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FIRST-PERSON: Uplifting films of 2004 — few and far between

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Since a “Best Of” list is very subjective, allow me to spotlight those films of 2004 that contained positive — and some downright spiritual — messages.

Though movies such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “Motorcycle Diaries” were provocative and revealing, many would find that their abusive content exceeded the power of their moral. So let’s focus on films that uplifted moviegoers. (They are in no particular order.)

— “The Passion of the Christ.”

With this account of Christ’s final 12 hours, Mel Gibson brought a mood and sensitivity never before captured when telling the story of Jesus. Gibson’s astonishing directing was aided by superb cinematography, lighting, music, some dynamic special effects and Jim Caviezel’s sincere and muted performance. Justly rated R for its graphic depiction of scourging and crucifixion, Gibson’s film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, was not really about what mankind did to Him, but about what He did for us.

— “I Am David.”

This entrancing film adaptation of Anne Holm’s internationally acclaimed novel “North to Freedom” concerned a 12-year-old boy who escapes a communist labor camp possessing little more than a compass, an inherent distrust of people, and a sealed letter.

With instructions (from an unseen character, whose identity is not revealed until the end) to carry the letter to Copenhagen, Denmark, David is thrust into the free world for the first time in his young life. His trek across Europe is a physical test of will as well as a spiritual voyage where he slowly sheds his cynical view of humanity and begins to smile, trust and, ultimately, love.

Some art immediately takes your breath, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta of St. Peter’s, while the impact of other masterpieces sneaks up on you. The latter is the case for the Walden Media/Lions Gate’s “I Am David.” An affirming journey of discovery, it was about finding that which uplifts the spirit.

— “The Incredibles.”

From the Academy Award-winning creators of “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” this hilarious, action-packed, animated adventure had put-upon superheroes denying their superpowers and living under a government protection plan (themselves the victims of sue-happy citizens once protected by the super do-gooders).

Along with vivid CG animation techniques, every other element of the production was given special attention, including story, character development and dialogue. What’s more, it paid homage to family.

It was a hoot. But beware, if you have not taken your young ones to it yet, keep in mind that while this film is creative, funny and addresses life issues, it is an action adventure about superheroes –- which means there is some violent imagery.

— “Raising Helen.”

Kate Hudson played an up-and-comer suddenly saddled with her dead sister’s three kids. Witty, involving, even perceptive, it was a movie that thoroughly entertained without crudity, profanity or exploitive sexuality. And a minister was portrayed in a good light. How often do we see that in movies?

— “The Notebook.”

A gentle love story about two youngsters separated for many years. Although we are never privy to the religious beliefs of the couple, the film’s male characters are believers in the marriage contract -– for better or worse, in sickness and in health. The narrative gently pays homage to those who seek a soul mate and cherish one true and lasting love. Indeed, the story deals with themes seldom seen in movies these days, that of lifelong commitment and the sanctity of the marriage covenant.

— “America’s Heart & Soul.”

Documentarian Louis Schwartzberg captured both the beauty of the U.S. and the incomparable spirit of its people. The film introduced us to the lives of ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories, seamlessly blending their values, dreams and passions into a spirited and well-paced film event. It gave us a powerful glimpse into the diversity of our country’s citizenry, yet celebrated our commonality –- our innermost need to dream and to find our place.

Well, those are six uplifting examples out of over 200 widely released films. Not exactly a challenge to 1939’s Golden Year, a year which gave moviegoers nearly two hundred classics, including the elevating “Wizard of Oz,” “Gunga Din,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Babes in Arms,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Stagecoach,” “The Little Princess” and “Made For Each Other.”

This year “Closer” gave us great ensemble acting, “Sideways” an inventive story, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” returned Hollywood to the musical genre. But, wow, were they depressing to sit through. Indeed, melancholia was a main theme threaded throughout a great many of 2004’s film releases.

What’s more, film after film once again included the cinema’s now common staples of offensive language, exploitive sex and crude humor. Many motion pictures were well crafted (“Stage Beauty”), visually stunning (“Van Helsing”) and, in many cases, quite perceptive (“Mean Creek”), but today’s filmmakers have come to equate raw explicitness with sophistication. It’s nearly impossible to find a perceptive film that doesn’t either treat our Lord’s name as if it were a mere expletive or bombard the viewer with the filmmaker’s humanistic agendas.

Tinseltown’s greatest folly this year, however, was mediocrity. Most films were as memorable as the walk back to the car: “Torque,” “The Perfect Score,” “Catch That Kid,” “Against the Ropes,” “Ned Kelly,” “The Prince and Me,” “Wicker Park.” Need I go on?

Oh, there were other films that had potential -– “After the Sunset,” “Oceans’ 12,” “The Ladykillers.” But if we wanted to enjoy these caprices, we had to overlook graphic sexuality or pretend we didn’t hear the extreme profanity.

Complex issues were addressed in films such as “Birth” (reincarnation), “The Sea Inside” (euthanasia), and “Envy” (jealousy), but these and most other movies from the major studios were sadly unfulfilling mainly because they lacked any spiritual dimension or conclusion. We are more than physical and mental beings, so if the spiritual nature of man is ignored, then all else is out of balance. Movie moguls seldom got that this year.
Phil Boatwright is a film reviewer and editor of The Movie Reporter, on the Web at www.moviereporter.com.

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