Oscar’s Spirit – Conflicts, large and small, in this year’s race

Special contributors Kenny Dickson and Gary Keene, and associate editor Bill Fentum offer a rundown of the Best Picture (and Foreign Language Film) nominees for the 85th annual Academy Awards, to be presented Feb. 24. Two or three of the movies have overt spiritual content, and all of them can spark moral and ethical discussions.

French actress Emmanuelle Riva is nominated for her role as a woman faced with declining health in Amour. SONY PICTURES CLASSICS PHOTO

PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, brief language

Amour, presented in French with English subtitles, depicts the final chapter in the long, love-filled marriage of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), chronicling the downward spiral in health and life after Anne suffers a stroke. Austrian director Michael Haneke sets the film almost entirely in the couple’s modest apartment in Paris. For many years it served as the hub from which they shared a life enjoying and contributing to the beauty and culture of the City of Lights. Now, the apartment has become their isolated universe.

Amour fittingly displays the qualities of love that Paul describes in I Corinthians 13; indeed, true love is patient, especially when the loved one is a patient and not always kind. Ms. Riva, who is nominated for Best Actress, offers a performance for the ages as she paints in unflinching detail and nerve the unpeeling of ability and dignity in the midst of a life in decline.—KD

In Argo, a CIA agent (Ben Affleck) helps six U.S. diplomatic workers escape from Iran after the 1979 takeover of the American embassy. WARNER BROS. PICTURES PHOTO

R for language, some violent images

Argo tells the true story of six U.S. diplomats who escaped the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Iran. While 52 of their colleagues were held hostage—an ordeal that would last 15 months—the six found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Ben Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration specialist” who poses as a Canadian filmmaker going to Iran to scout movie locations; once he’s there, the six Americans will pose as his film crew and they’ll attempt to leave the country.

Most of us already know the outcome, yet Argo still conveys the tremendous suspense and daring of the actual, life-or-death incident. And yes, it’s been nearly 34 years since all this happened, but the movie is still relevant as it mirrors much more recent accounts of unrest in a region still struggling to reconcile the economic, political and theological turmoil of the last 500 years.—KD

Beasts of the Southern Wild
PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, disturbing images, language, brief sensuality

A 6-year-old girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) struggle to survive after a storm floods their Louisiana bayou community, in Beasts of the Southern Wild. FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES PHOTO

Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who was 6 when Beasts of the Southern Wild was shot, has made Oscar history as the youngest-ever acting nominee. She’s a natural, and sure to win the hearts of even those viewers who don’t immediately warm to the movie.

It’s set in the “Bathtub,” a fictional bayou community separated by a levee from the southern Louisiana mainland. When a Katrina-like storm floods the area, Hushpuppy is forced to evacuate with her dying father, and begins a search for the mother who left them years ago. The child isn’t immune to fear, but the same imagination that plagues her with dreams about stampeding mythical beasts (a metaphor for climate change, or death?) also makes her enormously resourceful and resilient. Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut is a challenging film, the kind that doesn’t reveal all its riches in a single sitting. But in a world overloaded with empty cinematic blockbusters, that can actually be refreshing.—BF

Django Unchained
R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language, some nudity

Better study up if you’re not acquainted with writer-director Quentin Tarantino and

In Django Unchained, a German bounty hunter (Christoph Walz, left) helps a former slave (Jamie Foxx) rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation during the Civil War. WEINSTEIN COMPANY PHOTO

what to expect—this is not a film for the uninitiated. For the rest of you, think Inglourious Basterds set in the pre-Civil War South, with a Negro slave taking up the work of (bloody) revenge. Cautious about the word “Negro”? Then this is not your movie—or maybe it is. Django Unchained is less about the brutality it depicts than about your reaction to it, your position on it. Typically Tarantino, it’s an artful creation that absolutely provokes and maddeningly entertains, even when you don’t want to let it do so.

The abundant use of satire, even satirical violence, splattered with B-movie references, cameos and other cinematic quotes, is aimed to mess with your assumptions and send you home thinking, chuckling, wincing and irritated. If you want a guaranteed vigorous and rambling post-movie discussion, this one delivers.—GK

Les Misérables
PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence, thematic elements

Here is the film version of the most popular musical in history, based on the epic novel by Victor Hugo. Director Tom Hooper’s gritty set design and shot selection highlight the misery of the lower class who struggle to survive in 19th-century France. Intense close-ups and Mr. Hooper’s decision to use the actors’ vocal performances as sung during filming (as opposed to the usual practice of post-dubbing) gives the movie an intimacy that makes it feel significantly more personal than the stage production. Among the cast, Anne Hathaway’s performance as the devoted mother, Fantine—the likely frontrunner for Best Actress in a Supporting Role—stands out in its tragic power and pathos.

