I love all of the year-in-review and top ten lists that come out the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day. We went as a family and saw the powerful film Les Miserables yesterday and it got me thinking about some of my favorite major motion pictures with thoughtful theological themes.
So here's my top ten list of films that are rich in theological reflection and invite theological conversation. I have left of some of the obvious choices like the Narnia or The Lord of the Rings movies. I've also left off any of the recent films that have been made expressly to try and convey the message of the gospel in narrative forms. These are mainstream movies that I have enjoyed talking with friends and students about.
Feel free to add your recommendations as well. Just a warning that not all of these films are pretty. Some of the films that deal with deep theological themes deal with some of the darkest realities in life. So these films may not match everybody's sensibilities. But I've tried to be a bit discerning with the list. There are two or three films I thought about adding, but I found them a little too over-the-top with regards to violence or sexuality to be redemptive.
Anyways, here's my list...
10. Lars and the Real Girl. This is an extremely quirky film about the younger of two brothers who have recently lost their parents. While the older brother Gus is well-adjusted and has a family, the younger brother Lars (Ryan Gosling) is painfuly socially reclusive. Lars overhears a co-worker talking about a website where people can order lifesize, anatomically correct dolls. He orders one and names her Bianca. But rather than treating her as a sex-object, he treats Bianca with love and care and begins taking her around town as though she is real. The beauty of the film is the community of friends that surrounds Lars and finds the balance between meeting him where he is in his imagined reality and helping him embrace deeper forms of human interaction, with all its risks and potential pain. The film has wonderful opportunities to talk about the nature of the church as a community that meets people where they are and loves them into deeper levels of trust and care.
9. The Green Mile. This is one of those movies that can be dark in moments as it wrestles with the all of the ways that humans are too often cruel to one another. In the center of this strange Stephen King story is a larger-than-life man named John Coffey ("Like the drink, only not spelled the same") who has been given the "gift" to not only sense the pain of others but to absorb their diseases and brokenness and bring healing by taking their burdens upon himself. I can hardly see the movie without thinking of Isaiah's "suffering servant" who bears our infirmities and carries our diseases. But the film illustrates how hard it is to bear the burdens of others and how costly it is to bring healing to a broken and violent world. It also shows how hard it is for a world shaped by individualism and violence to understand the nature of the suffering servant. The world fears the very force that could bring healing. The opportunity to bear each other's burdens is a gift... or is it?
8. Looper. This is the most recent film on the list. And if you go and see it, I am warning you ahead of time that it is very dark and violent. It is an interesting and sometimes hard to follow film about a future where time travel has been invented but is made illegal. The mob controls time travel and when they want to get rid of somebody they send them 30 years into the past where they are killed and erased by a "looper." Everything is fine for Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) until the mob decides to "close the loop" on him. This film quite imaginatively and quite literally deals with the cycles of human violence and how they can finally be stopped. I won't ruin the ending for you... but fans of Rene Girard should love it.
7. Grand Canyon. The story of six Los Angeles residents whose lives get intertwined by a series of unexpected events. Cornelius Plantiga uses the opening conversation between the attorney Mack (Kevin Kline) and the tow-truck driver Simon (Danny Glover) about how things are "not the way they're supposed to be" as the opening illustration for his amazing book on sin. The question that haunts the characters in the film is the question of providence. Are they living out a series of random occurances or are they part of a huge story that keeps inviting them to participate in larger redemptive purposes? My favorite moment is at the end of the film when these six people who have not stopped talking since the movie's opening scene stand in silence and wonder before the Grand Canyon and contemplate their place within the mysterious world of providence.
6. Amadeus. Poor Salieri. This powerful film is essentially a retelling of the ancient Cain and Abel story. Why has God gifted the young and beligerent Mozart? Does he really disapprove of Solieri? How can we live with the expectations of ourselves and others? What is the consequence of envy and jealousy on the human soul? All of these great questions are set to the music of the ages... Nice.
