2018 Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury – Part One: Top 10

We are honoured at Transpositions to host the 2018 Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury Top 10 Films, based at www.artsandfaith.com. Since 2014, the Ecumenical Jury is an annual collaboration between film critics with a Christian perspective and tradition. Jury founder and owner of Arts and Faith, Kenneth Morefield, describes the jury’s vision:

‘The Ecumenical Jury is made up of film critics and cinephiles who wish to recognize and celebrate films that use the medium to explore themes of religion, faith, or spirituality. We particularly seek to enlarge or expand the perception of what is meant by either labelling a film a ‘Christian’ film or suggesting that it should be of interest to Christian audiences. The jury seeks to recognize quality films (regardless of genre) that have challenged, moved, enlightened, or entertained us and to draw the attention of Christian audiences to films it thinks have the potential to do the same for them’.

As the Oscars hand out the golden statuettes to the ‘best’ films of 2018 this Sunday, our jury seeks to host a different ‘best’ list, one which highlights the true, the good, and the beautiful in cinema from the past year. Many of the films here are (unfortunately) not Oscar nominees, which is precisely our purpose—these films are still critically acclaimed works of art and worth seeking out to watch and discuss.

There is a thematic thread uniting these ten films: compassion. These are sincere, intimate stories which give attention to and capture the good in human beings and the natural world, even in the midst of the deepest darkness or despair. Many are slow and contemplative, prompting us to pause and give our full attention, to grow in our awareness. These ten films are subversively empathetic—they may win over our sympathies without our realization, surprising us as they linger in our minds and hearts.

In Part One, we offer the Top 10 Films of 2018 as voted upon by the jury. For each of these ten films, one of the eighteen jury members will offer his or her brief reflections and critical considerations, focusing particularly on why these films (many of which are ostensibly non-religious) should be seen by a Christian audience. The diversity of films in the Top 10 emulates the diversity of our critical perspectives and writing styles; even as we all share a common Christian faith and love of cinema, it’s worth noting the distinctions in our film criticism.

In Part Two, we will list the jury members’ Honourable Mentions: each critic will pick a film from 2018 to offer as a personal recommendation that did not break into the overall Top 10. Without further ado, here are the Arts and Faith Top 10 Films of 2018:

10) 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)

The poet Denise Levertov proposed that the world might know peace if we reorganized priorities in favour of ‘long pauses’. She was calling for a practice of deep imagination. The final movie from master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami feels like a profound example. In it, Kiarostami challenges us to be patient and watchful, investing our imaginations in a one-of-a-kind experience. Kiarostami, an Iranian director who was always playful in both his storytelling and his formal craftsmanship, offered 24 still photographs—mostly images of scenery (snow, sun, pastures, woods, ocean waves) and animals (crows, cows, horses, lions)—to special effects artists, who teased those pictures to life. Some have described the results as extravagant screensavers. Others find subtle poetry at work. Critics have struggled to summarize this gallery of moving pictures. Few have proposed the potential for these ‘frames’ as occasions for spiritual contemplation and even prayer. But the stillnesses in these frames are God-haunted. (Consider how often the psalms and Christ’s own teachings were prompted by focused concentration on sky, weather, birds, beasts.) What will seem intolerably boring for some will become a new cinematic awakening for others. Isn’t it curious that a world-renowned filmmaker would invest his last hours of artistry in meditating on quiet landscapes? Likely, he felt it would be a peaceful coda for a provocative career.
– Jeffrey Overstreet

9) Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski’s affecting Support the Girls is one of the more raw, honest, and insightful cinematic depictions of the American food industry and its underlying ideologies. The story centres on a day in the life of restaurant manager Lisa (Regina Hall) as she tries to manage and maintain a sense of control over all the various spinning plates which threaten to tumble–or have already crashed and require someone to pick up the mess. Lisa is pastoral in her leadership over the group of girls working at ‘Double Whammies’, serving them with a sense of positivity, nurture, and care that one would hope for in any boss. She listens to others, holds them accountable for their actions, and gives a lot of grace for small mistakes. Yet this particular day is a series of one too many dramatic events, ultimately challenging her idealistic resolve.

