An Oscar list this is not. There are enough of those floating around magazines and the internet. Below is Pop Theology’s Top 10 Spiritually Significant Films of 2007 with a brief description of why each film made the cut. Feel free to praise, berate, or shrug.
10. Away From Her: The film is worth watching just to hear Julie Christie’s Alzheimer’s-stricken character, Fiona, tell her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), as she settles into her room at the nursing home, “If you don’t leave now, I’ll start crying and never stop.” Grant’s commitment to his wife’s happiness, even long after she has forgotten who he is and has developed a close friendship with another man in the nursing home is one of the most powerful portrayals of love and commitment I have seen in film in a long time. This should be required viewing for every couple. Moreover, everyone should watch it because of its focus on Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects so many individuals and, as the movie shows, their families.
9. Amazing Grace: This is just a great, good film…if you know what I mean. Nothing stands out from a filmmaking perspective, and as a result, we are left with what should be the film’s main contribution, its illumination of the unimaginable importance of the life and work of William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade in England. On second thought, Albert Finney does give a powerful performance as Wilberforce’s religious/political advisor, John Newton, a former slave trader turned pastor who wrote the world famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” There can be no doubt that Wilberforce’s tireless work for justice hastened the end of his life, and Ioan Griffud does a fine job of portraying a man driven to illness and near insanity by his commitment to this justice. The film’s release along with a campaign to fight the ongoing evil of slavery and human trafficking today remind us that such battles are still ours to fight if we have the courage.
8. In the Valley of Elah: I know that all the war movies tanked at the box office this year because most viewers are not looking to “deal” with this topic on a Friday night at the cinema or because they do not want to spend $11 to have a filmmaker preach at them for 90 to 120 minutes. However, as the war trudges on and countless injured troops and coffins return stateside, we must allow space, even in theaters, for their stories. Of course, how filmmakers choose to tell these stories and to what extent they involve returning or active troops is of the utmost importance. That being said, In the Valley of Elah made significant spiritual contributions to moviewatching last year by portraying the growing shadow that the experience of modern warfare casts on soldiers and their families. The escalating brutality that Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Hank Deerfield, discovers in the search for his lost soldier son, Mike, reveals the emotional, spiritual, and mental ravages of war. Unfortunately, Paul Haggis’ iron-fisted ending distracts. Given that Jones appears in another film on this list, I think it has been another outstanding year for the veteran actor.
7. Waitress: In a year that saw numerous female leads getting Knocked Up, Waitress came across as the most realistic and showed great heart as well. Not weighed down by hip, indie humor or smooth talking 16 year olds, Waitress presents the very real, believable story of a woman who manages to pull herself out of the lose-lose situation in which she has been trapped. The film’s fantasy feel (think Pushing Daisies minus the fast-talking narrator) hides an all-too-familiar tragedy. Jenna (Kerri Russell) is married to an emotionally and verbally abusive husband who unfortunately gets her pregnant. Jenna bakes her way out of this situation, with a little help from her grumpy customer/diner-owner, Old Joe (Andy Griffith in a great, but forgotten performance), rather than falling into another relationship with her doctor (Nathon Fillion). Perhaps more effective on this front than a subsequent pregnancy film, Juno, Waitress does a fine job of portraying a woman who goes through a range of emotions upon learning that she is pregnant. Though Jenna never wants to abort the baby, it certainly takes her a while to become truly happy and peaceful about the situation. On top of all this, this film also reveals the therapeutic, spiritual effects of cooking (and eating) that are echoed in the next film.
6. Ratatouille: Who else but Brad Bird could turn an ordinary rat into an extraordinary chef and make it work? Foodies and rats do not mix, but by the end of the film, I am starving for a bite of the ratatouille that Remy makes. Like all of his films, Ratatouille is loaded with spiritual lessons that apply to kids and adults alike. The film is a great lesson for younger viewers to dare to be different and to follow their desires no matter how strange they may seem. Of course, there are probably more than a few adults who need to hear this as well, given the fact that so many of our religious communities still revel in telling countless people, namely women, gays, and lesbians, what they can and cannot do. Ratatouille shows us the joys of saying “Yes!” to one another…even when we think it’s crazy.
5. Into the Wild: Oddly enough, there are similarities between the true life story of Chris McCandless and the monks from Into Great Silence, the next film on the list. While at Emory University, Chris (Emile Hirsch) immersed imself in the study of humanity’s darkest deeds which makes him skeptical of all future relationships. He rails against social corruption and lies and sets of on a “possession-less” journey into the Wilds of Alaska searching for, well, something. Unfortunately, this obsession with going into the wild blinds him to the goals of his quest which stare him straight in the face, from a farmer in the midwest to a hippie in California. He trades off genuine connection for a search for truth, which he seems to realize, too late, existed in these very relationships all along. Perhaps Into the Wild can remind us that we are created for community, because what is the human story if not divine attempts to create community and humanity’s attempts to deny or destroy it?
4. Into Great Silence: A nearly silent two-hour documentary might not be what most viewers have in mind for an entertaining time at the movies. Yet if we can consider filmwatching a spiritual practice, then it does not get more traditionally spiritual than this film about Carthusian monks in France. With patience and time on the part of the viewer, this movie, though briefly, does convey the meditative, seasonal routines of these monks, and watching it becomes something akin to a devotional practice as well. Suprisingly, great discussion can follow a viewing of this film. Viewers can question the monks’ (and Chris McCandless’) decision to escape the world’s problems rather than running out to meet them head first.
3. No Country for Old Men: This movie’s place on the list might have something to do with it being one of my favorite films of the year. On the other hand, we do have to reckon with its rampant bloodshed. While this seems like a nihilistic film on the surface, something about Sheriff Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) laments lend something akin to hopeful resistance to all this violence. The abrupt ending in which Sheriff Bell tells his wife about the dream he has of his father waiting for him at the end of a dark path offers only a sliver of hope, something present in McCarthy’s two most recent novels. Is this enough to combat the evil of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)? Does evil prevail over good, or are they at an eternally equal standoff?
2. Gone Baby Gone: Firmly planted in the director’s chair, Ben Affleck provides what may be 2007’s most complex moral dilemma in cinema. To what extent should “good” people go in fighting evil. The conflict between Casey Affleck’s ideology and Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman’s “practicality” in their search for a missing girl will certainly leave viewers pondering the correct response well after they leave the theaters. Thankfully, the DVD release of Gone Baby Gone is just around the corner so viewers can start up the debate all over again. Affleck deftly adds some political and economic commentary to the story that complicates the plot as well without taking it over the top.
1. Sicko: This being a Michael Moore film will automatically send a great number of moviegoers (and readers) running for the hills. After setting aside frustrations with his cinematic tactics and crass personality, we are left to reckon with what I believe to be the most spiritually (and theologically, ethically, and morally) significant film of 2007. The question at the heart of Moore’s latest documentary is nothing less than the value of human life and our perceptions of the quality of it. As the presidential debates heat up surrounding health care, do not, by any means, let this be the only source of information you consult concerning this issue, but at least consider the vast discrepancies that Moore sets forth and the implications they have for the American way of life compared to other countries in the world. Anti-abortionists will be quick to champion such films as Juno, Waitress, or Bella because of their life-affirming stories. The question I have for pro-lifers is, “What next?” You have saved, in most cases, poor babies from abortion. Are you willing to see that they have a high quality of life after their birth as well?