Monthly Archives: December 2012

Best Films of 2012

Perhaps appropriately, many of the best films of 2012 dealt in some way with endings. In the year in which the world was to end, many masterpieces explored the idea of ending, finality, conclusion–whether the end of slavery (Lincoln), the end of innocence (Moonrise Kingdom), the end of life (The Grey, Amour, Les Miserables, Skyfall, Killing Them Softly, etc.), the end of an affair (The Deep Blue Sea), a manhunt (Zero Dark Thirty) or the world itself (Turin Horse). And so now, at the end of the year, I list my ten favorite films of the year, commending them all to you (including the honorable mention list: they’re all marvelous films!). If you haven’t already, you can also check out my picks for best documentaries and best performances of 2012.

10) Looper: Rian Johnson’s stylish, smart, brain-bending film was one of the most crowd-pleasing of the year. Happily, the genre hybrid (time travel meets gangster meets sci-fi) relied more on deft storytelling than CGI theatrics, doing what good cinema has always done: immersing the viewer in a world at once fanciful and foreseeable, glossy and grimy, foreign and familiar. (my review)

9) Les Miserables: Cynics beware: this film is an explosion of earnestness, popular Broadway music and sometimes ostentatious flourishes of stylistic indulgence. Yes, it’s a bit kitschy at times. It may be emotionally manipulative. But it’s also a magnificent cinematic experience. Victor Hugo’s moving story of grace and forgiveness is told with tenderness and passion by director Tom Hooper and his impressive cast. An excellent screen adaptation of a beloved masterpiece of the stage.

8) Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s latest pop art revisionist bloodbath is less elegant and a bit messier than his last masterpiece, Inglorious Basterds, but perhaps that’s part of its genius. Slavery and racism are not tidy, elegant things. In characteristic over-the-top fashion, Tarantino applies his singular vision to this touchy terrain and gets away with things no director should (right?). The result is offensive, brash, bold, funny, sad, disturbing, and frequently beautiful.

7) The Grey: I didn’t expect much more from Joe Carnahan’s film than a  typical “angry Liam Neeson” action flick. But man is it more than that. It’s a tough-as-nails film; gritty and bloody and masculine to the core. And yet it’s also deeply poetic, existential and–in the end–quiet and contemplative. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really punches you in the gut. (my review)

6) Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s beautiful film is one of the best films about childhood I’ve ever seen. It captures–in characteristically colorful, deadpan, boxed-in form–the magical spaces in which children dwell: playing, exploring, flirting with danger and adulthood, taking in the world with wonder and curiosity. More than just a stylistic exercise (Anderson’s films can sometimes fall in this trap), Moonrise is a somber, poetic “coming of age” story with profound things to observe about how children experience the world. (my review)

5) The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest American epic is ostensibly a riff on the story of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. But of course it’s more than that. What exactly The Master is about is up for interpretation; which is to say that yes, it’s an ambiguous film, but not in a pretentious sort of way. Anchored by spectacular performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master is a gorgeous tale of American ambition–as vast, contemplative and occasionally ominous as the wide-open-spaces of the land it inhabits. (my review)

4) Amour: Michael Haneke shows off his sentimental (sort of) side with this intimate tale of an elderly French couple at the end of their lives. Haneke unflinchingly shows us the horrors of aging as we witness the post-stroke decline of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), while her husband Georges lovingly cares for her even as her condition worsens. The film is straightforward in its purposes but far-reaching in its emotional impact. Anyone who has ever experienced the painful final phase of a loved-one’s life will relate, as will anyone who has reflected on life and love through the lens of aging.

3) Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is every bit as taut, thrilling and realistic as that Oscar-winning film. A chronicle of the CIA’s 9-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Pakistan raid that resulted in the death of “UBL,” Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating look at the tips, clues, red herrings and missteps that characterized the arduous search. Too much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture. The film depicts torture, yes, because for better or worse it was a part of the story in the early days after 9/11; but the film does not suggest that torture produced the key evidence in finding bin Laden. More than anything the film is praiseworthy for its expert storytelling, conveying a complicated narrative in three well-paced hours.

