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Ethical values abound in this year’s Oscar-nominated films

Presbyterian film critic Edward McNulty lets us know which films are worth seeing before Oscar Night on March 12

by Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Jeremy Yap via Unsplash

The annual announcement of nominations for the Oscars for the previous year is one that film lovers look forward to with eager anticipation. “Will my favorite films make the lists?” we ask. I was happy to see that most of my favorites (see my Presbyterian News Service article on Top 10 Films by clicking here) did receive one or more nominations. My major disappointment was the failure of the Academy to include the Civil Rights era film “Till,” or any of its cast. I also missed “Emancipation” but understand its rejection due to its star Will Smith’s bad behavior at the last Oscars ceremony.

As you try to catch up on the films you have not seen yet, I hope the following comments will help you get more than just the entertainment value out of them. Most of the films tackle serious ethical and spiritual values or themes. This being Oscar season, it is a good time to gather a group together, watch the film (together if possible so as to share fresh reactions, or separately if necessary), and explore how various concerns are presented and how the characters deal with them.

In this article each title is embedded with a link that will take you to my much longer review of the film, which you can search here. (Each week I post two or more reviews of films showing in theaters or available by streaming and DVD, so this is a good place to go to find films that are more than just entertainment.) To show the relevance of film and faith, I have supplied one or more Scriptures for each of the films. These too are embedded with links that will take you to the passage on that wonderful site, Bible Gateway.

Best Film category

(Ten films were nominated this year, but I have not seen “Triangle of Sadness,” so it is not included below. This is also the first year in which I have not seen any of the nominated Documentary Features films.)

“All Quiet on the Western Front”

Also nominated for Best Picture & Best International Film

Director: Edward Berger. Length: 2 hours, 28 minutes. Rated R.

Psalm 18:4-5; Isaiah 2:4

Both the film adaptations and the source novel skewer the jingoists who talk about national honor and the glory of fighting for one’s country. Lured into joining the Kaiser’s army by such patriotic talk, the teenager Paul Bäumer and his classmates soon encounter the horrors of suffering and death in trench warfare. German director Edward Berger adds an extra layer not found in the two American versions of the novel by inserting a series of scenes involving real life German diplomat Matthias Erzberger, who seeks to stop the slaughter by negotiating with French Marshall Foch. There is also a German general, similar to the insane Gen. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove,” who orders Paul and his companions into battle just minutes before the Armistice in the hope of snagging a bit of territory for his country, with hundreds of lives being lost uselessly. This version is especially good protection against the flag wavers who are always quick to resort to war to solve international disputes.

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Best Picture, Achievement in Sound, Visual Effects

Director: James Cameron.  Length: 3 hours, 12 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Genesis 1:26 (Both NRSV & The Message); Psalm 119:134

The director in this sequel continues his attack on imperialism and the dehumanizing effect it has on its perpetrators, typified by the chief villain Colonel Miles Quaritch, whose mind is now encased in a Na’vi body. The environmental pollution which we have so inflicted on Earth that it has degraded the planet now begins on Pandora as the descending ships of the humans set fire to the forests as they land, scorching the grass and soil. The returning earthmen continue the policy made traditional on Earth of regarding the Indigenous population as an obstacle to be either moved or destroyed. The acceptance of pollution and destruction of those who resist can be discussed in the light of two ways of interpreting Genesis 1:26: in the traditional translation God says that humans are to “subdue” the Earth, whereas a more modern translation reads “be responsible for” the Earth and its creatures.

“The Banshees of Inisherin”

Total of nine nominations, including Best Director, Best Actor, & Best Adapted Screenplay

Director: Martin McDonagh.  Length: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Rated R.

Exodus 32:9; Proverbs 14:7

Though at times funny, this story of the attempt of an Irishman to restore his friendship with the man who rejected him is a study in male stubbornness and one man’s desire simply to be left alone. What could be more bizarre than musician Colm’s threat to cut off a finger each time that his talkative friend Padraic tries to speak with him again? The shock, of course, is that he actually carries out his threat — so great is his desire to be rid of a blathering man who is wasting his time when he could be finishing the music he wants to leave behind as his legacy. What a bittersweet story of a man desperate to finish his song colliding with a garrulous man who is lonely and unable to see the need of another to be left alone!


Total of nine nominations, including Best Picture & Actor, plus production Oscars.

Director: Baz Luhrmann.  Length: 2 hours, 39 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Romans 12:2

Elvis is depicted as a believer whose faith informs his values, including concerning race. The film affirms the King’s friendship with Black musicians, freely admitting Elvis’s musical indebtedness to them. It also contrasts his manager Colonel Parker’s focus upon money and success with Elvis’s compassion and concern for African American civil rights protests going on at the time. The inclusion of his singing “In the Ghetto” during the closing credits can be played as part of any discussion of the film. Love of mother and failure to care for the body (see 1 Cor. 6:19 for the latter) are also themes the film offers ample opportunity for discussion.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Eleven nominations, including Best Director, Best Actress, two for Best Actress, two for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Adapted Screenplay and more.

