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15 Excellent Movies for Psychology Majors

December 13th, 2010

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Even the most brain-meltingly heinous load of celluloid garbage these days still hinges on some degree of psychology, even if it is just questioning the sanity of those involved in the creation process. Fortunately, though, students pursuing a career in the field have plenty of options that stimulate them in all the right ways. The following films offer up excellent opportunities for anyone who enjoys studying psychology and sociology to see many of their lessons at work. By no means should this be taken as a comprehensive or best-of list — plenty of amazing, artistic pieces had to get sliced from the list for time and space reasons. Beyond the ones described here, "honorable mentions" such as Inception, Donnie Darko, Rear Window, Jarhead, Solaris, Quinceanera, Ikiru, Hannah and Her Sisters, 12 Angry Men, M, Eraserhead, A Clockwork Orange, Antichrist, Adam, Wild Strawberries, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation and A Beautiful Mind all make for great starts as well. Use these suggestions to inspire an exploration of other psychological cinematic fare!

  1. Rashomon (1950) Directed by Akira Kurosawa: Perception and perspective play an integral role in psychoanalysis, especially when it comes to healing couples and families, and no film captures the concept better than this cinematic classic Rashomon. A samurai is found murdered, his wife raped. Witnesses at the trial tell their own conflicting stories and illustrate how the truth exists as an entirely subjective construct — everyone believes something different about the same thing, or at least presents intentional fallacies to manipulate results. Though essential viewing for all film connoisseurs, psychology students hoping to someday work directly with patients should especially make a contentious effort to seek it out. The accepted scientific phenomenon forming the movie's core IS known as the Rashomon Effect, after all.

  2. Vertigo (1958) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Few directors could (and can) blend psychology and the thriller genre with the same care and sophistication as Hitchcock. Most of the more notable entries in his oeuvre could easily work their way onto lists such as these, but Vertigo particularly stands out. An acrophobic private investigator receives an assignment to follow around a friend's suspicious wife, slowly growing more and more obsessed with her. Suicide, mistaken identity, a crippling, fateful fear of heights, depression and other psychological concepts all weave their way into the romantic, tragic noir mystery.

  3. 8 1/2 (1963) Directed by Frederico Fellini: Fact and fiction collide as a director grapples against his wrenching creative block. Unable to successfully move forward with an autobiographical science-fiction piece, his marriage begins suffering and his memories and fantasies begin merging. One cannot fully appreciate or understand the heavy psychological themes found in 8 1/2 without research the context in which it was made. An amazing example of metafiction, Fellini began working on the film while he himself faced down a severe case of director's block. He used this masterpiece as a celluloid canvas capturing the pressures of balancing the personal with the public in his art — and, of course, attempting to forge something beautiful when the brain abjectly refuses to cooperate. Required viewing for all psychology students hoping to study the creative process in great detail.

  4. I am Curious (Yellow) (1975) Directed by Vilgot Sjoman: Young Lena Nyman feels cut off from the world in the little Stockholm apartment she shares with her father. This emotional, physical, mental and spiritual isolation eventually propels her to explore the world, and she discovers a newfound passion for social justice issues. Along the way, she uncovers intriguing lessons about sex, relationships, religion, meditation, politics, society, class, poetry, nonviolence, asceticism and much more. The film boiled up considerable controversy owing to its frank, unapologetic approach towards sex and nudity. So even beyond I am Curious (Yellow) itself, many interesting, educational stories regarding social norms and censorship trail in the wake.

  5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) Directed by Milos Forman: Ken Kesey penned his haunting, classic novel after working as an orderly in a mental health facility. Both the book and the wonderful film adaptation analyze issues of bureaucracy and patient abuse when treating the mentally ill, exposing the world to some of the harsh realities faced within their walls. Not every nurse is of the Ratched variety, of course, but the intimidating figure still represents how even a small amount of power and authority still holds the potential to utterly corrupt. Though the movie delves into the realm of tragedy, psychology students must add it to their "must watch" lists — most especially those with a desire to work in psychiatric hospitals and other similar institutions. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may be a work of fiction, but it transmits a powerful message about treating some of the most marginalized people in America with humanity and dignity.

  6. Videodrome (1983) Directed by David Cronenberg: Considering the mass media's role in shaping society — and society's role in shaping the individual – Videodrome should certainly pique the interest of the psychologically inclined. An obscure television channel sending out programming comprised of nothing but explicit violence comes to the attention of softcore peddler Max Renn, a cable channel owner in search of stimulating new content. He and sadomasochist girlfriend Nicki Brand grow embroiled in a bizarre plot where viewing choices become literally viral, all relayed using David Cronenberg's trademark visceral body horror imagery. Along the way, the narrative delves deep into the role television, periodicals, movies and radios play in public life. Considering the narrow definition of privacy most people hold today, it comes off as a more than slightly chilling prophecy.

  7. Do the Right Thing (1989) Directed by Spike Lee: Race relations, most especially in "melting pot" nations, directly impacts both sociology and psychology. Spike Lee's revered take on race and class sits amongst the greatest films to explore such subjects. Set in a mixed Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood suffering from a blistering heat wave, Do the Right Thing features a unique cast of characters whose frustrations mount alongside the temperature. Everything comes to a head when one young man dies at the hands of a police officer, inciting a violent rift between African-, Puerto Rican- and Italian-Americans. Though probably more sociological than psychological in nature, the film still raises some excellent questions about how one's surroundings impact their internal selves and external actions.

