In terms of films that had substance, were well-made and were palatable for Christian viewers, 2015 offered sadly slim pickings. Nevertheless, I have worked diligently to prepare a suitable shortlist. So, here now, I give you the most entertaining, the most thoughtful, the most emotionally satisfying, the best films of 2015.
Here’s the link to the second half of my Robin Williams top five retrospective, guest-posted at Paul Asay’s blog Watching God. We’re going backwards, so Part II discusses my top two choices. If you missed Part I, click here. I also close out Part II with a video tribute I edited together last year. (Those of you who haven’t seen it already can watch directly on YouTube here.)
In arranging this shortlist, I focused on the films that I thought were best as films, not just Robin Williams performances. To be clear, I don’t recommend all of them for all audiences, and I’m honest about where I think some of them are flawed. Use your own discretion and don’t take this as an unequivocal endorsement of every movie on this list. Still, I chose them because I think they’re all well-made, they all say something true, and they all feature Williams at his best. The final standings, in order, were:
The Fisher King
Good Will Hunting
Dead Poets Society
By chance, both of my top picks feature Williams in supporting roles beside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two great Hollywood legends. Performances like these prove that Robin Williams the actor was not merely a gimmicky extension of Robin Williams the comic, but a serious talent who could hold his own next to American cinema’s finest.
Paul told me that these would actually be his personal top five as well, but he would rank them this way (though he was then seized with sudden worry about where to put Hook, a worry I confess I didn’t share):
The Fisher King
Dead Poets Society
Good Will Hunting
I’m pleased to say my review of the detective thriller Insomnia impressed him so much that he bumped it up a full notch after previously having it in 4th place. Sadly, I can’t convince him to dislodge Dead Poets Society from second place, but all was made clear when I learned that he was a college literature major when it first came out. Figures. (Just giving you a hard time, Paul!) I also convinced him to give Awakenings another watch, and I hope I can convince you to do the same, because it is a truly great film which is sadly underrated in the Williams canon. Williams gives perhaps his most poignant, self-effacing performance here, in a true story that makes a powerful statement about the human condition and the sanctity of life. The film is devastating and sad, but as I say in my review, it will change you. It changed me. To learn more about the work of Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book on which it’s based, watch this 7 minute video. Be warned: It’s not easy watching, but it is unbearably beautiful:
Focus on the Family’s Paul Asay has once again very kindly lent me his personal blogspot for some reflections on the best films of Robin Williams, who committed suicide a year ago this week. I asked Paul if he’d be interested in hosting a top five list, and he was. Anyone who’s interested can read Part I here right now. Paul and I will publish Part II next week. Please note that these are not comprehensive reviews, although I do try to note some content concerns in a few of my picks. Some of my favorite Williams films are sadder, darker, and aimed at a more mature audience than popular favorites like Aladdin or Hook. However, all five of my picks do have something in common: They all grapple with life’s toughest questions. What is our purpose? What is integrity? What is truth? How do we deal with loss? How do we deal with ourselves? How do we love the unlovable? Where do we look for love? For redemption? And all of them have endings that, while sometimes bittersweet, leave the viewer with the sense that at least some of these questions have been answered in a satisfying way.
As I explain at the beginning of my piece, I personally was not a Williams fan until last year, so unlike Paul, I took little notice of his death. I eventually came to appreciate his work not because of celebrity infatuation, but because I thought that much of it was actually worth something. The mark of any good film is that it speaks to something true about human nature beyond the confines of individual characters and plots. I hope I have brought that out successfully. And whatever your own level of Williams fan-hood, I hope that you, too, will gain something from my insights on these films.
“[It’s about] growing up, and about inner conflict, and about dealing with yourself, and all that stuff.” — Littlest Sister on Inside Out
Littlest Sister and I had another adventure in the theater recently. Since our interview/review format worked so well for the faith-based movie Beyond the Mask, I decided to use her precociously articulate charm for my own ends once again and get her take on Pixar’s latest smash hit, Inside Out. The simple premise is that a little girl’s emotions are personified, and we get to go on a journey with them inside her own mind, as she deals with a tough family move and the pressures of growing up.
As before, the format for this interview was record, conversate, transcribe and publish. No splicing and dicing! We realize we’re about a month late to this party, so as a result, there will be a few spoilers (albeit understated spoilers, considering the unique nature of the story). If you’ve already seen the film or don’t mind having it mildly spoiled for you, we hope you enjoy our joint insights on it! It certainly had both of us wishing we had brought tissues.
This week, I took my youngest sister to the theater for a screening of a new family adventure movie called Beyond the Mask. It was produced by cousins Chad and Aaron Burns, homeschool alumni who are now working to make Christian films together. Set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it boasts some scenery-chewing star power with John Rhys-Davies as the villain (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings) and contains more special effects shots than blockbusters like Inception and Pirates of the Caribbean. (When I showed her the trailer, her reaction was, and I quote, “Ooooh, sword fights and stuff on fire. I want to see this!”) The premise is that a former British spy migrates to America and becomes a masked vigilante for the cause of liberty, hoping to redeem himself from his shady past. Along the way, he discovers true love, strong hate, harsh revenge, and all that fun stuff.
Our theater captain was the effects coordinator for the film, as well as the 2nd assistant director. The town showed up in force, and Littlest Sister and I had a high old time together, though we did note some things that could have been improved. Among other things, we discussed the film’s historical accuracy, and our conclusions may surprise you! So instead of having me write a typical review, I thought it would be fun to change it up and interview her instead. I simply hit record and transcribed our entire conversation, with very entertaining results. As you’ll see, the family resemblance is quite strong. Enjoy this special guest appearance. (My questions are in bold, and her answers are in normal type.)
