2014 Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury Awards — Winners

In my post announcing the formation of  the Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury, I stated that I hoped we would “enlarge or expand the perception of what is meant by either labeling a film a ‘Christian’ film or suggesting that it should be of interest to Christian audiences.”

I’d say we did that.

UPDATE: This jury is *not* affiliated with SIGNIS/Interfilm in any way. For more discussion about the name of this group, please see this forum. The Arts & Faith forum is affiliated with Image Journal.

These results reflect a diversity of taste and sensibility, suggesting that the jury took seriously its mandate to consider all the nominations and to honor intelligence, heart, and artistry. The list of winners includes foreign language films, one documentary, an animated classic, a pair of Hollywood studio films, and  some deeply personal indie gems. Two of the films focus on clergy and one on a novice nun.

Perhaps surprisingly–given that we had only one female juror–four of the films are headlined by actresses and are about women’s experiences. It is a common refrain in Evangelical circles that the Christian audience feels shut out at the movies, without choices at the multiplex or rental kiosk that engage issues of religion, faith, or spirituality in a positive, provocative, or entertaining manner.

We disagree.

The jury nominated over sixty films for consideration and then faced the daunting task of winnowing down that rich field to the ten films we felt were most worthy of recognition. You may not agree with all of these choices. I confess with chagrin that I gave one of these winners a thumb’s down in my initial assessment. But juries make you stop and think, and maybe, just maybe, see things in a different light. I can’t wait to share with you our jurors’ thoughts about the films we chose…and to hear your responses. Ready? Here we go:

10) Fury — David Ayer

fury“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” explains one soldier in Fury, which shows the intense collaboration required among soldiers during combat, as well as the physical and psychological toll war takes on those who fight it. Principles give way to rationalizations amid repeated kill-or-be-killed engagements, and even Bible-believing soldiers use Scripture to their own questionable ends. Yet while other, similar films have extolled the idea of a noble death for their characters, Fury stops short of that notion, suggesting that there’s a place for the exercise of conscience during warfare, and that the vilest opponents are capable of acts of compassion. The film delivers many of the familiar genre beats of wartime movies, but then goes beyond them, reaching a place that feels more transcendent even as it honors the sacrifice of those who paid the highest price to defeat Germany. Fury leaves us contemplating what sort of choices we would have made had we been in their position, and what we might do when our loyalty to God conflicts with our loyalty to earthly authorities. The film’s great strength is an ambiguity that leaves room for more than one answer. — Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk.com)

9) Noah — Darren Aronofsky

noah6Noah is the filmic mashup between a Narnia-esque fantasy, a Shakespearean family drama, and a gritty biblical morality tale, all rolled into an epic cinematic experience. This is not your Sunday-school Noah, with happy flannel-graph animals gathered on a boat beneath a rainbow. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a tortured soul, a man striving to remain faithful to the Creator and care for his family while embracing the difficult task of being a key figure in the destruction of humanity. While Noah has some flaws, it’s certainly a *fantastic* film, in both senses of that word: “extraordinarily good” and “imaginative.” For those who are hesitant about Noah–particularly those who claim it isn’t “biblical” enough–I would invite them to watch again with open minds and hearts, seeking the truth and beauty in the flood of this tale. Noah reminds us that we are broken and beautiful, bearing both the weight of our sin and the image of God in our souls. — Joel Mayward (The Mayward Blog)

8) The Lego Movie — Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

legomovieThe Lego Movie took critics and audiences by surprise not only by elevating itself beyond a massive commercial, but by the thematic depths it plumbed and its ability to blend humor with serious strands of thought through the centuries. The film navigates the nuances of the act of creation and the boundaries between free will and predetermined fate. It forgoes the all too common thematic affliction of promoting unbridled individualism; instead, The Lego Movie realizes the restorative responsibility of balancing free will with obedience and acknowledging the importance of considering the letter of the law with the spirit of the law. We see the story of humanity; from falling out of sync with the Creator, to living in unknowing slavery to sin, to attempts to attain godhood, to the power of sacrificial love and a resolution attained only through deus ex machina. And all this is to say nothing of its social and cultural commentary, which exists hand in hand with its theology. Although the film may not perfectly line up with Christian theology, it is certainly in dialogue with it, and at a level where The Lego Movie is one of the most spiritually resonant animated films in recent years.
— Josh Hamm (Profound Distractions)

