As I say each year, I am very proud to have been a voting member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1984. As I also say each year, I wish the categories were defined as “favorite” rather than “best” because there is no objective standard by which anyone can use the word “best” when referring to a work of art. Calling one film or performance the “best” is just as impossible as calling Rembrandt a better painter than Van Gogh or singling out Mozart as a better composer than Beethoven.
As I personally feel uncomfortable trying to define “best” and do not generally like or appreciate many of the dark, depressing movies that seem to show up on most Oscar lists, I have added the word “uplifting” to this year’s list. While I readily acknowledge that “uplifting” is no less subjective a description than “best”, the films I personally admire most are the ones that help me feel better about simply being human….leaving me with a sense of inspiration, along with a hope and belief in who we can be as a species when we operate at our very best. In these kinds of films, the path may be perilous at times….but the light of transcendence and transformation beckon brightly.
So here are my favorite uplifting films of 2013. What are yours?
1. Her. Not only by far my favorite film of 2013, Her is one of the most audacious, original, emotional, disturbing, exhilarating, socially relevant, brilliant, and ultimately inspirational films that I’ve ever seen. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in the not-t00-distant future whose marriage has fallen apart and who buys a new operating system for his computer that includes the latest artificial intelligence technology, a female presence (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) who names herself Samantha. What follows is the most engrossing 2 hours of film you can possibly imagine. Writer/director Spike Jonze has always made singular, original films (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). With Her, Mr. Jonze has created a breakthrough film about how our obsession with all things electronic has affected not only our ability to communicate as and with our fellow human beings but also our capacity to experience love and vulnerability with each other. Mr. Phoenix is beyond sensational in one of the most challenging roles any actor has ever taken on, and Ms. Johannson gives one of the performances of the year, even though we never see her. I have no idea how many Academy Awards the film will be nominated for, or win, but I do know this: Her will be talked about, argued about, dissected, and revisited for decades to come. Appropriately R-rated for its language, sensuality, and themes, Her is truly one for the ages.
2. Gravity. The most thrilling, in-theater spectacle and most groundbreaking visual film I’ve seen since Avatar. From a sheer filmgoing standpoint, Gravity is awe-inspiring to behold; moreover, what made it particularly moving for me was the film’s deep spirituality and humanity. Facing almost certain death as an astronaut stranded in space, Sandra Bullock’s determination to use every ounce of her physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual strength to survive was truly exhilarating to experience…..and her simultaneous vulnerability and undaunted resolve and courage made me feel beyond proud of our shared humanity. Gravity is still playing in some theaters and will expand its run when it gets sure nominations in several tech categories and hopefully for Ms. Bullock, the director Alfonso Cuaron and the film itself. If you didn’t see this one in 3D in a theater the first time around, you still have time to enjoy a truly exhilarating experience.
3. About Time. Richard Curtis is one of my favorite writer/directors because he is one of the very few filmmakers working in so-called mainstream films today whose movies are focused on love, humor, hope, optimism, and pure joy. To put it succinctly, he makes movies about and from a very kind and loving heart. About Time continues the legacy of other Curtis films such as Notting Hill and Love Actually. This time around, Mr. Curtis spins another heartfelt, wonderful tale about a family whose men have the unique ability to time travel at will. Bill Nighy (who was so brilliant as the dissolute musician in Love Actually) is the patriarch who teaches his son that the ability to create “do-overs” in life can also lead to some very challenging decisions. The film takes many surprising turns and, as always with Richard Curtis films, leaves us feeling hopeful and inspired. Imagine that!
4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a sweet, gentle, loving film about finding your courage and leaping into the unknown. Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig are absolutely perfect together in a film that resonates with a similar tone as Forrest Gump many years ago. Mr. Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a kind soul with a big heart and even bigger dreams who finally dares to not only face his greatest fears but race to, through, and over them like a high hurdler in the Olympics. Mr. Stiller also directed the film with an inspirational style and sense of joy and belief that we humans can truly be magical creatures when we follow our hearts. Walter Mitty is that rare film nowadays where you can smile all the way through it and often have tears of happiness in your eyes. Dreamers–this one is for you.
