Back in early 2012, Crosswalk added an epilogue to our 2011 Movies of the Year feature in order to give some dap to the volume of faith-based films that were made that year (Courageous, Soul Surfer, The Way, etc.). We may not always rank these movies in our final Top 10, or automatically give them a stellar review, but we absolutely appreciate and applaud their being made! The single biggest reason behind our even offering pop culture content on Crosswalk is a deep belief that Christians should be the ones making art, telling stories, and evaluating and discussing the same in light of our faith.
So how could we kick off the same feature this year without acknowledging what happened on the same front? Major studios tried to give us two huge biblical epics from atheist directors, only to find out most believers weren’t buying (even the Christian-produced Son of God met with its share of criticism). Other big projects showcased the faith of major characters, such as The Good Lie, Selma, Fury, or Heaven is for Real, to mixed response. And several smaller pieces were likewise surprising hits (Ragamuffin, Irreplaceable) or unfortunate misses (the Left Behind reboot, Saving Christmas).
So, it’s true: you won’t find the mega-popular God’s Not Dead among our selections for Movie of the Year below. But we love that YOU loved it all the same, and that you came to banter with us about our take (which we stand behind, especially for the way all non-Christian characters were portrayed). Which films about faith did we love? Well, in addition to the Top 2 choices on our overall list, so many that we didn’t have room to list them all. If you scroll further down the article, you’ll see where each panelist got to name his or her favorite “film about faith” of the year, among several other categories. Such was the state of filmmaking in 2014 that even worthy choices like When the Game Stands Tall, Unbroken, Gimme Shelter, Mom’s Night Out and The Song had no place to go!
But here’s the bottom line: every film on our list resonated in some way with what the eight of us, as Christians, notice when we encounter a work of art that has something to say. We would like to invite you, however, before seeing any film we recommend, to visit our full review (we have linked to each of them) for a complete list of cautions and objectionable content. And so, without further ado, Crosswalk.com’s editorial staff and film critics proudly present OUR TOP FILMS OF 2014…
10. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Here because: If all you ever knew of Stephen Hawking was that the brilliant astrophysicist was confined to a wheelchair, used a robotic voice to speak, and may or may not believe in God (depending upon which quote from which period of his life you came across), you’ve missed the best part of an extraordinary story. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones disappear into their roles as Stephen and Jane Wilde Hawking, whose memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen is the basis for the film. Stephen is the star of both the film and their life, while Jane provides the faith, unconditional love and care that will take them, well, maybe not quite as far as we’d hope. But hope still abounds in this honest and tender biopic, as do heartbreak, humanity and the musings of the heavens.
From our review: “I was surprised at how much screen time was given to God and pleased to see His supporters were given as much respect as His detractors…. Eddie Redmayne… shows us the man behind the disease: brilliant theorist, loving father, husband, friend…. The whole thing is really well done. Each exquisitely lit, perfectly framed scene is a feast for the eyes. The beautiful city of Cambridge has never looked so lovely. Director James Marsh balances humor with drama so the story never gets too heavy or maudlin and the pace is spot on.” ~Susan Ellingburg
Here because: Very few commerical films are able to capture the scope and majesty of our universe, but Interstellar does so while delivering a story about humanity’s enduring spirit. Though it’s a secular film, questions about God, love, sacrifice and faith still linger around the edges. That, combined with its haunting music, breathtaking visuals, winning performances, and strong narrative about the importance of family, were more than enough to give director Christopher Nolan a place on our list for the sixth time in 10 years.
From our review: “In the end, all the talk of different dimensions, black holes and space-travel theories pale next to the tears, anger and love expressed between parents and children in Interstellar, proving that sometimes the most profound of messages can be the simplest, no matter how complex and confusing everything else surrounding that main message might be.” ~Christian Hamaker
8. THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY
Here because: Simply put, it’s a visual feast for the soul. The cinematography is fantastic, with effortless transitions between beautiful scenes in the south of France and the sumptuous meals on display. Helen Mirren and Om Puri add some spice to the film as their characters feud over food, love and life before eventually making amends at Journey’s end. It may not be the most original of films, but its PG rating and resolution of clashing cultures will nonetheless leave viewers feeling content… and hungry.
