Just like there are multiple genres of films (e.g., horror, drama, comedy, Tarantino, etc.), there are also multiple “genres” of psychology (e.g., clinical, counseling, school, neuro, social, etc.). I struggle with picking “best of” lists, let alone lists that specifically have really cool psychological themes, so I decided to break down some Must-See lists for film/psychology lovers per psychology sub-disciplines. While this list aims for clinical psychologists and the populations they deal with–including more severe pathology, substance use, and inpatient settings–fans of gritty dramas, black comedies, and character studies will likely enjoy these films as well.
- A Clockwork Orange (1971) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Notorious and chilling, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange is some of the most powerful cinema you can find. It’s not an easy watch at times, and if you’ve read the book, you can trust you know why. However, the film—much like the book—is great insight into what happens when classical conditioning is used to treat a blend of pathology that largely rests on antisocial personality disorder reinforced by a sex-consumed futuristic society. If anything, it’ll likely give clinical psychologists a greater appreciation for the APA code of ethics.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) dir. Miloš Forman
Inarguably one of the greatest psych-based films of all time based on one of the greatest psych-based books of all time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest follows a largely-passive uprising against chillingly realistic abuse enforced by power-hungry mental health providers back in the scary days where ethics were more grey than psychologists generally care to admit. The film serves as an important reminder that our “do no harm” promises of beneficence and malfeasance requires critical self-reflection and honest admission that client empowerment is a key component of the healing process and (most importantly) we don’t always know what’s best. The take home point: our client’s shouldn’t have to fight–passively or not–to be heard.
- Silence of the Lambs (1991) dir. Jonathan Demme
As if anyone didn’t know about this movie, Silence of the Lambs is a critical analysis of the mind of a cannibalistic serial killer who is not-so-reluctantly-forced into helping police find another cannibalistic serial killer who is still on the loose. The core assumption behind the plotline is that “great minds think alike,” or at least great appetites. Antony Hopkins famously won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the film, which only lasted about 15 minutes long. While his acclaim is merited, it is Jodi Foster’s humanizing performance that gives us the lens to comprehend—and even relate to—his complex pathology.
- Trainspotting (1996) dir. Danny Boyle
Trainspotting is a black comedy indie-staple that’s probably best described as Requiem for a Dream with a spoonful of sugar. Known to host Ewan McGregor’s breakout (and probably still best) performance, the film follows a somewhat comical examination of the ups and downs of a heroin addict as he flirts with sobriety. People who believe the world is just should definitely watch this for a convincing counterargument—the oft deplorable main characters possess some of the greatest luck in the world and little karmatic retribution. However, Boyle’s painfully accurate depiction of withdrawal symptoms will likely draw upon sympathy reserves you didn’t even know you had.
- Abre Los Ojos (1997) dir. Alejandro Amenábar
This Spanish-language film, which serves as the source material for Cameron Crowe’s English-language Vanilla Sky, follows a narcissistic playboy’s descent into a major depressive spiral following a debilitating car crash. As his life begins to turn around for the better, reality begins to crumble around him. This film does a spectacular job of questioning the subjectivity of reality and perception while simultaneously presenting people and relationships that feel alarmingly real. It’s excellent commentary on how to work with clients who suffer from delusions and hallucinations, especially when we are part of them. It’s worth noting that Penelope Cruz plays the same character in both adaptations of this story, but her performance here is much more rich and dynamic.
- Girl Interrupted (1999) dir. James Mangold
Girl Interrupted is honestly not a film I would recommend to hardcore cinephiles. It’s highly dramatized, disorganized, and profoundly boring most of the time, particularly when Angelina Jolie is missing from the screen. It also feels shot by someone that doesn’t understand severe mental health disorders or know how to capture them on film. That said, the film provides an interesting snapshot into what life was sorta-like at the iconic McLean psychiatric hospital in the 1960s and features a bevy of wonderful actresses (I see you, Elizabeth Moss). The film also subtly captures the gender-bias that is still present in many personality disorder criteria, especially for Borderline personality disorder. Given that McLean remains a highly influential research-hospital today, it’s cool to see how progress and perspectives on psychiatric hospitalization and diagnosis have evolved (even if it’s just a little in some ways).
