Lee Isaac Chung Week, Day Four: two epic conversations with the director of Minari

I've been looking forward to this moment since 2018.

And it's kind of cool that it's happening now, when so many more moviegoers are discovering Lee Isaac Chung's filmmaking with Minari. When we recorded this, Minari was a dream and a script-in-progress.

Many thanks to Roy Salmond, who not only produced the podcast, but who helped me track it down when it was lost during a podcast transition.

Two summers ago, I sat down with Chung for an episode of the Image Podcast produced by Roy Salmond.

That recording got lost when a new host was hired for the podcast, but I kept digging, trying to find it and share it. And here it is, at last, recovered and restored! Many thanks to Image for sharing it with the word this week while Minari is in theaters and streaming for the first time.

Listen to my new conversation with Lee Isaac Chung here, at Image.


This conversation was recorded at the 2018 Glen Workshop where Lee Isaac Chung taught a screenwriting seminar.

We talked about his filmography — Munyurangabo, Lucky Life, Abigail Harm, and I Have Seen My Last Born. 

And — here's something I'll never forget — Isaac invited me and several other Glen Workshop participants to stage a reading of the script for Minari. 

I played the part of 6-year-old David, who represents in many ways the child that Isaac himself once was, exploring with his grandmother on that Arkansas farm. Writer Morgan Meis played David's father. Poet Devon Miller-Duggan played David's grandmother. Rose Hlaing Faissal was his mother; Valerie Chung was his sister! What a family!

Lee Isaac Chung introduces an early reading of the Minari screenplay for a live audience at the Glen Workshop in August 2018.

This winding discussion covers much of Chung’s filmography up to that point. Chung’s latest film, Minari, is getting rave reviews by critics and fans alike, and the Glen Workshop is thanked in the credits. We’re grateful to have played a small part in encouraging Chung’s creative vision.

Valerie and Lee Isaac Chung with me just after the Minari reading at the Glen Workshop in August 2018.

 


THE PREQUEL: A 2009 CONVERSATION

That 2018 podcast recording wasn't my first long conversation with Lee Isaac Chung. In fact, he has visited both my own Glen Workshop film seminar and my Seattle Pacific University classroom via Skype to talk with workshoppers and students.

But our first conversation was an epic correspondence in June of 2009 upon the event of the home video release of Munyurangabo by Film Movement. It was originally published at Filmwell, and now lives in the archives of The Other Journal: Part One, Part Two.

Here — re-published at Looking Closer for the first time in its entirety — is that 2009 conversation.


A CINEMA OF LISTENING AND LOOKING:
A CONVERSATION WITH LEE ISAAC CHUNG

By Jeffrey Overstreet

June 8, 2009


American moviegoers didn’t let the title Ratatouille stop them. But can they pronounce Munyurangabo?

So try this: moo – new – ra – NGA – bo.

When I asked director Lee Isaac Chung how I should pronounce the title, he told me that he asked his friends in Rwanda. “I am told that there are no accents for the syllables,” he says, “but I have heard consistently that the syllable I emphasize should be stressed—nga.”

Chung heard and experienced a lot of interesting things as he made this, the first feature film in the Kinyarwandan language. It’s a movie about the memories, trials, and daily experiences of those Rwandans striving to go on with life in the aftermath of 1994’s genocidal violence.

It will be a shame if audiences read the premise of Munyurangabo and assume it’s just another Western show of hand-wringing lament over foreign troubles. Chung went to Rwanda to teach Rwandans how to make movies, and he decided that the best way to teach them was to work with them on a new project. As a result, this is a film about Rwanda infused with Rwandese experience.

It follows two teen boys—Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) and Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa)—in a long walk across the country. Sangwa and ‘Ngabo travel from the Kigali marketplace (from which they’ve stolen a machete) across the country to the small farming community where Sangwa’s family have continued working the soil since he ran away three years earlier. Sangwa’s homecoming is a tense and emotional affair, but it is also complicated by the fact that his traveling companion is one of the Tutsi, and Sangwa’s father still bears a deep hatred for the Tutsi.

