Friday, February 1, 2019

Top 10 films of 2018

Every year, I come to January having seen many good films and pondering which to name in my top 10. Also, each year, I come to this list knowing of films unavailable to me so far that might very well be on my list if I had the chance to see them. I think of three right away: Burning, Cold War and Shoplifters. But I must go with what I have seen. So here is my list, as of today:

1.      Roma. This black-and-white film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is set in a section of Mexico City in 1970-71 and presents a domestic drama in which the main character is Cleo, a Mixtec woman who keeps the household running. Beautifully shot, the film alludes to themes of colonialism yet refuses to speak for Cleo. It builds our empathy by presenting her life in its complexity.
2.      The Rider. This account of rodeo riders on a South Dakota reservation is so fact-based that it almost qualifies as a documentary. Chloé Zhao uses nonprofessional actors and stunning cinematography to produce an authentic and moving view of life there.
3.      Leave No Trace. This excellent film by Debra Granik not only tells a good story with complex characters but subtly confronts our way of life, so distant from nature. While the film moves slowly at times, the camera keeps us in the story, and we feel the beauty and menace of nature.
4.      First Reformed. This haunting film by Paul Schrader is shot in what he calls a “transcendental style,” influence by major filmmakers Bresson and Dreyer. It follows an alcoholic Protestant minister (Ethan Hawke) who undergoes a spiritual and psychological crisis. The film addresses the major issue of our time, climate change, and takes some creative chances that work. Hawke’s performance is outstanding.
5.      Minding the Gap. This documentary takes an honest look at poverty and domestic violence but also shows the courage and strength of young people who face that head on. Three young men in Rockford, Ill., who were beaten by their fathers find solace in skateboarding.
6.      Happy as Lazarro. This Italian film is told like a fable, set initially in a village that seems timeless, where peasants work essentially as slaves to a wealthy landowner. The title character is a kind of holy fool (with hints of St. Francis) who happily does whatever task he is asked to do. He bonds with a young nobleman. Director Alice Rohrwacher plays with the concept of time and uses some magical realism in this beautiful portrayal of innocence.
7.      If Beale Street Could Talk. This moving film by Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight is one of the best films of the past five years, is based on James Baldwin’s novel. It portrays a young African-American couple in Harlem whose lives are upended when he is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. The scenes that reveal the rage toward racism that Baldwin wrote about are stronger than the love story, which is shown in flashback.
8.      Can You Ever Forgive Me? This film features Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, a biographer whose books no longer sell. Hard up for money, she creates fake letters by famous writers and sells them to collectors. This unlikable curmudgeon eventually wins our sympathy as she tries to make her way out of poverty. She connects with a drinking buddy (Richard Grant), who helps her in her scheme. Eventually, the FBI catches them. McCarthy and Grant are wonderful here.
9.      Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This documentary about Fred Rogers, the children’s television host, shows how radical and Christian Rogers’ show was. A Presbyterian minister, he addressed various issues with the message of unconditional love, in contrast with today’s climate.
10.  Blindspotting. This powerful, energetic film follows two childhood friends—one African American, one white—in Oakland, Calif., and delves into the complexities of racial identity. Its use of rap and humor amid terrible events is ingenious.

Friday, January 20, 2017

My top 10 films of 2016

Many good films came out last year—and too many of them were unavailable to me before this deadline. But here are 10 I liked. And by “liked” I mean they particularly moved me—emotionally and/or intellectually—and were beautifully made.

1.       Moonlight presents three time periods—young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult—in the life of Chiron, an African-American male in Miami. A drug dealer tries to rescue him from bullies, while his drug-addicted mother neglects him. This tender, exquisitely shot film is the year’s best. It reveals how rarely we see a film with complex African-American characters as it explores their sense of self. The acting and cinematography are excellent.

2.       13th is a documentary by Ava DuVernay. The title refers to the 13th Amendment, which outlaws involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.” The film moves through U.S. history, showing how African-Americans especially have been labeled criminals in order to enslave them and use their labor for profit. DuVernay uses interviews with historians and others plus historical footage to tell a damning story of the U.S. criminal justice system. One stat to consider: African-American males make up 6.5 percent of the population and 40.2 percent of the prison population.

