If the stable teaches us anything it’s that you can’t always judge a Christmas classic by its humble beginning. The highest-rated Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, was known as Frank Capra’s greatest failure until countless TV reruns brought it back to life. CBS executives nearly killed the most-watched Christmas special of all time, A Charlie Brown Christmas, because they feared it was too ‘sacred.’ With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus (1979) “the most watched movie” of all time, yet most Americans have never heard of it. The most-watched opera in television history, Amahl and the Night Visitors, may never recover its audience after a tiff between composer Gian Carlo Menotti and NBC kept it off the air for over three decades.
So Sue and I put together our own list of favorites in hopes of inspiring your search for true greatness. Some are well-known. Some are secret treasures. We categorized the films/shows between those with a more-or-less ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), and ‘secular’ offerings (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.
We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.
Gary & Sue
GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas
It’s a Wonderful Life(1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, both the WGA and AMI list it as one of the twenty best films ever made.
Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) Gian Carlo Menotti’s most popular opera was originally written for NBC as a one-hour Christmas Eve TV broadcast. Find a local live performance if you can, but the hilarious and inspiring original is also available on DVD.
Charlie Brown Christmas(1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas. CBS feared it was ‘too sacred’ for prime time.
The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.
GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of a Larger Movie
Ben-Hur (1959) At least one wise man continues his search for Jesus as Charlton Heston’s title character strives to put his life back together after profound betrayal. Also, on the AMI list of best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face Christmas traffic.
A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.” You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”
Scrooged(1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise. Many remakes, none come close to the original.
White Christmas(1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.
A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie. A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.
Elf (2003) Perhaps Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story. Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.
GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home in Connecticut.
Home Alone(1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how the strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.
Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.
The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.
GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid-friendly)
Die Hard (1988) Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.
Family Man (2000) Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of (Madam Secretary) Tea Leoni and Nicholas Cage‘s and careers. Sue and I watch it every year and ponder our own “what if?”
Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war. A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)
A college professor reveals the method behind his madness in NOT always choosing Academy Award-winning films when selecting the stories students live by for classroom use. Part one in 2014 Oscar Week Series.
If history is any indicator, Brad Pitt and the TWELVE YEAR’S A SLAVE producing team will deliver their carefully prepared acceptance speeches Sunday night. Yet history also reveals that, when it comes to picking the film audiences will recognize as truly great twelve years from now, Oscar voters often miss the mark.
Sunday night tens of millions of viewers from nearly every nation on earth will tune in for the coronation of Hollywood’s “Best Picture” of the year.Studios spend millions of dollars in countless screeners, screenings, billboards, interviews, Variety Ads, Twitter campaigns, blog attacks, and countless party conversations, seeking to sway the roughly 6,000 members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters to crown their film as King or Queen of the industry.
This year’s battle between expensive (and lucrative) visual special effects (VFX) driven Gravity and smaller (and less lucrative) historical period piece Twelve Years a Slave looks awfully familiar to the past three year’s battles between VFX-driven commercial hits Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi and smaller period pieces The Hurt Locker, The Artist, and Life of Pi and Argo. The historical films are riding a three-year winning streak, and there is little reason to believe this year will be any different. Everything points to Brad Pitt and the Twelve Year’s a Slave producing team giving their carefully prepared acceptance speeches Sunday night.
Mistakes of History
But do the Oscars always get it right? You wouldn’t think so looking at the award’s history. Arguments are legion. Nearly every year is controversial in one way or another. The truth is, many if not most Oscar winners simply don’t stand the test of time. For instance, there are few Academy voters today who would argue that Shakespeare in Love (1998) was anything close to a classic, yet it somehow managed to win over Stephen Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan. The 1968 musicalOliver was certainly endearing, but not nearly as enduring as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why does such a careful and democratic process often fail? Here are a few reasons.
Politics as Usual
Many Oscar winners have “outside the film” appeal to voters that may not always be a genuine indicators of greatness.The Hurt Locker(2009) was a compelling film, but it is hard to imagine how voting might have gone if Katherine Bigelow had not been in a position to be the first female director to win top honors. (Or, if Avatardirector, James Cameron–Katherine’s ex-husband–had not alienated many academy voters with his “I’m king of the world” Oscar acceptance speech for his 1998 Titanicwin.) In fact, Katherine’s might have been more worthy of winning for last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, but other political factors led to actor/director Ben Affleck’s film Argo winning after he was snubbed in the nominations for best director.
