Who loves a good top ten list?! This guy!
Yes, I just wanted an excuse to share with you some of my favorite films that take on the subject of faith or theology in unexpected ways. I'm surprised how I couldn't find anyone who has compiled a list like this on the interwebs. This is the kind of list I wish I would have found about five years ago. It would make me so happy if you chimed in on the comment section with your own favorites! Conversations with friends about the movies that move us is one of my absolute favorite pastimes so without any further ado, Let's run this mutha!
( No, this isn't a hierarchy... come on... who could choose? They're all great in their own way.)
Silence is Martin Scorsese's period film based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō. Set in Nagasaki, Japan. The film chronicles the story of two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Edo-era Japan to locate their missing mentor and spread Catholic Christianity. Scorsese captures brilliantly the experience of holy absurdity and what it means to lose your life to find it. A note of warning, the movie is about religious persecution in Japan, and there are extended scenes of torture and a serious critique of religion. The novel was undoubtedly controversial to Catholics when It was released in the '60's.
I saw this one with Ruben last month let me tell you, it is intense. It was devastating in all the right ways. My interest was peaked when I listened to an interview with the director Paul Schrader, who directed Taxi Driver and co-wrote Raging Bull, and Ethan Hawke the lead in the film. They were on Fresh Air with Terry Gross talking about their own complex history with Christianity. This is an incredible movie for those in the midst of a faith crisis because it gives such a heartfelt and earnest portrayal of the intimate connection between despair and hope.
If you haven't seen this one yet, you owe it to yourself. This movie is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley based on his play for the stage of the same name. The casting and performances are utterly perfect, (Hoffman! Streep! Adams! Davis! Come on!!) I've seen this film many times with different audiences, and everyone seems to walk away with a different meaning based on their own experiences with religion. Like First Reformed, this one won't allow you to escape the tension between doubt and belief. I feel like the goal of this film from the beginning is to break you from your addiction to certainty, and in my humble opinion, it succeeds in the most satisfying way.
Tree of Life
You might already be thinking, "geez, these movies are all so intense! Anything lighter?" Well... Yes...and no. Terrance Malick's Tree of Life is a feast of beauty, mystery, sorrow, and joy, but make no mistake, beauty is a crisis all it's own. Something about this movie makes the eternity in me ache. A note of caution though, if you are looking for a plot-driven, liner film you will probably be pretty frustrated with this one (and all of Malick's other films for that matter). This film is more a visual meditation on the dance of nature and grace, strength and weakness, love and hate. Get the wine and let it just wash over you (the movie, not the wine).
Last Days in the Desert
Of course, this list wouldn't be complete without a movie about Jesus's crisis of faith. There are indeed other important Jesus movies, but none of them focus on this very pivotal moment in his story. The film is by Colombian writer-director Rodrigo García and stars Ewan McGregor as the Jewish holy-man Yeshua as he is tempted in the desert by Satan. I appreciated the way this film shows a very human Jesus honestly wrestle with questions about suffering, faith and his own identity.
The Big Kahuna
I got a feeling many of you haven't seen this one. I'm not even sure how I ended up seeing it, but I think it belongs on the list because once again it involves discovering faith in the most unlikely places. This movie was released in 1999 and stars Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito and was written by Roger Rueff who originally wrote it as a play titled Hospitality Suite. The story is about three sales representatives attending a trade show to sell industrial lubricants. The three hope to meet a business executive referred to as 'the Big Kahuna, in the hopes of landing an account. As their hotel stay proceeds, the gap in life experience between young salesman and his two colleagues grows ever more apparent because he is young, naive and Christian. This revelation is like blood in the water for the cynical salesman, and they take it upon themselves to try and enlighten the young buck to the ways of the world.
This film is from what I consider to be from M. Night Shyamalan's golden run in the early 2000's. It stars Mel Gibson as a Catholic priest who is going through a faith crisis after a family tragedy. His grief comes to a climax as extra-terrestrials invade the world. This one taps deep into my desire for meaning. I just rewatched this movie with my oldest daughter Stella, and it still moved me deeply. Joaquin Phoenix and the rest of the cast does a stellar job.
Speaking of aliens, they happen to be a rich metaphor in spiritual conversations! Prometheus is the origin story of the Alien franchise and in my opinion the most spiritual of the series. Ridley Scott has never been shy of weaving in redemptive themes into his movies, but this one tackles profound questions about human nature and the death/resurrection structure of the universe. Philosopher Peter Rollins does a fantastic analysis of the movie in one of his recent podcasts. Note of caution: This is a sci-fi horror flick so get ready to squirm and jump!
I had just become a youth pastor for a church in Parker when this indie-flick came out. When I first saw it, I had just begun my journey of deconstructing and sorting my Christianity. During this time I was hosting a movie discussion series with the students at the time, and I played it on a winter retreat for them. It generated a lot of productive discussions about how faith was playing out their own lives. The story is about is about a teenage girl named Mary who is a good Christian girl at a good Christian high school where she has good Christian friends and a perfect Christian boyfriend. Everything is fine until she learns that her boyfriend is gay. Following a mystical vision from God, she believes that she must sleep with him to turn him straight. Not only does it not work but she gets pregnant and thereby falls from the graces of her Christian society and plunges her into her crisis of faith.
True Detective, Season One
Ok, I know it's not a movie but shows like True Detective, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad have elevated the medium so much, it's made television the new cinema... plus it would have simply been unacceptable for this show not to be on this list! It comes with the standard, don't-watch-with-the-kids-around disclaimer because the subject matter is grisly and the characters are not that easy to like. The show follows two homicide detectives ( Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), who investigated the murder of prostitute and Seventeen years later must revisit the investigation. I think what made this unique for me was that it wrapped a philosophical argument between philosophical Pessimism and Christianity in an emotional and well-told mystery. It held me until the very end when it cracked me right open! It was brilliant.