Faith Perspectives on Oscars’ Best Films

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Other film critics have written about the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, based on aesthetic considerations. That’s important, of course, but my columns specialize in sharing a faith perspective on film.

Related Bible references are included in the mini-reviews. I do this because my intention is not just to review a film—there are hundreds of good reviews available these days—but to start a dialogue between my readers and the film, a dialogue between faith and what too many consider “just entertainment.” I believe that as people of faith we can be challenged, inspired, and informed by filmmakers who are committed to telling a meaningful story.

I have arranged the nine in order of what I consider the least deserving to the one that I hope will win the coveted award.

 The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorcese. Rated R. Romans 1:28-32

If you can endure the Niagara-size torrent of the “F” word in the dialogue, this take-off on the rise and fall of a real life Wall Street crook will be of interest. Leonardo di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort is so persuasive at seducing hapless victims into buying worthless penny stocks that the snake of the Garden of Eden story would do well to take lessons. This is a good film to see along with Wall Street, both films espousing the Gospel that “Greed is Good.” In the censorious days of the Hays Office, the film would have followed the time-honored arc of the gangster film—rise, prosperity, fall, death, or prison. This film adds one more “rise” to the arc at the end in that Jordan Belfort, after serving just 22 months in prison, profited by his books about his experience and is now a popular motivational speaker on the international circuit. The Wikipedia article about him reveals that from his large earnings from his two books and speaker fees he has paid just a fraction of the $110 million he was mandated to pay into a restitution fund for the victims, many of whose lives were ruined. Who said crime does not pay?

 American Hustle 

Director: David O. Russell. Rated R. Proverbs 21:6; Proverbs 6:12-15

The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal back in the late ’70s and ’80s, an FBI sting operation using a fake Arab sheik that brought down numerous politicians and others. David O. Russell, director of last year’s delightful Silver Lining Playbook, has given us perhaps the best con artist film since 1973’s king of the genre The Sting­—and there have been some very good ones since then—see The Grifters; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; House of Games; Catch Me If You Can: and also the 1962 musical beloved by many, The Music Man. A pair of con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso and forced to work with him in a sting operation to bring down Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito and a number of bribe-taking US Representatives and Senators. Funny, suspenseful and conducive to discussing many ethical issues, the film contains some of the best performances of the year. Our hero does show a trace of conscience by his efforts to obtain a lighter sentence for Mayor Polito whom he has come to admire because the Mayor did not enter into the scheme for personal profit but for what he hoped would benefit his economically depressed people.

Gravity 

Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Rated PG-13. Psalm 31:2-5.

Receiving 10 nominations, this film is bound to pick up at least one Oscar. They might not be able to hear you scream in airless outer space, but they can certainly see you sweat, unless the glass of your space helmet is too fogged with your rapid breathing. In the film, three astronauts have left their shuttle to repair a device when they receive a warning from Mission Control that a Russian missile has blown up a space station, and the debris is rapidly heading their way. One of the astronauts is immediately killed when the debris arrives more quickly than expected. Their shuttle and all aboard are destroyed, leaving the two, Dr. Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalsky, stranded over 300 miles above the earth. Their desperate struggle to survive is set against beautifully photographed scenes of the stars and the splendors of Earth. Sandra Bullock’s performance as Dr. Stone, moving from terror to despair to hope certainly deserves her Best Actress Oscar nomination. Although the faith of the Apollo 8 astronauts led them to read the first 10 verses of Genesis on Christmas Eve of 1968, Dr. Stone belongs to a more secularized generation, so that the old adage about there being no atheists in a fox hole never seems to cross her mind during her desperate struggle for survival. Almost succumbing to despair, she is re-energized by a hallucination of her companion who had given his life for her. People of faith might argue that this was God acting to save her, but she might argue that it was “just a hallucination.” Maybe those dreams of Joseph in the book of Genesis were of the same nature, though I am sticking with the traditional view.

Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Valee. Rated R. Proverbs 31:8

Ron Woodroof is as sleazy a character as you are likely to encounter at the movies—we first see him having sex with two groupies instead of doing his job protecting a bull rider at the Dallas rodeo. When, as a result of his promiscuity he is diagnosed as HIV+, he refuses to believe it. It is the mid 1980s, and this homophobe thinks only gay people can get the disease. Rejected by his buddies when the diagnosis proves right, he begins a long journey from selfish, hedonistic pursuits to concern for others as he sets up a buyers club to get around the law against drug dealing—his source being drugs and nutrients that a rogue doctor in Mexico sells him. He lives well beyond the 30 days a doctor had told him he would live, thus gaining time to help others as well as himself. I suspect that a merciful God might well gather him with the sheep because of his helping so many of society’s rejects. The film is noted for the fine performances by both Matthew McConaughey as Ron and costar Jared Leto who plays a character some church folk will find hard to accept, a transvestite named Rayon who becomes Ron’s partner in distributing the life-saving drugs for the HIV+ victims in Dallas.

Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greenglass. Rated PG-13. Psalm 31:2.

