Machines of Empathy: 2023’s Top Films to Help You Be a More Empathetic Human Being

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”

Roger Ebert famously used the term “empathy machine” to describe films as a way to provide perspective, sensitivity, and awareness through stories that find a foothold in our common humanity. It’s an idea that we love to celebrate – our mission has always been to champion compassion over cynicism – and for the last several years our Editor in Chief Ed Travis has been highlighting some of his favorite films that fulfill this ideal.

Perspective is the goal, and to that end this year we’re taking more of a team approach and collecting input from the whole gang on the films that broadened our horizons.

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list of the films that grabbed us, but they are some of the key ones we wanted to call out.

1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture

With a fascinating premise that at times plays out like a true crime documentary that is digging to find the clues that will crack the case, filmmaker Sharon “Rocky” Roggio tells the story about how the word “homosexual” first made its way into the English language translation of the Bible. It’s a word that simply didn’t appear in the English Bible until 1946. The narrative the film relays is that the inclusion of the word seemed to be without agenda at first, but quickly became crucial to the white evangelical American understanding of Christianity. I’ve been a Jesus guy my whole life, but throughout my life I’ve really struggled with the idea that God would exclude (and exclude, and exclude) access to the Kingdom of God for people who act X way or believe X thing. So topically, this film couldn’t be more relevant to me, a straight white male who simply wants to see the Lord’s table be radically open to all.

While the evidence seems clear that what 1946 is trying to tell us is true, the empathy this film generates comes primarily from its primary subjects, who are authentically living out their faith simultaneously with their theological understanding of what God thinks about homosexuality. Rocky includes herself as a subject in the film, a technique I don’t always appreciate in documentaries. But in an act of supreme vulnerability, Rocky’s own father is also a subject. And Rocky’s father is a staunch evangelical pastor who disagrees with Rocky’s queer lifestyle. 1946 is a film that compels from start to finish, but also grants access into the lives of earnest faith-seekers who live vulnerable lives forever intertwined with family that have had a wedge driven between them due to theology. Hopeful and fascinating, it presents the possibility that scripture was never actually trying to teach exclusion and that the faith community desperately needs to radically include our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, even while depicting with honesty the firm and unyielding stances of so many who disagree.

Ed Travis

20 Days in Mariupol

For those of us in the US especially, somewhat sheltered and segregated from the global community, it’s easy to get inured to the geopolitical happenings over there in places like Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. The ongoing Russian invasion of the Ukraine is one such struggle that can get lost in a wall of noise, especially now some two years after the inciting incident.

20 Days in Mariupol, which just picked up an Academy Award for Best Documentary, follows a team of journalists as they capture and narrate footage of the besieged city. Their cameras record unforgettable images including injured civilians and overcrowded hospitals, bombed buildings, bodies being dumped into mass graves, and a harrowing first person trek through streets and alleys, evading enemy eyes.

It’s a sobering glimpse into the very real atrocities of an unjust – and still ongoing – modern war with a very human toll.

Austin Vashaw

All of Us Strangers

Loosely based on Taichi Yamada’s well-regarded 1987 novel, Strangers, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s adaptation, All of Us Strangers, locates the central character’s melancholic loneliness not in the present, where personal and professional disappointments are more likely the cause, but in the immutable past. For Adam (Andrew Scott), a forty-something, modestly successful, London-based screenwriter, the past refuses to remain the past. Adam carries a grief-stained childhood with him, sometimes as a burden, sometimes as a blessing, but it always remains unseen, hovering just out of frame and out of reach, perpetually reminding him of what he’s lost and can never recover or regain. The past, unresolved and unreconciled, casts a heavy pall over not just his personality, but on how he interacts with the world below and outside his one-bedroom condo-apartment.

Mel Valentin

 All of Us Strangers takes great care to show how such a fear can be spurred by the kind of trauma and grief both Adam and Harry have experienced in their own ways. It’s also in the present-day scenes where the “strangers” of the film’s title becomes the clearest, referring to the collection of gay men whose families never knew them, could never possibly know them in the way other “strangers” like them could. In so many ways, Haigh’s film belongs to them, to that generation of gay men who were lost at one point, and especially to those who were never found.

Frank Calvillo

All of Us Strangers is staggering. It’s an exploration of loss, loneliness, and, ultimately, connection. It’s about the inherent messiness of being human and the miracle of empathy, the most priceless gift we can give each other. Every moment in our lives is fleeting, and it’s the moments where we shut ourselves off from the world that will linger longest. Whether it’s time with friends and family taken for granted or a run in with a stranger cut off before it has a chance to develop, All of Us Strangers shows that it’s the connections, and the missed ones, that have the power to transcend.

