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On Choosing a Movie

November 4, AD2017

My husband and I enjoy watching movies for a date night after putting the kids to bed. We had a great streak of movie watching about a year ago, with some great movie recommendations from a friend and from a few by the same director which we really appreciated. We looked forward to the next chance we would have to pop some popcorn, share deep thoughts about the movie’s themes and characters, and transcend the time and space of our busy, working lives.

It seems like since that great season of movie watching, A Good Movie is Hard to Find. We have watched really violent movies that leave us, me especially, feeling a little sickened. We have watched movies with explicit sexual scenes and subjects that also leave us feeling a little disheartened. We have especially watched lots of romances with stories that don’t quite match up to our understanding of love and make us feel frustrated and angry with the plot line.

The Example of Wild

When I realized that we kept going wrong with movies about love and romance, I picked a movie that seemed to steer clear of romance altogether. The relationships that we saw portrayed in the movies that left us frustrated didn’t seem to be true reflections of reality. The relationships didn’t work out, and it was obvious to see why, or the ones that did succeed didn’t seem to have the true qualities of love. It didn’t seem to reflect the truth of reality and love.

I picked the movie Wild because it had a high score on Rotten Tomatoes (90%) and seemed to be about nature and perseverance, so I thought we wouldn’t have the confusing relationships that didn’t work for obvious reasons. However, we were so disappointed with the movie and even though it barely touched on love and romance, it still did not portray a true view of the world.

First of all, there were highly explicit sexual scenes which we thought were gratuitous and shocking. We have since learned that you can check imdb.com for how many explicit scenes there are in a movie and what they entail (for parental control, for example). Secondly, the moral values and the view of the world seemed completely skewed. The main character is getting out of a divorce, and the divorce and purgation she does of this man is viewed as a good thing and essential for her well-being.

Men are generally viewed negatively in the movie in an extremely one-sided way: her father is an abusive alcoholic while her mother is immaculately perfect, her husband is weak and non-significant, men that appear in the wilderness on her hike all want to sexually assault her. On her hike, she finds peace and understanding, but not through an outward encounter with others or the Other. While an alcoholics anonymous program would say that to find true healing you must admit you are powerless and open up to help from outside yourself, and a Christian worldview would also say that healing and salvation don’t come from yourself, but are a gift you find with open hands to receive, here is the opposite movement. The main character seems to get through life with clenched teeth and determination and it is a continuation of that attitude that she takes onto her hike. She finds healing, but apparently because she was capable and able to do it all by herself.

Not Because of the Rating Alone

It was helpful for us to find out about the detailed description of a movie’s graphic content on imdb.com. I don’t like to exclude movies just based on the R rating alone. As Bishop Barron is fond of saying, there is a book full of extremely graphic content (war, murder, rape, incest, etc.) that would definitely have an R rating if parts were made into a movie. That book is the Bible. So personal discretion and prudence is needed when one chooses for himself what type of graphic content he can watch.

We have watched some violent or even sexually explicit movies that have accurately portrayed truths about human nature and reality, have been uplifting or inspiring. On the contrary, we have watched some movies that had no graphic or sexual content, but were incredibly cheesy, badly made and sometimes didn’t even portray truths about human nature or reality. Return to Me comes to mind.

Because of the Reflection of Reality

God became flesh and all of human reality can contain truth and a reflection of God. All of creation speaks to us about the heart, our dreams, our destiny. Movies and all of art participate in God’s creativity and can especially awaken the desire of the divine in us and speak to truths deep within us.

It seems that the best criteria for choosing a movie is one that is true. A good movie reflects reality and the laws written into our humanity and social relationships. If we can analyze a movie, draw conclusions from it, have a deep conversation about it while comparing it to our lives and the ones we know, it is probably a good movie.

Jennifer Fulwiler states this very well and calls it the “human moral landscape” of the movie.

I do try to avoid books and shows that would tempt me to be a worse person than I already am, yet this doesn’t mean that I avoid all tales that depict immorality. I believe that if a story is truthful about the human moral landscape, it will probably not lead people too far astray. It’s the stories that do a fabulous job of presenting a false moral world that I worry about. I found Eat, Pray, Love and Sex and the City to be far more problematic than The Kite Runner and Breaking Bad, even though the latter two stories contain horrific violence and the former don’t. Eat, Pray, Love and Sex and the City present a beautifully alluring world in which selfishness leads to a glamorous, fulfilling life, whereas The Kite Runner and Breaking Bad speak truth about what is good and what is bad, and accurately show what tends to happen when we choose selfishness over love.

