Top 10 Movies That Changed The World

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While most movies are mass-produced entertainment and escapism, there are some that have had a profound impact on culture. Whether intentionally or not, some films have brought social issues to light, affected laws, forwarded ideologies both good and bad, and generally changed the course of history through their impact on society. Here are ten films that, for better or worse, made their mark.

10. Super Size Me

Morgan Spurlock’s debut documentary finds its director undertaking an experiment to see what will happen if he eats only food from McDonald’s for an entire month. Along with this stunt, which results in Spurlock gaining more than twenty pounds and experiencing depression and liver damage, the movie also investigates the ways that fast food is marketed, and the culture of poor nutrition and addiction that the restaurants promote. The film was wildly successful, and immediately helped to re-ignite public concern over the obesity epidemic. Less than six weeks after its release, McDonald’s discontinued the “Super Size” option at all of its locations (though the restaurant would later deny that this move had anything to do with the film), and since then they have made steps to include healthier alternatives on their menu.

9. Rosetta

Although it’s not that well known, this small film from directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne caused quite a stir upon its release in 1999, and won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival. It tells the story of a teenaged girl named Rosetta, who after leaving home to escape her alcoholic mother, tries to find any work she can to survive on her own. The film’s portrayal of the character’s struggle was so realistic and moving that it was able to inspire a new law in Belgium that prohibited employers from paying teenage workers anything less than the minimum wage.

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey

It may be hard to imagine now, but when it was released in 1968, 2001 was one of the most groundbreaking, imaginative, and downright puzzling movies to have ever been made. The film, which in part follows a space mission to Saturn, was praised for its attention to detail and scientific realism, and a number of the technologies it predicted, like flat screen TVs and voice recognition software, have since come to pass. Its influence on later films is immeasurable, but most importantly, it captured the public imagination about the possibilities of space travel, and inspired many of the NASA scientists who would put a man on the moon a year later. With this in mind, it’s little surprise that when they landed on the moon the Apollo 11 astronauts described the scenery as being “exactly like 2001.”

7. Harlan County, USA

Director Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, USA is unique in that its production may have made just as much of an impact as its eventual release. The film, made over the course of many months in the early seventies, followed 180 coal miners in rural Kentucky on strike for safer working conditions and better pay, and the struggle that ensued when they tried to stand up to the Duke Power Company. The strike was a long and bitter affair, with a number of acts of violence, and it was only after one of the miners was shot dead that some compromise was finally reached. Kopple’s camera was there to document it all, and there’s little doubt that several incidences of violence were averted simply because she and her film crew were present as witnesses. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1976, and its success helped the miners in Harlan County as well as other parts of the country gain the public awareness they needed to secure safer working conditions.

6. JFK

Oliver Stone’s film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy instantly became one of the most controversial films ever made when it premiered in 1991. Before it was even released, critics and historians were attacking its theory about a possible government conspiracy behind the murder of the President, with many saying that Stone played fast and loose with the facts and that the film dishonored Kennedy’s legacy. Stone received countless death threats, and the President of the MPAA even wrote an article comparing the film to Nazi war propaganda. All of this media attention only contributed to the film’s success, and helped to restart the debate over what really happened in Dallas in 1963. As a result, The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 was signed into law, and the Assassination Records Review Board was formed. The Board collected all of the material and historical records related to the assassination in order to make it available to the public. Since then, this material has been slowly doled out, but all remaining records will not be released until 2017.

5. An Inconvenient Truth

Whether or not you agree with his premise, there’s no denying that former Vice President Al Gore’s film about the possible dangers of global warming became a cultural phenomenon. In addition to being the fourth highest grossing documentary in U.S. history, An Inconvenient Truth is credited with raising awareness of the issue around the world and helping to make climate change a major subject of debate in subsequent political campaigns. In the years since its release, the film has become required viewing for government officials in a number of different European countries, and has even been used—to much controversy–as a part of the science curriculum in some American high schools.

4. The Battle of Algiers

One of the very best films that no one’s ever heard of, 1966’s The Battle of Algiers charts the struggles of the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s, when revolutionary cells of freedom fighters began a campaign of guerilla warfare against French colonialists. Because of its incendiary content, the film was banned in France for five years after its release, and was condemned by a number of government officials. The 60s were a time of massive de-colonization around the world, and many have claimed that The Battle of Algiers emerged as a kind of manual for how to conduct urban and guerilla warfare, and it has been said that groups like the Black Panthers and the Irish Republican Army implemented some of the tactics used in the film. The movie’s influence was so far reaching that it has since been used as a teaching tool for counterinsurgency teams, and it was even screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an example of the problems faced by the U.S. military in Iraq.

