Recommended Movies

(Updated March 19th, 2011)

My top movie night picks (alphabetically, not in order of preference). Remember, these are just suggestions: preview these movies first to see if they'll work for you. Also, after you find movies you like, check out other movies from the same director or screenwriter (I'll sometimes list the screenwriter, but I will always list the director, along with the year the movie was made). Finding a good director or writer is a fairly decent way of finding consistently excellent movies: it's a better indicator than by paying attention to stars or whatever. A great resource for this sort of information is www.imdb.com (the Internet Movie Database). It's been a lifesaver for me many a time. Also, give www.rottentomatoes.com a try. It's a good source for getting a general feeling of whether people feel that a particular movie is worth watching or not.  Another resource that might be helpful is www.hollywoodjesus.com. It's got some very interesting reviews and some helps about thinking through the "spiritual connections" that can be made in these films. But consult the reviews (at either site) after you watch the movie for the first time, since online reviews often contain spoilers (plot summaries, etc.). I've tried to avoid spoilers in my capsule reviews below). Enjoy the movies listed here.


13 Conversations About One Thing. (2001) Director Jill Sprecher co-wrote the screenplay with her sister Karen. It's a tale of how five people's lives intersect and influence each other. It's got a great ensemble cast including Alan Arkin, John Turturro and Amy Irving. One of the better movie night movies we've done because, if you have five stories running at once, if you can't find something to discuss in one, you've got plenty of others to choose from. Themes include guilt and personal responsibility, commitment (versus having an affair just to shake up the routine), which outlook on life is more wise: optimism or cynicism.

21 Grams. (2003) A very interesting movie, but also emotionally devastating. Director Alejandro González Inárritu really makes you pay attention by dischronologizing the story. A scene that would conventionally appear at the end of the movie is cut into the beginning, and vica-versa. The film becomes like a puzzle that you have to put together. But it also serves to soften the blow of the tragedy that takes place, because you already sort of know it's coming. The title refers to a doctor who weighed dying people and said that the average human body loses 21 grams at death (ergo, the human soul weighs 21 grams). The film explores: "What does a life, a soul truly weigh?" by looking at the impact of a tragic accident on a mathematician, a wife and mother, and a born-again ex-con. The leads (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro) are all magnificent. It is a superbly done movie (I?m trying to get ahold of Amores Perros, Inárritu's earlier movie which I've heard is also brilliant). Do be warned: there is some nudity and sex (more than I felt comfortable with), but interestingly, very little on-screen violence. But you will find plenty in this movie to talk about. There is a church full of scary evangelical Christians led by a very intense pastor (who, I would argue, doesn't have a clue what grace really is, though he says the right words). You can also talk about the impact of death, the meaning of life, how people deal with pain and guilt (by escaping through drugs or sex, by trying to somehow pay it back, etc.). Be forewarned: this movie is very emotionally intense, though different people react differently to it. Some found it hard to discuss afterwards, and one girl left in tears before the discussion began. Others had an easier time of it. It is by far the most difficult (but potentially very rewarding) film I've shown.

25th Hour. (2002). Spike Lee does a great job telling a very personal story in the shadow of post-9/11 New York. Edward Norton plays Montgomery Brogan, a drug-dealer who's been convicted and looking at seven years in prison. The film follows his final 24 hours before he is due to report to prison. The film is wonderfully written (though if you're offended by strong language, you might want to pass on this one), including two extended soliloquies that demonstrate how good script-writing can be. The film raises issues such as: our choices can have heavy consequences, how people deal with good and evil (two of Montgomery's closest friends are like inverted images of each other, one consumed by guilt, the other aggressive and self-righteous). My students really liked this one, and we spent a looooong time discussing issues raised by the film.

About Schmidt. (2002). Written and directed by Alexander Payne. Jack Nicholson gives a tour-de-force performance that?s comic and serious by turns in this character study of a retired insurance man on the road to discover who he is and why he's alive. The thing that makes this film so discussion-worthy is that the story methodically strips Schmidt of every aspect of life that we usually use to define ourselves, to tell ourselves who we are (job, wife, children, etc.). So what's left? Who are we without all these things? That can be an interesting discussion.

Adam's Apples. (2005). Original title: Adams Abler. Directed and written by Anders Thomas Jensen. This Danish film didn't get much of release, but it is well worth seeing. The film lives somewhere between the realms of black comedy and existential drama. It tells the story of a Neo-Nazi skinhead named Adam, who is paroled into the care of a small church community led by a pastor, Ivan. The characters that make up the community are as engaging as they are dysfunctional. The themes to look out for are the nature of faith versus reason and facts. The film takes an existentialist approach (very similar to that of Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard) that the nature of faith is to be opposed to reason. I cannot say much more than that without giving away too much. I immensely enjoyed the film. Do be aware, however, that the film contains some swearing and a couple of scenes of fairly intense violence, so it is not for children.

Adaptation. (2002). Directed by Spike Jonze. Truly one of the strangest movies I?ve seen in a long time. Nicholas Cage plays a real-life Hollywood screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovitch fame) and his (fictional) twin brother, struggling against writer's block to adapt a book about orchids to the screen. A very postmodern movie in that there is a screenwriters' conference in the middle of the movie where we learn what makes a truly good story, and then the movie ironically employs those very techniques towards the end of the film (which puts the viewer in a place where he is also vicariously the screenwriter). But even through the irony and self-reference, the movie has a heart: about the struggle of the writer to break free from himself and his own obsessive concern with what others think of him. The answer (given by the twin) is that one chooses to love, and no one can take that away from you. Your life is defined by your love, your passion, not by what that object of affection thinks of you. A great place to start a discussion. Is that true? (Well, from a Christian perspective, yes and no).

Almost Famous. (2000). Written and directed by Cameron Crowe (he also directed Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire). Another one of those road/coming of age movies. Charming in its own way. A tale of a young writer trying to write a story for the Rolling Stone. Issues to discuss include the corruption of fame, hero worship and the reality of rock-n-roll heroes, and where your true home is.

Amelie. (2001). An odd gem of a movie. Directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Also known as Le Fabuleau Destin d?Amélie Poulain. Starring the almost-too-cute Audrey Tautou. It's