My picks for the best, most relevant films of 2010.
10. Waiting for Superman
This documentary analyzes public education in the United States with a keen, critical eye. More, it spells out the problems facing public education with hard facts and humanizes the issue through the stories of kids whose futures are at stake. What to love about this film: The ultimately hope-filled approach to a discouraging subject. What could have used more work: Charter schools (the Superman in this film?) in many cases are not a workable solution to public education's deficiencies. What else will turn flagging schools around? See Lauryn Wild's review for Spectrum.
Disneynature's sequel to 2009 release, Earth, takes audiences into the sometimes serene, sometimes surreal world beneath the waves. Oceans provides spectacular footage of remarkable occurrences: hundreds of thousands of king crabs doing battle on the ocean floor; marine iguanas swimming through surf as a rocket launches in the distance. The film provides a reminder of the importance of Creation and why it is rightly a central Adventist value. We believe in Creation! What to love about this film: Beautiful and dramatic nature scenes. What could have used more work: The narration, which was written by native French speakers (and consequently sounded syntactically off in places) and delivered by Pierce Brosnan, who is more pleasing to look at (I'm told) than to listen to. Read Jessica Sharpe's review for Spectrum.
8. The Social Network
Sharp dialogue and keen wit make this story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a riveting film. We watch "Zuck" get dramatically jilted by a romantic interest, and in a beer-fueled outburst, he creates a revenge website, Facemash, that allows viewers to vote on the hotness of two female Harvard students tête-à-tête. It's a fast-paced story of how Zuckerberg went on to create arguably the world's most influential website (Facebook), and what he lost in the process (hint:a lot of money, for starters). Why we love it: This is the (sometimes apocryphal) story that made Zuckerberg a household name and likely contributed to his being named Time Magazine's person of the year. More importantly, the film will become a key part of the Facebook founding mythology, a story that we participate in daily. Less loveworthy: Plenty of the film was embellished (OK, made up) to make a dramatic story more dramatic still. Also, lead actor Jesse Eisenberg is far wittier (ergo more interesting) than the real Zuckerberg. See my review of Social Network for Spectrum.
7. Despicable Me
It was a good year for animated films. Despicable Me lands atop this list for its quotable quotiness, its gorgeous animation and a story that speaks to five year olds and fifty year olds in equal measure. If you've heard people wandering around muttering (and there are a lot of them!), "It's so FLUFFY I'm going to die," they could be nuts...or people who've just seen this film. Supervillan Gru (Steve Carrell) takes in three orphan girls to help pull off the heist of all heists. In the process, the girls make it past his formidable defenses and into the bad guy's heart. What we love about it: Despicable Me tells a heart-warming story with laugh out loud humor...and pathos. What's not to love: Not a whole lot!
Honorable mentions for animated films (see these too!): How to Train your Dragon, Toy Story 3.
Megablockbuster movies draw fire from critics because the larger the film, the larger the target. Inception is no exception. Critics called the plot shallow or predictable. Fine. People complained the film was not emotionally engaging enough. OK. Whatever the criticisms people want to throw at this cinematic behemoth, Inception can handle it. It is a cinematically inventive, visually spectacular film. When a wealthy businessman hires an expert in dream invasion to plant an idea inside the mind of a business competitor, the stakes could not be higher. The action is fast (even in slo-mo) and tense. The musical score is magnificent. Christopher Nolan has put together a superb action/adventure film in Inception. What to love: Inception creates an impossible reality and despite a few critics' dissent, the narrative keeps us glued. Less love-worthy: Inception is violent, viewers be warned. Review of Inception from Jonas Uribe for Spectrum.
5. 127 Hours
How do you make a full-length film about one person stuck in a tiny space for five days? Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) has the artistic vision to bring the horrific true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a hiker pinned by a large rock in the middle of nowhere Utah. And there's nobody for miles around. It's a story of struggle, courage...even humor in the face of extremely trying circumstances. What to love about this film: It is impossible not to be inspired by this story. After enduring Ralston's ordeal along with him, we leave feeling oddly exhilarated despite the film's gruesome moments. What to love: Not since "The Old Man and the Sea" has the man vs. nature, man vs. himself narrative been so engrossing! What to watch out for: Those who find traumatic injuries hard to deal with may feel squeamish.
4. The King's Speech
Perhaps the most fascinating story of impeded speech to date is this film starring Colin Firth as King George VI. Beset by a terrible stammer, George ("Bertie) finds himself in the unenviable position of succession to the throne in Britain. However, Bertie's impediment makes him unfit for royal rule. An unorthodox speech therapist works to reverse the would-be king's fortunes using unusual techniques. This film is an Oscar frontrunner with reason. The story is moving, the performances commanding, the attention to detail superb. What to love about this film: A clever screenplay and terrific acting. Who should not see this film: If you're a stickler for action flicks, you might skip this one.
3. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Those who attended this year's Adventist Forum/Spectrum Conference participated in a robust weekend-long conversation on art and faith. This crafty documentary by the king of illicit street art, Banksy, pointedly questions our faith in art. Or at least it challenges our valuation of neo-pop art and cultural buy in. The brilliance of this film is its unprecedented unveiling of some of street art's most renown (and vilified) characters coupled with probing commentary on the art world. Even those with minimal appreciation for street art will find this film highly engaging. After finally figuring what is happening, the inevitable question is, "OK, what just happened?" What to love: This documentary opens up a fascinating underground world while poking sticks at what passes for high culture above the ground. Reservations? People who simply can't cope with graffiti as art may experience occasional angst.
2. Mugabe and the White African
An unsettling documentary for many reasons, not least of which is its reprisal and reversal of the abhorrent racism that led to slavery in America. A white farmer in Zimbabwe finds himself up against the consummate corruption of the Robert Mugabe regime and its thugs. Mugabe moves to extricate all white farmers from Zimbabwe, accusing them of imperialistic land-grabbing. The irony is the government's heavy-handed crusade to appropriate the farmers' property using whatever tactics necessary. In stunning scenes of menace and violence, we watch visual documentation of Mugabe's coercive campaign in court and in the fields. Brutal history-in-the-making unfolds in front of the camera, sometimes with sweeping images of Southern Africa, sometimes with jerky footage of people running from attackers. What makes it so good: Unflinching documentation of real life drama on an international scale. Potential drawback: The tendency on the part of some subjects to moralize their situation can be distracting.
1. 8: The Mormon Proposition
Like Mugabe and the White African, this film will not register on most critics' top ten lists. Yet in the context of the Adventist faith community, and given the way that the film's subject matter has come to the fore in Adventism, this film is the most significant of the year. It documents the alliance between the Mormon Church and its Catholic allies in the fight to pass California's Proposition 8, which rescinded the right of same-gender couples to marry. In reconstructed scenes, archival footage and interviews with Latter-day Saints, the film reveals the manipulative manner in which church members were co-opted as a de-facto political action committee. It reveals the deliberate misinformation campaign that led to passage of Prop 8, and explores the alarming rates of suicide among homosexual members of the Mormon community. We even hear from a man who underwent sexual torture as a "cure" for his homosexuality. The most striking thing about this film is that, apart from the church's multimillion dollar funding of the Yes on 8 campaign and the alliance with the Catholic Church, the same story could have been made in an Adventist context. Indeed, Adventists were quick to adopt Mormon talking points ahead of the 2008 vote on Prop 8. Why this is a must see: This is our story. Drawback: Some of the recreated scenes are goofy.