Top 10 spiritual films of 2015

Edward McNulty provides his annual 'best of' picks

January 21, 2016

LOUISVILLE

I am continuing a tradition begun about 15 years ago in Presbyterians Today and my publication Visual Parables, the selection of the year’s top 10 films. The list is always somewhat different from those appearing in secular journals because my criteria are not just artistic ones. These are important, but in addition I am looking for how filmmakers explore spiritual and moral values. What does a film say about our place in the cosmos? Are issues of ethics and social conflict dealt with realistically? Are the characters well-rounded ones who struggle with their decisions? Are violence and sex seen as complex, rather than in black and white terms and potentially deadening to the soul? Does a film show the consequences of violence and sometimes even suggest an alternative? 

Thus it is never the rating of a film that admits or excludes a film from this list, but the underlying worldview of its makers—are they able, like the prophets of old, to help us see the world as it could be, and not just as it is? One or more Scripture passages are included with each mini-review to foster dialogue connecting film and faith. 

Although one might think the list would include several faith-based films, this is seldom the case because of the lack of artistry of the majority of films made by those who so openly parade their faith. Too often theirs are propaganda films lacking the ambiguity and subtlety of art. Propaganda for God—a sermon—is fine in the pulpit, but does not fare well at all in the theater where the public gathers for entertainment. 

The following 10 films will challenge—as well as entertain—you. One shows graphic violence, some are filled with vulgar language, and a few include some nudity—but not in an exploitive way designed to titillate us. All will leave you with a fuller understanding of people and spiritual and social justice issues, reminding us that movies can be more than entertainment. 

Spotlight

Rated R. John 3:20; Luke 17:2

Oscar-nominated director Tom McCarthy’s true story about exposing child abusers seems almost unbelievable. The molesters were priests, spokesmen for the One who valued children so highly that he issued a stern warning against abusing them. The lives of thousands of boys were blighted by the clerical molesters, few of the youth daring to report the crimes against them because they feared that no one would believe them. How a team of journalists of the Boston Globe ferreted out the details from those who feared the powerful Catholic Church makes for thrilling, and chilling, viewing. Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up the dark deeds of his priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, finally has to step down, but the film questions whether justice was fully achieved, considering his fate in Rome. The film can be seen as a cautionary parable of the church becoming too powerful, as well as a chronicle of journalists taking up the mantle of prophet when those who claim the heritage of the prophets fail to protect the most vulnerable. 

The Letters

Rated PG. Job 23:3; Psalm 22:1–3; Mark 9:24

Although director William Riead’s biographical film does lean too far in the direction of hagiography by leaving out some of Mother Teresa’s less admirable traits and acts, it still provides us with a glimpse of her storied life, from the period when she first came to Calcutta to teach in a cloistered order to her breaking away to care for the poor and homeless, and through the days when she founded her own order and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Most remarkable are the letters that her longtime mentor shares with the priest investigating her life prior to her being declared a saint. The letters express her doubts and anguish at being unable to discern God’s presence. The film should offer encouragement to the average viewer, also struggling with doubts, to persevere in doing the good works of the faith. We see that sainthood is not just a matter of sweet piety and good deeds, but also one involving “the dark night of the soul” when one cries out with the father of the sick boy in Mark 9:24, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” 

Concussion

Rated PG-13. Proverbs 31:8–9; Isaiah 29:15

In director Peter Landesman’s David vs. Goliath story set in the world of professional football, a doctor who also is a Christian discovers what the apostle Paul meant by “spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12.) When Nigerian-American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu performs an autopsy on a once-prominent Pittsburgh Steelers player and discovers through further testing that a career-spanning series of concussions caused his early death, he publishes his findings, expecting that everyone will be grateful for his warning. Instead, NFL officials not only refuse to meet with him, but also do everything in their power to blacken his name. How, through faith and the support of his equally pious wife and two other doctors, he emerges to force the truth out into the open shows that he too is following in the line of the ancient prophets who paid a high price to speak on behalf of God and justice. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rated PG-13. Isaiah 45:7; Isaiah 33:15–16

From its very first film, the Star Wars series has affirmed that the universe is a spiritual one, this at a time when many science fiction writers believe that religion is a part of humanity’s superstitious childhood that will fade away as reason and science advance. Following close to the original in plot and characters (even the new heroes have vestiges of the old ones that return), director J. J. Abrams has brought new life to the old series, launching new and old heroes on a quest for the whereabouts of the Jedi knight Luke Skywalker. New villains also seek him out, lest he induct anyone else into the use of the Force, the spiritual power pervading the universe. Christians will perceive the Jedi “religion” as lacking in both a personification of God and a communal form of worship, but they will still be glad that the film recognizes that we do not battle against injustice and evil alone, that there is a spiritual dimension to life to which we can turn for help.

Z for Zacharia

Rated PG-13. Psalm 7:10

Director Craig Zobel’s post-apocalyptic film is about survival and the relationships of the three survivors, rather than the horrors of the actual destruction. Ann and her faithful dog seem to be the sole survivors in a mountain valley. The nearby village and everything else have been stripped of all life, leaving dangerous radiation behind. Daughter of a minister, she finds comfort playing the organ in the little white church near her home. Then two men enter her life, John, an older non-believing black man skilled in science, and later Caleb, a young white man who complicates the relationship between the two. The title comes indirectly from a children’s book Ann has brought home from the town library, a children’s book titled A is for Adam, the last entry in the book being the film title. Zacharia is a variant of the name of the prophet Zechariah, who wrote of exile. Zechariah sought to encourage his people on their return to Jerusalem from Babylon and urged them to live pure lives. Thus the film could be seen as an allegory—perhaps one of the men being Adam, and the other the prophet? It is good to see filmmakers present a Christian heroine who is devout but not judgmental, able to enjoy sharing wine and dancing. Ann is faced with a difficult decision concerning that beloved church and organ, and the ending will leave you wondering but hopeful. 

