Which films should I show in class?  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

The first week of January I will be once again teaching a 2-credit course, “Film & Theology” at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis. It’s rather intensive (4 straight days, 8:30-12 noon, 1-4 pm) but a delight for me. It seems undeniable that film is a primary story-telling medium—perhaps the primary story-telling medium—in our postmodern world. Being able to explore that with the next generation of leaders in the church, and demonstrate how we can be part of that cultural dialogue is a very good way to spend a week. After all, good films raise the same issues that are addressed in the biblical gospel—the perennial questions of life and reality.

As part of that class, I schedule at least three (and will probably use 4) films to watch in class, and then discuss. After all, talking about engaging an art form but not actually practicing it is not a wise way to develop discernment. There are a multitude of good films I’d like to watch with my students but have to decide on four. I have several qualifications:
            1. The film must be worth discussing. Every movie can be talked about, and usually is, but some movies are very limited in the themes they explore or the depth to which that exploration occurs.
            2. Depictions of sexuality or violence must be moderate. Since we live in a post-Christian and fallen world, it is inevitable that there will be aspects to people’s stories that reflect less than full righteousness. Even the Scriptures contain such stories. Still, since this is an academic setting, the viewers have less discretion as to whether they will choose to see the films. And since there are plenty of fine films that are moderate in how they depict such realities, choosing films that will not produce problems for weaker believers is a responsibility I wish to assume as the instructor.
            3. The film should be easily defensible. I am teaching this course at a Theological Seminary, an institution I happen to like a great deal. I not only teach there, I did my theological studies there. Covenant is part of a denomination in which there are people who are quick to object to whatever they happen to disapprove, and for some movies is on the list. Some of these folks are cultural warriors, some are ideological conservatives, and none have the self-awareness to realize their expressions of “being offended” are actually attempts to control others via the legalisms they spawn. I am pleased that Covenant Seminary offers courses like the one I teach and I want to choose films to watch in class that I can argue are worth seeing and are vital expressions of issues that the church needs to engage.

Films that I have shown in classes in the past include Run Lola Run (1998; R); Nanking (2007; R); Wit (2001; PG-13); Stranger than Fiction (2006; PG-13); and 13 Conversations about One Thing (2001; R).

My question is this: What films would you suggest I show in class? Or to put it another way, which movies would you like the future leaders in the church to discuss during the week they spend with me?

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Little Miss Sunshine would be a great choice!

December 5, 2011 at 3:19 PM

"Tony Takitani" -

Japanese film directed by Jun Ichikawa, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami is an excellent study of the human condition, leaving much to reflect upon. Tony Takitani explores the borders between solitude and loneliness, contentment and want, love and loss as efforts are made to try and find ways to fill voids in the human soul.

Ironically the minimalist sensibilities and subtle nuances of the film may tear at some viewers who are unaware that they themselves have possibly become accustom to swimming in excess. This could leave some feeling confused, lacking or left wanting with the pace and subtle yet profound themes of this film. The expectation (when excess is the norm, particularly in the West) is that one should be continuously placated, pampered and pleased. This film allows the viewer to slow down and hopefully reevaluate some of the shared experiences the film is trying to recount.

All of this is set to a masterful musical score written and performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which is equally as much a part of the intricate story telling of this film as the actual dialog, images and acting. It delicately weaves the entire picture together.

December 5, 2011 at 5:39 PM

"The Tree of Life"
"The Island"
"The Return"
"The Son"
"Changing Lanes"
"Still Walking"

December 5, 2011 at 6:35 PM

1) It's becoming a bit dated, but Garden State is still a significant film for my generation, at least. (Then again, you could probably do Reality Bites or The Graduate and have similar conversations... they're all a kind of seminal film for their decade's youth culture.)
2) There aren't many blockbusters that you can are really thoughtful, intelligent films, but I think beneath the explosions and hollywood glitz there's a lot of good material in The Dark Knight. Some of the Joker's monologues are really brilliantly-written and make for great conversation.
3) Love and Death. It's one of Allen's less-known films, but I think it's an important one and, again, makes for great conversation.
4) Walk the Line. In his autobiography Cash talks about how he's always identified as Christian - there never was a point in his life when he didn't think he was a Christian, even at his lowest moments. Walk the Line shows those moments really clearly, so it could be good for those in training to be pastors to watch and think about how they'd counsel someone like Cash.
5) There Will Be Blood - I think this film ages better than the one that beat it out for the Oscar (No Country...). DDL is magnetic in it. Really, you won't see two better examples of the magnetism of evil than Ledger's Joker and DDL's Plainview. (Magnetism in terms of how you simply can't take your eyes off them. I've not seen many characters who absolutely control the screen like those two. Bardem in No Country is in a similar league, actually.... really depressing year for Hollywood, that one.)
6) Up! or Wall-e are two favorites of mine, but almost any Pixar film could be used.
7) It's an oldie, but On the Waterfront is another favorite. Whenever I see Johnny Friendly screaming at people to stop and they all just stream past him at the end... I always imagine that being Satan after the resurrection. He can rage and threaten and curse, but he has no power. Good sermon illustration, that.