Director: The Daniels. Length: 1 hour, 18 minutes. Rated R.

Micah 6:8

Although most people will enjoy this as a sci-fi adventure romp combined with the martial arts genre, people of faith will appreciate that the main character is a woman whose many failures would seem to disqualify her from being a universe-saving hero. Just as scriptural figures including Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, the Suffering Servant, the Galilean fishermen, and the persecuting Saul of Tarsus were unlikely candidates to be called by God to become leaders, so Evelyn Quan Wang takes on all opponents (including her own out-of-control daughter) in this fast- paced adventure as she jumps into and out of many parallel universes. The Hebrew prophet’s admonition to do “justice and kindness” is beautifully summed up in a speech by husband Waymond, standing in stark contrast to the mayhem of the many Kung-fu fights his wife engages in. Despite the need for brevity, here is a portion of that speech to his wife:

“When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything … I don’t know. The only thing I do know … is that we have to be kind. Please. Be kind … especially when we don’t know what’s going on … I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.”

This takes me back to both the prophet Micah and the wonderful children’s book “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” in which the Boy replies to the Mole’s question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Kind.”

“The Fabelmans”

Six nominations, including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score

Director: Steven Spielberg. Length: 2 hours, 31 minutes. Rated PG-13

Exodus 20:12; Romans 12:2 (J.B. Phillips)

This family saga of a boy staying true to his sense of calling might remind one of another film centered on a boy, “October Sky.” The two boys are a continent apart geographically — Homer in the latter film living in West Virginia, and Sammy, moving from the East coast to Arizona and then to California — but both face their fathers’ disapproval of their chosen field of endeavor. Homer wanted to become an astrophysicist, and Sammy a filmmaker — and both stories are based on real people. Sammy, being Jewish, is fully aware of Moses’ commandment to honor one’s parents, but his passion for filmmaking will not be denied. Fortunately, an uncle sides with him, offering memorable words of support that help him from becoming “squeezed” into the world’s “mold.” He also discovers by accident while editing a family camping film the strong attraction between his mother and the family’s closest friend, a sequence leading us to realize how film directs and focuses our gaze and helps us see what we often overlook. This reminds me of something I read that Federico Fellini said when asked about his work, to the effect, “My purpose (as a filmmaker) is to make you see.” He meant not just the surface appearance of things, but their reality, their meaning and significance. This film ought to lead us to think of and give thanks for all the films that the boy turned man would bless us with.


Six nominations, including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and more

Director: Todd Field. Length: 2 hours, 38 minutes. Rated R.

Leviticus 26:19

For those of us who love classical music, what a parable of power involving a masterful manipulator who rejects sisterhood in favor of her continuing hold on power! Whereas some orchestra conductors see their musicians as collaborators, even if junior ones, Lydia Tár regards them merely as tools for achieving her ends — which is as much for her own glory as for the making of glorious music. She moves ruthlessly to sabotage the career of a younger female musician. Her eventual fate of being forced to resign from the Berlin Orchestra and to leading an orchestra, far from the glamorous musical venues of Europe and North America, which she once would have regarded as a joke, adds a delightful note of irony to the ending. As I wrote in an earlier article about this film, “I might have chosen for the above Scripture Paul’s Galatians passage, ‘you reap whatever you sow.’”

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Five nominations, including Best Original Song and more

Director: Joseph Kosinski. Length: 2 hours, 11 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Ecclesiastes 4:11

Although justly praised for its exciting aerial photography, as a person of faith I could not embrace this jingoistic story about a hot shot aviator. The “enemy” is reduced to blips on a radar screen and brief shots during the duels in the sky. Serving well as propaganda for American imperialism, the film is another one that focuses narrowly upon the mission of the fighters, never raising the larger question of “who are the enemies and why are we fighting them?” or “who gave us the right to intervene in other nations?” We might also be led to ask, “What does it take to bring us to intervene in another country, when for many years we supported oppressive dictatorships and declined to do anything about such genocides as the one in Rwanda?”

“Women Talking”

One nomination

Director: Sarah Polley. Length: One hour, 44 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Psalm 9:9; 1 Peter 3:1; Philippians 4:8

Nominated just for “Best Picture,” Sarah Polley’s film is about a sisterhood that emerges from brutal male chauvinism in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After years of beatings and rape the wives had spoken out, resulting in the arrest of the perpetrators. Instead of supporting the women, the men have all left to bail out the guilty members, giving the women 24 hours to decide whether to stay (and submit), stay and resist, or leave the colony. As the women argue back and forth, some for the first time enjoy thinking for themselves. Some struggle over the question of how a good and just God could allow such depravity. Others vow to kill to protect their daughters if they stay, and an older woman warns against giving up their core belief in pacifism if they stay and fight. Their struggles as they try to forge a just future for their children make for exhilarating viewing as they gather the courage to move into a future wherein they can become free agents, physically, mentally and spiritually.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

One nomination for Best Animated Feature Film

Director: Guillermo del Toro. Length: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Rated PG.

