Every year Visual Parables issues its Top 10 Films of the year, a list that always includes some films not found on the lists issued by secular critics. The 10 films below all deal with matters of the spirit. Some include God-talk, some do not, but all of them can be seen as visual parables — stories like those used by Jesus that point to a better way of living, 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.
Beyond the big-budget films, I always try to include independent works as well as at least one made in another country to highlight a deserving film that many readers might have missed. This year there is a subtitled film that explores persecution and reconciliation. The last film on the list, created by one of our most spiritually sensitive (and most misunderstood) filmmakers, Terrence Malick, was seen by only a handful of people on the two coasts of America. Distributors likely saw The Tree of Life’s box office failure as proof that there was no audience between the coasts with the patience for Malick’s kaleidoscopic style of filmmaking. I hope that this is not the case with you, dear reader, because this is a truly challenging work.
There are a lot of other films worth a second look from which the top 10 were taken. Each one deserves to be seen again. 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 and its “Mastuh”-loving “darkies,” revealing the inhumanity and horror of slavery — and the courage of its victims. Along with The Butler and Mandela, the film should be valued by all who are willing to own up to our dark past and move on toward Dr. King’s “beloved community.”
A reversal of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, 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. The unconditional love in the son’s last gift to his father is a wonderful parable of the surprising love of our heavenly Father.
3. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
This bio film is also a character transformation 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. While acknowledging that Mandela was indeed involved in terrorist activities (which some still cannot forgive), the film depicts the miracle of change possible to those open to God’s Spirit of transforming grace.
The story of a courageous sports figure who really mattered in America’s battle against racial bigotry, 42 also memorializes the white manager whose deeply held faith inspired his decision to sign the first black player in major league baseball. The film is a good parable of the apostle Paul’s assertion of Christ emptying himself of divine prerogatives as we see Jackie “emptying” himself so as not to retaliate against the cruel racial harassment he had to endure.
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 50 years later. This is another example of an individual who can rise to a height of love greater than the institution supposedly dedicate to Christ.
6. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Not since The Help has Paul Laurence 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. Especially heartening is the scene in which a staff member gives testimony to the foster parents who took him in and loved him so wisely and tenderly.
8. The Hunt
This Danish film, showing the terrible consequences of a child’s innocent lie on the life of a man, appropriately concludes at a church Christmas Eve service, reinforcing the redemptive meaning of the Nativity. Christmas without the cross is just a sentimental Christmas card affair, but not in this film of redemption.
One of the most intriguing sci-fi films to come along since Blade Runner, Spike Jonze’s film can lead us to reflecting about our involvement with our computers and programs. For people of faith, whose book speaks of “knowing” another person in both a physical and a spiritual sense, it raises questions about the nature of our relationships with others.
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. Part of the wonder in the film consists of the many beautiful shots of nature and people interspersed throughout the rambling narrative.
Note: If you have visited my film review site visualparables.org, you will find that my list there is a little different due to having to submit it before a number of high quality had opened in the Cincinnati area. (Here in ‘fly over country’ we are always at a disadvantage at the end of the year because of the lateness of film arrivals.) Thus when Her opened just a few days ago, I realized that it belonged on the list. Because the film it bumped is so significant, the mini-review is included before the mention of other worthy films.
The faith and culture are Islamic in this first Saudi Arabian film (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.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete
The Spectacular Now
Inside Llewyn Davis
August: Osage County
Edward McNulty, former film reviewer for Presbyterians Today, lives with his wife, Sandra, in northern Kentucky. The author of 12 books — three by WJK Press — he reviews films at visualparables.org and will soon have a 13th book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers, published.