2018 Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury – Part Two: Honourable Mentions

In Part One of this series, the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury revealed their Top 10 films of 2018. For Part Two, each film critic on the jury chose one film from 2018 that he or she wanted to recommend to a Christian audience. The diversity of perspectives and voices in the following list of Honourable Mentions speaks to the ecumenical spirit of the jury—this is a kaleidoscope of cinema, ranging from major blockbusters to international festival favourites. Listed in alphabetical order by the critic’s first name, followed by their publication and their Honourable Mention (some critics did not pick an Honourable Mention or offer a write-up; they are still listed here as jury members):

 

Anders Bergstrom (3 Brothers Film) –BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
BlacKkKlansman stands as a stark reminder of how good Spike Lee is as a storyteller and as a truth-teller to America’s legacy of racism and violence. Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, and his undercover operation in the Ku Klux Klan, it is both a riotous and righteous tale. The film functions as an examination and expression of ‘double consciousness’—W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of oppressed people’s seeing themselves through the eyes of a racist society. While Ron must navigate his role as a black man in America and as a police officer, BlacKkKlansman is a Hollywood studio film (produced by Universal/Focus Features) and an indictment of America’s continued institution of white supremacy in media and elsewhere. In the film’s most searing moment, framed around a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the film that acted as both the inauguration of Hollywood feature filmmaking and that brought the KKK back to popularity in the 20th century, Lee shows us the power of movies to both pander to our worst impulses and better angels, possessing real power and consequence. That BlacKkKlansman is able to be both one of the most purely entertaining films of the year and a call to render justice is appropriate and astonishing.

Christian Hamaker (Patheos / Schaeffer’s Ghost) – The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
I wish it were easy to dismiss the year’s best comedy, set in 1953 Moscow, as a look back at a governmental system consigned to the ashbin of history, but the blustering ridiculousness of the characters’ absurd, power-mad motivations is unfortunately timeless. Credit to writer/director Armando Iannucci for taking on a buffoonish, murderous regime and finding ways to generate big belly laughs along the way.

 

Evan Cogswell (Catholic Cinephile) – Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
In an interview discussing Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig said there was nothing Frances did at the end of the film which she couldn’t have done at the beginning, and the film was about her progression to come to that realization. Let the Sunshine In is about a similar progression for an artist portrayed by Juliette Binoche who is desperately seeking a meaningful relationship. Facing a sort of midlife crisis, she often hooks up with some of the most toxic men she meets, but Claire Denis’s shooting of each encounter makes her fully sympathetic as she attempts to take agency of her life, even when she makes less than ideal decisions. The film’s inverse romantic comedy arc reveals both the shallowness of the genre clichés and the ways that our life experiences influence our choices. Its masterstroke is the final scene which returns to the same emotional place where the film began, underscoring that happiness comes from acceptance and not making some grandiose development.

Gareth Higgins (The Porch) – Bad Times at the Hotel Royale (Drew Goddard)
Bad Times at the El Royale mashes up the big house whodunnit reminiscent of Agatha Christie or Clue with Vietnam War trauma, and not only the evolution of power dynamics between men and women, but the astonishing transformation possible when aggression is met with the truth instead of merely more violence. Strangers assemble in a hotel on a red-blue state line, their respective purposes mysterious: they include a priest with memory problems (Jeff Bridges easing into elderhood, entering the latest phase of what may be one of the most diverse, thoughtful, and sheerly entertaining careers in American acting), a bellboy (Lewis Pullman, one of this film’s breakout stars), a singer (Cynthia Elviro, the other, in a magnificent performance that transfixes both for her music, and the way she speaks the movie’s—and some of the current cultural moment’s— most profound words). The plot’s a tease, and a bit brutal, but saying more would spoil a great surprise. Bad Times at the El Royale is far deeper than the genres it apes—it’s using entertainment to invite us to consider nothing less than the demons in America’s self-perception, the sins of the past, and the possibility of something much, much better ahead. We need to hold on. She’s coming.

