JOAN'S RECOMMENDED MOVIE LIST
Unlike my recommended reading list, this is not (for the most part) a list of movies that are overtly about nonduality. Mostly, these are simply some of my favorite movies, documentaries and TV shows. And like all good stories, they may awaken and enlighten us in unexpected ways. New movies are added to the list periodically, so if you've visited this page before, you might want to refresh or reload it to be sure you're getting the most current version. --J.T.
AMERICAN BEAUTY – One of my all-time favorite movies. Subtitled "Look Closer," this is a funny, serious, beautiful, brilliant, quirky, enlightening movie that contains a wealth of spiritual insight without ever once mentioning the word. It reveals the miraculous in the mundane and how nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. And it tells the story of how one man wakes up from a fantasy and re-discovers his humanity and the beauty of life. Written by Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes, cinematography by Conrad L. Hall, starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher. I recommend it very highly.
SIX FEET UNDER – This HBO television series that ran from 2001 to 2005 was created by Alan Ball. It centers around a Los Angeles family that runs a funeral home. It is a show about death, and about what it is to be alive. In typical Alan Ball fashion, it is at once funny, serious, profound, spiritual, political, heart-breaking, heart-opening, life-affirming, quirky, enlightening, hilarious, daring, over the edge, and beautiful as it investigates life and death, relationships and family (interracial, gay and straight all included), art and social issues. The wonderful cast includes Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Rachel Griffiths, Lauren Ambrose, Mathew St. Patrick, Freddy Rodriguez, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Sisto, Richard Jenkins, Ben Foster, Lili Taylor, James Cromwell, Kathy Bates and Joanna Cassidy. Very highly recommended.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD – This drama about Fred Rogers is based on a true story about a rather cynical and troubled journalist who finds himself transformed by his relationship with Mr. Rogers, whom he is sent to interview. Tom Hanks is magnificent as Mr. Rogers, and the movie is about the transformative power of listening, slowing down, being present, and seeing everyone as okay just as we are right now. Directed by Marielle Heller, this is a must-see movie. Matthew Rhys plays the journalist, Susan Kelechi Watson his wife, and Chris Cooper his father. I also highly recommend Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary about the real Mr. Rogers called Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Both movies are so needed in our time—I wish everyone would see them both. Very highly recommended.
CHERRY BLOSSOMS and ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED – Two movies by the German film director, artist and author Doris Dorrie. Both of these movies go, in very different ways, to the heart of Zen. Cherry Blossoms begins as the story of a middle-aged couple, one of whom is terminally ill, visiting their grown children, who don't much want to see their parents. The movie unfolds into the most exquisitely beautiful cinematic poem that reveals what we so easily miss in the delicate transience of life, and also the love and freedom it is possible to find even at the last moment. Enlightenment Guaranteed is the comic saga of two middle-aged German brothers who head off to a Zen monastery in Japan in search of enlightenment. There the boundaries between the mundane and the sublime begin to collapse as the brothers find themselves exploring the relationship between cleaning the floor and cleansing the heart. Both these movies are very highly recommended.
BABETTE'S FEAST – Based on a story by Isak Dinesen, this lovely film by Gabriel Axel tells the story of what happens when some very austere and pious followers of a puritanical brand of Christianity living on the desolate coast of Denmark meet up with a French woman who turns out to be an artist of sensual, earthly delights. It has much to say about spirit and flesh, heart and soul, art and true love. Very highly recommended.
MUSEUM HOURS – I just loved this beautiful, quiet, richly evocative, very visual, slow-paced movie about life and death and art and a friendship between two middle-aged people in Vienna, one a Canadian visitor to the city (played by Mary Margaret O'Hara) and the other a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum (played by Bobby Sommer). Writer / director Jem Cohen is an American born in Kabul, Afghanistan, living in New York City, and on the DVD special features, you can watch several more short movies by him that I also enjoyed. Also on the special features, you can elect to watch Museum Hours, which is bilingual (English/German), entirely in English, which just means that the occasional voice-over narrations by the main male character (Bobby Sommer), which are otherwise spoken in German, are spoken by the same actor (Bobby Sommer) in English instead. For English-speakers not fluent in German, this means you won’t need to turn on and read the subtitles, which is great because the film is a visual feast. This is a beautiful movie that I very highly recommend.
GOOD LUCK TO YOU LEO GRANDE — Nancy, a repressed woman in her sixties, a widow whose marriage involved very unimaginative and unsatisfying sex, makes the wildly uncharacteristic decision to hire a sex worker. Funny, tender, wise and deep, with two amazing actors, Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, playing two amazing characters. Leo Grande, the sex worker, is a beautifully sensitive young man, and Nancy gradually comes out of her head and into her body, as they unmask one another and discover themselves in unexpected ways. Both actors are great, but Emma Thompson is magnificent. I absolutely loved this movie. Very highly recommended.
BABYTEETH – This is a quirky Australian comedy-drama that I thought was really lovely and funny and moving and surprising and beautifully acted and filmed. It centers around the flawed but loving relationships between a teenage girl with cancer, the drug addict she falls in love with, her psychiatrist father, her currently retired concert pianist mother and a few other characters. It’s about love and death and living and transformation and facing loss, all done in very atypical ways that I loved. I watched this movie twice. Directed by Shannon Murphy, screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, the cast includes Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, and Ben Mendelsohn. Very highly recommended.
