When considering the media, an incomplete reading of prophetic and apostolic counsel might persuade Latter-Day Saints to simply avoid modern movies, TV, music, and literature altogether. While it is true that warnings about pornography and other spiritually harmful influences are to be taken seriously, the idea that modern media is categorically evil and to be shunned is a misconception that runs directly in opposition to the counsel of Church leaders. Take, for example, the words of Elder M. Russell Ballard:
One can still find movies and TV comedies and dramas that entertain and uplift and accurately depict the consequences of right and wrong. Our biggest challenge is to choose wisely what we listen to and what we watch. – “Let Our Voices Be Heard,” Ensign , Nov 2003, 16
President Gordon B. Hinckley praised the positive influence that media can have, suggesting that Church members do their part to support quality films and television programs:
When there is a good movie in town, consider going to the theater as a family. Your very patronage will give encouragement to those who wish to produce this type of entertainment. And use that most remarkable of all tools of communication, television, to enrich their lives. There is so much that is good, but it requires selectivity. – “In Opposition to Evil,” Ensign , Sep 2004, 2-6
What Makes Media Good?
In seeking out good media, Latter-Day Saints often have a mental moral checklist; this is to say that we look for what is absent (sex, harsh profanity, glorified and sadistic violence, etc.). While this is important, we may not focus enough on what is present in the films and TV shows we watch. A film can be inoffensive without uplifting the soul. This is the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy: not really bad for you, but not very filling either. While cotton candy is fine as a snack, something more substantial is often needed to nourish the body. Similarly, while some acceptable media serves as a fine diversion, truly “good” media is media of substance which, to paraphrase Elder Ballard, uplifts, entertains, and accurately depicts the consequences of moral choices.
A more positive emphasis in our media choices may lead us to more actively seek out not only what is “clean,” but also what is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (Article of Faith #13). A reader who disagreed with my Dark Knight article accused me of “juicing out the good” from that movie. She was exactly right. A focus on what films contain , as much as what they do not, that will help us to “prove all things, hold fast to that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), as well as to actively seek out worthwhile values in the films that we watch, instead of watching them passively.
Balancing Morality with Quality
A frequent complaint I hear among fellow members of the Church is that “good” media is often not ” good media.” This is to say that movies that promote faith, marriage, family, and other virtues are often poorly acted, painfully written, and shoddily directed. The word “cheesy” is often mentioned. Those who crave compelling stories, well-rounded characters, creative film-making, and believable acting often look to movies whose values don’t correspond to their own. The focus of this three-part series (once a week for the next three weeks) is to turn the attention of Meridian readers towards those movies which meet high standards for both morality and artistic quality. Part 1 focuses on mainstream movies, Part 2 on non-LDS religious films, and Part 3 on Mormon cinema. Parents should know that while the lack of objectionable content was a major factor in choosing the following films, an equal emphasis was placed on positive values and on artistic quality. While the following films are comparatively “clean,” with no gory violence, overt sexuality, or consistent harsh language, if you have questions of about specific content I encourage you to visit a parental movie review site.
Part One: When Hollywood Gets it Right
Mainstream cinema, as produced by major studios and independent companies, releases thousands of films a year, many of them exemplary in their morality. The following is simply a “starter list;” it is in no way all-inclusive (indeed, you’ll likely think of movies that I didn’t). I’ve chosen to emphasize more recent films, assuming that Latter-Day Saints in general are familiar with many classic films ( Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Gone With the Wind , The Sound of Music, etc.). For the same reason, I won’t fill much space with Disney films, because I’ve never met an LDS family that wasn’t well-versed in the world of Disney. On a different note, while I will shy away from major plot spoilers, the following synopses do contain discussions of major themes.
A Starter List
Batman Begins (2005)- Terrific, character-focused origin story gives us a deeply moral and altruistic Bruce Wayne, a riveting storyline, and one of the best ensemble casts of recent years. The film specifically emphasizes messages that viewers can apply towards overcoming personal weaknesses and trials (“Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up”) and towards having good deeds to match our good intentions (“It’s not who you are on the inside, but what you do that defines you”). The hero learns the difference between vengeance and justice, had loving parents, and has loyal friends. While there is no graphic violence or sexuality, and language is minimal, parents should know that the film is intense. For my thoughts on the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight, click here.
Bella (2006) – This unique drama, about an unwed pregnant woman befriended by a chef, is unabashedly pro-life in its message, and contains positive depictions of lifelong marriage, familial loyalty, Christian faith, accepting responsibility for one’s choices, and the healing power of forgiveness. Bella is a well-acted celebration of family, charity, and Hispanic culture.
Big Fish (2003)- If there was ever a movie to interest you in family history, this is it. This terrific Tim Burton fantasy/drama is more colorful and uplifting than his usual fare, yet equally creative in its artistry. A young man, estranged from his dying father, attempts to reestablish their bond by learning the truth of his father’s life, which has always been presented to him as a series of tall tales. While the events of the past are fantastical, the events of the present are poignantly realistic. This is a moving tale of lasting marital romance, parent-child relationships, and learning to love others, warts and all. Big Fish also wins bonus points for (SPOILER) a positive portrayal of marital fidelity. (Note: this film contains nonsexual, non-pornographic rear nudity, presented in an artistic context and in a comedic one).
