Will the teachers make a mark on the big screen this season?

Dedicated teachers are a movie – and Oscar – fixture. Robin Williams of the Dead Poets Society; «Stand and Deliver’s» Edward James Olmos; «The Miracle Worker’s» by Anne Bancroft; «Mr. Holland’s Opus'» Richard Dreyfuss; Meryl Streep’s «Music of the Heart» … these and other big-screen efforts of the past give us idealistic teachers who inspire and reach difficult students through their passion and determination. And the Academy voters dutifully expressed their appreciation.

Sure, the occasional bad apple receiver has been nominated (Richard Burton’s alcoholic, wife-fighting professor in «Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?») or even crowned (Maggie Smith’s Miss Jean Brodie, who would be super cool if she weren’t miserable fascist sympathies). But they were the exceptions in the honorary film faculty who taught this to the audience carp that diem.

However, things have changed in the 21st century. Academics have either lost their minds («A Beautiful Mind,» «Still Alice») or behaved like delinquents («Half Nelson,» «The Lost Daughter»). Oscar went for it, which may explain why this year’s class of teacher films is more concerned with the shortcomings of individuals than their skills at imparting knowledge. It could also be a reflection of the post-COVID attacks on scholarship that are roiling culture and politics. Or maybe the filmmakers just want to deliver multi-faceted characters rather than placing them on idealized pedestals.

Here are some current contenders who show (and say) teachers in a different light.

Two men at a table in a restaurant, one in a jacket, the other looking rough in a t-shirt.

Jeffrey Wright, right with Adam Brody, finds himself having to play a gangster to support a book he wrote out of frustration.

(Orion Pictures)

«American Fiction»

Jeffrey Wright’s professor Thelonious «Monk» Ellison was placed on leave for antagonizing students and fellow faculty with his confrontational and dismissive attitude. Back home in Massachusetts, the author of understated historical novels faces multiple crises in his well-to-do family and professional life with more intellect than emotional intelligence. Fed up with how books like «We Live in Da Ghetto» fare better than his meticulously crafted reworking of Aeschylus’ «The Persians,» Ellison decides to pull a literary prank: He writes the most clichéd, pathological depiction of African-American life under a pseudonym. can dream

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To Ellison’s horrified confusion, clueless white publishers love it and give the book a big promotional push, forcing the erudite author to pretend he’s a wanted gangsta.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of USC English professor Percival Everett’s true novel «Erasure» gives Emmy winner Wright endless opportunities to bring out the intelligence he always brings to his work, as well as play the fool. Cultural satire and complex criticism of racial stereotypes overshadows the actor’s naturalistic, full-fledged performance, which could have been just another prickly prof. Wright gives us that rarest image of the perfect academic: someone who can still learn from his mistakes.

Paul Giamatti stands in front of the blackboard as teacher Paul Hunham "Holdovers."

Paul Giamatti turns his eccentric «Holdovers» tutor into a guy worth hanging out with.

(Seacia Pavao)

‘The Holdovers’

Paul Hunham is a mess. He was kicked out of Harvard, and the only job he’s had since then is as an adjunct classics teacher at a prep school in New England in 1970. Students and administrators alike hate him, and the feeling is mutual; terms Hunham describes his privileged charges range from «veritable troglodytes» to «snarling Visigoths». Plus it smells.

It’s the perfect role for storm specialist Paul Giamatti, if not quite the sheer delight of the loser he previously played for director Alexander Payne in «Sideways.» However, Giamatti sets Hunham on a carefully trodden path to heroic humanity as he is forced to babysit his most troubled student, freshman Dominic Sessa, Angus Tully, on a deserted campus over Christmas break. Both actors leave the audience guessing if their frosty relationship will thaw permanently. And Giamatti proves a generous scene partner for Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Mary Lamb, the school’s grieving cook and co-owner.

Hunham may not be as funny as the «Sideways» wine lover was. By the time he makes the inevitable sacrifice, Giamatti has turned the grumpy educator into a guy worth hanging out with. Although sometimes you have to hold your nose.

A balding Nicolas Cage screams in a scene from "A dream scenario."

Paul Matthews’ (Nicolas Cage) manic moments seem especially earned because his dilemma was built on believable behavior and motivations.


