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I used to say that film school ruined movie watching for me. I spent more time noticing the practical lights on the set or the blue tint in day for night shots than I did in the story. A few years ago, when a much younger date brought me to a screening of Friday the 13th Part 75 , I concentrated more on counting squibs and calculating what percent of the budget went to special effects than I did on clinging to him or squealing with horror. Lately though, I'm less concerned with the technical aspects of a movie and more focused on its emotional resonance. Films with the power to move me seem to be fewer and fewer. Every year I watch It's a Wonderful Life and cry when the townspeople bring money to save George Bailey, and I was bawling like a baby at the recent viral video of the autistic boy playing basketball. If it's not that I've become more cynical, has Hollywood? Is it harder to find humanity in today's films?  

Film school made me more critical, more discerning. It taught me to look under my goose bumps and identify the aspects of the film that triggered them. I learned that the emotional strength of a film comes from the audience's investment in the character, a feeling of identity with him or her. Excellent performances add dimension and complexity to a role, bringing it this universal quality, but even the best acting job can't save a poorly written character. As I work within my writing group, critiquing scripts and developing my own, a common note is "What does the character want?" As I watched the 2009 Academy and Writer's Guild Award contenders for Best Screenplay, this message finally took root. The films which had the most power for me emotionally were those in which the motivations of the characters were clear. Of course, the trick is to reveal in an interesting, organic way what drives the characters, and it is pure pleasure to watch how deftly the best screenwriters manage this.  

Milk , Dustin Lance Black

No movie-goer, regardless of political or religious views, should miss this inspirational story of gay politician Harvey Milk. It's the universal tale of the disenfranchised fighting to regain their voice, that really – still – can only truly be told in America. The notoriously cantankerous Sean Penn completely disappears in the radiant charm of Harvey Milk, in a performance that is absolutely mesmerizing. Josh Brolin is wonderfully creepy yet vulnerable as Milk's assassin Dan White, and all of the supporting cast playing Milk's political team bring a wonderful chemistry and camaraderie to their performances. That Milk's public service ambitions give his life purpose is clear, and when he chooses that life over love, the audience roots ever more strongly for some kind of success to offset his string of failures. The penultimate scene before his assassination – Milk speaking to his ex-lover at the evocative hour of dawn, tired, vulnerable, at peace with his life's choices, sets the stage beautifully for the operatic climax.  

Frost/Nixon , Peter Morgan

He may look more like Reagan or Brezhnev, but Frank Langella perfectly portrays the various aspects of Richard Nixon: the brilliant intellectual with street fighter instincts, the power-hungry politician with insatiable insecurity, the elderly man clinging jealously to former greatness. Not a word is wasted in the sharp dialogue, and Langella drops Nixon's craftily calculated offhand comments with that wonderful bluntness that is the entitlement of old age. Michael Sheen is equally adept as David Frost, whose remarkable capacity for ignoring his own ego while working collaboratively with others might be considered an anachronism in today's Hollywood. The crux of this David and Goliath story is not an interview; it is a fight, and as in the best competition films, the stakes are high. As the adversaries spar, the desperate battle of the wills is made all the more complex – and touching – by the similarities that link the foes together.  

The Reader , David Hare

Kate Winslet's character Hanna Schmitz is one of the few oases in the current desert of complex cinematic roles for women. She is not the wife, girlfriend, mistress, mother, or long-lost daughter of the main character - she is  the main character, gritty and vulnerable, by far the most intriguing individual in the movie. It is fascinating, horrific really, to watch her character unfold. Hanna never openly states her motivations, and I had the movie on internal rewind for days, tirelessly searching for clues to complete the puzzle, rewarded when a piece finally fit. What could have happened to her as a child to put her on such an extreme path of single-minded purpose? As Hanna's once youthful lover (Ralph Fiennes) grapples with his feelings towards her, against the backdrop of Germany's own struggle to come to terms with its past, Hanna's determination to overcome her personal obstacle is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.  

Slumdog Millionaire , Simon Beaufoy

This wonderfully inventive screenplay hearkens back to the original fairy tales – heartwarmingly naïve yet gruesomely violent all at once. A contestant, Jamal (Dev Patel), on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  defends his fidelity in a series of flashbacks that explain how an uneducated boy from the slums of Mumbai could have known the answers to the questions. Hard disappointments have obviously knocked the spunk out of the adult Jamal that was visible in the young and middle years – he often has that glazed-over look that my nephew has after too much time playing video games – but casting did a fantastic job matching up three generations of actors for three of the characters. While throughout the years the brother Salim is the more interesting role, Jamal makes good the timeless adage, "love conquers all."  

The Wrestler , Robert D. Siegel

Mickey Rourke outdoes himself in this moving portrayal of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a star past his prime, aching to recapture his past glory, refusing to accept the limitations of his battered body. His occupation as a professional wrestler, able to endure the most extreme physical pain, provides a perfect contrast to his complete inability to deal with the emotional pain of rejection. Rather than follow his heart or his head, he is steered by his senses, impatient for anything but immediate gratification. To his credit, he does try to heal his heart, literally and figuratively, but performing is all he knows – being on top is all he knows – and he is unable to swallow the humility dished out to him. On parallel career tracks, but with diametrically opposed attitudes towards the customers they entertain, he and the stripper Cassidy (played unconvincingly by Marisa Tomei save a few heartfelt lines at the end) are doomed to remain star-crossed almost lovers.  

Frozen River , Courtney Hunt

With the welcome twist of female protagonists willing to accept the consequences of their crimes, Frozen River revitalizes the outlaw/buddy film genre. It also gives a nod to road trip movies, though the desperate single mothers in this suspenseful thriller can only get away long enough to drive back and forth across the New York-Canadian border smuggling illegal immigrants. Melissa Leo gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a white woman struggling to earn back the money stolen by her gambler husband, and Misty Upham is wonderful as Lila, a dour Mohawk woman saving money to win back the baby son taken by her mother-in-law. Initial mistrust gives way to an emotional connection, as both women, beaten down and taken advantage of for too long, finally assert themselves in the gripping climax. Their fling with crime is as precarious as the icy river they drive across each night, and it is only on solid ground, in the glare of police headlights, that the gutsy women's bond can truly be tested.  

The Visitor , Thomas McCarthy

Richard Jenkins masterfully plays widowed professor Walter Vale, a lonely man devoid of compassion, pretending to live a life that no longer has any meaning for him. His friendship with an illegal alien couple found living in his New York City apartment revitalizes his capacity to feel, and when Tarik (Haaz Sleiman) is imprisoned by the immigration authorities, Walter chastises the guards – and ultimately the system - for the same callousness he himself shows early on in the movie towards his students. When Tarik's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives to help her son, she and Walter find a connection through their commonalities – love for Tarik, grief at love lost, and a nagging sense of not belonging. Tarik and Mouna are visitors at Walter's apartment and, since they are not citizens, in the United States as well. As an American, Walter is the only one who can visit Tarik at the detention center, and in this temporary role as a conduit for the others to communicate with the prisoner, he finds a purpose.


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