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Celebrate Life On Earth With 4 Films That Look Into The Great Beyond

Winston Duke (left) and Zazie Beetz in a realm where souls are auditioned for life on Earth in <em>Nine Days.</em>
Michael Coles
Sony Pictures Classics
Winston Duke (left) and Zazie Beetz in a realm where souls are auditioned for life on Earth in Nine Days.

In the cinematic head-trip Nine Days, Winston Duke plays an otherworldly bureaucrat whose job is to audition new souls for "the amazing opportunity of life."

He's pretty good at it until an auditioning soul (Zazie Beetz) starts asking questions that make him wonder whether he really remembers what's so amazing about that opportunity.

You could easily spend nine days pulling Nine Days apart for the bits of Plato, Sartre and Walt Whitman in its philosophizing. But the film — a reminder to celebrate every moment you're given — isn't just a head trip. It has fun with practical details, from the building of emotion-conjuring sets, to the whole magic of filmmaking. And there are touches of Being John Malkovich in its execution (which may be why that film's director, Spike Jonze, signed on as producer).

First-time filmmaker Edson Oda is clearly a fan of all things meta — metaphysical and metaphorical, especially — a trait that's proved useful to plenty of Hollywood storytellers, from the creators of TV's The Good Place all the way back to Frank Capra and It's a Wonderful Life.

Here are three that share Oda's preoccupation with existential bureaucracy, and who match his ability to make you re-examine and appreciate the joys of everyday life.

Soul (2020)

Pixar's animated story of a realm where souls are matched with bodies — less a "hereafter" than a "herebefore" — shares some key plot notions with Nine Days. But it heads off in decidedly jazz-infused directions to tell the story of Joe (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school music teacher whose dreams of music-club stardom don't go quite the way he'd planned, and 22 (Tina Fey), a stubbornly life-resistant ectoplasm who helps him understand what it means to have soul.

After Life (1999)

You emerge from a white light and are asked to choose one memory, one only, from your lifetime. A film will be made to reenact that memory, and you'll take it with you into eternity, forgetting everything else. That's the premise of Hirokazu (Shoplifters) Kore-eda's drama, which blends the practical problems of an otherworldly staff that's creating those films — writing scripts, building sets, creating effects — with a push to the newly dead (and the audience) to consider eternal questions: why we're here, what makes us happy. Delicate, simple, resonant, it's a good example of why Kore-eda's considered one of cinema's great humanists.

Defending Your Life (1991)

After dying in his brand new BMW a few minutes after driving it off the dealer's lot, Albert Brooks awakens in Judgment City, a sort of heavenly way-station where he's given an opportunity to make a case for how he's lived. Win his case and he can move on; lose, and he'll be reincarnated for another go on earth, possibly as a horse. There's a defense attorney (Rip Torn), a prosecutor (Lee Grant), a romantic interest who's definitely earned the right to move on (Meryl Streep), and a cafeteria where the food is delicious, and he can eat as much as he wants because nothing has calories. Sure sounds like heaven.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.