7) The Babadook — Jennifer Kent

thebabadook2The festering of grief and the frightening ways such grief manifests itself is at the heart of The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent’s horror film about the relationship between a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis) has never really accepted her husband’s death, which occurred as he drove her to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). With Sam’s seventh birthday approaching, Amelia is feeling increasingly overwrought, and she copes by isolating herself and Sam in their gloomy Victorian home, making an ideal setup for Mister Babadook, a sinister popup book character, to come knocking. Despite their misguided choices, neither Amelia nor Sam ever loses our sympathy. Kent expertly plays upon the audience’s sympathies and fears, reminding us of the beauty of the love between a parent and a child and the tragedy that occurs when it is threatened. — Evan Cogswell (Catholic Cinephile)

6) The Sublime and Beautiful — Blake Robbins

sublimeandbeautiful“Would you like a drink?” What might you say to the man who killed your three children? What could you imagine him saying in reply? The second of two films on our list about grieving parents, Blake Robbins’s The Sublime and Beautiful takes a premise we’ve seen before and makes it fresh by reminding us of how messy and non-cinematic grief truly is. Pay close attention and you’ll notice that David Conrad (Robbins) is already heading for–may even be in–an existential crisis before another man’s weakness sideswipes his life. Gaining weight, sleeping with his graduate assistant, wondering (as Robbins said in an interview) if “this is all there is,” the pre-accident David senses that he has already lost something important before additional important things are taken away.  David flails in his pain, seeking answers in a silent church and at the end of a rifle. Whether the mid-life crisis will be a wake-up call or the beginning of a downward spiral is an unanswered question. For those in the first waves of grief, the answer may not even matter much. But it matters to us, and we pray that David can hold on long enough to start living again. — Kenneth R. Morefield (1More Film Bog)

5) Calvary — John Michael McDonagh

calvarymovieJohn Michael McDonagh says that Calvary is the second in a trilogy starring Brendan Gleeson as an embodiment of contemporary Ireland, which is delightful for me, because the first two have each been my favorite films in their year of release. The earlier The Guard was a perfectly realized tragicomedy, hilarious and full of grace amidst horror. Calvary, like the priest at its center, has the courage of its convictions – rooting itself in the gorgeous and character-building space of the coast near Sligo, asking how to serve the common good when it might get you killed. Like The Guard, it understands Irishness, its discontents, and its gifts. McDonagh is a poet of the Celtic soul, Gleeson is the face of the nation, and Calvary is an icon through which the kind of light can shine that illuminates life itself. Its final scene resonates with Greek myth, and the comparison is earned, for this is a film about a genuinely universal question: how forgiveness is not only possible, but necessary, and maybe even inevitable. — Gareth Higgins (Sojourners)

4) The Immigrant — James Gray

theimmigrantIn a nod to the social realism of American cinema in the late silent era, The Immigrant is an operatic take on a city full of charlatans, pimps, and immigrants. Its citizens are larger than life and drawn as broadly as a sepia photograph in fading newsprint. But like Bruno and Ewa, they are carving out a living in whatever way they can, leaving behind the wars and pogroms of fading homelands. What happens in The Immigrant‘s central love triangle is at first a bit of a shock. But then it just continues to crescendo as Gray conducts the performances of Pheonix, Cotillard, and Renner into themes of cruelty, kindness, and humanizing loyalty. Though the film is classic and familiar, its refrains of grace are timeless. The Immigrant is an indelible spiritual reflection in an era of cinema always looking for something new. — M. Leary (Filmwell)

3) The Overnighters — Jesse Moss

theovernightersAt turns inspiring, challenging, sobering and finally devastating, The Overnighters is an existentially probing documentary with more layers than a twisty Hollywood thriller. Partly this is due to the compelling subject matter: a Lutheran pastor in a booming North Dakota oil town committed to showing Christian hospitality to an influx of out-of-state laborers, many rough around the edges, and to mediating between them and the tense, sometimes testy local community. Partly it’s a matter of circumstance as the situation spirals in unexpected directions. And partly it’s the sheer filmmaking craft on display, particularly in editing. What starts as a seemingly straightforward celebration of Christian virtue becomes a complex chronicle of a community in conflict before finally revealing itself as an excruciating meditation on the contradictions people live with, on the tension between one’s public and private self, and the extent to which heroic virtue and service can coexist with deep moral compromise. — Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films Guide)