Support the Girls is billed as a comedy, and it’s certainly smart and funny. Yet the film is also a biting, disheartening look at the reality of the sexual harassment and misogyny that women continue to experience in the workplace. In this, Support the Girls is a damning indictment of the passivity and toxicity of modern masculinity; every significant male character in the film is a creep, a criminal, or possesses an unhealthy personal confidence. As its title implies, Support the Girls is an invitation and exhortation without being preachy or didactic, asking the audience to consider the situation before us, to empathize and advocate for women in our world. [1]
– Joel Mayward

8) Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)

One of the year’s wildest and weirdest films is also the most intensely theological. Bruno Dumont’s musical about the young Joan of Arc features an eclectic score by Igorrr, but every lyric and line of dialogue is drawn from the writings of the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy. The drama centres on Joan’s profound unease regarding the suffering of humanity, especially war and the eternal damnation of souls. Fourteen centuries after Jesus redeemed the world, why is the world not more redeemed? The high point is a stunning 18-minute sequence at once sublime and at least bordering on ridiculous, as—in an exchange evocative of one of Joan’s heavenly visions—a nun named Madame Gervaise (inexplicably played by stone-faced twin sisters) offers a sublime, poetic theodicy affirming both the utter wretchedness of the world and the transcendent redemptive power of Christ’s atonement at work throughout the world. The jarringly anachronistic music ranges from electronica to Baroque themes to guitar-shredding thrash metal, but the sensibility of the lyrics is authentically medieval, given a liturgical feel by the gravity with which the sisters intone Péguy’s poetry, with its chant-like reliance on simplicity and repetition. Dumont has fun with the material but doesn’t deconstruct or debunk it, and the simple, energetic dancing becomes a kind of prayer.
– Steven D. Greydanus

7) Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

Bing Liu’s intimate documentary initially seems like little more than a celebration of the simple joys of skateboarding while being young and carefree, a family drama of two young twenty-somethings raising a child together, and the struggle to make a living in a small city, but it seamlessly slides into the spiralling pain of intergenerational trauma, domestic abuse, and toxic masculinity.

The idea of a documentary being about its maker rather than its subjects may be tired and worn-out, but Bing Liu’s ability to refract his own story through the prism of others enables his own revelations to reverberate throughout the lives of everyone in the film. The alienation of abuse, the ethics of a documentarian, the tension between making art for art’s sake or as an extension of the self: Minding the Gap stares unflinchingly into a generation’s pain, the emotions and memories that fall through the cracks.

Only his first feature film, the sheer fluidity of Liu’s footage lights a fire under the film so that its entire apparatus seems vibrant and dances with energy.  There’s urgency to their lives, to Liu’s introspection, to the staggering difference between hope and despondency that Minding the Gap bears on its shoulders.
– Josh Hamm

6) First Man (Damien Chazelle)

‘I see the moon, and the moon sees me…’

The first thing we see in First Man is Neil Armstrong in the rattling interior of a test cockpit, fighting against gravity to break Earth’s atmosphere, then fighting against the push of the same atmosphere to go back home. The footage, shot on 16-mm film to mimic photographs from the 1960s, is almost incomprehensible: streaks of light etch the image with afterglow, while grainy shadows threaten to swallow the details in deep blues and greens.

First Man depicts Neil as a spare, quiet man, flying away with nothing but thin sheets of metal to protect him from the extremes of space travel, and nothing but his work to shield him from the grief of losing his small daughter to cancer.

Neil sees the possibility of spaceflight as a chance to change perspective, ‘to see things maybe we should have seen a long time ago’. The film is concerned with the eyes: what we see from our limited view inside the cockpit, and where we look when we’re in pain. It’s punctuated by shots of the moon, first a speck, then a fuzzy dot, growing sharper as the feasibility of a moon mission grows. When Neil takes his first step onto the moon, the film shifts aspect ratio and format from grainy film to breathtakingly sharp IMAX, his reality finally hard and clear.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.
– Sarah Welch-Larson

 

5) Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda)

For the last decade, Hirokazu Koreeda has been world cinema’s metronome, ticking off empathetic masterpieces with virtuosity so efficiently it is perhaps too easy to take for granted. His run of eight films from 2008’s Still Walking to last year’s Shoplifters was capped with a well-deserved Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Whether he is observing fathers or sons, sisters or widows, murderers or shoplifters, his films avoid pat generalizations or easy excuses. To watch a Koreeda film is to live with the characters, forming judgments based on witnessed behaviour rather than expository excuses. Like many of Koreeda’s films, Shoplifters is able to convey both the intense pains and unmatched joys that come from being part of a family, whether adopted or biological. The emotional alienation and isolation that is so prevalent in literary modernism doesn’t give way to black humour in Koreeda’s films the way it does in so many postmodern works. When there is joy, it is genuine, coexisting with pain rather than gilding over it. The parable of the Good Samaritan concludes with Jesus asking his listeners which person acted like a neighbour. Shoplifters invites its viewers to wrestle with the question of which character acts like a father.
– Ken Morefield

 