NURSE JACKIE – This Showtime comedy-drama TV series (2009-2015) is a brilliant portrayal of addiction and many other human issues, with a fantastic set of actors. Wise, tender, funny, heart-opening, heart-breaking, truly great. Edie Falco plays Jackie Peyton, a remarkably gifted New York City ER nurse who is strong-willed, tough as nails, generous and deeply compassionate, but addicted to pain killers and increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to get them. Over the course of seven seasons, as we watch her spiral down and attempt a recovery, we are treated in each episode to many deeply moving and at times hysterically funny characters and events in the ER. Created by Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem and Evan Dunsky, the show’s cast also includes Merritt Wever, Eve Best, Paul Schulze, Anna Deavere Smith, Peter Facinelli, Haaz Sleiman, Stephen Wallem and others—all playing wonderful characters and giving brilliant performances. Very highly recommended.
WOMEN TALKING – Directed and with screenplay by Sarah Polley, based on a book by Miriam Toews, with a cast that includes Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Frances McDormand, and Ben Whishaw – inspired by real life events, the movie is about women in an isolated Mennonite community where the men have been drugging and raping the women and girls and then convincing them it was either their imagination or the work of demons. Now the men have been exposed and taken off to jail, and the women are meeting in the barn deciding what to do. The men will be out on bail and returning soon. Should the women forgive them, stay and fight for a better community, or leave? This is a truly powerful and amazing movie. Don’t miss it.
HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG – This is a marvelous documentary about Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite artists (singer, songwriter, poet, and more). The movie tells much of Leonard's life story from childhood to his death in 2016 at age 82, focusing on both his musical career and his lifelong spiritual quest. In both his music and his spirituality, Leonard wove together the spiritual and the sensual, the body and the soul, sexuality and God. He had both joy and sorrow in his life, went through periods of darkness and years of austere practice as a Zen monk, and he was deeply aware of the vast suffering in the world. “You look around and you see a world that cannot be made sense of,” he says. “Either you raise your fist or you say hallelujah. I did both.” His famous song, Hallelujah, is a focal point of the movie. Brilliant movie about a profoundly deep and gifted man, and about the alchemical ability of art to transform suffering into beauty, love and possibility. Very highly recommended. More here.
MY OCTOPUS TEACHER – This beautiful, tender, gorgeous and truly amazing Netflix documentary follows the year-long relationship underwater of a man, Craig Foster, with an octopus in the ocean. Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, cinematography by underwater cameraman Roger Horrocks. Very highly recommended. Watch trailer here.
LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM – this beautiful, slow-paced movie, set in Bhutan, is the story of a young Bhutanese man, living in the capital city of Thimpu and infatuated with dreams of becoming a singer in Australia, who is sent off against his wishes to serve out the end of his teaching contract being a school teacher in a remote and rustic village of yak herders high in the mountains. Here he goes through a kind of spiritual awakening to what really matters in life. The movie confronts us with all that is being lost in modernity, in spite of the many advantages. And it seemed to leave the viewer (or at least, this one) with the question, when or in what ways do I, or have I, metaphorically gone off to Australia instead of staying in Bhutan? This is Bhutanese writer and director Pawo Choyning Dorji's first film. It was nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature category. More on the movie here. This is a gorgeous and heart-opening movie. I recommend it very highly.
FANTASTIC FUNGI – This is a truly marvelous movie that takes you on an incredible mystical journey with beautiful time-lapse photography about the magical, mysterious and medicinal world of fungi and their power to heal, sustain and contribute to the regeneration of life on Earth, with commentary from people like Paul Stamets, Michael Pollan and Andrew Weil. Directed by Louis Schwartzberg. A beautiful, transformative movie. Very, very, very highly recommended! You can learn more at the movie’s website here.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND – Based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, and with Pollan as the guide, this excellent documentary series explores the research into and use of LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline in treating a range of problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, addiction, and PTSD, and also the potential of these substances to awaken people to a sense of oneness. Watching the series is a kind of awakening in itself. Very well done, lots of interesting material, very highly recommended.
THE ART OF LIFE – A beautiful documentary by SAND founders and filmmakers Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo about a truly amazing man they met on the beach in Maui. Michael Behrens is a math genius who left society behind some 40 years ago to live a simple life in the jungle of Maui. This is an amazing man and an amazing movie. It’s in English, but subtitled in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Turkish. You can watch it here. Very highly recommended!
WAKING LIFE – If you you're interested in the nature of reality, this movie, written and directed by Richard Linklater, is an extraordinary visual poem that might be described as a mind-opening exploration and celebration of consciousness. Linklater uses animation on top of actual actors to create the effect of a moving painting with wonderful music, dialog, and visual play in which the boundary between dreaming and waking life dissolves. A wide range of characters express many facets of contemporary life, engaging at times in monologues or dialogs about free will, reincarnation, lucid dreaming, film theory, the meaning of life and a host of other topics in ways that are truly fascinating. Part poetry, part philosophy, part dream, part reality—serious and funny in turn—this movie really defies description, except to say that I very highly recommend it. Linklater has written and directed several other movies I also love, including Bernie, Boyhood, Last Flag Flying, and the trilogy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight.
