-Lewis of cult synth-pop band Startled Insects. No, me neither...

John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island (28831708)

* If you enjoyed this list, be sure to read my other top 50 film lists on the Features page of the Jersey Evening Post website

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