Even more dramatic are the publicity efforts launched by studios and internet devotees in order to promote their films and sometimes smear their rivals. 2011 winner The King’s Speechhad to overcome an alleged smear campaign launched by devotees of The Social Networkthat all but overshadowed the equally deserving Inception.
A Series of Unfortunate Timings
Some films are simply too far ahead of their times to even receive a nomination for Best Picture.Citizen Kane (1941) is near the top of most “All-Time Great Films” lists, but lost to the long forgotten How Green is My Valley. Hitchcock’s cutting-edge masterpiece Vertigo is still watched in film schools, while only the most die-hard fans ever watch 1958 winner Gigi. 1999 genre-benderThe Matrix couldn’t even garner a Best Picture nomination, yet few doubt that it will be studied as a classic for years to come.
Other great films lose Oscars simply because they are up against other greats the same year.Forrest Gump (1994) garnered a much-deserved Best Picture Oscar. Yet few would argue that it was unequivocally better than two other celebrated films in the same year: Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption(currently #1 on IMDB‘s greatest movies ever made.)
Sometimes a film’s novelty gives it a short-term popularity. The unique silent film aesthetics of 2012 winner The Artist helped give it the upper hand over more conventional films. Yet many purists point to the social importance of the civil rights movement portrayal of The Help, the acting excellence of The Descendants, and/or the overall of craftmanship of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (11 nominations) as more deserving.
The truth is, the public-relations-driven, artistically myopic, and sometime overtly political nature of Hollywood often make an Oscar a highly unreliable measure of long-term greatness.
How Shall We Then Choose?
What about this year? I am passionately committed to Twelve Years a Slave winning Best Picture, but is my judgment clouded by my passion? If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have? Maybe not much. But over two decades of using film in the classroom has taught me that there might be a better way to predict which film will have true staying power. Although I started out using only Academy Award-winning films, I quickly realized that the Academy isn’t very good at selecting the stories my students live by. So I developed a new set of indicators for picking films that are not so much a slave to contemporary fashion and more in line with which films are still changing students’ lives TWELVE YEARS or more after their Academy Award campaign winds down.
While Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation of P.D. James’ novel strips most of the overtly Christian images from the story, there is no missing the fact that we are confronted the tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a Christmas story.
by Ashley Arielle
“If Christianity ceased to exist, and was then recreated,
this [The Children of Men] is what it would look like.“
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is an apocalypse in slow motion that leaves the viewer breathless and gasping. Even as the lights come up and the audience stumbles from the theater, the film’s echoes fold and recede into the secret places of your heart, begging the question, ”What would I do if I lived in a world of such abject despair?”
Indeed, what would the Bible say of a world that is so utterly and completely devoid of all hope? A story of a day when the voices of little children no longer echo down the halls of history; a day when all that makes us human begins to disappear like smoke in a rain.
Certainly the Bible would implore all good Christians to shun such harrowing tales of sorrow and despair. We must think only of whatsoever is “true, noble, right, pure, admirable, and lovely” (Philippians 4:8) and watch only G-rated cartoons with dancing animals, or perhaps even PG-rated family adventures, not R-rated visions of the apocalypse.
Yet the Bible and film are two ways of understanding the world that can speak to each other in surprising ways. Whether it’s in using film to tell Bible stories, or using the lens of film to understand the oldest and most important of truths at new depths, both film and the Bible have vitally important things to say to each other and to us. While Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation of P.D. James’ novel strips most of the overtly Christian images from the story, there is no missing the fact that we are confronted the tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a Christmas story.
Theologian Marva Dawn insists that inherent within the Bible is a driving meta-narrative, which draws us and drives us into a dynamic relationship with the one true God. If this is true, then it makes sense that story would speak to us in ways other methods of communication cannot. Story has an odd hold on us. It elicits wonder, fear, learning, regret and can, at its briefest, brightest moments, even evoke transcendent spiritual experiences. Jesus taught through parables, stories, and claimed that those who had ears to hear would be able to hear. Though today, those who have eyes to see may be more accurate.
Through their use of story, both film and the Bible reach us at our core. They peel back the layers to reveal depths of understanding never before plumbed. No, not all films will be worthy of dialogue with the Bible and yet most films speak to some truth inherent in the human condition.
