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Top ten ‘spiritual and ethical’ films of 2016

by Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Promotional image for the Martin Scorsese film ‘Silence.’

LOUISVILLE – Like other film critics, each year I compile a Top Ten Films list once the major films open at last in my city in “fly-over” Ohio. As in other years, my list differs greatly from others because the criteria are not primarily aesthetic, but spiritual and ethical. By “spiritual” I do not mean just “religious” or films made by Christian studios. I did consider some made by the latter, but these always turn out to be too predictable, most of them based on a formula that appeals only to the committed. In other words, they are visual sermons.

Some of the questions I ask while going through the 200 or so films that I saw are these: What films best show the ups and downs of human longing and choices made by those trying to decide between perceived good and evil? If the film is violent, what is the attitude of the filmmaker toward it—approving, or aware of its destructive consequences? The same goes for sex, which is one reason why I eliminated the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea.

If vengeance is an important theme, as it is in so many adventure and action films, does the filmmaker lead the audience into celebrating the villain’s defeat—usually by some grisly form of death, as in The Hateful Eight—or does the film suggest any alternative or at least show the corrosiveness of vengeance?

I ever so much wanted to include Moonlight and Fences, dramatic films that have garnered Oscar nominations, but they do not measure up to the above criteria as well as the films below, even though they might be aesthetically superior. The same goes for several other films that I loved—Arrival; Fences; Hell and High Water; Indignation; La La Land; Lion; Patriots Day; and Race.

  1. Silence

Rated R. Psalm 42:1-3; 9; Mark 15:34; John 21:15.

Director Martin Scorsese takes us back to the 17th century Japan to which two Jesuit priests have been dispatched to search for their mentor. An unsubstantiated report holds that under torture he has renounced his faith, converted to Buddhism, and is living with a wife and children. Under intense and brutal persecution, the remaining of the faithful have gone underground, becoming the “hidden Christians.” How one of the priests, when captured struggles with his doubts and concern over the silence of God makes for fascinating, but never comfortable, viewing. Long after the film ends, viewers will struggle with questions as to whether the priest incurred damnation or not by his decision; where was God during the torture of believers; and what was the meaning of the film’s final shot?

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

Rated R. Isaiah 40:28-31; Matthew 5:9-12.

Director Mel Gibson’s film is a bloody war film, but not one that glorifies killing, but rather celebrates the courage and faith of a man who refused to pick up a rifle. The “true story” of the first Conscientious Objector to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor, the film celebrates the life of Desmond Doss, a devout Christian determined to follow the non-violent dictates of Christ by serving as a medic on a bloody battlefield of Okinawa, rescuing at least 70 wounded soldiers left behind when the Americans had to withdraw at night. Despite its blood and gore, this is truly a “feel good” film!

  1. Paterson

Rated PG. Psalm 45:1.

Director/writer Jim Jarmusch’s film is visual poetry celebrating a bus-driver poet bearing the same name as his New Jersey native city. He sees ordinary objects such as a matchbook, and connects it to his love for his wife. Often funny, always perceptive, this is a film that evoked in my mind Jesus’ words to his disciples, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matt. 13:16) Paterson’s “seeing” the extraordinary in the ordinary (another poem is inspired by a shoe box) might inspire the film’s viewers to do the same—not to become poets themselves, but to see the world through a poet’s eyes (“blessed eyes”), and thus appreciate its wonder and beauty all the more.

  1. The Innocents

Rated PG-13. Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28 (RSV)

French director Anne Fontaine’s stirring film transports us back to the December of 1945 in Poland where a female French doctor is part of a Red Cross team caring for wounded French soldiers. A nun from the nearby Benedictine convent comes to her to help a raped nun give birth to a child. As the story unfolds, the unbelieving French woman, daughter of Communists, and the nun form a friendship despite their differences, both taking risks in order to relieve suffering. Each has seen horrible acts of cruelty, so that the important take away for viewers are the words of the nun, “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt for one minute of hope.”

  1. Jackie

Rated R. John 9:1; Psalm 31:9.

