At the close of each year it is customary for film critics and arts pundits to compile “top ten” lists, based on their ideas about what constitutes fine acting, solid screenwriting, or exceptional directing. But most people don’t minutely examine their entertainment choices this way. Often, people will simply say “I liked it.” They might not even be able to articulate just what it is about a film that moves them.
But I think I know.
What really grabs an audience is the truth. That may seem odd considering that all of the films on this list are fiction films, not documentaries; however, all of these films represent aspects of spiritual, moral, or ethical truth that rings true with those who see them. Just to be clear, not all truth is beautiful truth – there are ugly truths in this world that serve as cautionary tales. This list runs the gamut from big to micro-budgets, from musicals to historical drama to science fiction to animation. But the one thing all of these films have in common is that they are spiritually provocative. Here they are, bottom to top:
[Note: FilmTalk Discussion Cards for most of these films can be found at Movie Bible Study]
10 – The Lorax
Coming four years after the last big Dr. Seuss hit, Horton Hears a Who, The Lorax brought in nearly $350M in international box office. Based loosely on the children’s book, the film is about Ted, a boy with a crush on Audrey, the local girl who dreams of trees. Both of them live in an entirely artificial town, because nature has been destroyed. While some conservatives negatively looked on The Lorax as just another environmentalist rant, it is important for Christians to teach their children about our responsibility as stewards of the planet God has entrusted to our care. The Lorax is a fun way to introduce that topic. Additionally, The Lorax opens up dialogue opportunities to discuss sacrificial love, greed, keeping your word, and what it means to be bad.
9 – The Amazing Spider-Man
The appearance of a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise just five years after Tobey Maguire shrugged off the spandex suit left some critics scratching their heads. But superheroes are hot properties in Hollywood, and Peter Parker seems the perfect alternative to the crushingly confident Tony Stark’s Iron Man. Parker is a reluctant hero, who recognizes that his powers imperil those closest to him. The film addresses humanity’s perverse desire to play god in the form of Dr. Curtis Connors, a bio-scientist who is a bit too eager to usher in the next phase of human evolution. The film also speaks about the proper role of violence, bullying, revenge, and responsibility.
8 – Chronicle
Chronicle was a little film that made a big impact. Shot for only $12M, it had an international box office of $126M. Three high school students come upon an object that confers upon them superpowers. The film is made to appear as if it is capturing documentary footage from these students’ camcorders. Young people often struggle with feelings of disempowerment, so the initial rush of these characters upon discovery of their new-found strengths is understandable. But Chronicle understands human nature more than most films in the superhero genre. This film can help viewers to explore what it means to be human, our relationship to power, and the connection between the law and sin (and why sin leads to death).
7 – Lincoln
Taking a (thankfully) serious turn away from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Steven Spielberg transports his audience back to the height of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln is attempting to shepherd legislation through Congress that will free the southern slaves, believing that this action will bring an end to the war and restore the union. While the film has, as you might expect, its focus on concepts of slavery and inequality, Lincoln also addresses issues such as mercy, honor, and truth. Most troubling, though, it its exploration of whether the right ends justify any means.
6 – Wreck-It Ralph
The third highest-grossing animated film in 2012, Wreck-It Ralph, is one of the most imaginative and thought-provoking. Wreck-It Ralph is the villain in the video game Fix-It Felix -- but he is tired of being the bad guy. He wants to have friends and be appreciated. Thinking that his path to popularity lies in getting a gold medal, he leaves his game in an effort to win one, not knowing that his absence places everyone in danger. The movie may be aimed at kids, but it has plenty for adults to chew on as well, such as whether people can really change, how apparently “good” people can do bad things (one character is bears an uncanny resemblance to the devil, in that the character appears as an angel of light), and what should be the chief aim and goal of life.
5 – The Hunger Games
As a method of keeping rebellious districts in check, the elites of Panem require each district to annually offer up in tribute one boy and one girl to compete in The Hunger Games -- a televised battle to the death. But when young Primrose Everdeen is selected by lottery to compete for District 12, her older sister Katniss volunteers to take her place. Based on the series of juvenile novels by Suzanne Collins, fan mania and great filmmaking made The Hunger Games the all-time highest-grossing film ever released in the spring. Despite the hyper-violence of the film, it offers a chance to talk about the nature of winning and losing, the virtues of self-sacrifice and loving your enemies. It is also a film that acts like a mirror, reflecting back at us our culture’s desire for violence as entertainment. The Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, will open in November.
4 – Prometheus
This Alien prequel has come a long way from the haunted-house film that was the first Alien, and the war movie that was Aliens. Slower, more deliberate, Prometheus is a science-fiction film about a future looking for a past. A group of scientists board the ship Prometheus in search of beings that they believe to be their makers. Needless to say, they don’t find God, but they do find something, and it isn’t very nice. Obviously, this film can introduce discussions about where humans come from and what is God’s relationship to us. Also the film reveals that science does not hold the answers to transcendent truths. That doesn’t mean that answers cannot be found, but you have to know where to look, and possess the right attitude. For those willing to delve, Prometheus is one of the deeper science-fiction films.
3 – The Avengers
The demi-god Loki, banished from Asgard, has vowed revenge by joining with an alien army to steal the Tesseract -- an unlimited source of power -- and subjugate Earth under his tyrannical rule. The only hope of humanity lies in The Avengers: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow -- solitary superheroes who must learn to act as a team, or the world is doomed. While this sounds like your average superhero setup, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of this movie. Loki’s character, in particular, is a study in the strategies of the adversary, particularly his desire to rule by subjugating the will. There are also discussion starters that deal with unity and working like a team (or a body), and what it might take to have your sins forgiven. And there is even a delightful line spoken by Captain America that might lead you to talk about what God “looks like.”
2 – The Dark Knight Rises
In the years since the death of Harvey Dent, Batman has been absent from Gotham City -- a self-imposed exile designed to hide a necessary secret. But when a new threat arrives in the form of master criminal Bane, Bruce Wayne must decide if he is to, once again, put on the cowl to save Gotham City from destruction. This final film in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy offers many of the themes present in The Avengers: whether sinful people are worth saving, the wiles of the devil (in this case, embodied in Bane), and the value of getting a clean slate in life. It is the more serious tone, and the deep discussion of hope (both the longing for it and its denial) that sets The Dark Knight Rises just ahead of The Avengers.
1- Les Miserables
From a ministry perspective, films do not get much better than Les Miserables. Based on the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a parolee who is beaten down by the law and his culture until he finds refuge when a bishop offers him food and a place to stay at the church. But Valjean repays the bishop by stealing off in the night with the church’s silver. Caught, returned to the scene of his crime, Valjean expects to find condemnation and a return to prison. Instead he finds mercy and forgiveness, and this act completely changes his life. Les Miserables is an example of how Christians, acting like Christ, can influence a world for good. It also demonstrates the difference between a covenant of law and a covenant of grace. Along the way opportunities abound to discuss sin – of commission and omission, self-sacrifice, and what it means to live your life for God.
That’s the wrap-up for 2012. Next week, I will lay out predictions for the most spiritually provocative films of 2013.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman also teaches in the graduate program of School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.