★★★ / ★★★★
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was hired to coach an Indiana high school basketball team. He used to coach college basketball for twelve years, but he spent the last ten years in the Navy. The small town’s residents seriously questioned Norman’s qualifications and strange methods of training. After all, what could a man who spent his last decade on water impart when it came to basketball? Based on a true story of underdogs, “Hoosiers,” written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, made a sport I thought was uninteresting into an exciting, touching, and inspiring film that also touched upon what it meant to give and receive a second chance. Immediately did I admire Hackman’s character because of his determination to turn a team with raw potential into a force that worked as a single unit. Despite the town’s constant interference accompanied by unwarranted threats, he didn’t question himself and his methods. There was something about his confidence that I found comforting. The way Norman eventually earned his team’s respect felt natural because communication and wanting to change were established as a two-way street. There was no one rousing speech that changed everything the next day. Dennis Hopper as the assistant coach named Shooter was equally strong and compelling. In fact, I believed Hopper delivered two performances. The first was an alcoholic who lived in isolation and the other was a father who desperately wanted to make his son, a member of the basketball team, to be proud of him. We weren’t always certain whether Shooter would be able to defeat his alcoholism. Unlike the game which consisted of rules, statistics and a certain level of predictability, alcoholism was indeed another breed. It was a disease and the person inflicted could be fine one day and a complete wreck the next. The picture was successful in generating tension because its backbone in terms of the drama behind the basketball games was consistently in focus. When the big games arrived, it felt like there was more at stake, that winning would mean something more than a trophy and a title. It meant pride for the townsfolk who didn’t quite reach their dreams but nonetheless loved their town unconditionally. It meant a boost of morale for the players who worked tirelessly to improve their game. It also meant unity between newcomers and a town who didn’t like the idea of change. I only wished the romantic connection between Norman and Myra (Barbara Hershey), a fellow teacher, was either further explored or taken out completely. In a film with already so much heart, it didn’t need to feature a romantic interest in order to get us to care more than we already did. “Hoosiers” is often cited as one of the best sports drama depicted on film and with excellent reasons. Given that I’m not a big fan of basketball, I found my eyes transfixed on the ball and the scoreboard.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Océans,” directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, explored the interplay between nature and mankind. This documentary caught me by surprise because I thought it was just going to be about the creatures that lived in the ocean. But it also turned out to be a commentary on how humans, despite living on Earth for a relatively short period of time, have negatively affected the ocean in shocking ways and the animals that depended on the ocean for survival. The movie showed absolutely breathtaking images of predator-prey relationship, notably when the birds would dive underwater at lightning speeds and try to capture fish. That particular scene was so intense, it was like watching an action movie only it was actually real and it happens every day. But my favorite scenes have got to be the ones shot in the ocean floor. I love those scenes because the strangest-looking creatures appeared on screen. There’s something about creatures that can expertly blend in their surroundings and make surprise attacks that have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of waiting for a kill (or the hunt), I’m not exactly sure, but I can watch those scenes for hours. However, my problem with “Océans” was its lack of focus. I felt like the movie jumped from one type of living thing to another without any smooth transition. It would have felt more organic if the first fifteen to twenty minutes were only dedicated to fish, hard shells the next, penguins the next and so on. The movie jumping from one group to another and then back took me out of the experience. Perhaps the directors decided to do it for people with short attention spans but it just doesn’t work for people like me who can pay attention to one element for about an hour (given that the material is interesting). Regardless, “Océans” is worth seeing for the stunning images and the emphasis on the world being bigger than us so we must take care of it the best we can. There was this brilliant line in the film that stated something like the humans’ indifference is utimately nature’s downfall. It certainly made me want to commit to recycling instead of only sticking to it only if I felt like it. This is also a good movie to show to children (especially those in elementary school) because it has a clear way of showing concepts like the aformentioned predator-prey relationships, symbiosis and pollution. Plus, it had really cute clips of sea lions that almost had human qualities in the way they nurtured or played with their young.