I always chuckle at the Oscars when the winners ruminate in their acceptance speech on the weightiness and difficulty of their profession, using their precious allotted time to remind us that they do the most important and difficult work there is. Meanwhile, doctors, firefighters, kindergarten teachers, nurses et al. share a collective eye roll and anxiously await the play-off music. That said, I love movies: they entertain, they educate, they suspend reality, they showcase creativity, and they transport you from time period to time period and from culture to culture. Yet, they are also time consuming, expensive (when seen in theaters), and the field is highly concentrated - i.e., when you've got huge gaps in your movie knowledge bank, where do you start?
While I don't have a long-term plan to be "well viewed," I've implemented a short-term plan: start with five movies released in the last 12 months. Over the last few weeks, I have reached out to as many people as possible seeking their favorite movies of late. With that feedback, I landed on a drama, comedy, musical, documentary, and animated. Caveat: this might be too obvious to state, but I am clearly not a movie critic; rather, this is my best crowd-sourced list of must-see movies. Without further ado...
1. Up first, in my favorite category of drama, The Post. A political thriller with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, directed by Steven Spielberg, is about as personalized of an ideal movie for me as you can get. I loved it and particularly was invested in watching Streep - who played Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of a major US Paper - play a character that struggled to find her voice and confidence. I was also fully engaged and intrigued with the storyline: one of the lesser known, yet pivotal, moments of the Nixon administration, when the white house attempted to censor the press's release of classified materials that exposed government secrets.
It is worth noting that there is an added allure to this movie in some of the parallels that can be drawn from its events to current struggles between the press and the white house. The Post explores many First Amendment issues that we are grappling with today and showcases some of the risks that individuals have taken over the course of history to ensure that those rights are protected. While those pieces appeal more to the history and political science lovers amongst us, the movie as a whole is engaging from start to finish and worth being on a short list of movies to watch.
2. Comedies are tricky for me. I love to laugh, but often have a hard time finding comedies that hit my sense of humor; Meet the Parents-style movies make me cringe; Hangover-style movies are a shoulder shrug. But, Lady Bird, hit home for the comedy selection and had me laughing out loud (and crying more than once - especially once I recoverd from the shock that it wasn't a first lady biography). Lady Bird is a coming of age movie, and I might as well go ahead and face head-on that this movie made me fully embrace the fact that I have long since come of age and now view such movies through the lens of a parent. A tough pill to swallow, and one that made it a little less appealing to me as I had trouble relating to the mother, who was relentlessly tough on Lady Bird.
The movie follows Lady Bird's senior year of high school, her transition to college, and her attempts to find her identity in a season where she was constantly at odds with her mother and felt out of place as a kid "from the other side of the tracks" at a private high school. It was funny, honest, and engaging. I wouldn't put it in my list of movies to watch again, but I enjoyed every minute of it, it fully suspended reality for me, and I have thought about some of the pieces of it regularly since watching (one of my litmus tests for great movies). Worth the watch!
3. Now to musicals. While I know there are many out there that shy away from musicals, I love them. Good singing and dancing is endlessly entertaining to me, and some of my all-time favorites are musicals - I could watch The Sound of Music, Les Miserables, and Annie (just to name a few) over and over again. As a result, this was the category that I explored and watched first. While I am anxious to see LaLa Land, it was slightly out of my time range, so it will have to wait. Plus, the recommendations that I got for musical were the most unanimous of any category: The Greatest Showman.
In The Greatest Showman, Hugh Grant stars as PT Barnum, and the movie traces his creation of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The music and the dancing were good but not epic - i.e., I was fully entertained but didn't run out to buy the soundtrack. Quick note: one mistake we made during this movie was reading the full bio of Barnum in the middle of it. That was a little distracting. Regardless, The Greatest Showman tells an engaging story that I didn't know and kept me in a child-like trance watching the musical numbers. While I don't have a Greatest Showman playlist right next to my Hamilton list, this movie is on my watch-again list. Plus, while it's a little too much for my kids right now, in a year or two I think it's one that could be on our family playlist. My advice: watch it, enjoy it, afterwards read the full bio, and then watch again.
4. I love documentaries and used to watch them regularly. Sadly, I hadn't seen one in the last two years, but the selection for this category was a no-brainer: Won't You Be My Neighbor? Won't You Be My Neighbor? tells the story of Fred Rogers and his development of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. His story is relatively simple and his message and mission were consistent: he wanted kids to know that they were loved. An ordained minister, Rogers believed that kids had a voice worth listening to, that the content that kids consumed from television mattered, and that adults should give kids opportunities to discuss and work through their many emotions. Won't You Be My Neighbor? found an engaging way to tell his story to so many of us that knew nothing about him - or his show - beyond what we saw on PBS in the 80s.
A few months ago my daughter watched her first episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. We randomly selected an episode from pbskids.org and it happened to be from, what I now know, was the week on death. In the episode, Mr. Roger's fish dies, and there is a full burial and lengthy discussions on the reality that everyone dies. My eyes got wider and wider as the episode went on, I regularly checked in with my very sensitive four-year-old, and even once or twice recommended that we watch something else or another episode. She was engrossed, adamant that we not change it, and, of course, fine. What I learned from the documentary was that these types of episodes were the heart of what Rogers was doing - not shying away from difficult issues, as parents often want to do (obviously I am the target parent there), but rather giving kids a space and words to explore difficult issues that inevitably surround them. It's simple, spot-on, and, for must of us, really hard to do.
Having watched many hours of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, it was fascinating to see the "why" behind what happened on the show. As a parent, it was also a key reminder about the significance of what kids are watching, the need to give kids a voice, and the importance of giving children room to share and work through their emotions. While watching it at home won't compare to seeing it on the big screen at the State Theater in Ann Arbor, I will watch this again not only for the many lessons it conveyed but also for the general sense of hope and positivity that it left me with.
5. Last, but definitely not least, two movies kept being mentioned in the animation category: Incredibles 2 and Isle of Dogs. I settled on Isle of Dogs because it was directed by Wes Anderson, but my heart really wants to see Incredibles 2 also, so might add that one to the queue. Isle of Dogs is in that "hard-to-find" period because it is no longer in theaters but not yet available to rent. I have calendared July 24 as the Isle of Dogs watch party for our house and watched as many clips and previews as possible until then. Set in dystopian-Japan (my ears perked up when I heard dystopian), all the dogs have been exiled to an island because of canine flu. The story follows the adventures of a twelve-year-old boy who flies to the island to search for his dog.
My sources tell me it's great, Wes Anderson rarely lets me down, and it's stop-motion animation, which I find entralling, so I will be hitting the redbox in two weeks when it comes out. That said, check out the Incredibles 2 trailer below and tell me that you don't want to see that one too?
This post has, by far, been the most fun to research. What a delight the last few weeks to "have" to watch a movie. If you're like me and haven't taken the time to do that much, or at all, recently, the above list is a good place to start. Many thanks to all that weighed in on creating this list. Are there other movies that you would rate above these? Or, if the list were expanded to the top 10, what should be included? Look forward to continuing the conversation and the education.
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