At the blog Catholicallyear, Kendra Tierney also touches on this true reflection of reality when comparing Curious George with Peter Rabbit: “I hadn’t seen it, but I am in general not a fan of the consequence-free ‘mischief’ that is Curious George. I like a naughty anthropomorphic animal as much as the next mom, but I normally require that he get what’s coming to him, a la Peter Rabbit.”

A Good Review is Hard to Find

It is hard to find a movie that portrays a true reflection of reality. It is easier to just see how graphic or violent a movie is, and not if it has good artistic quality and a true moral message. I recently found an excellent podcast on the Patrick Coffin Show about movies here. Steven D. Greydanus, who is interviewed, is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and has a site called decentfilms.com.

Here is an alphabetical list of some of our favorite movies: About Time, Amélie, American Hustle, Becoming Jane, Braveheart, Dirty Dancing, English Vinglish, Far and Away, Gran Torino, Grease, Joy, Little Miss Sunshine, My Girl, Pride & Prejudice, Silver Linings Playbook, Slumdog Millionaire, Star Wars, The Family Man, The Fault in Our Stars, The Gilded Cage, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Lord of the Rings, The Notebook, The Princess Bride, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Welcome to the Sticks.

Please share your favorite movies and resources for choosing movies in the comments.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Communication, Media • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Julie Machado is a 30-year-old Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal to study theology. She now lives there, along with the rest of her family, her husband and her children. She believes the greatest things in life are small and hidden and that the extraordinary is in the ordinary. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.

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  • Patrick Malone

    The question that doesn’t get asked enough when this topic is brought up is what are movies for? As best I can tell, there tends to be a presumption that movies are mere distraction, or spectacle, or entertainments, things to which we turn our brains off on a Friday night. If that’s the case, it makes more sense to be hyper-vigilant about disturbing content, and to worry less about artistic merit and so on. It makes more sense to worry less about being challenged, and to not make seeing the world in a new way a priority.

    But if we ascribe more potential to film, and expect that it can participate in the tradition of arts and culture, then this makes less sense to sanitize the medium, because in doing so, we act as if we don’t have anything new to learn. Pope Benedict XVI once approvingly quoted a painter, Georges Braque, who said, “Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.” To paraphrase what Flannery O’Connor says, we need to have the humility to be challenged, but we also need to know the limits of what challenges we can handle. It seems too often that one person will find a movie disturbing, and then instead of saying that it wasn’t a movie for them, tries to argue that no good Catholic could possibly watch that movie. We need more flexibility, and can’t try to fit everything in one category of movies that are unchallenging, entertaining, and reassuring.

  • Lisa

    Lion was a beautiful movie. I recommend it highly.

    • Julie Machado

      Thank you for the suggestion! It was a beautifully made movie, but we actually didn’t like it very much. It felt like a kick in the stomach (maybe because the little boy reminded us of our little boy!) and too much like it was just trying to prove a point.

  • Annette Petrone

    Julie Machado, wake up to the infiltration of your soul to so much testing and trying of this film and that film. Don’t you know you are a temple of God, loved into your very being by Him, the Creator of the created?

  • Teresa Power

    A film about the true meaning of family love? A film all about love, great and true love, with no illusions, with pain and joy, and a film without explicit sex? A film about serving others and living to make others happy, especially your own family, even if it implies renouncing to your dearest dreams? “It’s a Wonderful Life”, by Frank Capra, 1946. Back and white, but no doubt my favourite film on the subject. Ever. I truly recommend it! Teresa Power

    • Julie Machado

      Thank you Teresa. I actually haven’t seen it!

  • Annette Petrone

    I never watch movies, so sure am I that it is mostly filth. I will not compromise my soul. Be careful, little eyes, what you see.

    • Right you are Annette. I can’t understand a Catholic watching explicit sex scenes and then feeling “shocked.” Something wrong here. And Bishop Barron ought to know that watching an R film is not the same as reading graphic violence in the Bible. I would not watch a movie about David and Bethsheba with nudity and sex scenes. No one gets aroused reading the general facts in the Bible. Film is very dangerous on account of the live actors, whose sin we are cooperating in.

    • Annette Petrone

      Satan is so devious, corrupting people into believing it’s somehow ok to watch even a millisecond of degradation. All my life I’ve been TOLD that I’m the one with a problem, that I’ve got an issue, because I always cringed at every portrayal of filth. It’s so obvious today’s Adams and Eves are still engaging with Satan’s lies. And I’m ecstatic you, FOR ONE, agree with me. May God bless you.

  • I too use IMDB as well. It’s very accurate as to the sex, language, foul language. It is my primary source when discerning secular films.

    I highly recommend using it as a resource for evaluating films.

    • Julie Machado

      Yes, I’m glad I got this tip. What a great tool!