Favorite Films of 2009

It’s kind of fun, isn’t it, to look back over the year and note the high spots.  Here is a list of the best DVDs we watched, the ones that I would rate 5/5.  We studied WWII, we (she says) like food, we like Donne, we like Dickens and we like song. 

Documentaries

Our favorite DVD was I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.  At the beginning of March it was the best DVD we had seen in 2009, and at the end of December I can still say it was the best.  My review.

The Singing Revolution documents the independence of Estonia through the power of singing.  It’s simply incredible!  Please!  Take two minutes, click on the link and watch the trailer.  I had the same response to this film that I had to a much different movie, Hotel Rwanda: these events took place during my (adult) lifetime.  Where was I? Why was I so ignorant?
In the case of Estonia, I just didn’t connect with the phrase, Baltic States.  Oh, if I was teaching the American War of Independence, I would show this film to compare and contrast America’s war and Estonia’s.

  

We rented one disc of Planet Earth from Netflix and decided we needed to own this series.  We gave the set to our sons for Christmas.  Extraordinary footage.  If you have kids in your life, it is worth owning this.  My review

Food, Inc. is an eye-opening look at what we eat.  Sounds appetizing, eh?  If you enjoyed Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you will like Food, Inc.  It comes from the same kernel as King Corn. The highlight of the movie, for us, was the segment with Joel Salatin on Polyface Farms.  Warning: if you watch this, you might change your food choices.

World War II


As a family, we often remember a season or a year by our viewing.  One summer it was the Jeeves and Wooster videos, one autumn was occupied with Foyle’s War.  Last winter it was Band of Brothers.  It took us a while to find a friend willing to lend it to us.  Curt had co-workers who owned this set, but it was too precious to them to lend it out. Gritty, war-violence, it is not for the faint of heart. If you can stomach the intensity of combat scenes, it is highly excellent.  Our son was very happy to get this from his brother for Christmas.  On a side note, the theme music is the most compelling, haunting, soul-grabbing collection of notes. 

It is ironic that I watched Valkyrie with my daughter-in-law and her sister.  They said it was the best war movie they’d seen.  Apart from the opening, there are no gunfights or battle scenes.  It is all spy and mystery and thriller.  Even though you know that this operation failed, you are sucked into the suspense and hold your breath.  After watching this movie I am left with the question, how many lives would have been saved if this attempt on Hitler’s life from the inside of the Nazi machine had succeeded?  There are many potential points of discussion.

BBC and Me

I don’t know how I completely missed David Copperfield when it came out in 2000, but I did.  I love Dickens and I loved David C.  We’ve enjoyed Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and have Our Mutual Friend waiting for me to finish the book. However, I don’t believe there is middle ground with Dickens: either you are a fan of sad, sordid, sorrowful scenes where one ray of light appears…or you aren’t. 

There is nothing funny about Wit but it is gripping.  This is, I believe, Emma Thompson’s best role….ever.  John Donne, the metaphysical poet, is worth exploring.  My review here.

Foreign

File The Chorus (Les Choristes) under films that demonstrate the power of music.  A composer/teacher takes a job at a boy’s reform school after WWII.  The headmaster is a typical two-dimensioned cruel man, a foolish tyrant.  Singing in a chorus brings beauty into the students’ lives.  A few gritty parts, and a little heavy on sentimentalism, but I liked it.

Fun with Food

A friend recommended Jamie Oliver – Oliver’s Twist to us.  It’s the first foodie show we’ve raved about.  Jamie Oliver is a guy’s guy who loves to cook.  Unpretentious. With a British accent.  What’s not to love?

I was delighted to receive (and watch!) Julie & Julia this Christmas.  Since Curt and I watched it in the theater, we rented a disc of Julia Child’s cooking shows. Having seen them underscored how brilliant Meryl Streep really is.  Perfectly delightful.  My review

What about you?  Which movies would you watch again in 2010?

Nothing But A Comma

(A professor, denouncing this punctuation:
Death be not proud; Death thou shalt die!)

