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Our film critic selects his top 10 films for 2021

Dr. Edward McNulty’s annual list is rich with films imbued in moral and spiritual content

by Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Brands & People via Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt or postpone the releases of some films during 2021. With theaters closed during part of the year, some new releases were viewed on various platforms via streaming video. Although this has meant that I have not been able to catch all the new films, I have seen enough to compile a long enough list of candidates that still make paring down the list to 10 a pleasantly painful process.

As in the past, the films below do more than just entertain us. They explore the life worth living, celebrate the human spirit, challenge accepted norms, open our eyes to new beauty and truths, and maybe warn us of or show us “the wages of sin.” Several will be on the lists of the secular critics, but others will be less familiar. Although aesthetics and popularity are considered, the moral/spiritual content of the film is the main consideration.

Dr. Edward McNulty

The Bible references are from my original reviews, intended to help the reader make a connection between insights of the filmmaker and the ancient wisdom of the Scripture writers. To explore a film further, click on the title, and the embedded link will take you to the full review.

  1. Respect

Directed by Liesl Tommy. Rated PG-13.

Psalm 57:7; Exodus 6:6

This story of Aretha Franklin growing up and singing in her famous father’s Detroit church and then moving on to secular music will inspire viewers. Rev. C.L. Franklin was friends with such prominent figures as “Uncle” Duke Ellington, “Aunt Ella” Fitzgerald, Sam Cook, Art Tatum, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She gladly leant her talents to the latter in his campaigns for civil rights. She suffered grief and struggled to find her own voice when her father sought to control her career. Her fight for her own freedom is even more intense during her marriage to an abusive man and her addiction to drugs and alcohol. All this is enhanced by the soaring collection of hymns and pop songs that star Jennifer Hudson sings herself.

  1. Belfast

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG-13

Luke 19:41-43

The great actor stays behind the camera in this recounting of his boyhood years in Belfast when he lived close to his beloved grandparents and romped through its streets with his Protestant and Catholic playmates. But it was the beginning of “The Troubles,” when pleas of Catholics for civil rights erupted into violence and his father became a marked man because he believed in living at peace with his Catholic neighbors and thus refused to join in the violence. This is a film that both celebrates family and tolerance and understanding.

  1. Mass

Directed by Fran Kranz. Rated PG-13.

Psalm 102:1-7; Proverbs 10:12 and 25:20.

We wonder why two people are carefully setting up a room in a church basement, fussing over the four chairs and seeing to the coffee and snacks. Only as the two middle-aged couples arrive and warily engage in conversation — alone, the facilitators having withdrawn — do we learn what this is all about. The son of one set of parents killed the others in a mass shooting. The meeting is intended to bring the survivors together, possibly for some measure of healing. Their words to each other arouse pain, remorse and resentment, and at long last, a measure of forgiveness. Near the end of the film the choir has gathered upstairs to sing a hymn that relates beautifully to these grieving parents, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”

  1. The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Directed by Michael Showalter. Rated PG-13.

Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:35-37

The ostentatious lives of the famous pair of high-living televangelists could have resulted in a National Lampoon-style film. But instead the filmmakers present a biographical film that reveals both the darker side of the two and, in the case of Tammy Faye, an amazing understanding that God is a God of love — which I presume is why the film’s title includes just her name. Yes, there are the shenanigans, financial and sexual of Jim Bakker, but the take-away from the film is of the loving way in which Tammy Faye treated societal outcasts, homosexuals. This is seen in her response to Jerry Falwell’s rant against them and her treating a gay activist with dignity when interviewing him on her show. And some may be surprised that she stood her ground against Falwell’s male chauvinism as well.

  1. A Hero

Directed by Asghar Farhad. Rated PG

Psalm 103:13-14

Rahim, a divorced father on a two-day leave from an Iranian debtor’s prison, tries to work out a plan to repay a huge debt owed to his former brother-in-law. He had secured it with a partner, but the partner had taken the money and disappeared with it. When he discovers that selling some coins in a handbag his lover had found are not enough, his conscience urges him to return the coins. His warden posts this story on social media, and Rahim is hailed as a hero. However, others raise questions, causing a reversal in his popularity — and the man to whom he owes the money will not relent. The young son could go on social media to stir sympathy for his father, but the boy stutters badly. What would this do to the boy, given the tendency of youth to ridicule those with a handicap? Rahim has to choose between his own freedom and the dignity of his son. This is a powerful story examining social media and the motives of those who wish to do good.

