As it seems that every other film critic or keeper of a weblog that deals with film is compiling a ‘best of’ list as the end of the Noughties approaches at speed, I feel compelled to offer one of my own (which might mean I am conformist at heart, but I hope not). In no particular order and in full recognition of the futility of the exercise, eleven of the best films from the last ten years that touch on matters of religion or the religious:
Frame Capture from Sunshine
Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007): Working from an unusually thoughtful script by the novelist Alex Garland (who in The Tesseract gives us a compelling distillation of the fractures of the contemporary world), Boyle gives us another science fiction meditation on the possible end of the world. The film is also a haunting allegory for the deep darknesses that still exist out there waiting for us to find, whether that darkness is the relentless, uncaring power of nature or the madness of believing one to be uniquely chosen by the divine for a mission of extreme violence. At the same time, it is possibly the most taut, visceral and simply exciting film on this list.
Children of Men (Afonso Cuaron, 2006): This is the most chilling and most believable of any of the dystopian futures we have seen in a century that seems to be revelling in the fact that it may or may not have much of a future. The quick glimpses we get of the religious reactions – hopelessness, self-flagellation – to a potentially world-ending crisis are telling and perfectly in line with what could happen. This is stunning science fiction at the same time that it is a deeply felt and well-considered meditation on the way we live now, and the ways we may not live in the future (it is also the only film on this list whose DVD special features include a documentary starring Slavoj Žižek rambling on about the sorry sate of the world, which makes it worth a rental even if for no other reason). In the end, chilling as it may be, the film’s only fault is that it may be too hopeful, too firm in its affirmation of the human capacity for good.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): This is a bluntly subversive film, an argument in narrative form that American capitalism and American Christianity are two sides of the same corrupt coin. Told in the from of a character study of the most deeply and convincingly misanthropic figure in contemporary popular culture, Anderson’s best film to date tells the story of the intertwining of the religious and the economic that can be read as a condemnation of the Prosperity Gospel movement or as a critique of violence perpetrated in the name of profit that is given a slickly religious gloss. or even as a repudiation of the whole language of family values. Regardless of how you look at, this is strong stuff, the kind of challenging, socially aware cinema that we can never have enough of.
Frame Capture from Heaven
Heaven (Tom Tykwer, 2002): Working from a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, originally intended as part of another trilogy for Kieslowski, sho gave us the lovely Trois Colours, the great German director Tom Tykwer turns this simple tale of two damaged people in love and on the run into something altogether remarkable. It resonates with biblical and Christian themes and language and offers a very strange and very effective kind of aesthetic redemption to its protagonists, both of whom are murderers. At the same time, this is no simple religious parable or morality play; there is so much going on here below the surface of what seems to be a very simple story that it is almost staggering. The second script in the series, L’Enfer, a bitter tale about the hell of other people, was made into a film in 2005 by Danis Tanovic. The third, dealing with the theme of Purgatory, sadly, remains unfilmed.
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008): This might seem like a stretch, but bear with me for a moment or two. When the butler Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, Batman’s playboy alter-ego, that some men – the Joker in this case – just want to watch the world burn, he nails the character of religiously-motivated violence in the contemporary world, which is more performative and symbolic than strategic or tactical. In the final analysis, this is a startling depiction of the deep irrationalities and the dark magics that underlie the surface of the rationalised modern world. It is also a striking visualisation of the things that modern societies must do to combat these forces. On this front, see also Tykwer’s brilliant 2006 adaptation of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and to a lesser extent Nolan’s own 2006 film The Prestige.
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Though it does branch over into Orientalist fantasy on occasion, this retelling of the seminal American story of the colonial captain John Smith and his relationship with an Algonquin girl, usually given the name Pocahontas, is a distillation of Malick’s decades-long meditation on modernity and its deeply destructive relationship with nature. This bears as little resemblance as possible to the deplorable Disney film dealing with the same story. In The New World, he does this primarily through a comparison, never forced, between the enchanted world of the Algonquin and one that is being violently disenchanted, and this with the help of the church that we see the British colonists building in their mudpit of a town, built for the film a few kilometres from the site of the historical Jamestown, first settled in the early seventeenth century. It is also one of the most visually stunning films on this list, even if cannot compare with Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven, arguably the single most beautiful movie in the history of movies. For the curious, I’ve written more on Malick here.
Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006): The only documentary to make this list, Jesus Camp, and one which is a little suspect in its own implicit claims towards objectivity, Jesus Camp, like no other film, gives us a window into the world of fundamentalist Christianity (and I know this is an unpopular term in the academy, but here it fits like a glove) in the United States. That the film renders this world as one that is alien and largely incomprehensible to much of the world beyond the American heartland is only to its credit. These people are out there, and there are more of them than we might care to think.
Frame Capture from Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, 2003): This is, I do realise, a cliché, and a film that seems to go out of its way to pander to Western preconceptions about Buddhism, but it is also a lovely little piece of work, a gentle but powerful parable about the weight of suffering and delusion that so many of us seem to carry with us. It also features the single best cinematic use of a cat in recent memory. See it as a double feature with Ki-Duk’s 3-Iron, which is just as much a parable and perhaps even more a Buddhist film than Spring, though in a far more subtle manner.
The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005): With the possible exception of the very different The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hilcoat’s Old Testament inflected story of the Australian Outback in the middle of the nineteenth century is the finest Western of the decade. Working from a script by bad seed Nick Cave, the film takes on a veneer of biblical darkness and inhabits a moral universe that owes far more to the logic of the book of Job than to the myths of civilising European colonialism. At the end of the film, when two men, one barbaric and dying, the other alive and vaguely more civilised, sit facing the future, the film suggests that this is the heart of where we are now, and that heart lies in large part informed by the bloody stories of our past, both biblical and colonial. For further reflections on the film and its place in contemporary Australian cinema, I’ve written more elsewhere on this site.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): Miyazaki is one of our great filmmakers, a fiercely original voice and a deeply moral commentator on the world at large. A classic story of a haunted amusement park and a paean to the complex spirit world of the Japanese religions, this is amusing, touching, terrifying and intellectually engaging all at the same time.
Frame Capture from The Bothersome Man
The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, 2006): Another dystopian film that suggests that the modern city with all its cleanliness, order and impeccable taste, just might be hell (and I had such fond memories of Oslo, which this film has truly interrupted). This little Norwegian gem is one of the few really original visions of the afterlife that we’ve seen in years and it is one of the most blackly comic films in a decade full of pitch-dark humour. It is also a stirring demand that we all become bothersome to those things that require bothering (rationalisation, commodification, etc.).
And the worst (and this one was easy): The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004): Gibson’s infamous film is riddled with problems. It is historically inaccurate (Jesus and Pilate conversing in Latin rather than Greek (the language that two men in their traditional positions would have had in common), the executioner’s nails being driven through the palms and not the wrists, etc., etc.), which is really only a problem given that the filmmakers made such a big noise about being historically accurate. It is brutally, cruelly sadistic and in its cruelty becomes deeply suspect on a theological level, given that it transforms the suffering of Jesus into an endurance test that no man (not even a white guy with digitally-altered brown eyes and a prosthetic hook nose) could have survived such torture for so long, essentially denying the messianic figure the divinity that has so long defined Christianity’s theological understanding of its own textual history. This is a Braveheart version of Jesus that avoids deeper questions and goes for the dubious pleasures of reveling in the torture, though crucifixion was absolutely a form of torture, something the film actually gets right. Despite removing the vaunted ‘blood libel’ from the Gospel of Matthew from the finished film (though they did shoot it), it is also rabidly anti-Semitic as well as being deeply misogynistic – Satan takes the form of a woman who we often see stalking unseen among the Jewish crowds. It makes the Roman authorities into enlightened and sympathetic humanists while at the same time transforming the occupied Semitic peoples of Jerusalem into a vacuous rabble that is violent, backwards, bloodthirsty and in need of some civilising. If this isn’t what a colleague here at Otago calls ‘a theology of empire’, and a thinly-veiled defence of the American occupation of Iraq, I don’t know what is. It is also guilty of the most grievous of all cinematic sins in that it is flat-out boring and at least an hour too long.
Perhaps even more so than Jesus Camp, the film is a crystallisation of all that is perverse and troubling about Evangelical Christianity in the United States in the twenty-first century. That it became the rallying point of an election and that any criticism of the film was labelled anti-Christian regardless of its source or motivation, made the very existence of the film deeply disturbing. It was shot in part in Matera (in the region of Basilicata), the same Italian city as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece Il vangelo secondo Matteo, but the two films could not be more different. That this, still by far the best film about Jesus ever made, was made by an atheist who portrayed Satan as a Catholic priest, says something very interesting about the place of the story of the Gospels in Western culture. If you’ve not seen Pasolini’s take on Jesus as a socialist revolutionary, you should.