Films that thrill us or make us laugh may impress mainstream audiences, but the best releases are more than just entertaining on a surface level. These films teach important life lessons in addition to entertaining, the latter being a feat that some of the most reviled films ever made can’t even accomplish. The appeal of these superior films extends to a narrative subtext that has something worthwhile to say about human nature, society, and how we can become better people over time. Of course, art forms like film are always subjective, and these messages will often dictate which films connect with various members of the audience, even on a subconscious level.
We typically think of inspirational films in more traditional terms. Films like Dead Poets Society, Forrest Gump, and The Pursuit of Happyness make their messages explicit throughout, but even releases that one wouldn’t expect to have something meaningful at its core often do. For this list, we’re focusing specifically on films that aren’t typically considered message driven but that keep their core lessons inherent to the story at hand regardless.
1. Don’t commandeer another culture — The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
At first this Tim Burton produced stop-motion animated film may just appear to be a part cheery, part gloomy musical about a fantasy world in which every holiday has its own land. However, it’s really about the chaos that ensues when even well-intentioned individuals try to interpret another’s culture and end up forcing their own perspective on the unsuspecting public. Give it another watch.
2. Families take all forms — Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
This one is perhaps the most blatant on this list, as Robin Williams’s character essentially spells it out in the film’s final moments. Nevertheless, seeing as the film is often remembered as a wacky cross-dressing comedy and not one with so much heart behind it, we’re comfortable putting it on this list. The fact that the Chris Columbus film is largely family-friendly makes its message even more powerful.
3. Be honest with people you care about — Liar Liar (1997)
Jim Carrey cannot lie in this Tom Shadyac comedy hit, but aside from the hilarity that ensues as a result, the film is really a commentary on how we all have to put up a front and adjust our behavior in certain contexts, such as at work or when being pulled over by a police officer. Still, the film’s message — that we should be our open, authentic selves with the people we love, if no one else — is a worthy one that should be celebrated.
4. Open yourself up to new possibilities — The Matrix (1999)
Neo (Keanu Reeves) enters a dystopian future wherein machines have enslaved the mind of humanity, thanks to a virtual reality program that keeps mankind firmly in the dark about the nature of reality. There’s plenty of thematic juice in this Wachowski sci-fi classic, but the most basic message is one that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) teaches Neo early on. Keep your mind open to new possibilities, and don’t be complacent with your humdrum life. “Free your mind.”
5. Understand your own mind — Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece purports to be a neo-noir mystery about a man with severe memory problems (Guy Pearce) who aims to solve his wife’s murder. However, the film’s final moments reveal a remarkable twist that calls into question our own understanding of ourselves and the world around us, encouraging viewers to strive for a better sense of self-awareness regarding our own thoughts and behavior.
6. We’re stronger together — The Incredibles (2004)
For an animated film, the theme behind Brad Bird’s beloved tale of a family of super-powered individuals doesn’t necessarily break any new ground with its message of unity within a family unit. Nevertheless, the central device — which uses a superhero story to break down themes of infidelity, isolation, and trust — is so expertly well done that few family films since The Incredibles have reached its level.
7. Respect yourself and take responsibility — Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Edgar Wright’s film may have been a box office flop, but its cult following seems to understand that this adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics has more on its mind than spastic comedy and video game conventions. Michael Cera’s character has a lot of growing up to do and by battling the literal demons of his beloved’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) past, he finds that to be with her and earn inner peace, he must gain the “power of self-respect” and learn to take responsibility for his actions. Deep stuff for a film with such an off-the-wall premise and tone.
8. Appreciate the present — Midnight in Paris (2011)
In recent years, Woody Allen may not have offered as many masterworks as his early days, but this Oscar-winning story certainly fits the bill. Owen Wilson plays a struggling writer entranced by the 1920s literary heyday of Paris. His passion for the era only grows when his nightly walks lead him inexplicably back in time. The film ultimately makes the point that people tend to romanticize the past at the expense of the present.
9. Don’t blindly chase perfection — The Lego Movie (2014)
The fact that The Lego Movie wasn’t a terrible film may have impressed audiences and critics alike. However, the film managed to be both a rollicking and hilarious adventure as well as a meaningful story about the dangers of pursuing perfection. Without delving into spoilers, the film shares some thematic ground with darker tales like Black Swan and Whiplash, albeit with a far more optimistic and emotionally resonant outcome.
10. Anyone can be anything — Zootopia (2015)
Frozen may have been a bigger hit, but Zootopia is the very best non-Pixar Disney animated film since at least The Lion King. Aside from its visual design and sharp script, it’s the film’s message that elevates Zootopia. Early on, lead character Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) — a bunny with dreams of being a cop — states that “anyone can be anything” and that message subsequently expands out into a rich social commentary that breaks down themes of discrimination, racism, and other social stereotypes in genius fashion. Quite the achievement.
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