The 10 Best Films of the Decade About Disabilities

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

The importance and expansion of representation and diversity continue to reverberate throughout the film industry. So now feels like just as good a time as any to reflect on a personal area near and dear to my own heart; disability in cinema.

However, one doesn’t need to specifically hone in on the past two years or so (when representation and diversity were really pressured to improve), for the entire decade has a sampling of terrific films studying a wide array of disabilities, ranging from blockbuster films to French cinema. So let’s get to the list, and please take a chance on something if it sounds interesting. There’s nothing better than enjoying a great movie and educating oneself on vital topics.

disability in skyscraper

Honorable Mention: Skyscraper – 2018

Admittedly, this is not the best of films artistically but deserves a spot here for quite a few reasons. The first of which is that a major studio actually gave the go-ahead to a popcorn action flick where the leading character requires a prosthetic leg. When you nab Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock himself, to take that role and show some vulnerability underneath his chiseled statuesque presence, you have brain-dead explosions that are at least promoting the idea that action heroes do not require fully functioning limbs. It also helps that Skyscraper keeps the disability front and center of the movie, even during its numerous ridiculous set pieces.

the intouchables remake

10. The Intouchables – 2011

Caregiving for the physically disabled is not often an area explored in film, but that’s exactly what François Cluzet’s Philippe needs after a skydiving incident that renders him a quadriplegic. Obviously, suddenly going from daredevil to zero mobility triggers a nasty depression alongside suicidal thoughts, making for an intriguing dynamic that is not often handled well on screen. The Intouchables is most definitely feel good as caretaker Driss (Omar Sy) lifts Phillipe’s spirits and helps him discover a new lease on life, but there’s also a romantic angle framed by letters that eventually goes on to speak something rather sad and truthful about the nature of dating when it comes to many physically limited individuals. The subplot and the rest of the core story remained intact along with the American remake of the film released in January of this year renamed The Upside (a decidedly more comedic take considering the casting of Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart), and you can read my more in-depth analysis of that version’s treatment towards its disabled character here. However, the point is that this is clearly a story that has resonated with a worldwide audience.

chained for life review

9. Chained for Life – 2019

Quite a few films on this very list are generalized Hollywood approaches to utilizing various disabilities as inspiration for the soul, whereas Chained for Life (directed by Aaron Schimberg, who was actually born with a bilateral cleft palate) employs a movie-within-a-movie framing device to analyze such a thing alongside society’s interactions with these often ostracized individuals. At the center of the on-screen film (a schlocky European horror period piece involving Germans erasing physical abnormalities) is a love story between Adam Pearson’s Rosenthal and Jess Weixler’s Mabel. One of them harbors traditional beauty, while the other is diagnosed with neurofibromatosis (basically, face tumors), with both surrounded by an assortment of supporting players (everything from Siamese twins to giants)

A rarity among films on this list, Adam Pearson does legitimately have the condition. Complicated relationship dynamics begin to blossom that, while they never become cut and dry, speak to wrongheaded able-bodied perceptions. Pearson himself is self-deprecating as charming, while Jess Weixler’s character quickly warms up to him and is more than willing to give his character acting advice. Naturally, the two movies in one structure pave the way for something confusing and vague, but not without multiple touching segments including a moment of bitterness from Rosenthal regarding romance, and an intimate sequence containing nudity from both parties that is simultaneously awkward and beautiful for a layered number of reasons.

If it weren’t for some occasional meta self-indulgence, Chained for Life would easily top the list (Schimberg is somewhat building a filmography centered on disabilities), but is still fairly vital viewing and will most likely enrich the mindsets of the able-bodied.

wonder trailer

8. Wonder – 2017

And now for the mainstream version of the above. It’s important to relate to the youth of the world that disabilities make us unique, not different, and are especially not an invite for hurtful ridicule. Based on the novel from R. J. Palacio, Wonder follows the elementary-school-aged Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a boy born with Treacher Collins syndrome (which basically translates to severe facial deformities). The boy’s parents (warmly played by Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts) are reluctant to enroll him into public school, and rightfully so. What ensues is an expected amount of upsetting bullying that makes way for a heartwarming change of kindness. The film also caught fire at the box office, presumably spreading awareness for this condition but ultimately serving as a pleasant and touching viewing experience about how what’s on the inside is what counts most.

7. The King’s Speech – 2010

Here’s a Best Picture Oscar-winning English biopic addressing King George VI’s (Colin Firth, delivering a performance so authentic he also won an Academy Award) friendship with Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist Lionel League that helped him overcome a stammer to the point where he was even able to read declarations of war. The King Speech‘s direction from Tom Hooper and David Seidler’s screenplay (also Oscar winners) also eschewed stuffiness, including George’s ability to speak clearly when cursing, resulting in a comedic scene involving many F-bombs. Most importantly, it’s a fine film about not letting disabilities define identity.