From our review: “Strong performances from established stars…, as well as charming breakout roles for Manish Dayal and Charlotte le Bon, are highlights, as is the gorgeous cinematography from Linus Sandgren… [who] is blessed not only with lovely locations, but with the ability to light his interior shots with the same evocative qualities he brings to exterior shots of the town at dawn… Yet the best imagery of all may be the food shots, which look even more gorgeous than the cast members. The Hundred Foot Journey is predictable, but so well played that it’s difficult not to like.” ~Christian Hamaker
Here because: We couldn’t bear deciding between one foodie film or another. Kidding! Chef’s father-son bonding over Dad’s passion is as hard to resist as one of Chef Carl Casper’s Cuban sandwiches. This film earned its way onto the list with a peek behind the scenes at the push-and-pull life of restaurant kitchens, at a guy hitting rock bottom in a world he no longer recognizes, and at how he reinvents himself in a social media age. There’s drama, there’s comedy, there’s delectable food… and there’s Robert Downey Jr. stealing the show in a cameo role.
From our review: “If you’re a foodie in need of a funny movie, then I have the movie for you. Chef, from writer/director/star Jon Favreau, is a warm-hearted winner… The film shows how [a broken man] regroups by following his passion and trying to reconnect with his distant son. Refreshingly, Carl is not bitter about his divorce nor angry with his ex-wife, and the film isn’t about Carl finding new romance. If there’s a message to Chef, it’s one about vocation and calling.” ~Christian Hamaker
6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Here because: Guardians of the Galaxy was the summer romp audiences just couldn’t get enough of. It had everything we’ve come to associate with a Marvel movie: an oddball cast of lovable characters, nail-biting action, witty banter, and a cameo appearance from Stan Lee. Guardians also proved its mettle by integrating a moving find-your-family dynamic and stellar playlist into the movie that became as much a part of the adventure as the characters themselves. It was fun, it was clever, and it was entertaining to watch a ragtag gang of ne’er-do-wells discover the heroes within each of them.
From our review: “This tale from the outer fringes of the Marvel universe actually winds up being one of the year’s biggest surprises… What makes Guardians of the Galaxy work so well is a funny, fast-and-loose style [and] opting for the less-than-obvious Chris Pratt as the leading man and Bradley Cooper as the voice of a scene-stealing raccoon… With a smart script [to] impress the nerd contingency and newbies alike, Guardians of the Galaxy proves that fun can be found in the unlikeliest of places, even superhero movies that don’t follow a predictable course.” ~Christa Banister
5. THE LEGO MOVIE
Here because: “Everything is Awesome!” Yes, that song, the Batman jokes, the make-it-up-as-you-go-along story (which is somewhat explained by the clever twist ending), the lessons about childhood vs. adulthood and finding what makes you special… all of it works in a madcap and hilarious way that encourages kids to get busy building whatever. One of the most clever non-Pixar animated films in recent memory may have been unfairly overlooked by the Academy, but not by our panel. We won’t be facing the wrath of Princess Unikitty!
From our review: “Turns out to be a rapid-fire laugh machine that allows adults to enjoy several of its jokes. The further good news is that the film doesn’t pat itself on the back or constantly wink at the audience. It’s too busy loading the next laugh… Writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, …along with visual effects pioneers Animal Logic, have created a busy, impressive, colorful Lego world that feels simultaneously like a throwback to a pre-video game era as well as an advance in film animation. It’s all rather shocking—a wildly inventive, highly enjoyable and thoroughly entertaining family film when we least expect it.” ~Christian Hamaker
4. INTO THE WOODS
Here because: The musical feature on this year’s list, Into the Woods gave us a lot to think about, and made us question everything we thought we knew about fairytales! This Broadway classic from the 80s makes a smooth transition from stage to screen even as it changed a few things to make it accessible to a wider and younger audience. Into the Woods is dark-but-delightful, extremely rich in themes, and bursting with talent from an ensemble so gifted that child actors Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone shine just as brightly as veteran Meryl Streep. Have you ever wondered whether fairytales can teach us more than “Get the prince and live happily ever after”? Are you ready for an exploration of the far-reaching consequences of our choices? “Do you know what you wish? Are you certain what you wish is what you want?” Then journey confidently Into the Woods!
