Monthly Archives: November 2009

Happy New Year (Advent Thoughts)

2010 may still be a month away, but the new year has already begun. Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent–the first season in the church calendar year. Everything has reset, with newness and hope the only items on the agenda.

It was a crazy week and a crazy year for me. So many friends and family have lost their jobs. So many deaths, divorces, other bad things. Stresses keep coming, overwhelming as they always are. Mistakes made, plans foiled, Michael Jackson dead. Old and new friends enrich my life. Old and new struggles carry on.

But God with us. Emmanuel. We have reason to push on in faith.

Advent. It’s about anticipating and reflecting upon the mystery that is the Incarnation: the nearly incomprehensible moment when God entered human history by becoming a baby on earth.

God is with us. He’s not just some far-off abstraction or disembodied clockmaker idea. He became one of us. A human. Callouses, stomachaches, blood. And not only that, but he came as a baby! He could have appeared out of thin air as a 21 year old, or as a 30-year-old prophet ready for some serious ministry. But he chose to start where everyone else starts: in the womb. His incarnation was always about working through—not outside of—creation to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. And a baby who is born and grows up and dies is something we can understand. It was God coming down to our level to bless our unfortunate little existence by becoming part of it. He came to be with us.

Advent reminds us that, in the midst of everyday struggles, we must affirm the reality of the everyday Incarnation. Jesus lived this life too. He also experienced it on good days and bad. He was rained on too. He probably had migraines occasionally. You better believe he knew suffering.

I love that Advent simultaneously forces us away from ourselves and our petty problems while also, in a way, affirming them. It’s a season of denying our self and our possibility in the face of the wholly Other that is the mysterious, Incarnate Emmanuel. But it’s also a chance for us to focus, to synthesize our various desires, issues, concerns, and identities into a cohesive oneness with the bewildering fact that we are here, and so is God. He is with us. There’s a reason why we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We share a planet—the dirt, air, water, DNA—with the creator of the universe. This is the most empowering and humbling fact of history, and the weight of it is immense. It is the reason Advent is historically a very solemn season: because the Incarnation cannot be taken lightly.

As I enter into Advent this year, I’m burdened by just as many hopes and fears as the next guy. There is pain and regret in my heart, love and confusion, physical and emotional imperfection, and immense exhaustion. I sometimes just want to drink eggnog or mulled wine and listen to Over the Rhine’s Darkest Night of the Year (for the record, probably the best Christmas album of all time) while languishing in self-pity and world weariness as stocks and bombs carry the torch of history’s tumultuous march.

But Advent accepts all that. It thrives on unsettledness, uncertainty, despair. Which is kind of bleak for a holiday season that is typically thought of as the merriest season of all. Until we recognize that our pain makes Advent all the more meaningful—to look forward, expectantly, longingly, to the moment when all the pieces (of our lives, of history, of heaven and earth) come together in a monstrous cymbal crash that reverberates in every corner and cranny of the concert hall.

Spend Your Thanksgiving With The Road

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. It’s a day when we celebrate the bounty of what we have, with family and friends, turkey and football. But in the midst of the gluttony and laziness and consumerism (black Friday!) of the weekend, it’s sometimes hard to really see the forest for the trees when it comes to our blessings. It’s hard to really get a perspective on how good we have it.

I have an easy way to fix that problem this Thanksgiving: Go see The Road.

This is a film that reminds you that even in the darkest of times, there is much to be thankful for. It reminds you that we are thankfully NOT living in a post-apocalyptic hell, scavenging for food and avoiding cannibals in a world devoid of sunlight and plant life. It’s a film that will reminds us never to take things like food, water, clothes, or shoes for granted again.

Plus, it’s just a phenomenal movie (even if not “enjoyable” to watch in the strictest sense). I’ve seen the film twice and would love to see it again. I wrote a review for Christianity Today, and also interviewed the director, John Hillcoat.

Take two hours out of your holiday weekend to see this film. You’ll be thankful you did.

Top 100 Films of the 2000s: 75-51

The countdown continues! For 100-76, click here.

75) Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005): This highly plotted, thoroughly British morality play is the film that reminded everyone that Woody Allen’s best filmmaking days might not be behind him after all.

74) The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001): For my dime, one of the scariest movies of the decade. Great Henry James-ish mood and a dynamo performance from Nicole Kidman.

73) Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008): Michelle Williams delivers one of the decade’s best, most under-appreciated performances in a tragic film that makes a little story go a very long way.

72) A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009): A striking, complicated, “you’ll be thinking about this for a while” film about God, suffering, and having faith like Job. The Coens’ second best film of the decade.

71) Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006): Ryan Gosling delivers a surprising performance in this tiny little indie that manages to wrestle with big ideas (Hegel! dialectics!) even while it plays out on an intimate interpersonal stage.

70) The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005): Before he directed The Road, John Hillcoat made this moody, visceral, violent Australian western. Featuring an intense score by Nick Cave and great acting by the likes of Guy Pearce and Danny Huston.

69) Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000): Translation: “Love’s a bitch.” And that’s surely the takeaway from this dour film. But the execution is nothing short of cinematic genius.

68) Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): As audacious as ever for Tarantino, with some of the tensest and most well-developed scenes he’s ever concocted. 

67) Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006): This all-digital, hallucinatory epic (it looks like a home video from hell) is a three-hour montage of nightmarish postmodern images and rabbit trails—an assemblage of 21st century anxiety and scatterbrained vignettes of the most mind-bending sort.

66) Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001): Richard Kelly’s auspicious sci-fi debut film has proven to be one of the decade’s major cult classics.

65) Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004): As tear-jerkers go, this was one of the decade’s most palatable. A great story-behind-the-story with winning performances from Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Freddie Highmore.

64) The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008): This fascinating slice-of-life look inside a complicated social ecosystem (the classroom of a Paris working class public school) is as real as a non-documentary gets.

63) Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005): Was there a stranger, more compelling documentary character this decade than Timothy Treadwell, as portrayed through the fascinating lens of Werner Herzog? I don’t think so.

62) Personal Velocity (Rebecca Miller, 2002): The first and best film from Rebecca Miller (daughter or playwright Arthur Miller and wife to Daniel Day-Lewis) is an eloquent and subtle look inside the everyday struggles of three women.

61) Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008): One of the best wedding movies ever made, with standout performances from Anne Hathaway, Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt.

60) City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund 2003): This harrowing look inside the urban nightmare of Rio de Janeiro’s slums is less flashy and yet more powerful than its Oscar-winning counterpart Slumdog Millionaire.

59) Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004): No film this decade has captured nighttime L.A. better than this thrilling look inside the criminal underworld of the City of Angels.

58) Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000): This sprawling family drama from the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang is a masterpiece of wonder in the mundane rhythms of life–a sort of Tokyo Story for Taipei.

57) Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000): This Oscar-winning film single-handedly revived the sword-and-sandal epic. Despite how it has been coopted by youth pastors and the like, Gladiator remains a stirring, well-acted adventure.

56) Me, You, and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005): This quirky little film from artist Miranda July is all about the odd mutations of human communication and connection in a digital age. What happens when our computer-mediated relationships turn out to be less than appealing in the real world?

55) Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000): Most definitely one of the best flat-out comedies of the decade, this mockumentary features a superb and hilarious cast that includes Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey and Fred Willard.

54) Kill Bill Vol 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004): Most Tarantino films are about 80% ludicrous, violent pop art and 20% insightful and humane. In this film, the breakdown is more like 50/50. It’s a surprisingly affective piece of kitsch.

53) Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, 2009): Set in Rwanda, this is a film about the effects of genocide, tragedy, and war… but also about friendship and renewal and the life-giving purity of nature. It’s tender, mysterious, quiet, and one of the best films about Africa I’ve ever seen.

52) Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006): The first of a pair of films about WWII’s Battle for Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers is a sobering look at the horrors of war, propaganda, and racism. Features a memorable, heartbreaking performance by Adam Beach as Ira Hayes.

51) Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007): There’s something deeply unsettling about this true-story film, creepily told with polished digital elegance by David Fincher. Great performances, striking visuals, and a mood that will make your skin crawl. 

Top 100 Films of the 2000s: 100-76

As 2009 winds down, listmaking winds up. Not just for the year, but for the DECADE. I’ve already made my list of the decade’s best albums, but now it is time to evaluate the best in my personal favorite media form: Movies. I spent weeks compiling a list of every film I loved that came out in the 2000s, and then spent a few days narrowing it down to 100. I will countdown my picks over four posts, starting today with the first 25 and ending on my birthday, December 3, with the top 25. Enjoy!

100) Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005): Though Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) was great, Flowers is Jim Jarmusch’s best film of this decade. A gorgeously made road movie with a fantastic cast (Bill Murray, Julie Delpy, Tilda Swinton, Jesica Lange, Chloë Sevigny), Flowers is an open-ended mediation on love, regret, and America.

99) My Best Friend (Patrice Leconte, 2007): One of the best movies about male friendship I’ve ever seen, and one of two films by French director Patrice Leconte on this list.

98) Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001): More than just an eye-popping demonstration of the then-new rotoscope animation technique, this talky film is brimful of ideas and 21st century philosophical chitchat.

97) Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004): One of the best comedies of the decade for so many reasons… A truer film about forty-something wine snobs was never made.

96) Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002): Sam Mendes’ follow-up to American Beauty provided a striking, moody take on Chicago crime land. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman share some memorably subtle moments (the piano scene!) and Conrad Hall’s photography is among the decade’s best.

95) The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009): The fist (only?) great film about the current Iraq war. It’s white-knuckled, impressively acted, and refreshingly apolitical.

94) The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004): Though most of us saw the end coming, this film wins on style and acting alone. Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix have amazing chemistry.

93) The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007): One of the best documentaries of the decade, this film about competitive arcade gaming has all the best elements of comedy, drama, even thriller… not to mention plenty of insights into human nature.

92) Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006): The reboot of the James Bond franchise was fresh, stylish, and one of the best action films of the decade.

91) Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005): This surprisingly mature adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic featured great acting, beautiful visuals, and some memorably elaborate single-take tracking shots.

90) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008): An exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time.

89) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004): The best of the Harry Potter blockbuster franchise, which has defined the decade more than any one movie brand.

88) Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg, 2004): Though I might suggest that the TV show is even better, the film that preceded it was pretty dang good. Best sports movie of the decade.

87) Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004): Yes, it’s ridiculous. Ridiculously classic. So many catchphrases—and even Ron Burgundy’s way of speaking—have become incorporated into the comic parlance of our generation.

86) Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2007): One of the most underseen and underrated films of the decade. Herzog and star Christian Bale are at their best in this twisted, unsettling, strangely beautiful Vietnam war film.

85) Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006): Yes, it’s true that most everyone hated this movie. But most films that are truly great are truly loathed by many. This film managed to summarize its moment so well for me—in an appropriately messy, kitschy, pomo sort of way.

84) Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002): Scorsese’s ode to New York/meditation on violence was more than just a mind-blowing showcase for Daniel Day Lewis. It’s a bloody good historical epic with some fierce filmmaking behind it.

83) Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003): This Columbine-inspired art film didn’t offer any easy answers (or easy questions) about teenage violence. And yet as a stylistic exercise and abstract mood piece, it was revelatory.

82) Ocean’s 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001): What’s an indie film icon like Steven Soderbergh doing directing a popcorn remake of a rat pack classic? Reinventing Hollywood A-list blockbusters, that’s what.

81) The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006): Though it’s almost too perfect, The Queen must be acknowledged on this list. Not only is it a spot-on character study (aided by Helen Mirren’s astonishing performance); it’s also a fascinating exploration of media, celebrity, and politics in the tabloid era.

80) The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2003): Say what you will about this controversial film, but you have to admit that it’s something to behold. Mel might have been a smidge more restrained, but overall—and divorced from all the politics and religious commercialization of it—this is a film of impressive artistry.