2) Lincoln: Steven Spielberg’s excellent historical epic is not a biopic in the traditional sense. It focuses only on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s too-short life, especially his political effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed. Even so, the film–and particularly Daniel Day Lewis’ impeccable performance as the man himself–manages to bring Lincoln to life in a way we haven’t seen before. Beautifully rendered with the photography, music, costumes, sets and supporting performances an old-school period piece like this requires, Lincoln is an insightful, inspiring, and concisely told story of the brilliance of a great American leader at one of America’s most pivotal points. (my review)

1) The Kid With a Bike: The latest from Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is perhaps their most masterful yet. No other film this year affected me as much as this, a deeply humane portrait about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. Riffing on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, the Dardennes offer up a characteristically nuanced, minimalist, jarring look inside a world both foreign and intensely familiar. The film is ostensibly about longing for one’s father, but it’s really about God’s grace: the way it chases us even when we resist it, soothing us like a balm in our most vulnerable and self-destructive moments.  (my review)

Honorable Mention: Bernie; Wuthering Heights; Killing Them Softly; On the Road; The Impossible; Turin Horse; Holy Motors; Skyfall; The Deep Blue Sea; Oslo, August 31st

75 Best Film Performances of 2012

There were only a handful of iconic film performances in 2012, but there were a good number of excellent performances, often in smaller roles. I thought it’d be fun to make a list of the best 75 performances from films that I saw in 2012. Below are my picks. If there are other noteworthy performances that you think should be on here, let me know in the comments section!

75) Tom Holland, The Impossible
74) Tilda Swinton, Moonrise Kingdom
73) Susan Sarandon, Arbitrage
72) Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty
71) Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
70) Mark Duplass, Your Sister’s Sister
69) Tom Hardy, Lawless
68) Noomi Rapace, Prometheus
67) Scoot McNairy, Killing Them Softly
66) Gina Carano, Haywire
65) Bruce Willis, Looper
64) Tom Hanks, Cloud Atlas
63) Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31
62) Shirley MacLaine, Bernie
61) Edward Norton, Moonrise Kingdom
60) Kaya Scodelario, Wuthering Heights
59) Isabelle Huppert, Amour
58) Ray Liotta, Killing Them Softly
57) Alan Arkin, Argo
56) Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
55) Sam Riley, On the Road 
54) Daniel Craig, Skyfall
53) Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises
52) Bruce Willis, Moonrise Kingdom
51) Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi
50) Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers
49) Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis
48) Jude Law, Anna Karenina
47) Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas
46) Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
45) Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises
44) Rosemarie DeWitt, My Sister’s Sister
43) Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained
42) Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust & Bone
41) Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly
40) Muhammet Uzuner, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
39) Emily Blunt, Looper
38) Greta Gerwig, Damsels in Distress
37) Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises
36) Michael Caine, The Dark Knight Rises
35) Thomas Doret, The Kid With the Bike
34) Judi Dench, Skyfall
33) Garrett Hedlund, On the Road
32) Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained
31) Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
30) Ewan McGregor, The Impossible
29) Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
28) Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
27) James Howson, Wuthering Heights
26) Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
25) Richard Gere, Arbitrage
24) Guy Pearce, Lawless
23) Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
22) Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
21) Sally Field, Lincoln
20) Amy Adams, The Master
19) Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
18) Denzel Washington, Flight
17) Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
16) James Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly
15) Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
14) Liam Neeson, The Grey
13) Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
12) Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
11) Javier Bardem, Skyfall
10) Cecile De France, The Kid With the Bike
9) Naomi Watts, The Impossible
8) Jack Black, Bernie
7) Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
6) Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone
5) Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
4) Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
3) Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
2) Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
1) Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Best Documentaries of 2012

My best films list will be finished early next week (still a few films to see!) but I’ll go ahead and list my picks for the five best documentaries of the year. Many of these are available on Netflix Instant, and I heartily recommend them to you.

