human rights, media

top 15 historical dramas of the 21st century

Thinking back on movies I’ve watched recently, I noticed that my favorites tend to include that all-too-familiar qualifier, “based on a true story.” Because of this, I have watched a lot of those films. You’ve probably seen at least a few; historical dramas span a wide range of topics, including movies like GoodFellas, JFK, Lincoln, and Malcolm X. What they share, though, is what I love most about them (aside from cinematography): that charged feeling of knowing some version of this could’ve actually happened. Those that I count among my absolute favorites tend to chronicle human rights struggles, so you can expect the majority of these movies to be political.

I didn’t like most of the lists I found online. I don’t mean to discount them; many of the rankings were thoughtful and helpful. But they also tended to be very broad, “all-time best” lists, full of old classics that I was expecting to see, like Raging Bull and Schindler’s List. Movies from this century were sparse at best. So this is my version, isolated to 2000 onward and limited to 15 for the sake of my sanity.

Before I move on to the list, there are three things I’d like to clarify. First, the image for this post may be from Selma, but that is not my number one. Come on, that would ruin the suspense! (I like suspense.) Second, I originally called these films “docudramas” in the title, but a few on my list do not adhere very closely to that definition, so just to be clear, this list isn’t about docudramas or documentaries. And third, my ranking is a judgment of film quality, not of accuracy/significance of events being portrayed–actually, spoiler alert, Camp X-Ray is not an historical drama, but it’s amazing so I thought it was worth bending the rules a little. I considered writing explanations, but this is not meant to be a review, and I think these films speak for themselves. The rest is up to you.

15: Blood Diamond (2006)

14: Milk (2008)

13: Argo (2012)

12: The Normal Heart (2014)

11: The Aviator (2004)

10: Kill the Messenger (2014)

9: The Imitation Game (2014)

8: The Hurt Locker (2008)


7: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

6: Zodiac (2007)

5: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

4: Camp X-Ray (2014)

3: Selma (2014)

2: Rosewater (2014)

1: Fruitvale Station (2013)

So, what’s the verdict? Am I sort of right? Crazy? A complete genius? Opinions and suggestions are welcome.


10 thoughts on “top 15 historical dramas of the 21st century

  1. Nice list but im certain docudrama isn’t the right word for the four movies you mentioned at the start, and a good few off the list. In those cases something real inspired the director in his own high flown fantasy. The word ‘docudrama’ definitely has a different sense, in the uk anyway.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t totally sure about the title, and I apologize for bending the rules a little. I knew before that 8 Mile and Camp X-Ray are definitely not docudramas, and I realized after looking it over that a lot of the others are also questionable. Upon thinking it through, I realized that “historical drama” applies better to this list, so I’m changing it. Thanks for the heads up!

      • 8mile and stuff I would call biographical. Dunno about Goodfellas being an historical drama either though. The events depicted (or at least the backdrop) in a historical drama have to be kind of historic culturally, outside of the movie

      • I have to disagree with you on that one. GoodFellas is based on a non-fiction book, plus it’s based on that era in New York as well, so the way I see it, it has to at least be an historical drama.

      • But it’s not an era that anyone really recognises outside of the movies, which is why ‘historical drama’ isn’t sitting right for me. Selma is one for sure. But maybe my feel for what it means is off.

      • I feel like the mobster era is pretty well known, but I sort of see where you’re coming from…to be sure I just checked Wikipedia’s “List of historical period drama films” (I think it’s a reasonable-ish source). GoodFellas is in fact on there, whatever that’s worth.

        I did replace All Good Things with Blood Diamond, though…that definitely wasn’t quite historical drama.

      • There we go then. I feel I could continue to argue this a bit but that might be boring and inconsequential. I haven’t seen All Good Things so can’t comment. Hope uni and stuff is going good, remember from your freshly pressed (and first!!?) post a while back.

      • Yeah wow, it was my second post, crazy as that is! Uni is great so far, almost done with my second year. Been very busy but it’s worth it.

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