Monthly Archives: January 2012

What the Academy Should Have Nominated

The 2012 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and as is typically the case, there are some hits and some misses. I’m pleased that the Academy recognized The Tree of Life (best picture, best director, best cinematography), but I’m also perplexed by some of its other choices (Demian Bichir best actor for A Better Life? No Michael Fassbender?). If I were to have a say in the nominations, they would have gone something like this:

Best Picture: The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Of Gods and Men, Poetry, Certified Copy, The Artist, Take Shelter, Meek’s Cutoff, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation, Poetry, Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Mill and the Cross, Certified Copy

Best Documentary: Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Bill Cunningham New York, Rebirth, Buck. 

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life; Lars von Trier, Melancholia; Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist; Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter.

Best Actor: Brad Pitt, Moneyball; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Michael Fassbender, Shame; Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. 

Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia; Elizabeth Olson, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Michelle Williams, Meek’s Cutoff; Jeong-hie Yun, Poetry; Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill, Moneyball; Albert Brooks, Drive; Nick Nolte, Warrior; Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Patton Oswalt, Young Adult.

Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life; Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus; Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Melancholia; Carey Mulligan, Shame; Jennifer Ehle, Contagion. 

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Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl

N.D. Wilson’s new “bookumentary” DVD, Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, is sort of like the Waking Life of Christian apologetics films. And by that I mean, it’s full of awe, curiosity, philosophizing, and a lot of talking about ideas. Like the contemplative films of Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), Wilson’s film–inspired by his 2009 book of the same title–is heavy on heady, talky vignettes. It’s essentially a philosophy/apologetics education condensed into a series of 3-4 minute soliloquies and poetic riffs on huge ideas, packaged amidst images of beauty and a liturgical ambience.

I was somewhat skeptical going in to Tilt-a-Whirl; mostly because “Christian films” of any sort are almost always a let down. But this was a pleasant surprise–a genuinely compelling, well-made film that never feels false or inauthentic and actually leaves us with insights to ponder and stirs our hearts and minds toward God.

Tilt-a-Whirl advertises itself as “A cinematic treatment of a worldview. A poet live in concert. A motion picture sermon. VH1 Storytellers meets Planet Earth. 60 Minutes meets Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

All of those are accurate. It’s a refreshingly orignal thing–a documentary of sorts, a visual essay, an apologetics companion piece to The Tree of Life (though Malick would dislike Wilson’s dismissal of Heidegger). It’s the Kanye West Twitter feed of hyper-literate Reformed philosophy.

I also like the way Books and Culture described the film:

Imagine 51 minutes of an earthier Nooma video infused with an ethos of postmillennial confidence and injected with the steroids of Christian orthodoxy and Chestertonian Orthodoxy. Ponder all possible manifestations of “A Portrait of the Kuyperian Artist as a Young Apologist.”

Rob Bell’s Nooma videos are probably its closest cousin in terms of genre; yet it must be acknowledged that there are more original insights in any given 90 seconds of Tilt-a-Whirl than in the entire Nooma series.

Wilson tackles a wide array of topics, mostly having to do with God–as creator, as artist, as gardener, as judge. He’s at his best when talking about the “problem” of evil and putting man in his place while exalting God. I especially resonated and agreed with Wilson on his suggestion that evil has a purpose if creation is seen as God’s ultimate artistic masterpiece: “If we look at the world as art, suddenly tension makes sense,” says Wilson. “God is after a great story, and great stories require tension; great stories require trial and hardship; great stories require characters to grow. … Why does God allow evil and things which displease him in his story? So that they can be defeated.”

If you’re someone who likes to think about and discuss big ideas about God and existence, this film is for you. Watch it in groups, Bible studies, or on your own; I guarantee it will provoke something–whether discussion, debate, disgust, or worship.

A Separation

Critics are going crazy for A Separation, the Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi that Roger Ebert named the best film of 2011. It currently has a perfect 100% score on  RottenTomatoes.com and ranked #3 (behind The Tree of Life and Melancholia) on the IndieWire critic’s survey of the best films of 2011. It’s the odds-on favorite to win the best foreign film Oscar.

Is it as good as the hype indicates? Yes, mostly.

A tender, nuanced portrait of modern city life in Tehran, A Separation is not a political or statement film. It’s a film about people and their struggles, specifically two families whose fates become perilously intertwined. It’s about an educated, secular middle class couple going through divorce, and their daughter who suffers in between a mother and father vying for custody. But it’s also about a lower class, religious family (also raising a young daughter) who find themselves in a his-word-against-mine legal struggle with the more resourced and eloquent middle class family.

Who are the heroes and villains in A Separation? There aren’t any. Perhaps the heroes are the two innocent girls, and the villains are systemic: an outmoded legal system, religiously justified oppression, class disparity. The beauty of the film is that has no agenda aside from immersing us in a world–something cinema does exceptionally well. It simply presents a slice of life–the struggles of a handful of everyday Iranians going through a particularly stressful stretch. And yet as contextual as the film is–many of the textures of its conflicts are Iranian to the core–it is also simply human.

The film humanizes Iran and gives it a face–a face that is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; a face that, under duress and in love, fear, anger, etc., looks awfully like our own. I suspect this is why critics have hailed the film as they have. It is exotic, foreign, and Other; and yet it is universal.

