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The Best Films of 2016 (for Behavioral Economists)

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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As everyone knows, the most coveted of the year-end movie awards are the Becons -- the Behavioral Economics Oscars. It’s no surprise that winning the Becon has catapulted previously unknown talents -- including Jessica Chastain, Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift and Daniel Day-Lewis -- to sensationally successful careers. Here are this year’s winners.

Best Director: Jon Favreau

Behavioral economists emphasize the importance of fairness: People will often sacrifice their material self-interest to be fair to others -- and if they witness unfairness, they will sacrifice their own material self-interest in order to punish it.

Favreau’s “The Jungle Book,” a remake of Walt Disney’s wondrous 1967 tale, is not merely gorgeous, sweet and improbably moving. It also a case study in how a commitment to fairness, and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own comfort and safety, can produce a virtuous circle. For example, Mowgli’s decision to save a baby elephant is rewarded big-time. “For the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Truer words were never spoken. Favreau, forget about your worries and your strife; you’ve won the Becon.

Best Documentary: “Weiner”

Do you rely on your impulses, or you do think before you act? Behavioral economists like to distinguish between two families of cognitive operations in the human mind: System 1, which is automatic and impulsive, and System 2, which is deliberative and calculative. Homer Simpson is all System 1; Star Trek’s Mr. Spock speaks for System 2.

Beset by a sexting scandal, former congressman Anthony Weiner resigned and then decided to run for mayor -- only to be laid low by another sexting scandal (or two). Does he even have a System 2?

One of the documentary’s great achievements is that it depicts Weiner not as a demon but as an immensely talented politician, and in many ways a resourceful, resilient, and even likeable person capable of astounding self-deception (and helpless in the face of a serious self-control problem). The movie shouldn’t be terrific, but it is. Voters agree: It wins the Becon.

Best actor: Ryan Gosling

After completing most of his pathbreaking research with Amos Tverky, Daniel Kahneman developed “norm theory,” which urges that people’s emotional responses to events are a product of counterfactual thinking. We compare outcomes to specific “what-might-have-beens,” and it is the close call (the romance that ended, the near-miss job offer, the investment opportunity we didn’t take) that haunts and sometimes sears us.

“La La Land” is full of such counterfactual thinking: dreams abandoned, dreams deferred and connections lost. Gosling, always great, has terrific chemistry with Emma Stone, and he’s also restrained and heartbreakingly wistful (and -- who knew? -- the man can sing). No near-miss for him: He dances away with the Becon.

Best actress: Isabelle Huppert

Behavioral economists have recently explored the “control premium,” which means that many people will pay an extra amount to retain control over a situation, even if they are fully aware that they would make more money if they relinquished control to someone else. At the same time, others actually want to give up control; they like it better if choices are in the hands of others.

Isabelle Huppert, the world’s greatest actress, understands what it means to take control and to lose it. Drawn to the darkest recesses of the human soul, she is incapable of anything trivial, didactic or formulaic.

In the first scene of “Elle,” Huppert portrays a rape victim -- but from that point, the narrative, and the actress, defy the audience’s expectations. She makes the whole question of political correctness seem stupid; hers is a different and deeper game. This unforgettable movie may be amoral, but the staggering Ms. Huppert knows some things. The Becon is all hers, and she can do whatever she likes with it.

Best picture: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Behavioral economists have found that as an empirical matter, most people display unrealistic optimism. Alas, the very idea of a standalone Star Wars movie sounds hopelessly unrealistic, even doomed. Sure, something had to happen before the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope” (which launched the whole series way back in 1977). But could you really make a movie about how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans for the Death Star?

Absolutely. “Rogue One” has a strong claim to ranking with the beloved original trilogy -- and unlike last year’s “The Force Awakens,” this latest film works on its own and has no need for the crutch of nostalgia. Without fanfare or heavy-handedness, or a single Jedi Knight, it manages to highlight the essential Star Wars themes: freedom of choice, the bond between parents and children, and the ever-present possibility of redemption.

Is our band of rebels unrealistically optimistic? Maybe. But it would be more accurate to say that when all seems lost, they give themselves the greatest gift, which is the feeling of hope.

For many of us, 2016 has been an unusually tough year. “Rogue One” was hardly its most brilliantly original movie. But we needed it, and it flies off with the biggest of the Becons.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net