Friday, February 15, 2013

Top 10 Agenda Films That Provoke Discussion

Sometimes, the discussion that a film provokes can be more memorable than the film itself. For the purposes of this list, I’m avoiding the philosophical aspect of films, say, in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece is bound to elicit a discussion in the regard of What’s it all about?, but that’s different from what I’m driving at with this list. Similarly, most any film that spawns an ambiguous ending is going to provoke an inciting post-movie conversation, but, again, that’s separate from what I’m going for.

When I say “agenda film,” I’m talking about movies that pose an obvious moral dilemma, or examine social issues that often divide people. The possibilities here are endless, but below are a handful of films that have triggered memorable discussions with my friends and family after the fact.

Note: I’ve tried to be cautious with spoilers, but the endings to Do the Right Thing, Philadelphia and Gone Baby Gone will be spoiled in this post.

Do the Right Thing (1989)
Possible discussion: What motivates and perpetuates racism?
If you’ve seen Do the Right Thing with other people before, then I bet you slipped into the same exact conversation I did when the film was finished: Is it a.) Moral and legal for the police officer to strangle Radio Raheem to death and, b.) Did Mookie have the right to singlehandedly start a riot as a result of his friend’s death?

From there, your debate may organically transform into a widespread conversation about race in America. Then, and now. Which is, I believe, one of Spike Lee’s major intentions with his film.

Malcolm X (1992)
Possible discussion: Can people really change?
Malcolm X is my favorite historical figure. Has been for years. The main reason is because of his drastic transformation(s) from street thug, to radical Muslim leader, to ultimate peacekeeper, all of which are captured perfectly in Spike Lee’s film.

The first time I saw Malcolm X, I watched it with my father, and when it was done, he asked me what I thought. And I said something to the effect of, “I guess the movie was so long because it had to show that he really did change as a person. But did the real man actually change?”

His response, and again, I’m paraphrasing: “If you figure that out, then you may be able to teach a few people some things.”

Philadelphia (1993)
Possible discussion: Gay rights – to believe, or not to believe.
I’m not naïve enough to think that a movie can change people’s minds. Once people get past a certain age, I think they’re more or less set in their ways, and barring a drastic, life-changing event, they’ll probably stay that way for the duration. My point is, I don’t think Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia can turn a homophobic person into a supporter for equal rights (much like the transition it depicts in Denzel Washington’s character). But hell, who knows, maybe I’m wrong. You tell me.

Did Andrew Beckett’s firm have the right to fire him because he had AIDS? Did Andrew’s firm even know he had AIDS? Was the settlement paid to Andrew and his family fair? Was it too generous? Again, you tell me.

Breaking the Waves (1996)
Possible discussion: Is infidelity ever acceptable?
Early in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, oilrig worker, Jan is paralyzed in a freak accident. While in the hospital, Jan instructs his faithful and not-all-there wife, Bess, to have sex with other men, then report the encounters back to Jan in graphic detail. Which, after a bit of hesitation, she does, to increasingly dangerous degrees.

I can hear the arguments from here…

A Time to Kill (1996)
Possible discussion: Is it okay to kill in the name of revenge?
Joel Schumacher’s drama isn’t the first or last movie to tackle the moral dilemma of taking a life for revenge’s sake, but it is an excellent conversation starter all the same. After two white racists brutally rape and beat a 10-year-old black girl, the girl’s father, Carl (played to perfection by Samuel L. Jackson) guns them down inside the county courthouse. It was Carl’s assumption that, because he lives in the Deep South, the criminals would be acquitted of their crimes.

Should Carl have let the justice system run its course? Did he have a right to kill two men who senselessly ruined his daughter’s life? Is murder ever justified?

Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
Possible discussion: Is true forgiveness possible?
Amy Berg’s devastating documentary chronicles Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady, who molested and raped hundreds of children (both male and female) for several years in several different areas of the United States. The Church knew about it, and instead of punishing O’Grady, they simply moved him to a new town, where he found new victims. Move, repeat. Move, repeat. Late in the film, O’Grady (who recalls his crimes with about as much guilt as you or I would in forgetting to take out the trash) says he plans on writing some of his victims, in an effort to meet up with him and ask for their forgiveness.

