It’s been an uprooted year for the editors of PopTheology.com, as Ryan and his wife Amy traveled the world for ten months and Richard moved to be with his partner Fred in southern Louisiana. Some films that would have been available in multiple theaters in the coastal cultural center of the Bay Area flitted through for a few brief showings in smaller cities in the United States or in the various obscure spots on the Parkers’ tour of Asia and Europe. Here’s a list of the best of what we were able to see; all of them worth a second look as we reflect on the passing year and prepare for 2013.
Top Spiritual/Religious Films of 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild
A first feature of enormous skill and ambition, this independent film stole the show at Sundance and Cannes, with its overachieving screenwriter/director/composer Benh Zeitlin, and its force-of-nature young star Quvenzhané Wallis. The film is an environmental fable about the cultural, even mythological, effects of climate change in communities that live on the marshy boundaries of earth and water—which, as we have come to learn, includes many of our largest and most vital cities. The film, which is about the destruction of a bayou from a Katrina-like storm, took on added significance after Hurricane Sandy washed away our illusions about the narrow veil between civilization and chaos. The Aurocs are coming to reclaim the wild—Southern or otherwise, and, like this film’s tiny star, Hushpuppy, we must both survive and befriend the vastly changed world we are inheriting. See the full PopTheology.com review here.
Amour begins with death and then proceeds with the dying. Michael Haneke, the director of such provocative and controversial films as Funny Games, Caché, and The White Ribbon (any of which would qualify for our Best of Spiritual/Religious lists), turns his attention to the aging process and the fate that awaits us all in his most recent film. Amour centers on Georges and Anne (played by legendary French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), a sophisticated elderly French couple that show all the signs of a happy, fulfilled, and loving life. One morning during breakfast, Anne has a “spell” in which she temporarily, but completely, zones out. This frightens Georges, who immediately schedules a visit to the doctor. Anne eventually has an operation for a carotid artery obstruction, a normal procedure that unfortunately goes awry here. She returns home paralyzed on the right side of her body, and Georges becomes her primary caregiver as things progressively go from bad to worse. He goes about the day to day tasks of feeding, bathing, changing, and comforting his wife who is literally wasting away before his very eyes. Georges eventually makes a choice towards the end of the film that, while shocking, is not completely unexpected. Whether or not it is seen as an act of love will ultimately depend on the viewer. There are few experiences in life that tap into our spiritual/religious natures as powerfully as aging and death and the need for and joy of finding true love in that process, and few films or directors have approached these central themes with such brutal honesty as Haneke does here. Anthony Lane, writing for The New Yorker, described the film’s central theme, “It is the coming attraction that we dread, and from which cinema, by and large, has turned its face, just as Anne, her condition worsening, flinches from a mirror.” Riva gives a fearless performance as Anne, one that demands Best Actress awards in every ceremony this season. Amour is a haunting film (I finished it late and stayed up later thinking about it), but the love in the relationship, which is the heart of the film, lends a tenderness to it, one that we should all be so lucky to experience as we walk the path before us.
A mind-boggling foray back to science fiction from a latter-day Ridley Scott, this Alien series prequel frustrated some fans of the original space horror films, with musings on the nature of God and the origin of humanity. Nevertheless, its alternate Judeo-Christian theology, with the possibility of Christ as an extra-terrestrial emissary sent from our alien creators, and a turn from the H.R. Geiger alien as a genuine beast of the Apocalypse, was fascinating. If nothing else, this film should remind Christians just how strange and surprising the actual theology surrounding Jesus Christ is—and the radical claims it should make on our lives if we truly believe we are the spiritual offspring of God. I hope to see Scott’s implied follow-up to the prequel, regardless of some panning critics who just can’t stand to see directors (Scott, Malik, Lee, the Wachowskis) reflect on What it All Means. Regardless, in the IMAX/3D versions, this film, along with The Life of Pi broke new ground in visual storytelling—far more satisfyingly than the hi-tech schlock machine that was Avatar. See the full PopTheology.com review here.
The film based on a story that would “make you believe in God” was really about the choice of which narrative about God to believe. Perhaps God is like the tiger the main character, Pi, comes to love while stranded on a lifeboat—a being imperious and aloof, one who helps keep the boy alive, but does not, in the end, return his affection. Or maybe God is in the elements of weather, wind, and water, which test the young Pi, and only when he passes the tests is he granted the right to survive. Or perhaps God is more of an interior force who accompanies us in our struggles, provides help when possible—or when we are ready to accept it—and is the source of meaning and consciousness that allows us to spin mythologies and narratives that keep us from despair. All things being equal, a film like The Life of Pi that leaves us with deep wells for discussion, contemplation, and reflection is a rare and profound gift—a gift that Ang Lee, one of our greatest directors, excels at giving. See the full PopTheology.com review here.
