Hollywood is immensely religious. That is, if you define religious as a humanity’s pursuit of purpose, ultimate truth, and eternal destiny. For some, these questions are defined by one’s understanding of God and his work in the world. For others, this sacred quest is expressed less by outside supernatural meaning, and more by human progress, personal morality, and courage in the face of one’s own limited existence.Each nominee portrays a particular understanding of being human, but each vision is also in some ways true to God’s world—and in other ways a distortion of that truth.
In that sense, this year’s Academy Award best picture nominees each possess a particular way of understanding what it means (as cliché as this is) to be human. They answer inquiries of vast religious significance. “Where are we going?” “How might human joy be obtained?” and “What does the nature of sacrifice entail for the world around us?” Even a quick snapshot reveals the religiosity of 2017’s Big Nine. Get Out asks us to wrestle with the intrinsic value of all human beings (though the term imago Dei never lands in the script). The Post subtly examines the divine-like haze behind morality and equality. And though Call Me by Your Name presents a number of troubling notions regarding personal lust and desire, the film observes the nature of love and its many pursuits. Those are just a few examples, among many, of how films (as do other artistic artifacts) offer a vision of human flourishing.
Not only does each nominee portray a particular understanding of being human, but each vision is also in some ways true to God’s world—and in other ways a distortion of that truth. And some of those distortions may include graphic and explicit content. Therefore, while we are not recommending or encouraging Christians to watch these films, we do think it’s wise to observe, understand, and contextualize the visions of humanity that our contemporary world projects.
Below, the writers of Christ and Pop Culture extrapolate these ideas—examining each individual work of art on its own terms—and translate those queries to how we think about God, church, and faith. What you see is not a conclusive guide to each movie, but a starting place for their often-spiritual conversations.
Because, after all, every one of us—Christian or not—is religious.
Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
In Phantom Thread, renowned dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (played with verve and immersion by Daniel Day-Lewis) periodically hides small messages into the lining of his fabric. While each of these “Easter Eggs” is unique, one stands out from the rest: “Never Cursed.” This clue provides a telling window into the cinematic world at play in writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest creation. A world that, while not fully exposed, operates within a deep spiritual climate. A climate of blessings and curses; of transcendent love and stubborn intrigue. A world oozing with sharp spirituality—phantoms.
Set in 1950’s London, Phantom Thread follows Woodcock as he fashions gowns and wedding attire for the rich and famous. Alongside him stands his overbearing sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a steady rotation of divine muses. In circular fashion, Woodcock forms a relationship, tires of it, and then sends the fallen angel on her way. Soon, he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps)—who, unbeknownst to him, turns out to be just as much a lover as she is a worthy opponent of Woodcock’s all-reigning sovereignty.
The resulting photographic dance from Anderson works as an intimate exploration of humanity’s desire to play God. Or, maybe, a sharp metaphor for the sacrifices required to foster life-giving relationships. Better yet, perhaps it’s a cautionary tale of artistic creation and personal reputation—an ode to Alfred Hitchcock and his faithful partner Alma.
Either way, there’s a mythic power behind Anderson’s gorgeously designed chamber drama. There are visions of the dead, hints of eternal love, and musings regarding the afterlife. Might Phantom Thread be suggesting (like the polarizing end of Graham Green’s The End of the Affair) that spiritual power hovers among work and love, driving men and women to madness, desire, and everything in between? Much like the puzzling, but ultimately satisfying, supernatural occurrences in Anderson’s Magnolia and The Master, the line between that other World and ours may rest closer than we think. —Wade Bearden
Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele
The films we love best are those with layers to unfold. Jordan Peele’s initially underrated and underfunded film, Get Out, delivers an exceptionally thought-provoking and thrilling cinematic experience, filled with facsimiles of our present culture worth analyzing for generations. Among the many tiers to unfold, one proves especially relevant for the American church: assimilation as covert racism.
