In 2015, dark academia took the internet by storm in 2015 with Tumblr accounts taking an affinity to old buildings, mahogany wood furniture, and art galleries—so much so that it became an entire way of life!
You can imagine Oxford students reading Shakespeare in a candle-lit café with black coffee steaming beside a rain-splattered window. It was the new go-to aesthetic, a marked change from the urban skateboarders of the 90s and the puffy pink Y2K fashion of the 2000s.
Before we dive into the movies that exemplify the dark academia subculture, let's first define what it means.
What Is Dark Academia? Explained
Like most aesthetics, the online subculture of dark academia is nebulous and hard to define with words alone. It's one of those things you know when you see it.
But in layman's terms? Dark academia is an aesthetic and lifestyle of appreciation for the classics: literature, music, art, etc.
Drawing from the Gothic and Romantic movements, dark academia is all about high art, high education, and high culture—but in an appreciative way rather than a snobby way.
Dark academics revel in the simplicities of this lifestyle in which a good book in an old library is enough to satisfy. Dark academics are essentially hopeless romantics who are cloaked in shadows.
Whether you're still struggling to grasp the vibe or you've fallen in love with the aesthetic yourself, here are the best dark academia movies that are sure to be approved by the subculture.
10. The Goldfinch (2019)
Directed by John Crowley
Starring Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman
Drama (2h 29m)
The title of The Goldfinch refers to a painting by Carel Fabritius, an influential artist of the Dutch Golden Age. The entire movie revolves around this classic painting, found in the New York art museum that The Goldfinch continually flashes back to.
This film has museums, the Dutch Golden Age, classic paintings... it's all sounding quite dark academia already.
Ansel Elgort stars as Theodore Decker, an orphaned boy who blames himself for his mother's death. His suit and glasses—coupled with his smart, shy, and mysterious personality—make Theodore the picture-perfect protagonist for dark academia.
John Crowley adapted Donna Tartt's novel to mixed reviews, but we can't deny the dark academic tone and superb performances.
9. Total Eclipse (1995)
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis, Romane Bohringer
Biography, Drama, Romance (1h 51m)
Total Eclipse is one of the lesser-known movies in Leonardo DiCaprio's canon and difficult to find on most major streaming platforms. But if you're lucky enough to stumble across it, expect to settle in for two hours of poetry, antiques, and forbidden love.
A baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio appears in Total Eclipse as the real-life French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who had a violent affair with Symbolist movement poet Paul Verlaine.
Despite their age gap, the two are happy to drink, read poetry, make love, and ruffle their quills beside open fireplaces. However, it's not all beach walks and confessions of love. Verlaine ends up in prison and Rimbaud renounces literature to travel the world alone.
Agnieszka Holland's period drama is melancholy and inspiring in equal measure, sourced from actual letters that the two men exchanged.
8. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Directed by James Marsh
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior
Biography, Drama, Romance (2h 3m)
The Theory of Everything is based on the real person of Stephen Hawking, who's up there with Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin as one of the foremost leading scientists in world history.
Specializing in general relativity (physics), Hawking earned a doctorate at Cambridge University before making a discovery that made possible the study of black holes and the Big Bang.
Before his time at Cambridge, Hawking studied at Oxford—and these two locations are favorites for dark academics in the UK.
Stephen Hawking was eventually diagnosed with a motor neurone disease that would slowly eradicate his ability to walk, move, and even speak. Eddie Redmayne embodied the mathematical genius in James Marsh's nostalgic biopic and won the Oscar for Best Actor.
7. Another Country (1984)
Directed by Marek Kanievska
Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Michael Jenn
Biography, Drama, History (1h 30m)
Even though Another Country is a critique on the hypocritical, judgmental, and pretentious world of English education in the 1930s, the atmosphere and visuals are still a treat for dark academia lovers.
A satire of Eton and Winchester, Guy Bennett (Rupert Everett) attends a public school that's as strict as it is pretty. Paired with the 1930s setting, it turns out to be a terrible place to be homosexual.
Bennett refuses to be belittled and shamed, speaking out against the oppressive system that leads other gay students to suicide.
The title of Marek Kanievska's romantic drama has layered meanings, primarily in reference to Soviet Russia where Bennett ends up a spy (based loosely on real-life Guy Burgess), but also to the hymn "I Vow to Thee, My Country" and the general feeling that English boarding schools are like living in another country.