5) Indie Game: The Movie (dir. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky): Anyone who says that videogames are not a valid artform needs to see this film, which follows a handful of independent videogame developers as they work to complete and release their games to the world. The characters in the film are gamer nerd hipsters and the games they create are as eccentric and edgy as they are. The film is concise, funny, endearing and informative — everything a good documentary should be.

4) Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (dir. Alison Klayman): This portrait of Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei is absolutely fascinating. I love profiles of artists, because they are usually quite colorful and complex personalities. But Weiwei’s story is interesting not only for all the typical “artist” reasons, but because of the Chinese political/cultural context against which his art and persona are set. His activism (largely organized via social media) is given as much attention in the film as his art, but it all works together to paint a compelling picture of the paradoxes that characterize contemporary Chinese life.

3) The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield): A fabulously wealthy owner of a vacation rental business and his large family are building a massive mansion in Orlando, Florida — it will be the largest single family home in America, in fact. Midway through construction, however, the 2008 financial crash happens and the bottom drops out of their real estate business. This film depicts the hilarious and sometimes sad adjustments the family must make when money suddenly becomes tight and life as “the 1%” falls apart as they know it.

2) Undefeated (dir. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin): Essentially a documentary version of the latter seasons of Friday Night Lights, this Oscar-nominated film follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games. The narratives of Coach Bill Courtney and a handful of players he shapes and mentors are utterly compelling and emotionally wrenching. It’s a hard film to watch with dry eyes. (my review)

1) The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton): A thirteen-year-old boy in Texas disappears in 1994. Three years later, in 1997, he apparently shows up in Spain. His family goes to meet him and bring him back to the states, convinced that he is indeed their long-lost son (even though he looks vastly different). But he isn’t. This unsettling documentary depicts a stranger-than-fiction story of identity theft, breached security, and (most disturbingly) one family’s willful self-deception. It’s a brilliant mystery story packed with excellent tension and intriguing characters.

Honorable Mention: The Invisible War, Head Games, 30 for 30: There’s No Place Like Home

Christmas Eve Prayer Requests

Oh Jesus-
You who took on flesh-
Becoming one of us,
Knowing our aches and pains,
Feeling our pangs and longings,
Suffering and lamenting like we do.
You didn’t have to do that.
But you did.
In our dark night you are the light that dawns.
In our sin and shame you are the arms open wide.
Guilty and damned we were,
Hopeless and driftless and weary,
Until you came.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Oh Immanuel-
You who are with us-
Help us to feel your presence,
Even as the darkness oppresses:
Plaguing our bodies with cancer,
Riddling our children with bullets,
Flooding our homes with seawater,
Filling our minds with despair.
Kindle the fire within us
that longs to burn for you.
When we feel you are most distant,
Let our pining affirm you are there.

Oh Prince of Peace-
You who rule over all-
Return in the flesh again soon.
Rebuild this broken city.
Repair the breach of Eden.
Restore the blossoms in our Paradise lost.
Come right all wrongs, oh King.
In furious, fiery fanfare,
Let the world see the fullness of justice for the first time.
And perfect peace.
The end of hospitals.
Unpolluted air.
Rivers of life that never run dry.

Oh giver of all-
You who shower us with grace-
Help us to receive your love
And come when you call.
Help us to never stop singing the praises of your name.
In our paintings, stories, business pursuits,
May we reflect your glory and contribute to the epic.
Telling of the tabernacle, the manger, the cross.
Spreading your light as you lead us,
Making inroads in the dark.

Best Albums of 2012

I’m kicking off my year-end list-making as I usually do, with my picks for the best albums of 2012. Below is my list: The top ten albums and then ten more honorable mentions. All of this music can be found on my “best of 2012” spotify playlist.  I also created a “best songs of 2012” playlist. Enjoy!