Get Out is a tale of a seemingly diverse and tolerant wealthy white suburban neighborhood, with the primary focus on the interracial relationship between a black man, Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) family. Her parents and the community seem to replicate an accepting and progressive picture of today’s America. As strange events begin to unfold, however, Chris feels uneasy and makes haste to flee the homestead.
Peele’s narrative illustrates that racial acceptance—though not always intentional, and usually unsaid—often requires conforming to the cultural, social, and political patterns of a domineering culture. Specifically, in the church, this can be conveyed through a number of mediums—worship style, dress, speech, and relationships.
For this reason, Get Out works as a parody of the awakenings and discoveries many Christian African Americans who were converted in the white evangelical church are regularly experiencing. What many found, and unknowingly pledged allegiance to, wasn’t the gospel, but a socio-political standard of white American cultural ideals.
Get Out is more complex than the racial issues of the American church, and there’s a treasure trove to be gleaned from it (whether one is Christian or not), but it must not be strictly remembered as a pure thought exercise. It’s subliminal social revelations make it the perfect bridge for those too afraid to watch horror or suspense; yet at the same time, Peele maintains the film’s Oscar-worthy notability within the genre. —Timothy Thomas
Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright
In many ways, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour puts flesh on C. S. Lewis’s claim that “[c]ourage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” For part and parcel of Wright’s depiction of the iconic and incomparable Winston Churchill is a picture of moral commitment—what is the good, the right, the honorable course of action in a world where evil has wreaked such havoc and where so many fold in fear? In exploring the crucial period from May 8 to June 4, 1940, where Britain stood in danger of surrendering to Germany and, thus, leaving Hitler unchecked, Darkest Hour reminds viewers that an Allied victory was far from certain.
The intervening years have revealed both the wisdom of Churchill’s determination to “never surrender” and the vileness of Hitler’s regime, but Wright’s film underscores that moral decisions are made in a crucible of internal and external doubts, compounded by pressures of logistical and human limitations. Essential, then, is an ethical lodestar to adjudicate these weighty matters with conviction, courage, and compassion. As Wright so clearly depicts, none of Churchill’s options after the capitulation of France were an unalloyed good: men would die, England might fall, and Hitler could gain yet more power. Morality in a fallen world is messy indeed. Cutting through this fog of war, however, was Churchill’s unwavering commitment to oppose evil, a commitment simultaneously clarified by his failure at Gallipoli and bolstered by his interactions with the British people who would bear the burden of his decision. Darkest Hour deliberately and painstakingly walks viewers through Churchill’s dreadful task; it emphasizes both the tenacity of his insight about Hitler’s unique threat and the cost of action. In so doing, Wright’s film honors this moral clarity as much as it honors the man himself. —Marybeth Baggett
The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg’s The Post asks questions that intertwine at the roots of human experience. What is truth? Is relational peacekeeping more important than shining a light on unseemly realities hidden in the shadows? Do both men and women, whether experienced in the professional workplace or emerging from decades spent at home, possess equal intrinsic value?
By offering viewers a glimpse into the world of the Washington Post during the Nixon-era leak of the Pentagon Papers, Spielberg’s journalism thriller composes an ode to common grace, masterfully depicting its protagonists as they vacillate between uncertainty and confidence in the face of near impossible dilemmas. The film’s moral compass points north while acknowledging the quivering fear that comes with doing so—honoring moments of human weakness made along the way. Nearly each scene is full of characters who, though they speak not of God, seem to be haunted by His image within them—a witness that bears to what is right and what is wrong. Whether the issue at hand be sexism in the boardroom or decades-long government secrets, The Post both acknowledges the difficulty of pursuing the Good and celebrates those who sacrifice to obtain it. —Abby Perry
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan
If war is hell, Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama, Dunkirk, drops us directly into the fire and brimstone. Through bullets and explosions, bombs and floods, we follow the desperate men either evacuating or aiding in the evacuation of Dunkirk during the spring of 1940—the soldiers on the French beach, the pilots providing cover fire, and the boat captains attempting to ship infantrymen back to Britain. It is their movie—the men in the trenches of warfare—and we stay with them from beginning to end, feeling something of their terror, helplessness, and longing for home. Even Winston Churchill’s immortal words about the rescue are spoken at the end, not by the great man himself, but by an exhausted young soldier reading them from a newspaper.
