Film is an art form, and a relatively young one at that, at least when compared to the ancient forms of music, spoken word, visual arts, and writing.
For many people, the art most worthy of attention and praise is art that discusses serious issues, whether those issues are personal, societal, political, or ideological.
We don’t agree with that narrow definition of “art,” but we can certainly appreciate movies that talk about social issues, and these are the kinds of movies we’ll be focusing on today.
We’ve tried to select movies that explore a range of contemporary social issues, even if some of them are set in other time periods.
It should also go without saying that this could never be a definitive list. In fact, you could easily make the argument that most movies talk about social issues in some way, even if unintentionally.
But we don’t have the time or the space to whip up a massive list of thousands of movies, so just consider these picks as some prominent and somewhat recent movies that fit the bill.
This documentary from director Ava DuVernay is centered on racial inequality in the United States, and more specifically, it looks at the vastly disproportionate number of Black Americans currently within the US prison system, despite the entirety of the Black community making up only a small fraction of the total US population.
Being a documentary, this movie doesn’t layer the discussion of social issues underneath a narrative. It’s up-front with its message and doesn’t shy away from very difficult information.
It’s also just a well-made film that deserves a great deal of attention, especially in the midst of continued activism in favor of racial equality.
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
This Spanish film from the early-1960s is actually classified as a fantasy movie. That’s because the core premise of the movie is undeniably unrealistic, and that’s the point.
A sizeable group of fancy socialites is having a grand old time in a palatial estate until they realize that they simply can’t leave a specific area of the house.
There’s no physical barrier, but none can make themselves step beyond an invisible line that’s keeping them penned in.
It’s an obvious critique of the bourgeoisie, but, unlike many of the other movies on our list here, it doesn’t present specific evidence of why these people are worthy of criticism.
It assumes a certain level of cultural knowledge from the viewer, which was less of a tall order back when it was originally released.
Most of the movie is spent watching these otherwise elegant people start to panic when nothing they do solves their immediate problem.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
If you’ve visited the site before, then you might have heard us talk about this movie before, and we will continue to talk about it for a very long time.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very much about societal repression of women, regardless of their position in society.
However, it does this in a unique and inventive way. For a start, the movie only includes men at the very start and the very end. The vast majority of the runtime is spent with three women: a serving girl, a painter, and the painter’s subject (a young woman about to be married off against her will).
We feel oppression and repression through these characters. We see how it affects them and how they attempt to escape it.
Rarely do movies about systems of control feel this personal and this moving.
Bong Joon-Ho is not shy about his movies’ themes. All of them include illustrations of wealth disparity, and Parasite is definitely one of the most blatant examples.
A poor family worms their way into the home of a wealthy family and things go south from there.
One of the most impressive aspects of this movie, with regards to its discussion of income inequality, is how it portrays the rich family, and this is something that we also noted in our review of the movie.
The characters in the rich family do not feel like bad people. They’re not outwardly evil. They don’t seem to wish anyone ill.
But this is actually the perfect way to talk about wealth disparity because it emphasizes apathetic or even ignorant participation in a much larger social problem, which is one of the most common real-life means by which bad things, and bad systems, are perpetuated.
I, Daniel Blake (2016)
This contemporary British film about a man who can’t afford to work and so can’t afford to live was a film festival triumph and brought increased attention to continuing problems within social services agencies in the UK.
However, the criticisms offered in the movie apply easily to other countries as well and how they handle support for citizens who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford their basic expenses.
It’s a total downer of a movie, but that makes perfect sense for the subject matter.
Like Parasite, Shoplifters does its best to draw attention to the struggles of the poor, this time in Japan.
But unlike Parasite, this movie is mostly a humanist drama centered around a family where no one is related by blood.
This is another one where the real world and its many pressures only creep into the story every so often.
Many scenes are about our lead characters finding ways to ignore or work around bigger external problems.
It should also be said that several of our lead characters are not exactly role models, even if they’re supremely likable.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
This now-famous drama about drug use in America has always been difficult to watch, and it only becomes more so when you consider the seriousness of the opioid epidemic in the States.
With a plot that’s split between a handful of major characters, Requiem for a Dream artfully depicts the descent into addiction and dependency, while perhaps also exaggerating the depths to which an addicted individual can fall when they just need to get their fix.
There are even moments when the movie feels like a modern version of word-of-warning propaganda films of bygone eras such as Reefer Madness or Scum of the Earth.
Network takes on a very different kind of social issue than the ones we’ve been talking about so far.
This movie works hard to examine the relationship between the American people and the media they consume. Specifically, it trains the microscope on pseudo-news shows that are much more about entertainment than information.
A formerly humble news anchor becomes a modern-day television prophet after believing that God spoke to him directly.
This is one of director Lumet’s most fast-paced movies, and it holds up incredibly well for something made in the mid-70s.
Most of all, its discussion of our relationship to news media is achingly relevant to the modern day.