Tag Archives: To the Wonder

Spiritual Themes in 2013’s Best Films

I recently hosted a video panel discussion on 2013’s best films for the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. In the discussion, which you can watch below, I discussed the spiritual resonances of 2013 films alongside film professors Lisa Swain and Nate Bell and student/writer Mack Hayden. Among the films we discussed: All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, To the Wonder, Prisoners, Stories We Tell, Museum Hours, Frances Ha and The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Best Film Moments of 2013

I’ve found that in most great movies, even the greatest masterpieces, it’s not the film in its entirety that makes it great as much as a handful (or even just one or two) of brilliant moments. These are what we remember: sequences, shots, “holy moments” when a film manages to express the inexpressible. They are the moments where we feel lost in the film, contemplative, arrested. They are cathartic glimpses of transcendence.

Yesterday I posted my list of the best overall films of 2013; today I’m focusing on my picks for the best moments. The following are 15 of the most memorable and compelling moments from the year in cinema, in no particular order:

  • Before Midnight: “Still there, still there, still there … gone.” (watch here)
  • The Spectacular Now: Sutter and Aimee walk in the woods, share their first kiss (watch part of the scene here)
  • Short Term 12: Marcus shares the cathartic rap he’s been working on (Watch bits and pieces of it in this teaser for the film. Warning: graphic language.)
  • Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks gets evaluated by a nurse after the harrowing climax
  • 12 Years a Slave: Singing the spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll”
  • Gravity: The opening (17 minutes long) uninterrupted shot
  • Post Tenebras Lux: Opening scene (watch here)
  • Hannah Arendt: Barbara Sukowa’s final speech in the lecture hall
  • To the Wonder: From Paris to the plains (watch here)
  • Her: The final scene on the roof with Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Llewyn plays “Shoals of Herring” for his estranged, dementia-plagued father (listen to the song here).
  • To the Wonder: Javier Bardem recites St. Patrick’s Lorica (watch here)
  • Museum Hours: Mary Margaret O’Hara sings “Dear, Dark Heart” to her cousin who is in a coma
  • The Bling Ring: Long take of Audrina Partridge’s house being robbed (watch here)
  • Frances Ha: “What I want out of a relationship” monologue (watch here)

What moments from 2013 films have been your favorite?

Best Films of 2013

Dislocation. When I consider the films that I loved the most in 2013, this is the word I think of. The theme of dislocation–uprootedness, geographical and emotional lostness, unstable notions of “home”‘–was present in various forms in many films this year. Characters were lost in space (Gravity) and at sea (All is Lost); they slept on couches to get by (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis) and dwelled in all manor of temporary residences: group homes (Short Term 12), slave quarters (Short Term 12), tents in a burned-out forests (Prince Avalanche),   and so on. Several films were about characters in foreign lands, whether Greece (Before Midnight), Vienna (Museum Hours), or Europeans in America (Philomena, To the Wonder). Other films were set in part or in whole on transportation vessels at sea: Captain Phillips, Kon-tiki, even the Huck Finn river drama Mud. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, meanwhilewas a classic road movie about how a place we’ve lived can feel both alien and familiar when we return.

I don’t know why this theme kept showing up–perhaps we’re all just nostalgic for a sense of rootedness and home in the midst of so much cultural and technological change. But I’m glad it did because it’s a theme that lends itself well to powerful cinematic storytelling.

Below are my picks for the best ten films of the year, plus ten honorable mentions. What were your favorites this year?

10) Short Term 12: Destin Cretton’s film about life inside a short-term foster care facility is a beautifully made, tender film about weary, broken, love-hungry kids trying to beat the odds stacked so heavily against them. Almost every character in this movie is under the age of 30 (including Brie Larson in a career-making role) and each has their own sort of baggage. The film suggests that what these kids need is a deep, unconditional, relentless love–which is to say a love that models Christ.

9) All is Lost: Who knew a film with only one actor (Robert Redford) and no dialogue could be so compelling? Yet J.C. Chandor’s lost-at-sea adventure story is breathtaking from start to finish. We don’t know much about Redford’s character, but we sympathize with him. In its tableaus and archetypes the film becomes a symbol for all human struggle: between being and nothingness, man and nature and, yes, man and God.

8) 12 Years a Slave: One of the most indelible images of Steve McQueen’s unflinching slavery epic is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch, contemplating the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body in the midst of the beauty of a genteel plantation and cathedrals of Spanish moss. It’s a powerful film, radical in its straightforwardness and almost documentary gaze.

