Once again it is time to offer up VP’s Top Ten Films list. Perhaps “past” should preface “time,” as most critics have long since published their lists. However, as one dwelling in the hinterlands, that vast space between NYC and LA depicted in the famous NEW YORKER Magazine’s cartoon cover, I wanted to wait until most of the films released late last December reached our area. Several still have not (mainly the “Best Foreign Film” nominees), but here goes. Those of you will note the list is somewhat different from the one I submitted to the magazine PRESBYTERIANS TODAY, this being due to my not being able to see Million Dollar Baby when I was writing in January.
These films are not necessarily the “best” films in an aesthetic sense (else Hero and Sideways would be included), but rather, films whose makers seem also to be off on a pilgrimage to discover more than what meets the eye or is “acceptable” to society. These are films that inspire or challenge viewers to look deeper into life, and in the case of several, of God and faith. I always like to include a foreign or small film overlooked by mainstream media critics, in the hope that readers will discover and share them with others. It seems ironical that this time two of the R-rated films are produced by two deeply religious, and conservative, men, one a Protestant, the other a Catholic. I hope that you, the reader, will be encouraged to search out the films unfamiliar to you, and then to think back over the past year and compile your own list. A couple of the films are even now available on DVD, and the others soon will be—check with Amazon.com if your video store does not stock them.
1) Million Dollar Baby (Directed by Clint Eastwood; Warner Brothers; R)
My respect for Clint Eastwood as a film director keeps growing with each successive film. What a masterful restrain he shows in restraint, refusing to resort to cheap sentiment. (To see what I mean, compare his film to another boxing film, The Champ!) Actually, boxing is only the setting of what is actually a study of what amounts to a father-daughter relationship and the sudden turn it takes, just when you think this is another Rocky with a female stand-in for Stallone. Eastwood is at the top of his acting form as Frankie Dunn, owner of a seedy gym whose suffering from guilt for past misdeed impedes his judgment as a manager. Hillary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald, the trailer trash waitress whose hopes that her boxing skills will earn her a measure of dignity and respect (especially from her family who are always dissing her), is great, as is Morgan Freeman, Frankie’s best friend Scrap, a former boxer and now handyman about the gym. The film’s climax has aroused the ire of many church conservatives who are unable to see that the ending of a film does not necessarily mean that the filmmakers are advocating the resolution of a serious problem. Frankie is depicted as a very spiritual man, constantly badgering his priest about a theological conundrum. There is a great amount of ambivalence, especially in the brief shot of a restaurant window, allowing for some small measure of hope, at least in regard to Frankie.
2) Hotel Rwanda (Directed by Terry George; United Artists; PG-13)
Until I saw Clint Eastwood’s film, Hotel Rwanda was my top choice. However, in terms of film technique, Eastwood’s is such a superior film, strengthened by a restraint similar to that of the writers of the four Gospels, that I must place it first, even though the social justice side of me pulls me toward Hotel. Paul Rusesabagina is a real-life Rwandan who, at the risk of his life, saved over 1200 people from joining in death the almost one million Tutsis massacred in 1994. While the world, including the U.S., stood by, he sheltered them in the posh hotel he managed, using company funds to obtain food and bribe officials and soldiers. The film shows to what heights of courage and ingenuity an ordinary person can rise during a dreadful crisis. It depicts well the spiritual journey of a man concerned at first only with his own career (much like Oskar Schindler) and family, whose sphere of concern is rapidly widened as family and friends, and then total strangers are threatened with death. The film also serves as a reminder of how hypocritical is our post-Holocaust dictum of “Never Again.” Let’s hope that the film can spur us to live up to it; maybe it can remind us that in Matthew 25 it is the “nations” who stand before the Judge who says “as you did—or, as you did not do—it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it (or did not) to me.”
3) Woman, Thou Art Released (Directed by Michael Schultz; Magnolia Pictures; R)
Based on experiences of real-life Bishop T.D. Jakes this Protestant Dead Man Walking is a powerful declaration of the “amazing grace” of God. Michelle, on death row for murdering (at one of the Bishop’s services!) the man who had sexually abused her from her childhood until she had run away, has given up all hope of redemption. Like a gentle “Hound of Heaven” Bishop Jakes will not give up on her. Even though she had shot her abuser during the point in the evangelistic service when she was coming forward to give her life to Christ (her abuser, undergoing a change of heart was at the same time coming down another aisle), he still offers hope of redemption to her. Michelle’s journey back to God under the prodding tutelage of the Bishop is a joy to behold. We can almost hear the angels rejoicing at the return of this prodigal.
4) James Journey to Jerusalem (Directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz; Zeitgeist Films; NR—equivalent to PG)
This subtitled art house film about the son of a Zulu pastor deserves a wider audience, especially among church folk. James, a holy innocent destined one day to take over his father’s church, is sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy City by his South African village, but at the Tel Aviv airport an Israeli immigration officer thinks he has come for illegal employment and confines him to a holding cell. A labor contractor pays a bribe for his release into his care, with the proviso that the detainee goes to work for him. Despite difficulties, James rises above his despair and manages to prosper, acquiring a taste for materialistic living. Thus we wonder about what will happen to both his soul and the pilgrimage which had brought him to Palestine.
