From ‘tearless tearjerkers’ to ‘white-knuckle survival tales,’ check out our list of the best drama films to watch on Netflix right now.

One of the best characteristics of drama films is how seamlessly they combine with any other genre, whether it be comedy, thriller, or suspense. Maybe you're in the mood for a heartbreaking couple of hours, or perhaps you're dreaming of a little romance, or even a coming-of-age tale. From historical fiction to modern docudramas, here are the best dramas available to stream on Netflix right now. 

21, (aka TWENTY ONE), Jim Sturgess, Laurence Fishburne
Credit: Everett Collection

21 (2008)

The 2003 novel Bringing Down the House comes to life (again) in 21, which (sort of) documents the true story of a group of students from MIT that swindled Vegas casinos out of millions of dollars by counting cards at the blackjack table. Starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, and Laurence Fishburne, the film can also be seen as a commentary on the inaccessibility of education, seeing as main character Ben (Sturgess) is driven in part to join the Blackjack Club by his inability to pay for medical school. Jail time? Harvard's worth the risk. 

No. 1 in North America during its first two weekends, 21 was a commercial success, perhaps in part due to the multiple liberties the adaptation took, like adding chase scenes and emotional backstories (though it must also be called out for its place in the long list of Hollywood whitewashings). But even without the additional dramatic flair, a group of barely-adults beating Vegas at its own game is the ingenious inspiration we didn't know we needed, though a word of advice: following in their footsteps isn't recommended. 

If you liked 21, you might also enjoy: 

  • King of Thieves, streaming on Netflix 
Sam Claflin and Shailene Woodley star in ADRIFT Courtesy of STXfilms
Credit: STXfilms

Adrift (2018)

Based on Tami Oldham Ashcraft's memoir Red Sky in Mourning, this romantic drama chronicles the 41 days Tami was stranded at sea after sailing into a hurricane with her fiancé, Richard. Starring Shailene Woodley as Tami and Sam Claflin as Richard, Adrift offers a whirlwind combination of picturesque romance and heart-pounding, high-pressure survival — perfect viewing when you're fighting with your significant other over whether to watch a Meg Ryan-led romance and Die Hard

There are a surprising number of factors that will influence one's odds of open ocean survival, from sharks to shade to sheer will, and not everyone has what it takes. Woodley's Tami decidedly does, even if one of her battles includes CGI waves crashing above deck. So give it up for that movie magic, and you'll walk (or drift) away with what EW called a "pleasant-surprise picture" as your movie night choice. (And, perhaps, just a touch of thalassophobia.) 

If you liked Adrift, you might also enjoy:

  •  All Is Lost, streaming on Peacock
Ben Affleck Movies
Credit: Warner Bros.

Argo (2012)

Apparently, real life makes for far better drama than our imaginations ever will. Ben Affleck both directs and stars in Argo, portraying CIA extractor Tony Mendez. By posing as a filmmaker, Mendez successfully evacuates six American citizens from Iran after they escaped Islamists' invasion of the American Embassy, though not without several close calls and a bit of insubordination against the federal government. The film also features Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel, who helped Mendez set up his cover, and Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell, Mendez's boss.    

Despite being nominated for seven Academy Awards (and winning three), Affleck recently shared with EW that he doesn't think Argo would have gotten its theatrical release if they were producing it today. Instead, he sees it coming out as a limited series. Is this a hint? Can we get an HBO special telling the events of 1979 by "today's standard"? As long as it still includes the classic line "Argo, f--- yourself," I'm binging. 

If you liked Argo, you might also enjoy: 

  • The Hot Zone, streaming on Hulu
Escaping The NXIVM Cult
Credit: Chris Reardon/Lifetime

Escaping the NXIVM Cult (2019)

Docudrama, anyone? Ben Affleck wasn't wrong; the miniseries is in for true crime-adjacent dramatizations these days. (See The Girl From Plainville, Inventing Anna, The Dropout, etc.) So to see the end of Smallville actress Allison Mack's (played by Sara Fletcher) cult unfold in a made-for-TV movie was surprising, to say the least. Narrated and produced by Catherine Oxenberg, the film turns its focus away from Mack and NXIVM founder Keith Raniere (Peter Facinelli) and onto Oxenberg's (Andrea Roth) journey to save her daughter, India (Jasper Polish), and bring down the sex trafficking cult she's trapped in.

Unlike most retellings, Escaping the NXIVM Cult follows the facts of the case pretty closely, without injecting drama for the sake of it. After all, a charismatic duo manipulating young women with the promises of professional development and female empowerment is scary enough on its own. 