7) Frances Ha: Shot in black and white with an airy, guerilla feel, Noah Baumbach’s NYC-set film is a clear homage to the French New Wave. Yet as throwback as it may feel, Frances Ha is also thoroughly modern, exploring (among other things) contemporary hipsterdom, the economic crisis and the relational disconnection of our hyper-connected age. Greta Gerwig delivers one of the year’s best performances in a film that is funny, whipsmart and yet refreshingly uncynical. (my review)

6) Museum Hours: Ten years ago I meandered around Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, taking in the vast array of masterpieces from Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio, Bruegel and the like. This is more or less what Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (set in the Kunsthistorisches) is about: looking at life’s aesthetic wonders, taking it all in, learning about ourselves and each other in the process. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that has made art come alive as much as this film, save perhaps The Mill and the Cross (another Bruegel-centric film). Yet Museum Hours is about more than just fine art; it’s about taking the “museum” posture of respectful, attentive observance outside and applying it to everything else.  

5) Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen brothers have already established themselves as among the most important American auteurs, and their latest is perhaps their most mature, subtle and somber film yet. Set in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Inside is both a period piece and a universal reflection on the seemingly arbitrary disbursement of luck, a common Coen theme. What kind of God divvies out favor, and blesses his “elect,” so inconsistently? Why do good guys so often get beat up and left in the cold, dark alleys of this world? Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the latest Coen character to be the unfortunate object of this existential lesson.

4) Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an awe-inspiring experience. With its never-seen-anything-like-this-before cinematography, its heart-pumping tension and its uncanny ability to convey the feeling of actually being in space, Gravity achieves something all too rare in cinema today: it utterly transports the audience. It draws us in so thoroughly (especially with the aid of 3D and IMAX screens) that for 90 minutes one truly does feel like they are floating and tumbling around in space. It’s dizzying, intense, wonderful, and new. But it’s not all flash and dazzle. Gravity is a film with much on its mind. From where it sits above the world, humbled by the fragility of life and the grandeur of creation, how could it not? (my review)

3) To the Wonder: Far from the “minor Malick” some have labeled it (or at best: “a B-side to The Tree of Life“), Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors in the Malick oeuvre. As such, it’s seen as elusive and difficult for many viewers. As Roger Ebert noted in his review (the last review he ever wrote),  Wonder is a film that “would rather evoke than supply.” Like Museum HoursWonder is a film about seeing: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, the personal and universal. It’s a film about seeing ourselves rightly within the cosmos and loving others, and God, more than we love ourselves. “Show us how to seek you,” prays the melancholic priest (Javier Bardem) at the film’s conclusion. “We were made to see you.” (my review)

2) Her: Like To the Wonder, Spike Jonze’s masterful film is about the pain of relationships and yet the lessons they teach us about loving and seeing well, waking up to the incarnational glory all around us. The whole “man falls in love with an OS” plot is fascinating, and the not-so-unlikely future depicted in the film is provocative and instructive in all sorts of ways. But at its heart this is a film about being present in one’s own life; being aware and compelled by the miracle of daily living. (my review)

1) Before Midnight: To me the best overall film of a year is not only a film of near-perfect quality but also one I know I’ll return to decades from now. Before Midnight, small and largely overlooked as it has been, is for me that film. The third in Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s exquisite “Before” series (see also 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset), Midnight is an existential pleasure. Set in a sumptuous, sun-bathed Greece, the film is deceptively simple–mostly a man and a woman talking and arguing, working through the complexities of their relationship. Yet it’s more profound, more punch-you-in-the-gut tragic, than any film I’ve seen in years. Why? Partially it’s because the writing and acting are so real. But it’s also because the film captures better than most the beauty and pain of time going by, of our own temporary presence in this world. Like the late summer sun that drops ever so gradually below the horizon, “We appear, and we disappear. We are just passing through.” (my review)

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Mud, Nebraska, This is Martin Bonner, Prince Avalanche, Room 237, The Spectacular Now, Stories We Tell.

