In any cinematic story, we’re connected most with the main character. Whether it is their plight or their humble wins, we feel fiercely for them and root for them to make the right decision. Knowing their choices impact key themes, character arcs, the overall narrative and outcomes, we sync our hopes and fears with their journey. And yet, some movies raise the stakes to the peak by placing the hero with an ultimatum where no good solution exists. They are forced to prioritize one impossible thing over the other, and their decision eventually sparks interesting debates, even years after the film makes it to the screen. The movies featured on this list show how character-driven cinema reaches new heights through such gut-wrenching dilemmas. Giving the entire credit to the directors and the actors, these movies allow us to walk in another’s shoes and help us understand what it is like to be stripped of easy answers.
10 Shaun of the Dead
As far as zombie comedies go, Edgar Wright’s 2004 film is a fine endeavor that is both realistic in terms of its depiction of the undead and the rampage they create as well as entertaining enough to have you hooked from start to finish. Simon Pegg leads the film as Shaun, a defeated salesman whose life needs something monumental to be considered remotely interesting.
Enter a viral outbreak reaching his neighborhood and turning an entire community into flesh-eating zombies and Shaun decides to be the one to save the day. Between rescuing loved ones and smashing brains, Shaun has to face an impossible bias. At one point in Shaun of the Dead, Shaun and his friends find safety in their favorite local bar, the Winchester, but soon realize that Shaun’s mother Barbara has been bitten by a zombie. Knowing she would turn any minute, he has to make a choice between letting her become one or eliminating her.
9 I Am Legend
I Am Legend is an outstanding post-apocalyptic thriller from the mind of director Francis Lawrence, which he adapts from a horror novel of the same name by author Richard Matheson. Apparently, a mysterious plague has hit the entire planet and turned both man and animals into dangerous beings. There are very, very few survivors remaining.
Among them is Robert Neville, a scientist, and his beloved German shepherd, Samantha. They travel across the virus-ravaged world in search of a cure and battle not only infected mutants but also the crippling isolation and fear of the situation. As the last man stomping through empty cities and shadowy alleyways, Neville’s only comfort is having Samantha around. But when she’s bitten by a bunch of rabid dogs, Neville knows it would be best to ease her out of her pain and puts her to sleep after singing “Three Little Birds” to her.
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock star in this iconic action thriller. The plot of Speed isn’t anything special, but the ’90s flick triumphs in its execution and tension building, turning into a desperate game against time itself. Dennis Hopper is the antagonist of the film, a disgruntled ex-cop who tries to blow up an elevator but fails, then moves on to plant a bomb in a local bus, leading LAPD officer Jack Traven on a savior mission.
On one hand, he has to deal with a cop-turned-terrorist out for bloodsport and on the other, he has to ease and protect the passengers in panic along with a civilian Annie. Reeves’ riveting hero faces a moral dilemma when Hopper’s villain holds his friend and colleague hostage at gunpoint. Looking back on his conversation from earlier where he mentions that shooting him would “take the hostage out of the equation,” he takes the exact same step.
7 The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan helms this second installment of the iconic trilogy and sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins by infusing it with his signature style and grit, marking the film as the director’s personal favorite till date. The Dark Knight showcases a darker picture of Gotham City, one under the spell of mob bosses and their latest weapon – Joker.
While Batman teams up with Harvey Dent and protects the peace of the people, Joker brings his psychopathic madness to the streets and spreads chaos and slaughter. He also challenges Batman’s loyalties by putting him up against an inescapable dilemma between his best friend and long-time crush, Rachel Dawes and her innocent boyfriend Harvey Dent. Nolan ratchets up the superhero genre to astronomical heights with this scene and the one that follows.
6 Sophie’s Choice
We’re all aware of the idea that a parent always loves one child more than the other, that there’s always a “favorite.” While that may or may not be a universal truth, when faced with a life-or-death choice between children, any parent would shake to the core of their bones. Such is the dilemma faced by Meryl Streep’s character in Sophie’s Choice. This psychological drama by Alan J. Pakula follows the titular character Sophie, an immigrant and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, currently living with Nathan, a man obsessed with Jews.
