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Good Letters

Continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here.

Coninuing yesterday’s list of films, here are five other films (ranked) the 2015 Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury recommended for Christian audiences, plus a list of honorable mentions (unranked):

 

5) Love & Mercy—Bill Pohlad

Love & Mercy—about the struggle of the Beach Boys’ anchor Brian Wilson to integrate serious mental illness with magnificent creative impulses—is as good on the creative process as on psychological sensitivity, letting Wilson’s beautiful mind speak for itself. In Paul Dano and John Cusack’s extraordinary dual performances, the voices in Wilson’s head become comprehensible as the residue of abusive parenting at the hands of a father-manager whose physical blows married emotional cruelty (including callously selling his son’s music publishing rights) but also gave Wilson a reason to want to escape.

The irony—and perhaps the redemption—is that Brian Wilson’s suffering helped him create some of the most life-affirming music, and a million smiles, even when he himself may have been crying. As a work of trying to understanding and empathize with the struggle to become better—at art, and at life—a music biopic about mental illness, and a mental illness film about creativity and celebrity, Love & Mercy is among the best films of the year.—Gareth Higgins

 

4) Spotlight—Tom McCarthy

Spotlight is pervaded by incredulity, pain, and anger, laced with sadness and guilt. Working with a script co-written by Josh Singer, director Tom McCarthy brings precision and persuasive detail to a portrait of a specific time, place, and perspective: Boston, seen through the eyes of The Globe‘s Spotlight Team around the turn of the millennium, at a time when reporters and editors were long familiar with cases of “pedophile priests,” but couldn’t yet imagine the extent of the cover-up culture in the Catholic Church.

The film’s polemic is not entirely directed at the Church; lawyers, law enforcement, and, notably, the press itself, and specifically The Globe, are all implicated. Still, it is the Church’s betrayal, a betrayal of a sacred trust and a form of spiritual abuse, that is the most deeply felt.

Spotlight makes painful viewing, but Christians tempted to circle the wagons and nit-pick the film to oblivion—a possible tactic with any two-hour dramatization of such a story—should resist the temptation: This defensive response is precisely what made the scandal possible in the first place. The Church is called to be the light of the world. We must not fear to turn a spotlight on ourselves.—Steven D. Greydanus

 

3) Timbuktu—Abderrahmane Sissako

Timbuktu is one of several films using the legal system of a religion, and specifically the courtroom, as a space to test our assumptions about that religion and its adherents. Similar to that of Kiarostami’s Close-Up or the Elkabetzes’ Gett, the centerpiece of Timbuktu is a series of court scenes and conversations that challenge the ease with which we map justice onto religious impulses.

The film is a re-enactment of a 2012 jihadist uprising in Mali resulting in the occupation of Timbuktu by violent fundamentalists. Despite the occasional levity with which Sissako treats the absurdity and duplicity of these jihadists, the film does not flinch when it comes to narrating this tragedy. Sissako renders the city and its neighboring deserts in poetic, even transcendent tones. But this only provides a more memorable backdrop against which this parable of desire, righteousness, and family plays out.

Woven around Timbuktu’s conversations about God and mercy is a masterful cinematic evocation of human suffering and solidarity.—M. Leary

 

2) Stations of the Cross—Dietrich Brüggemann

Can you remember a time in your teenage years when you feared pleasure and joy? Can you remember someone pitching faith as a kind of sanctifying anxiety—a conditional relationship with God, contingent upon your constant worry about it? Many of us can. Many of those wounded by such fundamentalism have left religion behind. Those of us who have stayed and found better expressions for our faith still have the scabs.

Stations of the Cross picks at the scabs. The film follows fourteen-year-old Maria, a sincere young woman growing up in a restrictive Catholic sect. She sits in confirmation class, enthralled, as her priest enumerates the various pleasures that the adolescents could be giving up to God. And so Maria begins to offer her own sacrifices, one by one—winter coats, crushes, rock and roll. We know where Maria’s asceticism is taking her, but that doesn’t make the journey hurt any less.

