We film reviewers are not an easy bunch to satisfy. We look for originality, for proficiency, for heart. Story, performance, dialogue and visual majesty also play a role in our critiques. This is because we are film buffs at heart and we’ve seen just about every storyline; therefore, it’s difficult not to compare the successes with the failures. On top of all that, if you are a Christian critic, you want just a little more – entertainment that uplifts rather than assaults.
Recently I spotlighted my favorite classic films in different genres. Today, let’s look at some movies from this century that amuse, with some going so far as to enlighten. While I could list many in each category, I’ll stick with three. Hope you find some of your favs included. Click the the linked titles to read our full reviews.
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell. A cynical weathercaster finds himself waking up each morning having to relive the same day. Rated PG (some surreal violence and two implied sexual situations, but our hero learns life lessons, including the fact that promiscuous sex does not lead to happiness). Though technically from the last century, this very funny modern-day parable resonates with this generation due a sentiment we all share: “If only I had done this or that.” An intelligent script full of pathos, humor, and character development, and not one profane word in the whole production (very rare for the end of the last century or the beginning of this one).
BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003)
It’s time to evaluate the waterline on that glass, again. Is it half empty or half full? The half-full portion seen in Bruce Almighty has Jim Carrey at his most humorous and, gratefully, showing restraint when it comes to his quota of coarse comic calamity. The film also presents several messages aimed at reminding a movie-going audience that God exists, that each and every one of His creations is a miracle, that we are to be miracles for one another, that we should appreciate what we have, and that the true power, God’s love, is in us when we determine to turn our lives over to Him. These are the themes director Tom Shadyac has incorporated into this very funny portrait of a man suddenly endowed with God’s powers. It’s a parable. The half-empty portion, the downside of the film, concerns its lifestyle representations, including a few crudities, a couple of misuses of Christ’s name, some temperamental ranting that borders on blasphemy, and the lead couple live together outside marriage. PG-13 (Hope you’ll read the rest of the review.)
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)
This true story of a freighter hijacked by Somali pirates gives Tom Hanks his best role in years. Its central theme, much like Gravity’s, revolves around man’s instinct for survival. And like Gravity, as well as Robert Redford’s All is Lost, both from that same year, Captain Phillips’ reflective moments concerning the preciousness of life give spiritual dimension to its storyline. (PG-13)
THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)
This powerful true story tells of a Spanish couple, played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and their three children as their idyllic vacation is interrupted on the morning of December 26, 2004, when a devastating tsunami destroys the coastal zone, separating the family and triggering a frantic search. Wow, what a movie. Hollywood’s CGI at its best, along with a riveting script and powerful performances from Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and young Tom Holland, make this one of the most exciting films of that year. (PG-13)
WON’T BACK DOWN (2012)
Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, two mothers (Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal) look to transform their children's failing inner city school. What’s this? Hollywood made a film that challenges the teachers’ union?! Congrats to those who participated in this film endeavor, for it is one of the most courageous films ever produced in Tinseltown. (PG)
In this ecologically themed cartoon, this question is asked: What if mankind had to leave Earth, and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot? The most creative, original, fun film of that summer, Wall-E is both funny and touching. The opening 20 minutes or so is some of the finest animated filmmaking I’ve seen. (G)
Bolt is sometimes touching, often hysterical and always mesmerizing. The film opens with a great chase, ala James Bond only better. For example, where the opening sequence to the Bond film Quantum of Solace was muddled by extreme close-ups and quick cutting, Bolt’s adroit draftsmanship immediately draws us into the chase as if we were a part of the action. The writers and artists have embraced moviegoers of all ages with this animated girl-and-her-movie-star-dog-who-thinks-he-has-real-superpowers adventure. Every detail has been given loving and experienced detailing, from the animation to the film’s score, to the directorial pacing. Disney has once again given us the perfect family film. (PG – for the action sequences.)
This animated comedy adventure has 78-year-old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen finally fulfilling his lifelong dream of a great adventure. He ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies away to the wilds of South America. But he discovers all too late that his biggest nightmare has stowed away on the trip: an overly optimistic 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell. Together, the boy and the old man journey into a lost world. I actually wasn’t expecting much from this film, due to the trailers I’d seen. But I should have known better. Disney and Pixar put story first. Creative story. Then they match that with interesting characters and just-right voice characterizations. And just before completion, they asked themselves, how can we make it even better? Then they did. (PG)
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
This hilarious, action-packed, animated adventure has put-upon superheroes now denying their superpowers and living under a government protection plan (themselves the victims of sue-happy citizens once protected by the super do-gooders: “Who asked you to save me?” It’s a super superhero comic adventure. (PG)
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are stuck in space. Then just Sandra. Lots of twists and turns occur in this beautifully photographed lost-in-space action thriller. Now, maybe I’m reading more into it than the writers intended, but its thoughtful moments about life and death suggest the sanctity of life. While not a tool for proselytize any particular religion, it does contain ethereal questions amid its action sequences. (PG-13)
M. Night Shyamalan's psychological thriller is about alien beings coming to take over Earth. Suspenseful Hitchcockian elements serve to unnerve the audience. Added to the unsettling atmosphere, the story's subtext concerns a man losing then regaining his faith. The film also has an intriguing take concerning coincidence in our daily lives: Do things happen by chance or do they serve to develop our nature? Shyamalan's film was about finding our way – or finding our way back. I guess you could say it's a thinking man's (or woman's) horror movie. (PG-13)
IRON MAN (2008)
Witty writing (considering the genre), involving direction, perhaps the best special effects I’ve seen, and actors doing what good actors do best, make this the most entertaining of the Marvel comics screen adaptations. True, the last third becomes top heavy with the standard combativeness we’ve seen with the Fantastic Foursome, the mutating Transformers and the go-go Power Rangers, but by then Mr. Downey and the supporting players have cast their spell, drawing us into a mesmerizing action adventure that’s also a morality tale. (PG-13)
Sorry, couldn’t find war films from this era that didn’t contain harsh language. Sometimes a film’s profundity may override its profanity. Since war is a part of our existence, I felt it needed to be included as these productions examine the reasons we engage conflict.
