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)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Trying to Remember

Normally I would keep busy on a day like this (Labor Day, 2017), but this year I really felt the need to take some time to recharge. In addition to talking some personal time today, I also allowed myself some time in Prescott, AZ on Saturday to just bask in the beauty of God’s creation. 

I think I needed time to remember….

Remembering is so vital for a believer… but even more so for me. I get so forgetful at times of who I am in the eyes of God. I forget what HE is capable of. I think it’s not just me though… I mean, why else do we see God telling His people ALL THROUGHOUT the Bible to “REMEMBER” “REMEMBER” “REMEMBER.”

They built altars and ebenezer to remind themselves of how God had moved in their particular story…. but also to show their children of what God was capable of.

Geez, the Israelites were a forgetful bunch weren’t they? They were always being delivered supernaturally from the hand of enemies, famine, etc. yet would pretty much immediately turn back to their panic, their despair. 

Or sometimes, their wickedness.

Don’t we do that though? We forget so easily. We are so connected, so in touch with the world around us that we fail to see through it to the world beyond. We suffocate ourselves with endless information. The endless stream of knowledge keeps surging, never relenting, never giving us a moment to breathe, to process, to react. It’s CONSTANT 24/7. 

I’m convinced that this is how the church has gotten so anemic in recent years. It’s not that the desire isn’t there beneath the surface… but we get swept away in our phones, in the media output of the rest of the world. It’s actually fairly diabolical… 

“If the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy” the old saying goes, or something like that.

And boy are we BUSY!

It’s like a drug we are all hooked on. Our busy schedules are worn like a badge of honor, when instead it’s really taking our lives captive. 

I need to stop being so busy.
We need to stop being so busy.
We all need to put down our phones.
We need to look at each other in the face.
Tell our family and friends that we love them.
Focus our attention outward… 

Or Upward.

Because frankly, we aren’t much good outward if we don’t look upward first.

God, how we need to look up every once in a while…to see the light that is always there… to see the hope that is always present… to take a deep breath before we plunge back into the waters of this age. 

I need to remember how you’ve parted waters before… 
You can part them again, so I can walk right through them on dry land.

I need to remember how you’ve spoken to a raging sea and it immediately obeyed you and calmed. 

I need to remember that the hope of Jesus is not just a “selling tool” of evangelism, but a powerful, transformational truth that STILL takes my life and turns it upside down.

When I look in the mirror, I need not see a striving, exhausted being. Instead, I can see a redeemed prince. I am a child of LIGHT. I can BREATHE. The storm has no power over me.

I ramble and say these things to myself, but they are also TRUE. A deep truth that is more true than any of the fake information and hope that this world can muster. No idea or personal preference or motivation can provide calm to a soul quite like the words of Jesus. 

So I try to remember. I MAKE myself if it’s a particular difficult day.


"While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple." - Jonah 2:7

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Food Review: Nori Sushi Scottsdale

Hello Ladies and Gents!
You all know that I take my film reviews pretty seriously. I’ve always enjoyed the cinema, and love to review films based on artistic AND personal criteria. Recently, I decided to start reviewing OTHER things as well - most notably coffee shops (THERE IS A BLOG ABOUT TO BE LAUNCHED REGARDING THIS) and, well, food. 

Food is an essential part of living, so it makes sense that we would invest a great deal of time into making it enjoyable! Reviewing food is an interesting process. For something so subjective in regards to individual palettes, it is an incredibly objective area of critique. 

For the percentage of people on the planet that enjoy sushi, there are a few criteria that almost all aficionados look for - freshness, flavor, and presentation - just to name a few. 

Anyway, enough babbling - now for the goods.

