Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2014

Once again, here are my top ten films of the year. Please note that not all of these are appropriate for viewers of all ages. I found these films to be exceptional examples of artistry, or films that impacted me deeply on some level. It was refreshing to see so many original ideas in cinemas in 2014, and the year yielded one of my all time favorite films, this list's number 1 movie!

Honorable Mention:
While they didn't make my top ten, these films were solid enough entries that they are worth mentioning! 
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
- Fury
- Begin Again
- Edge of Tomorrow

10. Gone Girl - directed by David Fincher
- Fincher's adaptation of the novel by Gillian Flynn is cold, calculated, and cerebral. With a chilling performance by Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in one of his most solid roles to date, Gone Girl gets under the skin and stays there, infecting your mind like a parasite. Tonally similar to Se7en as opposed to more comfortable fare such as The Social Network, Fincher stays surprisingly true to the source material, even to a shocking end. (This is also due to the fact that Flynn also wrote the screenplay). I would be surprised if this DIDN'T receive some Oscar nominations. 

9. The Lego Movie - directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
- The Lego Movie was a complete surprise this year. Both witty and charming, Lord and Miller were able to craft a film that appealed to young and old alike. The voice cast was impressive and worked perfectly with their characters. (Will Arnett's Batman - case and point). I was surprised at how self aware this movie was, and it embraced the building aspect of the Lego product creatively. Each time you view The Lego Movie you catch something else hidden in the script or background, so it easily supports the repeated viewings that most kids will require.

8. Snowpiercer - directed by Joon-ho Bong
- The first English-speaking film from Korean director Joon-ho Bong was a surprise masterpiece of the year. While technically made for 2013 release, Snowpiercer was delayed because of a constant tug of war between the director and the producers. This dystopian futuristic story plays out in segments aboard a single futuristic train, and would take up far too much time to summarize here. What you do need to know is that Snowpiercer is shocking at times, and delves into such topics as social justice, power, regret, love, and control. Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton are both spectacular.

7. Unbroken - directed by Angelina Jolie
- Angelina Jolie has been full of surprises this year, first starring in the global hit Maleficent and now delivering an incredibly moving and emotional biopic on famed Olympic athlete Louie Zamperini. Jack O'Connell anchors the film with a moving performance, depicting the early life and war years of the real Zamperini. While many people criticize the film for leaving too much out, it truly would be impossible to cover the post war story as well in one film. Jolie wisely chose the portion of Zamperini's story to tell, allowing silence and imagery to aid her story telling just as much as the script. The torture and hardship are never divorced from the spiritual war going on within, and Jolie bravely acknowledges the spiritual aspect of Zamperini's life in one of this year's finest films. 

6. Guardians of the Galaxy - directed by James Gunn
- James Gunn's first foray into the Marvel cinematic universe is undoubtedly the surprise hit of the year. While many sci-fi films take themselves way too seriously, Gunn handles his source material with tongue in cheek humor and pop culture references. Chris Pratt is phenomenal in his second hit of 2014, and Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper steal the show as Groot and Rocket, possibly the most popular on-screen duo since R2-D2 and C-3PO. On top of the unique characters and story and the witty script, the soundtrack stands out due to the clever use of 70's and 80's pop hits. 

5. Nightcrawler - directed by Dan Gilroy
- Not since Norman Bates in Psycho has an on screen character appeared so believably insane. Jake Gyllenhaal carries Gilroy's somewhat old-fashioned thriller with a chilling performance. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton costar in this film on obsession and power, yet Gyllenhaal steals every scene as Louis Bloom, an eccentric entrepreneur who decides to enter the world of tv news. The plot slowly builds to an explosive finale, revealing  the drastic lengths a person will go to in order to achieve personal significance. Gyllenhaal is sure to receive a best actor nod for his acting. 

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel - directed by Wes Anderson
- Wes Anderson is one of my all time favorite directors, thanks to his quirky style and old world charm. One could swear that he was born in the wrong era, as his films evoke a 60's aesthetic in color, style, and setting. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a mystery, yet at times plays as a comedy, anchored by phenomenal performances from Ralph Fiennes, newcomer Tony Revolori, and the massive A-list cast that Anderson assembled. F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan, and Jason Schwartzman round out the cast of this retro heist. Anderson's films are always beautiful, and The Grand Budapest Hotel resembles a fancy pop-up book, as he utilizes 3 different aspect ratios to tell the multi layered story.

3. Interstellar - directed by Christopher Nolan
- There are few films made these days that can be classified as "epics", yet Nolan's latest masterpiece could easily be grouped into this category. At one time, Hollywood produced films that were massive in scope, yet featured such strong leading characters that the viewer would be impacted on a personal level. (Think Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur, Star Wars). Matthew McConnaughey brings this personal grounding to the vast, mind-numbing scientific world of wormholes and time travel. Nolan went above and beyond with everything in Interstellar, bringing in physicist Kip Thorne to help develop the black holes, wormholes, and scientific theory of the film. Hans Zimmer delivered a beautiful and sacred score that combines his signature blasting score with icy piano quartets and a hair raising pipe organ. When combined with the deeply emotional performances and heavy stakes to the events within, Interstellar had me hooked for every minute of its twisting 2 hrs and 45 min.

