Read about films that explore the life worth living, celebrate the human spirit, challenge accepted norms, open our eyes to new truths — and warn us about the wages of sin
by Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service
The year 2022 saw crowds returning to theaters after the Covid disaster, though not as large as before. However, James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel again drew huge receipts, reaching as of January 23 over $2 billion world-wide, surpassing the receipts generated by “Top Gun: Maverick.” Of the two it is Camron’s film that made my Top Ten List because the latter was merely an escapist film waving the flag of nationalism — no doubt a well-made, exciting film but one running counter to Christ’s boundary-breaking teachings of love and acceptance.
It is not popularity or box office receipts that determine this list, but, as I wrote last year: films that “explore the life worth living, celebrate the human spirit, challenge accepted norms, open our eyes to new beauty and truths, and maybe warn us of or show us ‘the wages of sin.’” Several of the films will be on the lists of the secular critics, but others will be less familiar. Although aesthetics and popularity are considered, the moral/spiritual content of the film is the main consideration.”
The Scripture references are from my original reviews posted at visualparables.org. They are intended to help readers connect the insights of the filmmaker with the ancient wisdom of the Scripture writers. One thing that hit me while assembling this year’s list is how many of the quotes come from the Book of Psalms, with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes coming in second and third. These writers might have been bound by their times and culture, but their insights remain universal.
To explore a film further, click on the title, and the embedded link will take you to the full review at Visual Parables. (Two to four new reviews are posted there each week.)
Some people at churches where I fill in tell me that they have not been to a theater for several years because there aren’t any films worth seeing, but I have always found the opposite is true. Especially, when you add the streaming services, there are more good films than one person can view, unless they become glued to the screen. The following 10 films (and one honorable mention) are culled from a list two and a half times as long, including several critically acclaimed ones I have yet to see.
Director: Josh Enck. Length: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Not Rated.
This is perhaps the first so-called faith-based film that I have ever put at the top of the list because it does not preach, but simply tells the story of how America’s first great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, came to write the poem that an English organist turned into the beautiful Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He wrote it out of his experience of tragedy — the terrible death of his wife Frances, the carnage of the Civil War in which his oldest son was wounded severely — and almost loss of faith. Because the company put all of their funds into the excellent production values, you probably did not see any ads for this film. But you can discover how to watch it by going to the studio’s website, Sights & Sound. The story again reminds us of what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, that in “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Josh Enck’s film puts the emphasis upon “all.”
Director Chinonye Chukwu. Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Rated PG-13.
The savage murder in Mississippi of the teenage Chicago boy for merely admiring a pretty white store clerk is now seen as a pivotal moment in the rise of the civil rights movement in the mid-50s. By her insistence that the boy’s casket be open for the funeral, Mamie Till-Bradley (also known as Mamie Till-Mobley) rose from being a grief-stricken mother to a fierce advocate for racial equality. Fortunately, the filmmakers focus upon her development rather than all the horrible details of her son’s mutilated face and body. Along with the next film, “Emancipation,” this is about as powerful a plea for justice and equality as you can find — and it well reminds us of the cost of securing them. To me, director Chinonye Chukwu channels the passion and power of the prophets Jeremiah and Amos, speaking to a nation numbed by shallow piety, preferring to ignore its misdeeds and remain indifferent to acts of injustice.
Director: Antoine Fuqua. Length: 2 hours, 12 minutes. Rated R.
Despite the notoriety of star Will Smith for his slap at the Oscars ceremony last year, this story behind the picture of the scarred back of a slave deserves to be seen. Virtually every book or documentary film about slavery includes the picture of the man with every inch of his back covered by long scars left by his frequent whippings. The man had a name, Peter, and the filmmakers fill in his biography with an unforgettable story of courage and resolve to find freedom for himself and his family. Peter is depicted as a devout believer who quotes the psalms during his many ordeals. The words of the second verse of “The Negro National Anthem” might well come to mind as you watch this film, “Stony the road we trod, /Bitter the chastening rod,/Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;/Yet with a steady beat,/Have not our weary feet/Come to the place for which our fathers sighed…”
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Director: Guillermo del Toro. Length: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Rated PG.