Jeffrey Overstreet (Looking Closer) – Paddington 2 (Paul King)
A who’s-who of British talents from TV to the big screen, Paddington 2 is at once a whimsical adventure for children, a meditation on the value of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism for adults, and a quiet reminder to the UK—and the world—that hatred is ugly and love conquers all. But no, it’s not pretentiously political. It’s a wildly unpredictable comedy about a bear who, in a case of mistaken identity, gets sent to prison, only to transform his incarcerated community with the powers of kindness and marmalade. This movie deserves a prominent place on any Best Sequels list, right alongside Toy Story 2. Our soft-spoken hero, voiced again by Ben Whishaw, is a beautifully realized character, and his adoptive human family, the Browns, prove once again to be delightfully quirky company. But it’s the villain who nearly steals the show here: Hugh Grant, in the funniest performance of his career, as a disguise-happy (and possibly schizophrenic?) crook. As immigrants around the world fall to the fury of fearmongers, could it be Paddington the bear—a household name for families who cherish children’s books—who reawakens England to compassion, cooperation, and community? Scott Renshaw of the City Weekly has it just right: This is ‘exactly the kind of movie parents always claim they want for their children, but too rarely support with their dollars’. So if you haven’t seen it, track it down and share the experience with family and friends.

Joel Mayward (Cinemayward / Think Christian) – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman)
The only film I chose to see twice in the theatre, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best surprise from 2018. The innovative energy and colour from the unique animation style fly off the screen in a perfect homage to the history and variety of the animated form—it’s a celebratory smorgasbord of aesthetic styles, both old and new. With its multi-ethnic teenage protagonist, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Spider-Verse is essentially about vocation and love, the becoming of one’s true self in the context of community. Miles looks to various mentors for guidance, with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) and an alternate-dimension Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) as his key role models, though it’s ultimately his father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry, who has had a fantastic breakout year in cinema) who is his biggest advocate and hero. Featuring a witty and self-aware story from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie), Miles is intelligent, geeky, funny, artistic, and kind—we learn all these things through his actions and the natural progression of the narrative, which is just great storytelling. Moreover, the science and philosophy of a multi-verse concept—not to mention the notion of ‘canon’ and the importance of hermeneutics in the various iterations of the Spider-Man character—stimulate the mind without ever feeling cerebral; this is a smart movie that also knows how to have fun and entertain. Did I mention Spider-Gwen? And the incredible action sequences? And the Stan Lee cameo? There’s so much to celebrate here; in short, it’s a perfect film. Go see it immediately.

Josh Cabrita (MUBI Notebook / Cinema Scope) – The House that Jack Built (Lars von Trier)

 

Josh Hamm (Freelance) – Lovers of the Night (Anna Frances Ewert)
There remains an endless fascination with those who cloister themselves away from the world. As the monastic life seems to be left behind in the modern world, it appears both more alien and alluring.  Anna Frances Ewert’s documentary of a small Cistercian monastery in Ireland follows through the motions expected of an observational approach – the landscape and architecture of the monastery is explored in tandem with the inner lives of the monks themselves. Spiritual and material are placed side by side, not in conflict, but inseparable, as Lovers of the Night settles into a lovely, gentle cadence.

Even as the film is most accessible when the monks confess their desires and dreams of their old lives, it is the most affecting when the monks describe their vocation, their spiritual motivation: ‘I think the best thing about being a monk is praying at night… that’s a very sacred time, holding people’. If nothing else, Lovers of the Night offers us the chance to do the same for them, to hold and behold these men, as they ‘keep on living, hoping, [and] praying’: the ability to see the monastery a microcosm of the world.

Josh Larsen (Filmspotting / Think Christian) – Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)


Ken Morefield (1More Film Blog) – 22 July (Paul Greengrass)

Films that are built around or climax in violence are so common they may even numb us to just how horrific and painful that violence is in real life. We are inundated with death, but rarely do our films linger over suffering. Paul Greengrass’s 22 July is a painful film to watch, but it keeps its focus where it should be – on the victims of violence and their attempts to overcome it. The film insists that defeating evil means not merely surviving it but also refuting it. That’s a terrible, unfair burden to place on those who are victims of terrorism and those who witness it. But as Ebhard Arnold says in Inner Land, to fight deceit and injustice in a practical way means demonstrating that alternatives actually exist. It is one thing to talk about being a democratic nation, a Christian nation, or a nation of laws. It is another thing to act upon Christian principles and follow legal precedents when every fibre of your being calls out for vengeance and retribution.