WHO'S DRIVING THE DREAMBUS? and BEING HERE - A Beginner's Guide to Non-Duality – These two films made by Boris Jansch explore the nature of reality, seeing through the illusion of a self with free will and waking up to the simplicity of being here in this moment as no-thing and everything. Boris made the first film (Dreambus) with his wife Claire and the second film (Being Here) with his friend Charles Turley. Dreambus features interviews with Toni Packer, Gangaji, Tony Parsons, Tim Freke, Jeff Foster, Guy Smith, Genpo Roshi and Amit Goswami, along with some other wonderful material, and explores all the big questions: Who am I? Why is there suffering? Is there life after death? How Can I find happiness? What is enlightenment? Is there free will? Being Here features Boris and Charles along with Kenneth Madden, Tony Parsons, and Richard Sylvester. This humorous and insightful film captures the wondrous absurdity and beauty of life, inviting the simple recognition that there is no one separate from, or at the center of, this ever-changing happening, and no need to super-impose meaning or purpose on the ever-changing flow. Watch Dreambus here. And watch Being Here here.
I HEART HUCKABEES – This wonderful comedy written and directed by David O. Russell is a real Advaita / Zen movie. The magnificent cast includes Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Isabelle Huppert, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts, with music by Jon Brion. There's some great material in the special features as well, especially the "Detective Infomercial" with Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, and physicist Joe Rudnick. Very highly recommended.
STATES OF GRACE – filmmakers Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman follow Dr. Grace Dammann through her recovery and rehabilitation from a near-fatal car accident. Grace Dammann was a prominent HIV/AIDS physician who was honored by the Dalai Lama for her extraordinary work during the height of the epidemic. In 2008, during a routine commute across the Golden Gate Bridge, another driver crashed head on into her car. No one expected her to live, but she survived, spent more than a year in rehabilitation hospitals, eventually returned to her home at Green Gulch Zen Center where she lives with her former partner, co-parent and friend Fu Schroeder (Abiding Abbess of Green Gulch) and their daughter Sabrina. Finally, she returns to work as a doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital. This is a story about the human spirit, about coming to terms with loss, about disability and caretaking and love and devotion—it is honest and unsentimental, intimate and candid. You can see the trailer, learn more, and purchase the DVD at the website here, or you can watch it on Kanopy, where you can watch movies for free with your library card. Very highly recommended.
CRIP CAMP: A Disability Revolution – This great documentary traces the history of the disability civil rights movement starting at Camp Jened, a summer camp for kids with disabilities back in the Sixties, on through the independent living movement in Berkeley, to the month-long 504 occupation of the federal building in San Francisco in 1977, to the passage of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The movie features many wonderful leaders in the movement, includes some great old footage, and tells the story of people with disabilities fighting to be seen and treated as full human beings in a society made accessible to everyone. I worked at CIL, the Center for Independent Living, and I was there all month in the 504 occupation, which I wrote about in my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation. Very powerful, wonderful movie. A Netflix original currently available on Netflix streaming. Very highly recommended.
LIFE ITSELF – This heart-opening documentary explores the life of renowned movie critic Roger Ebert who died in 2013. The movie follows his long career at the Chicago Sun-Times and his work as a film critic both in print and on television, as well as his personal life—his alcoholism and recovery, his interracial marriage late in life to trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, the thyroid cancer that eventually left him without a lower jaw, using a feeding tube and unable to speak. His love of life and the beauty of his spirit shining out of what would conventionally be regarded as a grotesquely disfigured face speaks volumes and transmits a powerful message about real beauty and what truly matters. Even in the face of illness, pain, disability and disfigurement, he was full of life, writing and interacting with people, talking through a computer synthesized voice, blogging right up until his death. It was especially moving to hear his wife Chaz describe Roger’s death and the peaceful aftermath. I read an article by Chaz about Roger’s death where she said, “That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: ‘This is all an elaborate hoax.’ I asked him, ‘What's a hoax?’ And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn't visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can't even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.” Ebert was politically progressive and helpful to many up and coming filmmakers, and he loved movies with a great passion. He said that they generate empathy and help us to identify with and understand others. He even talked at times about his life as a movie. Directed by Steve James, this is a magnificent and moving documentary that I very highly recommend. More here.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK – This is a brilliant, powerful show—definitely one of the best series I've ever seen. It’s serious but also funny, poignant, insightful, politically astute. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, OITNB is the story of a white middle-class woman sentenced to serve time in a women's prison for a decade-old drug trafficking conviction. When she enters prison, she's engaged to a man, but then her ex-girlfriend and former partner-in-crime winds up in prison with her. It’s so refreshing to see a show with a largely female cast—women of all sizes, races, ages and sexual orientations, including a number of older women, a transwoman, and a big butch dyke. So many wonderful characters. I love the flashbacks showing the backstories of the women and also some of the guards and prison officials, giving us compassion for how they all got to where they are. Over the course of 7 seasons, the series shows how racism and other social forces impact people's lives, and it offers a scathing portrayal of the private prison industry, the broken immigration system, and the difficulties of re-entering society after being released from prison. Wonderful performances by so many fine actors including Uzo Aduba, Kate Mulgrew , Samira Wiley, Yael Stone, Laverne Cox, Taryn Manning, Michael J. Harney, Lea DeLaria, Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Danielle Brooks, Kimiko Glenn, Lori Petty, Lorraine Toussaint, and so many others. Very highly recommended.