December 5, 2011 at 6:49 PM

"Stranger Than Fiction" could make for a lively discussion on Calvinism

December 5, 2011 at 7:51 PM
Steve Garber  

You will do well, I am sure, Denis. Your sense of what movies matter, and what has been done well, is as good as anyone.

Some recent ones that I think meet the profile you have established:

1) "The Lives of Others" A film set in still-divided Germany, exploring the meaning of life as seen from the perspective of a Stasi spy who spends days listening into a community of artists. (The breasts in this one may make it hard for a seminary setting; you will know.)

2) "Cars" is Wendell Berry made by Pixar, telling the tale of the reality of the covenantal cosmos where people and place are crucial to (human) flourishing.

3) "Buck" is a documentary of the real honest-to-goodness "horse-whisperer." Fascinating insights about the human condition, done so by exploring horses. As Buck says, "I learn a lot about people by getting to know their horses." His own story of great sadness as a boy is woven through, and so it is a story of surprising redemption.

December 7, 2011 at 6:56 AM

I'm Forrest Hughes, I'm a film student at Full Sail University and I love movies and wish I could participate in this class and discussion.

Several Suggestions:

1) Stalker by Andrei Tarkovski, a Russian director who saturates his work with imagery and allegories.

2) The Adjustment Bureau - focuses on the line between free will and predestination

3) Limitless - Having the ability to do literally whatever you want.

4) The Book of Eli - Movie about walking by faith and not by sight.

5) The King's Speech - Friendship, faith and trust

6) American Beauty - Despite its many sensual scenes, the comments on American society are astounding.

7) 500 Days of Summer - Not getting what you want and accepting that.

December 7, 2011 at 9:11 AM
Heather Q.  

I'd go to a class that was going to discuss Once or V for Vendetta.

V might be too violent, though.

December 7, 2011 at 12:49 PM


Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring

Deep Water

Million Dollar Baby

Quiz Show


The Painted Veil

The Namesake

Good Night & Good Luck

Lars & the Real Girl


Joyeux Noel

Babette's Feast

Hotel Rwanda

Remains of the Day

Everything is Illuminated

The Illusionist

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


Midnight in Paris


Get Low

Sweet Land

The Dinner Game (French version, not the stupid American remake)

Cold Souls

The Island (The Russian story about a monk)


December 7, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Everything is Illuminated
Remains of the Day
Quiz Show
Babette's Feast
Hotel Rwanda
Million Dollar Baby
Good Night and Good Luck
Joyeux Noel
The Namesake
Lars and the Real Girl
The Kite Runner
The Painted Veil
Deep Water
The Island (Ostrov)
Midnight in Paris
Sweet Land
Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring
Up in the Air (rated R)

December 7, 2011 at 3:09 PM

Arts & Faith has a top 100 list of the most spiritually significant films, and it's a darn solid assembly of some great cinema. Of the films mentioned by other commenters here, I'd like to second the recommendations of Tony Takitani, The Son, Stalker, Ushpizin, Babette's Feast, Rashomon, and Ikiru.

My own recommendations:

Fantasia (1940). Besides being incredibly beautiful, there's a real effort in this film to engage some of humanity's deepest feelings without using words. The contrast between the "Rites of Spring" sequence and the final "Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" is especially intriguing. Plus: dancing hippos.

The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger). Any of these three is a hugely entertaining, lavish film dealing with a number of issues. The Red Shoes is my favorite, Black Narcissus the most provocative, but Canterbury Tale is probably the most "crowd pleasing."

Winter Light (Bergman, 1962). My favorite film on the struggle of maintaining faith in the face of life's most daunting challenges to it.

La Jetee (Marker, 1962). Determinism, free will, love. All in the space of 28 heartbreaking minutes.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). Deals in evolutionary terms with man's place in the cosmos, but the mystic, mysterious nature of the alien force opens it up to theological implications. Intelligent design, anyone?

The Conversation (Coppola, 1974). Themes of personal responsibility, the limits of knowledge, and the right way to live, all anchored by one of Gene Hackman's best performances. My favorite Coppola film.