6. The Dreamers (2003)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green
Drama, Romance (1h 55m)
Relationships beyond heterosexual norms are commonly explored in the dark academia branch of cinema.
In Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, this particular love triangle is made up of two French twins (played by Eva Green and Louis Garrel) and their new American friend (played by Michael Pitt).
This unusual erotic setup serves them well at first, but ends in the same violence that riots outside on the Parisian streets.
If you take away the incestuous threesome part, The Dreamers is a sophisticated ode to the arts. The three "dreamers" become friends through their passion for cinema, where snippets of French New Wave films intersect in the movie.
Discussing music and politics is how they spend their days, and any dark academia search on Tumblr is sure to bring up screengrabs of them running through the Louvre.
5. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck
Drama, Romance (2h 6m)
Good Will Hunting is the only film on this list to feature a foul-mouthed South Boston accent rather than a posh English or seductive French one.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a mathematical genius like the others—except this one drinks beer at sports bars and has just gotten out of jail. While working as a janitor at MIT following his release, Will's hidden genius is discovered and he's forced into therapy.
Therapy is a difficult thing for anyone, but it's surprisingly effective when you're working with Robin Williams. His kind face and humorous warmth make him the only counselor able to crack Will's hardened exterior.
All of this unfolds against the backdrop of autumn leaves and college halls that dark academics adore. Damon also co-wrote the screenplay (for which he won an Oscar), directed by Gus Van Sant.
4. Maurice (1987)
Directed by James Ivory
Starring James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Hugh Grant
Drama, Romance (2h 20m)
Maurice takes place at Cambridge University in 1909, where two students begin a secret love affair.
Being a gay man in an early 20th century aristocratic setting isn't ideal, so the couple decide to break things off—yet the two can never quite shake each other off.
We're used to seeing Hugh Grant as the floppy-haired, well-spoken British heartthrob who usually gets to finish first. But here? No.
In Maurice, we see him away from Notting Hill and in period clothing for James Ivory's overlooked drama, which has become a beloved gem of LGBTQ+ cinema.
3. The Imitation Game (2014)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Biography, Drama, Thriller (1h 54m)
As you might've sensed from the movies mentioned thus far, dark academia is more or less a queer aesthetic, one in which reciting poetry and yearning against tradition is common.
Alongside Stephen Hawking in the mathematical hall of fame is Alan Turing, the inventor of the Turing machine (which was essentially the first computer and helped win World War II).
Turing's prototype for artificial intelligence was created to crack the Nazi's Enigma code, which no one could figure out. This undercover war effort took place at Bletchley Park, an illustrious country house full of the dark wood surfaces dark academia lives in.
It's sad to think that both Turing and his machine were looked down upon in 1936, chiefly because of his homosexuality and autism. Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Morten Tyldum's tender biopic.
2. Kill Your Darlings (2013)
Directed by John Krokidas
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall
Biography, Drama, Romance (1h 44m)
Film grain, jazz music, and poetry—it's all here and representative of dark academia. In Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas tells the hidden story of Allen Ginsberg before he became a famous American poet.
When not studying as an awkward freshman, Ginsberg could be found in smoke-filled cafés, scribbling words beside scratchy vinyls. Meanwhile, his new rebellious lover Lucien Carr was trying to stir revolution.
Together, the two gathered together more troubled artists and began a literary movement called "The New Vision." Daniel Radcliffe and Dane Dehaan star as the polar-opposite couple, which could never go smoothly with an anarchist like Carr involved.
Kill Your Darlings was Radcliffe's first role after the mainline Harry Potter movies came to an end, and it was a radical but welcomed change from kids fantasy (even if the glasses stayed).
1. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
Comedy, Drama (2h 8m)
In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams once again inspires us with his wise words and friendly smile in a dark academia setting.
He plays John Keating, the only teacher on this list who doesn't suffocate his students and instead accepts and encourages every student in his English class to seize the day.
Unfortunately, the rest of the staff at Welton Academy don't approve of Keating's unorthodox methods.
Despite living in a strict, all-male boarding school in 1959, some of the students manage to make art, life, and love flourish in the cracks. In reviving Keating's former "Dead Poets Society" club, the boys sneak off campus to recite poetry in a cave at midnight.
Peter Weir's sentimental drama will both lift and break your heart—just like most of the best dark academia movies do.