5. 42 is the inspiring, true-life story of the immortal Jackie Robinson, the courageous pioneer who broke the despicable “color line” by becoming the first African-American major league baseball player. Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey (played with relish by Harrison Ford) knew the backlash it would cause but he nevertheless brought Mr. Robinson (played with great restraint and dignity by Chadwick Boseman)to the team on April 15, 1947. Faced with hostility from some racist opponents and even teammates, Mr. Robinson’s only response was with his bat, hands, and feet as he became one of the most dynamic players in the history of the game. At one point, Mr. Robinson asked Mr. Rickey: ” So you want a player with the guts to fight back?” Mr. Rickey’s response “No, I want a player with the guts not to fight back.” (And this was a full 15 years before Martin Luther King might have responded the same way). Mr. Robinson’s impact was so indelible that every year on April 15, every major league baseball player on every team in the league wears the number 42 on his uniform–which is also the only number that has , except for that 1 day a year, been permanently retired from use throughout the league. 42 is an extraordinary, uplifting film about courage and tenacity.
6. Jobs. In a world that seems to more and more discourage individuality and passion in favor of “just fitting in”, this fascinating film about Apple Founder Steve Jobs is, in a different way from Walter Mitty, an invigorating and inspiring paean to following one’s dreams. Ashton Kutcher literally inhabits the persona of Mr. Jobs, from his distinctive gait, to his creative genius, to his sometimes ruthless pursuit of his passion to make technology user-friendly for everyone. Like most visionary entrepreneurs, Mr. Jobs crashed and burned from time to time, only to rise again from the flames like the legendary Phoenix. If somehow this film could be shown in high schools everywhere, I believe we would see a whole new generation of courageous individuals who would have the courage to challenge the status quo with their own dreams and visions. As a line from a film from the 1940s goes: “Fools are the only ones who accomplish the impossible, because they are the only ones who try.” Jobs is a tribute to one of those “fools”…and here’s a New Year’s toast to those of you with the vision and courage to also follow that road less traveled.
7. Safe Haven is an old-fashioned, why-don’t-they-make-more-movies-like that-anymore? love story. Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook), Safe Haven is a delightful and perfectly titled film from director Lasse Halstrom whose previous film, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, was also an engrossingly romantic love story. Here, a young woman (Julianne Hough) who goes on the run to escape from a violent confrontation meets a young widower (Josh Duhamel) with 2 children who runs a convenience store in a sleepy, coastal village in the Carolinas. Ms. Hough and Mr. Duhamel have a wonderful onscreen chemistry that had me rooting for them “from hello”. An uplifting film about second chances, choices, and destiny, Safe Haven is also appropriately titled because experiencing it gave me a feeling of safe haven from so many of the more cynical films that are so prevalent today. Sentimental? Yes. Mostly predictable? Yes (except for one great, great surprise). Fun, uplifting, and heartwarming? Yes, yes, yes! One of the most gentle films of the year, Safe Haven is a wonderful reminder of how beautiful and inspiring love stories can be.
8. 20 Feet From Stardom is a fascinating film about legendary background singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Claudia Lennear. Most if not all of those names may be unfamiliar to you and therein lies one of the most engrossing aspects of the film: for decades, backup singers have contributed to (and some even say are responsible for) thousands of hit songs, yet most of us don’t know who they are. With some, such as Lisa Fischer, that was by design because she never yearned for the spotlight. For others, that chance at stardom never came. Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and others share their insights about the critical role backup singers played in the history of modern music. Throughout the film, we get to share the joy the singers feel when they perform and experience how so many talented people have learned to keep their egos in check as they perform the music they so dearly love. With wall to wall music from the 1960s to current day, 20 Feet From Stardom is a joy to experience.
9. Oblivion. Yes, you read that right. Oblivion. I saved this for last because it was, for me, the most wonderful surprise of the movie year. Unfortunately, both the poster and the misleading trailer for the film give the impression that the film is a stark, futuristic action movie. In truth, Oblivion is actually a deeply spiritual, romantic, eternal love story that also delves into how love itself is embedded in our very DNA. Set after a planetary war, Tom Cruise is absolutely wonderful as a pilot/caretaker whose assignment, along with his partner (Andrea Riseborough), is to protect what’s left of our planet from alien scavengers. Or is he astronaut Jack Harper who was a revered and beloved national hero? And are those actually aliens…or? And just who is the mysterious woman (Olga Kirilenko) whom he saves when her ship crash lands?
Be prepared for a most surprising and poignant love story…that also includes my favorite movie line of the year: “If we have souls, they are made up of the love we share, undimmed by time, unbound by death.”
10. Your choice. What were your favorite uplifting movies in 2013?
(Stephen Simon produced such films as Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come, authored the books The Force is with You and Bringing Back The Old Hollywood, and in 2004 co-founded The Spiritual Cinema Circle which today has monthly subscribers in all 50 United States and more than 40 other countries.)