As much as I’d love to be someone who knows movies are illusory and escapist and always pale in comparison to the wonder and vividness of life, I just can’t help it.
I love movies.
It’s not even that I was weaned on them. My parents were great about encouraging outdoor play, and I have amazing memories of doing things like squirming through bushes that formed a magical labyrinth out of neighboring backyards.
But those Sunday nights when we made tents and forts out of blankets and ate pizza and watched Disney’s Sunday Night at the Movies, an addict was born.
What movies are capable of, I came to realize, is no less than informing how we make sense of our world. A great filmmaker is a brilliant architect, a weaver of dreams, a glorious painter on the grandest scope and a meditator on life. A great film is a creator and the created, combined.
Not that we need an excuse, but the approaching holidays are as good as any to hit the sofa and watch a good movie—or several.
I’ve compiled a list of films that encourage us, in their sheer awesomeness, to tap into what is deeply spiritual in us all. Some are less secretive about their spirituality than others.
1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)
Coming out of the famed Studio Ghibli (which has given us the magic of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, like Spirited Away), this animated film is one of the greatest testaments to the endurance of the human spirit.
A little boy and his sister struggle to survive during World War II in Japan, encountering one obstacle after another as their country falls apart. What they have in their favor is undying optimism, an imagination that can fuel the world’s ecosystems and a belief that happy endings are the true nature of things. We learn here, between fits of tears, that important things do not wither in the face of physical wreckage.
2. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
This French masterpiece is impossible to ignore. It might not be widely seen, but it will be worth every second of your time once you get your hands on it. Balthazar is a donkey, and the film chronicles his life over a long period of time in the French countryside. In witnessing the idylls and tortures of his life, we gain entry into nothing short of the human condition. The life of an animal friend is a reflection of the lives of the people who surround it.
3. The Sacrifice (1986, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Set just prior the breakout of World War III, the film’s protagonist finds that he has the power to save the world, only he must give up something huge in return. Watching his face in this slow-paced movie is akin to navigating the hills and crags of a beaten and exalted landscape. The weight of the universe itself hangs on the triumph and fallibility of the human race.
4. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006, Zacharius Kunuk, Norman Cohn)
When documentary and fiction blur, a space for magic emerges. Set in 1920s Igloolik (northern Canada) and based on a Dutch ethnographer’s journals, the film chronicles the demise of a traditional way of life.
The conventions of the ‘true story’ are replaced with intimate observations of daily life. They could be happening today or could never have happened at all, but no one can emerge from this film and not have a more profound understanding of a time gone by. Embrace the movement of a people absolutely in tune with their environment.
5. Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier)
Famed (and infamous) Danish maverick Lars von Trier has made a career out of pushing people to their limits and testing boundaries of all kinds. When he announced that he was going to make a musical, even he grinned at the absurdity of tackling such a feel-good genre.
When you sit down to watch this movie, in which the luminous Bjork plays a Czech immigrant to the U.S. going blind from a genetic disease she can’t afford to fix, you cannot help but plunge right into her heart. Almost blind, she attunes to sounds, especially the staccato of the machinery at her factory job.
These sounds lull her into a fantasy world that provides an escape from her increasingly traumatic circumstances. Watching the power of music and purity of spirit wash away the evils of the world is unforgettable.
6. Blue (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Polish director Kieslowski made a trilogy of gorgeous films set in France (the third also in Poland), themed around the country’s three ideals of of liberty, equality and fraternity. Blue is the “liberty” film, about a woman (a haunting Juliette Binoche) as she copes with the deaths of her husband and daughter.
In the wake of her loss, she relocates to Paris, tries to alienate herself from everyone and everything and destroys her composer husband’s last opus. At the edge of her existence and identity, she finds that she can’t escape her past; her slow, anguished reawakening is illuminating to witness.
7. Gerry (2002, Gus Van Sant)
Van Sant did a bold thing when he cast two Hollywood stars (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) and placed them in a California desert, where they spend the entire film chatting aimlessly, becoming increasingly dehydrated and finally admitting they’re lost—really lost.
The film stays with me as powerfully today as when I first saw it. It’s documentary-like in its commitment to capturing the psychology of two friends facing a crisis together. It’s so heavily submerged in present experience that feeling, as opposed to thought, takes over.
8. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
Spirituality must live in a movie that can make you this giddy from start to finish. But this classic musical offers much more than a stream of smiles. It harks back to 1927, when the movie industry faced the metamorphosis from silent to sound film. This meant the death of careers for all those pretty actors who had terrible voices and a complete overhaul in thinking about how to entertain the masses with sound rather than gestures and amusing faces.
Up to the task are the irresistible Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, who beg for our empathy as they navigate a time of great change with verve, charm and an irresistible zest for life.
9. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)
This one almost speaks for itself, but I can’t help myself. A friendly, quiet, wise alien winds up on Earth, smack in the middle of a fatherless family, and all rally with him and little Elliott as they try to help him win his freedom: a trip back home.
This movie tugs at the heart as we watch a little boy fight for what’s right against all odds—and in its message of acceptance of all.
10. Titanic (1997, James Cameron)
Yes, Titanic! I will cite one reason alone for this film making the list when so many others scream to be on it. James Cameron has, with this movie, utterly mastered the genre of the Hollywood romance.
I dare anyone to truthfully say they weren’t moved to the high heavens (or seas) by this blatant, obvious, un-ironic-to-the-core, schmaltzy tribute to the relentless power of love. And what is more important to the notion of right living than love? We can’t all be kings of the world, but we can all do our very best to let love into our lives, so that our hearts can go on.
If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
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Editor: Michelle Margaret
Image: Blue Square Thing/Flickr Creative Commons