The best way to earn about history is through movies. Okay, we're joking, but you might actually learn a thing or two from the period movies on this list! One of the best ways to escape realit is to travel back through history in films set during specific time periods. It makes sense that a ton of these movies are based on real events. At least one movie on this list has been deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress for how well it portrays a specific moment in time! The period films that are not based on real life still nail the look, feel, and vibe of the time periods they're covering.
The best part of these great period films? They're all streaming on Netflix! Every movie on this list is waiting for you on your fave streaming service. Taking movie recommendations is so much easier when the films are right at your fingertips. These period films combine entertainment with a distinct look and feel of a bygone era. Plus, as we said, sometimes you even learn stuff! Here are all the great period films you can stream on Netflix right now!
Being a woman is difficult during any time period, but the '50s were a truly challenging time to be a lady. This film tackles the women of the era, from the independent type to the more conservative kind. Katherine (Julia Roberts), a progressive art professor, is the center of the film. Through her teaching and her challenging of societal norms for women, she inspires the young ladies in her class. The film may be fictional but it rings true for so much of the female experience during the '50s. This is one of our favorite period films for how it promotes the empowerment of women!
This may be one of the most humanist films about the Holocaust and World War II. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) become unlikely friends in the throes of WWII. Bruno is a privileged child whose property overlooks a concentration camp. Schmuel is one of the children stuck working in the camp along with his father. Neither realizes the reality of Schmuel's situation but their friendship blossoms nonetheless. It's a stark reminder that in the darkest depths of the tragedy that was the Holocaust there were innocent children, frightened bystanders, and those who just didn't comprehend what was happening. World War II films are a dime a dozen but ones that tackle the smaller, more human parts of the era are rare.
Walt Disney Pictures
Period films that give a behind-the-scenes look at things you never knew happened are the best. In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks plays the one and only Walt Disney as he courts P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and attempts to persuade her to give him the film rights for her book Mary Poppins. The ways in which Travers's childhood influenced the iconic book (and, later, movie) are startling and give new meaning to a simple kids' story. In the 1960s, Walt Disney was already the king of animated, fantastical content. Getting Mary Poppins made was everything to him and seeing how he did it only a few short years before his death is heartwarming.
This early-1900s biopic depicts the life of Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a film producer and aviation mogul. Hughes had an important film career but his interest in aviation led him to purchase part of an airline. The film centers in on 1927-1947 in Hughes's life, when he became fixated with aviation but also struggled deeply with his obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also charts his romances with famed actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Sometimes the best biopics are ones about people that exist outside the fringe of "wildly famous people" and just have a good story to tell!
This film is set post-World War II but, in many ways, has nothing to do with the war itself. Instead, it focuses on the struggles of returning home from war. Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) have both returned to their Mississippi hometown after enlisting in the Army and fighting overseas in WWII. The two have always lived very different lives — Ronsel is black and Jamie is white in the mid-century south — but they bond over their shared experiences at war. It's a film that explores the idea that this country sent black men to war but didn't treat them like heroes when they returned. It's also a reminder that there were far broader consequences of WWII than any could have imagined.
Some of the most affecting period films are the ones that explore the oft-forgotten things during wartime. We don't think of the people just living life during some of history's hardest moments. Little Women follows the March sisters in Massachusetts during, and after, the Civil War. The sisters come of age during the aftermath of one of the biggest wars in American history, yet have many of the same problems women face today. Throughout history, from decades ago until now, humanity hasn't changed too much.
In the mid-1980s, Northeast England saw a massive coal miners' strike. It's during this time that 11-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) realizes that his true calling is dancing. His coal miner father thinks otherwise, though, and is constantly encouraging his son to try different sports. In the midst of utter turmoil surrounding hundreds of thousands of workers, a young boy embraces his passion and his reluctant father eventually comes around. The story may be fictional, but it's another reminder of the people that lived on the fringe of some of the biggest events in history.
If The Other Boleyn Girl teaches us anything, it's that history is full of unreliable narrators. The film attempts to tackle the story of the 16th-century Boleyn sisters and their relationship with King Henry VIII. Mary (Scarlett Johansson) was the King's mistress and Anne (Natalie Portman) proved hard to resist and became his second wife. History is a little blurry on the finer points of this story but the sister vs. sister antics are soap opera worthy and, for the most part, totally true!
