Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Most Inspiring Films 2015

For my annual Most Inspiring Films List, I tend to select films that move me emotionally and intellectually. Certainly, the importance and timeliness of the themes weigh heavily on that decision. 

I started writing Reel Inspiration reviews in 2004 because I felt that a disproportionate number of movies were on the dark side and that it was beginning to affect people’s perception of the world. I basically wanted to put more good out there. It was my goal to create more understanding by promoting films that celebrate diverse backgrounds, demonstrating that we are more alike than different.

This year, I found it encouraging that some big action directors are making an effort to counteract some of the media’s negative, fear-based programming. “The Hunger Games” demonstrated how the government uses fear and the media to control us. "Mad Max: Fury Road" used subtext to show the consequences of man’s aggressive quest for profit and power without responsibility. While there is still much to do in the way of diversity, this year saw inklings of progress that gave me hope. Some effort was made in balancing casting between the genders - as seen in "Mad Max: Fury Road" and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The majority of the films I listed include strong, dynamic female characters.

The force awakens!

“Most Inspiring Films 2015”

Honorable Mention: “Mr. Holmes” is a story about many things: redemption, regret, friendship, loss, and the search for truth. As his memory fails him, Mr. Holmes struggles to write a book correcting the misconceptions that Dr. Watson created in his popular novels. The aging and increasingly senile Mr. Holmes is distracted from his work by Roger, the young son of his housekeeper. At first the boy is intrigued by the reputation of the famous Mr. Holmes, but over time he gets to know the real man. Holmes, who has spent his life remaining detached from others, grows fond of Roger and becomes a role model for this boy who has no father in his life.

12) “The colors of Versailles will be the heart of our kingdom with gardens exquisite and matchless in beauty. Heaven shall be here.” – Alan Rickman as Louis XIV. When I saw the trailer for “A Little Chaos,” I longed to spend a sunny afternoon in this garden. I loved how the writer just let herself dream: What if a free-spirited woman was hired to design the fountains in the garden of Versailles? How would she fit in with courtiers at the Louvre? What if she met the king himself? Sometimes you just have to let go (of all reason and logic) and let a movie sweep over you. I got caught up in the passion and imagination of the writer and her character Sabine de Barra. Impossibly set in 1682 - no matter - I loved being in that world. Watching her gain the respect of her handsome boss, her fellow landscapers, the court, and eventually Louis XIV. A lovely, lovely fantasy. There is a line in the movie when the King’s landscaper sees her garden and asks, “This abundance of chaos is your Eden?” She replies, “My search for it.” Perhaps “A Little Chaos” was director Alan Rickman’s search for Eden.

11) The trouble starts when young Riley is relocated from Minnesota to San Francisco. On the outside, she tries to be the happy girl her parents expect. But on the inside, in her mind’s headquarters, personifications of her five primary emotions: Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness are fighting for control. “Inside Out” is an animated adventure film. Ironically, the big action scenes happen in Riley’s head where her memories are processed. While trying to protect Riley’s good memories, Joy and Sadness get sucked into the amusement park that is Riley’s brain. It is one crazy ride. “Inside Out” has an important message - that every one of our emotions has a purpose and how damaging it is to suppress any of them. This message is especially important for folks raised to be pleasers who have difficulty coping with so-called “negative emotions.” Watching this movie is a fun first step in learning to cope with them.

Best Animated Film Oscar Winner! 

10) In 2010, people from around the world cheered the rescue of 33 miners trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine for 69 days. “The 33” shows the human side of the story that wasn’t covered on the evening news. Although the action sequences were thrilling, it was really the humanity that drew me into the movie. It was the miners’ courage and loyalty in making sure that no one was left behind as the cave collapsed around them. The group could have deteriorated into anarchy. But instead of turning against each other, they developed a brotherhood. The director chose to show that the men were not alone. The miners got strength from their prayers - and the prayers of their families on the surface. The families never left their side. They camped outside the mine, picketing, demanding a rescue team until the last man was rescued.

