A precisely edited action sequence. A far-away world meticulously crafted in CGI. The shared moment between two characters that sums up their strange and complicated relationship, framed in a perfect two-shot.
These are the elements that can make for a good or even great movie, but can they make that movie matter? For a film to have real social impact, it has to be more than just technically proficient. It has to be able to expand our understanding, to change our perspective, to challenge us to do something.
Based at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the Media Institute for Social Change (MISC) was created around this very idea — that media can be entertaining while also inspiring positive social change.
This year, there was a plethora of examples of films that embody the ethos that MISC was founded on. We rank 15 that manage to balance excellent filmmaking, entertainment value, and social impact and did so in a way that was singular, creative and inspiring. Presenting USC’s first annual MISC LIST: The 15 Most Significant Social Change Films.
15. Crazy Rich Asians
Director: Jon M. Chu
Issues: Representation, Class
The world held its collective breath in advance of Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel about the cross-cultural romance between a Chinese-American economics professor and the heir to one of Singapore’s largest fortunes. So when the film — the first about Asian-American characters to be released by a major studio in a quarter century — came out in August to universal acclaim and record-setting box office, the sigh could be heard across continents. In one fell swoop, the movie laid to rest the myopic canards about the limited appeal of films starring women, people of color, and featuring frothy, escapist romance and light comedy.
14. Green Book
Director: Peter Farrelly
The story of the unlikely friendship between an Italian-American bouncer and driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and the erudite concert pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) serves as a simple but powerful reminder that for most of America’s history, race has trumped class when it comes to the treatment of its citizens. The fact that the every day indignities that Shirley must endure during his journey through the Jim Crow south — he is not permitted to use the bathroom in the venues in which he performs — don’t break him, doesn’t lessen their inherent violence or inhumanity. While the film has plenty of detractors, it deserves its social impact bonafides for showing how proximity can undermine prejudice. Quincy Jones, who knew Don Shirley in the 1950s, said Green Book deserves credit for “capturing on film the ties that can bind us when we spend time listening, talking and living with one another.
13. A Private War
Director: Matthew Heineman
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars began in 2001 and 2003 respectively and are still ongoing. Over that time, the newspaper industry, whose correspondents the world relies on to document the human cost of armed conflicts, has suffered huge cutbacks amidst the financial losses that followed the switch from print to digital. All of this makes the work of Marie Colvin, who fearlessly risked her physical and mental health to report from conflict zones across the Middle East and beyond for The Sunday Times, so vital. Colvin’s story is told with searing authenticity by documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land and City of Hope) and star Rosamund Pike, whose breathtaking performance as the eye patch wearing, hard-drinking foreign correspondent revels in her jagged edges and seeming contradictions. The cataclysmic effects of war are seared into the film’s depiction of Colvin’s dispatch from Homs, Syria, during the bombing of civilians by forces under the command of Bashar al-Assad. Colvin considered the conflict the worst she has ever covered, the effects of which we are still living through today.
12. Leave No Trace
Director: Debra Granik
Issues: Homelessness, PTSD
The loving father and daughter team of Will and Tom — played with remarkable sensitivity by Ben Foster and New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie — live deep in the woods inside a Portland, Oregon, park. They live in the woods out of choice — sort of. The PTSD Will acquired as a soldier has made living around other people a painful trigger, and as soon as he finds a home in society, he is eager to get back into the forest. Debra Granik’s film is a powerful and nuanced rendering of the homeless crisis that has become epidemic in this country, especially in the West and among veterans, who are more likely to experience it than the rest of us. It is also a powerful portrait of how family bonds can withstand the direst of circumstance, even when trauma doesn’t get passed down to the next generation. Or as Tom tells Will during the film’s heartbreaking denouement, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
This film from Japanese master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda was perhaps the year’s most nuanced portrait of a segment of the population that tends to get the least attention in the media: the working poor. In telling the story of a loving, piecemeal family who resorts to shoplifting noodles and fishing poles so they can live off their meager and inconsistent incomes, Shoplifters demands empathy for people who many, especially in the news media, prefer to demonize. Considering the gut-wrenching decisions the characters in the film are forced to make— at one point, a factory owner makes two women pick which one of them should get laid off so his business won’t lose profits— it is little surprise that the most disenfranchised among us sometimes make bad choices. While the film is in Japanese, its simple yet challenging message applies to all of us: We will never truly be able to address the problem of poverty when so much of society looks at being poor as a crime within itself.
