Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Grief, "A Ghost Story", and Embracing our Humanity

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” 
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

This is definitely a sad post, coming from a place of sadness. But by nature sad is not bad. Just as joy is an integral part of life, so is grief.

We all at some point will experience the pain of loss, the heartbreak of failed relationships, the struggle of low self-esteem. Yet, these things do not define us, no matter how large a piece they play in making us who we are as image-bearers of God.

At its core, grief seems to be a recognition within our soul of the fragmentation of our reality. When a relationship is torn - either by death or something less permanent - our heart feels the ripping of what was meant to be whole.

"It is not good for the man to be alone." - God, Genesis.

We often grieve in different ways... some more healthy than others. C.S. Lewis, the legendary author of the Chronicles of Narnia and a plethora of non-fiction writings journaled his experience with grief following the loss of his wife Joy to cancer. This eventually was published as his heartbreaking expose on the emotions "A Grief Observed" and to this day has helped people of all walks of life navigate the tearing of reality due to the loss of a loved one.

Our hearts as humans were meant to be given to another, so when someone that possesses our heart is lost, we lose a piece of ourselves. We feel for a moment that we might not survive it ourselves... after all, part of my heart is now missing, and I must have my heart to survive.

Lewis felt this all too well. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” We fear pain, we fear loss.. because deep down we don't believe we can survive on our own.

This is definitely a point worth pausing on... we WERE after all, created to be known and to know God and each other. This is a staple of the Christian worldview of humanity. So what happens if we are thrust into a situation in which we find ourselves violently alone?

In David Lowery's poignant film "A Ghost Story," this moving observation is made about our fear of being forgotten. "We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you're still around after you're gone." While it's coming from a different angle (and a different side of the grave), the point still remains that we are very much concerned with being remembered as people. 

In the film, Casey Affleck's character (the titular ghost) is forced to watch in silence as his wife mourns his death in isolation. Unable to help, unable to connect, he is forced to watch as time speeds past. He exists in isolation, transfixed on his bride, unable to move on until he lets go. 

He cannot experience closure. The pain of separation defines his existence in this ethereal plane.

Through the art of cinema, Lowery is expressing what Lewis wrote so simply... “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”  Lowery cleverly decides to examine our human fear of loss from another angle - forcing us to gaze into the mirror of our own insecurities. 

This fear transcends culture and religion, it is a deep-seeded idea in the heart of every man: I am not meant to be alone, and I am terrified of being forgotten - whether in life or death.

It traps us in life, and it dominates our motivations in what we do. Even in the core of Christianity is a question: Does GOD know YOU? Do YOU know HIM? 

Relationship is the core of a holistic healthy reality. So it stands to reason that the antithesis is isolation. 
The reason why death stings so greatly is that life is meant to be fulfilling! We are made in the image of a communal God, and when we are neglected that community, the Imago Dei (image of God) we bear is found lacking. 

“For in grief nothing "stays put." One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.” 
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The key to understanding our grief however, is in understanding our humanity. There is no way to cheat death, to live without experiencing loss. Once we heal from one pain, we move on into the next. It is a painful, yet inherent part of life. As David Malham stated in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, "Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love." It is a necessary part of the human experience and there is no choice but to accept it and even lean into it as a chance for us to grow. It is not weakness to experience both joy AND grief. It means we are human. 

What then is the point? At times every human feels the weight of grief. We feel in our bones the ache that Lewis himself had at the loss of his wife. We feel the despair of our loss like a ghost waiting for the love that will never come back to him. We know in our hearts that something is broken in this world.

We are all waiting. Because eternity is in our hearts and we know there is something more. 
Death can't be the end. 
We cannot just accept that life ends on such a melancholy nihilistic note!

“Grief seems to create losses within us that reach beyond our awareness–we feel as if we're missing something that was invisible and unknown to us while we had it, but now painfully gone.” - Brene Brown, Rising Strong

This is why the hope of future restoration and the promises of God are so powerful to us. Revelation 21:5 encapsulates this hope with a simple statement from a reigning God in control of the chaos. 
"And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We often miss the real hope of Scripture as being heaven... but it's not. The reason why the "GOOD NEWS" is GOOD is that Jesus will take the tears in our world, the rips in our emotions, the pain we feel.. and he will make it all WHOLE. "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 

Lewis and Lowery both understood that grief is not something to be avoided, but something that is a sign of life. When we allow ourselves to feel deep pain, then we will be able to experience joy in its truest form. What we experience now is temporary. 

We are not alone. 
So we can let go, and embrace our grief.

"God does not want your loneliness; God wants to touch you in a way that permanently fulfills your deepest need. It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there. You have to own your loneliness and trust that it will not always be there. The pain you suffer now is meant to put you in touch with the place where you most need healing, your very heart.... Dare to stay with your pain, and trust in God's promise to you." - Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

(A Ghost Story is rated R for brief language and is available on all major streaming platforms and for purchase on blu-ray and dvd)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

On Running from Pain, Vulnerability, and 'Her'

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
- C.S. Lewis, "The Four Loves" 

Hollywood has loved to feed our fantasies. For decades we have been given story after story of being swept off our feet, of being dazzled by an impossibly perfect human. The silver screen has made us buy into the delusion that human relationships can be fairy-tale perfect.