2. Birdman - directed by Alejandro G. IƱarritu
- Birdman is a work of art. While abrasive and clashing at times, Inarritu's film is shot to in such a way that the entire film is basically one long camera shot. Michael Keaton plays a struggling actor trying to transition from film to stage in order to "find himself" while at the same time dealing with family drama, coworker drama, and his identity as "Birdman." Emma Stone, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galiafanakis all deliver stellar supporting roles to Keaton's sure-to-be-nominated turn as Riggan. Even though Keaton swears this role is the furthest from his actual character, Birdman seems to echo his own life to a degree. Examining the smoke and mirrors of real life vs. acting, finding significance in life, and the struggle every artist feels, Birdman is surprisingly moving. The script is smart, the cinematography is ground breaking, and the acting is some of the best I have ever seen.

1. Boyhood - directed by Richard Linklater
- Finally, my number one film of 2014! While all of the aforementioned films are excellent in their own right, few films have impacted me as personally as Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Shot over the course of 12 years using the same actors, Linklater has captured what it feels like to grow up, what it feels like to love, to hurt, to grow, to move, to change, to become someone else. Writer and Director of such masterpieces as the Before Sunrise trilogy and Dazed and Confused, Linklater is no stranger to making films that pierce your soul deeply. As an existential director, he is constantly aware of the little moments in life that impact us and the way in which our relationships alter us as people. Frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give stellar performances as the struggling, divorced parents of Mason, played by the incredible Ellar Coltrane. The film never alerts the viewer to the changing of years, and is at times almost unnoticeable. This sucks the viewer in, as you gradually grow and change with Mason. Linklater never covers cliche moments in a boy's life, choosing to focus on the smaller and more intimate moments that truly shape an individual. As Mason ages, we see the struggle for his own identity slowly grow and then mature, as he transitions from a boy into a young man. At times Boyhood is unpleasant and heartbreaking to watch, but Linklater constantly reminds us that this is necessary to growth, and to healing. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Incarnation - A Christmas Meditation

- Matthew 1:23

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."
- John 1:14

Of all the sacred aspects of Christmas, the incarnation of Christ remains the most fascinating and vital to me. That God Himself became flesh is a concept so ridiculous, so inconceivable, so scandalous, that it sets Christianity apart from all other religions. Rather than being a wise sage or a model example of morality, Jesus claimed to be God Himself in the flesh. 

The word "incarnation" itself means "in the flesh." Rather than having a God who kept His creation at a distance, He entered into the mess of humanity in order to redeem it. Some say this says a lot about how much God was willing to spend to restore us to Himself, but in reality it says more about his character than anything.

When Christ became human, he gave up his throne, his privilege being God, he gave up his comfort. This incarnation is the crux of our faith. How could Jesus take the punishment of sin for a people he didn't relate to? To be able to be our substitute on the cross, God would have to be man. He would have to be WITH us, in our midst, a mighty one to save. By becoming man, God demonstrated His monstrous love. Not only would He save us, but he would become us, relate to us, experience what we do so that we might have a real relationship with God through the person of Jesus.

"For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin." 
- Hebrews 4:15

This is the significance of Christ's identity as "Immanuel." As Matthew explains Isaiah 7:14, this name means "God with us" and He will save His people from their sins. The entire purpose of Jesus's earthly life is contained in this name - His deity, his relationship to us, and his purpose. Never before had mankind experienced this kind of radical intervention, this kind of scandal. Why should God almighty give up so much for created beings? Through such an act of love, we might be reunited in relationship with God, and the character and glory of Christ would be put on full display for the World to see.

"although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
- Philippians 2:6-11

Charles Spurgeon, one of history's most acclaimed preachers, taught on the incarnation of Christ on Christmas Eve of 1854:

"Oh, wondrous stoop of condescension, that our blessed Jesus should be girded with humility and stoop so low! Ah, if He stooped, why should He bend to such a lowly birth? And if He bowed, why should He submit, not simply to become the Son of poor parents, but to be born in so miserable a place?
Let us take courage here. If Jesus Christ was born in a manger in a rock, why should He not come and live in our rocky hearts? If He was born in a stable, why should not the stable of our souls be made into a house for Him? If He was born in poverty, may not the poor in spirit expect that He will be their Friend? If He thus endured degradation at the first, will He count it any dishonor to come to the very poorest and humblest of His creatures and tabernacle in the souls of His children? Oh, no!"

The incarnation of Immanuel- God With Us- offers us hope. By his humility in coming to earth, Christ showed us that he was here to save even the lowly and the weak. As Spurgeon noted, "why should not the stable of our souls be made into a house for Him?" The beauty of God With Us is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He died for us even in his birth in Bethlehem. Christ was crucified even when the shepherds made their way to the stable. 
There was never any plan B. Jesus' purpose in being born was always to die for the sins of the world and pay our sin debt. 

While we open our presents and spend time with friends, family, and loved ones this holiday season, let us remember the significance of the incarnation. Jesus gave us his life, both living and dying, so that we could have a relationship with God again. The sweetness of relationships with those we love are just a tiny glimpse of the pure relationship we will have with Jesus when we are with Him in heaven. Likewise, the loneliness felt by many at this time of year is a  reminder that this world is not our home.

Thank God that he didn't condemn us to the loneliness of this world, but entered into it Himself so that we would have hope beyond it! This is the joy of Christmas, the significance of the incarnation.

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
- Hark the Herald Angels Sing, vs. 2

By Steven Bowman,
December 24, 2014