The Most Inspiring Movies of 2014
2o14 saw quite a few faith-based movies released in theaters that were inspiring; but, surprisingly, there were quite a few mainstream Hollywood films that also had me leaving the theater with Biblical themes and edifying truths on my mind (and I’m not talking about Noah or Exodus: Gods and Kings; though there were some things I did like in those films despite their tortured subversion of the Bible’s intent).
Some movies this year were even life-changing for me, particularly the first three films on this list.
So, in case you’re looking for recently released movies that will stir your heart and bring edifying truths to mind, one or more of the following 16 — yes, 16! — released in 2014 might be just the ticket:
This is a late addition (added on 12/26/14 after publication), but after seeing this film I had to add it.
It is based on the true story of Olympic athlete and WWII hero Louis Zamperini, and although the story is brutal — a WWII soldier lost at sea is captured by the Japanese — the message is timeless and radiant with the Gospel. Its primary theme is much-needed today: in order to overcome our enemies and defeat their evil, we must forgive them. If we do that, not only do we conquer the evil, but the forgiveness transforms us as it transformed Louis Zamperini when he eventually gave his life to Christ after the war.
The film does not try to hide the Christian elements of Zamperini’s harrowing story; it fleshes them out in a glorious display of courage and conviction — through the eyes of Zamperini and his fellow soldiers — without being preachy or heavy-handed.
My full review of the film is available to read here.
2. “The Perfect Wave” (And the True Story that Inspired It)
A surfing adventure/drama/romance starring Scott Eastwood, Rachel Hendrix, Cheryl Ladd
When surfer Ian McCormack goes on a worldwide surfing safari in search of the perfect wave, he falls in love with a beautiful girl; his quest for the perfect wave changes into a quest for true love. However, during his stay at a remote island, an unthinkable tragedy occurs when five box jellyfish sting him with fatal doses of poison. His quest changes one more time: instead of the perfect wave or the perfect romance, he finds the perfect miracle that will change his life forever.
The most inspiring part? It’s all a true story.
The movie, with atmospheric shades similar to The Endless Summer, is full of adventure, exotic locations, a great love story portrayed with skillful nuance by Rachel Hendrix and Scott Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s son), and, most importantly, a true account of the miracle that happened to Ian McCormack — one of the most life-changing testimonies of Christ’s miraculous love and power that I’ve ever heard.
You can read my interview with actor Rachel Hendrix here.
I also interviewed Cheryl Ladd here about her role as Ian McCormack’s mother.
My full review of the #ThePerfectWave is here, which includes parental guidance information.
3. “The Principle”
A documentary about revolutionary discoveries that have occurred in the fields of cosmology and physics featuring interviews with prominent physicists Dr. Max Tegmark (MIT), George Ellis (University of Cape Town, co-author with Stephen Hawking), Lawrence Krauss (Arizona State University), John Hartnett (University of Adelaide), John Byl (Professory Emeritus of Mathematics at Trinity Western University), and Bernard Carr (Queen Mary, University of London) — to name a few.
To make a long story short: new evidence in space has been found that shows that our solar system lies at the center of the universe and that the earth has tremendous significance in its location within the universe — especially in the way that a newly discovered axis spanning the universe has been found to be aligned with the Earth’s equinox and ecliptic.
Wait, what? The entire universe is oriented around the location of the earth and our solar system?
Yes, it turns out our planet is not so insignificant after all, as Copernicus thought. Astonishing new data coming in from new orbiting observatories have revealed that the Earth is, in fact, very significant in its location.
That might sound utterly insane, but this is a real crisis in cosmology based on recent data, and physicists all over the world have been debating what it all means — some physicists argue with religious conviction that the Copernicus Principle — the part that concludes that the earth has an insignificant, peripheral location in the universe — is Gospel truth and could never be overturned, and theories have been proposed by this camp that work to preserve the belief that the earth has no significance in the universe (or universes, as they would claim).
