The 2018 Academy Awards will recognize excellence in areas such as acting, directing, costume and musical score. The staff of Greater Good Magazine, a publication of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, has selected its own winners this year: those that illustrate traits such as resilience, purpose and forgiveness — specific qualities that lead to well-being.
Some of the movies are action-filled blockbusters, like “Wonder Woman” or “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Others are quiet independent films like “The Florida Project” and “Lady Bird.” Most have been nominated for Oscars. The idea is to shed new light on these acclaimed movies — and perhaps you can apply these insights to your own life.
The resilience award: “Call Me By Your Name”
When 17-year-old Elio Perlman first meets doctoral student Oliver, they don’t seem to like each other very much — and when they part, it’s in pain. “Call Me by Your Name” is about what happens in between those two events, as Elio and Oliver fall in love amid the crumbling, sun-drenched beauty of Lombardy, Italy.
Along the way, we learn a great deal about resilience. As the movie ends, a devastated Elio sits staring into a fire as tears roll down his face — but we know he’s going to be fine. Why?
Mainly because Elio is far from isolated. His father knows before Elio does that he is falling in love with Oliver. Rather than intervening or lecturing, Dr. Perlman watches and waits — and keeps up the connection to his son, even as the teenager pulls away.
“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot,” he says at one point, knowing that sooner or later we all take a hit. In their striking final scene together, father approaches son with the truth as compassionately as possible, revealing that he knew about the relationship and gently encouraging Elio to gain some perspective.
It’s the connection with his father that helps Elio weather heartbreak, but the content of Dr. Perlman’s message matters, too. Suffering is a part of life, he tells his son, and so is joy, pleasure, and love. We grow stronger when we allow ourselves to feel and remember all of it. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The purpose award: “Coco”
In “Coco,” the young, talented guitar hero travels between the worlds of the living and the dead to uncover clues about his family’s old and complicated relationship with music. The story gives a strong message of finding forgiveness for those we think have harmed us (Spoiler: Those people aren’t always who we think they are).
But most importantly, the story shows the power of long-term, meaningful goals to shape our lives. Miguel, the 12-year-old protagonist, is driven to become a musician. Because of a tragedy, Miguel must keep his love for music a secret from his family, until he tells them that he wishes to play at the Día de los Muertos talent show. When his abuelita breaks his guitar and forbids him to play, Miguel announces that he no longer wants to be a part of the family and runs away, eventually ending up in the land of the dead.
His intention to become a musician is guided by his yearning to connect to his ancestors, and this goal leads him to resolve a long-standing misunderstanding about them, ensuring that their true identities are known and their memories survive.
When he returns to his (living) family, Miguel’s love for music becomes a means to connect his family members across time and distance. “Our love for each other will live on forever in every beat of my proud corazón,” he sings. — Maryam Abdullah and Jesse Antin
The socially intelligent power award: “The Darkest Hour”
At the beginning of “The Darkest Hour,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill is nasty to his underlings, detached from their suffering and unable to persuade others because he cannot put himself in their shoes. As he shouts to one of them: “Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you?!”
Churchill is surrounded by men who are very much like himself: rich, high-born, educated, powerful. These men are much more sympathetic to fascism than the rest of the British public, and they urge Churchill to make peace with Hitler and Mussolini.
The film pivots around a scene when Churchill ventures into the London Underground to talk about the war with working-class women and men. There, he discovers they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stop fascism. This focus-group knowledge strengthens his resolve, but he must still find the skills to persuade the king, his cabinet and parliament to fight back against the Axis powers instead of surrendering.
Churchill is deficient as a poster child for power as exercised with empathy and accountability. And yet, no other film in the past year made the case for socially responsible power quite so forcefully. Churchill is flawed — and his heroism arises from his triumph over his own worst instincts. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The empathy award: “The Florida Project”
In the documentarylike “The Florida Project,” small children run through fields and abandoned buildings around a motel-slum where they live, called the Magic Castle. The film juxtaposes their energy and joy with scenes of poverty and chaos, all within a mile of Disney World. Through this haunting portrayal of a community of families living in the run-down Magic Castle, the film explores empathy on several levels.
“I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” says young Moonee to her friend Scooty. They are secretly watching Moonee’s mother, who sells perfume and her body to survive. Throughout the film, we wonder how much of her mother’s desperate life Moonee understands — and this moment reveals that she understands and feels more than she probably should.
Moonee has at least one adult in the film who tries to take care of her. Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe plays a somewhat ineffectual hotel manager, Bobby, who watches over the single mothers and children in the building with an empathic, protective gaze. Bobby doesn’t say a lot, and so Dafoe must convey his empathy through his eyes, gestures and actions. You feel both his compassion and his helplessness as he bears witness to the struggles of the kids on the property (while probably grappling with his own private and personal failures).
