The Best Films of 2018 (for people who want to grow in their soul)

The Best Films of 2018 (for people who want to grow in their soul)

“Some people want to grow in their souls. Film must start to take that seriously. We must stop telling them stories they can understand.” – Howard Barker   There were some great movies released in 2018. Black Panther managed to break box office records and represent the African (American) experience unlike any film in recent memory. Isle of Dogs and Game Night were enjoyable diversions. The Coen Brothers’ foray into Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was terrific. As were American Animals and Roma. But a surprising number of really good films in 2018 addressed really big themes. Themes like love, injustice, white supremacy, religious faith, hope and despair, death and grief. These are the kinds of things some people go to the theater to avoid. But as film writer Howard Barker notes, some moviegoers like films that expand their souls. They don’t necessarily want easy-to-understand fare, and are willing to watch less mainstream films that address important issues. So, here’s five of my favorite soul-growing films of the year and the themes they address:   1. SWEET COUNTRY Theme: INJUSTICE “Sweet Country is Old Testament cinema, with an almost biblical starkness in its cruelty and mysterious beauty, set in a burning plain where it looks as if the sun-bleached jawbone of an ass could at any moment be picked up and

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Four paintings for the four weeks of Advent

Four paintings for the four weeks of Advent

It will soon be Advent, the most beautiful of church seasons, celebrated over the four Sundays preceding Christmas. You might not be part of a liturgical church tradition, but marking each Sunday with a reading and the lighting of a candle can be a rich way to prepare yourself, your family, your congregation for the true meaning of Christmas amidst all the tinsel and commercialism of the season. You might like to use these four paintings, each from different eras, as stimulus for thinking about the well-known story. Here’s how you might do it: Light the candle (you’ll need three purple and one rose candle, and a white one for Christmas). Read the Bible text. Take time to examine the picture. Read the reflection below each picture. This could be done in your Sunday service, or around the family meal table, or as a personal devotional practice. I hope this small resource helps to focus your heart and soul on the true things of Christmas – hope, faith, joy and peace – and forms a brief respite from shopping mall Santas and Jingle Bells and gluttony and avarice. Oh, and merry Christmas. __________________________________________ WEEK 1 — HOPE Light the Prophets’ Candle (purple), symbolizing hope Reading:  Luke 1:26–38 Artwork:  The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner  (1859-1937) In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of

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We can all use a little upgrade

We can all use a little upgrade

This week I saw Leigh Whannell’s new film, Upgrade, a sci-fi horror film that really got me thinking about the nature of Christian discipleship. The movie introduces us to Grey Trace, a bit of an everyman, an old-school car mechanic who loves his wife Asha and distrusts all this new-fangled technology (the action takes place slightly in the future so there’s some cool gadgets on display). When Asha is murdered and he is left a quadriplegic in a vicious gang attack, Grey finds himself confined to a wheelchair seething with desire to track down his wife’s killers but unable to do anything about it. He is approached by Eron, a world-renowned tech genius (with very limited social skills, you know the kind by now) who explains that his company has developed a stop secret, biomechanical enhancement, a beetle-like computer chip, that when implanted in a person’s spinal column can send signals from the brain to the body. Eron calls it Stem, and says he’s willing to trial it on Grey. Stem, he promises, can “bridge the gap between brain and limbs.” It can restore the life that’s been taken from Grey. And sure enough, with Stem implanted in his neck, Grey can walk and move freely. But there’s a catch. Stem can not only interpret brain signals and convey messages

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Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Remember that line in Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, when the protagonist tells his visitor, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Can stories really do that? And if they can, shouldn’t film have even more chance to convey belief in God, given the visceral impact they can have? So, which films would you recommend as those most likely to make someone believe in God? My mind went immediately to films about people struggling with their faith, like Black Narcissus (1947) or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), all masterpieces of religious-themed cinema. But in each of these cases, the viewer is invited to observe the characters’ tenuous hold on faith. Would they make someone believe in God? Any film that could evoke a sense of God’s presence would have to be extremely challenging one, the kind of visual experience that demands much of the viewer. I mean, God is worthy of our undivided attention, right? We’re not talking about Bruce Almighty (2003) or The Shack (2011) here. So, here are three admittedly extremely challenging films that I think could at least help you believe in God.   TREE OF LIFE (2011) Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Tree of Life is a film like no other. It