Nothing but a breath, a comma, separates life from life everlasting.
Very simple, really.
With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer
something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks.
It is a comma, a pause.
And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.

Emma Thompson, the reason why Sense and Sensibility is my favorite movie, Emma Thompson of Much Ado, Henry V       and…  and…  

Emma Thompson played her most convincing role yet as Vivian Bearing, a scholar of 17th century poetry, an expert on John Donne.  Wit is the story of Professor Bearing’s journey through advanced ovarian cancer. 

This movie is heavy.  Heartbreakingly heavy.  It’s the kind of movie that saturates you.  Words, cancer and Emma.  Most of the movie is shot as a monologue with Emma talking directly to the camera.  Thompson is a marvel at giving each syllable its due. 

One thing that can be said for an eight month course
of cancer treatment: it is highly educational.
I am learning to suffer.

Audra McDonald plays the part of Suzie, Vivian’s primary nurse.  Fabulous.  She looked so familiar and it finally came to me.  Audra is also an opera singer.  My husband and I both fell in love with Audra McDonald one quiet Christmas afternoon, watching her sing.  You will love the way Suzie cares – in all its meanings — for Vivian.  How profound is a dollop of lotion and a hand massage.

I am a scholar.
Or I was…when I had shoes…or eyebrows.

When Vivian’s aged mentor visits her in the hospital and reads her Runaway Bunny, I was sobbing.  It demonstrates that sometimes simple words are the best.  It reminded me of a bedside scene in Bleak House where a young woman simply says the Lord’s Prayer. 

Words.  You will never forget the meaning of soporific.  My old friend concatenation had its half-second of fame.  Even the name of the protagonist is interesting:  Vivian – which evokes all those Latinate vivo- words – means lively.  Bearing gives the sense of what she is doing with all the cancer treatment: bearing it. 

Why is such a sorrowful movie called Wit?  John Donne is called a metaphysical wit, the word wit used in the sense of keen discernment or exceptional intelligence. 

The words of Donne did me in.  Just like watching Julie & Julia makes you want to cook up a wonderful meal, watching Wit makes me yearn to learn Donne, to have his potent poetry memorized.  I’m particularly interested in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.   The first thing I did after the credits had rolled and I had picked the puddle of myself up from my chair was go to Amazon and put the DVD (only 5.99!) in my shopping cart.  Clicking on the picture below takes you there.

…and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia follows the true story to two women: Julia Child in France, 1949, and Julie Powell, who cooked and blogged her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 2002 from her apartment in Queens.  It is an interesting technique to put two memoirs into one film, but it works.

If you like period pieces, you’ll especially enjoy the French parts of the movie.  I wouldn’t have thought post-WWII Paris could have looked so luscious.  My husband was salivating from the beginning of the movie…over the wood paneled blue Buick station wagon.

Meryl Streep delivers an award-winnable performance as the jaunty Julia Child.  She captures the voice, the mannerisms and the joi de vivre that is signature Julia.  One cannot help but love this woman who is so at home in her own skin.  Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, a cubicle worker and aspiring writer, restless and riddled with angst.  Julia becomes Julie’s role model.

Paul Child and Eric Powell, the husbands, play supporting roles.  The film portrays the Childs’ relationship as stable and secure, tinged with sadness at their inability to conceive; Julie and Eric’s marriage is threatened by the blogging project and her focus on it.  It is refreshing to see a movie with two married couples for whom fidelity is a given. 

The main message that I extracted is that Julia Child was her joyful, unflappable self because she was a woman adored by her husband.  His love “beautified” her.  We admire this woman who is plain and tall, with a voice that grazes the ceiling, because of her passion and zest and joy in cooking. The security of being  loved meant she didn’t have to edit the fiascos out of her television shows.  That woman could laugh.

My strongest criticism is that the intimacy of both couples was overstated and brought on screen.  Less is more.  The scene where Julia and Paul exit their Paris house holding hands until their fingertips part communicates their sexual sizzle better than the bedroom scenes.