Nori Sushi Scottsdale (


Nori Tempura Roll 
Spicy Tuna Roll
Philadelphia Roll 
Chocolate Lava Cake


Nori Sushi is a small, but charming sushi restaurant located in the shadow of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, AZ. I had heard from multiple people that their sushi was incredible, so I came in one evening with my girlfriend Kayla to eat and review… 

The staff was friendly, and we were greeted and seated as soon as we walked in. As far as ambience is concerned, Nori has a modern Asian Fusion vibe with ample sushi bar seating, as well as dimmed lighting and soft music. For those cooler evenings, there is a patio area available that features several tables and mood lighting. 

I always have trouble deciding which rolls to order when I’m in a sushi restaurant so I decided to try a Spicy Tuna Roll, one of my perennial favorite “basic” sushi rolls, and Kayla chose a Philadelphia Roll. We also chose the Nori Tempura Roll, which is one of Nori’s specialities (more on it in a second). 

The Spicy Tuna Roll and the Philadelphia Roll were both incredibly fresh, well prepared, and brought out quickly. The tuna and the salmon in these respective rolls were flavorful and tender, and I was pleased to note that the flavors of the individual fish were present. In too many sushi restaurants there is little to no distinction between the types of fish you order, besides color and maybe texture. Even in many of the higher-end sushi restaurants I have experienced, the sushi is just not “colorful” enough in regards to flavor. 
Spicy Tuna Roll (L), Philadelphia Roll (R)
NOT SO in regards to Nori. The spicy tuna had a distinctive kick, which paired well with the crunch and freshness of the cucumber. Both tastes were present, and the texture of the roll was softer than I’ve had in the past, allowing for the tuna to be savored. Soy sauce was present, but totally unnecessary. 

The Philadelphia roll was also delicious. I generally look for the balance of cream cheese as the deciding factor in this roll. The salmon was not overpowered, but accentuated by the cream cheese and cucumber. This roll is simple, but a favorite when prepared well.

NOW TO THE MAIN EVENT! - The Nori Tempura Roll. 
This roll is a specialty at Nori, and is prepared with spicy tuna and shrimp tempura, and has asparagus, yamagobo (a pickled burdock root), and jalapeño inside. It is deep fried in Panko Tempura and served with a delicious trio of sweet miso, sweet kabayaki, and sriracha sauce.
Nori Tempura Roll
At first I was uncertain about the presence of asparagus and jalapeño in a sushi roll, but this works. the bite of spicy tuna and jalepeno was tamed by the presence of the asparagus and yamagobo. The crisp shell was not greasy, and texturally was perfectly prepared. The sweet sauces brought the many different flavors to the forefront of my palette as I ate, and this quickly became a new favorite roll. I HIGHLY recommend. 

This IS a sushi review, but I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t mention the delicious chocolate lava cake. Sure, it’s not exactly a Japanese dish, but isn’t that the point of Asian Fusion restaurants? The Melding of cuisines…

Chocolate Lava Cake
The cake was moist, chocolate rich, and the gelato topping delicious. A perfect topper to an already amazing meal.


You made it this far, so I might as well give you my final rating :-)

Food: 5 out of 5 stars
Service: 5 out of 5 stars
Ambience: 4 out of 5 stars

Well done, Nori. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pages I - Nowhere, with a View

Pages - Volume I
[This is a new writing initiative. Typically I write for a purpose, but now I write just to write. Each time I post a "Pages" volume, I will literally have written the post without any planning or pre-thought. Welcome to my unfiltered brain. Rabbit trails may occur.]

2.25.17 - "Nowhere, with a View"

Two days ago I journeyed with a roommate to Hell's Canyon Wilderness, which is about 23 miles/30 minutes away from my front door. For months I have noticed the particularly jagged and unusually shaped peaks rising into the sky in the distance (they look like mountains that were just hurled as lava into the sky, and then solidified in midair instead of falling back to earth), but I have never been able to find them.

These mountains seemed to be painted onto the sky itself, rather than being a reachable location. I have spent too many hours driving down different highways and roads trying to get to these peaks, only to end up at a dead end or private property...

Until this week.

