Family rivalry, a thrilling competition, forbidden love. All are trademarks of a terrific story, explored by the likes of Shakespeare and other greats. Yet, I’m not talking about “Romeo and Juliet,” I’m talking about the 2005 blockbuster ‘remake’ starring Steve Martin, “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” which, until I was 12, I proudly proclaimed to be my favorite movie. But, when I moved from Boston to Los Angeles the summer before seventh grade, I had not anticipated that question being a key ice breaker or the start of one of my best friendships.
During a break in seventh-grade French class, the boy in front of me turned around and asked, “You’re the new girl, right? What’s your favorite movie?” I thought about it, and being poorly versed in film, I replied genuinely, “Cheaper by the Dozen 2.” It seemed well known enough to be a good favorite. The boy, Ryan, laughed in my face. “THAT’S your favorite movie?!” he replied. “It’s not even a classic!” I had no clue what he was talking about; I hadn’t seen any of his top 5 (out of his list of 100 favorite movies) ranging from “The Godfather” to “The Shawshank Redemption.” I hadn’t seen a Disney princess movie, let alone “a classic!”
I didn’t see the problem with this, yet Ryan’s question and response have led to one of my greatest dilemmas with film discourse and conversation — the criterion for what can be a favorite film, and above that, what defines a good film. Ryan, who still makes fun of me for my answer to this very day, introduced me to a new realm of movies, and his dedication to my cinema education is what created my intrigue and love for the art. I watched his favorites and others, including my new answer to that intriguing question, “Dead Poets Society” — an answer he found acceptable.
But what makes “Dead Poets Society” better than “Cheaper by the Dozen 2”? For me, it depends on what you define as the purpose of film. To some — my 12-year-old self included — film is supposed to make you laugh, to entertain you, to relieve you for a while of your day-to-day worries (I was an annoyingly introspective, existential 12 year old). Yet for Ryan, and most of those who consider themselves film critics, the purpose is so much more. It is about the cinematography, the editing, the script, the acting and, most importantly, the message the film is sending.
Despite what typical critics may say, the message of “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” is wholesome; it’s about the power of family and the importance of growing up and letting go. Yet, it’s no “Dead Poets Society.” It doesn’t explore existence and meaning, or the power of passion and doing what you love and the consequences of that passion. There is no life and death. But does there have to be? My exploration into the realm of film has caused this sort of cognitive dissonance. Should a film’s value be discussed through enjoyment or importance?
This dilemma follows me to this very day, even with my now-much more extensive knowledge of cinema. This Oscar season was particularly difficult for me, as I struggled to decide on what I wanted to win Best Picture. Though nine movies were nominated for the award, it was common knowledge that the decision would go one of two ways. Ironically, with the Steve Harvey-like fiasco at this year’s Oscars, the decision did go both ways; for a moment, the creators of both “La La Land” and “Moonlight” shared the stage, an unintentional but important tribute to the influence and emotional relevance of both films. Still, this rivalry provides a great example of my dilemma.
I LOVED “La La Land” — not just because I am from Los Angeles, am a huge, sappy romantic, love musical theatre and had a relationship that creepily paralleled that of Mia and Sebastian, but because I truly enjoyed it. I saw it four times in theatres and cried every single time. It pulled on my heartstrings in a way that not many films have, and it will forever hold a place in my heart as one of my favorite movies.
“Moonlight,” on the other hand, was vastly different and is arguably more important. While “La La Land” follows themes of dreams, love and fate, it has received criticism for its lack of racial inclusion, especially in its lead actors. “Moonlight” is much more encompassing, deeply examining issues of race, sexuality and universal human suffering, and it enters a space of emotional and racial relevance where Oscar films have rarely gone before. More than that, following last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, and in our current political climate, the message of “Moonlight” is important now more than ever.
Yet was “Moonlight” enjoyable? Some would say no. Two hours of immense emotional strain and suffering do not constitute enjoyment for many people. The same can be said about another Oscar nominee this year, “Manchester by the Sea.” After my mom watched it, I asked her if she liked it. “No one should like that film,” she texted me. “It’s a great movie with fantastic performances, but it’s not enjoyable to watch.” Yet, “Manchester by the Sea” was still nominated for Best Picture, and Casey Affleck took home the Oscar for Best Lead Actor for his heartbreaking performance.
So, importance and enjoyment are not contingent upon each other. A movie can be important but not enjoyable, and vice versa. Thus, the Academy decided on “Moonlight” because, though not all found it enjoyable, it is beautiful in every sense of the word. The performances are inspirational and heartbreaking, and the cinematography and overall production quality are stunning. Moreover, its message is incredibly important. Even though “La La Land” will forever hold a place in my heart, “Moonlight” — with its minority representation (for the Black and queer communities), limited budget and thought-provoking message — was, to me, the rightful winner.
But does importance make a movie better than one that is enjoyable? For me, it doesn’t really matter. What film manages to do, which so many other mediums struggle with, is create empathy, with characters, with stories and with other people. We may not know what it is like to be Black and gay, to have to raise an orphaned nephew or to have a picture-perfect romance and watch it fall apart, but through these films, we can empathize with these characters, and inevitably their stories will resonate with our own lives. We all will feel like outsiders, like we are in too deep, like our dreams are unachievable, and that is what matters.
Film takes us away from the world we live in for a little while and delivers us back, usually with a deeper understanding of the real lives we left. Even the commonly recognized terrible films such as “Sharknado” are still favorites, and oftentimes they more watched than Oscar winners. Across the medium, some films are overtly important, and others only mildly entertaining, all telling vastly different stories. So, whether they are about love and hope, discrimination and despair or sharks wreaking havoc in Los Angeles, movies will forever be important to our culture and our humanity. Our favorite movies reflect who we are and what we value. Moreover, their relevance in our lives gives them the ability to immensely shape and transform our experience on Earth.
That being said, don’t tell Ryan, but “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” is still my favorite movie.