Psychological movies are a window that opens the Seventh Art to mental disorders or maladaptive states that unbalance us. Unfortunately, many fail to escape the stereotypes and cliches that turn characters into caricatures.
However, when there is a good research work at the base, psychological movies can leave a deep mark, bringing us closer to a different reality that is worth knowing, deepening and understanding. If we add to this a good performance, we have all the necessary letters so that these works become authentic cult movies.
1. Instinct (1999)
With Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr. sharing the starring roles, it could not help but generate great expectations and the truth is that this movie has been able to fulfill them completely. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is a young and promising psychiatrist who tries to delve into the secrets of the mind of an anthropologist who has been accused of killing and wounding alleged park rangers. However, what could be a routine examination in a prison, becomes a trip to the darkest zone of the society, where our desire for power and control are questioned. A film that does not leave anyone indifferent, especially for the questions it generates.
2. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
He was preceded by the homonymous novel by Sylvia Nasar, who had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and this time the movie was no less. In fact, it won the Oscar for Best Movie with three more. Russell Crowe plays John Forbes Nash, the Nobel Prize in Economics suffering from schizophrenia. The movie is an exciting journey towards the mysteries of this disease, it lets us glimpse the darkest stages but it is also an ode to hope, since in the end it tries to deprive schizophrenia of the negative halo with which our society has covered it.
3. K-Pax (2001)
There are movies that I never get tired of seeing and this is one of them, perhaps because all of us who have been so close to mental illness have asked ourselves on more than one occasion who has “reality” in his hand. Precisely, that is the theme of the movie: Kevin Spacey, who plays a patient apparently afflicted with some kind of psychosis, says he comes from another planet and at some point he will leave Earth. Jeff Bridges, the psychiatrist, tries to make contact with reality but while he treats him, inside the psychiatric hospital, his convictions begin to falter.
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
With Jack Nicholson as starring, backed by an excellent Danny DeVito and an impeccable Louise Fletcher, it is not strange that this movie has become the second to obtain the five main prizes of the Academy. His pace is a bit slow at first but then he catches us with a crescendo of emotions. Almost the entire film takes place in a psychiatric hospital, where they keep Jack Nicholson to assess whether he really suffers from a mental illness or is faking it, since he has been accused of rape. With this story, sympathetic and heartbreaking at the same time, we are immersed in the conflicts of a psychiatric institution. Was Jack Nicholson a free spirit who succumbed to the pressure of inflexible rules or did he really suffer from a psychiatric disorder?
5. The Black Swan (2010)
Starring Natalie Portman (who won the Oscar for her performance), Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel, it is one of those movie you hate or love, there are no middle terms, as in all Darren Aronofsky movies. Exhausted by the pressure of her career as a dancer and the competition of Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman begins to see how her physical and mental forces are diminishing while her darker side begins to emerge until she suffers a real psychotic outbreak.
6. The Experiment (2001)
This German movie is based on Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment in the early 1970s. It is a great film where you can appreciate with absolute precision the changes that are happening inside people: the prisoners and the guardians. The relationship established between one and the other encourages us to reflect on social roles, norms and the very nature of the human being.
7. Good Will Hunting (1997)
This movie comes with an unbeatable presentation: 9 nominations to the Oscars and, if that were not enough, among its protagonists we find Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams. Matt Damon is a bright but low-class young man who wastes his talent by working as a janitor at a university (MIT). One day he solves a complex mathematical problem and a teacher of the school takes it under his tutelage. However, when the young man faces the possibility of going to jail, they practically force him to see Robin Williams, a very peculiar psychiatrist who manages to find the best way to reach the young person and help him resolve his conflicts. The funny thing is that also the psychiatrist isn’t free of ghosts and in this unusual therapeutic relationship, they begin to emerge.
8. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
This movie has a good cast of stars, among which are Winona Ryder, Whoopi Goldberg, Brittany Murphy and Angelina Jolie, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress. In the film you can see various psychiatric disorders, from sociopathy to bulimia, not forgetting severe depression and borderline personality disorder. However, the most interesting thing is that the movie was based on the memoirs of Susanna Kaysen, who was a patient in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, which is precisely the time in which the movie takes place.
