April 9, 2024

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Eleven Films That Highlight the Best in Humanity

For many people, the past year was filled with ups and downs, to an unusual degree. Widespread vaccination against COVID-19 allowed our worlds to open up a bit more, but that promise of greater freedom seemed dashed when the Omicron wave rolled over us. That combination of hope and disappointment seemed to define 2021—and that’s true as well for the films we’re honoring this year with “Greater Goodies,” our version of the Academy Awards. We surveyed our contributors to ask them which films from the past year lifted them up or gave them insight about how humans get through difficult times. Here’s what they came up with.

The Bravery Award: Being the Ricardos

“I’m not funny,” Lucille Ball once said. “What I am is brave.”

You get the tiniest peek at how brave she could be in Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s very soft look at a very bad week in 1953 for Ball (a tart Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Desi Arnaz (an affable Javier Bardem). She was America’s favorite redhead, he was her glamorous bandleader husband, and they were adored by millions who watched their pioneering sitcom “I Love Lucy.” But not everyone loved Lucy—sometimes not even Lucy and Desi themselves.

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Lucy and Desi come off like nastier, edgier versions of their TV alter egos. “Lucy, I’m home,” Desi announces right at the start of the film at their real house. “Where the hell have you been, you Cuban dimwit?” she bellows. A minute later, they are pawing at each other, instigating a push and pull that continues throughout the movie.

The bigger drama arrives when powerful gossipmonger Walter Winchell drops a bombshell about Ball into his radio broadcast: “The most popular of all television stars was confronted with her membership in the Communist Party.” Joe McCarthy was hunting supposed communists and the Hollywood blacklist was in full effect; Winchell’s item was potentially career-killing and life-destroying.

Being the Ricardos is lively, chatty, and somewhat odd. It’s also an inspiring portrait of one woman’s bravery in facing her husband’s infidelity at home and the Red Scare in public. — Andrea King Collier

The Bridging Differences Award: CODA

“You’re the girl with the deaf family—everyone but you? And you sing…interesting,” observes Mr. V, new director of 17-year-old Ruby’s choir. As a child of deaf adults (C.O.D.A.), Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member in her working-class, fisherman’s family.

From the start of this film, it’s clear that Ruby, like most teenagers, longs to individuate from her parents, but she feels weighed down by her responsibilities to them. She thinks they need her, as translator, business partner, and advocate. Yet she also finds herself nervously stumbling into a new elective choir course at school—and discovering that she has an exquisite singing voice that no one had ever heard before.

The film’s most poignant scenes feature her family’s communication struggles and victories, ranging from stark disconnection to profound emotional resonance. For example, CODA’s director cuts off all sound during Ruby’s rousing choir performance so that we experience the same painful, cavernous silence that her family does as they sit in the audience.

After the performance, Ruby’s dad is quiet and pensive. He wants to feel her joy, too—and to understand why music is so precious to her. So, he asks her to sing to him in their backyard later that evening. They are almost uncomfortably close as he tenderly places his hands on her throat, sensing the vibrations in her voice.

That moment of recognition and deep connection shifts the trajectory of the film. As Ruby expresses herself and is “heard,” she feels new agency in her life, and so does her family. “Let them [this community] figure out how to deal with deaf people,” says her brother. “We’re not helpless.” — Amy L. Eva

The Care Award: C’mon, C’mon

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely videographer immersed in a project interviewing kids about their thoughts about the future. His work is interrupted, though, when his estranged sister Viv (Gabby Hoffman) asks him for a favor: She needs him to watch her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while she goes to assist her ex-husband, who’s having a psychotic episode.

Johnny agrees to help, and shifts from his bachelor solitude to being a caregiver to his nephew. But while you might expect silly comedy to ensue from this set up, C’mon, C’mon goes in a very different direction—aided, in part, by its being filmed in black and white, which creates a particular mood. Jesse has lost his father to mental illness and is clearly affected, creating imaginary worlds and elaborate rituals to help him cope. But, though just a kid, he doesn’t want to be pandered to—he wants answers to difficult questions, something that Johnny is not sure he’s equipped to give.

When his time with Jesse becomes unexpectedly extended, Johnny decides to take Jesse on his travels to interview kids, teaching him how to be an assistant videographer. Interspersed throughout the movie, these unscripted video interviews (conducted with actual kids, not actors) add substance to the story, revealing kids’ inner lives and their universal need to be heard—especially by the adults around them. 

While Johnny may think he’s only helping his sister out of a jam, it’s he who ends up getting the most from caring for Jesse. By growing his capacity for empathy and compassion, he learns to understand better his own pain, the importance of his relationships, and what brings meaning to one’s life. — Jill Suttie

The Hard-Earned Happiness Award: Encanto

This Disney animated film is about the Madrigal family—three generations living together in the mountains of Colombia.