City Lights (1931)- This is one classic film that needs mentioning, for the simple fact that only film buffs are aware of it anymore, but it is a gem of a movie. In what may be Charlie Chaplin’s greatest blend of humor and emotion, City Lights is one of the first truly great romantic comedies. It’s a solid morality tale of a selfless vagrant who endures great distress to ease the burdens of a blind flower girl.
I saw this in a BYU film class, and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried in addition to laughing my head off. If you’ve never seen a classic silent comedy, this is a great starter.
Dan in Real Life (2007) – This touching comedy finds a widowed father fighting romantic feelings for his brother’s girlfriend at a family reunion. More wholesome than it sounds, Dan in Real Life offers a glimpse, rare in Hollywood films, of a big, happy, supportive family. Terrifically acted, sweet, and funny, this film portrays families, marriage, and raising children in a realistically positive light. Furthermore, the film has an unmarried couple sleeping in separate rooms and mention of a teenage boy choosing to remain abstinent. Steve Carell gives a very likable performance as a selfless father struggling to keep it all together, and Juliet Binoche is endearing as his love interest.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2001)- This underrated Disney animated feature makes the cut both for its altruistic message as well as its hysterically funny, razor-sharp screenplay.
Father of the Bride (1991) and Father of the Bride Part Two (1995)- These fantastic Steve Martin/Diane Keaton comedies so wonderfully exemplify loving marital and familial relationships that they started the widespread (and untrue) rumors that Martin had joined the Church. Warm, funny, and sincere.
Field of Dreams (1989 )- Kevin Costner gives, hands down, his best performance in this drama that, while baseball-themed, is actually about belief, perseverance, and the endurance of family relationships after death. Contains a fantastic Gospel parallel of following the still, small voice. It also portrays a healthy, supportive marriage. “Is this heaven? No.it’s Iowa .”
Frequency (2000)- If you can suspend disbelief, this unique dramatic thriller will both move you and leave you breathless. Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezal star as a father and son who communicate across time to prevent a series of murders. A clever, genre-bending screenplay effectively mixes science fiction, family drama, and murder mystery. The acting is fantastic, the story keeps you guessing, and the emphasis on marriage and family strikes a resonant emotional cord. A terrific, touching film for Father’s Day. I remember seeing it with my parents; we all cried. (Note: this film may be too intense for children).
Gettysburg (1993 )- An all-star cast and an attention to historical detail highlight this epic, based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The battles are intense yet bloodless, and the examination of the values, faith, and courage of the soldiers makes for terrific viewing.
Good Night and Good Luck (2005)- This terrifically-directed and well-acted account of the standoff between journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joe McCarthy is a thought-provoking examination of the media’s responsibility for its influence on the public, the need for honesty and integrity in news reporting, and the courage required to stand for the rights and freedoms given us by the Constitution. Earns bonus points for a positive portrayal of marriage. David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Daniels star.
The Harry Potter series (2001-present)- To those who feel that this series is occultic, I have to disagree with you. Incidentally, so does Elder Jeffrey R. Holland who cited the Harry Potter story as an excellent example of children triumphing over the forces of evil and the power of parental love in protecting youth from wicked influences. The magic and wizardry is here is fantasy, much like The Wizard of Oz, The Sword and the Stone , and Mary Poppins . Heroic, loyal, and humble, Harry Potter is a noble character who is aware of both his potential and his weaknesses. The films boast wonderful creativity, a stellar supporting cast, and a trio of good child actors who have grown into great young adult actors. An exemplary morality tale, with many Christian parallels.
The Incredibles (2004)- While any Disney/Pixar collaboration is worth a look, this one stands out for its surprisingly thorough examination of making a long-term marriage work, the trials and joys of parenting, and action sequences that are more thrilling than those in most big-budget live-adventure films.
The Kid (2000)- This oft-overlooked Disney film stars Bruce Willis (a great actor rarely seen in family comedy) as a self-absorbed image consultant whose life plan is unsettled when he’s shadowed by an eight year-old version of himself. “The kid” ultimately reminds him that he always wanted to fall in love, get married, and raise a family. Warm, funny, touching, and well-acted.
Life is Beautiful (1997) – Oscar-winning Italian film about a Jewish father who uses humor and imagination to shield his family from the horrors of the Holocaust. A terrific portrayal of loving marriage and parenthood, with fantastic comedic and dramatic acting from Roberto Benigni and real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi. Nominated for Best Picture, and winner for Best Actor and Best Foreign-Language Film. Most impressively, the film uses audience knowledge of the Holocaust to fill in the gaps, so no actual on-screen violence is shown. A wonderful, romantic, uplifting movie. Make sure you watch the original Italian with subtitles; the English dub is terrible.
