Why do you go to the movies? For many, it’s for entertainment. Movies certainly possess a remarkable ability to make us laugh and cry. Others go to the movies to escape from the pressures and difficulties of daily life.
I may be an odd duck, 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 discussions with my wife and children. Earlier this year my wife and I watched God's Not Dead (2014) on Netflix. We ended up discussing the movie’s content off and on for a couple of days. Typically, I recommend a list of books for you to read as a New Year’s resolution, but this year I’m again recommending a list of movies that are guaranteed to make you think.
Since I am a passionate student of history, all the films listed here are based upon true stories and some of them come from books. Moreover, since I view the Second World War as one of the most important events in mankind’s history, three of my select films center on that topic.
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 2016.
1. Schindler’s List (1993; rated R)
In this classic film directed by Steven Spielberg the topic addressed is arguably the greatest crime in history—the Holocaust. The movie powerfully and painfully captures the incredible violence and evil of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry from the face of the earth. Yet at the heart of the film is the extraordinary moral transformation of ethnic German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) who goes from opportunistic profiteer to Holocaust rescuer.
There is also a dramatic contrast between the film’s two other central figures. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) is Schindler’s Jewish accountant who balances the tasks of keeping Schindler’s company economically viable while also trying to keep the company’s Jewish laborers from being sent to the gas chambers. SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is the psychopathic commandant whose brutality is difficult to comprehend.
This is truly one of the greatest films that I have ever seen. Spielberg’s agonizing true-life tale won seven Oscars including Best Picture in 1994.
2. Stand and Deliver (1988; rated PG)
Based on a true story, this film depicts the inspirational teaching of Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s. Escalante seeks to change the educational culture of the students in his mathematics class by challenging them to learn calculus and pass the AP calculus exam in their senior year.
What I really like about this movie is how it illustrates that education is the great equalizer in life. Escalante’s students are primarily Hispanic and come from poor and working class families. Yet through “ganas” (meaning desire or motivation) many are able to excel in the highest level of mathematics. Olmos was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards of 1989.
3. The Imitation Game (2014; rated PG-13)
To win World War II, the Allies needed everyone to do their part. This war drama highlights the contribution of British computer scientist, mathematician, and cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his intelligence associates in their attempt to break the German Enigma Code. The ultimate success of this newly created British intelligence agency (MI6) was that they were responsible for significantly shortening the bloodiest war in human history.
Today Turing is viewed as a secret war hero; nevertheless he was a troubled genius. His scientific and mathematical brilliance sometimes made it difficult for him to relate and work cooperatively with other people including his colleagues. An important element that I took away from this film is that raw intelligence (or IQ) doesn’t guarantee ultimate success in life. Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is critically important in getting along with people and thus a key factor in success. Genius may be both a blessing and a curse.
This provocative film reveals secrets about both Turing’s life and death.
4. Downfall (2004; rated R)
As a lifelong student of World War II, I’ve seen a number of films on the life of Adolf Hitler, but Bruno Ganz’s performance in this movie made me think I was indeed watching the German führer himself. Ganz’s depiction of Hitler is stunning and chilling for its realism.
This is a German language film told from the point of view of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). The movie covers the last 10 days of Hitler’s life hiding in a bunker beneath Berlin in 1945.
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is its ability to show the sheer hopelessness of Hitler’s followers when they finally accept that the war was indeed lost. The movie serves as a warning to those who would accept the perverse claims of totalitarian leaders.
If you watch only one film about the life of Hitler this is definitely the movie to see.
5. Blaise Pascal (1972; not rated)
In this Italian language movie (made for TV), director Roberto Rossellini depicts the life of the great French mathematician, scientist, inventor, and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). Pierre Arditi plays Pascal.
The movie covers Pascal’s early interest in math and science and his journey to became a great physicist and the inventor of an amazing calculating machine in the middle of the 17th century. The film also covers Pascal’s acceptance of Christianity and his passionate devotion to God. Lastly the movie shows the health crisis that led to Pascal’s premature death at the age of 39. The film also shows his tender relationship to his sister Jacqueline who cared for him during his illness. While this made-for-TV movie is difficult to find, it is an engaging portrayal of one of Christianity’s greatest and most unique thinkers.
You can listen to my discussion of these films on an upcoming edition of RTB’s podcast Imago Dei.
What thinking movies would you add to this New Year’s resolution list?