Here are some suggestions for good films to discuss in a group context. This list is nowhere near exhaustive; merely a few films that I've either enjoyed using myself or that I'm confident would be great.
The list is very roughly in order of how suitable I think a film is for discussing: things near the top are very good; things near the bottom are less so, but they may suit a particular occasion. Don't read anything into the order beyond that; it's certainly not in order of how much I like them as films. I'll add to this list as other things occur to me and as new films come out. The Culturewatch website, for which I was Managing Editor, is a great place to find discussion guides – around 500 of them (though they're not all on films). There are some links to articles and discussion guides in the list. [N.B. Culturewatch now unfortunately no longer exists but through the linked archive page you can access its content up to April 2014. Ed.]
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2009)
When best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) go to Barcelona for the summer, they have very different agendas. Vicky is sensible, serious and engaged to a respectable and ambitious young man, Doug (Chris Messina). She is spending her last months as a single woman doing research for her Master's degree thesis on Catalan identity. Cristina, however, is romantic, impulsive and eager to find new sexual relationships in her quest to find her ideal romantic partner.
They stay with relatives of Vicky, who take them to a reception in an art gallery. Cristina is fascinated by a man called Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). She is intrigued to discovered that he is a painter who had an extremely explosive relationship with his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz in the role for which she won a Best Supporting Acress Oscar), resulting in her trying to kill him. Later, Cristina and Vicky are having dinner in the same restaurant as Juan Antonio. He comes across to invite them to join him on a trip to Oviedo, a short flight away. He explains that he plans to view a particular sculpture which he finds inspiring. Vicky is sceptical, and has her worst fears confirmed when Juan Antonio outlines his plan for them to look around the city, eat well, drink good wine and make love together. Despite Vicky's protestations, Cristina accepts, seeing it as a romantic adventure.
Directed & written by Woody Allen
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz
Certificate 12 – Contains moderate sex references and implied sex
Running time: 92 mins
As a boy, Carl Fredricksen (voice of Ed Asner) longed for adventure and idolised the world explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). When he met and fell in love with a fellow adventurer, Ellie (voice of Elie Docter), he made her a promise: one day they would follow in Muntz's footsteps and travel to South America to live at Paradise Falls. They have a long and happy marriage, but Ellie dies without ever making it to her dream destination. As a widowed senior citizen with a dodgy back and dentures, Carl longs only to live an undisturbed life. Until one day when he is forced to move out of his home and into a retirement community, and decides to do something radical. He attaches thousands of helium balloons to his house, intending to fly it south.
Carl still imagines that this will be a solitary venture that doesn't greatly disrupt his comfort. But all this changes when he discovers eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) clinging to his porch as the house ascends. Russell had approached Carl in the hope of earning his 'assisting the elderly' badge, but this odd pair must now join forces as they navigate their way to Paradise Falls and encounter all sorts of bizarre creatures and life-threatening situations.
Josh Hurst writes that the "most outrageous thing" about this film is that, "It's a summer blockbuster that's head-over-heels for the joys of marriage. Here lifelong commitment isn't a burden; it's an adventure."
I loved this film; definitely one of last year's highlights for me. My wife insists that is solely down to the very moving, bittersweet opening sequence. She thinks it appeals to my deep love of melancholy. Maybe she's right, but I did really enjoy the rest of the film too.
Directed by Pete Docter, co-directed by Bob Peterson
Written by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter
Voices of Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson
Certificate U – contains mild threat
Running time: 102 mins
The Merry Gentleman (2008)
The Merry Gentleman questions whether second chances are possible. Kate Frazier (Kelly MacDonald) moves to Chicago to escape her abusive husband Michael (Bobby Cannavale). She is a private person so keeps her new colleagues at a distance. Frank Logan (Michael Keaton) is an assassin who has no friends and is on the verge of suicide. Kate and Frank meet serendipitously and form a unique friendship. Kate is ignorant of Frank's profession and Frank is ignorant of Kate's past. Their relationship offers the prospect of a fresh start.
