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Search our database of more than 4,500 film reviews. We have been discovering spiritual meanings in movies for nearly four decades.

The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2011

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat


At the start of 2011 we wondered what thematic concerns would be reflected in the year’s releases. Would filmmakers deal with the most pressing issues of the day (our preference) or would they offer an anxious and exhausted public a surfeit of escapist fare?

We're happy to report that there were plenty of films this year that were both serious and relevant. Our choices of the most spiritually literate movies of the year include a touching tale about a struggling immigrant, a story about African-American maids with the courage to tell a difficult truth, a drama about the selfless service of a 13-year-old South African girl, a critique of the universal appeal of violence around the globe, a searing drama about three warriors for peace in Chicago’s inner city, a story about a man who goes out of his way to help an African stranger, a spiritual masterwork about the friendship between a Muslim and a Jewish boy, two moving movies about the heroic activities of women whistleblowers, and an edifying look at the crash-and-burn of a prosperous financial firm in 2008.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was the large number of films dealing with our relationship with animals: dogs, a monkey, a horse, a turtle, lions, a dolphin, a parrot, and bees. Two documentaries gave us portraits of exemplary animal lovers: Buck, a horse whisperer, and Jane Goodall, a champion of African chimps. Novelist Milan Kundera points out why such films are so important: "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Humankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals." Over and over again, these words rang true in the year's films.

In response to the fear and stress of the times, filmmakers delivered some extraordinary dramas about the spiritual journey including two movies about the mysteries and adventures of reincarnation, a compelling account of the mission of Catholic monks serving a poor Muslim community in Algeria, and two portraits of women exploring their spiritual options. Given the widespread grief afoot in our world where people are mourning the loss of their security and in many cases their hopes for a better future, it is fitting that three of the films on our list are about families grieving the loss of a loved one. We are emboldened and uplifted by their resilience and courage in the face of bleakness.

Here, then, are the 45 Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2011. Click on the links to read a full review.

The Ten Most Spiritually Literate
Films of 2011

The Descendants CONNECTIONS
The Descendants (Fox Searchlight) is an emotionally rich movie about the grief of parting and the agony of separation in the life of a father whose losses lead to new and transformative connections.
Higher Ground FAITH
Higher Ground (Sony Pictures Classics) presents a a woman's spiritual journey while challenging viewers to map their own faith struggle, asking questions, having doubts, and seeking a closer connection with God.
A Better Life LOVE
A Better Life (Lionsgate) is a touching and authentic tale about an illegal immigrant trying to create a better future for his son in America.
The Music Never Stopped LOVE
The Music Never Stopped (Lionsgate) is a touching story about the emotional uplift of music, the tenderizing of a family member's heart, and a father-son reconciliation like nothing you've ever seen before.
Win Win LOVE
Win Win (20th Century Fox) is an emotionally satisfying drama about sports, family, and money problems in which everyone gets a second chance.
Melancholia MEANING
Melancholia (Magnolia Pictures) is a mind-blowing end-of-the world drama that challenges us to take stock of our beliefs, feelings, and fears about death.
War Horse (DreamWorks) is a spellbinding drama about a heroic horse, the young man who loves him, and the kind handlers who help him during the hell he endures on the battlefields of World War I.
The Help (Walt Disney Video) is a tribute to African-American maids in the South during 1963 and their courage in telling their stories.
Hugo (Paramount Release) is an enchanting celebration of movie-making, finding the way home, and the kind of caring that can transform the lives of others.
The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight) is a bold and challenging film about a journey from stardust to wonder that stirs the soul, salutes the creation of the world, and finds its mirror in the daily life of one family in the 1950s.

The Ten Most Spiritually Literate
Foreign Language Films of 2011

Of Gods and Men DEVOTION
Of Gods and Men (Sony Pictures) creates one of the best film portraits ever of Christian life through the story of some French Catholic monks in Algeria facing a heartbreaking decision.
Le Havre (Janus Films) is a magical Finnish film about the miracles that a warm heart can work in a world of hatred and divisiveness.
Mumbai Diaries LOVE
Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) (UTV Motion Pictures) is an enthralling movie set in Bombay about the dreams and desires of four very different people.
Life, Above All LOVE
Life, Above All (Sony Pictures) is an engrossing story of the heroism and compassion of a 12-year-old South African who demonstrates selfless love in caring for her very ill mother.
The Names of Love LOVE
The Names of Love (Music Box Films) is a clever and creative French comedy about an unlikely couple trying against all odds to make a life together.
In a Better World PEACE
In a Better World (Sony Pictures Classics) is a poignant drama about the universal appeal of violence in our psyches and in cultures around the globe.
A Separation SHADOW
A Separation (Sony Pictures Classics) is a searing Iranian film about divisiveness as a toxin in relationships.
Queen to Play (Zeitgeist Films) is an elegant French drama about a chambermaid who follows her passion for chess and finds her life transformed.
Le Quattro Volte UNITY
Le Quattro Volte (Kino/Lorber) is a quiet, meditative, and spiritual Italian film about the transmigration of the soul.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives X - THE MYSTERY
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing) is a mesmerizing Thai film about death, reincarnation, and the abundant mysteries of the human adventure.

