Greater Good Magazine

Greater Good Science Centre

University of California, Berkeley

From Jason Wong March 2024

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By Leila Rosenberg, Michelle Beadle Holder, Margaret Golden, Jill Suttie, Joanne Chen, Aurelia Santos, Zaid Jilani, Jeremy Adam Smith | March 6, 2024

It’s time again for the Greater Goodies, honoring movies from the past year that exemplify human strengths and virtues.

Every year, we at Greater Good give “Greater Goodies” to films that highlight human strengths and virtues. The past year in movies was dominated by two of them: Barbie (which makes our list) and Oppenheimer (which doesn’t). For those who love movies, it was a bit of a thrill to see them matter so much to so many people, and to generate so much discussion about topics that included gender, consumption, the relationship between the ideal and the real, nuclear power, scientific responsibility, war, and more.

The movies we highlight here are not for the most part blockbusters like those two; they are simply very good stories about how people learn to see and care for themselves and each other. We hope the Greater Goodies help you see what’s good in humanity—and perhaps even what’s good in yourself.

1.The Vulnerability Award: All of Us Strangers

In the first scene of All of Us Strangers, Adam (Andrew Scott) appears, like an apparition, as a reflection in a window. We don’t know much about Adam at first, but we see he’s alone and alienated—and when a handsome stranger named Harry (Paul Mescal) shows up at his door, we’re not surprised that Adam turns him away.

All of Us Strangers turns out to be a ghost story—a sad, gay, British version of the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense—but it’s not like any I’ve ever seen. Director Andrew Haigh doesn’t aim for jump-scares or creepy sensations. Adam is a writer, and in this story he is creating a story for himself in which he can grow, by imagining what could have been, had the people he loved (or could have loved) lived on.

“I’ve always felt like a stranger in my own family,” Harry tells Adam, and that sentence serves as a kind of emotional premise for the movie as a whole: the “strangers” of the title are family, natural and chosen. As Adam learns to make himself less strange to the people he loves, they become less strange to him—and in the process, he gets to know the strangest thing of all: death.

Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? It is. And yet why do so many viewers consider All of Us Strangers so uplifting? I believe that’s in part because we watch Adam learn to be vulnerable—to share his worst and best feelings, to ask for help and care, and to allow himself to be helped and loved. Out of this vulnerability, Adam becomes larger and stronger. In befriending his ghosts, he becomes realer to himself. — Jeremy Adam Smith

2.The Thought-Provoking Complexity Award: American Fiction

Ironically, the greatest truths are sometimes found in fiction.

American Fiction (directed by Cord Jefferson, based on the 2000 novel Erasure) tells the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a literature professor and novelist who is frustrated by seeing his drafts rejected by publishers because they aren’t seen as “Black” enough.

That’s humiliating to Ellison, a man who has spent every day of his life as an African American. But the publishers increasingly only want him to write stories that center on what he calls “trauma porn”—tales about slavery, racism, the police, and being repressed in America.

In a fit of frustration, Ellison decides to write the most stereotypical novel possible and submit it to publishers. In an increasingly absurd series of events, the novel ends up being not only published but turning into a smash hit. And with mounting money worries and a pressing need to take care of his ailing mother, Ellison feels like he has no choice but to play along with the “joke.”

American Fiction is a hilarious protest film aimed at getting Hollywood to stop stereotyping minorities. But it also explores some fairly profound questions about the relationship between our lives, the fictions we create, and the marketplace that sells those fictions—which in turn shape our lives. What happens when our publishing houses and Hollywood studios consider only a sliver of reality worth representing? Should aspiring writers go with the flow, even if it means sacrificing their ideals?

It’s a good sign that that film has been a critical success and racked up Oscar nominations. Let’s hope the industry takes its message seriously. — Zaid Jilani

3.The Embracing-Multiple-Identities Award: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

For decades, Judy Blume’s many novels have been key to the coming-of-age of girls worldwide. The 2023 movie adaptation of her 1970 novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, brings to life one of these timeless stories, and emphasizes the importance of acceptance, open-mindedness, and compassion.

