Eleven Thought-Provoking Films to Look for This Fall

At the beginning of every year, instead of compiling some backward-looking “Top Ten” list, I put together a list of upcoming films that I believe will be useful in sparking conversations about spiritual, moral, and ethical issues. So far, most of the films identified have met expectations. Okay, not enough people saw the X-Files sequel to merit much conversation, Inkheart has been moved to January (rarely a good sign), the latest Star Trek film has been moved to a summer date — a sign that the studio thinks it will be a big hit, but it will be competing with the next installment of Harry Potter, which was moved from its original November release date.

family-movies.jpgThe other films on the early roster: Penelope, Horton Hears a Who, Iron Man, Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Incredible Hulk, WALL-E, Hancock, and particularly The Dark Knight, all contained a tremendous amount of discussion material. (So many people use film as an entry point for outreach, that MovieMinistry created www.myfilmtalk.com to help them — you can try it free for 30 days). Since that initial list, many new films deserving of notice have entered the calendar. So here is MovieMinistry’s fall addendum — eight additional upcoming movies that appear to have a lot of thought-provoking content. As always, these recommendations are based on trailers and insider buzz, but our track record is pretty good so far. Here are the films to look for:

The Family That Preys (PG-13) — September 12

Tyler Perry continues to surprise. His films tend to lead the weekend box office every time they open. He is one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood. While his films target the African-American community, Perry has tremendous crossover appeal. That is because Perry tends to make movies about things that matter to everyone. The Family That Preys appears to continue that tradition.

The story revolves around Charlotte Cartwright and Alice Pratt, two longtime friends, whose families are threatened by the actions of their children. Expect this drama to open opportunities to discuss the ravaging power of ambition, greed, and lust, but also the healing and redemption that comes with forgiveness, a connection with family, and reliance on Christ. Perry’s films tend to be the most explicitly faith-informed films in mainstream release. Get tickets early. This will be a hot show opening weekend.

Igor (PG) — September 19

A new studio, Exodus Productions, is entering Pixar territory with its first animated feature. They have managed to round up stellar vocal talent: John Cusack, John Cleese, Steve Buscemi and Jay Leno. That, coupled with the fact that it will be just about the only kid-friendly movie in theaters that weekend bodes well for its release.

The story turns the Mad Scientist/Igor relationship on its head, arguing that anyone with talent and drive deserves a chance to show what they can do. In the land of Malaria, one Igor decides that he has what it takes to win the annual science fair, and despite ridicule, and with the help of some friends, he intends to give it a shot. This film opens the door for discussions about prejudice against other people because of their social class, treating others as you would like to be treated, and there might even be a chance to discuss who really is the author of life.

Fireproof (PG) — September 26

Fireproof is the latest film from the people who brought you Facing the Giants and Flywheel. Following a proven formula, this Christian production company stays away from end-times scenarios and demonic possession and dares to make movies that allow Christians to just be regular people, struggling with common problems, who turn to God in times of need. Imagine that!

Unlike the other films on this list, I actually had an opportunity to see Fireproof about a month ago. It is a giant step above Facing the Giants in production values. The acting is improved as well. In my screening there were a lot of teary eyes.

Caleb Holt, a firefighter who saves others from the flames, cannot seem to keep his marriage from turning to ashes. But when his father talks him into following through with a program to “fireproof” his marriage, Caleb reluctantly agrees. In an intriguing and realistic twist, things do not miraculously get better. Marriage takes work, and something more.

Kudos go to Sherwood Pictures for sticking to their guns and progressively making better movies, and also to Samuel Goldwyn Films for distributing (given Facing the Giants’ financial success, not terribly risky, but appreciated all the same). Expect a bigger rollout for this film, and possibilities for after-film talks about what it means to be married, and what kind of hedges people need to build to make marriages last in a hostile world.

The Express (PG) — October 3

Any time I see a sports movie on the horizon I get excited. It isn’t just because I am a guy. I also recognize that the Scriptures turn to sports as a way to illustrate biblical truths, and so sports movies tend to lend themselves to talk about issues of eternal consequence.

The Express is based on the true story of college football legend Ernie Davis, the first African American player to win the Heisman Trophy. This film, like Glory Road before it, looks at the historic struggles people had to endure to overcome significant racial barriers. While The Express is sure to lead to discussions about racial prejudice, perseverance and hard work, it will also introduce issues concerning favoritism (a sin that includes and transcends race), and the price we must all be willing to pay in order to overcome injustice.

Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (PG-13) — October 3

I include Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist because I think that teenagers will flock to this PG-13-rated film and make it this year’s Juno. The story appears to be the kind of random narrative that many teens and college students are fond of: a young man and woman, strangers and in the throes of romantic angst, bump into each other at a club and share a negotiated kiss as a way to save face when their ex-significant others show up. This leads to a long night of partying and some form of self-discovery — and this is where opportunity arises.

