1. “Slumdog Millionaire” — Director Danny Boyle delivers to the screen a compelling cacophony of modern Mumbai (formerly Bombay), seen through the eyes of a little orphaned boy making his way through the slums. Yes, there’s a disturbing scene of religious fanatics on the rampage, followed by a mysterious reference to an obscure deity in the Hindi pantheon. It is as if the practice of religion can be as violent as it can be mysterious, and its diverse meaning manages to elude all explanation. Of course, we’d all like to think that even our most difficult experiences will someday work to our benefit. But who would believe that this slumdog would ever become a millionaire? Ah, but the reasons he knows the answers to those obscure game show questions are lodged in his unique experiences as a true survivor. You’ll be transported to another culture, and you’ll be amazed.
2. “The Wrestler” — genteel folks will not instinctively be attracted to a movie about a beat-up old pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke) and an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). But Director Darren Aronofsky masterfully intertwines their on-the-edge struggles as they near the end of their careers with precious little that is precious to show for it. Yes, our culture is obsessed with youth, strength, and beauty. But why the popularity of fake athleticism and fake eroticism? And some true believers will shudder at the scene in a strip club where she quotes to him from Isaiah. But all will empathize with the family struggles of someone who has made mistakes, and tries to rectify. But it’s too little, too late, and now there’s just a mess, and no amount of remorse can fix it. And at the end of the day, do we just try to reach for any tenderness we can find? And do we struggle on in our chosen occupations with diminished skills and less approbation because we can do no other?
3. “Frost/Nixon” — Who wants to go see the re-enactment of a 35-year-old interview? Or who really wants to wallow in Watergate again? But Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon is eerily spot-on, and Michael Sheen’s David Frost is a remarkable counterpoint. Director Ron Howard builds the suspense through the set-up and the filming of this remarkable post-exilic interview, in which the disgraced former president actually becomes candid, much to everyone’s astonishment, perhaps even his own. And who would have thought that a lightweight British talk show host would have been the one to finally outmaneuver a cunning and ruthless politician?
4. “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas” — Who would want to go see another film on the Holocaust? Didn’t “Schindler’s List” wring us out enough? But there’s an air of whimsy in this unlikely tale told from the point of view of a German boy, whose father was sent to command a camp during World War II. Desperate for a playmate, he meets another little boy, living behind the barbed wire, who was always wearing striped pajamas. Of course, the story is unlikely, as is their halting friendship. But maybe we need more reminders than we think. Elitism is but a small step from racism.
5. “Changeling” — Who would want to go see the heart-rending story of a kidnapped boy and his distraught mother, who was involuntarily committed? Director Clint Eastwood brings this 80-year-old story to life with a mesmerizing performance from Angelina Jolie, as the mother who wouldn’t give up. And which of us wouldn’t enjoy seeing the hero as the local Presbyterian minister (John Malkovich), who tirelessly advocates for the disenfranchised? Community activism at its best, but hardly even remembered.
6. “Rachel Getting Married”— Who wants to go see a beyond-dysfunctional family struggling through a wedding, when the black sheep sister shows up from rehab to put everybody on edge, including herself? But Director Jonathan Demme coaxes Anne Hathaway, formerly seen only in sweet, sappy roles, into an edgy, gritty character to be reckoned with, even as she struggles being who she is, and accepting who she’s been.
All these movies are, in their own way, difficult to watch. But all will reward the adventurous viewer with some stellar filmmaking. And there are likely several Oscar nominations embedded here. Which would be your choice?
Ronald P. Salfen is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.