9. Shutter Island (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it is one of those movies that you hate or love but to know it, you will have to reach the end. In the film Leonardo DiCaprio arrives on an island where a psychiatric center is located to investigate a supposed murder but to the same extent that the plot advances, everything gets complicated and the memories of the past come to the mind of the policeman to remind him of a murder that he committed himself. However, DiCaprio refuses to accept his share of responsibility and constantly removes what he considers to be only disturbing dreams. At a certain point, the movie becomes predictable but do not abandon it because the last scene makes all the time invested in it worthwhile.
10. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I do not like violent movies but if I’m going to talk about psychological movies and forget this title I commit a serious mistake. In fact, I myself succumbed to the appeal of its main actors: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, the latter is a clever psychiatrist who is imprisoned, to which Jodie Foster appeals asking for help to catch a serial killer. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that it was the third film to reach the five main Academy awards, so it is always worth spending a few hours on it.
11. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Inspired by the novel “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” written by Jean Dominique Bauby, this movie that won 4 Oscar nominations is one of those stories that leave no one indifferent when asking ourselves many questions about life. The protagonist is the writer himself, who was the former editor of Elle magazine, who as a result of an accident is completely paralyzed, unable to eat, talk, or breathe without assistance. He could only move one eye, which became his window of communication with the rest of the people, and with which, letter by letter, he dictated this book.
12. The Aviator (2004)
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this movie recreates the life of Howard Hughes, pioneer of aviation. It focuses on a particularly dark and prolific period of his career, when he piloted the prototypes of airplanes that he designed and at the same time produced films in Hollywood. This work, which won 5 Oscars, takes us by the hand to the hell in which Hughes went, who suffered an obsessive-compulsive disorder that led him to completely isolate himself from the world.
13. Silver Lining Playbook (2012)
Starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, tells the story of a young man who returns home with his parents after eight months locked in a psychiatric hospital for assaulting his wife’s lover. With a diagnosed bipolar disorder, his main goal is to recover his ex-wife demonstrating that he has overcome everything and has a positive attitude. The movie, which won an Oscar award, allows us to glimpse the difficulties and emotional conflicts of all its characters, not only the protagonist and, although the end is quite predictable, its message is not less important: each cloud has a crack where it lets in light, which is what its original title in English means: Silver Linings.
14. The Machinist (2004)
This psychological thriller, starring an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale due to its extreme thinness, is as disturbing as interesting. The story centers on a mechanic who works as a factory worker but suffers from insomnia for a year, which affects his physical and mental health. Little by little, this inability to rest, which in the end is discovered to what is due, is taking its toll, triggering a series of psychotic symptoms that gives a vertiginous rhythm to the film. The story is a psychological cocktail in which flashbacks of post-traumatic stress are mixed with paranoia caused by lack of sleep, all framed in a dissociative personality disorder.
15. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Considered by many to be the “psychological movie par excellence”, this work by Stanley Kubrick is based on the homonymous novel. It is not suitable for all tastes, but its staging and how to approach the issues is still so shocking when it was released as now. Set in a dystopian society marked by an escalation of youth violence, it addresses numerous psychological issues, from the antisocial personality disorder to the behavioral techniques (aversion therapy) that were actually used in psychiatry to eliminate sadistic impulses. The problem is that these techniques do not eliminate the causes but only repress the effects.
16. Like Crazy (2016)
Beatrice, embodied by Valeria Bruni, is a talkative countess who is convinced of belonging to the intimate circles of world political leaders. In a psychiatric institution, where she is patient, she meets Donatella, played by Micaela Ramazzotti, a tattooed, vulnerable and introverted young woman with whom she apparently has no points in common. However, the lives of both women intertwine as they embark on a journey to the pursuit of happiness. With many crazy moments, happy and full of energy it hides the deep melancholy, heartbreaking sadness and existential emptiness of both women. The interesting thing about this multi-award winning psychological movie is that it allows us to approach mental problems from a more positive perspective, without hiding the traumas and the responsibility of society and of everyone with those people that the system has regurgitated.
