Thirteen Films That Highlight the Best in Humanity
It’s time for the Greater Goodies, honoring movies from the past year that exemplify human strengths and virtues.
With the Oscars coming up, it’s time once again to give out the Greater Goodies, which honor movies from the past year that exemplify the keys to our well-being, like curiosity, purpose, compassion, and love.
There are some prominent themes in this year’s crop. The Pixar short film Bao, the Lebanese movie Capernaum, and the American indies Leave No Trace and Eighth Grade all explore the process of children becoming independent from their parents, with the pain and pride that entails.
Blindspotting, Bohemian Rhapsody, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Annihilation, and Crazy Rich Asians all in their very different ways explore efforts to bridge differences—and many of these films tackle acceptance, especially self-acceptance, in diverse societies.
Roma and Free Solo both highlight how our relationships make us more resilient. For its part, Disobedience somehow manages to tie all three of those themes together.
But the Greater Good film of the year was definitely Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which powerfully explores the quest of one children’s television star to help his audience learn to be kind and compassionate. “Everyone longs to be loved,” said the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
We hope these films will help you, and all of us, to become more like Mister Rogers!
The Curiosity Award: Annihilation
A mysterious extraterrestrial force is transforming Florida’s panhandle, wondrously mutating the flora and fauna—and even time itself. Each member of the five-woman team that ventures into “the Shimmer,” as it’s called, is driven by different questions. For the biologist on the team, Lena, the questions are personal as well as scientific: What happened to her estranged soldier-husband a year earlier, when his own team ventured into the Shimmer?
Annihilation is beautifully designed and filmed; in the theater, I could hear the audience sometimes gasp in awe—and given the curiosity that fuels the plot, that’s probably not incidental. Indeed, researchers at UC Berkeley are finding more and more that awe promotes curiosity. As researcher Craig Anderson once told me:
When we are faced with things that blow our minds, things we don’t fully understand, we want to learn more. And you can imagine, in the evolutionary scope of things, that people would feel awe as they look out over a valley, and that feeling might make them more likely to explore and gain, for example, more food resources
That’s an apt description of what drives Annihilation. Of course, awe can also trigger terror, and there’s a lot for Lena to fear, in the Shimmer, in her marriage—and, finally, in herself. As Annihilation so thrillingly reveals, what we discover changes us, and the person we become will be alien to the person we were.
The Renewing-Your-Purpose Award: Bao
As parents, our purpose—a commitment to a long-term goal in the service of others—is often intertwined with our identity as caregivers. This is especially true for Bao’s protagonist, a middle-aged woman whose last dumpling in her bamboo steamer magically transforms into a crying baby dumpling.
She attends to the dumpling’s every need, proudly recording his height with pencil marks on the door frame. Although the dumpling delights in his mom’s love, his needs begin to change as he grows—and her love starts to feel stifling to him. When it’s time for the dumpling to go out into the world, mom needs to find new reasons to keep going.
Bao is a fable about how change in the people we love can trigger a crisis of purpose. Though it’s only a short film that appeared in theaters as a prelude to The Incredibles 2, the story will break your heart—and then put it right back together again. You can watch the entire thing in the video above!
The Diversity Award: Blindspotting
There is a scene in Blindspotting, the latest film from director Carlos López Estrada, that will likely weigh heavily on anyone who has been stereotyped as someone they’re not.
Miles, a Caucasian man played brilliantly by Rafael Casal, is told at a house party hosted by a tech-sector kingpin in his gentrifying city that he “doesn’t have to act ghetto to hang out here.”
You can see the rage in Miles’s eyes. From the gold teeth he wears to the necklace around his neck, his attire and personality aren’t some act he is putting on to impress his friends from ethnic minority groups. Miles was born and raised in pre-gentrified Oakland, and he’s part of a culture that transcends simplistic racial narratives.