A love triangle develops when the detective investigating Frank's murders, Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), takes a liking to Kate. He is a respectable man but, because of his low self-esteem, he messes Kate around. Kate is put in a position to forgive or bring some redemption to Frank, Dave and Michael – but will she?
Director: Michael Keaton
Screenplay: Ron Lazzeretti
Starring: Michael Keaton, Kelly Macdonald, Tom Bastounes
Certificate 15 – Contains strong violence and language
Running time: 95 mins
An Education (2009)
What is life really all about? That's the question which troubles Jenny – played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan – when she finds her life being pulled in two different directions. She is a very bright 16-year-old schoolgirl who is destined for Oxford University, but who longs to be sophisticated and is entranced by everything French. When she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), he seems to her to embody nearly everything she longs for. Though not French, he is charming, witty, urbane. He introduces her to a world of fun and glamour and excitement, which contrasts starkly with her stifling middle-class existence in suburban Twickenham. David sweeps her off her feet, and the pre-planned trajectory of her life is thrown radically off-course.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenplay: Nick Hornby based on a memoir by Lynn Barber
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike
Certificate 12A – Contains moderate sex references
Running time: 96 mins
A Serious Man (2009)
Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg) life is one of suburban routine. He visits the doctor, and finds he is in good health. He is a physics lecturer at the local university. His concerns are those of suburban life: is his neighbour encroaching on his lawn? But he's wrenched from his complacency when his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she wants a divorce. A Korean student, Clive (David Kang), is dissatisfied with his grade and appears to bribe Larry to raise it. When Larry challenges him about the bribe, Clive's father (Steve Park) threatens to sue. Larry crashes his car, receives repeated demands from the Columbia Record Company for fees and has to deal with his wife's infuriatingly sympathetic lover, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). As his problems pile up, he starts looking for answers. What does it all mean?
Gopnik's life is set almost entirely within his Jewish community in Minnesota. His doctor, dentist and lawyer are all Jewish, and everyone counsels him to turn to the rabbis, to ask them what his problems mean. But with each visit, Gopnik's exasperation grows as none give him a satisfying answer. He's invited instead to "accept the mystery" of it all. A Serious Man doesn't set out to debunk faith or ridicule religion, but however seriously Gopnik tries to find his answers, they never come. As his problems swirl around him, apparently without solution or explanation, surely we must conclude that everything is meaningless?
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick
Certificate 15 – Contains strong language and soft drug use
Running time: 101 mins
Primarily set in 1858, the year before On the Origin of the Species was published, Creation has many flashbacks revealing Darwin's struggles during the previous years. The key event was the death of his eldest daughter, Annie (Martha West). Charles was an unusually devoted father for his day, and Annie was his favourite child. He was with her, caring for her, while she died at the age of ten, far from home and the rest of the family. Her untimely death devastated him, and it made deeply personal what had been an intellectual struggle for years: the problem of suffering.
Damaris created official resources to help churches, schools and community groups make the most of this film. These resources – some of which are included on the DVD – contain material from a variety of viewpoints. Neither Damaris nor Icon Film Distribution endorse all the views expressed!
Director: Jon Amiel
Screenplay: John Collee
Starring: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch
Certificate PG – contains mild language and emotionally intense scenes
Running time: 104 mins
Gran Torino (2008)
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a Korean war veteran and the proud owner of a 1972 Ford Gran Torino. He is indifferent towards his family, openly racist towards his Hmong neighbours and offensive towards the priest (Christopher Carley) who tries to befriend him after the death of his wife. The son of Walt's neighbour, Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), is cajoled by a gang into trying to steal the Gran Torino. Walt catches him in the act and Thao's mother insists that the boy does chores for Walt to make amends. Slowly Walt gets to know the Lors and they become more of a family to him than his blood relatives. Walt takes it upon himself to teach Thao how to stand up for himself in their dangerous neighbourhood.
Father Janovich (Carley) has promised Walt's late wife that he will try to get Walt to confession. Walt is sceptical of religion and believes the priest to be utterly unqualified to give advice about life, death and forgiveness. The priest has a series of conversations with Walt, but it is only when Walt gets a glimpse of Janovich's weaknesses that he begins to listen to his message.
