Beyond Oscars: Top 10 Best Spiritual Movies of 2012

FILM FANS in 100 nations will tune in The 2013 Oscars on February 24. Movies are a global language that speaks to the head, the heart—and the spirit. TODAY, faith-and-film author Edward McNulty shares his own list of Best Pictures—focusing on films with spiritual themes. The official Oscar competition has only 9 Best Picture nominees from 2012: Armour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty. McNulty picks only 5 of those for his list—then, he adds 5 more films for his Top 10 Best Spiritual Movies of 2012. You’ll enjoy the list—and these films also can spark spirited discussion in your small group.

And, “Best Spiritual Picture” goes to …
Top 10 Must-See 2012 Movies


As a columnist on faith and film, I reviewed more than 120 films in preparing this list of Best Spiritual Movies. By describing these 10 as “spiritual,” I don’t mean that they are “religious”—although several of them feature characters who believe in God and regularly worship. I mean “spiritual” in a broader sense—affirming that life is more than what we can see with our eyes, that life is often difficult and dark, but that it is possible to find the resources to overcome that darkness. Think about the Gospel song in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness sung by the choir at Glide Memorial Church where a homeless father (played by Will Smith) and his son find food, shelter and spiritual strength.
Lord don’t move the mountain,
But give me strength to climb it!


DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper. RATING: PG-13.
Of the six versions of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece that I have seen, Tom Hooper’s film is now my favorite. I was disappointed that his film cut short the pivotal sequence in which the Bishop redeems the soul of the newly released convict Jean Valjean. But, overall, I was very impressed! What appeals most to me in this version is the way the music moves from the kind of auxiliary role that we expect from the soundtrack in typical dramas—to become a central vehicle for revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. This is the film counterpart to the interior monologue that novelists use so effectively, but that is difficult to transfer to the big screen. Now, in song, we can hear the turmoil in Jean Valjean’s mind and heart as he ponders the incredible grace bestowed upon him by the kindly Bishop. And in Javert we see the foundation of his whole life crumbling as he puzzles over Valjean’s very un-criminal act in sparing his life at the barricades. Finally, I love the inclusion of the novelist’s line at the end that gets to the heart of the Gospel: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” (Read my entire review of Les Misérables, which includes a free study guide for your small group.)


DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg. RATING: PG-13.
Steven Spielberg again delves into American history, this time two decades after the incidents he chronicled in Amistad, his film based on the trial of Africans who stage an uprising on a slave ship. The sheer artistry of Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Sally Field’s performances as the anguished Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln are enough to place this film high on my list. The film could serve as a midrash on Jesus’s admonition that his disciples be “as harmless as doves and wise as serpents.” In this film, Lincoln is taken down from his high pedestal and is immersed in the political muck of arm-twisting and deal-making required to get Congress to pass a bill as controversial as the amendment to free slaves. The film honestly shows us how Lincoln shared the prejudices of his era in spite of personally hating slavery. We see how he develops along a courageous moral pathway until he becomes committed to leaving a legacy of everlasting freedom for those in bondage. (Read my entire review of Lincoln. And, you will also enjoy my story about the religious life of our 16th President.)


A spiritual odyssey as well as a tale of survival at sea, The Life of Pi is one of the most religious films on this list. In fact, Jan Martel’s original best-selling novel has been a favorite selection of discussion groups—including religious discussion groups—since it first was published in 2001. President Obama made headlines in 2010 by sending a letter to Martel, praising his novel as: “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Ang Lee’s film is a triumph, considering that most fans of the novel declared that it never could be put on the big screen. At first, the story seems so simple. I still remember Walt Kelly’s famous statement by Pogo, “When you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last.” In this case, the teen-ager Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel tries to stay afloat and alive with a large Bengal tiger sharing his lifeboat. Pi is a devotee of three faiths—Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam—and he will need to draw on all of them to keep body and soul together during the 227 days afloat in the ocean. The spectacular beauty of the sea and sky make this a joy to watch, and the spiritual themes of God and hope make this a “must” for this list.