Blindspotting uses the friendship between Miles and Collin, an African-American man played by Daveed Diggs, as a canvas upon which to explore racial dynamics in a rapidly changing Oakland. The two men share a life together as working-class movers serving a clientele that is increasingly wealthy and increasingly detached from the history of the city they are coming to encamp in.
The movie’s central theme is that while diversity can drive cultural and economic innovation and vitality, it also introduces all sorts of challenges that require patience and awareness to overcome. Miles and Collin focus on their “superordinate” identity as Oaklanders to maintain a strong bond and friendship despite their divergent racial backgrounds, deploying the skills necessary to make diversity work—and providing role models for all of us to follow.
The Self-Acceptance Award: Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody is a rock-n-roll biopic about Freddie Mercury of the band Queen, and, in many ways, it’s completely typical of the genre. We have the rise to fame, the fall from grace, the redemption—hardly a scene passes without a cliché of one kind or another. Many of those clichés border on homophobic, as Mercury’s licentious bisexuality seems to emerge from a place that is creepy and dark.
But there’s something different about Bohemian Rhapsody, some X factor that sets it apart from similar films. It might simply be Rami Malek’s irresistible performance as Mercury; it could be Queen’s music. For me, however, the film becomes truly itself during the last twenty minutes, which recreates Queen’s legendary 1985 performance at Live Aid.
And that is the point—in the film’s fanciful telling—when Mercury becomes completely himself, shedding all the shame and lies that held him back. As Mercury holds millions in his thrall, his partner Jim Hutton stands backstage, side by side with Mercury’s life-partner Mary, who stands beside her partner, all of them indifferent to what the straight monogamous majority might think. As Mercury accepts and celebrates his own sexuality, so does the film.
The Compassion Award: Capernaum
Zain wants to sue his parents for bringing him into this world. He has good reason: The family lives in poverty so extreme that no one really knows how old Zain is, because he has no birth certificate, and his growth has been stunted.
Zain might regret having been born, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to make life better for those around him. He is tender toward and protective of Sahar, his younger sister, who is coming of age. He shares hope with street children he encounters. He assumes responsibility for Yonas, the infant son of a young, undocumented Ethiopian woman.
How is it that Zain, only a child himself, living in dire circumstances, acts to relieve others’ suffering? In his case, misfortune leads him to turn toward and not away from other people, finding in them common humanity—one of the key components of compassion.
Even though Zain doesn’t show much compassion for his parents, the film does. In the courtroom, Zain’s father explains to the judge and lawyers, “If I had a choice, I’d be a better man than all of you. I never intended this.”
This heartbreaking story is set in Lebanon, but it could have been told in any number of places around the world and about any number of children whose lives have been stolen by a lack of opportunity. Capernaum calls on us to look with our eyes and hearts wide open and to act on our own compassionate instincts.
The Happiness Award: Crazy Rich Asians
When Rachel Chu arrives in Singapore, she discovers that her boyfriend Nick Young belongs to the country’s super-rich elite—and that she and her lucky red dress are not enough to impress his icily polite mother Eleanor.
While part of Rachel’s struggle is over language and traditions (like her stilted Mandarin and confusion over whether to call Eleanor “Auntie”), much of it comes down to her philosophy of life.
When Rachel mentions being passionate about her job as an economics professor, Eleanor responds curtly, “Pursuing one’s passion…how American.” In the film’s climactic mahjong scene, she finally spells out her real problem with Rachel: “You’re a foreigner, American, and all Americans think about is their own happiness.” In contrast, Eleanor’s culture is one of “work and sacrifice,” where you “put family first.”
But Rachel’s pivotal decision near the end of the movie shows that she isn’t as selfish as Eleanor thinks. Her values lie somewhere in the middle: Rachel is seeking her own happiness, but not at others’ expense.
The Reconciliation Award: Disobedience
Disobedience is not a love triangle, in the usual Hollywood sense.
It tells the story of three people who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in London: Ronit, Dovid, and Esti. Ronit is the daughter of the community’s spiritual leader, who had once rejected her for being bisexual. When he dies, she returns home—and there Ronit encounters her teenage love, Esti, and her childhood best friend, Dovid, who are now married to each other.