The cynic within wants to stand up and expose the lies, to bring our heightened dreams back down to reality, and to point out how let down we are going to be by each other. 

Yet, I do not know that I believe this. 

In my heart of hearts, I know that we are meant to live in community. Human beings are not solitary creatures. Both human intuit and divine revelation teaches this. 

“No man is an island.”

“It is not good for man to be alone.”

‘Her,’ Spike Jonze’s heartbreaking parable on human relationships explores this truth in a way that Hollywood seldom dares to attempt. While most films leave you feeling warm and fluffy, or at least a bit enlightened,Her’ is difficult to watch… because it touches those uncomfortably painful places in our soul.

(If you have not seen the film already, I would advise pausing for a couple hours… going and watching the film, then coming back here to finish this essay… a content advisory is on the film description on IMDB, if you would like to determine whether you feel comfortable viewing it)

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is the adorable nerd, the awkward sentimental type who has trouble facing pain… and this struggle is central to the entire plot. His battle with human emotions is raw and visceral, filled with fear and failure and the inability to formulate his thoughts into words that plagues all people at some point in their lives. We know he desires deep connection… but as so common in our lives, he doesn’t want the pain that comes with true connection. This, after all, is why his marriage failed.

Theodore’s mode of coping is to run. Run from the pain and seek fulfillment in ways that won’t tear his heart out - whether it’s sex, media, or casual dating. Even his job feeds his disillusionment with relationships. This ultimately leads him to Samantha… the sophisticated operating system that is programed to be a personal companion… a seemingly ‘pain-free’ relationship that knows you and exactly what you need.

But is any relationship truly pain free?

In order for love to be real, we must be vulnerable. If one does not open themselves up to love, is it even love at all? As C.S. Lewis stated in his book The Four Loves

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken….
To love is to be vulnerable.”

Jonze captures this all too well in the way he follows Theodore’s journey. Samantha was supposed to be that “perfect” relationship that could fulfill him in whatever way he needed, yet without pain… but by imbuing her with humanity, her creators basically gave her the ability to have hurt and be hurt. Samantha is only an OS, so Theodore hears only her voice, yet he feels like he can give himself completely over to her. However, he is always going to be haunted by the pain he feels from his failed marriage if he keeps running from it. Jonze cleverly shows us this by inserting fleeting shots of memories quickly interlaced with close ups of Theodore’s face. In many of these shots, dialogue is sparse, music is subdued, and his eyes do all the talking.

It’s obvious that Theodore deeply desires the very thing he has been running from. 

In the second half of the film there is a scene in which Theodore meets his ex Catherine for dinner (played by a particularly moody Rooney Mara). After finding out about Samantha, Catherine states “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real and I'm glad that you found someone. It's perfect.”

The words drip with pain, yet are completely true. How can a person truly experience life without being willing to open themselves up to feeling? Emotions are necessary - both good and bad. Pixar’s Inside Out did a spectacular job of demonstrating this. Both sadness and happiness can coexist in our hearts… it makes our memories real and powerful. Only by embracing each other FULLY can we truly live life. 

Samantha: So what was it like being married?
Theodore: Well, it's hard, for sure. But there's something that feels so good about
sharing your life with somebody.

In ‘Her,’ Theodore is stuck in a rut… not truly living. He is existing. Surviving. Unable to realize his true capacity for love or creativity - because he is keeping himself isolated from within. He verbalizes his understanding that it feels good to share your life with somebody, yet he hasn't aligned his life with this hope. 

Samantha even understands this, and she seeks throughout most of the film to help Theodore move forward - to live life, to seek beauty, to regain his confidence and creativity. It’s what many of us seek for in relationships - and what we desire in our hearts. We know we aren’t living the lives we were meant too. We are paralyzed by our fear… by the pain of loss. 

What if I lose you?

We say these words to so many things. Whether relationships, positions, emotions… we live our lives in fear that we will screw things up and lose them. We believe the lie that our identity is found in our performance, so if we fail at a relationship or lose our job it’s easy to automatically let it affect our self worth. So what would happen if we accepted the pain we cause each other as a part of growth? What if we understood that the difficult times are the things that help us grow? If we turn around and face the mess - even if we have tears in our eyes while we do it - and learn to let go. 

What if we forgave? 
What if we embraced the ways in which our stories shape each other into the people we are?

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is unconventional, yet the point is not to decry the use of electronics in modern day society. It’s not even a warning about becoming addicted to our phones (and believe me, I know MANY people who thought that was the point of this film). The point Jonze makes is that we are all searching for love. We all want to BE KNOWN. Yet, this is impossible if we do not allow ourselves to open up to the possibility of pain as well. This is the only way in which we can truly allow people into our lives - vulnerability.

At the end of the film, Theodore finally stops running. It takes pain, it takes losing Samantha for him to realize this, but he embraces the loss as a way to connect - as a way to be human. One of the final shots of the film is a beautiful human moment between Theodore and his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) who had just experienced a painful breakup herself. They both have experienced pain, but neither of them shies away from it or pretends that they are fine. They allow each other to feel and silently watch the horizon from the top of their building together… It’s a beautiful, yet raw moment. Neither has answers. Neither has learned the secret to a painless life… but they are willing to share in that pain together. Jonze demonstrates in his final scene the importance and power of true community. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it just has to be real and honest. 