Other physicists, however, have accepted that this new data has fundamentally changed everything we thought we knew about our universe and our planet — that we really are significant and any attempts to use speculative theories to downplay that fact are just that — unproven speculation. I am paraphrasing Dr. George Ellis here, a brilliant man who, among many other achievements, co-authored a book with Stephen Hawking. He has harsh criticism for the way some of his colleagues are advancing the speculative theory of the multiverse as fact (the multiverse is a theory that physicists use to downplay any special significance in the fact that earth resides at the center point in the universe). If you’re curious, you can read more of his criticisms of the multiverse theory here.
The documentary had its premier in Chicago earlier in 2014. Although the documentary has yet to be released to the public (other than the one-time event of the premier), whenever it does find its way to the masses it could cause quite a stir. It has forever changed the way I see our universe and the Earth.
It turns out our little blue marble in the universe is quite significant after all.
Read my in-depth review of the documentary (#PrincipleMovie) here, which explains the data and the view points of many of the physicists who are interviewed.
4. “Holy Ghost”
A documentary by Darren Wilson that features on-the-ground footage of events as they develop, interspersed with interviews that feature Michael W. Smith, Lenny Kravitz, Korn, Phil Vischer, R.T. Kendall, Jake Hamilton, Meredith Andrews, and many others.
Members of the metal band Korn preaching the Gospel before a concert? A musician singing worship songs publicly on the streets in one of the most dangerous places (for non-Hindus) in India? Miracles and life-changing encounters with God caught on camera? That’s just a small taste of what’s in store when you watch Holy Ghost, one of the most powerful, fascinating documentaries about the love and astonishing power of Jesus Christ that I’ve ever seen.
Visit the film’s website here. (#HolyGhost)
5. “The Hundred-Foot Journey”
A drama-comedy/romance starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon
This movie caught me by surprise. The plot, as summed up at IMDB, seems a little ordinary at first glance: “The Kadam family leaves India for France where they open a restaurant directly across the road from Madame Mallory’s Michelin-starred eatery.”
The film itself, however, is anything but ordinary. Although this film is not made by Christian filmmakers, its story deals with powerful, edifying truths that Christians will find compatible with their faith.
When you examine its underlying principles of choosing personal commitment and unselfishness to others over selfish gain, the film could work as a parable for people in ministry who struggle with the priorities of their calling. Are we serving God and working in our ministry like an ambitious career with hopes of finding fame, wealth, and glory, even at the expense of our relationship with God and others? The film has nothing to do with ministry, but it’s underlying principles could easily be applied to it.
In addition, the film takes a tear-inducing look at a young man dealing with the loss of his mother and how he uses his talents and hard work to honor his parents and provide for his family.
It is also a stirring David and Goliath underdog story, and it reminds me that God often likes to use the most obscure people to accomplish His tasks.
Another wonderful thing about this film (#the100ftJourney): it’s PG and very family-friendly — something I can’t say for all of the films on this list — especially the next one.
A war movie starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf (#FuryMovie)
This epic WWII film — about a tank crew and their fearless commander (Brad Pitt) battling their way through impossible odds in the heart of Nazi, Germany — carries a powerful Christian worldview. It’s not surprising because the director and screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) is a Christian. In fact, he, Brad Pitt, and Shia LaBeouf had conversations about Christianity that led LaBeouf to put his faith in Christ. (Brad Pitt, however, is reportedly not a Christian, though he is private and opaque about his beliefs.)
Brad Pitt’s character Wardaddy recites 1 John 2:15-17, and it underscores a prominent theme of the movie: we are mortals who are far more fragile than we could ever imagine. And if you ever doubted how fragile, and how terribly easy it is to destroy a human body, the shocking violence in this film will remove any doubts. Therefore, do not waste your finite life chasing after the cares of this world — its pride and its lusts — but instead do the will of Christ, and you will live forever.
As you’ll see in my full review of the film, the movie is extremely violent as it depicts with realism what happens in war.
Some might wonder why I’m including an R-rated, hyper-realistic war movie on a list of “inspiring” movies.
