15 Essential Empathetic Films: Movies to Change Minds, Mold Moral Consciousness and Heal the World

In Steve James’ beautiful documentary Life Itself (2014), these are the first words we hear from critic Roger Ebert, whose life and death will be the subject of the film:

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

The idea of movies as empathy machines has never seemed more meaningful or necessary to us at MovieMaker than it does now, at a time when the world seems intent on becoming increasingly divided. In the interest of calling attention to films that bring us together and enlighten us rather than prey on our differences and prejudices, we’ve assembled this list of 15 empathetic movies that, we think, make the world a better place, and improve the viewer’s life via the insights and experiences they provide. Ten were picked by us, and five were chosen from the selection of thoughtful, diverse answers we received when we posed this question to our online readers: “What movies made you a better person?”

Altogether, these are inclusive films by major artists, movies that fully realize Ebert’s dream.

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)

After an apprenticeship bouncing from genre to genre in the 1920s and early ’30s, Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu found his great subject—the poetry and poignancy of everyday domestic life—and never let it out of his grasp, directing and co-writing several dozen masterpieces on the topic before his death in 1963. His final film, An Autumn Afternoon, is also his best, an exquisite evocation of love between a father and daughter that finds both the beauty and the tragedy in the sacrifices each makes for the other. As is typically the case with Ozu, a seemingly simple story—here, the tale of an adult daughter deciding whether or not to leave the home she shares with her widowed father—serves as a delivery system for a multitude of complex emotions and points of view. With a command of craft and a purity of expression that only comes with decades of experience, Ozu clearly and concisely conveys the cumulative weight of all the small moments that make up our daily lives. There are no “big” moments, yet the sense of longing, loss and renewal one is left with in the movie’s final scenes is as powerful as anything ever put on screen.

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives

This epic (it clocks in at just under three hours) study of men returning home from World War II has influenced countless other dramas (most notably The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July), but it retains its singular power thanks to director William Wyler’s delicate sense of space and characterization, and a collection of performances—from Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews and others—that offer a wide range of perspectives on veterans’ experiences. In this case, the empathetic nature of the film is embodied in the camerawork itself, as virtuoso cinematographer Gregg Toland applies his signature deep-focus style to compositions that illustrate multiple perspectives, not only within the same film and the same scene, but within the same shot. Each character is granted dignity and understanding to an uncommonly rich degree; it’s an ensemble piece in which every storyline is penetrating and multifaceted enough to justify its own film.

Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

In her feature debut, director Kimberly Peirce infuses the rural crime genre (her film owes more than a little to both Badlands and In Cold Blood) with an empathetic observational eye and ear, conveying the tragic repercussions of insecurity and ignorance with philosophical heft and clarity. The true story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a transgender young man who was raped and ultimately murdered for nothing more than trying to live as he wished, it’s a heartbreaking film but not a depressing one. That’s because the light Peirce shines on so many subjects—young love and its capability to redeem and rescue, the desperate quest for belonging and understanding, the painfully self-perpetuating nature of violence and prejudice—leaves the viewer enlightened and enlarged, not dispirited. Peirce is a master at evoking character through anthropological detail and environment, and by the end of Boys Don’t Cry she has provided total comprehension not only of her doomed protagonist, but of the men responsible for his devastating fate.

Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)

At the time of its release, some commentators wrongly saw this Paul Schrader-scripted tale of another nocturnal professional driver as a retread of his and Scorsese’s earlier collaboration on Taxi Driver. In fact, Bringing Out the Dead is a more ambitious, profound and mature work, a movie that approaches the urban desolation of Taxi Driver with empathy instead of fear, and heartfelt spirituality rather than violent irony. Nicolas Cage plays Frank, an ambulance driver troubled by the many patients he fails to save, as well as by the seeming randomness of the people he does rescue. Where is God when an innocent baby dies while a drug dealer survives? In Scorsese and Schrader’s hands, Frank’s journey of spiritual inquiry merges with a sociological document of the men and women left behind by Reagan’s defunding of community mental health centers in the 1980s—the movie is filled with lost souls who should be institutionalized, but haunt the streets (as well as Frank’s visions) like ghosts. The movie’s deep empathy for their plight, as well as for Frank’s inner struggle, places Bringing Out the Dead alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence as one of Scorsese’s great films about the struggle for transcendence.

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

The cinema of writer-director Ron Shelton is a kind of small miracle, unlike anything else American movies have ever seen. His comedies are raucous and delicate, hilarious without ever being mean-spirited, and outrageous yet firmly rooted in incisive, honest observation. I don’t think there’s a director who understands the human condition in all its complexity with more insight and humor than Shelton, who is both moved and amused by our contradictions, foolishness and grace. Aside from his cop films, which require a little more allegiance to the conventions of genre, there are no villains in Shelton’s work—even a bastard like the title character in Cobb is considered worthy of understanding and nobility in Shelton’s mind. His debut feature, Bull Durham, contains a simple yet exquisite expression of Shelton’s humanism that perfectly distills his view of the world into two lines of dialogue. When Millie, a baseball groupie with a sexually expansive past, is about to get married, she asks her friend Annie (Susan Sarandon in the performance of her career) if she deserves to wear white. “Honey,” replies Annie, “we all deserve to wear white.”

Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky, 1984)

Like Ron Shelton, the late, great Paul Mazursky is one of the American cinema’s great humanists, and he was never more compassionate or affecting than in this love letter to the country he called home. Robin Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian musician who defects to America and becomes part of a rich community of immigrants while suffering through the agonizing bureaucracy required to become a citizen. Mazursky’s film is an unabashedly patriotic statement that celebrates both what immigrants give to America and what it gives them; it’s a touching, inclusive piece of work that is more than a little sad—and more than a little vital—when revisited in today’s divisive times.

Pather Panchali (The Apu Trilogy, Satyajit Ray, 1955-1959)

Subir Banerjee as Apu in Pather Panchali

Satyajit Ray burst onto the international film scene in 1955 with the release of his debut film, Pather Panchali, and though he didn’t intend it to be the first in a trilogy, its success led Ray to continue the story in Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). Taken together, the three films form an all-encompassing vision of coming of age not dissimilar from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, as Ray follows his protagonist Apu from birth to early adulthood and creates a vivid portrait of community, as well as an intimate character study of one young man. Ray’s episodic structure includes scenes of birth, death, romance, triumph, aimlessness, bitter anger, tragedy and reconciliation, with digressions along the way that give the movies a sense of life as is actually lived and experienced by us all. Both razor-sharp in its specificity and completely universal and relatable in its overall themes, the Apu trilogy is a staggering achievement, made all the more impressive by its deceptively casual surface.

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1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    January 24, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    Love The Best Years of Our Lives! Classics are films we could all learn from and very memorable. Excellent post, thank you. Love MovieMaker Magazine!

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