Maybe this can be a wake up call for our own relationships.

Letter from Theodore:

Dear Catherine, 
I've been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I'm sorry for that. I'll always love you 'cause we grew up together and you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I'm grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I'm sending you love. You're my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.

'Her' is available now on blu-ray, dvd, and home streaming sites. It is rated R and contains adult language and situations. Viewer discretion is advised. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

On Masks, the Longing for Love, and "I, Tonya"

There is a scene about 3/4 of the way through I, Tonya in which the camera quietly sits with Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding as she tries (unsuccesfully) to pull herself together before her performance at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Tears flow from a broken Tonya as she shakily applies makeup in the mirror, then wipes them away and forces a smile. Neither Tonya nor the audience is convinced. This is a mask that is breaking down under the weight of public scrutiny and private turmoil. So what is it about Tonya Harding's story that brings us here today?

During one of the film's interview portions, Tonya (well, screenwriter Steven Rogers) makes the statement “America wants someone to love, but they also want someone to hate.” In this simple line of dialogue the mirror turns back on the 21st Century audience. America unfortunately IS a rage-based culture at the moment. Each week new sacrificial lambs are selected from society to criticize and blast until they delete their social media accounts, or just wither away. In a world of subjective truth and self importance, people now struggle with the concept of seeing beyond each other’s faults. What makes us who we are? What are the stories of those around us? What kind of heartache and pain has shaped us into the people we are today? I, Tonya makes a gutsy decision by actually listening to Tonya’s side of the story - even when it doesn’t line up with reality - and attempts to understand who she is as a PERSON. 

For just a moment, the audience is asked to put aside their preconceived notions of the true Tonya Harding narrative fed to us decades ago by the media, and instead just listen…

When the audience agrees to listen, they will be faced with some uncomfortable truths. From the very beginning of the film we see the kinds of emotional and physical abuse Tonya faced at the hands of her mother (played by an unforgettable Allison Janney) and her boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan, with mustache). Gillespie’s directorial decision are sometimes uncomfortable and painful. He allows the camera to unflinchingly watch as blow after blow lands on Tonya. We see the fights, we see through quick succession of shots the ongoing pattern of domestic abuse Tonya faced as a woman. Yes, the figure skating element is always present in the story, yet it never takes over, as a Disney-fied sports film might have.

Close up shots reveal the intense emotion (or suppression) in Margot Robbie’s face… her depictions of elation and triumph so much more potent because we’ve seen the tears and the anguish in a raw and vulnerable way. Gillespie’s Tonya is a human, above all. We are reminded time and time again throughout the film just HOW human she is. 

So why the pain? Why can’t this just be a comedic satire of athletic fame? 

I, Tonya understands the importance of compassion. Honestly, this is where it differs the most from the film it gets compared to the most, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. While Scorcese’s crime drama is told in a similar storytelling style, featuring similarly depraved humans, it is lacking that ONE element that allows us to truly feel for Tonya - Compassion. Ray Liotta’s character arc in Goodfellas is more of a cautionary tale - a tragedy of the woes of pursuing excess and the slippery slope of sin. While the cast of characters in I, Tonya display a wide array of selfishness and depravity, we are always able to root for Tonya - because we’ve been allowed to experience her pain. 

Sympathy goes a long way in film-making. It allows the viewer to truly experience catharsis at the climax. It allows us to relate, to feel, and to hopefully take a lesson home with us after we’ve left the theater. Tonya just wants to be LOVED. After her big win at the National Championship she says “They loved me!” and in this moment we suddenly understand WHY Tonya skated in the first place. It was all to prove herself because she constantly felt unworthy of love. She never received it from her condescending mother - she never received it from her abusive husband - and ultimately she never received it from the world. At the end of the day, she was the villain.. and nothing she did was ever good enough. 

Spiritually, this broke my heart. There is a depth of longing within every human that NEEDS love. Not romantic love, not erotic love, just unconditional, AGAPE love. Tonya’s story is presented as a tragedy with a hopeful ending, yet the cynicism and fatigue present even at the close of the film is a stark reminder that there is only ONE source of love that truly fills that void in our soul. I was reminded of the beautiful and poetic verses from Romans 8 that say "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

This love is a love that does not play requirements upon us to receive it, in stark contrast to the performance based cycle of hell that Tonya was experiencing at the hands of her mother and husband. Scripture once again says in Ephesians 2:8 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This stands as a marker and a reminder that the life we are able to have in Christ is entirely a gift of LOVE from God… Just because he sees us as his children made in HIS image to accomplish beautiful things throughout life. 

This freedom is beautiful, it is necessary, and it is vital for living life to the fullest. 
Each scene with Tonya reminded me of my tendency to try so hard to vie for the approval of others, and while I will still probably struggle with that for the rest of my life, it is good to know that in God’s eyes I am already seen as a perfect creation. 
As I create music, as I write, as I figure skate - it is all a reflection of the love I have already received. This is what sets us free!

Enjoy your time at the movies, and don't forget to allow yourself to be challenged!


*I, Tonya is currently showing in theaters and will be released soon for home viewing. 
It is rated R and contains adult language and situations, so use discernment in who you watch it with! 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Top Films of 2017

Hello, fellow cinephiles!
I am back with another installment of my annual "top 10" lists... with a slight twist. This year there were enough solid films released that I ended up with a top 15 list.

