Christian critics didn't have much use for the first new releases of 2001—Save the Last Dance, Double Take, and Antitrust—but had plenty of kudos for several 2000 releases now making their way into wide release: Traffic, Thirteen Days, All the Pretty Horses, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

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Christian critics admired the good intentions in Save the Last Dance, a drama about a ballet student (Julia Stiles) who has trouble fitting in with the hip-hop culture when she's forced to move to the city. Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright says it "teaches valuable lessons about the evils of bigotry and about the need for selfless acts in maintaining relationships." But the lessons remain rather shallow, he says: "Older folk, however, may snicker at viewing high schoolers on Hollywood's version of the road to self-discovery." Michael Elliott of agrees the potential was wasted. "Save the Last Dance tries hard to please on a number of levels: a treatise on the social stigma attached to interracial relationships which continues to exist in our day; a contrasting study of two different cultures existing side by side; and an inspirational message that one should never give up on one's dreams. It is therefore disappointing that its story is so contrived that each level is trivialized, and the film ultimately devolves into a rather average tale of love, friendship and dance." Movieguide also feels "the story is carried out in a way that comes across as synthetic, rather than bold," partly because "situations of implied fornication, underage drinking and other elements damage the movie's moral credibility." Preview was likewise disappointed that "inner city teens spout obscenities with ease" and that "although drugs aren't glamorized, they are part of the plot and lead to a few violent acts."

The social commentary in Traffic, a multi-story exploration of America's drug crisis, won over most Christian critics despite some caveats about narrative deficiencies and gritty content. Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright says "it's brilliant! Engrossing from start to finish … the film makes powerful statements about family responsibility and the need to care about our fellow man. And while its theme and plotlines tend to unnerve, director Steven Soderbergh entertains, teaches and touches the soul." The plotlines follow a Mexican police officer (Benicio Del Toro), a U.S. judge (Michael Douglas), a DEA agent (Don Cheadle), and a drug trafficker's unsuspecting wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose lives are all scarred by the buying and selling of drugs. The U.S. Catholic Conference says "Soderbergh's stunning visual virtuosity and the stellar ensemble performances create a stark picture of greed, corruption and social decay where for every triumph, there is parallel setback and the battle begins again." Movieguide says " the best lesson is the realization that the so-called 'war on drugs' must be fought at home first, with parents building good, moral relationships with their children." Reviewers debated over how appropriate the objectionable content was to the theme: Focus on the Family's Steven Isaac quotes Sen. Orrin Hatch (who makes a cameo in the film) as saying 'I don't see how they could have made it without violence and still accurately portray the drug culture—and how degrading it is,' but Isaac concludes that his reason still "doesn't make it right." Preview agreed that "Despite the anti-drug message and realistic story, excessive drug use, a flood of obscenity, some severe violence and sexual content make Traffic extremely objectionable." But Hollywood Jesus guest reviewer Scott Cripps has no stones to throw: "This movie is a gritty movie to watch but it is important because it in no way glamorizes the world of drugs which so many movies seem to do. Drugs are evil and bad, and for portraying that to us and to our youth we should be grateful." Other critics had quibbles with the narrative pacing: Holly McClure of says the film is "brilliant in the way it was executed, but it's still hard to connect emotionally since the pace rarely lets you settle in long enough with any one character to care." Jeffrey Overstreet of Looking Closer was happy to find that "Stephen Gaghan's script zips right along, keeping us slightly off-balance, digging deep into information and details," but felt it eventually gets "too busy telling us the facts, too busy showing off its superstars, and thus it fails to develop enough believable and engaging characters." The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks criticized the film for the "lack of a credible, urban, black character. … Instead, the only inner-city figure is a highly-sexualized drug dealer, whose sole narrative purpose seems to be to scare the heck out of every suburban white parent in America." But Parks says there's plenty worthwhile in the film, too, including "some of the year's best acting and directing," and an "ultimate moment of grace brought a tear to my eye."

