Since Damaris launched Damaris Film Clubs in 2013, more people have been asking me which movies are the best for group discussions. There is an ever-growing bank of film discussion guides within the Damaris Film Blog1, but often I find that people still need something of a steer towards the great films for film discussions.
Rather than update the old list again, I’m starting afresh with a new one for films released in 2013 (in the UK). I’ll work back and do similar posts for previous years in due course.
Things to note:
- ‘Great films for film discussions’ does not necessarily mean ‘great films’ in the sense that they appear on lists of the ‘greatest films ever’. Rather, these are films which are ideal for talking about because they stimulate people to think about important ideas.
If you’re choosing a film, you have a responsibility to check whether the content and themes are suitable for your group. To see if there might be problematic content, follow the links to the classification decisions by the British Board of Film Classification, and click on the little arrow to the right of ‘Insight’.
Important: If you are showing a film in any setting other than a home with friends, you need a licence. There are two different licences, and which you need depends on which distributor the film is from. Many churches have a CVLI licence (see the up-to-date list of distributors covered by this licence here), and don’t realise that they may also need a Filmbank licence (see the list of participating distributors here).
In general, films with a running time of two hours or more are too long for a film discussion, unless you know for certain that people will want to stay around and talk for another hour after the film is over. That’s why The Hunger Games: Catching Fire doesn’t feature in the list, for example.
This list is not exhaustive at all! It is simply a collection of films which I either have used in film discussions, or — after about twenty years of leading film discussions — I am very confident would be ideal.
There are still some films from 2013 which need to be included here, including The Selfish Giant.
Great Films for Film Discussions
These films are in alphabetical order. Release dates are for the UK.
- About Time
- Before Midnight
- Blue Jasmine
- Robot & Frank
- Short Term 12
- What Richard Did
Writer/director: Richard Curtis
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Lindsay Duncan
Certificate (UK): 12 (UK) Contains infrequent strong language and moderate sex references (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 118 mins
Distributor: Universal Pictures — you need a CVLI licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 69%
Key themes: Love, goodness, fathers, sons, life, death, families
Richard Curtis is almost an icon of British romantic comedy, thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Love Actually (2003). About Time is very much a comedy in the Curtis style, and love is the central ingredient, but ultimately it is not so much about romantic love, as the love between a father and son. It is only about time in that the days, months and years we have are valued for how we express and experience love during them.
When Tim Lake (Domnhall Gleeson) turns 21, his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on a strange family secret: the men are able to travel in time. By simply stepping into a dark place, clenching their fists, and concentrating, they can return to a chosen moment in their own past. He warns Tim of the dangers of using this power unwisely (time-travelling to get rich, for example, is asking for trouble: Tim’s dad has ‘never met a genuinely happy rich man’), and urges him to think about what he really wants from life. For him, it has been all about books, creating time to read ‘everything a man could wish to — twice’. Right from the start, Tim knows that there is one overriding goal: ‘For me, it was always going to be about love.’
My article (first written for Film & Bible Blog and the free official community resources from Damaris Trust
Writer/director: Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth
Certificate (UK): 15 — Contains strong language and hard drug use (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 102 mins
Distributor: Koch Media — covered by neither CVLI nor Filmbank licences.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 87%
Key themes: Integrity, trustworthiness, corruption, deception, business, finance
Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a highly successful New York hedge-fund magnate with a fabulous house and a loving family. On the surface, Miller’s life appears calm and untroubled, but the reality is that a storm is about to break. He has committed major fraud after investing $100 million in a deal that went wrong, and is desperately working to tie up the sale of his empire before the fraud comes to light. This is not all he conceals from his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and brilliant daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who works with him; he is also having an affair with a French gallerist named Julie (Laetitia Casta).
Everything is coming to a head in Miller’s world. He has borrowed a vast amount of money from a fellow financial magnate to hide the hole in the accounts from the auditors. Now he is being pressured to repay it, but the potential buyers of the business are suddenly stalling. Julie is pushing him to leave Ellen, and is angry that he doesn’t spend more time with her. Miller is struggling to juggle everything and is short on sleep. After a row with Julie one night, he persuades her to go with him to his country house for the night, but on the way he makes a fatal error which could lead to his whole world unravelling.
