I’m a huge fan of films that inspire and allow us as viewers to think more about life in general. Sure, I like the action flick or silly comedy every now and then, but a deep character drama that is hard to get out of your mind after watching, is my favorite style of film.
The list, including links to analysis reports, is not the final say in “best dramas” by any means, but it’s a great start if you are looking for meaningful films. The films have made an impact in my own life one way or another. I have seen all ten films including the runner ups that are listed below…some dozens of times. I have watched Scent of a Woman about ten times in my life and American Beauty about eight, at least. The films, Fathers and Daughters starring Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried and Kylie Rogers (she plays the young character, “Katie”) I watched only a week ago. My wife and I had a very difficult time getting the film out of our minds but that’s a good thing right?
I recall interviewing actor, Michael Shannon at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. I had asked him what the underlining message was for his new film that he was promoting entitled, The Complete Unknown. He replied by saying, “Just let the viewers decide.” At first I thought his response was somewhat short and rude, but he was right. As viewers we can take away what we want from the films we watch. We just watch films and forget about what the moral is and the underlining theme, or we can dig deeper and find the writer and director’s messages.
The films below are not listed in an order. I hope you get the chance to watch at least a few of these films in your lifetime. Relax, treat yourself to a snack, and forgot about the day…
1. A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
A Beautiful Mind is a fictional movie loosely based on true events of A Biography of John Forbes Nash Jr. by Sylvia Nasar, directed by Ron Howard. Russell Crowe plays John Nash, a mathematical genius, who develops schizophrenia in his early twenties. He overcomes schizophrenia and attains a true sense of accomplishment, and even a sense of greatness. In this movie, the theme of discrimination against mental illnesses becomes lucid. This is developed greatly by the main character and the theme also adds suspense to the film. For a more detailed analysis of this amazing film, visit the Psychology Today news article.
2. AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
Lester and Carolyn Burnham are, on the outside, a perfect husband and wife in a perfect house in a perfect neighborhood. But inside, Lester is slipping deeper and deeper into a hopeless depression. He finally snaps when he becomes infatuated with one of his daughter’s friends. Meanwhile, his daughter Jane is developing a happy friendship with a shy boy-next-door named Ricky, who lives with an abusive father. I love this film! One of the scenes that stuck in my mind for some reason was when the plastic bag was floating around in the air. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean. American Beauty will leave you thinking. Want a more detailed analysis?
3. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
I included this film because of its message of HOPE. Chronicles the experiences of a formerly successful banker as a prisoner in the gloomy jailhouse of Shawshank after being found guilty of a crime he did not commit. The film portrays the man’s unique way of dealing with his new, torturous life; along the way he befriends a number of fellow prisoners, most notably a wise long-term inmate named Red. A more detailed analysis can be found here.
4. FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS (2015)
This was a tough movie to watch because of the situation with my own daughter. Jake Davis (Russell Crowe), a Pulitzer-winning novelist, finds himself fighting against the world when a fatal car accident leaves him to raise his 5-year-old daughter, Katie, all on his own. Overcome with guilt from the loss of his wife, he struggles with the daily routine of raising a child compounded by his overbearing relatives intent on taking her away from him. As the narrative weaves back and forth between the 1980s, and present day, we come to learn how 30-year-old Katie (Amanda Seyfried) battles the demons that stemmed from her troubled childhood and simultaneously watch how Jake fights to hold on to the thing he loves most – his daughter, at the cost of his fortune, sanity, and ultimately even his own life. Detailed analysis and film review can be found here.
5. VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999)
This film is perhaps the least popular of the group not because it isn’t as good, it just didn’t get the publicity and promotion of a huge budget Hollywood film. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film so I should revisit it soon. A man about forty years of age tells the story from when he was a teenager in upscale suburban Detroit of his and three of his friends’ fascination with the mysterious and doomed Lisbon sisters. In 1974, the sisters were seventeen year old Therese, sixteen year old Mary, fifteen year old Bonnie, fourteen year old Lux, and thirteen year old Cecilia. Their fascination still remains as they try to piece together the entire story. The sisters were mysteries if only because of having a strict and overprotective upbringing by their father, who taught math at the girls’ private co-ed school, and overly devout Catholic mother, who largely dictated the household rules. The story focuses primarily on two incidents and the resulting situations on the girls’ lives. The first was an action by Cecilia to deal with her emotions over her life. And the second was the relationship between Lux – the sister who pushed the boundaries of the household rules most overtly in doing what most teenagers want to. Detailed analysis.
6. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)
I will never forget the quote that was said by the film writer, Stephen Chbosky: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Beautifully written and said. The film is about 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman), an endearing and naive outsider, coping with first love (Emma Watson), the suicide of his best friend, and his own mental illness while struggling to find a group of people with whom he belongs. The introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors, Sam and Patrick, who welcome him to the real world. Detailed analysis can be found here.
