A spiritual year at the multiplex

In one of Hinduism's most sacred poems, the lord and sustainer of the universe chooses to be incarnated in human form -- the ancient term is "avatar" -- to help the Pandava people fight evil invaders and defend what is right. In director James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar," a U.S. marine is transformed by technology into a blue-skinned warrior on a planet called Pandora, where he helps the Na'vi people fight evil corporate invaders and defend their sacred lands and traditions.

There seem to be some similarities in these epics.

"The ancient Hindu scriptures have forever reiterated that whenever the world would be on the brink of disaster and mankind faces extinction, whenever the vessel of sin is about to spill over to create death and destruction, the divine Lord Vishnu would ... manifest himself in mortal, palpable form to save mankind from the impeding doomsday," noted the Bengali director Sudipto Chattopadhyay, at the Passion and Cinema weblog.

When evaluating Cameron's movie, he added, one thing is clear. "The use of the word Avatar hence could never be an accident. ... The Avatar is meant to be the savior, the messiah of his own race and people."

It was that kind of year at the multiplex, with a parade of films rolling through theaters containing obvious religious images, messages, themes and characters. This made it both easy and hard for the Beliefnet.com team to select nominees for its annual Best Spiritual Film award.

"It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what a spiritual film is, since people have their own ideas as to what spirituality is," said Dena Ross, the website's entertainment editor. "We define it as a film which makes a serious attempt to grapple with the big questions in life: Why are we here? Why is there evil and suffering? Is there a God? Why do bad things happen to good people?"

This year, she said, Beliefnet.com made a conscious decision to nominate "more overtly religious films" for the Best Spiritual Film prize. A second category -- Best Inspirational Film -- focused on movies with uplifting messages, but few specific religious elements.

"We had so many amazing movies this time with strong references to religion," said Ross. "I mean, 'A Serious Man' is about a devout Jewish man. 'The Stoning of Soraya M' deals with serious Muslim issues. 'The Blind Side' is about an evangelical family that is practicing its faith."

Due to the historic success of "Avatar" -- $700 million-plus at the domestic box office -- there was a chance that Cameron's 3D myth would get the Best Spiritual Film nod from both the judges and the website's readers.

Instead, the judges selected "The Road," a bleak drama based on Cormac McCarthy's novel. It told the story of a father who teaches his son to remain "one of the good guys" while "carrying the fire" -- a metaphor for hope and faith -- in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by murderers and cannibals. The boy is shown praying for God's help, and keeps striving to help the people they meet.

To the surprise of the Beliefnet.com team, their readers then picked "The Blind Side" as the year's top spiritual film. In fact, 62 percent of the votes went to the real-life story of football star Michael Oher's journey from a Memphis ghetto into the home of a rich Christian family that, literally, adopted him as a son. "Avatar" got 18 percent.

Meanwhile, Pixar's "Up" was chosen as the Best Inspirational Film. It told the story of a crotchety old man who soars away on an adventure inspired by devotion to his recently deceased wife. Along the way, he forms a strong bond with a young boy who reminds him that his life still has purpose.

"Up" was another hit for Pixar, earning nearly $300 million at the box office, while "The Blind Side" shocked Hollywood with a total gross of nearly $250 million, with most of those tickets selling in the American heartland.

"In past years, we've gone back and forth trying to find films that fit our definitions. But this time it was much easier with all of these big, successful films that dealt with spiritual issues," said Ross. "Maybe it's a sign of the times. In hard times, people may be looking for these kinds of uplifting stories. It seems they went to movie theaters looking for something to inspire them."