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Certificate (UK): 15 — Contains very strong language, strong sex and sex references (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 109 mins
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing — you need a CVLI licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 98%
Key themes: Relationships, love, tension, conflict, commitment, time, hope
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are a couple in their early forties whom we first saw on screen eighteen years ago in Before Sunrise. In that film, Jesse met Celine on a train in Europe and persuaded her to disembark with him at Vienna and see the city. They spent a magical night together wandering around Vienna and talking about life and love. By the time the night was over, they were in love. Nine years later, in Before Sunset, their paths crossed again in Paris. Jesse had become an author, and was giving a reading from his new book in a Paris book shop. Celine went along and afterwards, with less than two hours before Jesse’s flight home, they walked around Paris, talking about their lives and discovering that they still loved each other.
Now they have been together for nine years, and have twin daughters. They are coming to the end of a long holiday in Greece with some friends and the children, including Jesse’s 14-year-old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) from his first marriage. Hank has spent the summer with them in the Peloponnese, and the film opens with Jesse taking him to the departure gate for his flight home to Chicago. Jesse urges him to continue with his music and with playing soccer, but Hank doesn’t seem too keen to do either. Jesse promises that he will fly over in the autumn to hear Hank play in a musical recital, but Hank tells him not to bother as it will only cause great stress to his mother, who hates Jesse. As Jesse and Celine drive away from the airport, he laments the fact that he is not around for Hank at this crucial stage of his life. Celine infers that Jesse is wanting to move the family to Chicago to be near Hank, and remarks that this is the moment at which their relationship begins to break down.
Jesse and Celine’s Greek friends have booked them a room in a nearby hotel, giving them a chance to have a romantic night together without the children. But were the tensions that emerged in the car earlier in the day just a minor intrusion into their happy lives, or is a major fault line opening up in their relationship?
Writer/director: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale
Certificate (UK): 12 — Contains infrequent strong language and moderate references to sex and suicide (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 94 mins on DVD
Distributor: Warner Brothers. You need a Filmbank licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 91%
Key themes: Wealth, materialism, marriage, anxiety, family
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is the elegant wife of wealthy businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin). She excels at buying stylish clothes, hosting dinner parties and planning charity fundraisers. Then, one day, her comfortable life implodes. As a consequence, she suffers a nervous breakdown that leaves her dependent on a strong cocktail of vodka and Xanax. Financially and mentally unable to support herself, she moves to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Jasmine and Ginger are sisters through adoption only, and they couldn’t be more different. Fun-loving Ginger works as a grocery store cashier and enjoys evenings on the sofa with beer and pizza. Immediately, Jasmine takes a dislike to Ginger’s boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and to her modest apartment. She also finds herself unable to cope with Ginger’s two noisy sons, the result of her previous marriage to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).
Jasmine needs something to get her out of the house. But having quit college to marry Hal, she finds herself without qualifications, skills, or the ability to work a computer. Whilst she still holds half-formed dreams of working as an anthropologist or an interior designer, she is completely unsure what to do with her life. As the extent of her mental anguish begins to become apparent, she fails to distract herself with a receptionist job at a local dentist surgery. For how much longer can she rely on the kindness of acquaintances?
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Certificate (UK): 12 — Contains sustained moderate threat, disturbing images and strong language (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 91 mins
Distributor: Warner Bros. — you need a Filmbank licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 97%
Key themes: Isolation, connection, grief, death, rebirth
Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) was recruited for a space mission due to her technical expertise, not her experience as an astronaut. Nervous and jittery during a spacewalk, she’s hardly reassured by the smooth patter of veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who’s up there with her. Then the unthinkable happens. Debris from a demolished Russian satellite comes hurtling towards them, and the two are cut loose both from the space station and from communications down below.
Spinning through the void, attached to one another only by a thin cord, survival seems impossible for Stone and Kowalski. Is there any way they can reach the distant Russian station, and find a way back down to Earth?