This focus on the common man—on the ones closest to the war—is what makes Dunkirk a riveting masterpiece. Within the context of the massive rescue operation, a thousand small dramas play their course—dramas in which the desire for survival is pitted against the willingness to lay down one’s life for others. Even the most insignificant choice can, and sometimes does, have deadly consequences; it’s all too easy to understand how even brave men let fear overrule their better impulses. Yet even in this ghoulish environment, glimpses of grace force their way to the surface—as civilian men and women, and even young boys, plunge into danger with no thought for their own safety; as a French soldier saves the life of British men even though he knows they would turn against him if they knew his true identity; as a boy forgives a shell-shocked soldier for inadvertently killing his friend.
War may be the devil’s inferno, but still, in the many small, unsung decisions to push through terror and reach out to one’s fellow human beings, one senses that God is not far away. —Gina Dalfonzo
Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig
The Coming of Age narrative has become a cultural touchstone with enough weight that the stories often write themselves. Pick a teenager with a quirk or hangup, place them in a transitional season, sprinkle in a few adults who don’t understand them, stir, pop in the oven at 350 degrees, and, in an hour and a half, pull out a moving tale of what it means to become an adult.
What sets Lady Bird, ostensibly a coming-of-age film, apart from these shake-and-bake stories is its steadfast refusal to allow its heroine to be defined in simple, strict categories. Much of the credit for this mature balance belongs to director Greta Gerwig’s deft handling of a story that spans a busy year of Christine McPherson’s life (henceforth referred to as “Lady Bird”), gently guiding the film away from any moment where her character might be pigeonholed. Whenever the film appears to be approaching a final conclusion that will neatly sew up the loose ends of Lady Bird’s journey, the narrative makes a left turn.
This is Lady Bird (played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan): changeable, prone to dramatics, and adamant about defining herself. When asked what her given name is, she insists on Lady Bird: “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” Throughout the film, she experiences numerous false starts and ill-timed delays. She moves forward only to move back. She tries on many identities—many of them ill-fitting.
But for all the bumps along the way, the movie never falters in its hopefulness. She tells one of the nuns at her Catholic school that she’d like to be on math Olympiad. When the nun kindly reminds her that math isn’t something she’s terribly strong in, Lady Bird responds, “That we know of yet.” The emphasis she places on “yet” echoes throughout the movie: she doesn’t have a boyfriend, she isn’t succeeding in school, she can’t go to the college she wants, she doesn’t know who her real friends are, she doesn’t know where she stands on religion, she hasn’t reconciled conflict with her mother… yet. She is still a person in the making—someone on a spiritual journey—and what makes Lady Bird remarkable is how it gives its protagonist agency to explore this process on her own terms. —Keegan Bradford
The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro
A recurring theme in Guillermo del Toro’s work is the centrality of narratives to the human experience. Whether it’s the fairy tales of Pan’s Labyrinth, the prophecies of the Hellboy series, or the dark personal histories of The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak, stories (those we tell and those that are told about us) shape the world around us and form our identities. They reveal what we love.
Love is a big part of del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water, which has the attention-grabbing premise of a mute woman named Elisa falling in love with a river god (or “fish man,” if you’re inclined to be cheeky about it). But the movie’s true romance isn’t between Elisa and her piscine paramour; it’s between del Toro and old Hollywood—specifically, with the way that its myths and stories can provide solace in a world growing gradually more brutal and heartless.
Old Hollywood had its problems too, not least of which was a steadfast commitment to stories that belonged only to the beautiful, the talented, and the white. In del Toro’s fantasy, though, that history is flipped. He gives us a new story to love. In his telling, the Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a romantic lead; the whitewashed portrait of Cold War America as a shining fortress of scientific progress and Christian values is rejected in the figure of Michael Shannon’s government man, who knows only how to dissect and exploit. A woman who is seen by most people only in terms of her disability is revealed as royalty.
