Films to Look For in 2009

by Marc T. Newman [critic]

The first few weeks of any new year are peppered with top-ten lists. Critics re-hash last year’s reviews and place them in a hierarchy — kind of like their own personal awards show. At MovieMinistry we do things differently. Instead of looking behind, I prefer to look ahead at films that might represent interesting ministry opportunities for those people who use film for outreach, or to create teachable moments.

Keep in mind that I have yet to see most of these films. The speculations built into this preview are based solely on articles that have appeared about these films, their trailers, and plot synopses. Sometimes we get it wrong. Last year I predicted that X-Files: I Want to Believe might offer opportunities for discussion based on the transcendent themes that often were a part of the show. Unfortunately, it was a mess. Quite a number of films that were identified for release in 2008 were actually held over until 2009, so the jury is still out. But most of the films identified as having spiritual or moral ideas worth discussing, in fact, did. Keep in mind that release dates are always subject to change by the studios, and thought-provoking new films that have yet to be scheduled may suddenly appear. Many of these films are yet to be rated by the MPAA, so exercise discretion.

Here are MovieMinistry’s Films to Look For in 2009:

Defiance – January 16th (wide)

A World War II-era drama, this is the true tale of three Jewish brothers who manage to escape from Nazi-overrun Poland and flee to the forests of Belarus. Instead accepting defeat, the brothers choose to fight, and to save as many others as they can along the way. Together they build a village deep in the forest and train the refugees to be warriors – believing that any fleeting moment of freedom is preferable to surrender and slavery. The film is rated R for violence and language, and given the subject matter, it is understandable. While Defiance had an Oscar-qualifying run at Christmas 2008, it did not open wide until this year.

There are great conversation starters in this film about the problem of evil, particularly about God’s providence and sovereignty amid the suffering of the Jews. Additionally, the need to resist evil in the pursuit of justice, the importance of fellowship and like mindedness, the appropriate way to resist evil, and the value of grace are topics depicted in Defiance. It is one of the most moving films of the last year.

Inkheart — January 23rd

Based on the bestselling children’s book by Cornelia Funke, Inkheart is the story of Meggie, a twelve-year-old girl whose father, Mortimer — a bookbinder by trade — has a mysterious secret power. When Mortimer reads aloud, he brings the story to life – literally. Objects, and even people, are translated out of books and into the real world, and not all of them are good. In fact, some of Mortimer’s characters are stalking him and his family. The trailers for this movie have re-awakened my interest in this film, even though it has been delayed nearly a year from its originally-scheduled release date.

Inkheart should open up opportunities to talk about what J.R.R. Tolkien called “subcreation:” the idea that we create as we are made in the image of the Creator. Present in the book is also the idea that the kind of life we can lead depends upon the stories we believe — and it is never too late to change the story.

Madea Goes to Jail — February 20th

Tyler Perry’s film adaptations of his own plays continue to rock Hollywood. Perry has the capacity to tell gritty stories that unashamedly include a Christian faith perspective, which serves as an anchor for the lives of troubled characters. And these films consistently turn a profit. In Madea Goes To Jail, Perry is back in drag as the bigger-than-life Madea – the family troublemaker, and (often) a source of wisdom. Expect this film to open at number one at the box office, and to provide opportunities to talk about a wide array of moral issues, and Christian responses.

The Soloist — April 24th

Count on The Soloist to officially kick off the summer blockbuster season. It is based on the true story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a homeless man, battling mental illness, who happens to be a concert-level musician. While living on the streets of Los Angeles, he happens to form an unlikely friendship with Steve Lopez, a writer for the Los Angeles Times. Lopez has written numerous columns about the life of Nathaniel Ayers, and eventually published a book. Now Ayers’ life has been made into a film. Discussion starters will include the power of friendship, the need to reach out to “the least of these,” and the role of passion in creating a significant life.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine — May 1

Cashing in on the superhero craze, this is the first in what promises to be a series of “origins” films to provide the back story for popular characters. In the X-Men universe, at least in the film versions, Wolverine has emerged as a favorite. It is not unfair to say that Wolverine, who is angry and conflicted, has “issues.” This film will explore Wolverine’s metamorphosis from unfortunate mutant to manufactured military weapon. X-Men Origins: Wolverine looks to provide opportunities to discuss the impact of misfortune, how people deal with despair, why we must reject treating people as tools and instead value them as God’s image-bearers, and the dangers of seeking vengeance.

