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The 20 best movies about mental illness that get it right

10. A Streetcar Named Desire  

The story: A disturbed Southern belle (Vivien Leigh) moves in with her sister (Kim Hunter) and violent brother-in-law (Marlon Brando) in New Orleans as she seeks to leave her aristocratic background behind.

What it tackles: As Blanche Dubois, Leigh does an excellent job conveying the mental illnesses suffered by the character, including borderline personality disorder and likely obsessive-compulsive disorder. It's a movie faithful to Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and one that marked the arrival of Marlon Brando as a Hollywood icon with an electrifying performance.

9. Little Miss Sunshine

The story: Determined to get their daughter to the finals of a beauty pageant, a dysfunctional family undertakes a cross-country trip in their VW bus.

What it tackles: Covering depression in an unflinching, matter-of-fact and sometimes black comedy kind of way, Little Miss Sunshine features two characters suffering from the condition, with one of them having previously attempted suicide. The movie's central road trip allows the two to bond with their family and open up about their problems, leading to a truly cathartic, uplifting finale as the whole family supports their youngest daughter and her breathtakingly ill-advised pageant dance.

8. Silver Linings Playbook

The story: Following a stint in a mental institution, a former teacher (Bradley Cooper) moves back in with his parents and gets close with a recently widowed woman (Jennifer Lawrence).

What it tackles: Conveying bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other conditions, Silver Linings Playbook is a unique romantic dramedy. It may be a tad more predictable than you'd expect, but there's no denying the excellent, under-played performances from all involved, especially from the Oscar-winning Lawrence.

7. Still Alice

The story: A linguistics professor's (Julianne Moore) life is shattered when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.

What it tackles: Still Alice is made all the more heartbreaking by its accurate use of familial Alzheimer's Disease. Though not a mental illness, the film sensitively portrays the mental health symptoms that can come with the disease, and Moore deservedly picked up numerous awards for her nuanced performance. Kristen Stewart's turn as younger daughter Lydia is one of the movie's strongest arcs due to it not taking the easy option in regards to her reaction to her mother's diagnosis.

6. Girl, Interrupted

The story: Based on Susanna Kaysen's memoir of her 18-month stay in a mental institution, starring Winona Ryder as Kaysen.

What it tackles: Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Girl, Interrupted's institution setting opens it up to depicting a range of conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, and proves a strong exploration of mental illness and its treatments as a whole. While author Kaysen is reportedly not too keen on the movie, that didn't stop it being a career-making role for Angelina Jolie.

5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The story: After being admitted to a mental institution, a criminal (Jack Nicholson) rebels against a steely, oppressive nurse (Louise Fletcher).

What it tackles: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the second movie to ever win all five major Oscars, and is notable for questioning the definition of a mental illness. There's no doubt characters in it have conditions, including anti-social disorders (although it's never clear if Nicholson's McMurphy does), but arguably the person in charge - Nurse Ratched - is one of the most troubled, displaying pathological cruelty and megalomaniacal tendencies.

4. It’s a Wonderful Life

The story: A businessman (James Stewart) about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve is shown how different life would have been for others if he never existed, by a guardian angel.

What it tackles: A bona fide classic and festive mainstay, It's a Wonderful Life may focus on a clinically depressed protagonist, but the message is an ultimately uplifting one. It's an early on-screen portrayal of a kind of cognitive behavioural therapy overcoming depression, as the movie's main character George is shown the unnoticed good he has done, leading him to change the way he thinks about his life, including its disappointments.

3. Forrest Gump

The story: Centres on the life of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a man with intellectual disability, who has been at, and influenced, some of the most defining moments of the 20th Century.

What it tackles: Though Forrest himself may be challenged, the main condition covered in Robert Zemeckis's iconic and eminently quotable movie is post-traumatic stress disorder. This affects Forrest's Vietnam War platoon leader Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise), who struggles to adjust to life after the war, which leaves him a cripple, although it all eventually ends on heartwarming terms.

2. Rain Man

The story: When their father dies, a selfish car salesman (Tom Cruise) discovers he has an autistic older brother (Dustin Hoffman) who has inherited all of the estate.

What it tackles: The highest grossing movie at the US box office in 1988, Rain Man won four Oscars including Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman's mesmerising performance as autistic savant Raymond. Autism is a spectrum condition and not a mental illness, but the film remains vital in raising awareness of the condition due to it becoming one of the most notable on-screen depictions of autism. It has, however, led to the popular misconception that all autistic people are savants. 

1. Memento

The story: A man (Guy Pearce) suffering from short-term memory loss searches for his wife's murderer using a method of notes, photos and tattoos.

What it tackles: Praised by medical professionals for its accurate portrayal of anterograde amnesia (the inability to create new memories), Memento utilises a non-linear structure to showcase the 'perpetual present' effects of the condition. While discussing mental health might not exactly seem its primary focus, Christopher Nolan's second feature works as both a thrilling, involving mystery and a thought-provoking, realistic movie about the nature and workings of memory. The lead character might have trouble remembering, but the movie will have no problem lingering long in your mind.

Entertainment journalist who's an avid FrightFester and genre lover, as well as being a Marvel geek.