I subscribe to Brian Godawa’s school of thought on this topic. The Christian screenwriter (To End All Wars starring Kiefer Sutherland) made a great point in the opening pages of his book Hollywood Worldviews:
Although violence and sexual immorality are results of the Fall in Eden, not all accounts of sex and violence are intrinsically immoral. It is the context through which these misbehaviors are communicated that dictates their destructive or redemptive nature. It is not merely the detailed acts of violence portrayed in teen slasher series like Friday the 13th, Halloween or Hostel that make them detrimental to the minds of youth. It is that these acts exist within a nihilistic view of the world, with murder demythologized through diabolical detail…On the other hand, films like Schindler’s List, Braveheart, Letters from Iowa Jima and The Last King of Scotland portray equally graphic brutality, but their context is ultimately redemptive. That is, the depiction of man’s inhumanity toward man repulses, rather than entertains, and points toward redemption from such evil. Similar extremities of violence can issue from different contexts and produce opposite results.–Brian Godawa, “Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment”
7. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
A superhero movie starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson (#CaptainAmerica)
The second installment of the Captain America drama in the Marvel Universe has proved to be my favorite Marvel film so far.
Beneath all the layers of the film’s action scenes, there is a powerful story of a man who is wrestling with emptiness and the demons of his past. Ultimately, the sequel does fully what the first movie began to do: it portrays a struggle between two age-old opponents — the selfless way of life and the selfish one. On a certain level, we can see the way of Christ depicted very powerfully as it is contrasted with the way of evil, which is all about self-centered arrogance, the worship of human wisdom based on moral relativism, and using power for one’s own benefit. The villain portrays a “there is no right or wrong” type of hard-boiled postmodern worldview that comes to its logical conclusion (though I won’t say how).
Captain America, however, remains steadfast in the film’s plot as a symbol of our need for an absolute standard of morality.
My full review of the film is here.
8. “Edge of Tomorrow: Live. Die. Repeat.”
A sci-fi war movie starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson (#EdgeOfTomorrow)
This movie presents an uplifting perspective on the priceless value of human life. Ironically, the characters must treat their own lives with flippancy. The only way for them to defeat the aliens is by willingly dying every day in battle in order to “reset” and refine their war strategy.
Christians who are familiar with Jesus’ sermon in Luke about taking up our crosses daily and dying to ourselves can draw a parallel with this film. In a very bizarre way, this sci-fi alien war movie actually works as a metaphor for Jesus’ call to His followers to die to Self every day. That is what the heroes literally do in order to save millions of lives from the coming slaughter that the aliens are trying to accomplish.
In a similar way, we die to ourselves daily as Christians and grow in our maturity, in our faith, and in our “spiritual warfare” on a daily basis. We become stronger warriors in a spiritual sense, in Christ. Each new day that God gives us is like the time loop from this movie: He is giving us another chance to grow and refine our role in His grand strategy.
You can read my full review of the film here.
9. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”
A fantasy adventure starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage (#TheHobbitMovie)
What I love about Bilbo Baggins, the main character in the film, is his commitment to hope — his simple but determined will to hope even when all seems lost. So often in these films, Bilbo (played masterfully my Martin Freeman) conveys a humble, unassuming courage that expresses itself in the most ordinary mannerisms and tones of speech. As Thorin described Bilbo, “He looks more like a grocer than a burglar.” Bilbo never makes any grand speeches or dazzles everyone with wizardry or strength. He simply presses on into the fray — into the most dangerous situations when no one else is willing to follow — with an ordinary courage that soon becomes extraordinary when the fruit of his efforts come to light.
He provides a role model of what courageous faith and hope looks like. It’s not always flashy and dramatic. Sometimes it’s covered in the most modest, unassuming mannerisms and personality, yet it is willing to step through the hottest fire.
The film also has another inspiring theme: don’t allow your love of the things of this world to become an idol. If you do, that idol will eventually control and destroy you.
My full review of the film is here.
10. “The Song”
A love story and drama that re-tells the Biblical story of Solomon in a modern setting (#SeeTheSong)
With A-list quality acting from Alan Powell, Ali Faulkner, and Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, and superb directing and screenwriting from Richard Ramsey, The Song stood out from among the many faith-based movies that came to us in 2014. It tackles mature content with Scriptural depth, it addresses sexual and relational topics from a Biblical point of view, it shows how amazingly relevant and powerful the Bible is for today, and it explores all of those themes with powerful film making craft and acting performances.
