“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” — Roger Ebert
In 2018, I began a new tradition which I hope to continue for some time: listing out the year’s films which best generate empathy. In the years since, I began writing about film online, and especially in the years I’ve spent as part of Austin’s own Mobile Loaves & Fishes, I believe my own personal capacity for compassion has expanded dramatically. As Roger Ebert wisely relayed, movies are mankind’s greatest empathy generating art. So it stands to reason that as I soak in many of the great films of each new year, I find my own heart expanding in response to great artists’ work. As I continue in my work managing the Community Cinema at Community First! Village, I also have more and more opportunities to live out that organization’s singular mission to empower communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. So yeah, my daily existence almost demands a list like this.
Our country is also desperately in need of empathy and compassion. Regardless of where you stand politically, it is hard to deny that Americans are struggling to relate to one another, to genuinely wish the best for people not like them. We need to deepen our wells. We need to walk a mile in another’s shoes. The following films have the power to do just that.
It can’t go unnoticed that five out of the ten films in this list (and another two when counting the honorable mentions) were directed by women. Many are directed by, or star, a vast array of people of color as well. A big part of deepening our capacity to empathize is hearing, seeing, and getting acquainted with humans and stories that are not like our own. More women and people of color having a voice is good for all of us. It’s not just better for the artform of cinema…it’s better for humankind and our continued survival.
10: The Public [PG-13]
You just don’t see very many films about the homeless, or if an unhoused individual is featured in a film, they’re a punchline (or a punching bag). The Public’s drama unfolds around some particularly bitter cold Cincinnati nights in which a coalition of homeless folks lay claim to the public space of a heated library and declare their right to be treated with the dignity of a warm night’s sleep. It…causes a stir. The homeless folks in this film are treated like nuanced and unique individuals, which you rarely see in film, or in our local communities.
9: Jojo Rabbit [PG-13]
Elsa Korr: You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.
Tonally, Jojo Rabbit is quite a bizarre film, featuring writer/director Taika Waititi playing a young boy’s humorous imaginary friend Adolf Hitler as fervent Hitler Youth Jojo comes of age in Germany towards the end of WWII. But the film’s most dramatic punches are packed into the efforts that both Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) and a young Jewish girl hiding out in Jojo’s own house (Thomasin McKenzie) put into simply relating to Jojo as a scared and fatherless young boy. The film shows us how propaganda insinuates itself into our minds, and how true human connection can fundamentally change us for the better.
8: Mickey And The Bear [R]
It might be a trite saying, but I still find power in the concept that “hurt people hurt people.” Mickey And The Bear explores generational trauma as the incredible James Badge Dale portrays Hank, a charismatic addict and emotionally spiraling veteran being parented by his own teenage daughter Mickey (Camila Marrone). We’re rooting for Mickey to make her own way in life, out from under Hank’s abusive-but-human vice grip. Yet we can’t help but feel the challenges of father/daughter relationships, PTSD-fallout, the crippling struggle with addiction, and more. Some leveled accusations of “misery porn” at Mickey And The Bear. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. These people feel real, and these kinds of relationships are happening in homes all across our country and all around us, if not in our very own homes.
7: Becoming Leslie [Not Rated]
Leslie Cochran: Austin icon. Complex human being.
No film this year better exemplifies the Mobile Loaves & Fishes core belief that the primary cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family. Learn Leslie’s story and learn the story of so many unhoused people.
6: Waves [R]
What happens to a family when a loved one commits an unalterable and tragic act? The waves of the title are ripples through a typical American family (who just happen to be African American) showing what led up to a tragedy and what next steps can look like in the wake of it. Both tragic and redemptive, horrific and healing, Waves puts viewers through a cinematic wringer and taps into the powerful shared human experience of family in the process.
5: Honey Boy [R]
Otis: I’m going to make a movie about you.
James: Make me look good, Honey Boy.
Shia LeBeouf gives handily the bravest performance of his career as he serves as both writer and actor in a dramatized version of his own childhood experience. LeBeouf portrays a dramatized version of his own father (James), allowing actors Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges to portray dramatized versions of himself (Otis) in different time periods. Much like in Mickey And The Bear, Honey Boy explores the nuance and complexities of abusive relationships with our parents in an illuminating and nuanced way.
4: Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops [TV-MA]
“You might be broken…but you’re fixable.”
Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops is a no-frills documentary illuminating the work of the mental health unit of the San Antonio police department that uses de-escalation tactics to address the needs of the citizens they encounter. It’s not a politically inflammatory film, staking no ground in the “black” vs “blue” lives matter movements. It’s not hero worship either, as Ernie and Joe are shown to be damaged individuals just like you and me. The film simply chronicles the compelling and HIGHLY successful tactics of approaching law enforcement through a mental health lens. If our society is going to continue to rely on first responders to address mental health crises (a concept that needs further evaluation), this film shows revolutionary tactics for humane encounters between officers of the law and people in crisis. May this approach spark a movement.
3: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood [PG]
“You love broken people. Like me.”
In a stroke of brilliance, especially after last year’s excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? perfectly captured Fred Rogers’ essence, Mr. Rogers (here portrayed compellingly by America’s Dad Tom Hanks) plays a supporting role in this dramatized film. Matthew Rhys plays lead character Lloyd Vogel, a journalist tasked with writing a fluff piece on Mr. Rogers who instead finds himself changed by his encounters with a man who is genuinely good. As Vogel is forced to confront his broken relationship with his distant father, the reconciliatory power of Mr. Rogers’ message is wonderfully displayed.
2: Just Mercy [PG-13]
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
No film this year better celebrates the innate value of each human life than Just Mercy, a powerful dramatization about the life and work of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson represents poor death row inmates who might not have gotten fair trials in a United States justice system that favors those with privilege and power. Again, regardless of personal politics, there’s no doubt that our justice system disproportionately impacts people of color and that death sentences are far too often found to be imposed on the innocent. Timely, compassionate, and unafraid to hold a mirror up to us all, Just Mercy is powerfully convicting cinema that begs us to make major change.
1: A Hidden Life [PG-13]
“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” ― George Eliot, Middlemarch
The overall best film of 2019, and perhaps one of the greatest religious films ever made, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life shows us plainly the abiding goodness of a loving family stewarding their land and contributing to their community, and the deep cost of personal conviction when a loving husband and father refuses to be conscripted into Hitler’s army. A Hidden Life shows the cost of drinking the cup of Christ better than almost any film in history. By showing the true story of one “forgotten” man and the great personal sacrifice he made to save his own soul, we’re compelled to ask how far we would be willing to go to save ours. Can I take up a burden so great? Can you? Can we collectively accept that self-sacrifice is mandatory if any of us have any hope of salvation?
Her Smell: Elisabeth Moss gives the performance of the year as a spiralling punk rock star whose addictions and megalomania have ruined every relationship in her life, and who just might have the strength to change.
Chernobyl: The best television of 2019 dramatizes the tragedy of the nuclear meltdown and more importantly shows the profound cost of state-driven lies becoming truths that must be enforced by mid-level common people. Lies are poison when they become public policy. We must be better, or this will happen again.
Little Women: If you just need your soul to soar, or you just want to fall in love with a family brimming with goodness and love, look no further than Little Women.
Fast Color: A superhero film like no other, which posits that the future will be both black and female…and that that will be okay.
And I’m Out.