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God Shows Up… roughly:   the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

God Shows Up… roughly: the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

When Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out on DVD in 2004, in the extras it included an interview Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach did with Italian film critic Antonio Monda. Typically, it’s slightly absurdist, with the odd moment of sincerity, like the time when Monda asks Anderson and Baumbach if they believe in God. “No,” replies Baumbach without hesitation. So Monda directs his question to Anderson, “What about you?” “I think so,” Anderson says sweetly. Baumbach looks surprised. “Really?” Anderson demurs only slightly, “Yeah, I mean… I mean, roughly.” To me that seems like an entirely appropriate answer for a filmmaker who addresses huge issues like the nature of family, human brokenness, grief and depression, the challenges of under-parented adults, and a hunger for purpose, but in whose films God only appears obliquely. Critic David Zahl writes, “The very mention of a religious dimension to Wes Anderson’s films may sound surprising, even bizarre. It is certainly not what he is known for.” In fact, Zahl observes, rather cleverly, that because Anderson’s films are so extraordinarily intricate and perfectly balanced, “…it seems there is no room in a Wes Anderson film for any deity other than Wes Anderson.” But God does show up in Anderson’s films. It might take some faith to see it, but in

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If you can’t see why Black Panther is a big deal, maybe you need to check your white privilege

If you can’t see why Black Panther is a big deal, maybe you need to check your white privilege

  Recently I posted this on Facebook: Why, why, why did the most inspirational and groundbreaking cinema event of the decade have to be a stoopid Marvel movie?!!?   Yeah, it’s true I don’t like Marvel (or DC) films. And I’m not that fond of Star Wars or Star Trek movies either. I mean, I don’t hate them, and I get that lots of people really love them, but to me they’re just too repetitive and predictable. I’ve just grown weary of the two dimensional character development and the gee-whiz effects. Please don’t hate me. So when I referred to “the most inspirational and groundbreaking cinema event of the decade,” of course I was meaning Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the Marvel blockbuster that follows King T’Challa as he struggles to support the highly-advanced African nation, Wakanda. People of color are raving about Black Panther, especially about the amazing nearly all-black cast, and that fact that the film reflects on big topics like pan-Africanism, racial politics, and imperialism. And I do find that exciting. But, come on, it’s still a stoopid Marvel film. Of course, I was roundly taken to task by Marvel fans on Facebook (which is fine), but I found myself being even more convicted by the comments I got from people of color. They wrote about how much it meant

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Wonder Woman isn’t the only female hero on film this year

Wonder Woman isn’t the only female hero on film this year

I haven’t seen Wonder Woman and I probably won’t. I’m guessing it’s pretty much the same as the other Marvel/DC comic book hero films. As everyone keeps pointing out though, what is different about Wonder Woman is that the lead superhero is woman! Or an Amazon, if that’s the same as being a woman. In the original comic book, WW was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta and given life by Aphrodite, along with superhuman powers as gifts by the Greek gods. And somehow Zeus is her father. I know. It’s confusing. Anyway, at least she’s played by a woman. And everyone says that makes her a role model for little girls and a feminist icon. Who am I to disagree? I find it interesting that people are gushing about the breakthrough of having a female superhero in the very year that a number of exceptional female-led dramas have been released.   Both William Oldroyd’s haunting Lady Macbeth and Sophia Coppola’s Cannes-winning The Beguiled are about 19th Century women forced to take control of their lives when men threaten to destroy them. Both films make much of the fact that the odds are stacked in favor of men and in order to survive (or indeed, thrive), women must resort to extraordinary measures. In each case, the women’s sexuality draws them

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We don’t need another hero

We don’t need another hero

First up, this isn’t an anti-Trump post. It’s an anti-Marvel one. I want to escape the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I’m not being ironic, they actually call it that. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a creation of Marvel Studios, which has been churning out superhero films since 2007, racking up 15 so far, every one of them exactly the same as the last. In the past year alone we’ve had new Marvel franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr Strange, and Deadpool, as well as being treated to retreads like X-Men 9, Wolverine 3, and Captain America 3. And they have 11 more in various stages of production, including Thor 3, Avengers 3, the newbie Black Panther, and the third Spider-Man reboot (or 6th film if you’re counting). Hey, I’m not judging you if you like these pictures, but does the world really need another Spider-Man movie??   In the Marvel Cinematic Universe superheroes of various shapes and sizes, from Hulk down to that raccoon character in GOTG, rip and tear the world to pieces as they fight aliens, villains, gods, and mad scientists at every turn. They even fight each other. There are two main reasons I want to escape (not counting the fact that all these films share the same basic plot). Firstly, none of them contain a skerrick of actual