Star Trek– May 8th

Leonard Nimoy will return as Spock, but William Shatner will not return as Captain (or is it Admiral?) Kirk. Rumor has it that time travel is a key component of this plot with Spock (Nimoy) returning to warn himself (played by Heroes bad guy Zachary Quinto) about an impending invasion that could change the course of history. The action takes place as the main characters of the original Star Trek series are still enrolled at Star Fleet Academy (the “younger version” casting is spot on). Over the years, Star Trek has proved itself to be a spiritually provocative series. I can still remember, in a Star Trek classic episode, hearing Uhura announcing that what appeared to the crew to be a primitive tribe of “sun” worshipers was actually worshipping the “Son of God.” Let’s hope for the best.

Angels and Demons — May 15th

This is the film adaptation of the prequel to the blockbuster film and best-selling book The Da Vinci Code by author Dan Brown. Again helmed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, the film explores skullduggery by the Illuminati. Despite numerous historical inaccuracies, the film will almost certainly be critic-proof. No matter. Interested Christians willing to do their homework will once again be given opportunities to discuss Church history with skeptical fans. Even if the film is bad, the conversations that it spawns can be used for good. Read the book and the critiques before you head out to the cinema so that you can answer obscure questions, and engage your friends.

Terminator: Salvation — May 22

Terminator: Salvation is the continuing story of John Connor and his efforts to save humankind from extermination at the hands of machines. This will be a high-octane action film, but any movie that discusses the end of life as we know it can give rise to conversations about The End and where people should look for hope in the face of their personal, or corporate, demise.

Up — May 29th

Pixar is keeping quiet about the plot line of this film, at least for now. Instead, their teaser trailer is counting on brand loyalty earned through decades of outstanding storytelling. All that is known is that the film is about a cantankerous seventy-eight-year-old man who decides to take a trip to South America by tying an enormous quantity of helium-filled balloons to his house. While he thinks he is going by himself, he discovers he has an inadvertent stowaway: an eight-year-old boy. Up will certainly be a beautiful film to watch, but since Pixar knew from its inception to place primary importance on story, this film will certainly have something to say about relationships, caring, and (even though the old man does not appear to be very likeable) some message about respect.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – July 17th

The film most likely to give Star Trek a run for the title of summer box office champion will certainly be this latest installment in the Harry Potter series. Christians remain divided about the propriety of seeing Potter films. For those interested in a round-up of opinion, they can go to the articles archive at MovieMinistry to read a careful examination of both sides of the argument from Dr. Todd Lewis, chair of the communication department at Biola University in his article “The Holy Harry Potter Wars.” The continuing story turns darker as the forces of evil, represented by Lord Voldemort, come out of hiding and begin wreaking havoc out in the open. Harry and his friends band together in opposition. This film is likely to spark discussions about appearances and whether we can trust them, loyalty, and acting in obedience even when you do not understand the reasons.

Where the Wild Things Are — October 16th

Given the short page length of Maurice Sendak’s delightful children’s book, it is hard to imagine how a feature-length film can be made from this source material. But then I think of The Polar Express, which had a similar difficulty, and discovered that in the hands of a talented director and screenwriter, the results can be magical. This is not a Robert Zemeckis film, however, it is a Spike Jonze movie. Jonze is more known for music videos than film, though he did direct the quirky Being John Malcovich. Let’s hope that Jonze is able to really capture the impulsive nature of youth, and the incredible yearning we all have for home – that place where “someone loves us best of all.”