11. “The Giver”
A dystopian adaptation of the beloved novel of the same name, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep (#TheGiverMovie)
The movie — whether intentionally or not — zooms in on a powerful Biblical theme: the absolute necessity of free will. The movie views free will in similar ways as Christianity: the free will of humanity is so valuable that it is worth having all of the destruction and misery that comes with it. This is one of the core principles in the Christian’s answer to the common question, “If God is both good and all-powerful, as the Bible claims He is, why is there suffering in the world?” This film (unintentionally) answers that question in a similar way that a Christian theologian would: God could only remove all suffering in humanity by removing all of its free will, but He chooses not to exert His power and forcibly end all suffering and evil because free will has inestimable worth. Without free will, the concept of love would cease to exist.
See my full review here.
12. “Heaven Is for Real”
A drama starring Greg Kinnear, Thomas Haden Church (#HeavenIsForReal)
Directed and written by Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of the Academy Award-winning movie Braveheart, Heaven Is for Real is the real deal. It’s no slouch, in other words — no cut-rate production values or wince-inducing cheesiness. It stars some of Hollywood’s most talented actors: Greg Kinnear, Thomas Haden Church, Kelly Reilly, and Margo Martindale. It features 5-year-old acting phenom Connor Corum, who did a breathtaking job. The kid’s only five! Good grief. Where do they find these kids?
The heart of the movie intelligently focused on how Colton’s trip to Heaven caused conflict and hardship in the Burpo family — something that many casual readers of the book might never have considered. It really made you feel the tension of suddenly having to deal with a situation where your child is talking about Heaven and what all of the implications of that would be. It also brought to life the brokenness of having a faith journey in a fallen world — the kind of mess in life that doesn’t always heal perfectly. Greg Kinnear brought this to the screen with absolute perfection. Overall, Randall Wallace hit a home run. He managed to make the film earnest and emotionally powerful without being preachy.
Read my full review here.
13. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”
A superhero movie starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Jamie Foxx (#SpiderManMovie)
This is a much heavier a film than your typical superhero move. I’ve experienced grief in the past, so movies like this always hit hard. It tackles head-on the journey of grief and learning to reconcile with the past, but in the end I was glad I watched it.
I walked away feeling hope.
Although the film makes you feel the palpable sorrow of characters, it pushes through all of the turmoil and concludes with a sense that there is a grand purpose in this universe, and we have an obligation to find our role in it — something that resonates with my Christian worldview — especially the line, “We have to be greater than what we suffer.” Why we would have to be greater than what we suffer? “To bring hope to others,” is the movie’s reply. That is the overarching message of this movie: bringing hope to others is more important than our self-interests.
In an early scene when Gwen gives a college graduation speech, she says the following, and it is probably one of the most powerful monologues of the movie:
It’s easy to feel hopeful on a beautiful day like today, but there will be dark days ahead of us too, and they’ll be days where you feel all alone, and that’s when hope is needed most, no matter how buried it gets, or how lost you feel, you must promise me, that you will hold on to hope. Keep it alive, we have to be greater than what we suffer. My wish for you is to become hope — people need that — and even if we fail, what better way is there to live? As we look around here today and see all the people who helped make us who we are, I know it feels like we’re saying goodbye, but we will carry a piece of each other, into everything we do next, to remind us of who we are and who we’re meant to be..
This monologue, which Emma Stone performs wonderfully, sums up the spirit of the film, and it carves a ray of light through the movie, even when the characters experience great darkness.
My full review of the film is here.
14. “Labor Day”
A drama starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet (#ParamountPics)
Although this movie had some mature content and is not for all ages — and though it depicts a tragic stillborn birth and the death of an infant in ways that might be hard for parents who have lost children — overall it was an edifying film that made me want to be a better man, a better father, and a better person in general.
