Waiting for “Superman” (Davis Guggenheim, 2010). Guggenheim forces the viewer to challenge their assumptions about the educational system in the United States, and that’s a good thing, especially for people like me, whose ideas have perhaps fossilized over the years. Yes, I have a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone blames unions for the problems of the day, and in this case, I am a member of the union in question. Still, there is something simplistic about Guggenheim’s argument here. The core idea, that good teachers make for good classrooms make for good students, OK. But the logic from that point is shaky. We don’t have good students today, so we must not have good classrooms, so we must not have good teachers, but we can’t get rid of them because of the damn unions. So break the unions and we’ll have good students again. The biggest problem I have with this train of thought is that Guggenheim is happy to represent success or failure by the test scores of students, refusing to deal with the controversy over the usefulness of testing, and also refusing to note the ways in which teachers, good or bad, end up teaching for proficiency at exams, whether that’s a good system for education students or not. 6/10.
The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984). A celebratory documentary about an important figure in the history of gay Americans, The Times of Harvey Milk shines as a memento of Milk’s life and accomplishments. It doesn’t try for an all-encompassing socio-historic view; it runs 88 minutes, and that’s the right amount of time to give us the basics of Milk, the way he touched people, and why he is such an historic figure. To a large extent, though, the film assumes prior knowledge of the history that preceded Milk (to go deeper would have taken much more than 88 minutes). This makes for a very focused film, but one that feels a bit more provincial than it needs to be. Still, the story is a great one, and it grabs the audience at an emotional level while still finding room for some distanced perspective. #882 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.
Magic Trip (Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, 2011). 7/10.
Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987). Phil had this at #27 on his Facebook Faves list, so I checked it out. The setting (news reporting that is falling victim to pretty faces over intelligence) is almost quaint at this point; since 1987, what was once scary potential is now daily reality. Brooks effortlessly blends the private and work lives of his three main characters, who are never mere stereotypes, and he gets fine performances from Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks (all were nominated for Oscars, and all lost, to Cher, Michael Douglas, and Sean Connery respectively). Still, it’s easy to see Brooks’ roots in TV sitcoms; the film is clever, witty, and at times insightful, but in an easy-to-take way, and while Brooks writes fine dialogue and seems to have a way with actors, Phil hit the target when he said that “there’s not a lot going on in Broadcast News visually or directorially.” 7/10.
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955). #21 on my Facebook list of my 50 favorite movies. #286 on the TSPDT list. 10/10.
City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002). #20 on my Faves list. #598 on the TSPDT list, #27 on their list of the top films of the 21st century. 10/10.