Sometimes it can be hard to pick out a good movie the whole family can enjoy (in fact in our family it can be an hours-long battle). And sometimes, just sometimes, we might want to get a little more out of a movie than epic superhero battles or absurd debacles (though both of those can be great too!) For those times when you’d like to find a movie with a bit of substance, perhaps some historical context or cultural mind expansion, I have put together a shortlist of some of our favorites (all of which, conveniently, are available on either Amazon Prime or Netflix). We found these movies to have a good balance of educational and entertainment value- I hope you will as well!
To imagine what this movie is like, picture Indiana Jones transported to the age of technology and infused with a heavy dose of American historical pride. Starring Nicolas Cage and Harvey Keitel (and several other big names), this flick has enough action to keep any Die Hard fan happy, and enough historical trivia to make parents feel like their kids have actually gained something useful from watching it (and parents might learn a few things as well). The story is based on the premise that the Declaration of Independence has an invisible map encrypted on the back which gives clues to an unimaginable treasure. A family of historians has been trying to track down the treasure for centuries, and when the youngest (Cage) finally gets a strong lead, so does a nefarious criminal with evil intent. What follows is a high stakes heist/chase movie, expertly infused with little known facts about the founding fathers and the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration and Constitution.
I don’t watch very many Disney movies these days, but this one struck me as pretty special. Elaborately animated and creatively imagined, the story takes place in Mexico and explores the important traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertes), a holiday celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November in many Latin American countries, to honor loved ones who have passed on. The story is about a boy named Miguel who loves to play music, in spite of the fact that his family has banned the practice for generations. In his quest to understand why this is so, he finds himself in a whirlwind journey to the bright and vibrant Land of the Dead. The film talks about the belief systems surrounding the Day of the Dead but focuses more on the overall themes of loving and honoring family. Though occasionally a bit dark (the idea of a “second death”, like disappearing from history, if your family forgets you, didn’t appeal to me personally), the overall emphasis is on remembering loved ones who have passed, appreciating the ones who are still with you, and celebrating life with joy and passion while you’re living it. As someone who appreciates the Day of the Dead (in a thoroughly America/non-Catholic way), I was pleased to see a respectful and exuberant story based on the tradition.
I must admit, this is a very hard movie to summarize. If I had to pick one word to describe it, would definitely be “original”. I have really never seen anything like it (though I went through a long “artsy/European movie phase, in which most movies left you wondering what the heck that was all about).
The heart of the story is Shana, a wildly (and yes, somewhat implausibly) gifted violinist from the Lower Nicola Indian Band in British Columbia. Her mother, who, we learn in the course of the film, taught Shana to play, has recently passed away, and she and her alcoholic father are in deep mourning. The father frequently hallucinates that the mother is still there and carries on conversations with her- a point of some confusion in the movie initially. Frustrated by her grief, her unavailable father, and the overall poverty she’s surrounded with, Shana retreats into her own world and ends up meeting a wolf who becomes her spirit guide (the fact that it’s never entirely clear whether the wolf is “real”, is, I assume, intentional). Though seemingly filmed on a budget – the acting, admittedly, often leaves a bit to be desired- and occasionally baffling, I found the story to be a brave and enchanting window into a very different way of seeing the world. Shana’s rebellious attempts to recover her mother’s beloved violin, and her ultimate transformation, both musically and personally, are powerful universal themes presented in what I hope is a culturally appropriate context; Amazon’s summary says the movie was “filmed with the People of the Creeks, the Lower Nicola Indian Band near Merritt, BC. A moving, magical, and yet authentic inter-cultural motion picture”l motion picture.
4.) 7 Years in Tibet
This is a story that made a big splash when it was released 22 years ago (yes its been that long!), but that I only recently thought of as a good adventure movie for the family. There are so many movies to choose from these days, and sometimes the oldie but goodies can be forgotten- hence I decided to give it a nudge. I have to admit that I am not much of a Brad Pitt fan (and even less back then when you could at least blame his lack of facial expression on his greenness), but the story is so incredible, and the other acting good enough to carry it off (especially that of David Thewlis). To those unfamiliar with the yarn, it is a true story of two German mountaineers taken captive in India during WWII and who escape to Tibet by embarking on a truly epic man vs. nature expedition. Once there, they are befriended by the Dalai Lama, who was a boy at the time, and who is soon to be forcibly removed by the Chinese government. The impossible conditions and astounding remoteness keep everyone riveted (for although you know they make it, the question is how??), and the interactions with a fascinatingly different culture make this movie (and I have to say the book, which admittedly tells a more accurate version of events) satisfying, both entertainment-wise and for its insights into a culture and spiritual tradition often overlooked in the western world.