Past Lake Pleasant there is a road that drives north into the Hell's Canyon Wilderness. The average driver would turn around where the pavement ends, but this time I decided to keep going - pushing my little Kia Soul as hard as it could go onto steep dirt roads that wound unpredictably back and forth around the hills north of the lake.

The beauty of this place is in its variety. One direction there is a layered vista of mountains - each peak a bit further out of reach than the one before. In another direction is a wide open expanse of rock, shrubs, and cacti. From time to time one could see the dust kicked up from exploring locals in their 4-wheel drive vehicles. (I made sure to reassure my Kia Soul that I still loved it. Perhaps cars experience insecurity...) Directly behind us we could see the north edge of Lake Pleasant, a shimmering sheet of distant water. Considering our location in Arizona, it almost appears as a mirage - until the small metal angle of a boat is seen gliding quickly to whichever secret fishing cove the day calls for.


Yet the feeling is the same.
The view is closer, but we are still not THERE. We are not in the midst of Hell's Canyon, not at the lake, not drifting around dirt roads in a Bronco. We are still watching from a distance.

There was not time to try and find a trail, nor was there time to drive further up and in.
It kind of reminds me of the spiritual aspect of my life.

Ironically, my mind compared a place called "Hell's Canyon Wilderness" to Heaven, yet the journey and it's effect were the same.

I find myself seeking an ideal in my life of spiritual openness, of God-Centered community, of life to the fullest... yet the closer I get to it the more I realize how distant it really is. In a broken world, perfection is always out of reach.

This is why we must look up, look to heaven for our hope. I strive forward in my life, going further up and further in towards heaven... but it is all preparation for the day in which Jesus brings me all the way.

Jeremiah 29:13 says "You will seek me and find me, if you seek me with all your heart."

I find it so wonderful to have faith in a God who doesn't stay out of reach, who doesn't force me to keep searching without answers, without that VIEW... Instead, The God of the Bible is a God who gives us HIMSELF. He IS the view that we are searching for.

The longing I feel when I adventure is but a small piece of a larger truth in my soul - I was meant for so much more than just myself. I was meant to commune with God, to enjoy him, and to live epically.

What an amazing truth.

This has been Pages.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

Well here we are, once again!
It has become one of my favorite traditions each year to recognize and celebrate the top examples of cinematic achievement for the calendar year. While 2016 was a difficult year for many marked by loss, never before have I seen such profound artistry and moving stories told through film. 

I like to consider films on both an objective AND subjective scale. Not only must a film be a high example of writing, acting, cinematography, scoring, and direction; but I also must be MOVED and/or DELIGHTED by the film.

While there are few big-budget pictures on my list this year, the indie filmmaker market exploded in 2016, offering numerous surprises throughout the year. For every Batman V. Superman there was a Sing Street...

So without further ado....

Honorable Mentions:

- The Nice Guys - One of this year's most entertaining (and original) flicks was the Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe buddy cop movie from director Shane Black. The 70's setting and hilarious story are part of what makes this movie work so well, but most of the credit is due to Black's writing and direction.

- The Witch - Robert Eggers' chilling horror film is a masterpiece, more of a tale of paranoia and fear than witchcraft. Everything from the atmosphere to the dialogue lends itself to getting under your skin. Anya Taylor-Joy is the top billed actress, yet there is not a bad performance to be seen here.

- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - I know, this one didn't make my top 10 list (please keep reading though!) simply because it WAS a flawed example of filmmaking. HOWEVER, the storytelling in the Star Wars universe has never been quite as strong, and one of the best 3rd acts in recent action film history make this a film worth seeing on the big screen

- Moana - The animation alone gives Moana a spot on this list, rivaling the detail and beauty of Pixar, but the story, characters, and amazing music push this film to the pantheon of such Disney giants as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.

- Other People - Molly Shannon has been known as a comic actress for pretty much her entire career, yet she gives a heart-wrenching performance as a mother dying of cancer in Chris Kelly's pseudo-biographical directorial debut. Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad/Friday Night Lights fame is the lead as her struggling, loner son. 

