Thursday, June 18, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Movies About Teachers

My fiancé is a teacher, and so at this time of year, while all the students are waiting to get out of school for the summer, I often think of their poor teachers, who probably need the break much more than students do. Teachers are among the most over stressed, under paid, under respected professions out there. So, I decided to do my top ten list this week about teacher movies. Not all of the movies on the list are flattering portraits of teachers, and yet I think each and every one would make any teacher just a little happier in their job – either by inspiring them to go out and make a difference, or at least make them a little happier that they are not the teacher in the movie!

10. Mr. Holland’s Opus (Stephen Herek, 1995)
Yes, Mr. Holland’s Opus is a more than a little bit cheesy. It is the standard issue “inspiring teacher” movie, about a music teacher who reaches countless kids over the years, but cannot reach their own child, because they are deaf. There is nothing remotely new or original in the film, but watching it, I defy you to not be moved by Richard Dreyfuss’ performance, particularly at the end when he is finally able to break through the barrier to his son. Yes, it’s sappy and cheesy. But sometimes, sappy and cheesy are just what you want.

9. Stand and Deliver (Ramon Mendenez, 1988)
This is probably the best of the teacher reaching out to the inner city school children movies produced in America. We have seen countless versions of this from Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers, where all the students need is someone to believe in them in order for their academic minds to come alive. Most of them are beyond cheesy and condescending, but Stand and Deliver avoids most of those traps. Edward James Olmos gives a great performance as Jamie Escalante, the weird math teacher with overly big glasses, a bad comb over, and a dream that his students take advance placement tests for math to get them into university. Lou Diamond Phillips as the most “badass” student in the room is also quite good. A fine film.

8. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood, 1939)
If there is a lesson for teachers to learn from Goodbye Mr. Chips, it’s that it sometimes takes a lot of time to become a good teacher. The film follows Mr. Chips (Robert Donat in an Oscar winning role) through his nearly 50 year teaching career. For the nearly the first 20 years, Mr. Chips is viewed by his colleagues and students as a fussy stick in the mud, who they pretty much all dislike. But when he meets the woman he’s going to marry (Greer Garson) is middle age, he suddenly comes alive, and becomes one of the best and most beloved teachers in the school’s history. So keep at it, and hopefully your beloved spouse won’t die right after you get married. There have been a lot of movies about English boarding schools over the years, but this is perhaps the best one.

7. Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
This is the final, and best, inspirational teacher movie on this list. It gets darker from here on out, so be warned. Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as John Keating, the new English teacher at an exclusive boarding school in 1960s America. Keating inspires his students to see the English language in another way, and encourages them to think for themselves, which of course, upsets the establishment. Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke are the standouts among the impressive young cast. It’s hard to watch this movie and not get a little choked up.

6. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)
Wonder Boys is actually better than several movies above it on this list, but I docked it a couple points because it’s about University Professor, and there is precious little teaching going on in the film. No matter though, Wonder Boys is a reminder that sometimes the teacher is more screwed up than the students. Michael Douglas plays a novelist and a writing professor, who has been working on his latest novel for years, and cannot finish it. His third marriage has just dissolved, he’s been sleeping with his boss’ wife (Frances McDormand), and he smokes a lot of pot. Through a highly unorthodox weekend, Douglas learns from two of his students. First, there is Tobey Maguire, as a gifted student who churns out one great story after another, and then there is Katie Holmes, who reads his latest opus, and tells him its crap. Sometimes the students do the teaching. Wonder Boys is a funny, heartfelt little film and it contains Michael Douglas’ best performance.

5. Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)
Notes on a Scandal is a darkly comic take on a story we hear far too often nowadays – that of a female teacher sleeping with one of her students. But the fascinating thing about this movie is that it is not the teacher who sleeps with the student (Cate Blanchatt) who is the main character, but her friend (Judi Dench). Dench plays an old, bitter teacher, lonely for years, probably a closeted lesbian, who strikes up a friendship with Blanchatt, and then uses her knowledge of the affair to try and keep her in check – with disastrous results. I suppose when you spend your entire working life in a high school, sometimes you cannot help but act like your students a little bit. I have always thought that Dench was an overrated actress, but in this movie she is utterly fantastic.

4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969)
Maggie Smith won her first Oscar for playing Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher at an all girls school in England, who is fiercely protective of “her girls”, even if she fails completely to understand them at all. She assigns each of her girls a role to play, and then tests them out to see if they fulfill that role. She encourages one girl to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with disastrous results, and the other girls rebel against their roles, and finally Miss Brodie herself. Miss Brodie always considered herself a great teacher and a confidante to her girls. When she finds out what they really think of her, she cannot bare it.

3. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)
Okay, so if you thought some of the teachers on this list were messed up, they cannot compare with Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) in this movie. Dunne is a rich kid, slumming it by teaching inner city kids middle school, to relieve some of his liberal guilt. He is also a crack addict, who is prone to get high before class, and go on crazed rants to his class, who don’t seem too interested. What saves Dunne is his relationship with Drey (Shareeka Epps), a young girl in his class, who knows his secret, and does not rat him out. She’s been falling in with a drug dealer (Anthony Mackie), and Dunne is determined to stop her from messing up her life. There sweet relationship is the heart of the movie. Ryan Gosling, one of the best actors in the world right now, delivers an amazing performance as Dunne. He never goes over the top into junkie hysterics, and he also does not turn Dunne into some kind of saint. He’s a screwed up man, just trying his best.

2. The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008)
If you are looking for perhaps the most realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a teacher, then Laurent Cantet’s The Class is probably it. Based on a book by Francois Begaudeau a former teacher, who also co-wrote the screenplay and plays the lead role, The Class is a movie that looks at the struggle teacher go through on a day to day basis with honesty. The kids don’t seem to care that much, and are constantly questioning why they need to learn what he’s trying to teach them. For every kid he reaches, there’s at least one that he doesn’t. For every triumph, there is an equally big setback. Arguments with parents, who don’t understand or don’t care, petty bickering with other faculty members are commonplace. A misconstrued comment leads to consequences he never imagined. And yet, The Class ends up being a great film because it looks at it all with honesty and openness. Teaching is an invaluable profession, and if you put your all into it, you’re going to have highs and lows. A great film.

1. Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)
Alexander Payne’s Election is one the best comedies of the 1990s, and a reminder that sometimes it is not the troublemakers who annoy the teacher the most – it’s the suck-ups. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is one of those students. She always has the right answer, always has to be the best at everything and civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) just cannot stand her anymore. Already mad at her as her affair with his best friend got him fired, when it appears like Tracy is going to win the election to class President, meaning that McAllister will have to spend a lot of time with her the next year, he puts into motion his plan to stop her – by any means necessary. The movie is often painfully funny, with Broderick and Witherspoon giving pitch perfect performances (this, by the way, is the film Witherspoon should have won her Oscar for), the film looks in painstaking detail just how screwed up McAllister’s life becomes. People like Tracy always win, and people like poor Mr. McAllister always lose.

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