Each member of the family is gifted a power by their magical house, like healing with an arepa, shape-shifting, or controlling the weather with your mind. They seem perfect and happy. Everyone except 15-year-old Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who was never gifted any powers.

But then the family’s power begins to weaken and the very foundation of their home begins to crack. Mirabel goes on a mission to find out why. In the process, she discovers that things are not as perfect as they seem. The siblings are unhappy. They put on a facade to support their family and their community, but they’re paying a price for being untrue to themselves.

For example, Louisa (Jessica Darrow), the eldest of three sisters in Maribel’s immediate family, can lift buildings and carry mountains—a metaphor for the weight that many eldest children know. The oldest child needs to support and nurture the rest. They’re taking care of others more than being taken care of. But under pressure, they can break.

Mirabel wasn’t given a magical gift. But in the quest to help her family, she develops her own gifts. She learns how to listen, to empathize, to work hard, and to have faith in her own strength and resilience. In doing so, she becomes the cornerstone of her family.

Encanto reminds us of a core value of the Greater Good Science Center: Happiness is not something that is given to you as a gift. Just like gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness, it’s something that is cultivated through our own inner reflections and outer efforts. — Shuka Kalantari

The Wise Love Award: I’m Your Man

My son is on his high school robotics team. Their goal is to get a machine to do things that we humans take for granted: picking up a ball and putting it into a basket, for example.

It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the quest to make a machine that can replicate humans is really a quest to understand how humans work. In the German film I’m Your Man, Alma (Maren Eggert) is a lonely archeologist who is roped into testing Tom (Dan Stevens), an android designed to be her perfect partner—and in the process Alma and Tom reveal something about how love, imagination, and happiness interact in the human mind.

At the heart of I’m Your Man, we find a series of interlocking questions. Is love simply a matter of finding someone who will meet your needs, or is it about learning to be alone with another, autonomous person? What happens to humans when all our needs are met at the push of a button? What is the difference between addiction and love? Is our “soulmate” something we must earn, or can they be willed into existence? Can someone become your soulmate if they have no soul? Can we ever be at our best with someone who has no needs?

If you’re looking for black-and-white answers to those questions, I’m Your Man is not your movie. As the film ponders the distance between the ideal and the real person we choose as our attachment object, we discover that both are constantly changing—and so too is our happiness, as we evolve, and as we see our mates evolve. What’s the alternative? According to this movie, it’s to love wisely, thoughtfully, mindfully. — Jeremy Adam Smith

The Perseverance Award: King Richard

There is so much written about the rise of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams. But King Richard is the story of their father, Richard Williams, and his singular drive to get his daughters to the top.

Today we might call Williams, who is masterfully portrayed by Will Smith, a helicopter dad. But King Richard gives us some real insight into what parents could do to not only protect and nurture their children, but show them that they can do or be anything with hard work and belief.

The portrayals of Black men as fathers and family members in film often omit fierce love and the desire for a better life. Richard Williams is a flawed person, and we get to see that. But we also get to see what makes him tick—and I was touched by his understanding that his girls also needed to have a childhood. For example, he rejects high-end tournament play for them as youngsters, in order to give them that anchor of normalcy.

Aunjanue Ellis gives a stellar (and Oscar-nominated) performance as the Williams girls’ mother Oracene. She is every bit as fierce in her mission to help lift her children up, but she is also determined to support the girls, even when Richard gets caught up in his focus for them. Despite the focus on the father, this movie is a wonderful success story about an entire American family. — Andrea King Collier

The Optimism Award: Licorice Pizza

When 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman) first meets 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim), she’s assisting a photographer at his high school, and he’s in line to have his portrait taken. Immediately, he’s smitten with her and asks her out to dinner. While Alana has zero interest in dating a kid, she’s intrigued by his charisma and bravado—and she ends up meeting him for dinner anyway.

So begins this quirky coming-of-age story set in 1970s San Fernando Valley, California. Gary, a former child actor, is the eternal optimist and will not take “no” for an answer—in love or in life. He uses his wit, charm, and perseverance in pursuing Alana, as well as in ventures like a waterbed business. Alana, in turn, develops a warm friendship with Gary and tags along with him through a series of adventures and misadventures.

Gary’s self-confidence is endearing, and, as it turns out, a winning strategy. His attitude begins to rub off on Alana, spurring her to pursue new opportunities and gain self-esteem and agency. While her feelings for him zigzag throughout the movie, his youthful optimism and clear, loving attention toward her are just what she needs. — Jill Suttie

The Authenticity Award (tie): Passing

Passing is based on the 1929 novel by a Black author, Nella Larsen. It tells the story of two light-skinned Black women, childhood friends, who have “European” features. When they run into each other after many years in a segregated New York restaurant, they’re both passing as white. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is just passing for the afternoon in order to enjoy tea. For Clare (Ruth Negga), passing is a way of life. She has opted to live her life freely as a white woman, married to a white man.

