Why do you go to the movies? For many, it’s about entertainment. Movies certainly possess a powerful ability to make us laugh and cry. Others go to the movies to escape from the pressures and challenges of daily life.
I may be an oddball but I enjoy movies that make me think—especially about the deep questions of life. Some of my most stimulating theater-going experiences have resulted from films that inspired discussion with my wife and children. Earlier this year my son Michael and I saw Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America. We ended up discussing the movie’s content for more than two hours. As a father, I have always enjoyed the opportunity to talk with my children about ideas that really matter and movies sometimes provide an ideal context for doing just that. Typically, I recommend a reading list for your New Year’s resolutions, but this year it’s movies that are guaranteed to make you think.
Some of these films contain language, violence, and sexual content that some may find objectionable. So, for the most part, these are films for adult viewers. Please use your own discretion in selecting which thinking movies you view in 2015.
5. 12 Angry Men (1957; not rated)
Twelve men serving on a jury are given the task of determining the guilt of a young man charged with murder. Henry Fonda plays the lead role of this black-and-white classic.
What I like about the movie is that it illustrates the various ways that people approach questions of truth and justice. Some jurors find their time wasted as jury members and want to avoid their civic responsibility. Other jurors make up their mind immediately apart from careful consideration of all the evidence. While still other jurors are inordinately influenced by strong peer pressure.
The most powerful scenes depict Fonda’s character asking Socratic questions to get the group to think more objectively about the evidence. In juries, as well as in all areas of life, asking the right kinds of questions about issues of truth can lead to great illumination.
4. Dead Poets Society (1989; PG)
Robin Williams stars as Mr. Keating, an unconventional teacher at a 1950s prep school for young men aspiring to reach the Ivy League. Keating challenges his students to “seize the day” (carpe diem) instead of following conventional ideas of success. I have enjoyed Williams’ dramatic movie roles and this is one of his best.
The film does a good job of raising questions about whether the purpose of education is to challenge young minds to think critically about life’s questions or about providing career-economic success. The underlying philosophical-religious question of man’s need to find genuine meaning in life, especially given life’s brevity, is a central theme in the movie.
3. Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine (2010)
Catholic publisher Ignatius Press produced this powerful TV-movie about Augustine of Hippo’s (AD 354–430) restless pursuit of enduring truth and eventual dramatic conversion to Christianity during the decline of the Roman Empire. The movie illustrates the central truth of Augustine’s autobiography Confessions—namely that human beings were made for God and that nothing else will truly satisfy human longing for the divine. The film, made in Italy, covers many of the major events in Augustine’s life. A 2-disc edition is available that offers extra exploration of the historical and theological issues involved in Augustine’s life and times.
Since Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics, this is an important film for evangelicals to see in learning more about one of Christianity’s finest theologians and apologists.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994; R)
What would it be like to be sentenced to life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? The Shawshank Redemption follows a falsely imprisoned man (Tim Robbins) from the 1940s through the 1970s and does a great job of raising critical questions about the issues of justice and meaning to life. The two central figures of the story (Robbins and Morgan Freeman) discover that art, education, and genuine, loving friendship can help to alleviate the pain and isolation of prison life. But what I like most about this extraordinary film is its illustration of the importance of hope in every human being’s life.
1. To End All Wars (2001; R)
Imagine the plight of World War II servicemen imprisoned by the brutal, fascist Japanese army. Daily life in this prisoner-of-war camp involves heavy labor, physical beatings, and a starvation diet. Yet in spite of it all some of the allied soldiers begin asking the big questions of life, especially questions about suffering.
To aid his men one of the Scottish officers begins a jungle university where the prisoners discuss philosophy, theology, and the arts. Through education, spiritual discipline, and a committed brotherhood these men are able to discover meaning and purpose even in the midst of evil and suffering. This amazing film illustrates such critical themes as hope, self-sacrifice, and redemption. This movie is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.
You can also listen to our discussion of these thinking movies on episode 308 of my podcast, Straight Thinking.
What thinker’s movies would you add to this New Year’s resolution list?