Ten Films that Highlight the Best in Humanity
Forget the Oscars. With the Greater Goodies, we’re honoring movies from the past year that exemplify forgiveness, resilience, empathy, and other keys to our well-being.
The Academy Awards are coming up—and so we thought we’d give out our own version of the Oscars, the Greater Goodies.
Whereas the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes achievements in acting, directing, editing, and so on, the Greater Good staff picked our winners for their ability to illustrate specific keys to human well-being, such as resilience, purpose, and forgiveness.
Some of the movies are action-filled blockbusters, like Wonder Woman or Star Wars: The Last Jedi; others are quiet independent films like The Florida Project and Lady Bird. We hope the Greater Goodies help you see all of these films in a new light—and perhaps you can apply their insights to your own life.
The Resilience Award: Call Me by Your Name
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name.
When 17-year-old Elio Perlman first meets doctoral student Oliver, they don’t seem to like each other very much—and when they part, it’s in pain. Call Me by Your Name is about what happens in between those two events, as Elio and Oliver fall in love amid the crumbling, sun-drenched beauty of Lombardy, Italy.
Along the way, we learn a great deal about resilience. In the seven-minute scene that closes the movie, a devastated Elio sits staring into a fire as tears roll down his face—but we know he’s going to be fine. Why?
Mainly because Elio is far from isolated. His father knows before Elio does that he is falling in love with Oliver. Rather than intervening or lecturing, Dr. Perlman watches and waits—and keeps up the connection to his son, even when the teenager pulls away.
“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot,” he says at one point, knowing that sooner or later we all take a hit. In their striking final scene together, father approaches son with the truth as compassionately as possible, revealing that he knew about the affair and gently encouraging Elio to gain some perspective. “He was good, and you were both lucky to have found each other, because…you too are good,” he says. He adds:
I may have come close, but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business, just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.
It’s the very connection with his father that helps Elio weather heartbreak, but the content of Dr. Perlman’s message matters, too. Suffering is a part of life, he tells his son—and so is joy, pleasure, and love. We grow stronger when we allow ourselves to feel and remember all of it. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Purpose Award: Coco
By now, it’s well-recognized that, broadly speaking, Pixar Animation Studios produces two kinds of films: the one that sells a lot of toys (like the Cars and Monsters franchises) and the kind that use animation and storytelling to resonate with grown-ups.
The 2017 film Coco falls into the grown-up camp: The young, talented guitar hero travels between the worlds of the living and the dead in order to uncover clues about his family’s old and complicated relationship with music. The story has plot twists that even few adults will see coming, and ultimately the film unites several themes straight out of Greater Good, such as finding forgiveness for those we think have harmed us (spoiler: those people aren’t always who we think they are).
But we are giving Coco a Greater Goody because it reveals the power of long-term, meaningful goals to shape our lives. Miguel, the 12-year-old protagonist, is driven to become a musician. Thanks to a tragedy, Miguel must keep his love for music a secret from his family—until he tells them that he wishes to play at the Día de Muertos talent show. When his abuelita breaks his guitar and forbids him to play, Miguel announces that he no longer wants to be a part of the family and runs away.
Desperate to play in the talent show that evening, Miguel breaks into the mausoleum of a town musical legend to borrow his guitar. This triggers a series of transformations that brings Miguel to the land of the dead.
According to psychologist William Damon, “purpose is a part of one’s personal search for meaning, but it also [includes] the desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self.” For Miguel, his intention to become a musician is guided by his yearning to connect to his ancestors, and this goal leads him to resolve a longstanding misunderstanding about his ancestors, ensuring that their true identities are known and their memories survive.
The Socially Intelligent Power Award: The Darkest Hour
Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman) talks to the people of the London Underground in The Darkest Hour.
At the beginning of The Darkest Hour—and there’s really no nice way to say this—Prime Minister Winston Churchill is an entitled, ruling-class jerk. He’s nasty to people with less power than him, detached from their suffering, and unable to persuade others because he cannot put himself in their shoes. As he shouts to an underling: “Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!”
In many ways, this Churchill embodies the way Greater Good Science Center’s cofounder Dacher Kelter conceives of power. “The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power,” he writes in his essay, “The Power Paradox.” Keltner’s solutions are the ones Churchill must adopt in order to save the troops at Dunkirk: He learns to listen and to empathize, however imperfectly.
In the film’s telling, Churchill is surrounded by men who are very much like himself: rich, high-born, educated, powerful. These men, it turns out, are much more sympathetic to fascism that the rest of the British public, and they continually urge Churchill to make peace with Hitler and Mussolini.
The film pivots around a scene (apparently apocryphal) when Churchill ventures into the London Underground to talk about the war with working-class women and men. Through a series of questions, he discovers they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stop fascism. This focus-group knowledge strengthens his resolve, but he must still find the skills to persuade the king, his cabinet, and parliament to fight back against the Axis powers instead of surrendering.
