As usual, Richard and I are a little late with our “Best Of” list for 2013. There were so many strong releases during the last few weeks of 2013, that we needed some extra time to see as many of them as possible. Again, we’re not arguing that these films are, objectively, THE best of 2013. Instead, these are some of the films that provoked, challenged, or inspired us around more overt spiritual themes. I’ve often compiled a separate list for documentaries, but since I didn’t see that many this year, I’ve included two of them on the list. Many of these films may not have been released in a theater near you, but most of them are available on DVD or streaming online now or will be in the near future. Let us know what we missed or what you loved and/or hated at the movies last year. Happy New Year! And in no particular order…
Mud: Writer/directorJeff Nichols is one of the most talented and consistent filmmakers working today. Mud is a coming of age story that focuses on two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), growing up in a small Arkansas town along the Mississippi River. They find a boat stuck in a tree on an island in the middle of the river and want to claim it as their hideout. Unfortunately, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has already set up residence there. He’s waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to arrive, but we know he’s also on the run from the law. The boys, for competing reasons, agree to help Mud retrieve and repair the boat. Ellis’ coming-of-age is built on his observations of two relationships, and his own first failure at love. Even though it’s emotionally painful to watch fall apart before our eyes, Ellis’ earnest belief in love and soul-mates is inspiring nonetheless. It’s clear, three feature films in, that Nichols just gets the South. Nothing’s ever cliched in his films, and their production design and cinematography capture remote places with subtle perfection. Nichols consistently explores pockets of the country that may seem other-worldly to many viewers while not letting those surface differences distract from the shared humanity and experiences of its inhabitants.
The Way Way Back: Another coming of age story set near the water, The Way Way Back tells the story of boyfriend/girlfriend duo Pam (Toni Collette) and Trent (Steve Carell), who take a trip to Trent’s beach house with her son Duncan (Liam James) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) in tow. Trent repeatedly talks about the communal effort required to make this new “family” work, but his own efforts are misguided at best and toxic at worst. Duncan can’t stand him and starts to suspect that Trent may be more than friendly with long-time pal Joan (Amanda Peet). To escape the annoying adults around him, Duncan frequents the local water park, Water Wizz, where he befriends manager Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen becomes something of a surrogate father for Duncan and gives him not only emotional support but a job in which he flourishes. But when things come to a head between Pam and Trent, events threaten to shatter the safe space that Duncan has created for himself with his new-found friends. The film is built around a series of dichotomies of humor and heartache, nostalgia and progression, assurance and openness, all of which are embodied in character foils that never feel contrived. The Way, Way Back takes viewers on the best of emotional rides that never feels overly manipulative, thanks in large part to Faxon and Rash’s understated writing and brilliant performances all around.
The Act of Killing: Danish filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer examines a brutal period in Indonesia’s history, focusing on the paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila and its members’ role in the murders of more than 500,000 suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese in the late 1960s, a horrific event sponsored by several western democracies. Rather than simply presenting a straightforward documentary, Oppenheimer has the villains (Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, and others) re-enact their barbarity as if staging a Hollywood film. This is all the more disturbing because Congo et al cite Hollywood gangster and action films as inspiration for their brutal killings. The recreations of the killings and inquisitions are the most bizarre, kitschy scenes you’re likely to see on screen. They feature copious amounts of overacting, bad makeup effects, and not a little cross-dressing, all of which are equally terrifying. Proponents of the notion that violent films have no real-world effects will find no quarter here, and, as a result, The Act of Killing is an important contribution to the on-going conversation about the effects of violent media.
Prisoners: Though not without its weaknesses, Prisoners is perhaps the most tightly woven cinematic narrative of last year. It focuses on two families’ desperate search for their kidnapped daughters and the dark places to which they go when they feel that the law isn’t fully on their side. From the start, Prisoners is bathed in religious imagery and iconography. The first bit of dialogue is the Lord’s Prayer. Crosses dominate the Dover family’s surroundings, from jewelry around their necks to decorations on the walls of their house. Apparently, Keller (Hugh Jackman) was an alcoholic who is now clean. Yet when crisis strikes, he can’t find comfort or guidance in his faith and turns to his own torturous devices instead. Prisoners is simultaneously a commentary on guilt, evil, and responsibility. The film presents a spectrum of (in)action, in which we all have a place: from the innocence of the children to Detective Loki’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) search to Grace (Maria Bello) mentally checking out to Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) facilitating Keller’s abuse of Alex (Paul Dano) to Keller’s abuse itself and finally to those responsible for kidnapping and torturing innocent children. Prisoners explicitly forces us to consider where we would fall in the spectrum, and it’s a question that we should ask ourselves more frequently vis-a-vis the crises that we encounter everyday.
12 Years a Slave: One of this year’s best films is perhaps the greatest cinematic slave narrative in film history. Recounting the experiences of the imprisoned free man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the film functions as a site of both cultural memory and theological conversation. Director Steve McQueen’s combination of cinematography and staging create truly unforgettable images as he refuses to look away from the disturbing and the horrific, which in the hands of most other directors would be gratuitous. As much as the violence that slaves had to endure, 12 Years a Slave reveals the psychological abuse and transformation enslaved people underwent. This psychological torture lies at the heart of Platt’s experience as he attempts to hold on to hope and not sink into despair by vehemently clinging to his true identity as Solomon and not his slave identity of Platt.