10) The Shins, “Port of Morrow”
9) Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself”
8) Damian Jurado, “Maraqopa”
7) Santigold, “Makers of My Make-Believe”
6) The Walkmen, “Heaven”
5) Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel”
4) Hot Chip, “In Our Heads”
3) Cat Power, “Sun”
2) Wild Nothing, “Nocturne”
1) Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange.” It’s the predictable choice this year, but for good reason. Nothing in music this year was as memorable as Frank Ocean’s spectacular debut. It was the album I listened to the most, hands down; the perfect album to listen to during the many, many hours I logged on Los Angeles freeways in 2012. If you saw his performance of “Bad Religion” on Jimmy Fallon’s show or “Thinkin Bout You” on SNL, you know that all the fuss is indeed about something.

Honorable Mention: First Aid Kit, “The Lion’s Roar”; Beth Orton, “Sugaring Season”; The Tallest Man On Earth, “There’s No Leaving Now”; Sun Kil Moon, “Among the Leaves”; Passion Pit, “Gossamer”; Jessie Ware, “Devotion”; Beach House, “Bloom”; The Antlers, “Undersea”; Mumford & Sons, “Babel”; Menomena, “Moms.”

Light And Dark

Christmas has in our culture become associated with all things “cheer,” “goodwill,” and “merriment”: eggnog, Santa Clause, white elephant parties, sparkly sweaters, twinkly lights and tinsel galore. And for good reason. This is a holiday inspired by the coming of the world’s salvation in the form of Jesus Christ.

Joy to the world indeed. The Incarnation is a reason to take heart, to be joyful, to feel good about life.

And yet the Advent season is also unmistakably somber. It has a dark side.

As Ross Douthat eloquently put it in today’s New York Times:

…the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

We celebrate the good news of God’s original Advent: coming down to dwell with us and to redeem the world. But this is also a season of longing. We look to the second coming of the Messiah, waiting, waiting, waiting for the day when he will return to right all wrongs, bringing final justice and peace to this unjust and bloody planet. In the meantime we exist in a state of hopeful expectancy, struggling to make do in a broken, cruel, frail world that wearily waits for a new and glorious morn.

Advent is about a light that came into the darkness and spread outward to change the world. The classic Christmas Eve candlelight service captures that well. But the world is still a very dark place. And sometimes the lights seem so dim. It makes one wonder: When Christ came to earth and died on the cross, why didn’t the light once-and-for-all overcome the darkness? Why is our world as dark (or darker, seemingly) as ever? What’s the purpose in this?

Unthinkable tragedies like what happened at Sandyhook Elementary School unsettle us in part because they make us ask “problem of evil”-type questions of God: Why does He allow the innocent to suffer like this? How does this fit into His plan?

I can’t begin to explain it, but one way I have tried to make sense of it in my own life is by thinking about all of creation as a massive piece of art: an epic story, canvas, or symphony, upon which God is the author and artist and conductor.

Art is not any good if it has no conflict or contrast. The best paintings are the ones that exhibit the most stunning usage of both light and dark. The best novels and movies are the ones that throw all manner of roadblocks, challenges and pains at the protagonist on his or her way to a cathartic resolution. The best symphonies are the ones that include sections of jubilation, sections of lament, and lots of dynamic contrast (soft, loud, pleasant, dissonant) on the forward movement toward grand conclusion.

In short: contrast is fundamental to beauty. The beauty of a sunrise depends on the dark night that precedes it. The sweet smell of nourished, fertile fields could not exist apart from the terrifying thunder and lightening that accompanies a rainstorm. Springtime must follow the long, cold winter.

I remember visiting Yellowstone National Park as a kid, a few years after the massive wildfires that ravaged nearly a third of the park. As we surveyed the devastated, sad landscapes of barren, burned-down forests, it was hard to believe the park rangers when they insisted that this would in the long run be a good thing for the park’s ecosystem: that destructive fires were an essential part of the cycle of life, and that soon a whole new infant forest would emerge from the ashes. Sure enough, when I visited Yellowstone a decade later, new life is exactly what I saw. Beautifully green sprouts were shooting up amidst the charred remains of old stumps and branches.

It’s easy to see how the beauty in nature is dependent on harsh, seemingly “fallen” realities. But it’s harder to look at the slaughter of 6 and 7 year-olds in an elementary school classroom and see it as part of some big, beautiful work of art. It seems almost crass to think about it in those terms.

