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Oscars’ best films from a faith perspective

Presbyterian film critic Ed McNulty assesses this year’s nominees

February 20, 2014

WALTON, Ky.

Virtually all critics who have written about the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar base their opinions on aesthetic considerations (blended with their personal tastes).

Aesthetics are important — too many faith-based films fail at this point and thus are not taken seriously — but I want to approach this year’s nine nominees mainly from a faith and moral perspective.

Even more than with last year’s group, several of the films released in 2013 raise moral and theological issues, though sometimes, as in the case of the first three films discussed below, it is in a negative way. 

The films are arranged according to this writer’s opinion from the least deserving to the one that I hope will win. 

I have included Bible references in the mini-reviews because my intention is not just to review a film but to start a dialogue between readers and the film. I believe that as people of faith, we can be challenged, inspired and informed by filmmakers who are committed to telling a meaningful story, whether or not they approach their subjects from a faith perspective. 

This year’s nominees for Best Picture: 

The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese. Rated R. Romans 1:28-32. 

If you can endure the Niagara-size torrent of the “F” word in the dialogue, this take-off on the rise and fall of a real-life Wall Street crook will be of interest. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is so persuasive at seducing hapless victims into buying worthless penny stocks that the snake of the Garden of Eden story would do well to take lessons from him. In earlier days, the film would have followed the time-honored arc of the gangster film — rise, prosperity, fall, death or prison. This film adds one more “rise” to the arc: in the end, Jordan Belfort, after serving just 22 months in prison, profited from his books about his experience and is now a popular motivational speaker. The Wikipedia article about him reveals that from the earnings from his two books and speaker fees he has paid just a fraction of the $110 million in restitution he was ordered to repay to his victims. Who said crime does not pay? 

American Hustle 

Director: David O. Russell. Rated R. Proverbs 21:6; Proverbs 6:12-15. 

The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal back in the late 1970s and ’80s, an FBI sting operation using a fake Arab sheik that brought down numerous politicians. David O. Russell has given us perhaps the best con artist film since 1973’s king of the genre The Sting­. A pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso and forced to work with him in a sting operation to bring down Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito and a number of bribe-taking U.S. representatives and senators. Funny, suspenseful and conducive to discussing many ethical issues, the film contains some of the best performances of the year. Our hero does show a trace of conscience in his efforts to obtain a lighter sentence for Polito, whom he has come to admire because the mayor did not enter into the scheme for personal profit but for what he hoped would benefit his economically depressed constituents. 

Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Rated PG-13. Psalm 31:2-5. 

With 10 nominations, this film is bound to pick up at least one Oscar. Three astronauts have left their shuttle to repair an external device when they receive a warning from Mission Control that a Russian missile has blown up a space station and the debris is rapidly heading their way. One astronaut is killed immediately when the debris arrives faster than expected. The shuttle and all aboard are destroyed, leaving the two survivors, Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, stranded more than 300 miles above the earth. Their desperate struggle to survive is set against beautifully photographed scenes of the stars and the splendors of Earth. Sandra Bullock’s performance, moving from terror to despair to hope, certainly deserves her Best Actress Oscar nomination. Although the faith of the Apollo 8 astronauts led them to read the first 10 verses of Genesis on Christmas Eve of 1968, Stone belongs to a more secularized generation, so that old adage about there being no atheists in a foxhole never seems to cross her mind during her struggle for survival. Almost succumbing to despair, she is re-energized by a hallucination of her companion who had given his life for her. People of faith might argue that this was God acting to save her. 

Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee. Rated R. Proverbs 31:8. 

Ron Woodroof is as sleazy a character as you are likely to encounter at the movies — we first see him having sex with two groupies instead of doing his job protecting a bull rider at a Dallas rodeo. When as a result of his promiscuity he is diagnosed as HIV-positive, he refuses to believe it. It is the mid-1980s, and this homophobe thinks only gay people can get the disease. Rejected by his buddies, he begins a long journey from selfish, hedonistic pursuits to concern for others. He sets up a “buyers club” to get around the law against drug dealing in order to procure experimental drugs and nutrients from a rogue doctor in Mexico. He lives well beyond the 30 days a doctor had told him he would, thus gaining time to help others as well as himself. Had he been more evangelically minded, he could have become very popular on the well-trodden circuit populated by the “I once was lost, but now am found” speakers at Christian gatherings. As it is, I suspect that a merciful God might well gather him with the sheep because he helps so many of society’s rejects. The film is noted for the fine performances by both Matthew McConaughey as Ron and by costar Jared Leto, who plays a character some church folk will find hard to accept ― a transvestite who becomes his partner in distributing the life-saving drugs for the HIV-positive people in Dallas.

Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass. Rated PG-13. Psalm 31:2. 

