An exquisite art-house film about a beatified martyr. The triumphant arrival of a belated documentary of a celebrated gospel concert. A fact-based drama about an alliance of devout and unbelieving survivors of clerical sex abuse calling for justice.
These are just a few of an unusually large crop of notable films that tackled religious and spiritual themes in 2019.
Prayer, clerical characters, and church services and liturgical celebrations featured in several films, from the baptism and confession scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman to Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers praying for all the members of the Vogel family by name in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
There was a revisionist Jesus indie. A Harriet Tubman biopic that treated Tubman’s faith and mystical experiences as a kind of superpower. A documentary about an influential priest who served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
There were also, of course, a number of faith-based films, produced within the “Christian film” industry. Among these were the fact-based medical-miracle drama Breakthrough, the sports movie Overcomer and the abortion-themed conversion story Unplanned, based on Abby Johnson’s memoir.
All of these were embraced by the faithful and did well at the box office, though like most faith-based films they continued the trend of preaching to the choir.
The revered filmmaker Terrence Malick is a Christian and the religious themes in his work are very deliberate, but his films speak powerfully to cinephiles of other faiths and of none. His latest celebrates the life and death of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a devout Austrian Catholic executed in 1943 for refusing to swear the soldier’s oath of allegiance to Hitler, and declared a martyr and beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.
A somewhat different case: In cataloguing the horrors of China’s crimes against humanity, the critically acclaimed documentary One Child Nation bears startling witness to the human dignity of discarded fetuses found in alleys and garbage dumps, above all in the work of the visual artist Peng Wang, the film’s most eloquent voice of conscience.
I found this the most powerfully pro-life message on American screens in 2019, though the filmmakers didn’t set out to make a statement about abortion itself. On the contrary, late in the film is a glib throwaway line unconvincingly comparing efforts to restrict abortion in the U.S. with China’s policies of forced abortions and sterilizations.
Still, the film’s unavoidable pro-life implications have caused discomfort, perhaps even cognitive dissonance, among some of its supporters. At Sundance a leading New York film critic, while acknowledging the film’s achievements, expressed concern about how the U.S. “extreme right” might respond to it — an indication, for me, of the film’s moral power.
In some cases, on the other hand, religious themes were downplayed or omitted entirely where they might be expected. For example, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, though a delightful film and a fascinating commentary on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, omits essentially every scrap of the source material’s religiosity while adding a shocking line about God’s will in relation to an impending tragedy.
A Beautiful Day includes Mr. Rogers’ faith and prayer but omits the larger role of prayer in the source material. Tolkien could hardly help including the youthful Tolkien’s clerical guardian, but it subverts his relationship with Tolkien and otherwise ignores the role of Catholicism in Tolkien’s life, including its direct relationship to his mother’s ostracism from her family.
2019 was another banner year for Disney dominance. With the combined power of its Pixar, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm brands, the Mouse released seven of the year’s top 10 box-office hits domestically, including Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen II, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (That’s not counting Spider-Man: Far From Home, which Disney got a piece of but was released by Sony. Rounding out the top 10 were Warner Bros’ Joker and It Chapter Two.)
None of these branded IP releases were among my favorite films of the year, but that wasn’t very surprising or disappointing.
More disappointing was the dearth of high-quality family films. Original content especially was lacking amid a parade of sequels (Lego Movie 2, Toy Story 4, Frozen II, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World) and remakes (The Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo).
Movies often come in twos, but this year there were a trio (!) of abominable-snowman cartoons — none very good. What else? Among the odds and ends, the most diverting were a hand-drawn Santa Claus origin story (see my honorable mentions) and a live-action Arthurian fantasy adventure called The Kid Who Would Be King from Attack the Block director Joe Cornish. (Toy Story 4 also was good, not great.)
In a way it was a year for trios. In a great year for nonfiction films, a trio of archival “time machine” documentaries that brought the past to startling new life were all so miraculous that ranking them was practically meaningless. (In the end, lacking anything else to go by, my deciding factors were subject matter and emotions: I would rather think about space travel than war, and I would rather think about God than anything.)
Among the year’s popular high-profile releases a trio of auteur-driven throwbacks to classic Hollywood genres with a twist — the whodunit, the “women’s picture” and the gangster movie — had me cheering.