79) About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002): Jack Nicholson’s best recent performance was in this fantastic comedy/drama from Alexander Payne. It’s a wonderfully melancholy film with extremely poignant moments and a great “trails west” Americana vibe.

78) Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009): This John Keats romance film definitely ranks in the top ten on the decade’s “most beautiful to look at” list. But it also has ideas and painfully true insights about love and loss, adding to the visceral impact of the well-lensed images.

77) The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004): One of Pixar’s standout classics in the last decade; It’s a film that thrills, inspires, and just makes you feel great about life.

76) Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007): Sean Penn’s film version of the amazing book by Jon Kracauer perfectly captures its outdoorsy, existential spirit. It’s a strikingly earnest film with an adventurous pulse most of us can resonate with.

The Last Station

A film about the final days of Russian author Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) may sound like a bore to the average moviegoer, and indeed, The Last Station is admittedly a very bookish, Merchant Ivory sort of film. But it’s also utterly engrossing, superbly acted, and full of big ideas that ring very true. It was a joy to watch this film and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t pick up a respectable amount of awards in the coming months.

The film boasts one of the best casts of the year and features incredible performances from Christopher “Captain Von Trapp” Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife Sofya. James McAvoy also turns in one of his best performances, as the wide-eyed protégé/secretary of Tolstoy. Paul Giamatti is also quite good in a villainous role.

Based on the novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station is a film about the complex two-facedness of love; It’s about passion and devotion and the tension between what we think and what we feel. It’s about how love is often simultaneously our greatest source of joy and suffering, and how sometimes the love of an ideology can eclipse the love of another human being (to the detriment of all).

The film is about Tolstoy, a brilliant thinker and writer who at the start of the 20th century has a worldwide reputation and fan base. There is a growing “Tolstoyan” movement (a sort of utopian Christian anarchism) of which he is the figurehead. He is larger-than-life icon and celebrity, and yet he is also a husband and father. His wife (Mirren) wants him to love her first, and yet she fears that his “work,” his ideas and legacy, are a higher priority for him. She loves him deeply and wants him for her own, but near the end of his life he has become “the world’s.” The film is about the pain of loving someone so much that you don’t want to share them, and the problem of feeling closer to a conviction or ideal than an actual physical person or reality.

The Last Station tackles huge ideas that resonate deeply, but it does so in a way that never feels didactic. It’s an entertaining film, first and foremost. And yet it’s all so true. I think all of us deal with this tension between wanting to love and be loved but also wanting to make a difference in the world. Sometimes those desires are compatible and sometimes they are not. Relationships often fall victim in an individual’s pursuit of significance. Does it have to be that way? I doubt it. But more often than not it’s a truism of life: We can’t have our cake and eat it too. There’s only so much energy and will in any given life. Should it be focused on our love or our work? It’s a deep and unsettling question, and The Last Station is one of the best films I’ve seen that asks it.

Thanksgiving

Why do I always forget how blessed and lucky I am? Why do I always have a hard time recognizing the many things I should be thankful for? How every little thing in my life—both easy and hard, painful and pleasurable—has been orchestrated by God to form a purpose far grander than my own ambitions?

I think part of it is that I’ve grown up in a world of entitlement. Ours is a world of debilitating entitlement. We are raised to assume that we have the inalienable right to be happy and healthy, that we are entitled to money and security and insurance and freedom to do and say whatever we want. We think it’s our prerogative, our destiny, our right. And so when good things happen to us we’re liable to shrug it off as “our due” instead of being humbled to a place of deep gratitude.

But newsflash: we aren’t entitled to anything.

EVERYTHING is a gift from God. Every good thing is a grace, given not out of obligation but love.

When I realized this, it was so utterly freeing. It allowed me to pull back from my life and see it from beyond my own small sphere. Turns out I’m just a miniscule part of a much bigger picture; turns out there is a purpose to my life, but it has much less to do with my immediate satisfaction than the success of the “bigger picture.”

