1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
> Directed by: Steve McQueen
> Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender
Based on an 1853 memoir by a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, this film convincingly evokes the cruelty of plantation life, but it also pays tribute to the resilience of the enslaved. Though the story ends with the hero returned to his home and family, he has lost 12 years of his life and missed seeing his children grow into adults.
2. 127 Hours (2010)
> Directed by: Danny Boyle
> Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
This is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who is trapped by a fallen boulder in a remote canyon in Utah. Unable to free himself, he finds his mind wandering as he films himself saying goodbye to his family and even carves his own headstone before taking an unimaginable step in order to survive.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
> Directed by: Lewis Milestone
> Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray
Hailed as one of the best war movies ever made, this World War I epic follows young German schoolboys who enlist in the army and witness the horrors of battle, coming to realize that there’s nothing glorious or romantic about war. The main character, Paul, who at one point tries to save the life of a French soldier he has stabbed, is himself killed at the end as he reaches for a butterfly.
4. American Beauty (1999)
> Directed by: Sam Mendes
> Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Blackmail, infidelity, genetically modified marijuana, a 42-year-old man’s obsession with a teenage girl, a teenage boy’s obsession with his camcorder, a homophobic Marine Corps officer who kisses the 42-year-old man, his straight son who pretends to be gay, a sudden murder… It all adds up to a suburban tragedy.
5. American History X (1998)
> Directed by: Tony Kaye
> Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo
A high school student is assigned to write a paper about his older brother, a former neo-Nazi leader, and becomes involved with white supremacists himself. Both eventually repent, but after he turns in his paper, the younger brother is killed by a black student, leaving his older sibling to mourn.
6. Amour (2012)
> Directed by: Michael Haneke
> Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
This French tear-jerker is about two former musicians and piano teachers, husband and wife, both in their 80s. One morning, the woman has a stroke and ends up partially paralyzed. When she gets out of the hospital, her husband promises she will never go back, and when he can no longer care for her, he tells her a story, then smothers her. He covers her body with flowers and seals the room she’s in, then imagines her washing dishes in the kitchen.
7. Atonement (2007)
> Directed by: Joe Wright
> Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn
On the eve of World War II, a country house romance between a young woman from a wealthy family and the housekeeper’s son is interrupted when he is unjustly accused by the woman’s jealous sister of raping a young relative. He goes to prison and then into the army. Before he ships out, he apparently has one last meeting with his love, who has remained true to him and believes in his innocence. At the end, we learn that the meeting was invented as part of a novel written by the now elderly sister, as an act of atonement for her lie. The young man died of blood poisoning at the Battle of Dunkirk, and his love was drowned in a London subway tunnel that flooded after a German bomb attack.
8. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
> Directed by: Robert Bresson
> Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge
A young girl gets a baby donkey named Balthazar as a summertime pet in this film by the famously austere French filmmaker Robert Bresson. The donkey subsequently goes through a number of owners, who work him hard at best and are outright cruel to him at worst. The girl, meanwhile, grows up and falls in love with a motorbike-riding bad boy. At the end, old and dying, the donkey is reunited with his first owner, and later walks into a herd of sheep, lies down, and dies.
9. Autumn Sonata (1978)
> Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
> Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman
An aging world-famous pianist travels to a small village to visit the daughter she hasn’t seen for years. To her dismay, her second daughter, who is mentally disabled, is present in the house. Despite the tragedies all have endured, the mother and the first daughter reveal long pent-up feelings to each other opening the road to reconciliation.
10. Beyond the Hills (2012)
> Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
> Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriutã
Two young women, friends since their orphanage days and one-time lovers, reunite at a rural convent where one of them is about to take her vows. The other tries to lure her friend away, but when she challenges the priest, she’s subjected to an exorcism that ends badly.