Each year, the Academy selects films that have achieved artistic excellence in various fields (acting, directing, cinematography, sound design, and so forth), though many times, unfortunately, the choices come down to political decisions.
But regardless of art or politics, I would like to take a moment to honor those films (among the nominated few) which have made significant impact on spirituality. Some of these are not my personal favorites, but they are movies that made a difference. And so... the envelope please.
Best Picture of the Year: Avatar
Now that the Academy has opened up the field to ten choices (yet still did not nominate my personal fav of the year, Star Trek), making a final choice became more difficult. Each time, I approach this race asking myself: What film do I want the world to remember this past year by? Do I think we should be remembered for the senseless war we are fighting in the Middle East (The Hurt Locker)? Or our over-stressed and over-worked culture (Up in the Air)? Or should we be remembered for the prejudice of our past (District 9)?
For me, I want to err on the side of hope and goodness - which brings it down to a two-horse race: The Blind Side and Avatar. And what gives Avatar the edge in my books is that it went beyond good Christian charity (evidenced in Blind Side) and took us deeper into the uncomfortable but incredibly necessary world of social justice for all life and peace for all God's creation. And that is how I would like us to be remembered spiritually.
Best Actor: Morgan Freeman, Invictus
This category comes down to character. Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela at a point in his life when he has put aside his violent past and looks ahead to a future of reconciliation, nonviolence, and lasting peace. This character is spiritually-inspiring to all who watch Invictus, someone we can all follow as well as emulate - and for that reason alone, it deserves the prize.
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Once again, this category is about which character is someone we can look up to. While I absolutely loved Meryl Streep's performance in Julie & Julia (and hope she does actually get the Oscar award this year), what saddened me about the character of Julia Child is her negative and hurtful reaction to the young adult blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams). On the other hand, The Blind Side's Leigh Ann Tuohy, as played by Sandra Bullock, was a great model of compassion, colorblindness, and commitment. These are values we can learn from in our relationships with others, especially those most different from us.
Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, & Best Makeup: Star Trek
Here is a chance to award one of the best films of the year, if not the decade. The sights and sounds of Star Trek brought us headlong into a new and captivating future. What made Trek spiritual is its reminder that both young and old, new and old, innovative and reliable must be welcomed in our lives, our society, and yes, even our churches and faith communities (or as Jesus said, "If you pour new wine into fresh wineskins, both can be preserved." Mt. 9:17). The sounds and the visuals used in the newest Trek are a taste of both old favorites and new styles (not to mention a flawless musical score, though sadly not nominated, by Michael Giacchino, meshing the original theme and new sounds and melodies).
Animated Feature: Up
Animation has come a long way. No longer is this a children's category - and the movie Up is a clear example that animated films speak to the whole family (and perhaps more to adults than to the kids). Up reminds us that most of us don't live on alien planets like Pandora, work in the middle of an Iraqi warzone, have ten million airline miles, or are plotting to kill Hitler. Most of us live like Carl (Ed Asner) - shooting for our dreams, but never quite making it to tropical beaches. And the lessons Carl learns about relationships are more applicable to us, living in relationship with family, spouses, friends, co-workers, and strangers every day of our lives. Up is a film that reminds us what's so special about every day God gives us - truly animating our lives towards the Reign of God - and for that reason alone it deserves it prize.
Best Score: Avatar
While one song in Up is near-perfect ("Married Life") and while the fun strings of Sherlock Holmes whisk one away to the excitement of slouthing, the score for Avatar by James Horner takes us away to another world. It reminds us of the thrill of flying through the natural wonders of Pandora and the bond that builds between Sully and the Na'vi people. It reminds us about building bridges across cultures, about discovering our God-given gifts and purpose in life, and about the devestation the war, ignorance, and greed can bring to all creation. Music can do that: remind us once again of the lessons on screen - and hopefully spur us on to action.
Film Editing: District 9
In a sense, two movies in this category (District 9 and Inglourious Basterds) are ironically about editing history. Basterds is about re-writing the experience of World War II, wondering what would have happened if a band of Jewish rebels had overthrown the Third Reich; District is about a re-examination of the South African experience of apartheid, this time with aliens instead of humans. What gives District 9 the edge here is that it edits with compassion, not vengeance. This movie is about facing our demons: we must walk a mile in our enemy's shoes before we can oppose them. The editing in this film reminds us of that invaluable lesson.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
In Up in the Air, writers Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner have adapted a story about a workaholic - and is able to give us a nuanced picture of the joys and struggles we all face when we have been stretched beyond our limits. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) goes through a roller coaster journey from numb-ness to emotionally attached - and then through emotional turmoil and back again to reality. While we are left to wonder if Bingham learned anything, the re-telling of his journey captures our paschal experiences - life, death, and resurrection, even in the smallest, most insignificant moments of our busy everyday lives.
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Good cinematography makes us forget we're in a movie theatre - transporting us to wherever the movie is set. In this category, many of the nominees did just that: we were literally apperated into Hogwarts and into the memories of Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price; we were brought into the bloody thick of the action, whether we liked it or not, in The Hurt Locker; we were standing alongside the Jews and Nazis of the Second World War in Inglourious Basterds. But this year, no one came close to giving us a new world - millions of miles away on Pandora - than James Cameron's Avatar.
The 3-D aspect of Avatar allowed audiences to walk through the lush landscapes of this alien planet, feel the breeze in the nightime air, and be mezmorized by the mountain landscape. We see the glow of the trees and the sounds of the forest creatures. And when you are brought into this world, you are devestated when it is destroyed.
One of the lessons of Avatar was reminding us of our ecological resonsibility ("Be fertile and multiply. Fill the earth and tend to it. Take care of the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move upon the earth." Gen. 1:28) - and without the phenomenal cinematograhy, we might have missed that point. But being transported like Adam and Eve walking in Eden, we are able to see the spiritual value of preserving all creation - on this world or any other - that God has made.
I did not comment on all the races since I did not see all of the nominated films through all the categories. My prayers are with all the nominees: that those who win might be gracious and humble, and that those who lose might still feel the love and appreciation of their peers.
As as the Oscar winners thank everyone they know in their acceptance speech, let us all be thankful to God who gives us the ability to create and appreciate art - so that we might teach others about the gospel values through the medium of the movies.