Set Your Phasers to Spiritual—A Movie Watchlist For Contemplating The Big Stuff

Years and years ago, before “meme” wasn’t even a word, before the internet itself, I was teaching a college film course called Critical Approach to Cinema. The title alone stood as a warning that it was time to get attentive to the art of film.

One of the movies I showed the class was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I knew that getting them to watch a film whose slow and deliberate unfolding of sound and image would require wholesale changes in their viewing reflexes. If I could sum up in today’s jive what I tried to tell them it amounted to: chillax your [posteriors], pull over into the slow lane, and learn to enjoy the ride, baby.

They watched the movie. They wrote in their journals. (Also long ago, people wrote in textbooks with pens and paper. Ask your parents.). The response was almost universally the same: the movie was “too slow.”

I admit, I was frustrated. I had fantasies of actually sending them up into spaceships where they’d really learn what chillaxing was. I can’t help thinking of that now, as we have been forced to explore and expand the boundaries and bandwidths of our patience as life minimizes our options.   

Could this be the time to recommend everyone sees 2001? And could this also be the time to recommend 10 movies that, most of the time, might have felt too slow, too contemplative, too friggin’ spiritual, to watch? I have taken the liberty of answering those questions in the affirmative.

Of course, you should start with Kubrick’s masterwork. That will get you a straight “A,” should I ever teach again. (Uh, I won’t. I’ve read 500 too many journals to ever return to academe.)

So let me move on to 10 films that ask things of you, starting with a chiller viewing metabolism. This is because they are spiritual in theme, or more deliberative in pacing, or maybe a mix of both. I’m merely suggesting that, with a lot more time on your viewing hands, these movies might affect you differently, might find you in different places.

If not, then please feel free to text 2SLO.

In no particular order:

Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner (2001: R; 161 minutes): Winner of the 2001 Camera d’Or at Cannes, this was the first feature made in the Inuktitut language, and also the first with an almost entirely Inuit cast and crew. It’s a mythic shamanistic melodrama set thousand years ago in the settlement of Igloolik near the Arctic Circle, in which the title character finds himself in a tribal rivalry that forces him to run for his life. It’s mesmerizing and powerful.


Into Great Silence (2007; unrated; 162 minutes): Maybe you’ll never be ready to watch a nearly three-hour German documentary about the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery praying, reading the Bible, or simply sitting in quiet contemplation. But the whispering of snow outside, the occasional clearing of a throat and – sweet mercy! – the clanging of a bell summoning the befrocked Carthusians to prayer reached my ears with a resounding purity.


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (Unrated, 103 minutes) I guess you could say the title is kind of a spoiler alert. Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk’s Buddhist fable is the account of a long life from boyhood to adulthood, told in seasons, and representing an evolution through the straits of folly and sadness to dawning consciousness and rebirth. With heart-stopping setting, gorgeous images, and a lovely little story, it’s about the slow boomerang trajectory of existence – the way it curves away from you and yet ever toward you. In Korean with subtitles.


Rivers and Tides (2003, unrated, 90 minutes): Director Thomas Reidelsheimer follows environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy as he constructs his own sculptures entirely from nature. Built into the concept of these creations is the ephemerality of time and nature: these works made of driftwood, ice, leaves, stones, or twigs, are usually destroyed by rising tides, wind, and so forth. “When I make a work, I go to the very edge of its collapse,” says this Scottish sculptor whose awe-inspiring process made me think of the Buddhist sand mandalas which are deliberately destroyed after they are created.


The Straight Story (2000; G; 111 minutes): One of David Lynch’s most underrated movies. It’s about 73-year-old Alvin (Richard Farnsworth in the role of his life) who travels from Laurenz, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisc., to visit his ailing brother and patch up a 10-year feud. His land speed? Five miles an hour. He can only afford to make the trip on a 1966 John Deere lawnmower. Like the mower under Alvin, the movie cuts a swathe directly to the heart. Lynch’s movie, serenely bereft of postmodern cynicism, is about what’s best in people.


The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005; G, 83 minutes): In this sweet little documentary, these cherry-headed, blue-crowned and mitred charmers are escapees from opened bird cages or transportation compartments at airports around the US. They have also become the fluttery friends of the ponytailed Mark Bittner, a San Francisco musician-turned-Francis of Assisi, who looks after, and spends most of his time with, them. It’s a beautiful story of lost souls finding one another in a new home.


My Own Private Idaho (1991; R; 105 minutes): Director Gus Van Sant’s tone poem is a respin of Orson Welles’s Shakespearean film Chimes at Midnight, with homeless youth conversing in bard-speak. The late great River Phoenix exudes sleepy, princely naivete as a chronically narcoleptic loner who drifts into private oblivion all the time. “This road,” he says of the route that he returns to with surrealistic repetition, “it probably goes around the world.” He is speaking as much about the movie as the road before him.


The Road Home (Wo De Fu Qin Mu Qin)(2001; G; 89 minutes): Zhang Yimou’s fable-like story is about an 18-year-old woman who is giddily in love with her village’s 20-year-old new teacher. Filmmaker Zhang, screenwriter Bao Shi and cinematographer Hou Yong have taken a small tale – we’re talking about a burial and an old story, not much more – and made it almost transcendental. There are few faces more delicate and arresting than Zhang Ziyi as the young woman in love. She sticks like a daguerreotype to your retina – and then your heart.

Into the Wild (2007; R: 148 minutes): Sean Penn’s movie tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who abandons his upper-middle-class life and family to live in complete solitude in the Yukon in the early 1990s. The film, based on Jon Krakauer’s bestselling nonfiction work, pulls you into the slow circling spiral of the central character’s mission, not just to experience majestic loneliness but to discover his true identity. And Hirsch gives the perfect performance: all gritty determination as he tries to reclaim his spot in the Garden of Eden.


Babette’s Feast (Babettes Gæstebud) (1987; G; 102 minutes): Gabriel Axel’s Danish film won the Oscar as Best Foreign Language film. Set in 19th Century rural Denmark, it follows a mysterious Parisian woman (Stéphane Audran) who takes a job as a housekeeper for a pair of dour, elderly women who run a congregation. After working for them for 14 years, she wins a lottery and uses the money to prepare a sumptuous meal for the women and the congregation. A former chef, she makes this meal her own personal masterpiece. This film is not only guaranteed to make you want to order a huge meal. It’s also beautiful as a parable for life’s lost opportunities. In Danish and French with subtitles.

Featured image: A scene from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ In the film, the sentient computer HAL is the villain. Courtesy ASC/MGM.


Desson Thomson

Desson Thomson is currently Director of Executive Communications for the Motion Picture Association of America, the political advocacy organization for the Hollywood film industry. He comes from a 25-year career of journalism with The Washington Post, most of them as a film critic, as well as seven years as a public policy speechwriter for the Obama administration’s State Department.

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