It’s about to be the 20’s! As we await the start of a new Jazz Age, we look back on the films of the teens. It will not go down as one of the great eras for Hollywood, but there were nonetheless many diamonds in the cinematic rough. Which ones should be most memorable to Catholics and useful for their evangelization of culture? Here are my top picks from each year.
2010: David Fincher’s The Social Network has proved prophetic. Appearing just three years after the advent of the iPhone, it is the story of how we took our lives out of reality and decided to live them online. It is also a cautionary tale of how human ambition easily goes astray without an end worthy of the passion we put into it. The portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s loneliness amid thousands and then millions of “friends” hits all of us close to home, reminding Catholics of the gift of communion with Our Lord and one another, and the challenge of bringing the lost into the household of faith. In the same year, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and a talented ensemble cast, messed with our minds and re-focused us on the ground of our being, God himself. In Christ, we know what is real. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, featuring Natalie Portman at her very best, is well worth another viewing too. Beauty detached from truth and goodness can be a dark and dismal affair. Catholics have something better to offer.
2011: The Tree of Life is Terrence Malick’s theological masterpiece. We’re told, “no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” It is a devastating and hopeful, multi-generational American family tale. It is also the story of creation, with ideas about the origin of life that Malick had explored as far back as the 1970’s finally making their way to the screen. It was shot in Malick’s native Texas with characteristic natural light and a stellar cast, including one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances. Every one of the 188 minutes of running time is edifying.
2012: Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s most successful film at the box office. Like all the rest, it has cartoon levels of violence, but this time it only scrapes the surface of the gruesome nature of chattel slavery in the antebellum south. It is also a Germanic fairytale about the hero’s quest for vengeance, with frequent affirmations that original sin has stained even the purest of motives. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio are a trio for the cinematic ages. In the same year, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, a letdown after the iconic second film, but still an excellent offering full of material for every Catholic to contemplate and share: “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”
2013: About Time is less well-known than many other films from this year, but its treatment of destiny and vocation makes it my top pick. Written and directed by Richard Curtis and starring Bill Nighy, Rachel McAdam, and Domhnall Gleeson, it a charming story of a family whose men have the special gift of time travel. Nighy uses this gift to read all the great books at his leisure. Gleeson uses it to get a girlfriend. In the end, the film reminds Christians what our faith teaches us: We are creatures of free will, but there is a divine will always at work in our lives. Our posture to the past can only be gratitude; toward the future, hope. We don’t get a do-over, but we do get lots of second chances, thanks be to God.
2014: Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansen, stood out in a sub-par year (Birdman was Best Picture, for goodness sake!). It begins as a terrifying glimpse of the underworld of drugs and human trafficking that then explores new boundaries of human ability. St. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is man fully alive,” but this film reminds us of the danger of pursuing the hidden power of our brains and bodies without Him who made us. Besson asks big questions about existence in the context of non-stop action in international locations. It is dark and disturbing at times, but so are many of the results of technological and medical innovations in our world today.
2015: Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant led the pack in one of the best film years in recent memory. In yet another of Leonardo DiCaprio’s unforgettable performances of the decade, we are led on a journey through a stunning sacramental landscape through the themes of death and resurrection, justice, and the sovereignty of God. Mad Max: Fury Road is the runner-up, taking George Miller’s famous dystopian franchise into new explorations of freedom and flourishing amid ruin. Pixar’s Inside Out, like Wall-E and Up years earlier, is so much more than a kids’ movie. Grab a hanky and prepare yourself for the kind of painful emotional liberation that gives way to renewal of your mind for Christ (Ephesians 4:22-24).
2016: In the year of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s great Japanese Catholic novel Silence, my favorite film for religious and philosophic contemplation was Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Like Silence, Paterson stars Adam Driver. Here he is not a Jesuit missionary, but a Marine Corps veteran who has returned from war abroad and wants nothing more than a quiet existence. And why not? He has made great sacrifices already, and now he drives a bus, writes poetry on his lunch hour, and enjoys an evening ritual of dog-walking and a drink in his local bar. This one is off-beat; but it touches the soul deeply with an almost liturgical rhythm of the graces of ordinary life. You might like Silence too.
2017: Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a portrait of a struggling secular family on the periphery of faith by way of a Catholic school. Starring Saoirse Ronan, it is funny and touching, and it depicts the real prospect of a young person almost accidentally formed in virtue by the Church. In an age of religious apathy, one wonders if the greatest rebellion may be fervent faith. Pixar triumphs again with Coco, a beautiful depiction of the communion of the living and the dead. Logan completes the saga of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character in a brutal but encouraging depiction of sacrificial love. Charles Xavier appeals to the things that endure: “This is what life looks like. A home, people who love each other. Safe place. You should take a moment and feel it.”
2018: Finally a Marvel movie! Black Panther is my favorite of the almost two dozen offerings from the MCU since 2008. Director and Co-writer Ryan Cooglerinvites serious questions about race, identity, nation, and unity while keeping his foot on the gas pedal all the way through. What is the responsibility of the man (or the civilization) with the talents (Matthew 25/Luke 19)? Watch and learn. If you want another excellent but wildly different cinematic experience, also check out Alfonso Cuaron’s deeply personal film Roma.
2019: The decade closes with opposites. Todd Phillips’s Joker is the definitive depiction for our times of the sickness and weakness of men. The world gets constantly crazier and more violent for someone whose tragedies compound in the statement, “I don’t believe in anything.” Catholics are challenged by this brilliant but bleak movie to let our lights shine brighter. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life helps us. Sneaking in just as the decade closes, Malick wows us again, this time with an overtly Catholic hagiography. It is the story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a man who chose to be strong with Christ in his weakness, and now lives to intercede for us in heaven. As we prepare for a new decade with new challenges to face for Christ and his kingdom, we have a great model to follow.
Let a new golden age of faith and film begin!