Chilean director Pablo Larraín gives us a plausible conjecture of what the suddenly widowed wife of U.S. President Jack Kennedy felt and said during the painful days following his murder. Through the skillful weaving of drama and newsreel clips we experience the shock and the pain she must have felt then. What surprised me is the insertion of so many scenes in which her compassionate priest (the movie character is a composite of several priests) assures her that God is still a God of love, suffering along with us. The cleric holds back from offering any of the usual saccharine “explanations” for a tragic event. His concept of “the hidden God” links this film to Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

  1. Hidden Figures

Rated PG. Psalm 9:9-19.

Director Theodore Melfi deals with hidden women rather than a “hidden God,” but the faith of these black women, flourishing despite Jim Crow practices even at the agency that foreshadowed NASA, is very much evident in several scenes. One of them even meets her future husband at her church. The film is a fitting tribute to three black women whose mathematical gifts were crucial to those pre-computer days for bringing our astronauts back to earth safely. Their “hiddenness,” both in the 1960s, and in two other films about astronauts, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, that featured only the white men of NASA, was due to the racism embedded in our society. This is one of several recent films that can change our culture.

  1. Birth of a Nation

Rated R. 1 Peter 2:18; 1 Samuel 15:3; Isaiah 61:1

Director/star/co-writer Nate Parker begins his story of the Nat Turner Rebellion with the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” This “based on a true story” demonstrates the power of the Scriptures to transform a docile slave into a fiery prophet of liberation. Though it is too bad that Nat Turner absorbed only the message of violent revolt from the Old Testament prophets, to the neglect of Christ’s teachings concerning one’s enemies, Turner’s bloody would-be revolution is understandable, given the unspeakable white brutality he experiences. Perhaps it was necessary to have a Nat Turner before our nation could give rise to a Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Queen of Katwe

Rated PG. Proverbs 19:17; Luke 4:17-18.

Director Mira Nair’s “true story” film celebrates female empowerment in an African slum. Though not emphasized, it is an outreach ministry of a church that enables the young girl to discover and use her new skills at chess after she joins the church-sponsored chess club. We also see the importance of an inspirational mentor in the person of the youth minister who teaches and encourages her to use those gifts in places far removed from her village. Parents (or grandparents) will revel with their daughters as they witness the young woman triumphing over sexist and paternalistic opponents.

  1. Loving

Rated PG-13. Song of Solomon 1:2-5; Acts 17:26 (GNT).

Director Kevin Reynolds adds still another “based on a true story” film that is inspiring and reminds us, during a time when racism seems to be re-emerging from the shadows, that we have come a long way since the 1967 Supreme Court decision of Loving vs. Virginia, which struck down the many state laws outlawing interracial marriage. And not all of these were in the South! In one scene the film shows how segregationists used religion and the Bible to justify their hate-based segregation of the races. How ironic that the Virginia couple, at first so reluctant because they wanted just to be left alone, had the last name of Loving!

  1. A Monster Calls

Rated PG-13. Psalm 35:14b.

Spanish director J.A. Bayona has given us a marvelous fantasy tale about a boy coping, rather poorly we should add, with the impending death of his cancer-ridden mother. The tree-like monster that appears to him at night declares that it has been called to save him and not his mother. The monster might or might not be real, but it leads the boy to face unpleasant truths concerning his mother’s suffering and its effect on him. Though I wish the boy had some trace of faith that would help him cope with his family tragedy, the film is so insightful into the human psyche and its defenses that it deserves to be a part of this list.

I wrestled with the choice of No. 10 for several weeks, wanting to include one of the four Jesus films released last year. I liked the remake of Ben-Hur despite its many revisions of the novel (it actually ends on a note of reconciliation rather than of hateful vengeance), but there are too many problems with it, as there are with The Young Messiah; The Last Days in the Desert; and Risen.

I hope the films that did make the cut will inspire and challenge you, as they have me. All were made by women and men who wanted to do more than to make money by entertaining us, but who feel called to explore important issues and lead us toward a better world.

Hyperlinks are embedded in most of the above titles, so by clicking onto them you can read full reviews of a film.


Edward McNulty is a Presbyterian minister and author of three film books published by WJK, and editor/reviewer of Visual Parables. His latest book is Jesus Christ: Movie Star.

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