Kevin Sampson (Picture Lock)

Melissa Tamminga (Seattle Screen Scene) – Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
Writer and director Bo Burnham through Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in Eighth Grade somehow captures what it must feel like to be, quite specifically, a 13-year-old girl in 2018, an age and a time where hyper-insecurity and an urgently dogged search for identity meets the demand for digital performance and the risk of intense scrutiny—and he also, simultaneously, captures the enduring universally human questions, questions those at every age and every time, surely have asked: Who am I, and is the real me and the performative me the same thing? What is this thing called a body I’m living in? What am I to and how do I relate to those around me? And, can I find somebody to love me, whatever ‘me’ means? Kayla is both not at all me and absolutely me. She reminds me of one of the things I love best about film, the beautiful, impossible paradox it offers: of seeing (and loving) the Other onscreen and seeing myself there at the same time.

Michael Leary (Freelance) – Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)


Noel T. Manning (Cinemascene) – A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
With only five minutes of dialogue, A Quiet Place speaks volumes, serving as a platform for numerous themes, lessons, and challenging questions. This film empowers audiences to realize that the negative turns that show up on the roadmap of life—like loss, fear, sadness, pain, anger, and despair—do not have to control our journey. These do not make up our final destination.

Moving forward after a tragedy when the world seems ravaged by death, desolation of spirit, and an overpowering enemy may seem unattainable, but it is not. Through the love of family and the search of hope for a better future, we can discover an avenue through even the most difficult of times and circumstances. A Quiet Place reminds us that selfless sacrifice in the name of love may very well be the path to opportunity. Even when we cannot see the joy, peace, or comfort on the other side of the mountains of chaos and uncertainty, it does not mean they are not there awaiting us. Sometimes we just need to have faith.

Peter Chattaway (FilmChat) – What They Had (Elizabeth Chomko)
What They Had stars Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank as siblings who disagree with their stubborn father (Robert Forster) on how to deal with their mother (Blythe Danner), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The film plugs into a number of my favourite themes—adult brother-sister relationships, the role that memory plays in forming relationships, etc.—but it’s also just really well-written and well-acted (all of the performances are good, but Shannon in particular does great work here), and it has a very believable mix of humour and pathos. Indeed, there is one line that Shannon’s character delivers in two different scenes, and the emotional impact of those scenes couldn’t be more different, yet the emotions are equally real in both cases. The family’s Catholic background also plays a significant role within the film; Dad is religious in a very pragmatic way, while his daughter isn’t and doesn’t know how to tell him. Amazingly, this is writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s first film; I look forward to seeing whatever she does next.

Philip Martin (Blood, Dirt & Angels)

Sarah Welch-Larson (Think Christian / BW/DR / Freelance) – Annihilation (Alex Garland)
It’s a gorgeous film, patient and packed with details. It’s dripping with potential interpretations, like the Spanish moss hanging from the trees its characters move through. The camera work is slow and steady, belying the rich details and vivid colours that pervade the setting. Annihilation is a prism that refracts whatever a viewer brings to it, to haunting and unsettling ends. The result is a film that forces us to examine our beliefs, and to question why we think the way that we do. It cuts to the bone; I’ve heard people describe the movie as being a film about death, about losing faith, about finding faith, about cancer. I read the film as a meditation on grief and doubt, and as an assertion that there is life after trauma, even if it seems inescapable. The end does not have to be the end. Instead, it’s sowing the seeds for something strange and new.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films / National Catholic Register) – I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni)
Zambian-born Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut is a darkly satiric parable about institutionalized oppression of women and girls, accented by an inspired cinematic metaphor: The women of a Zambian ‘witch camp’—an exotic tourist attraction and slave-labour prison camp—are kept on literal leashes, long ribbons unspooling from giant bobbins said to keep them from flying off. The real bonds, though, are of the mind and soul, as the witch-camp residents succumb in some ways to their oppressors’ thinking while in other ways rejecting and resenting it. The film follows a young, arbitrarily accused orphan (Maggie Mulubwa) forced to choose between the bondage of the ribbon and metamorphosing into a goat. Named Shula (‘Uprooted’) by one of the elder witches, as a rare child among mostly older women she becomes a celebrity prop to a venal government official (Henry BJ Phiri). Themes of guilt and innocence play out in different registers as, for example, Shula is forced to divine which of a number of accused men is a thief. While formally agnostic regarding the reality of witchcraft, the film incisively exposes the devastating costs of public ignorance, superstitious beliefs, and misogynistic attitudes and how these are exploited for profit by the powerful; it also explores how women contrive under such circumstances to secure such power as they can.

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