10. Three Identical Strangers
Director: Tim Wardle
Issues: Scientific/medical ethics, mental health
That seemingly unanswerable question — is it nature or nurture that determines an individual’s path in life— is explored in a way that is wholly entertaining and ultimately heartbreaking in this documentary about triplets who were separated at birth as part of a shady scientific study. The film begins as a fizzy depiction of unexpected celebrity as three genetically identical men — Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran — discover each other by happenstance in the early 1980s and make the rounds from The Phil Donahue Show to the Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Eventually though, it becomes an entirely more troubling examination of mental health and the strength of family bonds. But what makes it an important social impact film is the question of medical/scientific ethics at its heart. It is infuriating to watch the film’s subjects discover they were part of a 1960s experiment conducted by an agency that specialized in Jewish adoptions and mimicked those carried out by German doctors during World War II. That the film never completes its inquiry— the results of the study are sealed for the next 50 years — makes it no less powerful as a reminder of the devastating impact of junk science.
9. Science Fair
Directors: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster
One is a Muslim-American who goes to a football obsessed South Dakota school that couldn’t care less about her award-winning discoveries regarding behavioral science. Another is a loner from the Appalachian Mountains who can teach computers to rap in the style of Kanye West but can’t pass his math class. There is also the trio of boys from Kentucky who spend their days working on a stethoscope capable of diagnosing heart abnormalities, and their nights partying. And their classmate who has no social life. “I know plenty of people who are very successful in an academic way and are also very popular, and I have found that those people are boys,” she says. All are battling for a spot in the prestigious International Science and EngineeringFair. As directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster show in this documentary, if you want to see issues of class, gender and opportunity play out in a high-pressure environment, there is no better place than this science fair. While not all participants have equal resources — one contestant trying to cure Zika lives in an impoverished area of Northeast Brazil — the film shows that intelligence and hard work can be a great equalizer. Or as one of the kids’ mentors puts it: “In every place, you have intelligent people; what they need is opportunity.”
8. Ben is Back
Director: Peter Hedges
Issues: Addiction, recovery
Filmmakers who turn their attention to the nation’s opiate addiction crisis face a daunting task. The issue is personal, affecting loved ones and ripping apart families. It’s also emblematic of larger problems, like profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies and class, with recovery programs available only to those who can afford them. In telling the story of a single day in a family dealing with the unexpected arrival of an eldest son in the fragile first stages of addiction recovery, Ben is Back makes room for this much needed context while keeping the focus solidly on the desperate crisis at hand. While director Peter Hedges coaxes stirring and utterly honest performances out of Julia Roberts and his son Lucas, it is the film’s portrayal of the larger community shattered by the actions of the addict in their midst that sets it apart. There’s the devastated mother of a friend of Ben’s who died of an overdose (Tony-winner Rachel Bay Jones), the cynical younger sister who is deeply doubtful of Ben’s recovery (Kathryn Newton), and the African-American stepfather who pays for Ben’s rehab and never lets him forget his privilege (Courtney B. Vance): “If you were black,” he says, “you would be in jail.”
7. First Reformed
Director: Paul Schrader
Issues: Environmentalism, personal responsibility
“Will God forgive us?” This question — first asked by a troubled environmentalist to his pastor and later repeated to an industrialist who responds with a shrug — hangs over writer-director Paul Schrader’s bleak examination of moral responsibility like the Sword of Damocles. Will God forgive us for how we have degraded the Earth in the name of profit? In the film, this question has moved from the theoretical to the urgent, as we have passed the point of no return in terms of climate change. The impact and moral implications of that dire reality fall most squarely on the shoulders of those who feel powerless to stop it, like Ethan Hawke’s character, a haunted former military chaplain who pastors a “tourist church” in upstate New York. The film posits the idea that if the empowered — whether it is big business or the politicians they back — continue to shirk their responsibilities to address the problem, the most vulnerable among us will resort to extremism to make our voices heard. All to devastating consequence.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Issues: Class, women’s equality
The irrefutable bonds of class and the role of women are at the center of Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white neorealist masterpiece. While the film has been called an autobiographical memory piece that meticulously recreates the filmmaker’s childhood in a middle class neighborhood in Mexico City, it is so much more than that. By telling the story entirely through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s nanny and housekeeper and someone whose perspective he likely ignored or took for granted at the time, Cuarón’s film is a bold act of investigative reconsideration. The film shows how two women, forever divided by class, are united by a patriarchy that devalues the crucial work they do in the shadows. Moreover, the film gives us the kind of ground floor view of history— when the characters witness the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre that killed more than 120 student protesters, it’s from the inside of a baby furniture store — that is rarely considered in the official record.