Little Women (1994)- Terrific film version of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel boasts gorgeous cinematography, lovely music, and a fine cast including Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst. Wonderful messages about love, selflessness, and family.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) – Quite possibly the most impressive film series ever created; a masterpiece of epic scope and intimate storytelling, with terrific morality (courtesy of Tolkien), noble and brave heroes, a fantastic cast, and gorgeous filmmaking. Note: the epic battles may be too intense for children.
Nacho Libre (2006)- As far as silly, stupid comedies go, this is one of the better ones. Latter-Day Saint BYU-alums Jared and Jerusha Hess follow up their hit Napolean Dynamite with this more accessible comedy, starring Jack-Black as a Mexican priest who moonlights as a wrestler. His motives are initially selfish, but he learns to use his passion to help hungry orphans and thus glorify God. Bonus points for pro-Christian elements.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)- Gorgeous film adaption of the Jane Austen novel finds Kiera Knightley as a surprisingly good Elizabeth Bennet. Also displays a terrific ensemble, stirring music, lush cinematography, and grand themes about love, marriage, family, and the folly of quick judgement. Perfect for date night.
Remember the Titans (2000) – Outstanding Disney football drama stars Denzel Washington as a coach trying to unite black and white athletes in a recently de-segregated community. Inspiring and entertaining, with positive portrayals of marriage and family, as well as a theme that echoes 2 Nephi 26:33- “Black and white.male and female.all are alike unto God.”
Return to Me (2000) – Chaste little romantic comedy is both funny and touching, and with happily married side characters, supportive relatives, a positive portrayal of Christians, and a sweet, tender, old-fashioned romance. David Duchovny and Minnie Driver star.
Rocky Balboa (2006)- A must see.
Yes, really! This surprise hit with both audiences and skeptical critics is more like the Best-Picture winning original (and the equally stirring Rocky II ) than the increasingly macho and soulless other sequels.
With this poignant finale, writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone redeems the franchise and reminds us of two things: First, before he chose a career of empty action movies, he was once nominated for Best Actor. Second, the reason the first two movies were so great was because they were character-driven, tender love stories about Rocky and Adrian . This is both a worthwhile stand-alone film and an outstanding bookend to the Rocky saga, with poignant messages about aging, mortality, and love that transcends death. Rocky is a devoted father, a good friend, and a loyal husband. This film finds him performing random acts of kindness, displaying good sportsmanship, and cherishing his Christian faith. Though this film isn’t so much about boxing as it is about perseverance, it is worth noting that the final fight is both the most realistic since the first film and the most thrilling since the second, as for the first time in years, the audience doesn’t know the outcome; our aged hero could win, lose, or even die. Much more than just a Rocky movie, this is an exemplary family drama, period. Don’t miss it, whether you’re a fan of the series or have never seen any of them.
The Rookie (2002) – Dennis Quaid stars in this Disney baseball drama, about an aging coach with a wicked fastball who’s given a shot at the pros. Has one of the best portrayals of a supportive marriage I’ve ever seen.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)- Very entertaining film version of another Jane Austen novel, this one with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and, in a rare romantic lead, Alan Rickman. The performances are great, and the film emphasizes the deep, caring, considerate love that transcends romance.
Signs ( 2002) – Wonderfully-acted thriller by M. Night Shyamalan uses an alien invasion as the broad canvas to tell a more personal story of family loss, healing, and a man’s rediscovery of his faith in God. Plays like a funnier, more touching episode of The Twilight Zone, with fine performances by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Abigail Breslin, and Rory Culkin. The film doesn’t resort to gore and violence for its thrills, knowing full well that what isn’t seen is often scarier than what is. Creative camerawork, editing, and storytelling highlight both the tension and the comic relief. This is a true rarity: an uplifting thriller. What’s more, if your kids are old enough to not get nightmares by bumps and shadows, its family-friendly.
The Spiderman Trilogy (2002-2007) – This superhero series has a noble, altruistic hero, great comedy, deeply moral themes, family loyalty, fantastic action, and (a couple of passionate kisses aside) a chaste little romance. Positive morals include: with great power comes great responsibility, selfless sacrifice is what makes a hero, and hatred and vengeance destroy lives and relationships, while love and forgiveness heal them.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)- This delightful Sandra Bullock rom-com is warm, funny, chaste, and family-focused.
World Trade Center (2006)- Often overlooked (or perhaps intentionally avoided by those who claim it’s “too soon”) this uplifting, powerful work, thankfully, does not attempt to turn the fateful events of September 11 into a special effects-driven spectacle. Neither does it focus on the horror of that day. Rather, it simply and faithfully tells the true story of the heroes who risked everything to save those trapped inside the towers. By disappearing into his role, Nicholas Cage gives one of the finest performances of his career; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, and Maria Bello do fine work as well. This film contains wonderful, positive depictions of marriage, family, patriotism, and Christianity. Uplifting and powerful, this is one not to be missed. (Note: there is one use of harsh profanity in this movie; those concerned may wish to use video filters).
COMING SOON : Part Two- Religion at the Movie, and Part Three: The Best of Mormon Cinema.