It's easy to bash the movies we've been fed this summer.  ANGELS2, MATRIX 2, X2, BLONDE 2, T3... so many of them mere shadows of their mediocre predecessors.  Boring boring boring.  Of the mainstream summer stuff, only PIRATES seems to have some zip.  And, to put it in perspective, PIRATES is based on something in a Disney theme park.  

But in reality, summer theater goers have no reason to complain.  There are three---THREE---world-class winners to be seen on the silver screen right now.   They're all kid-friendly.  They've all been at one theater---the Drexel East---though SPELLBOUND has moved to the Arena Grand.

SPELLBOUND was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.  It lost to BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, which gratefully gave Michael Moore his 45 seconds to blast the Bush Administration in front of the entire world.   Thank you, Michael.  We needed that, and we hope you get the chance again next year, and for many years to come.  .

Sadly for me, I've yet to see BOWLING.  But there are those who believe SPELLBOUND may be the better movie.  In tracking the progress of eight contestants and their families through the 1999 Scripps-Howard national spelling bee championship, director Jeffrey Blitz gives us a spectacular vision of the ultimate Americana.  

The kids---all pre-teens---come from all walks of life.  They beautifully span the ethnic, class and geographic breadth of this great nation.  They are alternatively calm and crazed, cool and hyper, cute and cloying, coy and clever.   In other words:  they are normal kids plowing into an abnormal situation, hoping, when it's over, to become normal again.  

Some nine million kids begin the process, leading to 250 finalists and just one winner.  Along the way we get such gems as an Hispanic older brother, interviewed in a prairie field, explaining that his Mexican father made his way across the border to find a better life.  An inner city mother in the nation's capitol talks about scraping by.  A Pakistani-born father imposes iron discipline on his hyper-stressed son, who we all expect to win.  A Jewish kid from the east can't stop telling jokes.  A taciturn middle American shrugs his shoulders and accepts defeat.  

SPELLBOUND is everything a documentary should be.  It is witty, gripping, compassionate, informative, tense, fast-paced, unobtrusive and expansive.  In a way it's the ultimate sports movie, tracking tough, well-trained contenders right down to the wire of a long-standing national contest with a serious cash bonus.  It is smart enough to interview past winners to ask them how it all affected their lives.  It is clever enough to include footage of hometown banners that are, inevitably, misspelled.  And it is wise enough to be transparent, with the filmmakers deep in the background, seamlessly presenting a story in a manner that obviously demanded a tremendous amount of hard work and brilliant planning.  

My eleven-year-old Julie, who thinks Jennifer Lopez can act, and who turns her nose up at the word "documentary," sat riveted throughout.  Documentary this may be, but it is tight and spare, entertaining and compelling..  You won't want to miss a minute.  You'll leave the theater feeling uplifted, informed and proud to be part of such an amazingly diverse and big-spirited nation, even as we confront the opposite in the White House.  This is in many many ways a truly great film.  

WHALE RIDER will give you a similar feeling of nationhood for the natives of New Zealand.  This wonderful low-budget drama is based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera..  Director Niki Caro focuses on a Maori teenager who has survived a tragic birth to face the mixed emotions of her grandfather, Paka, a tribal chieftain trying desperately to preserve the ancient ways in a corrupted modern society.  This simple, compassionate story is carried beautifully by its charismatic lead, Keisha Castle-Hughes.  Actor Rawiri Paratene gives her tortured grandfather the stern, unyielding strength for the timeless beliefs that form the backbone of the story.

On this man's shoulders rests the burden of an ancient culture, stretched to the breaking point.  Though they gratefully understate it, the filmmakers seem to know they are portraying a crisis of global proportions, which they must wrap into the small story of a tiny corner of the world's most isolated island.  Without giving away the ending, the result is of spectacular power and beauty.  This is another don't-miss movie that should have legs far beyond this summer.

Our least likely summer star is WINGED MIGRATION, the astonishing tour de force by the people who brought us MICROCOSMOS, the only film infamous for rendering profoundly sensual the mating ritual of the ordinary slug.  

WINGED MIGRATION's "story line" is the migration of birds.  That's it.  But director Jaques Perrin has turned out a magnificent work of art, part travelogue, part natural drama.  The photography is simply indescribable.  How this footage came to be is beyond me.  But we get a bird's-eye view of our winged companions that is awesome and in many ways deeply moving.  

We also get to go all over the world, with spectacular views of some of the most striking terrain on what's left of our fair planet.  

As an environmentalist, I yearned for some outraged commentary on the billions of birds our own species kills annually through greed, slovenliness and outright stupidity.  The filmmakers avoid that, with a complete lack of preaching or even a body count of how many birds our environmental irresponsibility is killing and how threatened these creatures really are.

There is a scene or two involving hunters.  There's also one devastating moment depicting a gorgeous duck stuck in an east European sludge pool.

But perhaps, for this film, that's enough.  Also nominated for an Academy Award, this magnificent documentary is beautifully shot, paced and put to music.   It is a masterpiece that will be with us forever.

It also, by the way, passed the Shoshanna test, as did WHALE RIDER.  My four-year old, the most critical of all movie-goers, forced me to leave PIRATES after thirty seconds because it was "too scary."  But she sat all the way through both WHALE RIDER and WINGED MIGRATION.  Her attention for WHALE RIDER was rapt, most likely because the lead reminded her of her older sisters, although somehow she seemed to pick up on the story line.  WINGED MIGRATION was a tougher sell, but it moved quickly, and the varied scenery and different types of birds that kept coming up held her attention.  

In short, each of these three movies is a remarkable, wonderful-to-watch masterpiece.  Hollywood has struck out this summer, big time.  But, as usual, the Drexel has not.