As the film progresses, Walt's cold heart thaws. He begins to value relationships and put others before himself. By the end of the film, Walt is committed to protecting the Lor family, even at the risk of his own life.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Nick Schenk (screenplay; story by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Certificate 15 – Contains moderate sex references, language and a drug reference
Running time: 112 mins
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Harold Crick leads an intensely measured life. Every stroke of his toothbrush and every step to work is counted, and every day precisely timed (even though he almost misses his bus each day, it's always by the exactly the same time). But one particular Wednesday, this order is forever disrupted when he begins hearing a voice narrating his life. This is the beginning of a strange story for Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). The voice is an annoyance at first: Harold thinks he is going mad (though with admirable acceptance), but that same Wednesday he hears the voice calmly narrate, "Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death."
The meticulous control Harold once had over his life is gone, and he sets out on a search to find out exactly who is narrating his life, before they kill him. Harold's unusual knowledge gives him the chance to take the advice of literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), breaking out of the stiffness of his IRS agent's manner (and his loneliness) to make his life the one he's always wanted. He starts a romance with the energetic and free-spirited baker Miss Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he learns the guitar, he "lives his life". But when will his story's plot catch up with him?
We soon discover the identity of the voice: it belongs to author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). She hasn't been seen by the literary community for ten years and, we discover, is struggling with writer's block on her new novel. How can she kill Harold Crick? As viewers we have the rare opportunity to watch Harold's life story being written from a sparsely decorated room in an apparently untraceable location. Will Harold be able to find his life's author before the perfect way to kill her character comes to her?
From both sides of the narration, this film is a witty and engaging look at the life of a man who now has one question: is his life a comedy or a tragedy?
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman
Certificate 12 – contains one use of strong language
Running time: 108 mins
13 Conversations About One Thing (2005)
An academic is badly shaken by a mugging, and having been forced to take an uncomfortable look at his life, he begins an affair. A hotshot lawyer strides confidently into a bar, certain that his hard work and pursuit of justice have made him immune to bad fortune, but he is about to be proved wrong. A young cleaner believes in miracles and can find hope in any situation, but her optimism will be put to a severe test. An unhappy businessman becomes increasingly embittered by the cheerfulness of one of his co-workers, and conspires to thwart him.
The smallest actions that these four people take as they try to work out what it means to be happy have a far-reaching impact. The film's narrative jumps backwards and forwards through time, revealing the meaning in apparently meaningless events, and showing how the lives of the central characters and those close to them are more connected than they can know.
Directed by Jill Sprecher
Starring Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Amy Irving
Certificate 15 – contains strong language
Running time: 99 mins
Up in the Air (2009)
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has an unusual job: he flies around America firing people on behalf of their employers. Equipped with motivational anecdotes, a winning smile and a pamphlet purported to contain "all the answers you're looking for", he is confident that he makes the experience bearable, even dignified.
One might wonder what attracts a person to this role. Ryan doesn't do it out of spite or goodwill; he does it for the miles. He wants to become the seventh person ever to reach ten million frequent flyer miles. Ryan also wants to continue meeting frequent flyer Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), the female version of himself.
His goal is put in jeopardy when his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), is won over by Natalie Keener's (Anna Kendrick) idea of sacking people over the internet rather than in person. Ryan is adamant that Natalie knows nothing about firing people, so Craig shrewdly insists that whilst the necessary preparations for Glocal (the name given to Natalie's concept) are being made, Ryan should show her how it's done.
As Ryan and Natalie travel together, making people redundant as they go, they build a friendship. Ryan thought he was completely content with his life, but Natalie and Alex make him question his goals and long for deeper relationships.
Russ Breimeier calls this a "cautionary parable about investing more in selfish pursuits than in relationships". I'm not sure that makes it redemptive. There does seem to be some hope for George Clooney's character towards the end, but Gareth Higgins, on The Film Talk podcast, reads it as being ultimately unredemptive.
