Third Way Movie Awards: Films for Your “Must See” List from 2014

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Over at Third Way website from MennoMedia, three Media Matters reviewers have just posted their individual “Top 10 Films” list for 2014 (inspired by Oscar and other awards season). Here, we’ve compiled these lists into one, for great options for your viewing pleasure anytime (from Netflix, Redbox etc.). You might want to share or favorite this post for when you or others need inspiration for what to watch next. Each of our reviewers look at media from an Anabaptist Christian value perspective, while not necessarily endorsing everything (not even close) in the films named! The ones with live links take you directly to our reviews on Third Way. Initials beside the synopsis indicate which reviewer wrote it. VT = Vic Thiessen. GH = Gordon Houser. MKS = Matthew Kauffman Smith.

Third Way Café Top Films of 2014

1 Interstellar. The only Hollywood film in my top ten, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic is one of the wildest rides in the history of film, an audio-visual feast for the senses that engages both our minds and (unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey) our emotions, though its underlying message that we should consider giving up on earth is a dangerous one. VT

2. Ida. This small Polish film by Pawel Pawlikowski, set in 1962 and stunningly filmed in black & white, tells the moving and compelling story (featuring exceptional character development) of a young woman, about to take her vows as a nun, who discovers her Jewish roots and the horrific history of her family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. VT

3. The Congress. Ari Folman’s partly animated (gorgeously so) sci-fi film is based on a 1971 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, an aging actor who is offered a form of immortality in this sharp satire of the Hollywood film industry, ‘celebrity’, the pharmaceutical industry and individuality/identity. VT

4. Locke. Tom Hardy is the only actor we see (and he delivers a wonderful nuanced performance) in Steven Knight’s film about a man whose life crumbles around him (despite his efforts to do the right thing) as he talks on the phone during a two-hour drive across southern England. VT

5. Selma.  (review to be posted by Jan 16, 2015) David Oyelowo is perfect as Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1965, led the campaign for voting rights for African Americans in the southern U.S. Focusing on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Ava DuVernay’s film is an inspiring, moving and gripping drama and a powerful depiction of a story everyone needs to see and from which we all have much to learn, even in 2014. VT

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Another of his trademark quirky, intelligent and surreal comedy dramas, this film may be Wes Anderson’s best yet. It’s full of superb acting, clever dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and pointed satire (of authority, governments and attitudes toward immigration). VT

7. The Great Beauty. This Italian film from Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013, but was not released in North America until 2014. A breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking satire about life in contemporary Rome, The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as an aging journalist looking for moments of great beauty in his pointless existence. VT

8. Only Lovers Left Alive. I’m no fan of vampire films, but Jim Jarmusch’s slow-paced, gorgeously-filmed (at night, in Detroit and Tangier) drama about the lives of a very old vampire couple (played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) provides a profound and unique perspective on the history of human civilization and the dangers we are facing in the 21st century. VT

9. Boyhood. Richard Linklater almost had my favourite film of the year for two years in a row with this amazing drama which he filmed over a period of twelve years. By allowing us to watch family members naturally grow and change over twelve years, as if we’re viewing a documentary, Linklater (one of the greatest filmmakers of our time) gives us an insightful cinematic masterpiece about everyday life. VT

10. Calvary. This small Irish film by John Michael McDonagh stars Brendan Gleeson in an Oscar-worthy performance as a small-town priest slowly losing the respect of his parishioners as the church becomes increasingly irrelevant to their lives. While this dark (but often funny) film is not for all tastes, Calvary is a sublime meditation on the future of the church, on violence, on forgiveness and on what it means to be faithful to Jesus. VT

11. Whiplash. This riveting film about a young jazz drummer and his emotionally abusive teacher asks, How much should one sacrifice for one’s art? But it goes beyond the creative arts. Is it good to push ourselves (or be pushed) beyond our perceived limitations in order to reach our full potential? J.K. Simmons’ performance as the teacher is outstanding. GH

12. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). This intense film is about a washed-up actor who 20 years earlier played a superhero called Birdman and now wants to be recognized as a serious artist. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s satire skewers blockbusters and theater while presenting serious questions about our search for significance and recognition. The cast here is excellent. GH

