Not enough quality films for families to make a top 10 list
NEW YORK (CNS) -- The year just past was not one in which Hollywood often succeeded in blending artistic quality with family-friendly content.
Few of 2017's outstanding films aimed at adults were entirely free of gritty or controversial elements. And the aesthetic standard of movies acceptable for almost all age groups was so low that our usual round number of 10 in that category could not be reached without scraping a bit too far down in the barrel.
Ironically, "Wonder," perhaps the year's single best picture from our perspective, achieved this mixture almost to perfection, and was well rewarded for doing so at the box office.
Bearing these circumstances in mind, following -- in alphabetical order -- are the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service's picks for 2017's Top 10 movies overall and Best Nine family-friendly films.
The key to Catholic News Service classifications for the movies listed below: A-I -- general patronage; A-II -- adults and adolescents; A-III -- adults; L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.
The Motion Picture Association of America ratings for the films, where available: G -- general audiences. All ages admitted; PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
As for the top 10 films overall:
In the stylish, high-octane crime drama "Baby Driver," an otherwise decent young man (Ansel Elgort) is forced to serve as the getaway driver in a series of bank robberies in order to pay off his debt to a callous mobster (Kevin Spacey). As he works with a variety of lowlifes to pull off the heists, the better part of his nature is expressed in the care he gives his deaf and ailing foster father (CJ Jones) and in his romance with a sprightly diner waitress (Lily James). The basic values at work in writer-director Edgar Wright's script are sound, though the bloodletting will seem excessive to many. (L, R)
"Dunkirk" is a compelling historical drama, set in the spring of 1940, recounting the surprisingly successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops from the port of the title following their rapid defeat and encirclement by the forces of Nazi Germany. Taking an Everyman's view of the situation, writer-director Christopher Nolan follows the exploits of an ensemble of military and civilian characters (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy), fully exploiting the perils of the desperate operation for dramatic tension and upholding such values as humane justice and generosity of spirit. (A-III, PG-13)
Clever social commentary adds heft to writer-director Jordan Peele's thriller "Get Out." During a weekend visit to the country estate of his white live-in girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford), whom he has never met before, a black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) becomes increasingly unsettled by the peculiar behavior of those on both sides of the racial divide, including the family's strangely subdued, zombie-like maid (Betty Gabriel) and gardener (Marcus Henderson). Peele adeptly uses horror tropes to comment on slavery, racism and liberal pieties. But some gory encounters make his film a rugged ride even for grown-ups. (L, R)
In "A Ghost Story," Casey Affleck's recently deceased, silently querulous and shrouded spirit, looking like one of Charlie Brown's trick-or-treaters with cut-out eyeholes, returns to stare at, though not haunt, his widow (Rooney Mara). Eventually, he needs to fulfill a task in order to set things right and thus be released from his earthly bonds. Writer-director David Lowery hasn't attempted a story about religion specifically or spirituality generally. Rather, he has made a visually fascinating reflection on loss. (A-III, R)
"Lady Bird," starring Saoirse Ronan, is writer-director Greta Gerwig's sensitive autobiographical account of growing up in Sacramento, California, while testing her boundaries with both her family and her parochial school. That process, seen in retrospect, is pleasing in some respects but teeth-grating in a couple of others, as the script implicitly acknowledges. The redeeming wrap-up is preceded by quite a bit of problematic material. (L, R)
A merry band of mismatched misfits from West Virginia turn to crime in the hope of a better life beyond the trailer park in the zany heist caper "Logan Lucky," directed by Steven Soderbergh. A coal miner (Channing Tatum), desperate for money after losing his job, enlists his one-armed bartender brother (Adam Driver) and sassy beautician sister (Riley Keough) to rob a racetrack. The ensuing romp, during which they try to evade a nosy FBI agent (Hilary Swank), is an amusing bit of fluff. (A-III, PG-13)
"Megan Leavey" tells the inspiring true story of the eponymous Marine corporal (Kate Mara) and Rex, her bomb-sniffing German shepherd, who together completed more than 100 combat missions in Iraq before an explosion sidelined both. With its gritty portrayal of the horrors of combat, the film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is a valuable reminder of the personal sacrifices made by those who serve our country, as well as a salute to the enduring rewards of friendship. (A-III, PG-13)
A nostalgic account of The Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, "The Post" has Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee fighting both the Nixon administration and their own notions of how journalists should behave around prominent public officials. Director Steven Spielberg aims to make a rouser along the lines of 1952's "Deadline U.S.A." and, according to that film's formula of a crusading newspaper in financial peril triumphing over government secrets and crooked politicians, he succeeds. (A-III, PG-13)
The vibrant comic-book adaptation "Spider-Man: Homecoming" follows the double life of seemingly ordinary high school student Peter Parker (Tom Holland) as he struggles to keep his extra-curricular crime-fighting activities concealed from his easily worried guardian, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). In this reboot for the franchise, director and co-writer Jon Watts crafts a lively and satisfying action adventure, showcasing both loyal friendship (Jacob Batalon plays Peter's best pal) and restrained romance (Laura Harrier portrays the schoolmate for whom he pines). Yet, while the combat is kept virtually bloodless, some of the dialogue puts this off-limits for the many youngsters who would otherwise likely enjoy it. (A-III, PG-13)