What's better than a good old fashioned western?! The Hateful Eight doesn't explore any precise moment in history but is set upon the backdrop of the Civil War. Eight strangers converge at a lodge in the midst of a blizzard and sh*t gets crazy. Everyone in this story is, objectively, kind of a bad guy. Everybody has a dark past, a pistol, and a reason to shoot and run. The insanity that ensues gives new meaning to "the wild, wild west"!
Another Civil War-era film! This time, we're seeing things through the President's eyes. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) was one of the most progressive presidents in history. His crowning achievement was abolishing slavery with the 13th Amendment and bringing about the end of the Civil War. The film centers on the early months of 1865 when Lincoln was beginning the most ambitious legislative action of his career. His presidency was defined by what he did from January through April until his untimely death at the theater ended his time as leader of the free world. It's a deeper look into the president that many define but just one or two facts.
Scott Rudin Productions
No Country for Old Men invites us into the violent world of Texas in 1980. Two men play a vicious cat and mouse game concerning some money left aside from a drug deal gone bad. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is tasked with recovering the sum of money that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) has recovered and hoped to take for his family. Moss runs from the ruthless Chigurh across Texas and through a desolate desert landscape until there is no more escape. Though the film isn't all about the time period it's set in, it's a period film that fully manages to encapsulate the era with the setting, clothing, and especially the haircuts!
This is yet another period film set during the Holocaust. But, considering the gravity of that entire era and the long-standing effects of World War II, there is unlimited potential for moving films. Schindler's List takes viewers deep into Germany during the war when Jewish lives were constantly in danger. Liam Neeson portrays real-life industrialist Oskar Schindler, who helped saved over 1,200 Polish-Jewish refugees by employing them in his factory. Schindler gave them jobs, bribed SS soldiers and Nazis to keep them safe, and was able to protect them until their eventual liberation. Not everyone in Germany during this time was blindly following the horrifying new normal. Many were quietly creating revolutions and saving lives.
Number 9 Films
Carol takes place in 1950s New York and hones in on something a bit taboo for the time: a lesbian relationship. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is going through a difficult divorce while trying to gain full custody of her daughter. She meets Therese (Rooney Mara) and an intimate relationship blooms amidst personal turmoil in both of their lives. The film explores these two women coming together despite their opposite backgrounds and different class status. It also delves into the intense scrutiny the two were under for their sexuality during this time in American history. Things aren't perfect now, but there's a stark contrast to how they were for same-sex relationships back then — and that's a good thing!
Matthew McConaughey jumped head-first into portraying real-life AIDS victim and activist Ron Woodruff. The film tells the story of Woodruff's efforts during the 1980s to spread life-saving drugs to other AIDS/HIV positive patients that weren't available in the U.S. yet. He creates the "Dallas Buyers Club," one of many "buyers clubs" to spring up during that time, with aims to distribute medication throughout Texas after bringing it up from Mexico. His battles with his own disease, his "clients," and the Food and Drug Administration are the cornerstones of this harrowing story of survival. It also gives us Jared Leto as one of the greatest supporting characters in movie history, so what's not to love?!
Harvey Milk is one of the most iconic LGBT rights advocates of all time, so of course, his life got the movie treatment! Sean Penn plays Milk during the 1970s when he became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Milk charts the politician and activist's time in office trying to help not only the local community but the LGBT community as a whole. It also, tragically, charts his demise at the hands of his co-worker Dan White (James Franco), who assassinated him and the mayor in City Hall. Harvey Milk was a name too few people knew before the release of one of the most excellent period films on this list!
Does a period film even count if it doesn't include corsets and insane 18th-century hair?! Keira Knightley is the reigning queen of period movies and in this one, she plays Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The film is based upon a biography of the late Duchess and tells the story of her life as well as her rise to royal prominence. It also charts her husband's affair with her BFF throughout most of their marriage! While some of the names and finer details are changed, the core of the story is based in reality. Many tend to view movies set in past centuries and based on real events as boring but period films are often filled with the juciest mid-century drama!