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Break the rules like an artist

Break the rules like an artist

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. – Pablo Picasso   Vincent Van Gogh is widely known today as a typically eccentric artist. He might not have invented Impressionism, but he was the first to paint stars swirling uncontrollably in the night sky, or to depict sunflowers as golden explosions, or the sky on fire above a wheatfield. His pictures were vivid, wild, daring, chaotic, full of bright yellows and deep blues. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and be surrounded by a room full of his work – Sunflowers, Irises, Almond Blossom, The Bedroom and Potato Eaters – you’ll know the powerful visceral effect it can have. And yet, if you go to the 2nd floor to the “Van Gogh Close Up” exhibit you’ll find scores of meticulous drawings of hands and feet made by Vincent when he was beginning to learn art. And then it dawns on you – Vincent didn’t simply pick up a brush and start painting A Starry Night. He took boring art classes. He submitted himself to the slow discipline of learning his craft. I remember my father moaning about modern art and saying anyone could paint like Picasso (“It’s just cubes”) or Pollock (“You just splash paint on

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Is meaning simply in the eye of the beholder?

Is meaning simply in the eye of the beholder?

When I first saw a photo of the Fearless Girl defying the rampaging bull of Wall Street I loved it! There she stands – feet apart, back arched, hands on hips – boldly staring down the ultimate symbol of out-of-control capitalism. Viewed from behind it looks as if she’s stopped the bull in his tracks. He crouches tentatively, quizzically sizing up his opponent, unsure of whether he has the measure of this defiant girl. How clever to subvert such a masculine symbol of greed and power with a figure of sheer feminine chutzpah.   At least that’s what I thought until I discovered who created each sculpture and what their motives were for doing so. Charging Bull was created in 1987 by Italian-American sculptor Arturo Di Modica right after the Black Monday stock market crash. He claimed he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people” – like a kind of shot in the arm after the collapse of the financial market. Interestingly, Di Modica wasn’t commissioned to design the bull and he spent $350,000 of his own money to create it. He trucked it into Manhattan himself and installed it – without permission – right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It was guerrilla art in the true sense of the word,

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Is this the greatest Easter painting of all time?

Is this the greatest Easter painting of all time?

It has the imposing title, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection. More often than not it’s just referred to by the shortened form, The Disciples or Les Disciples. You won’t find it in the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery. It hangs tucked away in an old railway station in Paris, now the Musée d’Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine. It was painted in 1898 by a relatively little known Swiss artist named Eugène Burnand. He was something of an old-fashioned realist at a time when all the cool kids were embracing modernism. The Disciples didn’t make a splash when it was first hung. Burnand’s style was already considered passé by the 1890s. But those who take the time to find it in the d’Orsay come away saying that viewing the canvas is akin to a spiritual experience. Some say it is the greatest Easter painting ever made.   Scroll up and look again at the picture. As the first blush of dawn is tinting the clouds, Peter and John are rushing to the tomb of Christ. They’ve just been told by Mary Magdalene that she and the other women found it empty, that Christ has risen. Her words are ringing in their ears. But their faces and their bodies

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Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

With all the hullabaloo about the film version of The Shack I find it amusing to read reviews questioning whether the film (and by extension, the book) teaches biblical truth. Twenty years ago, Christians had no problem suggesting that Neo in The Matrix was a Christ figure, and that popping that red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes was a metaphor for Christian conversion. Fifteen years ago, preachers were happy to pepper their sermons with references to the Lord of the Rings film series. And even though Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was based in part on devotional works like the Friday of Sorrows and the reputed Marian apparitions attributed to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Protestants happily hosted film nights and encouraged their members to bring their friends along to see it. So why is The Shack being viewed so suspiciously? Presumably because it’s been cursed with the classification as a “Christian novel” in a way that, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn’t. C.S. Lewis was a devoted Christian and his Narnia books (and subsequent films) were embraced by Christians as presenting biblical themes, with Aslan becoming one of the most loved Christ figures in literature. But the Narnia series was never classified in a limited sense as “Christian fiction”. Likewise, novelist

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