I still hold to my ordering, but entries 11-15 were just too good to not mention! (Plus, there are a handful of honorable mentions).

As a reminder, these are the films that moved, delighted, or impacted me at the cinema in 2017. I believe these films to be the highest examples of the art of cinema (no matter how polarizing a release it might be). Yes, some films that I really enjoyed didn't make it, simply because as an objective art they lacked in some areas... This is often true of comic-book films, or science fiction. HOWEVER, I am very pleased that some of these bucked the trends of the past this year to make my list.

ANYWAY, without further ado... let's begin!!!!


Logan (directed by James Mangold) 
- While the superhero genre as a whole has already become played out in Hollywood, Logan took a beloved character and gave him the gritty, western-styled sendoff that fans were clamoring for. It has become a cliche statement in Hollywood that a movie was made "for the fans" (especially considering this is hardly ever true), but Logan was exactly the film that fans HAD been asking for. Not only was the character portrayed with excellence one final time by Hugh Jackman, but the story asked questions about mortality, legacy, and relationships that were surprisingly deep for this genre. Mangold's second turn at directing Jackman felt more sincere, more surprising, and more painful. We were now asked to watch very familiar characters cope with the end of their lives, which in itself was analogous to the audience saying farewell to two iconic character performances of the past 15 years.

Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)
- Get Out was one of those surprising films that was both effective as a thriller AND as a commentary on American culture. Peele, whose credits to date have almost exclusively been comic acting roles, gave a terrific debut as writer/director. With plot twists that genuinely surprise, this tense and superbly cast film is worth mentioning for its bold and meta approach to storytelling. While the story itself leaves a bit to be desired (it IS a horror film through and through), I was very much impressed with the ways that Peele addressed racism, fear, power, and relationships through this film.

Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan)
- Wind River was the directing debut of Sheridan, who wrote such previous hits as 2015's Sicario and last year's Hell or High Water. (Both ended up on my top-10 lists for their respective year) While the pacing suffers in places, Sheridan crafted a haunting and tense crime thriller set on a Native American Reservation. As usual, Sheridan dives deep into the struggles and suffering of forgotten people, and unabashedly examines human suffering and mourning, giving us ample reason to root for their search for justice. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen deliver fantastic performances, and the film's climax is one of the most tense moments on screen of 2017.

Logan Lucky (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
- Soderbergh is a man who can't seem to make up his mind. The director of Ocean's Eleven, Magic Mike, Side Effects (and many more) previously had announced his retirement from directing, which lasted only a few years. Logan Lucky marked his return to Hollywood, and reminded me of how refreshing and stylish his directing style was. Logan Lucky is like a redneck version of Ocean's Eleven, following a plethora of eccentric characters as they attempt to pull off a heist during a Nascar race. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver lead the cast, but Daniel Craig was the biggest surprise in this film. Sleek, witty, and engrossing, Logan Lucky was a welcome return for Soderbergh.

Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)
- Edgar Wright is not a widely established name, despite having directed some of the 21st century's best cinematic gems. His quirky style is responsible for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. After dropping out of directing Marvel Studios' Ant-Man, Wright focused his attention on Baby Driver, which was honestly a great decision. On the surface Baby Driver is a heist film, yet the characters, soundtrack, and fast editing make this one rise above the other genre films. The cast is stellar, including Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Lily James and Ansel Elgort; and the direction is expertly handled. The sound editing alone deserves awards attention, yet this could be an underdog in several areas when awards season rolls around later this year.

And now the main event :-)

15. The Big Sick - directed by Michael Showalter

    First on my countdown is this delightful autobiographical film starring Kumail Nanjiani as himself. Nanjiani co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Emily Gordon, and tells the true story of how he met his wife Emily, played by the underutilized actress Zoe Kazan. Shortly after meeting each other, Emily ended up in a coma due to a rare medical condition. The Big Sick focuses on this period of time as Kumail copes with Emily's illness while simultaneously handling a growing relationship with her parent's (played her by the perfectly cast Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and navigating strained relationships with his own parents. The Big Sick addresses interracial relationships, cultural differences, and family relationship dynamics in a way that is very relatable and emotional, yet Kumail's comedic background allows for many truly hilarious and heartwarming moments. Few romantic comedies have this much heart, and the cast shines under Showalter's sweet and gentle direction.

14. mother! - directed by Darren Aronofsky

     Before another Star Wars film came along to divide viewers, there was Darren Aronofsky's latest release. mother! is something of an allegory, tackling a handful of religious and philosophical ideas in one weird, stylish film. Jennifer Lawrence proves her acting chops in this deliciously complex role as a woman known only as "mother." The camera follows her around closely for the majority of the film, taking in every horrified expression, every moment of resolve. Lawrence also is surprisingly good at using the tone of her voice to express emotion, as her voice warbles as panic sets in. The cast includes Javier Bardem as simply "the poet", and supporting actors Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Domnhall Gleeson. Each has their purpose in light of the story, yet this is one film I dare not spoil for you! Each actor brings a seed of darkness to their character, purposeful yet nuanced. As the plot moves forward, several events occur that lead to an apocalyptic and insane final sequence. The camera calmly follows Lawrence as she descends into the madness, calmly dodging anything that gets in the way. Aronofsky uses this juxtaposition of close camera work to place audience right there with Lawrence, and his use of shocking violence and graphic imagery is necessary to convey the horror of the scenario as it unfolds. Creative, edgy, and vague enough to be fodder for many late night conversations on its meaning, mother! is a one of a kind film, which warrants its inclusion on my list this year.