Proverbs 12:19; Ephesians 6:1; Ecclesiastes 9:5-9
The inclusion of the director’s name in the title is not a matter of ego but rather, the recognition that this is a new take on Carlo Collodi’s 19th century tale, a far darker one fit for an audience today beset by the revival of fascist beliefs. Geppetto is a woodcarver sunk into despair after his only son was killed during a World War 1 accidental bombing. Years later, when Mussolini has come to power, he carves the wooden puppet which a wood sprite brings to life while the old man is in a drunken sleep. There is the usual lengthening of the puppet’s nose when he lies, as well as his disobedience which launches him into running away and becoming an unwilling performer at a carnival. There is no Pleasure Island, but there is a whale-like monster in the belly of which Pinocchio starts his journey from self-centeredness to other concerns. This darker version is as much for adults as for children (perhaps more so), probing far deeper into life and its meaning and values than the other release starring Tom Hanks.
Director: Baz Luhrmann. Length: 2 hours, 39 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Although the film is narrated by Elvis’s promoter, Colonel Tom Parker, it does not dodge his less than savory manipulation of the rock star to further his own interests. Filled with great songs (36!), mostly sung by the film’s star, Austin Butler, it will be no surprise if the young actor wins the Best Actor Oscar. For our purposes it is especially commendable in that the film shows Presley’s close connection with African Americans, from his boyhood days in Mississippi to his glory days on the road. His friendship with B.B. King is on full display and included are newsclips of civil rights demonstrations and speeches by racist politicians. It is moving, and appropriate that “In the Ghetto” plays during the end credits. I am pleased that the film was awarded a PG-13 rating, meaning that youth, as well as adult groups, might be more likely to watch and discuss it, than would be the case if it were an R-rated film.
Director: Maria Schrader. Length: 2 hours, 9 minutes. Rated R.
All hail the power of women! And also, the power of a free press dedicated to truth and justice. This true story, akin to Jesus’ parable of a widow who will not give up in her quest for justice, should inspire parents and daughters everywhere. Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor realize in the very marrow of their bones how important their assignment to dig up the truth about the rumors that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has been a serial molester of women for many years. Indeed, Weinstein is so powerful due to his aggressive promotion of his films during Oscar season that another Biblical story comes to mind, David and Goliath. The two women find at first that the climate of fear generated by Weinstein is so paralyzing that women shut their doors to the reporters rather than talk with them. That they eventually succeed in finding a few women courageous enough to reveal their demeaning abuse by the studio head is also due to their editor who backs the women, and who eventually confronts the abuser over the telephone, refusing to back down. At a time when so many men with false values are in power, we need such films as this to strengthen us in the belief that one or two dedicated persons can make a difference!
Director: James Cameron. Length: 3 hours, 12 minutes. Rated PG-13.
The long-awaited sequel continues Cameron’s concern for issues such as the harmful exploitation of the environment and anti-colonialism. Our hero Jake Sully, or rather his avatar Na’vi body, has settled into peaceful family life among the Na’vi natives of Pandora. He has risen to chief of the tribe and the father of several children when the huge spaceships return from Earth, with the evil mind of Colonel Miles Quaritch now encased in a 10-foot-tall Na’vi body. The flames from the descending rocket ships set fire to the jungle below, the fires incinerating large swathes of land. Jake and his family have to flee to a distant land in order to save their tribe. The immigrants are reluctantly welcomed by a sea-oriented tribe. Amidst the struggle to hide from and then fight against what they call the Sky People, the theme of interspecies communication arises from Jake’s son friendship with a giant whale-like creature. Lots to reflect upon and discuss in this magnificently photographed parable!