Likewise, ‘Ngabo carries hatred too. Seeing Sangwa’s family together—at work, at play, in intimate conversation—he is painfully reminded of all that has been taken from him. And he keeps his machete within reach, a weapon he plans to use when he finds the man responsible for the murder of his family.

It’s a remarkable story, made even more so by the story of its making, and the experience of its director. Chung, whose family emigrated from Korea, have a farm in rural Arkansas where he grew up—not at all the typical Korean immigrant experience. Studying biology at Yale, Chung discovered an interest in the art of filmmaking his senior year, and abandoned his plans for medical school. He studied film at the University of Utah, and became a film instructor himself.

Later, given the opportunity to travel with his wife to Rwanda, in cooperation with the Christian missionary organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM), he inquired to see if anyone in Rwanda wanted instruction in filmmaking, and the surprising enthusiasm of the response convinced him to go. With his friend Samuel Anderson, he sketched the outline for a story, and before long, he was in Rwanda developing that story with Rwandan testimonies, working with Rwandan film students as his crew.

Munyurangabo opened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and garnered high honors at other festivals through that year, including the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Fest.

It was with great admiration for the quality of Chung’s work, but also for the obvious compassion in his heart, that I sought an opportunity to discuss his project with him.

These are excerpts from our conversation.

PLEASE NOTE:

Our conversation does include discussion of the narrative, including the ending.
If you wish to avoid spoilers, you may wish to bookmark this interview and read it after you’ve seen the film.


Jeffrey Overstreet:

Congratulations on the distribution of Munyurangabo! Now, instead of just reading about the film, people everywhere can see it!

Lee Isaac Chung:

It has been great to finally get to answer people when they ask when they can see the film.

Overstreet:

Have you shown the finished film to many Rwandans? How do they respond to it?

Chung:

I have shown it to small audiences. I’ve had trouble organizing a large screening for the public in the country. Recently, the national television station broadcast the film, but I haven’t gotten any feedback from it. There is only one station in Rwanda, so that should be good for the ratings at least.

Overall, the responses from Rwandese who have seen the film have been more fulfilling to us than the great response we’ve gotten internationally.

Of course, like any audience, there are people who find the film boring or too long, or lacking in gunfights. But I’ve been very encouraged by the overall response. I haven’t encountered anyone in Rwanda who has felt that this is not a Rwandese film, so I am very proud of that.

Overstreet:

Did you learn to speak much of the Kinyarwandan language?

Chung:

I learned a little. It’s a difficult language, and any time I answer in Kinyarwanda, I receive two minutes of, “He’s speaking Kinyarwanda! That’s so good!” So I haven’t gotten very far in practicing conversation.

Some of the pronunciation mirrors Korean, so I think speaking Korean helps. But speaking some of the words and getting your mind into the pronunciation and rhythm—I think this helps one to get inside the Rwandese mind and heart a bit. I wish I could speak more, but it’s hard to find any text to help learn it. It’s a beautiful language.

Overstreet:

Did you decide to go to Africa, and then start imagining a story? Or did you decide to tell this story, and then find a way to go to Africa to make it?

Chung:

To be honest I think the entire idea came almost all at once. My wife Valerie had been wanting to go back to Rwanda, and she wanted to take me for the first time. I knew that when she goes to Rwanda much of her work is in teaching. That’s changed for her, because she’s actually an art therapist now. She goes and works with people traumatized by the genocide and tries to help them along, with art.

At that time, thinking about what I wanted to do if I went to Rwanda, I thought that the experience I have in teaching is generally in filmmaking. So I asked the Youth with a Mission base if there was any sort of need in Rwanda for teaching video production. They contacted me rather quickly [saying] that they actually had a group of students who were very hungry to learn how to make movies. From that point I knew that I would have these students. I knew that I would go with my wife.

