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One critic’s top 10 films for 2019

A few of these films could surprise you. They sure surprised critic and pastor Edward McNulty

by the Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Each year, the Rev. Dr. Ed McNulty delivers his list of top 10 films for people of faith to see. The list for 2019 contains a surprise or two.

LOUISVILLE — Visual Parables’ Top Ten Film list is usually different from most lists because ethical and spiritual values in the films carry more weight than aesthetics. That the latter is important, however, is shown each year by the fact that faith-based films seldom show up on the list, most of these being dramatized sermons rather than open-ended works of art.

The films chosen from the 200 or so films reviewed last year in the monthly journal are a mixed lot, ranging from a few in which Christian faith is a major component to a comic book-based film about the descent by a societal reject into criminal madness. This one was a surprise to me, because I had not considered it a candidate until the widespread praise for the film sent me back to read again my review, and I realized it should be included as an example of the classical doctrine of the Fall.

The titles have embedded links so you can click onto the reviews available on Visual Parable’s website. The full reviews and the Scripture passages contain more details as to what the ethical or spiritual reasons were for selecting a film.

All in all, it has been a good year for people of faith who seek more than entertainment at the movie theater or on their small screen devices. My intention in compiling such a list each year is to call to the attention of people of faith those films that challenge us and lead us into a deeper understanding of life and the issues involved in living a just and loving life.

  1. Harriet

Rated PG-13. Psalm 10:1-2; 17-18.

Director Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard chronicle the early years of the ex-slave woman whose face some day might finally be depicted on our 20-dollar bill.

Once Harriet Tubman had escaped from her master to Philadelphia, she was not satisfied until she could return and rescue the other members of her family. The film makes clear that her strong faith in God is her source of strength and guidance as she continually dodges and outwits the slave catchers who hope to collect the increasingly large reward offered for the capture of the woman known as “Moses.”

The film provides a good view of the Underground Railroad, of which she became one of its most famous conductors, leading more than 70 enslaved people to freedom. It also reveals how some of the Spirituals were used as coded communications among the enslaved, alerting them to get ready for a break to freedom. Harriet and all those parts of the Underground were breaking federal law, but, like those in Arizona today helping migrants find water and shelter, she believed that God’s law to help the down and out was higher than human-made laws.

  1. The Two Popes

Rated PG-13. Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 9:36; John 21:15.

Brazilian director Fernando Merilles and writer Anthony McCarten open up the play built around the events of Pope Benedict XVI resigning and Pope Francis being elected in 2013. The two clerics did meet, but the script, based on their writings and public speeches, is speculative.

The dialogue and their actions show well Pope Benedict’s traditional views of the need for order and certainty and the then Cardinal Bergoglio’s desire to update a church he felt was becoming alienated from its rank and file. The filmmakers succeed in making theological discourse lively and interesting, and in flashbacks to Argentina when the country was ravaged by a dictatorship, the failures and the successes of the Cardinal are well depicted.

The sets, especially the Sistine Chapel, add to the enjoyment of the film, and at the end the remarks made about welcoming refugees fleeing violence and poverty are challenging to the comfortable, too many of whom are fearful of strangers and intent on keeping them out.

  1. Just Mercy

Rated PG-13. Amos 5:24; Zechariah 7:8-10; Luke 18:2-5

This is the second of director Destin Daniel Cretton’s films to make this list, the first being his 2013 story about the compassionate staff of a mental health facility for teens, Short Term 12.

This time he tells the true story of the first case of long-time Civil Rights advocate Bryan Stevenson, who in the late 80s became the head of Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative right after graduating from Harvard.

Seeking to overturn the falsely obtained conviction, the African American lawyer runs up against a thoroughly racist justice system, starting with the police, the district attorney, the prison guards and the judges. Only by a persistence like the widow in Jesus’ Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge does Stevenson emerge victorious at last. The faith of the advocate and of the African American family is well depicted, with the lawyer’s words near the ending possessing a biblical ring: “We all need justice, we all need mercy, we all need unmerited grace.”

  1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Rated PG. Micah 6:6; Proverbs 21:21; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Director Marielle Heller’s film is a beautiful visual parable of the healing of a man in need of reconciliation with his neglectful father. Thanks to the good offices of Fred Rogers, America’s most famous Presbyterian clergyperson (though this was unknown to many), journalist Lloyd Vogel is at last reconciled with the father who had walked out on the family years earlier. This comes about when the cynical journalist is sent, against his will, to interview the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for his magazine, and, to his surprise, Fred is more interested in interviewing him. Through a series of encounters, culminating in one with his dying father, Lloyd finds healing and wholeness. There is no mention of God or religion until that last encounter, but there can be no doubt of the spiritual nature of this film! Wow, for a second year we have been gifted with a Fred Rogers film — see last year’s Top Ten List, on which appears “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

  1. The Best of Enemies

Rated PG-13. Isaiah 65:25; Matthew 5:43-46.

In director/writer Robin Bissell’s film the “wolf” of Isaiah’s peace poem is C.P. Ellis, president of the Durham chapter of United Klans of America, and the “lamb” is Ann Atwater, the blunt-talking advocate for decent housing for blacks.

With the city threatened with rioting over the integration of the city’s schools, the city authorities duck their responsibility by calling in from Shaw University professor Bill Riddick, who sets in motion a plan calling on opponents to serve together on a panel charged with setting up a plan acceptable to whites and blacks.

How the two enemies come to know each other as needy human beings and move beyond enmity to a friendship that leads them to work together for racial understanding is an inspirational story. In one dramatic confrontation we see that Ann’s passion for justice is based on her understanding of the Bible.

  1. A Hidden Life

Rated PG-13. Jeremiah 10:21; Ezekiel 34:1-4; Romans 12:1-2 (J.B. Philips).

