2018 was a fine year for folks who fancy faith films
By Ed McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Below are the 10 films worthy of being called the year’s “Top 10.” Because the list of readers of my online journal “Visual Parables” consists mostly of believers, my criteria are different from those of secular critics whose lists you might have already read.
Artistic excellence is important, but the films on this list do more than entertain us. Some of their makers seek to challenge viewers to uphold values of love and support (think “Lars and the Real Girl”), and some warn us of the dangers of an inhumane set of values (this year’s “The Hate U Give”). A few explore and expand our spirituality, occasionally enhancing our understanding or appreciation of God (“Come Sunday”).
As with my longer reviews in “Visual Parables,” I’ve included one or more relevant Scripture passages in most of the mini-reviews to foster dialogue between film and faith. The titles include a hyperlink so that you can go to the longer review of the film at readthespirit.com/visual-parables for more details.
Director/writer Paul Schrader’s film about upstate New York Pastor Ernst Toller’s crisis of faith is almost as bleak as Ingmar Bergman’s “Winterlight.” Preaching listlessly to a small congregation each Sunday, he is as burned out as the ambulance medic in another film that Schrader wrote, “Bringing Out the Dead.” Preacher turns prophet when a despairing environmentalist he is counseling dies by suicide. This runs counter to the wealthy benefactor of his church, the CEO of a company spewing toxic wastes into the community. It looks like the pastor-prophet might be heading for a violent confrontation when love intervenes, the film ending with the possibility of a resurrection of this almost dead spirit.
Rated NR. Romans 10:8-10; 1 John 2:1-2
This, the second of three films about ministers on this list, is based on the true story of the pastor Carlton Pearson. He too struggles with a crisis of faith, but it is not over the existence of God but over the love of God versus eternal punishment in a fiery hell. After years of preaching and a media ministry that has made his congregation a megachurch, the pastor reinterprets the meaning of the above two passages of Scriptures. Despite warnings, he preaches that God’s love is so great that there must not be an eternal hell, a message his people are not prepared to accept. Thus, he loses his church and must start his ministry over again. Lots of theology to ponder and discuss — even the issue of the acceptance of gay people in the church!
In a year filled with excellent documentaries this tribute to Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers is a must see for all those who love children. Through interviews of those who worked with or were related to the broadcaster, clips from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee and archival photographs, the picture of a preacher who taught the values of Christ without preaching emerges clear and strong. Without most people realizing it, Rogers in his songs and skits dealt with social justice and theological issues in a manner that children could grasp. His liking children “just the way you are” was a non-theological expression of grace.
Rated PG-13. Amos 5:24; John 1:5 (NIV); 1 John 2:1 (NIV).
Starr is an African American teenager who lives in two worlds but is at home in neither. Her parents insist she and her brother attend a posh private high school because the ghetto school is so terrible. She must keep up a façade of perfection at school around her white friends, and back home her childhood friends think she has gone “white” and abandoned them. Her crisis of conscience comes on the night when a boy giving her a ride home is stopped and shot by a white cop who mistakes his comb for a gun. Should she testify that the official police justification for the killing is a lie, or keep silent? One of the best films of the year for understanding why black people are so on edge — and often angry.
Rated R. Psalm 72:4
Mexican director/writer Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film’s concern for a Mixtec servant in Mexico City is akin to the Bible’s sympathy for “the least of these.” In a film set in 1970 -71, Cleo is one of two servants of a middle-class family about to be sundered by the adulterous father, even as the country will be split by the autocratic government’s brutal crackdown on students, known as the Corpus Christi Massacre. Cleo is so loving that she is regarded as “a member of the family,” a sentiment that is tested and sustained when she is impregnated and then abandoned by her boyfriend. Her mistress provides emotional and medical care and is well-rewarded when Cleo later saves the lives of two of the four children. A powerful film of love and a person who is constantly giving.
Rated R. Song of Solomon 1:15; Ecclesiastes 5:8a; Ephesians 6:12
James Baldwin’s searing novel about a Harlem couple in love but forcibly separated when a white racist cop with a grudge manipulates the justice system against the young man is brilliantly brought to the screen. The unjust prison ordeal will test the couple’s love, but fortunately her family’s love also sustains them. The corruption of the legal system that oppresses blacks is a 20th century version of the apostle Paul’s contention that he struggled against “the principalities and the powers.” In the 2016 documentary based on the Baldwin project “I Am Not Your Negro,” the novelist wrote, “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free; it is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.” Both films are relevant and helpful in understanding race relations in our troubled times.
Rated PG-13. Psalm 148:3-4; Mark 3:20-21 (J.B. Phillips)
In this tale of the son of a Dutch pastor who became what now is regarded as one of the world’s greatest painters, actor Willem Dafoe gives his finest performances as Vincent van Gogh. The filmmakers agree with those who believe that the painter, though undoubtedly unstable mentally, did not die by suicide but was shot by a local youth. In an interview with a priest/therapist, the artist compares himself to Christ. Something to ponder, both being societal outsiders living in poverty who saw beauty in the world overlooked by others and tried to induce others to look at the world with new eyes.
Rated R. 1 John 4:7-8
Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, this is the story of a fundamentalist Baptist minister’s gay son who underwent conversion therapy when that now regarded pseudo-practice was widely accepted in the evangelical community. The boy soon learns that the tactics at the center include spiritual bullying and instilling fear into the patients, even turning them against the family member who purportedly “caused” them to “choose” the gay lifestyle. His mother slowly changes her view of the Bible, her love for her son overcoming her theology. But what about the father back home? This is a good companion film to “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which is about a girl forced into a similar clinic.
Rated PG-13. 1 John 4:15
This faith-based film completes the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini begun in Angelina Jolie’s inspiring “Unbroken.” After his ordeal in a Japanese POW camp and return home, Zamperini was so haunted by his nightmares that he drank to excess, which threatened his new marriage. His wife was ready to divorce him, but upon attending Billy Graham’s first Los Angeles tent revival, she changed her mind, persuading him to go also. Though I am no fan of Graham’s fundamentalist theology, I am persuaded by this film that Christ can reach out to lost persons and change their lives through a person whose theological views are very different from my own.
Rated PG-13. Lev. 19:15; Col. 3:18; Luke 10:39-40
This story of the early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should inspire our daughters and granddaughters to use all their talents and opportunities. With the support of a loving husband, Ruth is more like Mary in Luke’s story of Jesus’ visit to hers and Martha’s home than to the wives addressed by the apostle Paul. It is a delightful irony that Ginsburg’s struggle to undo the harm that a patriarchal view of the Bible has inflicted on women began with a Supreme Court case (Frontiero v. Richardson) in which it was a man’s rights that were denied!
These Top 10 were chosen from a list of almost 30 films that stood out from the pack of 2018 releases, several of which almost made the cut. They too are worth seeing. There is not enough space to list or describe them here, but if you are interested, you can go to my blog associated with Visual Parables.
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 the editor/reviewer of “Visual Parables.” His latest book is “Jesus Christ: Movie Star.”
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