The idea to actually make a film followed pretty quickly after that too, just because I didn’t think there was any better way to teach cinema than to actually make a film. And making a film we needed to be very serious about it. Not just treat it as some sort of exercise, but actually try to form something together, as a group, and hope that it could be a very solid film. So I think that idea came about six months before we left for Rwanda in 2006.

Overstreet:

How did you meet your wife Valerie? And how did you get to know your writing partner, Samuel Anderson?

Chung:

Valerie and I knew each other in college. Sam and I did too; we had one year of overlap in school, and we just kind of knew each other. And then once Sam moved to New York, somebody got in touch with both of us and said that we should get together and chat because we’re both doing film.

I had been openly suspicious about meeting with Sam, because I thought that maybe his tastes would be very different from mine. You always have these feelings that maybe somebody doesn’t know anything about films even if that’s not true or that’s not fair. We got together and realized that we both had the desire to make similar types of films.

We watched Mizoguchi’s* Life of Oharu together, around that time. Maybe just a few months after we had first started meeting, I entertained the idea with him of maybe going to Rwanda and making this film with me and getting involved in the writing process. Munyurangabo is kind of the film that brought us together and so we still work very closely.

Overstreet:

How much of your story did you envision before you started work in Rwanda? And how much was plotted out as you worked with the people there?

Chung:

Sam and I began a series of long email exchanges and weekly meetings in which we discussed our thoughts on the film project. Slowly, we organized an outline of a story of a genocide survivor who embarks on a journey of revenge.

The original idea was that this character would travel to the countryside with a companion, and a family drama would play out. The character would then travel to the killer’s home and decide not to commit revenge. The elements that contribute to this decision changed very little from writing to editing, but the outline for the family drama was very minimal.

We knew the character should encounter the earth—by earth, I mean dirt and mud—but we knew little else.

I arrived in Rwanda a month ahead of Sam, and I continued interviewing and researching this story while writing long emails back to Sam twice a week. This is how we wrote out the rest of the middle portion of the film, including the details that the two characters are from different ethnic groups, and ethnic tensions rise while they are at Sangwa’s home. I didn’t know the reality of this kind of situation until I got to Rwanda and had long conversations with individuals who underwent similar scenarios.

By week seven of my stay, we began shooting with what we had, a ten-page outline of numbered scenes. From there, the entire cast and crew shaped the dialog and other details within each scene as we shot them. The process was very organic, and came out of many intimate conversations—a wonderful way to make a film, a [process of] constant discovery and interaction with others.

Overstreet:

This story deals with such painful issues. Was it challenging to tell this story in Rwanda? Were the actors or the locals uncomfortable with the subject matter?

Chung:

Part of the reason we were able to film so quickly is that the Rwandese who were involved were very enthusiastic about tackling this subject. Even now, my students desire to speak about the genocide and its aftermath in their films.

There is a Rwandan saying that “a man’s tears flow on the inside,” which can mean one should keep his or her emotions hidden. This is true in terms of everyday conversations, but art, dance, song, poetry, or film [can] prove to be a powerful medium of mourning for the Rwandese—which is no different from how art is necessary anywhere in the world.

The only cultural tension arose from my bad New York City habits of wanting to move faster or prioritize work over relationships. Life in Rwanda helps to break these bad habits.

Overstreet:

Your film does not explore the religious beliefs of Rwandans. But there is a scene in which a character appears from beyond the grave. Did this idea bother the locals? Or is this a natural part of their storytelling?

Chung:

This is an element that Sam and I developed outside of Rwanda—the use of magical realism within the flow of the narrative. I don’t know if this is a natural part of their storytelling, but it didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary for the Rwandese who helped make the film or those who have seen it.

I visited a person’s home where a neighbor died, and they believed it was because another family member had arrived with evil spirits. I tried to incorporate this into the film when Gwiza gets sick; the father blames Ngabo for this and other bad developments.

Overstreet:

The characters tell such unusual stories in this film—especially Gwiza. Were these stories that you wrote for the script? Or were they given to you by the locals?