LUCKY: This is a slow-paced movie about old age, death, nothingness and love. It is the last film of the incredible late great Harry Dean Stanton before he died at age 90, a film inspired by him, with beautiful slow cinematography and some wonderful characters. It’s about a rather solitary old man who lives in a tiny town in the middle of the desert. Screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja with performances by David Lynch, Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr, Ron Livingston and others. Watch the trailer here. Harry Dean Stanton is a long-time favorite of mine. He was into Advaita, Buddhism and nonduality, as you’ll see in this interview. Very highly recommended.
LE WEEK-END: This is a wonderful 2014 movie about aging, marriage, and life. It had me laughing out loud many times and in other moments brought to tears. The story concerns an aging British couple who return to Paris to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Brilliant acting by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as the couple, and by Jeff Goldblum as an old friend. Funny, tender, serious, subtle, brilliant. Written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell. Very highly recommended.
THE LEISURE SEEKER – Serious, humorous, profound, great acting, beautiful story about aging and love and death and the final chapter in a long marriage. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play an old married couple, he has dementia and she has cancer, and they go on one last adventure in their ancient Winnebago, and what an adventure it is. Directed by Paolo Virzi, based on a novel by Michael Zadoorian. Very highly recommended.
CALVARY — I found this a very powerful and profound movie. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, I saw it as a story about faith and how it survives the crucifixion of life (metaphorically speaking) and all the ways faith can be challenged, lost or abandoned (through cynicism, bitterness, violence, addiction, despair, loss and so on). A serious drama with some darkly comic moments, set in a small seaside town in Ireland, it tells the story of a Catholic priest who is told in the confessional by one his parishioners that he (the priest) will be killed by that parishioner in a week. The movie opens with a quote from St Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” The movie explores these twin possibilities that exist in each of us and in our human institutions such as the Church for good and evil, kindness and cruelty, violence and love, revenge and forgiveness. Although it is about a Catholic priest, the faith in question isn’t limited to faith in God, but is really about our faith in basic goodness, awareness, love or whatever God means to each of us, and the Church could be any human institution that aims to serve that faith but often falls short. The cast includes Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh and Marie-Josee Croze.Very highly recommended.
HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG – Based on a wonderful novel of the same name by Andre Dubus III, this movie (starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ron Eldard, and directed by Vadim Perelman) tells a remarkable story of clashing cultures in which things are not always as they appear. A depressed young woman is evicted from her house because of a bureaucratic error, and the house is sold at auction and bought by a once-wealthy but now-struggling Iranian family. A brilliant look at escalating conflict and addiction, and how ordinary people make perfectly understandable "choices" that lead them deeper and deeper into destruction. Very highly recommended.
CRASH – This 2004 movie written and directed by Paul Haggis is a gritty and disturbing, yet ultimately redemptive look at the colliding races, cultures and classes in post-9/11 urban America. It takes place on a single day in Los Angeles where the lives of many diverse people intersect - a white Brentwood couple, an African-American TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith, an Iranian shopkeeper, a pair of African-American carjackers, an African-American cop, several white cops, and many others. The movie won 3 Oscars including Best Picture. The cast includes Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Michael Pena, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Esposito, Ryan Phillippe, Ludacris, and Shaun Toub. Very highly recommended.
HANNAH GADSBY: NANETTE: Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian and writer originally from Tasmania. She’s also a lesbian, and this is one very powerful hour of stand-up comedy that takes an unexpected turn. Wow! You can watch the trailer here.
FEMINISTS: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING: This is a powerful 2018 documentary film directed by Johanna Demetrakas with powerful photographs and interviews with feminists, including Laurie Anderson, Phyllis Chesler, Judy Chicago, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and many others—some older women reflecting back over decades, some younger women. I wish everyone would see it.
EDIE & THEA: A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT – This documentary is the true story of a smart, feisty, funny, delightful lesbian couple from New York who live life to the fullest. The movie is a wonderful celebration of their lives and their love, as well as a moving story about aging, disability and dying with grace. Edie and Thea met in the 1960’s and lived much of their life as a couple in secret. Thea was diagnosed with MS in her 40’s and became progressively more disabled as the years went by. The couple faced these challenges with wonderful courage and spirit and a great sense of humor. This movie is a heart-warming celebration of true love. Edie went on, at age 83, after Thea’s death, to be the plaintiff in the landmark case before the Supreme Court challenging and overturning the heterosexist Defense of Marriage Act. The movie was produced and directed by Susan Muska and Gréta Ólafsdottir. Very highly recommended. More here.
