Recommended . . .

A recent study published in Scientific American, entitled “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy” found that types of books we read may affect how we relate to others. They found that . . .

“When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were equally insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy. The study was published October 4 in Science.”

I believe the same phenomenon occurs with movies. Watching thought-provoking, well-made movies increases our ability to empathize and by extension, our ability to find common ground with others. The great good fortune is that there are thousands of excellent movies and documentaries that are engrossing and entertaining as well.

The original idea was to categorize movies by the topics. That soon proved to be impossible because movies are not organized or made that way. So instead, the movies are categorized by the categories that emerged organically.

This movie list is not exhaustive, is focused on politics and political issues, includes almost no documentaries at this time, has no foreign language entries, includes almost no TV, often features actors I like (Gene Hackman) and is extraordinarily incomplete. This list is more a place to start and will be added to all the time . . .


POLITICAL MOVIES – Movies that feature politics primarily

  • Dr. Strangelove – Peter Sellers classic and the epitome of dark humor
  • Manchurian Candidate – frightening thriller about brainwashing and espionage
  • Good Night and Good Luck – George Clooney series of smart thought-provoking movies
  • The Ides of March – contemporary Washington DC with Ryan Gosling and great cast
  • Syriana — George Clooney series of smart thought-provoking movies
  • Absolute Power — riveting Clint Eastwood crime thriller involving a US president
  • The Candidate — Young Democrat trying to unseat a California Republican
  • Primary Colors — Bill Clinton type runs for president
  • Game Change — TV movie about John McCain’s run with Sarah Palin as the VP
  • Dave – for fun with Kevin Kline
  • A Force More Powerful — links to a website organized around the work of Gene Sharp, a leader in nonviolent protest. There are several films about resistance in other countries that are very moving and show how we are all subject to the same forces regarding civil and human rights. Links are to books, movies, resources and lesson plans. Gene Sharp is famous for his 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.


WALL STREET – Wall Street movies are in a class by themselves

  • The Big Short – Based on Michael Lewis book, this is an excellent explanation of what Wall Street did to propel the crash of 2008 leading to the Great Recession beginning in 2009
  • The Wolf of Wall Street – portrayal of a Wall Street type
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – This is an excellent expose of the thinking that creates an Enron and shows how it could happen again
  • Arbitrage – Richard Gere style
  • Bonfire of the Vanities – terrible movie and should have been much better because the book by Tom Wolfe was hysterical

 CON ARTISTS AND GAMBLERS – Given the current political environment, movies about con artists and gamblers can provide insight into how con artists think and alert to how people get “taken”

  • Grifters – Las Vegas cons
  • Matchstick Men – everyday cons
  • Owning Mahoney – Philip Seymour Hoffman conning banks
  • Rounders – Matt Damon as a gambler
  • Moneyball – not really a con but interesting because it is based on a Michael Lewis book and his books are always insightful about this topic
  • Spanish Prisoner – classic con
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – light hearted, old style con with Michael Caine
  • Catch Me If You Can — Leonardo DiCaprio portrays one of those amazing people that impersonates convincingly

 MEDIA – There are surprising few good movies that are focused solely on journalism

  • Spotlight – contemporary movie about journalism at it’ best, investigating a scandal (priest molestation) and how challenging it is to tell the truth
  • All the President’s Men – explores the role and leadership of the Washington Post in the Watergate investigation
  • Network – old movie exploring the challenges of broadcasting and TV
  • Broadcast News – old move exploring broadcasting and TV
  • Citizen Kane – Everyone should just see this


ORDINARY PEOPLE’S LIVES – There are likely thousands of movies about ordinary lives. These are focused on ordinary citizens facing economic hardship and lack of employment

  • Good Will Hunting – coming of age genre, Boston math genius struggling with his poor background, his intellectual gifts and his future
  • The Grapes of Wrath – classic John Steinbeck about the Dust Bowl and how it forced a midwestern family to move to California
  • In Good Company – middle aged man demoted and reporting to a younger man
  • The Company Men – Downsizing in America
  • Nebraska – story of older man returning to Nebraska
  • No Looking Back – New Jersey tale
  • Songcatcher – set in the turn of the last century, a woman goes to Appalachia to catalog the music
  • Up In the Air – George Clooney contemporary movie about how people get laid off or fired these days
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter – Loretta Lynne story set in coal mining country


CORPORATE MISDEEDS and ORDINARY PEOPLE’S LIVES – Dramatizations of corporate greed, taking advantage of people, the environment that are a subset of the ordinary people category but in fighting back mode