Most teens believe that their parents emerged from the womb as adult — that they cannot possibly know what it is to be young and conflicted. Some of them seek affirmation from films like Nick and Nora, where they see a slightly-glamorized version of the life they think they lead, or hope they will lead, or, oh, whatever. If youth leaders want some insight into the mindset of the indie teen scene, this film might be just the ticket.

Religulous (R) — October 3

Bill Maher’s calculated assault on religion is going to get screen time — though initially probably only in art houses. The R-rating gives insight into content (language and sexual material) and will likely limit the audience. How wide a release it ultimately gets depends on how many people find ridiculing religion funny and entertaining. When it comes out on DVD, it will likely be purchased by folks who want to display it between their collection of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins’ books to demonstrate their secular bona fides.

All I have seen of this film are the trailers which indicate that the film will be a series of “gotcha” moments selectively edited and stitched together to make religious people look like idiots. I include this film in the list as a movie to watch out for. If it gains traction, then there will be a need to respond. Boycotts are worthless against a film like this. Instead, measured, accurate, calm, yet thorough, responses are better.

What I would pay to see is an unedited debate between Maher and a serious theologian like J.P. Moreland, or a great Thomist philosopher like Alasdair MacIntyre. I don’t think he would be laughing much after that. Maher is not the first person to say that believing in Christ looks ridiculous — the Apostle Paul told Christians in the first century that the saving power of the cross appears as foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Depending on what kind of cultural attention this film gets, it will certainly present an opportunity to talk about how serving Christ can make you the object of ridicule to those who oppose Him. There is also a direct object lesson available here — reminding Christians to pray for Maher and seriously hope he will repent.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13) — November 7

Mark Herman directs a World War II-era drama about an eight-year-old German boy named Bruno, whose father has been made the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp. While exploring through the back end of their new property, Bruno discovers the fence that divides his home from the camp his father commands. There he meets Shmuel, an eight-year-old Jewish boy interred with his parents. Despite the boys’ official enemy status, they become friends — a dangerous proposition in wartime.

This film has the look of an Oscar contender. It also may open dialogue about the use and abuse of power, the obligations we have toward the weak and marginalized among us, the tension between duty and morality, and the transforming power of friendship.

Defiance (R) — December 12

Another World War II-era drama, this is the true tale of three Jewish brothers who manage to escape from Nazi-overrun Poland and flee to the forests of Belarus. Instead accepting defeat, the brothers choose to fight, and to save as many others as they can along the way. Together they build a village deep in the forest and train the refugees to be warriors — believing that any moment of fleeting freedom is preferable to surrender and slavery. The film is rated R for violence and language, and given the subject matter, it is understandable.

Expect to talk about the problem of evil, particularly about God’s providence and sovereignty amid the suffering of the Jews. Conversation will also likely cover the need to resist evil in the pursuit of justice, the importance of fellowship and like-mindedness, and the value of grace.

The Tale of Despereaux (not yet rated) — December 19

One of the few films aimed at kids this Christmas, Despereaux is a mouse who wants to be human. Rejected by his own, he finds comfort in the castle of Princess Pea, who teaches him to read. Drama ensues when the princess is kidnapped by a scheming rat, and Despereaux has to take all the tales of bravery he has read and translate them into action.

Despereaux looks like a cross between Ratatouille and Flushed Away — and that’s not a bad thing. Parents may get an opportunity to talk about what makes a “good life” good, the importance of acting on the basis of solid principles, and the virtue of loyalty.

Seven Pounds (not yet rated) — December 19

Not much is known about this film. No trailers are yet available. But you can bet this film will be big — it is a Will Smith Oscar-bait film. Smith tugged at heartstrings last year with his portrayal of Chris Gardner in the “based on a true story” Pursuit of Happyness. This Christmas, Smith is playing Ben Thomas, man saddled with guilt and regret over the things he has done in his life. After a failed suicide attempt, he develops relationships with a woman and a blind piano player. There is an atonement angle to this film. I am not entirely sure how this will play out, but at the very least there will be much to say about sin and the nature of repentance and restoration.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13) — December 19

Certainly one of the oddest films coming out this year, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story chronicles the particular challenges facing Benjamin, who is born a seventy-year-old man and then grows younger and younger over time. It is impossible to know how closely the film will adhere to the short story. But expect that this novel approach to the issues of birth, death, and the ravages of time will open up conversation about the ultimate meaning of life.

All of these films are subject to scheduling changes, and I need to emphasize that putting these films on your radar does not constitute an endorsement of these movies — and certainly not as entertainment. There is no command in the Scriptures to be entertained, but there is a command to make the most of our opportunities (Colossians 4:5-6). We may find, in some of these films, just those kinds of opportunities to talk about spiritual, moral, and ethical issues. Film is the language of this generation. Let’s make the most of every chance to reach them.

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