3. Triumph Of The Will

The prototypical propaganda film, Triumph Of The Will is the prime example of the ways that art can be used for evil purposes. Ostensibly a documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg, Triumph Of The Will is in actuality a carefully constructed piece of propaganda designed to champion the ideology of Adolf Hitler. It begins with the dictator arriving in the city to fanatical cheering and celebration, and goes on to show a number of speeches by Nazi leaders, parades of SS soldiers, and footage of the many ways that the people of Germany were uniting in support of the Third Reich. The film was not highly promoted outside of Germany, and historical opinions on its impact vary, but it is widely accepted that Triumph of the Will contributed in large part to helping build a cult of personality around Hitler, as well as creating the illusion of unanimous support for his policies.  The film’s technical style is as brilliant as its message is sinister, and to this day many recognize its director, Leni Riefenstahl, as one of the preeminent female filmmakers of the twentieth century.

2. The Birth Of A Nation

Still credited as one of the most influential films ever made, director D.W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation was first released in 1915. The film’s sweeping narrative follows events surrounding the American Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. The film was a huge success, but it immediately came under scrutiny for its historical inaccuracies and blatant racism. It was condemned by a number of organizations, including the NAACP, and several major cities banned its release. In the places it was released, including Boston and Philadelphia, riots often broke out, and at least one white man murdered a black teenager after seeing it. According to one journalist, The Birth of a Nation contributed in large part to the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and it is said that the Klan used the film as a recruiting tool for a number of years. Despite its bigoted ideology, the film is regarded by a number of film scholars as one of the greatest movies ever made due to the number of technical breakthroughs it provided. Not only did it establish that films could be longer than an hour and still hold the audience’s attention, but Griffith’s direction is commonly regarded as having given rise to the “visual language” of modern film, and many of the editing and shooting techniques pioneered in the film are still utilized today.

1. The Thin Blue Line

While the actual impact of some of the films on this list is hard to calculate, there’s no denying that director Errol Morris’ famed documentary The Thin Blue Line actually made a difference, if only in the life of one man. Originally released in 1988, the film tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man who was incorrectly sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Using extensive research and a number of stylized reenactments, Morris used his film to illustrate that eyewitness testimonies of the crime were unreliable, and that a number of other witnesses in the trial had committed perjury. As a result of the publicity that surrounded the release of The Thin Blue Line, Adams was eventually given a chance at a retrial, acquitted of the murder charge, and given back his freedom. The film is now regarded as a classic of the documentary genre, and its style of crime scene reenactments was hugely influential on subsequent films and television shows.


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33 Comments

  1. Great list! I think you forgot Battleship Potemkin, which was (and is) one of the best propaganda films ever.

    • Peter Boucher on

      “Battleship Potemkin” is a very agreeable movie for this Top 10 list. Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece is the ultimate statement of the term “Mutiny”. And of course one of the most famous scenes in movie history : The baby carriage going down the steps

    • Pedro Urrutia on

      But it changed nothing, Jews are still dead and making a movie about buying 3 thousand Jews isn’t the right message.

  2. How could you start out one of your descriptions – Although it’s not that well known…

    How about "10 movies that may have changed something"

    A couple on here are legit – but JFK?!? What has changed?

  3. JFK is on the list because it led to the creation of the assassination records review board and the records collection act of 1992. That's what changed, and it absolutely wouldn't have changed without JFK being released when it was, so that's why I included it. And as for Rosetta, just because it's not well known doesn't mean it didn't change something, even it was only a minor law in Belgium.

  4. Dave, I see your point, but I also think the author says the movie isn't that well known because the changes the movie initiated aren't connected publicly with the movie.

    Some changes initiated weren't felt as strongly in the US either and the author is addressing a US audience for the most part. This title might be a bit sensational but all these movies did affect large numbers of people.

    Thought provoking list for sure and that is more than can be said for most of the content on the Internet, agreed?

  5. The claim is that they changed the world. This is a huge standard. The automobile, the atomic bomb and the cell phone changed the world. You invoke these type of expectations.

    I wish JFK had really accomplished something. In this day and age that the government would withhold evidence is appalling. And not even hide the fact!

    One of these movies changed minimum wage law in Belgium. Another changed the drive-thru menu ?!?

    How about "The Burning Bed" – it changed how we looked at victims of abuse and their responses to that abuse.

    How about "The China Syndrome" – it frightened the most technologically advanced and modern nation away from the peaceful use of nuclear power. In the years since we have used more fossil fuels and empowered dangerous areas of the world.

    Yes, it is thought provoking.

  6. It is a good list, especially since it was limited to only 10. There are plenty more films that could be added. "The Burning Bed" and "China Syndrome" had huge impacts on American cultural views of spousal abuse and nuclear power, respectively.

    Granted, I adore a trashy old John Waters flick as much as the next person, but movies that can really make you think, ask questions, look for answers about humanity? Those are works of art.

  7. great list, though i'm missing "Star Wars" on it. I don't think that another film has been made which is as widely cited and referenced as the original star wars movie.