The Eleven Most Spiritually Literate
Documentaries of 2011

The Interrupters COMPASSION
The Interrupters (Cinema Guild) is a riveting documentary about three committed and compassionate warriors working in inner city Chicago.
Passione: A Musical Adventure LOVE
Passione: A Musical Adventure (Beta Cinema) is a sensuous tribute to the city of Naples and the emotional undertow of its diverse musical traditions.
Raw Faith LOVE
Raw Faith (Alive Mind) is a vibrant and relevant documentary about a progressive Unitarian Universalist minister and the challenges she faces in her public and private lives.
Journey From Zanskar QUESTING
Journey From Zanskar (Warrior Films) focuses on an educational project instituted by two Tibetan Buddhist monks for 17 impoverished children from their region.
Turtle: The Incredible Journey QUESTING
Turtle: The Incredible Journey (Hanover House) is an engrossing documentary about the 25-year pilgrimage of a loggerhead turtle.
Buck (IFC Independent Film) profiles a horse-whisperer whose spiritual messages and healing techniques are good medicine for horses and their companions alike.
Jane's Journey REVERENCE
Jane's Journey (First Run Features) is a portrait of the amazing life and admirable environmental activism of Jane Goodall.
The Last Lions REVERENCE
The Last Lions (National Geographic Entertainment) focuses on a wild lioness in Botswana who is doing all she can to nurture and defend her cubs as they face one survival threat after another.
Project Nim (Roadside Attractions) recounts the story of a chimp raised as a human child and the calamitous consequences for the animal and his trainers.
Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? REVERENCE
Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? (Collective Eye) is a very informative documentary about what beekeepers and other sensitive souls are doing to save the bees who have been dying in large numbers.
The Edge of Dreaming TRANSFORMATION
The Edge of Dreaming (Lorber Films) is a bold, creative, and spiritual documentary about a rational woman's close encounter with death that changes her perspective on life.

The Four Most Spiritually Literate
Animated Films of 2011

Puss in Boots PLAY
Puss in Boots (Paramount/Dreamworks) is a razzle-dazzle adventure story about an outlaw cat who dances flamenco and is able to handle all challenges put before him.
Winnie the Pooh PLAY
Winnie the Pooh (Walt Disney Video) is a down-to-earth and whimsical screen interpretation of three A. A. Milne inspired tales about fear, friendship, and the importance of play.
Happy Feet Two UNITY
Happy Feet Two (Warner Bros.) is a wonderful sequel that boasts quirky characters, lively dancing, soaring songs, and the heroism of many different animals banding together in face of an eco-disaster.
Rango (Paramount Pictures) is from start to finish an immensely creative story about a loser who comes to the rescue of a town without water.

Ten More Spiritually Literate
Films of 2011

David (A David the Movie Production) is a spiritual masterwork about the friendship between a Muslim boy and a Jewish boy that brings unexpected changes into their lives.
Oranges and Sunshine JUSTICE
Oranges and Sunshine (Icon FIlm Distribution) is the inspiring true story of a social worker who exposed the notorious forced deportation of children from England to Australia from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The Whistleblower JUSTICE
The Whistleblower (Samuel Goldwyn Films) is the compelling true story of the transformation of a Nebraska cop into a heroic whistleblower exposing sex trafficking in Bosnia in 1999.
In Time (20th Century Fox) is a winning and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller set in the future that taps into one of the most troubling problems of our era, the lack of time.
We Bought a Zoo LOVE
We Bought a Zoo (20th Century Fox) is an emotionally literate film about a grieving family trying to jump-start their lives again by running a small zoo.
Dolphin Tale NURTURING
Dolphin Tale (Warner Bros.) is a heart-affecting drama about the loving relationship between a lonely boy and a badly injured dolphin and the community that supports them.
A Bird of the Air QUESTING
A Bird of the Air (Paladin) revolves around a beautiful and talkative parrot who proves to be a miracle worker bringing two souls together for a quest that changes them both.
Margin Call SHADOW
Margin Call (Before the Door Pictures) tracks the long day's journey into night and catastrophe in 2008 as high-ranking members of a prosperous financial firm deal with its imminent collapse.
The Tree (Zeitgeist Films) is a beautiful and beguiling Australian film about love, loss, mystery, and the resources needed to hold together a grieving family.
Beginners ZEAL
Beginners (Universal Studios) is an unusually gratifying movie about a playful 75-year-old man's zest for life and its effect on his serious 38-year-old son.

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