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriter: John J. McLaughlin, based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston
Certificate (UK): 12 — Contains moderate horror, threat and sex references (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 94 mins
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox — you need a CVLI licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 63%
Key themes: Anxiety, desire, violence, repression, marriage, partnership, creativity
In 1959, North By Northwest is another huge success with audiences for director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins). However, he is disturbed by film critics suggesting that he is losing his edge and should stop making films. On the other hand, the head of Paramount, Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), wants ‘Hitch’ to keep on churning out more of the same. Hitch is desperate to do something new, but lacks any inspiration — until he comes across a horror novel by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. The book is called Psycho, and Hitch determines that this is the perfect basis for his next movie. No one else agrees, though. Balaban refuses to finance it, Hitchcock’s agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) thinks it’s a ridiculous idea, and Mrs Hitchcock — Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) — is repelled by it. Alma, a screenwriter and editor, has other plans for Hitch’s next film: a screenplay by Whitfield ‘Whit’ Cook (Danny Huston), which she is helping to rework.
Hitch is resolute, however, and ends up financing the film himself. He is reinvigorated by doing something fresh and innovative, and which he knows will shock audiences. He tightly controls information about the film, even insisting that every copy of Bloch’s book is bought and destroyed so that no one will know how it ends. He casts Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) as Norman Bates, and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as the beautiful heroine who will, shockingly, be killed off early in the film, and swears both cast and crew to utmost secrecy. However, Hitch’s anxieties about the project are compounded by worry over the nature of Alma’s relationship with Whit, with whom she is spending considerable amounts of time. His mental state becomes fragile, and he starts imagining that Ed Gein is his psychoanalyst.
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Certificate (UK): 15 (UK) Contains infrequent strong language and moderate sex references (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 115 mins
Distributor: Paramount Pictures — you need a CVLI licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 91%
Key themes: Significance, legacy, family, dignity, grace
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is going somewhere. Shuffling along the side of the road, oblivious to the passing traffic or to the concerned policeman who’s just pulled up alongside him, the elderly man is on a mission. Clutched in his hand is a letter which informs him that he’s won a million dollars. All he has to do is show up at an office in Nebraska, and collect his winnings.
In fact, Woody is going nowhere. As his son David (Will Forte) attempts to explain, the letter is a scam, and the pilgrimage to Nebraska a waste of time. ‘You know what I’d do with a million dollars?’ says Woody’s frustrated wife Kate (June Squibb). ‘I’d put him in a home.’ Older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) shares her views. But as Woody makes a break for it for the umpteenth time, David begins to feel sorry for him. Of course there’s no prize money waiting, but would it really do any harm just to drive Woody down to the Midwest and let him see that for himself?
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Certificate (UK): 12 (UK) Contains infrequent strong language and moderate sex references (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 98 mins
Distributor: Pathé Productions — you need a Filmbank licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92%
Key themes: Faith, loss, anger, justice, forgiveness
Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), fired after an unforgivable political blunder, is down in the dumps. Once a journalist, he vaguely considers writing a book, though scoffs when someone suggests he look for a ‘human interest story’. He looks down his nose at this kind of ‘soft’ journalism – but then, just such a story falls right into his lap.
He hears about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a retired nurse from Ireland who, after a lifetime of silence, has just told her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the baby boy she gave up for adoption fifty years before. A teenaged single mother, she was taken in by nuns who forcibly separated her from her son. Now all she has is a faded photograph of little Anthony, and a heavy burden of guilt and regret, which her continued belief in God can’t relieve. She’s willing to share her story with Martin, if he will help her find out what happened to Anthony.
The search takes them to America, and into unfamiliar territory for both the cynical Martin and the frightened – but still faithful – Philomena.
