Best Films of 2014

BOYHOOD

In spite of North Korea-sponsored hacks and Hollywood’s subsequent self-censorship, constant doomsday talk of box office decline and much ink spilt about The End of Movies, it was a terrific year for cinema. It’s always difficult in years like this to narrow down to ten favorites, but  below is my attempt. These are films that moved me, astonished me, taught me, and focused my attention more clearly than any others this year. I heartily recommend them all to you:

10) Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch has long been one of my favorite directors, and his goth-hipster take on the vampire genre did not disappoint. Starring the always wonderful Tilda Swinton and Tom “Loki” Hiddleston as a pair of vampire lovers with impeccable taste (Basquiat, Lord Byron, David Foster Wallace), Only Lovers Left Alive is both darkly funny, elegant and mournful in a way only Jarmusch (Down By Law, Broken Flowers) can quite pull off.

9) Calvary: This dark comedy from John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly) tells the story of an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners. The film plays at times like a Clue-esque whodunit but what I found most compelling about it is how it shows the day-to-day ministry of a priest caring for his flock. Against the backdrop of a post-Christendom Europe, where churches and clergy are viewed by many with suspicion if not contempt, Calvary shows one the beauty of one man’s faithfulness and burden for the lost.

8) It Felt Like Love: This stunning debut film from Eliza Hittman follows a 14-year-old girl (Gina Piersanti) in Brooklyn as she navigates relationships and sexuality in those awkward girl-to-woman years. Subtle, realistic, quiet and immensely perceptive, the film reminded me a bit of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2010). More than anything I’ve seen, It Felt Like Love shows the disturbing ways that our sex-saturated society and misogynistic media landscape warp young people’s senses of love, body image, relationships and sexuality.

7) Ida: This Polish film from Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) is quiet, spare (filmed in black and white) and understated, yet it packs a punch. Set in the devastated (physically, emotional, existentially) landscape of post-Holocaust Poland, the film follows a novitiate nun as she discovers details about her family from the time of the Nazi occupation. Perhaps the most beautifully shot film of the year, Ida is also one of the most insightful films I’ve seen about the lingering ghosts of WWII in contemporary Europe.

6) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my review)

5) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my review)

4) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my review)

3) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

2) Two Days, One Night: The Belgian Dardenne brothers (The Son, The Child, The Kid With a Bike) make masterpieces so often it would be easy to take them for granted. “It’s just another tour-de-force triumph of humane neorealism,” one might say of their latest film, Two Days, One Night. “Ho hum.” But the film, starring Marion Cotillard (her second Oscar-worthy performance of the year, in my estimation), is nevertheless worthy to be counted among the best movies of the year, even if it feels like another effortless outing in Dardenne-land. What makes Two Days stand out this year is how timely it seems, touching as it does on issues of depression and mental health, as well as economic malaise and the struggle between individual profit and collective responsibility. Like all the Dardenne brothers’ films, Two Days feels beautifully specific and yet at the same time universal–a film about a woman, a husband and a community which we can all identify with.

1) Boyhood: Even if its acting and story were a bust (they aren’t), Richard Linklater’s Boyhood would still be something of a monumental achievement in cinema. Shot over 12 years (the patience!) with the same actors, showing on film the real growing up of a boy (real in the sense of each year he is visibly older, as are his family members), Boyhood chisels away from a mound of time to form an unprecedented cinematic sculpture of temporality and family-shaping childhood development. It’s sort of like the Up series meets David Brooks’ The Social Animal. As I’ve reflected on the film I’ve thought about the inaccessible reality of one’s childhood: photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and one has memories. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually one’s descendants will render their life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all. The power of films like Boyhood is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. (my review)

Honorable Mention: Cold in July, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, Night Moves, Snowpiercer, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,  The Wind Rises, Whiplash.

Note: Several of the films on this list contain content (violence, nudity, sex, drugs, language, etc.) that should be approached with caution. 

Advent Time

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I love the season of Advent for a lot of reasons, not least the way it embraces the messiness of existence in a manner appropriate to the chaos of the month in which it falls.