  8. Good list. I particularly like the inclusion of "Triumph of the Will." While not as visually stunning as other propaganda films of the era (Battleship Potemkin comes to mind), it is certainly the most significant of that genre.

    • “Triumph Of The Will” also sent chills up and down my spine. If their any microscopic thread of evidence that the Nazi’s did do something good, it was the film making of Leni Riefenstahl

  9. Alfie, the original, it was involved in the legalisation of abortion in the UK?

    Stopping backstreet abortions, which killed many women.

    • Ohh and Children of men, It makes you think about the future, and wonder, what we've done to the human population and what might become, I guess.

  10. The Triumph of the Will clip was absolutely frightening!!

    The Cult of Personality phenomenon was never more on display than with Hitler. Yet even today we continue to see blind obedience to leaders, not because of anything they have done, but people simply worshiping the person.

    And yes I’m talking about Obama.

    The man had not done a damn thing in his entire life, except make speeches. He had no record of accomplishments. His resume would easily fit on a business card, yet the ignorant masses rallied behind him. All on the power of his spoken word.

    I read a story once written by a young Jewish girl growing up in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. She had heard about Hitler enough to know he hated Jews, but out of curiosity she went to one of his political rallies just to check things out.

    By the end of the speech she said she was standing on the armrests of her chair jumping up and down cheering for Hitler. Such is the power of the spoken word.

    Some things never change.

    • Vince087 : Very Good choice indeed and what really “Grinds My Gears” is the fact that a lot of people out there that either don’t believe or have no concept of what Global Warming is or that it does not exist. “The Day After Tomorrow” may be somewhat extreme by today’s standards, but long after we are both dead and buried the cataclysm will occur. But that’s just my opinion.

  11. With super size me is it only in america that the 'super size' option has been removed from mcdonalds menus?

    Or was it a temporay thing and is now available again? Because up here in Canada while the workers no longer ASK 'do you want to super size that' it's still an option if you want larger fries/drinks with a meal.

  12. i reckon 2012 is probably the most world changing and world thinking movie.when it came out everyone was talking bout it and it scared the "beep" out of ppl and me included.i dont really believe it but if it does happen then i have wasted my life on school as im in yr 9.lol

    • well this movie is based on the fiction and has no real proof. It was made at the peak time when the rumour was spread among the people that 2012 is coming and this would be the end of the world.

      As the NASA has proved that there is no sign of such thing happening. so its totally fake¬¬¬

  13. Citizen Kane, if not for it’s content, for the revolutionary techniques that were introduced to the film making world.

  14. Peter Boucher on

    How about “JAWS” that is the movie that coined the term “Summer Blockbuster” and the monologue of Quint the fisherman (Robert Shaw) about the disaster of the USS Indianapolis made this country much more aware of that horrible incident

  15. An interesting note about Al Gores “An Inconvenient Truth”.
    About the global warming debate we are always told the time for debate is over yet the greens do there very best to avoid a debate. John Colman from the weather channel decided that the only way to get a debate happening would be to sue Al Gore so they could discuss the issues in a court of law.
    There were over 30 major faults with Al Gores movie so John Colman with the backing of 32,000 scientists (9000 phds) took Al to court and sued him for his misleading of the public.
    They only had time to discuss 9 issues but the Judge ruled in John Colman favor and Al Gore was sued. Al wanted to promote his documentary heavily through Britain but the Judge said if he did he would have to list the 9 faults (the only ones that were discussed do to time restrictions) and if he didn’t they would list the film propaganda.

    CO2 is a naturally accruing gas and nature produces far more of it than humans do. insects produce far more than people do as well and rotting vegetation. By far the biggest producer is the oceans. Mans total is less than half of a percent of the total CO2 released. Water vapor is by far the biggest greenhouse gas at around 75% of the total greenhouse gases.
    If man reduced his output to zero there would be no significant change as the amount is so small.

    CO2 is not a deadly toxin like many greens would have you believe and is in fact plant food. Plants take in CO2 use the carbon to bulk up and release oxygen. Much of our planet has been greening up especially around the fringes of many deserts as shown by satellite data over the last 30 years with CO2 playing a major role in this.
    If you really want to be green and break free from all the bad science and propaganda then more CO2 is the way to go.

    Al Gores mentor, Maurice Strong is an associate of many international bankers such as the Rocker-fellers and the Rothschilds. He is the founder of the UN environmental program and in his opening speech at the Rio Earth summit 1992 he said the following…
    Isn’t the only hope for the world that the western civilizations collapse, Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about. Please remember that statement and the agenda being promoted next time you here about the world economy worsening and the 100’s of new green taxes that will be imposed on western societies to enlarge the divide between the global elite 1%ers and the rest of society.
    It’s time to break free from the mind numbing entertainment industry and start looking at the real issues going on around us.

    Please feel free to search out the information I have given as you will find it’s freely available.

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