Eddie Strait

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

Based on Judy Blume’s famous novel which has been enrapturing girls for decades, Are You There God? is an incredible journey in an 11-year-old girl’s shoes. New in town, Margaret longs for what most girls her age do – to have friends and fit in at school. The girls in her new burg are a little more sophisticated, and that, combined with their burgeoning adolescence, creates a lot of pressure. The girls are sexually interested, and seem overly obsessed with racing toward bigger boobs and having their periods, and Margaret feels forced to comply with her peers but really just wants to be a kid. Meanwhile, other concerns at home, including being in a mixed-religious household with both Jewish and Christian backgrounds, lead to a struggle to find her identity and place (special shout-out here to Rachel McAdams who is tremendous as Margaret’s mom).

Even from the beginning the novel was met with controversy for its delving into such subject matter, but it’s all tremendously relevant and wonderfully realized – and deeply moving. Are You There God? may have been written for preteen girls, but it’s the ultimate weepy Dad movie. Margaret herself learns a hard lesson about empathy when she realizes she is complicit in her clique’s bullying of another girl, and decides to change.

I can do no better than to close with a quote from friend-of-Cinapse Dan Hassler-Forest, who puts it succinctly: “I thought it was a good idea to watch this with my 11-year-old daughter, who spent the entire running time being mortified and embarrassed over her dad who simply could not stop crying.”

Austin Vashaw

Beyond Utopia

Beyond Utopia is a documentary about people who attempt to flee the DPRK, and it tracks a few different threads including the experiences of some successful escapees. But the film’s main focus, and most of its runtime, centers on a brave pastor who has become a specialist in aiding defectors and helping them make the trek to freedom. He’s put in touch with a desperate family that has just escaped North Korea into China, and thus is set up the race against time and oppressive odds to save this family – ranging in age from from young kids up to grandma – guiding them thousands of miles through China, Vietnam, and Laos to finally escape to Thailand where they can gain sanctuary – a journey that includes sneaking across borders illegally, enduring a grueling nighttime trek by foot over mountainous jungle, and ending their journey fording a river in a couple of small, wobbly boats.

There have been a lot of documentaries over the years about North Korea and those who have succeeded (or failed) to escape it, but even so Beyond Utopia is among the most intense and eye-opening – more so for reflecting the current situation. Depicting this struggle with a real family humanizes and illustrates this in a way that truly enlightens and contextualizes the situation.

Austin Vashaw

Fallen Leaves

You may recall when So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was humorously billed as “The Fourth Book in the Hitch-Hiker Trilogy” (that trilogy eventually culminated in a “Part Six of Three”).

Similarly, Fallen Leaves (unrelated to Alice Guy-Blaché’s historic silent film) marks director Aki Kaurismäki’s return to his famous “Proletariat Trilogy” which relayed stories of outwardly simple working class people through a mixture of tragedy and comedy. The Proletariat stories are a rather pure distillation of the idea that drives our exploration of empathy, so naturally – and deservingly – this newest title in the series finds a place on our list.

It’s a deceptively simple setup, a romantic film about a couple of desperately lonely low-wage workers, both struggling and barely scraping by. Ansa, a grocery stocker, and Holappa, a machinist, randomly meet, find themselves fond of one another, and begin a gentle courtship. Both are quiet and introverted, and reaching out because they sense there’s something here worth grasping. But despite their mutual attraction, Holappa’s alcoholism and self-loathing drive a sharp divide, threatening to derail their new love. The “will they/won’t they” component is strong, and spending time with these struggling characters and feeling the weight of their lives is an exercise in understanding – yet the film maintains a light enough touch that the narrative remains intriguing rather than becoming oppressive.

Austin Vashaw

The Holdovers

Despite not being “an Alexander Payne guy”, I was won over by The Holdovers and its idea of taking three different individuals, each in some way the kind of person society would just write off, and exploring who they are. Payne lovingly and honestly delves into his trio of broken souls to reveal subtle depths and layers. There aren’t a lot of grand speeches and overall huge theatrical scenes. There are a lot of moments of people talking and leaning on each other without ever realizing it. To look beyond the surface of who a person is isn’t a novel notion, but it’s one that society needs reminding of from time to time.

The instances of comedy and the spectacular recreation of the 1970s make The Holdovers an enjoyable ride from start to finish, ensuring the audience is given a break from some of the film’s heavier moments. Payne especially uses the latter element to great effect, showing the disenchantment the decade brought on and how it affected the country in ways both big and small. But it’s the people at the center that make the film such a special and rewarding experience. In Paul (Paul Giamatti), Angus (Dominic Sessa), and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Payne gives us some rich examples of damaged souls and how they rely on each other to battle grief, fear, and isolationism in one of the year’s most cathartic and enriching films.