Does O’Grady have the right to do this? Are there instances when forgiveness (under the eyes of God, or under the laws of human decency) is simply not attainable?

Lake of Fire (2006)
Possible discussion: Abortion – the pros and cons of Life vs. Choice.
The most impressive feat in Tony Kaye’s sprawling documentary is that he’s able to keep it perfectly even keeled. He doesn’t beg you to see it from one side, or dare you to empathize with people you don’t agree with. He let’s his subjects talk, and let’s his cameras capture. He documents extremists, timid supporters, confused delegates – all from both sides of the argument.

Lake of Fire doesn’t tell you which side is right and which is wrong, but you’ll be damn sure to ask yourself that once it’s over.

Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Possible discussion: What is best for an innocent child trapped in a bad situation?
Every character in Gone Baby Gone is searching for a girl. They bribe, intimidate, lie, chase leads – anything to get little Amanda McCready back. Jump to the end, and we realize that Amanda’s been under the care of a police Captain the entire time. The Captain’s justification: Amanda will have a better life with him, than she would with her biological mother, a snorts-too-much, drinks-too-much Boston townie. Private detective Angie agrees with the Captain, but Angie’s boyfriend and business partner, Patrick, does not. Patrick says Amanda is meant to be with her mother, for better or worse.

Patrick’s decision to call the cops, thereby sending Amanda back to her mother and the Captain to jail, ends his relationship with Angie, and divided audiences about what is right and what is wrong for a little girl who can’t decide for herself.

Compliance (2012)
Possible discussion: Are people really that stupid?
Some of the most interesting and insightful film-related discussions I had in 2012 centered around director Craig Zobel’s terrifying thriller, Compliance. In the film, a man posing as a police officer calls a fast food restaurant, demands to speak to the manager, and convinces the manager that one of her female employees has stolen from a customer. Within minutes, the poor worker is stripping naked in front of her boss and another employee, doing jumping jacks to make sure “nothing is up there,” and, well… it gets bad.

Now, the whole time I watched Compliance, I kept saying to myself what I’m sure a lot of people said to themselves, which is something related to, “Oh, cut me a break.” Thing is, everything in Compliance happened. Everything. More than once.

Just today, I was having a conversation on Twitter with a few people concerning this film and my proposed discussion topic. Watch this movie with some people, and I’m sure you will too.

United 93 (2006)
Possible discussion: When is Too Soon, too soon?
I saved United 93 for last because the topic I’m broaching has nothing to do with what is featured in the film, but rather, the existence of the film itself.

When the first teasers for United 93 hit theaters in late 2005, it famously encouraged cries of “Too soon!” in a handful of New York City theaters. But was it? Was releasing a 9/11-related film (a very good 9/11-related film) less than five years after the actual event too soon? Ask me, and I’ll say no. But last week, I read that an indie filmmaker is scouting locations in Connecticut in preparation for the Sandy Hook massacre-related film he plans to soon make. Too soon for that? You’re goddamn right.

10 more bound to provoke discussion:
Kramer vs. Kramer
Sophie’s Choice
Thelma & Louise
Capturing the Friedman’s
Million Dollar Baby
Super Size Me
Away From Her


  1. That is a great list. I've seen a lot of these except for Deliver Us from Evil, Gone Baby Gone, and Lake of Fire. I like films that are willing to provoke discussion. Even if it's about something taboo.

    1. Thanks man! I agree, even if it's a taboo subject, I'm all for having a discussion. Deliver Us from Evil and Lake of Fire are very tough watches, but I'd be curious to hear what you think of both of them.

