The Reel Spirituality Community Top Ten Films of 2018

Roma movie

The Films

If there is a theme to our community’s list of the best films of the past year, it’s that of listening to voices from the margins. Our top ten films focus on indigenous peoples, African Americans, children, the homeless, the natural world, and, in one very creative case, a whole multi-verse of diverse characters, including most prominently a Latinx teenager. And if you look beyond our top ten films, you find more of the same. In the top twenty, we can add women who have been sexually abused, the LGBTQI community, the urban poor, and Asian Americans to the list. More impressive perhaps is that fourteen of our top twenty films were made by women and people of color as well.

What’s impressive is not that we liked these movies. I don’t mean to pat our community on the back here. Rather, it’s wonderful that these artists and these stories were able to rise to the top this year in the wider culture. Our community’s taste in movies rarely deviates too much from the context out of which it comes. Like Hollywood itself, on whose doorstep our seminary sits and in which many of our community members live and work, we lean toward popular films though with an eye toward the arthouse and a special sensitivity to films which feature theological themes in intelligent ways. So our highlighting of films by and about historically marginalized persons points to a greater embrace of those voices in the world at large.

Maybe we are all listening because those people groups are facing increased hostility these days in a time of child-family separation at our nation’s borders, widespread incidents of racially-motivated violence, gun violence in our schools, bullying online, and near daily reports of sexual abuse in all sectors of society. All the while our national leadership seems more intent on guarding and exhibiting its own supposed strength than in contending for the weak. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin (who had little good to say about cinema), cinema culture responds by making political art. Notably, the art that rises to the top in this climate is that which isn’t explicitly political, but that which is inherently so by virtue of its source.

When you are a member of a historically marginalized community, to speak at all is a political act regardless of the content of what you say. By telling your story, you are asserting your humanity, your inherent worth. As producer and Merata Mita Fellowship recipient—an award given to Indigenous filmmakers by the Sundance Institute—Ainsley Gardiner said at the recent Sundance Film Festival, from which many of us just returned, “Storytelling is our right. Filmmaking is a privilege,” but it’s a right often denied to many. Beyond the cinema, our own seminary has been going through a time of intense reflection about the ways in which we have disenfranchised non-white persons in our governance and curriculums. Consciously listening to and responding to those historically marginalized voices is a step toward holistic change.

So, making a list like this also becomes a sort of political act. As a community, we are endorsing these films. We are witnessing that these historically marginalized storytellers have impacted and informed us and that we intend for them to continue to do so. We are inviting all of you to be shaped by them as well. We believe that God speaks through the movies. We also believe that God speaks from the margins. This year especially, those two places were one and the same.

The List

As always, we formed out list by each making our own individual lists of the top ten films of the year. Those choices were assigned point values from 20 for top placement to 11 for bottom. All films were then ranked by point total.  Interestingly, this is the first year since 2016 (Silence) that all of our community members but one included our top-ranked film on their individual lists. In both cases, the films in question were left off those individual’s lists for technical reasons not because of dislike of the film. Sixty-one total films made our list this year. Half of them received more than one vote. Half of them received only one vote. Our tastes are broad. Cinema is rich.

Below you will find our top ten with brief thoughts by one of our contributors. Then you’ll find each individual’s list. And at the bottom, we’ve included out complete list of sixty-one films.

roma rooftop1. Roma
(15 votes/262.5 points)

Roma is the most intimate and personal work of Alfonso Cuarón, focusing on two women who helped shape his life. Though they come from different cultures, classes and languages, they share not only home and family, but the contested space only women know. Here is an everyday spirituality that will amaze. – Rob Johnston and Cathy Barsotti

Read our original review of the film.

blackkklansman2. BlacKkKlansman
(11 votes/174.5 points)

A timely reminder of just how slippery history can be and how quickly cultures forget their own past evils. BlaKkKlansman has talent, humor and elegant grit in the face of hate, but most importantly it freshly exercises our memory muscle of what we are capable of. – Ruth Schmidt