2) Ida — Pawel Pawlikowski

films-ida-Ida-3In his most recent film, director Pawel Pawlikowski grapples with belief, loss, and religious ambiguity in 1960s Communist Poland. The story’s protagonist, a novitiate nun named Anna, is suddenly faced with a crisis of faith when she learns of her family’s dark history. Submersion in the past eventually pushes Anna to question not only her personal identity, but also her commitment to God. Shot in rich monochrome, Ida uses disproportional angles and off-center framing to convey the feeling that life isn’t always as symmetrical as one would like. With powerful performances and a patient, lingering presence, Ida paints a beautiful portrait of faith by showing us that faith isn’t always so beautiful.  — Wade Bearden (Christ and Pop Culture; WadeBearden.com)

1) Two Days, One Night — Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

twodaysonenight What the Dardenne brothers do best is this: look at that person you’d rather not notice — the woman weeping on the subway, the guy pulling some shady deal on the corner — and take a deep dive into where she came from and where he’s going, thereby turning embarrassment into empathy. Accessible enough for any audience but flawlessly crafted to please the most jaded filmgoer, Two Days, One Night touches the panic of many living hand-to-mouth because they’ve simply fallen on hard times. Each character explodes from greyscale to color when the story touches them, and in every one of them is a quiet reminder that our world is far more complicated than it seems. This is the height of cinematic empathy, the apex of — dare I say it? — an incarnational imagination. — Alissa Wilkinson (Christianity Today)

Juror’s Honorable Mentions

Each juror was afforded the opportunity to select one film that did not make the final list as his or her special “honorable mention.” These are the films that one of us loved more than the rest of us–or that one of us is still waiting for the rest of us to track down!

Wade Bearden — Snowpiercer

Evan Cogswell — The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s latest film is as whimsical and eccentric as to be expected, but this story of nostalgia for a fantasy world of secret societies, crazy hijinks, unattainable goals, murder mysteries, and above all, friendships is rife with bittersweet humor and surprising poignancy. As the concierge of the titular hotel Ralph Fiennes effortlessly captures the typical self-centered deadpan of Anderson protagonists as well as a longing for something beyond this imperfect world. Told through the eyes of Zero (Tony Revolori), the devoted lobby boy of the Grand Budapest, the film chronicles the final glory days of a time and a world long since past.

Steven D. Greydanus — Chef

Josh Hamm — Violent

On the surface, Violent is simply another millennial coming of age story. But this debut film from experimental rockers We Are The City is so much more under the surface. A cold, quiet film, which, instead of inviting the audience to contemplate God, chooses to give them a cinematic space which allows them to do so almost without realizing His presence. Shot with an eye for juxtaposing the raw majesty of life with the subsequent feelings of insignificance and isolation, the film asks us to question if our faith can see us through a world we can barely navigate. Punctuated by silence – a silence which is either the presence or absence of God – Violent explores how we come to terms with death with sensitivity to spiritual matters without pressing them to the forefront.

Christian Hamaker — The Homesman

Gareth Higgins — The Congress

The Congress is a visually exquisite, emotionally ecstatic exploration of the interaction between love and power. It’s my favorite film of the year after Calvary.

M. Leary — Norte, The End of History

This loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is one of the most challenging films of the last year, slowly expanding across four hours of richly textured cinema. Woven around its storied images of economy and modernity are deep reflections on who we are and the choices we make. Sometimes these reflections are theological in scope, interacting with Filipino evangelicalism and the depth of Christian theodicy. At other times these reflections are slow and silent visual meditations on the ramshackle edges of urban sprawl and farmland. But at the heart of the film are a murderer and his imprisoned victim, together an unflinching case study in what Jonathan Edwards called “charity and its fruits.” Diaz’s film is one of the most important of our decade; a demanding pilgrimage, an unyielding gaze, a myth. This is the kind of film that could set the tone for theological conversation about cinema..

Joel Mayward — Winter Sleep

An intimate familial drama centered around one man’s relationships with his wife, his sister, his community, and himself, Winter Sleep  is both intimate and epic in scope. The story addresses the themes of separation, loss, justice, and spirituality, all set in the misty hills of Anatolia in Turkey. It’s a subtle film, full of complexity and intriguing characters that never feel stilted; they feel wholly human, beautiful and flawed, navigating a winter season together-yet-apart in the crags of the steppe.

Kenneth R. Morefield — Beginning with the End

Mark Moring — Particle Fever

Because it shows God’s fingerprints in the most infinitesimally small things in the universe.