9) In “East-side Sushi” a Mexican-American family works hard at two jobs just to eke out a living. At 4 a.m. every morning, Juana drags her sleeping daughter along as she and her father do food prep for their fruit cart. Working long hours is killing the old man, but he has no choice. His boss keeps lowering his pay and increasing his hours. Desperate to improve their situation, Juana applies for a job in the prep kitchen of a sushi restaurant. She soon proves herself with her expert knife skills. She has never even had sushi, but she quickly adapts to the new culture. She even teaches herself how to make sushi by following tutorials online. She experiments on her unsuspecting family, adding ingredients (like jalapenos!) that they enjoy. She finally finds the strength to stand up to the discrimination at the restaurant and demand the promotion she deserves – to be hired as a sushi chef. “I deserve an opportunity like everyone else. Behind every great restaurant there are great Latinos in the back, in the kitchen, hidden, preparing the food, making you look good. Well, I don’t want to be in the back anymore." The result is a delicious blending of two culinary cultures at "East-side Sushi."

8) Presumed dead after a fierce storm leaves him stranded on Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney survives by sheer courage and wit. He deals with feelings of loneliness and hopelessness by being productive and recording a journal. It is inspiring to see his resourcefulness in using his scientific knowledge for practical needs (such as eating and breathing), solving the emergencies that arise, and to communicate to NASA that he is still alive. Drew Goddard, who adapted "The Martian" for the screen, worked with Author Andy Weir and the production team to stay as true as possible to the science in Weir's fascinating, engrossing book.

7) As Kate and Geoff Mercer’s 45th anniversary approaches, Geoff receives a letter that brings to mind a mysterious old flame. “I told you about Katia, didn’t I?” With that, he invites a haunting presence into their seemingly contented lives. This masterful filmmaking expresses volumes with subtle strokes. Kate’s inner turmoil is conveyed by her sad expression as she finalizes arrangements for a place to celebrate their life together. The event coordinator muses on how the hall is perfect for an important anniversary because it has lots of history, “like a happy marriage.” Kate becomes increasingly concerned as Geoff’s thoughts drift farther away. She is awakened in the night by the sound of her husband digging around in the attic. Instead of reminiscing on their lives together, he seems to be pondering a life never lived with a lover whose beauty is frozen in time. Like Kate, we are compelled to reflect on marriage after “45 Years.”

6) In 1926. Danish artist, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) painted her husband, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) as a lady. When the painting gained popularity, Einar started to dress as Lili Elbe - a vision of femininity. "The Danish Girl" follows the couple's incredible and sometimes heart wrenching journey as their relationship grows in compassion and understanding.  In an overwhelming act of unconditional love, Gerda supports her husband's gender transition.

In 2015, the Academy honored Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." Eddie also received a well-deserved nomination for "The Danish Girl." Alicia Vikander earned her Best Supporting Actress Oscar!

5) “Spotlight” is the true story of how a team of investigative reporters from the Spotlight division of the Boston Globe uncovered a massive scandal of child molestation within the Catholic Archdiocese. The investigation is riveting. The tension rises as the reporters feel the powerful grip of the Catholic Church in Boston - while the threat of continuing abuse starts to hit home. It is a rare picture that moves you without manipulating you with shocking, exploitative images. It is an accurate portrayal of what investigative reporters do. It also highlights why their work is so important. Their Spotlight article gave a voice to the survivors who couldn’t speak up for themselves, and let them know that they weren’t the only victims. The film reminds us why investigative reporting is so vital in a democratic society: It is crucial that the press be a watchdog to keep those in power in line, to hold powerful institutions and people accountable.

"Spotlight" WON Best Screenplay (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer), and BEST PICTURE! 

4) I was thrust into the brutal world of the “Suffragette” along with weary textile worker and mother, Maud. I was shocked by the unflinching depiction of her dismal work conditions and the extreme use of violence by the police to crush the women who protested. This gritty enactment was born out of thorough research on the first foot soldiers from the early feminist movement (1912-13), when the women were forced to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the increasingly violent state. A fine piece of visual storytelling, “Suffragette” engaged my heart as well as my mind, showing just why women’s suffrage is so important to protect the basic human rights of women (and children) in a patriarchal society. “Suffragette” reminds us that those rights didn’t come easy. Real women fought hard for over 70 years for the right to demand better working conditions at the polls.