  2. Oh wow, I haven't seen any of the films on your main list :( I've seen Hunger, Super Size Me, and Thelma and Louise though.
    I agree with you on United 93. I don't think it was 'too soon' for that, and it was obviously done tastefully. But wow, some guy is already scouting for a Sandy Hook film? That is crossing a line, I don't care if he's trying to make a breakout feature or
    Hmm...Amour sparked a little debate with my friends and I - the whole 'quality of life' thing, helping people 'let go'. I love it when a film does that.

    1. I can see how and why some would think United 93 was too soon, but like you said, it's all about how it is done. That is a very intense, but very tasteful film. One of the best I've ever seen.

      The Sandy Hook film infuriates me. I mean... what happened to human decency?

      Amour is a great choice. Kind of in the same vein of Million Dollar Baby. Is okay to let go? Or even perpetuate the going?

  3. Aha, how here's a post that's right up my alley. One of these days I'm going to dig up the series of posts from my old, neglected homeschooling blog on using movies as springboards for exploring philosophy. Based on the interesting comments/discussion I got on my Compliance post, I think it could be fun.

    Breaking the Waves -- my daughter is a big fan of that film (and Dancer in the Dark). I loved Emily Watson, I loved Bess, and I certainly appreciated the film, but I wasn't crazy about the movie overall. Just a personal reaction. Anyway it sparked interesting discussions not because of the issue of infidelity, but because of our different feelings about the film. I enjoyed that.

    Excellent article! You write the most kickass movie lists.

    1. Aww thanks!

      Full disclosure: this list was partly spawned by our conversations of movies you show your kids. That is such a cool thing that you do, so I hope some of these will contribute to your teachings!

      You should DEFINITELY dig up those posts. I would love to read them.

      Breaking the Waves is tough shit, no doubt. I can't argue with anyone who doesn't fully love it or any von Trier flick.

  4. Oh, and I think I'll add A Time to Kill to my philosophical movies list. I've only read the book, but with Samuel L. Jackson, I'm sure it's worth watching.

    1. It's not the most... advanced film. I mean, it isn't a masterpiece or anything, but it will definitely cook up a conversation. No doubt.

  5. Dude, You are crazy.(or Genius, whatever you want to call it)

    I do agree with you though. There are numerous occasions where the discussion that followed the movie has made it even more memorable(Gone Baby Gone, Inception and off course, Compliance so many times over the year). I haven't seen some of these movies but those I have certainly are great springboards for discussion.

    1. Ha, thanks man! (I think.)

      Compliance has been, for me, THE best film conversation starter of recent memory. It's so funny when people are like, "No, that is bullshit, that would never happen," and then I show them the news story of it happening play-by-play. Human nature is a scary thing.

  6. Good list. I actually wrote a pretty terrible post about morality in films once in which I used the example of Breaking the Waves. I've also been trying to make people watch Dogville so I can have an adult discussion about it but so far, no avail.
    One of my favourite films to discuss is The Breakfast Club. You can just understand so much about the other person when you discuss it.

    1. (sigh), Nikhat, you are so damn silly, I bet your list is really good! Feel free to link it here if you want, I'd love to read it.

      I nearly added Dogville here, but then I realized it's kind of the same thing as A Time to Kill - the whole killing in the name of revenge thing. But either way, Dogville always provokes an interesting debate. Sorry you can't find anyone to watch it with.

      The Breakfast Club is such a spirited choice. So so true.

  7. Provoking discussion is often what makes a film stay with me long after the credits roll. Either I can't stop thinking about the questions raised, or if I watched it with friends I want to talk about it straight after. I like that audience involvement. Still need to see a bunch of these: Compliance, Malcolm X, Gone Baby Gone,Capturing the Friedman.

    1. I agree, audience involvement can really make a film stay with you. Of the ones you haven't seen, I have to recommend Malcolm X high above everything else. That film is a masterpiece. And it really does go by fast. Really.

      Thanks for commenting, Chris!

  8. Do the Right Thing is one of my favorites. Oddly enough, it didn't spark much debate when I watched it in a film class a few years ago -- everyone who spoke up thought the riot was justified. Maybe the others were scared to start the bigger societal argument that the film certainly opens up. That was the only time I've seen it in a public setting. Great list!