Frank Calvillo

It Lives Inside

A wildly under discussed and underrated genre gem, It Lives Inside is at its core a fish-out-of-water story. Samidha (Megan Suri) is a high schooler stuck between her desire to fit in with the American culture of her peers and the Indian culture of her family. Known to her other friends as Sam, she has turned from her former best friend Tamira, showing embarrassment and a desire to distance herself from her Indian roots. Tamira approaches her with a jar that has something sinister in it. Sam smashes the jar in a fit and the entity inside is released.

What ensues is a unique possession story steeped in Indian culture and folklore, but the viewer need not be overly familiar with the Indian stories fueling the horror to be drawn into the emotions that Sam, her family, and her friends are dealing with in this film. The demonic force that Sam must battle, the Pishach, represents her attempts to distance herself from her family’s culture and history, forcing her to grapple with how to allow it to become part of her in a way she can live with, representing the peace she finally accomplishes in balancing the two cultures she must embrace to be whole.

Justin Harlan

Knock at the Cabin

This M. Night Shyamalan adaptation of the much heralded Paul Tremblay novel revolves around an adorable 7 year old girl named Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui) and her 2 fathers, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge). The three of them are vacationing in a cabin surrounded by beautiful scenery when a stranger knocks at the door. The stranger, Leonard (phenomenally portrayed by Dave Bautista), is accompanied by 3 others who explain to the family that the world is ending and that the only way to stop it is for one of the family to be sacrificed.

As the story unravels, the veracity of the strangers’ tale is challenged, with the truth ever more ambiguous but the circumstances ever more harrowing. In the end, though, the film forces one to ask whether they would sacrifice themselves for their family… and further their family for the fate of the world. Exploring the relationships of Eric and Andrew, their love for Wen, and their possible connections to the strangers, the film places the viewers in the seat of the family and the strangers as they all make difficult decisions.

Justin Harlan


My first introduction to Hirokazu Kore-Eda was through his 2018 film Shoplifters, which previously made Ed’s 2018 list. Monster functions in a similar vein, initially following a single mother’s (Sakura Ando, excellent here and in Godzilla: Minus One) quest for justice after her young son’s odd antisocial behavior turns out to potentially be related to abuse at the hands of his grade school teacher. We’re so invested in this journey of righteousness when Kore-Eda turns the tables back onto us–revealing that this quick shot of emotional gratification has blinded us to the nuances and complex character dynamics at the core of this seemingly simple situation. What’s more, Kore-Eda proceeds to perform this narrative sleight of hand constantly throughout the picture–unexpectedly leading us to open our hearts as well as our minds to characters we initially despised. By the end of the film, we wonder if the characters’ ability to love may have come too late; but while Kore-Eda recognizes the tragedy of these moments, he never chastises his characters for reckoning with their flaws too late. It’s the fact that they were able to do so at all that’s worth commendation.

That’s the true, fiercely beating heart at the core of Monster – how the prejudices we use to get through the day shield us from truly being able to understand and help one another through whatever we might face. It’s both a condemnation of such knee-jerk behavior, as well as an earnest plea to be more generous with our limited sense of compassion. Here, empathy isn’t a treasure to be guarded, dispensed at our whims for those we think deserve it–but rather a tool to better both ourselves and those around us.

Julian Singleton

Perfect Days

Hirayama (a near career-best Koji Yakusho) has an enviably simple routine. He gets up at the sound of sweeping streets. Takes care of his plants. Listens to a cassette tape on the way to work, where he cleans the public toilets of Tokyo. Eats a meal at a subway stall. Reads some Faulkner before bed. While Hirayama’s routine rarely changes, it’s his jovially fastidious devotion to such a simple life that makes an indelible mark on the other chaotic individuals that cross his path.

There are plenty in Hirayama’s life that are bemused by and even mock his seemingly pointless dedication. Wim Wenders’ wonderful film doesn’t seek to provide a definitive answer to their questions, instead letting them linger in the air amidst the joys and pains of Hirayama’s daily life. What answer would be satisfying to these people, who have written off this man’s exuberant joy for living in the present? Wenders also teases out elusive aspects about his central character, such as a past filled with familial tension, or traumas that Hirayama has long since moved on from. While some may see Hirayama’s life as Sisyphean, Hirayama sees his life as its own joyful escape from the stresses and anxieties others allow themselves to be bogged down by.