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Lorenzo’s Oil,” directed by George Miller, was about how Lorenzo’s parents, Augusto Odone (Nick Nolte) and Michaela Odone (Susan Sarandon), invented a treatment for cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) when their son (Zack O’Malley Greenburg) was diagnosed with the fatal disease. The road to finally arriving to a sufficient (but not perfect) treatment was very emotionally draining for me. Admittedly, I cried because it was so heartbreaking to see a vibrant, smart kid who knows three languages turn into someone who couldn’t move, couldn’t express himself and couldn’t even swallow without the help of a machine. The way Miller used the passage of time to establish the cruelty the genetic disease was done with such craft and confidence. I felt like I was there in that house where the parents decided to keep their son for years. As emotional as this film was, I was impressed with how it handled the science. It brought up many things I’ve learned in the university and I was able to follow the scientific discussions and explanations with relative ease. As a Biology major, I often wonder why we have to study the specifics of the mechanisms of every system in the body–both in lower animals and humans; it all feels dry (not to mention pointless!) because the emphasis is on memorization despite the professors telling us that understanding is always the key. This picture made me realize that even though it might feel boring and pointless to us now, details really do matter when it comes to finding a cure for diseases that affect people all over the world. That fact was highlighted when Nolte was shown to spend days and days in the library to make sense of his son’s disease and construct an alternative theory that might lead to a treatment. I guess what I’m saying is that this movie forced me to look at the bigger picture, to want to learn more and it reminded me why I want to pursue a career in medicine. I also liked the fact that this wasn’t just about the disease and how the parents tried to find a treatment. The director had scenes that commented on the dynamics between the slow process of science and the people that desperately need immediate solutions, the importance of emotional intelligence from nurses and doctors, the family and friends that stick with us at a time of need, and the dangers of false hope. “Lorenzo’s Oil” is a challenging and heartbreaking film but it’s undeniably uplifting. Everything about it was consistently strong, especially the performance from the lead actors (Sarandon’s scene when she whispered to Lorenzo, “If you need to go, you fly to baby Jesus as fast as you can” was done so brilliantly.) and some notable supporting actors such as Kathleen Wilhoite and the very underrated Margo Martindale. I am very grateful to my professors who cited this film in their lectures and I am beyond happy that I decided to see it. It’s one of the most rewarding films I’ve seen in a while.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I find it an uncommon experience to watch a movie that really gets involved with my emotions, but it’s rare that I watch a movie that has the ability to completely transport me in its reality. Directed by Lee Daniels, “Precious” tells the story of an pregnant, obese, illiterate African-American teenager (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) who has grown accustomed to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by her mother (Mo’Nique) and how she eventually found strength inside of her to stand up and take her life in a positive direction. A few people who genuinely took interest in Precious were Paula Patton as the school teacher, Mariah Carey as one of the people who works for the welfare system, and Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse who took care of her after she had her second baby.
I have to admit that I choose to ignore or even actively stay away from people like Precious, partly due to fear since she came from a terrible neighborhood and partly due to how she presented herself: very quiet yet volatile and someone that seemed like she had no interest in taking care of herself. That stereotype that I often rely on doesn’t come consciously to me anymore and it was nice, through watching this film, to be reminded that despite physical appearances, everyone has a surprising (and even touching) story to tell, a story that transcends all the stigma and the pain that a person shows and hides. Even though the subject matter of this film was depressing, it found enough moments to insert not just amusing lines and moments but actual hopes and dreams of the lead character’s. Such scenes illustrated that although Precious didn’t like herself (when she looks in the mirror, she sees a completely different person–Caucasian, skinny, happy), she wanted to break out from her violent living environment and ultimately be loved for who she is and what she has to offer.
I thought the scenes of physical abuse from her father were done in a sensitive and insightful way. Instead of actually showing us the act, I admired how the picture chose to dissociate itself from the scene as when Precious would dissociate herself from the experience and think shiny, happy thoughts. From what I learned in Psychology, rape victims, especially those people who were raped ever since they were children, dissociate their minds from their bodies as a defense mechanism. So I thought the film’s craft was spot-on. Mo’Nique’s character was beyond cruel but just when I thought she was a complete monster, the movie shows us that she does indeed have a heart. It’s just that she became angry and bitter over the years because of how she interpreted certain events and how she saw certain realities. Again, I saw this through a psychological lens so her reaction made sense to me even though I do not agree with the way transfered all her frustration and anger (that should have been directed to her husband and herself) to her only daughter. Mo’Nique has been getting a lot of strong Oscar buzz for Best Actress and I believe she should be nominated because out of the many movies I’ve seen in 2009, her performance stands out by a mile.
The reason why I consider “Precious” one of the strongest movies of 2009 is because, despite its gloomy premise, it’s ultimately a very inspiring story about a seemingly hopeless girl from Harlem who chose to break the chains of abuse and find an alternative path so that she could grow as a person and maybe even reach her potential. This is a great film to show to kids from the poorer neighborhoods because it might give them enough courage to speak out and discover a role model that they might not have in their respective homes. It’s been a while since I saw people actually crying in the movies and people talking about it right when we were walking out of the theaters. Even though I saw this film alone (For some reason, I almost always watch the best films of the year by myself), I felt connected with the world and wanting to embrace everyone in it.
