Cultivating Awakening and Awareness
We need stories about protagonists who learn how to wake up and to be conscious of the deeper realities behind mere default settings, unquestioned assumptions, and the spiritual sedative of focusing on self. Produced by the Arts & Faith online community, this list spans 65 years of cinema, from 1952’s Ikiru to 2016’s Arrival.
The Top 25 Films on Waking Up is sponsored by Image, a literary and arts quarterly founded in 1989 to demonstrate the vitality and diversity of well-made art and writing that engage seriously with the historic faiths of the West in our time. Now one of the leading literary magazines published in the English language, it is read all over the world—and it forms the nexus of a warm and lively community.
1. Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)
A municipal bureaucrat in postwar Japan, emotionally alienated from his family, Mr. Watanabe has resigned himself to a life of quiet, albeit busy, desperation. But then he is diagnosed with stomach cancer, prompting an unsuccessful search for meaning in wine, women, and song. Yet out of his despair Mr. Watanabe experiences a transformation; he dedicates his remaining days to an act of redemptive, self-giving love and finds, by the film’s transcendent ending, a life-affirming peace. As in several other films on this list, a terminal diagnosis or memento mori prompts an awakening in the protagonist. But Ikiru plots a further waking up, as Watanabe-san’s family, friends, and colleagues come to understand, at a ceremony after his death, the profundity of his transformation. They, like we viewers, are humbled by a man whom they had formerly pitied and disdained and are inspired by him to live life more fully awake.
2. Something, Anything (Harrill, 2014)
Margaret’s salvation comes through a synchronicity of awakenings: The moment her husband’s disordered priorities are exposed, with painful consequences. The moment her friendships are revealed as relationships of convenience, enabling lives of self-centeredness and denial. The moment she participates in workplace corruption. She begins to see how her own life has been shaped by peer pressure. She discovers contemplation and the rewards of mystery. She feels the spark of an authentic self in the solitude of a monastery. The sun rises on a world of greater uncertainty and even greater joys. Her future might be a rich and meaningful life, beyond the prisons of conformity and economic compromise, and within the risks of intimacy, trust, and service. Paul Harrill has crafted a quiet, poetic, and inspiring story of a woman’s escape from a marriage and a community built on lies, masks, and materialism into a more dangerous—and more human—experience of faith, risk, humility, and love.
3. The Double Life of Veronique (Kieslowski, 1991)
The first film Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski made after the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Double Life of Veronique focuses on an unexpected connection that reaches across Eastern and Western Europe and how that shapes the lives of the two main characters. As the two Veroniques – one living in Krakow, the other in Paris – gradually realize that they share an imperceptible connection with another person, the delicate and intricate fabric that connects all of humanity comes into focus, coloring not only their understanding of their place in the world, but their sense of vocation in relation to others. Irène Jacob’s dual performance beautifully captures a slow waking up to a sense of wonder and mystery that haunts not only her character as she reaches out to form connections, but the viewer as well.
4. Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)
One of the rare films that has grown in my estimation on every viewing, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece (among masterpieces). The story of a young girl who is set adrift, cruelly abandoned by her parents who indulge in their desires, alone in a strange spirit world, Spirited Away portrays coming of age and waking up to what lies behind and below the material world. Imagination and pathos, hope and struggle, faded dreams and day-to-day existence have rarely been portrayed so poignantly on film, or indeed any other storytelling medium. For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, Spirited Away offers a new awakening any time we care to visit, reminding us of our ability to choose a better way to live even in our disappointment in others.
—Darryl A. Armstrong
5. Red Beard (Kurosawa, 1965)
Akira Kurosawa’s entire body of work—from 1943’s brash debut Sanshiro Sugata to 1993’s valedictory Madadayo—challenges viewers to awaken to their responsibility to use their talents unselfishly in a desperate world. 1965’s Red Beard is no exception. Set in feudal Japan, it opens with callow Doctor Yasumoto arriving at a clinic for the poor, presided over by the quietly intimidating Doctor Niide (nicknamed Red Beard and played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune). Initially chafing haughtily at his assignment, Yasumoto comes to embrace his role as caregiver to the needy, by Niide’s example and by witnessing dignity and tragedy among the indigent. Through masterful characterization, grand drama, and immersive chiaroscuro, Kurosawa prods us to follow the doctors’ examples. In a late climactic scene, Yasumoto, Niide, and other clinic helpers kneel in semi-circle around a gravely ill child; it’s as if Kurosawa is inviting us to rise from our seats and complete the circle.
