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Presbyterian film critic’s top 10 spiritual films of 2012

January 31, 2013

As usual, it was difficult to lift up just 10 films from a formidable list of those that move beyond entertainment into the realm of the spiritual.

The films are not blatantly religious or churchy, though several do feature characters who profess strong faith in God — and several were or are church goers. Rather, spiritual refers to the broader idea of affirming that life is more than just what we can see, that it is often difficult and dark, but that it is possible to find the resources to overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles.

The Hindu character Pi in Ang Lee’s film The Life of Pi embodies that kind of spirituality, shared by virtually all religions.

The marvelous teenagers Charlie, Patrick and Sam in Stephen Chbosky’s inspiring The Perks of Being a Wallflower embrace this broader spirituality. When at night the three drive through the tunnel that opens spectacularly onto the lights of Pittsburgh, Charlie stands up in the bed of the pick-up with his arms stretched out as if he were flying. We hear his voice reading from a letter he has written to an unnamed friend: “I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.” 

This movie, like the others on this list, makes us all realize that we are “not a sad story,” that we are alive and filled with wonder, and that at least as long as the memory of such films last, our possibilities as human beings “are infinite.”

Les Miserables
Director: Tom Hooper Writers: Claude Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil Rating: PG-13 Studio: Universal Pictures  Related Scripture(s): Genesis 33:9-10; I John 2:7-10

Director Tom Hooper does a wonderful job opening up the already spectacular play based on Victor Hugo’s world-class novel. But what appeals most to me is that the music moves from being an auxiliary part, as in dramatic films, to being central to opening up and revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. This is the film counterpart to the interior monologue that novelists are able to indulge in, and which is difficult to transfer to a straight dramatic film. Thus in song we can hear the turmoil in Jean Valjean’s mind and heart as he ponders the incredible grace bestowed upon him by the kindly bishop. And in Javert we see the foundation of his whole life crumbling as he puzzles over Valjean’s very uncriminal act in sparing his life when the exconvict had the chance to kill him. Javert, like the apostle Paul before his life and name change, has built his whole life upon Law, but sadly, unlike Saul, when confronted by Grace, he is too brittle to be able to change. Best of all, I love the inclusion of the novelist’s line at the end that gets to the heart of the gospel: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” 

Lincoln
Director: Steven Spielberg Writer: Tony Kusher Rating: PG-13 Studio: Dreamworks Pictures Related Scripture(s): Psalm 19:9; Romans 8:28 (NIV)

The sheer artistry of Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field’s performances as the anguished Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln is enough to place this film high on my list. The film could be a midrash on Jesus’ admonition that his disciples be “as harmless as doves and wise as serpents,” as in this film Lincoln is taken down from his high pedestal and is immersed in the political muck of arm-twisting and deal-making required to get the House of Representatives to pass a bill as controversial as the amendment to free the slaves was. The film shows well how Lincoln, sharing the prejudice of his time in spite of hating slavery (but advocated transporting all freed African Americans to Africa), has developed from the man who once would have either freed or not freed the slaves in order to preserve the union moved on to his present obsession to leave a legacy of everlasting freedom for those in bondage. 

Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee Writer: David Magee Rating: Studio: 20th Century Fox Related Scripture: Psalm 69:1-2

The spectacular beauty of the sea and sky make this a joy to watch, but the spiritual themes of God and hope make this a “must” for this list. The young Pi’s tasting of the fruit of three religions — Hindu, Muslim and Christian — provides him with the spiritual resources that keep him from giving in to despair. It is difficult enough to be cast adrift on the sea and burdened with the awful fear that your family went down with the sinking ship, but to share that little boat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a hungry tiger calls on every ounce of courage, inventiveness and faith. Pi is humanity at its best when faced with what seems like impossible odds.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Director: Stephen Chbosky Writer: Stephen Chbosky Rating: PG Studio: Summit Entertainment Related Scripture(s): Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 10:19

This is a delightful film about Charlie, Patrick and Sam, three young outsiders bonding and surviving the difficulties of the teen years. I loved the film for its two Zorba the Greek-like moments in which a character stands up in the bed of a pick-up truck and raises her/his arms out as if flying because of the joy of the moment. The film shows in numerous scenes what the church, when it lives up to its calling, means by a life of grace: each person reaching out to one another and affirming the worth of the recipient. It ends with Charlie’s affirmation that despite its dark side, life, when shared with caring companions, is well worth celebrating.

Moonrise Kingdom
Director: Wes Anderson Writers: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola  Rating: PG-13 Studio:  Focus Features  Related Scripture(s): Song of Solomon 1:15-17; Romans 12:2a (See especially The Message)

Director Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola’s venture into magic realism is a delightful take on the outsider genre, this time the two outsiders being of middle school age. This story of first love transpires on an island where the unwanted Sam has been dumped into a Khaki Scout camp and is smitten when he spots Suzy in a church play. The music- and book-loving Suzy is also an outsider in her quirky family, so she agrees to run away into the woods with Sam. When their few idyllic days are brought to an end by the search party, it looks like they will come to a tragic end, especially during a hurricane when they climb up the high tower of a church, but grace (or God) intervenes, and in the traditional comedic sense “all’s well that ends well.” As in most of life God is invisible, and yet those with eyes of faith will join with the apostle Paul who affirmed to the Roman believers that God is working in everything for the good. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin Writers: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin Rating: PG-13 Studio: Sundance Selects Related Scripture(s): Isaiah 66:13; Luke 15:8-9

