God at the Oscars: Academy Award-Nominated Films Explore Spiritual Themes

God makes appearances in a number of Oscar-nominated films, but the Almighty doesn't play a leading role on screen or preach a theologically orthodox message from the clouds. Rather, spirituality plays a supporting role in those films that either focus on characters' quest for redemption or provide a fresh take on the eternal battle between good or evil.

A year ago, films like Avatar (with its sci-fi eco-Gospel) and The Road (with its depictions of a lonely, post-apocalyptic world) duked it out for Oscar statuettes. This year, films competing for the 83rd Academy Awards, which will be broadcast Feb. 27, focus on an obsessive ballerina, a hard-working boxer and a handful of families struggling to do the best they can against difficult odds.

Films Focus on Families

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Many parents were surprised by how much they were moved by "Toy Story 3," an animated Best Picture nominee starring a group of under-employed toys that grieve the loss of Andy, who leaves them behind as he matures and heads off to college. But the film, which Christianity Today named its "Most Redeeming Film of 2010," features moms but no dads. Perhaps the fathers are at work paying for the film's suburban homes?

There is a father figure in" The Kids Are Alright," which received film, actor and actress nominations. But in this case, dad is a sperm donor tracked down and ultimately embraced by two teen children who are growing up with two mommies. This post-traditional take on family values features gay sex scenes that some viewers will find troubling, but when it moves from the bedroom to the family room, The Kids Are Alright shows young people in a valiant struggle to make sense of the world their parents have given them.

"Family is foundational for who we are as people and what we become, and the Academy Award nominees this year, in their own way, really reflect that," says Paul Asay, associate editor for Plugged In, a youth culture and media web site produced by Focus on the Family. "But this year's nominees also give us a look at what happens when something in a family goes wrong, or a family goes through a really difficult transition. Many of these films deal with people trying to patch up their relationships with their families, or fix circumstances brought on by their families."

Many of this year's Oscar-nominated films have enjoyed a combination of box office success and critical acclaim. Films receiving multiple Oscar nominations take viewers deep into characters' internal struggles.

Spiritual Themes Aplenty

"The King's Speech" received 12 nominations, more than any other film, and was named CT's second most redeeming film of 2010. Craig Detweiler, a filmmaker who directs the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, praises the film's portray of England's Prince Albert, who "demonstrates plenty of grit in overcoming his stuttering. While the pent up Albert lets the profanities flow, Colin Firth's Oscar winning performance rises above his rants. This seemingly stuffy costume drama will connect with viewers, including teens, who have ever felt stifled, afraid, or overshadowed."

The Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit" received 10 nominations, including nods for picture, actor (Jeff Bridges) and supporting actress (14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in a stunning debut performance as Mattie Ross, who seeks revenge on her father's killer). The film is rated PG-13, a first for the Coens, who have explored spiritual themes in previous films, including "The Big Lebowski," which starred Bridges and inspired "The Dude Abides," a Christian book exploring the filmmaking siblings' theology. And by and large, the film treats serious, life-and-death issues without overdoing the violence or profanity.

"True Grit begins with a quotation from Proverbs and ends up with 'Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arms,'" says Detweiler. "In between, Mattie discovers the high cost of vengeance. No one exits the Coen Brothers' version of the old west without lasting scars. The pursuit of justice this side of paradise is a long, twisted journey."

A dysfunctional family is also at the heart of Best Picture nominee "Winter's Bone," in which a teen tries to redeem her drug-dealing dad and keep her family together as they battle poverty in the Ozarks.

"In Winter's Bone, 17-year-old Ree Dolly has to track down not her father's killer," says Focus's Paul Asay. "But her own on-the-lamb father: If she doesn't, she'll lose her family home. Other films explore family dynamics, too.

"In 'Black Swan,' the main character is struggling through a very difficult relationship with her mother. Micky Ward in 'The Fighter' has to deal with his hugely dysfunctional family – folks who he loves, but he knows on some level are bad for him and his career. Cobb from 'Inception' just wants to get back to his family. It's the most important thing in the world for him – to be a real father to his children."

"These aren't ideal families, but they're still really, really important to these characters ... and I think these movies really illustrate just how important families are to us all," Asay adds. "These characters are all looking for a sense of peace, or of closure, or of reconciliation, because in some ways they want to honor them. It takes being trapped in a canyon for five days for Aron Ralston to realize just how important his family is to him. These relationships are so important, and it's in times of crises – like some of these characters go through – that we truly are given an opportunity to recognize that."

Confronting Life's Challenges

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off," said Jesus in Mark 9:43 (KJV). The verse could serve as a promotional slogan for "127 Hours," a Best Picture nominee featuring James Franco as a mountain climber who cuts off his own arm after it becomes trapped by a boulder while exploring a canyon in Utah. Franco's gritty performance also earned a Best Actor nomination.

Natalie Portman delivers an Oscar-nominated performance as a ballerina in the Best Picture nominee, "Black Swan." The dark and disturbing film explores her character's descent into madness as she is transformed from playing the beautiful White Swan in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" to becoming more like the evil sister, or Black Swan.

And in "The Fighter," a kind of Rocky revisited, Mark Wahlberg plays boxer Micky Ward, who combines hard work and character to beats the odds and become the world light welterweight boxing champ.

Two best picture nominees explore the profound ways technology has changed modern life and relationships." Inception", which involves technology that changes people's dreams, features the year's most convoluted (and hotly debated) plot, along with plenty of awesome special effects. Meanwhile, "The Social Network" portrays billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (who was Time magazine's latest Person of the Year) as a socially inept geek who prefers virtual pseudo-friends over the much more complicated flesh-and-blood variety.

And two films that didn't stay long in many multiplexes explored spiritual themes with greatest depth.

In "Biutiful," Javier Bardem plays a man who is caught between the darkness and the light. The film successfully portrays the character's fall and his struggle for redemption, along with hints of the afterlife.

And in "Rabbit Hole," Nicole Kidman plays half of a happily married couple whose life is turned upside down following the death of their young son in a car accident. The couple's choices may not always be the best, but they are an understandable response to their grief and loss of hope.

Hits and Misses

As for Oscar oversights, there have been many suggestions for films that should have been nominated.

For example, many Christians were rooting for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." But this third Narnia movie failed to ignite either strong ticket sales or positive critical acclaim, which means it may signal the end of the Narna film series.

Catholic News Service's list of the best films of 2010 featured 10 films for general audiences (including Rob Reiner's "Flipped" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1") and 10 family films (including the animated features "Despicable Me" and "Megamind").

Christianity Today praised Robert Duvall's "Get Low." Focus on the Family's Paul Asay thought "How to Train Your Dragon" was unfairly overlooked. "I'm a little sad that one of 2010's most delightful and, I think, dramatic stories of heroism, didn't make the cut."

But then, arguing about the year's best movies is nearly as much fun as seeing the movies themselves.

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