The rest, as they say, is history. Churchill is no doubt deficient as a poster child for our conception of power as something that must be exercised with empathy and accountability. And yet, no other film in the past year made the case for socially responsible power quite so forcefully. Churchill is flawed—and his heroism arises from his triumph over his own worst instincts.
The Empathy Award: The Florida Project
The children of The Florida Project.
In the gritty, documentary-like Florida Project, precocious six-year-old children run through fields and abandoned buildings around a motel-slum where they live, called “The Magic Castle.” Director Sean Baker juxtaposes their irrepressible energy and joy with scenes of poverty and chaos, all within a mile of Disney World. Through this vivid, haunting portrayal of a community of families living in the run-down Magic Castle, the film explores empathy on several levels.
“I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” says young Moonee to her friend Scooty. They are secretly watching Moonee’s mother, who sells perfume and her body in order to survive. Throughout the film, we wonder how much of her mother’s desperate life Moonee understands—and this moment reveals that she understands and feels more than she probably should.
Moonee has at least one adult in the film who tries to take care of her. Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe plays a somewhat ineffectual hotel manager, Bobby, who watches over the single mothers and children in the building with an empathic, protective gaze. Bobby doesn’t say a lot, and so Dafoe must convey his empathy through his eyes, gestures, and actions. You feel both his compassion and his helplessness as he bears witness to the struggles of the kids on the property (while likely grappling with his own private and personal failures).
There are only a few movies that have moved me so deeply that I sobbed after watching them. This was one. This is a filmmaker who represents people living in poverty with balance, truthfulness, and imaginative vision. Baker doesn’t strive to elicit sympathy or pat-on-the-head pity; he leads us to feel deeply with these characters
The Forgiveness Award: Lady Bird
How can a movie that focuses on the conflicts between a mother and her teenage daughter fill us with inspiration? Lady Bird does it.
In the film, the protagonist Lady Bird—a name she gives herself—discovers her own identity and goals by taking creative risks, testing friendships, and exploring her budding sexuality. Conflict arises when her distraught mother finds it difficult to support her choices. The movie is filled with scenes when mother and daughter argue past each other, not able to embrace their clear connection.
The movie touches on many of Greater Good‘s themes—but especially the importance of forgiveness. In one instance, Lady Bird dates and falls in love with a boy whom she later finds out is gay. While angrily confronting him over his deception, he collapses in tears, expressing his fears of coming out to his Catholic parents. As Lady Bird comforts him, you see forgiveness dawning, paving the way for them to remain friends.
In another instance, Lady Bird befriends a group of popular girls at school to get closer to a boy she likes. This creates tension between her and her best friend, who is not popular and resents being pushed aside. Eventually, Lady Bird realizes it’s not fun to have to pretend you’re someone you’re not, and she misses her old friend. After seeing her mistake and asking for forgiveness, the two reconcile and repair their relationship—even attending the prom together.
Meanwhile, the conflict between mother and daughter continues to boil throughout the film. At one point, Lady Bird tells her mother, “I just wish… I wish that you liked me.” To which her mother replies, “Of course I love you.” In that gap between “like” and “love,” we see how mother and daughter misunderstand each other—a scene punctuated with a closed door and the mother’s hesitation to knock at that door and try again.
But, as Lady Bird learns to see her mother’s struggles, she comes to realize that her mother’s resistance to change is a cover for love and concern. At the end, Lady Bird forgives her mother and openly thanks her for her many sacrifices.
The Growth Mindset Award: The Last Jedi
The latest episode in the ongoing Star Wars saga is all about failure.
The most interesting thing you can say about failure in The Last Jedi is we don’t see a lot of nice, safe blunders, where everyone learns a valuable lesson afterward. No, these are bloody, emotionally devastating failures, of a kind that many people cannot live with. Poe Dameron’s mistakes kill hundreds of his comrades. Luke Skywalker fails Kylo Ren in every way a mentor can, which leads directly to the deaths of his best friend Han Solo and (literally) millions of other people—a failure that he unsparingly links to the history of the Jedi Order. Even the villains can’t catch a break: Supreme Leader Snoke, General Hux, and Ren himself all fail at some point. Yes, Ren rises to rule the First Order—only to be humiliated on the battlefield by Skywalker.
How each of these characters responds to failure reveals a lot about them. When defeated, Ren breaks out his lightsaber and mindlessly destroys whatever’s within reach. His counterpart, Rey, embodies a different approach, one of our favorite social-scientific constructs here at Greater Good: the growth mindset. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point,” writes psychologist Carol Dweck.
“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
When we met Rey in the previous movie, The Force Awakens, she was a lost and emotionally needy kid. In The Last Jedi, she is learning from her mistakes and she is starting to discover what she is truly capable of. Though she is the galaxy’s most powerful Jedi since Anakin Skywalker, Rey is also humble, in a way that makes her distinctly different from the other (ahem, male) heroes of Star Wars. “I need someone to show me my place in all of this,” she tells Luke at one point. “I felt something. It awakened, but now I need to know how to wield it.” We spend much of the movie watching Rey train and strive to understand herself.