The film follows the journey of rising sixth-grader Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), who is told by her parents that she will be moving from New York City to New Jersey. Devastated by the idea, Margaret turns to communicating with “God,” venting about her sadness regarding leaving her friends and beloved grandmother Sylvia (played by the iconic Kathy Bates).

Ultimately, Margaret makes many new friends, and becomes situated with life in the suburbs. However, when she reveals her anxiety about religious holidays to her teacher, he encourages her to focus her school project around her identity as the child of a Christian mother and Jewish father.

This leads Margaret to an adventure of exploration and self-discovery, as she attends temple with her grandmother, goes to church with her friends from New Jersey, and confesses in a Catholic church. Everything comes to a head, however, when Margaret discovers that her maternal grandparents excommunicated her mother (Rachel McAdams) for marrying a Jewish man.

Against the backdrop of her family’s conflict over religion, Margaret and her friends excitedly await key pubescent milestones: first periods, first bras, and first kisses. As both Margaret and the world become more complicated, she learns to embrace that complexity. — Leila Josephine Eberle Rosenberg

4.The Find-Yourself Award: Barbie

Barbie (directed by Greta Gerwig) is visually striking, unexpectedly thoughtful, and quite funny, all at the same time. But this isn’t why we think Barbie is Greater Goodie-worthy. We think it deserves recognition because it’s a story about forging your own path and finding a purpose that feels true to you, even if it means embracing imperfection and stretching beyond your comfort zone.

“Stereotypical” Barbie (Margot Robbie) initially starts her adventure for purely selfish reasons. Living a perfect life in Barbieland—where Barbies are in charge and Kens hold the vague job of “beach”—she is suddenly beset by thoughts of death; to add insult to injury, she has also developed flat feet and cellulite. Her horrified fellow Barbies tell her to seek aid from the all-knowing “Weird” Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who tells Stereotypical Barbie that all this has occurred because the human playing with her is sad, and, in order to make things right, she needs to find and help that person in the real world.

Much to her dismay, the dopy, lovelorn Ken (Ryan Gosling) sneaks into her pink convertible and joins her on the trip. The two quickly realize that the real world is messy, and (to Ken’s glee) the men in it hold positions of power. Barbie eventually finds her human: Gloria (America Ferrera), a self-described “boring mom with a boring job and a daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) that hates her.”

We don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say, lots happen to Barbie as she traverses between the two worlds, including two arrests, a temporary shift in leadership in Barbieland, and a couple of crucial interactions with the ghost of Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), the doll’s creator.

Ultimately, Barbie realizes that she can be more than anyone’s idea of perfection. As she tells her creator: “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning. Not the thing that’s made. I want to do the imagining.” — Joanne Chen

5.The Adaptation Award: Elemental

On the surface, the Pixar film Elemental seems like yet another Romeo and Juliet–inspired girl-meets-boy animated rom-com. Set in a vibrant world where the elements—water, fire, earth, and air—take on human forms, the movie follows the unlikely romance between the fiery Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), who is deeply rooted in her family traditions, and the watery Wade Ripple (Mamadou Athie), who goes with the flow.

Visually stunning and always funny, the film opens with the backstory of the arrival of Ember’s parents at Element City, reminiscent of an Ellis Island immigration processing center. With the newly adopted names Burnie and Cinder Lumen, the parents battle xenophobia and learn to survive in a world not built for “their kind.” By adapting to their new surroundings, the parents build a life and a family store, which Ember is expected to take over one day.

As a diligent daughter, Ember helps in the store but struggles with her temper and ability to handle the daily ins and outs of working there. More conflict arises when Ember meets Wade, who shows her a world and a life so different from her own but filled with possibilities. What sets Elemental apart is its thoughtful exploration of themes such as honoring parental traditions and expectations while navigating the desire for independence. As we follow Ember’s individual journey of self-discovery, we discover a universal quest for identity and purpose. — Aurelia Santos

6.The Community-Against-Catastrophe Award: Godzilla Minus One

When we meet Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), he’s a kamikaze pilot who is faking a mechanical malfunction to avoid senseless death during World War II. When the eponymous big radioactive lizard appears, Shikishima is overwhelmed by fear.