Children of Men deals with death, life, children, despair, hope, saviors, revolutionaries, and the wickedness of man, how could it not have something of interest to say to the Bible? From its inception film has fast become the primary way in which humankind tells its stories. Hollywood reaches out from its golden shores and pours forth meaning made visual to the entire world.
The need to engage those stories with our own story culled from a centuries old document is pressing and clear. Humanity has opened itself up at the deepest level to these flickering shapes of moving sound and light and theology must be there to help make sense of the stories. Theology must be there to speak truth into the darkness of the movie theater so that audiences can emerge in the light of a new understanding. The hope always should be that audiences will exit the theater bursting with discussion and questions that place them on that ever seeking path toward relationship with the master creator of all stories, the God of the universe and Jesus Christ his son. [Spoiler alert. If you’ve never seen the film, you might want to watch it before reading further.]
The Despair of Meaninglessness
However, it is not the Gospels that Cuarón’s Christmas story drives us to, but an earlier and much darker text, The Book of Eccleciastes. This long misunderstood and seemingly nihilistic musings of “The Teacher” (the narrator of Ecclesiastes and presumably King Solomon) comes alive with meaning in the context of Cuarón’s masterpiece.
The truth of the film that sucks the air from every room, that plunges the people of England into the darkest of despair and that sucks the will to live from every soul is that everything has indeed become meaningless.
The film’s hero, Theo, is a broken man. He lives in a crumbling city precariously poised on the brink of utter desolation. Infertility has become a global pandemic and without the hope of children, humanity has gone to the dogs. The rest of the world burns while only Britain stands. Then because of the terrible and stringent policy against allowing refugees from other parts of the world into Britain, these refugees are hunted down like dogs. They are then placed in cages and camps so that Britain and its citizens survive… at least until the final human drops.
Nearby, the curator of the monumental “Ark of Art” preserving the world’s greatest artistic treasures, knows that in less than fifty years there will be no one left alive to see them. Yet the fact barely phases him. He has firmly set his mind to ignore the fact that there can be nothing truer than the fact that, “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). For indeed, there are no generations coming after who can see this excess of human expenditure let alone appreciate it. The only thing that can be uttered by which to combat this darkness is that the character shrugs and claims he “Doesn’t think about it.” This staggering statement in the face of a dystopian universe hits closer to home than we like to admit.
The Teacher’s ringing declaration, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief,” (Ecclesiastes 1:18) struck me between the eyes when I first read it. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, C-SPAN and smartphones how can we ever escape the cold reality of this world? The truth is that we just try not to think about it. In the film, there are TV screens everywhere—in homes, on trains and in coffee shops—blaring the news should anyone care to listen. However, those in the film and we in real life are becoming inured to the constant iteration of violence, death and decay that we climb into our personal ark of arts and stick our fingers firmly in our ears as we try to push away the seeming meaninglessness of life.
For indeed, there is never a stop to our desperate quest for meaning. We chase after the things we think will give us meaning. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). In our ever-expanding consumer culture we grasp from thing to thing. Always on the lookout for the next big thing that might be big enough to fill the hole in our hearts we feel we’re slowly being sucked into. Theo hits the bottle and the track in a desperate search for nothing and everything that pulls at every human heart.
We despair because the words of the teacher echo in our heart, “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). In the film we see this in both the British government’s response to the global crisis and in that part of the Fishes that are led by the duplicitous Luke. For, “God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). We look at our own world and see “…all the oppression that was taking place under the sun… the tears of the oppressed— and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors— and they have no comforter” (Ecclesiastes 4:1).
’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ …Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4). The earth remains forever. That is the only truth left to those people still clinging to life in Alfonso Carron’s Children of Men. Generations have come, but never will again and so all that is left are those who have yet to go. People are forced to confront the meaninglessness of life every day
The barking of vicious dogs as soldiers rounded up confused refugees into cages remind us of the terrors of Auschwitz and, closer to home, Japanese internment camps in America during World War II. There is such a lack of justice or even the hope for justice that Kee has to hide her baby from the state for fear that they would take the baby away and “Give it to some posh British citizen.”
What hope is there in such a world?