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman, based on the book by Walter Kirn
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Certificate 15 – contains strong language
Running time: 105 mins
Amid the falling leaves and beautiful colours of autumn, quirky teenager Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) drinks "like, ten tons of Sunny D", takes three pregnancy tests, and discovers that she has a big problem. As she tells the father, her close friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), these situations, if left unchecked, typically lead to infants, so Juno decides to take matters into her own hands. Deciding against abortion, Juno and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) set out to find the perfect adoptive parents for the unborn child. As the year progresses, and her condition begins to show, Juno gets to know her chosen family, wealthy suburban couple Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). She also confronts the judgemental attitudes of her school acquaintances and others in her own inimitable way, providing plenty of laughs for the audience, as well as some fearless insights into her wacky life.
As we see more of Juno and the people who are important to her, we begin to realise that nothing and no one in this film is predictable. Juno is certainly not a stereotypical sixteen-year-old. Eloquent and quick-witted, she is also a compassionate and courageous young woman, far removed from the common conception of teenagers as sullen, self-centred and angst ridden. In fact, very few of the characters in Juno are easy to dislike, and none are superficial. Juno's gruff father (J. K. Simmons) reveals a warm and loving heart, her dog-obsessed stepmother (Alison Janney) is a true parent and a constant support to Juno. Leah, the best friend, is a cheerleader, but is happy to hang out with the less mainstream Juno without worrying about her image. Bleeker is athletic and "cool", yet also sensitive and devoted to Juno. Even the apparently perfect Mark and Vanessa Loring have a few surprises to let slip.
A lovely, quirky film about life and love.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Oscar-winning Screenplay by Diablo Cody
Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J. K. Simmons, Alison Janney
Certificate 12A – contains strong language and moderate sex references
Running time: 92 mins
The Blind Side (2009)
Big Mike walks as though every step is an effort. Head and shoulders taller and a good few inches broader than everyone he passes, dressed in dirty shorts and a T-shirt despite the cold, he carries all of his worldly possessions in a plastic bag. That this timid misfit could ever go on to become one of American Football's biggest stars seems far too good to be true. But the extraordinary thing about The Blind Side is that this apparently fanciful fable is based on a real-life story.
When drifter Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is accepted into Wingate Christian School, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will turn his life around. The affluent Tuohy family, led by tough matriarch Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock, in the role for which she won an Oscar), encounter him one chilly night as he searches for a place to sleep and invite him into their home. But what begins as a small, impulsive act of generosity soon escalates. Discovering the truth about Michael's devastating situation piece by piece, Leigh Anne takes him under her wing as a surrogate son.
A film about Christian compassion in action, it's a little clichéed and simplistic, but also surprisingly moving thanks to an Oscar-winning performance from Sandra Bullock.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: John Lee Hancock, based on the story by Michael Lewis
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates
Certificate 12A – contains infrequent moderate violence, language and sex references
Running time: 128 mins – a little on the long side
Crazy Heart (2010)
Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a washed-out country music legend, who spends most of his life on the road and makes his living playing gigs at bars and bowling alleys across the American southwest. The best he can hope for is to open a concert for his acclaimed protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). When he's not playing, he's drinking or lying in a drunken stupor. He lacks any purpose or direction in life outside of his own day-to-day existence. But all of that changes when he meets a young reporter named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He hits it off with her four-year-old son Buddy (Jack Nation) and shortly after, Bad and Jean begin a romantic relationship. Near-tragedy causes them both to stop, step back, and take a look at their lives. The romance ends and Bad determines to kick his alcoholism with the help of his friend Wayne Kramer (Robert Duvall).
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenplay: Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall
Certificate 15 – contains strong language
Running time: 108 mins
Culturewatch article | Discussion guide [Unfortunately, this guide is no longer available. Ed.]
The Book of Eli (2010)
The Book of Eli is set 30 years after the world has been ravaged by nuclear war. Law and order have collapsed, fresh water and food are scarce; few people remember the world as it once was. The story follows Eli (Denzel Washington), a lone traveller with a mission. He is carrying a copy of the Bible, believing that he has been charged by God with protecting it. It is probably the last copy in the world, after people destroyed all the Bibles they could find, blaming it for causing the war.