Josh Brolin plays an escaped convict named Frank who takes shelter with a single mother and her son. Despite his sketchy criminal past, in Frank we see every admirable quality a grown man can have: honesty, loyalty, courage, resourcefulness, wisdom, the ability (and, most importantly, the desire!) to take care of a home and a family, and a tenderheartedness that continually defies their expectations and contradicts his rough outward persona. Frank’s kindness and unswerving honesty — though he is an escaped convict — is contrasted sharply with the immoral traits of their neighbors. He treats a mentally disabled boy with respect and gentle kindness, and then we see the boy’s caretaker physically abuse the boy in front of other people. Despite Frank’s past crimes, he has greater virtue than the people in the neighborhood who speak with repugnance and moral superiority about Frank — even though they don’t know him — when they see his picture on the news announcing his escape.
It makes you think twice about judging someone and assuming the worst just because they’ve been in prison. Sometimes the souls refined in the fire of prison end up more virtuous than the judgmental citizen who has never gotten a speeding ticket.
There is much light in this story. You have to endure great pain to get there, but there are redemptive messages in this movie that force the viewer to ask big questions.
In fact, Frank himself becomes symbolic of broader goals that every person on earth is chasing: joy, peace, fulfillment, a place to call home, a state of fixed security — happiness. In this film, the characters experience these things at certain moments, yet there is a constant tension of finiteness. He’s an escaped convict on the run, just passing through, seeking shelter temporarily. How could this happiness ever last? The story of Frank’s arrival becomes a parable. From a Biblical perspective, all of the joys and pleasures of this world — even the wholesome ones like raising a family, going to baseball games, celebrating birthdays — are fleeting sighs that escape into the sky the moment we exhale. Our hearts are not supposed to be invested wholly in finding happiness in this world because we were not made for this world. We are citizens of a heavenly city. In fact, Hebrews 11 calls us “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth.
I doubt the filmmakers intended to create such a powerful sermon illustration with this film, but they did, whether they wanted to or not.
Read my full review here.
15. “Walking With The Enemy”
A WWII Holocaust drama starring Ben Kingsley and Jonas Armstrong (#LibertyStudios)
Walking with the Enemy is a moving saga based on the true story of a Hungarian Jewish man who, after being torn from his family, goes to extraordinary lengths, even disguising himself as a German officer, to save thousands of Jews from the fire of Nazi hatred. Jonas Armstrong as the brave Elek captures the grieved but determined soul of the Hungarian Jewish people as they face impossible odds, and Ben Kingsley’s performance adds brilliant depth to an already sweeping historical epic. This movie will inspire you, but it will also bring mournful tears to your eyes — and rightly so — as it remembers what the Jews in Hungary endured during WWII.
In this film here is hope, there is bravery — even cooperation between faiths as Christians are seen protecting Jews — and it asks a question: would you continue hoping and fighting in the face of impossible odds? In that regard, this movie is a worthy memorial to the Jewish people who died in WWII and to the brave man Pinchas Rosenbaum, upon whom the film is based.
16. “Saving Christmas”
A documentary by Kirk Cameron about the true story behind all the trappings of Christmas — Christmas trees, Santa, gift-giving — and why they are sources of spiritual inspiration, not contention (#SavingChristmas)
This movie is essentially a story about Kirk and his friend. It even has sort of a fictional, dramatized plot to it: his friend — who believes that the Western Christmas traditions are, well, of the devil — shows up to a Christmas dinner. At first the friend tries to be polite and tolerate what he believes is something akin to pagan worship. But soon he can’t take it anymore. He leaves the party and sits in his car in protest.
Kirk, the host of the party, notices this, and he goes to talk with his friend. They engage in a lively, often comical but very meaningful debate about Christmas. The film cuts back and forth between their conversation in the car and various dramatizations of Kirk’s explanations about the history and symbolism of our Christmas traditions. He defends everything from the Christmas tree, the ornaments hanging on the tree, to Santa Clause himself.
Kirk Cameron dives into this treasure trove of historical information that just shattered every preconception and prejudice that I had about all of the allegedly secular traditions of Christmas.
My full review is here.
Which Ones Did I Miss?
This list isn’t perfect by any means. I’ve seen many movies this year, but I didn’t have the time to see everything. I’m probably missing some films that belong here.
I’m hoping readers will give me a few suggestions of 2014 movies that should have been on this list so that I can discover some truly great ones that I didn’t get a chance to see. Please leave comments with your suggestions!