The rumors are true. "The Best Two Years" -- the latest feature film to emerge from the LDS Cinema genre -- is a real movie in every way, and a cut above most of its brethren.
This straight-forward story of four Latter-day Saint missionaries serving in contemporary Holland is an engaging, often inspiring movie that can be compared favorably not only to recent LDS-made/Utah productions, but is also better than most bigger-budgeted Hollywood studio movies.
"The Best Two Years" can be compared to some recent films such as "Miracle", "Secondhand Lions" and "Holes" in that it is a very family-friendly film which older children can enjoy, yet it will appeal to discerning adults interested in intelligent, quality cinema. Although short on the action and eye candy that the youngest and most easily distracted viewers might need, this movie's characters and emotion are highly engrossing. I was drawn in caught up in the story. Even my 8-year-old daughter watched it all the way through with rapt attentionm, and wanted to watch it again.
Although its formal theatrical release throughout Utah theaters did not occur until today (20 February 2004), "The Best Two Years" has for many months now shown up in special pre-release screenings and a few film festivals. I have heard from numerous friends and colleagues who have seen "The Best Two Years" and loved it. Most of these people have seen every or nearly every LDS Cinema movie released, and the majority of them actually told me that among commercialy released LDS-themed movies, "The Best Two Years" is their favorite so far.
I loved the "The Best Two Years." This really is a must-see film. Although it is not the best movie among the 15 LDS Cinema films to hit theaters so far, it is easily among the top five, and in some ways it is unsurpassed.
One of the most impressive aspects of "The Best Two Years" is simply the degree to which it looks and feels like a real Hollywood studio film. Technically, the film seems flawless, with beautiful visuals and great sound. The imperfections and unevenness seen in low-budget films with regards to film quality, lighting, soundtrack and other areas are nowhere to be seen.
Fortunately, the story itself is a million miles away from Hollywood fare. The studio-quality sheen is coupled with the strong "indie film" appeal of a storyline and themes which could never have come out of the poll-driven big studios. "The Best Two Years" is politically incorrect in all the best ways, making it one of the most honest and refreshing films in recent years. This missionary movie wears its affiliation on its sleeve, nothing hidden, no sleight of hand. It avoids the denominational relativism and ham-handed attempts at universalism that have watered down previous outings.
In telling a story about Mormon missionaries, writer/director Scott Anderson has wisely decided to do just that -- in the best, most direct way possible. "The Best Two Years" thus emerges as the most prototypical and "realistic" movie ever made about Latter-day Saint missionaries. There are no dying missionaries (as in "God's Army"), tidal waves ("The Other Side of Heaven") or GLBT conversions ("Latter Days"). Not that these extreme plot points can't actually happen -- they have happened, and such out-of-the-oirdinary events have been the basis for some interesting stories and films. But "The Best Two Years" takes an even more difficult and courageous route by venturing onto the big screen without any obvious hooks. It relies entirely on the drama inherent in the most commonplace missionary experiences. The triumph of this film is that it succeeds so entirely on this basis alone. At its core, this is a gripping, character-driven story.
The extant to which this movie succeeds is almost inexplicable when one considers that this is director Scott S. Anderson's directorial debut. This is a confident, well-made movie that in no way seems like the work of a first-time filmmaker. Part of the credit for this stems from having using well-vetted source material. The movie is a fairly direct adaptation of Anderson's own stage play, "The Best Two Years of My Life" (which is available on video). This was a popular play staged in many venues across the country, so the production has been tried out extensively before live audiences.
But much of the credit for the film's overall quality must go to director of photography Gordon Lonsdale and producer Michael Flynn. Lonsdale is a veteran of dozens of network television series and TV movies, including "Providence," "The Magnificent Seven," "Space: Above and Beyond," and "Northern Exposure." He knows how to make a production look professional, cinematic and interesting. Some of the shots in "The Best Two Years" are simply magical, such as the scenes in which some characters appear to move at different frame rates than background characters. Lonsdale does justice to beautiful the Dutch locales. This movie simply looks great, maybe even better than "The Other Side of Heaven."
