It wasn’t a particularly good year for conservative cinema. It rarely is. Yet alongside the cavalcade of ideology, mediocrity and stupidity that is Hollywood today, a few gems shone forth dazzlingly.
What is a conservative film?
Let’s start with what it isn’t. It’s not about men with bulging biceps and even bigger guns. It’s not cartoonish action heroes. It isn’t revenge tales masquerading as heroism.
Conservative cinema does more than entertain; movies that do no more are visual candy. It instructs and inspires.
Conservative films celebrate virtue. They tell timeless tales of individuals overcoming all manner of adversity to achieve true greatness. They’re about honesty, loyalty, courage and patriotism. They’re concerned with conservatism’s cardinal values – faith, family and freedom.
If I were to list the best conservative movies of the last decade, they would include: “Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King (2003)” “Open Range” (2003), “LA Confidential” (1997), Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” (2000), and “Spiderman,” I and II (2002 and 2004). But also some quieter films, like last year’s “In Good Company” and “The Family Man” (2000) would make my list.
Here, then, are my choices for The 10 Best Conservative Films of 2005.
1. Cinderella Man – The miraculous, 1930s comeback of boxer James J. Braddock became a metaphor for America’s struggle to get to its feet after the pounding it took in the Great Depression.
In the 1920s, Braddock was a heavyweight contender. After a series of setbacks, by the early ‘30s, he was a has-been, living with his wife and children in a basement apartment and working on the docks (when work could be found).
The threatened loss of his children, combined with an unexpected second chance, put Braddock back in the ring. As the title bout approaches, his trainer neatly summarizes the situation, when he describes Braddock as “old, arthritic” and with “broken ribs that haven’t healed.” Still, his love of family and belief in his profession drive him on. Russell Crowe as “the Cinderella Man (as Damon Runyon dubbed him) and Renee Zellweger as his worried but steadfast wife are more than appealing.
There’s a hero to cheer, a villain to pelt with debris and vintage sets. As Braddock’s manager, Paul Giamatti delivers an Oscar-quality performance.
The boxing sequences are the most realistic ever put on film. Director Ron Howard delivers a knockout with “Cinderella Man.”
2. King Kong – “King Kong” is the blockbuster movie of the 2005 holiday season. How often is a remake better than the original? Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” beats both the 1933 original and the eminently forgettable 1976 remake.
Superficially, it’s a fine action film. On a deeper level, its characters exemplify feminine virtue, masculine heroism and romantic love. The movie describes a hopeless romance and makes us care for its computer-generated title character. With a great cast (especially Naomi Watts as aspiring actress Ann Darrow – Fay Wray’s role in the original), Jackson’s “King Kong” satisfies in every way.
3. The Island – Reviewers despised it. Audiences treated it as just another sci-fi flick. But “The Island” is a forceful and compelling pro-life statement, a fact which didn’t escape the notice of critics. (The reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter fretted, “These filmmakers have, perhaps unwittingly, delivered a film certain to give succor to the religious right.”)
The plot: Led to believe they’re survivors of a world-wide contamination, human clones are raised in an underground complex. The clones are walking “insurance policies” for their wealthy “sponsors” – organs ready to be harvested when needed.
Those who operate the facility view the clones as non-human, even referring to them as “the product.” (Here is a chilling reminder of the way society can dehumanize victims -- witness “products of conception” and individuals in a “persistent vegetative state,” i.e., vegetables.)
Two clones (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) learn the truth and escape. But the story takes a backseat to the broader bio-ethical debate. To see “The Island” is to gaze into the abyss where science combines with the ethics of convenience to create horrors undreamed of in ages past.
4. “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe” – This screen adaptation of the C.S. Lewis children’s classic is delightful and instructive. From the moment little Lucy wanders into Narnia through the wardrobe full of fur coats, it’s pure enchantment.
Along with her sister and two brothers, Lucy is thrust into a monumental struggle of good and evil in a magical realm. There’s Christian symbolism in the noble Aslan, who sacrifices himself to atone for another’s sins –hardly surprising, as the tale comes from the pen of the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century.
The movie, which can be enjoyed on any number of levels, speaks of temptation, sin and redemption. If you don’t love it, I can only assume you’re one of the secret police in the service of the White Witch.
5. The Great Raid – Another “based on a true story,” it’s about the largest POW rescue mission in U.S. history. In January, 1945, elements of the U.S. Army’s 6th Ranger Battalion, the Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas set out to rescue 500 Americans held in a prison camp outside Manila. (This is played against the backdrop of the murder of 150 Allied POWs in a camp on Palawan Island.)
The operation requires 121 Americans to penetrate 30 miles into enemy territory, where tens of thousands of Japanese troops operate, attack a camp guarded by a force at least equal in strength and extract prisoners who could barely walk.
The story shifts between the rescuers, the POWs (many survivors of the Bataan Death March) and the Filipino underground trying to smuggle medicine into the camp.