10. Love & Friendship - directed by Whit Stillman
Kate Beckinsale (yes THAT Kate Beckinsale) is an absolute delight in this adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan. Fast witted, quirky, smart, and a lean 93 minutes; this is one of the best period films to come out of Hollywood in years, and a sure-fire contender for this year's Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. Director Whit Stillman understands the time period well, and manages the high-society dialogue and complicated character relationships with ease, practically dancing from one setting and character to the next. With nothing less than a Wes Anderson-esque intro for each character complete with placard explaining their relationship to Lady Susan, Stillman trusts the viewer to be able to figure out the social circles as you go, choosing to dive right into the story. While it is disorienting at times, this is part of the fun of a Jane Austen story, as the characters themselves often end up hilariously confused. With a supporting cast that boasts Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry, and some of the most detailed and beautiful period clothing and set design, Love & Friendship was a delight, and worth many viewings to uncover even more layers to the humor and wit. 

9. The Lobster - directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
One of the strangest films to be released in 2016 was the modern day parable from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. The Lobster is set in a fantasy-dystopian version of reality in which each single person is given 45 days to find a romantic partner. The penalty if they fail to do so? They are turned into an animal of their choosing. This bizarre setup is jarring, yet serves as a wonderful staging for a story that examines the nature of sacrifice and relationships. Colin Farrell is delightfully subtle in his performance here, hilarious with simple facial expressions and sighs. Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly round out the talented cast. While the actors themselves are superb, they are elevated to a new level by Lanthimos' direction. So much of the story is told in glances, breaths, and body language; and while the dialogue is smart, it is only part of what makes this work. While the story takes unexpectedly dark turns, there is always a heart to the film and always a ray of hope. Definitely a product of the times we live in, The Lobster is a profound exploration of humanity that serves as a wonderful companion piece to such films as Spike Jonze's Her and Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

8. Captain America: Civil War - directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
It has been a good year for Marvel Studios! While DC (and occasionally Fox) constantly flounders with their comic book properties on screen, Marvel has delivered hit after hit - both critically and at the box office. While Marvel's fall offering, Doctor Strange, was fun and creative, it was not the feat of filmmaking that was Captain America: Civil War. This film had to function as both a sequel to Captain America: Winter Soldier AND Avengers: Age of Ultron. With a cast of at least 16 major characters, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give everyone an organic place in the plot, never shoehorning anyone in, and STILL focusing the plot on Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and his relationship with Bucky Barnes (Stan Sebastian). Despite the massive set pieces and huge number of players, there is still a deeply personal story at the heart of Civil War. Gone are the global stakes and larger than life villains. Instead, we have a story of grief and grey morality that never gives it's audience a clear answer as to who exactly is in the right. Much of this is due to the handling of the story by the Russo Brothers. Somehow, they find the right balance of tone and action. For every airport battle there is an intense and intimate face-off between Tony and Steve, reminding us once again that these are people who are just trying to make the right decisions the best they can. 

7. 10 Cloverfield Lane - directed by Dan Trachtenberg 
While it is not a traditional sequel to 2008's Cloverfield, this year's anthology sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane deserves recognition for both the film itself AND it's surprising marketing. A sequel to J.J. Abrams' alien pic had been rumored for years, but J.J. Abrams' Twilight Zone-style series dropped the 2nd entry with little warning. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead offers a fantastic and nuanced performance as a car crash victim who wakes up trapped in a stranger's basement, John Goodman proves once again why he is one of Hollywood's best actors with his performance as her captor. Goodman can be genuinely terrifying at times, as a gender-swapped version of Kathy Bates in Misery, but at times his character is presented in an almost sympathetic light. At it's heart 10 Cloverfield Lane is an escape thriller, but in a similar fashion to Cloverfield, takes an exhilarating sharp left turn in the final act. Much credit is owed to director Dan Trachtenberg for using the bunker setting well to create a sense of confinement and dread. Ultimately, 10 Cloverfield Lane creates an experience, and not a spectacle - which is where the original film faltered. 

