A truly great movie does two things: entertains and uplifts. It must be a fantastic work of craftsmanship in order to properly demonstrate important spiritual truths. The legendary Catholic director Frank Capra said of filmmaking that “there are no rules, only sins, and the cardinal sin is dullness.” A film must have a compelling story that is brilliantly told. If the film is boring the message will not permeate the audience, even when the story is theologically outstanding.
Every film gives moral instruction, even a cartoonish monster fest like Pacific Rim (courage, political unity, risk taking, self-sacrifice, among others). Not every story will have a happy ending, but it must be morally conclusive to be convincing. A Tale of Two Cities is nowhere near cheerful, but it gives Sydney Carton a chance for redemption. What makes a film truly great is that it contributes to the continuing evangelization of the gospel in the model of Jesus who told parables to help people understand the Kingdom of God.
A film does not have to be explicitly Catholic to do this. Fiddler on the Roof does a far better job explaining the spiritual state of man than many films that simply contain priests or nuns. Jesus said that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Catholicism is not just a religious institution; it is the truth of reality. Thus, Catholics should not be surprised when non-Catholics create art that evokes God’s glory. Truth can come from unlikely places.
The following is a list of my choices of the ten best films of 2013 using the previous criteria. It is by no means a perfect list because 1) it is impossible to see every film released, 2) this list only includes things that had a fairly wide American release, and 3) most of the year’s great films are released in November and December as a cluster, making many good movies difficult to catch. Like the Talmud, this list encourages discussion, commentary, disagreement, and more listing making. Enjoy!
1. Man of Steel – Krypton’s Kal-El saves Earth from a truly disturbing villain who has an all too familiar agenda in Zack Synder’s reboot of the Superman franchise, which is everything a superhero movie should be: fun, dramatic, and deeply Christological. Read my CWR review, “Man of Steel and Cross of Wood” (June 19, 2013). A Five Reel Film
2. Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón’s soaring cinematic experience follows an astronaut stranded in space as she tries to find her way home, inspiring awe in God’s creation and trust in the communion of saints. Read my CWR review, “Space for Awe and Gratitude” (Oct. 8, 2013). A Five Reel Film
3. Frozen – With catchy songs, beautiful cinematography, and a fantastic script, Disney’s latest masterpiece demonstrates the transformative power of love to melt any frozen heart. Read my CWR review, “Warming the Coldest Hearts” (Dec. 5, 2013). A Five Reel Film
4. Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass’s docudrama is a taut thriller about the real hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama that celebrates American heroism without demonizing or condoning the enemy. Read my CWR review, “Captain Courageous” (Oct. 23, 2013).
5. 12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen’s harrowing adaptation of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and decade in slavery highlights the inherit dignity of every human being and the triumph of goodness over evil. Read my CWR review, “Universal Truths” (Nov. 7, 2013).
6. Prisoners – Two fathers have their daughters abducted during Thanksgiving resulting in a dark and disturbing meditation on reality of sin and importance of God’s providence. Read my CWR review, “Prisoners of Sin” (Sept. 23, 2013).
7. Warm Bodies – Romeo and Juliet meets The Walking Dead in this funny, strange, and oddly touching story of a teenage romance between a zombie and his food living girlfriend.
8. Philomena – A sad but sweet story of a women looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier and the faith that supports her—a faith that the journalist telling her story finds impossible to accept.
9. Monsters University – Pixar’s latest adventure finds Sully and Mike in their college days as they compete in the Scare Games and become best friends learning that childhood dreams aren’t always what they seem. See my CWR review, “Monsters of Our Better Nature” (June 28, 2013).
10. Despicable Me 2 – This sequel finds Gru, now retired from the bad guy business and embracing the job of full time dad, recruited to find and stop a super villain while learning the value of the nuclear family including a mother for his three daughters.
Honorable Mention: Blackfish, The Butler, The Conjuring, Elysium, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, and Pacific Rim