13. Under the Skin. This science fiction thriller about an extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson), disguised as a human female, who drives around Scotland and tries to lure unsuspecting men into her van. This is not your standard thriller but an artistic, brilliant, stunning exploration of being marginal. This creature who preys on men to take their skin becomes, in the end, a sympathetic character. Not for everyone, this film stayed with me a long time. GH

14. The Imitation Game. Another historical film, this one is about Alan Turing, a British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist who led a team of cryptanalysts in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch is especially good in capturing Turning’s tics and submerged emotions. The film is suspenseful and heartbreaking and opens up an era where men were put in prison for being gay. GH

15. The Immigrant. Set in New York in 1921, this film is a portrayal of spiritual and psychological struggle. Marion Cotillard heads an excellent cast as Ewa, who falls prey to Bruno, a pimp who forces her to become a prostitute in order to make enough money to gain her sister’s freedom from quarantine on Ellis Island. It is a powerful film about forgiveness. GH

16. Alive Inside. Music has always been therapeutic for me, but this documentary about how music soothes, inspires, and jogs the memories of Alzheimer’s patients offers emotional and scientific proof that music can heal. MKS

17. Pride. Even though it is over-dramatized at times, the true story about the unlikely bond between the gay rights advocates and the striking miners in mid-80s United Kingdom is an entertaining feel-good underdog story. MKS

18. Skeleton Twins. Saturday Night Live alums Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader prove their dramatic chops in this dark comedy about troubled siblings who re-connect with each other as their other relationships crumble. MKS

19. Chef. Jon Favreau’s portrait of a acclaimed chef/not-so-acclaimed father at a career/personal crossroads is witty and heartwarming. MKS

20. Next Goal Wins. American Somoa was the worst soccer team in the world and holds the dubious distinction of suffering the worst defeat in international soccer history, losing 31-0 to Australia. This documentary chronicles the team’s attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and reverse their historic bad fortune. MKS

21. Snowpiercer. The first half is much more violent than I can normally tolerate, but the second half of the movie is compelling. Yes, the premise of the last of the earth’s humans living riding an eternal train around the world is far fetched, but its Speed-meets-Children of Men juxtaposition makes for a highly entertaining film. MKS

22. Ernest and Celestine. OK, you can get me on a technicality because this was nominated for an Academy Award last year. However, this animated tale about an unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse, didn’t receive a major release stateside until this year. My daughters, age 10 and 8, loved it. MKS

23. We Are the Best. This Swedish-Danish film about three 13-year-old girls who form a punk band to perform their song “Hate the Sport” may seem like a film about rebellion. But at its core the film is about finding joy and acceptance through music. The band is loud and terrible but their happiness is undeniable. MKS

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What would be on your list of favorite films from 2014??

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You can get an even bigger list (best 100 movies from the last 10 years), according to Third Way reviewers, which we shared last year. Go here.

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Original art illustration by Josh Byler for MennoMedia.

Best Media Reviews in Mennoniteville

Do you delight in going to the movies, or watching DVDs, or streaming “not-current-run” shows or old TV series at home? Or maybe you enjoy winsome, meaningful, offbeat music that not everyone else is reviewing?

I’ve set you up for the pitch: If you are a person of faith, especially of the Anabaptist-Mennonite persuasion, you might find the media reviews at Third Way website to be of value. Especially if you are a youth teacher or leader looking for material to spice up a church school moment or youth meeting.

Many of us take in movies, or watch more TV, when we have a few days off over the holidays. Or you may be looking for unusual music for that special person on your gift list.

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MennoMedia is pleased to have Third Way website (and yes, the update and relaunch is still upcoming, which we’ve written about several times: these things take patience), and offers much e-content including new daily, weekly, bimontly, and monthly posts.

Most of the movies and music we review (and occasional books, advertising, and TV shows) have very little overt religious or Anabaptist content, but our reviewers all come from that perspective or lens. They are all busy people and excellent writers, and avid media or movie buffs who write their reviews mostly out of love. They have to, for the small remuneration we are able to pay them. Earlier this year I compiled this list of links to their “best films from the past ten years.”

Here I’d like to say more about our Third Way reviewers and some of their excellent and varied work.