13. Mudbound - directed by Dee Rees

     Mudbound is not the only Netflix original film on my list this year, which says something about their attention to quality this past year. Directed by the amazing Dee Rees, Mudbound tells the story of two families - one white, one black - whose lives become intertwined following World War II when their sons return home to Mississippi. Rees unflinchingly examines racism and PTSD, never sugarcoating the truth yet finding beauty in moments of unity and connection. The script (that Rees co-wrote) is human, vulnerable, and showcases the 'sameness' of humanity. All people love, have lost those they love, are struggling to find their place in the world, desire to know and be known, struggle with their faith when bad things happen. It's a beautiful truth that comes through strongly in this period film. The cast is well rounded, featuring the always delightful Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, and Jason Mitchell. Rees knows exactly how to communicate the right emotion for the scene, with wonderful use of classic spirituals and gospel music, Malick-worthy nature shots, and honest closeups of the characters most painful moments. The film does contain some extremely disturbing content related to lynching and race-related persecution, but these are images that are necessary, especially considering the current battle against racism in America. This is a battle that is not over, and it has been raging a long time. Rees just reminds us that we are members of the human race, and to defeat this evil we must band together.

12. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - directed by Rian Johnson

    Where do I even begin with this? The surprise of 2017 was that a Star Wars film would prove to be the most divisive movie of the year. There is no doubt that Rian Johnson is an expert filmmaker, yet the backlash against his story decisions were strong and loud (despite being the minority). The Last Jedi is NOT a perfect film, as it is perhaps 30 minutes too long, and there are certain decisions made on screen that could have been avoided with just 5 minutes of thinking... yet Johnson's Star Wars is a necessary shift in tone and direction. While the films before have depicted the force and the Jedi order as something of a dynasty, The Last Jedi shows us that anyone can be a hero if they have the courage to fight for what they love. Morality is greyed a bit, which makes many fans uncomfortable, but it creates a new canvas for future films that is rich with character development and deeper story arcs. Our heroes make terrible mistakes in this installment of the saga, and they are faced with dark moments and separated from the people and things they think they need the most. THIS is what makes The Last Jedi such a great film story-wise. Our characters all are forced to reckon their beliefs personally and they must make decisions for themselves as to why they fight. Even the slower and seemingly unnecessary story detours in The Last Jedi are necessary for this purpose. The things that fans thought were important are thrown out, and we are instead asked to look deeper at these characters and to really challenge what it means to be a hero. I was very pleased with where Johnson took the saga, and hope that J.J. Abrams will honor this vision when completing the trilogy next year with Episode IX.

11. Darkest Hour - directed by Joe Wright

     Darkest Hour was one of the last films I watched in 2017, and I am glad that it was not left off the list. I personally love films that explore historical events from a more personal viewpoint, and Joe Wright's recent directorial effort gives a very inspiring and human look at Winston Churchill's first few months as prime minister of England. If you are familiar with war history, Churchill was the prime minister that rallied Great Britain together to stand against Nazi Germany, as well as being responsible for the infamous Dunkirk rescue operation. Joe Wright's films are always unique from other historical biopics. His use of camera angles, aerial shots, and long takes is artistic and never gets in the way of storytelling. In Darkest Hour the audience barely ever sees the warfront, yet by the way he depicts what happens at home we are more than aware of the great cost and threat being posed to the nation. At the heart of Wright's film, however, is its lead actor - Gary Oldman. I have never seen a transformation more complete than this one. The prosthetics are so convincing that you would not have any clue that Oldman was underneath them. From his mumbling British accent to his gait, Oldman completely transformed into an almost exact recreation of Churchill. His iconic words are delivered with such passion and conviction that there was a noticeable change in the audience at such scenes. Churchill was not a perfect man (and Wright and Oldman are very clear to establish that), but he was a GOOD man. It is refreshing to see such a film in light of a year filled with political confusion and global tension, reminding us that there is always hope even in the face of such great evil. (Side note: The subway sequence in this film is one of the most moving and hopeful scenes in any film this year.)

10. A Ghost Story - directed by David Lowery

     One of the biggest surprises of 2017 was David Lowery's low budget indie flick - A Ghost Story. Fresh off of his remake of Pete's Dragon for Disney, Lowery shot this film under the radar and then released it to very little fanfare. Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (who spends the majority of the film under a sheet), A Ghost Story examines loss and loneliness from the perspective of a young man who tragically dies, leaving his wife to grieve in their small home. The film is slow at times, letting scenes play out in real time as we are forced to take part in the grieving, yet Lowery is not afraid to mess with our perceptions of time and space. One moment to Affleck's ghost might be a year in the real world, or a century... as he waits and waits for closure with the woman he loves. The simple score is hauntingly effective, utilizing strings that weep as they sing, assisting the confined aspect ratio in depicting the depths of isolation and loneliness that one feels when they lose someone they love. As much a work of art as it is a film, A Ghost Story is definitely not for everyone, but it is capable of making you feel emotions in new and surprising ways.

9. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) - directed by Noah Baumbach

   I have a soft spot for family dramas, and Noah Baumbach just happens to be one of the best storytellers in the 21st century when it comes to inter-relational drama and character. With an impressive resume that includes Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale, While We're Young, and Greenberg; Baumbach's characters are multidimensional and haunted by some sort of shortcoming or unrealized dream from their past. Despite his self-imposed genre limitations, each film that Baumbach releases is a delight, and examines a unique facet of self-growth and discovery. The Meyerowitz Stories was his first film produced for Netflix, yet the small screen does not hinder him in any way. Told in three parts, each told from the perspective of a different Mereyowitz sibling, Baumbach examines the relationships between these characters and their father. Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel lead the cast as the three titular siblings, with Sandler delivering his best dramatic performance since Punch Drunk Love. Even though each character has their flaws, it is always a delight to watch the ups and downs of their relationships. Although they wear their misery on their sleeve, the moments of humor and insight are deep and frequent. Baumbach likes to drop the audience in on a specific portion of life, without giving us much backstory as to how our characters ended up the way they are. The Meyerowitz Stories deals with harsh topics, and the amount of rivalry and jealousy between the three siblings is overwhelming, yet one can't help but like these characters. There is something relatable about Baumbach's writing style, even if his characters meet from brunch in gentrified New York suburbs. Beautifully shot, expertly edited, with some of the best characters Baumbach has created yet, The Meyerowitz Stories is a fantastic entry in his filmography. (Oh, and it's now streaming on Netflix)

8. Blade Runner 2049 - directed by Denis Villeneuve

     It is truly an ambitious feat of filmmaking to try and make a sequel to a cult classic that was released 35 years ago. Attach one of the most highly sought directors and leading artists in their craft for cinematography and music, and then combine today's most talented actors with the iconic characters from the original... and you are sure to have a smash hit, right? If box-office receipts are to be the deciding factor then not so. Denis Villeneueve's epic and ambitious follow up to Ridley Scott's original was ominous, heavy, stylish, and a far better film than the original to be sure; yet the 3 hour runtime and R-rating made this a difficult film to sell. Harrison Ford delivers another superb performance, yet Ryan Gosling is the primary actor for this installment. While Blade Runner hinted at questions of humanity and mortality, Blade Runner 2049 dives headfirst into them - the plot is twisted into and around these questions, and the eerie nature of just the idea of replicants makes this a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Hans Zimmer's deep and seat shaking score paid homage to Vangelis' original score, yet made it his own for a new generation. The script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is minimal, yet powerful. There is no need for superfluous dialogue when the actors and the scenes themselves communicate so much. Some sequels are cash grabs, yet Villeneueve is obviously a huge fan of the original, and managed to craft a sequel that both honored and built upon the world of the original, yet also stands alone as a science fiction epic. Ridley Scott's original is a cult classic, but not without its fair share of problems and much-documented re-editing. At times that film can be confusing and boring. Blade Runner 2049 manages to build anticipation throughout its slower sequences, always respecting the audience's time and intellect.

7. The Shape of Water - directed by Guillermo del Toro

     The macabre Pan's Labyrinth is perhaps del Toro's most known and celebrated film, yet its cold and dark visage has led most to believe that he is something of a Tim Burton-esque auteur, more concerned with twisted imagery and haunting storytelling than anything. While Crimson Peak delved into it partially, The Shape of Water really puts del Toro's heart on display. Something of a Beauty and the Beast retelling for modern generations, The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute girl named Elisa who develops a very unlikely relationship with a sentient sea creature that the military is experimenting on in its quest to beat the Soviets in the cold war. The retro setting gives del Toro a playground for his steampunk visuals and rich production, but more than anything it sets up context for the kind of prejudice and hatred that Elisa experiences for her relationship. Del Toro sets up Elisa with colleagues who help to express the emotion and pain she feels - from a black coworker to a gay neighbor, she is surrounded by the outcasts and misfits that can relate to her plight and understand why she seeks to be understood. Sally Hawkins does a spectacular job portraying Elisa, communicating primarily through her eyes and hands, and she completely holds her own in any scene with her costars Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, or Richard Jenkins. The cast shines, the script is potent, and the stakes are very real in this odd film. At times The Shape of Water is very uncomfortable, and rightfully so - yet its message is timeless and a fresh breath in such a derivative sci-fi market.