3.       La La Land is a rarity these days—a musical. It tells the story of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician trying to follow their dreams in Los Angeles. The film works on many levels: with joyous and romantic songs and dances, satire, many movie references and a moving exploration of the cost of following one’s creative impulses.

4.       Manchester by the Sea is the moving story of an uncle obliged to return home to Manchester, Mass., to care for his nephew after his brother, the teenager’s father, dies. When he learns his brother named him his nephew’s guardian, he struggles with what to do. Memories of what happened in his past help explain why he doesn’t want to live in Manchester. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams (in a brief role) are outstanding and will likely win Oscars. The writing also excels.

5.       O.J. Made in America is a five-part documentary about O.J. Simpson that narrates an American tragedy. It explores in detail his rise to fame, his trial for murdering his wife and her friend, and his fall from fame. At the same time it shows the injustices African-Americans experienced, particularly by the Los Angeles police and court system, that likely led to a jury declaring Simpson not guilty of murder.

6.       Hell or High Water portrays two brothers, one a divorced dad, the other an ex-con, who rob banks to save the family ranch in West Texas. Two Texas rangers try to find them before they rob another bank. The film is more than a chase plot, as it explores its characters and saves its ire for the banks that take advantage of people trying to survive in a poor economy.

7.       Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who are arrested in Virginia for their marriage and forced to leave the state. Later, their situation leads to a legal battle that ends at the U.S. Supreme Court. The film captures the quiet, ordinary love of the couple and understates the opposition they faced. The acting is superb.

8.       Arrival is far from the usual sci-fi films of heroes fighting aliens. Instead, it is an arresting, thoughtful drama that explores both human emotion and philosophical speculation. It’s also refreshing to see a woman in a lead role as an academic who shows courage and vulnerability. Amy Adams has the ability to communicate emotion with her eyes.

9.       The Innocents is set in 1945 in Poland, where a young French Red Cross doctor is assisting survivors of the German camps. A Polish nun begs her to come to a nearby convent, where the doctor finds several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy, having been raped by Russian soldiers. Based on a real incident, this powerful film explores themes of faith and suffering as both the unbelieving doctor and the nuns are changed by each other.

10.   Silence is a faithful adaptation of Shûsaku Endô’s outstanding novel from 1966 about Jesuit priests suffering for their faith in 17th-century Japan, where Christianity is outlawed. The film is long and at times harrowing, and it raises difficult questions about Christian faith. It’s that rare film that questions simplistic, victorious faith and delves into the depths of God’s mysterious silence and suffering with us.

Monday, August 1, 2016

5 resources on my mind

It’s summer, and while I’ve been catching up on some fantasy—finally finishing A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin’s fifth of seven planned novels in the Game of Thrones series—I’ll mention a couple of other books worth reading.
1. Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death by Jessica Kelley (Herald Press, 2016): This book is a deft combination of a heart-wrenching memoir about Kelley watching her 4-year-old son, Henry, die of cancer and a theological reflection driven by that experience. She explores harmful explanations that Christian culture offers the brokenhearted, such as that Henry’s tumor was a blessing in disguise or God’s discipline or part of God’s plan. She offers an alternative to the traditional view of the book of Job and concludes that “God is battling, always battling, to bring good out of evil.” She encourages readers to wrestle with their picture of God, as she has done so well.

2. Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (Random House, 2013): This is a highly acclaimed collection by a writer many consider the best American short story writer writing now. This book, which I finally finished recently, won the 2013 Story Prize for short story collections and the inaugural (2014) Folio Prize for the best work of fiction from any country published in the UK that year. Saunders’ stories are often quirky yet heartfelt. He combines humor and pathos amid intriguing settings. He combines satire of American life with an optimistic worldview.
The title story here is masterful. A boy goes to a pond near his home on a cold December day and finds a jacket a man has left behind. Trying to retrieve it, he falls through the ice into the water. The man who left the jacket is there to commit suicide. Then he sees the boy. Saunders alternates between the two characters’ point of view with stream-of-consciousness writing. What’s most striking about Saunders’ writing is his language and the narrative voices he creates.
Toward the end of the story, the man from the pond remembers a time with his wife: “They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—“ Sounds like the gospel.

