One way to celebrate the Christmas season and the New Year is to relax with family and friends by coming together around a movie. Here’s a list of suggestions:
1. Rogue One
To enjoy this film, you have to go into it realizing that you are not going to see a Star Wars episode. It has a totally different tone. Rather than fun for the whole family, this is essentially a very dark war movie. If you don’t calibrate your expectations accordingly, you will find yourself bored and baffled by the first two-thirds of the story. Otherwise, if you measure the first two-thirds up against your usual Star Wars expectations, it’s an epic fail. By Star Wars mythology standards, none of the characters are very interesting or compelling, save for the comic relief droid K-2SO. Things finally get interesting during the last third of the film, which moves along quickly, at a satisfying Star Wars entertainment pace. The grim finale, which includes Darth Vader slaughtering a bunch of rebels, should appeal to imaginative conservatives who like films that are completely serious about communicating the unavoidably terrible costs of war, even just war. For me, the best part of the film was the dynamic duo of Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, whose relationship somewhat parallels that between Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) in Roland Joffé’s movie The Mission (1986). Their presence in the film arguably elevates the story into the upper echelon of war movies. Most importantly, Chirrut adds a new dimension to Force mysticism with his mantra: “The Force is with me, and I am one with the Force.”
2. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange surprises and delights by not being just another dopey comic-book movie. Smart, witty, and fast-paced, it makes full use of cinema’s potential for seamlessly integrating eye-popping spectacle into the fabric of satisfying storylines. Further, with its intelligent deployment of spiritual themes, imaginative conservatives will find Doctor Strange to be a most welcome oasis amidst the usually barren fare of this genre.
3. Star Trek: Beyond
Star Trek: Beyond introduces a great new alien character, Jaylah. Jaylah has a penchant for loud music. Her music collection comes in handy during a key battle scene. But it’s a lost opportunity, because the movie could have affirmed the value of real classical music. Instead, we get Captain Kirk, no less, endorsing Jaylah’s highly questionable music selection. Imaginative conservatives will lament the unforgivably unimaginative musical selection at this key plot point, but they will otherwise be pleasantly engaged with a brisk adventure that recalls the “gold standard” episode qualities from the good old days of Star Trek: The Original Series.
4. Captain America: Civil War
How are nations like superheroes? In Captain America: Civil War, one of the most satisfying of Marvel’s superhero blockbusters, we get art uncannily echoing life, as the movie’s story hinges on the questions of political form that were at stake in the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote this year to leave the European Union. In the film, each superhero lines up on one side of a similar “Remain” or “Leave” debate. Should the deployment of superpowers be subject to bureaucratic oversight? Or, should superheroes decide for themselves when and where to deploy their individual superpowers in a collective effort (as the “Avengers”) for the common good? “I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own,” says Captain America, arguing against entangling alliances that would lead to a loss of freedom. There is no greater benefit to the world order than when friends, as citizens, become models of civic friendship; but as the Civil War story teaches us, when civic friendship fails, pushing citizens into war, there can be no peace. Imaginative conservatives will find this to be another comic-book film that can actually provide people with a springboard for cogent philosophical discussion of all this year’s most contentious political debates.
5. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
In another instance of significant spiritual awareness in popular culture, Dawn of Justice culminates in acts of mercy by both Batman and Superman. Batman is able to show mercy to Superman when he discovers a bond that he shares with him. Superman then vanquishes evil by offering a loving sacrifice, as an act of mercy directed at the humans who have misunderstood and reviled him. The movie even anticipates the arguments of its many critics, because its main theme is about how we reject superheroes when they don’t live up to our expectations. Such people are upset, the movie itself suggests, whenever our superheroes have become substitute deities. The main complaint of the critics with this film seemed to be that it did not worship Batman and Superman with enough reverence. Yet the deliberate theme of the film is that no superhero, however powerful, can supplant God, who alone is omnipotent and perfectly benevolent. Both Batman and Superman have to learn this lesson in the film, and they thereby discover the only truly effective way for wielding whatever power and goodness they do possess. That way is mercy. Imaginative conservatives may find themselves pleasantly surprised that, in Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, even Batman and Superman come to realize that only divine mercy can defeat evil and bring about a greater good.
6. Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman’s brilliant film, Love & Friendship adapts Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Entirely true to the spirit of Austen, it is absolutely hilarious, full of comic moments both subtle and overt. It is also serious about virtue, and unusually thoughtful in its approach to wit, as I have argued at length in a series of essays written for imaginative conservatives and published here at The Imaginative Conservative.