  8. American History X (1998) Directed by Tony Kaye: Another cinematic dissection of race, sociology and psychology, this time from the perspective of a young man fully ensconced in the white supremacy movement. The origins of his slowly burgeoning racist and sexist views come to light through flashbacks, which explain without excusing. It's an incredibly brutal film, but a necessary one when it comes to understanding the relationship between ignorance and violent hate. Discriminatory views and actions, as despicable as they are, do sprout from psychological stimuli. In order to quell the spite and nurture healthy individuals who accept differences in sex and sexual identity and orientation, race, religion, body type, ability, age and more, it is integral to know how these poisonous ideals form. Knowing their roots leads to more effective, hopefully permanent, rehabilitation.

  9. Boys Don't Cry (1999) Directed by Kimberly Peirce: Adapted from the tragic true story of Brandon Teena, this absolutely fearless movie confronts social and psychological issues plaguing LGBTQIA teens and young adults. Director Kimberly Peirce elected to focus on both the central transman's relationship with girlfriend Lana and the circumstances leading up to his eventual rape and murder. She took a few liberties with actual events, but the sociology and psychology-laden center remains sadly close to life. Eleven years after the film's release, members of the LGBTQIA still suffer from the heightened risk of suicide and depression reflected in a 1998 study. Students aspiring to pursue a career in social work, counseling (especially in schools), psychology or psychiatry will likely have to confront such matters in their careers, so they should take the time to learn about the social phenomena that drive LGBTQIA marginalization — which, in turn, inspires anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

  10. Thirteen (2003) Directed by Catherine Hardwicke: More than a few psychologists and philosophers have voiced their opinions regarding the recent trend in sexualizing pre-adolescent and adolescent females. The autobiography of teenager Nikki Reed (who co-wrote and co-stars) relates a worst-case scenario when social pressures to always act sexy slam into the pressures of life in a broken, poverty-stricken home. Reeling from her parents' divorce, young Tracey Louise Freeman desperately seeks the approval and companion of a poisonous, yet popular, peer. She copes and hopes to impress by shoplifting, self-mutilating, freely distributing oral sex, experimenting with drugs and sporting a too tiny, too tight wardrobe. From a feminist psychological perspective, it also illustrates the psychological damage caused when women and girls must constantly contend with the narrow, arbitrary standards of beauty dictated by men and/or society.

  11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Directed by Michel Gondry: This beautiful, bittersweet love story lingers little on the trappings of romance in favor of exploring how memories and experiences come to shape one's worldview and relationships — for good or for ill. The story of Joel and Clementine unfolds through appropriately surreal imagery, as the former undergoes a relatively obscure, somewhat questionable new procedure meant to erase one person from the human mind's perception of the past. Understandably, such measures raise a great number of ethical and psychological questions along the way, most especially when the patient finds a way to subvert the process while still experiencing it.

  12. Lars and the Real Girl (2007) Directed by Craig Gillespie: The invention of Real Dolls sparks some intriguing debate about the psychology behind the men (and handful of women) who fork over almost $7,000 for one. Reasons for purchasing a silent silicone sex partner vary from consumer to consumer, of course, and quirky comedy Lars and the Real Girl delves into one of them. The eponymous young man desires romantic companionship, but feels emotionally withdrawn because of a difficult, lonely childhood. In spite of the goodwill of family, friends and a human love interest, he instead connects with a sex doll he treats as if a flesh-and-blood woman — subsequently receiving a diagnosis of a delusional disorder. Though American society tends to marginalize anyone struggling with psychiatric issues (or put them on television to inspire amusement and scorn), this film refreshingly handles mental illness with genuine sympathy.

  13. Medicine for Melancholy (2008) Directed by Barry Jenkins: Slow and quiet, Medicine for Melancholy features a gossamer-thin plot heavy with subtle psychological themes. Set to a thoroughly rocking indie soundtrack, a man and a woman wake up from a drunken one night stand. After much awkwardness, they agree to spend the day together wandering around San Francisco. Discussions regarding the dwindling African-American population in the city, gentrification and music ensure, perfectly balancing their intimate encounter with grander, sociological constructs. Barry Jenkins relies on many things left unspoken to bring his provocative narrative to life, and psychology students looking for a relaxed, intellectually stimulating night in will likely enjoy analyzing the two lovely lead performances.

  14. Synecdoche, New York (2008) Directed by Charlie Kaufman: Be sure to bring a trusted friend along for the journey when sitting down to view this movie. Its existential, postmodern take on the creative process and life cycle emotionally drains as much as it exhilarates. Writer and director Charlie Kaufman relies on Jungian psychology, the concept of synecdoche, the Cotard delusion and meta constructs in order to relay the tale of a MacArthur Fellowship recipient using his money to stage the ultimate performance art piece. He intensely suffers from depression, anxiety, and the reverberations from shredded relationships while the narrative twists, turns and burns around him. Not the most reassuring or relaxing viewing choice by any stretch of the imagination, but one still entirely capable of arousing some nice discussions between classmates and friends.

  15. Precious (2009) Directed by Lee Daniels: The eponymous character leads an exceptionally difficult life. Twice pregnant by her rapist father, illiterate, poverty-stricken and forced to care for an abusive, smothering mom, she finds herself standing at the impasse between what she wants and what she fears. Only Precious' fertile imagination prevents her from succumbing fully to intense pressure. Her situation gets far, far worse before it even remotely gets even one iota better, but ultimately relays a story of triumph and tenacity in the face of dire hurdles. Future social workers and anyone else hoping to apply their psychological training to assisting at-risk youth can use this as an example of some of the cases they may encounter in their careers. Probably not an exact situation as the one portrayed here, but elements of it.

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