Best Movies of 2018 (From a Behavioral Economics Point of View)

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Oscars were first presented in 1929. The Behavioral Economics Oscars, known throughout Hollywood as the Becons, did not appear until 2012. But as the iPhone is to the rotary phone, and as Lady Gaga is to Dean Martin, so are the Becons to the Oscars.

After months of careful deliberation, the top-secret committee has finalized its choices. Here are the Becons for 2018:

Best actress: Anna Kendrick

“A Simple Favor” is about a friendship between the glamorous, magnetic Emily, played by Blake Lively, and the plain, earnest Stephanie, played by Anna Kendrick. Emily seduces Stephanie and gets her to do her bidding.

Emily’s secret? She knows all about the behavioral finding of “motivated reasoning,” which means that people tend to believe what they want to believe. Given her powers of manipulation, Emily might as well have a Ph.D. in behavioral economics. Stephanie is her pawn.

Stephanie ends up duped, cornered and trapped — and in big trouble. But she’s more resourceful that she seems. She learns Emily’s tricks and then some.

Lively and Kendrick have a ton of chemistry (and a sexy kiss). They’re both terrific. But Kendrick is a thief. She steals the Becon.

Best Documentary: “Three Identical Strangers”

Influenced by social psychologists, behavioral economists are interested in the question whether decisions are a product of “the person” or “the situation.” If you make an important decision, or if your life takes a new course, is it because of your character or because of your context? No simple answer makes sense, but behavioral economists tend to answer: Your context.

“Three Identical Strangers” is an incredible but true tale of three identical twins who grew up separately and then discovered each other in young adulthood. The first half of the movie argues that it’s all about the genes. The three lovable young men seemed to turn out much the same, even though their family backgrounds were radically different.

The second half undoes the first. The context is determinative. Oh, and there’s also a mystery, and a horrifying conspiracy, which the movie uncovers — mostly.

Becon, Becon, Becon.

Best director: Bradley Cooper

We tend to think that when a star is born, it’s because of exceptional talent. By contrast, behavioral economists emphasize herd behavior and cascade effects. Without denying the importance of talent, they argue that people tend to rely on the judgments and tastes of other people. If a certain number of people seem to love Kanye West or Katy Perry, then others will follow their lead, and everything can snowball. With respect to success and stardom, surprises are inevitable.

Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born” is a case study in cascade effects — in how a small burst of initial popularity can create a sensation. As a craggy singer on his way out, Cooper is superb. As his protege and lover, Lady Gaga is luminous. No doubt about it: A Becon winner is born.

Best actor: Tom Cruise

“Mission Impossible”? Another one? You’re kidding, right?

This series really shouldn’t be good, not anymore. It’s ridiculously outdated. Based on a television show that started in 1966, the series was rebooted in 1996. The most recent installment is the sixth. Its very existence seems to reflect overconfidence, sometimes called “overconfidence bias,” which means that most people have unrealistic confidence in their own judgments and abilities.

The show’s protagonist, Ethan Hunt, certainly seems to suffer from that bias. Or maybe it’s the secret of his success. Improbably, the sixth installment of “Mission Impossible” is the best of them all. It’s surprising, smart and fresh, and it has plenty of heart.

Cruise may be 56, but he jumps out of planes, flies through the air, hits like a sledgehammer, climbs up mountains, runs like an Olympian and gets the girl. All the while he’s smiling, because he has a secret. He’s carrying the Becon.

Best Picture: “Searching”

Some movies are like magic acts. They rely on misdirection. They exploit people’s limited attention. We often fail to see what’s in plain view, especially if some clever person gets us to look away.

The best current work in behavioral economics uses the idea of limited attention as an organizing principle. It shows that with respect to health, finances, love and general well-being, we make mistakes because we don’t focus on what most matters. We might not even see it.

Starring the excellent John Cho, “Searching” is about a father trying to find a missing child. Almost all of the film — the vast majority of its scenes — displays images from computer desktops. (Television broadcasts and security-camera footage complete the picture.) That approach gives the film a sense of both immediacy and distance. It also makes everything seem off-kilter, disorienting.

Full of surprises and twists, “Searching” makes audiences think they’ve figured everything out, only to pull some rabbit out of an invisible hat. It’s sensational.

Here’s one final twist. “Searching” has found its holy grail: the biggest Becon of them all.

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

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "The Cost-Benefit Revolution" and co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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