Arrival’s scenario comes from a brilliant short story by the science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life.” The extraterrestrials in Arrival have a language that uses a non-linear orthography, in which the expression of a thought is written in a circle. Beginning anywhere along the circle, it is possible to enter into the written thought at any point and then to proceed, in any direction whatsoever, to continue reading. Symbolically, it represents how the aliens are able to perceive time. Imaginative conservatives will enjoy this unusually intelligent sci-fi film, as well as its many nicely satirical moments about how the media grossly distorts our perceptions of one another.
The movie does make significant additions to Chiang’s story, and you can decide for yourself how well they work. I was surprised by how thoughtful they were. In the film version (spoiler alert), twelve different nations are each given, by the aliens, a piece of a puzzle. The puzzle is “the universal language” borne by the aliens, which over the course of the encounter slowly transforms the consciousness of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Gift-giving is symbolized in the film by the unity and symmetry of a closed-loop time paradox, in which a “language gift” is both received and given by Louise. The film’s screenplay contemplates how a gracious exchange occurs not only in Louise’s communication with the extraterrestrials, but also with a man of foreign nationality (who is added to drive the movie’s enhanced plot). With this addition, we might say Louise’s transformed consciousness is deliberately portrayed as participating in an eternal act of grace. Louise learns that for a mind trained to see contemplatively, any alien visitors (terrestrial or extraterrestrial) will always come to our shores bearing significant gifts.
Imaginative conservatives will watch this fascinating documentary and simply be amazed that these real-life events were caught on film. We get an incredible inside look into an important dimension of how politics works in America. Fundamentally, politics is about people, and that dimension involving the human person is the irreducible source of both its greatness and its tragedies.
9. The Revenant
Survival against all odds in the wilderness is a powerful theme, and watching its depiction in The Revenant is an engrossing experience. The cinematography is so stupendous that, in combination with the intensity of the acting performances, the audience is fully engaged, completely immersed in the struggle for survival. Yet the Hollywood logic of the conclusion seems to be driven by one thing and one thing only—namely, audience satisfaction. While the film is devoted above all to delivering spectacle, imaginative conservatives may wish to debate the film’s dramatic conclusion, which arguably diminishes the story by too eagerly seeking to please the audience’s visceral appetites.
The classics endure because they keep getting remade. If a story has enough depth and dimension, then the process of reinterpretation can go on and on. Lew Wallace had a best-selling novel in 1880 with Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. That book was soon adapted into a stage version that played for twenty-five years. Ben-Hur then became a movie in 1907, as a fifteen-minute silent film. It was remade in 1925, again as a silent film. That silent film cost MGM four million dollars, making it the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Then William Wyler remade the film thirty-four years later. He oversaw the creation of the most famous epic version of Ben-Hur, MGM’s classic 1959 movie, Ben-Hur. Still beloved by many, Wyler’s reinterpretation, starring Charlton Heston, cost MGM $15 million, another new record. Since then, there has been a 2003 animated version (a good way to reach a new generation) and a made-for-television version in 2010 (a letdown, which downplays the religious aspects of the story). Now it has been remade again for movie theatres in 2016. This year’s movie is much better than the jeering reviews you have read of it. Whatever its minor flaws, it is still a really good version of the Ben-Hur story that chooses to emphasize the Christian themes in an intelligent way. The Imaginative Conservative published a good argument by Bruce Frohnen on behalf of the film at the time of its release, and all imaginative conservatives will find themselves delighted and surprised by just how good the film is, whenever they finally get around to watching it.
11. Hail, Caesar!
Taking us to the world of Hollywood circa the time of MGM’s 1959 classic version of Ben-Hur, the Coen brothers weave together a terrific cast of characters to tell a fun story, full of laughs, about the making of religiously-themed pictures during their heyday. Imaginative conservatives should be able to appreciate this movie, which integrates serious spiritual themes into its nostalgic comedy. This is a fine addition to the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, and the contributions by the outstanding cast result in a film that ought to be ranked in the upper echelons of their considerable cinematic output.
This underrated movie communicates the radical beauty of what a personal encounter with the risen Lord is like. In its story, a Roman soldier stands in for each and every one of us. Clavius is meant to represent any person who is seeking the truth about life. “There are no enemies here,” Jesus immediately tells Clavius, our Roman man of violence, in their first meeting. This loving message, the movie suggests, means the world can never be the same after the Resurrection has happened. Those who encounter the risen Lord will seek to communicate to others their own beautiful, personal experience of encounter. It is an experience of how Jesus’ love overcomes all suffering. Imaginative conservatives will also enjoy the fine portrayal of the Roman military, not to mention a memorable depiction of Pontius Pilate.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.