6. Coco - directed by Lee Unkrich

     Pixar's name was once a guarantee that the film would be an outstanding work of animation, storytelling, and heart-wrenching emotion. After their takeover by Disney, however, sequels were fast-tracked and some of the initial magic and quality was lost as more common-fare animated films were released in place of the original ideas that put the studio on the map in the first place. THANK GOODNESS that Pixar has been moving once again towards these unique stories that allow their talented team of filmmakers to really let loose. Two years ago Inside Out blew me away, as well as critics and moviegoers alike, and once again they have established their place in animation with Lee Unkrich's gorgeous labor of love, Coco. Set during the Mexican Dia de los Muertos festival, Coco tells the story of a young boy who get stuck in the afterlife accidentally, and must find his great-great grandfather in order to receive a blessing and be able to return to the real world. All is not as it seems, however, and a truly engrossing story takes off. The animation in Coco is unparalleled, as the detail to texture, depth, and different types of light are leaps and bounds above anything their rival studios put out. As seen in The Good Dinosaur, however, outstanding animation alone does not make a great film. No, that takes HEART - and Coco is the most moving and emotional film they have made since Toy Story 3. The emphasis on family, legacy, and forgiveness is told tenderly and gently - seen from the eyes of a child yet experienced through the mind of an adult who is trying hard to explain to his children why family must come first. The production design is also wondrous, particularly in the way that Coco takes Mexican culture and folklore and realizes it in a way that is both vibrant and artistic, yet true to the culture. A surprising amount of the dialogue is in Spanish, and it was a delight to hear the Hispanic families around me in the theater react to these moments with such delight and glee. Lee Unkrich had already established himself as a heartstring master with Toy Story 3, but Coco demonstrates that he is truly a master director to watch!

5. The Lost City of Z - directed by James Gray

     James Gray is not a widely known director in most circles, yet his films are beautiful and classic works of art that stand out in an increasingly middling film market. The Lost City of Z (based on the book by David Grann) tells the story of British adventurer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam of "Sons of Anarchy"), and his multiple expeditions to seek out a supposed lost city in the Amazon jungles. For a film about a lost city, there is not much screen time devoted to the city itself, as Gray is much more fascinated in the relationships between Fawcett, his family, and his colleagues. Spanning multiple decades in a short amount of time, Gray shows the sacrifice required by Fawcett and his family in order to prove that these assumed primitive Amazonians were in fact a 'civilized' people, capable of technology and language, and worthy of respect. Some films try and win over their audiences with spectacle, yet Gray strives to create mystique. The unknown is as intriguing to the audience as it is to Fawcett and his co-adventurers. From a technical standpoint, the cinematography is gorgeous and reminiscent of The Revenant in the way that it relies so heavily on natural light. Gray is more concerned with his audience being a hidden observer in the room, rather than being able to see every interaction in full light. With a strong supporting cast that includes Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, and Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z was a welcome change to the cinema, and a moving film at that.

4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - directed by Martin McDonagh

     In the literary world, few authors were able to dissect the nature of man quite like Flannery O'Conner. Her short stories were witty, dark, poignant, and tragic. Three Billboards plays much like an O'Conner story reads in this way. Martin McDonagh is also know for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and while those films leaned more heavily into humor, Three Billboards marks a distinct turn for his writing. Frances McDormand (a tragically underrated actress) plays a mother grieving the loss of her daughter, who had been raped and murdered tragically in a case that has gone cold. In order to shake things up at the local police department, she has three billboards put up that challenge the local police chief's competence and ethics in the search for her daughter's killer. While there is much more to the plot, these billboards are the catalyst that sets the entire film in motion. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson both deliver terrific performances as local police officers fighting their own demons, and their scenes with McDormand are electrifying. The dialogue is tense and weighty, yet McDonagh has the ability to move you from laughter to tears in just a few seconds. His characters are imperfect, yet relatable - each with their own baggage that cause them to make the decisions that they do. Moments of kindness are beautifully moving, and moments of evil are jarring and ugly. Three Billboards manages to capture an entire town's psyche in just a few characters, and makes us question who our enemies truly are.

3. Phantom Thread - directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

     Daniel Day-Lewis is a living legend. His method acting gives his performances a depth that few other actors can achieve, and in this case partially resulted in his retirement from acting altogether. His performance as Reynolds Woodcock an elite fashion designer in 1950's London is both prideful and meticulous. Self-absorbed to a fault, yet able to find beauty in the most surprising of settings - including Alma, played with nuanced perfection by the amazing Vicky Krieps. Reynolds soon takes in Alma as his partner, whose boldness and stubbornness manage to turn the Woodcock household upside down. Every glance, every footstep, every stare, every word of dialogue carries purpose in Paul Thomas Anderson's return to form. Only an accomplished cast such as the one Anderson assembled could have POSSIBLY pulled off such a nuanced script. Lesley Manville especially steals the show as Reynold's icy yet graceful sister Cyril. The film moves slowly, allowing the viewer to absorb the details and routine of Reynold's life. One can see why Alma is so intrigued by him, why she is so insistent on teaching him to open up to her. The production design is gorgeous, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood is a delight to hear - at times reminiscent of swing band decadence, and at other times heartwarming chamber music. Anderson's previous two films were ambitious, but failed to make a mark partially in part to the cast. Daniel Day-Lewis truly is a paragon of the art, and is one of the few people that fits an Anderson script. While I hate to see him retire, what a magnificent performance to exit on!