The Wolfman — November 6th

After years of slogging through monster films that try to use scientific explanations for conditions like vampirism, so that we can have simple, biological weapons to defeat the undead, it looks like Hollywood is going to bring back supernatural horror. The Wolfman, a remake of the classic 1941 film, concerns Lawrence Talbot and the calamity that befalls him when he kills what he believes to be a wolf. Bitten during the struggle, Talbot discovers from an old gypsy woman that he is now cursed to transform into a wolf when the moon is full. The trailer shown at Comic-Con revealed a period film where a minister warns the congregation of “the power of Satan to turn a man into a beast.” This film looks to be graphically violent, but if it hits (and the prime fall release date and crackerjack casting indicate that it will) doors will open to discuss the nature of supernatural evil and just what kind of “silver bullets” we need to overcome it.

A Christmas Carol

Robert Zemeckis directs the often-adapted Dickens tale about Ebenezer Scrooge and his visitation by the three ghosts of Christmas. Assuming that the adaptation is true to the original tale, ample opportunity will arise to discuss ideas about gratitude, greed, what motivates people to withdraw from society, the nature of repentance, and everyone’s need for restoration. Any film set on Christmas by name always provides a chance to discuss the true meaning of the season.

Sherlock Holmes — November 13th

One of the most fascinating characters in literary history, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a complicated man. Though he was the world’s most formidable detective, he was also hobbled by cocaine, and perhaps morphine, abuse. Depending on how the story plays out on the screen, possibilities for after-film talk might involve pride, and the problems that often accompany that sin. Additionally, there will be room to discuss why humans have a fascination for well-executed crimes, while at the same time they wish for justice to ultimately prevail.


Please remember as you read these listings that they are not an assessment of a film’s artistic merit, but rather a peek at movies that have ministry potential. 2012 is a film that asks the question, “What if the Mayans were right?” The Mayan calendar ends in 2012, and some have sensationally theorized that this means that the Earth will end as well. Director and screenwriter Roland Emmerich returns to the apocalyptic genre he explored in The Day After Tomorrow and . Just as with Terminator: Salvation, opportunities to talk about alternative religions or alternative eschatologies, open the door for Christians to discuss their own. Teens will turn out in droves for this special-effects driven film. Youth pastors should pay attention to this movie and make the most of it. Expect a PG-13 rating.

The Lovely Bones — December 11

Peter Jackson returns to the director’s chair with this film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestseller. The storyline is traumatic. Susie Salmon, a fourteen-year-old girl, is killed and her body is hidden in a sink hole. But Susie’s spirit rises to heaven, and from there she looks down on the lives of the people she loves, and follows her killer. The synopsis for this film indicates that Susie must struggle between a desire for revenge and her longing for healing for her family. Heaven is a topic that many people find fascinating. Most polls indicate that a majority of people believe that when they die, they will go to heaven (though they are not so sure about their neighbors). While this film is likely to be strong on the thriller angle, talk about the nature of heaven, what happens there, and how one gets to heaven are likely to be conversation topics. A good preparation would be to read
Heaven or In Light of Eternity, both by Randy Alcorn.

Avatar — December 18

Going back to his sci-fi roots, James Cameron directs this tale about an expedition of humans to a distant planet, full of wondrous resources. That the world is called Pandora should provide a vital clue as to the social conscience of this film. Expect themes of temptation, greed, and possibly the need to choose what is right over what is expedient.

Given the current state of the economy, a lot of people are looking for relatively cheap escapism. Often they find it at the movies. But film not only provides patrons with an opportunity to unwind for a couple of hours; it helps to shape worldviews. For Christians, the truth claims in films create an easy avenue for discussion. People feel free to discuss moral and spiritual ideas, especially if they can link it to a film character or plotline.

As we look ahead to 2009, it is clear that there are a number of films that can facilitate these kinds of after-movie discussions. We simply have to make certain that we are prepared to engage people on issues that matter. What is seen on the screen can have a life-changing impact on people, and particularly so if we are willing to use such opportunities to open up with our friends about the faith that motivates our lives. People go to the movies to see stories. Don’t forget that you have one of your own to tell. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of

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