3) “Room” – the only home that five-year-old Jack has ever known. Room and mom are this little dude’s whole world. Mom is doing her best to give her boy a happy, healthy life with plenty of undivided attention. There are strict bedtime rules – for Jack’s protection. Jack must be quietly asleep in wardrobe when mom’s unwelcome visitor arrives. As Jack grows more curious and protective of his mother, it becomes clear that they are in peril. Mom concocts a dangerous plan to get them out of room. The acting is heart-wrenchingly genuine. The authenticity of their connection makes the suspense all the more devastating. But what is truly admirable is that the filmmakers succeed in making the victims heroes, while not glorifying their captor. They managed to create a life-affirming story showing the importance and resilience of the mother-son bond.

Brie Larson won Best Actress! 

2) “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the ultimate guy flick - one long EXPLOSIVE car chase. It is a man’s world. A world out of balance. A world where aggressive masculine traits have overshadowed maternal traits such as responsibility, nurturing, and caring. The result is chaos. The Earth’s resources have been destroyed. It has become a wasteland. Max is everyman - reduced to a single instinct to survive. He is captured and used as a blood bag for an enslaved half-life war boy. Furiosa, an honored driver of the water truck, escapes with the warlord’s pregnant “wives” who are looking for a better life for their children. The suicidal war boy attaches Max to the front of his war buggy and pursues them. When the war buggy crashes, Max carjacks the women’s ride. He is forced to fight alongside the fierce Furiosa to survive. The mothers teach him that there is something more important to fight for – a better future for the next generation.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" WON Best Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Sound Editing.

1) “Mustang” opens like a fairy tale on a Black Sea coastal village in northern Turkey. It is the last day of school, and the students celebrate their freedom with an afternoon frolicking at the beach. The girls’ hair flaps wildly in the wind resembling the manes of mustangs. Five spirited sisters are greeted at home by their irate grandmother who has been informed by a conservative neighbor of their shameful antics. Fearing that their virtue and marriage prospects have been sullied, she drags the girls one by one behind closed doors to whip them. When the uncle arrives home, he locks them in the house. All corrupting influences such as phones and computers are removed. The guardians enlist the help of the conservative neighbor women to prepare the teens for arranged marriages. When the oldest sisters are married off, the remaining girls plan their escape from their matrimonial prisons. Even as it becomes clear that their lives are in danger for defying the rules of this strict patriarchal society, we root for their freedom. Mustangs should not be tamed.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal-Stormont

NOTE: While there were several strong female roles this year, the industry still has a long way to go in hiring diverse directors - as demonstrated by this year's Oscar nominations. For instance, the Academy only nominated one narrative feature film directed by a woman: Best Foreign Film nominee "Mustang." Last year, after reading that less than 7% of studio productions were directed by women, I did some research to find out how many women directors were out there. That research resulted in the article, “Incredible Invisible Women Filmmakers.” I discovered that there were plenty of qualified women directors, but that most reviewers weren’t covering women’s films. Dedicated to promoting women directors,  I decided to seek out their films. Three films on this list were directed by women: my favorite inspiring film this year “Mustang,” “Suffragette,” and “The 33.” ("The Danish Girl," “Room” and "A Little Chaos" were penned by women). Last year’s list had four. And that's with me seeking them out!

These FEMALE Oscar Winners rocked their acceptance speeches: 

"A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness" won Best Short Documentary. In her acceptance speech, Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shared how movies really do make a difference. After watching her doc, the Prime Minister of Pakistan changed the laws on honor killings! 
My new hero Jenny Beavan

After winning her Best Costume Oscar for "Mad Max: Fury Road," Jenny Beavan, donning a fierce bejeweled leather jacket, gave a powerful acceptance speech"I just want to say one quite serious thing, I've been thinking about this a lot, but actually it could be horribly prophetic, Mad Max, if we're not kinder to each other, and if we don't stop polluting our atmosphere, so you know, it could happen,"

Yes, we need women filmmakers. PLEASE, SHARE!

Check out my reviews of films by Women Filmmakers.

1 comment:

Angeline D'Balentine said...

It doesn't surprise me that Mustang made number one on your list.   I cannot wait to see this flick. I'm on a hunt for it now. And I was pleasantly surprised by “The colors of Versailles." That became one of my favorites too this year. Btw, did you see "The Intern" yet? It made me tear up a few times - as being a woman who is in charge, owns a company, and trying at the world of dating, per sa.