  • Norma Rae – Sally Fields as in a union organizer
  • Chinatown – Jack Nicholson leads the classic story of how water was routed away from the Owens Valley to LA to grow the area
  • Silkwood – Meryl Streep in nuclear plant safety violations
  • Erin Brockovich – Julia Roberts in toxic contamination coverup
  • An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore’s documentary about global warming
  • Michael Clayton – shows how the rich and powerful commit crimes and how they are covered up
  • A Civil Action – John Travolta as an attorney taking on corporate polluters, very reminiscent of the current lead poisoning in Flint Michigan
  • Class Action – Gene Hackman as an attorney fighting for defendants in a defective automobile suit
  • Flash of Genius – man’s invention is taken by a corporation and his fight to get it back

EDUCATION – There are hundreds of good movies about educators, often teachers that made extraordinary contributions. Below are a few.

  • Holland’s Opus – talented classical musician becomes a teacher instead of a performer
  • Stand and Deliver – story of a Hispanic teach in the barrio of LA that taught a group of Hispanic to excel in Calculus
  • Dead Poet’s Society – beloved teacher is fired and student’s defend him
  • School of Hard Rock – Jack Black as a non-traditional teacher

 HATE IN AMERICA – There are also hundreds of good movies about the various types of racism, discrimination and intolerance. They are often very difficult to watch but necessary. Below a small sample of each category and a link to more.

RACISM – There are hundreds of movies about racism and white supremacy in America. Below are four and a link to many more

  • 12 Years a Slave – Powerful dramatization of a free black man who was sold into slavery in the mid 1800’s
  • Selma – Contemporary dramatization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Selma
  • The Chamber – Young attorney defends an older white supremacist
  • Hidden Figures – three young black women played an essential role in NASA but were never mentioned

LGBT — There are hundreds of movies about being LGBT in America. Below are four and a link to many more

  • Boys Don’t Cry – Heartbreaking story of transgender boy
  • Birdcage – light hearted, fond and humorous look at two gay men
  • And the Band Played On – story of how his country treated AIDS in the early years
  • The Celluloid Closet – documentary of gays in Hollywood

XENOPHOBIA and RELIGIONS INTOLERANCE –There is not a good list of contemporary movies about this challenging topic. Below are two

  • The Visitor – man learns of immigrant couple squatting in a Manhattan apartment building
  • Arranged – Lovely story of two American girls who have arranged marriages – an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim
  • An American Tail — Steven Spielberg cartoon that is a perfect kids movie depicting the plight of a young boy-mouse immigrating to America from Russia


 THE HOLOCAUST AND ANTI SEMITISM – there are hundreds and hundreds of movies and documentaries, in many languages, about the Holocaust. See a complete list at Wikipedia

An additional list of highly recommended Holocaust movies can be found at the Haaretz holocaust movie listing

  • Diary of Anne Frank – young girl and her family were hidden in a Dutch home during World War II. Her book is a classic and the Ann Frank Foundation dedicated to her.
  • Paper Clips – Documentary of Tennessee school children collecting 6 million paperclips as a way to understand the Holocaust
  • Schlinders List – Steven Spielberg story of Hungarian businessman who saved thousand of Jews
  • The Believer – Powerful story of young Jewish man who becomes a white supremacist
  • The Nasty Girl – how a young German girl investigates her town’s knowledge of the Holocaust
  • Out of the Ashes – Complex story of a Jewish doctor from her time in a concentration camp to becoming a doctor in the US. Heartbreaking story of abortion in the camps.
  • The Pawnbroker – Set in Harlem in the 60’s, an embittered Jewish pawnbroker copes with his concentration camp past
  • Sophie’s Choice – Meryl Streep’s astonishing performance of a young Jewish woman’s experience with her children and concentration camps, told in flashbacks
  • Woman in Gold – contemporary movie of a Jewish woman from LA determined to reclaim her family’s famous painting from an Austrian museum


HISTORY MOVIES – There are thousands of good movies about American history. Below are a couple of suggestions. These types of movies are dramatizations so are not accurate necessarily. However they are an easy way to be introduced, or reminded, of our history in an entertaining way.