But today I’ve been thinking about the way that Advent forces us to reflect on time in a unique way, in both looking back and looking forward, remembrance and imagination of times past and times to come.  The fact that today is my birthday aids in my reflection. Birthdays are steps out of time in a weird way, “just another day” but also not. They are 24 hours long just like any day, but they hold a disproportionate place in our memories and our hopes. They are kairos moments (as opposed to chronos)and as such they remind us that time is less mundane and more miraculous than we often give it credit.

Movies capture this as well. An excellent recent essay on Interstellar illustrates how the film becomes a sort of meta reflection on the way movies reflect the realities of time back to us:

A movie is, itself, an act of relativistic time compression. All movies are a capture of moments of time reconstructed into a semblance of persistence… The universe’s rules are given dramatic life after [Interstellar’s] tragic first expedition to the water planet. Upon return the astronauts learn that 23 years have passed in just over an hour. When Cooper watches a series of messages taking him through two decades of his children’s lives, it is the maximal example of the universal act of anyone watching recorded footage of a loved one. Because all recorded media is a capture of a moment of the past, and to view it is to observe that the true constant in the universe is not the speed of light but our passage through time. Time may distort, your reference perception of it may shift, but we only ever move forward through it. Interstellar compresses the brutal truth of this absolute into a purely expressionistic tragedy, the movie itself distorting time in order to let us feel the full weight of its tragedy, the way our lives slip through our hands, our loved ones age, our children proceed into the future, into a few minutes.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, one of 2014’s best films, also captures this “lives slipping through our hands well.” Time is a frequent subject of Linklater’s (see the Before trilogy), but Boyhood is the director’s most forceful embrace of cinema’s ability to confront the viewer with the reality of time. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time:

“As he buys his ticket, it’s as if the cinema-goer were seeking to make up for the gaps in his own experience, throwing himself into a search for ‘lost time.’ In other words he seeks to fill that spiritual vacuum which has formed as a result of the specific conditions of his modern existence: constant activity, curtailment of human contact, and the materialist bent of modern education.”

Advent does the same thing; it meets us where we are but helps us transcend time. On one hand it zooms us back to history’s most kairotic moment ever: the incarnation of God in flesh, the Creator involving himself in the physical story of creation, in the fulness of time. But Advent also zooms us forward to the “not yet” consummation of history, the coming again of Christ judge and rule and restore this broken world. All of it is held together in the mystery of the incarnation.

In our house this week we’ve been listening a lot to “Nine Lessons & Carols” by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s beautiful Christmas music. As I listen to it I feel the back-and-forward, now-and-not-yet tension of Advent. The live recording makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there, in the glorious King’s College Chapel, listening to the choral voices and organ in person. It reminds me of times I’ve been in that sacred space myself, worshipping with dear friends who I may not see again in my lifetime. The music stirs longing in my heart for eschatological resolution–for the day when the absence of friends, family members, and the agony of time’s relentless forward motion will give way to a cathartic presence and rest.

The relentlessness of time can be unbearable, but Advent helps us bear it. It allows us to slow down, pause, and enter into time in a new way. Devotionals like the Biola Advent Project help us in this. I pray that God grants you a profound, out-of-time encounter with his presence this Advent.

Interstellar

interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of those films I wish I could have seen three times before I wrote my review. As it is I only had a few hours to process the (insanely mind-bending) film before I had to turn in my review for Christianity Today. Because of that I want to share a few further thoughts I’ve been mulling over in the week since I’ve seen the film:

I’m generally happy with the review I wrote and stand by my arguments about the film’s “secular, yet curiously devout vision of the cosmos.” Also at CT, Alissa offered a different view, suggesting a reading of the film as fundamentally religious. While I agree that the film asks metaphysical questions and looks and feels religious (it “feels a bit like a three-hour church service set in the cathedral of space,” I wrote) I can’t get past the film’s insistent refusal to allow for anything supernatural. I read the film that way in part because of Nolan’s whole body of work. He goes out of his way in his films to strip away the supernatural and ground things painstakingly in the natural. Take the Dark Knight films: One of the most distinctive aspects of them, relative to the superhero genre as a whole, is how de-mystified and stripped of the “super” they are. Or take The Prestige. It’s a film about magic that feels supernatural but, in the end, is explained with the natural (I hope that’s not a spoiler!)Or consider Inception, which feels like there must be something otherworldly or surreal about it, right? But no, it’s all explainable because of psychology and science.

