With Thanksgiving and Christmas uniting families across the nation, we have the opportunity to become reacquainted with those who matter most and strengthen the bonds that can last throughout the eternities.  With activities, traditions, and simple conversation available to families and sweethearts, it seems almost vulgar that so many spend time during the holidays with the supposedly passive act of watching movies. Theatres will be packed with patrons for New Moon, 2012, The Blind Side, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, and others. Blu-ray and DVD rentals will likely be numerous, and some worry that watching movies denies families valuable opportunities to connect.

Of course, families benefit from avoiding excessive reliance on media and engaging in more proactive activities; film-watching, however, doesn’t have to be passive. When films of substance are selected, parents, children, and siblings have excellent opportunities for meaningful conversation. Some movies can even feed the soul by illustrating the consequences of right and wrong, teaching true principles, and nurturing testimony.

A few months ago I compiled recommendations for excellent mainstream Hollywood films, uplifting Judeo-Christian fare, and the best of “Mormon Cinema”. Since then I’ve come across more excellent examples of films for the family which will both entertain and uplift. I hope you’ll consider these as you peruse the video store/ church book store this week.

  • Facing the Giants: For the past two years I have lived in Alabama pursuing a master’s in marriage and family therapy. No film better captures the faith (as well as the love for and trust in Christ) of good Southern people than this high school football drama, about a coach and a team who decide to put the Savior first. I actually found it to be better acted than I’d heard, and truly touching. This is fine for the whole family, and can provide a springboard for discussion about trusting the Lord, following him in good times and bad, and the love of God for his children of all faiths.
  • Fireproof: A few cheesy moments aside, this handsomely produced drama about a firefighter struggling to save his marriage has excellent messages about making the Redeemer key in marriage and family. Tastefully addresses issues such as pornography addiction and marital strife from a Gospel-based perspective, this is an excellent choice for families with teens and older children.
  • Going My Way/The Bells of St. Mary’s– This double-header of classic gems starring Bing Crosby deserve to find a modern audience; between the two of them, Academy Awards were claimed for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Song. Crosby stars as Father O”Malley, a traveling, singing Catholic priest who uses his talents to help struggling churches and souls. These are both charming, delightful treasures that, aside from being a bit slowly-paced by today’s standards, are filled with wonderful music, great actors (including Casablanca’s Ingrid Bergman) and unabashed expressions of faith in God. Great entertainment for the whole family.
  • Gordon B. Hinkley: A Giant Among Men– This biographical account of the late Prophet’s life focuses heavily on his early years (where he’s well-portrayed by young actors) and his service as a prophet (using actual footage). While it jumps the middle section of his life almost entirely, it is nonetheless a handsome, well-acted series of vignettes displaying experiences that shaped the man who would be God’s mouthpiece. It looks gorgeous (with esteemed LDS director/cinematographer T.C. Christensen at the helm, how could it not?) and Spirit-inviting in its honest portrayal of the man, his virtues, and his faith. The portrayal of his marriage to Marjorie Pay is beautiful, and the final section, celebrating President Hinckley’s work as a prophet, moved me to tears. At under an hour, it’s perfect for the entire family.
  • Henry Poole Was Here– Luke Wilson stars in this sweet and simple tale of a depressed and lonely man nursed back to emotional health by the kindness of others and, perhaps, divine intervention. Though the film itself takes an agnostic tone, it allows room for the possibility of God’s existence and love, and portrays believers in a positive, if eccentric, light. Has a delightful and chaste romance, and even if the plot takes a few contrived turns, the performances and values ring true. Parents should be warned that this PG film has a few instances of mild to moderate profanity. Good for families with teens and older kids.
  • Love Comes Softly– Faith-based period romance conveys a tenderness and virtue that is missing from many modern love films. Excellent for parents, older children, and teens.
  • The Mission– This powerful depiction of Jesuit priests ministering to natives in 1700’s South America features truly excellent work from Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, who prove their acting chops by switching gears from playing mobsters, terrorists, corrupt cops, and evil lions to absolutely convincing men of God. Lush cinematography and a stirring musical score highlight this bittersweet tale of the collision between the ways of the Lord and the greed of the world. Parents should be warned that while the film is PG, a PG-13 would be more appropriate, with warfare and nonsexual, National Geographic-style nudity of indigenous peoples. Can be used to facilitate discussion between parents and mature teens about the difference in outcomes between following Christ and following the world.
  • The Nativity Story– This criminally underseen film is a new Christmas classic for my family and I. Released in theatres in 2006, it tells the story of Mary and Joseph with exquisite attention to historical and scriptural detail, as well as a rich imagination of what it must have been like to be charged with the sacred task of bearing and raising the Son of God. Absolutely beautiful and Spirit-inviting, with wonderful performances and top-notch filmmaking, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Its pacing makes it appropriate for older kids and up.
  • One Man’s Treasure– A light and fluffy missionary “p-day adventure” movie with decent characters and a good heart. This isn’t particularly challenging fare, but neither is it meant to be; that said, there are a couple of surprisingly impactful moments. Good for the entire family.
  • Old Testament Visual Resources DVD– This new DVD set is available at LDS distribution centers and features high-quality dramatizations of Old Testament  stories, including brand new videos of Moses, Esther, Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednago, and more! Perfect for introducing the whole family to the heroes of the Bible.
  • One Good Man– Christian Viusna’s soul-warming tale of a husband and father attempting to balance work, family, and church responsibilities as a new bishop is short on narrative but long on character study and gentle morality. Much like with his very-good sister missionary movie Errand of Angels, Viussna offers a deceptively simple story which stirs the heart with realism, genuineness, and virtue. Ideal for families with teens and older children who have longer attention spans than younger children.
  • States of Grace– Though it divided LDS audiences for its gritty realism and portrayal of flawed people, Richard Dutcher’s masterpiece boldy and fearlessly displays the heartbreaking effects of sin, as well as the pain of judgment, before lifting its audience up with the promise of redemption through Jesus Christ. The whole purpose of the film is not to show perfect Christians (including Latter-Day Saints), but rather to display how far the power of the Atonement reaches.

    Though it does so tactfully, the film addresses very mature themes such as gang violence and fornication, and as such is not for everyone. For those looking for a profound and challenging work of art whose goal is to bring them closer to the Savior, this is a must-see. Recommended for those who are struggling with the thought that they are unworthy of God’s love or unable to return to the fold. For teens and adults only (PG-13) and ultimately, a great Christmas movie. Improperly subtitled God’s Army 2 in Utah, this excellent film is actually unrelated to God’s Army, a film I didn’t care for.
  • UP– The year’s best film, just released on DVD, is worth another look. See my review here .

Enjoy, and happy holidays!