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Many thanks to the Paul Edwards Show for inviting me on this afternoon to talk about Christmas movies! It was a real pleasure.

The first decade of the 21st century has given us many great films. Here are a dozen I found especially inspiring. From documentaries to fantasies, from real-life heroes to an animated fish, these are the stories that help to show us what we should dream of and what we can accomplish.

Erin Brockovich Julia Roberts won an Oscar playing the real-life single mother whose determination and courage helped hundreds of victims of toxic pollution learn the truth of what happened and find some sense of justice. The movie is candid in its depiction of the price Brockovich herself paid in her personal life for her dedication to the residents who had been poisoned and misled. But it also shows what one individual can accomplish even when the other side has millions of dollars and dozens of lawyers. Quote: “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.”

Trouble the Water Documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin went to Louisiana for a project that did not work out. They were about to leave when Hurricane Katrina hit. But this Oscar-nominated film is not their story. They turned most of their movie over to Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, local residents who bought a camera for $20 a week on the street just before the storm and walked around taking pictures of what was going on around them. These citizen journalists document the helplessness of the community and the failure of every possible resource or assistance. Roger Ebert, who included this film in his 2009 film festival, said, “the eyewitness footage has a desperate urgency that surpasses any other news and doc footage I have seen.” The power of the human spirit to tell our stories will always triumph over failures of bureaucracy and even the ravages of storms. Quote: “We lost our citizenship.”

Persepolis Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic memoir becomes a powerful animated film about her experiences as a child in an Iran that is increasingly restrictive after the Islamic Revolution. After her beloved uncle is executed, her parents send her away to Austria, where she struggles with a new culture and with the new world that is adolescence no matter where or who you are. Perceptive, touching, resilient, this takes animation and memoir to a new level. Quote: “There’s nothing worse than bitterness and revenge. Keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

Billy Elliot Jamie Bell is sensational as the 11-year-old boy who has to dance, even though everyone he knows is opposed to it. Ultimately his passion and his talent are so inspiring to those around him that they cannot help but give him their support. The play inspired a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical but the gritty authenticity of the original and its setting in a small mining town in Thatcher-era England makes the film version especially powerful. Quote: “Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity. ”

A Beautiful Mind
A man sees what no one else can, and we call him a genius. A man sees what no one else does, and we call him crazy. This Oscar-winner for Best Picture is a movie about a man who was both, the true story of genius John Forbes Nash, Jr., who revolutionized mathematics and then became mentally ill. Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar as his loyal wife, a mathematician herself, who stayed with him for decades as he struggled to find a way to master his delusions. Quote: “I’ve made the most important discovery of my life. It’s only in the mysterious equation of love that any logical reasons can be found.”

Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson’s splendid trilogy of the J.R.R. Tolkein series is magnificently realized, from the tiniest detail of Elvish dialogue to the grandest vista of Middle Earth. Villains and heroes, quests and romance, this story teaches us that courage, loyalty, and integrity are more important than strength and magic. Quote: “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The best film of the decade is this loopy romance, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as one-time lovers who pay to have their unhappy memories erased and then find themselves missing even the pain of love. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman plays with the themes of identity, time, memory, and attraction in a slightly off-kilter world that seems oddly homelike and familiar because it is so heartfelt and true about how even the unhappiness of love can enlarge our spirits. Quote: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders. ”

Every family should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s movie about the 1999 national spelling bee because it is about so much more. It is about the strength of American diversity and the commitment of this country to opportunity — the eight featured competitors include three children of immigrants (one’s father speaks no English) and a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds. It is about ambition, dedication, and courage. It is about finding a dream that speaks to each individual. It is about how even in the midst of one of life’s biggest challenges — middle school — it is possible to find passion and confidence and to achieve excellence. Most of all, it is about family — the opportunity to discuss the wide variation in styles of family communication and values is in itself a reason for every family with children to watch this movie together. Quote: “My life is like a movie. I have trials and tribulations, and I overcome them.”