Thus, Godzilla Minus One unexpectedly starts as an exploration of failure and deep shame. Godzilla himself remains a potent metaphor for war and ecological disaster, but this story is really about the value of human life, what causes are worthy of sacrifice, survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, the nature of family, the functions of community, and more. In short, this is no ordinary monster movie.

Shikishima’s situation feels unbearably sad; the movie powerfully conveys a sense of him as an ordinary young man forced by violent times to do things that run fundamentally against his nature as a kind, gentle human being. The film is also very aware that the war which destroys his family and almost destroys his soul is what prepares him to fight against the threat of Godzilla; though strongly anti-war, the movie only holds that ambiguity without trying to resolve it.

I don’t believe that’s the result of fuzzy, have-it-both-ways thinking. In fact, this movie knows what it thinks and is, among other things, a very explicit repudiation of the values that led Japan into war and determined how that war would be fought. At the same time, however, Godzilla Minus One highlights how Shikishima’s neighbors and fellow veterans are able to pull together in the face of catastrophe, with the discipline and cooperation that their values make possible. In the end, their true victory is not over Godzilla, but rather over their own trauma and disillusionment. — Jeremy Adam Smith

7.The Choose-Kindness Award: The Holdovers

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a curmudgeonly Classics teacher at a Northeastern private boarding school in the early 1970s. His students and many of the staff find his haughty and critical demeanor unpleasant, which isolates him from both.

As punishment for failing an important school donor’s son in his class, he’s assigned by the headmaster to watch the “holdovers”—kids who have nowhere else to go over the Christmas holidays and must remain at school. This puts him in charge of students who resent being there, but can’t escape Paul’s harsh, punishing treatment, which he thinks will build their character (and which he obviously relishes meting out).

This setup puts him in close quarters with Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a cafeteria worker who has recently lost her son in Vietnam, and a particularly difficult student, Angus (Dominic Sessa), whom Paul sees as overly privileged. Their interactions over the course of the long break start out toxic, which leads to some amusing, vicious sparring. But as the film conveys through both humor and pathos, the assumptions we make about others are often caricatures of who they really are. Even Angus has suffered in life and could use Paul’s kind mentoring more than his harsh criticisms.

Once Paul understands this, he offers Angus a lifeline: “I know that Greeks had the idea that the steps you take to avoid your fate are the very steps that lead you to it. But that’s just a literary conceit. In real life, your history does not have to dictate your destiny.” This is something that Angus needs to grasp, given his background. And, as it turns out, so does Paul. — Jill Suttie

8.The Musical Hero Award: One Love

One Love is a story about reggae legend Bob Marley. Bob (Kingsley Ben-Adir) may seem larger than life, but in this movie, he is very human, experiencing a range of emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, sadness, jealousy, courage, strength, joy, determination, and love.

The story takes place in two locations—Jamaica and London. While many may consider Jamaica a paradise, Bob and his family were forced to flee the island after an assassination attempt. Bob ends up in London, while his wife and children move to the U.S. Yet Bob dreams of finding safety and security in a land outside of all these places. He’s searching for a promised land that is just out of reach—and that’s a pain that finds its way into many of his most beautiful songs.

Happiness research has long noted the significance of music in overall well-being. Access to music and the creative arts is essential in times of chronic stress, violence, and insecurity. Music can serve as a balm or comfort to bear trauma or wounds inflicted by poverty, social inequality, and other oppressive life circumstances. One can also use music to shed light on the source of social troubles and find a purpose to bring about change.

Marley’s songs raise more questions than most. They ask us to see the people who are made invisible by inequality. Who are the sung and unsung heroes in your world that help to create or envision a better life? Who allows you to express the range of human emotions, even those that may not be so happy or bright? Where, whom, and with what tunes do you feel total well-being? — Michelle Beadle Holder

9.The Acceptance Award: Past Lives

Na-Young, a 12-year-old girl from Korea, moves to North America with her family, leaving behind her best friend, a boy named Hae-Sung. Though they have a deep friendship that could, with time, develop into more, the opportunity to find out is cut short by their diverging paths.

Over the course of the next 24 years, we see Na-Young and Hae-Sung grow up and, occasionally, reconnect. Na-Young adapts to her new culture, changing her name to Nora, learning English, and, eventually, becoming a playwright. Meanwhile, Hae-Sung completes his military service and becomes an engineer, remaining in Korea. Their encounters over the years, online and in person, both deepen and fray their bond, making it unclear where their relationship is heading.

