Katya asked me on my last post, what the top five Mormon movies would be. This is a tricky question to answer, and when my comment started getting super long, I figured, well, I maybe I should just write a whole post about this.
The first issue to tackle is what is a Mormon movie? There's various ways to slice it up: by intended audience, by subject matter, by religious affiliation of the creator and so on. I'm not sure which camp I fall into here, but I generally think it's a requirement is overt Mormon subject matter. This is why Napoleon Dynamite isn't a Mormon film in my book and why Saints and Soldiers is iffy. However, I see Latter Days, while an exceptionally bad film, firmly in the Mormon cinema range. Same with the remake of Trapped By the Mormons. Would September Dawn be a Mormon movie? Not having seen it, I'm not sure, but I think it's sort of like Saints and Soldiers for me: on the fringe and sort of questionable. So my top five list will be informed by a very personal, if not wholly self-apparent definition of Mormon films.
The second, and much more pressing issue, is what makes a top five list? Are they the ones I enjoyed the most? Are they the films that have been most successful on their own terms? Are they the best made movies? You could even argue that a top five list would be the movies that even a non-Mormon could go to and enjoy. In fact, that's a whole other kettle of fish, the top five will shift decidedly based on who I am suggesting the films to. For this post we're going to go with my favorite five Mormon movies. Different criteria would yield different lists.
Two more caveats. First, I judge Mormon cinema by a very different measure than I do films in general. I tend to take a more kindly approach to the efforts of our people, mostly because comparing amateurs with professionals is unfair and partly because I really want a Mormon to make a movie that'll stand on its own two legs some day. Second, I haven't seen every single Mormon movie, so there's a chance that I'm missing something from my list. But, from what I hear, the ones I've missed are bad, bad, bad, so I doubt they'd do much shake up to my faves. They're not ranked, so don't read too much into the order.
Here we go:
- The Singles Ward: This movie, despite all of Richard Dutcher's ranting otherwise, is really what I consider to be the genesis of Molllywood. Dutcher made an indie flick that was commercially successful, but the whole genre doesn't take off until we start marshalling the Jello Belt like the Halestorm folks could. And, to top it all off, this movie is genuinely funny at parts. Sadly, we have some impressively bad acting, hackneyed dialogue and lame soul-searching which try to take a romantic comedy and turn it into a seminary video. But these faults aside, I think this movie's a must-see for Mormons.
- Best Two Years: This film, apparently, is what happens when good acting, high production values, and better than average writing collide. This film looks and feels very slick and professional. It has an engaging, if slightly implausible, story line. I like how, unlike God's Army, the missionary experience is treated as a personal struggle rather than an assailing from outside. The accuracy of either viewpoint could be questioned, I realize, but this film feels more immediate and realistic than either of Dutcher's missionary flicks.
- Sons of Provo: You could try all sorts of angles to lampoon Mormon culture, but I highly doubt you'd find a richer approach than by creating a boy band of Provoans and having them sing songs that contain lyrics like "You know girl, I love you, but I hope you comprehend/This body is a Temple - and you don't got no recommend". It's funny only when it means to be and is a brilliant send up of Mormon cliches as well as the end result of a kind of performance art. During the production, the trio actually did go on tour as the group Everclean and some of their real concerts show up as footage in this film. It is a little confused, at times it's clearly a mockumentary, at other times it forgets these conventions. And, at the end, it does turn a bit too serious. But, even with these failings it's not nearly well enough known among young, cynical Mormons.
- Pride & Prejudice: Ok, so I love Jane Austen. So this movie pretty much had me from the concept. But the concept works out nicely, if there are some clear indicators that we've got some newbies at the helm of the film. Recasting the story of Elizabeth Bennet into the world of BYU is amusing for those who still cling to the notion that the Lord's University is not for anyone except the vapid and marriage-obsessed and even more funny to those of us who know better. For purists, there are some things missing from this adaptation, like the Bennet parents, which is too bad. But, it's a very charming film that plays to stereotypes without relying entirely on them and is, in turns, witty and slapsticky. Also, I defy you not to laugh about the classical music for dogs.
- States of Grace: This will probably be the most controversial movie to be included on this list. And I can see why. It's totally unbelievable, but pretends to pass itself off straight. The acting and writing falter when they really shouldn't. Dutcher is trying to be edgy with cinematography and other conventions, but fails to be provocative and ends up being derivative. And an overwrought suicide scene never improves a film. So, with all these problems, why does it get a spot here? This film focuses nicely on how easy sin is to fall into and the subsequent damage that ensues. It's a very "but for the grace of God..." feeling. Other Mormon films haven't done a very good job of portraying the grey zone between temple-worthy and reprobate sinner, relying instead on white and black hats to do all the effort. But here, we get introduced to all sorts of characters, Mormons and Gentiles, who struggle with real human failings. A better case for the Mormon understanding of the atonement (that we must work really hard and can feel like all is lost at the blush of sin, but that Jesus is there, doing something that can save us) or conversion (that it's not a single moment, but a lifelong struggle) has yet to be made in any Mormon movie. So, go out, suspend your disbelief, prepare yourself for a cringe or two and reconsider this film.
If you're wondering what movies you should avoid at all costs, do your best to not see The Book of Mormon Movie ("too bad they spent all their budget on that one camel"), Beauty and the Beast: A Latter-day Tale (overacting+alcoholism+modern slavery+cute coed=cinematic trainwreck), The Home Teachers ("...maybe if we throw in every juvenile joke possible, they won't notice how horrific this film is"), Handcart (people died for this film to be made and this is the best you can come up with?) and Latter Days (come for the gay sex, stay for the bad dialogue and weak acting!).
I'd be curious for those who care about these sorts of things: do you disagree with my choices? What'd be a better set if you had to come up with one?