Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spiritual Popcorn Oscars 2009

Who will win the Spiritual Popcorn Oscars this year?

The 81st annual Academy Awards are being held this weekend on Sunday, February 22nd. In that contest, actors and actresses, directors and producers, and every other member of the Academy will award a select group of films and performances for their outstanding achievement. We will know who Hollywood will pick as the best of the best. But from the vantage point of spirituality, which films should be walking home with Oscar gold?

Below is my annual Spiritual Popcorn Oscars for my picks for some of the most spiritually-enriching among the nominees. I must confess I have not seen every one of the movies up for an award, but I have seen quite a number of them. Feel free to comment to agree or disagree on my choices, but be sure to tell me why you feel your favorite is the most spiritually-engaging from your point of view.

With that in mind, the envelope please...

Best Picture (and Best Song): Slumdog Millionaire

At its core, Slumdog is a film about hope despite the worst circumstances. This year we are a nation, if not a world, in desperate need of hope. The economy is worsening, the politicians are getting more greedy and corrupt, jobs are shrinking, bills are growing, and morale is slipping. The United States may not be as destitude as the India portrayed in Millionaire, but we are still craving for something or someone to give us hope in the midst of darkness. For this reason alone, Slumdog Millionaire is not only the best and most hopeful film of the year, it is also the movie that truly defines where we are spiritually this year.

I include the song "Jai Ho" as the Best Song because of its placement in the closing credits of the movie. The actors and actresses dance a hopeful and exciting song, united with one another, as we end our time in Mumbai in this film. "Jai Ho" gives us a glimpse of a world without barriers and oppression, where we will dance with joy in the Reign of God "where the blind regain their sight, the lame will walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them..." (Matt. 11:5).

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

In a society that increasingly de-values wisdom and age (what commercial out there doesn't try to tell us how bad it is to get old, wrinkled, bald, or impotent?), it is good to see a performance that transcends that conventional thinking. Like Indiana Jones earlier last year, which also acknowledged the power of age, Mickey Rourke's acting gives us pause from our societal obsession with dismissing people over 40. It harks back to the biblical principle of respecting and honoring our elders and those who have gone before us.

Best Animated Film: Kung Fu Panda

While WALL-E was a visual masterpiece (and for that probably pick up the Oscar), the tradionally-animated Kung Fu Panda had a spiritual message that far exceeded expectations. Panda reminds us that God didn't make any junk, and that each of us has a chance to be a hero. Popularity, looks, or physical strength are secondary to the God-given drive within each of us to be a hero and save the day.

Costume Design and Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The costumes and makeup work in Benjamin Button allowed the viewer to step back into time with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, transporting us backward in time as Benjamin aged forward. By making this process easy on the movie-goer, we could more easily focus on Benjamin's incredible story. With the makeup, we were able to move with him gracefully into his next great adventure into each decade, evidenced by the costumes around him. For such an effects-driven movie, it took excellent work on the part of the make-up artists and costume designers to allow us to forget about those effects and concern ourselves with the beautiful story it told.

Original Screenplay, Sound, and Music Score: WALL-E

While WALL-E had few actual words (more "beeps" and "boops" than anything else), its script outlined how the animation would flow into those electrical sounds and the peaceful score that served as an undercurrent to the incredible visuals. To make an audience get emotional about the simple act of love between two inanimate objects is a testament to the writing and the simple yet profound music that played in the background. Spiritually, through the story, the sounds, and the music, we were gently led to rediscover that biblical truism that true love means sacrificing all for the sake of another ("no greater love than this than to lay down your life for another" John 15:13), and for that alone, it deserves any of these Oscars.

Editing: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog shows us that God has given us all we will ever need to know in this life. There is nothing given to us that we cannot handle. The editing of this movie takes us seamlessly between three time periods (the present moment in the police station, the recent past on the game show, and the more distant past throughout Jamal's life), showing us that all Jamal ever needed to know he learned long ago. The same goes for us - we just need the self-confidence that our film's hero had to put it into practice for the good of the world.

Visual Effects: (tie) Iron Man and The Dark Knight

In my personal opinion, the two best films of 2008 were Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and I am sad that neither got a nod for Best Picture. However, what made them excellent is that their visual style drew millions of people to the movies this summer for two incredible spiritual messages. Those millions came for the visuals, but left with so much more. Iron Man showed us that radical nonviolence is the only true answer to a war-torn, terrorized world. The Dark Knight reminded us that humans are essentially good people, not naturally corrupt or sinful, and that we are all called on to be heroes and inspire others to go back to that core goodness tha God gave each and every one of us ("for God looked at everything He had made, and found that it was very good." Gen. 1:31). Because visuals brought in the crowds last summer, both films truly deserve this year's Oscar for Visual Effects.

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

Finally, we come to Heath Ledger, who gave an incredible performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Spiritually, one might wonder why such a villian charater like this deserves an Oscar. But what Ledger was able to do was to show how incredible Batman's message is (that people are essentially good) by serving as its polar opposite. Ledger stood in for us whenever we act cynical towards other or whenever we fall short of the gospel and hurt someone else. Ledger reminded us that we all have a shadow side, and our faith compels to seek the light.

As I said before, there are other races which I did not comment on because I did not see most of the nominees, and therefore could not make a fair judgment. But I am curious what you think. Feel free to respond and share your spiritual thoughts, too.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pre-Oscar Fun

On the eve of the Oscars, I thought I would take a light-hearted moment and smile at the movies on my blog. Feel free to enjoy this one-of-a-kind video of the story of Star Wars set to the music of Close Encounters, E.T., Indiana Jones, Jurrasic Park, Superman, and Jaws (all of which John Williams also composed).

This weekend, I will share my Oscar thoughts - spiritual-popocrn-style. For now, enjoy!