A pioneer of French cinema, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said, "Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self."

Film as art is certainly no exception when it comes to capturing our minds and imaginations. Film provides a powerful medium for exploring what it means to be human, offering us a glimpse into human nature at its best, its worst and everywhere in between.

Perhaps that's why there is no shortage of films that explore the gamut of psychological topics – making film a popular tool for teaching psychology.

  • The paranoia exhibited by Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg who unravels under stress in "The Caine Mutiny."

  • The chilling descent into madness displayed by Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

  • The effect of one woman's obsession on a man and his family in "Fatal Attraction."

  • The moral dilemmas faced by the survivors of a torpedoed ship drifting at sea in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat."

While there are hundreds of films that could be included on a list of movies that deal with psychology, here are a handful recommended by Saint Leo psychology faculty – all 'must sees' for students in online psychology degree programs.

1. "12 Angry Men"

Drama (1957)
Topics: Social, moral development
Actors: Henry Fonda, John Fiedler
Plot: A diverse group of 12 jurors deliberates the fate of an 18-year-old Latino accused of murdering his father. As a lone dissenting juror tries to convince the others that the case is not as open-and-shut as it appears, individual prejudices and preconceptions about the trial emerge.
Recommended by: Dr. Lara Ault
Why recommended: The movie has tremendous lessons and value in social psychology. It addresses prejudice, conformity, aggression, group interaction, leadership, persuasion, and other basic areas of social psychology and the study of normal human behavior.

2. "28 Days"

Drama/romance (2000)
Topics: Substance abuse disorders/alcoholism
Actors: Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic West
Plot: Sandra Bullock plays a newspaper columnist who chooses to enter a rehabilitation center for alcoholism in lieu of jail time for stealing a limousine at her sister's wedding and crashing it. Initially in denial that she is an alcoholic and resistant to treatment, with the help of fellow patients, she eventually begins to re-examine her life and comes to terms with her alcoholism and addiction to prescription medications.
Recommended by: Dr. Glenn Lowery
Why recommended: This movie models good counseling skills and promotes optimism, while dealing with serious substance abuse issues.

3. "A Beautiful Mind"

Drama (2001)
Topics: Abnormal psychology, psychotic disorders/schizophrenia
Actors: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly
Plot: Based on the life of mathematical genius and Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash, who suffers from severe mental illness, this film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Recommended by: Dr. Antonio Laverghetta
Why recommended: The film sheds light on the life and suffering of a person living with schizophrenia. Psychology students will notice that Nash exhibits many of the symptoms used to diagnose schizophrenia and can follow the increasing intensity of these symptoms and the effect on him and those around him. The film also shows the difficult task of managing the disorder and the importance of social support.

4. "The Blind Side"

Biographical/sport (2009)
Social psychology, including social influence, family relations
Actors: Quinton Aaron, Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates
Plot: "The Blind Side" is the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American boy who is adopted by a wealthy white family, the Tuohys. Michael realizes his full potential, succeeding in school and becoming a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
Recommended by: Dr. Helen Oderinde
Why recommended: This film does a good job of highlighting some of the difficulties and misunderstandings that take place when people of different cultures attempt to bridge cultural and racial differences and connect on an intimate level. The film also shows how mutually beneficial this engagement can be: the Tuohys open the door to educational and financial opportunity for Michael and he, in turn, opens their minds.

5. "Driving Miss Daisy"

Comedy/drama (1989)
Topics: Social psychology, developmental psychology/aging, Alzheimer's disease
Actors: Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Dan Akroyd
Plot: The movie begins in 1948 when, at the insistence of her son who decides his mother must stop driving, Miss Daisy Werthan, a wealthy Jewish Southern woman, hires an African-American chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. The story of their friendship unfolds over the following 25 years as they overcome their differences and discomforts and develop a loving friendship.
Recommended by: Dr. Antonio Laverghetta
Why recommended: In addition to addressing the degenerative nature of Alzheimer's disease, this film explores some of the big questions of interest in the field of social psychology: how prejudice develops and how it can be overcome.