Read our original review of the film.

spider-verse3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
(1 votes/118 points)

Into the Spider-Verse is perhaps one of the best “super hero” “comic book” movies to swing through our cinemas. It’s the first of its super kind to draw from the deep aesthetic well of comic book form and style, making it visually captivating from start to finish, while also managing to tap into the true power of today’s comics: no matter race, gender, or creed you can where the mask! – Chris Lopez

Read our original review of the film.

if beale street could talk4. If Beale Street Could Talk
(7 votes/111 points)

In If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins illuminates James Baldwin’s words like a first millennium Celtic monk emblazoning a gospel text. And like the gospels, this is a love story through and through, about love that protects, trusts, hopes, builds up, sustains, and never fails no matter what systematic injustice assails it. – Elijah Davidson 

Read our original review of the film.

wont-you-be-my-neighbor5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
(6 votes/93.5 points)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a portrait of a modern day saint. Fred Roger’s care for education, empathetic approach to difficult cultural conversations, and love of children everywhere shines through in inspiring and powerful ways through this thoughtful film. – Justin Wells

Read our original review of the film.

first reformed6. First Reformed
(6 votes/90 points)

First Reformed seems like the “Fuller pick”—the artsy movie with strong religious themes that we screened this past year and had in-depth conversations with writer/director Paul Schrader—but it’s also just so good and timely. – Kevin Nye

Read, watch, and listen to our extensive amount of material on First Reformed and Paul Schrader’s visit to our campus.

black panther7. Black Panther
(6 votes/89 points)

While Black Panther is an instance of mainstream, Hollywood, pop-culture, it is also an earnest celebration of African culture that engages our historical and consequential racial realities. It invites us to explore wounds, tensions, longings, justice, and hopes without presuming to have an easy answer. – Roslyn Hernandez

Read our original review of the film.

eighth grade8. Eighth Grade
(5 votes/76 points)

Eighth Grade perfectly captures not just what it’s like to be an eighth grader but what it’s like to be an eighth grader today. Youth pastors (like myself), parents, or anyone who has influence in the lives of teenagers should watch Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. – Gary Ingle

Read our original review of the film.

shoplifters9. Shoplifters
(4 votes/72.5 points)

From Japan, Hirokazu Kore-ada’s film Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters—a misleading English title) is a small and beautiful film exploring the meaning of family in the midst of a globalizing world which often marginalizes the most vulnerable. Familial bonds come in all shapes and sizes which transcend blood and celebrate the human spirit. – Cathy Barsotti


leave no trace10. Leave No Trace
(4 votes/62 points)

Director Debra Granik provides another detailed, sympathetic portrait of life on the edges of American society in Leave No Trace, with Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie providing the beating heart of the movie as a father and daughter who make their way off the grid in the Oregon wilderness. Granik’s preference for little moments over big narrative movements makes the film a slow burn that builds in resonance to an ending suffused with earned emotion. – Asher Gelzer-Govatos

Individual Lists

Sam Anderson

I could make a more comprehensive list of films I should have seen before making a list; but here goes, with some spots left open for good measure:

1. Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel)
2. Western (Valeska Grisebach)
3. The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
6. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
7. Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)
9. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
10. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

Cathy Barsotti

I’m not sure why, but this was the most difficult year for me to rate my list of 10, especially the top 5 or 6–all of them could be #1 for different reasons.  So many moving films.  It does make me very happy that so many of the stories are extremely personal with hugely important societal/global import, and done by a very diverse group of folks.

