Top 10 Spiritually Significant Films of 2008

Before 2009 gets any older, I thought I’d better look back over the films that I saw in 2008 (or that were released in 2008) to construct my top 10 list of spiritually significant films.  You’ll notice some potential glaring absences:  I assume that Doubt and Revolutionary Road might have made the list, but at this point, I have been unable to make it to the theaters to see them.  This isn’t necessarily a list of my favorite films of the year or ones that I felt were the best, although a few of those are on here.  Rather, again, this is a list of films ripe with spiritual, theological, or religious implications.  Let the debate begin!

10. Fireproof:  This film does not make the list just because its filmmakers are ministers and their films are bathed in religion.  In fact, those facts might work against its inclusion on this list.  The Kendrick brothers’ films are theologically heavy-handed and extremely socially conservative, but with Fireproof, they tone down their characters’ complete and utter dependence on God, making them more responsible for their actions and relationships.  I am intrigued by this slight theological shift in their third film and will be anxious to hear any commentary about it and the film when it releases on DVD.  Nevertheless, Fireproof‘s themes of selfless love and devotion are certainly welcome messages in a selfish and fickle world.

9. WALL-E:  Despite all the hype and the rave reviews, WALL-E just didn’t do it for me.  I don’t know that I would have even put it on a 2008 Top 10 list.  However, it should make us think.  Pixar’s beautiful animation presents a ruined world and a futuristic man-made retreat that serves as its replacement.  Despite the “silent” beginning, the filmmakers manage to keep our attention through WALL-E’s emotions and idiosyncrasies.  The beautiful animation will engage children of all ages, while the dire situation that it animates should make adults aware of the dangers of over-consumption.  The animated credits which re-tell the story through the history of art are certainly worth sticking around for.

8. The Dark Knight:  If I was making a strictly “Best of” or “My Favorite” list for 2008, The Dark Knight would find itself much higher on those lists.  Nevertheless, director Christopher Nolan gives us another amazing Batman film in which Heath Ledger, as one of the best villains in the history of cinema, steals the show.  Nolan uses the superhero guise to discuss the spiritual and political terror that plagues our society.  Never has believing in nothing looked so frightening.

7. The Wrestler:  A friend recently told me that, after seeing The Wrestler, he thought about MILK.  At first, I thought this was an odd connection to make.  He compared the struggles of Harvey Milk and Randy “The Ram” Robinson and initially thought that Harvey Milk’s struggle for social justice was more noble.  There is merit to this.  However, though we will all not fight for social justice on such grandiose scales, we all deal with personal, spiritual struggles.  We fight to be better people, parents, friends, partners, etc.  The Wrestler presents an individual who fights this battle to the utmost.  Though Mickey Rourke’s performance is great and hopefully signals a comeback, it might be slightly over-hyped.  Underrated by comparison, Marissa Tomei’s performance as an aging stripper is just as compelling, especially when she quotes Isaiah 53 and its use in The Passion of the Christ.  For whom or what does “The Ram” suffer?

6. Gran Torino:  Like a fine wine, Clint Eastwood seems to be getting better as he ages.  Few contemporary filmmakers have had a string of such provocative and successful films like Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby.  In this film, which he also directs, Eastwood plays the lead role of Walt Kowalski, an aging veteran whose wife has just passed away.  He lives in an old neighborhood that is being taken over by Asian-Americans and threatened by gang violence.  Terribly racist, he resents this change.  When his young next door neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal his Gran Torino as his initiation into a gang, Walt and his mother devise an alternative form of punishment.  As Thao begins to do odd jobs for Walt, the old, grizzled vet grows closer to him and his sister, Sue (Ahney Her).  Walt realizes that Thao and Sue will not be safe until the gang goes away forever.  His steps to protect Thao and Sue are imaginative and redemptive, giving us one of the most deeply spiritual films of the year in a most surprising package.  Walt’s relationship with his wife’s priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) also adds an important, specifically religious, layer to the film as well.

5. Trouble the Water:  This breathtaking documentary about Hurricane Katrina has yet to benefit from the wide release that it deserves, although it did receive rave reviews at Sundance.  Trouble the Water reveals the prophetic power of filmmaking.  With no clear reason why, aspiring rap artist Kimberly Rivers Roberts purchased a camcorder on the streets of New Orlean’s Ninth Ward and filmed her and her family’s decision to stay and ride out the storm.  As the water rises they move further up their house until they are trapped on the roof waiting for rescue.  Tina captures her husband’s heroic efforts to help other stranded and elderly residents find higher ground.  At a hurricane shelter, she encounters documentary filmmakers, Carl Deal and Tia Lessen who travel with her as she tries to re-locate with family in Memphis and eventually returns to New Orleans.  The filmmakers weave her footage with their footage to create an unbelievably moving documentary that offers a much-needed perspective on that tragic time in American history.

4. MILK:  The quest for social justice is at its heart spiritual, theological, and occasionally religious.  Though Harvey Milk’s quest was not explicitly bathed in theology or religion (derivations of the two were often his staunchest opponents) like 2007’s Amazing Grace, it is deeply spiritual.  Director Gus van Sant and star Sean Penn capture it brilliantly.  The supporting and understated performance by Emile Hirsch also adds another layer of spiritual complexity by presenting a character who was, like so many, ultimately influenced by Milk to devote his life to a higher purpose.

3. Happy-Go-Lucky:  I am so glad that I finally got to watch Mike Leigh’s newest film.  While the idea of a “two-hour smiley face” might be off-putting to some, Leigh manages to create a totally engrossing film about an irrepressibly happy young woman, Polly (Sally Hawkins in a Golden Globe winning performance).  While nothing ever really “happens” in the film, you cannot help but feel better for having spent two hours in Polly’s life.  Leigh juxtaposes Polly’s happiness with her driving instructor’s anger, her roommate’s cynicism, and her married and pregnant sister’s “ideal life.”  Thoughts about the fruits of the spirit abound after watching this film.

2. Slumdog Millionaire:  A great spiritual, theological, or religious film should lift the spirit.  You will be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally uplifting film of 2008, except, perhaps, for the #3 film on this list.  Personally, my favorite film of the year, Slumdog tells the story of Jamal (Dev Patel) a poor boy in the slums of Mumbai who grows up and lands a spot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  As he progresses through the quiz show, the host suspects him of cheating and turns him over to the authorities.  As the detective interrogates him, Jamal looks back over his life and explains how he knew the answers to each question.  In the process, he realizes how even the darkest moments of his life have had a profound influence on him.  His relationship with his brother and his quest for Latika (Freida Pinto), the love of his life, becomes a story of betrayal and redemption that adds another layer to this beautiful film.

1. Religulous:  Great spiritual, theological, or religious films should make viewers think.  Religulous does.  Too bad its star and writer, Bill Maher, doesn’t think as much as he wants his audience and victims to.  Until the last five minutes of the film, Maher gives us a welcomed, agnostic interaction with individuals from the world’s major religions.  His “gospel of I don’t know” forces believers to question or critique dogmas and beliefs that often go unexamined.  These interactions are quite humorous until he abandons his position for a much more staunch atheism to conclude the film, even saying that if humanity is to survive, religion must die.  Religulous should be required viewing for all faith communities.