For the seventh year in a row, members and friends of the Arts & Faith forum attempted to bring attention to films specifically recommended to a Christian audience.
The Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury is not affiliated with Interfilm -- best known for forming an Ecumenical Jury at various world film festivals, especially Cannes. The Arts & Faith groups was created in 2014 after Christianity Today discontinued its annual lists of critics choices and "most redemptive" films. Although many participants at Arts & Faith identify as Christian, the forum itself is not affiliated with any particular denomination or faith tradition. The jury seeks not to identify the best films by some artistic criteria but rather those films that its members most recommend to Christian audiences.
In recent years the list has more broadly overlapped the lists of recommendations of other critics' groups offering awards. Perhaps this trend reflects the renewed interest in the culture at large in the themes of spirituality and religion. Perhaps it reflect a development or evolution of taste among the members of the the Arts & Faith Community and in the niche of the film blogosphere that is open to Christian art and criticism.
If the films are more broadly known and thus less in need of promotion, what purpose can such a list serve? Especially in a year such as 2020, it can direct the attention of those who perhaps do not follow film news as closely or enthusiastically as professional and amateur reviewers. It is my hope that it can also serve as a model, albeit a broad and diverse one, of Christian engagement with film. The titles on these lists are usually less interesting and revealing to me than the reasons individual critics give for championing them. It is in their appreciations, posted below and aggregated and stored on the website's list threads (http://artsandfaith.com/index.php?/films/year/20-2020-arts-faith-ecumenical-jury/) that the Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury may best reflect the historic purpose of this tradition and, indeed, of this forum.
-- Kenneth R. Morefield (2020)
1) Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
From writer and director Chloé Zhao, adapted from a book written by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland shows us real, honest stories about people simply being people. Depicted with candidness are the highs and lows, the pain and peace, and the turmoil and tranquility of everyday life. We see people absorbing the wholesome beauty of the natural world, and pondering the very nature of their existence and purpose as members of the human race.
Frances McDormand portrays Fern, a woman from Nevada who loses her job during the economic turmoil of the Recession and begins a life of minimalism. Living out of a van and traveling across the country, Fern becomes detached from the materialistic nature of our society and has more opportunities to personally reflect on spirituality and faithfulness. This is not directly represented as “religion” in the traditional sense, Christianity or otherwise, but the perceived presence of the divine plays heavily into the lives of Fern and other nomads she meets along the way, like Linda May, Swankie, and her spiritual guide of sorts, Bob Wells. Fern also faces the unapologetic reality of our mortality, as a close friend passes away.
Yet, as Bob Wells says, “One of the things I love most about this life is that there's no final goodbye. You know, I've met hundreds of people out here and I don't ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I'll see you down the road.’”
This is a relatively simple statement that contains an unbelievably powerful reminder that our legacy is defined by the people we touch along the way. We do not have to change the entire world single-handedly in order to carry out God’s will. Rather, it is the intentions we bring to each individual interaction and moment that reveal our ultimate essence. The compassion, empathy, and humanity that should drive our actions as we plainly exist and live in the Kingdom of God construct the core of our livelihoods. The contrast of the grace and rawness found in Nomadland makes a lovely case for this organic, transparent outlook.
-- Thomas Manning, Co-host of Meet Me at the Movies
2) Minari -- Endorsement coming from Steven D. Greydanus
3) Dick Johnson is Dead -- Endorsement coming from Kevin McLenithan
4) Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
Sound of Metal follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer who loses most of his hearing while on tour with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). In an attempt to slow his resulting mental spiral, Ruben checks into a religious program for deaf addicts. There, under the tutelage of a Vietnam veteran named Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben faces a life-changing fork in the road: will he view his deafness as a disability or a chance for a new start?
Through meditative compositions and a stripped down soundtrack, director Darius Marder emphasizes how Ruben’s reaction to his physical circumstances reveal his spiritual well-being. Ruben makes it clear that he’s not religious, and initially shuns the thought of a church sponsoring his way through Joe’s program, but in his desperation he slowly begins to doubt his doubts. A Christian himself, Joe encourages Ruben to focus less on his loss of hearing, and instead assess the state of his soul through divine rest. “The world does keep moving,” he says. “But for me, those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God.”
In the end, Ruben’s journey doesn’t bring him to any altar calls, but the story provokes deep, spiritual introspection. Where do we find the kingdom of God in a transitory world such as ours? In our own abilities and strength, or in the beauty of tapping into a reverberation, a longing, embedded deep within the universe? Jesus says, “He who has ears, let him hear,” but might this hearing extend further than just our physical senses, and instead touch the very fabric of our souls?
