10. In the Bedroom - 2001
Directed by Todd Field
This fantastic film takes viewers into the home of the parents of a young man named Frank who was murdered by his girlfriend’s ex-husband. As the killer walks free due to lack of evidence, the parents (beautifully played by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) agonize over how to move on with their lives. As they become alienated from the world and from each other, Frank’s father contemplates taking matters into his own hands to achieve justice. The film is an emotional roller coaster, devoid of any macho Hollywood posturing and gratuitous violence. In the Bedroom leaves viewers in a tortured state, wondering how far one should go to get justice, and whether the pain of loss can ever be alleviated.
9. Minority Report - 2002
Directed by Steven Spielberg
More than any entry on this list, Minority Report begs that classic moral question of fate versus free will. In a world in which a few people (the pre-cogs) are gifted with the ability to predict murder, an elite group of police officers, led by Tom Cruise as John Anderton, are charged with preventing the murders by arresting the would-be killers before they can do any harm. Of course, this creates the moral problem of imprisoning people who have not committed any crimes and stripping them of the opportunity to possibly change their minds and do the right thing. The morality stakes are raised when the pre-cogs tell Anderton that he will soon be murdering someone whom he has never even met. Intrigue ensues as he races to find the person whom he is supposedly going to kill, leaving the viewer wondering if he is getting closer to the truth or getting closer to committing murder, as was predicted. Aside from its somewhat sappy (but possibly misunderstood) ending, this film cleverly examines the question of whether we humans are free to act, or only think we are.
8. Saving Private Ryan - 1998
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Another Spielberg film, this one told on the grand scale of World War II, Saving Private Ryan poses impossible moral dilemmas. Should human life be sacrificed to save the life of a person you don’t even know? If so, how many lives should be sacrificed before the number is too high? Are some lives more important than others? The film answers none of these questions, but the emotion with which they are explored is what makes it so great. Tom Hanks plays the captain of a group of eight elite US Army soldiers whose mission it is to risk their own lives in order to find and save the life of one man, Private James Ryan. What’s so important about that one man? Nothing, other than the fact that his three brothers have all been killed in action and the Army has decided that he must be reunited with his mother so he doesn’t suffer the same fate. The dilemma lies in the fact that, as the soldiers themselves demonstrate so beautifully, they all have mothers, fathers, or wives who will miss them just as much if they get killed. The most poignant aspect of this film is how Tom Hanks agonizes over his role as their leader. He explains out loud how, up until now, he has convinced himself that for every one of his soldiers who is killed, ten or twenty, or more people are being liberated. However, this rationale comes crashing down when his sergeant reminds him that in this case, they are only saving one man at the risk of eight others, two of whom are already dead. Hanks’ character is left only to hope that if they do save Private Ryan, he will go on to do something important that will make all of the sacrifice worth it.
7. The Truman Show – 1998
Directed by Peter Weir
This is another film that forces viewers into pondering the question of fate versus free will. Is it possible to do something immoral when you’re under the control of an outside power? However, it also forces the classic moral question of whether the end justifies the means. Most viewers immediately recognize how evil it is to turn a man’s life (Truman, played by Jim Carrey) into a reality TV show. However, the show’s creator, Christof, (played by Ed Harris) reasons that Truman’s life is much happier than that of almost anyone who is living in the outside world. Others point out that the show has brought immeasurable happiness to millions of viewers and generated enormous wealth through marketing. Of course, this is all accomplished through deceiving a man into thinking his life is real, while all the while he is on a TV show. But what’s one life compared to all that good stuff? This film has become even more relevant as real TV continues to move further in the direction of reality and hidden cameras.
6. Watchmen - 2009
Directed by Zack Snyder
In this film, which was adapted from the classic graphic novel of the same name, we see a moral dilemma created by a former superhero. At the height of the cold war between the USA and the USSR, former superhero Adrian Veidt, has decided to prevent a global nuclear war by destroying major cities throughout the world and blaming it on another superhero called Dr. Manhattan. (This was done to better effect in the graphic novel by pretending it was space aliens.) This results in the USA, led by President Richard Nixon, uniting with the USSR to take on what they believe to be a new shared enemy, Dr. Manhattan. Nuclear war is narrowly averted and it seems there will finally be lasting peace as rival nations become allies. But out of the group of former superheroes who have been out to stop Veidt, all but one either becomes convinced to look the other way or just go along with the plan. The always righteous Rorschach decides that he simply cannot compromise his principles by allowing the charade to continue. This causes him to be vaporized by Dr. Manhattan. Once again, viewers are left to decide whether or not the end justifies the means. Can a smaller evil be committed (or permitted) in order to prevent a much greater one?