«Dream Scenario»

While enjoying a happy family life, middle-aged biology professor Paul Matthews is frustrated by his inability to publish. When it inexplicably starts appearing in random people’s dreams, the resulting celebrity threatens to turn heads. But when these dreams turn into nightmares, can he cope with the harsh reality of the abolition of culture?

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In his smoothest, most demanding and best performance since his Oscar-nominated double role in «Adaptation.» (2003), «Leaving Las Vegas» lead winner Nicolas Cage delivers all of Matthews’ petty qualms and yearnings while hanging by his fingernails on the character’s moral compass (his resistance to Dylan Gelula’s seduction attempt may be the funniest crouching scene of the year ). Not that Cage’s signature crazy outbursts aren’t welcome wherever he makes them, but Matthews’ manic moments seem especially earned, as actor-writer-director Kristoffer Borgli constructs his surreal, ahem, script out of believable behavior and motivations.

And what could be more realistic than trying to make it in France after falling from cultural grace in America? «Dream Scenario» knows more than it lets on.

Leonie Benesch stands in front of the blackboard and shouts inside "Teacher's lounge."

Teacher Carla Nowack (Leonie Benesch) is ostracized by her colleagues after an investigation into thefts at her school.

(Sony Pictures Classics)

«The Teachers’ Lounge»

In the German international feature Oscar entry, Leonie Benesch stars as Carla Nowak, a novice high school teacher who is well-respected by her students and colleagues. At first anyway. Disturbed by the school’s pseudo-fascist (in Germany; imagine that!) investigation into a string of thefts, the daughter of Polish immigrants, Nowak sets a trap to find the real culprit in the titular recess area. The evidence obtained is not exactly ironclad, and concerns once again focus on privacy violations. Soon ostracized by everyone around her, Nowak struggles to balance compassion for all those afflicted with the certainty that her dubious methods have revealed the truth.

Writer-director Ilker Çatak wants to present the school as a microcosm of society’s ills to the extent that we learn next to nothing about Nowak’s private life. Yet Benesch, who won a German Film Award for her performance (called Lola), is so fully invested in the character’s work problems that we feel like we know the teacher completely. Benesch approaches a basic decency that makes Nowak’s sneakiness almost forgivable.

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Even if no one else in the movie thinks so. And they’re probably right.

Eugenio Derbez, surrounded by youngsters in school uniforms, concentrates intently on the project in the scene "Radical."

Eugenio Derbez as an idealistic teacher in «Radical», a more traditional teacher-as-hero story.



2023’s most traditional inspirational pedagogic story, «Radical,» features a characteristically antique Eugenio Derbez as Sergio Juárez Correa, an unconventional new sixth-grade teacher at Matamoros, Mexico’s worst elementary school. How bad is the underfunded border town institution? The kids are fine, but the bullet-riddled corpses they pass on their way to campus would terrify the toughest «Blackboard Jungle,» «Dangerous Minds,» or «Lean on Me» instructors.

Based on a true story, this Sundance audience-award-winning feature film charts Sergio’s quixotic determination to let his charges learn what they want instead of a corrupt curriculum (flotation mechanics is a hot topic), fight administrative corruption, and do everything in his power to strengths to help students reach their highest potential. Derbez builds on his music teacher best in «CODA» and strikes a watchable balance between his usual comic antics and Sergio’s desperation to do good. It borders on sentimental overload, but director Christopher Zalla also wisely follows three disciplined young actors—Jennifer Trejo, Danilo Guardiola, and Mia Fernanda Solis—who embody the true value of the joy of learning.

Cillian Murphy in a suit and tie exits a jeep in the desert in a scene from "Oppenheimer."

Cillian Murphy as the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer in «Oppenheimer». Maybe too brilliant?

(Melinda Sue Gordon/Associated Press)


Really smart guys at Berkeley, Princeton, and other great universities figure out a way to win WWII and kill a few thousand. Understanding the human, political and moral implications of their research isn’t so easy, though their leader J. Robert Oppenheimer (at least played by Cillian Murphy) gets some inkling in Christopher Nolan’s intimate A-bomb epic.

«We were afraid we’d set off a chain reaction that would destroy the whole world,» concludes Murphy Oppie to Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein. “I believe we did.

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge is, well, anything more than dangerous.

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