Of course this is not to suggest that these are bad films. On the contrary; they are wonderful and awe-inspiring films. I totally agree with Alissa that science does not negate mystery and that “just because we understand a mystery doesn’t make it less worthy of marvel.” But I do think awe/marvel/wonder takes on a different meaning and posture in the context of a strictly material universe (the awe is directed to the object/phenomena itself, or the science which understands it) than it does in the context of a God-created universe (the awe-inspiring object/phenomena points beyond itself, to the divine).

I suspect Christopher Nolan is inspired by Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (clearly a major influence on Interstellar), who famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That is to say, what appears magical or supernatural to us is probably just science we haven’t yet understood completely. Everything can ultimately be explained. Certainly this is the concept put forth in Interstellar that makes sense of the movie’s “ghosts” and other phantasmagoric mysteries. If you think about it, cinema is the perfect medium for someone who ascribes to the Clarke mantra. Movie-making is essentially making magic via technology. Certainly Nolan excels at this, as his films do a tremendous job giving the illusion of “magic” by exploiting the technologies of the medium.

A few other random reflections on the film:

  • I still think one of the film’s most powerful themes is survival–that mankind’s instincts to survive make almost anything possible. The “rage against the dying of the light” idea (Dylan Thomas) reminded me of other recent “fighting to the last breath” movies I love, like last year’s All is Lost or 2006’s United 93. It also struck me as a powerful contrast to the Brittany Maynard “die with dignity” story which has grabbed headlines in recent weeks. Watching humans do literally anything to survive (because it’s their inborn instinct), even when the prognosis is hopeless, is so much more compelling than applauding the premature ending of a life.
  • The more I consider Nolan and his body of work the more I think about Nolan’s decidedly British gaze. What I mean is this: There’s a meticulous perfectionism and yet coldness to his filmmaking. There’s an appreciation for artistry and beauty, yet an avoidance of religion and God (intentionally) and a discomfort with touchy feely emotions (unintentionally?). This is very British. Britain today is thoroughly post-Christian and yet unavoidably informed by its Christian heritage (especially aesthetically and narratively). The British gaze today is (for the most part) coldly rational, yet bound by an optimism and moral compass that comes from the vestiges of Christendom. In this way I think Interstellar is a very British film.

Whiplash

whiplash

Whiplash is a great new film about jazz starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. If you’ve ever played an instrument, pursued anything creative with a passion, or even if you just like jazz, you should see this film. Here’s an excerpt from my review for Christianity Today:

One of the things Whiplash is about is the necessity of discipline and accountability in a world where kids grow up—emboldened by shelves of participation trophies and constant “you can do anything!” pats on the back—thinking world-changing greatness is just a Kickstarter campaign awayIt’s a world where many aspiring artists, including many Christians, skip that whole “tireless, decades-long training to master the craft” part, jumping straight to making the “masterpiece” that they are then surprised to see get trashed by the critics.

No, in order to be a legend, in order to make a difference as an artist, one must accept the indispensability of mastering technique. In order to be a good improviser, one must first excel within limits. Prior to “breaking the rules” in a brilliant and influential way, artists must study the greats and be great. Before Jackson Pollock was in a position to convince anyone of the excellence of his abstract expressionism, he had to first train in representational technique (he did in part under Thomas Hart Benton). Terrence Malick could have never made a formally bonkers film like To the Wonder had he not first established his credibility with more traditional fare like Badlands.

So it is for young Andrew under the tutelage of Fletcher, a man who maintains that the most harmful two words in the English language are “good job.” Andrew is brought to literal blood, sweat and tears repeatedly in the film, as the Hegelian collision between his drive and Fletcher’s punishing temper gradually produces something brilliant. Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is nurturing and outwardly loving; he’s there to hug his son when a concert performance doesn’t go so well.

But Fletcher provides something fatherly that Andrew desperately needs: discipline. One minute Fletcher encourages Andrew and the next he’s slapping him in the face. One minute Andrew is Fletcher’s go-to drummer and the next he’s kicked out of the band. But it’s not bipolar as much as it’s two faces of the same love—a love that includes both grace and discipline, both mercy and judgment. When Andrew comes to realize this, he may as well be reading Hebrews 12:5-6: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Read the rest of the review here.