- Requiem for a Dream (2000) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Requiem for a Dream is the kind of film you only ever need to see once, despite it being truly excellent cinema. It seems like the staple of every high schooler’s first DVD collection, but this doesn’t mean that it’s meant for the coming-into-awareness crowd. The story follows four main characters as they get sucked down the drain of drug abuse—accidentally or not. While the focus seems to be on how their lives unravel due to addiction, this is truly a story about psychological regression to childhood states and the psychotropic means some people take to get there.
- Memento (2001) dir. Christopher Nolan
It’s hard to find a movie that does memory loss correctly, but Memento gets closer than most. Christopher Nolan keenly uses permanent short term memory damage to create compelling drama that is rooted firmly in the mystery/noir genre, wherein the mystery isn’t actually what happened in the main character’s life to result in his brain damage, but what tasks he carries out because of it. Guy Pearce is superb in the film as the probable-protagonist who tattoos his own body in attempt to remember clues for a murder mystery he’s intent on solving.
- Dahmer (2002) dir. David Jacobson
Named for one of the most notorious serial killers alive, hardcore-indie Dahmer is among the first to not play like a true crime documentary or a blood-guts-and-glory film. Rather, the film is a character study that doesn’t let the viewer shy away from some of the emotional abuse and self-doubt that created Dahmer himself. This film is a must watch for psychologists doing rotations in forensic hospitals or conducting court-mandated/NGRI assessments for one surprising reason—the titular character (played by Jeremy Renner) manages to elicit the #1 emotion you would never expect to experience for a cannibalistic murderer/rapist: Empathy. It’s an unbelievably terrific performance that you’ll almost wish you could forget.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) dir. Michel Gondry
Summarized best as a dramatic rom-com, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind largely follows the dreams of a man (played by a p-h-e-nomenal Jim Carrey) who decides to take drastic action by deleting his ex-lover completely from his memory following a bitter break-up. However, halfway through the deletion-process, he changes his mind, thus taking the memories of his lover and the audience in an exciting chase across his subconscious. The film itself is truly ingenious and exciting to watch from a clinical neuropsych POV, if only for the exciting ways it makes the audience think about memory, relationships, and the drastic cognitive steps that some people take in attempt to overcome a broken heart.
- Bug (2006) dir. William Friedkin
What happens when a woman with Dependent personality disorder falls for an ambulatory paranoid schizophrenic who is convinced they are living in a sea of bugs? This deeply disturbing movie shows us exactly what through a spot-on portrayal of a seemingly endless spiral into the world’s worst psychotic episode. The writing and performances are terrific and, unfortunately, unforgettable in a way akin to Renner’s Dahmer. This is highly recommended for clinical psychologists-in-training looking to enhance their understanding of severe and persisting mental illnesses, or to those just curious about what textbook-psychosis and personality features can look like in real life (at the utmost extreme).
- Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier might not be super high on everyone’s list of directors to run out and see after his uber-graphic Nymphomaniac series, but Melancholia remains one of the most visually stunning, accurate, and devastating portrayals of Major Depressive Disorder ever captured on film. Kirsten Dunst plays the protagonist who is almost completely debilitated by her depression in a two-part film that dramatically shifts in tone from beginning (starting with her catastrophe of a wedding day) to end (the catastrophic end of the world when a hidden planet emerges from behind the sun to collide with Earth). Perhaps most achingly, Trier captures the relief that a severely and chronically depressed person may feel when they are finally provided the opportunity to stop living. Amazingly, Trier manages to keep the focus on the characters’ emotional experiences despite the impending end of the world, which is never intended as a surprise or spoiler.