This struggle also begins to get at a central theological component of 12 Years a Slave, particularly the reality that theology is often anthropology and vice versa. Who Solomon Northup is as a free man and who Solomon Northup is as Platt the Slave shapes our understanding of who God is. If Solomon is a free man, then to be human and a child of God is not determined by race (and, we could add, by any other “obvious” identifier). God is a loving God who embraces all of God’s creation. On the other hand, if Platt is a slave to be bought, sold, and abused, then he is certainly less than human and loved less by God. At the same time, 12 Years a Slave reveals the ways in which slavers used religion to justify their system of oppression and should be a warning for any of us tempted to use scripture to referee identity politics. Unfortunately, Epps (Michael Fassbender) has no equal “religious foe” in the sense of an abolitionist fueled by religious conviction. We also don’t see examples of the ways in which slaves initiated their own religious experiences and how these helped them endure their brutal existence. Nevertheless, McQueen’s juxtaposition of beautiful cinematography with an unflinching attention to the brutalities of slavery creates an unforgettable, haunting film that forces us to once again re-examine both our past and present.
Philomena: While many viewers might argue that Philomena is anti-religious, to do so is to miss the complexity underlying the narrative. As a young woman, Philomena (Judi Dench) is forced to give up her infant son for adoption. Decades later, when she tries to learn of his whereabouts, the same heartless religious institution that forced her to give him up now refuses to assist in her search. Yet Philomena clings to her faith in God and the Catholic rituals that embody that faith and help her make meaning out of the suffering she has experienced…even if institutionalized religion is responsible for much of that suffering. Along the way, her “champion” Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and Sister Hildegaard (Barbara Jefford) prove to be opposite sides of the same coin, embodying two different versions of power and control and how we might exercise them when faced with an unjust system. In response to these competing world views, Philomena acts and speaks in ways that silences and shames them both. Sixsmith would, so to speak, burn religious institutions to the ground without considering what other system(s) would take their place. On the other hand, Philomena perseveres in her own individual and corporal expressions of faith until she can forgive the institution for the ways in which it wronged her. At the same time, after forgiving the community for its sins against her, she ultimately allows Sixsmith to expose those injustices in narrative fashion.
Fruitvale Station: The strength of director Ryan Coogler’s feature debut is his refusal to simply portray Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) as either an irresponsible thug or an innocent victim. The flashback to Grant’s time in prison reveals a young man spiraling out of control. Grant loses his job at the grocery story because of personal irresponsibility as he was repeatedly late for work. The events at Fruitvale Station and Grant’s untimely death are a combination of systemic racism and oppression and personal fault. The fight that broke out on the train stemmed from Grant’s time in jail, but the ways in which BART police handled the situation evidence poor procedure at best and abusive practices at worst. Grant and his friends could have remained calm(er) on the Fruitvale Station platform, but their anger stemmed from what they perceived as abusive treatment on the part of the responding officers. Along with Coogler’s insightful direction, the performances throughout Fruitvale Station lift the film into “best of” territory. Jordan’s performance is worthy of all the awards nominations that are likely to come his way. The roller coaster of emotions that he displays when Wanda (Octavia Spencer) visits him in prison is simply breathtaking. With continuing conversations about race(ism) in the United States, Fruitvale Station is the kind of measured, intelligent cinematic voice that is a welcome contribution to the discussion.
To the Wonder: I greatly appreciated Tree of Life, and you can read mine and Richard’s thoughts on it here. However, I think I was more captivated by To the Wonder. It’s both tempting and frustrating to try to outline all of the themes running through Terrence Malick’s latest film, but it will suffice here to say that love both found and lost, grace, hope, and relationships are at the forefront. But to say that it is about these themes is to give the film short shrift because it seems to me that it is Malick’s attempt to visualize them, to have them take life and die before our very eyes rather than having characters rhapsodize or talk about them to one another (and us) as if we had never experienced them ourselves. As we struggle to understand what transpires between the characters, they also try desperately to understand one another and the emotions they are (or are not) feeling. It’s so much more than this, but To the Wonder might be one of the best movies about relationships ever made, especially if we hold in tension (as I believe Malick intends us to do) the “earthly” relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) or Jane (Rachel McAdams) and the “spiritual” relationship between God and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), one of the most compelling portrayals of a minister since Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). This relationship says so much about devotion, commitment, and sticking it out, even as Father Quintana is eventually relocated to another parish. In the midst of doubts and the absence of feeling, he still ministers to the poor, the addicted, and the destitute, even as he cannot bring himself to enter some of their homes. With To the Wonder, Terrence Malick offers up a prayer, a hymn, and a meditation that demands repeated, devotional viewing.
