This year, for the first time since 1943, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — as the folks behind the Oscars are formally known — allowed for 10 nominees, rather than five, in the category of best picture. At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film & Broadcasting, the tradition of selecting a roster of 10 top films each year — based on a combination of spiritual and moral as well as artistic criteria — dates back to 1965.
Since a number of these films are appropriate viewing only for adults, more recently the office also has compiled a further list of the 10 best family films of the year.
Though there’s no red carpet or golden statuette involved, following, in alphabetical order, are the selections for 2009, together with their USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classifications and Motion Picture Association of America ratings:
Based on real events, "The Blind Side" recounts how a wealthy white couple — portrayed by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw — offered shelter to a homeless black student. Writer-director John Lee Hancock’s unapologetically Christian tale of human solidarity is funny, shrewd and uplifting (A-III, PG-13).
The thoughtful French-language docudrama "The Class" re-creates the experiences of an idealistic literature teacher over the course of an academic year. Director and co-writer Laurent Cantet creates an engrossing meditation on social and class divisions and on the possibilities of an educator’s vocation (A-III, PG-13).
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" — a droll stop-motion animated adventure — tells how the titular creature (voiced by George Clooney) tries to recapture his wild past as a chicken thief. Director and co-writer Wes Anderson’s clever, lovingly crafted film offers abundant fun for youngsters and a few insights for adults as well (A-I, PG).
A diverting fact-based comedy, "The Informant!" follows the exploits of an up-and-coming agribusiness executive (Matt Damon) who suddenly turns whistle-blower. Director Steven Soderbergh’s offbeat tale benefits from Damon’s intense performance as a curiously sympathetic egomaniac (A-III, R).
In "The International," an intense thriller, a dogged Interpol agent (Clive Owen) and a New York prosecutor (Naomi Watts) investigate the elusive leaders of a global bank implicated in murder. Director Tom Tykwer’s sleek conspiracy yarn focuses on the frustrations of operating within the law and the perils of acting outside it (A-III, R).
The uplifting fact-based drama "Invictus" — starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon — charts South African President Nelson Mandela’s campaign to unite his country behind the national rugby team. Director Clint Eastwood’s account effectively chronicles how Mandela used sporting enthusiasm to break down lingering racial prejudice (A-III, PG-13).
"Julie & Julia" is the charming dramatization of passages in the lives of master chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and Internet blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Writer-director Nora Ephron whips up a delicious melange of the two women’s memoirs and details the ingredients requisite for a successful marriage (A-III, PG-13).
"Star Trek" — an exhilarating prequel — sees the youthful James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) forgoing his delinquent ways to join the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Director J.J. Abrams skillfully balances well-executed action sequences with an absorbing human story (A-III, PG-13).
The animated instant classic "Up" tells the story of a grumpy widower (voiced by Ed Asner), who decides to relocate his home to South America with the help of thousands of balloons. This touching fable from director and co-writer Pete Docter offers lessons on love, loss, marriage and perseverance (A-I, PG).
In the intriguing fantasy "Where the Wild Things Are," a young runaway (Max Records) sails to the island abode of a community of giants. Director and co-writer Spike Jonze’s subtle adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic book is a wistful meditation on the interior struggles of childhood (A-II, PG)
The top 10 family films were:
"Astro Boy," a charming animated adventure about a scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) who replaces his dead son with a robot replica, only to rejects his creation, leaving the innocent boy ‘bot vulnerable to widespread prejudice. Director and co-writer David Bowers’ film is, by turns, amusing, exciting and poignant (A-II, PG).
"Bandslam" is a genial comedy with music about a newcomer at a New Jersey high school who overcomes his socially disastrous past when befriended by a popular fellow student. Director and co-writer Todd Graff offers an exuberant salute to clique-defying friendship (A-I, PG).
Disney’s lavish but frequently eerie animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic "A Christmas Carol" recounts yet again the tale of miserly misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Jim Carrey). Writer-director Robert Zemeckis’ largely faithful retelling is unabashed about the Christian context of its conversion story (A-I, PG).
The animated fantasy "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" concerns a young inventor who fashions a machine that makes food fall from the sky. Co-writers and directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s cautionary tale warns against overindulgence and extols the virtues of persistence and ingenuity (A-II, PG).
The breezy romance with music "Hannah Montana the Movie" tells how a teen singer (played by Miley Cyrus), who has gained fame under a pseudonym, is forced by her concerned father to retreat temporarily to the Tennessee farm where she grew up. Director Peter Chelsom’s delightfully innocent country idyll emphasizes the primacy of family obligations over professional goals (A-I, G).
In the sequel "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the now-teenage wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) ingratiates himself with a Hogwarts instructor who once taught his archenemy. As directed by David Yates, this sixth adaptation of the hugely popular fantasy novel series is a richly textured narrative in which good and evil are clearly delineated, but characters present a range of moral shading (A-II, PG).
In the affable animated comedy-adventure "Monsters vs. Aliens," a trio of kindly monsters and a woman who became a giant after being struck by a meteor combat an evil alien. Co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon celebrate teamwork and the heroic potential of everyday people (A-II, PG).
"Ponyo" is the enchanting English-language version of a Japanese animated fable about a determined goldfish who comes under the protection of a plucky, affectionate 5-year-old boy. This mythic tale uses masterful artistry to recapture the innocence and wonder of childhood (A-I, G).
The delightful animated musical "The Princess and the Frog" recounts the effects of a voodoo sorcerer’s mischievous spell. Directed and co-written by John Musker and Ron Clements, the lavish hand-drawn romance emphasizes the value of love over material wealth (A-I, G).
"Shorts" is a clever children’s fantasy about a rainbow-colored rock that grants the wishes of anyone holding it. Told in a series of nonsequential episodes, writer-director Robert Rodriguez’s lively yarn carries messages about the dangers of power and the isolating effects of contemporary technology (A-II, PG).
Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.