NOMADLAND – Directed by Chloé Zhao, one of my favorite directors, with beautiful cinematography by Joshua James Richards, this award-winning movie features Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman in her sixties who is on the road living as a nomad following the death of her husband and the loss of her job when the plant where she worked shuts down. The movie shows the life of people in America today, mostly older, who are living on the road, taking jobs here and there, living simple lives, mostly outside of cities in open spaces. Fern takes jobs at an Amazon fulfillment center, a sugar beet processing plant, and a campground in Badlands National Park as she moves around the country, forming relationships with others who are also on the road. Chloe Zhao uses two other professional actors, David Strathairn and Peter Spears, but otherwise the characters are played mostly by actual nomads who are living on the road, including Swankie, Linda May, and Bob Wells. This movie, like Chloé Zhao's earlier movies (see below), is minimalist, raw, emotionally deep but understated and subtle, visually gorgeous, and truly extraordinary. Very highly recommended.
THE RIDER — This is a beautiful movie—pure poetry—visually, emotionally, it’s extraordinary. It dances between fiction and documentary, telling the story of a Native American rodeo cowboy and horse trainer who gets injured and has to give up rodeo. Written, produced and directed by Chloé Zhao, who was born and raised in Beijing, went to boarding school in London, high school in Los Angeles, and NYU film school. Shot in the badlands of South Dakota, the film stars Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lane Scott, and Cat Clifford all playing characters based on themselves. I almost refused to see it because I hate rodeos, but I’m so glad I did. These people are so beautiful in their relationships with each other and with the land, and in Brady’s relationships with horses. The movie deals with disability in beautiful ways as well. And after you see the movie, watch the conversation on the special features of the DVD with Chloé, Brady, the cinematographer and the editor. Zhao made another (earlier) beautiful film about the badlands called Songs My Brothers Taught Me and her newest film is Nomadland (see review above). All very highly recommended.
FOR SAMA – This powerful documentary was filmed by a young Syrian woman, Waad al-Kateab, and it chronicles her life through five years of the uprising that begins so optimistically, and is then crushed by the brutal bombing siege of Aleppo. As war rages around them, she falls in love with a heroic doctor who is treating the wounded, marries him and gives birth to their daughter Sama. Waad al-Kateab documents it all with a handheld camera, so you feel right there as bombs explode—it’s as close to viscerally feeling the reality of this as you can get on film. This is a raw account of the brutal realities of war, but it also shows the amazing courage and resilience of human beings under siege—such truly beautiful people, including the children. This movie is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. Very highly recommended. More here.
THE BIG C – This wonderful 4-season TV series that ran from 2010 through 2014 is a comedy-drama created by Darlene Hunt about a woman—a suburban housewife and high school teacher, played by Laura Linney, who is dying of cancer. It is funny and profound and well worth watching. Also starring Oliver Platt as her husband, John Benjamin Hickey as her brother, Gabriel Basso as her teenage son, Gabourey Sidibe as one of her students who becomes a housemate and friend, and Phyllis Somerville as her next door neighbor. Very highly recommended.
KUMARE: This amazing documentary follows American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi as he pretends to be a guru and builds a following of real people. It beautifully reveals our human gullibility and willingness to fall for spiritual super-heroes. Humorous and insightful, done with genuine compassion, very much worth seeing. More here.
DON’T LOOK UP – Brilliant (allegorical) satire about climate change denial and our modern culture of trivia and distraction. All-star cast (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry). Great movie. And if you stick around through ALL the credits to the very end, there’s an extra little bit that I’m guessing most people miss. Funny, sobering, prescient, spot-on. Very highly recommended.
HOW TO DIE IN OREGON — This powerful and moving documentary is about the right to end your own life through physician-assisted dying, which was legalized in Oregon in 1994 for people who are terminally ill. The movie follows a number of people with different views on the subject as they grapple with end of life issues and whether or not to end their lives at a time of their own choosing. I encourage everyone to see this movie. It seems absurdly cruel to me that adults who want to end their lives for rational reasons cannot do it in a medically reliable and comfortable way. We treat our beloved pets with more compassion than we do our fellow humans in this regard. The opposition to physician-assisted dying most often comes from religious and disability groups. Speaking as a spiritual person with a disability, I see nothing in these carefully crafted laws that threatens people with disabilities or that in any way encourages us to end our lives. And my own sense of the sacred in no way forbids ending our lives at a time of our own choosing in order to spare ourselves or others unnecessary suffering and hardship. I wish the religious fundamentalists would stop imposing their beliefs on the rest of civil society, and I wish people who have reservations or fears about physician-assisted dying would see this movie. More on How to Die in Oregon here, and more on right to die here, here, and here.
THE GREAT HACK – Human misunderstanding and conflict is now being greatly magnified and escalated by the ways that data collection and social media are being used. This documentary explores how Cambridge Analytica and Facebook played a huge role (vastly greater than Russia) in electing Donald Trump in 2016 and also in the Brexit campaign, and how they are manipulating elections around the world. Although Cambridge Analytica no longer exists, these technologies do, and the threat is in no way gone. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s previous documentary Control Room is about how different media outlets gave entirely different presentations of the Iraq war to their viewers. These all seem like crucial issues for all of us to understand as these technologies will certainly be used more and more and with ever-increasing sophistication. More here. Very highly recommended!
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA – In this excellent 2020 Netflix movie, you hear from many of the creators of social media about how they now see the unintended consequences of what they unleashed. The movie examines how conspiracy theories and fake news spread as never before, how polarization is promoted, the addictive quality of our devices and social media, and the negative impacts of all this on our lives.
CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY – Based on economist Thomas Piketty's book, this excellent documentary examines wealth accumulation, capitalism and its looming social repercussions. Excellent!
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT – I’ve been a huge fan of Michael Moore for years, but this just might be his best film of all. This is a must see movie for everyone in America. It is brilliant and uplifting, full of joy and human possibility. It will give you hope (in the best sense). See this movie! More here and here.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM – A beautiful documentary about a couple in California who start a sustainable, organic farm. Along with the people who come to join them in this endeavor, they face predators, drought, wildfire and other challenges as they learn about the web of ecological diversity, the beauty of hardship, and resilience in the face of enormous and unrelenting challenges. Beautiful photography, lovely people, many profound insights into life. Also a wonderful affirmation of the possibility of doing farming in a sustainable, compassionate, organic way in harmony with nature and with love for animals and all beings. Absolutely beautiful! Very highly recommended. More here.
ANTONIA'S LINE (Original title: ANTONIA) – this 1995 Dutch movie written and directed by Marleen Gorris is a wonderful reflection on life and death, community and love. It tells the story of Antonia and her daughter from the period right after World War II, when they return to the small Dutch village where Antonia was born, on through the next half century up to Antonia's death. This is a movie full of unforgettable characters and the relationships between them. There is an intellectually disabled couple, an older couple, a lesbian couple, a couple kept apart by religion, a child genius, a gloomy nihilistic philosopher, a runaway priest, and many more. There is exuberant sex and quiet tenderness, and on the darker side, there is rape and murder and suicide. There are the seasons of rural life and the seasons of a human life. Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes poignant, with a dash of magical realism and much joyful and rollicking feminism, this is a movie that can’t easily be pinned down or described. Really, you just have to see it. I found it beautiful, heart-warming and brimming with true love. Very highly recommended.
MAUDIE: This beautiful movie is based on the true story of Maud Lewis, a Canadian folk artist who lived in Nova Scotia. It’s a love story, really, and a story about the human capacity to find beauty. Incredible acting by two of my favorite actors, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, directed by a really interesting Irish woman director named Aisling Walsh, with beautiful cinematography. And at the end, they give you a glimpse of the real people upon whom the movie was based. Very highly recommended!
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: I see this as a movie about human suffering and the potential for even the most wounded hearts to open. The story is about a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered, and the mother's relationships with the police who have been unable to find the perpetrator. The exceptional cast includes Frances McDormand, who got a very well-deserved Oscar for the leading role, along with Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, Sandy Martin, John Hawkes and others. Very highly recommended.
PROTAGONIST – This documentary by Jessica Yu, inspired by the work of Euripides, tells the story of four contemporary men who were faced with the experience of powerlessness and abuse in their childhood, who then struggled for control and certainty in ways that proved false, and who all awoke to a different perspective. The men tell their stories interspersed with documentary footage and intermittent Greek-tragedy enactments by puppets. It may sound crazy, but trust me, it’s a beautiful and powerful film. One of the men, Mark Salzman, is Jessica Yu’s husband, and he is also the author of some wonderful books including the novel Lying Awake, which is on my recommended book list.
THE DHAMMA BROTHERS – This powerful documentary, made by Jenny Phillips, is about a group of prisoners at a maximum-security prison in Alabama who take up Buddhist meditation and how it transforms them. These are men who have been through great suffering and who have caused great suffering, living in one of the most difficult and dangerous environments imaginable. To see them undertake this practice and to hear them talk about it is incredibly moving and eye-opening. I was deeply touched by these men, and I very highly recommend this extraordinary documentary. More here.
OLD PLUM MOUNTAIN: The Berkeley Zen Center, Life Inside the Gate – This lovely and enlightening documentary, produced and directed by Ed Herzog, is about the Berkeley Zen Center. It’s also about Zen. I lived briefly at BZC many years ago, and the founding teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, was my first teacher. This movie beautifully transmits the heart of Mel’s teaching, the spirit of BZC, and the simplicity and depth of Zen. You hear from Mel and many other new and long-time students and practioners, and you see the various forms of practice: zazen, chanting and bowing, working, cooking, and daily life. I’m no longer drawn to this kind of rigorous, formal Zen practice, but I have immense appreciation, gratitude and love for Mel and BZC, and this movie captures why. I especially love Mel’s description of sesshin (silent retreat) as “a deep soak in reality.” Watching this movie is a meditation, and every time I watch, I come away refreshed, awake and deeply grounded in the wonder and simplicity of this moment. You can see the movie here.
ABSOLUTE WILSON – This documentary by Katharina Otto-Bernstein is about theater artist Robert Wilson (avant-garde performer, dancer, director, choreographer, designer). Wilson grew up in Waco, Texas, where, as a child, he stuttered, had a learning disability, and felt out of place. He ended up in New York City and became one of the major figures of avant-garde theater there and in Europe. Along the way, he worked with people who had severe disabilities, many of them in iron lungs, and with children who were brain-damaged, hyper-active or autistic. Instead of trying to make these people like everyone else, Wilson found a way to allow their unique way of seeing and communicating to blossom and flourish, and his own art was greatly influenced by working with them. Wilson collaborated and performed for many years with a young man who had brain damage, and he also adopted an African-American boy who was deaf. The documentary includes interviews with family, friends, and people in the arts who worked with Wilson including Susan Sontag, Philip Glass, Jessye Norman, and Tom Waits. Wilson has a remarkable gift for turning everything upside down, opening things up, and making you see anew. Watching this movie is like attending the best satsang you can imagine. I recommend it highly. More on Robert Wilson here.