VicThiessen2Vic Thiessen
is a seasoned media reviewer and writes a media blog with his brother, Walter Thiessen. For his day job, he was, until recently, the Chief Administrative Officer at Mennonite Church Canada. Before that, he worked for eight years as director of the London Mennonite Centre in England, where he interacted with the UK’s Anabaptist Network. Vic is also the film writer for Canadian Mennonite.

He often reviews a wide variety of indie or artsy flicks that are not hitting every multiplex. Here’ s one example of a film you have likely never heard of but may want to check out: Locke.

Vic often is willing to tackle the films that are so obvious in religious content that they beg to be reviewed here, even though the acting or the plot or the direction is subpar. Here he finds Heaven Is For Real to have “many watchable and discussable moments” even though it may not be his pick of the year for artistic content.

Gordon2011Gordon Houser is a journalist, editor, avid book reader, and film buff. By day (and sometimes night) he is associate editor of The Mennonite, the main denominational magazine of Mennonite Church USA. He is also the author of a book, Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality (2011).  You can actually sample his thinking and speaking on a video called “Who are Mennonites in a Time of Diversity and Change?”

Sometimes we’ve provided discussion questions, as with Gordon’s review of Boyhood, but more often we hope teachers or leaders can put together the questions that will work for their focus and group. Gordon is sure to bring out religious or Christian themes in movies he reviews, perhaps because of the fact that he helps put together The Mennonite every month.

Of all our reviewers, you’re most likely to find Gordon tackling a book review (even though I know most of them are always reading books). Here Gordon writes about Lila and the exploration of meaning in life.

holsoppjJerry Holsopple is the brainchild behind the beginning of this site, Third Way Café, back in 1998, for which he wrote some of the HTML coding. He is an artist, photographer, and videographer, teaching photography and digital media-related courses at Eastern Mennonite University. Jerry spent the 2009-2010 academic year as a Fulbright scholar at LCC International University in Lithuania. Jerry is the recipient of more than a dozen awards in recognition of his video, public service announcements, and websites. Journey Toward Forgiveness, a documentary that he produced for Mennonite Media in 2001, aired on Hallmark Channel and ABC-TV.

While Jerry is a huge and skilled visual producer in his own right (as well as musician and artist) he focuses mainly on music/album reviews for Third Way, partly because no one else does this very often for us. Here are some of his recent, often eclectic, posts on a wide variety of music/albums:

MatthewKauffmanSmithNew.1Matthew Kauffman Smith is a freelance writer and music critic in addition to paying some bills as he works in “middle management.” But he first started writing for us when he was a part-time stay-at-home dad. He has written for the online Propeller Magazine and probably his most unusual post for us was his somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Matthew Kauffman Smith’s First Annual National Mid-Year Music Award Day” where he pokes fun at some of the plethora of show biz awards programs. Matthew’s “music-related” reviews include this one on the recent The Grammy Awards.

Some of Matthew’s best movie reviews, in my opinion, include ones his daughters have seen with him, or that have somehow influenced the review, like the mostly-children’s movie, Brave.


MichelleSinclairMichelle Sinclair
is my daughter (happy to claim her!) but I like to think she would have this job even if I weren’t editor because she writes so well. (Don’t take my word for it, mother’s opinions don’t count.) One of the still-top papers in the U.S., The Washington Post, hires her as an account executive in the advertising division. She is also an author in search of an agent shopping around several novels. She and her husband now have to find a babysitter when they sneak out for their movie fix.  Some of her reviews include, Secretariat and Gravity. Michelle can usually be counted on to take the superhero-adventure flick of the season, such as Guardians of the Galaxy.

With Media Matters reviews now being published over ten years, some of these reviewers have more than 100 individual reviews chalked up, which is quite a body of work. If you don’t care about who wrote what, just check the review archive by media type here. If you want to find movies that a particular reviewer wrote, look under their photo and click on “Other Posts by Gordon Houser” (or whatever the reviewer’s name).

I would love to add an additional woman or a person of color to our reviewer list. Frequently we need to fill in for reviewers taking an extended leave for one reason or another (sabbatical, long vacation, maternity leave). And sometimes reviewers move on to other assignments! Let me know if you’d like to try doing a sample review or know of someone to nominate!

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What is your favorite entertainment medium: movie, TV, music, Internet, electronic games?

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You can sign up for a free subscription to all the reviews, here.

MelodieDavisBlogPhotoMelodie Davis, managing editor and writer