When Stingo, a young writer, comes across their situation, he also dives deep into Sophie’s past and that is when we learn about her time at Auschwitz, where she is forced to decide which of her children will live. Streep incarnates a mother’s anguish and captures her endurance with such intensity that her performance etches itself in our memory.
5 The Empire Strikes Back
Sequel to A New Hope, this 1980 space opera takes George Lucas’s epic story forward in a spectacular way. Darth Vader is stubborn in wanting to turn Luke Skywalker to the dark side, especially after revealing that Luke is his son. Now, the young Jedi faces an epic choice echoing across galaxies and ultimately deciding the fate of many – join the Dark Side or remain loyal to friends and train under Master Yoda to become a Jedi Knight.
As Luke loses his hand and hope sinks in the Empire’s victory, the director poses questions about destiny and redemption, turning the mythology into a great adventure for the characters and the audience alike. In a way, The Empire Strikes Back proves that even though the choice between good and evil seem straightforward, it is the dark consequences that often test our true selves.
4 Avengers: Infinity War/Avengers: Endgame
Two outstanding and intertwined films that mark the end of Marvel’s Infinity Saga, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame follow an intergalactic warlord Thanos’ quest to acquire all the infinity stones and eliminate half of the life on Earth. While the Mad Titan is relentless in his pursuit, so are the world’s mightiest heroes. But their actions have massive ripple effects – they either sacrifice personally or fail universally.
One particular scene that stands out in the films is when Thanos is supposed to give up on one thing dearest to him in order to obtain the Soul Stone and he chooses to sacrifice his own daughter Gamora. Even though Thanos wasn’t exactly the main character of the film, you end up sympathizing with him and knowing just how much it pains him to do so. That is until he follows through with his plan and kills half the population.
Almost every superhero film we’ve ever watched has one instance where the protagonist has two situations to deal with and the frame and time to choose only one. We know where their heart lies and where their responsibilities are, and yet, we cannot help but feel the panic rising in our own bones.
Tobey Maguire’s web-slinger faces a similar kind of predicament in 2002’s Spider-Manwhen he is supposed to pick between choosing a batch of kids and protecting the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson. The person standing in front of him is Normon Osborn’s Green Goblin, who is quite enjoying the show as guilt engulfs our neighborhood hero. Before a boat comes to his rescue, Spider-Man has to hold on to the bridge for quite some time.
2 Superman: The Movie
Before Henry Cavill entertained a much modern audience by wearing the red cape and launching himself into the sky with effortless bravado, it was Christopher Reeves who played the hero best. Based on the DC Comics and directed by Richard Donner, Superman: The Movie is the first of four installments starring Reeves in the role and it plays out as the origin story of Superman where we witness how a scientist named Jor-El rockets his son Kal-El to Earth in order to protect him.
Kal-El grows up among humans and eventually develops unnatural strength and speed. Defending humanity becomes his second habit, but it also attracts villains trying to one-up his abilities and putting him in a moral quandary. Case in point: the tycoon Lex Luthor, who launches two missiles on opposite coasts of the United States. Superman has to choose which coast to save first.
1 Past Lives
From the beautiful and profound mind of first-time director Celine Song is this recent romantic drama starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro. Past Lives is a tender yet realistic portrayal of friendship between two kids, Na-yeong and Hae-sung, who shared a very strong bond when they were little. But when Na-yeong and her family emigrate from South Korea, she changes her name to Nora and starts a new life as an aspiring playwriter. Years later, she connects with Hae-sung through Facebook and the two reignite their restrained friendship despite the distance and time difference.
Soon after, she meets Arthur at a resident program and marries him. When Hae-sung finally visits her 25 years later, there is a strangely layered chemistry between them. Director Song asks the actors to follow a process where Greta Lee and Teo Yoo aren’t allowed to touch one another throughout the filming and only embrace each other on camera when their adult selves meet after over two decades. The process not only makes the scene cosmic, but it also makes Nora’s complex decision of letting Hae-sung go (again) all the more nuanced.
More often than not, movies raise the stakes to the peak by placing the main character with an ultimatum where no good solution exists. Read More