3. The BFG (PG): Now to films. Last week I saw The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s film based on a book by Roald Dahl. The story, set in England in an unnamed time, is about an orphan girl who is captured by a benevolent giant, whom she calls the “Big Friendly Giant” (or BFG). He takes her to Giant Country, where they must find a way to stop man-eating giants that are attacking humans. The outstanding British actor Mark Rylance, who won last year’s Oscar for best supporting actor in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, makes the film work. And Dahl’s funny, creative language doesn’t hurt. Then there’s Spielberg’s flawless filmmaking, particularly the magical scenes of the BFG capturing dreams. The BFG did not perform at the box office nearly as well as Pixar’s Finding Dory, which is too bad, because it’s a better film.

4. The Decalogue: A few weeks back, I was talking with fellow film buff Ben Regier about The Decalogue, the 10-part Polish TV series directed by the great Krzysztof Kieślowski that came out in 1989. I loaned Ben my copy. Each of the hour-long stories stand alone and correspond—loosely, not literally—to the Ten Commandments, following the Roman Catholic order, which is different from the Protestant order. Most of the films are set in a large housing project in Warsaw, and a few of the characters know each other. Kieślowski, who also made the Three Colors trilogy: Red, White, Blue and The Double Life of Veronique, died in 1996. Film critic Robert Fulford called The Decalogue “the best dramatic work ever done specifically for television.” I would place it in my top 10 list of the best films ever made. Unfortunately, it’s not available for streaming, though Netflix has it on DVD.
5. Call the Midwife: Finally, a TV show. Call the Midwife is shown on PBS, which aired Season 5 this spring. The show chronicles the lives of a group of midwives living in East London in the late 1950s to early 1960s. The women live in a house for Anglican nuns (not all the midwives are nuns, however), so religion is a frequent topic and simply part of the setting. The show can feel sappy at times, but it’s also gritty and realistic. While many shows are punctuated by violence, pretty graphic births punctuate this show.
The setting is key. Music and dress mark the time period, but we also learn about emerging issues in pre- and neonatal care. For example, pain-relieving gas is first used in Season 2, and in Season 5, set in 1961, the birth control pill is legalized. Also this season, we witness the tragedy of the use of thalidomide to relieve morning sickness. Later, medical science determines that the drug causes severe birth defects. By then, many babies have been born and died—often left to die—because of this drug’s use. The show may seem feel-good, but it includes tragedy and a realistic look at people—mostly women—as they negotiate bringing life into a world where poverty persists. I’ll predict you’ll get hooked.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Free State of Jones

Whenever a new movie comes out that addresses the period of slavery in the United States, viewers must confront that sordid history anew. In 2013, we saw 12 Years a Slave, and a month ago, we saw a remake of the miniseries Roots. Now comes Free State of Jones, another of the many films that are “based on a true story.”

In this new film, like many others, we get a mix of history and adaptation for dramatic purposes. The story of Newton Knight is certainly compelling. A native of Mississippi, he deserted the Confederate army with others from Jones County and led a guerrilla war against the Confederates with an army of up to 500 people that included runaway slaves.

Director and co-writer Gary Ross, who also made Seabiscuit and Hunger Games, tells the story with an eye on the motivations for Knight’s actions. He’s fortunate to have an actor as excellent as Matthew McConaughey to fill that role. His look and speech fit perfectly.

A medical orderly in the Confederate army, Knight leaves to bury a kinsman, a boy from his home county who was conscripted into the army by force, then killed on the battlefield. Back in Jones County, he learns that local Confederate soldiers are taking people’s food as a tax, leaving them without enough to survive the winter.

When he helps a family stand up to some soldiers, driving them away with guns, he becomes a fugitive and is hunted as a deserter. He hides in a nearby swamp with several runaway slaves.

The Newton Knight of the movie is a natural leader who gives speeches that draw on Scripture and class struggle. One motivation for him and others to desert the army is the “Twenty Negro Law,” which excuses one white man from the war for every 20 black slaves he owns. Knight says, “This isn’t our war.”

Ross keeps us informed of the time frame for different parts of the story by showing the dates. He also moves forward at different points to 1948 to show Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight on trial for miscegenation, illegal according to Mississippi law. This is confusing at first but becomes pertinent as we learn more of Newton Knight’s story.