Her husband doesn’t know her secret. In fact, when we see him talking about Black people, he is full of disdain and even hatred. But Clare brushes it off in order to live the comfortable life she has chosen. Irene has carved out a comfortable life, too, on different terms. She’s married to a prominent Black physician, and they both enjoy a robust social life in Harlem. After Clare inserts herself into Irene’s life, the tension is palpable. Each of the women is curious about the other one’s life; both of them doubt their own choices. As their lives intertwine, tragedy looms.

Passing doesn’t make any big loud pronouncements about race or racism in America. It instead shows how Black people shape-shift to survive in a racist society. It raises a question for all viewers: If you could make your life easier, and more comfortable, and safer by leaving family and friends to embrace a new identity, would you? There’s an answer embedded in the story: If you do choose to pass as something that you’re not, you always pay a price. — Andrea King Collier

The Authenticity Award (tie): The Power of the Dog

Toxic masculinity gets an innovative face lift in The Power of the Dog—and raises questions about what happens when you’re not able to live authentically.

In 1920s Montana, we meet the film’s main character, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). We learn that he probably had a secret homosexual relationship with an older friend and mentor, who eventually dies. Ashamed and unable to share that part of himself, Phil shows aggression toward those who don’t live up to his hyper-masculine standards.

Enter Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of a widower who runs a local boarding house, who openly betrays the gender norms of the wild, wild west. The film centers on the initial tension and eventual metamorphosis of their relationship.

Never has the Western film genre explored themes of gender and sexuality with such beautiful cinematography, scoring, and poignant juxtaposition. The movie makes the viewer think about how social norms can harm society as well as the individuals perpetuating those norms.

When Peter is openly taunted by Phil about making paper flowers, an act deemed to be for a woman, Peter proudly accepts responsibility, as if oblivious to any gender norms that forbid him from such artistic expressions. And at the same time he is fiercely protective of his mother. Peter’s authenticity affords him curiosity and vulnerability, while Phil’s shell brings him, and those around him, only anger and sadness.

Unfortunately, a recent comment by the movie’s director Jane Campion (which touched upon another film on this list, King Richard), suggests that she could benefit from a widening of her own lens to understand how the theme of her movie can be applied to a variety of marginalized groups. — Shanna B. Tiayon

The Joyful Diversity Award: Summer of Soul

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weeks in 1969–100 miles away from another big concert you might have heard of, in Woodstock, New York.

As the documentary Summer of Soul unfolds, we go well beyond this one event to see the rest of America through Black eyes at the end of the ’60s. A method emerges: As each act takes the stage, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson threads present-day interviews with both artists and audience members through the performances. We discover the cultural significance of each band and the conflicts they embodied.

For example, members of the 5th Dimension talk about sounding white but being Black, and what it meant to them to be received by a Harlem audience. The gospel groups explore the tensions between their Christian faith and politics of the day, and we are able to see how the Black church incubated so much talent. There are Latino and African performers, as well, which allows Questlove to talk about East “Spanish” Harlem and the emergence of the Young Lords Party, as well as the struggles in Africa against apartheid and European colonialism.

Along the way, we discover why Sly and Family Stone looked and sounded so revolutionary in their time. We see Nina Simone as a charismatic elder stateswoman whose political and musical radicalism felt and still feels dangerous. We hear some brilliantly insightful commentary from Greg Tate, the legendary music critic who passed away last year.

“We are not African, we are not European, we are a new people,” says a young and vibrant Jesse Jackson onstage. “We are a beautiful people.” In Summer of Soul, you can hear the voice of that new people—and it is, indeed, beautiful. — Jeremy Adam Smith

The Revolutionary Representation Award: Turning Red

Although more than half the human population will experience menstruation, precious few films touch the topic. Pixar’s Turning Red centers this important human experience in a movie that’s both hilarious and heartwarming.

Director Domee Shi, the first Asian woman to direct a feature film for Pixar, centers a Chinese Canadian girl, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), whose hormonal changes turn her into a giant red panda whenever her emotions become volatile, in a metaphor for puberty.

The movie is smart and charming, showing Meilin and her group of best girlfriends plotting to attend a boy band concert. Meilin’s plans are nearly thwarted by her overprotective mother (Sandra Oh), in an expansive sub-theme about growing up in a Chinese immigrant family.

Domineering Asian moms are practically a cliché these days, but Oh’s vocal talent adds depth and empathy to her character—and Pixar’s animators nail Oh’s real-life expressive eyebrows perfectly.

And while the film’s witty imagery and wild plot twists have fun with the tropes of ’90s adolescence, from Tamagotchi to boy-band choreography, it takes its heroines’ budding (straight) sexuality seriously, inviting audiences to laugh with them, never at them.

Turning Red is a revolutionary production that for once does not hypersexualize or objectify Asian girls and women for the white-male gaze, but shows us in our human complexity: funny, fierce, confused, complicated, and even, yes, at times as smelly and hairy and wild as a giant red panda. — May-lee Chai