Unlike Pearl Harbor, there’s no effort to whitewash the Japanese military, who are presented as pure sadists and cold-blooded killers – products of a Bushido culture that disdained the weak and helpless.
There’s heroism to spare, especially in the real-life character of the American nurse who remained behind to help the prisoners, a tender love story and a realistic depiction of combat. In the midst of another war for the survival of civilization, it helps to remember the sacrifices of an earlier generation of G.I.s.
6. Batman Begins – The film offers a new take on the comic-book hero, especially his origins. Absent are the silly super-villains with their tricks and weaponry. In place of “those wonderful toys” (as the Joker calls the Caped Crusader’s tools of the trade in the first Batman movie), we have a truly dark knight, trained in martial arts and mind-control in the Far East.
As Batman struggles to understand the nature of evil and the difference between justice and revenge, he confronts his most deadly challenge – the League of Shadows (led by the charismatic Ra’s Al Ghul). Ra’s is a mirror image of Batman, where the fight against evil is perverted into a self-righteous, ego trip. In other words, Christian Bale’s Dark Knight ends up battling his darker side.
There’s a strong cast, including Michael Caine as loyal butler Alfred, Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne’s love interest and Liam Neeson as the villain who seeks to destroy Batman by corrupting him. This is a superhero movie with a message worth contemplating.
7. The Greatest Game Ever Played – The game is golf, specifically the 1913 U.S. Open, pitting old pro Harry Vardon against poor-boy-struggling-to-escape-his-origins Francis Ouimet.
While Vardon represents the wealth and power of the Pre-World War I British Empire, he has a secret. He too comes from poverty and is haunted by childhood memories of his family being evicted to make way for a golf course.
I particularly liked the portrait of Ouimet’s family: the Irish mother who encourages him to dream, and the disillusioned father (a French immigrant engaged in backbreaking labor) who believes the boy’s dreams will only lead to disappointment and unhappiness. (Why can’t Hollywood give us functional families in the here and now?) The match swings back and forth, and provides enough excitement to make a movie about golf exciting. It’s a Disney dare-to-dream movie more realistic, and inspiring, than most.
8. Little Manhattan – One of those quiet films whose message is whispered, instead of shouted. It’s about young love, and not-so-young love, and how both can be destroyed by the things left unsaid.
A precocious 11-year-old, Gabe is living with his parents, who share an apartment even though they’re in the process of divorcing. (“My family’s on a one-way ticket to ‘The Jerry Springer Show,’” Gabe tells us). Enter 11-year-old Rosemary Telesco, a fellow West-Sider who proceeds to make sushi of Gabe’s heart.
Their awkward romance is both humorous and touching. It ends where first loves necessarily must end. But the lessons Gabe learns and imparts, set his parents on another course. For Gabe, the two-week romance is a bittersweet introduction to adolescence. For mom and dad, it’s an invitation to rediscover love.
9. Coach Carter -- You think you’ve seen it before -- but you haven’t. It’s not an inner-city “Hoosiers.” It’s a basketball film that isn’t about basketball. Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a former hoops star, now a successful businessman, returns to his alma mater, Richmond, California High School, to coach a basketball team of losers (in both senses of the word).
There are a lot of practice scenes, few scenes of the team in competition, and classic dialogue about integrity, respect and striving. Carter makes his players sign a contract that they will maintain a 2.3 average, address him as “sir” (he uses the same form of address with them) and wear a jacket and tie on game day.
When he learns that most of his players are failing, he padlocks the gym, even though he’s finally made them into a championship team.
For Coach Carter, turning his boys into young men headed for college is far more important than turning them into star athletes. At Richmond High, only half the students graduate (and only 6% of those go to college). The rest graduate to gangs, drugs, prison and a trip to the morgue. It’s a pleasure to watch Jackson deliver his lines with manly self-assurance. “Coach Carter is a winner.
10. Memoirs Of A Geisha – Surprised you, didn’t I? Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, the film -- based on the 1997 bestseller by Arthur Golden -- is not about prostitution in the Land of the Rising Sun.. (As the film explains, a geisha isn’t a hooker in a kimono, but an “artist of the floating world” – though there is a sexual element to this world.) Overall, “Memoirs” only hints at sex.
The heroine, Sayuri, is sold as a child to a geisha house. Her choices – to become a menial and spend the rest of her life working off her contract to “mother,” or embrace her destiny. She chooses the latter only when the kindness of a handsome businessman makes her yearn for a way to enter his world. Sayuri is brave, determined and compassionate. It’s touching to see a child form an attachment that lasts a lifetime.
Forget the sets (sumptuous). Ignore the scenery (lush and exotic). Instead focus on the story of a little girl who falls in love with a man, and endures much for the sake of that love.
Here are my choices for the best conservative films of 2005. Three are still playing. Five are available on DVD. Savor them all.
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