6. The Assassin (Hou, 2015)
The Assassin is a difficult film to summarize, but not because the plot is unclear. Characters constantly fill each other in on where exactly they stand. Roughly, the movie concerns an assassin (Shu Qi) who, having failed in an assignment, is sent to kill her cousin, a man who is also her betrothed. But this is a Hou Hsiao-hsien film, and any expectations of a straightforward wuxia adventure should be left at the door. This film is far more interested in textures: the light falling across early-morning steam on a lake, the titular black-clad assassin stalking through a forest of white trees, a broken gold mask among the leaves. On a plot level, the assassin “wakes up” to her own self-determination, eventually rejecting the orders to kill her cousin. On a visual and sensual level—the level Hou Hsiao-hsien operates on most effectively—the movie is itself an act of awakening. By using lingering shots on faces, on scenery (the characters, often, pushed into the far bottom corner of the frame, dwarfed by the landscape), The Assassin invites viewers to wake up to world far larger than anyone inside the movie. Or out of it.
7. The Trial (Welles, 1962)
The first image of Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is a close-up of his resting head, inverted to our vision. He wakes up. But in Orson Welles’s prologue narration, he informs us that the story to follow will have the logic of a dream—or, more properly—a nightmare. Josef K is accused and set to stand trial for…something, which is never completely clear, nor really the point. Welles’s film adapts Franz Kafka’s novel, following K through literal labyrinths that suggest the banal horrors of a police state: the unending malaise of a pervasive bureaucracy, the surreal and grotesque circus of a corrupt legal system, and the bewildering complexity of a disintegrating social structure. K cannot escape this maze, no matter where he turns. Despite the inevitability of his doom, K remains defiant and resolute, making him one of Welles’s most fascinating portrayals, in one of his most visually striking movies.
8. The Secret of Kells (Moore and Twomey, 2009)
The theme of waking up plays out on multiple levels in the gorgeously animated The Secret of Kells from filmmakers Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey. Young Brendan awakens to the world outside the walls of the Abbey of Kells where he lives with his uncle, the Abbott. He also awakens to the world inside that of books. But possibly the most important awakening is that of the Abbot who learns that he cannot hold on to treasure – material, spiritual, or human – by trying to build walls around it and close it off from the admittedly violent and uncertain world. It is the treasures we hoard for ourselves that are most needed in the world, and the risk of sharing them must be engaged.
—Darryl A. Armstrong
9. Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987)
The children of Berlin are awake: They can see angels. They can play and find joy in small things, even in this context of an oppressed and divided Germany. And thus, an angel named Damiel is drawn to them, intrigued by their faith, delighted by their wonder and enthusiasm. He wants to know what they know. He wants to experience what it means to live within limitations, beyond certainties. He wants to break out of his detached role as an angelic observer, as a minion of God. And so, he humbles himself, taking on the form of a man. His "fall," which is not a failing but choice to surrender power for the sake of joy, takes place at the Berlin Wall, on the border between restriction and liberation. It's a place of contradiction and division, a place between law and grace. It is an embrace of the human condition, a place of tension, of yearning but not fully realizing, of seeking but not yet fully finding. And when he awakes in his new human body, he wakes to a world of possibility and doubt, surprise and suffering. Now, instead of merely observing Marion, the tormented, despairing trapeze artist whose capacity for art astonished him, now he can reach out and connect with her in the intimacy of asking a collaborative question. Wings of Desire is about an angel who wakes up from black and white into the color of what it means to be human. In making that journey with him, director Wim Wenders invites us to wake up again and again, in new ways with every viewing, to the wonder of our own state of grace.
10. The Insider (Mann, 1999)
Mann fills The Insider with mirrors, windows, and all manner of frames within frames. Based on a Vanity Fair article, the first half of the film narrates the plight of Jeffrey Wigand, the first whistleblower to bring the predatory practices of big tobacco to public attention in the 90s. The second half of the film shifts focus to Lowell Bergman, whose manic intensity brought to life by Al Pacino eventually lands Wigand’s story in the media.
A centerpiece of the film is a rare surreal flourish from Mann, in which the linear shadows and walls around Wigand visibly dissipate. His children, who have since left with his wife, play outside in a sunlit yard and he can see everything he has lost in the media shuffle. The Insider suggests that investigative journalism and the ethics of waking up have a human scale. Wigand reminds Mike Wallace at the end of the film that, “What got broken here doesn't go back together again.” It is a stunning and prescient self-indictment, which has surely set the tone for the Mannings, Wikileaks, and Panama Papers of our past decade.
11. Joe Versus the Volcano (Shanley, 1990)
Call it a Chestertonian fairy tale. This film explores a “soul sick” man’s growing awareness of the fact that he is no longer interested in his own self, but in other people and other things around him instead. This realization is then lit like a match when he takes up a mysterious stranger’s offer to set out on an adventure. The ensuing exploits lead to further awakening, falling in love, learning to see, trying to pray, and taking steps by faith. At the film’s end, you’ll find yourself looking at the world around you as perhaps just a little more enchanted. If almost the whole world is asleep, Joe Versus the Volcano asks what it would mean to be one of the few people who are awake.
12. Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)
A beautiful filmic palindrome, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” is a richly humanistic film, even as its premise is about encountering extraterritorial life. The film opens and closes with a memory, albeit our understanding of the memory and its significance in the narrative is remarkably different by the film's conclusion. What makes Arrival remarkable is that its very form elicits the same “waking up” within the audience as it does within its characters; we are sutured into the time and memories of the cinematic world, having to relearn and become more aware within the linguistic nature of film itself. What’s more, this philosophical and cerebral film about aliens, language, memory, and time is also deeply affecting, particularly as a parent. Arrival is a timely film, in every sense of the word.
13. Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955)
Delbert Mann's Marty tells the simple story of two lonely, desperate people (played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair) meeting one another and waking to the possibility that life can offer more than what society has allotted for them. Marty remains one of only two films to have won both the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it bridges both Hollywood romantic comedy and European art cinema. The venerable Paddy Chayefsky penned its fleet screenplay, which often stands in peculiar relationship to Delbert Mann's frequently severe direction, which, with the utilization of high-contrast lighting and occasionally stark composition, underlines the characters’ isolation and existential longing. That isolation can only be dispelled by awareness that, as Borgnine's Marty so memorably declares, “we ain't such dogs as we think we are.”
14. Malcolm X (Lee, 1992)
Spike Lee uses three spiritual awakenings to frame the story of Malcolm X's life. Malcolm was raised in a Christian household but was never a committed follower. His ties to the underworld led to a prison sentence where he experienced his first spiritual awakening. We see the vision that led him toward the decision to join the Nation of Islam. This awakening forms his early activism and resistance, all in submission to Elijah Muhammad. When disappointed by Elijah Mohammed, he distanced himself from the Nation of Islam and took a pilgrimage to Mecca, his second awakening. Upon meeting Muslims of all races, his work became inclusive. Shortly before his murder, he walked outside a Christian church where a woman told him she's praying for him. His response to this presents his third spiritual awakening and leaves us wondering how his life and work would have changed had he lived longer.
15. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)
In this early Varda film, Cleo is hooked on her own reflection. She is constantly looking in mirrors, window reflections, and ensuring her well-manicured presentation is in order. But something dramatic happens in our two late afternoon hours with Cleo, during which she is waiting to hear the results of a test for stomach cancer. After a series of encounters revealing how shallow her life is, Cleo tears a perfectly coiffed wig from her head and spends the remainder of the film in an iconic parable of self-discovery. In a dramatic subjective movement of Varda’s camera, we begin to see a new Paris through Cleo’s eyes. The mirrors give way to conversations. Cleo’s mortal fear becomes a pathway to a new way of seeing and self-awareness. This is all one of cinema’s great reflections on beauty, identity, and wholeness.
16. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975)
Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those rare films which becomes more inexplicable when seen repeatedly. Weir directed this adaptation of the Joan Lindsay novel prior to The Last Wave, a film equally interested in Australia as a land remaining wholly other and inaccessible to its white settlers. Lindsay’s novel was scandalously ambiguous about the facts of this story about a few private school girls and their teacher vanishing during an outing to a rock formation in southeast Australia.
Likewise, the film is shot and scored with perilous beauty, the scenes around Hanging Rock hovering between dream and reality. The search for these girls and reaction of the town and school to the disappearance begins to reveal an elusive set of reflections on nature, innocence, and Victorian sexuality. It is not quite clear what we are waking up to in the film, though we find ourselves drawn into Weir’s deeply poetic handle on nature as an enduring stage for the mysteries and conflicts of modernity.
17. This Is Martin Bonner (Hartigan, 2013)
No film I have ever seen explores the enigma of faith in postmodernity with more insight than Chad Hartigan’s quietly miraculous character study about a white-haired volunteer coordinator (Paul Eenhoorn) for a church-based prisoner assistance program and an ex-con trying to find his way (Richmond Arquette). Both men seek to rebuild on the rubble of what they have made of their lives — in Martin’s case when he “woke up selfish” one morning, not wanting to sacrifice for God any more. Yet some kind of grace in Martin awakens in Travis a wish to be a better person, and in this may be a seed of Martin’s own redemption.
—Steven D. Greydanus
18. The Truman Show (Weir, 1998)
Learning your entire reality is a carefully constructed lie would be a moment of crisis and potential awakening for anyone, but learning that lie has been constructed for the entertainment of an entire country makes it all the more overwhelming. That is precisely what happens to Truman (Jim Carrey) when the meticulously designed reality show that forms his life beings to fall apart, not only because of Truman’s increasing awareness, but also because of the moral awakening of several people who had helped delude him. Peter Weir’s dark comedy also serves as a wakeup call to the audience, asking us to consider the ways we have enabled the exploitation of others for corporate profit and our own entertainment, reminding us through Truman’s journey there is a greater reality worth seeking.
