Recognizing that we won’t be able to go to the theaters for a while, we are providing columns as information for your viewing choices in your home. We have 25 years of films reviewed on our website (cinemainfocus.com) and have chosen these for you — our top 10 films from the past 25 years!
“The Spitfire Grill” (1996)
“The Spitfire Grill” is cinema at its finest. In this masterfully told tale, we travel a journey with people who could be our mother, sister, brother, son. Their experiences are shared with such simple insight that we soon forget they are creations of fiction. Instead, they become people woven into the fabric of our own experience. The complexity of the themes of the film mirror the complexity of our lives. Life, death, sorrow, hope, discovery, loss, betrayal, loyalty, chance, confession, forgiveness, loneliness, and love are all genuinely presented.
The central character is a young woman whose life has guarded a grieving wound. Imprisoned for manslaughter, Perchance (Percy) Talbot (Alison Elliott) has the dream of a new life — a life in which she can find a place safe enough to heal her wound. Her choice is Gilead in the beautiful hills of Maine. Like the Biblical city of the same name that was known for its healing balm, Percy is seeking a place with people who will love her and give her a chance to begin again.
There are only a handful of films that compare with the spiritual and social depth of Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” Based on a true incident in 1839, the film asks the ultimate questions and gives inspiring and compelling answers. The arena in which this dialogue takes place is the issue of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. Like most social issues, slavery forced people to struggle not only with each other, but within themselves to discover the deepest truths about our humanity.
The fuse that ignited this dialogue was the revolt of the slaves imprisoned in the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Shackled with 53 other illegally captured Africans while sailing from a Cuban slave market to a plantation on the other side of the island, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) freed himself and his fellow prisoners and then killed all but two of the crew. When they tried to force the two remaining crew members to take them back to Africa, they were tricked and taken up the eastern coast of the United States instead.
When, finally they arrived in Connecticut, they were taken into custody by the U.S. government and charged with murder. It is then that the dialogue begins within the court system regarding property rights versus human rights, and the issue of slavery ignites the forces of political activism in American society.
“My Family — Mi Familia” (1995)
Family relationships can be sacred. When families give their members love, commitment, acceptance, trust and forgiveness, they meet spiritual as well as emotional and physical needs. “My Family — Mi Familia” is an extraordinary representation of the spiritual and emotional power of family life that transcends racial and cultural differences.
Set within an immigrant family from Mexico settling in East Los Angeles, author and director Gregory Nava allows us to experience with them the full range of joys and sorrows of family relationships. No matter what the race of the viewer, we all see ourselves in the disappointments, sorrows, hopes and dreams of the Sanchez family. In a wonderful scene of the marriage of the oldest daughter, Jose (Edward James Olmos), the patriarch of the family, proclaims the family to be the greatest of all riches.
The fact that the family does not have it easy, nor do all the children appreciate the struggles of their family, underscores the basic need for the spiritual value of a loving family life. Being a member of this kind of family means that even when we reject our parents’ values, the family continues to love us. Even when we fail them, the family forgives us.
“Dead Man Walking” (1995)
“Dead Man Walking” is not an easy film to watch since the scenes of the murders are persistently presented as a backdrop to the ministry of Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), but it is a film that does not trivialize the horror of murder, the complexity of criminal justice or the overpowering healing of Christ’s redeeming love.
When someone takes the life of another human being, the power of death invades their soul. Infested with a numbing guilt and an unrelenting denial, the murderer is in need of a love that can restore his life. Director Tim Robbins tackles the complexities of such a redemption by exploring the spiritual and emotional damage a brutal murder can cause. The genius of his film is in his depth of exploring the humanity of each person affected by the crime, and the healing that each receives when affirmed with the love of God.
The power of his Christian faith brought Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) through 30 years of unjust imprisonment. But his faith didn’t just help him survive, it also helped him become a wise and strategic leader who recognized that forgiveness is his most potent weapon against the atrocities of apartheid. In classic Clint Eastwood style, “Invictus” is a film that not only demonstrates Mandela’s genius but Eastwood’s as well.