Only those alive before the war remember the book and its power. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) is one of these survivors. Using hired thugs, he has established himself as ruler over a small town. He searches tirelessly for a copy of the Bible, hoping to use it to tighten his control on people. When he realises that Eli has what he has been looking for, he does everything he can to try to get it from him. But Eli will do anything to protect the book, even to the point of killing those who try to take it from him.
Director: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Screenplay: Gary Whitta
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
Certificate 15 – contains strong violence and language
Running time: 118 mins
A Single Man (2009)
George (Colin Firth), a meticulous college professor, is preparing to commit suicide in the wake of his lover's death. But as he goes about his normal routine for the last time, ordinary moments seem to take on extraordinary significance and the people around him glow with sudden beauty.
Director: Tom Ford
Screenplay: Tom Ford, David Scearce, based on the book by Christopher Isherwood
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult
Certificate 12A – contains suicide theme, moderate threat, drug references and nudity
Running time: 97 mins
Lars and the Real Girl (2008)
A brilliant, quirky independent film that most people will have missed. Lots about identity, self-worth and finding acceptance in a community.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Nancy Oliver
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider
Certificate 12A – contains mental illness theme and moderate sex references
Running time: 102 mins
Culturewatch article [Unfortunately, this article is no longer available. Ed.]
Son of Rambow (2008)
A look at religious extremism with a strong theme of freedom and expression.
Directed and written by Garth Jennings
Starring: Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jessica Stevenson, Neil Dudgeon
Certificate 12A – contains dangerous behaviour, smoking and moderate language
Running time: 91 mins
My Culturewatch article [Unfortunately, this guide is no longer available. Ed.]
Last Chance Harvey (2009)
Last Chance Harvey tells the story of two middle-aged people who have been hurt by life, but find themselves with a chance to make a new beginning. Deals with themes such as living with past failures and regrets, overcoming the fear of pain and disappointment in new relationships, and establishing good relationships old and new.
Director: Joel Hopkins
Screenplay: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, Liane Balaban, James Brolin
Certificate 12A – contains mild comic violence and scary moments
Running time: 89 mins
Discussion guide [Unfortunately, this guide is no longer available. Ed.]| There is also a Film and Focus guide for organising an evening around the film
Brett McCracken writes, "It's a beautiful portrait of forgiveness and a model for how reconciliation can happen in reality, and how politics can employ things like sports and poetry in the service of national renewal." I think Invictus is a little rose-tinted, even sentimental, in its view of the events of 1994-1995, but it was a hugely important moment in South Africa's history and I think Brett is spot on in his assessment. Great performances from Morgan Freeman (though his accent wavers at times) and Matt Damon.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Anthony Peckham, based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Certificate 12A – contains infrequent strong language
Running time: 133 mins – too long for most contexts
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2007)
One of my favourite films of the last few years. Bear in mind that it's in German with English subtitles.
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch
Certificate 15 – contains strong sex
Running time: 138 minutes – too long for most contexts
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Deals with themes of obsession, greed and religious extremism.
Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciarán Hinds, Kevin J. O'Connor
Certificate 12A – contains strong violence
Running time: 158 mins – too long for most contexts
Culturewatch article by Nicola Lee [Unfortunately, this article is no longer available. Ed.]
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A very powerful, now classic film, but too long for most contexts.
Director: Frank Darabont
Screenplay by Darabont, based on the novella by Stephen King
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler
Certificate 15 – contains frequent strong language, violence and sexual assault
Running time: 136 mins
Culturewatch article | Discussion guide [Unfortunately, the article and guide are no longer available. Ed.]
The Dark Knight (2008)
A powerful exploration of morality but too long for most contexts.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Certificate 12A – contains strong fantasy violence and sustained threat
Running time: 146 mins
Culturewatch article [Unfortunately, this guide is no longer available. Ed.]
Gone Baby Gone (2008)
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenplay: Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan
Cert 15 – contains very strong language, strong violence and hard drug use
Running time: 109 mins – a little on the long side
My Culturewatch article [Unfortunately, the article and guide are no longer available. Ed.]
© 2010 Tony Watkins