Chung:

Almost all of the stories come from improvisation. Oral storytelling is a very important part of the culture, and I was used to giving speeches wherever I would go. It’s part of what people do when they get together—they tell stories, they share words, their thoughts.

Sam and I envisioned in the outline that Ngabo would encounter moments of oral storytelling. Later, by accident, we discovered the talents of Edouard Bamporiki—and his poetry seemed to be the perfect finale to all of these stories.

It’s tragic and ironic that the oral tradition was part of the genocide, with radio broadcasts by Hutu extremists inciting many of the killings. We wanted to memorialize the root of the oral tradition—how it builds community, family, and, through powerful poems such as Edouard’s, the entire nation.

Overstreet:

Gwiza’s jokes and stories are amusing, but I can’t say that I always understood them. What is different about Rwandan storytelling compared to Western storytelling? Were Gwiza’s stories about the animals some kind of social commentary?

Chung:

Gwiza is played by Muronda, a student in the class I was teaching. Many of the students said that Muronda is the funniest man they know, and his stories and slapstick humor made everyone laugh throughout the shoot.

For his scenes, I asked him to tell his own stories, and the cast and crew ruined a few takes because they would laugh loudly at his jokes. But when they were translated back to me, I had the same response. I had no idea what was funny. I’ll be honest with you, I get the jokes now and I’ve come to appreciate them. I was walking in my neighborhood and saw a woman walking her little dog with clothing on, and the absurdity of what she was doing to this poor animal made me laugh and remember Muronda’s jokes.

We’re far removed from the Rwandan perception of animals. Animals serve a certain function and role there. That’s not to say they are mere objects in Rwanda—they’re not—but they certainly aren’t bound and humiliated to serve as a kind of toy that mirrors human identity. In Rwanda, an animal is an animal; anything else would be absurd. A dog is a dog, a chicken is a chicken. So when Gwiza says he saw a chicken wearing tight pants, that’s very funny; a goat gives birth to a dog—this is funny too. Dogs that wear boots and sweaters are just as funny.

I hope I’m not driving away a certain demographic of readers now. I grew up on a farm, so please extend me some grace.

Overstreet:

Your cast was made up of Rwandans who had not acted in films before. Both Eric Ndorunkundiye and Jeff Rutagengwa are fantastic. I was impressed at how they seemed like natural actors, so convincing that they seemed oblivious to the camera. Was this challenging for them?

Chung:

During casting, it became a running joke that everyone in Rwanda is a good actor because it’s partially true. I don’t know if it is a cultural phenomenon, but I was surprised daily during the casting sessions.

For instance, I was scouting for locations and found the perfect house for the central part of the film—the segment at Sangwa’s house. Edouard Bamporiki, the poet of the film, served as our production manager, and he encouraged me to audition the owners of the house to be in the film. I was skeptical because the owners had been farmers their entire lives, and I assumed, ignorantly, that they would feel nervous with a camera and crew watching them. Their audition was incredible, as though they both came alive and had been practicing to act on camera for a long time. They play Sangwa’s parents in the film, very significant roles.

This seemed to be the case for many of the actors we cast. There were a few people during casting sessions who were not very good, but most were very natural.

Overstreet:

Were Jeff and Eric friends before this project? They work very well together.

Chung:

Part of the reason I wanted to cast them was because they were already best friends before the shoot, and many people in Rwanda told me that the two looked and acted like brothers. I thought this would be an important dimension to the film, since it demonstrates how arbitrary the label of Hutu and Tutsi can be.

Overstreet:

In reading other interpretations of your film, some see it as a message of hope. I tend to see it as an expression of questions more than messages. ‘Ngabo’s final decision certainly gives me hope, but the last shot of the movie suggests that reconciliation may be very difficult. What do you hope to convey with that last shot? Do you see your film as “a message of hope,” or a question—or both?

