Monthly Archives: December 2014

Favorites of 2014

Mad Men

For the past few years on this blog I have spent much of the month of December compiling best-of lists of various genres (books, movies, music, food). This year I’ve decided to list all my favorites of the year in one place. In addition to simply being a fun activity for me to reflect back on the year, I hope the following also serves the purpose of putting some good recommendations on your radar. Below are, in order, my favorite books, films, documentaries, TV shows, albums, songs and food experiences of 2014. What were your favorites of 2014?

BOOKS: 
I try to read new books at least as much (and hopefully more) as I watch new films and television, and this year there were quite a few that I loved or greatly admired. Below are my favorite books released in 2014:

  1. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  2. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard Hays
  3. Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton
  4. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor  by James K.A. Smith
  5. Beginning With the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
  6. Once in the West: Poems by Christian Wiman
  7. United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Trillia Newbell
  8. 1927: One Summer by Bill Bryson
  9. Theology and California: Theological Refraction on California’s Culture edited by Fred Sanders and Jason Sexton
  10. Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton

MOVIES: 
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.

Top 10 Movies (more detailed descriptions here): 

  1. Boyhood
  2. Two Days, One Night
  3. Under the Skin
  4. The Immigrant
  5. Locke
  6. Noah
  7. Ida
  8. It Felt Like Love
  9. Calvary
  10. Only Lovers Left Alive

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

Top 10 Documentaries: 

  1. The Overnighters
  2. Life Itself
  3. Manakamana
  4. Rich Hill
  5. The Unknown Known
  6. The Internet’s Own Boy
  7. Desire of the Everlasting Hills
  8. Mitt
  9. Sing Over Me
  10. Korengal

TELEVISION: 
The onward march of television’s cinematic ascent continued in 2014, as “prestige” TV become more than the norm than the novelty it once was. These days, television is mostly where artistic boundaries are being pushed. It’s exciting to see, even as it’s a bit overwhelming given how much quality there is and how little time one has to see it all. I admit I’ve not watched nearly as many of the acclaimed shows as I wished to. Of those I did see, here are my favorites.

Top 5 Television Shows: 

  1. True Detective
  2. Mad Men
  3. The Leftovers
  4. Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts
  5. The Walking Dead

MUSIC: 
I suspect that I purchased fewer albums this year than I did any year in the last two decades. But I probably listened to more new music this year than I have in years (thank you Spotify!). Is this a good thing? Probably not for the artists (Taylor Swift, of all people, became their advocate this year). But for music lovers, it’s great! More opportunities to enjoy all the creative variety that is out there.

Top 10 Albums:

  1. War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream 
  2. The Antlers, Strangers
  3. Sleeping At Last, Atlas: Year One
  4. Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour
  5. Chromeo, White Women
  6. Erik Hassle, Somebody’s Party EP
  7. Bombay Bicycle Club, So Long, See You Tomorrow
  8. RAC, Strangers
  9. Sun Kil Moon, Benji
  10. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Honorable Mention: New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers; Real Estate, Atlas; Beck, Morning Phase; First Aid Kid, Stay Gold; Coldplay, Ghost Stories; Bootstraps, Bootstraps; Matthew and the Atlas, Other Rivers; Pharrell Williams, GIRL, Mr. Little Jeans, Pocketknife, Ghost Beach, Blonde.

Best Songs of 2014: Spotify playlist here.

FOOD
For the past few years, in keeping with the cultural genres I explicated in my book Gray Matters, I’ve also made year-end lists of the best food I ate that year. Not only is this relatively easy to do (taste is remarkably tied to memory), but it’s a fun and I think beneficial exercise in gratitude for the blessed gift of culinary art, which so often gets relegated to disposable, forgettable consumption. As with any list of this sort, the act of remembering and praising that which is memorable and praiseworthy can, I think, be a healthy process.

Top 10 Savory:

  1. KGB (Paris) – Grilled White Tuna, tomatoes, sesame and balsamic
  2. The Clove Club (London): Steamed Cornish turbot, courgette, basil & Indian spiced butter
  3. KGB (Paris) – Grilled and confit pork, white peach and galanga condiment
  4. Little Beast (Eagle Rock): Crispy brussel sprouts with sweet potato, maple vinaigrette, cashew and mori
  5. Cafe Constant (Paris) – Beef stew with boiled potatoes and carrots
  6. Wedgewood (Edinburgh) – Cheddar and onion bread and butter pudding, roast tomato, soused fennel, fennel ice cream
  7. The Old Parsonage (Oxford) – Rabbit, girolle, onion and garlic savory pie
  8. Lockeland Table (Nashville) – Empanadas with chimichurri
  9. Fifty-Seven L.A. – Hot Parker House rolls with local olive oil
  10. Pizzeria mozza (Newport Beach): Goat cheese, scallions, leeks, garlic and bacon pizza

Top 10 Sweet:

  1. KGB (Paris) – Confit apricot, ginger, meadowsweet flower ice cream
  2. Galette Cafe (Paris) – Caramel apple buckwheat crepe with ice cream
  3. Cafe Constant (Paris) – Ile flottante with salty caramel sauce
  4. Fatamorgana (Rome): Basil, honey and walnut gelato
  5. The Abingdon (London) – Sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream
  6. Little Beast (Eagle Rock): Warm “Fallen Apple” pastry with dulce de leche and vanilla cream
  7. Ristorante PorriOne (Siena): Sunchoke Ice Cream
  8. Ristorante Il Campo (Siena): Cioccolata Calda
  9. KGB (Paris) – Mango and passion fruit cappuccino with vanilla ice cream
  10. The Clove Club (London) – Lea Valley strawberries and cream

Top 5 home-made (by Kira Joy McCracken):

  1. Ribollita
  2. Apple pie with streusel topping and homemade vanilla ice cream
  3. Pumpkin pecan sugar cookies
  4. Butternut squash, sage and ricotta pizza
  5. Crostini with whipped feta, tomatoes and shallots
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A Prayer for Christmas

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I was asked by Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts to pen a Christmas day reflection for the “Advent Project,” reflecting in part on Rembrandt’s painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds.” Here is part of what I wrote, followed by a prayer:

In the nativity there is the joy of the world’s deliverance and the tragedy of what it will cost. There is the child and there is the cross. Light and dark.

We see it well in Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds. The painting is all about darkness and light. The newborn Messiah is the brightest source of light in an otherwise dominantly dark scene; brighter even than the lantern held by a bystander. He is the light of the world. But notice what looms in the darkness in the upper half of the painting: the beams in the rafters form a cross.

The joy of Advent is inextricable from the pain of sin, suffering and longing. Joy’s potency comes not from negating suffering but from relating to it, emanating from it, embracing the longing. Joy is Sehnsucht, wrote C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

The curious tension of joy is beautifully present in Advent, a season of celebration but also longing. We rejoice over God’s coming to dwell with us and redeem the world. And we wait, wait, wait for the day when he will return to bring justice and peace to this unjust and bloody planet. In the meantime we exist in a state of hopeful expectancy, a frail world that wearily waits for a new and glorious morn.

Prayer:

Father,
Thank you for your illuminating light.
You, who let there be light in the beginning,
Whose light shines on those living in the land of darkness,
Who remains the light of the world,
Shine brightly.
Overcome the darkness.
Shine through us.
Let your light shine in us, before men, so that they would glorify you.
Let the Light of your presence guide us,
for in your Light do we see light.
Enlighten us, Oh Lord.
Help us to walk in the light, as You are in the light.
So that others would see and know
The joy of knowing You.
Amen.

Read the rest of the post here.

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, The Wind Rises, Snowpiercer, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,  Selma, 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.