Les Misérables has long been one of the most theologically rich stories in literature, stage and film. It’s a tale that portrays, through the life of lead character Jean Valjean, the need and impact of grace, forgiveness, regeneration, transformation and resurrection.—KD

Life of Pi
PG for emotional thematic content throughout, some scary action sequences and peril

Visually fantastic, emotionally compelling, explicitly “interfaithful,” and philosophically problematic—and we haven’t even talked about the tiger yet. A boy named Pi lives deeply out of his native Hinduism, discovers Christianity (thanking Krishna for introducing him to Christ) and adopts Muslim prayer rituals; his faith is all-embracing. But as a young man adrift after a shipwreck with a tiger in a lifeboat, clinging to his faith, he must become creatively rational to survive, building a sustainable reality in the open nothingness of the sea (the beautiful metaphors abound!). Meanwhile, the tiger is mortality incarnate, ready to pounce. So Pi deeply questions God and finds an ultimate faith.

Or does he? The final twist is faithful to the book, but undermines the adventure we’ve witnessed by confronting us with a darker, alternative story. Pi asks, “Which is the better story? Which does God prefer to tell?” Those questions open a deep reservoir for faith-based conversation.—GK

President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) sees the aftermath of a battle in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed biopic, Lincoln. DREAMWORKS PICTURES/20TH CENTURY FOX PHOTO

PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, brief strong language

Director Steven Spielberg enhances the legend of our 16th president by introducing viewers to the man within the monument. Lincoln is set during the last days of both the Civil War and the president’s life, and re-enacts in vivid detail the most important moment in the country’s history: the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that eliminated slavery in America.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ masterful performance explores the powerful, prophetic character of the man and conveys his sense of isolation as he fought to hold his nation, family and emotions together in the midst of unimaginable loss and pressure. We also see his respect for others, sense of humor and love of storytelling—dimensions of President Lincoln’s personality that have been all but lost in history. Against the backdrop of the current national divide, the film offers a clarion call for the nation to come together for the good of all.—KD

Silver Linings Playbook
R for language, some sexual content/nudity

The thumbnail sketch: Boy (Bradley Cooper) meets Girl (Jennifer Lawrence), things get complicated, hugs and kisses in the end. Now add that the Boy is bipolar, just out of lock-up, eager to regain his cheating wife, while the Girl has taken what we’ll call an unusual therapy to deal with her own prior trauma. Add the Philadelphia Eagles and a dance competition, and you’ve got a lot more than another boy-meets-girl flick.

For sure it’s a character movie, with nominations in all four acting categories. The ensemble cast brings integrity to their roles with poignant, sometimes disturbing mixtures of goofiness and grittiness. In different ways, all are wounded and flawed, desperately trying to put their lives together. Their brokenness initially connects them, then leads them to recognize the brokenness in others, which allows them to accept their own. From this they build relationships in which grace takes hold, and we’re the better for it.—GK

In Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain portrays a CIA operative dedicated to tracking down Osama bin Laden. SONY PICTURES PHOTO

Zero Dark Thirty
R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal followed up their 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker with this vivid docudrama about the U.S. government’s 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t avoid controversy: Besides re-enactments of terrorist attacks, one graphic scene depicts waterboarding (or simulated drowning), an interrogation technique used by the CIA on at least three al-Qaida suspects before it was banned in 2009. What is unusual—at least for Hollywood—is that the movie itself doesn’t take a stand on such issues; details are presented, and viewers are left to make the moral judgments for themselves.

Whether we find that approach satisfying or not, is up to us. But the last half hour is undeniably intense, a moment-by-moment account of the raid that led to the terrorist leader’s death in May 2011. And rising star Jessica Chastain is quite impressive as the CIA officer through whose eyes the whole story is told.—BF

Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen plays explorer Thor Heyerdahl in Kon-Tiki. The historical drama is one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. WEINSTEIN COMPANY PHOTO

Best Foreign Language Film

Best Picture contender Amour is also up for Best Foreign Language Film, which suggests it may be the one to beat in that category. And yet the other choices sound promising, too, though not all of them have been widely shown in U.S. theaters.

Kon-Tiki, from Norway, dramatizes Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean in a balsa wood raft, a journey that captured global attention at the time. A Chilean docudrama, No, depicts the role of political advertising in the elections that ended the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1989. A Royal Affair, in Danish, focuses on the scandalous romance between court physician Johann Friedrich Struensee and Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark, in the 18th century. And in War Witch, from French-Canadian filmmakers, a 12-year-old girl is forced to become a child soldier in sub-Saharan Africa. Taken together, those stories should offer plenty of room for moral dilemmas and dramatic character arcs.—BF

The Rev. Dickson is senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Farmers Branch, Texas. The Rev. Keene is the interim executive director of connectional ministries for the UMC’s California-Pacific Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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