But I was disappointed by the trio I had been most looking forward to: three acclaimed original films — The Lighthouse, The Nightingale and Us — each the sophomore effort of a director whose wildly original horror feature debut (respectively, The Witch, The Babadook and Get Out) set a high bar.
Among other acclaimed films I wasn’t over the moon for, I was dazzled by the brilliant filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but after reading scads of raves I remain unsold on the ending. And I was crushed not to love Clemency, a movie that, on paper, ought to have been a shoo-in for my top five, or even my top three.
Still, going just by the quality of the films in my top 10 (and the difficulty I had eliminating many worthy runners-up that I would have been just as happy including in the top 10), I might call 2019 the best overall movie year of the 2010s — with the caveat that family audiences were underserved.
When I first saw the harrowing Syrian documentary The Cave I was sure it would be in my top 10, until it was displaced by For Sama. How is it possible that For Sama didn’t make the top 10 either? How did Aquarella, from the Russian documentarian whose quietly delightful ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! rounded out my 2013 top 10, land in my honorable mentions? Perhaps most astonishingly to me, why is Marriage Story not in my top five, let alone my top 10?
That’s how good the films were this year.
At any rate, this is my list of the 30 films that most moved, thrilled, inspired, shook or haunted me in 2019. If your favorites aren’t listed below, it’s not because I “forgot” them, although, as always, there are many films I have yet to catch up with and others I wish I had enjoyed more than I did.
SDG’s Top Films of 2019
- A Hidden Life. The moral themes of dramas of martyrdom and conscience like A Man for All Seasons and Sophie Scholl blend with Terrence Malick’s signature themes of theodicy and paradise lost in this ecstatic, anguished three-hour cinematic hymn singing the life and death of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. Malick’s most linear film in years is also his most overtly religious and most political, with challenges for both believing and secular admirers. Violence and menace; thematic content. Mature teens.
- One Child Nation. The psychological and cultural toll as well as the human-rights atrocities of China’s war on the family are laid bare in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s daring first-person stealth documentary. Juxtaposing Wang’s memories of growing up in the one-child era with revealing interviews and archival materials, it’s a furiously controlled blend of political indictment, cultural cross-examination and personal journey. Frank discussion of atrocities, including forced abortions; some disturbing images; brief language. Mature teens.
- Amazing Grace. Sydney Pollack’s long-unfinished film of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel concert with the Southern California Community Choir at L.A.’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, completed at last by producer Alan Elliott, is at once an exuberant celebration of music and showmanship and also a transcendent act of worship. Nothing problematic.
- The Farewell. A gorgeous and winning cross-cultural comedy-drama about an extended Chinese family going to unusual lengths to gather around a dying matriarch who doesn’t know she’s dying, Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical film finds universal truths in the tale of a very specific lie. A Shinto ritual; brief crass language; heavy drinking and inebriation; mature themes. Teens and up.
- Light from Light. Loss, mystery and the pursuit of meaning are recurring themes in Paul Harrill’s subdued indie dramas set in East Tennessee. His latest, starring Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan, is a whisper-quiet ghost story that, while not overtly religious, implicitly raises questions about discerning the voice of God speaking to us. Mature themes; a brief medical scare. Teens and up.
- Apollo 11. Long-neglected high-definition NASA film reels and brilliant editing offer genuinely new, wondrous access to one of humanity’s most extraordinary achievements in Todd Douglas Miller’s masterful documentary. Brief language. Kids and up.
- They Shall Not Grow Old. Voices and faces from the dim and distant past emerge with stunning vitality in Peter Jackson’s tour de force World War I documentary, which features cutting-edge digital restoration and colorization of archival footage. Graphic battlefield imagery. Adults.
- Little Women. It’s still a feel-good celebration of family bonds and moral virtue, but Greta Gerwig hasn’t just remade Louisa May Alcott’s often-adapted classic — she’s reimagined and reinterpreted it, interweaving the two halves of Alcott’s story and glossing the autobiographical significance of Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March. Brief inebriation; mature themes. Might be fine for older kids.
- Knives Out. In Rian Johnson’s hands, an old-fashioned, ridiculously entertaining whodunit with all the usual elements becomes a morality tale with a distinctly contemporary vibe, rewarding decency and compassion, siding with the marginal over the privileged, and knocking the complacent on both sides of contemporary political discourse. Murder theme; a suicide; sexual references; frequent profanity and crude language. Teens and up.
