The Shape of Water... into wine: Christian Today's alternative Oscars 2018

So, The Shape of Water beat out Three Billboards for the biggest prize in cinema (confounding our predictions once again). But as the glitz and glamour of Sunday night's Oscar ceremony fades, and all the glittery confetti is swept up in that theatre, do not worry that your appetite for endless awards ceremonies will go unsatisfied today. Because, for the third year running, I'm here to humbly present our hypothetical prizes for films which did a good job of representing the Christian faith on screen over the last year. That's right: it's Christian Today's Alternative Oscars!

In order to qualify for these awards, a film must have been released over the course of the last year, but doesn't necessarily need to be intended as a faith-based film (Mad Max: Fury Road is a previous winner. Star Tom Hardy called it 'his proudest moment in film'*). 2016 saw a particularly rich crop of films with faith as a central theme, including Martin Scorsese's Silence (which actually featured 'the voice of God'), and redemptive war epic Hacksaw Ridge. So was Christianity still at the forefront of Hollywood's priorities in 2017?

*I imagine.

'The Case for Christ' stars Mike Vogel as Lee Strobel.

Best depiction of the Christian faith

2017 was arguably the year when Christian movies stopped sucking quite so badly. In the somewhat unexpected big screen adaptation of The Case for Christ, Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen star as Lee and Leslie Strobel, the atheist journalist and his recently-converted wife, wrestling with what her great awakening means for their marriage. Vogel is excellent as a man struggling with his wife's new focus ('You're cheating on me, with Jesus!' he exclaims at one point), but Christensen is the best thing about the film: a believable new convert who has simply found that faith – rather than her husband – is what gives her life meaning. It's eventually enough to send him scrambling on his own reluctant journey towards faith, writing evangelistic literature and eventually, a big screen biopic. How meta.

'The Shack' – best explictly Christian film?

Best explicitly Christian film

When a film adaptation of William P Young's gazillion-selling Holy Trinity novel The Shack was announced, expectations were somewhere between low and outraged (there are still some who believe the book to be a work of heresy). Yet Stuart Hazeldine's beautiful and imaginative film is the very best version of it one can imagine; nuancing out some of the more casually-heretical moments, and winning over audiences with some memorable casting (so much so that Octavia Spencer's role as 'Papa' gets a little referential nod in Oscar Best Picture winner The Shape of Water). Reviews were somewhat sniffy, but of course they were: this is essentially a long conversation about theology on screen.

'Alien:Covenant' deals with some big theological questions.

Most challenging depiction of faith

I like Billy Crudup, mainly because I was once mistaken for him. But watching him as Captain Oram in Alien: Covenant, it's quite hard to maintain that sense of affection. Not only is he a committed Christian, but he's in the Archbishop George Carey mould of seeing religious persecution around every corner. Thrust to the helm only because of the original captain's death at the start of the film, he believes he should have been captain from the beginning and only missed out because of his faith. He's an unashamed, Bible-quoting believer, but partly as a result the rest of the crew undermine him and describe him as 'insufferable'. So the role is challenging on two somewhat contradictory levels: first, because if we're not careful, Christians can come across as killjoys with persecution complexes, but second, because there's good reason to suppose that our current cultural trajectory will actually land us in a place where Christians aren't able to get jobs because of apparent conflicts with their faith. Just ask Tim Farron.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in the horror film 'Mother!'

Best parable

I could never recommend Darren Aronofsky's Mother! – an unsettling and confusing horror packed with shocks and one particularly outrageous moment of infanticide – but there's no denying that it was one of 2017's most theologically-preoccupied films. It's hard to know exactly who is a metaphor for whom in this apparently straightforward (and then very much not) tale of a couple in a sort-of Eden who witness a Cain-and-Abel murder, then have to give up their only child to a baying mob. Javier Bardem is probably meant to be God the Father; Jennifer Lawrence a metaphor for the earth that incarnates his son. So while that central, horrifying moment is almost unwatchable, it does give some insight into what it must have meant for God to watch Jesus on the cross.

'Dunkirk' is a powerful illustration of a biblical theme.

Best illustration of a biblical theme

There are a number of great contenders for this prize, including Vice-Admiral Holdo's great act of 'laying down her life for her friends' in The Last Jedi, to the proof that 'the truth shall set you free' in Spielberg's The Post. I'm going to give this as a joint award however, to two Best Picture nominees so intrinsically linked that their release in the same year takes you back to that summer when we got Back to the Future parts II and III. Both Christopher Nolan's wonderful Dunkirk and Joe Wright's Darkest Hour focus on the same pivotal period in the Second World War, where an almost impossible situation somehow turned out good thanks to extraordinary leadership and astonishing bravery. Both films offer a fine illustration of that famous verse, 'The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it' (John 1:5).

 

YouTube/Marvel EntertainmentScreenshot of Loki from the official trailer of 'Thor: Ragnarok'.

Best redemption narrative
Last year's best superhero movie by some distance was Thor Ragnarok, a hilarious, colourful and endlessly-creative take on a creaking genre. Yet despite all the wisecracking (and boy, there is a lot of that) and comic-book violence, there's also time for some interesting themes and a bit of Christian-crowd-pleasing redemption. As they contemplate with horror the idea that their home planet might be destroyed by a gigantic fire demon, the people of Thor's world Asgard realise that in fact, home is within them. Asgard is a people, not a place, and they must only escape with their lives to preserve it. It might just be the finest metaphor for the church ever seen in a blockbuster film.

Avraham Aviv Alush plays Jesus in 'The Shack'.

Best Christian character

It might sound slightly ridiculous – and theologically incorrect – to describe him as a 'Christian' character (he can't follow himself, after all), but Avraham Aviv Alush is so incredibly compelling as Jesus in The Shack that I'm going to bend the rules. Many people agreed that the performance was so likeable that it made them want to go and spend time with the real Jesus. Surely that's the finest sermon feedback a preacher can ever receive?

So there you have it. There are no statuettes on offer for the winners here, no eye-popping Gucci goodie bag. Only the sense of pride that comes from being awarded a pretend prize from a Christian website. It's not been a year where faith has been front-and-centre in Hollywood, but again it's played a key supporting role. And with a string of faith-focused releases lined up for 2018, it's likely that these coveted awards are only going to get more competitive next year.

Martin Saunders is a contributing editor for Christian Today and the deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.

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