Chung:

I’m very happy to hear this perspective, since Sam or I didn’t think we were writing a film that projects a message of reconciliation. We wanted to present an image of reconciliation, but we didn’t feel we knew the answers to how reconciliation should take place.

More than that, we wanted to highlight the desire for reconciliation and offer a scenario for it that could even be regarded as a fantasy. Perhaps faith is a lot like this, requiring the act of imagination.

The final image is certainly not meant to be realistic, and it was important for the characters to have their backs turned to each other. The reality of the situation in Rwanda and other parts of the world is that progress and reconciliation are rare. Edouard highlights this in his poem-reconciliation is more than an absence of violence. True justice will occur only when all tragedies (poverty, war, disease) come to cease. Edouard doesn’t say that liberation can come if we do x, y, and z. As you say, he asks a question, “How can liberation come?”

Part of me understands the impossibility of this reconciliation on earth, but the other part believes and hopes that it will [happen]. In the meantime, the work is important. I think that’s what the creation of art can embody—the act of memorializing, mourning, preparing-the act of waiting, which I think isn’t very far from the act of questioning.

Overstreet:

What did you learn about filmmaking through this experience that will be useful to you in future projects?

Chung:

I often feel like I have forgotten much of what I learned through the experience. I recently shot another film, and it felt like a first film all over again. Maybe it’s good to remain on edge with every film, but Munyurangabo was very stressful and exhausting, and Lucky Life—the new film—was moreso.

One aspect that stays with me is that the subject matter needs to be central to the film, and that each film should serve the subject.

I tried to make Munyurangabo a cinema of listening rather than self-expression. I think this was what helped us make a successful film. I didn’t want to tie the Rwandese actors and crew to my vision, but continued to ask how the actors should act, how the dialog should be. It felt like a documentary approach at times.

Overstreet:

Why did you choose to use film instead of video? What, for you, are the advantages to film? (The result, by the way, is gorgeous.)

Chung:

Several reasons went into this decision.

The first is that I knew I would not be using any lighting, and Rwanda has a very bright sun. Film has a greater latitude than video, meaning that film can capture a scene that has very bright light and dark light in the same image. Video would either blow out the bright spots to look like pure white or all the areas in shadows would carry no detail.

Second, the electricity in rural areas is sparse, and cameras built in the 60s and 70s are made with very few electronic parts. I only needed to charge my belt battery two or three times during the shoot.

The third reason is that film carries with it a better rendition of color and a type of poetic look that comes from the film grain and the way it looks in projection. I thought a 1970s look would be interesting for the film—to film it in 16mm, the way news reports were made before the advent of video. I thought this would create a more timeless look, since the film, in some ways, is meant to play like a Rwandese fable.

Film is much more expensive, of course. But it helped keep us honest in treating this project very seriously and professionally.

Overstreet:

I’ve read that you’re wrapping up your next film, Lucky Life.

Chung:

On June 15th I go in and finish the final cut and edit the film. From there we’re sending the print to Paris. They have a lot of people who plan to watch the film. In Paris, we have a sales agent who’s basically representing the film.

Overstreet:

Does Lucky Life feel like a progression from Munyurangabo? Are there things you began in Rwanda that you’re continuing in this project? Or was this like starting over?

Chung:

It feels like a little bit of both.

A few things from Munyurangabo inspired me [in making Lucky Life.] One was treating the film like poetry in a way, or elevating poetry to being the driving force behind the film. I think I tried to that do more in Lucky Life. And the actual dramatic structure of the film—it’s very much based off the poem by Gerald Stern called “Lucky Life.”

But in other ways people who have seen the film say that it’s very, very different. I think that that’s true. People seem to be surprised that the same filmmaker is involved at times. So, yeah—I don’t know what to make of that. I think it might come as a surprise to people who were fans of Munyurangabo and might be expecting something similar.

Overstreet:

Munyurangabo is already inspiring reviewers to compare it to films by Terrence Malick, the Dardennes, and even Spike Lee. What filmmakers—and what films—inspire you in your own filmmaking? Is your filmmaking influenced by painters or other forms of art?

