A rough and unsparing film.
This piece was originally published on January 19, 2017 and is being republished for Women Writers Week.
My late husband Roger Ebert said movies generated empathy at their finest. In my selection of films, I would add that, in addition to providing pure escapism, films can also generate or motivate us to acts of compassion, kindness, forgiveness and joy. I am hoping these are the watchwords for the next four years, and I implore not just movie lovers, but also Donald Trump himself, to take them to heart.—Chaz Ebert
Editor's note: A version of this article was published yesterday in The Hollywood Reporter (click here to read the online version).
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Life Itself (2014)
Frank Capra's beloved film is one that some Americans annually put on around the holidays in order to have a good cry. Watching the picture on its 70th anniversary is especially emotional since some feel as if we have entered the alternate universe of Pottersville, in which corruption and greed reign supreme. What this film continues to affirm is the impact our selfless acts can have on others, and how goodness will forever triumph over evil as long as we can come together as one human family.
And after watching the fictional town hero in Capra's film, a great companion piece to watch is "Life Itself," Steve James’ documentary about one of my real life heroes (Roger) who also fought for the underdog, and who believed in goodness, empathy, inclusion and standing up to those who would do us harm. He faced life (and death) on his own terms, and inspired me in every way. He believed that movies gave us the chance to see how it felt to be a person of a different race, or age, physical ability, religion, socio-economic status, gender or nationality, and to better understand and empathize with another.
2. Films of Uplift and/or Pure Escapism
In a 2012 interview with Reel Chicago, I was asked to choose my "desert island" films—the ones I would keep and watch repeatedly if I was stranded indefinitely in isolation. You can follow the link to see that list of films, but I decided they wouldn’t do for this assignment. Some Americans have expressed a fear they may feel a similar sort of alienation with the unpredictable political situation at hand, and have asked for a list of movies to help them through this period. Earlier this year, our contributing critics at RogerEbert.com started a conversation about movies that would provide uplift during these uncertain times. My list consisted of "Wings of Desire," "Flashdance," "Fame," "Coming To America," "Dumb and Dumber," "Forrest Gump," "Diva," and "Big." Later I added "Singin' In The Rain," “Purple Rain,” and "The Full Monty." Any of these will do for a binge-watching period to take you out of the doldrums.
Monster movies are one route to pure escapism. But I like my monsters almost human, so my escapism of choice would be vampires. Vampires are the nearest to us in appearance and passions and relationships, and they are usually presented as elegantly dressed and mannered. Whether we go old school with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, to New Orleans with Anne Rice, or more modern with Kate Beckinsale battling the Lycans, here are some suggestions: "Underworld: Blood Wars," "Interview With The Vampire," "The Hunger," "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Scream Blacula Scream," and "Ed Wood."
3. A Face In The Crowd (1957); Bulworth (1998); Being There (1979)
Some are calling Elia Kazan's astonishing political satire a prophetic film. It is about an Arkansas drifter, Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes (Andy Griffith in his best film role), who dupes viewers across America with his manipulative courting of the working class. Fueled purely by a narcissistic need for power and exposure, Rhodes is ultimately done in by his big mouth. Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" is also being talked about a lot these days. It is a jaw-dropping political satire about a politician who has grown so disillusioned and suicidal that he decides to go off script and say exactly what he thinks. Wouldn't you know it? His popularity goes right through the roof. Sadly, whereas Bulworth's politics are of the progressive and more or less enlightened variety, history has proven that the opposite ideology can have equal success when swinging for the fences. And finally, there is Hal Ashby's "Being There," a satire about a sheltered gardener (Peter Sellers and Shirley Maclaine) whose simple statements (such as, "I like television") are interpreted by the public as profound wisdom, transforming him into an unlikely Washington insider.
4. Whale Rider (2002); Eagle Huntress (2016); Moana (2016); He Named Me Malala (2015)
One of the most appalling aspects of last year's election season was the shocking level of misogyny in the national discourse, from cracking jokes about menstruation to the "Trump that B—ch" signs displayed on lawns. Films anchored by strong female leads are more crucial than ever, and one of the very finest is Niki Caro's lovely drama from New Zealand about a Maori girl destined for leadership that subverts the traditions of her male-dominated culture. As played by young Keisha-Castle Hughes in an Oscar-nominated performance, this girl embodies the same strength and resilience shared by the heroines of "Moana" and "The Eagle Huntress."
She is also emblematic of the younger generations destined to guide this world to a more enlightened place. A key figure of hope would be the heroine of David Guggenheim's documentary, "He Named Me Malala." This is a true story of Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakastani girl who survived an attack from the Taliban designed to silence her advocacy for women's education. She has remained one of the world's most inspiring champions of civil rights, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Any one of these films will give you hope of a new day dawning.
5. Gandhi (1982); Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013); Selma (2014); Disturbing the Peace (2016)
These films pay tribute to great men through timeless portraits of leadership that set the bar for all who seek to achieve peace. Ava DuVernay's surprisingly topical film about the historic march organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played brilliantly by David Oyelowo), with a portrayal of Congressman John Lewis as a young civil rights crusader, reminds us of where the country came from in terms of race relations, and where we don't want to go back to. "Gandhi," Richard Attenborough’s enduring portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, the nonviolent leader of the Indian independence movement, earned eight Oscars including those for Best Picture and Best Actor (Ben Kingsley). “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Justin Chadwick’s film about Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected South African president, was beautifully acted by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, who went on to earn great acclaim for subsequent pictures, such as “Beasts of No Nation” and “Moonlight” (respectively). These films show us what a true leader looks like. Someone with a moral compass on human rights issues who puts the needs of others ahead of his own. And one who is compassionate and inclusive in his deeds and actions. The bravery and discipline of these leaders managed to change history and inspire nations. They also show what an electorate dissatisfied with the way things are can do to force changes.