Oh..the food!  Lots of butter, lots of whisking, chopping, and plenty of eating.  It’s delicious.

Breaker Morant and Evelyn

DVD titles are floating to the top of our Netflix queue.  Breaker Morant? my husband queried.  The title gives no clues.  Some history book referenced it, I shrugged, struggling to recall why *this* movie was in our home.  The Boer War! (1901) 

The movie is based on a true story; the main character, Breaker Morant, is a folk hero in Australia.  Three Australians, members of the Bushveldt Carbineers, are court-martialled by the British for shooting Boer prisoners.  They don’t deny the facts but their defense is that they were following orders.  Their defense attorney is given one day to prepare his case. This 1979 movie is one to watch and discuss with teenagers.  What are the rules in guerilla warfare?  What are war crimes?  The movie didn’t bring this out, but Kitchener established the first concentration camps during this war. 

[Major General Lord Kitchener to prosecutor]
 “The Germans are looking for an excuse to enter the war,
on the Boer side, of course.  We don’t want to give them one.
The Germans couldn’t give a damn about the Boers.
It’s the diamonds and gold of South Africa they’re interested in.”

“They lack our altruism, sir.”  “Quite.”
 

What I would give to have Sonja’s South African perspective on this movie.  There is some language and war scenes that don’t wallow in graphic displays but are nonetheless brutal.  This is a movie that will stay with you and provoke many thoughts long after the credits have rolled.

~   ~   ~

Not until I paid attention to Breaker Morant, did I realize that Bruce Beresford directed the last two DVDs we watched.  [He also directed Paradise Road (one of my favorites on the power of music in war), Driving Miss Daisy and Tender Mercies

Evelyn tells the true story of Desmond Doyle, an unemployed Irish man who lost custody of his children to the government after his wife deserted him.  Once his finances improved he wanted his children back. The government tells him to wait until the kids are sixteen.  He challenges the law, eventually to the Irish Supreme Court.  This is another movie with obvious discussion points: when is it appropriate for the government to intervene in family life?  Whose kids?  What are parental and paternal rights?  Are father’s rights different than mother’s rights?  Should they be?

The acting in this film is not top rate, although Sophie Vavasseur plays the role of young Evelyn with perfect pitch.  She is not the sacharine cutesy-pie many eight year old girl’s roles become. A few scenes are written, paced and played with excellence. The kindest thing to say about Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice is nothing.  Woe!  Whoa.

The cinematography is lovely, but hey, it’s Ireland! How could it be other than lovely?  The historical aspect of the story kept our attention more than anything else.  Language is an issue in this PG movie. One favorite Irish exclamation is “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” often abbreviated.  It has more grit than a Hallmark film, but will have you cheering at the end.          

I Have Never Forgotten You

He didn’t mask his disappointment.  It’s a documentary?  Exhausted from a long work week, my husband anticipated a light comedy … something … easy.  Three minutes into the movie we were fully engaged, and flat out in love with Simon Wiesenthal.  When the credits rolled, we wept in silence, wrapped in a shawl of sorrow. 

Why was this movie so appealing?  It taps into our sense of justice.  N.T. Wright writes, “…we all share not just a sense that there is such a thing as justice, but a passion for it, a deep longing that things should be put to rights, a sense of out-of-jointness that goes on nagging and gnawing and sometimes screaming at us…”

I Have Never Forgotten You tells Wiesenthal’s story with a montage of archived interviews, televised speaking engagements, and biographical narrative.  Blessed with a steel-trap memory, this Shoah survivor weighing 99 pounds was able to sit down and write ninety names of Nazi war criminals soon after he was liberated.  With his role in finding Adolf Eichmann, Simon Wiesenthal’s fame as a Nazi hunter grew to international proportions.      

