Monthly Archives: December 2010

10 Films for Advent

When most people think of movies for December/Christmas, they think Frank Capra, Christmas Vacation or Home Alone. Which are all great. But the season of Advent is not just about twinkling lights, feel-good family reunions, and Macaulay Culkin-burns-Joe-Pesci’s-head gags. It’s also about feeling the tension of waiting… for redemption, for justice, for the renewal of all things. It’s about waiting with anticipation for better days, knowing they are coming because God became man and paved a way.

The following are some films that I think capture some of that spirit. They are not Christian films or Christmas films. They are just films I’ve been thinking of as I’ve been meditating on Advent this year.

Before Sunrise: Richard Linklater’s film about two people who glimpse, over the course of a night in Vienna, what true connection feels like. The film ends with an open-ended hope that they will reunite at some point, but we’re left uncertain about that (unless we’ve seen the sequel, Before Sunset).

The Pianist: Adrien Brody shines in this Roman Polanski-directed Holocaust drama–a stark and difficult film that rewards viewers with a stunning, beautiful musical catharsis at its conclusion that points toward a transcendent hope.

Gosford Park: Something about the music in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park–Chopin-esque piano refrains, Ivor Novello matinee idol folk tunes–gracefully underscores the film’s underlying longing, waiting for justice to be served.

Days of Heaven: If we’re talking about films that embody the tension between tragedy and beauty, darkness and light, present and future hope, Malick’s Days of Heaven has to be on the list.

Bicycle Thieves: Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece of Italian neo-realism is a simple tale of a man, his son, and their search for a lost bicycle, but it’s also a profoundly moving look at the desperate experience of injustice and the unceasing search for a better life.

Munyurangabo: This stunning 2008 film about reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda is a perfect film for Advent. It’s full of moments of beauty and unresolved tension, hope mingled with sadness.

The Son: Arguably the Dardenne Brothers’ most affecting film, The Son is a powerful, raw meditation on forgiveness and fatherly love. It’s a film about moving away from the divided and toward the reconciled.

Night On Earth: The dreary but intimate ambiance in Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth, a film comprised of five vignettes that take place in 5 taxis on one night on earth, lends the film a “weary world waiting to rejoice” feeling of universality. It’s a snapshot of humanity, quirky and flailing in the same general direction of longing.

Chop Shop: Ramin Bahrani’s Neorealist gem takes a look at an orphaned brother and sister living in poverty in modern day New York. Stark and raw as it is, the film is by no means bleak. Rather, it’s a moving examination of how relationships can anchor us and push us forward, even in the most difficult of experiences.

Lost in Translation: Set amidst the buzzing electronics of Tokyo at night, Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece is an assemblage of quiet, intimate moments of tired souls grasping for connection. It’s a film that captures the beauty of shared moments and the desperate longing for those moments to last just a little bit longer.


The Enemy of Cynicism

“What difference you think you can make? One single man, in all this madness?”

This is a question Sean Penn’s character asks Jim Caviezel in a memorable exchange in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line–a hardened cynic questioning an idealist’s optimism amidst the horrors of battle on Guadalcanal.

It’s a question that everyone who watches the film has at some point, in some way, asked of themselves. However idealistic we are, and whether or not we’ve ever experienced the tragedies of war and squalor first hand, we all are painfully aware of the limits of our own world-bettering, problem-solving abilities.

Every new day hands us a fresh reminder of the foolishness of hope. The world is falling apart. Wars all around, friends who still can’t find work, parents with ailments, babies dying, global warming, leaders who disappoint, bills, DMV lines, broken relationships and bones, and our own debilitating disease of pride. On the good days, when it seems as if we might actually be making a difference in the world, we remember that 90% of our energy and time and thoughts still go toward our own pursuits of pleasure and neurotic concerns.

Make a difference in the world? I’m too busy stressing about where I’m going to get coffee in the morning.

And yet here we are in Advent. Another year gone and another season of stubborn hope upon us. It’s a season of remembering the birth of hope, and of anticipating the impending onset of hope’s final answer. It’s a time that reminds us that Christ has inaugurated a new kingdom on earth, and that in its eventual form the kingdom will resolve the hopes and fears of all the years. A new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying, nor sadness of any kind.

That the kingdom has started now, but is also not yet, means that in the meantime, what we do matters. What we create, who we love, how we live… We’re part of something.

If the world at present didn’t contain within it glimpses of the glorious new creation, there’d be no reason for us to be anything other than ceaselessly cynical and misanthropic. But thankfully, it does. For me, it’s things like The Thin Red Line, or the climax of Handel’s Messiah, or drinking a chocolate porter while reading Steinbeck. You know, Advent things… Things that remind me of the existence of an infinite goodness.

Thats why Advent is the destroyer of cynicism. It acknowledges that yes, things are ugly, life is difficult, people are broken and so is creation. We shouldn’t ignore all this, but neither should we wallow in it, resigned to its supposedly necessary reality. Advent reminds us that there is another, truer reality coming–one that is bigger than us and yet involves us, and one that is worth working and waiting for.

Advent Playlist

It’s the second week of Advent, 2010, and I’ve put together a playlist of songs that feel appropriate to this moment. They are songs that represent both the darkness of the world and the power of the penetrating light. They are songs about waiting, hoping, and dwelling in the now-and-not-yet. I’ll be listening to them with plenty of hot cider and a hopefully quieted soul, beckoning Emmanuel to come and ransom this captive creation.

Jonsi – “Hengilas”
Coldplay – “We Never Change”
Cat Power – “Where is My Love”
Julie Lee – “Hope’s the Thing With Feathers”
Low – “Closer”
Mumford and Sons – “After the Storm”
The Antlers – “Kettering”
Pedro the Lion – “The Longest Winter”
Jars of Clay – “In the Bleak Midwinter”
Hem – “Strays”
Mindy Smith – “Follow the Shepherd Home”
Sun Kil Moon – “Gentle Moon”
Sufjan Stevens – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
The Walkmen – “While I Shovel the Snow”
Over the Rhine – “White Horse”
Sara Groves – “O Holy Night”
Sarah McLachlan – “Silent Night”
Dustin O’Halloran – “Opus 23”
Hem – “Almost Home”
Bifrost Arts – “Salvation is Created”
Over the Rhine – “The First Noel”