5. Dead Poets Society – 1989
Directed by Peter Weir
Weir’s second entry on this list should leave any curious viewer asking, “Whose fault?” A young man named Neil has tragically taken his own life and fingers are being pointed in every direction as to who is to blame. School administrators are quick to blame his free-thinking English teacher, brilliantly played by Robin Williams. His friends want to blame Neil’s father for being such a prick. However, his mother could just as easily be held responsible for never saying anything in her son’s defense. Even Neil’s friends or Neil himself could have had the opportunity to do something to change his fate. At a few points in the film, you will want to jump into Neil’s skin and tell his father where to go. The film ends on a satisfying note, but the question of who is responsible for poor Neil’s death is never answered.
4. Music Box – 1989
Directed by Costa-Gavras
This film begs the question of whether the passage of time and doing good deeds can ever erase the guilt that comes from doing horribly evil things. Ann Talbot, a defense attorney played by Jessica Lange, is suddenly forced into defending her father, a Hungarian immigrant who has been accused of committing war crimes during the Holocaust. Mike Laszlo, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, has been living a productive life and raising a family in The United States for more than forty years when an American federal investigator appears on the scene and accuses him of being the former leader of a fascist death squad. So as this seemingly lovable old man is dragged into court for crimes he claims he never committed, we see the whole spectrum of emotions: a grandson who looks up to him as a god, witnesses from the past who see him as evil incarnate, and a non-biased Jewish judge who only wants the facts. There are many great moral questions posed in this film. How far should family loyalty extend? Is there a time limit to how long justice can take? Can a person ever gain redemption for acts of pure evil? This is a great one to watch and discuss.
3. Quiz Show – 1994
Directed by Robert Redford
Based on the real-life quiz show scandals of the 1950s, this film’s moral argument can be summed up by the statement the show’s producer makes before Congress. He arrogantly explains how, even though the show was rigged from start to finish, the contestants were making more money than they would ever have seen, the audience was being entertained, and the network and sponsors were reeling in enormous amounts of cash. Everyone was happy and no laws were being broken. So what was the problem? Aside from duping millions of viewers by making them believe they were watching real competition, nobody was getting hurt. The film takes a harsh look at a very embarrassing period of network television history. It also deftly examines the question of what it would take for each of us (no matter how much integrity we have) to sell out and agree to be a part of a fraud. With a great cast, led by Rob Morrow and John Turturro, this is one that should spark some serious debate.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums - 2001
Directed by Wes Anderson
I understand that people have developed a love-hate relationship with director Wes Anderson because of his quirky style, but this film is one of the best when it comes to personal redemption. After years of letting his family down through infidelity and dishonesty, Royal Tenenbaum, now estranged from his family for more than a decade, attempts to weasel his way back in by pretending to be dying of cancer. Just as he begins making some headway, his lie is discovered and he is now even more in the doghouse than before. It is now up to him to prove himself worthy despite the setback. The greater challenge falls on his family, who must now decide if they can still forgive him despite all he has done. Gene Hackman is phenomenal in one of his last film roles, as is the entire cast, which includes Angelica Houston, Danny Glover and many other big names. Glover’s character is spot on when he tells Hackman’s character, “I don’t think you’re an asshole, Royal. I just think you’re kind of a son of a bitch.” In addition to being a great morality film, it is also funny as hell.
1. Groundhog Day– 1993
Directed by Harold Ramis
Probably the greatest morality film in decades, Groundhog Day leaves viewers wondering why Phil, played by Bill Murray, has been cursed to live the same exact day over and over for what seems like decades. We never get an answer, but we are treated to an amazing transformation from a selfish, egotistical jerk to a selfless and compassionate man who lives every minute as if it was his last on earth. Many of us often wonder what life would be like without any consequences for our actions, but Phil gets to experience it firsthand. At first, he uses this unique situation to his own advantage, indulging in all manner of superficial pleasures: overeating, drinking, manipulating women to go to bed with him, and even robbing banks. However, Phil begins to find this selfish behavior to be destructive, driving him into a deep depression. It is not until he embraces the idea of maximizing his time to learn new things and doing everything he can to help others that he truly finds happiness. There are too many moral lessons in this film to count, and any astute watcher will want to see it over and over again to get them all.