While it is a fascinating film, Free State of Jones raises several questions. One is how we view films like this that portray the evils of racism. Knight comes across early as a kind of white savior, though black slaves are given important dialogue and screen time. He also is a bit too good. A film (even at 2 ¼ hours) can’t cover the complexity of such an individual. But the real Knight had his share of flaws.

While the Knight of the movie has a son by Rachel, a slave played beautifully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the real Knight had three families with three different women and fathered dozens of mixed-race children. He was a man of strong principles and quick to have a knife at the throat of anyone who rubbed him the wrong way, according to The Smithsonian.

A related question regards our response to such films. We easily decry the evil of “those people,” whose racism is so blatant and so violent. But this doesn’t necessarily challenge our more subtle or hidden racism today. This is not a criticism of the film, which is telling a story from the past. But it is a caution about how we view it.

Then there’s the depiction of religion in the film. Knight was a Primitive Baptist who often quoted Scripture. And references to Scripture and to God occur in the film. But you won’t find references to Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence. As McConaughey said in an interview with The Daily Beast, Knight “was not a ‘turn the other cheek’ New Testament guy.” Redemptive violence is clearly presented here, though ultimately it didn’t work. Laws changed, and people changed, though the film only implies that; we don’t see it.

Free State of Jones is rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Curve balls

Money Monster is a thriller that takes on current issues and offers some surprising twists, which only adds to its interest and appeal.

A cable financial guru, Lee Gates (George Clooney), is on air with his show “Money Monster” when a deliveryman ambles onto the set, pulls a gun and takes Lee hostage, forcing him to put on a vest laden with explosives. The hostage taker is Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), who invested $60,000—his entire life savings, inherited from his deceased mother—in stock from a company Lee had endorsed a month earlier on the show.

Despite the extreme measures he’s taking, Kyle’s anger reflects the anger of many people who are struggling to get by. The company he invested his money in, IBIS Clear Capital, is run by CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). Lee planned to interview him on his show to ask why the company’s stock had plummeted the day before, costing investors $800 million. Instead, IBIS chief communications officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) explains via a video feed that the stock fell because of a glitch in a trading algorithm.

Kyle wants answers, and unless he gets them, he says, he will blow up Lee before killing himself. The police are notified, and they try to figure out a way to diffuse the bomb. Meanwhile, with the help of longtime director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), Lee tries to calm Kyle down and get him some answers. However, Camby is nowhere to be found, and Kyle is not satisfied when both Lee and Diane offer to compensate him for his financial loss.

The plot gets even more complicated, and I don’t want to give too much away. The film maintains its suspense while including some unexpected twists.

Racing against time, Lee and Patty use their resources to try to find out where Camby is and what’s behind the stock’s plummet. Diane also tries to find Camby and gains some information that challenges her commitment to the company.

Money Monster sets up some unrealistic situations and at times is heavy-handed about the corruption involved in our financial markets. But it also throws in some curve balls that alter our perception. Just as we’re ready to blame one evil man for not only Kyle’s problem but our own, the film confronts us with our own complicity in the way CEOs run their companies. We as stockholders tend to overlook these CEOs malfeasance when our stocks are making a profit, and we get upset when we learn about their misdeeds, especially when those lead to our losing money.

And the ending, which depicts the watching public’s fickleness, is superb. And Jodie Foster’s direction and the acting throughout is excellent.

Money Monster, rated R for language and some violence, is entertaining and includes some thought-provoking elements. But it’s not going to change many people’s behavior.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lessons from New Zealand

Every experience carries with it the opportunity to learn new ways—or reinforce old ways—of living our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

In late February and early March, Jeanne and I took part in our “trip of a lifetime” to New Zealand, which included a 13-day walking tour on the south island.

1. One step at a time, together: We did lots of hiking (what Kiwis, or New Zealanders, call tramping). Some of this involved covering what Kiwis call “gentle slopes” but feel pretty steep to a Kansas native. We walked every day, some treks longer than others. Over one two-day stretch, we walked about 22 miles over fairly rough terrain, with some steep switchbacks.

