4 Stars

Now that the academy has chosen its winners, we present our own Cinema in Focus Oscars for the best films of 2019. Our criteria are not based on the best story, graphic representation or most entertaining, but which stories had the deepest statements of values that are spiritually uplifting or challenging.

Best Inspirational Film: “The Two Popes”

Writing a screenplay about two of the most well-known people in recent history is a daunting task. Nevertheless, writer Anthony McCarten has brought to the screen a compelling and inspirational look at the possible conversations that went on between Pope Benedict XVI, who uncharacteristically resigned on Feb. 28, 2013, as the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, and his soon-to-be successor, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who became Pope Francis.

“The Two Popes” tells the story of the transformation of two men’s lives, but it also reveals the transformation of the historic seat of Christendom.

“The Two Popes” is a revealing and touching tonic for the heart. It is another reminder that the temptation to become a religious Pharisee strikes every generation of believers and ultimately leads to death. Its only hope is when one life is given for another.

Best Picture Confronting Community Values: “Harriet”

Harriet Tubman may be one of America’s most famous historical figures of whom most Americans know little. She is only getting her greatest and well-deserved recognition a century after her death.

Director Kasi Lemmons has brought “Harriet” to the screen in a remarkable bio-pic that blends the historical accuracy of the slave trade in the years leading up to the Civil War with the inspiring role that a humble but strong woman played in being the greatest “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.

Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) not only led dozens of slaves north all the way to Canada to freedom, but returned home, time and time again, to the most dangerous locations in the South where she was being sought to be burned to death. The old negro spiritual “Go Down Moses,” which referred to the Jewish flight from Egypt, was also code to the fields of slaves that when it was heard being sung, it was time to leave. Harriet became tagged as “Moses,” and a price was on her head as slave owners throughout Maryland sought to find the mysterious ghost who sang the song and caused them economic ruin.

Beyond the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a symbol of determination in anti-slavery movements and actions in the United States and Canada. Challenging others who had never known the insufferable pain and indignity of slavery, she motivated thousands of people, both black and white, to lead a revolution to end this great sin against God’s people.

By the time of the Civil War, which she prophetically saw coming, she played a key role in being a spy for the North and leading black soldiers into battle. As a result, she was buried with military honors in the cemetery in Auburn, N.Y., where she lived out her final years.

Best Picture in a Supporting Family Role: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

The timing of the Rev. Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) becoming the iconic televangelist to children was providential. Called to use the developing medium of television to speak to children, this Presbyterian minister began the show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1962.

Working with experts in educational psychology and religious education, the show became one of the most effective ways to speak with children about their feelings and experiences. From war and death to divorce and injustice, Rogers spoke through puppets and songs and helped a generation of people grow both wiser and more kind. Although this public life is well known, this is not the story told by director Marielle Heller in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

Based on a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, this film re-creates a transformative relationship Rogers created with a hurting Esquire journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Based lightly on award-winning writer Tom Junod, who wrote the 1998 article “Can You Say … Hero,” the impact Rogers had on changing the pessimistic perspective of Junod is the theme of the film.

Best Actor in an Inspirational Role: Michael B. Jordan, “Just Mercy”

The struggle with racism is both individual and corporate. There are those individuals who knowingly harm those of other races because of their own hardness of heart. But there are far more who do harm by supporting or at least ignoring the systemic injustice within the justice and economic systems. When these two are combined, their destructive power is overwhelming. This reality is presented in powerful form in the film version of Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy.”

This true story of the early 1990s is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and tells of Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) work as a Harvard-trained lawyer who chose to go to Alabama to overturn the death sentence of prisoners there. It is then that he is introduced to Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt sheriff with the support of prosecuting attorneys and racist judges, Stevenson seeks the truth and McMillian’s freedom.

Best Picture Depicting Personal Growth: “Overcomer”

Forgiveness is difficult. This is especially true when our injury is so deep and our sense of being wronged so pervasive that we have experienced that pain for years. Even when the opportunity to be reconciled is offered, it is often our anger and distrust that get in our way. But when we allow God to help us, then forgiveness becomes possible.

That truth is powerfully presented in this most recent film by the Kendrick brothers, “Overcomer.”

For those of us who understand the higher power of God at work in our lives, the truth of this film speaks to our deepest selves and our highest aspirations. To be people of faithful, redemptive, reconciling love, we recognize that we need God’s help. Our best intentions are not enough. Anger and resentment, insecurity and distrust, conflict and isolation are often our natural response to the injuries we experience or cause. But the inspiring truth is that we do not need to live in that place of pain.

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.