5) The Motorcycle Diaries (Directed by Walter Salles; Focus Features; R)
One leaves this film with an aching feeling that if only the young Che Guevarra had met a priest concerned for the poor, rather than toadying to the rich, how different his life might have turned out. Concentrating on the epic journey with a fellow college student through the hinterlands of South America, the film beautifully depicts the land, the people, and the chasm between rich and poor. It is only when they abandon their broken-down motorcycle and travel on foot that the middle class Guevara actually sees and is moved by the faces of poverty. At the film’s climax his choice to swim across the river dividing the privileged medical staff from their leprous patients is surely one Christ would have approved of, even if Guevara’s later choice of violence as a remedy for righting ancient wrongs would not have been.
6) Maria Full of Grace (Directed by Joshua Marston; Fine Line Features; R)
A first time feature film director and a first time young actress conduct us into the desperate world of one of the thousands of Latin Americans against whom so many of us in the US would protect our borders. Maria, a newly pregnant worker on a Columbian rose plantation, agrees to become a “mule,” a courier using her own stomach to smuggle dozens of small pouches of drugs into the US. Her trip to the U.S. and the harrowing examination by suspicious Customs agents turn out very differently from what she had expected. Turned adrift in New York City for a brief time, she must resort to deception because of the threat of death at the hands of the drug dealers waiting to remove the packets of dope from her body. Those familiar with the “Hail Mary” prayer will recognize the irony of the film’s title, Maria’s impoverished world containing little enough of grace.
7) Saved (Directed by Brian Dannelly; United Artists; PG-13)
A different take on Hollywood’s old teen formula of the snobbish in-crowd verses the bottom of the teen social order, this satirical take on a Christian high school is both funny and insightful, suggesting that Jesus might have been far more inclusive than his followers. A religious counterpart to Mean Girls, this would be a good film to watch as part of a double feature. What at first seems like a liberal put down of conservative religion develops into a moving exploration of faith under stress. A good film for parents or youth leaders to watch and discuss with the teen members of their families or groups.
8) Coach Carter (Directed by Thomas Carter; Paramount Pictures; PG-13)
Still another reality-inspired film, this is the story of a ghetto coach who insisted that his players become students first, and athletes second. Pushing the teens to enlarge their shrunken dreams, the coach takes up his own cross when parents and teachers join the players in opposing his locking up the gym and forfeiting games until the failing students bring up their grade points. He comes under such attack by the players, their teachers, and their parents, that a special meeting of the School Board is called. During this scene we see that his discernment as to what is best for the students in the long run is far superior to that of their parents. A wonderful parable of concern for others at the expense of one’s own welfare!
9) Kinsey (Directed by Bill Condon; Fox Searchlight Pictures; R)
The famed “sex doctor” is a very flawed prophet, and yet the film shows how he did indeed bring “release to the captives” and “light to those who sit in darkness.” Trapped by ignorance and false myths about sex, millions of Americans have been helped by the monumental work of this man and his staff. As one whose sex-shy parents sent him to a book (the very one derided by Kinsey in the film as being riddled with false information!), I especially appreciated the doctor’s role of shedding light on a powerful force long suppressed by the remnants of an outmoded Victorian ethic. Although Kinsey’s sexual behavior in his private life has rightly been condemned, he is another example of how God can use a deeply flawed person to bring about liberation for others. Remember Jacob? The brief statement by one of the interviewees, with it’s statement, “Dr. Kinsey, you saved my life!” is an emotional high point of the film.
10) The Passion of the Christ (Directed by Mel Gibson; New Market Films; R)
Although I still believe it is far more violent than is necessary to show us how much Christ loves us, there are powerful moments in the juxtaposition of scenes of Jesus’ earlier life and his horrible present. Give its director/producer credit for bringing droves of R-film-bashing folks back to the theater, as well as bringing Christians and Jews together to discuss anti-Semitism in our society. The all too few flashbacks to Jesus’ childhood and his teachings on love of enemies are very powerful. It is too bad that so many liberal Christians have succumbed to the secular critics’ bashing of the film. I believe that the charge that the film is not well made is skewered by their outrage concerning the over the top violence of the scourging scene. Maybe Gibson’s release in March of an edited version will win over some of its detractors.
The following film was on my original Top Ten list, but had to be eliminated to make place for Mr. Eastwood’s masterpiece.
7) Spiderman 2 (Directed by Sam Raimi; Sony Pictures; PG)
Yes, I know this is comic book inspired, and yet Christ’s message of “choosing the cross” and of “to those whom much is given, much is expected” lies at the heart of this film. The filmmakers even draw upon the Renaissance artists’ theme of “The Deposition of the Body of Christ” in one moving scene in which train passengers lift up and protect from the villain the prostate body of the unconscious Spiderman. This surprising God of ours pops up, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, in the strangest of places! Wise parents (and grandparents) will watch and discuss this one with their children.
I wanted to include the film biography of Ray Charles, Ray, in the list, because it, like Kinsey, shows how God can use a flawed person to bring much joy and even justice (in the latter case when the singer refuses to perform in segregated venues) to others, but I wouldn’t know which of the above ten to eliminate. Still other films that readers should know about and catch on video are: The Aviator, Before Sunset, Beyond the Sea, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Friday Night Lights, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I Am David, The Incredibles, Intimate Strangers, Mean Creek, The Return, Sideways, Vanity Fair, and A Very Long Engagement. All of these have been reviewed in past issues of VP. So, now that you have seen my list, what is yours? Requiring some thought about past films that you have seen, this can be a rewarding exercise for viewers as well as critics.