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.
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.
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.