The Hunger Games (2012, drama, PG-13): There is so much in this movie (and series) worth talking about. It raises profound questions about injustice and power. It asks honest questions about how to act ethically in a thoroughly corrupt system. (Such as, "Is it justifiable to kill when that's what's expected of you?") It challenges us to reflect on what we consider "entertainment." It explores the difference between survival and really living. The whole series reads like a modern retelling of the book of Exodus. Anyone who has not read the books or seen the movies really should.
The Secret of Kells (2009, animated, Not Rated): This beautiful animated film tells a fictional history of the creation of the Book of Kells. As the abbey of Kells fortifies itself against the advancing Northmen, a monk from Iona arrives working on an illuminated Gospel that will "turn darkness into light." Young Brendan is fascinated by Aidan's work, but his uncle, the Abbot, thinks it impractical in light of the coming Northmen. The film explores the importance of art and beauty as it relates to faith, warns against religious arrogance, and asks how people should act in the face of horror and fear. (Note: This is a great family film, but scenes of the Northmen might be scary for younger viewers.)
Signs (2002, sci-fi/thriller, PG-13) and The Village (2004, thriller, PG-13): Having two M. Night Shyamalan films on the same list might turn some people off, but I love his movies because even though their premises can sometimes feel stretched, they always make me think. Signs follows a former priest who's lost his faith following the death of his wife. A crop circle in his field starts a series of events that leads to a close encounter with aliens and possibly with God that gives a double meaning to the movie's title. It asks us whether we believe in fate and if God speaks in coincidences. The Village focuses on a small isolated community whose way of life includes appeasing mysterious creatures that live in the surrounding woods. One can easily see parallels between the village's rules and religious cults and the movie forces us to consider what lengths we'd go to in order to create a utopia -- and if such a thing is possible.
Phenomenon (1996, drama, PG): How do we deal with miracles? And do we even want them? When an average Joe mechanic suddenly develops off-the-charts mental capabilities and telekinesis, some people are amazed, but most become fearful and suspicious. Although the main character tries to use his powers for good, it's clear most people preferred him as an idiot to a miracle worker. It asks how minds and hearts are changed and explores the good and bad sides of belief and the connections between fear and wonder. As a bonus, there's a scene where John Travolta's character talks about eating an apple that I think is one of the best descriptions of the communal side of communion I know.
Mud (2012, drama, PG-13): Two boys growing up along the Mississippi River in Arkansas befriend a man named "Mud" who is hiding on an island in the river and may or may not be a liar, a fugitive, and dangerous. The movie sets up as a slow-burning crime thriller, but by the end you realize it's a movie about love: what we think love is, where we look for it, how we fail to show it, and ultimately the unexpected places we find it. This movie swam around in my heart and mind for several days after seeing it.
Departures (2008, drama, PG-13): This beautiful Japanese movie relates the story of a struggling musician who falls into a new career as a nokanshi (one who prepares the dead for burial). At times both deeply moving and laugh out loud funny, Departures asks honest questions about mortality and presents the importance and power of treating others with dignity -- even after death. A movie about finding your calling and finding holiness in simple places.
If you have some time this holiday season, I hope some of you will take time to enjoy one or two of these movies and please engage me in conversation in the comments, in person, or on facebook or twitter.
In the Gray,
“Heaven's not that far...It's growing where we are.” -Jars of Clay, "Heaven"