The Hope of Kee
Then, a miraculous raft in a sea of despair, there is Kee. A scared woman, barely older than a child, who has been granted a gift so precious it stops warriors in the midst of battle. During the course of one of their discussions, Kee reveals to Theo that after she learned she was pregnant she was so confused she considered taking her own life, but then she felt the baby kick. At that moment Kee discovered, “Two are better than one… If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
The miracle of what has happened inside of her engulfs her and the wonder of Ecclesiastes 11:5 flows through her. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” And in that moment, the mystery of the universe became marvelous instead of unyieldingly cruel.
Theo, who has been on his own for so long in this world also has hazy understanding of the idea that, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). He has some notion of this in his relationship with Jasper and Jasper’s irreparably damaged wife, Janice. (There is no one in this film that I think the teacher would enjoy more than Jasper. After all, if anyone embodies the Teacher’s exhortation that “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25) it’s Jasper with his gleeful, childlike ways and his enjoyment of the “work of his hand.”) Theo leans into this idea of community when he takes both Kee and Miriam under his protection. After deciding he would stay and help them, he is gentler both with them and with himself.
If the thesis of Ecclesiastes is “life sucks and is wonder-filled” then Children of Men is its artistic twin. There are moments of incandescent joy in the film as when Theo and Julian play their silly game of catch using nothing but a ping-pong ball and their mouths. Or when Jasper and Theo are reunited and share a hit of Jasper’s strawberry cough. Compare this to the stark, sterile environment of the ark of art and the joyless, medicated existence of those who live there. The beauty and startlement of the deer in the school, the way the sun wreathes the playground in which Kee finds a moment of peace, or the cry of the baby in a desolate place.
The film shouts that it is these things, these people, these relationships, these joys that must be treasured and cannot be allowed to slip away. The teacher gives his hearty endorsement of this idea by saying, “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days” (Ecclesiastes 9:9).
Each of these instances of happiness are equally balanced with deepest pain for mere moments after Theo and Julian rediscover their enjoyment of each other and their silly game, Julian is murdered and Theo spends the rest of the film with her blood on his jacket. Likewise, Jasper is laughing and joking right up until the moment he’s murdered by the humorless Luke for refusing to reveal Kee and Theo’s location. Such joy and such sadness side-by-side absolutely confound our limited understanding of this world in which we live. “Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” (Ecclesiastes 9:4).
The Redemption of Theo
At the beginning of the film, Theo is as one without hope. He would have been better off not having been born, for indeed, he died the day his son was taken from him. His body, however, lived on and in this we see the truest hope of the human condition. While we still breathe, there is yet still hope for salvation and relationship with our creator. No one has fallen so far into darkness that they cannot scrabble their way back to the light. The journey may have cost Theo his life, but in the process, he is reborn as he regains his humanity.
Bobette Buster says that all stories are journeys into either freedom or slavery. Theo’s journey ends in freedom. His self-revelation was slow, but sure, leading him back into the belief of the worth of others and his self. There were multiple times where he could have abandoned Kee and the world to their fate, but he continually made the choice to find her and protect her. His sorrow at the loss of his own child would not allow him to cast away the fate of the world. The equilibrium granted to Theo by Kee was that there was some sense to his own child’s death. All the tragedy led him to this moment and ended in the child of new hope for the world being named after his son.
Alone, on a vast ocean with a dead man and a crying child, Kee—the Mary of the Apocalypse—looks up to find the boat, The Tomorrow, in the distance. Humanity is saved.
Hope For Redemption Beyond Despair
So how does one remember God “before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7).
We watch The Children of Men, read the book of Ecclesiastes and take heart. In the face of such utter despair, the movie and the Teacher give us hope of utter redemption. Many believers who would read Ecclesiastes would never dream of seeing Children of Men. Many non-believers who would see Children of Men would never dream of reading Ecclesiastes. Both groups are missing out.
For both the Biblical text and modern film are signposts of God in a world gone mad that whisper both of the way things are and the way things ought to be. Into this void, theologians must step in order that they might be able to bring the works of this age and the hope of another into conversation for both filmgoers and Bible readers alike. Or as theologian Santiago Ramos declares: “If Christianity ceased to exist, and was then recreated, this [The Children of Men] is what it would look like.“
“Practical Theology – Lived Spirituality”. Marva J. Dawn [in Timothy George and Alister McGrath, eds. For All the Saints, (Louisville Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 137-153 plus notes on pp. 216-218]