Welcome to the start of the fourth year of the Movie Mystic column!
My criteria for inclusion in this special yearly double column is that the films must fit into the definition of Spiritual Cinema that we use for choosing films to distribute through the Spiritual Cinema Circle: films that ask who we are and why we are here – and films that help us feel better about human beings. It’s that last phrase – feeling better about being human – that made 2005 one of the toughest years ever for me to come up with five films.
I can enthusiastically recommend the five films below, but I’m glad I didn’t have to list even one more – I couldn’t have done it! When I look at most of the mainstream critics’ favorites, I just wince at the dark, cynical view of human nature that most of the films on those lists portray.
There were some films I really respected in many ways in 2005 that I just couldn’t bring myself to include on the list. Personally, I was fascinated by Woody Allen’s Match Point and greatly respected Brokeback Mountain; however, neither of those films made me feel better about being human. In fact, their lingering effect was just the opposite. I also had great fun watching Peter Jackson’s dazzling remake of King Kong, but it reminded me more than ever about our cruelty to animals in the world and…it was just SO sad!
While I don’t quarrel with anyone’s opinion about film, I also find it inappropriate to call any film or performance "best." Our responses to films are so completely subjective that I try to steer clear of calling films "good" or "bad." We just know what we like or don’t like. Obviously, that is a totally personal decision for each of us.
That all being said, here are brief capsules of my five favorites for the year.
THE WORLD’s FASTEST INDIAN
This film is opening around most of the nation in February and was my personal favorite film of 2005. (It opened for one week in 2005 to qualify for Academy consideration.)
Talk about feeling good about being human!
Anthony Hopkins stars in this true story about a wonderful character from New Zealand named Burt Munro who, in the 1960s, became a local celebrity in his small town by building and racing a vintage 1920s motorcycle called an "Indian." His dream is to somehow raise enough money to get himself and his beloved "Indian" to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to try to set a land speed record.
Hopkins is absolutely and lovably delightful in the lead role, so much so that I found myself grinning for almost the entire film. Beyond the sheer fun of watching this extraordinary actor playing with glee a man pursuing his lifelong dream, there is also a powerful, timely and uplifting message in the film.
As the first wave of the Baby Boomer generation reaches age 60, many of us may think that our days of pursuing the dreams of our life are behind us. That it may be time to put those notions aside and just be practical about whom and where we are. Indian reminds us, however, that, unlike milk cartons, dreams do not have expiration dates. The film encourages us to be aware that we can manifest our dreams, our goals and our heart’s desires at any time, no matter what the apparent obstacles might be and regardless of our chronological age.
I absolutely loved this film and I hope you will find it soon in a theater near you.
THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (now on DVD)
This film jumps into our hearts as a powerful whirlwind of emotions and fascinating, provocative questions about family and the elusive emotion of anger with which most of us seem to flirt on a daily basis. (If you commute to work in a big city, that sentence might better read "hourly basis.")
The story revolves around a woman (Joan Allen) who awakens one morning to find that her husband, with no warning, has simply gone, never to return. With four daughters to raise, she slips – actually, plunges – into a world of anger, bitterness and the solace of daily bottles of vodka. Her neighbor (Kevin Costner) becomes fascinated with Allen and her daughters. The film, totally based in character and emotions, plays out in the relationships among all of them.
Ultimately, the situation facing all the characters in the film turns out to be a moment of grace, one of those times in life when, in retrospect, we realize that our lives have been redirected by a powerful and seemingly invisible universal force.
In her magnificent new book, The Unmistakable Touch of Grace, Cheryl Richardson defines these moments: "Every event we experience and every person we meet has been put in our path for a reason. When we awaken to this fundamental truth, we begin to understand that a benevolent force of energy is available to guide and direct our lives. I call this energy the unmistakable touch of grace."
The Upside of Anger is a classic film in Spiritual Cinema in that it reminds us of how wonderful films can be when they trust the intelligence of their audience.
ELIZABETHTOWN (now on DVD)
This is one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated films of 2005.