If you liked Escaping the NXIVM Cult, you might also enjoy:

  • The Act, streaming on Hulu
Lady BirdSaoirse Ronan
Credit: Merie Wallace/A24

Lady Bird (2017)

This dramedy is loosely based on writer and director Greta Gerwig's upbringing and follows high school senior Christine "Lady Bird" MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) as she dreams about leaving for an East Coast college town filled with culture. After her mother (Laurie Metcalf) accuses her of being ungrateful, Lady Bird keeps her college applications a secret. Eventually, Lady Bird abandons her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) in pursuit of cooler friends and experiences. After getting tangled in lies — both her own and others' — she has to find it in herself to rebuild her broken relationships. 

Lady Bird perfectly encapsulates the feelings of wanting to move on from home to find something more but not knowing what it is you're even searching for. And on the production front, it may have helped pave the way for more women-led projects in Hollywood. An all-around win!  

If you liked Lady Bird, you might also enjoy:

  • Booksmart, streaming on Hulu
Credit: Everett Collection

Stand by Me (1986)

This classic '80s flick, based on the Stephen King novella The Body, follows four friends heading out on a hike to search for the body of a missing boy. Not the coming-of-age story you'd expect, right? Told as one long flashback, director Rob Reiner's Stand by Me deals with low self-esteem, family trauma, childhood bullies, and, of course, death, with narrator Gordie (Wil Wheaton/Richard Dreyfuss), contemplating the loss of his friend group years later and reminding us all that we'll never have friends like we did when we were 12. Ouch!  

With what sadly amounts to a too realistic performance from Wheaton, accompanied by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell, Stand by Me takes a plot that could have easily been turned into a comedy or an action-packed adventure and molds it into a thought-provoking reflection on growing up. Don't worry, though — it's not without its near-death experiences to keep your heart racing.  

If you liked Stand by Me, you might also enjoy:

  • Troop Zero, streaming on Amazon Prime
SWEET GIRL, from left: Isabela Merced, Jason Momoa
Credit: Everett Collection

Sweet Girl (2021)

Killers for hire, big pharma's lies, and a touch of corporate espionage, oh my! Sweet Girl's got it all. Starring Jason Momoa as Ray, a man seeking answers and responsibility after his wife's death, Sweet Girl puts the greed of pharmaceutical companies on blast. Featuring subway stabbings, FBI ambushes, and a twist that nobody could see coming, this action-packed drama is definitely the film version of a page-turner (A scene-flipper? Frame-forwarder? Eh, we'll work on that). 

As part of Netflix's weekly release schedule for 2021, Sweet Girl received mixed critical reviews, but anything that can make your jaw drop like that is a winner in our book. 

If you liked Sweet Girl, you might also enjoy:

  • Searching, streaming on Amazon Prime (for free with ads)
Credit: Ralph Nelson/Warner Bros.

The Blind Side (2009)

Starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, The Blind Side focuses on a wealthy pair of Ole Miss football fans. The film tells yet another true story; this one of a couple who offers a homeless teenager, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a couch to sleep on. The family introduces Michael to football, and he goes on to play college football at... I'm sure you can guess where. 

The "tearless tearjerker," as EW called it, is a feel-good film about a young man who is given the opportunity to learn to stand on his own two feet — yet it doesn't feel cheesy or manipulative. In turn, it earned Bullock several awards, including an Oscar for Best Actress. 

If you liked The Blind Side, you might also enjoy: 

  • The Game Plan, streaming on Disney+
The Devil All The Time
Credit: Glen Wilson/Netflix

The Devil All the Time (2020)

Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time features an tangled web of connections spanning the two decades post-WWII. When Arvin (Tom Holland) loses his parents (Bill Skarsgard and Haley Bennett), he moves in with his grandmother. He meets Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who becomes an unofficial sibling to him. Nearly a decade later, she's seduced by a new reverend in town (Robert Pattinson). She comes close to killing herself after she realizes that she's pregnant and the reverend denies his involvement, but changes her mind at the last second. Unfortunately, it was a second too late. 

This film's not for the faint of heart as it features murder, religious extremism, rape, and other sensitive topics. But with an all-star cast pulling off incredible performances all around, director Antonio Campos nails the adaptation

If you liked The Devil All the Time, you might also enjoy:

  • Damsel, streaming on the Roku Channel
Credit: Jack English/TWC

The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch plays mathematician Alan Turing, the man that not only essentially birthed the concept of artificial intelligence and computer science but who played a pivotal role in cracking the coded messages of the Axis powers during WWII. Based on Andrew Hodges' biography of Turing, The Imitation Game sees Turing becoming interested in cryptography at boarding school before joining the Allied powers years later to decrypt messages sent by the German Enigma machine. The film also touches on society's severe homophobia and was recognized by both GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign.   

Though it was the highest-grossing independent film of the year, this historical drama is better viewed as entertainment rather than an informative retelling, though it certainly succeeds at the former

If you liked The Imitation Game, you might also enjoy: 

  • Hidden Figures, streaming on Hulu with Live TV

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