I've always believed that movies could change the world, which is part of the reason why I can never be cynical about them. Sure, the motion picture industry is a business and a vast majority of films are calibrated to achieve a maximum profit, but sometimes, genuine art sneaks through the studio notes and the focus groups. Art can help us fight against a world in which we feel powerless; it can give us empathy with entire groups of people for which we have no frame of reference.
These movies don't just challenge popular thinking, but show us that we all have the tools to fight and make the world something a little better for everyone.
"V for Vendetta" (2005)
Dir. James McTeigue
"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." Great Britain has become a fascist state and a masked vigilante conducts guerrilla warfare on a massive scale. The film is based on a comic book that was released in the late 1980s, but has somehow only become more relevant with each passing year. Simultaneously a "fun" super hero movie and a powerful look at how easily a government can overrun its citizenry.
"Fahrenheit 451" (1966)
Dir. Francois Truffaut
Based on the revolutionary novel by Ray Bradbury, "Fahrenheit 451" tells the story of a firefighter tasked with burning books outlawed by a government fearful of independent thought from its citizens. The important lesson to take from the book—or film—is that any strong society is built on questioning what is being fed to us, both in the news and from our government.
"West of Memphis" (2012)
Dir. Amy Berg
This documentary owes a huge debt to the "Paradise Lost" trilogy, beautifully summarizing all three films into one. "West of Memphis" looks at the story of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, three Arkansas teenagers who were wrongly imprisoned for the murder of three young boys. Watching the criminal justice system fail the innocent so completely is enraging, but also bone-chilling. The killer is still out there and because the Arkansas court system is so afraid of admitting its incompetence, the perpetrator may never be found or even hunted.
"The Visitor" (2007)
Dir. Tom McCarthy
A sad, lonely and isolated man comes home after a long time away to find his apartment has been sublet to Syrian-Senegalese immigrants. "The Visitor" is a beautiful and heartfelt look at empathy and human connection in a time where isolating one's self is easier than ever.
There are so many more films to talk about, such as the disturbingly prophetic "Bob Roberts," the beautifully empathetic "Cameraperson" or the haunting "The Handmaid's Tale," but searching for the stories that are important to you is what makes cinema an art form. There will be a film that speaks directly to what puts the fire in your belly—you just have to reach out and find it.