What happens next is complicated, to say the least—but one thing about the story is very, very simple: These three people love each other. They’re not a triangle, competing in a zero-sum game for each other’s love, but rather a triad, whose emotional interdependence sets them apart from everyone around them. It’s this isolation from the wider community that drives them away from each other as the story reaches its climax.
In a different kind of movie, Dovid would have been the easy villain, the jealous and homophobic husband. Instead, he emerges as the one with the largest, most generous spirit, whose humility allows their three-way reconciliation to occur. The three don’t just reconcile with each other; they also find a way to reconcile their disparate individual paths with the tradition in which they were all raised.
The Personal Growth Award: Eighth Grade
As Eighth Grade opens, the awkward, isolated, and endearing teen Kayla shares some tips about “being yourself” on her YouTube channel. In the next (ironic) clip, she carefully does her hair and makeup, then arranges herself in the perfect wake-up position for a morning selfie. “Ugh,” she says on social media, “just woke up like this.” It’s easy to see the distance between Kayla’s aspirations and her reality, but the movie is really about Kayla’s journey to become who she wants to be.
Kayla opens a time capsule at the end of eighth grade to discover a video message from her sixth-grade self. Just as some of the self-compassion research recommends, Kayla speaks to herself in this video as she would a friend, using kind and encouraging words—and reassuring her future self that whatever she is experiencing (good or bad) is okay.
This film captures the very real struggles of an anxious teen who is learning how to navigate both social media and face-to-face, real-time relationships. Ultimately, however, it’s about how Kayla is learning to love herself.
The Friendship Award: Free Solo
Alex Honnold is the star of the documentary Free Solo, in which the California native attempts to scale the world’s tallest monolith in Yosemite using his hands and feet and literally nothing else—no ropes, no nets, and apparently no fear. Even on the last day of filming, no one knew yet whether they were making a triumph or a tragedy.
Honnold’s training partner as he prepares for El Capitan is Tommy Caldwell, the world’s only rock climber with a resume to match Honnold’s. But does Caldwell ever “free solo” with no ropes or protection? No way—he has a wife and kids.
So, why does Caldwell aid and abet this potential suicide mission? As he tells us, “I probably understand more than anyone the dangers of climbing El Cap. If I didn’t help Alex reach his goal, and he died trying, I could never forgive myself.” It might be easier to forgive a fallen friend for chasing a dangerous dream than to forgive oneself for not supporting him.
Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi smartly turns the cameras on the cameramen themselves, who are also friends with Honnold, and on their faces we see intense, complex emotions as Honnold scales the rock. Not only could their friend die at any moment, but what if being a movie star made Alex take unreasonable risks? If Alex falls, could they forgive him for making them part of his last stand?
This raises larger questions for the audience. How much responsibility do we bear for our friends? How do we balance concern for their welfare against support for their risky choices?
The Love Award: Leave No Trace
“There’s no hate in this movie,” whispered my friend Adele as we watched Leave No Trace, a touch of awe in her voice.
Will lives in a state forest with his 13-year-old daughter Tom, and the two spend their days collecting firewood, foraging for food, and doing what they have to do to survive. Why? How did they get there?
For the most part, Leave No Trace doesn’t explicitly spell out the answer; it’s the emotions in the actors’ faces that tell the story. Gradually, at a slow burn, we discover that Will might have reason to hate everyone and everything, and that Tom’s intense connection with her father cuts her off from the wider world. Even so, across their faces pass sadness, uncertainty, delight, curiosity, pity, concern—but never hate.
Where the hate should be, there is, at worst, fear. But all the threats come from Will’s memories of violence and loss; there are no villains in Leave No Trace. No one tries to hurt or exploit the father and daughter. In fact, all the people they encounter—from social workers to other teens to a man they meet at a truck stop—try to help them out.