"Wonder Woman" is an enjoyable adventure for the DC Comics superhero (Gal Gadot) that takes her from her home environment -- an island of Amazons isolated from the rest of the world -- into the thick of World War I. Her involvement in the conflict follows the accidental intrusion of an American (Chris Pine) who's spying for the British into her native realm, an event she takes as a signal that her race is being called to bring peace to humanity. Though director Patty Jenkins keeps the mayhem mostly free of gore and the script is unspotted by vulgarity, the sexuality that tinges the central romance, though restrained, makes this best for grownups. (A-III, PG-13)
And the top nine (remember, only nine) family films:
In "Born in China," directed and co-written by Lu Chuan, and narrated by John Krasinski, a mother snow leopard fears for her two cubs as, with winter approaching, she struggles to maintain their food supply atop one of China's tallest peaks. Down in the forest, meanwhile, a golden snub-nosed monkey gets into all kinds of mischief, and a mother panda is perfectly content to sit and eat bamboo all day with her baby son at her side. Breathtaking cinematography, together with the total absence of anything objectionable, make this documentary a winner for all. (A-I, G)
"Cars 3" follows a veteran race car (voice of Owen Wilson) as he is eclipsed by a new generation of faster vehicles, led by a brash young rival (voice of Armie Hammer). Temporarily sidelined by an accident, the aging champ seeks a second chance by joining forces with a youthful trainer (voice of Cristela Alonzo) and harkening to the wisdom of a grizzled adviser (voice of Chris Cooper). Amid the dizzying blur of NASCAR-like action, director Brian Fee and his trio of screenwriters work a nice amount of heart and pathos into the comedic plot, along with winning messages about persistence and the value of mentoring. (A-I, G)
A young Mexican lad's (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) quest to follow in the footsteps of his hometown's most famous son (voice of Benjamin Bratt) by becoming a world-renowned musician takes a supernatural turn in "Coco." Mysteriously transported to the afterlife as depicted in the folklore associated with the Day of the Dead, he crosses paths with a good-hearted but slippery character (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal) who becomes his guide. While free of any age-inappropriate content and strong on the importance of family solidarity, principal director Lee Unkrich's visually rich animated fantasy cannot be recommended for the impressionable, though teens and grownups can safely appreciate it. (A-II, PG)
The spotlight shines brightly on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) in the World War II drama "Darkest Hour," directed by Joe Wright. With defeat at the hands of the Nazis looming and political intrigue threatening his newly-minted premiership, Churchill draws encouragement from his faithful wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), as he convinces his skeptical colleagues (most prominently Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane) to fight on and rallies the nation. Although some liberties are taken with the facts, the film offers an important history lesson for young and old about a time when statesmanship mattered most. (A-II, PG-13)
Good values and charming pastoral landscapes help to redeem a somewhat padded plot in "Ferdinand," the animated adaptation of Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson's 1936 children's classic "The Story of Ferdinand," directed by Carlos Saldanha. Escaping the confines of the stable in which he and other bulls are prepared for their fateful confrontation with a matador, the peace-loving protagonist of the title (voice of John Cena), is adopted as a pet by an affectionate and growing girl (voices of Julia Saldanha and Lily Day). But a misunderstanding sets him back on the path to the bullring where his commitment to nonviolence will be put to the ultimate test. (A-I, PG)
Directed with brio by Eric Summer and Eric Warin, "Leap!" is a charming animated film, set in 1880s France, that centers on two best friends (voices of Elle Fanning and Nat Wolff) who escape from an orphanage (its predictably stern mother superior voiced by Kate McKinnon) to pursue their dreams in Paris. He plans to be a famous inventor, while she longs to be a dancer. A couple of rude jokes do not seriously detract from visually stunning imagery and a winning story about friendship, perseverance and helping others in need. (A-II, PG)
"The Star" is a delightful animated version of the Christmas story, told from the perspective of some of the animals present in the manger. Chief among them is a gentle donkey (voice of Steven Yeun) from Nazareth who, after being adopted as a pet by the Virgin Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez), despite the mild disapproval of St. Joseph (voice of Zachary Levi), becomes dedicated to protecting the parents-to-be as they journey to Bethlehem. Director Timothy Reckart skillfully balances religious themes such as the importance of prayer and the value of forgiveness with a more secular message about pursuing your dreams, and throws in a healthy dose of straightforward entertainment. (A-I, PG)
In the engrossing sci-fi epic "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the leading general (Carrie Fisher) of an embattled group of rebels sends a messenger (Daisy Ridley) to the distant planet on which her brother (Mark Hamill), a famed warrior, is living in self-imposed exile to summon his help in the desperate struggle against their fascistic enemies (led by Andy Serkis and Adam Driver). Writer-director Rian Johnson's eighth episode in the saga initiated by George Lucas in 1977 sweeps viewers along with stirring action and audience-pleasing plot twists while instilling lessons about the value of hope and the true nature of heroism. (A-II, PG-13)
"Wonder" is a gentle, moving drama about a 10-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay) born with facial deformities and his struggle to win acceptance from his peers (most prominently Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar and Millie Davis) as he transitions from being educated at home (by sympathetic parents Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) to attending the fifth grade of his local middle school. In adapting R.J. Palacio's best-seller, director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky has created a winning and memorable film about the significance of ordinary life and the lasting impact of everyday choices. (A-II, PG)
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.