A scrappy story that was released at the dawn of the New Year 2012, Pariah is one more step in the important process of filling in the cinematic record of the experience of queerness beyond the mating habits of the gay white male. Every scene of this coming out story about an African-American lesbian girl growing up in Brooklyn with her Christian family is painted with the labor and the love of writer/director Dee Rees, who saw this film from a fledgling production at NYU film school in 2007 to a star turn at Sundance in 2011, to its release. That films like this get made and released at all is a miracle. Adepero Oduye’s performance as the bright, butch, precocious Alike was one of the indie acting highlights of the year. The story presents her struggle to find identity in the midst of the everyday crises of family—in this case a supportive but philandering father and an overworked mother whose religious insistence for her daughter is one more futile attempt to create what she perceives as a “perfect” family. Alike eventually uses her gift for poetry to take flight and make her own way—interestingly enough, to get out of New York and into early admission at UC Berkeley. The film avoids sermonizing about inner city horror, or taking the easy cinematic turn to tragedy, shattered dreams, and wasted youth. Because not every story like this has to end badly. Sometimes urban black girls from working-class families get to grow up and become lesbians in Berkeley.
If you can stand the singing (and some people can’t) this is the best Christian allegory in the movies this year. Nothing of the message of Christian redemption and outrage for the lot of the oppressed of Victor Hugo’s brilliant novel is lost in the musical film. Jean Valjean is one of the great Christian heroes of literature, as a single act of kindness transforms him from a man eaten alive by bitter hatred to a scarred saint standing on the side of the poor and rejected. All of the conflict between grace, in the most theological sense, represented by Valjean, and law, represented by the equally devout but misguided Inspector Javert, is here. And I dare say this is one of the few films you will ever see from modern-day Hollywood in which Christianity and the Church are seen as a force for good. The performances by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, and Amanda Seyfried took skill and dedication far beyond the movie star preening that often passes for “acting” in Hollywood. By insisting on having his performers sing live for the cameras, director Tom Hooper has set a new standard for bringing depth of emotion to the movie musical.
A shoe-in for Best Animated Feature, ParaNorman speaks to the zeitgeist in ways that few films of its, or any other, genre fail to do. A story about a witch’s curse that plagues a small town, the film is really about fear, our responses to it, and the ways in which it can transform victims and violators into hideous monsters. In these fearfully irrational times when people are stocking up on weapons and ammunition like they once hoarded water and canned goods, ParaNorman reminds us that while it is o.k. to be afraid, we cannot let that fear change who we are or, as people of faith, who we are called to be. ParaNorman shows how fear pollutes our perception of not only our present, but our past as well. It can morph unthinkable, unjust crimes into righteous acts that subsequently legitimate a host of other injustices. The film also reveals the role of children in naming and responding to the evils that plague our world. Unfortunately, as we have lately seen, they often do so as victims of our puzzling obsession with and avoidance of violence. In the midst of all these serious themes, ParaNorman is also a delight to watch, beautifully animated with a smart script and an atmosphere that evokes its horror film predecessors. See the full Pop Theology review here.
Ryan saw The Master in London several weeks after its initial release and in the midst of his travels never got a chance to write up a review of it. It demands another viewing, but, for the purposes of this list, its central theme of the battle between the flesh and the spirit is enough to spark substantial conversation and debate. A thinly veiled reflection on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a religious cult known as The Cause. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell is his wayward acolyte/protégé/project/disciple. Both actors give awards-worthy performances, but it is Phoenix’s devilish work that deserves the most praise. He is a hard-drinking, over- or under-sexed personification of a truly lost soul. He rails against everyone from customers to his own teacher. You could view Dodd and Quell as two sides of the same coin, and their jailhouse duel should be the stuff of cinematic legend. The Master isn’t for everyone. It sparked a disgusted reaction from Barbara Nicolosi and an extensive three-part analysis from Craig Detweiler, which gets at many of the film’s spiritual, religious, and theological themes.
Red Hook Summer
The latest Spike Lee joint didn’t get much of a theatrical release. Its DVD release towards the end of 2012 has now made Red Hook Summer available to a wider audience. The film follows young Flik Royale (Jules Brown), who travels from Atlanta to Brooklyn to spend the summer with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), the pastor of Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church, a storefront church in the Red Hook neighborhood. There’s all the expected tension between the young, tech-savvy Flik and his more traditional grandfather. That Flik is not religious only further fuels Enoch’s missionary zeal. While the relationship gets a little repetitive, Lee drops a plot twist in the last act that puts everything in a different light. It’s not quite the film it could have been: I think Lee could have done a better job of showing the place of Lil’ Peace of Heaven in the wider community; however, this could also be another example of the church’s waning influence in the wider culture. Peters gives another fantastic performance and there are some truly inspired/inspiring church scenes. Thomas Jefferson Byrd plays a hilarious deacon, Deacon Zee, who is essentially a drunken prophet naming the social ills and community failings that plague the larger black community of which they are all a part.
This year demonstrated the power of the documentary not just to inform and entertain, but to start movements for change. Bully received widespread publicity from powerful friends in the entertainment industry, including Ellen DeGeneres and Harvey Weinstein, who supported the filmmakers in their fight over the film’s MPAA rating. The film also links viewers into resources to help stop bullying in their schools. The goal of the filmmakers and The Bully Project, still only about a quarter of the way met, is to have 1 million kids see the film. Hopefully, with the DVD coming out in February, they’ll meet this goal. Bullying is a problem that has festered in schools for generations, but has often been dismissed as “kids just being kids.” It’s time for adults and students to stand up and say “no more” to this national epidemic. See the full PopTheology.com review here.