After his three montage-type films (“Knight of Cups,” “To the Wonder” and “The Tree of Life”), Terrence Malick returns to a simpler narrative form in this biography of Austrian WWII conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter.

Living in a remote area of Austria during Hitler’s takeover of the country, the young farmer, an anti-Nazi, enjoys his wife and children and mountain scenery, but is troubled by the oath to Hitler he will have to swear to if he’s inducted into the German army.

Neither his priest nor his bishop provides any help, both recommending that he submit in silence. He cannot do this in good conscience, and so is arrested when he refuses the oath, his interrogators telling him he will be forgotten if he continues his futile resistance. A powerful reminder of what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.” Although the husband pays for his convictions with his life, his wife and children also suffer persecution from the townspeople, the film leaving us with the question of our own willingness to suffer for our faith.

  1. Little Women

Rated PG. Proverbs 31:10; 1 Peter 4:8-10.

The beloved classic is brought to new life and relevance by director Greta Gerwig in this latest film version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the Marsh sisters. We again root for Jo in her determination not to submit to male patriarchy and rejoice when she and spiteful Amy are reconciled after the latter burns her manuscripts following a quarrel.

The film is more relevant than its many predecessors by the director’s transferal of Alcott’s own struggle against her publisher to that of Jo, which we see in the opening scene of the film. As before we see the values of Christ that permeate the family (Mr. Marsh is a chaplain serving the Union army), as they share their Christmas breakfast with a poor family and reach out in concern to their lonely neighbor. I would hope that men too, who would never read the book, might be drawn into this inspirational story that transcends gender and time.

  1. The Public

Rated PG-13. Psalm 8:18; Matthew 25:35.

Director/writer Emilio Estevez honors a profession that is widely admired, that of librarian. Set in the Cincinnati Library, it is the story of what happens when a group of homeless people at closing time refuse to leave the warmth of the library on the year’s coldest day because the shelters are already full. All are aware of the danger of sleeping outdoors because a man had been found close to the library’s entrance that morning frozen to death.

Stuart Goodson, librarian in charge of the social section, has been on friendly terms with the occupiers, but rules are rules. When he sees how many are determined to stay, he backs down, agreeing to help them barricade the doors, even becoming their spokesman when the police arrive, followed soon by a gaggle of TV reporters and their cameras, plus a politician running for mayor.

What follows is both funny and dramatic. The stand-off, which seems to be heading toward a violent clash with the arrival of a busload of cops armed as heavily as a squad of soldiers, turns into a Gandhian-type confrontation. This is one of those little independent films that deserves a larger audience, one consisting of people interested in libraries, social justice, and the dignity of “the least of these.”

  1. Dark Waters

Rated PG. Isaiah 29:15-16a.

Director Todd Haynes tells the true story of Cincinnati corporate lawyer Robert Bilott who reluctantly takes up the case of a Parkersburg, West Virginia, farmer who wants to sue the giant chemical company DuPont because its wastewater has poisoned almost 200 head of his cattle.

The case grows more complex as the lawyer examines thousands of pages of documents to discover that the company, in its manufacture of profitable plastic and coating products, has known that its chemicals are injurious to health but kept dumping them anyway.

Bilott has to deal with hostility from some of his colleagues as well as the citizens of Parkersburg because DuPont has given them so much civic investment. He is so worried and pressured at one point that he fears a bomb has been planted in his car.

His sustaining faith is well expressed in the hymn that he and his wife sing in church, Daniel L. Schutte’s “Here I Am Lord.” The filmmakers might have included this hymn because it encapsulates Robert’s story: God speaking in the three verses about the need of God’s people, each time raising the question, “Whom shall I send?” The chorus constitutes the prophet’s response (Isaiah 6:8-9 is the text source), “Here I am, Lord; Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” And so Robert Bilott does.

  1. Joker

Rated R. Proverbs 14:13; Mark 5:1-3.

The inclusion of director Todd Phillips’ comic book-based film might be questioned by those who have not seen it. It surprised me, not being on my original list of 15 or so candidates. But when Joaquin Phoenix won the Golden Globes’ Best Actor Award for his role, I reread my review, recalling again how moved and disturbed I was by so many of the scenes in which Arthur Fleck is mistreated by individuals and society.

The ultimate outsider, Arthur is victim of a neurological condition that results in involuntary, inappropriate laughter. He takes seven pills at a time while caring for his infirm mother by day and futilely attempts to break into stand-up comedy at night. He suffers a series of humiliating setbacks until he crosses over into madness, killing two bullies on a subway train. He manages to appear as a guest of his favorite night show host, resulting in a final orgy of mayhem and violence.

One leaves the theater with conflicting feelings, haunted by the question of could this man have been saved if society had been willing to pay for better mental health care and had individuals been better educated to deal with such a “different” person. Just as Jesus ended his Judgment of the Nations Parable in Matthew 25 on a negative note, so we end this list.

Here are some other excellent films that were considered:

Les Miserables,” “The Lion King,” “Bombshell” and “Breakthrough.” Also, a film I have not yet seen, but on the basis of the trailers, looks worthy of consideration, is “1917.” I also wanted to include Netflix’s “When They See Us,” but realized that this riveting tale of black youth victimized by a racist system (in the North this time) is a miniseries, rather than a single film.

The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty

The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty is the pastor of the Blue Ball  Presbyterian Church south of Dayton, Ohio; the author of three film books published by Westminster John Knox Press; and editor/reviewer of Visual Parables.

His book “Jesus Christ: Movie Star enables a group to explore several films about Jesus, as well as Christ-figure films such as “Babette’s Feast and “Cool Hand Luke.”


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