Last year, superheroes rescued more than a billion dollars from rapt moviegoers. Arrow-shooting heroines and sword-toting Hobbits both came up with Part 2’s. Americans hustled, princesses sang, minions grumbled, cars roared and starships warped. And to sum all that up, this Thursday the entertainment industry will laud the films it considers the very best of the year—unveiling nominations for the upcoming March 2nd Oscars telecast.
And so, like last year, Plugged In has decided to crash the party and dole out our own awards. These awards, though, are a bit more important than the Oscars … because they’re all about you, not just about the stars and directors and big studios.
Naturally, the awards are for you. These movies represent what we consider to be the best of the bunch that got released in 2013, and not just artistically speaking, but morally and content-wise too. They’re not stamps of approval, of course. No movie is perfect, so please, please read our reviews carefully before deciding to see anything that we’ve listed here.
Our categories are as follows: Best Movie for Kids, Best Movie for Teens, Best Movie for Adults and Best Christian Movie.
BEST MOVIE FOR ADULTS (NOMINEES)
Gravity (PG-13): It’s an epic just 90 minutes long, an out-of-this-world spectacle that makes us long for home even though we’re mere minutes away at the mall multiplex. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is a deceptively simple story about two souls lost in space, doing their best to get back to terra firma. But underneath this gripping movie there are deeper themes at play—the idea of death and rebirth, of loss and redemption. Here we meet an astronaut who’s living out of pure habit. And it’s only when it looks as though her breath might be taken away from her that she truly remembers what it’s like to not just survive, but live.
Instructions Not Included (PG-13): Sometimes a knock at your door changes everything. That’s what happens to Mexican playboy Valentín Bravo the day a woman arrives at his condo and announces the baby she’s holding is his. She hands the infant over and says she needs to pay the cab … but never returns. In a flash, the commitment-phobic ladies’ man becomes a father. Valentín tries to return the baby to her mother in Los Angeles. But the twist has him staying there and becoming the most deliriously doting dad imaginable. Until, that is, the girl’s mother reappears seven years later … and complicates everything. The heart of this poignant, tear-inducing Mexican melodrama is one of an unlikely father’s deep love for the little girl he comes to cherish more than anything.
Philomena (PG-13): Evil nuns, an agonizing birth, a tortured young women. Those are all good things—at least from Martin Sixsmith’s perspective. Sixsmith is a cynical British reporter who hopes to weave together a good human interest story that will earn him a little cash, and this scandal-loaded story seems just the ticket. To Philomena Lee, however, that difficult birth and those hard-eyed nuns are all a painful part of her past. A past that involved her being shipped off to an abbey when she was just a girl, pregnant and out of wedlock. And now some 50 years later, she wants nothing more than to find the child, her son who was taken from her and sold to an American family. She just hopes she can have enough faith to see the journey through. This well-acted dramedy suffers at times from some hard-edged Catholic criticism. But it doesn’t stay there as it tells the true story of a gentle woman of faith who reaches for a sense of peace and finds a pathway to forgiveness.
Saving Mr. Banks (PG-13): If author P.L. Travers had her way, Mary Poppins would have not sung nor danced, and she certainly would never have uttered the silly made-up word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. If Disney moviemakers had their way, they probably never would’ve met P.L. Travers. Yet in the midst of a prickly collaboration, Travers and Walt Disney himself manage to craft a classic film—and we come to understand something about the redemptive power of storytelling. Saving Mr. Banks is a study in contradictions—both sad and joyous, dark and dreamy. And as we watch Travers battle Disney and her own troubled past, we grapple with the stories we tell ourselves, too, about the wonderful loved ones who sometimes failed us.
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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG): Everyone daydreams. But for Walter Mitty, a quiet, conscientious manager of film negatives for LIFE magazine, his trance-like daydreams propel him into a realm more like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. But Walter’s life takes a turn toward real-life adventure when the negative for the magazine’s last print issue mysteriously disappears. Ever the conscientious employee, Walter’s determined to track it down—even if that means outracing volcanic ash in Iceland on a skateboard or trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas in search of the elusive photographer who took the picture. It’s a journey of discovery in more ways than one for Walter, whose secret life unexpectedly becomes his real life as he teaches us how to discover our own meaning and purpose in life.
Films in this category are targeting adults, and some of them certainly come with content concerns. But for this category we’re looking for movies with great moral messages coupled with content that’s not extreme. That’s why 12 Years a Slave—as important a movie as it is, and despite the profound issues it deals with—didn’t make our cut.
BEST CHRISTIAN MOVIE (NOMINEES)
Black Nativity (PG-13): This is not, at least by some measures, a “Christian” movie. It wasn’t made by a church or sponsored by a ministry. Its director, Kasi Lemmons, last helmed the R-rated Talk to Me, and it features some of the most prominent performers in the biz (including Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker). But make no mistake: Black Nativity has as distinct a Christian message as any movie in this category. It’s about a wayward teen at a crossroads. In one direction lies ruin, the other redemption—and the promise of a better life for all. The story is rougher than some, with occasionally foul language, troubled characters and allusions to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But its real focus is on a child in need of a shining, saving light, and almost against his wishes he finds it—in the embodiment of the Light of the World.