Michael Flynn doubtless contributed much to the movie's quality as well. A veteran actor who has had recurring roles on network TV series, including "Everwood" and "Touched By An Angel," Flynn doubles as an actor in this film as well, playing the medical doctor serving as the Dutch mission president. Perhaps the smartest thing director Scott S. Anderson did was bringing these talented and experienced professionals on board, rather than relying purely on friends from film school.
Anderson's other stroke of genius was in casting four excellent actors in the lead roles. Without a reliance on dramatic hooks or special effects, this movie truly relies on the talent of its lead actors. LDS Cinema veteran Kirby Heyborne and newcomer KC Clyde fill these roles with aplomb, giving pitch-perfect, nuanced, interesting performances. Casting Heyborne could have been a mistake had he been simply a "movie star," and not an actor. But here Heyborne displays his dramatic talent, submersing himself into a part which is unlike any of the many roles he has played so far. Heyborne is Elder Calhoun, the sincere recent convert from the rural Oklahoma who becomes the heart of the movie. Clyde, as Elder Rogers, the film's main character, is completely convincing as a once-stellar missionary who now seems no longer to care about his calling, and is surprisingly given the task of training fresh-off-the-train Elder Calhoun.
The interaction between these two contrasting personalities yields much of the film's abundant humor. "The Best Two Years" is very funny, with many laugh-out-loud moments. Yet it achieves its humor through natural, character-based moments rather than slapstick or anything unbelievable.
I also must point out Scott Christopher's flawless performance as an American optometrist that encounters the missionaries in Holland. Christopher has been in numerous LDS Cinema and other made-in-Utah movies, and I think this is his best performance to date. His is a supporting role, but a difficult and pivotal one.
A scene in which Elders Rogers and Calhoun present the first discussion to Scott Christopher is bold and original, beginning with some of the film's most hilarious moments and then smoothly moving to moving spirituality and testimony. It is daring and effective -- simply an awesome scene.
Despite the many ways in which "The Best Two Years" succeeds, there are some things which keep it from being even better. Its very appealing simplicity is also a weakness. This film is based on a stage play, and so much of it takes place in the missionary apartment that the end result feels slightly claustrophobic. More scenes outside of the apartment, even if they featured the same dialogue, would have been welcome. An admirable effort has been made to film on location in Holland, but I was left wanting more.
Also, although this is clearly a movie which is about American missionaries in Holland, and NOT about Holland itself or about Dutch people, I felt there simply were too few glimpses into Dutch life, or how that culture had an impact on the missionaries. "Lost in Translation" was another movie completely about Americans rather than the foreign country they travel to, yet it offered more a sense of its foreign setting.
I wonder if the laser-like intensity with which "The Best Two Years" focused on its four main characters hampered it. Even just one or two scenes in which actual Dutch Latter-day Saints exchange dialogue with the missionaries may have opened the movie up more for me, and given me a some idea of what the Elders were attempting to accomplish on their mission to The Netherlands.
Also, the opening few minutes of "The Best Two Years" are deathly slow and uneven. The dialogue and timing during the opening scenes before Elder Calhoun arrives seems to have come straight from a play and the acting seems forced. But Richard Dutcher's "Brigham City" was similarly marred by slow, awkward opening scenes, yet it remains the best LDS Cinema movie yet made. If you go to see "The Best Two Years" and arrive a few minutes late, don't worry about it. But if you miss the film's beginning you will miss a good song by Michael McLean. My advise is to watch the whole thing, enjoy the music and beautiful cinematography during the opening credits, and don't fret too much about the weakness of the first scene with the missionaries.
Even if "The Best Two Years" is not THE best LDS-themed movie ever made, it is one of the best, which is high praise. I look forward to seeing it again, and I look forward to seeing what director Scott S. Anderson does next. I see many movies, from both Hollywood and Utah, and this is one of the best times I have had at the movies in years.