Written and directed by the incredibly talented (Jerry Maguire) Cameron Crowe, Elizabethtown centers on a young man (Orlando Bloom) who makes a colossal mistake at his job that causes his company to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Despondent, humiliated and then dumped by his girlfriend, he even contemplates taking his own life until he is called by his mother and sister and told that his father has died and that he has to go to a small town in Kentucky to make the funeral arrangements. On his way, he meets a very quirky flight attendant (the enchanting Kirsten Dunst) who….
Doesn’t sound like a romantic comedy, does it? But it certainly is! The relationship that blooms (pun intended) between the two young people is loving, real and very touching.
Even more importantly, the film contains a powerful and very uplifting message for young people about failing in life. Just as The World’s Fastest Indian illustrates that dreams never have to expire, Elizabethtown shows young people that failure is a part of life, particularly for those who dare to venture down uncharted paths. Admitting one’s failures to the world, and, most importantly, to oneself, is one of the hallmarks of wisdom. Failure at a job or relationship does not make us a failure. It means that we are fulfilling our mission on the planet. Trying. Learning. Evolving.
Elizabethtown was savaged by most mainstream critics, but I found it to be enchanting, entertaining, fun, loving, whimsical and totally charming. Add to all that a wonderful message about courage and perseverance and you have one of my favorite films of 2005.
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (now on DVD)
Some of the strangest things happened when I went to see March of the Penguins. Was I dreaming, was it real, or had Rod Serling been resurrected just for me that day to take me back into The Twilight Zone?
First of all, I noted that the theater was packed for a Friday afternoon matinee – but that the audience didn’t consist mostly of teenagers. In fact, they were the smallest audience segment. Amazingly enough, it was a very diverse group, comprised of families with kids, seniors with friends and family, and plenty of middle-aged folks like me. Literally, the range was from 5 or 6 years old all the way up to 80 or so.
Next, except for the laughter and delightful sighs that naturally emanated from responses to the charm and whimsy of the film, the theater was quiet for the entire movie. No cell phones, no people talking to those in nearby seats, just respectful and rapt attention to the screen.
Next, the film itself was an amazing, beautifully written and utterly compelling story that was gloriously narrated with style, wit and panache by the inestimable Morgan Freeman. There were no movie stars, and I had read no tabloid sensationalism about the actors nor stories about bloated budgets and egos. And, as far as I could tell, none of the actors had undergone face lifts, liposuction or measurement "enhancements."
Next, there were no car crashes, no special effects and there was no violence against men, women or children. Where there was an indication of violence or sexuality, it was merely suggested in the most tasteful of ways and left entirely to the imagination of everyone in the audience.
When the film was over, there was generous applause from the audience and then we all quietly and politely filed out with smiles on our faces and, for many of us, tears of joy in our eyes.
Imagine all that and you have March of the Penguins.
When Penguins was finished, I left feeling something special for the first time in a long time after leaving a film. I felt wonderful about being human, conscious, and alive. Imagine that.
MAD HOT BALLROOM (now on DVD)
Ballroom and Penguins are the most recent examples of the evolution of the entertainment potential of documentaries. Filmmakers who before might have focused their prodigious story-telling talents on feature films are now telling compelling and inspiring stories in documentary form. And we are being treated to some new and wonderful visions of who we can be as a humanity when we operate at our very best.
The story of Ballroom centers on a program for fifth graders in New York schools that actually requires the kids to at least participate in a ballroom dancing program. Those who excel become part of the school team that competes in an area-wide competition, leading to the ultimate crowning of a championship team. The film follows several teams of 10 year olds as they begin their tentative "steps" in dances, such as the swing and the rumba and, most importantly, it illustrates how the program itself elevates the awareness of the young people to teamwork, etiquette, peer respect and discipline.
The film also a beautiful and inspiring portrait of the unsung, underpaid and under-appreciated teachers who every day lead our children into their futures. The teachers in Mad Hot Ballroom seem acutely aware of the positive potential of their young students, and every frame of the film is a fitting tribute to those teachers who care so deeply for and believe so completely in the young people whose lives they help mold every day.
Mad Hot Ballroom inspires us to see the beauty and potential of our humanity. As long as there are people such as teachers who devote their lives to encouraging and leading our children…and as long as there are young people who strive to be the best that they can be…we will continue to evolve into the exalted state of our humanity of which we have always dreamed.