Chung:

The influences change with every film, and I’m a bit of a film nerd. Malick and the Dardennes were a big influence, but I’m not too familiar with Spike Lee. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Bresson were also filmmakers whose work I revisited before going to Rwanda.

Chaplin films are my favorites of all-time, and I love watching Chaplin with my students in Rwanda; we imitate him sometimes when we are bored.

With Lucky Life, I was inspired mostly by poetry—Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Gerald Stern, and Li-Young Lee. Sam Anderson pointed me to the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson.

I’m sorry if this is becoming one long, pretentious list. As a science major in college, I never encountered these great works; discovering them now has given me much life.

For the next projects I’m developing, I’m falling in love with old genre films, and I’m interested in departing from cinema as poetry and moving on to a cinema of play and energy for the audience.

Overstreet:

That’s interesting. Most filmmakers progress from genre films to art films. After Lucky Life, you’re interested in going the other way. Why?

Chung:

I guess there are a number of reasons for that. I think the primary one is that recently I was just thinking about cinema, and thinking about some of the filmmakers that I’ve enjoyed watching.

These days I’m very much excited about a lot of the filmmakers who were working in Hollywood back in the 50’s and 60’s or even the 40’s and 50’s. I felt that [these filmmakers] were always needing to work in this tension between what they desire and what the audience desires. That’s kind of the difference between a cinema of poetry, as I put it, and genre cinema.

The cinema of poetry, or as some people call it “art house cinema,” [or] independent cinema… it tends to be focused on the filmmaker and the expression of the director. Whereas Hollywood films these days are very much focused on what the audience wants. I’d like to think that both of those don’t have to be so separate and so much at odds with each other, and that somehow within that tension you can find a good film.

I think they did it quite well in the 40’s and 50’s. But these days, it’s far too much geared towards one side. I guess that’s what started cropping up as I was doing the festival run with Munyurangabo, and now preparing the run with Lucky Life.

I’d like to go more to the audience with the film. Hopefully that doesn’t sound as if I’m compromising. I feel as if though that could be a very positive thing.

Overstreet:

If you were going to introduce Munyurangabo to an audience that isn’t necessarily accustomed to art films, how would you introduce it to them? How do you approach introducing contemplative cinema like Bresson’s or Dreyer’s?

Chung:

[I’d tell people that] Munyurangabo … is very minimal, and to not expect anything very much in the way of spectacle. The storytelling style is very understated

What I like to say to people when I am introducing either Bresson or Dreyer is that … you shouldn’t be trying to figure it out as you’re watching it. Much in the same way that a child does when they’re listening to a story, or learning something new, or encountering something new—just take it for what it is. Try not to be guessing the whole time, ‘What does this film mean? What is the message?’

Sometimes you get this sort of magical experience of what’s called ‘the transcendent cinema’, and sometimes you don’t find it. Yeah, that’s what I’d like to think these films do. A lot of them show fairly mundane things, and somehow all of these very random images build up to this very dramatic payoff for whoever is watching—one that makes you feel as though you are transcending all those situations. Some sort of revelation is reached within them.

That type of cinema really excites me. I feel that when a director is able to accomplish something like that, it’s almost the most supreme form of cinema.

A lot of Ozu’s films are like that for me.

Overstreet:

Did you discover this love of transcendent cinema in film school?

Chung:

It definitely happened during film school.

I had a professor who I was very really close to. His name is Kevin Hanson at the University of Utah. And one day he talked about the different forms of cinema that are out there. Then he started talking about this Paul Schrader’s book about transcendence in film. Kevin was a big fan of Ozu and Bresson, and he was always trying to get the directing students or students of production to look at these styles and to consider them as a way of making films.

So I started watching a lot of those films and found that, yeah, they were very moving for me. And that’s basically when it happened—during my two years at film school.

Overstreet:

What do you like to focus on when you teach?

