★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Zana Briski decided to go to Calcutta’s red-light district in hopes of getting a chance to document how it was really like, especially for women, to live in the brothels. But her mission evolved when she got closer to the prostitutes’ children; she realized that the kids needed a chance to get out of the red-light district so she handed the children simple cameras, used their photographs to raise money, get international acclaim and get them into boarding schools. I was really touched by this documentary because the kids offered such insight about their living situations. Even though the kids were very young, they knew the importance of education but at the same time some of them came to accept that most of them would never leave the district. Or worse, they would turn out like their parents. Despite knowing the nature of their mothers’ jobs, the kids were aware of the fact that their mothers had to sacrifice their own bodies and safety in order to support their families. One of the kids that really moved me said that she doesn’t ever see herself becoming rich, that she’ll be happy being poor because life is supposeed to be sad and difficult. I understand the hopelessness of the children because of how and where they’ve been raised, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing better is in store for them because I wasn’t raised in an environment that was even as close to theirs. The realism of this picture was staggering but it’s nice to reminded of the fact that the events that we’ve seen in the movie is still happening today. Briski’s decision to teach the children the art of photography has to be commended. The children were powerless but having a camera their hands was like handing them a special power. It was easy to see the light in those children’s eyes when they would run around in the streets and take random pictures of people and objects. I was surprised with how well some of the photographs turned out and was convinced that some of them just had a natural gift in photography. I don’t know if the children realized it but taking pictures was like an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. And the way they talked about Briski, I could tell that the kids looked up to her so much and probably even considered her as their hero. “Born Into the Brothels,” directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, was a rich and emotionally challenging documentary. The movie may have been shot with a simple hand-held camera (at least from what it looked like) but it was bold in terms of really exploring the sociological and psychological impacts of the environment had on the children.
★★★ / ★★★★
“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.
Pressure Cooker (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Three high school students (Tyree Dudley, Erica Gaither, Fatoumata Dembele), under the passionate culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson’s guidance, worked their hardest to get scholarships for culinary arts college. I loved that this documentary focused on people who happened to be from a poor neighborhood but that didn’t stop them from trying to reach for their dreams. I admired the three former high school students because they had challenges outside the culinary school–Tyree and football, Erica and her handicapped sister, and Fatoumata being an immigrant from Africa–yet, strangely enough, I found that their respective challenges was what made them stronger. Out of the three, I could relate with Fatoumata the most because, growing up in another country and moving to America, I agreed with her outlook about America and its opportunities. Every time she talked about how thankful she was about immigrating to this country, I couldn’t help but feel moved. But the element that I found most interesting about this documentary was Stephenson’s relationship with her students. Even though she constantly yelled and screamed at them in the kitchen, it was easy to tell that she did those things out of love. She knew she needed to push the kids to doing their absolute hardest so they could get a scholarship. But outside of the kitchen, it seemed like she was a different person. She was still sassy but very approachable. I don’t know any teacher who would push his or her students to go to prom because “it’s a once in a lifetime thing” and even take them shopping for clothes. She didn’t just care for her students. She loved them in a such a way where she was willing to be a parent and that earned her respect. This documentary was not only inspiring and touching, it was also suspenseful. The climax of the film was when the class had to cook as the judges looked over their shoulders and sometimes made suggestions on how they could improve their skills. It was scary because so much was at stake and a little slip-up could ruin their chances of getting a scholarship they desperately needed. I was elated after watching “Pressure Cooker,” directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, because it was exactly the kind of movie I needed to see two days before taking my MCAT. It made me feel like anything was possible just as long as you invest the time to do the work and let your passion assist you during the most challenging times.
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.
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.