VP’s Top Ten Films for 2013

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Each year I join the herd of critics and reviewers who issue a list of Top Ten Films released during the preceding year. Unlike others, aesthetics, although important, are not the primary criterion for the candidates for Visual Parables’ list. The justly praised Gravity is a wonderful, marvelously made film, and it certainly witnesses to “the power of the human spirit,” but the more down to earth Nebraska is infused with such redeeming love (undeserved, so that we can call it grace) that it easily pushes Gravity off the list.

The 10 films below all deal with matters of the spirit. Some include God-talk, some do not. All of them can be seen as visual parables, stories like those used by Jesus that point to meaning or a better way of living; of an impending kingdom in which there is no slavery or racism; no class distinctions; in which a female has as much freedom as a male; and in which loneliness, hurt and pain and suspicion are swallowed up by divinely inspired love and compassion.

One might expect to find so-called “faith-based films” on this list, but in all the years of compiling such a year-end list I have only 2 or 3 times considered such an intentionally “religious movie.” This is where aesthetics plays a role. Faith-based films are usually expanded sermons, lacking in subtlety and hardly memorable expressions of film at its best. Avidly “Christian” filmmakers seem too concerned that the audience might miss their message if they bury it in metaphor and suggestion.

Beyond the big budget films (and thus widely promoted) I always try to include independent works, as well as at least one made in another country, because I want to bring again (after my initial review) a deserving film that many readers might have missed, but which are now available on DVD or through streaming video. This year there are two subtitled films that treat important issues in a creative, sensitive way.

The last film on the list, created by one of our most spiritually sensitive (and our most misunderstood) filmmakers, Terrence Malick, was seen in a theater by only a handful of people on the two coasts of America. Distributors no doubt were persuaded by the box office failure of the director’s The Tree of Life, that there was no audience between the coasts that had the patience for his slow kaleidoscopic style of filmmaking. I hope that this is not the case with you, dear reader, because this film is a truly challenging work.

There are a lot of other films worth a second look from which the Top Ten were taken. Each and every one deserves to be seen again, and, thank God for recordings, right in your own home. But don’t watch them alone. Gather some friends. Print out the discussion questions found with my reviews in the journal and have a good time—one that combines entertainment with learning and spiritual growth. In the give and take of discussing the film you will see the truth of my mantra, “all of us see more than one of us.”

1. 12 Years a Slave

Based on an 1853 eyewitness account by a kidnapped “Free Negro,” this strips away the false romantic mask of the Old South, revealing the inhumanity and horror of slavery—and the courage of its victims.

2. Nebraska

A reversal of Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Prodigal Sons, this tale of a son’s love for his alcoholic father moves between drama and comedy in an unforgettable way, demonstrating that even in the most miserable of families, love can make a difference

3. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

This bio film is also a character transformation one as we follow the journey of a truly great world leader from his embracement of terrorist tactics to forgiveness and reconciliation. There are enough scenes involving Winnie Mandela to make this also a good depiction of two contrasting ways of responding to the oppressor.

4. 42

The story of a courageous sports figure who really mattered in America’s battle against racial bigotry, 42 memorializes also the white manager whose deeply held faith under laid his decision to sign the first black player in major league baseball.


5. Philomena

A mother, whose out of wedlock son was snatched from her by the Irish Catholic Church still retains the faith to forgive the nun who wronged her, is contrasted with the jaded journalist who helps her discover the fate of her son fifty years later.

6. Lee Daniels The Butler

Not since The Help has Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” been so well dramatized as in this true story of the black White House butler who witnessed the historic events transpiring at the Executive Mansion and out in the streets where Civil Rights advocates battled for equality.

7. Short Term 12

An inspiring story of a wounded healer working at a center for troubled teenagers, this film shows the power of redeeming love and the need for community. Even though wounded ourselves, we still are capable of reaching out to and embracing the lonely and the battered.

8. The Hunt

This Danish film, showing the terrible consequences of a child’s innocent lie on the life of a man, appropriately comes to an explosive climax at a church Christmas Eve service, reinforcing the redemptive meaning of the Nativity.

9. Wadjda

The faith and culture are Islamic in this first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (also first helmed by a woman), but its endorsement of the yearning for gender equality and freedom are delightfully incorporated in a young girl’s unpopular struggle to obtain a bicycle like that of the boy’s down the street.

10. To the Wonder

Yes, the film is slow moving and often puzzling, but seldom has the yearning for faith and companionship been as well captured as in this pair of interwoven stories about a priest’s crisis of faith and the breakdown of a once love-filled marriage.


And here are the films also considered for the list. All will provide hours of entertainment and enlightenment. Use Visual Parables’ A-to-Z Film Index to find the reviews—and remember that titles beginning with “The” are all to be found in the “T” section of the Index.

Honorable Mention

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete; The Spectacular Now; Inside Llewyn Davis; Terraferma

Also “Must See” Films

A Late Quartet; All Is Lost; American Hustle; Blue Jasmine; Captain Phillips; Dallas Buyers Club; Fruitvale Station; Gravity;  her; No; Quartet; Saving Mr. Banks; Still Mine; The Angels’ Share; The Great Gatsby; The Way Way Back; Unfinished Song; The Wolf of Wall Street.

Yet to see but which might belong here: Osage County; In Bloom; The Rocket.

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