- By the Grace of God. Three adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse in childhood band together to confront Church authorities and face their trauma in François Ozon’s emotionally persuasive fact-based French drama. Several graphic descriptions of clerical sex abuse of boys; references to a genital deformity; brief partial female nudity; brief domestic violence; some harsh language. Adults.
10 Runners-Up (unranked)
- American Factory. What happens when a Chinese corporation reopens a shuttered Ohio GM plant and puts unemployed Americans to work? Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s engrossing nonfiction film examines the ensuing complications from both perspectives. Teens and up.
- Aquarela. Russian documentarian Victor Kossakovsky’s latest globe-hopping documentary is a nearly wordless paean to the visual and physical power of water and ice. Teens and up.
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A Hidden Life and Amazing Grace brought me closer to God, but Marielle Heller directing Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers challenged me more to think about how I treat other people. Teens and up.
- For Sama. A deeply personal memoir of the fall of Aleppo from revolution to rubble, Waad al-Kateab’s first-person account of marriage and family amid heroic resistance documents both the horrors of the siege and the stubborn survival of hope and humanity. Adults.
- Give Me Liberty. Kirill Mikhanovsky’s compassionate, observant deadpan comedy/drama unfolds over an increasingly chaotic day in the life of a harried Milwaukee medical transport driver. Adults.
- Maiden. Alex Holmes’ rip-roaring seafaring nonfiction film celebrates the first all-female crew to compete in a grueling round-the-world yacht race. Teens and up.
- Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach’s unflinching drama starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a divorce is as insightful as it is painful, sharply funny and not without hope. Adults.
- Parasite. South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s audaciously inventive black comedy/thriller keeps one-upping itself with one outrageous conceit after another in a parable of two families at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Adults.
- The Irishman. For over two and a half hours, Martin Scorsese’s 209-minute opus starring Robert De Niro as a hit man and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa looks like a solid gangster movie — until the overtime fourth act in which Scorsese blows up his protagonist’s world and self-image, exposing its moral and spiritual hollowness. Adults.
- Waves. Heartbreaking and audacious, Trey Edward Shults’ drama about a wealthy African American family shattered by one member’s self-destructive choices illuminates how closely strength and weakness coexist and the grace that can work for healing in all things. Adults.
10 Honorable Mentions (unranked)
- 1917. Sam Mendes’ “unbroken shot” World War I drama is an inversion of Saving Private Ryan both thematically and stylistically, at its best emphasizing the inexorability of war. Adults.
- The Cave. A heroic woman doctor runs a literally underground hospital in Feras Fayyad’s follow-up to Last Men in Aleppo (which honored the heroic “White Helmets” rescue workers). Adults.
- Ford v Ferrari. Outstanding performances by Matt Damon and Christian Bale highlight James Mangold’s breezy, fact-based crowd-pleaser about striving for something personal while wearing a corporate logo, which sounds a lot like a metaphor for making this movie. Teens and up.
- Hala. Minhal Baig’s cross-cultural coming-of-age drama about an American Muslim girl with traditional Pakistani-born parents explores disappointment and consequences, but also rebuilding and moving forward. Adults.
- Harriet. Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet Tubman biopic is a superhero origin story, with Harriet’s faith and visions as her superpower. Teens and up.
- Hesburgh. Holy Cross Father Ted Hesburgh’s gift for bringing together people divided by ideological lines is at the center of Patrick Creadon’s somewhat one-sided documentary. Teens and up.
- Honeyland. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s world-expanding documentary about an ancient way of life in decline — traditional wild beekeeping in North Macedonia — and the complications of a world in motion even for the relatively isolated. Teens and up.
- Klaus. A Santa Claus origin story with distinct shades of The Emperor’s New Groove, Sergio Pablos’ gorgeously hand-drawn animated film is a new Christmas near-classic. Kids and up.
- Last Black Man in San Francisco. Joe Talbot’s loosely structured, deeply felt comedy-drama centers on its protagonist’s key relationships with his best friend and the childhood home where he no longer lives but can’t give up. Adults.
- Roll Red Roll. Nancy Schwartzman’s infuriating documentary about the 2012 Steubenville rape case(s) goes beyond the particulars, pointing to underlying cultural pathologies that promote victim blaming and protect male perpetrators. Mature viewing; might profitably be watched and discussed with teens.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.