5. Mass Appeal. This is a lesser known film, but one of my favorites. I have yet to find it on DVD but there are a few VHS copies floating around out there in the universe. Based on a play by the same name, Jack Lemon plays Father Farley, an elderly priest who has been at his parish for a long time. He is a very popular priest in part because he loves his people, but mainly because he constantly tells them what he thinks they want to hear. He is the master of conflict avoidance. But he becomes fascinated with young Deacon Dolson (played beautifully by Zeljok Ivanek) who is studying for the priesthood but is about to be kicked out of seminary because he is so radical and prophetic. Father Farley has never taken on a deacon at his parish but he takes on this young upstart deacon because he is fascinated by him but also because if he doesn't the Monsigneur of the seminary is going to get rid of him. The relationship between the priest and the deacon is one of my favorite studies of ministry. The old priest teaches the deacon that if you speak divine words of prophecy but don't have love, not only are you a clanging gong, but no one is going to listen. But the deacon teaches the priest that love that does not risk speaking the truth to one another is only dependent sentimentality. The other thing I love about this film is that it was all shot entirely in Pasadena, so in every scene I shout, "I've been there! I know where that is!"
4. Dead Man Walking. Despite how dark and sad it is at points, this is one of my all-time favorite movies. In a role for which she won an Oscar, Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean who responds to a request to be the spiritual advisor for convicted murderer Matthew Poncelett (Sean Penn) as he awaits execution. My three favorite aspects of the film are, first, watching Sister Helen wrestle with being stuck in this relationship and trying to love someone who is utterly and completely detestable. Second, Helen alone seems to understand what "conversion" really means for Matthew. The other spiritual leaders in the film have shallow understandings of what it means to advise this prisoner spiritually. Only Sister Helen knows that conversion can't happen without Matthew embracing both truth and grace. The conversion scene in the film is simply amazing. And third, I love the role that spiritual practices play in the film. The quote I go back to again and again is when the father of one of Matthew's victims comes to Sister Helen at the end of the film still filled with anger. Vengeance has not brought him any peace. He says to her, "I'm still so full of anger. I don't have your faith." She responds, "Faith? It's not faith. It's work!" The film ends with the two of them praying together at the altar of the church. I love the way the film narrates the holiness of Sister Helen as coming not from her nature but as the product of the nurture of the church and the spiritual practices to which she has devoted her life.
3. The Matrix. For a few years after this film came out many good evangelism books had the word "matrix" in the title. The film was sort of messed up by its sequels, but the original offered an amazing picture of taking a risk of faith and entering through baptism into a small community of fellow travelers who are convinced that the world that most people are living in is not real and that they now need to learn the way of life outside the matrix. At the pinacle of the film's popularity I seriously heard altar calls given to young people in which they were invited to unplug from the matrix (no longer be conformed [morphe] to the present age) and enter into God's true world (be transformed by the renewing [neo] of their minds)... and the students totally "got it." The "rabbit hole" conversation between Morpheus and Neo is a great picture of evangelism. Take the blue pill and everything stays as it is. But take the red pill and you can never go back becauase you will finally see what the Matrix is. We are going to sing just two more verses of Just As I Am and if no one takes the red pill... We'll go home.
2. The Shawshank Redemption. Walter Brueggemann says there is only one story in the Bible, it is the story of people living with faith and hope in the midst of exile. Faith and hope in exile is the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). The character of Andy is what Zechariah had in mind when he called forth all of the "prisoners of hope."
1. The Mission. I cry just thinking about Rodrigo (Robert DeNiro) having the burden of his sin cut free and sent down the falls by the very people he used to oppress. The film raises important and obvious questions about who are the true sophisticates and who are the true savages... But my favorite part of the film is the tension between the Christian pacifism of Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and the "real world" response of violence to violence by Rodrigo. Both die, but in the end it is the cross of Father Gabriel that is picked up and carried forward in the hope that good can indeed someday overcome evil.
Well, that's my list. Happy New Year and pass the popcorn.