The Christmas Candle (PG): What’s the purpose and place of miracles in a Christian’s life? That’s the central question in The Christmas Candle, an adaptation of Max Lucado’s book of the same name. It’s set in the impoverished English hamlet of Gladbury in 1890. There, every 25 years, an angel visits the town’s candlemaker, blessing one special candle and imbuing it with miraculous power to answer the prayer of a needy townsperson. For 200 years, the good people of Gladbury have placed their hope in the blessed candle. But when a young preacher who’s struggling with God’s lack of answers to his own prayers arrives, he’s determined to help them see that raw faith—not clinging to a silly legend—is what matters most. Both the preacher and the townspeople have significant lessons to learn about how their heavenly Father answers prayer … in mundane ways and miraculous.
Grace Unplugged (PG): Johnny Trey is a one-hit wonder who gave up his chase for fortune and fame to become a worship minister. Grace is his beautiful teen daughter—a headstrong girl with barrels of talent and a dream of stardom herself. What unfolds is a predictable but powerful father-daughter story: Grace learns that musical success is sometimes fool’s gold, while Johnny learns that his little girl is the real treasure. And throughout it all, we see the subtle, saving power of God. Anchored by the multitalented actress/singer AJ Michalka, Grace Unplugged might pull a few tears from the eyes of some of the fathers who watch it.
Home Run (PG-13): When an arrogant, alcoholic pro baseball player accidentally elbows a young fan in the middle of a dugout rant, it proves to be just the catalyst Cory Brand needs to take an honest look at his out-of-control life. That rant is followed by a rehab stint back in his hometown of Okmulgee, Okla. Away from the bright lights of big-city ballparks, the All-Star slugger battles relapses and inner demons related to his alcoholic father as he slowly reconnects with the family and friends his boorish behavior has alienated for years. Along the way, Home Run delivers an unvarnished glimpse at the power of addiction … and the possibility of deliverance for those who are willing to humble themselves and ask for God’s help to change their destructive ways.
Not Today (PG-13): Caden Welles lives large in a huge California home with a swimming pool. One evening while partying, he and some buddies agree to the wacky plan of traveling to whatever city they happen to hit with a dart thrown at a world map. Turns out the metal tip lands on a city in India, so he and his friends head there for some merrymaking. But something else happens there. Caden refuses to help a starving man who comes across their path, and when he attempts to right his wrong, he discovers the man has sold his only daughter. With his eyes now open to a thriving human trafficking trade, Caden and this father forge an unlikely friendship in an attempt to track down this little girl. The subject matter is obviously harsh, but Not Today creatively tackles one of the most important, most tragic issues of our day.
Films in this category are made by Christian film companies and/or feature strong Christian themes. They target both Christians and non-Christians.
BEST MOVIE FOR KIDS (NOMINEES)
The Croods (PG): There are those who might’ve stayed away from this DreamWorks movie because of the name alone. But it’s not like that at all. Not really. Sure, the Crood family may be a bit rough. But bathroom humor is surprisingly minimal and the story here is just short of magical. Eep is the film’s focal point—a cave teen who longs to get out on her own while her stick-in-the-mud dad, Grug, tries to bottle her up inside the family cave. Guy is the film’s handsome, adventurous leading man who has eyes for Eep. But it turns out that this is really Grug’s story—a tale about a father trying to do the very best he can for his family in a world that’s rapidly changing.
Despicable Me 2 (PG): That once-nasty Gru is having a difficult time with his transition from supervillain to loving dad. Raising three adorable daughters is way more difficult than coming up with fiendish plots to rule the world. Besides that, there’s the question of a job: He’s never had a position that didn’t involve a death ray. But then a super-secret agency called the Anti-Villain League offers him employment and Gru starts getting the knack of changing careers. A lanky female agent named Lucy Wilde is helping the process. She’s a little obnoxious and overbearing, but when she starts zapping people with her lipstick Taser, it just makes Gru go all weak in the knees. This rollicking pic about adopted daughters, a reformed-baddie dad and a bunch of slapstick silliness stirs a little bit of toilet humor and some Three Stooges-style roughhousing into its crime-solving mix. But it’s still a frenetically enjoyable yarn about heroic choices, and the life-changing impact of love and family.
Epic (PG): Mary Katherine (who these days prefers M.K.) goes back home to spend the summer with her dad for the first time since her parents went their separate ways years before. She isn’t hoping for much, though. Quite frankly, the guy’s a little nutty—obsessed with this idea that a kingdom of small people live in the forest near his house. But when she accidentally spots a tiny person herself and is magically shrunken to the size of an ant … Dad doesn’t seem so crazy after all. Based loosely on William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, this is a good-vs.-evil fairy tale that clothes itself in environmental concerns. It’s a cute story about tiny warriors who battle to keep a forest green while pushing back the crusty forces of mold and decay. Light lessons of family and reconciliation are endearing and colorful.
