Although there is no Oscar for the best health-themed movie, each year I nominate films for the year that have the best health themes. I select the winner of my Health Oriented Motion-picture Excellence (HOME) Academy Award just prior to the real Oscar awards by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The health-themed movies are rated by me based on outstanding presentation of an important health issue that has motivated discussions of the topic and influenced changes in attitudes towards health or dealing with disease.
As a physician, I know that what everyone sees on the big screen (and later on our smaller screens at home or on our mobile devices) causes us to think about our personal lives and experiences and informs many of our conversations. So when movies portray important health themes, I use these to talk with my family and also my friends and patients about health issues in our lives, and I trust others do as well. These issues are discussed in more detail in my book Surviving American Medicine with tips on how to use family, friends, physicians and healthcare institutions to help with prevention and treatment.
Prior winners of the HOME Academy Award for health have been Dallas Buyers Club (for AIDS and access to clinical trial drugs) in 2013, and Still Alice (for Alzheimer's disease) in 2014.
So now that we are approaching Golden Globes, it is time for my nominations for best health-themed movie of 2015.
• The Farewell Party. This entertaining film tells the story of a retirement home in which a senior citizen develops a euthanasia machine for use by other elderly residents. Written by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon and shown in Hebrew with English subtitles, this film addresses the relevant issues of legality of euthanasia, should a patient use it or not, what if the suicide attempt is not completed, how to decide when to use it, and what if the spouse does not agree with the attempt. Remarkably, the movie is a funny comedy (true, it is a little dark) and presents the sadness and also the joy after an assisted suicide is performed in a suffering patient. My tips: Check if physician suicide is legal in your state and how your physician feels about it, and complete your own advanced directives so the support you receive at end of life is what you want.
• Pawn Sacrifice. How can chess relate to health? This movie tells the true story of Bobby Fischer, international chess champion and grand master, whose psychological makeup deteriorates while developing paranoid schizophrenia. Based on a story by Stephen Rivele with a script written by Steven Knight and direction by Edward Zwick, the film has outstanding performances by Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber (as Fischer's Russian arch enemy Boris Spassky) and Peter Sarsgaard. It illustrates how a person with this disease develops it, lives with it, and suffers from it. Genius and madness can coexist, just as Russians and Americans do, all of which are illustrated in the movie. My tip: Help to find support for a family member with early signs of altered thinking so schizophrenia suffering can be ameliorated.
• Concussion. In an amazing portrayal of Nigerian pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, Will Smith gives one of the most impressive performances of his career and is supported by Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks. Dr. Omalu discovers the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in retired NFL football players. This illness, due to repeated and/or severe concussions, has unfortunate consequences: depression, dementia, confusion, loss of memory, anger, and even suicide. The movie was directed by Peter Landesman, who also wrote the screenplay with Jeanne Marie Laskas. My tip: Prevent head injury in yourself and in your children.
• Grandma. Abortion is the focus of this film written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, and Marcia Gay Harden. A young teen has an unwanted pregnancy, considers abortion, and has psychological problems. It shows how much support such women at any age need to deal with the challenges of unplanned pregnancy and decisions that must be made. My tip: Be sure every woman has good support and help in the setting of an unplanned pregnancy where abortion is considered.
• Freeheld. Written by Ron Nyswaner and directed by Peter Sollett, this movie tells the true story of a lesbian woman who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and focuses on the civil problems she faces in trying to have her pension benefits given to her domestic partner. Wonderful acting by Julianne Moore (as patient Laurel Hester), Ellen Page and Steve Carell shows how much support from family and friends helps the quality of survival of a cancer patient. My tip: Be certain cancer patients have active support by family and friends and have good legal counseling for end-of-life issues.
I will give out my award for the best health-related movie, and the reasons for the choice, just before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences names the real Oscar winners. Not to steal their show, my HOME Academy Award is simply to foster everyone's appreciation of how important film themes are to all of us, and how much admiration we should have for filmmakers and the film industry for giving us movies relating to our own personal passions, and our lives, and especially films dealing with health and disease issues. So now you can vote on which film is your health-themed favorite, just like Academy members vote for their real Oscar awards.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.