It’s that time of the year when we critique-ers of movies exalt the films that enlightened, enriched or simply entertained cinemagoers. At the same time, we get out our venom-dipped goose quills and take revenge for all those hours stolen by filmmakers who challenged the theory, “Nobody sets out to make a bad movie.”
I suspect none of my choices will be Oscar’s picks, but while most critics are examining the impact of a film’s technical and artistic merits, I maintain that art shouldn’t just be about who we are, but about what we can become. Though this year lacked greatness in this art form, the following selections contained uplifting messages and managed to entertain without bombarding the viewer with negative content. Click the film titles to read our full reviews.
THE BETTER ANGELS
Produced by Terrence Malick and filmed in glorious black-and-white cinematography, The Better Angels sheds new light on the little-explored formative years of the legendary president Abraham Lincoln as well as the women who shaped him into one of most revered men in U.S. history. Based on interviews with Lincoln's family members, The Better Angels is a beautiful, insightful, and brilliantly composed feature debut from Malick's creative protégé, A. J. Edwards. To say much more about this documentary-like exploration into the making of Lincoln would not serve you. It is a film that needs to be experienced on the big screen without interruption. You’ll learn about 1800s American farm life. You’ll gain insight into the making of a man who would later save our nation. And you’ll realize the importance of a good word or deed. PG
GOD’S NOT DEAD
This is a thoughtful, perceptive and enlightening faith-based film that intelligently argues for God’s existence and makes clear that He loves each of us. In an age when the Big Bang and Evolution are central teachings found in academia’s science classes (and many philosophy classes), this is a film every Christian student should see, for it reminds them that they need to study God’s Word (and ask questions of mature followers of Christ) in order to confront detractors of God’s truth. PG
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL
I know this film caused a bit of controversy, as Christians are often suspicious of Hollywood’s portrait of heavenly matters. Deservedly so. Time and again I’ve stated in my writings that the truth is found in God’s Word, seldom in Tinseltown’s products. But, wow, how great was it to view a movie in theaters that spoke of the reality of God and Heaven! A movie such as Heaven Is For Real can certainly set the stage for a meaningful dialogue. And a film dealing with the subject of the soul should remind the faithful of our duty as Christ’s ambassadors. PG
THE GOOD LIE
After their village is attacked and slaughtered by terrorists, a Sudanese refugee and his brothers and sister are allowed to enter the United States. They’ve come from a small plains village with absolutely no modern conveniences we Americans take for granted. So, imagine the culture shock they endure as they attempt to adjust to their new home. Though The Good Lie (title taken from a Huckleberry Finn reference) has some brutal moments that are unsettling, it is full of humor mixed with warmth and pathos. And by the end of this illuminating theatrical experience, we are also reminded of how blessed we are to be in America. PG-13
A music-driven romantic drama (an updated version of the life of Solomon), The Song shows the protagonist searching for things we all long for: significance and meaning. It is a moving, entertaining ode to marriage. PG
GET ON UP
In his follow-up to the four-time Academy Award®-nominated blockbuster The Help, Tate Taylor directs 42’s Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in in this bio of the legendary “Godfather of Soul.” According to this production, Mr. Brown had to overcome the abandonment of both parents and the segregation prevalent in the South of the 1930s. The film and actor Chadwick Boseman give us a taste of the true James Brown, a musician with a lasting impact on future performers. PG-13
THE HORNET’S NEST
This wartime documentary gives an honest, in-your-face view of military life under fire. While it only hints at why men of valor do what they do, it offers a forthright depiction of what they do. It reminds us of the price being paid in the name of freedom by men (and women) of courage. The battle scenes are powerful, unnerving and unforgettable. The insights revealed are moving and encouraging. Indeed, it may be the best documentary I’ve seen depicting men under fire. Rated R: please read the full review to get the content. It is definitely for mature viewers, due to the violence. But while the film is peppered with obscenities (they are, after all, soldiers in battle), I caught no misuse of God’s name.
Inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mabatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the color of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. Left to wonder if she will ever find love, Belle falls for an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England. The picture documents how good men, having examined the evil of slavery, put their reputations on the line in order to stand against such wrongdoings. Topnotch cinematography, production design and writing of substance help make this endeavor a most engaging night at the movies. PG
Disneynature’s documentary follows an Alaskan bear family as its young cubs are taught life's most important lessons. Stunning! Once again, the folks at Disneynature seem to have gone where no man has gone before. From entering the caves where bears are hibernating, to the seeming side-by-side challenge of facing a world that contains avalanches and predators, we are transported into an amazing true-life adventure. G
DOLPHIN TALE 2
No memorable acting, no deep message, it’s just a fun family film. PG
THE PERFECT WAVE
A young surfer dude seeks the greatest wave experience of his life. Meanwhile, his mother keeps praying her unbelieving son will learn “No matter how far away you are from God, if you call out from your heart, He will hear you and forgive you.” The sea-and-surf movie genre is often used as a metaphor for life. The Endless Summer, Soul Surfer, Chasing Mavericks, these films are about young people finding themselves, distinguishing themselves, and seeking life’s true meaning. The Perfect Wave also addresses those themes. Plus one more. Perhaps the most significant element to this production is the representation of the importance of prayer. Continuing to pray despite the apparent negative results reveals faith in God. And what pleases God more than trusting in Him? Nothing. The film addresses this issue. PG
WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL
A high school football coach teaches his athletes life lessons. Although that same clichéd story structure found in most sports films is this film’s one penalty, thanks to Thomas Carter’s direction, the film holds our attention throughout with…heart. You gotta have heart when telling a football tale and this film does. I’ll go so far as to say, if you like football, and like football movies that contain an element of faith-based philosophy, then you’re going to love When the Game Stands Tall. PG
BIG HERO 6
Loosely based on a Marvel superhero comic book, this action-packed adventure is filled with great use of animation and visuals, a spooky kabuki mask-wearing villain, and several tender moments that give the story poignancy and heart. PG
AMERICAN SNIPER (full review posting 16 January 2015)
Based on a true story, the film recounts the military career of a Navy S.E.A.L. Trained as a sniper whose job was to protect advancing soldiers into hostile zones, the film recreates many of his more than 150 confirmed kills. A little long at 134 minutes (it seems like director Clint Eastwood is showing us nearly every one of those 150 kills), American Sniper stands out due to the production values and a superb cast. But beware, it’s a film about men in war. It’s brutal and peppered with obscenity and deserving of its R rating.
