When considering the value of a film, there are at least two ways to think about it. You can measure its impact on you as an individual, or you can think about what it might mean for society as a whole. Ideally, we would do both, but it is often difficult to weigh the two against each other – especially at this time of year when we reduce the totality of a year in cinema to a simple list of ten. So let us, for the moment, put a film’s purely artistic achievements on the backburner, and celebrate those films that impact our world in a positive way. These socially-conscious movies dramatize the plight of oppressed or marginalized communities, bringing light to issues that too often seem to get stuck in the dark.
There is no way director Ava Duvernay could have known when she shot Selma earlier this year how eerily relevant it would be by its December release date. The images of white police brutalizing black protestors would be eerily similar to events in Ferguson that have dominated our news over the last few months. Then again, these issues will always be timely until America resolves its racial crisis. Selma shows us how little we have grown as a nation since the Civil Rights Era, and does so in a progressive fashion: by relegating white saviors to the background and depicting Martin Luther King and his colleagues as makers of their own destiny.
No, this is not a mistake. Tammy was one of the most socially progressive movies of the year, especially for women and the LGBT community. The script by star Melissa McCarthy and her partner Ben Falcone include a variety of interesting female roles, including McCarthy’s rural working-class hero (an nderrepresented demo in Hollywood movies) and Susan Sarandon’s alcoholic grandmother. Further, it sneaks a strong pro-LGBT message – remember that lesbian 4th of July party? – into a movie that was popular in corners of the country where that’s still a risk. Tammy is a like a cinematic Trojan Horse, sneaking a progressive message into a dumb summer comedy.
2014 was the year of “cli-fi” (climate fiction), with The Rover, Interstellar, and The Young Ones all featuring dystopian near-futures in which climate change has presumably wreaked havoc on the Earth. Snowpiercer is the most politically astute of its group, however, demonstrating how the impact of climate change will be felt most prominently by the poor. The aesthetic victories of Bong Joon-Ho’s innovative film have been well-documented, but it is also the finest and most commercial exploration yet of what may be the two most important issues of our time – environmental degradation and income inequality.
In the fictional town of Cheesebridge, harmless trolls lurk in the shadows, going about their business while escaping capture from Archibald Snatcher, an evil pest exterminator. Snatcher has convinced the townsfolk that the trolls are evil by manufacturing a myth that they kidnapped a baby, but his motives are more materialistic. Look closely, and you can find something akin to a 9/11 truther narrative (with the trolls as a stand-in for Muslims), but the scenario is so perfectly constructed you could read just about any social justice narrative into it. At the very least, it’s a simple plea to bringing marginalized people out of the shadows.
The Imitation Game
The Weinstein Company
The true story of how Alan Turing cracked the unbreakable Nazi code may be the first World War II movie to champion the rights of both women and gays. Graham Moore’s script turns Turing’s life into an inspiring story of how two individuals – both of whom were rejected by society – came together to win the war. Turing is a closeted homosexual who retreated into the world of mathematic following childhood trauma, while his partner Joan Clarke is a woman who is only given the chance to do such important work because of the urgency of wartime. In this way, the film argues that the contributions of oppressed minorities can be vital to a flourishing society.
Jean-Marc Vallee’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is full of feminist victories. The inspiring tale of a woman who finds herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is notable for having a heroine who refuses to define herself in relation to the men in her life. It also depicts numerous female experiences that rarely find their way to film, from a positive depiction of casual sex to the inherent vulnerability of women on their own. But I found myself drawn to the dozens of small feminist touches that makes the story specific and real. Here’s one: Cheryl doesn’t notice that her hiking boots are too small for her until a male hiker points it out. Why not? She’s been trained for years into thinking that shoes are supposed to hurt.
How did Darren Aronofsky get away with this? Ostensibly, the studio execs who greenlit this project thought it would appeal to Christians (hence the Easter-ish release date). Instead, the director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream turned the famous Bible story into an environmental/animal rights manifesto. In the film, God punishes mankind for his wicked ways by causing a flood, which looks remarkably similar to the potential impact of global warming. Meanwhile, Aronofsky – an outspoken vegan – portrays Noah as an animal rights activist who interrupts a hunt in the film’s opening scenes and tells his son of man’s foolishness for thinking that eating meat makes you strong.
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When most critics lavish praise upon Boyhood, they mention the sheer scope of its achievement. But they miss the film’s rousing defense of the American education system, whish serves as a main driver of the plot. Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette) lifts herself into the middle class by finishing college and getting her PhD. At one point, she urges an immigrant working on her house to go to school, only to find him later in the movie having taken her advice and subsequently improved his life. Throughout it all, we monitor Mason’s progress through his school years, reminding us that our adolescence – and our adulthood, if we do it right – is defined by our education, and it should not be taken for granted. It is no surprise that the film ends with him starting college and, for once, feeling like he is on the right track.
Former SNL star Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a fledgling 30-year-old comedian who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. A studio film would use this incident to spin a coming-of-age story that involved Donna accepting the responsibilities of parenthood and settling down with the father, a la Knocked Up. Obvious Child takes a different, more realistic approach. Donna quickly decides to have an abortion, and the film chronicles the impact of that choice with both humor and empathy. What stood out to me was the scene in which Donna meets with a counselor at the abortion clinic for the first time. It was simple and straightforward, with nothing revelatory about it except that it had never before been depicted onscreen.
Two Days, One Night
The Dardennes brothers and their films concerning working-class life in Europe have already made a quantifiable impact. Their Rosetta, about a young unemployed woman forced to work incredibly menial jobs, had a law protecting young workers named after it in Belgium. It is easy to see how Two Days, One Night might one day have as great an impact. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a depressive young wife and mother who must travel throughout the city in a single weekend to ask her co-workers to accept a salary reduction so that she can keep her job. The film takes an even-handed approach, never vilifying her boss or many of her colleagues who refuse to support her. Instead, it depicts the no-win situation many workers find themselves in during this post-recession era, when corporations have recovered but people – economically and emotionally – have not.
Love is Strange
Sony Pictures Classics
What’s most remarkable about this gay love story is how the characters’ sexuality seems almost besides the point. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, long-time partners who get married in the film’s opening scenes. With their sexual identity now a matter of public record, George gets fired from his job at a Catholic school, and the two are forced to live separately until they can find a cheaper apartment. From there, Love is Strange plays out as a series of vignettes, with each lonely lover trying (and mostly failing) to live without the other. Supporting characters such as George’s neighbors and Ben’s nephew factor into the proceedings, and in the end, the marriage of George and Ben is just another kind of love, no more strange than the rest.
Related Topics: Racism