In light of recent events, there are few pictures more vital than Stephen Apkon’s and Andrew Young’s extraordinary documentary, “Disturbing the Peace.” It focuses on a growing movement among peace-seeking Israelis and Palestinians championing a two state solution to end generations of hate-mongering and killing. This movement is led by a group called Combatants For Peace, formerly enemies who had an amazingly transformative change of heart after much bloodshed.
6. An Officer and A Gentleman (1982); Body Heat (1981); Love Jones (1997); Southside With You (2016); Ghost (1990); Truly Madly Deeply (1990); Tous Les Matins Du Monde (1991)
What the world needs now is love sweet love. Whether from the "Officer and a Gentleman" variety provided by Richard Gere and Debra Winger in Taylor Hackford’s old-fashioned romance, to the sweaty sexy variety of the femme fatale Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat,” or the hip upwardly mobile canvas of poetry slams and slow kisses between Nia Long and Larenz Tate in Theodore Witcher’s “Love Jones,” watching people fall in love on screen can take your mind off the cares and worries of the day. And it is even more mesmerizing when we are watching the courtly and intellectual mating call of our very own President and Mrs. Obama portrayed by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” approximating the events of their first date.
And for those who like their love supernatural, where the beloved is so irresistible that it brings the deceased back from the dead to commune with the living, there’s Anthony Minghella’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson; or the Oscar-winning and erotic “Ghost” with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze; and if you prefer your lovers French, there is Gerard Depardieu in Alain Corneau’s “Tous Les Matins du Monde.”
7. Hoop Dreams (1994); Inside Out (2015); Zootopia (2016)
Few filmmakers are more adept at exploring the resiliency of the human spirit than documentarian Steve James, as illustrated in two of his most acclaimed pictures, made two decades apart: "Hoop Dreams," a chronicle of two inner-city aspiring basketball stars and their families, and "Life Itself" (see #1).
Pete Docter's Oscar-winning Pixar film, "Inside Out," redefined the art of playing on an audience's emotions by making the emotions full characters we could study. Thus we had Anger, Joy, Sadness and other emotions that we each have to deal with at one time or another. We gained a newfound appreciation that our emotions must achieve balance in order to strengthen our spirit. Disney's latest animated comedy, "Zootopia," skewered everything from businesses refusing service from customers based on their orientation to the notion that all Muslim Americans have a natural tendency toward radicalization. It's amazing that one of the most profitable studios of all time managed to produce something this timely, vital, and reinvigorating about prejudice.
8. Sidewalk Stories (1989); 99 Homes (2014); The Homestretch (2014); I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Charles Lane's delightful variation on Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp in "Sidewalk Stories" will warm your heart. When a hobo, whom we would call "homeless" today, ends up with an abandoned child, he makes the best of creating a family and home life for them. Staying with the theme of places we call our own, we move to Ramin Bahrani's intense drama, "99 Homes," about the middle class people who lost their homes because of mismanagement and greed in the banking and investment industries using bundled toxic stock derivatives. Released the same year as Bahrani's film was Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly's invaluable documentary, "The Homestretch," about three homeless Chicago high school students struggling to achieve stability in their lives and earn an education while being without a place to call their own.
And then there's Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner, "I, Daniel Blake," a film so relevant in light of the threats to the Affordable Healthcare Act. The film deals with a health care system in England that is supposedly designed to take care of the ailing and poor workers who have paid into the system for years, but instead puts endless obstacles in their path toward achieving better health. Many Americans today could likely lose their health insurance under the new administration with Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, leading the charge. The indignation of Loach's protagonist, played beautifully by Dave Johns, is very human and very relatable.
9. Star Trek (1966 to today); Star Wars (1977 to today); Dark City (1998); E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
When Gene Roddenberry’s TV series “Star Trek” first launched in 1966, I doubt he would have guessed that the franchise would still be going strong half a century later. The same would be true of George Lucas, who nearly collapsed from the stress of making 1977’s “Star Wars,” only to see it change the Hollywood industry forever by becoming the first mega-blockbuster. Beyond their irresistible escapism and tireless creativity, the reason the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” brands continue to engage audiences is their hopeful message of unity amongst their increasingly diverse ensembles, who work together to achieve success.
On the dark side of the moon, so to speak, would be Alex Proyas’s “Dark City,” a visionary sci-fi thriller that Roger admired so much that he agreed to record a commentary track for the DVD. I'm reminded of the line in "The Wizard of Oz" where the Scarecrow says, "It'll probably get darker before it gets lighter." That's likely to be the case with the next few years, and Proyas’s film gives us hope with its hero struggling to combat forces of darkness in a futuristic world literally devoid of the sun.
Sci-fi fans merely seeking to be swept away by the ecstasy of cinema should look no further than Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” which brought audiences closer than ever to the sensation of soaring into space. The scene where little Elliott takes a flying bicycle ride with his beloved alien companion is the very definition of movie magic.
10. The Tree of Life (2011)
When something catastrophic occurs in our lives that upends any sense of normalcy, our first response often is, "How did we get here?" Terrence Malick tackles this question in mind-boggling fashion cutting from the Cosmos before the beginning of time, to a state of sustained consciousness after death, to the very human path we walk on this earth in between. What an extraordinary way of visualizing the spiritual crisis that befalls us all, and yet leaves the door open to some sort of hope and redemption. Amazingly, the shadowy figures glimpsed at the very end through the veil of the door that separates us from this life to the next, promises an eternal love and reunion with those spirits whose souls we recognize from time immemorial.
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