Robot & Frank
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenwriter: Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon
Certificate (UK): 12 — Contains one use of strong language (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 85 mins
Distributor: Momentum Theatrical — you need a CVLI licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 86%
Key themes: Memory, identity, humanity, guilt, forgiveness
A house is being burgled in the dead of night. The door lock is picked, the drawers raided, and then, by the light of his torch, the intruder catches sight of a framed photograph, showing a man and his two children. The burglar is shocked to recognise himself; the picture falls from his hands and shatters on the floor. Cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) is developing dementia and has broken into his own home.
The following morning, Frank clears up the broken glass, but his home is a mess. His daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) worries about him, but she is in Central Asia with her work; his son Hunter (James Marsden) lives fives hours’ drive away but comes to check on Frank weekly. Hunter is concerned that, with his failing memory, his father can no longer cope with living on his own, so one day he brings a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to take care of Frank. Frank objects to the robot’s presence, but reluctantly accepts it, knowing that the alternative is to live in the ‘memory centre’. Frank responds to Robot’s attempts to improve his health by insisting that he would rather die from a cheesburger-induced heart attack, but the machine informs Frank that, if it failed, it would have its memories wiped.
What changes Frank’s attitude to Robot is the realisation that it has no moral dimension, and that it can easily learn to be a highly accomplished lock picker. Their first job is to steal a rare book from a safe in the local library before all the books are removed as part of a plan to transform the building into a community space. The man behind the programme is Jake Finn (Jeremy Strong), with whom Frank shares a strong, mutual distrust — which makes him the perfect target for Frank and Robot’s second job.
Short Term 12
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek
Certificate (UK): Verve Pictures (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 97 mins
Distributor: Verve Pictures — you need a Filmbank licence to show this film.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 99%
Key themes: Vulnerable children, identity, foster care, love, hope, grace
Grace (Brie Larson) works at a foster care facility known as Short Term 12, along with her easy-going boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr). Though only in their twenties, the two are in charge of providing practical care to the troubled teens at the home. As they explain to nervous new recruit Nate (Rami Malek), it’s no ordinary job. Short Term 12 demands a mixture of empathy, toughness, patience and humour.
Their charges include Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’s about to turn eighteen and is nervous about moving on to adult life; sporadically wild Sammy (Alex Calloway); and new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who just wants to be left alone. But as Grace slowly befriends Jayden, she discovers that the girl is hiding a secret, and memories of her own painful past come flooding back.
Grace tries to keep her head above water as she fights for Jayden and the other young people at Short Term 12, whilst contemplating the next stage of her relationship with Mason. In order to keep loving those she cares about, though, she’ll have to open herself up to being loved in return.
What Richard Did
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenwriter: Malcolm Campbell
Starring: Jack Reynor, Roísín Murphy, Lars Mikkelsen, Liana O’Cleirigh
Certificate (UK): 15 — Contains strong language, once very strong, and strong sex (See BBFC Insight)
Running time: 83 mins
Distributor: Artificial Eye — covered by neither CVLI nor Filmbank licences.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 93%
Key themes: Guilt, morality, truth, friendship, love, loyalty
Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor) has just finished school, having grown up in a prosperous area of South Dublin. The last summer holiday before university stretches ahead of Richard and his friends. Athletic, good-looking and confident, Richard is the undoubted leader of the group of teenagers. He has everything going for him, and a world of opportunity ahead. He has big ambitions to play professional rugby while studying full-time.
Richard and a group of friends head off to the Co. Wicklow coast for a beach party. Some stay with Richard in his parents’ beach house, while others camp nearby. Richard meets Lara (Róisín Murphy), the girlfriend of his friend Conor (Sam Keeley). There is an immediate connection between them, and a short while later, after they meet again at Conor’s 18th birthday party, they begin a relationship. It starts well, but for all the excitement of young love, it brings problems too. After a while, Richard begins to be critical of Lara, and he gradually loses his self-assurance. A drunken row with Conor at another party pushes him over the edge and threatens to destroy all his hopes for the future.
- The Damaris Film Blog and the Film & Bible Blog replaced Culturewatch in 2013 (though until the new websites are ready, material for both is still being published within Culturewatch. Older discussions guides, which are not written in the new Damaris Film Blog format, are archived in the Film & Bible Blog. ↩