1. Shoplifters
2. If Beale Street Could Talk
3. Roma
4. BlackKkKlansman
5. Cold War
6. Capernaum
7. Black Panther
8. Leave No Trace
9. Happy as Lazaro
10. Green Book

Runner-ups: Girl, The Old Man and the Gun, The Favorite, Vice, On the Basis of Sex
Docs: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Bisbee 17
Animation: The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

Kutter Callaway

1. Roma
2. Black Panther
3. The Favourite
4. A Star is Born
5. Incredibles 2
6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
7. Burden
8. Eighth Grade
9. Love, Simon
10. First Reformed

Isaac Chung

1. The Shoplifters
2. Roma
3. Ready Player One
4. The Phantom Thread
5. Hale County This Morning This Evening

(only five submitted)

Elijah Davidson

1. Roma
2. Minding the Gap (this is on Hulu – watch it if you can)
3. The Rider
4. Leave No Trace
5. The Sisters Brothers
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
7. If Beale Street Could Talk
8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
9. First Reformed
10. BlacKKKlansman

Honorable Mentions: Ali Wong’s performance in her Netflix comedy special Hard Knock Wife; The Favourite; A Star Is Born; First Man

Joseph Gallagher

Black Panther
A Star Is Born
At Eternity’s Gate
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Crazy Rich Asians
Green Book
Mary Poppins Returns


Asher Gelzer-Gavotos

1. The Task
2. Zama
3. Leave No Trace
4. Sorry to Bother You
5. Shirkers
6. Roma
7. Thoroughbreds
8. The Old Man and the Gun
9. Paddington 2
10. Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

Honorable Mention: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, MI: Fallout, Isle of Dogs, Death of Stalin

Roslyn Hernandez

1. Roma
2. Black Panther
3. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse
4. Love, Simon
5. A Quiet Place
6. BlacKkKlansman
7. Leave No Trace
8. RBG
9. Christopher Robin
10. Crazy Rich Asians

Others not in particular order: Zoe, Sorry to Bother You, You Were Never Really Here, Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Private Life, Destination Wedding

Gary Ingle

1. Eighth Grade
2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
3. A Quiet Place
4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
6. Solo: A Star Wars Story
7. Roma
8. Isle of Dogs
9. The Kindergarten Teacher
10. First Man

Honorable Mentions:

11. Annihilation
12. Black Panther
13. First Reformed
14. Minding the Gap
15. Deadpool 2

Rob Johnston

1, Capernaum
2. BlacKkKlansman
3, Roma
4. The Favorite
5. A Star is Born
6. Black Panther
7. Burning
8. If Beale Street Could Talk
9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
10. Cold War

Runners up: The Wife, Green Book, Shoplifters, Leave No Trace, Mary Poppins Returns

Chris Lopez

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
2. Roma
3. If Beale Street Could Talk
4. Sorry to Bother You
5. BlacKkKlansman
6. The Tale
7. Tully
8. Black Panther
9. Un Traductor
10. Crazy Rich Asians

Andrew Neel

1. Sorry to Bother You
2. Roma
3. If Beale Street Could Talk
4. BlacKkKlansman
5. Jinn
6. The Favourite
7. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
8. Blockers
9. Eighth Grade
10. A Quiet Place

Kevin Nye

1. First Reformed
2. Eighth Grade
3. If Beale Street Could Talk
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
5. Roma
6. Black Panther
7. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
8. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
9. BlacKkKlansman
10. Game Night

Ruth Schmidt

1. Blackkklansman
2. Roma
3. Spider-man
4. First Reformed
5. RBG
6. Isle of Dogs
7. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
8. Black Panther
9. Love, Simon
10. Three Identical Strangers

Eugene Suen

My list, with brief comments:

1. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)

Impeccably acted and deeply disquieting, with piercing insights into the state of the world and our fundamental need for answer and meaning. This is a spiritual treatise masquerading as a psychological thriller, from one of contemporary cinema’s master filmmakers.

2. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA)

All of Schrader’s favorite tropes and ideas reworked into one searing spiritual thriller.  “Winter Light” and “Diary of a Country Priest” + “Taxi Driver.” 

3. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico)

Awe-inspiring filmmaking that distills the universal in the specific, the monumental in the intimate. 

4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Vintage Kore-eda. Unsentimental, sober, and deeply moving. 

5. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, USA)

Dazzlingly inventive and enormously affecting.

6. Shirkers (Sandi Tan, Singapore and USA)

A love letter to cinema as a defiant act of personal remembrance and self-restoration. 

7. Hereditary (Ari Aster, USA)

A cinephile’s horror film. Exhilarating even when it’s pitch black. 

8. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, USA)

Flawed or not, this is a thrilling, inspiring, and urgent film from one of American cinema’s essential artists. 

9. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, USA)

An unlikely coming-of-age movie with deep cinematic and emotional intelligence. 

10. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, USA)

Soulful and stirring in its romanticism and clear-eyed social realism. 

Honorable Mentions: First Man, Ready Player One, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Sorry to Bother You, Black Panther, Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Green Book, The Favourite

Justin Wells

I’m going to make my list all documentaries again. It’s MUCH easier to find 10 great docs this year. In fact, I had to leave some good ones off my list. 

1. Minding the Gap 

The best confessional documentary I have ever seen. It’s also one of the most empathetic and heartfelt films I’ve ever seen. 

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor 

This is a great example of one man seeking to use mass media and educational programming for the good of society, in an age of children’s programming that was/is very exploitative and market based (targeting children as advertising targets rather than human beings in need of guidance). 

3. On Her Shoulders 

This is a heartbreaking look into the life of one victim of a terrible humanitarian tragedy, and her quest to bring awareness for justice to the world stage. 

4. Hale County This Morning,This Evening

This is a verite experiment in re-imagining and re-imaging the black experience in the south. 

5. Three Identical Strangers 

This film is a crazy investigation into a quasi-eugenic experiment for which these subjects became victims. 

6. Free Solo 

The film and the story are both incredible accomplishments. 

7. Crime + Punishment 

The New York police department is reveled in this thoughtful documentary to be both victims of a systemic problem and seeking to navigate the complexities on the front lines of law enforcement. 

8. Kailash 

Kailash Satyarthi has been on a quest to liberate children in India from child labor and kidnapping. This film provides awareness for his struggle and the gravity of the situation in India. 

9. Of Fathers and Sons 

So many of the young men that become radicalized in the Middle East grow up in environments that foster radicalism. The complexities of the situation warrant extended discussion and thought. 

10. Dark Money 

The tension between political power, democracy and economic influence are highlighted in this film, as we are reminded of the fragility of freedom and honest democracy.

The Complete List

1. Roma
2. BlacKkKlansman
3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
6. First Reformed
7. Black Panther
8. Eighth Grade
9. Shoplifters
10. Leave No Trace
11. Isle of Dogs
12. Sorry To Bother You
13. Capernum
14. The Favourite
15. A Star Is Born
16. A Quiet Place
16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
18. Love, Simon
19. Minding the Gap
20. Crazy Rich Asians
21. The Rider
22. Burning
23. Hale County, This Morning This Evening
24. Ready Player One
25. Shirkers
26. RBG
27. Three Identical Strangers
27. Cold War
29. Green Book
30. Lover For A Day
30. The Task
32. Western
32. Zama
34. On Her Shoulders
35. Jinn
35. The Incredibles 2
35. The Sisters Brothers
38. At Eternity’s Gate
38. Mary Poppins Returns
40. The Tale
40. Solo: A Star Wars Story
40. Free Solo
43. Tully
43. Thoroughbreds
43. Hereditary
43. Burden
43. Crime+Punishment
48. Blockers
48. The Old Man and the Gun
48. Paddington 2
48. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
48. Kailash
53. Happy As Lazzarro
53. Un Traductor
53. The Kindergarten Teacher
53. Christopher Robin
53. Of Fathers and Sons
58. First Man
58. Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
58. Game Night
58. Dark Money