Saint Ralph (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Michael McGowan, “Saint Ralph” stars Adam Butcher, a boy who believes that if he can perform a miracle by winning the 1954 Boston Marathon, God will take his mother (Shauna MacDonald) out from her coma and everything will be okay again. What I loved about this movie was that it started off pretty funny. Ralph was not exactly the model student: he got into trouble by “accidentally” masturbating in the swimming pool (did I mention he attends a Catholic school?), his peers constantly made fun of him, made forgeries with his best friend (Michael Kanev), and lied about his dead grandparents. But as things started to get serious, the director slowly showed the audiences how Ralph forced himself to be more mature and eventually run the marathon. I liked that he had occassional slip-ups because it showed that he was still a fourteen-year-old and not someone who turned into a saint overnight. I usually don’t like movies that glorify religion because most of them are too preachy. However, although this film was set in a religious school and community, it was really more of an inspirational story about someone who desperately needed an outlet for his negative emotions and channel it into something good. I was touched by his relationship with Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), the teacher who helped him to get better at running, and was infuriated with Father Fitzpatrick’s (Gordon Pinsent) attempt to put Ralph in an orphanage. I also thought that Jennifer Tilly as Nurse Alice was pretty good; she became more like a mother figure to Ralph and I thought it was a nice that she was playing a different sort of character compared to her other movies. I have to admit that the end of the picture made me tear up in so many ways because I wanted Butcher’s character to succeed so badly. There’s just something about characters in movies who work really hard because they want to achieve something that gets me every single time. I guess I can easily relate because I used to feel like I always had to prove myself to people that I’m good enough. (Which reached its climax in my high school years.) After the movie, I was just overwhelmed with many different emotions and I was really happy that I saw it.
The Class (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I thought “Chalk” was a realistic portrayal of the classroom environment but “Entre les murs,” also known as “The Class,” was grittier and far more realistic. Based on the novel and starring François Bégaudeau, this film was a docudrama about a teacher who tries to encourage fourteen- to fifteen-year-olds to be more passionate about learning via being honest with them and using various methods to find their strengths in a span of one year. However, this year was different because the kids he had last year were on the verge of growing up so, naturally, they began to question his different approaches and tried to constantly push him over the edge, blind to the fact that he was always putting his best intentions forward to try to make them more prepared for the future. This film is very difficult not to admire because it really captured how it was like to be in a classroom consisting on hormonal and highly unstable students. I was in high school three years ago and it brought back a lot of memories. I may not have had the same experiences as the students in this picture because I experienced both “advanced placement” classes and “regular” classes, but the conversations and dynamics in the classrooms were essentially similar. Seeing François Bégaudeau’s character reminded me of my best teachers in high school (unsurprisingly, my favorite classes: French and Psychology) because even though they always try their best and put on a mask that everything is okay, tiny cracks on their armors are sometimes seen and the frustrations leak out like a dam about to burst. I looked at the students who improvised most of the dialogue and I constantly thought that in less than five years, their outlook on education, ability in terms of social interactions and the overall concept of respect would totally be redefined to the point where they would look at this film and probably would not recognize who they were. I also found the interactions between the teachers and faculty fascinating. There were some scenes that suggested that they, too, were like children in the classrooms, which was a nice surprise because most American films about inspirational teachers have this message that teachers are always proper, always wearing decent clothes and always having that need to provide a big speech that would change everybody’s minds for the better. None or very minimal of that American formula was painted here. “The Class,” directed by Laurent Cantet, was a painfully realistic look at our educational systems and it shows that teachers need to be appreciated more even if their best efforts are simply not enough. (Don’t even get me started on how little they get paid for such an important and difficult career.) There was this scene in the end when one of the students confessed to the teacher that she didn’t learn anything throughout the school year, which totally broke my heart. As sad as it was, it’s more honest and more common than we can possibly imagine. That said, it shouldn’t scare us or defeat us; it should only inspire us to find other ways to accomodate such learners.
Working Girl (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Mike Nichols, this romantic comedy has something to say or two about women in the work force. Set in the 1980’s, I was very amused by looking at people’s hair, clothes and the lingos they used. Even though those things are not that relevant today because they went out of fashion, there is one thing that persisted: Women are still considered less equal to men. Melanie Griffith plays Sigourney Weaver’s hardworking secretary who one day pitches an idea to Weaver. Even though Weaver promised Griffith that she will get some credit if Weaver’s boss liked her ideas, Weaver pitched Griffith’s ideas as her own. After an injury that left Weaver in bed for a couple of weeks, Griffith stumbled upon Weaver’s betrayal and decided to climb the corporate ladder. Even though this is a romantic comedy, it’s not an ordinary one because of the wit in its writing. Just when you think the story will unfold one way, it completely veers off another way and it surprised me (in a good way). Griffith is completely believable as an astute secretary who wants to be something more. Weaver did a great job as the boss from hell. It was hard for me to read her intentions because she’s so good at lying and manipulating everyone despite her sweet facade. Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack are also found here and they all have scenes where they truly shine. What didn’t work as well for me was the romantic angle. Sometimes, I felt as though it dragged the story down and shifted away from the business angle of the story. I can imagine this film being talked about in Women’s Studies courses because it has something to say about marriage, the workplace, and the home. The most interesting aspect in the film was even though Griffith wants to fight against a man-centered world of business, her enemy is a woman, just like herself. When I saw Weaver for the first time, my first instinct was Griffith and Weaver teaming up to climb the corporate ladder. I only realized later that it’s even better if they’re up against each other. As for its ending, it was so well-done. I was so touched because, in a way, it summarized Griffith’s journey in a different angle. This is a strong film by Nichols because it ultimately inspires.