Coupled with this is an essential, preternatural understanding of what the other tragic and complicated figures in Hirayama’s life are going through: he is there for people when they need an ear the most. Unfettered by the distracting doldrums of existence, Hirayama’s capacity for empathy is boundless – as if he’s removed the blinders life forces upon others, and that’s the key for making profound connections, no matter how fleeting they may be. If life is as transient as it is, then why not choose to live your life making it better than when you left it? Even if things may inevitably tilt towards chaos, tragedy, and a final end – that sense of finality doesn’t take away from the fact that, for a brief moment, things were Perfect. As Hirayama intones: “The past is the past. Now is now.”

Julian Singleton

Poor Things

Filled to the brim with whimsy and wonder, but always anchored to some of the grimmer realities of this world, Poor Things was far and away my favorite overall film of 2023. There’s an absurd component which allows filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos to tell a decidedly fantastical steampunk fantasy tale, but like with all the best fantasy, Poor Things is grounded deeply in the truth of the human condition. In the role of a lifetime, Emma Stone is gifted the opportunity to play Bella Baxter, who we learn is essentially a baby living inside the body of a grown woman, Frankenstein-style; the creation of her “God”-like father figure played by Willem Dafoe.

Ultimately Poor Things is a wildly touching, humorous, and profound experience of a young woman’s life, sexual awakening, and her journey to self actualization. Lanthimos’ bizarre tendencies allow us to see a genuine coming of age and empowerment that is thrilling to behold. And while Bella Baxter is the central figure of the film, it’s phenomenal to see a murderer’s row of talented male actors who all play characters who are entranced by Bella and will have to reckon with how they handle their encounters with a woman who refuses to follow the rules and beguiles each man in her life when she chooses independence and autonomy over… them. I laughed, cried, wept, and cheered as I watched this absurd fable play out which depicts with whimsy and wonder what a fully actualized life can look like and mean. May we all strive to find the room in our hearts to allow our loved ones the opportunity to live fully and completely as themselves and not hold them so tight as to hold them back.

Ed Travis


There are a lot of valid feelings that film can imbue; and while it isn’t the most pleasant, anger is one of the most powerful. It’s a righteous anger that is incited by the tale of R.M.N. as seen by the film’s protagonist, a returning expat who functions as an outside observer and doesn’t particularly want to get involved.

A Romanian village becomes gripped in xenophobia and racism when a few immigrants are hired by a local bakery. The angry villagers storm local social media channels with racist rhetoric and rumors, boycott the business and – ironically for a film set in Transylvania – form a violent mob. Even though the business’s operators weren’t setting out to make any statement (they just wanted to qualify for a tax benefit and only took on the immigrants when their local job postings were ignored), they become the involuntary voice for reason in the midst of a sweeping madness that consumes the town.

R.M.N. left me pissed, but also wanting more for my fellow humans.

Austin Vashaw

Robot Dreams

Loneliness is the theme that’s immediately presented at the start of Robot Dreams with our lead character, a dog living in 1980s New York City, struggling with his solitary existence. In a post-2020 world, these opening scenes hit extremely close to home, calling to mind the months of longing that made up so many people’s existence. When our protagonist builds the robot he sent away for, his dream of companionship has come true and the film becomes one of the most sterling examples of the bond that can exist between two creatures that is both inherent and one-of-a-kind.

It’s an example of friendship that’s so deeply felt and well-imparted that when the pair separate, the emotional reaction is so strong, that it’s almost unbearable. The tale’s lack of a picture-perfect resolution might not be to every viewer’s liking – even more so for being an animated film. Many who have seen it are taken aback by just how much they yearn for the ending they see to be a different one. But there’s also a fitting side to the way Robot Dreams chooses to close its story imparting an incredibly valuable and important lesson that reminds those watching how much we really need one another.

Frank Calvillo

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, categorically a documentary, trains a camera on a group of women in a rural Estonian “smoke sauna”, a sort of communal bathhouse. Essentially a fly-on-the-wall experience, we watch and listen in as the women are cleansed – by fire, by water, and by each other. The women, clearly from different walks of life, remain mostly anonymous, and it’s through their conversation that we get to know them. Conversing together, they laugh, reflect, and discuss anything from normal chitchat to deeper thoughts and confessions about their lives, their hopes, and especially their relationships – both straight and lesbian.

The film’s artful nudity isn’t sexualized; it’s the nakedness of baring themselves that imbues these women with unadorned focus – in being so vulnerable and disarmed baring their bodies, we understand innately that they are also baring their souls.

Austin Vashaw

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