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Thirteen Days, a recounting of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on declassified government documents and first-hand accounts, gripped Christian critics with its deft balance of personal, political, and historical intrigue. "Its dramatic level is simply off the chart," raves Michael Elliott of "Watching a group of 'smart guys' (RFK's description) brainstorming ideas that might prevent World War III from happening is far more exciting than any testosterone driven shoot-em-up action/adventure film." Movieguide was impressed by how it refrained from "leaning too much on Hollywood drama," and found "especially notable … the personal relationship between the Kennedy brothers, enhanced by Steven Culp's fine performance as Bobby Kennedy." Preview, too, liked how the personal angle gave "the viewer some perspective on the emotions involved at the magnitude of decisions the leaders face." Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright found the historical focus made it "a real nail biter. These actual events come candidly and frighteningly to life with David Self's enthralling script and the perceptive performances of the film's splendid cast." The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks singles out Bruce Greenwood, who plays John F. Kennedy, as "the real linchpin of the movie. … Despite the filmmakers' attempt to beatify Kennedy, Greenwood keeps his feet firmly on the ground with a sharp and understated representation." Holly McClure of says it surprised her that a history lesson could be so gripping. "I went to this movie with reservations, thinking it would be boring and uneventful. … Boy, was I wrong! Going back in time to revisit an event that was surrounded by diplomacy, suspense and dramatic thrills was like seeing this story for the first time."

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The title of Double Take isn't its only indecipherable aspect; Preview says audiences "will leave the theater exhausted from chasing fast-paced plot changes." In this identity-swapping buddy picture (or, as Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser calls it, "a whole bushel of Hollywood formulas [tossed] into a thresher"), a wealthy businessman (Orlando Jones) trades places with a streetwise thief (Eddie Griffin) to escape detection after being framed for murder. "This premise affords some pretty hilarious dialogue with a number of clever, creative lines," writes Movieguide, but concludes that "its convoluted, tedious plot" and "two stereotypes for the price of one" ruin any enjoyment. (Smithouser adds "harsh language and a significant body count" to the list.) Michael Elliott of says "the audience is kept guessing as to who is doing what to whom, [but] the plot line is so far-fetched and problematic that we really don't care to give that much thought to the film."

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If the Microsoft legal proceedings aren't heart-pounding enough for you, Hollywood has re-imagined the scenario with more car chases in Antitrust, which features a Bill Gates clone (Tim Robbins) who gives new meaning to cutthroat business practices. Audiences didn't bite (the film opened in 12th place at the box office), and Christian critics had no trouble guessing why. "Hitchcock it's not," says Preview, adding that it's more it for those "looking for laughs." Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family wonders why "this computer-savvy megaconglomerate videotapes and archives its own violent crimes and other incriminating evidence," and Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright confirms that it "strains to put suspense and plausibility on the screen. … There's little subtlety or nuance in either the story or the characterizations." Movieguide found merit in the new employee (Ryan Phillippe) who "yearns to do justice. His fight to do the right thing gives Antitrust a mostly moral worldview. [It] rebukes lying, killing and blackmail not because of revenge, but because they are wrong." However, Movieguide concludes that "some foul language, a socialist anti-business perspective and other questionable material spoil these positive points."