Finding Nemo This story of a father fish in search of his lost son is an epic journey filled with adventure and discovery encompassing the grandest sweep of ocean vastness and the smallest longing of the heart. There are terrifying-looking creatures, but one of the movie’s best jokes is that even the sharks are so friendly that they keep reminding each other that “we don’t eat our friends.” There really are no bad guys in this movie — the danger comes from a child’s thoughtlessness and from natural perils. The movie has no angry, jealous, greedy, or murderous villains as in most traditional Disney animated films. And it has characters with disabilities that are handled frankly but matter-of-factly. Best of all is the way it addresses questions of protection and independence that are literally at the heart of the parent-child relationship. Quote: “I have to get out of here! I have to find my son! I have to tell him how old sea turtles are!”

In America
Writer-director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical tale about Irish immigrants in New York City is something of a fairy tale set in a sweltering and grimy apartment building where even the kind-hearted drug addicts help look out for the children. Told through the eyes of the family’s daughters, the whole movie is exquisitely tender. The girls’ sense of wonder brings a softness and a glow to whatever they see, whether it is a street fair or a broken-down air conditioner. Quote: “When luck comes knocking on your door, you can’t turn it away.”

Hotel Rwanda
When the conflict in Rwanda exploded into violence in 1994, the Hutus began a full-scale slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and any Hutus who supported them. In the middle of the madness, Paul Rusesabagina hid more than 1000 Tutsis in his hotel. Using the same skills that made him successful as a hotel manager, he cajoles, barters, and bluffs his way into keeping them safe. Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo as Rusesabagina and his wife provide a center of decency in the midst of madness and cruelty. The sensitivity of their performances is matched by the script and direction, which make their points, both personal and political, with grace, not bitterness. Like “Schindler’s List,” this film takes us deeply into the horror of one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies by allowing us to focus on the illumination cast by one small story of grace, courage, and humanity. Quote: “There’s always room.”

The Pursuit of Happyness Chris Gardner is a single father who went from homelessness to success as a stockbroker. What mattered most to him, though, was being a good father. Real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith star in the story of a man who would not give up. At first he focuses on the misspelling of the word “happiness” at his son’s day care. But then he focuses on the word “pursuit,” because he understands that all we can be promised is the chance to try for what we want, and that has to be enough. Quote: “You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.”

The news about actress Brittany Murphy is shocking and very sad. She died today at age 32. brittanymurphy.jpg
Murphy made her first real impression as the suggestible Tai who got a makeover from Cher (Alicia Sliverstone) in “Clueless.” She had an engaging openness and, when she sang along to a Mentos commercial, a surprisingly supple singing voice. She had better luck with small roles in movies carried by others (“Sin City,” “Girl, Interrupted”) than in films where she had the leading role (“Uptown Girls” and “Little Black Book”). But even in her lesser films like “Don’t Say a Word” she always showed commitment and a certain fearlessness in her portrayals. I know the movie is too dark for younger children, but I am fond of “Happy Feet” and enjoyed her voice as the penguin, Gloria, especially when she performed the Queen song, “Somebody to Love” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.” That’s how I am thinking of her now.

Ellen Besen has written a worthwhile article about how to use the avalanche of holiday season advertising to give children some important lessons in media literacy and critical thinking. Many thanks to Ms. Besen for permission to reprint it here.