6. "Enough"

Drama/thriller (2002)
Topics: Social psychology, domestic violence
Actors: Jessica Jennifer Lopez, Billy Campbell, Tessa Allen
Plot: Based on the Anna Quindlen novel, "Black and Blue," the film is about a working-class waitress named Slim who thinks she has married the man of her dreams. After the birth of their first child, he becomes controlling and abusive. Slim escapes from him several times, moving to different parts of the country with her daughter, but her husband tracks her down. She decides to prepare herself to fight back by learning Krav Maga self-defense techniques.
Recommended by: Dr. Tammy Zacchilli
Why recommended: Portraying a physical and psychological battle between the two main characters, this movie addresses the challenges of dealing with and escaping from an abusive relationship.

7. "Good Will Hunting"

Drama (1997)
Topics: Social and developmental psychology, treatment, giftedness
Actors: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver
Plot: Will Hunting is a young, headstrong janitor at MIT with exceptional mathematical abilities. Abused as a child, he has numerous run-ins with the law and does not realize his full potential. With the help of a psychology professor, he finally receives the counseling he needs that will enable him to find his identity and change his life.
Recommended by: Dr. Glenn Lowery
Why recommended: "Good Will Hunting." serves as a good teachable opportunity. This movie depicts a difficult therapeutic relationship between an ambivalent client and a somewhat unorthodox counselor.

8. "The Hurricane"

Biographical/sport (1991)
Topics: Social psychology including prejudice, discrimination, violence, civil rights
Actors: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger
Plot: This film is based on the life of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a top-ranked, African-American boxer who, in 1966, is expected to become a world champion when he is wrongly imprisoned for a triple murder. His appeals are rejected and his case seems hopeless until a teenage boy and his foster family find new evidence that eventually leads to his release two decades later.
Recommended by: Dr. Bob Jacobs
Why recommended: "The Hurricane" highlights our ability to transcend our circumstances through internal change.

9. "Identity"

Thriller/mystery (2003)
Topics: Psychotic disorders, forensic psychology
Actors: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet
Plot: A group of strangers from different walks of life are forced to find shelter during a torrential rainstorm at an out-of-the-way Nevada desert motel. One-by-one, they are killed off. Meanwhile, in a related storyline, a psychiatrist tries to prove the innocence of a man accused of murder.
Recommended by: Dr. Lara Ault
Why recommended: "Identity" deals with a unique and controversial disorder (it's a spoiler if I name it). It plays on some misconceptions about the disorder, but has a radical therapy suggestion that is intriguing. It is also an exciting murder mystery.

10. "Memento"

Crime thriller (2000)
Topics: Neuropsychology, memory loss/amnesia
Actors: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Plot: Leonard Shelby is an ex-insurance investigator who sustains a head injury when trying to prevent his wife's murder and now suffers from amnesia. He learns how to cope with his condition using notes and tattoos as he tries to find the murderer and avenge her death.
Recommended by: Dr. Lara Ault
Why recommended: "Memento" deals with a person with short-term memory loss trying to solve a mystery. It is accurate, in many ways, regarding what life might be like for someone who cannot remember for more than a few minutes or seconds at a time. It is fascinating in a cognitive sense, as well as moving and emotionally engaging (and exciting).

11. "The Notebook"

Romance (2004)
Topics: Clinical and social psychology, cultural differences, Alzheimer's disease
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands, James Garner
Plot: A poor young man, Noah Calhoun, falls in love with a young heiress, Allie Hamilton, during the summer of 1940. When Allie's mother finds out, she bans her from seeing Noah and the family leaves their summer home on Seabrook Island and returns to Charleston. World War II intervenes and Allie and Noah go on with their lives but are reunited years later.
Recommended by: Dr. Tammy Zacchilli
Why recommended: I show clips of this movie in my close relationships class because you can examine how love and relationships change over time. It is also relevant to developmental psychology because one of the characters has Alzheimer's disease.

12. "On Golden Pond"

Drama/comedy (1981)
Topics: Neuropsychology/dementia, marital/family dynamics
Actors: Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda
Plot: This Academy Award winner for Best Actor and Best Actress tells the story of elderly couple, Norman and Ethel Thayer, who return to their summer cottage while dealing with Norman's failing memory, onset of senility and strained relationship with his daughter.
Recommended by: Dr. Mark Benander
Why recommended: This movie is full of great explorations of so many fundamental aspects of human nature, including family relationships, aging, death and dying, personal growth, and forgiveness. We are also treated to ways in which elements of nature such as a beautiful woodland lake, a treacherous cove, a dive into crisp clear water, and a family of loons can illuminate the powerful psychological dynamics of being human.

13. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Drama (1975)
Topics: Personality/mood disorders, forensic psychology, treatment
Actors: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield
Plot: Randle McMurphy has a criminal past. To escape his most current prison sentence, he pleads insanity so that he can be sent to a mental institution where he thinks he can serve his sentence more comfortably than in jail. Upon admittance, he rallies the other patients into rebellion against the oppressive Nurse Ratched.
Recommended by: Dr. Kevin Kieffer
Why recommended: This Academy Award-winning classic is a must-see film for psychology students. It provides a disturbing look into mental hospitals in the 1960s, including electroshock therapy as a form of treatment and a dysfunctional form of group psychotherapy.

14. "Ordinary People"

Drama (1980)
Topics: Family dynamics, stress and coping, mood disorders, therapy
Actors: Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch
Plot: When his older brother dies unexpectedly, guilt and grief push Conrad Jarrett to attempt suicide. After spending six months in a mental hospital, he returns home, sees a psychiatrist, and tries to return to normal. His parents each react differently to the trauma; his father attempts to deal with his grief, while his mother remains in denial, angry and depressed.
Recommended by: Dr. Kevin Kieffer
Why recommended: This film sheds realistic light on how one family deals with trauma and the resulting breakdown of the family unit. It offers a positive, affirming portrayal of a therapist and the value of therapy in helping Conrad and his father heal.

15. "Rain Man"

Comedy/drama (1988)
Topics: Neuropsychology/autism, marital/family dynamics
Actors: Dustin Hoffmann, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino
Plot: "Rain Man" is the story of a hustler, Charlie Babbit, and his brother, Raymond, an autistic savant unknown to Charlie who is living in an institution. When the brothers' father dies and leaves his fortune in trust to Raymond, Charlie sets out on a scheme to gain custody of Raymond and control of the money during a classic cross-country road trip.
Recommended by: Dr. Antonio Laverghetta
Why recommended: This film shed light on autism at time when there was little public awareness of the syndrome. Raymond exhibits many of the classic behaviors of a high-functioning autistic. As Charlie begins to understand Raymond more, he learns how to manage the stress associated with being his caregiver and becomes a better person.

16. "Regarding Henry"

Drama (1991)
Topics: Neuropsychology, retrograde amnesia, marital/family dynamics
Actors: Harrison Ford, Annette Benning, Michael Haley
Plot: Henry is a hard-driven lawyer who is shot in the head during a robbery and suffers brain damage. He emerges from a coma with retrograde amnesia. As he struggles to recover his speech and mobility and regain his memory, he experiences a shift in values and builds a new life for his family and himself.
Recommended by: Dr. Antonio Laverghetta
Why recommended: While real-life cases of retrograde amnesia are actually quite rare, films tend to depict it as fairly common occurrence and, therefore, often promote inaccuracies. Despite that fact, this movie does a good job showing how retrograde amnesia can have a significant impact on individuals and their families – sometimes for good or ill.

17. "Reign Over Me"

Family drama (2007)
Topics: Post-traumatic stress disorder
Actors: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith
Plot: The grief that Charlie Fineman experiences after losing his family in the September 11 attack on New York City causes him to quit his job and isolate himself. After a chance encounter, he rekindles his friendship with his old college roommate, Alan Johnson, who helps him to face his past and rebuild his life.
Recommended by: Dr. Mark Benander
Why recommended: "Rein Over Me" is an entertaining movie, replete with laughs and more sober, thought-provoking scenes, but it also demonstrates some of the ways in which PTSD can impact the life of the affected individual as well as everyone in his or her life.

18. "Save The Last Dance"

Musical romance (2001)
Topics: Social psychology, interracial relationships, peer pressure, violence
Actors: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington
Plot: Sara, a white girl who has lived in the suburbs, is forced to relocate to Chicago's inner city. With the move comes a new school with a predominately African-American student body, and Sara's new boyfriend is a black teen, Derek, with whom she shares a love for dance.
Recommended by: Dr. Helen Oderinde
Why recommended: "Save the Last Dance is centered on a teenage, interracial romance and the couple's relationship with others. They continually meet with social and cultural conflict over their relationship and have to work hard to overcome prejudice and rise above cultural and social pressures.

What other films would you add to this list?

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

14 Blogs For Students In Online Psychology Degree Programs

8 Tips On How To Be A Successful Psychology Student

Is An Online Psychology Degree For You?

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