17. Hombre mirando al sudeste (Man Facing Southeast (1986)
K-pax is a remake of this extraordinary psychological movie from Argentine. The drama takes place in a mental sanatorium in Buenos Aires, where one of the protagonists, Ramtés, claims to have been sent from another planet to analyze human stupidity. The psychiatrist diagnoses him as paranoid but little by little he begins to doubt his diagnosis and the efficacy of asylums. His reflexive dialogues, together with the interesting empathy shown by Ramtés with the other patients, turn this work by Eliseo Subiela into a starting point to question many things about our existence and society. Can we call “crazy” someone who says that “nature only allows very slow development. It favors more easily a change of species than a change of consciousness”?
18. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
This psychological movie is inspired by Hubert Selby Jr’s novel of 1978 and becomes a journey, sometimes suffocating and sometimes delirious, by the decline of four characters sunk in solitude and obsessed with their dreams that end up trapped in addiction. On the one hand, we find Sara Goldfarb, played by Ellen Burstyn, an addict to television, food and pills to lose weight. It is the mother of Harry, played by Jared Leto, who ends up sunk in his addiction to cocaine, with his girlfriend and his best friend. That life of dreams, failures, obsessions and addictions can find a strange harmony with our own goals and disappointments, becoming a bitter criticism of the values that our society sometimes transmits.
19. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
This psychological movie is the adaptation to the cinema of the homonymous novel by Lionel Shriver. It tells the story of a mother played by Tilda Swinton who never connects with her son, who seems to suffer from an antisocial personality disorder. It is a heartbreaking and dramatic film that puts us face to face with many of our preconceived ideas about motherhood and the mother-child relationship. The protagonist does what she can, but it is not enough. To what extent should a mother strive when her love is not reciprocated? How far can an unloved child go? Without maudlin resources, but by stroke of action, this movie is a portrait of the deterioration of the mind and relationships, becoming a psychological blow to our belief that there is no innate evil, with an unexpected end.
20. Her (2013)
With an Oscar for the best original script, we can understand why this award when we see this disturbing, but not very fanciful psychological movie. Set in the near future, its protagonist, Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a lonely man who works writing letters for people who cannot write them. After finishing a relationship, he decides to try a new and advanced operating system that adapts to each user becoming his assistant. What begins as a trasactional relationship, ends in love, a love that isolates. At first nobody understands Theodore but then the software is extended and many other people begin to maintain a special relationship with that virtual assistant. The film, sensitive and nostalgic at times, allows us to put ourselves in the skin of the character, but also makes us question whether that is the solution we want for our loneliness. The loneliness and incomprehension that has been established with technology must be “solved” at the stroke of more technology?
21. American Beauty (1999)
This movie, by American director Sam Mendez, shows us how we often engage in a struggle with ourselves and others to find a place in society that gives meaning to our lives. It encourages us to reflect on how we can become victims of our expectations and slaves to social goals, all through the lens of its protagonist, Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey. This man in middle adulthood is mired in an existential crisis, he feels trapped in his life not finding how to achieve the goals he was supposed to achieve. In a way, the movie teaches us that it is we who have the power to start and end the situations that overwhelm us. And it encourages us to reflect on that desire to fit into a society at all costs, a desire that can turn against us.
22. Someone, somewhere (2019)
This French drama directed by Cédric Klapisch and starring François Civil, Ana Girardot and Eye Haïdara is one of those intimate psychological movies with which many young people or even adults can feel deeply identified. Its protagonists live in Paris, surrounded by people, but at the same time extremely alone. Victims of a hyperconnected world, they experience the onslaught of loneliness and liquid relationships that end up being superficial. The young man soon develops depression, largely aggravated by a feeling of guilt that drags from his past. However, they both manage to make their way in that urban jungle and find the company they need so much.
23. Memento (2000)
“You lie to yourself to be happy. . . There is nothing wrong with that, we all do it. Who cares if there are some details that you would rather not remember?” Says Teddy, one of the characters in this movie directed by Christopher Nolan that has become a classic of psychological cinema. The story centers on Leonard, a man who suffers a brain trauma after a stroke that causes him anterograde amnesia, so he cannot store new memories and forget what he was doing after a few minutes. The peculiar narrative, at the blow of analepsis and prolepsis, with black and white scenes, can generate the same confusion experienced by its protagonist, being aware that we are always missing something to understand what is happening. And it makes us question who we would be and what our life would be like if we did not have the common thread of memory.
