The best blockbusters are usually about more than just giant robots hitting each other or people blowing other people up. Good storylines, great characters and proper themes make the difference between forgettable popcorn fodder and the movies we actually love. And from this site's perspective, the greatest storylines, the best characters and the most important themes are all CHRISTIAN. Here's how some of the biggest films of the second half of 2017 engaged with ideas of faith...
(Oh, and read to the end for my top ten films of the year too!)
Fans were delighted when Disney's Marvel Studios managed to pull one of their most beloved heroes back into their 'cinematic universe', and with Spiderman: Homecoming, their long wait for the web-slinger's return was richly rewarded. Light and fluffy to a point, it also had a fantastic central message about character being more important than gifting – one which should be heeded by a few Christian leaders. Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk was an astonishing retelling of the famous WW2 evacuation, told through three threads and at three speeds simultaneously across land, sea and air. The miraculous end of the story is the stuff of history, and perfectly illustrates St. John's assertion that the light shines in the darkness but is not overcome (John 1 v 5). The same month saw War for the Planet of the Apes, which was by all accounts a better-than-average morality story, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was by all accounts total and utter garbage.
Late Summer usually tends to be the moment that studios allow the movies that didn't quite turn out as hoped, to seep out into the world. There may have been some of that about The Dark Tower, the long-awaited Stephen King adaptation, which was generally derided by fans of the book, and given pretty withering reviews all round. I actually quite liked it(!), and found Matthew McConaughey's 'devil' character rather compelling. But it was literally just me. The critics of the world were entirely unified however about another of August's big and long-awaited releases, The Emoji Movie, a film that was absolutely as bad as it's title made it sound. The Hitman's Bodyguard and Logan Lucky were both above-average action capers, although the latter had a bit of substance with some nice thoughts about the meaning of 'family.' The best film of the month, by some distance, was Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, a criminally under-viewed historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, featuring Star Wars' John Boyega in his first 'proper' lead role. Every Christian in America still has plenty to heed from the film's unflinching message about institutionalised racism.
After The Shack, no film quite did on-screen theology in 2017 like Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, a one-of-a-kind psychological horror about a couple in a mysterious house where nothing really seems to make sense. With some truly horrifying scenes it doesn't exactly come recommended... but it's intentionally allegorical to the early stories in Genesis, so is at least fascinating from a Christian perspective. One film that absolutely wasn't was Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a puerile sequel which gloried in talking about sin, but didn't have much to say about it. By comparison The Lego Ninjago Movie was a masterpiece, even though it hadn't generated much buzz or excitement in advance. The year's second Lego movie was the best by far, and had another fascinating storyline focussed on fatherhood (just like the Batman one). And as a bonus for all the parents who got dragged along, it was very, very funny.
Blade Runner is one of the great science fiction films, and some 35 years after its release, we had never imagined it would get a sequel, let alone one which featured original star Harrison Ford. Yet thanks to visionary director Denis Villeneuve, not only did that happen this year, but the result far exceeded expectations. Blade Runner 2049 was beautiful, endlessly imaginative and deeply theological, posing questions around the nature of the soul and whether we're all heading toward 'hell' on earth. A particularly strong movie month also saw the release of Thor: Ragnarok, a hilarious and inventive new take on the superhero genre which contained perhaps the year's best fantasy scene, pitting Thor against Hulk in an alien gladiatorial arena. It also contained one of the year's best lines, as Thor looks at the green monster and announces with relief, 'it's ok, we know each other – he's a friend from work!' And despite all the silliness and an awful lot of action, there was still time for a church-resonating subplot about a people realising that their identity is in their name and their story, not in their land or buildings.
Poor old DC Studios. After watching Marvel knock it out of the park time after time, and having finally struck gold with Wonder Woman, they might have just dared to dream that Justice League would smash the Box Office, please the critics and drive the fans wild with pleasure. Instead, it was a dull, badly-written mess of nonsense, with the lesser superheroes struggling against a demonic bad guy... until the strongest superhero turned up and easily defeated him, albeit via a vaguely interesting resurrection sequence. Murder on the Orient Express was another disappointment, despite an all-star cast, but the month was saved by the unlikely shape of a small unassuming bear. Paddington 2 was a delight from start to finish, gave Hugh Grant a role to relish, and included possibly the best prison-based song and dance number in movie history. It also had some lovely things to say about friendship and self-sacrifice, and also about never giving up on that dream of finding an audience for your one-man show.
As has become customary, December was Star Wars month, thanks to the globally-heralded arrival of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. While it somewhat divided audiences, most critics agreed that director Rian Johnson had taken some brilliant creative risks, and that they'd largely paid off. As the middle part of a trilogy, it somewhat predictably involved the forces of darkness rising but not quite extinguishing the light (John 1-style), but in the evolution of the Jedi religion, it also had some interesting things to say about progressive and fundamentalist forms of faith. The month also saw the release of kids novel adaptation Wonder – about a child overcoming the stigma of facial disfigurement to embrace his own made-in-God's-image uniqueness, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which was surprisingly-well received, and singing sequel Pitch Perfect 3, which wasn't. And there was still time for a singing and dancing Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum in The Greatest Showman, and Will Smith in one of the year's strangest films, the straight-to-Netflix Bright. The latter was sweary to the point of being unwatchable, but anyhow squandered an interesting premise around orcs, elves and fairies in the LA criminal underworld by being neither a biting piece of social satire or a hard-hitting police drama. It was basically a rubbish remake of Zootropolis, with orcs.
And my films of the year...
Now before I begin, the annual disclaimer. You will certainly not agree with this list. But it's my list. If you don't like it, remember I'm just a random guy on the Internet who barely knows what he's talking about. So with that in mind...
10. Detroit - Brilliant, immersive and intense – John Boyega shines in Kathryn Bigelow's under-rated and under-seen drama about racism in 1960s America.
9. Paddington 2 - Better than the first one, heart-warming, hilarious, and with the best Hugh Grant performance since the mid-1990s. What is not to adore about it?
8. Blade Runner: 2049 - Visually-stunning doesn't cover it. Denis Villeneuve's long-awaited sequel not only lives up to its predecessor, but at times outstrips it with the sheer scale of its imagination.
7. Hacksaw Ridge - A great war movie about an even greater man; the world is richer for knowing the story of Private Desmond Doss.
6. Lion - As Mark Kermode says, there's an awful lot of Shawshank before you get to the Redemption, but ultimately Garth Davis' tear-jerking lost child story is mesmerically rewarding.
5. Dunkirk - Few films have thrust us into the midst of the horrors of war AND forced us to stay there for the entire running time like this. Christopher Nolan's time-bending WW2 survival story is a brilliant, heart-stopping piece of storytelling – and best seen on the biggest screen possible.
4. Thor: Ragnarok - The year's best – and funniest – superhero movie mines bucketloads of originality from a tired genre. My face actually ached from smiling by the end.
3. Get Out - Brilliant writing, a clever, unsettling central idea and some fabulous performances all add up to create a word-of-mouth sensation that absolutely lives up to the hype.
2. Moonlight - A towering piece of work from Barry Jenkins, following three ages in the life of one young man on a slow, painful journey of self-discovery.
1. La La Land - The world divides roughly into two sets of people. Those that will be infuriated that I've even put this in the top ten, and those who still can't believe Moonlight won Best Picture. To me, it is utterly enchanting cinema, and the constant sense of joy and wonder it inspires is the reason I go to the movies. Sorry (not sorry).