  • WORLD WAR II MOVIES – The US took the high moral ground during World War II, was magnanimous and forgiving in the aftermath and has retained that moral integrity and leadership for the past 70 years . . . until the Trump administration. Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation is not an exaggeration.
    • War and Remembrance – TV miniseries, based on Herman Wouk novels, that are a sweeping historical view of World War II
    • Judgment at Nuremberg – The trial after World War II to try war criminals is essential watching, especially during this administration. The US played a critical role in establishing an honest, fair process and imbued the aftermath of the war with great honor and integrity
    • Patton – story of General Patton and the northern Africa campaign in World War II
    • The Bridge on the River Kwai – story of US prisoners of war in Japan
    • Saving Private Ryan – dramatization of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy and saving men behind enemy lines
    • The Dirty Dozen – Captain trains a group of convicts to attack a Nazi villa during World War II
  • 1960’s – These four movies are a representation of the Vietnam War and life in the 60’s. More complete list at Wikipedia

    • Good Morning, Vietnam – Robin Williams is radio dj in Vietnam
    • Hideous Kinky – young Kate Winslett portrays a young British mother traveling along to Morocco
    • The Doors – Jim Morrison’s life story about being a rock star in the 60’s
    • Coming Home – story of how the Vietnam War affected the lives of two people
  • 1970’s, 80’s, 90’’s
    • Welcome to Sarajevo – Balkans war movie
    • Rwanda Hotel – Rwandan war movie
    • Argo – Rescue of captive in the Iran Contra ordeal
    • Behind Enemy Lines – fighter pilot during the Balkan war
    • Body of Lies – CIA agent in Jordan
    • The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – immigration border thriller
    • Charlie Wilson’s War – US involvement in Afghanistan at the time of the Russian invasion

SPY MOVIES – Many spy movies are also Russian movies. There are thousands.

  • James Bond films
  • Bourne films
  • John LeCarre based films
  • The Assignment (1997) Israeli, Russian, U.S. spy thriller
  • Enemy of the State – Hacking, mistaken identity and rogue National Security agents
  • The Good Shepherd – CIA, intelligence thriller
  • Bridge of Spies – contemporary movie of the Gary Powers rescue during the Cold War


RUSSIAN MOVIES – Many spy movies are also Russian movies. The four below are more historical or related to culture

  • Zhivago – classic Russian historical film of the Bolshevik Revolution based on novel by Boris Pasternak
  • Reds – American communists in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution
  • The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming — spoof
  • Little Odessa – Tim Roth as a Russian mobster returning to Brighton Beach in NY


OLD MOVIES – Lots of people do not like old movies so these are at the end. While old movies are not contemporary, they present a much clearer articulation of American values, foibles, and underlying culture. Movies prior to the 50’s or 60’s were much more straightforward about right and wrong, very unambiguous. Given the overwhelming support for “the way it was” and the “good old days”, these movies provide examples of the yearnings of many voters.

These two movies are particularly relevant to today.

  • Face in the Crowd – Story of an Arkansas rambler, discovered and promoted by a radio producer, who turns into a Trump type character. His listeners eventually turn their back on the character after a display of his contempt for them is aired. Will the contemporary voters come to the same conclusion?
  • Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis story of an evangelical preacher from Kansas. He is also a Trump like character and his audience or congregation is similar. Sinclair Lewis of the 30’s has extraordinary insight into what is happening today
  • Casablanca – Classic romantic story of how individual lives were swept up into the time and tides of World War II
  • Goodbye Mr. Chips – Story of beloved teacher
  • A Letter to Three Wives – Another classic romantic story of how individual lives were swept up into the time and tides of World War II
  • Lifeboat – Hitchcock at his intelligent best. Story is of a group trapped in a lifeboat during World War II
  • Random Harvest – first PTSD story of a World War II veteran who returns home with amnesia
  • Dead Reckoning – Bogart in mystery regarding his World War II friend
  • Inherit the Wind – the re-telling of the Scopes trial about evolution vs. creationism
  • Lawrence of Arabia – sweeping drama of the Middle East during the British influence
  • Smith Goes to Washington – ordinary American goes to Washington to fight for the little guy (really, though!!)
  • Notorious – Beautiful woman recruited to spy on the Nazis
  • State of the Union – corruption, journalism and Washington DC
  • Watch on the Rhine – Bette Davis in story about moving to the US before the war and blackmail
  • The Americanization of Emily – Military man and British woman during the planning for D-Day
  • Foreign Correspondent – Hitchcock again
  • Driving Miss Daisy – kind treatment of a Southern Jewish woman’s relationship with her chauffeur
  • To Kill A Mockingbird – Famous story of Atticus Finch, an attorney who defends a black man in a small Southern town
  • Gone with the Wind – famous civil war story based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel



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