Named after the brave captain of an American container ship attacked by Somali pirates, this is a powerful survival story worthy of pairing with Gravity. Captain Phillips and his crew manage to fend off the first attack of the pirates, but on the second day the Somalis manage to board and take captive the unarmed captain while the rest of the crew hide in the engine room. The plot devolves into a battle of wits between the American and the pirate leader, Muse, who is desperate to win a large ransom because of pressure from his warlord employer. Muse elicits a measure of sympathy because the audience is shown the huge gap between the world’s “haves” and “have-nots.” Tom Hanks is so good in the title role that many regret he was not included among the five nominees for Best Actor.

Her 

Director: Spike Jonze. Rated R. Psalm 142:4. 

This fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to the technology-obsessed 21st century. The story is set in the not-too-distant future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices. A lonely man going through a divorce falls in love with the computer operating system controlling his house, the female voice calling itself Samantha. Often funny, sometimes moving, the film pushes the exploration of how artificial intelligence might expand far beyond what we imagine, but also raises the question: can bodiless sexual attraction, minus any physical touch, really overcome loneliness? The film is R-rated, and so may be problematic to show in a church, but nonetheless would be a great discussion starter, especially for young adults exploring technology and its limits. At a retreat it would make a good double feature with Disney’s Wall-E, which also explores the dangerous effects of technology upon the human race in the far future. The last wordless scene on a rooftop packs a powerful punch, leaving us plenty to think about the nature and future of relationships, human and otherwise. 

Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13. Psalm 72.4; Matthew 18:21-22. 

One of the warmest films of the year, this true story stars Judi Dench as a mother still agonizing over the fate of her out-of-wedlock son, born 50 years earlier. Virtually cast off by her father and relegated to an Irish convent, the teenager was shamed by the nuns, made to work in the laundry and allowed to see her son for just one hour a day. At the age of three, the nuns “sold” the boy to a wealthy couple without telling Philomena or even allowing her to say goodbye. A half-century later, she engages the help of a down-on-his-luck journalist, he a lapsed Catholic who hates the church, and she still a believer who regularly attends Mass. As we follow the journey of this odd couple, we are treated to a film filled with humor, grace, faith and forgiveness. This would make a wonderful film for a six-week film series on forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne. Rated R. Ex. 20.12; Ep.h 6.4; Luke 15:11. 

It wasn’t long into the movie that I realized this was a reversal of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. This time it is the alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) who is the prodigal, a Montanan wanting to travel to the “far country” of Nebraska in order to pick up some prize money he believes he has coming from a magazine subscription agency. Tired of trying to stop his nearly demented father trekking out to the highway, David, his long-suffering younger son agrees to drive him there. After they reach their destination David shows what unconditional love is like. Dern plays the addled old man so convincingly that it’s no wonder he’s nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.

 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen. Rated R. Psalm 10.12; Luke 4:16-18. 

Based on Solomon North’s best-selling 1853 memoir, this is a harrowing true story that reveals how falsely such films as Gone with the Wind depict slavery as an institution within which happy slaves cheerfully served their kind masters and mistresses. From his prosperous life as a free man in upstate New York, where he is respected by many white friends, North is reduced to the manacled life of a slave when he is lured to Washington D.C. and kidnapped. His life on plantations in Louisiana is full of beatings and hard labor. This and his eventual emancipation make for a powerful story that both white and black viewers should see and reflect upon. Although North’s story is one of triumph, with him riding away with his benefactor to freedom, the fate of those he leaves behind is tragic. I place this film ahead of the other nominated films because it is of so much importance to our country and has not received nearly the support that it deserves. Its $108 million gross might look impressive, but this is less than half of what the mindless comedy We’re the Millers and less than a tenth of Iron Man 3 have grossed.

The Rev. Edward McNulty, Presbyterian minister and film critic, is the author of three books on film; his new book on social justice films, Blessed Are the Filmmakers, is due out later this year from ReadtheSpirit.com.

  1. Thanks, Lark and Grayson for your comments. My understanding that the producers of MONUMENTS MEN held back the release of their film so as to include it for consideration in this year's Oscar race--otherwise I would have included it. I loved the film and had fun comaring its opening with that of THE DIRTY DOZEN, as you can see at my Visual Parables site: http://www.readthespirit.com/visual-parables/monuments-men-2014/

    by Edward McNulty

    February 21, 2014

  2. I don't know if The Monuments Men will be in this or next year's Oscar list but it is quite historic and totally true with great warmth and value. I would highly recommend it to a list such as this as well. I totally valued Saving Mr. Banks as well but sometime the best shows in my book do not make the list. Your article was thoughtfully written. Best wishes in Christ.

    by Lark Lambard , Westminster Pres, Eugene,OR

    February 20, 2014

  3. Thanks, Ed, for your good insights.

    by Grayson Van Camp

    February 20, 2014

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