From our review: “The secret to Into the Woods’ success is an all-star cast that’s apparently game for anything… Emphasizing how the most valuable of life lessons usually come at a great cost, …Into the Woods is the rare fairytale where ‘And they lived happily ever after’ isn’t necessarily part of the deal. That sense of realism… is something usually missing from Disney productions. Fairytales aren’t often the medium for exposing the cruel and chaotic realities of everyday existence, but Into the Woods offers a thrilling change of pace where substance and style are allowed to meaningfully co-exist.” ~Christa Banister
3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Here because: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) made our list in the past, and the director has wowed us again with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson is known for whimsy, peculiar characters, and clean, distinctive camerawork. Budapest includes all these signature moves, yet with a darker tone, and is set upon a bigger, more daring stage. The shining star of this funny and thought-provoking film is Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave, the proud and charming concierge at an otherworldly hotel which shines a nostalgic light in the midst of a war-torn Europe. On Gustave’s old-world ideals and demeanor, his mentee muses, “To be frank, I think the world he wanted to live in vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!” Gustave, imperfect as he is, has ideals about civility worth striving for. It’s why we love both him and the film: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity… He was one of them. What more is there to say?
From our review: “For those who’ve found [Wes Anderson’s] quaint yet quirky universe of flamboyant symmetry to be a tonal delight, The Grand Budapest Hotel will come as nothing short of a delicious and savory multi-course feast… One can’t help but relish the sumptuous palette of [this] period caper farce of quick yet subtle wit and dazzling invention. The eyes can’t help but pop at the pastel candy set pieces. It’s breathtaking almost to the point of distraction… Anderson has come fully into his own as an aesthetic master, not just in image and form but also word, wit, character, and sentiment.” ~Jeffrey Huston
Here because: In a year where films marketed to the faith audience were everywhere, unheralded indie Calvary, which actually has no evangelistic intent, stood out as the best. How did it manage that? By demonstrating a pain many Christians know so well: walking by faith, wanting to help, willing to be present, to listen… but being met with hostility and in-your-face sin nonetheless. And it does this smartly within the framing of a compelling mystery. Brendan Gleeson’s Father James serves as stand-in for anyone trying to represent Christ to fallen humanity, even as he knows he’s as fallen and human as the rest of them. But by film’s end we’re left asking if we would be willing to walk the Way as far as James, or offer the same sort of sacrifice and forgiveness.
From our review: “When a religiously-themed film has no agenda towards either evangelism or secularism, it’s amazing just how legitimately thought-provoking it can be. Calvary [takes] an honest look at the cross a Catholic priest must carry in a world that’s hostile to his faith… Director John Michael McDonagh does more to honestly depict the walk of faith – at both its noblest and its darkest – than most so-called and self-proclaimed “Christian” movies ever do… In the end, Calvary – which is beautifully shot and patiently paced – is about a priest who chooses to be Christ, and the struggle (and occasional failure) to be righteous when you’re also human.” ~Jeffrey Huston
Here because: The faith that informed everything Martin Luther King endured and stood for is front-and-center. Other actors have protrayed the civil rights hero before, but none so eloquently as David Oyelowo (another major oversight by the Academy). Ava DuVernay’s direction gently and artfully toggles between the major highlights we’ve heard about (Bloody Sunday, the March to Montgomery) and the small moments of humanity that touch any tender heart (conversations between Martin and Coretta, children chatting before tragedy strikes, the sad impossibility of a strong black woman attempting to register to vote). For the second consecutive year, our Movie of the Year touches on the history of what it has meant to encounter racial inequality on the North American continent in the last couple centuries. Selma is a haunting reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go before Rev. King’s dream becomes a full reality.
From our review: “In virtually every respect, Selma is a triumph… One can’t walk away from Selma and not feel how much it resonates with America’s current examples of racial unrest. It speaks to where we are now, …especially as it sets a practical example of civil protest with moral clarity… In many key speeches, we see [Martin Luther] King give voice to the people, but through his own passion, anger, despair, and ideals. David Oyelowo appropriates King’s eloquence to moving perfection, but then deepens it beyond mimicry… Oyelowo is spontaneous, layered, and conflicted, and always in-the-moment. Instead of getting lost in the theatrics, Oyelowo taps into the soul that birthed them; his career-defining performance rises from that core.” ~Jeffrey Huston
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