As usual, it falls to Jedi Master Yoda to sum up the message of the movie: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
The Nonviolent Heroism Award: The Shape of Water
In an ordinary American movie, Colonel Richard Strickland would be the hero.
He’s the hard-charging chief of security at a top-secret government facility at the height of the Cold War. Unfortunately, he is tragically deformed by a system that does not value life, human and otherwise.
Instead of Strickland, the hero of The Shape of Water is a mute cleaning woman named Elisa Esposito. She develops a secret connection with an amphibious creature that Strickland drags back from a South American black lagoon—one that blossoms into an unlikely transspecies romance.
Esposito is powerless and marginal in this alternate America. But when the nameless creature is threatened with vivisection, she joins forces with two friends and a dissident Soviet spy to get him home. There is some violence in The Shape of Water, but none of the incidents are heroic. American and Soviet agents kill each other in ways that feel senseless and lonely, while the true heroes of the film—a mute Latina, a black janitor, and a gay commercial artist—achieve their aims through cooperation and nonviolence.
The Shape of Water doesn’t always make sense. (For example, what’s up with that sex scene in the bathroom?) And yet, like many of director Guillermo del Toro’s films, it’s driven by intense dream-logic and vivid images. This makes it feel more like a fable, a type of story that uses non-human creatures to convey a specific moral.
What is the moral of the movie? In The Creature from the Black Lagoon—the 1954 horror film that inspired this one—the entire plot depends on a two-fisted straight white guy rescuing the girl from a monstrous fish-man. In The Shape of Water, someone very much like that guy (Strickland) is the villain, and his defeat allows the creature and “the girl” (Esposito, actually a grown woman) to finally come together.
In this way, the film teaches that we should respond to differences with curiosity, not fear. The moral of the story is clear, simple, and more important than ever: Love is stronger than violence and hate.
The Common Humanity Award: Wonder
Auggie Pullman was born with a craniofacial condition. In Wonder, we see him make the transition from a sweetly protected, home-schooled, medical-procedure-laden life to the unpredictable and socially intense environment of a very well-intentioned private middle school—and ultimately inspire the whole place for the better.
In the beginning, Auggie’s challenge is overwhelming awkwardness. People startle at first glance, then respond with anything from saccharine kindness to fear to demeaning hostility. To Auggie, all of it feels like an unwanted spotlight. When his doting elder sister Via, just starting high school herself, attempts to commiserate with him by sharing her own troubles, he shouts: “Bad days? Bad days? Do people avoid touching you? When people accidentally touch you, do they call it the plague?”
A couple of enlightened adults and kids at the school, however, shift the tide. The embarrassing-dad-joke school principal Mr. Tushman wins over Auggie’s trust with dorky humility and a common interest in science. His hipster history teacher sets an authentic and heartfelt tone with matter-of-fact kindness and assigned reflections on humanistic philosophical principles. Classmates Jack and Summer, somehow sensing the unfairness and injustice he faces, see and truly befriend Auggie for who he is. Other schoolmates fall in line, no longer treating Auggie like he’s weird. The once-harsh school bullies even end up defending Auggie from bigger bullies, and they come to embrace him as their “little guy.”
When Auggie wins the big end-of-the-year, person-who-changed-the-world-for-the-better school award at graduation, it’s a tearful testament to the power of common humanity. — Emiliana Simon-Thomas
The Community and Diversity Award: Wonder Woman and Black Panther (tie)
Though one movie comes from the Marvel Universe and the other from DC, Black Panther and Wonder Woman have one big thing in common: They are both about the relationship of homogenous, isolated utopian communities to the wider, more complicated world.
The superpowered Wonder Woman comes from Themyscira, home to an immortal race of Amazons who appear to spend their endless days swinging swords, shooting arrows, and riding horses. They were created by the god Zeus to protect humanity, but it seems they’ve become just a bit too comfortable in their paradise.
Black Panther is set in Wakanda, a geographically isolated region in Central Africa that was hit, once upon a time, by a magic meteor. The benevolent radiation from its metal mutates the flora, fauna, and possibly the people; this spurs scientific and engineering development that makes Wakanda the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. No one knows this because—as in the case of Themyscira—Wakanda develops physical camouflage and a policy of radical isolation in order to avoid European colonization.
Themyscira and Wakanda both illustrate how important community is to human well-being—and in many ways, these really are good societies whose members feel safe, cared for, and connected to each other. But both utopias pay a cost for their stability: They start to fall apart when outside influences arrive in the form of Captain Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman and Killmonger in Black Panther.
In this way, these two superhero movies have a lot to say about the tension between community and diversity. And in the end, they both make the same choice. Wakanda decides to end its isolation, grow beyond itself, and work to make the rest of the world a better place. Wonder Woman decides that she cannot stay on Themyscira. Instead, she becomes a part of “man’s world,” kicking and punching evil wherever she finds it. As T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, says at the thoughtful conclusion of Black Panther:
Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.