The troubling paradox at the heart of the story is that Will won’t accept their help, because if he can be helped that means he’s being seen—and perhaps, he fears, people will see the terrible things he has experienced.
Where does that leave his daughter, Tom? The subject of this subtle movie is the love between them. Its tragedy is that this love becomes an obstacle Will and Tom must overcome in order to find their own paths. Leave No Trace gets the Greater Goodie for love because it doesn’t just highlight what’s good about love. We glimpse the darkness there, too. It’s this complexity that makes the film beautiful.
The Resilience Award: Roma
Based on the Mexico City childhood of writer and director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma is a story of a family torn apart by infidelity. However, it’s not told from Cuarón’s perspective, but that of his nanny and housekeeper, Cleo.
Through a montage of Cleo’s household duties, we see her indispensable role in running the household and her love for the children. This is contrasted with her distant relationship to the parents—including the mother, Sofia—and her private life, shopping with friends and going on dates during her free time. These scenes reveal complex dynamics and class differences: She may seem part of the family, but she still has to go fetch their tea.
The movie pivots when Cleo becomes pregnant by a man she’s dating and Sofia’s marriage crumbles. Facing parallel challenges, the women’s lives intersect in interesting ways, and they learn to lean on each other for support. Set against the background of a violent political uprising and other harrowing moments, together Cleo and Sofia rise above victimization, choosing empathy over indifference and courage over fear.
This sensitive, beautifully filmed masterpiece celebrates the hidden strengths of women, showing how, even in dire circumstances, their solidarity and love are what lead to ultimate triumph.
The Collective Action Award: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Their spidey sense is tingling.
For me, 2018 began with Black Panther and ended with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As a Blerd—a Black nerd—raising a Blerd, having these films bookend the year was more culturally affirming than any other cinematic year I can remember. Panther, despite it being fictional, gave us Wakanda, a pan-Africanist’s dream: multiple tribes living and working together, thriving for never having experienced trans-Atlantic slavery. Dub poet Mutabaruka said: “Slavery is not African history. Slavery interrupted African history.”
Spider-Verse, while less grand in scale, aligned in a more positive way with my family’s values. Eschewing the trope of a Chosen One we saw in Black Panther, Spider-Verse illustrated just how powerful connecting and acting across difference can be. The various Spider-People said a collective “NO!” against injustice and cooperated across age, race, gender, culture, and even species to accomplish their goal of saving the world.
Too much of popular culture centers on the special individual who by destiny or circumstance is responsible for restoring order. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse affirms that this idea has no place in a pluralistic society. By demonstrating the power of collective action—and how buy-in for collective action is established—this film shows us a way forward and is a prime example of how popular culture can be used as a pedagogical tool to teach us all how to be our best possible selves, and to be the best possible members of our given communities.
The Righteous Anger Award: Won’t You Be My Neighbor
In the spring of his senior year, young Fred Rogers was planning to begin seminary in the fall. But then he encountered television for the first time. As his family flipped through the handful of channels on their new TV, they came across a program where people were throwing pies in each other’s faces.
Pies in faces weren’t funny to Fred Rogers; they were demeaning. “And if there’s anything that bothers me,” he said later, remembering, “it’s one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!” He wasn’t going to stand for it. So, he told his parents, “You know, I don’t think I’ll go to seminary right away. I think maybe I’ll go into television.”
Mister Rogers is rightfully remembered for his love and kindness, but, as we learn in Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers and his work, it was anger that turned him away from seminary and toward television. The power of Fred’s anger to fuel and focus his vocation persisted throughout his career. Television is powerful—Fred knew it from the first time he saw it. And people who work in television, he believed, “are chosen to be servants to help meet deeper needs.”
In his day-to-day life, Fred wasn’t altogether comfortable with anger. He shied away from conflict even in his most intimate relationships. But he also knew anger’s enormous power for good. And so, he wanted to help children to feel anger, to be willing to name it, to do something with it. Anger, he knew, when used well, can build entire neighborhoods of care.