    1. Such a good movie, isn't it?

      Okay, when I read the first part of your second sentence, I was like... "Huh? No DtRT debate in a film class?!", but I'm sure you're right that people were timid about opening up a MUCH larger argument.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  9. Love that the first two films on the list are both Spike Lee joints. I mean, that just says it all about him as filmmaker, doesn't it? I think Malcolm X was just started on the PATH to real change and one of the things the movie demonstrates and makes so tragic is how his life was unfairly cut short before he could really could get all the way there.

    And not to rain on the parade but in regards to A Time To Kill, well, while I totally agree the question is provoking and worth asking, I think the way Joel Schumacher presents it on film is just a travesty. I think that's a really poorly made film. He takes one side - Carl Lee Hailey's - and slants everything in that direction and does it really gratuitously. But, you know, that's me.

    1. Definitely says a lot about Spike. That man makes films that make you wanna talk. Completely agree with what you said about X. What a complex, fascinating man he was.

      I didn't want to give the impression that A Time To Kill is a masterpiece or anything, because it certainly isn't. I like it a little more than you, but it's pretty so-so. What it does do, however, is provoke an intense discussion after the fact. Well, in my experience anyway. But hey man, to each his own!

  10. Awesome post. I think you could use the "Are people really that stupid?" for a lot of movies, but Compliance is a great choice from what I've heard. Malcolm X is one of my favorites, so it's always good to see that called out. His evolution is interesting, especially given where he starts. Do the Right Thing is also such an intriguing movie, and people's reactions are almost as interesting as the movie itself. The Criterion DVD includes a press conference from Cannes where people ask him stunning questions that say a lot about the person asking them.

    1. Thanks Dan! You could definitely apply the people stupid question to plenty of movies, which doesn't speak too well for us people, but oh well. Ha.

      I know the exact press conference you're talking about. It's actually kind of shocking.

  11. Great post. Two of my favorite films of all-time, and really all my favorites, have both philosophical and practical discussion points. With Blade Runner, what is essential in humanity? Not so much the overbearing question of our emotions, thoughts and imaginations but what are the basic essentials that make us human? As depicted, emotions, feelings and even dreams can be reproduced by the replicants, so what makes us so special? The replicants showed greater compassion for their fellow beings and in the end even to Deckard than any of the humans. Shouldn't they be considered as human as we? Is this we are headed as a species, is A.I what we are going to leave behind?
    Gattaca also promotes some of the best questions about the advent of genetic manipulation, before gene therapy was in the public conscience. How far do we take 'improving' the human race? To the point where we, as one of my favorite lines goes, "...have discrimination down to a science..." where only genetically engineered beings indistinguishable from one another can exist? The world of Gattaca, frighteningly, isn't so much science fiction as science inevitability. This is one reason why sci-fi is one of my favorite art genres, it poses some deep penetrating ideas and questions that eventually we will have to find answers to.

    1. Thanks man!

      Wow dude, those are some fantastic questions that you've taken from Blade Runner and Gattaca. I really need to see both of those again, but particularly Gattaca. Only saw that once several years ago, and don't remember much about it. I'll amend that ASAP!

      Thanks so much for your excellent insight.

    2. Oh by all means, Gattaca and especially Blade Runner are always worth a re-watch. Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty is easily one of the best performances I've ever seen, as the cold detached but strangely compassionate replicant. Ridley Scott's best, Harrison Ford's best and the best Phillip K. Dick adaptation. The most hypnotic special effects since 2001, by the great Douglas Trumbull. One of my top five movies of all-time.
      Gattaca is one of the most surprising movies I've ever seen, it floored me had no idea what to expect.

    3. Nice man, going to rewatch both ASAP. Thanks for the encouragement!

  12. A fantastic crop of films. The ones I haven't seen are on my watchlist.

  13. I've seen all but Deliver Us From Evil and Lake of Fire (and I've seen most of the other films you mentioned, too). All are good choices.