6. The Theory of Everything – 2014

Probably the most self-explanatory entry on the list, James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything tells the life of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, who would go on to be diagnosed with ALS during his early adulthood and blossoming relationship with Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones). Choosing to embrace sentimentality and melodrama (really, there’s no better time than a movie like this), the film explores Stephen Hawking’s resiliency to live and trailblaze within his field, using his love life as an emotionally gripping backbone. The ending proves difficult to resist some waterworks in the most inspirational way.

The Peanut Butter Falcon Trailer

5. The Peanut Butter Falcon – 2019

In the vein of a Mark Twain novel, debut filmmakers Tyler Nelson and Michael Schwartz have crafted a magical realism tale involving Down syndrome man Zak, who without a family of his own, escapes the nursing home he resides in (not without some help from Bruce Dern in a funny supporting role) in order to track down a famous wrestler from the 80s he idolizes. What separates The Peanut Butter Falcon apart from the rest of the bunch is that actor Zack Gottsagen actually does have Down syndrome, making for a lifelike performance that is genuinely affecting and all-around sweet. He crosses paths with a rebel played by Shia LaBeouf (who is initially hesitant to partner up for a journey) and inevitably grows a bond with him as he and Zak’s caretaker played by Dakota Johnson determine what’s best for him. That bond is infectious.

shazam 2 release date

4. Shazam! (2019)

While most comic book fans likely came for the story of Billy Batson (a teenager that is granted the gift of transforming into an adult with superhero abilities), Freddy Freeman’s arc in Shazam! is arguably more engaging. Jack Dylan Grazer plays the boy on crutches, who essentially is forced to watch his friend somewhat throwaway the powers and responsibility thrust on him, something he would love to have let alone being able to walk without assistance. There comes a point where Freddy does get to be a superhero, and it is still one of the year’s best scenes. Here’s hoping that Warner Bros. spend some of that Joker money giving Freddy his own film, as the idea of a superhero film focused on someone with a disability is a tantalizing prospect.

Stronger trailer

3. Stronger – 2017

Jake Gyllenhaal might be the most robbed actor in terms of Oscar nominations (since Leonardo DiCaprio finally broke his curse and actually won a golden statue, anyway). Stronger sees him portraying real-life Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman rendered an amputee, struggling to accept his new identity as a symbol of resiliency. And understandably so; those with disabilities want to be defined by who they are, but Stronger makes the case that when an act of terrorism and tragedy gives someone that status, it is that person’s responsibility to behave in an inspirational manner. There needs to be a balance, and it’s a difficult change of speed for life to adjust. The film also focuses on the intensive rehab which a talent like Jake Gyllenhaal goes all-in portraying. It’s raw and emotionally exhausting work.

2. Rust and Bone – 2012

By now it’s apparent that the recurring theme in this list seems to be films focused on men either dealing with their conditions, doing something heroic, or serving as a source of inspiration. Director Jacques Audiard flips that narrative with Rust and Bone as Marion Cotillard plays Stephanie, a pro-sexual nightclub enthusiast and whale trainer that suffers a freak accident (during the latter) taking both of her legs. Meanwhile, her new friend, the aggressive and violent street fighter Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows a sensitive side as he takes her to the beach and helps her move on from the emotional slump and rediscover that life is still worth living. He also assists in getting her sexual spirits back on track (desire is not gone but she is uncertain if she can still have sex), at first keeping things strictly as friendship.

Naturally, it’s not long before these two mismatched personalities realize how deeply they love and affect each other. It also helps that Rust and Bone boldly depict sexual intimacy with wide-angle shots capturing the amputated body in all its beauty. This is a brilliant juxtaposition between rage and passiveness dialing in on romance, family (Ali also has a son), and appreciation for the human body itself.

1. The Shape of Water – 2017

What’s fascinating about The Shape of Water landing at number one on this list is that a case can be made that both Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) could be perceived as disabled beings. The former is mute and converses using sign language, living a lonely life (she was abandoned by her family) rooming with her closeted friend (a huge taboo in the 70s) played by Richard Jenkins and working as a cleaner for a government laboratory (alongside her friend played by Octavia Spencer bringing some comedic levity). Meanwhile, Col. Richard Strickland (one of Michael Shannon’s cruelest villains to date discovers and is holding the Amphibian Man for inhumane research.

Essentially, Guillermo del Toro crafted a timeless cinematic fable built on acceptance (not just limited to disabilities), with the physically intimate scenes between the often horny (but single and presumably frequently rejected) Elisa and the Amphibian Man executed as unforgettable beauty. They are also juxtaposed to rougher sex involving Michael Shannon and his character’s wife, possibly making a statement about love and sex. Much more than Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece or 2017’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water is a love story between two outcasts that speaks straight to the heart of the disability community; it’s realistic fairy tale showing that true love is attainable for anyone.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: