The first decade of the 21st century has given us many great films. Here are a dozen I found especially inspiring. From documentaries to fantasies, from real-life heroes to an animated fish, these are the stories that help to show us what we should dream of and what we can accomplish.
Erin Brockovich Julia Roberts won an Oscar playing the real-life single mother whose determination and courage helped hundreds of victims of toxic pollution learn the truth of what happened and find some sense of justice. The movie is candid in its depiction of the price Brockovich herself paid in her personal life for her dedication to the residents who had been poisoned and misled. But it also shows what one individual can accomplish even when the other side has millions of dollars and dozens of lawyers. Quote: “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.”
Trouble the Water Documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin went to Louisiana for a project that did not work out. They were about to leave when Hurricane Katrina hit. But this Oscar-nominated film is not their story. They turned most of their movie over to Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, local residents who bought a camera for $20 a week on the street just before the storm and walked around taking pictures of what was going on around them. These citizen journalists document the helplessness of the community and the failure of every possible resource or assistance. Roger Ebert, who included this film in his 2009 film festival, said, “the eyewitness footage has a desperate urgency that surpasses any other news and doc footage I have seen.” The power of the human spirit to tell our stories will always triumph over failures of bureaucracy and even the ravages of storms. Quote: “We lost our citizenship.”
Persepolis Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic memoir becomes a powerful animated film about her experiences as a child in an Iran that is increasingly restrictive after the Islamic Revolution. After her beloved uncle is executed, her parents send her away to Austria, where she struggles with a new culture and with the new world that is adolescence no matter where or who you are. Perceptive, touching, resilient, this takes animation and memoir to a new level. Quote: “There’s nothing worse than bitterness and revenge. Keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”
Billy Elliot Jamie Bell is sensational as the 11-year-old boy who has to dance, even though everyone he knows is opposed to it. Ultimately his passion and his talent are so inspiring to those around him that they cannot help but give him their support. The play inspired a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical but the gritty authenticity of the original and its setting in a small mining town in Thatcher-era England makes the film version especially powerful. Quote: “Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity. ”
A Beautiful Mind A man sees what no one else can, and we call him a genius. A man sees what no one else does, and we call him crazy. This Oscar-winner for Best Picture is a movie about a man who was both, the true story of genius John Forbes Nash, Jr., who revolutionized mathematics and then became mentally ill. Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar as his loyal wife, a mathematician herself, who stayed with him for decades as he struggled to find a way to master his delusions. Quote: “I’ve made the most important discovery of my life. It’s only in the mysterious equation of love that any logical reasons can be found.”
Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson’s splendid trilogy of the J.R.R. Tolkein series is magnificently realized, from the tiniest detail of Elvish dialogue to the grandest vista of Middle Earth. Villains and heroes, quests and romance, this story teaches us that courage, loyalty, and integrity are more important than strength and magic. Quote: “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The best film of the decade is this loopy romance, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as one-time lovers who pay to have their unhappy memories erased and then find themselves missing even the pain of love. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman plays with the themes of identity, time, memory, and attraction in a slightly off-kilter world that seems oddly homelike and familiar because it is so heartfelt and true about how even the unhappiness of love can enlarge our spirits. Quote: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders. ”
Every family should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s movie about the 1999 national spelling bee because it is about so much more. It is about the strength of American diversity and the commitment of this country to opportunity — the eight featured competitors include three children of immigrants (one’s father speaks no English) and a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds. It is about ambition, dedication, and courage. It is about finding a dream that speaks to each individual. It is about how even in the midst of one of life’s biggest challenges — middle school — it is possible to find passion and confidence and to achieve excellence. Most of all, it is about family — the opportunity to discuss the wide variation in styles of family communication and values is in itself a reason for every family with children to watch this movie together. Quote: “My life is like a movie. I have trials and tribulations, and I overcome them.”
Finding Nemo This story of a father fish in search of his lost son is an epic journey filled with adventure and discovery encompassing the grandest sweep of ocean vastness and the smallest longing of the heart. There are terrifying-looking creatures, but one of the movie’s best jokes is that even the sharks are so friendly that they keep reminding each other that “we don’t eat our friends.” There really are no bad guys in this movie — the danger comes from a child’s thoughtlessness and from natural perils. The movie has no angry, jealous, greedy, or murderous villains as in most traditional Disney animated films. And it has characters with disabilities that are handled frankly but matter-of-factly. Best of all is the way it addresses questions of protection and independence that are literally at the heart of the parent-child relationship. Quote: “I have to get out of here! I have to find my son! I have to tell him how old sea turtles are!”