What’s Missing in “Gone Girl”?

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is an exceptionally made film. That’s the first and undeniable observation that one must make about David Fincher’s new film. Fincher is a master of the craft and his command of the filmic language gets more impressive with each film he makes. The editing, angles, words and plot turns in Girl are all as razor sharp as the box-cutter that proves so pivotal in the film’s most dramatic scene. I don’t think Girl tops Fincher’s best work (Zodiac or The Social Network), but it’s certainly one of the most cinematically accomplished American films to be released this year.

Still, Gone Girl left a bad taste in my mouth and has me a bit sour on Fincher in general. Since Se7en he’s been a filmmaker I’ve greatly admired, and Zodiac is probably in my top 20 films of all time. Yet I felt like Girl was missing something, and it made me wonder whether Fincher’s films in general are largely void of the spiritual or existential gravitas that their lighting, music and mood would suggest they might have. Even in their unique brand of postmodern-ish film noir (a genre that in the mid-20th century was the most existentially perceptive of Hollywood’s output), Fincher’s films (with the exception of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network) feel a bit one-note. He’s probably the best living director we have in terms of giving prestige treatment to C.S.I.-type procedurals and potboiler page-turners. The case could certainly be made that Fincher is a bit Warhol-like in terms of taking popular, mass-consumed culture (Facebook, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) and turning it into high art. But I’d rather not call it high art as much as highly polished art. He’s a technical, aesthetically brilliant filmmaker. What’s I’m less convinced about is whether he has much to say.

After finishing Fincher’s Gone Girl one gets the feeling that there was maybe something profound-ish going on in the film. Something about the elusive nature of truth in narrative, or maybe something about the changing nature of media. I tried to reflect upon the film from an auteurist angle, looking at Fincher’s larger filmography to pick up connections to his typical preoccupations. Certainly Girl explores familiar Fincher territory like domestic violence and female revenge narratives (Panic Room, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), postmodern “there’s no way to know what’s real” narratives (Fight Club, The Game) and head-scratcher detective procedurals (Se7en, Zodiac).  And while all of this makes Girl more intelligent and substantial than your average film, it nevertheless strikes me as mostly really good decoration. But where’s the meat? Where’s the film’s coherent voice and vision?

If Girl is about anything it’s about marriage. Here it may convince some viewers of its insightfulness, perhaps. It’s a film that tries to be a commentary on marriage in America in the same way that American Beauty or Revolutionary Road do; which is to say lyrically bleak and meager on substance. And that’s a shame. There’s a way to tell stories that critique American marriage and gender roles in a way that is insightful even as it is bleak. Mad Men does a pretty good job of this, I think. But Girl‘s portrait of marriage, much like that of the Underwoods (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) in House of Cards, feels too extreme, too cold-hearted and cartoonish to reveal anything very insightful. Girl’s central villain, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is so fictionally overblown as a femme fatale that it’s hard to make any connections to real life. Even Barbara Stanwyck as the consummate noir vixen in Double Indemnity (1944) feels closer to real life than the man-eating “Amy” of this film. I’m far more interested in films that explore the dark sides of suburban soccer moms (and dads) in subtler ways. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001) comes to mind as one example.

In addition to providing a not-really-helpful commentary on marriage, Girl also feels a bit exploitative and counter-productive in light of the current cultural conversation surrounding domestic violence. Wesley Morris discusses this at length in his critique for Grantland:

The movie doubles as a snide contradiction of the serious conversation Americans have been having lately about men, women, exploitation, and violence. Gone Girl isn’t complicating that conversation. It gets off on thumbing its nose at it, using a vengeful false accusation to exploit an old trope of the terrifying femme fatale… Flynn and Fincher are presenting a glib and facetious alternative provocation in the name of entertainment. The movie isn’t smart enough to think around the problems it superficially engages with. Amy turns abuse into a romantic fantasy for her amusement and for ours.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Girl and expecting too much of it. But again, Fincher is clearly a smart guy and an accomplished director. He’s got immense talent. Can’t we expect more substantive and nuanced ideas from his films?

