Film Critics’ Favorite Films of 2016 – Part 5

In part five of our favorite films series, Tyler Smith of More Than One Lesson chose as his top films four theatrical movies with faith elements.

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SILENCE  Martin Scorsese’s honest and beautiful portrait of the Japanese persecution of Christians in the 1600s refuses to let anybody off easily. While our sympathies are undoubtedly with the Jesuit priests, we soon find that the situation is much more philosophically complex than they (or we) would first assume. The film explores the need to evangelize and what it means to see others the way Jesus did, connecting with people on their terms so that we might first meet their needs and learn to love them unconditionally. Scorsese asks us what the relationship between a personal and public faith looks like, and the role that pride can play in that dynamic. A film that is full of doubt, yet embraces hope despite itself, it understands the difficult journey – both internal and external – that the faithful embark upon the moment they decide to follow Christ.

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LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT Rodrigo Garcia’s hypnotic meditation on Jesus’ time of isolation could possibly frustrate some Christians in its complicated interpretation of these passages of scripture. As Jesus prepares to return to civilization, he happens upon a family out in the wilderness. While he interacts with them, Satan plants seeds of doubt about his devotion to God, his potential delusions of grandeur, and the value of human beings. This family is like any other – maybe every other – in that it contains within it the potential for joy and comfort, but also bitterness and wrath. In the end, of course, Jesus’ love for this family springs from his delight in their foibles and their desperate need for hope. It is a difficult film, but one understands that, while Jesus’ love for us might be considered simple, it should never be mistaken for easy. We are broken, complicated creatures who at times might seem irredeemable, and the humanity in Jesus manifests itself as a sincere worry that the situation might be beyond his help. It is a decidedly different look at Jesus and ourselves, but one worth taking.

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A MONSTER CALLS J.A. Bayona’s touching fairy tale about a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer, and his attempts to cope with this fact. The boy – a young artist who uses his creativity as a means of escape – is soon confronted by an intimidating, but benevolent, Monster who tells him a series of unusual and seemingly-disconnected stories. However, as the mother’s situation becomes more dire, the true meaning of the film comes into focus. The Monster’s role in the boy’s life is one of both authority and comfort in a time of need. At several points, he holds the boy in his hands, so careful, so strong. While the film isn’t overtly Christian in its sentiments, there is no denying the resonance that it will have with those who have been through difficult times with only God’s love and assurance (and sometimes, His mere presence) to carry them through. It is a sad, but hopeful, film that never condescends to its younger viewers, but instead speaks deeper truths that even the wisest audience can benefit from hearing.

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RISEN Kevin Reynolds’ period procedural is one of the more effective Christian films I’ve seen, precisely because it borrows elements from other film genres and uses them to push the story forward. As a Roman centurion is dispatched to find the missing body of Christ, he comes to learn more about who this mysterious man was and why he mattered so much to people. He works his way through the disciples and various witnesses to Christ’s miracles, but never lets these details deter him from his mission. It is this type of focus that constantly moves the story ahead, never allowing us time for meditation on what we’ve just heard. Given how many Christian films are willing to bring their stories to a grinding halt in order to state and restate their message, Risen’s commitment to its genre roots is commendable, and actually makes the Christian revelations more effective. And while the third act begins to lose focus, the film has by that time earned a little grace from the audience, and we come away from the film having been entertained, affirmed, and a bit challenged.

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