Best Films of the First Half

Because movie awards season falls where it does (December-February), the films crowned as the “best of the year” are more often than not the ones that were released in the final months of any given year. Anything released prior to September often gets forgotten or (at best) a token surprise nomination or two. Which is a shame, because every year there are masterful films released in the “less prestigious” first six months of the year. And this year is no different. The following are the five films that I enjoyed most during the first half of 2013:

1) Before Midnight: The third entry into Richard Linklater’s exquisite “Before” series, which began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight drops in on a few hours of the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they negotiate the challenges of commitment, family, and the pangs of time lost, regretted, wished for and not-yet-had. Beautifully written and acted, deeply emotional and constantly thought-provoking, Midnight is as smart and soul-enriching a film as you’re likely to see this summer. (more)

2) To the Wonder: Ben Affleck–hardly masking his less-than-pleased assessment of the final product of Terrence Malick’s latest film–said that To the Wonder “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.” There is some truth to this. Wonder, smaller-scale and relatively mundane in comparison to the universe-spanning scope of Life, is nevertheless a more challenging film–arguably Malick pushing his maverick sensibilities to the audience’s outer thresholds of tolerance. And yet given the time (and the requisite multiple viewings) and a willingness to give oneself to Malick’s way of seeing, this is a film with immense power to move, provoke, and stir up thankfulness for the “Love that loves us”. (more)

3) Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach’s black & white, Brooklyn-set film is much more than the depressive hipster navel gazing we’ve come to expect from him. It’s actually a vibrant, often hilarious and deeply perceptive portrait of a twentysomething liberal arts grad (the excellent Greta Gerwig) going through  a quarterlife crisis. Something of an ode to the French New Wave, the stylish film possesses a lightness of being and existential astuteness that is regrettably  rare in contemporary indie filmmaking. (more)

4) Stories We Tell: One of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, Stories We Tell is a very personal exploration of director Sarah Polley’s family. It’s a film about family, legacy, generational ghosts, the passage of time, and ultimately truth and narrative itself: how the stories we tell do and do not illuminate the “reality” of what actually happened in a certain place or time. It’s a fascinating re-invention of the documentary genre that is as gut-wrenching as it is thought-provoking.

5) The Bling Ring: Sofia Coppola’s latest continues in the vein of her previous films, examining things like celebrity, materialism, partying, and “the ineffable sublime,” mostly through the lens of the female adolescent experience. The film’s ripped-from-the-headlines true story of celeb-obsessed teens turned Hollywood Hills burglars is the jumping off point for a meditation on consumerism, social media and what Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock”–the woozy vertigo that accompanies our cultural collapse of narrativity and obsession with (and ironic distance from) the moment. For more on that, and tying it back nicely to Before Midnight, see this article.

Honorable Mention: Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Much Ado About Nothing, 56 Up, Kon-tiki

To the Wonder

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Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder, released last week in select theaters, as well as on demand and on iTunes. It’s a characteristically visceral experience of a film, meaning I STRONGLY suggest you try to see it on the big screen rather than on a computer screen. See here for theater release schedule. 

I have been following Malick’s career with great interest for more than 15 years (basically since I saw The Thin Red Line in 1998), and have written quite a bit about the man and his films. See here, here, here, here and here for a sampling.

So it was with great pleasure that Christianity Today gave me the opportunity to write a lengthy review essay about the film, in which I synthesize the themes and cinematic vision of Malick’s larger body of work by a taking a close look at To the Wonder (which I’ve already seen three times). Below is one section of the review, but if you have a bit of time and you’re a fan of Malick, I’d strongly suggested reading the whole thing.

To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It’s no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil’s own cell phone camera (as they travel by train “to the Wonder”). It’s the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; “All things shining” (The Thin Red Line).

Malick’s camera has a particular gaze. He spends more time than most on almost gratuitous beauty (puffy clouds, swimming turtles, beautiful hands). And his lens lingers on the mundane: empty rooms, walls, appliances, even a laptop displaying a Skype conversation. Everything is interesting to Malick.

Everything except himself. In both To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the actors portraying the adult Malick (Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, respectively) come across as passive observers—quiet, contemplative, almost awkward bystanders in the movie. They are fitting representations of a man who seems far more comfortable paying attention to the world around him than bringing attention to himself.

Much has been made of Malick’s tendency to hire big-name actors for his films, shoot tons of footage, and then leave them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors ultimately cut out completely from To the Wonder. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from the big-ego actor’s point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos.

In this, Malick is suggesting that it’s far more important for us to see well rather than to be well seen. Insofar as cinema has a purpose, it should not be about audiences glorifying actors or actors glorifying themselves, as much as creating an environment of focused vision and contemplation wherein the beauty of this world confronts and perhaps transforms the audience.

The whole of Malick’s oeuvre seems to be a call to put aside our hubris and wake to the Divine all around us. Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life “wanted to be loved because I was great,” but by the end of the film he recognizes that he was foolish for paying no attention to “the glory all around us . . . I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

But when Malick speaks of being awakened to the “glory all around us,” what does he mean? Is it a sort of pantheistic deification of nature? A deistic affirmation of some vague, removed divinity? With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder, I am convinced that he is speaking of “the glory” of the world not in the sense of being the thing to be worshipped but as pointer to the Being to be worshipped, namely the Christian God. To adopt this way of seeing is to engage with external activators of the sensus divinitatis built into our very being—an innate proclivity to suspect God’s existence.