Occasionally I have moments—little God-given epiphanies—when all of this hits me like some sort of heavenly ton of bricks. Last Saturday was one of those moments. I found myself in a five star hotel, eating amazing (and free) food, interviewing the filmmakers of The Road (a film of extreme deprivation, by the way: It really makes one thankful for what we have). Then I met a fellow journalist who—in a roundabout way—might be responsible for starting the chain of events 6 years ago that eventually led to me being allowed to write a book about hipster Christianity. It was a weird and wonderful experience of grace—a “full circle” moment of connection in which God opened my eyes to just how carefully he crafts every detail and weaves every occurrence in life together for his good.

In that moment, I was overwhelmed with thanksgiving, and it was such a sweet feeling. To be humbled to that point of immense gratitude and smallness is nothing like the blow to pride you might take it to be. On the contrary, it’s the fullest and happiest I’d felt in a long time. To realize that I have no right or entitlement to any of this—five star hotel film journalism or whatever the case may be—and yet have been given it in so deliberate and complicated a manner… it’s just so much to take in.

I think it’s true that, as John Piper often says, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him.” And maybe that is where the fullness and joy of thanksgiving comes from—we are feeling the spilling over of God’s glory. His pleasure in our satisfaction is compounding our joy.

The funny thing about grace is that it just keeps coming, even when we don’t recognize it or pridefully mistake it for something we deserve. Of God there is so much to know and love and fear and wonder about. But on cool November mornings like this, in my warm house with some coffee on and the residual smell of bacon in the air, there’s nothing sweeter but to know that he gives. And he gives and he gives.

Precious

I really wanted to like Precious. Everyone is talking about it this awards season as the movie to beat. It’s been a festival favorite. Oprah produced it, etc…

And it is definitely a good film. But it’s certainly nothing like “the movie of the year.”

Precious is the story of an obese, illiterate 16-year-old black girl in Harlem with a lot of problems. Her mother abuses her in every sense of the word. Her father rapes her (and gets her pregnant twice). She is HIV-positive. Her firstborn child has Down syndrome. And the list goes on… Her life is bleaker than you can possibly imagine.

The film does its darndest to rub our faces in the squalor and pain of Precious’ life, and indeed it succeeds. We cringe, grimace, shout at the screen in horror (the middle-aged Oprah-watching white woman next to me shouted “Oh my God!” at least a dozen times during the film), and wonder when and if things will get better for Precious.

Eventually—like, by the very end of the movie—Precious takes some steps (with the help of her nice lesbian teacher and a social worker played by Mariah Carey) to improve her condition. She takes ownership of her life and grabs hold of the faint light at the end of the tunnel represented by her getting a GED. The movie ends with Precious having escaped the horrors, thank God. We can leave the theater feeling okay about the world, after having seen it at its ugliest for the better part of two hours. We are empowered, inspired, hopeful. Hooray for the triumph of the human spirit! Precious: you go girl! Oprah: Thank you for reminding us about the resiliency of humanity.

I’m probably being a little too cynical. The movie does have value for showing how one might recover from a life of tragedy and abuse. It does offer us a model of how education, friendship, and determination can help turn a life around.

But my problem with Precious is not that I disagree with what it’s trying to do or what “lessons” it is trying to convey. My problem is with the execution.

Precious is overwrought and clunky. There are needlessly incongruous “fantasy” sequences dropped in throughout the film that feel tonally and stylistically abrasive; the editing/pace feels occasionally haphazard; and sometimes Lee Daniels’ choices feel not just heavy-handed but downright graceless. A scene of Precious absconding with a bucket of fried chicken and running down the street shoving greasy chicken in her mouth, for example, plays for laughs but lacks any true empathy or nuance.

A film like this would be more effective, I think, without such an ungainly commitment to in-your-face shock value. It’s a shocking-enough subject matter without the scenes of fried chicken larceny. Flags should be raised when the award for subtlety in your film goes to Mariah Carey.

That said, Precious is worth seeing. Though far from perfect, it’s an interesting and provocative look inside the depths of a life that is familiar to too many in this world. We should watch it to empathize; We should watch it to remember that people like Precious exist everywhere, and that they need our love.