BEST SPIRITUAL MOVIES: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Stephen Chbosky. RATING: PG.
“The outsider” is a theme in many of the films on this list—a despised ex-convict in Les Misérables; a castaway trying to straddle three faiths in Life of Pi; a young boy and girl who “don’t fit” with peers in Moonrise Kingdom; a little girl and her dying father in Beasts of the Southern Wild; a boy unwanted by his own father in Kid With a Bike; and a college student alienated from his church and his father in Blue Like Jazz. Even Abraham Lincoln was an outsider. And so in Stephen Chbosky’s delightful film we meet Charlie, Patrick, and Sam, three young outsiders bonding and surviving—no, triumphing over the difficulties of their teen years. Unfortunately it was shut out of this year’s Academy Award nominations. I loved the film for its Zorba the Greek-like moments. In one scene, a character stands up in the bed of a pick-up truck and raises arms out as if flying because of the joy of the moment. The three friends are speeding through a tunnel at the end of which the skyline of Pittsburgh is revealed. The film shows in numerous scenes what the church, when it lives up to its calling, means by a life of grace.


Available in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson. RATING: PG-13.
Director Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola’s venture into magic realism is a delightful take on the outsider genre. This time, the outsiders are a quirky boy and girl, both bright and talented—and both awkwardly at odds with their peers. This story of their first love transpires on an island where young Sam is dumped into a scouting program and is smitten when he spots Suzy in a local church play. Without spoiling the film’s plot twists, it is safe to say: Suzy agrees to run away with Sam toward an Eden-like area of the island. Suspense builds as a hurricane looms and the young people wind up in the high tower of a church. But grace (or God) intervenes, and in the traditional comedic sense “all’s well that ends well.” We might see the writing team rise to the platform at the Oscars, since they were nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category. Anderson was nominated for two earlier Oscars, but has not won to date. As usual, Anderson has attracted a wonderful cast, including Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Francis McDormand and Tilda Swinton.

BEST SPIRITUAL MOVIES: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Now available in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Harold “Benh” Zeitlin. RATING: PG-13.
I was at times puzzled by what was going on in this first-time director’s film—but I never once glanced at my watch. Another film in the magic realism genre, this combines concern for the environment with a study of folk in the bottom strata of society, a group of adults who live in a bayou they call “The Bathtub,” cut off from the rest of the world by a levee. The story is told by 6-year-old Hushpuppy and involves both the reality of a hurricane and the onslaught of mythical creatures called Aurochs, set free from their frozen bondage in the Arctic by the melting polar icecap. Her dying father Wink is trying to prepare her for his coming demise when she will be left a total orphan. The film celebrates the proud spirit of these two and their rag-tag neighbors, as well as the real love of the father for his daughter. The surrealistic ending when Hushpuppy confronts the stampeding beasts and shares a last supper with her father stirs something deep and primal within the viewer. Perhaps most fascinating about this production is young Benh Zeitlin’s background. This was his first feature film; he is the son of the co-founders of New York’s famous City Lore, a center devoted to documenting and preserving urban folk culture. The son has traveled far afield for this film, but his storytelling ability is remarkable.


Now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.DIRECTORS: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne. RATING: PG-13.
I’ll admit that I am reaching a bit to include Kid with a Bike, which was released in 2011. Unfortunately, this gem was virtually unknown in this country until the prestigious Criterion Collection decided to prepare one of its definitive DVD/Blu-ray sets. The Criterion version will be released this week. So, I’m splitting the 2012-2013 difference and declaring this an honoree in my list for 2012! (Click the cover, at right, for more from Amazon.) Seldom has a film dealt so well with a child determinedly striving for acceptance while feeling abandoned—and, as a result, rebelling against the people trying to help him. Little wonder that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011. As I watch this Belgian-French film, I envision it as a midrash on Jesus’s parable about the persistent woman who kept searching for her lost coin. Eleven year-old Cyril is dumped into a children’s home by his widower father, then he is invited into the home of Samantha. But, this angry boy is convinced that authorities are keeping him from his father, so he tests Samantha’s love and patience almost to the breaking point. The bicycle in the title becomes symbolic of the boy’s tenacious grasp on the illusion about his father. Told in minimalist style, the film depends upon its wonderful cast to open our hearts to their predicament with none of the sentimental props so common in Hollywood movies.