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A search for God by a man of moral fiber made most Christian critics embrace All the Pretty Horses, the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel. Matt Damon plays John Grady Cole, an adventurous Texan who becomes a ranch hand in Mexico, where he falls for a woman he is forbidden to love. PlanetWisdom says this "might be Matt Damon's best performance. … Cole always tries to do what he believes is right—even if it costs him. When he fails to do the right thing, he struggles with regret. … The old-fashioned idea that a man should live by some kind of a moral code (even if it's not a biblical one) is refreshing." Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright was impressed with the film's portrait of a dying era. "It wasn't just the cowboy's loner existence that was being displaced, but society's outlook on honor and reverence. While pessimism and humanism were taking hold, our hero asserts that God looks out for us with his assessment, 'I don't believe we'd make it a day otherwise.' … He is a man of character. How often is that quality represented in today's movies?" Movieguide agreed that the film stands on moral ground "by demonstrating some consequences for fornication and lying and by promoting loyalty, honesty, trustworthiness, and maintaining a good reputation morally (and sexually)." Holly McClure of says the film reveals the importance of accountability: "The whole story is about learning and having the good sense to know when to turn away from a situation that may for the time, emotionally satisfy, but ultimately destroy you. … I took my older teenagers to see this and afterward, we had an interesting discussion about how many times the characters had a chance to avoid the consequences they suffered." However, Jeffrey Overstreet of Looking Closer says that the film pales into comparison to what it could have been. "What we have is a Cliff's Notes version of the story," he says, referring to the studio's mandate that director Billy Bob Thornton trim his three-hour version into a two-hour release. "I have not seen this film yet. Instead I have seen a catastrophe, something that taunts me with glimmers of greatness, but then tells me what the studio thinks audiences want, not what the director wanted us to see. … I believe that the director's cut of this film will reveal a masterpiece among Westerns." The condensed nature of the theatrical release seems to bother other Christian critics, too; Preview says "the story seems disjointed and pointless," and that although the spiritual dialogue "appears to tie the ends of the film together, its connection to the story is difficult to understand." Michael Elliott of calls it "a disappointment, failing to effectively communicate the universal themes of this epic coming-of-age story," but adds that "while the film leaves much to be desired, it is full of good intentions."

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On the other hand, Christian critics applauded O Brother, Where Art Thou? despite being wary of its intentions. Although the film comes from the Coen brothers—whose previous films have been marked by "chilling cynicism and not-so-subtle contempt for humanity," according to the Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks—this comedy seems to be full of laughter and hope. Parks calls it "bust-a-gut funny … great fun and great filmmaking." Beliefnet guest reviewer Chris Willman agrees that the Coens are " the last filmmakers most of us would expect to see come up with a gentle parable about faith. Yet their latest comic diversion is … about fools and children coming first in the kingdom of God. Even if the filmmakers probably don't believe the script's vaguely affirming message themselves, the triumph of the witless makes for gratifying comedy, as well as crudely on-target New Testament theology." O Brother, Where Art Thou? loosely follow Homer's Odyssey, transplanted to Depression-era Mississippi, as a prison-escapee (George Clooney) tries to make his way home to his wife. But the real star of the movie, says Michael Elliott of, "an absolutely incredible soundtrack featuring the 'old-timey' music (collected by T-Bone Burnett), a mixture of folk, bluegrass and gospel. The music is integral to the telling of the story and it fits perfectly." Looking Closer's Jeffrey Overstreet describes how music fleshes out the sketchy storyline: "The irrepressible joy of the music that bursts from O Brother's most ridiculous souls is a testament that God can shame the proud with the efforts of the humble. It echoes the theme that ran through Amadeus, that God gives grace the humble, and blesses even the simple and the crass with gifts that make the world a better place." Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright was disappointed that "while there are some positive messages, this road picture is laced together with profanity and obscenity," and Preview was uneasy with the film's depiction of Christians: "Although there are numerous spiritual elements, including a Christian baptismal service where two of the trio appear to convert, religious people still get negative treatment, including the KKK rally attended by 'God-fearing' people, and a Bible salesman is portrayed as strongly hypocritical." Movieguide, though, says "the movie happily affirms that God can indeed work miracles if you call upon Him, and that the spiritual joys of being a Christian and singing a Gospel song uplift one's spirit."

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Steve Lansingh is editor of, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.

Related Elsewhere:

See earlier Film Forum postings for these movies in the box-office top ten: Cast Away, What Women Want, Finding Forrester, Miss Congeniality, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Family Man.