— Wade Bearden, co-host of Seeing and Believing
5) Soul -- Endorsement coming from Noel T. Manning, II
6) First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
The rich exist for the sake of the poor,” said St. John Chrysostom, “but the poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” Watching Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow—a tale of survival and friendship about a pioneer and cook (John Magaro) and the Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) with whom he sets up an unorthodox business—with that sentiment in mind colors this story of entrepreneurship. The rich man is Toby Jones’ Chief Factor, who owns the only cow in the Oregon settlement. When the two protagonists decide to steal some of its milk to sell miniature cakes, what begins as a means of survival becomes an opportunity for greed to set in. The bonds of friendship may transcend material possessions, and at its heart, this film is a beautiful story of friendship as necessary to survival; however, the bondage to capital and to whomever has the most of it haunts not only our protagonists but the world for generations. -- Evan Cogswell (2020)
7) The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree)
Benjamin Ree’s documentary The Painter and the Thief charts this unconventional friendship over the course of three years. At first, it seems to be an examination of the beauty of forgiveness, embodied by the stunning painting Barbora makes of Karl-Bertil. But Ree soon deepens the examination. He begins by telling the story from Barbora’s perspective, but doubles back to show the same events from Karl-Bertil’s perspective, which complicates our assumptions about their relationship and deepens our understanding of how grace operates.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says that if you save a life, you are responsible for that life. The Painter and the Thief resembles the truth of this proverb, but also demonstrates that often redemption works both ways, with forgiveness healing the forgiver as well as the forgiven. In this way, the film captures the mystery of grace and the divine potential of human reconciliation.
-- Aren Bergstrom, 3brothersfilm.com
8) Da 5 Bloods -- Spike Lee
Four friends, veterans of an Imperial overseas war, return many years later to the country they fought in, ostensibly to repatriate the body of their fallen comrade, but also to retrieve a cache of hidden gold in the mountains. Once there, they must confront their own traumatic memories of the war and the ways that it has shaped them in the years since. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is in many ways a riff on the similarly plotted The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, along with other Vietnam War films like Apocalypse Now or Platoon, bringing special attention to the experiences and travails of African American soldiers and exploring the lasting impacts of the war upon their lives.
Lee’s film is a bit long, sprawling, and undeniably messy — its choice to centre the experiences of African Americans over the brutality inflicted upon the Vietnamese people is justifiable and timely, but means the film’s anti-war message is somewhat mixed. But it’s also an entertaining, moving, and educational film, in the best sense of the term. It’s a war movie, but it’s also a buddy comedy and a father-child reunion film. Throughout Lee highlights the unequal burden borne by African American soldiers during the Vietnam conflict, and the film’s heart is in the pain and shame that these men still carry, over the things they did in the war and the loss of their friend, Stormin’ Norman, played in flashbacks by the late Chadwick Boseman as a kind of superheroic figure. The character of Paul, in particular, in a monumental performance by Delroy Lindo, has become a bitter, MAGA hat wearing Trump supporter, dealing with some serious issues of self-loathing and a desire to claim some of that American power. But in its confrontation with the shadows of his past, and accompanied by his son, played by Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors, Paul ekes his way toward reconciliation and forgiveness, however imperfectly.
At the film’s climax, Paul is confronted by what is either the memory or ghost of Norman, and Norman forgives Paul for his tresspases against him with the refrain, “God is Love, Love is God.” It’s an echo of the title of Marvin’ Gaye’s song, “God is Love,” whose songs soundtrack the film. In its sprawling messiness, Da 5 Bloods is able to tackle quite a bit, and ultimately becomes a kind of plea for understanding and humanity in the midst of the carnage of war and the hurt that we do to each other. It moved me and educated me, and for that I am grateful.
9) Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne brothers' latest cinematic parable is certainly one of their most provocative and challenging films. It has generated a variety of critiques from film critics: it is somehow too liberal and too conservative, too similar to their previous social realist films and too much of an anomaly, too straightforward and too ambiguous. The film's synopsis—a young Muslim teenager’s newfound fundamentalist views prompt him to repeatedly attempt to kill his teacher—elicited a strong dismissive reaction in certain film critics, and there was a call on social media for the film (and the Dardennes) to be "cancelled" before the film even premiered at the Festival de Cannes in 2019. Nevertheless, Young Ahmed remains strongly anchored within the Dardennes’ sui generis visual style and thematic interests, namely the moral formation of young people and the ethical question of taking a human life, as well as our human capacity for empathy and responsibility for our neighbor. As the film follows the opaque 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) and his kindhearted Muslim schoolteacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), it generates questions in the audience's mind: how might contemporary societies or communities (including churches) respond to a repentant radicalized person? Is it possible to sympathize with or even forgive individuals who have become entrenched in dangerous ideologies? What can or should be done to help de-radicalize people caught in such paradigms (for example, the recent QAnon phenomenon)? This is the power of cinematic parables like the Dardennes' films: through a reorientation by disorientation, they may transform our moral and theological imaginations for the better. -- Joel Mayward (2020)
10) David Byrne's American Utopia -- Endorsement coming from...