11 Replies to “2014 Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury Awards — Winners”

  1. Nathan Jankov

    Some worthy films here to be sure. That said, the inclusion of Noah and the honorable mention of Snowpiercer do a great deal to call its credibility into question.

    Describing Noah as “fantastic: extraordinarily good” is beyond defense. There is a singular reason that this film failed at the box office so badly it was labeled a bomb. It was no where close to the actual story of Noah beyond the character name, a flood and a boat. Not coincidentally, it is the same reason the new Exodus movie bombed. Could you imagine such a “loose adaptation” of Romeo and Juliet? No. And even the rest of Hollywood does not, because it is not true to the work. Don’t think so? Look at the success of the Hobbit and TLOTR series. It clearly illustrated the difference between directorial discretion while being true to the story and making a whole new story. Noah and Exodus did the latter and reaped what they sowed. To try and equate a Bible account, read NOT STORY, with some fantasy tale open to wild extrapolation and mythologizing is to miss the essence of what the Bible is entirely. It also is quite a cavalier attitude to something that has resonated so deeply for centuries with people of all cultures across the globe. In both cases the directors essentially said my own unique spin on this classic is better. The faith based community and the rest of the general public for that matter in both cases showed that was not so.

    A brief mention of Lego Movie, how could you not point out the far grander metanarratives that exist. Such as the loss of self to culture, the cost of blind ambivalence to culture, the importance of friendship and diversity, and on and on.

    Snowpiercer: humanity finds itself in the end by causing its own extinction? Yup, supremely profound. That is after over an hour of Kill Bill meets the Matrix with an extra side of human depravity. It didn’t even bother to really identify the value of life beyond the train as any more than the briefest ideas when it should have been, was in fact, the whole point. Wish I could have back that two hours of my life.

    • kenmorefield

      Thank you for your feedback, Nathan.
      Noah and Snowpiercer were certainly two of the more polarizing nominees that the jury considered, prompting some sharp disagreements, as might be expected.

      While the nature of a jury is that there is seldom unanimity (though Two Days, One Night and Ida came pretty close), I do think there is a value in seeing how one’s own preferences–even strong ones–fit in (or don’t) among a broader critical community.

      • Nathan Jankov

        We can debate a matter of preference in reference to my feelings on Snowpiercer. I disagree that it’s simply a matter of artistic preference with Noah. We are taking about a biblical account specifically, not something that is mythology or otherwise. How we treat the Bible and how we engage a culture on their engagement of the Bible matters, significantly. Far beyond mere taste. They are light years apart.

        • SDG


          I have been a Christian film critic for 15 years. I am a lifelong believer, a husband and father of seven, and am studying for ordination. For what it’s worth, I have a MA in religious studies with a sacred scripture major, Old Testament focus.

          I will defend Darren Aronofsky’s Noah to the hilt. Few films have fired my imagination as a Christian in recent years as Noah has. In fact, in addition to my review, I’ve also written a theological reflection on the film as well as an essay on controversies around the movie.

          You don’t have to agree with my take, of course. But if you think the film is so far beyond the pale as to be indefensible, well, obviously this Christian cordially disagrees.

          • kenmorefield

            I wrote a pretty negative take on Noah when it was released. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/noah-aronofsky-2014/). Truth is, it still makes me uncomfortable…perhaps because its quality makes it harder to dismiss as harmless (like Exodus). I’ve been known to dig in my heels and insist to the last that I’m right and the majority of the world is wrong about some film (like Magnolia), but at a certain point, like when a panel of Christians made up of members I all respect, tells me it values the film highly, even the most dogmatic critic has to wonder if I called this one wrong. I’ll be watching Noah again soon; who knows, maybe I won’t change my mind. But I had our resident pastor write the blurb for a reason.

        • Joel Mayward

          Nathan, thanks for your input and critique. As you might imagine, I disagree with you on the merits of NOAH, both as a matter of aesthetics/filmmaking and the process of biblical interpretation. I’ll do my best to address some of the points you made, but I hope you read this response as a pastoral exhortation, not a

          You mentioned that the Bible is “NOT STORY,” and to view it as such would be to miss the essence of the Scriptures. I would humbly propose that the Bible *is* both a series of stories inside the Story of redemption, that the essence of the Bible is a narrative about God’s saving actions within and for His creation, and to be faithful to the text requires a knowledge of narrative genre, language, nuances, etc. In the case of NOAH, the filmmakers made a midrashic interpretation of the biblical narrative of Noah, looking at Jewish commentaries as source material. I found little, if anything, in NOAH contrary to the larger truths found in Scripture. The story of Noah covers only four chapters in Genesis; Noah literally doesn’t utter a word in the biblical story until Genesis 9, where he calls a curse and blessing on his sons. As such, it’s a story ripe for adaptation through the medium of film, as it requires a filmmakers’ imagination to bring such a simple story to life yet remain true to the essence of the narrative. I believe Aronofsky’s NOAH does just that–stays true to the core truths and themes of the biblical narrative–unlike other adaptations, such as Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT, which changes the entire dynamic, themes, and trajectory of the story.