There is a whiff of the Beatitudes around this film. It’s the B-movie monster and the cleaning lady who get their grand romance this time around, confounding all who thought them dangerous or pathetic or beneath notice. In the world of The Shape of Water, the persecuted and the meek inherit the earth. —Kevin McLenithan
Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (based on the novel by André Aciman) tells the story of a summer romance between Elio, the Italian son of an archeology professor, and Oliver, a student living with the family as a graduate intern. While the film offers a glimpse of the societal restraints felt by gay men during the early eighties, at its core Call Me by Your Name is an emotional examination of both personal discovery and desire.
This isn’t to say there aren’t bumps along the way. The movie is less than critical of its primary romance, despite obviously unsettling elements—Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is 17 and Oliver (Armie Hammer) is 24. And while Elio is the legal age of consent for the time and place, his infatuation with the older, more mature Oliver brings with it a twinge of discomfort.
The movie wants you to be captivated by their relationship, but it’s most magnetic charm actually lies in the beauty that surrounds the characters. It is lovingly shot; the outdoor scenes are filled with light and water and the heat of summer. The meals are sumptuous, the sets are ornate, and the soundtrack is a mix of gorgeous classical and characteristically aching Sufjan Stevens songs written for the film, almost cracking under the weight of restrained desire.
Without spoiling too much, the movie concludes as we know it will: the summer ends, Oliver leaves, and life as the characters know it resumes. In a gut-wrenching monologue, Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hints about his own sexuality, predicting the future for both Elio and Oliver. Like many gay men of that time, they will end up in traditional marriages underrun by suppressed desires.
In many ways, this resolution remains muddied by the way the film refuses to critique the men’s relationship (let alone addressing how some Christians may view Elio and Oliver). At the same time, we still catch a glimpse of the tenderness the story aspires to. And, as we watch the sorrow in Elio’s face as he sits before the fire in the film’s final sequence, we see something overtake it: the feeling of recognizing yourself in someone else. —Keegan Bradford
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not an easy film to love. The main characters are unlikable, replete with the sorts of vices and sins that represent the worst of humanity: racism, misogyny, violence, corruption, cruelty, and a relentless sort of crudeness that contributes to life, badly lived. Frances McDormand (nominated for an Oscar) plays Mildred, a grieving mother who provides the catalyst for everything that follows the title sequence.
Mildred’s daughter was brutally raped and murdered, and the local small-town police have yet to find the killer in the several months since her death. They are “too busy torturing black folks,” according to Mildred. So Mildred raises the stakes by renting out a series of three billboards at the edge of town, plastering them with messages that remind everyone passing by about the brutality of her daughter’s murder and the ineptitude of the local police chief in meting out justice.
After this setup, however, what looks to be a conventional narrative of vigilante justice splinters into something far more complicated, and darker. It turns out that Mildred is not much of a hero, and the cops aren’t entirely the one-note bad guys we’d been led to expect. This includes Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell, also nominated for an Oscar), the racist cop who manages to be both ridiculous and terrifying—Barney Fife with a vicious streak. The narrative reaches a pitch in a series of heart-wrenching scenes that manage to provide an arc without an ending. Each character is confronted with their own moral culpability, yet no one is really redeemed.
The best that director Martin McDonagh can do for the audience is to provide the possibility of redemption, the hope of change. It is unsatisfying. But then, so is life. At least life without the clarifying framework of the gospel. When people are driven by hate, as in Three Billboards, it only leads to more hate. “Hate begets hate,” says one of the more wide-eyed characters—the young girlfriend of Mildred’s middle-aged ex-husband. In the film, the line seems like a non-sequitur from an ancillary (and relentlessly mocked) character, but her words are the heart of the movie. Maybe a takeaway for the audience is that, in our shared lust with Mildred for justice, we are willing to settle for it at any price, even hate. And that is a high price indeed. —S. D. Kelly