The Apostle (Duvall, 1997). The drama of a man of God wrestling with his own sinful nature and his call to save others. Respectful, honest, and lively.

After Life (Kore-eda, 1998). Any film by this director would be fantastic; this one deals with memory, art, love, taking stock, the fear of the unknown, life, death... pretty much everything. But it's gentle, funny, and unorthodox.

Millennium Actress (Kon, 2001). Animated film about, among other things, the blurred line between fantasy and reality, and how art unites them. Deft, encompassing, and moving.

Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006). This one will be a bit provocative, but its central outlook is one that ultimately cherishes and celebrates the power of hope and life itself.

A Serious Man (Coen brothers, 2009). A modern retelling of Job, set in the American suburbs. Caustic, funny, and ambiguous, but clearly an earnest effort to engage the problem of why we're allowed to suffer.

December 7, 2011 at 3:50 PM

I would recommend The Help. A gut wrenching treatment of being thought less than human. PW

December 7, 2011 at 4:38 PM

There are many great films listed here. Most of which would give great thought and discussion and quite a few of which I've used for film discussions.

However, I'm going to suggest two that are completely different from most everything else here.

"District 9" & "Kenny"

If you haven't seen them you obviously know where to find trailers online.

Here's my rationale, having been through the class and now being in a position where I tried to promote regular film discussion, many people think that such a thing is only for people who know a ton about film and are all artsy. They also tend to think that only artsy high brow films can be thought provoking. Not saying that's true but it's an objection I hear.

"District 9" is sci-fi action that was produced low budget but made huge money.

"Kenny" was another low budget indy film that (at least in my part of the world) made it big. It's a mockumentary about a guy who's a professional port-a-potty technician. It's a comedy and it's hilarious.

I've used both of these films for discussions with people at our church and they've produced some of the best film discussions we've ever had. If I had to choose one I'd say "Kenny." It will force your class not to get overly seriously-minded about film, and enjoy it. Also, I've never seen so much scatological humour produce so much great conversation on class warfare, vocation, and humand dignity.

As Steve said though, I'm sure whatever you choose will be golden.

December 8, 2011 at 5:06 AM

Big Fish: This movie could spark several different discussions. The biggest being whether the stories the father told were more or less true and real than the reality the son uncovered. Perception of reality, dealing with death, fate, responsibility,

Contact: A scientist who can't understand the faith of her minister friend embarks on several hour journey across the galaxy, which no one believes actually happened because it apparently took less than a second.

K'Pax: another one about belief, doubt, and things possibly being more than they seem

What Dreams May Come: I'm sure there are many discussions that could come from this one.

A Room with a View: The tension between society's mores and self discovery.

12 Monkeys is another one of my favorites, however it's been a while; I don't remember much violence, but I think there may be some disturbing scenes.

December 8, 2011 at 6:29 AM

Sweet Land - beautiful story about love and acceptance and marriage and prejudice...

Win Win - just watch this recently and really liked it. Themes include: what is a family?; redemption; righting wrongs; forgiveness. And no gratuitous violence or sex (just one naked male rear end...)


December 9, 2011 at 3:15 PM

…So it's not a course in understanding film?

Are you looking to discuss how a film:
- reveals the assumptions culture makes about God?
- depicts Christian theology?
- illustrates how storytelling can be used as an educational tool in theological work?
- shows what insight film's influence on popular theology offers us into how people learn about God?

Or something else?

You could have titled the course "Film and Engaging in Cultural Dialogue" but you chose the "theology" word.

What are you hoping for the students' takeaway to be? Grasping this would help in suggesting an appropriate film:)

An aside - more to commenters than you, Denis.

The limitations on film choices at the seminary are understandable —and unfortunate. Our tradition's hesitance to tolerate watching sex, violence, or language on screen limits what film can offer with respect to developing fuller discernment (empathy, compassion, shared experience ) with respect to, and ability to speak into, difficult or ugly aspects of human beings sharing life. (an approach which unwittingly assumes film as either entertainment or propaganda.)

This is a formidable hinderance to a church leader in the age where the reality of sex (in particular) is as common a stumbling block to those in ministry as anywhere else.The tensions that observing sex in a film might introduce to concerns about character and godliness — while valid— is somewhat anemic compared to what a church leader is likely to face or be called upon to offer counsel.

Am I off base?

Thanks for the good God stuff you and Margie challenge us with.


December 9, 2011 at 10:31 PM

Combine Inside Job with some texts from the prophets.

December 14, 2011 at 8:06 AM

So what films are you showing?

January 4, 2012 at 9:49 AM

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