There is a cold objectivity and moral indifference to Fincher’s films. On one hand it’s refreshing to see dark stories simply told, with room for the audience to make judgments and determine the blurry contours of good and evil (I like many of Michael Haneke’s films for the same reason). On the other hand it feels sometimes like Fincher is interested in drama, intrigue, violence and revenge for their own sakes; as if the survival-of-the-fittest struggles of human existence are compelling even when stripped of telos or conscience.

Maybe there’s more than meets the eye in Fincher’s films. Perhaps if I re-watch his other films I’ll feel differently. But Girl feels too flippant for our times; a waste of slick form on middling substance. But maybe that in itself is a commentary on the HD polish of our vacuous age.

Forms of Faith

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Recently I was asked by Converge Magazine to write a piece for their website reflecting on my book Hipster Christianity four years after its release. I took them up on the offer but rather than reflecting on how the phenomenon has changed or who the new hip pastors and churches are, I decided to offer a summary of one of the main point’s of the book–that forms of faith matter and that we must think critically about how medium and message interact.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Perhaps more than anything the book is an invitation to consider the way form matters in the Christian life. Indeed, a common response from those who feel implicated by the questions of Hipster goes something like this: “What we’re doing is simply putting the gospel in different packaging and updating the style of its delivery as to be relevant to a particular audience. The medium may be different and new, but the message remains the same.”

But is this really true? Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same? With Hipster I wanted to challenge this notion and show how form matters: that perhaps the way Christianity is understood and appropriated is different when packaged in Helvetica, skinny jeans, and small batch whisky than when it’s packaged in robes, pews, and pleated khakis. Not that one is necessarily preferable to the other, mind you; just that they are different. 

The article is similar in spirit to one I wrote on this blog in October 2010, entitled Medium: Cool (yes that is a reference to Haskell Wexler’s film)

Many Christian hipsters would like to believe that their faith has mostly to do with their beliefs and their actions, but that it doesn’t have much at all to do with how they look. But I think we have to consider that our “look” does matter, because—for good or ill—it does communicate things…

What I’m suggesting is that we need to think more about what it means to be a Christian on both the form and content level. What does it mean to truly embody the call of Christ in our lives? Can we embody that selfless, humble, transcendent Gospel of Christ when we look the part of a self-focused, vain, trendy hipster?

What do you think? Is the medium of cool a neutral thing for our Christian gospel witness? And if form does indeed matter more than we think it does, how can we go about deciding which forms of faith are preferable over others?

Boyhood

boyhood

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

-From “Fern Hill” (Dylan Thomas)

“In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers… Time cannot vanish without a trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

-Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

I think it was Kierkegaard who said that while life is lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. Certainly most art proves the truth of this statement. While life presses on breathlessly and leaves nary a moment for sense-making, artists are the ones who press pause and rewind, arranging the pieces, plot-points and colors for us in such a way that the full (or fuller) picture is seen. Most artists spend a good amount of their career (if not the whole of it) exploring their own histories, searching their lived past and re-creating it or reckoning with it in a manner that proves at the very least personally therapeutic and at best profound and transcendent for wider audiences.

Terrence Malick’s films are good examples of this. His recent films (To the Wonder and The Tree of Life) have been intensely, almost indulgently personal; yet they capture essences of things, “universes in grains of sands” so to speak, in beautiful ways. The latter film is Malick’s exploration of his own Texas boyhood, standing in for all boyhoods and, at times, for all of life period.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does a similar thing, narrating a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story while at the same time evoking the universal. In both cases (Malick’s Life and Linklater’s Boyhood) the most resonant and transcendent moments arise from the most mundane and yet sharply perceived bits of minutia. These films are not metaphysically robust because they wax philosophical (though both do, at times) but because they pay attention to the little moments: hosing grass off the bottom of one’s foot on a summer day, reading Harry Potter books to children before bed, etc. Both films succeed because they focus less on a traditional plot structure than an episodic tableaux: capturing the overall picture and mood, impressionistically, through select scenes, glimpses, reminiscences of childhood. Given the huge amount of history to work with, and in both cases a huge amount of film from which to edit, both Malick and Linklater distill emotions and truth expertly from the mound of  “time” they have to work with. In this way they epitomize what Tarkovsky says is the essence of the film director’s work: “sculpting in time.”