[UPDATE: 1/25/15 Since first writing this post, I’ve found more information on one of the slanderous claims that’s going around about Kyle, and I’ve updated it accordingly.]
Whether or not you’re the movie-going type, you’ve been hearing an awful lot about this one movie lately. It’s breaking box office records, FOX news is promoting it like crazy, and wild-eyed leftists are feverishly tweet-blogging their hatred for it and its subject. I’m talking about Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, based on the best-selling book by Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.
With over 150 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle is the most lethal sniper in American history. After ten years of putting country before family, he resigned from the Navy to recover from post-traumatic stress, save his marriage and get to know his own children. He chose to put his story in book form to give people a candid look at the Iraq conflicts and the sacrifices made by military families. A compelling war memoir and a painfully honest love story, it shot to the top of the charts, and Kyle’s public profile soared. But he took the most pride in the organizations he founded to help other struggling veterans cope with the transition back to civilian life. These included veterans with PTSD. On February 2, 2013, Chris Kyle was shot and killed by one of those veterans at a gun range. All of Texas mourned.
Those who knew Chris Kyle well remember him as a war hero, a loving husband and father, and a humble man who shied from the spotlight and never stopped pouring himself into the military community. But as always, the left-wing media knows best. Meanwhile, you, a fairly pro-military conservative Christian (if previous surveys of my readership are a clue) are watching it all unfold and getting curious. If you’re like me, you may not have even heard of Chris Kyle until this movie came out. You now have conservative friends who are raving about the movie, and you’re wondering if you should see it too, just to find out what all the fuss is about. You’re probably wondering how much of it is Hollywood and how much of it is Kyle’s true story. You wonder if it’s really as conservative as Fox News says. You wonder if it’s any good. And you wonder if there’s anyone out there discussing Chris Kyle’s story from a Christian perspective, as distinguished from a purely conservative perspective.
“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” — Dylan Thomas
Since this film is still showing in IMAX theaters, and since it’s still my favorite film of the year, I thought it appropriate to put out my review of Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Grappling with Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything, with characters I cared about, set against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of astrophysics geekery… what more could I ask for? As my dad said on our way out of the theater, “I might come up with something to dislike about it. Next year.” But in truth, that’s not quite accurate. I do have some criticisms of the film. They’re just outweighed by the positives.
In brief, the premise is that some time in the near future, Earth’s crops are plagued by blight, and the atmosphere is slowly becoming unbreathable. In this 21st century dustbowl, we’re introduced to former NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer Joseph Cooper (“Coop”), played by Matthew McConaughey. Coop is a restless soul, a man born out of due time. In the words of his father-in-law, he “was good at something and never got a chance to use it.” He can’t pretend to like farming. But the world needs farmers, not engineers, and he’ll do anything to carve out a life for his two children.
His daughter Murphy is preternaturally smart. So when she starts to report some paranormal happenings, Coop is puzzled and skeptical. Books are falling off her shelf by themselves, she says. A small ship model is found inexplicably broken on the floor. Her theory? “I looked it up. It’s called a poltergeist.”
“That’s not very scientific, Murph,” murmurs Papa with mild disapproval.
“You said science is about admitting what we don’t know.”
The kid’s got a point. And a knack for foreshadowing dialogue.
A good movie is hard to find. Bad writing, bad acting and even worse morals are the norm for much of what Hollywood is shoveling out these days. And more often than not, self-styled Important Films that Say Something wind up being thinly-disguised propaganda for the political left. Apparently, that rare breed of film that simply tells a story isn’t considered Important enough in and of itself.
While he has quietly voiced some conservative opinions, actor Robert Downey, Jr. seems like an unlikely candidate to lead a revival of substantial, thought-provoking movie-making. But the star who’s made millions in mainstream superhero flicks has surprised his fans by expressing a desire to do just that, with a production company he and his wife have co-founded themselves. The Judge is their debut project. And while the Hollywood establishment is wrinkling their noses at it, it appears that the majority of ordinary movie-watching Americans are giving it a thumbs up.
The film is billed as a courtroom drama, whose two main characters are a father (Robert Duvall) and son (Downey, Jr.) attempting to find reconciliation after decades of silence and bitterness. The father is the county judge, and the son, Hank, is an arrogant hotshot lawyer. (His tagline: “Innocent people can’t afford me.”) When their wife and mother dies, Hank’s return re-opens old family wounds. And just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, his father is involved in an accident that looks suspiciously like murder. What’s more, the Judge is suffering from memory loss and can’t recall any of it. There’s only one decent choice for Hank: Stay and defend his old man in court. But that may be easier said than done.
The father-son bonding premise intrigued me, and after watching this trailer, I was hooked by the acting and the writing (note: one crude slang term). I decided to see the film and give it my own verdict. My verdict is that The Judge is simultaneously the best and most frustrating movie I’ve seen all year. Continue reading “Movie Review: The Judge”→
So, I saw God’s Not Dead in theaters last month, and I lived to tell the tale. For those of you who may have heard of the movie and were wondering what I thought about it, here are all my pros and cons in one place. It surpassed all expectations at the box office, becoming a legit Christian blockbuster. $48 million was the last figure I heard. Clearly it’s connected with its grassroots evangelical audience. Premise: One lone Christian student takes up the challenge to convince his college peers of the evidence for God, or else face the wrath of the vindictive atheist professor. It’s a classroom David and Goliath drama, plus a little apologetics, Duck Dynasty, and the Newsboys. Did I love it? Did I hate it? Did I find something to like about it? There’s only one way to find out…