4) The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

Tender, empathetic, and visually rich, Chloé Zhao’s contemporary neo-Western both affirms and subverts its generic roots, deconstructing and reconstructing the masculinity, violence, and individualism of the American myth of the Cowboy. The titular rider here is Brady (Brady Jandreau), a rodeo cowboy and horse trainer in the badlands of South Dakota—Zhao originally was filming a documentary, which evolved into a fictional interpretation of Brady’s real-life experiences. Recovering from a severe head injury after being thrown from his horse in a rodeo competition, Brady’s very identity has been shaken by the fall. Unable to ride until he recovers (if he ever recovers at all), he’s forced to watch from the sidelines and learn what it means to rest and heal. Living with his alcoholic father Tim (Tim Jandreau) and his younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), Brady trains horses with a pastoral vocation and mission, a dedication to the craft without devolving into obsession. It’s who he is–he’s a Cowboy with a capital ‘C.’ At one point he tells Lilly that just as mustangs were made by God to run on the plains, cowboys were made to ride. Yet with the lingering physical effects of his injury forcing him to remain on foot, Brady is forced to confront the very sources of his self, what distinguishes Brady The Cowboy from Brady The Human Being. And this human being prays to the God who created him and the horses he loves, prayers characterized by a simple sincerity and beauty, floating up to heaven like sparks from a campfire. Marked by its beautiful cinematography and sincere performances, The Rider is a film overflowing with life. [2]
– Joel Mayward

3) Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)

No film of any genre spoke to me like the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This multi-award winning documentary explores life through historical context, political upheavals, and cultural divides. It asks, ‘Where do we fit into a world of uncertainties, change and division?’

Offered through the seemingly unlikely and unique lens of the legendary Mr Fred Rogers, we discover that his decades of reaching out to children through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood provided something far more distinct and introspective than simply teaching numbers and colours. Fred Rogers sought to offer anyone who chose to listen (children and adults alike) lessons for life. He addressed concerns about our society and offered critical examinations of who we are, why we are, and how to begin to understand what divides us. Rogers felt that if we explore those questions, we may come to appreciate what should unite us.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a film that offers a voice of hope, compassion, and healing. Wrapped within the unique leadership of a man whose messages are for all ages, races, cultures, and economic classes, we are reminded that these themes are as relevant today as they were 50+ years ago. In our politically charged and socially-manipulated world that seems to be surrounded by misinformation, hate, and anger, it’s possible we could all use a little more of Mr Rogers in our lives. If the leaders of the world (and everyday citizens for that matter) would take the time to view this slice of cinema and commit to the morals exhibited, we’d all be in a much better place.
– Noel T. Manning

2) Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

Leave No Trace is a cinematic gem that you must treat yourself to! Ben Foster stars as Will, a traumatized war veteran who is trying to live off the grid due to his lack of trust in the government. His daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), is his loyal, sympathetic protégé who increasingly desires more than a life in the forest of Oregon. Director Debra Granik takes us on an emotional journey as we see the conflict of interest between her main characters.

On one hand, Will is a father who wants to disappear and wants to provide for his daughter on his terms. On the other hand, Tom wants to be seen and integrate into the real world. It’s quite evident they both love one another deeply, but the film takes us to the universal crossroad of stepping out of your parent’s direction and choosing your own path. Ben Foster is a stellar actor with an amazing body of character work, but Thomasin McKenzie goes toe to toe with Foster, giving a remarkable performance herself. Leave No Trace is a powerful story about love and family, an honest look at what making tough familial decisions looks like.
– Kevin Sampson

1) First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a film that feels a long time coming for many fans of the writer-director. With the story of Pastor Toller, played by Ethan Hawke in a career highlight performance, the writer-director has finally tackled the ‘transcendental style’ proposed in his 1972 work of film theory. While it took nearly 50 years, it’s a film that speaks to this present moment in history: a portrait of spiritual struggle and inner turmoil in contemporary America, asking what role Christianity might have to play in our moment, or any moment when the future seems uncertain. While its references to the works of Bergman, Bresson, and others are obvious, the film never feels like a cold stylistic exercise. The film is pure Schrader, his philosophical and formal preoccupations coming through loud-and-clear.

Following the death of his son in the Iraq War, Toller is serving as a caretaker minister at the 250-year-old First Reformed Church. He keeps a diary of his growing spiritual unrest, which is exacerbated by mounting health issues and a drinking problem. When a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), concerned about her activist husband’s (Philip Etttinger) despair over imminent environmental catastrophe, asks Toller to intercede, he finds himself drawn into the husband’s mounting despair.

The transcendental style, as described by Schrader in his book, often involved the introduction of disparity and/or a crisis, which brings about the presence of the holy into the mundane of the world of the film. First Reformed suggests that to live in the year 2017 and hold serious beliefs about faith is to live in a sustained tension, between hope and despair: Toller advises that ‘Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself’. But the structuring realities of our world can seem overwhelming, and First Reformed suggests that the cost of maintaining the tension may be too much for any one person to bear.
– Anders Bergstrom

Next, read the jury members’ individual picks in Part Two: Honourable Mentions.


[1] Adapted from my original review.

[2] Adapted from my original review.

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