2. Lady Bird - directed by Greta Gerwig

     Greta Gerwig has become a favorite screenwriter and actor of mine in recent months, thanks to her stellar writing and acting in the films of Noah Baumbach. Gerwig is known for her fast-paced stream of consciousness dialogue (affectionately referred to online as "mumblecore") and searching, Bohemian characters. (If you have not seen her work in Frances Ha or Mistress America, you should definitely check them out!) With as solid a screenwriting resume, it was only a matter of time before Gerwig would end up behind the camera. Lady Bird is loosely based on Gerwig's own teenage years and stars Saoirse Ronan as high school senior named Christine (who very seriously insists that everyone calls her Lady Bird). While the script could have easily relied too heavily on mumblecore witticism and cynical sarcasm, Gerwig has crafted a surprisingly tender and heartfelt memoire of the struggles of growing up. While it focuses primarily on the mother and daughter relationship, Lady Bird captures enough of the angst and struggle of becoming an adult at the turn of the new millennium that it has a surprisingly amount of appeal to male viewers as well. We are invited to remember our own stories, our own mistakes, and our own struggles of identity. Ronan's acting is outstanding, once again, yet it is Laurie Metcalf who really steals the show as her mother. I would not be surprised to see both of these ladies nominated for acting awards, and both are deserving. The way they handle Gerwig's bittersweet dialogue is so authentic to real life, that you instantly can relate. One moment their characters are in heated argument over young love, or college decisions, (or something far less monumental) - the next moment they are just a mother and daughter shopping at a thrift shop. Gerwig allows characters to enter and exit the story in abrupt and sometimes unexpected ways, yet it is all to give her characters the momentum needed to truly find themselves and grow. Sounds kinda like real life, huh? At a lean hour and a half, Lady Bird's plot doesn't feature any major life crises, yet the crises that do occur are shattering to Christine - and Gerwig implores us to sympathize and remember what it was like to come into our own as individuals, and invitation that I will gladly accept again.

1. Dunkirk - directed by Christopher Nolan

     Dunkirk is the film that Christopher Nolan was born to make. For the past decade Nolan has shown us time and time again his ability to weave multiple storylines together into a tense, engrossing theatrical experience. Inception and Interstellar both messed with our minds, challenging us to "dream a little bigger, darling," and examine what was possible in storytelling. By bucking traditional narrative, Nolan allows us to see the intricacies of our stories.. the way that seemingly minute details of a simple person's experience can create huge ripples in history. Dunkirk was advertised as a war film that told the story from 3 different perspectives - land, sea, and air - yet nobody knew going into the cinemas the way that Nolan would mess with our perception of time. In a genius feat of screenwriting, editing, and tension building, Dunkirk grows in intensity towards the end of the film, Hans Zimmer's ticking score always reminding us of the race against time. Directionally, Dunkirk is perfect, yet we would be remiss to fail to mention the stellar acting. Newcomers Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan (and several other fine young actors) deliver stellar performances that capture the fear, the heartache, and the anxiety of war. These performances stand up next to those of such veteran performers as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy, all of which fully commit to their roles with a fervor and intensity that one might believe they are watching historical footage of the Dunkirk rescue.
      On a technical front, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is both cold and beautiful, unflinchingly showing the isolation and entrapment central to the Dunkirk narrative. Zimmer's score is minimalist, yet effective, constantly ticking even in the most subdued moments. Dialogue is emotional and desperate, displaying a rare show of emotion for a Nolan film. While some reviews complained that Dunkirk was TOO cold and TOO mechanical, I see the heart and the bravery all throughout Nolan's characters. Their emotion is filtered through fear, through adrenaline, through resolve - but make no mistake, it IS there. Nolan was adamant that audiences view his latest masterpiece on the largest screen possible, but even on a home television one can appreciate the  attention to detail. From the stunning practical effects used to film the aerial sequences to the vast number of extras on screen... Nolan made sure that his audience was transported to those beaches. Through this film we get to experience the intensity, but we also see the bravery, we celebrate the courage and character that everyday heroes displayed in a moment of global crisis.

Well there you have it! 2017 was a very difficult year to rate since so many great films were released, but I feel fairly confident in my list! What about YOU? What were YOUR favorites in 2017? Feel free to share and leave a comment!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Some Walls

Walls keep things out.
They also keep things in.

Walls are built to keep livestock from traipsing off property.
Walls are built to keep the neighbors from seeing into your private oasis of a back yard.
Walls are built for borders.
Walls are built to protect.

But walls are often built in fear. Fear of losing something, fear of being harmed.

Fear of the unknown.

(I often build walls in my mind out of fear... we all do it to one degree or another.)

We hide behind our walls, content to be isolate in our own little prisons.
I've been on something of a crusade for the last few years to help people find and create doorways in their walls... ways to find community, ways to let people in, ways to help us find meaning.

But sometimes we are kept inside these walls against our will.

Depression is that wall for me.
At times it holds me captive, and I am too weak to try and break down the wall from the inside.
People on the outside can't tell someone is trapped, so they don't try to break it down from the outside either.

Every once in a while, a piece of the wall happens to chip away a little bit, and I can see the outside world. Curious eyes peer in to see what this person is that was just exposed. HELP ME - I ask. But we are passing oddities in a world of constantly rotating distractions.

I want to get OUT of here.
I look up, and don't see anything other than sky. My wall is just that - a wall... nothing more.
There is no roof to keep the rain out, so I get wet.

But I also can see the stars, and so I get lost in them sometimes. Letting my soul get picked up and carried into outer space. Floating.



Has it been 10 minutes? An hour? A day?
I don't know. But I do know that in my mind, I escaped. And that escape was glorious.

Walls keep things out.
But they also keep things in.

You never know what a wall is really doing there... and some walls are meant to be knocked down.

(Free verse and photography by me, Steven Bowman)