Co-writer and director Dietrich Brüggemann lets the action unfold in fourteen painful, stationary shots—one for each station of the cross. The stark geometric compositions, cool palette, and deep focus call to mind Northern Renaissance paintings, with Maria at the center as a cautionary religious icon.

Stations of the Cross is a startling portrait of the way that fear-based faith can manipulate and torment people—especially young people—and a call to do better by the tender spirits in our flocks.—Lauren Wilford

 

1) The Assassin—Hou Hsiao-Hsien

In seventh century China, a lethal female assassin (Qi Shu) is ordered by her superior to assassinate her cousin in order to preserve peace, and she finds herself increasingly reluctant to carry out her assignment. Her confrontation with her past and family causes her to reevaluate her life and to rethink the best means of achieving peace.

Gorgeously shot and edited in such a way that scenes become clear as they unfold, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film about pacifism and war is in some ways the opposite of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Both concern an expert female assassin who reaches a crisis in her life, but whereas Tarantino’s protagonist chooses to use her skills to regain her career and lose her soul, Hou’s film shows how the assassin uses her skills to abandon her career, saving her soul and possibly others’ as well.

Even more remarkably, the film’s meditative nature shows how the less-traveled road of non-violence can be even more difficult and require more courage than the path of violence.—Evan Cogswell

 

Jurors’ Honorable Mentions:

Sometimes a film is well regarded but not eligible for an award because it has not been seen by enough jurors. Alternately, a juror may cut against the grain, embracing or championing a film the rest of the jury was not as enthusiastic about.

Jury members are each given the opportunity to recognize one film that did not make the final awards list but that he or she strongly recommends. The honorable mentions (unranked) are as follows:

1) Clouds of Sils Maria—Olivier Assayas; Recognized by Anders Bergstrom
2) 45 Years—Andrew Haigh; Recognized by Peter T. Chattaway
3) Phoenix—Christian Petzold; Recognized by Evan Cogswell
4) Ex Machina—Alex Garland; Recognized by Steven D. Greydanus
5) Mustang—Deniz Gamze Ergüven; Recognized by Christian Hamaker
6) Kaili Blues—Gan Bi; Recognized by Josh Hamm
7) Youth—Paulo Sorrentino; Recognized by Gareth Higgins
8) Experimenter—Michael Almereyda; Recognized by M. Leary
9) Infinitely Polar Bear—Maya Forbes; Recognized by Noel T. Manning II
10) World of Tomorrow—Don Hertzfeldt; Recognized by Joel Mayward
11) Something, Anything—Paul Harrill; Recognized by Jeffrey Overstreet
12) (Dis)honesty: The Truth About Lies—Yael Melamede; Recognized by Kenneth R. Morefield
13 In Jackson Heights—Frederick Wiseman; Recognized by Colin Stacy
14) The Wolfpack—Crystal Moselle; Recognized by Lauren Wilford
15) OUT 1 (Out 1, Noli Me Tangere)—Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman; Recognized by Alissa Wilkinson

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Kenneth R. Morefield

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of and a contributor to Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, and III. Volume III is co-edited by Nicholas S. Olsen. Other works of note include Jane Austen's Emma: A Close Reading Companion (Volume I) and contributions to the anthologies Perceptions of Religious Faith in the Work of Graham Greene and The Deep End of South Park: Critical Essays on Television’s Shocking Cartoon Series. He also contributed the entry on “Christian Fiction” in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading.  Journal articles include “Searching for the Fairy Child: A Psychoanalytic Study of Babbitt” for Mid-West Quarterly and “‘Emma Could Not Resist’: Complicity and the Christian Reader” for Persuasions.

Ken has written numerous film reviews that have appeared at Christianity Today Movies, Christian Spotlight on Entertainment, The Matthew’s House Project, Scope, Looking Closer, and The Cary News. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), a contributing critic to Indiewire and Rotten Tomatoes, and the founder of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Ken lives in Fuquay-Varina, NC with his wife, Cynthia, who is a painter.

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