    A few more movies I'd toss out as sparking debate are:

    Falling Down - at what point, if any, does Michael Douglas' character become a "bad guy"?

    Beau Pere - can a relationship between a teenager and a 30 year old be consensual? What if it helps both heal from a loss?

    Secretary - can a dominant/submissive relationship which includes S/M be a positive, loving relationship?

    Watchmen - is it acceptable to kill millions in order to save billions AND if you become aware that someone has killed millions do you turn them in, thus undoing the billions that were saved and meaning the millions died for nothing?

    The Man from Earth - how would you determine if someone who told you they were immortal was telling the truth - what questions could you ask that would be able to separate someone lying from someone being honest? (A friend I loaned this to said he and his teenage son spent 45 minutes talking about it right after they got done watching it.)

    1. Damn Chip, excellent picks here.

      I haven't seen Beau Pere, but that proposed question has me very intrigued, so I'm gonna have to hunt that one down ASAP.

      Falling Down is a criminally underrated film. I really do love it. And that is a PERFECT question. When indeed.

    2. Thanks. Just a heads up - Beau Pere is not for everyone. I even included it in my "Movies they could never make today" category. I discussed this some in my review, if you are interested.

    3. Okay cool, thanks for the disclaimer. I will read your review as soon as I watch the movie. Thanks for the link.

  14. Man, this list is brilliant. Do the Right Thing, Breaking the Waves, Gone Baby Gone, and Compliance are the ones that stick with me the most. Talk about moral dilemmas.

    1. Thanks dude! Tons of moral dilemmas there. Gone Baby Gone has a few, actually. Like when he shoots the mentally handicapped child molester in the head. Was he right to do that...?

  15. Really great idea for a post!

    My mother is actually fairly homophobic but I got her to watch Modern Family where gay couple takes care of their daughter and she is a bit more tolerant now. And that's just a comedy show. One can only imagine how much of a change I'll make by showing her Brokeback Mountain but she doesn't like heavy dramas so unless she sees it by mistake odds are pretty small for this to happen :)

    As for Washington's character change of attitude in Philadelphia I think attitude can change when dealing with extreme cases like the one of Hanks's character. Hell, I was once against death penalty but because of certain things I read and came in contact with I'm a supporter now.

    That is also one of the issues that are usually thought provoking in films - I'm pro but "The Life of David Gale" is interesting, though unlikely, point for against.

    "Seven Pounds" was kinda far-fetched but had some good, controversial ideas in it too.

    1. Thanks! That's really interesting about your mom. I would be curious to hear how she'd react to something heavier. Very intriguing.

      Oh I completely agree with you about Denzel in Philadelphia. I think his shift is depicted with complete authenticity. How cool would it be if movies really could affect change within people? Hell, who knows, maybe they do already.

      Interesting picks of yours. I need to rewatch Life of David Gale for sure.

  16. Great list, man. Still need to see a handful of these -- Do the Right Thing is high in my queue -- but I really like your inclusion of Compliance. I was just telling a friend about that the other day. It's one of those films where I think it's impossible to *not* have a lengthy discussion about afterward.

    1. Thanks dude. Totally agree about Compliance... that one begs to be dissected.

      DEFINITELY check out Do the Right Thing soon. Such a classic.

  17. Great list. Never gave Compliance a second thought but now I'd really like to see it. Lake of Fire deserves every scrap of attention thrown its way, one of the best documentaries I've ever seen.

    1. Thanks man, I definitely recommend a second Compliance viewing, or at least some Googling about the real event. Fucking terrifying.

      Lake of Fire is easily one of the best docs I've ever seen as well.

  18. Great list! I've only seen Malcolm X and Philadelphia, I must make time to watch the others. Lake of Fire looks particularly interesting...

    1. Thanks! Lake of Fire is definitely interesting, but really intense. Thanks so much for stopping by, Georgina!