Dallas Buyers Club: As a complete cinematic work of art, Dallas Buyers Club leaves something to be desired, but the brilliance of Matthew McConaughey‘s performance cannot be denied. His physical emaciation, combined with sharp direction and cinematography (built on intense closeups and jarring transitions), create a character that is at once repulsive and deserving of our affection and care. From a spiritual standpoint, there is much to discuss here. Woodroof is a broken man, who self-medicates with women, booze, and drugs. After being diagnosed with HIV, a disease that had few viable treatments in the mid-eighties, his hard-partying friends abandon him, taking him for a plague-infected “faggot.” In steps a transgender hustler named Rayon (Jared Leto), who looks past Woodroof’s rough exterior and embraces the terrified person within. Woodroof and Rayon’s relationship contains one of the many morals of the story here. Through it, the film reveals that changes in mind, heart, and, by extension, policy come through relationships. Changing the world around us for the better is not so much about philosophizing or theorizing about the way the world is or should be as it is about developing relationships with those who suffer around us, those who we might avoid out of fear or actively marginalize. In contracting HIV, Woodroof became painfully vulnerable, but in this vulnerability, he experienced transformation. Dallas Buyers Club implicitly challenges us to embrace vulnerability and impact the broken communities of which we are a part.
Blackfish: The second documentary on the list looks at another form of human cruelty, the imprisonment and training of animals in wildlife shows like those at Sea World. Blackfish focuses on the troubling relationships between animals and their trainers, particularly Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. For a time, Tilikum “enjoyed” his working relationships with many trainers until the psychological damage of close quarters and training finally took its toll. Even under the guise of family-friendly performances and “safe” working conditions, it’s hard to deny the destructive nature of such shows. The biological insight into the nature of these beautiful creatures reveals terribly sentient beings that deserve to be left to and protected in their natural habitat. Though a documentary, under the direction of Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish plays out like a narrative thriller, drawing us further into the disturbing true story with each interview and home video footage.
The Wolf of Wall Street: In his story of Wall Street tycoon Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), director Martin Scorsese chooses to focus on the excesses (sins, evils…whatever you want to call it) of the rich and famous. To that end, some critics have accused Scorsese of celebrating that lifestyle or of glorifying such behavior, although I find it hard to believe that anyone over the age of 15 could take this view. Given Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of film history and his appreciation for it, it’s easy to see how he’s working in the vein of other legendary directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, both of whom used highly stylized depictions of violence to show, in greater detail, its destructive nature. This is what Scorsese does with the sex, drugs, and booze that fill the hollow, yet destructive, life of luxury that Belfort leads. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has laid bare the Gospel of Mammon, perhaps better than any other filmmaker in recent memory. This is a gospel that values wealth above all else, judges on appearance, and celebrates the now. It’s also a gospel that has polluted much of the Christian church. Scorsese also understands, better than many explicitly religious filmmakers to be sure, that punishment is inherent in sin. Who in their right mind would possibly sit through The Wolf of Wall Street, leave the theater, and want to follow in Belfort’s footsteps? Wait…can I retract that question? Scorsese also knows there are countless suckers waiting to be had, which is why he opts for the film’s concluding shot of Belfort’s audience hanging on to his every word at one of his sales seminars. Or as Belfort says to the audience when he’s trying to explain the illegality of their tactics: “You don’t actually give a shit about any of this.” Along with another Best Picture contender, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street is a searing indictment of the economic foundations on which our country is built.
Elysium: The second feature film directed by South African Neill Blomkamp hit similar notes about power, inequality, and prejudice as his breakout film District 9 in 2009, but lost the connection to character and story that made the first film more than just a sci-fi epic. Blomkamp didn’t need one dollar of the additional 85 million lavished on Elysium to tell a dystopic tale of the callous rich exploiting the poor. Turning what could have been a simple sci-fi fable into a mega-action fantasy may have been what kept the movie from reaching its potential. What is clear, however, is that Elysium is not a “future” dystopia. The world in which children die of curable ailments, where living in relative wealth or squalor depends on imaginary geographical boundaries, where one’s labor goes to benefit a greedy oligarchy of a wealthy few, already exists. In spite of its shortcomings, the film acts as an indictment of American Capitalist Christianity, which leads people to believe that personal wealth is no impediment to salvation. The most prominent Christians in America still seem to believe their wealth is God’s blessing for their own awesomeness, and the poor deserve what they get for being lazy. As a story that challenges this heretical Gospel of Personal Wealth, Elysium is truly a Christian film.
Carrie: A strange choice for this list, perhaps borne out of Richard’s continuing fascination with the mythological power of menstruation. But this classic horror story continues to resonate because of America’s fraught relationship with religion and sexuality. Heirs of Puritanical founders, yet goaded on by an anything-goes capitalist economy, we continue to be both fascinated and terribly afraid of sexuality – particularly as it is expressed by young women. Kimberly Peirce’s version of Carrie lacks some of the entertaining camp of the original, but this may stem from a greater sense of respect and personal identification with her character. Peirce, the director of Boys Don’t Cry, is unparalleled at portraying doomed youth careening toward destruction. The film continues to fascinate for gay men, and anyone who has been marginalized by some aspect of themselves that they could not change. Carrie compels us to realize that the thing that seems most scary about us—the monster inside—has to be led out of the dark and embraced in order to be who we really are.