Sugar Plums, Candy Canes and a Little Media Literacy
Ellen Besen

Uh oh, it’s that time of year again! The glut of holiday movies and TV programs and the ad campaigns in overdrive mean that the holiday season is again upon us. And inevitably, the TV ads feature cute characters, catchy music and toys, toys, toys! Yes, let the whining, begging and wheedling begin because it is that time when the full force of media is suddenly directed at one vulnerable audience: children…our children. Or at least that’s how it feels. So with all the expectations that holiday media creates, is it really any wonder that our kids sometimes go off the rails?
Of course, every family finds its own ways to counterbalance the pressure, whether by limiting the hours of TV watching or opting for a secret Santa. But there is another approach that might help solve this at a deeper level, and it begins with increasing your children’s level of media literacy.
“Media what?” you ask. Media literacy, a skill that involves developing an awareness of the subtle and not-so-subtle messages in TV, print, movies and even video games. This awareness includes understanding both what those messages are and how they are being communicated. Sounds good, but do our children really need it?
I would say yes. After all, the average American child is glued to the TV for two to three hours a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. Just think, then, how much information and misinformation our children are unquestioningly drinking in.
Part of the problem, here, lies in the fact that anything that appears on TV already seems important. Television automatically lends an air of authority to its content–a powerful built-in trait, which even adults fall prey to. In addition, few young viewers can fully differentiate between fiction and reality within media content. So if the children in the ad look like they are having fun with that new toy, they must really be having fun. Not just any fun, either, but the most fun ever. And then naturally, your child wants to be having that kind of fun too.
Swamped by all this distorted information, children without media training easily get swept up by the belief that they are missing out on something; that they really can’t live without the latest toy. And all of this creates pressure that gets relayed directly onto you, the besieged parent. Give your children some insight into the true nature of media, however, and you just might be rewarded by a refreshing change of attitude that may last well beyond the holidays.
With media literacy training, children are shown how to pull back from media’s spell and consider whether the information being presented is really true; to think about if they agree with the message; to stop regarding the media as an absolute authority and to seek out other points of view–maybe even yours.
So rather than falling into the usual behavior, your media-literate children would be able to ask themselves whether that toy really would be hours of fun or merely a few minutes and therefore whether they really want it or not. Even if they decide they do want the toy, they’d still have a better perspective on how important owning it actually is. Altogether this creates the potential for a much calmer holiday scenario. And who wouldn’t prefer that?

Media Literacy Training 101

To increase your kids’ ML quotient, try making them aware of key ways that media spins information. TV ads aimed at children are, in fact, an excellent place to start. If the ad seems very exciting, for example, see if you can help your kids identify why. Fast camera moves and quick cutting from one shot to another are two factors that create excitement.
Fast-paced music and an ultra-cheery narrator might also be having a big impact here. Try turning the sound off when the ad comes on and see how this affects the perception of excitement. This one might come as a real surprise because sound plays a much bigger role in creating mood that most of us realize.
Also, consider the toy itself. Does the size seem accurate or are they making it seem bigger, perhaps by placing it next to something extra tiny? Discuss the reality of the special features being offered–what might they be like in real life? Connecting this discussion to your children’s own experiences, both positive and negative, with the gap that often exists between expectations built up by advertising and reality can really bring these key points home.
Of course, you can also point out that the happy children in the ad are actors who are being told to look like they are having fun. If you watch carefully you may even find that the shots of happy faces are quite separate from the shots of the toys. There may or may not have been any actual playing with the toy involved in the making of the ad. And even if there were, by the fifth or sixth take, chances are the actors were pretty tired of the whole thing.

Smart Consumers, Not Cynics

If it seems like this will take away some of the fun of the holidays, be careful not to overdo it. The purpose, after all, is not to turn your kids into cynics but simply to prevent them from being sitting ducks.
And why take this on at a time of year when you are already overloaded, anyway? For one thing, at this time of year, you have your children’s full attention. There is something at stake here that has real meaning for them and that puts the odds in your favor. It also helps that holiday ads are particularly vivid in their use of the techniques discussed above and that makes them easier to spot. It’s true that the undertaking may make this holiday season a bit more challenging, but it also may ease holiday tension for years to come.
And keep in mind that while you may be able to control what media your young and even your older children are exposed to, eventually your kids will have to go out into an ever more media-saturated world. ML tools will give them an enviable edge in the greater world–one that will likely serve them well throughout their lives. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!