Other favorite recommended movies: American Splendor; Lars and the Real Girl; Nowhere in Africa; I Love You Phillip Morris; Frida; Away from Her; The Namesake; Wit; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Look Both Ways; The Music Never Stopped; Schultz Gets the Blues; Cairo Time; Sabah: A Love Story; Bagdad Cafe; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Monster; Magnolia; Bernie; The Color of Paradise; Howl; As It Is in Heaven; Babel; A Beautiful Mind; The Thin Red Line; The Matrix; Brick Lane; The Visitor; I Am Love; Harold & Maude; The Elephant Man; The Piano; Grand Canyon; The Burning Plain; Far from Heaven; Kinsey; The Hours; Fargo; Steel Toes; The Vertical Ray of the Sun; Then She Found Me; A Single Man; Venus; Snow Cake; Sunshine State; I've Heard the Mermaids Singing; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Burn After Reading; The Truman Show; The Bird Cage; Memento; Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her; The Big Chill; Little Miss Sunshine; The Reader; Synecdoche, NY; The Million Dollar Hotel; Beckett on Film; Freedom Writers; Temple Grandin; Up In the Air; Nine Lives; The English Patient; Rabbit Hole; The Safety of Objects; Dead Man Walking; The Sea Inside; Million Dollar Baby; You Don't Know Jack; The Upside of Anger; The Road to Perdition; The Notebook; My Left Foot; Junebug; The Band's Visit; The Straight Story; If These Walls Could Talk 2; The Last King of Scotland; Leaving Las Vegas; Postcardsfrom the Edge; The Life of David Gale; Adoration; Unfaithful; The End of the Affair; My Dinner with Andre; The Scent of Green Papaya; The Long Walk Home; The Usual Suspects; The Girl in the Cafe; Do the Right Thing; Vitus; Vera Drake; Apollo 13; Zorba the Greek; Forest Gump; Before Night Falls; Boys Don't Cry; Schindler's List; The Pianist; 13 Conversations About One Thing; Desert Bloom;Walkabout; The Last Wave; Bound; Angels in America; Primary Colors; The Ides of March; The Savages; Pleasantville; Milk;The Company Men; Miral; Strangers in Good Company; Fire; Water; Waltz with Bashir; The Stoning of Soraya M.; Midnight in Paris; Before Sunrise; Before Sunset; Before MIdnight; Beginners; The Legend of Bagger Vance; Field of Dreams; Blue Velvet; Being John Malkovich; I've Loved You So Long; Me and You and Everyone We Know; Sliding Door; The Lives of Others; Blow-Up; Everything Is Illuminated; Brothers; Atonement; The Kite Runner; Before the Devil Knows You're Dead; Frozen River; Julie & Julia;The Mahabharata (Peter Brook's production); The Kids Are All Right; Edge of Darkness (2009); La Mission; Warm Springs; Winter's Bone; The Social Network; Down to the Bone; 127 Hours; Conviction; The Deep End; What the Bleep Do We Know?; True Grit (Coen brothers); Into the Wild; American History X; In a Better World; Battle for Haditha; Life in a Day; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; Snow Falling on Cedars; The Debt; Casino Jack; Higher Ground; Restless; Moneyball; The Descendants; The Iron Lady; J. Edgar; My Week with Marilyn; Pariah; Tipping the Velvet; Hemingway and Gellhorn; Albert Nobbs; Mammoth; Never Forever; The Artist; Margaret; You Can Count on Me; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Answers to Nothing; In the Land of Blood and Honey; A Home at the End of the World; Perfect Sense; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; The Secret Life of Words; Things I Never Told You; My Life Without Me; Take This Waltz; Hope Springs; We Need to Talk About Kevin; Flight; The Ledge; Me and Orson Welles; Kumare; A Late Quartet; The Sessions; Argo; Rust and Bone; Read My LIps; The Beat That My Heart Skipped; Silver Linings Playbook; Django Unchained; The Intouchables; Cloud Atlas; Moonrise Kingdom; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Stories We Tell; Amour; Evening; Mud; What Maisie Knew; Quartet; City Island; Frances Ha; The Sapphires; The Hunt (Vinterberg's 2012 Danish film); Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler; Blue Jasmine; Welcome to the Rileys; The Attack; The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Yes; Ginger & Rosa; Orlando; Smashed; Saving Face; Enough Said; Nebraska; Dallas Buyer's Club; Captain Phillips; American Husstle; Kill Your Darlings; 12 Years A Slave; Five Minutes of Heaven; Philomena; The Woodsman; Her; The Book Thief; The Great Beauty; This Must Be the Place; Ida; Lantana; Still Mine; Heights; Of Gods and Men; Boyhood; Whiplash; To Rome with Love; The Theory of Everything; The Imitation Game; Fingersmith; Wild; Selma; Still Alice; Love Is Strange; Good Kill; Pride; Hector and the Search for Happiness; Every Day; Night Train to Lisbon; Love & Mercy; The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared; The Danish Girl; Carol; Truth; Remembrance; Freeheld (2015 movie); Grandma; The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; Spotlight; The Big Short; Trumbo; Room; Desert Dancer; Mr. Nobody; Patrik Age 1.5; Joy; Land of Plenty; Florence Foster Jenkins; Moonlight; Fences; Manchester by the Sea; Lion; 20th Century Women; Hidden Figures, Maggie's Plan; Mudbound; Last Flag Flying, Lady Bird; The Post; Battle of the Sexes; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool; Reaching for the Moon; Call Me by Your Name; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women; Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot; Blackkklansman; Puzzle; Fair Game; Songs My Brothers Taught Me; If Beale Street Could Talk; Saving Mr. Banks; A Star Is Born; Stan and Ollie; Green Book; Vice; The Bookshop, Can You Ever Forgive Me?; The Wife; The Glass Castle; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; The Laundromat; Miss Sloane; Disobedience; The Favourite; After the Wedding (2019 version); The Two Popes; The Half of It; Bombshell; The Trial of the Chicago 7; Hillbilly Elegy; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; The World to Come; Portrait of a Lady on Fire; I Care a Lot; The Power of the Dog; The Banshees of Inisherin.
