2019’s Best Movies for Lessons in Behavioral Economics

Joker

(Bloomberg Opinion) –Here’s what movie fans and insiders have been waiting for: the 2019 winners of the Behavioral Economics Oscars, known as the Becons. Isabelle Huppert, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain – where would they be without a prestigious Becon?

This year has been a spectacular one for movies, and the secretive Becons Award Committee (said, by some, to consist of just one person) has had to make some especially tough choices. Without further ado:

Best actor: Joaquin Phoenix

Behavioral economists speak of “negative reciprocity.” If someone treats you badly, you are likely to respond in kind. Many of us don’t turn the other cheek. In some cases, our reactions are disproportionate. We meet bad with worse.

In both comic books and films, the Joker offers a seductive package of malice and glee. What distinguishes him is his delight in his fiendish deeds. He can be played light and a bit silly (as with Cesar Romero in the old “Batman” TV series) or dark and deep (as with Heath Ledger’s defining performance in “The Dark Knight”).

In “Joker,” Joaquin Phoenix plumbs the depths of powerlessness – of feeling bright-eyed and optimistic, full of hope and plans, only to be met with cruelty, viciousness and sadism. He’s a puppy, approaching strangers with a wagging tail, but time and again he gets kicked in the teeth. Like a puppy, he’s initially baffled by that kicking.

Phoenix is transformed into negative reciprocity incarnate. His joy, when he first starts to kick back, is contagious. You want to cheer. That’s scary. Have you ever heard laughter that is essentially indistinguishable from weeping? The Joker may be a lifelong loser, but Phoenix struts off with the Becon.

Best actress: Mame Bineta Sane

Behavioral economists have explored the idea of unrealistic optimism: Most people have an inflated sense of the likelihood that things will turn out well. One reason is that with respect to their personal prospects, people find good news much more credible than bad news.

Winner of the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, “Atlantics” is like nothing you’ve seen before. Based in Senegal, it’s a romance, but it’s also about poverty and wealth, life and death, and hope and despair. With zombies.

Sane plays a young woman promised to a wealthy man who doesn’t make her heart sing, and whose real love is apparently lost at sea. Or is he? Her unrealistic optimism is rewarded by a form of freedom – and, as she undoubtedly expected all along, by a Becon.

Best original screenplay: Rian Johnson

Full of twists and turns, “Knives Out” is a lot of fun, but it also has something to say about both dignity and equality. Like a magician, Johnson plays on the audience’s limited attention – which is a master concept in behavioral economics. Human beings are able to focus only on some of what is before them. That means they can be fooled, not only by magicians, but also by credit-card companies, banks, cellphone providers and social media platforms.

A terrific juggler, Johnson shows us some of what we’re missing, in daily life as well as in his movie. Look, up in the air — it’s a Becon!

Best director: J.J. Abrams

Behavioral economists have recently explored “sense-making” – the human effort to find organized patterns or coherence in things or events that might not fit together. Patterns give us pleasure.

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is an improbable triumph, above all because it re-engages the themes of George Lucas’s movies: freedom of choice, even in the darkest hour; the capacity for good and for evil; the possibility of redemption; and the extraordinary lengths to which parents will go to protect their children, and vice versa. Somehow J.J. Abrams manages to knit together disparate strands — and to make sense out of a nine-part series that has defined popular culture for 42 years.

The Force is strong with this one. So is the Becon.

Best movie: “Luce”

“Motivated reasoning” has been a longstanding focus of behavioral economists (and psychologists). The basic idea is that we tend to believe what we want to believe. Our desires affect our cognition.

“Luce,” written and directed by Julius Onah, tells the story of an apparently perfect high school student, adopted from war-torn Eritrea and a former child soldier, who is both brilliant and a track star. He may or may not also be a perpetrator of various cruelties and crimes. “Luce” is a terrific mystery, and you might think you’ve solved it; but your own motivations may have misled you. In depicting motivated reasoning, Naomi Watts (who deserves a Becon for lifetime achievement), Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are transcendent.

The film has a lot to say about racism, categories, freedom and masculinity. Miraculously, it avoids clichés (about all of the above). It’s the most mind-twisting, perspective-expanding kaleidoscope you’ve ever looked into. Among the proud Becon winners of 2019, it stands tallest of all.

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