Having spent 30 years in prison studying the Afrikaner culture, Mandela realized that to create a viable nation, he needed both black and white citizens working together in unity. But to expect them to do so, he had to model this unity. He did this in a variety of ways, from keeping the white government workers in their places of service upon taking control of the government, to assigning white officers to his security detail, to choosing the national rugby team as a way to unite the national pride and passion of all 43 million South Africans.
“Places in the Heart” (1984)
It is unusual for a film to portray the healing we experience through the love of Jesus Christ and His sacramental presence. To do so requires the story to also show the sorrows and sins that are in need of healing. It is this compelling juxtaposition that is masterfully joined in this film by acclaimed director and writer Robert Benton. Having already received an Academy Award in 1979 for both writing and directing “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Benton received his third Oscar in 1984 for the original screenplay of “Places in the Heart.” Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film’s lead, Sally Field, also won an Oscar for Best Actress.
The setting of the story is central to its focus as we enter the Texas town of Waxahachie in 1935. Brutally offensive, the racist and sexist language and themes are difficult to watch. But it is the authentic confession that allows the movement toward redemption in the final scene.
“To End All Wars” (2001)
Hollywood has built its reputation and fortune on telling war stories, inspiring audiences with themes of heroism, patriotism and honor. From John Wayne to Tom Hanks, our entire culture has been steeped in the history and glory of personal sacrifice by noble characters for the good of humanity.
In “To End All Wars,” we witness a story of what it means to offer forgiveness and reconciliation to captors though they are perpetuating the most horrific tortures on prisoners of war. This is the story of the survivors of the 93rd Division of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders based on a true story by Ernest Gordon. Captain Gordon (Ciarán McMenamin) provides an eyewitness account of one of the most transforming simple acts of faith ever told on film.
The story of the 93rd Division is set in the jungles of Thailand where 61,000 Allied POWs were forced to build the Thailand-Burma Railway as Japanese prisoners of war. (This parallels the now well-known story of “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”) Rather than focusing on the personal heroism of the soldiers, however, Gordon’s biography is a simple telling of the differences in approach that we all take to our enemies, and what one man’s faith led others to do.
“Amazing Grace” (2006)
The 18th and 19th century slave trade was a barbaric practice that shocks our sensibilities one century later. Students of history know that the American Civil War was a turning point in the emancipation of human beings sold as property. What is lesser known is the fact that America continued trafficking in human slaves more than 50 years after it was abolished in the British Empire.
“Amazing Grace” tells the true story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the man of conscience in the British Parliament who fought for years against overwhelming political odds to end the British sanctioning of slavery. Wilberforce was a young man of economic privilege who sought to be in political office while he was in his mid-20s. Having committed his life to Jesus Christ, his Christian convictions compelled him to seek justice and compassion for all people throughout the British Empire. His experience in a wealthy and unequal social structure constantly tugged at his conscience.
“Simon Birch” (1998)
There are people who have a clear sense of their own destiny. Though most often frustratingly ambiguous, they nevertheless have a clear sense of their ultimate purpose. Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith) is one such person.
Like the Biblical story of Joseph who saw in a dream his future as a ruler over his older brothers but was not shown how this would be fulfilled or the painful path to its completion, Birch’s destiny is both known and unknown, promised and ambiguous. Additionally, when Joseph shared his dream with his brothers, it only caused him to be ridiculed and ostracized, until they finally banished him. This also was true of Birch and is most often the experience of people who share such awareness. Implying that we are mentally unbalanced, the social pressures silence most of us into dismissing our own inner sense of who we are. But it did not silence Birch.
“Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019)
The timing of the Rev. Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) becoming the iconic televangelist to children was providential. Called to use the developing medium of television to speak to children, this Presbyterian minister began the show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1962.
Working with experts in educational psychology and religious education, the show became one of the most effective ways to speak with children about their feelings and experiences. From war, to death, to divorce, to injustice, Rogers spoke through puppets and songs and helped a generation of people grow both wiser and more kind. Although this public life is well known, this is not the story told by director Marielle Heller in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Based on a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, this film re-creates a transformative relationship Rogers created with hurting Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Based lightly on award-winning writer Tom Junod, whose 1998 article “Can You Say … Hero,” the impact Rogers had on changing the pessimistic perspective of Junod is the theme of the film.
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.