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The PC(USA)’s favorite film critic selects his top 10 movies for 2023

‘The Color Purple’ tops Dr. Edward McNulty’s rankings of films that explore spiritual and ethical issues

by Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Felipe Bustillo via Unsplash

As always, it is difficult deciding on what were the best 10 films for the past year, especially when a few potential ones, such as Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” have not yet opened in the Cincinnati-Dayton area. (A penalty for living in what Hollywood regards as “flyover territory!) However, we cannot wait, so below are the 10 out of the many fine films reviewed in Visual Parables this past year that illuminate spiritual and/or ethical issues.

The latter is the reason that this list, as always, diverges from the multitude of top 10 lists available in the secular media. Those films are based primarily on aesthetic or artistic values, with little or no concern for the spiritual aspects of a film. Not that aesthetics are not important to me — this is why few so-called faith-based films, with their intent at conversion and poor artistry, have made the list through the years. The films on this list are well-made. They do not just entertain us, but also lend themselves for the exploration of ethics and matters of the spirit.

A link to my Visual Parables review is embedded in the title of each film so that you can find more information about the film, as well as the texts of the related Scripture passages. My intent in Visual Parables is not just to review the film but to get readers, especially those who are pastors, educators, or organizational leaders, to use a film for exploring faith and life with members of their church or group. Thus, after the title of a film is the date of the issue of Visual Parables containing a set of discussion questions.

The reviews on Visual Parables’ website are free, but the VP journal issues are available only to subscribers, those serious enough to pay to support this film ministry. Below a film’s title I have suggested one or more Scripture passages that relate to themes in the film. These are to encourage you to think biblically and theologically as you reflect upon or discuss the film — thus moving on beyond the film’s entertainment value.

In the past I have usually rejected what has come to be called “faith-based” films because they were propaganda, unlike a work of art, unambiguously pushing the audience to accept their maker’s simplistic conclusion. A few such filmmakers have moved beyond the formulaic approach. They are creating films that are works of art, challenging viewers and leaving them free to ponder the film’s issues. So, in this list are “Journey to Bethlehem” and “Let Me Have My Son,” made by filmmakers who are believers as well as artists. Some of the major creators of the other eight films — such as Martin Scorsese — might be believers also, but that is not their primary designation.)

I hope that this list will introduce you to some unfamiliar films, as well as send you back to watch some that you have already seen.

  1. The Color Purple” (January 2024)

Psalm 119:121-123; Isaiah 9:2a; Romans 8:28

Ghanaian filmmaker Samuel Bazawule quickly answers the question of “Why remake an almost perfect classic?” in the opening minutes of this story of a sisterhood that rises up to oppose male oppression. The novel’s device of telling the story of Celia and Mister, her brutal husband who separates her from her beloved sister Nettie — letters that Celie writes to God — is replaced by the series of songs that tunefully express the thoughts and feelings of the main characters. The songs also allow a touch of fantasy, with practically the whole town singing and dancing in the street upon the arrival of Mister’s mistress Shug, who becomes both mentor and champion for Celie as the two draw closer to each other. They perform a delightful Broadway style song and dance duet when they sit in the balcony of a theater watching a movie, the sequence ending with the two kissing each other, a far stronger sign of their lesbian attraction than in the original film. The film’s conclusion is more satisfying as the two sisters, reunited thanks to a reformed Mister, gather everyone, dressed in radiant white, beneath a tree before a large circle of tables full of food. Even Mister is there, suggesting the great banquet described by Christ as the kingdom of heaven.