The film leads us to feel deeply with these characters, through the children’s eyes, most of all. — Amy L. Eva
The forgiveness award: “Lady Bird”
How can a movie that focuses on the conflicts between a mother and her teenage daughter fill us with inspiration? “Lady Bird” does it.
The protagonist, Lady Bird, discovers her own identity and goals by taking creative risks, testing friendships and exploring her budding sexuality. Conflict arises when her distraught mother finds it difficult to support her choices. The movie is filled with scenes of mother and daughter arguing past each other, not able to connect.
But the movie touches on the importance of forgiveness. In one scene, Lady Bird falls in love with a boy who she later finds out is gay. When she angrily confronts him over his deception, he collapses in tears, expressing his fears of coming out to his Catholic parents. As Lady Bird comforts him, you see forgiveness dawning, paving the way for them to remain friends.
In another scene, Lady Bird befriends a group of popular girls at school to get closer to a boy she likes. This creates tension with her best friend, who resents being pushed aside. Eventually, Lady Bird realizes it’s not fun to have to pretend you’re someone you’re not, and she misses her old friend. After seeing her mistake and asking for forgiveness, the two reconcile and repair their relationship, even attending prom together.
Meanwhile, the conflict between mother and daughter continues to boil. But, as Lady Bird learns to see her mother’s struggles, she comes to realize that her mother’s resistance to change is a cover for love and concern. At the end, Lady Bird forgives her mother and openly thanks her for her many sacrifices. — Jill Suttie
The mind-set award: “The Last Jedi”
The latest episode in the ongoing Star Wars saga is all about failure.
These are bloody, emotionally devastating failures: Poe Dameron’s mistakes kill hundreds of his comrades. Luke Skywalker fails Kylo Ren in every way, which leads directly to the deaths of his best friend Han Solo and millions of others. Even the villains can’t catch a break: Supreme Leader Snoke, General Hux and Ren himself all fail at some point. Ren rises to rule the First Order, only to be humiliated on the battlefield by Skywalker.
How each of these characters responds to failure reveals a lot about them. When defeated, Ren breaks out his lightsaber and mindlessly destroys whatever is within reach. But his counterpart, Rey, embodies the growth mind-set, meaning dedication and hard work are valued as much or more than mere brains and talent.
As usual, it falls to Yoda to sum up the message of the movie: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” — Jeremy Adam Smith
Nonviolent heroism award: “The Shape of Water”
The hero of “The Shape of Water” is mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito. She develops a secret connection, one that blossoms into an unlikely trans-species romance, with an amphibious creature that Col. Richard Strickland drags back from a South American lagoon.
Esposito is powerless and marginal in this alternative America. But when the nameless creature is threatened with surgery for experimental purposes, she joins forces with two friends and a dissident Soviet spy to get him home. There is some violence in the film, but none of the incidents is heroic. American and Soviet agents kill each other in ways that feel senseless and lonely, while the true heroes of the film — a cleaning woman, a janitor and a commercial artist — achieve their aims through cooperation and nonviolence.
The moral of the story is clear, simple and more important than ever: Love is stronger than violence and hate. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The community and diversity award: “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” (tie)
“Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” have one big thing in common: They are both about the relationship of homogenous, isolated utopian communities to the wider, more complicated world.
The superpowered Wonder Woman comes from Themyscira, home to an immortal race of Amazons who appear to spend their endless days swinging swords, shooting arrows and riding horses. They were created by the god Zeus to protect humanity, but it seems they’ve become just a bit too comfortable in their paradise.
“Black Panther” is set in Wakanda, a geographically isolated region in central Africa that was hit, once upon a time, by a magic meteor. The benevolent radiation from its metal mutates the flora, fauna and possibly the people; this spurs scientific and engineering development that makes Wakanda the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. No one knows this because — as in the case of Themyscira — Wakanda develops physical camouflage and a policy of radical isolation to avoid European colonization.
Themyscira and Wakanda both illustrate how important community is to human well-being — and in many ways, these are good societies whose members feel safe, cared for and connected to each other. But both utopias pay a cost for their stability: They start to fall apart when outside influences arrive in the form of Captain Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” and Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther.”
In the end, they both make the same choice. Wakanda decides to end its isolation, grow beyond itself, and work to make the rest of the world a better place. Wonder Woman decides that she cannot stay on Themyscira. Instead, she becomes a part of “man’s world,” kicking and punching evil wherever she finds it. As T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, says at the thoughtful conclusion of Black Panther:
“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.” — Jeremy Adam Smith
A version of this piece was originally published in Greater Good Magazine. It has been adapted, with permission, for the Inspired Life blog.
An earlier headline on this story incorrectly described these films as Oscar nominated. Not all were nominated.