TV Series: The Queen's Gambit; Unorthodox; Seven Seconds; The Chair; The Good Wife; Grace and Frankie (early seasons); Last Tango in Halifax; Downton Abbey; Modern Family; The Crown; Hollywood; Dead to Me; The Killing; In Treatment; Shtisel; Killing Eve; Boston Legal; The Sopranos; The Wire; True Detective (Season 3); The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; Only Murders in the Building; Big Love; Joan of Arcadia; Mad Men; Stateless; Big Little Lies; The Body Guard; The Kominsky Method; Borgen; Borgen-Power & Glory; Rita; How to Get Away with Murder; Suits; One Day at a Time; A Place to Call Home; Dexter; American Crime; Breaking Bad; Homeland; The Shield; House of Cards (2013, US); The Twelve; Fargo; Scott and Bailey; NYPD Blue; Madame Secretary; Grey's Anatomy; Boss; The Affair; Rectiy; Mrs. Wilson; When They See Us; Maid; Inventing Anna.
Documentaries: Maiden; Searching for Sugar Man; The Buena Vista Social Club; The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill; Leonard Cohen: Live in London; Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man; Bukowski: Born Into This; Black Sun; The Corporation; Inside Job; Vietnam: American Holocaust; Sicko; How to Die in Oregon; The War You Don't See; Generation M: Misogyny in Media and Culture; Food, Inc.; What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire; The Times of Harvey Milk; Rivers and Tides; Touch the Sound; Bowling for Columbine; Capitalism: A Love Story; Fahrenheit 9/11; Southern Comfort; Transgeneration; Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train; Fear and Favor in the Newsroom; The Weather Underground (2002); What I Want My Words to Do to You;The Garden; Before Stonewall; After Stonewall; Anyone and Everyone; For the Bible Tells Me So; Freeheld (2007 documentary); The Cats of Mirikitani; Man on Wire; West of Memphis; Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Paradise Lost 2: Revelations; Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory; Occupation 101; Shoah; American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein; One Bright Shining Moment; Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains; Michael Jackson's This Is It; Citizen King: American Experience; V-Day: Until the Violence Stops; A Crude Awakening; The Oil Factor; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism; Power & Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times; The Party's Over; An Inconveniant Truth; A Really Inconveniant Truth; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair; The Road to Guantanamo; Taxi to the Dark Side; Ram Dass: Fierce Grace; Winged Migration; 51 Birch Street; Amargosa; The War (Ken Burns); Into Great Silence; Hot Coffee; The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED (be sure to watch the entire presentation by Sir Ken Robinson); God Grew Tired of Us; Emmanuel's Gift; Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens; Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision; USA vs Al-Arian; Casino Jack and the United States of Money; The Power of Forgiveness; South of the Border; I Am (Tom Shadyac); Full Signal; Gasland; Frontline: The Suicide Tourist; Right to Exit: Kevorkian; Buck; A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki; DOT: An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary Person; We Were Here; Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present; Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?; The Gatekeepers; Dirty Wars; The Act of Killing; Gerhard Richter Painting; After Tiller; Inequality for All; Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction; Last Call at the Oasis; No Direction Home: Bob Dylan; Nostalgia for the Light; When the Iron Bird Flies; The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo; Finding Vivian Maier; Getting Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; The Loss of Nameless Things; Chris & Don: A Love Story; Making A Murderer; Amanda Knox (Netflix); 13th; OJ: Made in America; Salinger; I Am Not Your Negro; Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States; Wild Wild Country; The Staircase; RBG; What Happened, Miss Simone?; Feminists: What Were They Thinking?; Won't You Be My Neighbor?; Far from theTree; Maiden; Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice; Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins; Who Killed Malcolm X?; Circus of Books; Planet of Humans; Becoming; The Keepers; Lenox Hill; Disclosure; Fire in Paradise; The Surgeon's Cut; Hillbilly; Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power (2020 Hulu documentary); Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy; This Changes Everything; Pride; Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street; Lead Me Home.
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