  1. Doubting Thomas

Directed by Will McFadden. Rated TV-MA

John 20:24-25

Although trust is the main theme of this parable, racism also lurks close by. African American Ron is the best friend of Tom and Jen, who are white. When Jen gives birth to a child, Tom is delayed in reaching the hospital, but Ron arrives in time. When Tom does make it, Ron is at a loss of words to describe the shocking result. Tom and Jen are parents of a baby Black boy! Tom has a lot to work through, his suspicion about Tom and Jen magnified by the reaction of friends when they see the dark-skinned infant. A family secret is disclosed, but is this enough to reconcile the three? In a small personal story, the filmmakers explore such questions as “Can the corrosive effects of racism be overcome?” How can even liberals claiming “there is not a racist bone in my body” overcome their delusions?

  1. Coda

Directed by Sian Heder. Rated PG-13

Proverbs 19:22 and 31:8

This film opens up the plight of the Deaf, with 17-year-old Ruby being our entranceway into that world because she is the only member of the Rossi family who can hear. Thus, the title is not about something that is tacked onto the end but is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. Ruby is the interpreter for her parents, who operate a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. She becomes torn between her family and a possible future as a singer when the choir director at her high school tutors her and inspires her to apply for a scholarship at a prestigious music school. However, her family needs her because the Coast Guard has decreed that for safety reasons their boat must have a hearing person aboard in order for the crew to fish the waters. A heartwarming story of family, love and sacrifice.

  1. King Richard

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Rated PG-13

Proverbs 18:12; Matthew 5:1-2 (J.B. Phillips); Ephesians 6:4 (J.B. Phillips)

It may take a village to raise a child, but to develop an African American’s two daughters into champions in the virtually all-white sport of tennis, it requires a father of extraordinary strong will and boldness. Richard Williams is that kind of a father, and so it is that he is dubbed “King” in the title, as this film detailing three years in the lives of real-life Venus and Serena Williams makes clear. What an inspiring visual parable of perseverance and talent overcoming racism!

  1. Passing

Directed by Rebecca Hal. Rated PG-13

Matthew 16:26;  Psalm 102:7

Irene and Clare in this tragic tale would have been called mulattos in an earlier era in the South, but in the North their light skin might have allowed them to “pass” as white women. In this Harlem-set story of two childhood friends, Irene has remained in Harlem, marrying a successful doctor. Clare has moved to Chicago where she passed as a white and married a white businessman who turns out to be a virulent racist. As the two women are reunited and interact, each reassesses her past and the fateful choices she has made. The ambiguous, but sad ending will leave many questions in your mind, the most important relating to the horrible effects of systemic racism upon the individual.

  1. “Pray Away

Directed by Kristine Stolakis

Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 7:15-19

In this important documentary, former Evangelical spokesperson Julie Rodgers says, “I’ve come to believe that religion and spirituality have the power to harm and to heal.” The film’s title refers to the “treatment” of homosexuals that Rodgers and her Evangelical peers came up with, called “conversion therapy.” Through numerous interviews and archival footage we see that in reality this “therapy” is a mental and emotional form of torture that just does not work. The sad story of Rodgers, a lesbian, has a happy ending as we see her emerge from her period of self-hate and be able to marry her lover at Washington’s National Cathedral. The film argues its case for tolerance and understanding by means of biography, not theology, so for a biblical/theological understanding of homosexuality I recommend  Jack Rogers’ concise book, “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality” as a companion piece.

Honorable Mention

Street Flow” (Original title: Banlieusards)

Directed by Kerry James and Leïla Sy

Proverbs 1:8-10; Zephaniah 3:19

Set in France, this French language film reminds us that racism is an international, and not just an American, concern. It is the story of three brothers of African descent who live in one of the huge projects of Champigny-sur-Marne, just outside of Paris. The single parent family of 15-year-old Noumouké, like that of most French Africans, is enmeshed in poverty. Mother Khadijah works hard to provide for her sons, barely bringing in enough to support them. The boy has reached the age when he must choose which of his brothers’ paths he will follow: that of older brother Demba’s seemingly easy money of crime, or the harder path of study followed by Soulaymaan, one that might lead to a profession. Infused with the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, the film widens the perspectives of us Americans.

Each year, the Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty delivers his list of top 10 films for people of faith to see.

Other excellent films with embedded values include actress Robin Wright’s directorial debut “Land”; the latest Tom Hanks vehicle “Finch”; and three thought-arousing documentaries, “The Reunited States of America,” Crip Camp and “Amend: The Fight for America.

COVID-19 might have curtailed filmmakers, but those whom I consider to be the poets/prophets of our time continue to produce films that challenge and inspire us to seek a better world.

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