7. I AM SAM (2001)
Here is another that is a must watch. I am definitely drawn to movies about fathers and daughters (and the legal rights of fathers) because of my own personal situation. Sam Dawson has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He works at a Starbucks and is obsessed with the Beatles. He has a daughter with a homeless woman; she abandons them as soon as they leave the hospital. He names his daughter Lucy Diamond (after the Beatles song), and raises her. But as she reaches age 7 herself, Sam’s limitations start to become a problem at school; she’s intentionally holding back to avoid looking smarter than him. The authorities take her away, and Sam shames high-priced lawyer Rita Harrison into taking his case pro bono. In the process, he teaches her a great deal about love, and whether it’s really all you need. Detailed analysis.
8. THE JUDGE (2014)
My wife and I watched this together and again and had a hard time forgetting this film…well, we haven’t yet and it’s been months. Hank Palmer is a successful defense attorney in Chicago, who is getting a divorce. When His brother calls with the news that their mother has died, Hank returns to his childhood home to attend the funeral. Despite the brittle bond between Hank and the Judge, Hank must come to his father’s aid and defend him in court. Here, Hank discovers the truth behind the case, which binds together the dysfunctional family and reveals the struggles and secrecy of the family. A detailed analysis and article can be found here.
9. SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992)
Probably some of the most powerful movie quotes are spoken in this amazing film: “What life?!? I got no life! I’m in the dark here! You understand? I’m in the dark!”, and “If you make a mistake and get all tangled up, you just tango on.” And you can’t forget, “HoooHaaa!” In New Hampshire, Charlie Simms attends the Baird School, an all boys boarding school with rigorous classes and expensive enrollment. Yearning for cash from a part-time job so he can return to his family in Oregon for upcoming Christmas Break, the innocent Simms accepts a job for “babysitting” at a nearby household. The job is not what he expects, for he is commissioned to watch over an unlikeable, blunt behaved blind ex-colonel named Slade who has a keen ability at selecting his aides. Because of his sympathetic and integral nature, Charlie agrees to the job. Before he can even locate his level of comfort in the job, Simms is unexpectedly taken to New York City with the colonel, where the ex-military man has several agendas of his own. A detailed analysis can be found here.
10. PATCH ADAMS (1998)
One of Robin Williams’ best films! In 1969, Hunter Adams was a troubled man who voluntarily committed himself into a mental institution. Once there, he finds that helping his fellow inmates there gives him a purpose in life. Thus inspired, he leaves the asylum and vows to become a doctor to help people professionally. However, what he finds at medical school is a sickeningly callous philosophy that advocates an arms-length attitude to the patients that does not address their emotional needs or the quality of their lives. “Patch” Adams is determined to find a better way to help them, although the consequences of his defiance of the rules and the authorities are severe. Detailed analysis.
MY RUNNER UPS
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Will Hunting, a janitor at M.I.T., has a gift for mathematics, but needs help from a psychologist to find direction.
The Descendants (2011)
When his wife is hospitalized, wealthy Matt King (George Clooney) and his family must adapt to sweeping changes
American History X (1998)
A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.
As a social justice filmmaker and a TV host with MetamoraTV, I like to seek out ways that my films and projects, along with other films by influential filmmakers across the world can be seen by our communities. Recently, I found “The Meaningful Movies Project“, a non-profit organization that helps neighborhoods, groups and individuals organize, educate and advocate using the power of social justice documentary film and conversation to build positive and meaningful community. I see this as an amazing opportunity to build conversations on important social topics through the power of film.
According to their website, The Meaningful Movies Project, “empowers citizens to gather, educate, inspire, connect, and commit to effective, non-violent solutions in building a more peaceful and just world.” The first step would be to start a group, and the great thing is a large budget is not required. If fact, some groups start inside homes, then expand to a larger community facility. I may be looking at starting a group in the Pacific Northwest (we are relocating Metamora Films from Utah to Washington State possibly later this year…stay tuned!) which would be a great opportunity to not only share the films that we’ve produced at Metamora, but other films that target social justice issues. I can’t help to feel that I should be doing much more in helping others through the power of independent film. I’m sure other social justice filmmakers feel the same way: how can we as artists help change the world through our work? Sure, there’s film distributors, online distribution, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. that help filmmakers promote their films to the public, but in my opinion, there’s nothing better than to meet people face to face and learn how the film affected them personally. The possibilities are endless with community screenings such as the Meaningful Movies Project.
Over the last few years, I’ve hosted charitable film releases in Salt Lake City, Utah where we’ve shown, The Forgiveness Journey, a documentary film on the process of forgiveness, What Makes Me Tic?, a documentary on Tourette Syndrome, and Life Under The Horseshoe, a short film on Spring City, Utah’s live, stage radio show. Each film release has had a wonderful turnout and donations were raised for charitable organizations such as The Forgiveness Project (U.K. based) and the Tourette Association, Utah Chapter. Now, with The Meaningful Movies Project, I feel that the possibility of reaching even more people is available through groups, community events and film releases.
It’s my hope that The Meaningful Movies Project catches on throughout the country (and even world!) in order for more and more people to witness the power of film and how it can better our cities, communities and world.
If you’re interested in starting a group in your area, please visit the online application. Good Luck!
– Matt Duhamel, Metamora Films