6. Hell or High Water - directed by David Mackenzie
I have a love/hate relationship with westerns. While I love the classic films from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, I feel like modern Hollywood struggles with these morally complex anti-heroes. Hell or High Water is the first "modern western" I have seen that boasts both a gripping story and worthy characters. The story setup is simple, allowing director David Mackenzie to examine and explore each character's motives. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard who rob banks to try and save their family farm. Jeff Bridges portrays the Texas Ranger pursuing them who is facing a life crisis of his own as he nears retirement. The story is simple, but the execution is flawless. Pine, Foster, Bridges all deserve recognition for their detailed and layered characters in this film. Mackenzie's direction is brutal and unflinching in his handling of violence, which pairs perfectly in the way he depicts the painful emotional heart of the story. There is no softening to the pain, and the bloodshed is harsh and tangible. In Mackenzie's Texas, life is cruel and every man fends for himself. 

5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople - directed by Taika Waititi
Most movie-goers are not familiar with the name Taiki Waititi yet, even though both of his recent directorial efforts are stellar films. While not as raucous as his vampire satire What We Do in the ShadowsHunt for the Wilderpeople is delightfully silly in many places, and deservingly could be compared to the odd sensibilities of Wes Anderson. Where these two filmmakers differ, however, is in the way that they approach grief. Whereas Anderson approaches emotion in a surreal way, Waititi is not afraid to move his audience. At its heart, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about two people who have lost everything. Sam Neill and the wonderful Julian Dennison play a widower and his foster son who are being pursued in a national manhunt after a series of unfortunate circumstances. While trying to survive in the wild they are forced to face their new reality, and their relationship as an atypical father/son. Although Waititi's next feature is Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, I truly hope that he keeps making wonderful and intimate films like this. Few directors have the confident ability to make you laugh and cry so much in the same film. Quirkiness in cinema does NOT necessarily mean devoid of heart, as evidenced here. 

4. Manchester by the Sea - directed by Kenneth Lonergan 
Let me start by saying that Manchester by the Sea is a VERY difficult film to watch. It's tragic in every sense of the word, yet is a powerful exploration (once again) of grief. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a depressed and lonely handyman whose life is uprooted one day when he gets the call that his brother (portrayed by Kyle Chandler) has passed away, leaving him in charge of his 16 year old nephew. Director Kenneth Lonergan utilizes flashbacks to slowly uncover the complex history of this dysfunctional family, weaving a portrait of the relationships, the pain, and the coping mechanisms that each person has turned to throughout their lives. The film is a slow burn, taking it's time to make sure you know each character well before demanding an emotional response. Few films have such a punch-in-the-gut emotional impact. At times I was reminded of the cathartic development from such classics as Good Will Hunting or Dead Poet's Society. The core to this film lies in the performances, however. A screenplay this intense can only work if the actors are talented enough to convey this wide a range of emotion. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are already receiving nominations for their roles, and Academy Award nominations seem inevitable at this point. There is a vulnerability, and a messy emotional core to their acting that brings you into the story as a participant, and not just a bystander. Manchester by the Sea asks you to mourn with this family as they try desperately to move forward with life. 

3. Arrival - directed by Denis Villenueve 
First off, if you are not familiar with director Denis Villeneueve (pronounced den-Ny vill-Newve), stop reading this article and go watch Sicario, Prisoners, and Enemy - like RIGHT now! Ok, ready to go? Arrival is the best sci-fi film I have seen in years. Villeneuve is a genius storyteller, and one of the most talented directors working today. In a refreshing change of pace, Arrival imagines a sci-fi story from a more grounded perspective. (Interstellar tried hard a couple years ago, but ended up being a bit too long and pompous  to be completely successful). Through the use of stunning imagery, deliberate pacing, and an intimate group of characters; Arrival tells a very personal story of a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) set against the backdrop of a global alien invasion. Although the core of the storyline revolves around the worldwide effort to communicate with these visitors, as the story plays out we are given snapshots and pieces of information that unlocks Louise's personal journey - leading to the best emotional climax in cinema this year. I really don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, as the way that it unfolds creates part of the experience. This is one of the few films I have seen this year that truly is perfectly balanced in every way. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner work wonderfully together, and mesmerize the viewer. I fully expect this film to be nominated for best Actress, best Director, and best Picture - at the very least! Catch it on the big screen while you can. 

