Regular readers of mine know that I think movies are an important culture-shaping medium. And Netflix has become an important way of delivering movies and other video content, especially since it brings movies directly into our homes and onto our desktops.
But navigating Netflix can be daunting. It has literally thousands of offerings at any given moment. So from time to time, I will be offering suggestions for movies Christians should consider. I certainly wouldn’t call it a list of movies that Christians “must see.” You can make those decisions for yourself, and I’ll try to give you enough information to make those decisions intelligently. For example, some movies may be too realistically violent (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Nightcrawler”) for sensitive viewers. So use your own judgment as you examine even my list.But all of the titles on the list below have several qualities worth noting. They are movies that are good to excellent from the point of view of craft. Many of them illuminate or illustrate something about our culture or our history (“Metropolis,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” among others). Others are inventive stories that allow us to see classic themes in new ways (“E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” “The Chronicles of Narnia”).
One thing I know about such lists: No two are alike. So argue amongst yourselves, and your feedback is welcome. Presented here in alphabetical order:
The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This 2010 production, based on the third book of C.S. Lewis’s beloved series, is not a great movie, but it is a good movie, certainly worth watching, and if it gets more people reading Lewis—both his fiction and non-fiction—then all the better.
The Drop Box. A powerful documentary about a Korean pastor who has adopted dozens of babies abandoned in a “drop box” he placed outside his church. The director, Brian Ivie, started the project while a film student at the University of Southern California. The selfless love of the pastor he was filming eventually brought him to faith in Christ.
E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. Nominated for nine Academy Awards and the recipient of four, “ET” is on many lists of the great movies of all time. The iconic themes include the power of friendship, the quest for home, and the longing for a father. It’s a bit sentimental in places for my taste, but it’s hard not to like a movie so carefully and joyfully made. From script to effects to music to . . . well, just about every aspect of the movie is worth studying. This PG-rated movie has an occasional outburst of bad language, as well as one funny scene in which ET inadvertently gets drunk. These elements keep me from recommending it for the entire family, but for adults and most children, this film is a delightful couple of hours.
Grizzly Man. This 2005 documentary is a chance to see one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Werner Herzog, on both sides of the camera, as he is both director and narrator of this morality tale in the wild. The titular “grizzly man” is bear worshipper Timothy Treadwell, who is ultimately destroyed by the creature he purports to love and understand. Herzog makes extensive use of Treadwell’s own video footage, and footage of Treadwell appearing on talk shows, with great precision and irony. It slowly dawns on us that, yes, Treadwell is a media-obsessed narcissist, but we are all complicit because we can’t take our eyes off of him. The scene in which Herzog listens to an audio recording of Treadwell and his girlfriend being eaten by a grizzly bear is all the more powerful because we never hear it ourselves. All we see is Herzog’s face. What we feel is frustration over not being able to see or hear what happened, and guilt and disgust—and a flash of self-awareness—for wanting to.
To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s hard to imagine that anyone hasn’t seen this movie, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it off.
Man on Wire. This 2008 documentary tells the story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. It has too many awards to mention, though I will note that it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In the post-9/11 era, the movie takes on additional resonance as a lovely remembrance of the Twin Towers.
Metropolis. This 1927 film is on most film critics’ lists of the greatest of all time. It was one of the first full-length science-fiction films, and its Expressionistic/Bauhaus/Cubist art direction is still visually stunning, nearly 100 years later. It was directed by Fritz Lang, whose strong Roman Catholic upbringing often finds expression in his films. The movie is two-and-a-half hours long, and it’s from the silent era to boot, so it requires a bit of discipline for those of us used to Hollywood’s 90-minute crash-and-chase films. But watching “Metropolis”—like reading Dostoyevsky—is something you should make yourself do. That is, at least long enough to realize that you’re actually enjoying it.
Nightcrawler is a creepy 2014 film that is a brilliant and scathing satire of the TV news business and modern media generally, not to mention our culture’s postmodern nihilism. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in his role as a morally challenged photographer who sabotages crime scenes (and other news reporters) in order to get the most sensational footage for his news station. Please note, however: This is one of those movies that is both important and difficult to recommend. It fully earns its R rating. No nudity, but plenty of violence and foul language. This movie is not for children, and probably not for many adults, either.
Poverty, Inc. This documentary was directed by Michael Matheson Miller, who spoke at the Colson Center’s 2016 Wilberforce Weekend. It exposes the problems with the current “poverty industry,” a matrix of aid and relief organizations that, while well intentioned, has done little to reduce poverty and may even be a part of the problem. If you care for the poor, watch this movie.
Saving Private Ryan is a movie I wish every American would see. Duty, honor, courage, fear, cowardice, love, and the horrible, random violence of war are on full display. Those with a weak stomach should know that war is portrayed with brutal realism here, but watch it if you can, and the next time you see a grizzled and stooped old man wearing a VFW cap that doesn’t fit quite right, shake his hand and say thank you.
The Sound of Music. Sure, it’s sentimental. In fact, early reviews were brutal. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and at the time the dean of film critics, called “The Sound of Music” “romantic nonsense.” Many who saw the movie when it came out in 1965 had firsthand memories of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, and couldn’t stomach the rise of the Third Reich treated as musical comedy. But the movie also shows that character is destiny and that the arc of history bends toward justice. After all, Nazism is dead, and the von Trapps still sing. Indeed, you would have to be grumpier than Baroness von Schraeder not to be won over by a film that walks that knife-edge between sentimentality and earnest realism without a stumble. The casting, the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, Robert Wise’s sure-footed direction, amazing cinematography—and, of course, the heroic story of the von Trapp family—all work together seamlessly.
Spotlight tells the story of the investigative journalism team that uncovered clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s a helpful look not only into the way investigative journalism works in this country, but also into why and how evil behavior can persist for decades in organizations that should know better.
True Grit (1969). I don’t like this version nearly as much as the Coen Brothers’ 2010 version. Glen Campbell and Kim Darby are badly miscast, and the director made a strategic mistake (in my view) when he chose to tell the story in linear fashion rather than as a flashback. Both the book and the Coen Brothers’ version use the flashback technique, which adds a layer of irony that is important to the story. Still, the ’69 version does have an Oscar-winning performance from John Wayne, and the original Charles Portis novel, with its tight storyline and great one-liners, is too good to mess up.
Zootopia. A funny, PG-rated movie great for all but the youngest children, it has plenty to keep adults interested, too. It takes the “you can be anything you want” message a bit too far at times, but its utopian sentimentality is balanced by its humorous skewering of political correctness and transcendental meditation.
Image courtesy of Jupiterimages and Brand X Pictures at Thinkstock by Getty Images.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.