But I suspect that at the end of all things, when this story is long-concluded and a new creation has been birthed (see Rev.21 & 22), we will remember the story of this world as the greatest story ever told–a grand, epic battle between a very present evil and a very present grace; a narrative of darkness and despair that was always intertwined with love, beauty and hope; a story filled with many downs and many ups, many brilliant moments and many heartbreaking tragedies.

In the life of Christ we saw it all in microcosm: a joyous birth amidst Herod’s unspeakable slaughter; Christ’s miracle-working amidst throngs of poor, suffering and sick; wedding feasts where wine flowed; Roman torture where blood gushed. Birth and life and death. And then life again. Ups and downs. Lights and darks.

Oh what a magnificent story it is. And what a story it continues to be.

On Aging and Advent

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we could remember as far back as the moment of our birth–that slimy, turbulent transition from the comfort of a warm, dark womb into the unkind cold, harsh bright light of life outside. What emotions, thoughts, hopes, and fears would accompany such a memory? As it is, I can only remember about 27 of my 30 years… my memories begin around age three.

When Jesus turned 30, could he recall the moment of his own birth? That epic, heavenly-hosts-rejoicing mystery in which God incarnate dwelled within a teenage girl’s womb one minute, and cried and breathed in Bethlehem air the next? Was his memory God-like and infinite, or was it as limited as mine, recalling only shadows and bursts of nascent consciousness from his earliest years?

I like to think it was the latter.

Here on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent, and two days before my 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking a bit about aging. Turning 30 feels to me to be the first birthday where I’ve really contemplated the reality of mortality–that my body is gradually breaking and my breath will one day fail me.

Time and aging are weird, earthy, fleshly things. But it’s what we know. All we know. How does it, then, feel so peculiar and unnatural? Why is it that, when I pause to venture into my own distant past–waiting for the school bus, building campfires with my dad, playing in the creek and the riverbank with my friends–my heart feels so weighty with longing? How can instants gone by, archived pictures in my mind, stir up such discontent?

I think Lewis captures it well in Reflections on the Psalms when he writes:

We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

The eternal enveloped in time, embodied in humanity, Christ must have felt this bafflement with temporality even more than I do. If it feels to me that I’m a fish out of water, I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to Christ.

Or perhaps it felt just the same.

I stand in awe of the Incarnation for precisely this reason: that in Jesus Christ, the Divine became a man just like me, a breakable body with tender emotions, longings,  vulnerabilities, maladies. In “the fullness of time” (I love the mystery of this phrase), the hopes and fears of all the years were met in a man called Emmanuel. God was with us. Walking the same mountains. Breathing the same air. A part of the same decaying system of life, death and earthiness.

As I consider my own life–the 30 years already lived and whatever I may live from here–I take solace in the fact that Jesus Christ was here too. He turned 30 once. Maybe he also reflected on his first three decades of life with a mix of gratefulness and curiously somber nostalgia. I wonder if he knew where he was going at that point… where his 30s would lead him. Or maybe he felt as open-ended and uncertain as I do now, confident only that he would seek his Father’s will.

All I know is that the Incarnation gives me hope. Christ is familiar with the struggles I face and the wonders I behold. He knows that feeling of joy mixed with sorrow when one looks back on the past: that purple sunrise in the desert, that night of endless storytelling around a campfire, those special breakfasts Grandma used to make. He understands the disconcerting realization that one’s capacity for dreaming and accumulating “to-dos” is far bigger than the breadth of accomplishments one’s fleeting life can accommodate.

Ours is a life of chronic dissatisfaction and unrelenting pace. We are all speeding forward in time and age, leaving in our wake the things we did and didn’t do, plunging ahead with only a vague sense of purpose and perspective. It would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

And yet the Incarnation.

God redeemed creation. Christ took on temporality to make possible for us a timeless future. In the fullness of time. A new world of peace. A weary world that will soon see rest.