- Defending Your Life. This was the movie that prompted me to say, “Hey! I’m supposed to make this movie!” Hapless advertising exec Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) fecklessly cuts short his life and finds himself in the Afterlife, where he has to defend his earthly actions. The standard he must meet is to overcome fear, an ability he lacks as seen in several funny and sad flashbacks. But love in the form of Julia (Meryl Streep) finds him and he finally becomes fearless. In the end, he is allowed to move onward, leaving mortality behind. Though I quibble with the notion that we’re here to overcome fear (I believe we’re here to learn to love), it’s a small quibble. And it’s all done with pitch-perfect comedic writing, such as when Julia approaches Daniel and asks innocently, “Do I know you?” and he responds, stunned by her beauty, “I hope so!” Most of all, the movie postulates an ordered and loving universe where nevertheless there are standards we must achieve. Learning to love each other and acting fearlessly on that love is something I think about every day.
- It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s tour de force in which George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) discovers what the world would have been like had he not been born. There is an indisputable reason why this is the most viewed movie in history (beyond a glitch in copyright which allows unlicensed broadcast): Our lives are important, and thus wonderful, even if they’re painful. As Clarence the angel says, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” What Clarence does not say is equally true: each man can choose how he will touch others’ lives. He can do so positively or negatively; it is his choice. Also, he can do so subtly, as George Bailey does, so quietly that he is absolutely stunned to know that so many people love him. This film prompts me to do good, quietly, and know that those who matter are watching. It is a wonderful life and we have the power to make it so.
- Groundhog Day. The other side of the coin from It’s a Wonderful Life. Selfish weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) discovers a world diametrically opposed to that of George Bailey, a world where no one changes except him. Small town Punxsutawney is a perfect foil for Phil’s big-city brashness, but the Universe has a lesson for Phil: see what your life could be if you stopped thinking about yourself. At the beginning of his ordeal, Phil reacts in typically narcissistic ways, indulging himself in sex, entertainment, and gluttony. After a time, bored, he turns to a quicker sort of self-destruction, but each morning he wakes up the same man: physically alive but emotionally dead. Finally, he begins to change the world by changing himself. He catches the kid falling from the tree, performs the Heimlich on a choking diner, changes a flat tire, and feeds an aging derelict, kindly calling him “Father.” Through all these acts, he becomes someone who thinks about others and thus becomes someone others think about. And he wins the lovely Rita (Andie McDowell). “Let’s live here!!” he exults as they step out of the hotel into a bright new day of fresh snowfall and blue skies. “We’ll rent at first!” That’s a happy ending.
- A Man for All Seasons. The true story of Sir Thomas More, who, alone of all English nobility, did not sanction Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic Church for the sole purpose of effecting his own divorce. This movie is nothing more or less than a study in integrity. At every turn, More (the unforgettable Paul Scofield) is besieged by friends and enemies alike who wish him to conform to the crowd. Indeed, the most memorable exchange is between More and his friend, the Duke of Norfolk, who begs More to join the aristocracy and sign a pledge supporting Henry’s actions “for fellowship’s sake!” More calmly responds, “And when you go to heaven for doing your conscience, and I go to hell for not doing mine, will you join me . . . for fellowship’s sake?” Eventually, Henry can no longer stand More’s silent opposition, and false witnesses secure More’s conviction. As he scales the gallows, More gives the customary coin to the headsman, and says, “Be not afraid of your office: you send me to God.” Archbishop Cranmer leans forward and says, “You’re so sure of that, Sir Thomas?” More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him.” This exchange alone completely changed my view of God: There is nothing we can do that will separate us from Him, if being with Him is our desire. God is love; he loves us; we shall one day be with Him. Pretty profound, in my view.
- Casablanca. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the quintessential weary American: tired of doing the right thing, he tries to find anonymity in Casablanca, Morocco, during the height of World War II. But he cannot escape himself, and a welling joy in the heart is felt at every turn as we watch Rick try again and again to do the wrong thing, and utterly fail. He cannot turn down the young couple who desperately need his help to escape Nazi-occupied French territory, even though the young woman offers him an almost irresistible temptation. He cannot mistreat his employees, even when the bar is shut down. And he cannot not love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when she comes to him, even after she broke his heart in Paris. In the end, Rick proves that goodness—true goodness—is the marrow in the bones of an integral man. Many men try to do good but fail because it is an affectation, an act. But Rick, whose goodness was burned into his soul through saccrifice for a virtuous cause (resisting tyranny), can no more leave Casablanca with Ilsa than he can resist the love he feels for her. In the end, he loves her more completely by letting her go than he ever could had he left with her. Nobility? Play it again, Sam.