24. I am Sam (2001)
This excellent psychological movie tells the story of a man with a mental disability played by an excellent Sean Penn. The problem begins at age 7, when Lucy, the daughter, begins to overcome the father’s mental capacity and the State questions his capacity to educate his daughter. Then he must face a legal battle to maintain custody of his daughter, with the help of a lawyer, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. It is, therefore, a movie that touches our most sensitive fibers, which tells us about the will power and motivation that help a person to break all limits. And it also tells us about the power of affective bonds in early childhood education. And that sometimes, the heart is worth more than the brain.
25. Who you think I am (2019)
“With age, I lose less time trying to please people”, acknowledged Juliette Binoche, the protagonist of this intimate drama with which many people can feel identified. Abandoned by her husband and in the midst of an existential crisis due to social pressures to stay beautiful, she creates a fake Facebook profile simulating being a young dancer. Through this profile, she tries to recover lost love, illusion and her physicality. The situation, however, soon becomes uncontrollable, generating anxieties and fears. Meanwhile, Binoche goes to a psychotherapist who helps her understand why she denies her age and rejects the passage of time on her body.
26. The specials (2019)
With a great Vincent Cassel and a cast no less exceptional, this film tells the difficult reality of autistic children and adolescents. In charge of two non-profit organizations, the protagonists train young people to be caregivers of those cases that no one wants to deal with since the current social system assumes a supervisory and moralizing role, but washes its hands, ignoring its responsibilities. . The work is about the drama represented by the most severe and less peaceful autism, a very harsh universe that it manages to approach with great realism, from empathy and even with a pinch of hilarity to introduce ourselves to truly extraordinary people.
27. Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
Everyday moments and rural environments are combined with drug and alcohol addiction, spiced up with emotional manipulations in a family drama in which the interpretive duel of a masterful Glenn Close and a no less superb Amy Adams stands out. Gabriel Basso, the young protagonist, is torn between moving on with a life that is projected to be successful or paying attention to family problems that drag him into the past. The archetypal characters may detract a bit from the film’s brilliance, but if you look closely you will see that they are full of subtle nuances that prevent speaking in terms of “good” or “bad.” A film that shows the two faces of life and the repercussions of the decisions we make.
28. The Farewell (2019)
Lying is wrong. But is the same true for white lies? The young protagonist, played by a revealing Awkwafina, returns to China from the United States to see for the last time her grandmother, diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, her family decides to hide her diagnosis from her and get together to celebrate with her what is left of her life. Moving away from sentimentality and easy tears to create intimate spaces that are often varnished with hints of hilarity, it is a story as personal as it is universal that continually juxtaposes the individual and the collective, the truth and the lie, the eastern and western vision. Because, at the end of the day, as the grandmother indicates: “Life does not consist only in what you do, but in how you do it.”
29. Marriage Story (2019)
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver embody this film about a broken marriage trying to get through a divorce process while maintaining two separate lives between California and New York. Children, of course, are an additional problem that strains the relationship to give life to a film as real as it is heartbreaking in which each character is stripping emotionally while discovering with amazement and a certain dread that new person he is becoming when the other puts him against the ropes. An intense film that demonstrates the painful consequences on a personal and creative level of the fracture of love.
30. Nomadland (2020)
A wonderful Frances McDormand plays a woman who has lost him after the economic collapse that affected rural Nevada where she lived. She then takes her caravan and heads to the Western United States to begin living as a nomad. Along the way, she meets characters who make us reflect on life and freedom, on the transcendent in the apparently inconsequential. A beautiful and terrible film at the same time, full of subtleties and a piercing melancholy in which happiness often springs from a deep pain so that we wonder how we are organizing our lives and to what extent we can really be free.
Do you want to see more psychological movies? These are other interesting titles:
Tan, E. (2018) A psychology of the film. Palgrave Communications; 4(1): 82.
Hosseini, F. et. Al. (2016) Effectiveness of group film therapy on happiness and quality of life among elderly adults of Kahrizak nursing home. Journal of Health Literacy; 1 (2): 109-117.
Noah, U. (2005) Cinema is good for you: the effects of cinema attendance on self reported anxiety or depression and ‘happiness’. ISER Working Paper; 14.