  1. Killers of the Flower Moon” (November 2023)

Jeremiah 6:13; Mark 8:36

 Martin Scorsese, at the top of his game, tackles racism and greed in this true story of the clandestine appropriation of the wealth of Oklahoma Native Americans by greedy white neighbors early in the 20th century. Pushed onto seemingly worthless land, the Osage Indians found themselves suddenly wealthy when they discovered oil. Soon vulture-like whites, epitomized by Robert De Niro’s Bill “King” Hale, are plotting to acquire that wealth. He persuades his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonard DiCaprio) to marry the Osage Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) so that, in the event of her death, Ernest — and thus the white family — would inherit her wealth. Ernest falls in love with his wife, so that love struggles with greed and (white) family loyalty. Filled with violent murders, the film also chronicles the emergence of the FBI onto the national scene.

  1. The Starling Girl” (June 23)

Genesis 3:8-12

Writer/director Laurel Parmet explores faith, paternalism, sex and freedom in this tale set in a fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky. The film begins with 17-year-old Jem Starling praying that she will glorify God in all that she does. She is leader of a liturgical dance group at her otherwise conservative church. The girl is constrained — by an older woman accusing her of being vain and by her family who expect her to marry the pastor’s son, for whom she has no feelings. She has entered into a secret affair with the church’s youth pastor, leading them to rationalize about their illicit affair. The filmmaker leaves it to the audience to wrestle with the conflicting issues and Jem’s eventual choice concerning her future.

  1. Journey to Bethlehem” (December 23)

Luke 2:1 and 3

There are a lot of embellishments made by director/co-writer Adam Anders and writer Peter Barsocchini to Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph and the birth that make this a unique Nativity film — and well worth your time. First, this is a musical imagining that Mary had two sisters who dance with her in Nazareth’s streets and marketplace. In song, both she and Joseph pour out their confusion concerning her divine impregnation, with Joseph also torn between his love for Mary and his doubts concerning her strange explanation. The film also delves into King Herod’s brutal fear over loss of power, as well as his son Herod Antipas’s mixed feelings toward his father’s cruel actions and his own sense of right and wrong. None of this is in Luke’ story, but this inclusion adds to the power of the story. There are a couple of additions that I question — the depiction of the Magi as a glorified Three Stooges for comic effect, and Herod Antipas’s questionable role in the escape of the Holy Family from Bethlehem — but nonetheless, this is a fascinating retelling of a familiar story that freshens it considerably.

  1. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” (June 23)

Psalm 142:1-2; Psalm 137

Author Judy Blume has gone on record as stating that screenwriter/director Kelly Fremon Craig has produced a film better than her original novel. Whether or not the 90 million readers who purchased the book agree, this is a delightful film filled with humor and insight chronicling the spiritual and social development of 11-year-old Margaret, devastated by the news that her family is moving from their Manhattan home to a New Jersey suburb. Her prayers, which are similar to some of the psalms, could be summed by the lament of the Jewish exiles in Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lod’s song in a foreign land?” Margaret does find new friends but faces new challenges which she struggles with in her prayers — menstruation, problems from her parents mixed marriage — her father is Jewish and her mother Christian — and thus a faith struggle, and more. A very good film for the whole family to watch and talk about!

  1. Don’t Say My Name (September 23)

Ecclesiastes 4:1; Psalm 9:9

Director Federico Segarra’s film, based on a true story of child trafficking, is not as well-known as “Sound of Freedom,” but it is a better film, due to the latter’s resorting to a Rambo-like tale designed to make it exciting. Sold into child slavery by her dissolute mother’s boyfriend, Adriana Miller manages to break away and escape into the woods. This so enrages her abductor that he herds the other youth into a shack and sets it afire. The rest of the film deals with Adriana’s experience at a rehab shelter where she struggles not only to recover from her trauma but also whether or not to testify at the trial of her abductors. According to the special agents, her testimony is crucial to putting the ruthless gang away. There is also a would-be boyfriend going to her pastor in his attempt to find and reconnect with her. The film puts a compelling human face onto the statistics that, as titles on a screen at end inform us, “Every year, an estimated 300,000 American children are at risk of being lured into the sex trade, some as young as six years old …”