          If I interpret you correctly, I think we do agree on this: “How we treat the Bible and how we engage a culture on their engagement of the Bible matters, significantly.” I absolutely agree, which is why I think NOAH is such a fascinating film. It’s a movie that caused people, both Christians and non-Christians, to think about a Bible story in new ways, forcing them to open up and wrestle with the Scriptures. I had numerous conversations with churchgoers and film-watching friends about both the merits and flaws of NOAH. As a pastor, I loved having these spiritual conversations with people about the film, and found that NOAH sparked a depth of theological reflection rarely found in the viewing of similar blockbusters. I found myself getting my Bible out and reading through Genesis with people, young and old, Christian and non-Christian, searching through the Scriptures and allowing the truth within its pages to reshape our imaginations.

          A caveat: I would discourage determining a film’s merit by its box office numbers, as you may have discounted NOAH for its apparent lack of revenue, despite making $362 million worldwide. Many of the films on this jury’s list are little-seen documentaries (THE OVERNIGHTERS), foreign films (TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT; IDA), or simply weren’t distributed (THE IMMIGRANT). Let’s evaluate the films based on their artistic and creative merits, not the money they made for a studio.

          You can read my review of the film here: http://joelmayward.blogspot.com/2014/04/movie-review-noah.html. I’d encourage you to read Steven’s excellent theological reflection and review, as well as all the extensive research and commentary from Peter Chattaway at his Patheos blog. NOAH, like the man, is not a perfect film. But in a year filled with other “Christian” movies, it may be just the Bible adaptation this lowly evangelical pastor needed.

          • Andrew Spitznas

            And it got this atheist to pull out his Bible and compare the film to the Genesis narrative, so that can’t be a bad thing either, right?

            I don’t think the filmmakers of Noah or Exodus claimed their versions were definitive either. I could be wrong, but among biblical adaptations in book or onscreen in the past few decades, I think only Bill O’Reilly (Killing Jesus) has gone so far as to claim that God guided his pen (or laptop) for his tweaking of the Bible narrative.
            As one who has studied the process by which the biblical canon was formed, I find it ironic whenever one kvetches over any toying with the Bible in its current iteration. The writers of the Pentateuch (centuries after its events were alleged to have happened) didn’t quail at creating a pastiche from the J, E, D, and P sources. The writers of the four canonical gospels didn’t quail at doctoring Mark or the preceding noncanonical source material for their final product, decades after the events they wrote about.

  2. Gordon Matties

    I appreciate lists like this. I’m curious, however, about whether the organizers of this jury considered that there is already a well-established tradition of Ecumenical Juries that serves the international film festival circuit (under the leadership of Inter-Film). I’ve served on three Ecumenical Juries over the years (Montreal and Berlin). It seems to me that you folks would do well to continue. But you might want to consider changing your name 🙂 See http://www.inter-film.org/ and for a list of all Ecumenical Jury prizes see: http://www.gep.de/interfilm/englisch/interfilm3850.htm (the links on the left side of the page).

    • kenmorefield

      Gordon, thank you for your appreciation.

      As you mention. there are many ecumenical juries at different film festivals and attached to different organizations. Our title was meant to be a generic description of who we were and what we were doing. Since the tradition of such juries is, as you say, “well-established,” it did not seem likely to me that our list would be confused with that of any other particular list.

      That said, a list of the participants and our various affiliations can be found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/2014-ecumenical-jury-awards

      Also, we would certainly be open to suggestions regarding names that better describe our function or differentiate us from other juries doing similar cultural work.

      • Gordon Matties

        Ken, I’d be happy to carry on this conversation offline. I’ll send you my email address. A clarification: “Ecumenical Jury” is a function of Inter-Film (not “different organizations”). They organize juries at major film festivals. It does not make lists like yours. Hence there is a complementarity to be sure.

Leave a Reply to Nathan Jankov Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.