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Do You Find "Inspirational" Films Comforting or Pandering? 

Something a little off the traditional awards path hit a few days ago which I've failed to discuss: The Heartland Moving Picture Award. The list comes from a non-profit group that aims to promote what some (i.e. jaded critics like, um, maybe myself) might dismiss as "pandering inspiration for the whole family!".  Or at least that's how I was prepared to dismiss it when I saw Saving Mr Banks and 42 were up to. I like Mr Banks but that spoonful of sugar is more a bowlful and I'll admit I didn't make it all the way through the baseball drama from the sweaty handholding to make sure I was INSPIRED. But then I noticed that my beloved Short Term 12 and Alexander Payne's Nebraska on there, and both are a little thornier. So I decided to stop being such a tough customer and appreciate/share this list after the jump

01 Saving Mr Banks
02 42
03 Short Term 12
04 The Book Thief
05 Frozen
06 The Kings of Summer
07 Nebraska
08 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
09 Gimme Shelter
10 Monsters University 

I still shudder when I hear the term "Heartland" because it reminds me of the nonsense political divisiveness about the "real America" and red vs blue and all that mishegoss. But I think the list is worth discussing so here it is. Yep, I'm getting a little softer with age --  I don't foresee living the "get off my lawn!" old man archetype at any time in the distant future. See, lately I've been weary of the the predictable critical "masterpiece!" response to bleak pictures that celebrate/condemn (it can be tough to tell the difference) the darkest aspects of human nature paired with the "meh" on most films/tv shows that don't wallow in cruelty or aren't anti-hero powered. (Recently I was hugely angered when the Globes honored Michael Sheen but not Lizzy Caplan for Showtime's Masters of Sex but then I remembered that he was the anti-hero of the show and who needs complex three dimensional women when there's another one-note prick around to celebrate ?! ... but that's a topic for another time)

Another example of arguable knee jerk critical response: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Ben Stiller's expensive adventure comedy, opening for Christmas, features some crass product placement, it's true. The commercial sheen (not just the product) makes it an easy target but the critical drubbing is far worse than it deserves. The central message, to really experience your life rather than dream about living it, is a beautiful and yes "inspiring" one. Sure it's yet another variation of "carpe diem" but there are worse messages to be regularly exposed to!

Ben Stiller photographed by Ben Baker for Parade Magazine

And I felt this way before I went on a trip to Iceland sponsored by Walter Mitty. But, full disclosure, I did that. I'll tell you about my adventures this week. Let's make the holiday week a Winter Wonderland theme so we can rope in Frozen and other chilly movies, too. 

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Reader Comments (11)

I avoid "Inspirational" (where the word inspirational is used in the ad campaign) story films like the plague. They remind me far too much of the false "care and love" foisted on me by religious people as a child and I don't trust them.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Inspirational movies work best when they're foreign language. When it's someone else's experience and culture outside of the American gaze which carries a lot of baggage--racist, sexist, and our under discussed caste system--we have one just as other western and non-western parts of the world.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

The list does a good service by exposing a corner of the market to something like Short Term 12, which IS a powerful experience that could have appeal beyond the art-house crowd, and that's commendable. I think if this list gets people gets a certain type of customer out to the movies, it's a good thing.
For me, I think I get inspired by artful filmmaking and strong voices, and there are plenty of lists getting made of the kinds of inspirational film experiences I'm looking for.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I was expecting the worst with that list and I'm pleasantly surprised. Adding Short Term 12 and Frozen to the list is smart. I would not have thought to call them inspirational films but they actually could fit the title.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I do hope you do engage with that topic, Nathaniel, because I'm surprised you like Masters of Sex as much as you do but feel that the leading male is a one-note prick role (though the Globe actor category seems staggeringly uniform in what it celebrates, the actress category is really packed with talent - dropping one of those five ladies seems to be an equally angering)

As for the general, inspirational has become such a shorthand for a certain type of storytelling - blandly uplifting, conflicts whitewashed of complexity shorn of darkness (see The Book Thief) and emotional range. While I won't deny being intrigued by shows/movies that show the darker aspects of the human condition, I'd assert they only work when they somehow tap into my empathy/complicity. That stated, I do find criticism in general avoids engaging deeply with films that are more positively pleasurable (though I'd assert the opposite for you).

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

arkaan -- agree with what you're saying about the shorthand. it's funny that you think the opposite of me. One of my friends exboyfriends (who had very mainstream tastes) used to complain about the movies we loved and talked about... 'you guys only love heavy depressing films where people die!'

Mike - exactly

Henry -- i have inherent distrust of these things too, also due to religious baggage. but i'm softening up now with a lot of distance from religion. I don't begrudge anyone their beliefs but i also think we give religions way too much leeway when the only society that will ever work is a humanist one that doesn't allow for people's personal beliefs affecting anyone outside themselves.

December 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

You know what inspired me this year? Blue is the Warmest Color. It inspired me to love more, to live more, to have more and better sex, even when life gets really messy. I love this kind of inspiration, that comes from my unconditional love for John Cassavetes, and, in recent times, for Arnaud Desplechin. My "inspiring" movies are always like that, like Kings and Queen, Love Streams, You Can Count on Me, Moonstruck, et cetera. Empathy is inspiration, not sugar.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal Roth--nicely said.

To me, family-friendly "inspirational" would be more like AKEELA AND THE BEE, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, and BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE (though that one has religious overtones). Not sure middle schoolers would get NEBRASKA or even SHORT-TERM 12 but others on the list are fine (tho I haven't seen BANKS yet). I found last year's BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD to be quite inspirational as did this year's MUD.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I like being inspired, and inspirational films can do that. The problem isn't that they're pandering, the problem is that they're lazy. They've got their commercially-guaranteed message, so why work hard at a wonderful script? 42 was clunky and slow. A heavy-handed message would have worked far better in a script designed to move along in some way other than by-the-numbers.

Tearjerkers and romances are equal offenders. Just because you can make me cry doesn't mean you're good. Just because you tell me two people are in love doesn't mean you've written it well. And just because you have an inspirational story doesn't mean the work of creating an excellent movie is done.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I can like these films as often as I dislike them. I think it's more whether I feel they're genuine or not. I liked 42 and BLACK NATIVITY in that regard in that somebody somewhere really felt these stories needed to be put on screen, but SAVING MR BANKS feels like nobody really had all that much interest beyond the very obvious.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Excellent filmmaking and well told stories are inspiring. Intentions and "message" don't matter if the movie is bad.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

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