The Revenant

Rated R. Job 14:14; Psalm 41:8; John 11:43

What can keep us alive when the world says, like Job’s wife, that we are so far gone that we should roll over and die? Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu shows us that it is not only a physical and mental matter of stubborn determination but also one of spiritual resources coming to our aid. When frontiersman-guide Hugh Glass is terribly mauled by a bear, his companions leave him to die. But with visions of his dead Pawnee wife to guide him, as well as one of his murdered son amid the ruins of an abandoned mission with a mural of the crucified Christ, he perseveres. The powerful film will be too bloody for some viewers, but for those wanting a survival film laced with an antiracist message as well as a cautionary one about vengeance, this will be a memorable one. 

Youth

Rated R. Ecclesiastes 7:8-12

Paolo Sorrentino’s is not a religious film, but despite its R-rated elements that will turn off pietistic believers, it is a profoundly spiritual film in which two longtime friends contemplate the past, the present, and their limited future while vacationing at a posh spa high in the Swiss Alps. The title might seem ironic in that both are around 80, though still young enough in spirit to appreciate the lithe, sometimes nude, female bodies around them in the pool and steam baths. Michael Caine’s Fred is a retired composer/conductor resisting the queen’s emissary to return and conduct his music for Prince Philip’s birthday. Harvey Keitel plays Mick, a once-great filmmaker trying to make a comeback with one last film. The film is filled with surrealistic scenes that will remind older viewers of Federico Fellini’s 1963 film about an old director, 8 ½. Among these is a bizarre musical nightmare in which Fred’s daughter, whose husband is leaving her for a younger woman, identifies with the crucified Christ. The guests at the spa are also of interest, one being a Buddhist monk said to be able to levitate. Concluding with a haunting song (deservedly nominated for an Oscar), this is a memorable film good for a group consisting of both young adults and liberal-minded seniors to see and discuss. 

Jimmy’s Hall

Rated PG-13. Psalm 103:6; Proverbs 25:15; Ecclesiastes 3:16

Director Ken Loach’s history-based film is set in a small Irish village in 1932, shortly after the Irish war for independence. Jimmy Gralton has returned from exile, but his socialist political views earn him the enmity of Father Sheridan and the authorities, especially when he and his supporters open an old hall and make it the center not just for dances, but for meetings as well. As in Spotlight, we see the church on the wrong side, allied with the wealthy, labeling him a Communist and seeking his downfall. The film is saved from being another attack on the Catholic Church by the insertion of another priest, Father Seamus, who affirms Jimmy’s advocacy for the poor and downtrodden. And even Father Sheridan comes to a grudging respect for his adversary by the film’s conclusion. As with several of his earlier films, Loach shows that he is a prophet with a camera, concerned that there be an alternative for violence while seeking a more just society. 

Bridge of Spies

Rated PG-13. Proverbs 20:7; Titus 2:7

There are still those who think of Steven Spielberg’s “based on a true story” film as a spy thriller, but pay close attention to the first half, and you will see that it is also similar to the excellent film Trumbo in that its lawyer hero is passionate about a person’s rights under the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, James B. Donovan is very similar to the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch in regard to integrity and courage. When, despite opposition from his family and the public, he defends Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, and the man is declared guilty—thus subject to the death penalty—Donovan insists on appealing the conviction on a technicality. Despite the name-calling and even death threats, he argues the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and wins. This proves very fortunate, as he had predicted, when Abel is used years later as a bargaining chip to get back downed spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. Donovan’s faith is not emphasized, but the integrity, courage, and concern for others that faith engenders are very much on display. 

The 33

Rated PG-13. Jonah 2:1–2; Psalm 34:19; Proverbs 10:2

Director Patricia Riggen manages well to put a human face on at least some of the 33 Chilean miners trapped deep within the earth when the mountain shifts, collapsing the roof of the mine. (That very morning the crew leader had protested that the mine was too unsafe to work in, but the boss had overruled him.) There are also the faces of the anguished relatives who are ignored at first by the hard-hearted manager of the mine. Two of the miners, as well as the national minister of mines and an international driller, become a focal point. Besides scenes that alternate between praying and bickering, despairing and hoping, there is a last supper, after which there are no more meager rations to share, which will remind you of a more famous one. Faith and despair, cooperation and celebration—these and more make this an inspiring film. And because of the filmmakers’ prophetic fervor in showing a large company more concerned with profits than with its miners, the film might leave you with a bit of anger when the end credits reveal that no company official paid a fine or faced legal charges for their criminal neglect. 

Also well worth viewing: He Named Me Malala, a delightful documentary that invites us into the family of the youngest woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; Desert Dancer, about an Iranian young man eager to express his joyful talent in a society that bans secular music and dance; Testament of Youth, a true story of how the tragedy of WWI destroyed two lives and led a third to become a passionate peacemaker; Labyrinth of Lies, the prophetic story of a young German prosecutor shortly after WWII who decided to go after Nazi murderers trying to hide amid an indifferent society; and McFarland, USA, the true story of a teacher who became a track coach helping the sons of California migrant workers rise to greatness. 

Dr. Edward McNulty is a Presbyterian minister and author of three film books published by WJK, and editor/reviewer of Visual Parables. His latest book is Jesus Christ: Movie Star.

  1. Thanks for the reviews. It's nice to know that Ed is stil "doing his thiing."

    by Bob White

    January 28, 2016

  2. I just added several of these to my Netflix queue. Thanks!

    by Laura Monteros

    January 27, 2016

  3. Thanks--great list!

    by Janice Minardi

    January 21, 2016

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