Read the full review at Christianity Today. I’d also suggest you read this fascinating piece on Malick’s filmmaking process for To the Wonder.

Malick’s “To the Wonder”: Posters & Trailers

It’s hard to believe that in less than three months, the world will have another new Terrence Malick film. Less than two years after The Tree of Life, Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder, will debut on April 12.

I’ll say little about the film (I haven’t seen it) beyond what us die-hards already know, but there have been a few really nice posters and trailers released in recent months, so I’ll just whet your appetite with those.

First, the HD trailer:

The beautiful UK poster (it comes out in the UK on Feb. 22):

The French trailer (comes out in France on March 6):

And a trio of French posters:

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What We Know About Malick’s To the Wonder

Just over a year after his magnificent Tree of Life debuted, Terrence Malick is about to unveil his sixth film, To the Wonder. For longtime Malick devotees like myself, it’s hard to even believe this is true. Sadly, while the film will be seen at two different festivals in coming months (Venice and Toronto), it has yet to secure a distributor and theatrical release date, which means in all likelihood we won’t be seeing it in 2012. 

Typical for a Malick film, very little is known about To The Wonder, and until critics see it and write/tweet their first impressions of it after the world premiere in Venice on Sept. 2, very little will be known.

What we do know about the film is this:

  • It was filmed in 2010 in Oklahoma, around the Bartlesville and Pawhuska areas and briefly in Tulsa. Some reports suggest additional filming took place in Paris.
  • The film is 112 minutes long — Malick’s first film under two hours in length since 1978!
  • It’s Malick’s first film to be rated R, “for some sexuality/nudity.”
  • The film’s cast includes Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Rachel Weisz, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Malick’s stepson Will Wallace.
  • Many of Malick’s longtime collaborators returned for To the Wonder, including Jack Fisk (production design), Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematography), Sarah Green (producer), Jacqueline West (costume design), and David Crank (art direction).
  • Malick chose a young, up-and-coming composer from Austin to score the film: Hanan Townshend. Townshend previously contributed a small piece of music to The Tree of Life. 
  • In an interview, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki described To the Wonder as “abstract,” adding that the film is “less tied to theatrical conventions and more purely cinematic than any prior film Terry has made.”
  • The film’s official brief synopsis is as follows: “After visiting Mont Saint-Michel — once known in France as the Wonder — at the height of their love, Marina (Kurylenko) and Neil (Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems soon arise. Marina makes the acquaintance of a priest and fellow exile (Bardem), who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (McAdams). An exploration of love in its many forms.”
  • From this description it appears that Malick is following his semi-autobiographical turn in The Tree of Life with another film based on his own life experiences. Malick, like Affleck’s character of “Neil,” had a romance with a woman in France in the 80s named Michèle Morette (like Kurylenko’s character of “Marina”), married her in 1985 and then moved back to Texas with her. They divorced in 1998, however, and Malick reconnected with Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace, a former high school sweetheart (like McAdams’ “Jane”) from his days at St. Stephen’s school in Austin, Texas.
  • That the film was primarily shot in Bartlesville, Oklahoma supports the notion that this will be a very personal film for Malick. He grew up in Bartlesville and his father, Emil, still lives there. Bartlesville is also the town where the only (to my knowledge) known Q&A with Malick and an audience occurred, in 2005 when The New World came out. 
  • The film title appears to be a nod to Mont Saint-Michel–a monastery in Normandy, France which has been called “The Wonder of the West.”
  • That the film includes a monastery and two characters who are priests/clergy (Bardem and Pepper) seems to suggest that Malick will continue the religious explorations and liturgical tones so beautifully rendered in The Tree of Life. 
  • Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera has said that the film’s “main recurring theme is the crisis… The economic crisis, which is having devastating social effects, but also the crisis of values, the political crisis.”
  • The Toronto Film Festival website notes that To the Wonder “continues [Malick’s] exploration of the vagaries of desire and regret that shape our time on this planet” and explores themes of spirituality and ethics, politics and faith. “As Malick liberates himself more and more from the restrictions of conventional narrative and pursues a more associative approach, he gets closer to eliciting pure, subconscious responses from his viewers.”

I will add to this post as additional details and tidbits about the film are made known!