It is always a pleasure to look back over the year in film and highlight those movies that tell the human story through beauty, truth and goodness. Sometimes this means exploring the meaning of sin and redemption, which some viewers find discomfiting.
The great Catholic American novelist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) had a nuanced way of assessing fiction that I think applies to cinema as well. She once wrote: “I’m not one to pit myself against St. Paul, but when he said, ‘Let it not so much be named among you,’ I presume he was talking about society and what goes on there and not about art. Art is not anything that goes on ‘among’ people, not the art of the novel anyway.
“It is something that one experiences alone and for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way, through the senses, the mystery of existence. Part of the mystery of existence is sin. When we think about the Crucifixion, we miss the point of it if we don’t think about sin” (1956; The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor).
Nevertheless, 2010 was not a banner year for films that embraced human dignity. In fact, many of the films fell apart as stories because human dignity was not considered very much, such as in Love and Other Drugs. Yet the 100 that I saw among the 341 films in theatrical release in the United States last year did include many outstanding documentaries and some feature films that deserve recognition.
A Bouquet of Roses
The King’s Speech (not yet rated, R)
My favorite film of the year. In his victory over fear, King George VI found his own voice, and we are given the ultimate film about learning one’s own worth and dignity. The performances of Colin Firth, as the king, and Geoffrey Rush, as a speech therapist, are among the best of the year.
Waiting for Superman (not yet rated, PG)
This is my favorite documentary of the year because it is an important exposé on the host of problems that undermine the public education system in this country. In addition to covering teacher unions, charter schools and increased spending on prisons with decreased spending on education, the film offers ideas for purposeful action and involvement in our public schools.
127 Hours (not yet rated, R)
James Franco plays Aron Ralston, a 27-year-old hiker who must cut off his own arm to survive when a boulder pins it to a canyon wall. The theme of this true story is that none of us can go it alone. We all need help sometimes.
Conviction (L, R)
This quiet film, based on a true story, has a loud roar. A man is convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murder in Massachusetts, based on false evidence and police collusion. His sister gets her GED, bachelor’s and master’s in education and a law degree so she can work to free him, which she does 18 years later. The film inspires us to question the death penalty.
How to Train Your Dragon (A-2, PG)
This animated tale is a course in peacemaking. While the young Viking Hiccup learns to hunt dragons, he decides to try to understand them and “walk in their shoes.” This is a brilliant story of empathy and character-building.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (A-2, PG)
Lucy and Edmund Pevensie return to Narnia to help Caspian find the seven lords of Narnia. A thrilling and visually stunning catechism of the seven deadly sins, virtue and character. It’s the best Narnia film yet.
Countdown to Zero (not yet rated, PG)
This informative, sensible documentary about the continuing threat of nuclear waste and the lack of oversight and regulation is enough to give those of us who grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis recurring nightmares—and with good cause. It also offers several practical things that global citizens can do to make peace and secure the world from the nuclear holocaust that few want to acknowledge is more than possible.
The Social Network (A-3, PG-13)
This film may very well sweep the Oscars because it tells so well the story of a vibrant aspect of contemporary life: social networking. It is great entertainment, exploring the necessity of good character (that is, doing the right thing especially when no one is looking) in this virtual, dynamic universe of social networking where once you say or show something, you can never take it back.
True Grit (A-3, PG-13)
Hats off to the Coen brothers for remaking this classic and quirky Western based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. They stayed true to the story by keeping a young girl as the heroine. Excellent performances by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and, of course, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, the role that earned John Wayne an Oscar. Matt Damon, as the freelancing Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (“La Beef”), is very good, too. A lot more could be said about Portis’s Bible-quoting characters who hold revenge as an American virtue.
Get Low (not yet rated, PG-13)
Robert Duvall is superb as a recluse living in obscurity who suddenly wants to plan his own funeral party because he knows he needs the forgiveness of the community. The story is sound, and Duvall has never been better.
Toy Story 3 (A-1, G)
The toy gang faces change and abandonment with their usual teamwork approach to problem-solving. I loved the Spanish version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (“Tienes un amigo en mí”), because it involves the bilingual reality of the audience, teaching Spanish to the English-speaking and English to the Spanish-speaking.
Secretariat (A-2, PG)
I enjoyed this small-scale, based-on-a-true-story film about the red horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973. Gorgeous cinematography, solid writing by Mike Rich (The Nativity Story) and direction by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart), both of whom are Christians. Many critics think it is a better film than 2003’s Seabiscuit. I don’t think the films are comparable, but Secretariat is exciting and great viewing. The film opens with a marvelous quote from the Book of Job 39:19.
Letters to Juliet (A-2, PG)
An engaged young woman visits Juliet’s house in Verona, Italy, and joins a group of ladies who answer letters that women leave in the garden wall. This throwback to Hollywood’s feel-good romantic comedy era is at once original and predictable. It is possible to make a nice film without cluttering it up with meaningless content that can offend some sensibilities. The film won’t win any awards, and has no other message than true love, but for an enjoyable winter Saturday afternoon armchair matinee, it’s just the ticket.
Winter’s Bone (not yet rated, R)
A small film about the consequences of drug use and trafficking on an Ozark family. Their eldest daughter makes every sacrifice for her family, looking for a father who is never coming home. Poignant and extremely well-acted.
The Lost Valentine (January 30, CBS, check local listings)
Betty White and Jennifer Love Hewitt co-star in this made-for-television movie about a TV reporter, Susan (Hewitt), assigned to cover the story of a World War II Navy widow. Caroline (White) makes a yearly pilgrimage to the train station on February 14 where she last said good-bye to her husband, Neil, in 1942. He was soon listed MIA and never found. At first, Susan dismisses the assignment but, after meeting Caroline and her grandson, she is drawn into the story and the mystery of Neil’s disappearance.
This is a gentle Valentine’s story of the first order, and a Hallmark weeper, co-produced with Paulist Productions and based on the 1996 novel by James Michael Pratt. Betty White is a treat, and there is good chemistry among the cast. Family viewing from young adolescents to adults.