2. Sing Street - directed by John Carney
Irish director John Carney has only 3 directorial credits to his name so far, but each of them has done a stellar job of using music to aid storytelling on screen. Similar in spirit but vastly different from his debut/masterpiece Once, Sing Street tells the story of a young Irish boy named Conor growing up in the 80's who turns to music to escape the pain of his broken home life. For Carney's films, music is a character that challenges and shapes the people of his stories. As an homage to its setting, much of the original music in Sing Street is written in the style of popular 80's music icons - while lyrically containing the angst and frustration that we have seen Conor experience day to day. "Drive It Like You Stole It" is a particularly memorable tune, and has already been nominated for a Critics Choice award. As a musician myself, I love a film that understands the power of music to bring people together, to express oneself, and to escape the harsh realities of life. Carney understands this, portrays it well, and invites you to share this portion of life with Conor. The balance between pain and joy is handled well. While Carney's movies always have a melancholy tone, he knows how to bring out the joy in a moment. Part of this is due to the stellar cast, but Carney is the true auteur here - able to capture a feeling and recreate them on screen. Many of the performances on screen have an unscripted spontaneity to them, reminding the audience that it is the little moments in life that bring you joy and comfort. 

1. La La Land - directed by Damien Chazelle
One of the best movies of 2014 was director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Much of the acclaim for that film revolved around its stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, yet it was one of the most deftly handled films of the year thanks to the confident directorial sense of Chazelle. On paper, La La Land seems impossible to pull off. Many directors have tried - and failed - to capture the sense of wonder and awe that the musicals of classic Hollywood had. The ambition has paid off however, rewarding us with not only the movie that we want to see, but the movie that we NEED to see after such a difficult year. La La Land is the story of Mia and Sebastian, two aspiring entertainers whose lives intersect in an unexpected way - ultimately shaping their paths and the people they are to become. Sort of a modern day combination of Once and Singin' in the Rain, the story is realistic yet never cynical; honesty, yet never without joy. There are tears to be shed, yet enough smiles to warm your heart. Oh, and a lot of singing and dancing! Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are majorly responsible for this, as I have never seen an on-screen couple with better chemistry. Gosling has always been a fine actor, but Stone proves she is a star in La La Land, stealing every scene she appears in. Both appear in impressive dance numbers and although neither of their voices are Broadway quality, both actors are wonderful singers as well. There is a rawness and emotional core to their duets that captures the moment in addition to the song itself. This is where the true magic happens for the viewer. Spontaneous song and dance numbers happen, yet they are more than just a spectacle to tease the eye and ear, they are an outward expression of an inward reality for Mia and Sebastian. While discussing the film with a couple friends, we remarked that Mia and Sebastian aren't supposed to be top notch singers, because in La La Land they are just two ordinary people who fall in love. We are able to relate to them, to root for them, and to feel the joy and sorrow the feel. I could sing praises of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone all day, yet would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the music, written by Chazelle's friend Justin Hurwitz. Since viewing the film I wake up with "City of Stars" and "Someone in the Crowd" stuck in my head (and I am not complaining). La La Land is spectacular, a true work of beauty and joy that is uplifting and entertaining all at once. I'll be viewing it again, and highly recommend you do the same!

PHEW! So there you go! I hope you found this post entertaining and inspiring! I would LOVE to hear YOUR top 10 films of 2016, and I will see you at the movies.

Signing out,