10 Of the Best Movies Ever Made About Mental Health
By Samuel R. Murrian - 7/24/19
In the U.S. Mental illness impacts millions of families worldwide, and there’s simply no justification for stigma.
Though it isn’t the rule, sometimes Hollywood treats the subject with the respect and accuracy it merits, while still delivering quality entertainment.
Here are 10 of the best films about mental health ever made. All of these titles are available for rent and purchase on major streaming services like iTunes, VUDU, Hulu and Amazon.
1. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
David O. Russell made this Pennsylvania-set masterpiece about two healing hot messes who fall for each other as something of a gift for his son, who has bipolar disorder and OCD. An uncanny blend of huge laughs, painful authenticity and a moving love story, Silver Linings Playbook walks a tightrope thematically and never sets a foot wrong—much to the delight and pleasure of anyone who watches it. This was the first movie since Warren Beatty‘s Reds 31 years earlier to be nominated for Oscars in all four acting categories (for stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). Lawrence won Best Actress of course, and the rest is history.
Family is a funny thing. We love them, and sometimes they drive us bonkers. Perhaps no movie in history has better captured the shattering heartbreak and undeniable hilarity that happens when loved ones throw down quite like Silver Linings Playbook.
Silver Linings Playbook is a profoundly American movie—has any other film dissected our love of football with as much insight as this one? The movie was released as simply Silver Linings in markets outside the U.S., where the game isn’t as prominent.
2. Ordinary People (1980)
A turning point for the portrayal of psychotherapy in film, Robert Redford‘s drama about an affluent Chicago family reeling from the accidental death of their son tackles tough topics like PTSD and survivor’s guilt.
Major props to Mary Tyler Moore for a genuinely brave performance that throws her signature likability out the window; here she plays a woman who’s seemingly incapable of loving her child, and maybe anyone at all. This was Redford’s directorial debut, and it won four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton).
Here’s a fun fact: 24 years after he won on Oscar for Ordinary People, screenwriter Alvin Sargent penned Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man 2. His focused, intimate and uncommonly character-driven script is far and away the best ever in the superhero genre.
3. Melancholia (2011)
The internal black cloud that is depression doesn’t exactly lend itself naturally to the cinematic. Certainly some films have succeeded in depicting depression on the big screen (see: horror knockout The Babadook for a recent one), but none so purely and spectacularly as Lars von Trier‘s sci-fi drama about two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg), one of whom is about to get married, while a rogue planet named Melancholia is about to collide with Earth, sealing our inevitable doom. Sumptuous and horrifying in equal measure, the operatic Melancholia doesn’t just showcase jaw-dropping directorial bravado; it features one of the most titanic screen performances so far this century, from Dunst.
Perhaps eyebrow-raising controversies surrounding the film’s Cannes premiere explain why it was completely shut out of the Oscars (Dunst still won Best Actress at Cannes). It’s one of the only films from this century to appear on Sight & Sound‘s most recent critics’ poll of the best films ever made. If you’ve seen Melancholia, you know that final shot—gorgeous, stunningly frightening and awesome in the most fear-based sense of the word—is simply impossible to shake from memory.
4. Inside Out (2015)
Way-y-y more kid-friendly than Melancholia but not one bit less masterful and exquisite, Disney/Pixar’s candy-colored work about the emotions inside a teenage girl’s head might be the studio’s most relentless tearjerker to date.
And those tears are earned. The bottom line: Inside Outenthusiastically reminds us that sadness and pain are an essential part of living a full life, and it does so with more nuance and grace than most live-action prestige dramas aimed solely at grownups. Upon release, Inside Out (winner of Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and nominated for Best Original Screenplay) became a powerful tool for therapists everywhere—with patients of all ages.
Prominent British film critic Mark Kermode named Inside Out the best film of 2015.
Will Sampson and Jack Nicholson in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (United Artists)
5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
One of only three films in history to win the “Big Five” Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), Miloš Forman‘s renowned, mega-gritty and bitterly funny drama set in a mental institution stars Jack Nicholson as a [maybe] unrepentant criminal faking insanity and Louise Fletcher as a steely, heartless and calculating nurse.
An eery, pitch-black and deeply disturbing film, Cuckoo’s Nest is a study of the institutional process. And broader than that, it’s an exploration of freedom, control and the human mind. It’s lost none of its edge more than four decades later.