19. The New World (Malick, 2005)
In a film with many examples of waking up, the thread of Captain John Smith seems the most carefully detailed. We find Smith imprisoned, released, then searching down the river for new land and new hope. Next, he is captured by a Powhatan tribe and saved by the chief’s daughter. He falls in love with this maiden and her culture. The transforming experience prompts him to reflect on spiritual frontiers that lie beyond his own corruption. “I who was a pirate…am a free man now.” Soon, though, he sneaks away from the girl and this new life to fulfill his own ambition. Waking up, interrupted…but is it cut off? In a brief reunion near the end of the film, the exiled Powhatan princess asks Smith, “Did you find your Indies, John?” Before Smith has the chance to give his doubtful response, she says, “You will.” She herself knows what it is to wake up after a long slumber. This may be why she holds out hope for Smith. Perhaps he may yet bolt into wakefulness like the Native American erupting from his chair in this film’s ecstatic coda.
20. Fearless (Weir, 1993)
Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) survives a devastating plane crash virtually unscathed, leads many others to safety, and then disappears - not only from the wreckage site, but from himself and his family. Max, having been brought to the threshold of life and death, doesn’t seem to be able to, or want to bring himself back from that threshold. The efforts of his family and another crash survivor may be the only connections Max has left to be able to fully embrace his second chance at life.
21. Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002)
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a timid, lonely man that suffers from fits of rage, stemming from being the only son in a family that had seven other daughters. One strange day brings a broken harmonium, a caring woman, and a nefarious band of phone-sex thugs into Barry’s mild-mannered life. Through his newly discovered love, Barry taps into a deeply hidden inner strength that he uses to overcome his perpetual defenselessness.
22. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977)
If the key image of spiritual awakening in the Christian tradition is the Apostle Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, I would suggest that Roy Neary’s encounter on a dark country road with a UFO is cinema’s “Road to Damascus.” Close Encounters of the Third Kind portrays the meeting of human and extra-terrestrial life as an awakening to transcendence. For those who encounter the ETs—or those who wish to, like François Truffaut’s Lacombe—the experience compels them to actions they scarcely understand, to abandon their present life in the pursuit of communion with the unknown. Few films have offered an articulation of spiritual longing and wonder, but here Spielberg portrays spiritual awakening using the idioms of his time.
23. Pan's Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006)
A quote attributed to Chesterton, although heavily paraphrased from his original words, reads: “Fairytales do not tell children that dragons exist; children already know dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.” Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s fairytale for adults, reminds us of the power and beauty of fairytales as a way to triumph over both spiritual and physical adversity. When young Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) mother remarries a sadistic general of the fascist army during the Spanish Civil War, the girl discovers a mysterious labyrinth and faun, both of which serve as a means of her waking up not only to the harsh realities of her daily life, but more importantly to the ways she can avoid succumbing to them. As she becomes increasingly aware of this supernatural world and its inextricable link with the physical world, Ofelia awakens to a sense of wonder and goodness that exist in both, even when they are difficult to find.
24. Knight of Cups (Malick, 2015)
Amidst the wash of imagery and sound in Terrence Malick’s film is a portrayal of humanity’s search for meaning and grace. The parallels between the journey of Christian Bale’s Rick through the bacchanalia of contemporary America and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress are stated quite clearly, but most importantly these parallels frame Rick’s awakening from a life of selfish pursuit as a journey, an intentional action in which each step along the way leads him to a clearer and clearer understanding. Yet, its confessional nature does not result in a film certain of itself. Instead, this is Malick at perhaps his most experimental, seeing what he can uncover with his roving, unsettled camera. The film does not serve merely as a lesson of spiritual and moral re-enchantment for Rick, but potentially for the viewer as well.
25. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)
The Tree of Life is Terrence Malick’s poem and prayer, a natural theology and a meditation on being-in-the-world, especially as our existence relates to time and God. Its appearance on this list of films about “waking up” could be due to its stunning and enigmatic visuals or its haunting score and use of music, how these allow us to encounter something of the transcendent in the cinematic construct. Yet it is the characters themselves—especially Jack (Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken)—who undergo a transformative experience through the pain and loss of a son and brother, bringing the flood of memories and questions which come with grief. Jessica Chastain's Mrs. O'Brien is the embodiment of grace, a spiritual director and wisdom personified, pointing her sons (and us) to where God lives. Nature and grace, love and justice, light and darkness—I admit, I find it difficult to articulate the immensity of the film’s themes and ideas, all of its mysteries. You simply must let it wash over you like a baptismal flood; to see The Tree of Life, one must be awake and willing to be awakened.
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