I was at times puzzled by what was going on in this film but was never bored so as to look at my watch. Another magic realism film, this combines concern for the environment with a study of folk at the bottom of the strata of society, a group of adults who live in a bayou they call “The Bathtub,” cut off from the rest of the world by a levee. The story of a hurricane and the onslaught of mythical creatures called aurocs, set free from their frozen bondage in the Arctic by the melting polar icecap, is told by six-year-old Hushpuppy. Her dying father Wink is trying to prepare her for his coming demise when she will be left a total orphan. The film celebrates the proud spirit of these two and their rag-tag neighbors, as well as the quirky but real love of the father for his daughter. The surrealistic ending when Hushpuppy confronts the stampeding beasts and shares a last supper with her father stirs something deep and primal within the viewer. 

Kid With a Bike
Directors: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne Writers: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne Rating: PG-13 Studio: Sundance Selects Related Scripture(s): Isaiah 66:13; Luke 15:8-9

This Belgian-French gem, also neglected by the Academy, could be seen as a delightful interpretation of Jesus’ parable about the persistent woman searching for her lost coin. Eleven-year-old Cyril is dumped into a children’s home by his widower father when Samantha encounters him and invites him into her home that she shares with a lover. The angry boy, convinced that authorities are keeping him from his father, tests her love and patience almost to the breaking point before love wins out over anger and disillusionment. The bicycle of the title becomes symbolic of the boy trying to hang onto the illusion about his father and of Samantha’s gracious love, one that proves costly to her. Told in minimalist style, the film depends on its wonderful cast to open our hearts to their predicament with none of the usual Hollywood sentimental props. 

Blue Like Jazz
Director: Steve Taylor Writers: Steve Taylor & Ben Pearson Rating: PG-13 Studio: Roadside Attractions

This tale of the spiritual journey of a Southern Baptist student from fundamentalism through agnosticism to an open-minded belief seems so far over the top at times that it would be unbelievable were it not for the fact that it is based on Donald Miller’s memoir of the same title. The book was on the New York Times Best Selling list for 40 weeks. The director/script writers concentrate on the period when student Donald Miller, disillusioned by his youth pastor, left Texas to enroll in his unbelieving father’s alma mater, the ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland, Ore. The ups and downs of his spiritual journey are told with a great deal of humor, but the influence of believers who were genuine in their obedience to a God of love and social involvement re-instills faith and service to others in him. This is the only “Christian-based” film that I have ever considered seriously for this list.

The Lorax
Director: Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda Writers: Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul Rating: PG Studio: Universal Pictures Related Scripture(s): Genesis 1:26-28 (The Message); Proverbs 31:8-9.

I was torn between Dr. Seuss’ environmentalist tale and the delightful take-off on the horror genre Paranorman, but chose The Lorax because it embodies so well the Book of Proverbs’ admonition to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable. Dr. Seuss might have written his book for children, but adults will enjoy the film version just as much as the little ones. A cautionary tale about the devastation wrought by human greed that justifies the cutting down of trees and substituting plastic for natural materials, the film’s Yoda-like little creature with a handle bar mustache tells the man about to chop down a tree that he is the Lorax, come to speak on behalf of the trees. People of faith can explore with children to see how the Genesis creation story relates to the film, and lead them to see that the text of the Biblical story should read that we were created to “be responsible for” and not to “dominate” the planet. The film becomes a call to action when the Lorax says to the boy Ted, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better — it’s not.”

Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow Writer: Mark Boal Rating: R Studio: Roadside Attractions Related Scripture(s): Isaiah 59:14; Luke 17:25

The film about the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden is controversial in that many think it is an endorsement of torture. I was among those, and thus had no intention of including the film here, until reading some perceptive comments by filmmaker Michael Moore. He points out that during the first 25 minutes when the CIA uses torture, every viewer he queried admitted that their sympathy lay with the Muslim prisoner, not his brutal American interrogator. The film clearly shows that after a new U.S. president, who during the campaign for the presidency had come out publicly against torture, came into power, the torture stopped. In the middle of the film, CIA officials are worried about an investigation — and that was when the CIA began to use real detective work rather than coercion. Added to this is my admiration for the way the feminist theme is depicted, the female Maya refusing to be cowed by her male chauvinist coworkers who disrespect her and her theory about where Osama is. Like the widow asserting her rights with the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable, Maya persists until she is proven right.

Dr. Edward McNulty, a Presbyterian minister with three film books published by WJK, edits and writes the journal Visual Parables. Later this spring his new book Blessed Are the Filmmakers will be published by ReadtheSpirit.com, publisher of e-books and a weekly online religious news service.

  1. Another great piece by Ed McNulty! Thank you PNS for giving Ed a forum for his thoughtful film criticism! I have editied this article for inclusion in the announcements for Lent 2 (which hahppens to be Oscar Awards day!). Blessings! JCRS

    by John C. R. Silbert

    February 23, 2013

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