In America Writer-director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical tale about Irish immigrants in New York City is something of a fairy tale set in a sweltering and grimy apartment building where even the kind-hearted drug addicts help look out for the children. Told through the eyes of the family’s daughters, the whole movie is exquisitely tender. The girls’ sense of wonder brings a softness and a glow to whatever they see, whether it is a street fair or a broken-down air conditioner. Quote: “When luck comes knocking on your door, you can’t turn it away.”
Hotel Rwanda When the conflict in Rwanda exploded into violence in 1994, the Hutus began a full-scale slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and any Hutus who supported them. In the middle of the madness, Paul Rusesabagina hid more than 1000 Tutsis in his hotel. Using the same skills that made him successful as a hotel manager, he cajoles, barters, and bluffs his way into keeping them safe. Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo as Rusesabagina and his wife provide a center of decency in the midst of madness and cruelty. The sensitivity of their performances is matched by the script and direction, which make their points, both personal and political, with grace, not bitterness. Like “Schindler’s List,” this film takes us deeply into the horror of one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies by allowing us to focus on the illumination cast by one small story of grace, courage, and humanity. Quote: “There’s always room.”
The Pursuit of Happyness Chris Gardner is a single father who went from homelessness to success as a stockbroker. What mattered most to him, though, was being a good father. Real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith star in the story of a man who would not give up. At first he focuses on the misspelling of the word “happiness” at his son’s day care. But then he focuses on the word “pursuit,” because he understands that all we can be promised is the chance to try for what we want, and that has to be enough. Quote: “You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.”
The poster says, “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.” So we know where it’s all going, and just settle back to enjoy the ride. And an enjoyable ride it is, too.
The guy who deserves next year’s best acting Oscar is the actor who has the impossible job of playing a doctor who is interviewing single mother Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) for a job and is not utterly charmed by her. The audience has no such obligation, and we lose our hearts immediately.
Erin leaves that interview, climbs into her crummy car, and gets slammed into by another doctor. When she loses her lawsuit against him, she forces the lawyer who represented her to give her a job (Albert Finney as Ed Masry). No one wants her there, and no one likes her because she has a big mouth and wears trashy clothes. But she is curious and tenacious. She gets interested in a real estate file that includes medical records, and she goes off to investigate.
It turns out that the community of Hinkley has been poisoned by hexavent chromium, leaching into the drinking water from a PG&E plant. Erin is able to gain the trust of the community and help Ed put together a case that would win the largest direct claim settlement in American history.
Julia Roberts keeps getting better and better, more luminous, and at the same time more vulnerable and more in control. She plays Erin as a woman who never stopped believing in herself and yet is deeply touched when others believe in her, too. She understands the way the people in Hinkley feel, mistrustful of lawyers and overwhelmed by the odds. She understands that “people want to tell their stories.” And she has enough confidence in herself to know that, while she might not have been able to keep her beauty queen promise of ending world hunger, this is a promise she can keep.
She understands, too, that there will be costs. A romance with a loving biker/nanny (George, played by Aaron Eckhart, who makes that combination endearingly believable) and her relationships with her children are threatened by her devotion to the case. In a heartbreaking scene, she is driving back home after a hard day and George tells her that her baby spoke her first word. Erin is overjoyed at the news and devastated to have missed it. The look in her eyes as George tells her all about it is complex, rich, perfect.
And there are many “Rocky”/”Norma Rae”-style feel-good moments, like when PG&E’s first lawyer, looking like a high school debate club president, tries to bully Erin and Ed, and when Erin uses everything from her cleavage to her baby to get access to the records she needs.
Parents should know that the movie’s R rating comes from very strong language and some sexual references (Erin jokes that she got the cooperation of the town’s residents by performing sexual favors). And no matter how high the settlement, the fact remains that children and their families were made terribly ill, and no amount of money will make up for that.
Families who watch this movie should talk about why it is that Erin is able to connect with the residents of Hinkley, why she is reluctant to accept help from anyone, and the importance of not judging people based on their appearance. They may also want to talk about the issue of corporate responsibility. No one at PG&E wanted anyone to get hurt. How do problems like lack of accountability arise?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Sally Fields’ Oscar-winning performance in “Norma Rae.”