Escape From Planet Earth (PG): Planet Baab’s most famous muscle-bound heroic dude, Scorch, undertakes a rescue mission to that dark, deadly place called … Earth. And things go wrong in a hurry. Before you can say “E.T. phone home,” Scorch is captured and on his way to Area 51 in the evil clutches of the large and vengeful General Shanker. So it’s up to Scorch’s nerdy and oh-so-not-muscle-bound brother, Gary, to come to the rescue. The two blue bros don’t always see eye to eye, but somebody’s got to do the brave thing when the glugorps are down. This animated sci-fi spoof probably won’t ever be confused with a Pixar pic, but it’s fun, goofy and packed with meaningful messages about familial love, friendship and feisty fearlessness. There’s not a lot to wave a blue flag of warning over other than a bit of toilet humor and some—dun-dun-dun—SCARY HUMANS!
Frozen (PG): Let’s face it: Disney has the princess market cornered. From Snow White to Tiana (from The Princess and the Frog), the Mouse House has made a fortune on them, so perhaps it’s little wonder that this return-to-glory Disney flick features two—and they’re just as pretty and charismatic as we’ve come to expect. But even though there are music and balls and curses and kisses, Elsa and Anna tell an altogether different story than Disney’s told in the past. Here, true love is found not just by suitors, but sisters, and sacrifice holds the key to saving grace. Frozen isn’t perfect: Some kids may find it scary in the slick spots. But it has the power to melt the hearts of the iciest of critics.
BEST MOVIE FOR TEENS (NOMINEES)
42 (PG-13): 42 tells the inspirational story of Major League Baseball’s first black player: Jackie Robinson. Many folks, of course, know that Robinson was a superstar player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. What you may not know is the battle against racism he faced off the field—a battle that might well have picked him off at second base were it not for the advocacy of Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. This sports drama/biopic doesn’t hold back when it comes to racial slurs hurled at Robinson with the same force fastballs were hurled at his head. Along the way, however, this unflinching depiction of Robinson’s trailblazing example offers a glimpse at what overcoming the virulent racism of the era required: courage and determination, self-control and faith. As Rickey told Robinson, “Like our Savior, you’ve got to have the guts to turn the other cheek.”
Ender’s Game (PG-13): Earth is eying its end. Decades earlier, a race of giant insect-like invaders were beaten back while trying to colonize our planet. But all the years since have been spent living in abject fear of the big bugs’ return. But Colonel Graff has an idea that he hopes will save the planet from these massive creepy-crawlies: Seems to him that humanity doesn’t need another super-soldier, but rather someone who can attack the enemy with video game-like precision. We need someone like Andrew Ender Wiggin―a skinny teen who just happens to be the best military mind any junior high has ever produced. This Young Adult fiction-based sci-fi pic transforms kids into world-savers. The action is intense and there’s some bullying shown, but there’s no bloody warfare. Instead, we’re given video game space battles and questions about the morality and politics of war.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13): Katniss Everdeen thought she’d never have to go back to those awful Hunger Games. But after she and Peeta tricked the government into letting them both live last time around, President Snow wants to get rid of them both, once and for all—and in front of the whole of Panem. The only way they can survive is through a little help from their … adversaries? Yes, the movie is violent. That’s well established by this point in the series. Yes, the subject matter can be uncomfortable. But this dark story gives a platform to some luminous acts of heroism and sacrifice while presenting some seriously deep thoughts about the intersection of persecution and entertainment. Ultimately, this movie isn’t about how long you can live, but how much you can give—and give for a cause more important than any one person.
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Man of Steel (PG-13): It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s another Superman movie! The latest reboot by director Zach Snyder focuses on ol’ Supes’ willingness to sacrifice himself, if necessary, to stop General Zod from devastating Metropolis. Of course, despite Superman’s efforts, Zod still uncorks plenty of apocalyptic mayhem. That and a few profanities are the primary content issues here. Amid the smoldering ruins of leveled skyscrapers, however, Snyder focuses on what he dubs Superman’s “inherent goodness.” “If you really think about it,” he said in one interview, “you still want him to be right and to make the right choices and to do the right thing. I think that we all hope for that in ourselves, and I think that’s what always has made him a very interesting character. He’s a Christ-like figure. There’s no two ways about it.”
Oz the Great and Powerful (PG): Oscar Diggs may be merely a small-time magician/con man with a traveling circus, but when his hot air balloon is accidentally swept up and plopped down in a faraway land called Oz, well, his fortunes start to change. There are beautiful witches living in this colorful place, and talking China dolls, even flying monkeys. And they all seem to think he’s a predestined wizard sent to save the land. There’s a royal throne and a trove of riches waiting just for him, it seems. All he has to do is rid Oz of its one wicked witch. You know, the one who lives in the West. This version of the story of Oz is brighter and bears far more CGI sparkle than the classic 1939 version. Its ghosts and fireball-hurling magicky things are a little scarier, too. But in amongst its emerald flowers and shadowy talking trees can be found some solid lessons on faithful friendship and choosing selflessness over selfishness. In Oz we learn that leaving behind a life of lies always trumps empty dreams of fame-filled greatness.