Yes, the main reason most of us go to the movies is to be entertained, whether it’s by a rom-com or a weighty drama. But many films also serve to teach us too, for example by dissecting the life of someone famous or lifting the lid on an area of life that not many of us know about.
So if you want a mix of entertainment and education, here are five great titles that do both things brilliantly.
- Mr Turner (2014)
Mike Leigh is a British director who made his name for making films featuring extreme social realism, largely relying on improvisation from his casts to create the dialogue around a pre-determined plot.
Therefore Mr Turner represented a great departure from the director’s usual style as it told the story of the last twenty five years in the life of arguably the greatest British landscape artist ever, J.M.W. Turner.
Leigh presents the man as a fully rounded individual who squabbles with other artists, defies convention, and outrages the art scene of the time, In being such a “warts and all” portrait of the man it gives a unique insight into the kind of genius who produced pictures as brilliantly realised as The Fighting Temeraire.
The casting of the actor Timothy Spall as Turner was an inspired choice as he perfectly captures the energy and enthusiasm of the artist, as well as his fighting spirit. So it’s no wonder that he scooped the Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his performance.
- Molly’s Game (2017)
The world of high-stakes poker games is blown wide open by this 2017 movie starring Jessica Chastain as the real-life party organiser Molly Bloom.
For anyone unfamiliar with her story, Bloom came to notoriety as someone who, first of all, started organising illegal poker parties in California attended by high profile celebrities and other high rollers.
Among the real-life A-listers said to have attended the parties were Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio but, not surprisingly, they don’t appear as themselves.
The movie tells the story of the rise and fall of Molly as she moves from the West Coast to New York as she tries, unsuccessfully, to stay one step ahead of the law. It also gives a great insight into the game itself, especially for viewers who have spent a little time to get to know the rules of poker.
Director Aaron Sorkin even insisted that the extras used in the poker scenes should be experienced players to add an extra layer of authenticity to the action.
- The Dig (2020)
Archaeology might seem like a pretty dry sort of subject for a movie but, as the reviews attest, it can make for a very gripping and informative drama.
The Dig stars Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, owner of a grand estate called Sutton Hoo in the county of Suffolk in the East of England. The year is 1939 and she decides it is time to explore some of the mysterious mounds on her land. She enlists the help of an archaeologist called Basil Brown, played by Ralph Fiennes, to start the excavations.
He soon discovers evidence that a large Anglo-Saxon ship may the buried in the grounds, making it a site of real historical significance. As soon as other, more eminent and highly qualified, archaeologists hear about the find they try to get Brown removed, but Ms Pretty insists that it is his project and he should get the glory.
As well as being a great primer in archaeology, the film is also very informative about the British class system in the pre-war years and the struggles that men like Brown would have experienced at the time.
- Whiplash (2014)
There are plenty of struggles of a different kind in this 2014 movie about the pressures faced by a young music student striving to become a professional jazz drummer.
The drama unfolds around the relationship between the student, Andrew Neiman played by Miles Teller and his teacher Terence Fletcher played by J.K. Simmons. In his drive to get his students to be the best that they can possibly be, Fletcher uses bullying and even violence to get results.
Anyone who is reminded of Alan Parker’s 1980 movie Fame about a group of performing arts students will be in for a shock when they see the sacrifices demanded of the musicians in this movie. And, while it may be a little over-the-top in places, it’s easy to believe in the levels of dedication needed to make it as a musician of any kind.
- The Big Short
It’s since been widely acknowledged that it was ignorance that largely to blame for the financial crash of 2008-9. Impossibly complex products were being bought and sold without anyone having a very clear idea of what they entailed.
Presented as a comedy drama and featuring a cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, there are also a number of cameos from people including the late chef Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie and the eminent economist, Richard Thaler. The latter pops up frequently to explain the ins and outs of the financial instruments being exploited, directly addressing the audience and giving thorough explanations of everything from sub-prime mortgages and collateralized debt.
So settle down in front of these five movies and you’re certain to learn a lot – and you’ll also have enjoyed some great stories in the process.