Named after the brave captain of an American container ship attacked by Somali pirates, this is a powerful down-to-earth survival story worthy of pairing up with Gravity. Captain Phillips and his crew manage to fend off the first attack of the pirates, but on the second day the latter manage to board and take captive the unarmed bridge crew while the rest of the crew hide in the engine room. The plot devolves into a battle of wits between the American and Muse, the pirate leader, the Somali desperate to win a large ransom because of the pressure from his warlord. He elicits a measure of sympathy because of director Paul Greengrass’s interest in showing the huge gap between the world’s “haves and have-nots.”  Tom Hanks’ is so good in the role that many regret that he was not included among the five nominees for Best Actor. If you consider the fate of such a predator as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (who lands as my wife says, “jelly-side up”), you might feel more sympathy for the Somalis, whose destitute circumstances have driven them into piracy.

Her

Director: Spike Jonze. Rated R. Psalm 142:4.

This fascinating “romantic comedy” updates the genre to the technology obsessed 21st century, the story set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening or speaking into their portable device. A lonely man going through a divorce falls in love with the computer operating system controlling his house, the female voice calling itself “Samantha.” Often funny, sometimes moving, the film pushes the exploration of how A.I. might expand far beyond what we imagine, but also raises the question: can bodiless sex, minus any physical touch, really overcome loneliness for long? This is R rated, and so it may be questionable to show in a church when available on DVD, but nonetheless would be a great discussion starter, especially for young adults exploring technology and its limits. At a retreat it would make a good double feature with Wall-E, which also explores the dangerous effects of technology upon the human race in the far future, though in a different way. That last wordless scene on a rooftop packs quite a punch, leaving us plenty to think about the nature and future of relationships, human and otherwise.

Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13. Psalm 72.4; Matthew 18:21-22

One of the warmest films of the year, this true story stars Judi Dench as a mother still agonizing over the fate of her out-of-wedlock son born 50 years earlier. Virtually cast off by her father and imprisoned in an Irish convent, the teenager was shamed by the nuns and made to work in the laundry, allowed to see her son for just one hour a day. When he was 3 the nuns “sold” him to a wealthy couple without telling Philomena, or even allowing her to say goodbye. Now she engages the help of a down-on-his-luck journalist, he a lapsed Catholic who hates the church, and she, still a believer who regularly attends Mass. As we follow the journey of this odd couple, we are treated to a film filled with humor, grace, faith, and, best of all, forgiveness. The film could be viewed from a perspective of two contrasting lifestyles, one of faith & forgiveness, the other that keeps one stuck with anger and resentment, unable to forgive past wrongs. This would make a wonderful film for a 6-week film series on forgiveness or reconciliation. (Suggestions for other films, some of which can be found in my Movie Reviews index are:  Broadway Danny Rose; Cry, the Beloved Country; Dead Man Walking; End of the Spear; The Final Solution; Gandhi; Our Fathers; The Power of Forgiveness; The Straight Story; and To End All Wars.)

Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne. Rated R. Ex 20.12; Eph 6.4; Luke 15:11.

It wasn’t long into the movie that I realized this was a reversal of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. This time it is the alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) who is the prodigal, a Montanan wanting to travel to the “far country” of Nebraska in order to pick up some prize money he believes he has coming from a magazine subscription agency. Woody’s long-suffering son David eventually tires of trying to stop his  father from from repeatedly heading out onto the highway. Finally, David agrees to take off work and drive him there. What a time they have, stopping off to visit Woody’s family, one that is as bizarre as the one in August: Osage County. After they reach their destination David shows what unconditional love is like! Bruce Dern plays the addled old man so convincingly that it is no wonder that he is on the list for Best Actor.

12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen. Rated R. Psalm 10.12; Luke 4:16-18.

Based on Solomon North’s best-selling 1853 memoir, this is a harrowing true story that reveals how false such films as Gone With the Wind depict slavery as an institution within which happy slaves cheerfully served their kind masters and mistresses. From his prosperous life as a free man in upstate New York where he is respected by many white friends, Solomon is reduced to the manacled life of a slave when he is lured to Washington DC and kidnapped. His life on plantations in Louisiana is a round of beatings and hard labor. This and his eventual emancipation make for a powerful story. Although Solomon’s story is one of triumph, with him riding away with his benefactor to freedom in the North, the fate of those he leaves behind is tragic, the brutalized Patsey and her fellow slaves, being lost to history.  I place this film ahead of the other eight nominated films because it is of so much more importance to our country, and has not received nearly the support of the public that it deserves. (Its $108 million gross might look impressive, but this is less than half of what the mindless comedy We’re the Millers, and less than a tenth of Iron Man 3, have grossed!)

By all means gather a group and go see this 12 Years a Slave on the big screen, a film that does “attempt to tell the exact truth or learn it.” This is a great example of history brought to life.

My Candidate for a 10th Nomination

Lee Daniels The Butler

I loved this father-son film because it brought vividly to life what black Americans had to put up with prior to the Civil Rights era, and the contention and suffering some of their families went through when members stood on opposite sides of the Movement. Not since The Help has Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” been so well dramatized as in this true story of black White House butler Cecil Gaines who witnessed the historic events transpiring at the Executive Mansion and out in the streets where Civil Rights advocates battled for equality. Instructed that he was to be invisible, Cecil served without flinching over the racist remarks he overheard through the years. Like so many employed black parents during the Civil Rights era (see Freedom Song for a similar father-activist son conflict), he feared that agitating for equal rights would jeopardize his job and get his son into trouble with the law, and thus he opposed the young man’s involvement in protests and demonstrations. It is too bad that this film, with its fine performance by Forest Whitaker, was excluded.

The above is a somewhat revised form of an article that I wrote for the Presbyterian News Service.

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