Proverbs 12:19; Ephesians 6:1; Ecclesiastes 9:5-9

Nominated for “Best Animated Feature Film,” the inclusion of the director’s name in the title indicates that this is more than one more remake of the classic Carlo Collodi tale. By setting the story in fascist Mussolini’s Italy, the director transforms a children’s tale into a political parable relevant to the rising tide of fascism, not only in Europe, but in America as well. Of course, the father-son theme remains strong, as well as the need to tell the truth. But the puppet’s longing to become human is enriched by Pinocchio’s realization that to choose to become so will mean giving up his immortality. This will result in his discovery of just how precious life is, making this version far more insightful than any of the earlier versions of the story.

“Argentina, 1985”

One nomination for Best International Feature Film

Job 19:7; Deut. 27:19; Ecclesiastes 5:8

Director: Santiago Mitre. Length: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Rated R.

Lovers of democracy will applaud the courage and persistence of the heroic team of Argentinian lawyers who dared to hold their nation’s former fascist military leaders accountable for their crimes against their citizens. During their rule, thousands of men and women who dared to criticize the regime were arrested and killed, becoming known as “the disappeared ones” because no information on their fate was given to their loved ones. Like many election officials in our country today, the national prosecutor Julio César Strassera and his assistant Luis Moreno Ocampo received death threats and negative publicity. When seasoned lawyers were too afraid to join the team, the two recruited just-out-of-college lawyers eager to see that justice was done. The film reminds us that democracy is a fragile affair, always in need of people of integrity and courage to preserve it against its enemies. At a time when our own justice officials are investigating former government agents who abused their power and wrestling with decisions about holding them accountable, the film is very relevant.

“The Whale”

Three nominations, including Best Actor, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and one more

Director: Darren Aronofsky. Length: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Rated R.

Psalm 31:10-11

This outsider movie is also a powerful father-daughter tale. The overly obese Charlie is so grotesque looking that when he lectures via Zoom to his college students about the writing process, he keeps his camera turned off. This is a good film in a culture that places so much emphasis upon slim bodies — some might recall the 1947 song “Too Fat Polka” that reached the No. 2 spot on the charts, and still is occasionally performed. Charlie knows he does not have long to live, so his attempt to reconcile with his estranged daughter is an admirable goal.


One nomination for Best Actress

Director: Andrew Dominik. Length: 2 hours, 47 minutes. Rated NC-17.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Sex symbol or serious actor? A scathing tirade against misogynism and female victimization or itself an exploitation of a tragic star? These are just some of the questions raised by this film that despite the overuse of female nudity boasts such a spectacular performance by its Cuban star climbing into Marilyn Monroe’s persona that she could not be overlooked during Oscar season. Neither should you overlook it, even though I cannot recommend it for a church discussion group. What a vehicle for mature men and women to reflect upon our culture and its abuse of all things feminine.


One nomination for Best Actor

Director: Oliver Hermanus. Length: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Matthew 5:14; Ecclesiastes 2:16

This is a satisfying remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic drama about a Tokyo bureaucrat searching for meaning in the last months of his life. London replaces Tokyo, but the ways of bureaucracy, with all of its dodging of responsibility, remains the same. After a lifetime of stamping and filing reports that result in no action other than their being filed away, Mr. Williams’ doctor informs him that he has just a few months to live. After a brief period of hedonistic pleasures, the bureaucrat returns to his office and takes out the petition earlier brought by a group of mothers to construct a park on a debris-filled lot. Without his shepherding it through the maze of offices necessary to get it built, there would have been no place for the children to play safely. A tale reminding us of what one individual can do and of the fact that it is never too late to find a life-enhancing purpose even near the end of one’s life.

All of the above films should be available live streaming or on DVD. All are entertaining but also worth reflecting upon and discussing, which is why in the pages of my monthly journal Visual Parables I include a set of questions for either private reflection or group discussion. So, when Oscar Night arrives on March 12, I hope you will be well informed about the nominees and, as you eat some popcorn, root for a favorite film or actor.

Dr. Edward McNulty

Dr. Edward McNulty, a retired Presbyterian pastor, was the film reviewer for Presbyterians Today. The author of three books on film published by Westminster John Knox Press, he has been reviewing films and connecting them to faith for over 40 years. More than 2,400 of his reviews are available free by going here.

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