Cuckoo’s Nest is based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, which has been adapted multiple times for the stage. In 1993, the film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The American Film Institute ranks this as the 33rd greatest American film ever made, and Nurse Ratched as the fifth greatest screen villain.
6. [tie] Gaslight (1940) and Gaslight (1944)
Gaslighting is ghastly and cruel; it’s the psychologically abusive act of manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity. The term is practically synonymous with the 1944 George Cukor picture that won Ingrid Bergman her first of three Academy Awards for her performance of a victimized wife. A huge hit for MGM, the film was nominated for seven Oscars in total, including nods for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut.
Did you know the 1944 classic is actually a remake of a 1940 British film (which is even more closely adapted from the play by Patrick Hamilton)? It’s not as well-known, and that’s largely because when MGM bought the remake rights, part of the contract demanded all prints of the first film be destroyed. Fortunately, some prints survived and the original was even recently restored by the British Film Institute. Seek both versions out, because they’re both terrific for different reasons. The Hollywood remake is far more lavish, but they both hold up quite well.
7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Lasse Hallström‘s drama stars Johnny Depp as a young man in small-town Iowa caring for his morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates) and autistic younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio). This marks the first Oscar nom for DiCaprio, who was widely singled out by critics and audiences as the touching film’s greatest asset.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape also stands out for its frank and affecting portrayal of an eating disorder (such a rarity on the big screen). This was Cates’ very first acting role, she was widely praised for her work by critics and her famous co-stars.
8. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Now here is a movie you just want to hug. Ryan Gosling gives one of his most subtle, poignant—and also hilarious—performances to date as Lars, a good-natured, lonely introvert with years of baggage and trauma who turns heads in his small town by embarking upon a romantic relationship with a life-sized love doll named Bianca. Oh, that premise could have gone so many ways, but Lars and the Real Girl is nothing short of, as Roger Ebert put it, “life-affirming.” The people in Lars’ community play along out of their concern and love for the young man, and ultimately they help Lars develop the tools to reach out for real human connection.
Nancy Oliver received an Oscar nomination for her original script (her feature screenwriting debut). Gosling was nominated for a SAG Award and a Golden Globe.
The very best part of Lars and the Real Girl is when we discover Bianca has been elected to the school board. LOL.
9. Krisha (2016)
One of the most effective horror films of the past decade isn’t technically a horror film; it’s a micro-budget drama about an alcoholic visiting her family for Thanksgiving. No film has tackled addiction with such piercing intimacy and visceral force since The Lost Weekend won a Best Picture Oscar in 1945, not even Requiem for a Dream. The might of Krisha is all the more remarkable in that writer/director Trey Edward Shults made it for about $30,000 (that’s 1/10,000th the price tag of Avengers: Infinity War) in his parents’ home using his family as actors. When it’s all over you feel drained of everything, like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.
Krisha received the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award in the narrative feature competition at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival before a triumphant showing at Cannes.
10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Winner of four Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress), Ron Howard‘s biopic about Nobel Laureate John Nash who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia leans more heavily on Hollywood conventions than the other films on this list, but extraordinary performances from Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are more than enough reason to see it. It takes liberties with Nash’s life story, and in hindsight it’s debatable whether the Academy made the right call by awarding this Best Picture over Moulin Rouge!, In the Bedroom, The Fellowship of the Ring and Gosford Park, but A Beautiful Mind succeeds as a respectful, glossy and handsome tribute to an inspiring public figure.
Honorable Mention: Fight Club (1999)
Most critics and audiences found M. Night Shyamalan‘s Split to be satisfying enough as popcorn horror entertainment, but it was widely criticized for its unrealistic and problematic portrayal of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Some slammed it for its insinuation that patients with this disorder are likely to be violent, which isn’t accurate (some have even jabbed Alfred Hitchcock‘s beloved Psycho for similar reasons). Though it’s far from a perfect representation, David Fincher‘s cult classic Fight Club does a bit better: a depressed man (Edward Norton) creates Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) as a coping mechanism. DID is most commonly a result of child abuse or other significant trauma. If Fight Club delved further into its narrator’s backstory, it would be more compelling; as it is, it’s undeniably entertaining and it’s easy to see why the film is so popular nearly 20 years later.
In 2018, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is promoting the theme #CureStigma. For more information about Mental Health Awareness month, visit www.nami.org.
What do you think of our list of great movies about mental health? Think we missed one? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.