Linklater, perhaps even more than Malick, has been particularly fascinated with cinema as “sculptor of time.” How can the moving image help us understand and appreciate the complexity of time? In films like his Before trilogy and now Boyhood, Linklater takes up the question in remarkable ways. These films don’t merely re-create times past (as most films do, including Malick’s) but rather document time as it passes. For Linklater, time itself is quite literally the biggest star in his movies. Sometimes this requires immense patience. His Before series has required the investment of Linklater and the series’ two actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) over the course of twenty years. Similarly, Boyhood required yearly commitments from its actors since 2002. But the results are profound. Part of what makes Boyhood and the Before series so significant (and I believe they will only rise in significance in decades to come) is that they evoke the passage of timeindeed, aging and growing up–without the magic of makeup or CGI but simply through turning on a camera after periods of time have gone by. Michael Apted’s astonishing Up series also does this.

Another way Linklater focuses in on the curiosity of time is by shooting in real-time. Several sequences in the Before series unfold in uninterrupted single takes and all of them occupy merely a few hours in their characters’ lives. Linklater’s 2001 film Tape unfolds entirely in real-time. His 1991 classic Slacker takes place entirely in one day in Austin. Linklater recognizes the powerful documentary aspect of film in that it can capture slices of life (or slices of time) like very little else can. Like a photographed image, a film transports us to another place and time. But a moving image can arguably immerse us in those long lost “sand between the fingers” moments more fully, capturing the unfolding in time aspect of life in a way static images cannot.

A third way Linklater’s films reflect on time is by having his characters wonder aloud about it. In the Before series, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are always talking philosophically about time, musing about lost time on the Left Banke of Paris, quoting W.H. Auden in Vienna (“O let not Time deceive you”) or pondering impermanence as they watch the sun set in Greece. Characters in Slacker and Waking Life (2001) are similarly fascinating by time. The latter film’s discussion of André Bazin, cinema and “holy moments” seems particularly salient for Linklater himself, as the transcendent potential in capturing spontaneous existence seems to motivate much of his filmmaking.

Certainly Boyhood has its fair share of what may be called “holy moments.” It has a lot of tragic moments as well, to be sure, as does Malick’s Tree of Life. But both films favor the charged goodness of life’s “holy moments” as fortuitously recorded by the camera. Where the holiness Malick sees in cinematic moments speaks to something Other and transcendent, however, Linklater’s “holiness” inheres in the moments themselves. For him, the very act of capturing moments through a camera, thereby arresting the otherwise painfully indifferent onward march of time, is where transcendence is found. It’s worth noting that Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the “boy” of Boyhood, finds himself drawn to photography as the one consistent source of meaning in his life. In a life where no house, no father figure, no friend stays around for very long, Mason clings to the “pause” power of a photograph to stop time and preserve a fleeting moment for a bit longer.

This is exactly the power of cinema on display in Boyhood, and it’s why the film is such an magnificent achievement. As specific as it is to this one boy and his coming of age story (from age 7 to 18), and as relatively intimate and mundane as its storytelling may be, the film nevertheless feels epic and existentially resonant.

As I reflected on the film I thought of my experience a few weeks ago in Scotland, exploring the streets and hills in Motherwell, where my grandfather spent his boyhood–when he was “young and easy in the mercy of his means,” as Dylan Thomas would say. I thought of how inaccessible the reality of his childhood is to us now, apart from a few photographs and passed-down, half-forgotten memories. But then my own boyhood is the same way. More photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and my memories of it are still clear. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually my descendants will render my life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all.

The power of poetry like that of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” or films like Linklater’s Boyhood, is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. This is the power of narrative generally.

I’ve often wondered if in heaven we will have infinite access to re-constituted past: a sort of “on-demand, all you can watch” pass to travel back and watch any moment in history unfold, whether our own childhood or that of Christ. Perhaps eternity will bring all time and history into wholly manageable perspective. Perhaps Marilynne Robinson is right when she speculates, in Gilead, that “In eternity this world will be like Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

Maybe so. But in the meantime, I’m thankful that God created us to be creative, so that Homers and Linklaters and Malicks can help us bridge the gaps in our experience and grab hold of time even as it slips away.