My only hesitation in crowning the film as some have is that it sometimes feels a bit too ambitious–trying to cover too much ground (gender politics, class, religion, family strife, justice, truth, education, etc.). It sometimes feels like an attempt at “modern Iranian life in a grain of sand,” which imposes an unnecessarily weighty burden on an otherwise believable and well-observed family portrait.

Still, it’s a superbly acted, beautifully made film. It is brilliantly observational and unsentimental, reminiscent of the quiet-but-powerful style of the Dardenne Brothers. For western audiences, it’s also a helpful glimpse inside a country that–beneath the “axis of evil” simplifications of political and media narratives–is full of people like you and I: family-oriented folks who have good moments and bad, but mostly want to do what’s right.

Best Books I Read in 2011

My 2011 recaps ends here, with my list of the best books I read in 2011. I read 42 books, of vast variety–some old, some new, some fiction, mostly nonfiction–many of which were in some way research for the book I am currently writing. About half were for no other purpose than pleasure. Here are my picks for the ones that stood out the most:

10) Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? by C. John Collins: A very thought provoking, biblically informed and fair assessment of a timely and important question. See also this Christianity Today story on the topic of the historical Adam.

9) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: For some reason the movie version looks terrible to me, but I enjoyed the book, which is lively, creative, unexpected and, in the end, a requisite bit of post-9/11 American literature.

8) Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson: Anderson’s first book is a comprehensive but accessible theology of the body, covering plenty of controversial ground (tattoos, homosexuality, etc.) but doing so with impressive eloquence and erudite insights. The book is a welcome contribution to a very neglected but vital topic for evangelicals.

7) Walking in the Spirit by Ken Berding: Berding’s book is a quick read and offers a practical, biblical, wise guide to life in the Holy Spirit, as outlined in Romans 8. Filled with real-life examples and engaging personal stories, Spirit recalibrates our understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, providing an invaluable corrective to many of us who have either ignored, forgotten, or misunderstood the role of the Spirit in the Christian life.

6) A Meal With Jesus by Tim Chester: As a lover of Jesus and a lover of food, I was in heaven reading this book, which combines the two. Chester sketches a sort of theology of eating (missionally, with hospitality, etc.) by taking us through the biblical instances of eating–particularly the many “eating scenes” of Jesus in the Gospels. A delightful read.

5) Last Call by Daniel Okrent: Between Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition, Boardwalk Empire, and the speakeasy bar craze, it seems Prohibition is en vogue right now. Okrent’s book is a fascinating history of it, full of all sorts of great details about how the Volstead Act came to pass, what life was like during Prohibition, and what led to its demise. A must read for anyone curious about American history during the Prohibition years.

4) On Evil by Terry Eagleton: Aside from the occasional cable news talking head who refer to terrorists or serial killers as such, “evil” is not a word you hear much anymore. That’s why Eagleton’s treatise on the subject–a witty, sharp, characteristically well written argument that yes, evil exists–is so surprising and refreshing. Eagleton is not a Christian apologist (he’s a Marxist literary critic, albeit with a penchant for calling B.S. on people like Richard Dawkins), but his book on evil would be a helpful addition to any theologian’s library.

3) King’s Cross by Tim Keller: Keller is as reliable as they come. He’s a rock-solid  biblical expositor, pastor, writer, and all around exemplary Christian, and his latest–King’s Cross–is a wonderful read. Refreshingly straightforward–essentially a chapter-by-chapter exposition of the Gospel of Mark–Cross is a biography of Jesus Christ that brings the story to life in a way that is relevant and powerful without feeling opportunistic or agenda-driven.

2) Columbine by Dave Cullen: The most haunting and intense book I read this year. A true page-turner, Cullen’s book is the definitive account of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Massively detailed–part psychological portrait of the killers, part harrowing account of the massacre itself as compiled from a decade’s worth of research and interviews–Columbine is a modern day In Cold Blood. It dispels many myths (the Trench Coat Mafia, Cassie “She Said Yes” Bernall’s martyrdom, etc.) and in 400 pages offers more detail about the killers and victims than any of us every picked up through the media coverage. For anyone who remembers watching the Columbine massacre unfold live on T.V. that horrible day (as I do–I was a sophomore in high school), this book is essential reading.

1) Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright: Subtitled “A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters,” N.T. Wright’s latest (his 2nd or 3rd book to come out in 2011, I can’t keep track) is a wonderfully concise, popular-level summary of his 1996 magnum opus, Jesus and the Victory of God. As he typically does, Wright tells the story of Jesus in a way that makes it seem fresh and thrilling, even for someone who’s been a Jesus follower their whole life. Wright is the rare academic star who is also a wonderful writer–accessible, witty, to-the-point, full of apt metaphors and imagery (his “storm” motif in this book is especially memorable). His books are incredibly meaty and rich, but not intimidating, full of historical insights and big-picture context. Simply Jesus is a grandiose, inspiring, fascinating book about Jesus that I’d eagerly lend to even my most skeptical of unbelieving friends.

Honorable Mention: For Calvinism by Michael Horton, The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk, Art For God’s Sake by Philip Ryken, Everyday Theology edited by Kevin Vanhoozer, Rabbit Run by John Updike