We’re knee deep into the era of superhero blockbusters, where Hollywood continues to churn out movies that are largely indistinguishable from one another. The purpose of this is simple: certain types of movies are guaranteed to make a profit, as their goal is to entertain and more importantly show you something they know you will like, mostly because you already liked it before and are likely to go see the next movie that resembles it. You go to the movie, you see some big explosions, muscular leading men, beautiful women, epically choreographed fight scenes (or CGI fight scenes), the good guys win and you go home feeling all is well with the world. No meaningful ideas were presented, you weren’t challenged in any way, you didn’t have to think at all, it was just entertainment for the sake of entertainment.
There are also many filmmakers seeking to do more than just entertain, they don’t want to just show you more of the same of what you’re used to, they sprinkle in a little radicalism, a few controversial ideas, some notions highlighting how the way you currently think about the world may or may not in fact be correct or to your benefit. These ideas might be exhilarating, threatening, eye opening, or you might not even notice they were being presented in the film to begin with. The history of cinema is littered with films that challenge conventional wisdom and try to instill in their audience some fairly radical notions of what it means to be human, to challenge your belief system. Here’s a list of 15 films that try to do just that which you should actually see (in no particular order).
WARNING: There are plenty of spoilers ahead.
15 Groundhog Day (1993)
It’s rather strange to think of this film as one about self-awareness, self-actualization and self discovery when these lessons are framed in the most ridiculous plot imaginable. But if you strip away the cover, there is a deep wealth of wisdom contained within Groundhog Day, and Bill Murray’s unselfconscious nature delivers it so effortlessly you might miss it. Not only does it describe in rich detail how to live with purpose and conviction, it constantly bombards you with the very real consequences of doing the reverse. Every day is basically the same if you keep doing the same crap and never learn anything...change comes from within...etc...
14 The Matrix (1999)
Perhaps the most influential film in the sci-fi/action genres of the past 20 years, most people who see The Matrix fail to grasp what the film is about. In it, each human is being used as a battery to feed a large machine (Government/Industry) that regards said humans as little more than cattle. To keep the humans pacified, they trap the consciousness of all humanity in a simulation (TV/mainstream media) in which they have little to no control. Agents working for the machine ensure that anyone who breaks free of the simulation is promptly dealt with. The film follows the story of a messianic figure who breaks free and discovers the world outside (spirituality/consciousness).
13 The Truman Show (1998)
Peter Weir’s dystopian look at voyeurism and reality television came about at a time in which reality TV was just beginning to get popular, having since become much more so. The star of The Truman Show does not realize that he is living on a giant set and that everyone in his life is a trained actor, while he’s the only one not in on the secret. Tragic at times and hilarious at others, the film highlights the inhumanity inherent in reality TV, the yearning we have as people to live authentic lives and create our own reality, and the raw corrupting influence of television in lulling us into passivity and decay.
12 Fight Club (1999)
A roar of indignation against modern culture and how it stifles masculinity with consumerism and political correctness, Fight Club addresses some inconvenient truths: Men must express their aggression to retain their masculinity and modern society affords very few outlets to do so. People aren’t meant to sit at cubicles and stare at screens all day and live off of credit, male bodies are built with upper body strength and testosterone in mind, they’re built to fight something or someone and without expressing that in some fashion, they become sick. Its proposed solution is obviously extreme, but this extremity is meant as a condemnation of how inorganic the consumer lifestyle is.
11 They Live (1988)
Featuring perhaps the single best fight scene in the history of Cinema between Roddy Piper and Keith David (try watching that scene without wincing at least a dozen times), They Live is a cult classic that was relatively unpopular, largely because it overtly took a giant dump all over American culture and its utter disregard for humanity. The premise is that aliens live on earth and have brainwashed all of humanity into worshiping money, sex and fitting in. It depicts the police as brutal and sociopathic (a theme that is sadly much more relevant today now that smartphones can capture this to its full extent) and regards most people as mindless, irrelevant sheep who are hopelessly unaware of the extent to which their genuine desires have been supplanted by superficial ones.
10 Network (1976)
Perhaps more relevant today than forty years ago when it was originally released, Network is a triumphant critique of news and television, and is easily one of the best screenplays ever written. Paddy Chayefsky’s satire is hilarious and insightful, she predicts the rise of “Newstainment” where the news is no longer about conveying facts and information, but instead about ratings, money and escapism. She portrays corporate types as soulless monsters willing to do absolutely anything to pull a profit and even goes into the decay of modern relationships. Millennials will have difficulty watching this film because of the sophistication of its language, which ironically is proof that what Chayefsky warns us about is entirely true.