While the central plot revolves around questions of love, the movie is really about existential questions about choice and destiny. Even as Nora (Greta Lee) imagines herself the orchestrator of her life, she must cope with unforeseen consequences, including her career success, her love relationship with an American writer, Arthur (John Magaro), and her lingering feelings for Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo). Should she embrace her current life, as it is, or leave it to pursue some other fate? Is there such a thing as making the right decision?

As Nora’s mother tells her 12-year-old daughter early in the movie, “It’s true that if you leave, you lose things, but you also gain things, too.” This is the conundrum that Nora faces—which we all must, on some level. You can’t move forward in life without accepting the potential for regret or grief over “the road not taken” and lost relationships. Accepting the truth of there being no perfect choices in life or in love, difficult as that may be to do, may be the only true path to peace and happiness.— Jill Suttie

10.The Perseverance Award: Rustin

We all know the story of Martin Luther King Jr., the central leader of the civil rights movement. But, as with many American heroes, Dr. King’s fame sometimes overshadows the coalition of people who worked alongside him.

Enter the movie Rustin, which tells the story of Bayard Rustin (played with aplomb by Colman Domingo). Rustin was an openly gay Black man at a time when there was no public support for gay rights, and being gay was considered a crime. Even so, Rustin became a leading advisor to Dr. King and played a pivotal role in organizing the famous March on Washington.

What makes the movie more than a simple biopic is that we see Rustin as a multi-dimensional, complex person. He doesn’t let his detractors stop him from following his passion for civil rights, nor from using his considerable charisma and organizational gifts. Yet, even as he inspires others, he is inconsiderate toward those closest to him and, at times, reckless. This illustrates an important point: Heroes don’t have to be perfect to do good.

The film’s tension comes largely from seeing how audacious the March on Washington was at the time, and what Rustin had to overcome to see it through. In response to his colleague’s opposition to a gay man being the face of the organization, Rustin tells Dr. King: “On the day that I was born Black, I was also born a homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.” — Jill Suttie

11.The Overcoming Shortcomings Award: Shortcomings

The story of Shortcomings is pretty simple: It’s about a very average guy going through an ordinary messy breakup. But there’s so much going on underneath the surface.

Ben Tagawa (Justin H. Min) is a film school dropout and movie theater manager who is consistently unpleasant to almost everyone around him. When his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) gets an opportunity that takes her out of town, the movie becomes a subtle examination of how race and sex and masculinity interact, at least in the mind of one Asian American male. It’s also about the interplay of honesty and deception in romantic relationships.

But mainly, Shortcomings is about the psychological forces that make us feel stuck in our lives. The character arcs provide various roadmaps for how people overcome those forces—and the most interesting thing it has to say on that front is that our escapes are often ignoble, involving a lot of bad behavior. In Shortcomings, nobody is perfect.

Adrian Tomine’s screenplay is considerably funnier and more optimistic than the rather bleak graphic novel on which it’s based. Though Ben stays hard to root for, he does inch forward over his own resistance to change. While Ben may not be able to overcome all his shortcomings, he definitely becomes more accepting of other people’s. — Jeremy Adam Smith

12.The Compassion Award: The Society of the Snow

Before watching The Society of the Snow, I asked myself, “Can there really be something new to understand about the 1972 Andes flight disaster that made headlines when 16 of the 45 original passengers were discovered alive after surviving together for 72 days on a snowy mountaintop with sub-zero temperatures and nothing but the partial wreckage of the plane?”

The answer is a definite yes.

In this painstakingly beautiful film, director Juan Antonio García Bayona explores the deep humanity of each person who lived and died on the mountain. Unlike previous versions of the story—told mostly as great adventure dramas—The Society of the Snow juxtaposes the horror of the experience with the genuine care and compassion the survivors showed for one another, including the dead and dying among them.

Narrated from the afterlife by a young law student and devout Catholic (played by Uruguayan actor Enzo Vogrincic Roldan) who eventually perished on the mountain, the film elevates the story to a spiritual journey grounded in a deep faith in human goodness. — Margaret Golden