  1. The Swimmers(October 23)

Psalm 69:1; Matthew 25:34-36

Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker Sally El Hosaini’s exciting film about two sisters fleeing the violence in their native Lebanon is also based on a true story. Sara and Yusra, both talented swimmers, had hopes of representing their country at the Olympic, but their hopes are set aside when it became necessary for them to leave the country during its violent civil war. Facing various risks as they are smuggled over land, they almost lose their lives in the leaky little boat crossing the Aegean Sea to reach the island of Lesbos. Only their willingness to jump overboard to lighten the raft saves it from being swamped by the stormy sea. In Greece, the meeting with a possible coach and her persistence of one of them revives her Olympic dream. This is a good film for understanding why refugees are seeking asylum and what they add to the character of a nation willing to welcome them.

  1. Rustin (December 23)

Psalm 10:17-18; Mark 9:35

Director George C. Wolfe brings from the shadows a civil rights leader who deserves to be better known. Bayard Rustin was not only the head planner of the famous 1963 March on Washington, but also the man who tutored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in nonviolence when he was sent from NYC to advise King during the Montgomery bus boycott. However, though becoming close friends, they separated when foes threatened to expose Rustin, a gay man, as a “sex pervert.” Most of the other civil rights leaders refused to support union leader A. Philip Randolph’s plan to pressure the Kennedy administration to propose civil rights legislation, so Rustin swallows his hurt from their separation and travels to Atlanta to reunite with his old friend and persuade him to join the march. The film ends with a wonderful scene of servant leadership that alone makes this an inspiring film, shedding much light on one of the great moments in the history of our nation.

  1. “Tiger Within” (August 23)

Job 19:13; Ecclesiastes 4:9-10; Isaiah 61:1

Director Rafal Zielinski and screenwriter Gina Wendkos offer us a parable of love and friendship amidst a darkened world in this story about a widowed Jewish Holocaust survivor befriending a homeless girl who denies the event. How the elderly Samuel at a graveyard in California befriends the Goth-clothed Casey, a runaway Ohioan teenager, makes for an inspiring story. Samuel overcomes his initial resentment of her Holocaust denial, and she slowly emerges from her ignorance and feelings of alienation as the old man shepherds her into the light. This warm tale is enhanced by the winning performance of one of my favorite actors, Ed Asner, this being his last role before his death.

  1. “Let Me Have My Son” (May 23)

Psalm 55:17; Psalm 43:5; 1 Corinthians 15:19-20

Writer/director Cristobal Krusen’s surrealistic film, based on his devotion to his mentally ill son, is no doubt the least- known of the films on this list because it was shown in just a few theaters last May. Krusen has long been one of my favorite independent director/writers, ever since I saw his marvelous 2001 “Final Solution,a true story in which several books are important for the transformation of a racist South African. A father named Ben (played by Krusen) seeks his son Benny, institutionalized with schizophrenia, but is unable to find him there. There follows a long quest in which Ben encounters characters that will remind you of a Fellini film. Ben, a devout Christian, never gives up, despite the obstacles he encounters. All parents who love their children will relate to Ben and his quest that turns out to be a spiritual journey of transformed awareness of the abiding presence of God, even in the depths of mental illness.

The following films also explore spiritual/ethical themes, and thus are worthy of your attention.

Jesus Revolution (March 23); “His Only Son(April 23); “The Quiet Girl (April 23); “Sabbath(April 23); “Mending the Line (July 23); “Oppenheimer(August 23); “Sound of Freedom(August 23); “A Million Miles Away” (September 23); and “Maestro (January 24).”

Dr. Edward McNulty

Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, for many years reviewed films for Presbyterians Today and over the years for a dozen other religious and secular publications. He has been posting weekly film reviews at his Visual Parables site for 33 years. His three Westminster John Knox Press film books are “Faith & Film,” “Praying the Movies” and “Praying the Movies II.” His most recent book is “Jesus Christ, Movie Star.”

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