This was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  Sorrow was not only a daily companion, but an essential part of the man he became.  He made room for it in his life; he didn’t try to deny its existence or keep it locked up in the cellar of his soul.  His eyes welled up often.  He was a grief-carrier, and the grace with which he carried his grief is truly a thing of beauty.  He was warm and jovial, a joke maker and a story teller.  And his smile…his smile melted my heart.

I knew the name, had heard some stories.  I expected a man of intense, slow-burning anger, a vigilante bent on revenge.  But there is a vast difference between revenge and justice.  Solid in the face of opposition, Wiesenthal worked tirelessly; courageous when attacked, he methodically organized the avalanche of information, determined in his duty, persistent to the end.  Ben Kingsley said that he was an instrument of healing for thousands of people.
       
This is the best movie we’ve seen in 2009.  I highly recommend it with the caution that there are Holocaust images and content. 

Don’t Miss Planet Earth

I don’t know who to thank for the tip to see Planet Earth.  Thank you, unknown friend!
Here’s the deal: whenever a blog or essay mentions a book that I want to read, I go to  PaperBackSwap.com - Our online book club offers free books when you swap, trade, or exchange your used books with other book club members for free. and add the book to my Reminder list.  And when someone mentions a DVD, I go to Netflix and add it to my queue.  We watched the first episode of the first disc last night and were…enthralled.   Our 4 year old grandson was with us taking in the elephants, penguins, caribou, and impalas. 

After ten minutes of viewing I knew that this was a set that any decent person who goes by the name Papa or Nana needs to own.  Oh.  My.

The emergence of a polar bear from hibernation, a bird-of-paradise courtship dance, a great white shark suspended above the ocean, aerial views of mass migrations — wildlife photography like you’ve never seen before.

This is what I want you to do.  Go to Planet Earth where there is a 14 minute sampler.  Bet you can’t just watch 3 minutes of it!  If you are impressed, look over to the right.  Used copies of the entire set are starting at $15.00.  I ordered one this morning.

I’m certain the makers of this media didn’t intend it to be a devotional tool, but I can’t wait a sequence without awe, without thinking, “This is my Father’s world.”
      

The Gathering Storm

 
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If you condensed The Second World War, Volume 1: The Gathering Storm into one sentence, it would be: “See, I told you so!”  Churchill’s Theme of the Volume is

How the English-speaking peoples
through their unwisdom,
carelessness, and good nature
allowed the wicked to rearm.”   

I am ambivalent about Sir Winston.  He sounded the warnings, raised a ruckus and was unconcerned about opinion polls and minority viewpoints.  Sadly, what he predicted came to pass.  Reading the section on German rearmament and European appeasement is an exercise in frustration.  Thank God for Winston Churchill.

And yet…  There is a know-it-all attitude that I find off-putting.  Too many details included for vindication’s sake.  Too many speeches reproduced verbatim.  What kept me going through the pages was his command of English: the satisfying sentences, the robust words, the grand oratory.   

…amid a ceaseless chatter of well-meant platitudes…

Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve,
ready to shear away the peoples en masse

British fatuity and fecklessness which,
though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt…

So they go on in strange paradox,
decided only to be undecided,
resolved to be irresolute,
adamant for drift,
solid for fluidity,
all-powerful to be impotent.


One can hardly find a more perfect specimen of humbug and hypocrisy…

I always went to bed at least for one hour
as early as possible in the afternoon
and exploited to the full my happy gift
of falling almost immediately into deep sleep.
By this means I was able to press a day and a half’s work into one.

The_Gathering_Storm_2002_poster  

Not everyone has time for chunky books: voila the DVD!  Albert Finney excels as Winston Churchill.  There are moments of mild vulgarity: some backside nudity (of an old man getting into a bathtub – ewww!) and some tacky language. But the movie tells the story of the people who made history.  I loved how Churchill composed speeches while he dressed and shaved, the interactions between Clementine and Winston, the long-suffering private secretary, the pontificating in Parliament, the scenes at Chartwell.  If you love England, if you love the BBC, you will like The Gathering Storm.