Director: Elegance Bratton. Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Rated R.
Psalm 139:14-15; Hebrews 13:17
Another example of how Hollywood is moving beyond its stereotyping of the LGBTQ+ community, this semi-autobiographical film follows the struggles of a gay African American kicked out by his mother when he came out of the closet at the age of 16. Falling into a life of crime and drugs, Ellis French joins the Marines in a last-ditch effort to turn his life around. To say that his life becomes even more complicated and brutalized is quite an understatement, yet he perseveres to survive boot camp. In a powerful scene his comrades stand in solidarity with him in the face of one more rejection by his homophobic mother. This “Full Metal Jacket” meets “Philadelphia” film will remain in your memory for a long time, and deepen the meaning of Semper Fidelis.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Director: Edward Berger. Length: 2 hours, 28 minutes. Rated R.
Finally, a German adapts what has been called the greatest of anti-war novels, Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 book that Hitler ordered banned and burned when he came to power. Into the tragic story of the brutalization of the spirit of the idealist student Paul Bäumer, Berger inserts a series of scenes involving the real-life German diplomat Matthias Erzberger who, wanting to stop the slaughter, argues with his superiors that the war is lost, and so they should try to negotiate an armistice. His genuine concern for innocent lives stands in stark contrast to a German general and to French General Ferdinand Foch, the latter two willing that thousands die in order for them to achieve “victory.” Thus, the deaths surrounding Paul and his hapless comrades is made even more stark, and futile, by juxtaposing the blood and mud of the trenches with the polished tables and clean uniforms of those far removed from the battlefield. If you think because you have seen either the 1930 or the 1979 versions, think again — and make a quick trip to Netflix.
Director: Todd Field. Length: 2 hours, 38 minutes. Rated R.
In addition to watching a great director and a great actress at their best, this film offers us an opportunity to see how great power can corrupt the most talented of persons. It can be approached as a via negativa tale, which is why I list it last on this list. Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár is an orchestra leader whose idea of leadership is the opposite of Jesus’ example of leadership as being in service to others. She is ruthless in manipulating subordinates and in eliminating anyone who might become a rival to her position. Thus, she is the tragic hero with a fatal flaw that brings her down, and at the end of the film we find her in an ironic position that her former friends and colleagues would consider grossly humiliating. I might have chosen for the above Scripture Paul’s reminder to the Galatians, “you reap whatever you sow.”
Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul
Director: Adamma Ebo. Length: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Rated R.
This satirical tale about prosperity gospel preachers and their outlandish lifestyles that contradict everything taught by Jesus got bumped from the above list after I finally caught up with “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It would have added a note of levity to a list of very sober and serious works. The film is both funny and serious, the first because the so-called evangelists are so unaware of their false values; and the latter because dozens of these creeps pollute our airwaves, fooling millions and sucking out of them vast sums of money.
The other films considered are all worth your time if you have not seen them: “A Jazzman’s Blues,” a surprising film about racism and “passing,” given that Tyler Perry is the writer/director!); the British film “Crushed Wings” (the only film I know of that deals with the scourge of female mutilation and shows this is not basic, but contrary, to Islam); “Father Stu”; “Pinocchio” (the version starring Tom Hanks); “Women Talking”; “Devotion”; “Causeway” “EO”; “Argentina, 1985”; “The Kings of the World”; “This Place Rules”; “91%-A Film About Guns in America”; “Alice;” “Chevalier”; “A Man Called Otto,” and “Lucy and Desi.”
All of the above films will deepen your understanding of important issues and values. Three cheers for the filmmakers who are striving to inform, challenge, and even inspire, as well as entertain us!
Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, was for many years the film critic for Presbyterians Today. He has been posting weekly film reviews at his Visual Parables site for 32 years. His three Westminster John Knox film books are “Faith & Film,” “Praying the Movies” and “Praying the Movies II.” His newest book is “Jesus Christ: Movie Star.”
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