Available now in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Steve Taylor. RATING: PG-13.
This tale of the spiritual journey of a Southern Baptist student from Fundamentalism through agnosticism to an open-minded faith seems so far over the top at times that it would be unbelievable—were it not for the fact that it is based on Don Miller’s memoir of the same title. The book, published in 2003, was on the New York Times list of best sellers for 40 weeks! To this day, it is a popular choice for young adults and is promoted through the “emergent church” movement, sometimes compared to works by Anne Lamott. The director/script writers concentrate on the period when student Don Miller, disillusioned by his youth pastor, leaves Texas to enroll in his unbelieving father’s alma mater, the ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland Oregon. The ups and downs of his spiritual journey are told with a great deal of humor. Eventually, the influence of believers who are genuine in their obedience to a God of love and social involvement revives and transforms his faith. This is the only film on this list that is described as a “Christian movie” by the film’s fans, including many of the 60-plus reviewers on the movie’s Amazon page. Overall, that genre doesn’t measure up for a “best of the year” list like this, but—as one Amazon reviewer puts it—“This is not like typical Christian movies.” I agree.


Available in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.DIRECTORS: Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda. RATING: PG.
Since it was published 40 years ago, millions of parents and children have read Dr. Seuss’s cautionary fable about the environment. Like most Seuss books, the story proved to be as popular with adults as with kids. And that’s the best thing I can say about this animated feature film: Adults will enjoy the film as much as little ones. Danny DeVito voices the moustached Lorax, the Yoda-like creature who announces that he has come to speak on behalf of the trees that are vanishing in pursuit of corporate greed. The film becomes a call to act when the Lorax says to the little boy Ted: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better—it’s not.” Some critics did not like this film version of the book, partly I suspect because so many of us love the original Lorax story and have strong ideas about how it should be retold. But, I find the movie delightful and a great opportunity to talk further with children about the environment from a faith perspective. For example, parents might want to share the Genesis creation story with their children after watching the movie. Remind them of the passages in Genesis that require us to “be responsible for” and not to “dominate” the planet. Eugene Peterson’s Message translation of these passages is a great choice for reading aloud.


DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow. RATING: R.
There has been—and rightly so—much controversy over director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s film chronicling the ten-year manhunt and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. There is no debating that the film is well made, with Jessica Chastain excellent as CIA agent Maya who will not give up the search despite the doubts of her colleagues and several setbacks that would have stopped a less determined agent. The current controversy focuses on the film’s depiction of torture, practiced by Americans and supposedly producing key information in the quest to find bin Laden. A long list of top journalists and also U.S. Senators opposed to the use of torture, including Senator John McCain, have accused Bigelow’s film of unfairly serving to justify the use of torture. On my first viewing of the film, I was among those questioning the film’s basic morality. Then, I read perceptive comments by filmmaker Michael Moore, who says he questioned people who watched the movie—and learned that their sympathies in every case were with the Muslim prisoner, not with his brutal American interrogator. Moore also argues that the film clearly shows President Obama’s election, his ban on such torture—and a turn in the investigation toward real detective work. I find the character of Maya quite compelling and positive as a tough woman refusing to be cowed by bigotted male co-workers. Maya persists and without further torture manages to track down bin Laden despite her critics. With this analysis in mind, I went back and saw the movie a second time. Now, I agree that the film has positive moral messages and deserves to close out my 2012 list of Best Spiritual Movies.


Here are the other worthy films considered for this list. Each one offers plenty of food for thought and discussion. I also was impressed in 2012 with The Avengers; Argo; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Boy; Brave; Cloud Atlas; Django Unchained; Flight; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Hope Springs; Hyde Park on the Hudson; Intouchables; The Master; The Odd Life of Timothy Green; Paranorman; Promised Land; Seeking a Friend for the End of the World; Salmon Fishing in the Yeman; Silver Lining Playbook.

Where to find more from Edward McNulty …

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