5. Dark Money
Director: Kimberly Reed
Issues: Campaign finance, free press, environment
Since 1912, when Montana passed a law banning direct corporate expenditures in state elections, the Big Sky state has stood out as a kind of democratic ideal. That changed in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court determined its 2010 Citizens United decision negated the state’s campaign finance laws. Director Kimberly Reed’s documentary tracks the devastating effects of that decision on her home state, with last minute smear campaigns from ghostly PACs backed by out-of-state corporate money. The film meticulously lays out how our country’s broken campaign finance system keeps us from making progress on issues like education and the environment. But more than just sounding the alarm bell, Reed’s film bravely shows us a path out of the darkness by spotlighting heroes leading the way. These include farmer and citizen-politician U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the former attorney general-turned-Gov. Steve Bullock, and movingly, John S. Adams, the intrepid journalist who, after losing his job in layoffs, founded of the non-profit Montana Free Press and continues to dive into the murky abyss of anonymous donors.
4. The Hate U Give
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Issues: Institutional racism, police misconduct
On the surface, The Hate U Give was one of the few films this year to directly respond to the recent rash of police killings of African-Americans, calling to mind the deaths of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland. But for director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who adapted of the young adult novel by Angie Thomas), that was just the starting point. The film portrays the myriad and complicated ways institutional racism makes everyday life an extraordinary challenge for many African-American families. It is also a powerful depiction of a young woman (Amandla Stenberg) discovering her own political agency at a time when many societal forces conspire to strip her of it. Moreover, Russell Hornsby’s portrayal of this young woman’s loving father, Maverick — a man who insisted his 9-year-old daughter memorize the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program — provides a necessary corrective to the tired trope of the absent African-American father.
3. Boy Erased
Director: Joel Edgerton
Issues: Sexual identity, gay civil rights
Is it possible to live a religious life when your very identity contradicts what many insist are the basic tenets of that belief? Joel Edgerton’s adaptation of Gerrard Conley’s memoir is a delicately shaded attempt to answer that question on behalf of an Arkansas family who love each other just as much as they do God. It’s devastating to see the mother (Nicole Kidman) slowly realize the religious conversion therapyshe intended as an act of love is instead an act of torture for her gay, sensitive son (Lucas Hedges), who has only begun the process of discovering who he is. The film is an emotional denunciation of the practice, exposing the devastating effects of the bullying and disregard showed by the gay conversion industry with the kind of compassion those programs lack.
2. Minding the Gap
Director: Bing Liu
Issues: Addiction, domestic violence, economic opportunity
In the great tradition of 1994’s Hoop Dreams, Bing Liu’s film about his skateboarding community in the fading industrial city of Rockford, Illinois, is a sports documentary in name only. By illustrating how domestic trauma and societal failing impact the lives of three talented skateboarders at its center, Minding the Gap manages to address everything from cycles of addiction, domestic violence, and economic opportunity, to the ubiquity of racism. (The African-American skater Keire keeps his license and registration in a clip on his dashboard so he doesn’t have to reach into his pocket or the glove box when he gets pulled over by police.) But Minding the Gap is more than a collection of issues wrapped around stunning footage of skateboards gliding over the concrete bones of the industrial Midwest. It’s also a film about the changing nature of masculinity and the families we create for ourselves when those we were born into don’t quite work out.
1. Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler
Issues: Representation, technology, colonialism, racism
It was a landmark year for representation — one that boasted, among other cinematic milestones, an Afro-Latino Spider-Man in Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse. But a single film stood above the rest, not just for what it showed us on screen, but also for the possibilities beyond it. By stoking our imagination of what an African nation — powered by technology and untouched by colonialism — might be capable of achieving, director Ryan Coogler demonstrated a new potential of that most ubiquitous of pop culture products: the superhero movie. But beyond the film’s repudiation of colonialism and its celebration of Afrofuturism is what it represented to audiences across the world thirsting for heroes that looked liked them. The social impact of a film has hardly ever been more palpable than it was with Black Panther; we felt it in any movie theater crowded with young people, and months later when those kids showed up at our doors on Halloween. With epic flourish and unapologetic confidence, it celebrated Africans and African-Americans as warriors, scientists, and world leaders of the highest order. In short, as heroes — super and otherwise.