I view movies as invitations to see myself, the world, and God better. When I enter a theater and sit in my preferred seat (2/3 of the way up, near the center), I position myself as if I’m sitting down for a conversation with a new person who wants to talk with me about something he or she thinks is important. I never know what until the movie begins “talking,” of course, but as I listen, I am challenged to take seriously what the film is “saying.” After I leave the theater, I begin to process what I’ve seen and heard, and I adjust my ideas and actions accordingly.
God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world to be part of the world, to know and be known by the world, to rub shoulders with people, to listen to and tell stories, to make their stories part of his and to invite them into his story. When I entertain a film and allow a film to entertain me, I am trying to do what Jesus did and rub shoulders with the people of earth so that I may love the world better.
The following ten films are the films I saw in the theater that have most impacted me and helped me love the world better in the previous year. They are in no order, and the links will take you to my fuller interactions with the films that appeared on our website over the past twelve months.
1) Of Gods and Men – This quiet, beautiful, harrowing film about a group of Trappist monks caught up in the Algerian Civil War in the mid-90s demonstrates that faith is what you do, not what you believe, and the strongest faith often exists alongside the most ferocious doubts. This film inspires me to more tenaciously embrace my doubts, my community, and the world around me so that I might live a life of truer faith in Christ.
2) The Muppets – Joy. The latest Muppets movie is delightfully faithful to what the late Jim Henson’s wacky puppets have always been about – bringing happiness to the world together in all their weirdness. Often I think I’d rather be a Muppet than a man until I remember that the Church is called to the same kind of cohesive weirdness and joy-bringing.
3) The Illusionist – The most beautiful things have the potential to be the most heartbreaking, and from that heartache, true hope can emerge. This film is superlative in its intentionality, in its visual beauty, and in its emotional resonance. Some call this film depressing, but notice particularly what illusions our two protagonists are presented with, watch as these illusions are taken away, and note the true hopes they are left with in the end.
4) J. Edgar – Clint Eastwood’s biopic of one of the 20th century’s most infamous personalities is far from one of my favorite films of 2011, but it did open my eyes to a dynamic at work in human relationships that I had previously overlooked. We tend to learn to use best the weapons that are used against us. Perhaps the weapons we form against others do prosper when they are turned against us.
5) Source Code – Technology is often a substitute for the divine in our modern age, our source of salvation. Source Code voices the longing all humanity feels for a better world. The characters work exhaustingly for salvation, and the realization of their salvation is unbelieveable. But that’s the joke of our own existence. There is hope for a better world, and it breaks through in entirely unexpected ways all around us every day.
6) The Tree of Life – Malick’s contemplation on grief and loss and nature and grace and humanity’s place in it all is profoundly moving. On first viewing, I responded to the relationship between the two brothers. Upon my second, I connected to the protagonist’s journey from innoncence to maturity. On my third, I was struck by the presence of God through it all. The Tree of Life rewards repeat viewings.
7) Drive – Pure cinema – motion and music, limited dialog, This urban fantasy is a modern day “man with no name” flick, and the soundtrack is killer. Few films approach the kind of stylish efficiency of this film. The driver’s struggles with his past and seemingly inescapable nature are buried beneath layers and layers of suppressed emotion, and then, when pressed, he erupts and reaps the consequences of his actions.
8) Never Let Me Go – The best sci-fi takes its situation seriously and in doing so explores the actual world. This is the best kind of sci-fi. This film takes seriously questions of purpose, our responsibility to the world given our increasing adroitness at manipulating biology, and ultimately, where joy is found given our temporality and the incomprehensibility of existence.
9) Warrior – I’ve never so badly wanted a person to win a fight, but I’ve also never so wanted one person to hurt another. People often criticize the violent tendancies of American society. Warrior is a film that both embraces those tendancies and tries to find the less animalistic, more human hearts beneath the fighting. This is our society at its most brutal, and, somewhat distressingly, at its most vulnerable. I’m still not sure what to make of it.
10) The Help – For the first 90 minutes of this film, you so despise its villain, you rejoice when she literally eats excrement. Then you see that she too is oppressed. The true villain isn’t Hilly or any of her covey of wealthy white women. The true villain is the materilaism that pervades their (and our) culture. It is only when those with the least power, the black maids, finally rebel and are freed that everyone else begins to be set free.