9 La Belle Verte (1996)
A deeply philosophical look at modern human relations, as well as one of the lovely Marion Cotillard’s earlier films, La Belle Verte reminds us that we are of the earth and that our relationship with it has gone sour. In it, a super evolved race of people spend their time living harmoniously with nature and occasionally visit other planets to see how evolved they have become, with our planet having a very poor reputation. Its director and lead actress, Coline Serreau, depicts humanity as selfish, untrusting, greedy, depraved and totally disconnected from their souls. Beauty is all around us, in every seemingly meaningless object and in each other, but we fail to see it because we are running on rails.
8 Samsara (2011)
Not a particularly well known documentary, Samsara is a kind of visual exploration of the world on a macro scale. Rich with color, texture and exemplifying breathtaking cinematography, the effects of watching the film are twofold: You realize how small you are in the larger context of the planet, and you realize how the entire planet itself is an organism which we are inhabiting much like an ant farm. The underlying message is obvious, we are all indelibly connected to each other and cannot fully understand ourselves individually while remaining ignorant of this.
7 Wall-E (2008)
Depending on your awareness of both yourself and your surroundings, you will extrapolate a wealth of different lessons or perhaps none at all and just be entertained by this film. So much of what Wall-E communicates about wastefulness and being disconnected from both the earth and ourselves is not overtly communicated but implied. It is no coincidence that the two most human-like characters in the film are robots, and the humans are robotic consumers. It is rare to see something so profound come from Disney, a gem of a film.
6 Vanilla Sky (2001)
Mired with poor reviews, most people overlook what Vanilla Sky and the original film from which it was derived from are about. We are nearing a time where technology will be able to provide everything that we currently get from other people. Does it matter that the memories I have of being with a stunning woman were never real if my mind is convinced it is? Or perhaps hitting a grand slam in the world series? What is real is often just a matter of opinion, particularly in a culture that has celebrated and perhaps even deified escapism to the imagination.
5 Waking Life (2011)
Dreams and the subconscious mind, two extremely complex topics are addressed with enormous levity and wit in this pseudo-documentary. It is said that the bulk of our day to day decisions are not even happening on a conscious level, that in fact the majority of who and what we are is lodged in this mysterious place we call the subconscious. The film follows the travels of a young man who is trying to discern the meaning of his dreams and their connection to reality. It should be noted that the film doesn’t really make any broad sweeping conclusions, but rather is meant as a springboard for you to explore your own dreams and what they could mean about what lurks in the corners of your mind.
4 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Shawshank centers around Andy Dufresne, who is wrongfully accused of murder which ends up costing him decades of his life. Morgan Freeman’s legendary narration in this film is peppered with philosophical insights and powerful lessons about what it means to be free, alive and thriving, as well as what a person’s soul has to go through to find peace. The film bravely addresses the darkness that potentially exists in all of us and gives us several different characters who navigate that darkness differently, some to freedom, others to grizzly ends.
3 American Beauty (1999)
Duality and self denial is at the core of this uncompromising portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics in modern culture. Lester wears one face at the dinner table, another at the office, and another while smoking pot in an alley with his 18 year old next door neighbor. The characters all look outside of themselves in a desperate attempt to find happiness and fulfillment; Lester looks to his physique and a young blonde, his wife looks to an affair and career success, their daughter longs for a boob job and almost every person portrayed in the film doesn’t like who they are. In the end Lester overcomes these limitations and reminds both himself and the audience of what really matters in life.
2 Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
It’s interesting to note that Woody Allen often puts himself in the role of the fool who just can’t seem to figure out how to be happy and sensible. Two characters are depicted in this film who both make very poor decisions in their lives; one pays for them bitterly, the other gets away with them. Allen plays a frustrated documentary filmmaker who clearly understands his existential dilemma but cannot escape it. He projects weakness and continuously sets himself up for disappointment and resentment, but he is oblivious to it. Martin Landau plays an eye doctor who similarly sets himself up into a sticky situation (a precursor to Match Point and very similar), but due to money and contacts is able to escape it. In other words the weak suffer what they must and the strong do what they can.
1 Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Probably Kubrick’s most acclaimed film and containing a performance by Peter Sellers that is in a league of its own. An air force base general has lost his mind and has ordered all his bombers to attack Russia while a group of individuals in the government try to stop them before it’s too late. Strangelove pokes fun at American culture at a time when the threat of nuclear war was very real in the minds of some. The wit and simplicity with which Kubrick dumps all over capitalism, propaganda and the military makes for a scary yet light-hearted film. Millennials will find it hard to watch this film as it starts off slowly and takes its time to develop the plot. (Warning: Not recommended for anyone with a smartphone addiction, ADD, a limited grasp of sarcasm, or a primitive sense of humor).