Because of so many elements required to bring a film together, it’s a miracle when any movie comes together. In these cases, miracles just didn’t happen.
Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler star in this rom/com about a man and woman who find themselves stuck together at a resort for families in Africa. Son-of-a-gun, they find romance. I may have outgrown this film genre, as most entries from the past decade have become as alike as the previous ten. But my main problem with Blended stems from the coarse material the filmmakers placed in a so-called family-friendly film. What’s more, if a filmmaker can only muster lowbrow humor, shouldn’t it at least be funny? PG-13
This movie proved that even a film critic wise beyond his years could make a mistake. I got behind this film because I thought it would generate dialogue about the Bible and matters of spirituality. But giant transformer-like rock people helping Noah build the ark? Oh, brother. PG-13
THE OTHER WOMAN
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, and Kate Upton take revenge on a three-timing boyfriend. Sometimes clichéd, often laborious due to slow and miscalculated pacing, the plot is predictable and overly familiar, the comedy rancid, and the language coarse and profane, proving once again that to Hollywood, a new idea is an old idea with more obscenities. PG-13
An angry, cynical, 40-year-old man, bitter from some misdeed done to him in the past, finds a loophole in the rules of a kid’s spelling bee and enters the contest seeking revenge. I kept trying to figure out the point of this movie. Son and abandoning-father issues? Cynicism defeated by a child’s innocence? Possibly. But more likely, it’s just another attempt to drag society’s culture further down the rabbit hole of smutty humor. I’m not suggesting that was the filmmaker’s intent, but by golly that’s what he achieved. Such is the state of movie comedy in our generation. R
This sci-fi fantasy has a movie studio making a digital likeness of an actress. She agrees, for money, but objects 20 years later. Oops, too late. When a filmmaker gets a little too intellectual/artistic his work can come across as pseudo-intellectual/incoherent. I won’t say this film is much ado about nothing, but this live action/animated combo lacks a stimulus for making us care about the proceedings. At some point, we’re just wishing it would end so we can go eat. PG-13
It’s more a medieval tragedy, with Vlad/Dracula trading in his soul in order to unselfishly protect his family and countrymen. Given the strength of a hundred men and enough extra powers to make him a kind of Gothic superhero, the Prince (here he’s a prince, not a count) goes all Conan the Barbarian on the invaders as he turns himself into a tornado of bats and vanquishes the opposing army. Where Dracula was once a creepy and unnerving presence on screen, fearful of the cross, now he’s more a misunderstand superhero, much like Wolverine.
Many films that will no doubt garner Oscar’s attention this year were dreary, downright depressing. Some were agenda based, doing their best to promote secular significance, while avoiding a spiritual component found in some of the best films of years past (The Tree of Life, The Life of Pi, It’s a Wonderful Life, Dead Man Walking, Schindler’s List, Places in the Heart, Tender Mercies, etc.). Those were works of art, films that nurtured the spirit as well as entertained. We had none of them this year. There were some good films, but enduring classics? No (in my opinion). The following could have been.
I liked this action drama about Louis Zamperini, who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II after being stranded at sea for 47 days. But to me, it was only a good movie, not a great one. It’s only through a couple of written lines at film’s end that we learn that Zamperini came to forgive his tormentors, including the barbaric camp commander. Reading those lines, I thought, there’s your story! One leaves the theater suspecting they’ve missed the real story. PG-13
Unable to care for newborn twin babies during the Great Depression, a good couple gives one of their sons to a minster and his barren wife. One grows up to be the identical to Elvis Presley, and the other grows up the identical to the identical. Though I appreciate the fact that the film has some spiritual substance, I can’t help thinking the producers wasted Blake Rayne on a film where he’s not actually playing Elvis. It’s a bizarre concept, having this character built in the likeness of the King of Rock & Roll, which overshadows the film’s main themes. PG
IF I STAY
Life changes in an instant for young Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz ) after a car accident takes her family and puts her in a coma. During an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether to give in to death or wake up and live. The film then intermingles hospital scenes with her before life. The film reflects the sanctity of life, emphasizing that life, despite its troubles and woes, is worth the struggle. And our lives do affect those of others, a lesson well taught long ago in It’s A Wonderful Life. But the older I get, the less enthralled I am with films where characters face death, yet no one in the entire film mentions God. People are seen weeping and waiting, but not one single character is seen praying. What, this family doesn’t know anybody who prays? PG-13
THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY
A migrant family from India defiantly opens a restaurant across the street from a 4-star eatery. There is a clash between the proprietress of the celebrated French restaurant and the new neighbors, but once she gets a bite of their food, well, relationships build. Sadly for me, this movie, although sumptuous to look at, lacks that one ingredient that would make it a satisfying feast. The preparing of food in movies can be seen as a metaphor for life, yet director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) either shows a contempt for religious matters in his films or, as in this case, ignores them altogether. Perhaps that’s the missing spice. PG