Our group consisted of 10 people, plus our guide, and another guide joined us at each location. The hikes were not hurried but were steady. We stopped to learn about plant and bird life. We conversed or simply walked in silence. We made it by putting one foot in front of another, not dwelling on how far we had to go but walking in the present moment.

Walking together provided an innate encouragement. We walked at different paces, but no one was left behind, and there was no judgment expressed toward those of us who walked slower.

2. Learning new perspectives: Although nine of our group members were from the United States and one from Britain, we brought different perspectives and experiences. We grew very close and were saddened to part company at the end of our tour.

Meeting new people is a reminder of the richness of human experience. We grow as we see the world with new eyes.

Being in a different country and culture brought its own learnings. New Zealand is a small country (only 4.5 million people) and has a different take on things from the U.S. empire’s perspective of dominance. We shared with the group the news about the shootings in Newton and Hesston, Kan. Our New Zealand guide and the British man simply said they did not understand the obsession with guns. Both their countries have strict gun laws and almost no gun deaths.

3. God’s beautiful, hurting world: We saw beautiful sights (ocean shores, rainforests, mountains, valleys) and were awestruck by God’s handiwork and the diversity in nature. We also learned about the effects of climate change. We saw glaciers that our guides told us were twice as large only 10 years ago.

Kiwis treasure their environment and are committed to caring for it as much as possible. If only we could do as well here.

Unlike my life here, we spent much of our time outdoors. We often forget that Jesus did as well. Yielding to the weather, rainy or dry, cold or warm, is an exercise in faith, living in reality.

4. Healthy habits: This trip reminded me of the importance of such healthy habits as walking regularly, being in nature, meeting new friends and gaining new perspectives.

As we walk our Christian life, we seek to do so fully aware of God’s presence with us. Walking under God’s sky among forests, mountains and shores was a helpful reminder of that.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

An inspiring story of faith

Noble (PG-13) tells the dramatic true story of Christina Noble, who overcomes a harsh childhood in Ireland to give her life to helping abandoned children.

The film moves between scenes of Christina’s life growing up in Ireland and her arrival in Vietnam in 1989, 14 years after the end of the war. Different actors portray her as a child, as a young adult and as an older adult, arriving in Ho Chi Minh City with only a few dollars and unsure why she is even there. Years earlier, she has a dream about Vietnam, a country “she wouldn’t be able to show you on a map,” and it sticks with her.

Christina grows up in poverty in Dublin. Her mother dies when she’s young, and her father is an alcoholic who hits his wife. Christina is a talented singer and shows great resilience. When her father agrees to have her and her siblings removed from the home and sent to a Catholic orphanage, she escapes briefly and goes to a pub and sings. Captured, she endures harsh punishment from the nuns at the orphanage, which feels clichéd.

As a young adult, she is on her own and gets a job in a factory, where she meets a woman who becomes a close friend. She survives a gang rape (not shown), loses her job and is taken to a Catholic shelter. There she gives birth to a boy, who is taken from her and given up for adoption.

Later, she marries, has three children and finally leaves her abusive husband.

This litany of suffering is all back story to the amazing work she does later. Despite her experiences, she retains a faith in God. The film offers several scenes of her talking frankly to God, sometimes in a church, sometimes on her bed. While the film doesn’t dwell on her religious faith, it also doesn’t provide much explanation how she remains faithful, given all that life—and the church—has done to her. We’re supposed to just accept that this is how she is.

After she arrives in Vietnam, she notices children on the street and begins caring for them. One day, she happens by an orphanage and convinces the Vietnamese woman who runs it to let her work there.

Overcome by how many children are in need of care and protection, particularly from sex traffickers, she eventually convinces donors to give her funds, and she creates a ministry that has now reached hundreds of thousands of children throughout Asia.

Despite the description above of Christina’s life growing up, the film isn’t as hard-hitting as it might have been. It lacks the gritty realism that a film with better production values or a different director might have brought. This tamer approach, I imagine, is intentional, since the film is geared to a more conservative audience.

And while it is geared toward presenting a message of faith, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Christina is clearly a woman of faith, though it’s not clear how that happened. Inarguably, however, hers is an inspiring story.

Noble is available on DVD.