- The Mission. Robert DeNiro’s finest performance as Rodrigo Mendoza, a slave hunter in 18th century South America, who murders his own brother and then, finding no forgiveness in his own heart, finally turns to God. But God has more in mind for Rodrigo, and the challenges only escalate. A newly ordained monk in a jungle-bound monastery, he comes to love the natives and eventually dies defending them from a new crop of slave hunters. The most poignant scene in the film, and filmdom’s greatest treatment of spiritual conversion, occurs when Rodrigo, burdened by his own sins (literally, his armor and weaponry) attempts to scale a steep waterfall-drenched slope as penance. The natives in the company watch, at first uncomprehending, then in dismay, and finally, notwithstanding that they know he enslaved and murdered their own brothers, one of them performs the supreme act of forgiveness and he cuts the rope connecting Rodrigo to his burden, and the armor tumbles down the hill, releasing the broken, penitent man, who collapses into their arms, spent, empty, both spiritually and emotionally, ready now to be filled with love and hope. That scene alone encourages me to believe that there is nothing so terrible that we might do that cannot—and will not—be forgiven.
- Chariots of Fire. When British film producer David Puttnam came to Hollywood, they said it couldn’t be done. Popular films about uplifting topics? So passé, so Sound of Music. Yet Puttnam did what he promised (for a time) and his finest result is this extraordinary film about two competing runners, one a prickly Jew, the other a placid Christian, who find friendship and honor at the 1924 Olympic Games. Running, a common Biblical metaphor, is also a metaphor here, for life and the differing yet successful approaches each runner takes in his. The entire mood of the film is sacred and fervent religious belief (as well as bitter agnosticism) are both treated with the utmost respect. I particularly enjoyed Eric Liddell’s (Ian Charleson) wonderful line, “When I run . . . I feel His pleasure.” Same for me watching this film about men with human goals achieved through godly virtue.
- Star Wars. Don’t laugh; I’m talking about the first three Star Wars (the final three were made by the Body Snatcher’s pod-version of George Lucas). It was the first film I had seen after two years in South America and had a powerful impact on me, determining not only what I would study in college, but also illuminating my understanding of what cinema (our modern campfire) could be. Everyone knows the story, but what influenced me then (and continues to do so today) is the spiritual arc of each character. Everyone in the story is on a spiritual quest, though they do not know it. Some characters like Obi Wan and Yoda are clearly bodhisattvas, descended masters, acting as spiritual guides for others. Some have turned from the Light (Darth Vader), but are eventually redeemed. Most of the others are young souls just beginning their spiritual journey, as evidenced by the fact that everyone in the films says, in a crucial decision-tree moment, “I have a bad feeling about this,” evidence that they’re on the right track and the Force is working within them. As they grow, the Force grows stronger in each person—even Han Solo!—and in the end, it is sufficient even to redeem Darth Vader himself. In this light, Star Wars is a masterful example of redemption. With light swords.
- Forrest Gump. At the time it came out, Forrest Gump was ridiculed as a study of Reagan-era stupidity and fecklessness. Gump was the lovable stooge (like our president) who couldn’t help but come out on top, due to a perversion of natural laws. Nothing could be further from the truth. What Forrest Gump is (the movie version, at least; the book is much darker), is a wonderful example of goodness. Though Forrest often quotes his mother as saying, “Stupid is as stupid does,” what he could have easily said instead was, “Goodness is as goodness does.” Forrest overcomes his disability, throwing off his (spiritual) shackles, literally. He loves Jenny and shares her pain (“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks in the world.”). He saves his fellow soldiers, including the reluctant Lieutenant Dan (twice) and manages to mete out justice even at a Black Panther “party.” In the finale, he redeems (that word again) Jenny, and his expansive love accompanies her into the valley of the shadow of death, then continues on to raise their child with humility and bravery. Most of all, he never thinks of himself. Perhaps he is too simple to comprehend selfishness. We should all be so stupid.
- Man of La Mancha. I could do an entire top ten list of memorable musicals, but this tops not only that list, but makes it onto this one as well. Peter O’Toole is compelling as Don Quixote, the manic and utterly mad subject of the play within a play that is this fine film. Quixote’s life-saving decision to live in an fantasy world of honor and integrity results in the salvation of those around him, including the desultory barmaid Dulcinea (Sofia Loren), with one of the most powerful love songs ever written, succeeding in showing her who she really is when she sees herself reflected in his eyes. This tender, non-ironic film showcases the last of the 1960’s crop of astonishing musicals, where love was both virtuous and unashamed. What significant, uplifting musical have we had since this gem?
Those are my top ten. Which great films did I miss? Tell me why.
Ten Films That Changed My Life
NOT LONG AGO A FRIEND said we should not expect profundity from movies; they are, after all, mere entertainment. I deeply disagree. From time immemorial, humans gathered around the campfire to tell and hear stories whose design, then as now, is to teach us how to face our fears, overcome obstacles, pursue love, or have integrity—in short, how to live. I will buttress my argument with ten examples of films that have had a powerful impact on me—all for the good. (We’ll leave the negative lessons for another time).