BROTHERS AT WAR (2009)
Jake Rademacher sets out to understand the experience, sacrifice, and motivation of his two brothers serving in Iraq. The film follows Jake's exploits as he risks everything – including his life – to tell his brothers' story. Often humorous, though sometimes downright brutal, Brothers At War is a remarkable journey that finds Jake embedded with four combat units in Iraq. Though we critics often overuse words like powerful and dynamic, they effectively convey the effect of this documentary. It’s gut-wrenching at moments, but Brothers At War gives you a clarification seldom offered by filmmakers. You’ll be disturbed by what a soldier undertakes in the name of a cause, but ultimately you’ll be uplifted, encouraged and inspired by this powerful, dynamic film. (R: please read the entire review should you consider viewing.)
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006)
February 1945: even as victory in Europe was finally within reach, the war in the Pacific raged on. One of the most crucial and bloodiest battles of the war was the struggle for the island of Iwo Jima, which culminated with what would become one of the most iconic images in history: five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. Clint Eastwood directed and Steven Spielberg was one of the producers. These dynamic filmmakers can sleep well, knowing they have made a masterpiece that succeeds on many levels. The artistic and technical merits stand out as the screenplay scrutinizes the guilt-ridden lives of those in that famous picture. Mr. Eastwood’s vision gives us a thoroughly involving examination of men taken over by war and publicity. (R)
WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002)
Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper. Writer/director Randall Wallace captures the heat, the fear, and the uncertainty felt by American soldiers in Vietnam. Or, he at least comes as close as we would ever want to experience. As the director explores the true spirit of American combat forces, he wisely takes us out of the action, relieving us occasionally of the battle intensity. During these moments, the film looks at the wives back home. They have their own battles to fight; the constant fear that their men will not return and a country’s polarization over the first televised war. It is a difficult film to sit through, but there are many outstanding moments that make the violence endurable (or nearly). Mel Gibson gives perhaps his best performance. Several times he delivers little quotable bon mots – to his kid, to his wife, to a fellow officer. These could have been sappy and untrue, but Gibson handles them with conviction. It is a pitch-perfect performance. In the film, his character is portrayed as a religious man. Several times he is seen in prayer, revealing a reverence for God and a need for the Almighty’s direction. Indeed, he reminded me of what King David might have been like when heading his armies. The cinematography, score and other technical achievements are all outstanding. (R: read the review, then decide for yourself if you wish to endure the content in order to get the positive messages).
AMERICA'S HEART AND SOUL (2004)
Disney documentary. Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg packed up his camera and hit the road, with a goal of capturing both the unparalleled beauty of the U.S. and the incomparable spirit of its people. Here you have the chance to meet ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories. Schwartzberg’s gift is his ability to connect with people, honestly capturing their values, dreams, and passions. America's Heart and Soul is a celebration of a nation told through the voices of its people, and it’s the most joyous film experience I can remember. (PG)
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005)
In the Antarctic, every March, the quest begins for penguins to find the perfect mate and start a family. This courtship begins with a long journey – a trek that will take hundreds of the tuxedo-suited birds across seventy miles of frozen tundra to a location where the courtship will begin. It’s rated G and though it depicts harsh life and death struggles, it does so in a family-friendly way. It’s full of impressive, almost unworldly locations and amazing cinematography, and most importantly, it sends a powerful message concerning the importance of life. Nature is reminding us about the sanctity of life. (G)
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (2010)
Occasionally a movie comes along that clearly defines a threat to our culture – this is one. Waiting for Superman should be seen by all, for this well-produced documentary concerning the crumbling education system in America was the most important film of that year. (PG)
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
Mel Gibson’s brutal, yet undeniably artistic rendering of the final hours of Christ’s life blew away skeptics when it earned over $350 million at the box office. Aided by superb cinematography, lighting, music, some dynamic special effects and Jim Caviezel’s sincere and muted performance, director Mel Gibson brings a mood and sensitivity never before captured when telling the story of the Christ. Justly rated R for its graphic depiction of scourging, piercing, beating, and crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ is meant to shock, unnerve, and clarify the ordeal of Christ’s sacrifice. But Mel’s film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, is not really about what mankind did to Him, but about what He did for us. (R)
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
Director Terrence Malick offers up a thought-provoking hymn to life. It’s an impressionistic story of a Midwestern family coping with a death, embittered relationships, and haunting questions concerning God and the afterlife. In an era of “reality” entertainment that often limelights insipid subjects such as the plight of the Kardasians squeezing oversized bottoms into undersized briefs, Terrance Malick has used a free-form art-house film to suggest the omniscient stature of God. (PG-13)
LIFE OF PI (2012)
Profound and spiritual, Life of Pi is also the most visually stunning film of that year. Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Life of Pi bedazzles with CGI visuals that add to and support the film’s viscerally emotional impact. As with Mr. Malick, filmmaker Ang Lee is unafraid of bringing the subjects of God, faith, and the seeking of spiritual fulfillment to the Cineplex. (PG)
I think movies are the essence of all the other art forms. They use properties and sensibilities from the worlds of sculpture, literature, music and painting. And when done right, they entertain, educate and uplift the spirit of man. I hope you will read the entire review of these films to see if they suit you and if they are suitable for family viewing. And before getting too frustrated that I left out one of your choices, read my extended list, “The Best Movies This Critic Ever Saw.” Betcha you’ll find it HERE.