Chung:

I think the thing I might like most is teaching students who are just starting to learn filmmaking. I’ve taught intro courses and I feel like I enjoying teaching those the most. I’ve also done a lot of TA work [on] film history for instance, and auteur theory. I enjoy that side of cinema as well to look at past works and past directors.

But yeah, I do like teaching beginners. I think there’s something great about the beginning steps of anyone who is starting to make a film and just realizing the possibilities and limitations of it.

Maybe it’s influenced a bit by the professor I had when I was at Yale. The last year, I took a course with Michael Roemer. He had us go out and get images of movement, or images that highlight one subject or another. He didn’t care so much about the technical aspect of filmmaking. It was always about the mis en scene, or what could you see in the frame, [or] the way in which we edit these images together. I felt that that class gave me a good [lesson] in realizing that’s the core and meat of filmmaking.

So when I’m teaching, that’s what I try to emphasize.

I noticed that a lot of film instruction tends to end up straying towards the very technical side of filmmaking. That ends up being more of a distraction, I feel, than actually helping to learn cinema.

Overstreet:

I’m curious about your experience working with Youth With a Mission in Rwanda. Were any of the YWAM workers involved in making the movie?

Chung:

YWAM workers allowed me to spend time with their various ministries—HIV/AIDS relief, street kids mentorship, orphans and widows assistance—which helped me to do research for the film.

Also, I partnered with one of the full-time staff members named Serieux Kanamugire, who leads a youth ministry (which includes ages 12-30). He gathered the students who wanted to learn video production, around fifteen total, and they became my students and the crew for the film.

I continue to work with Serieux when I return to Kigali and recently started a video production business with these students.

Overstreet:

The word “mission,” as it is related to Christianity, is a pretty loaded term. I suspect that some may imagine YWAM’s work in Rwanda as an aggressive program of evangelism and conversion. What is your impression of their work in that area?

Chung:

Well, this could be debated for many hours.

Evangelism and conversion are efforts within any organization—secular or religious—when Western organizations attempt to bring change in Africa. A conversion of values and beliefs is a natural part of the effort to solve vast problems within the continent. Sometimes these values are about environmental conservation and the protection of wildlife. Sometimes the values are about water usage and disease prevention.

This answer could fall into the polarizing area of whether or not the evangelical church or organizations such as YWAM have a subversive agenda. But I want to avoid all of those debates and just note that the vast majority of Rwandese are Christians, with one of the highest percentages in the world. As a result, YWAM’s Christian evangelism and “spreading the gospel” resembles the good efforts of other secular groups: prevention of HIV/AIDs, curbing drugs use among street kids, offering alternatives to prostitution, and helping find solutions to extreme poverty. “Gospel work” as an act of sacrifice, service, and love—I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t what Jesus Christ would embody. The divisive debates can distract from all of this.

To put it another way, George W. Bush is a big hero in East Africa because his African relief policies have been among the most generous and effective measures of any leader in the world. Barack Obama is also a big hero for what he embodies and his roots to East Africa. Rwanda is a place where the debates about political correctness and ideologies are irrelevant in light of the need at hand; the only question becomes, “Is this helping?” I am a big supporter of YWAM Rwanda because of this.

Overstreet:

So many films made by Christians are “preachy” and blatantly “evangelistic,” but your film avoids any hint of that. Did you ever have any pressure from your friends and contacts to emphasize religious issues in the film?

Chung:

YWAM Rwanda never gave that pressure, nor did any Christian friends or family members here in the US.

I am also a Christian and have been active in a number of churches since becoming a filmmaker. Often there is an implicit misunderstanding that I must be a filmmaker who is trying to spread a message or evangelize with my films. I have a lot of opinions on the way Christians should approach the arts, but I think it’s a very subjective idea, so I don’t intend to criticize.

My favorite music, literature, films, and paintings are usually not Christian. And the Christian artists who I find to be brilliant aren’t usually embraced as Christian writers or filmmakers by other Christians—Flannery O’Connor, for example, or Carlos Theodore Dreyer.

If my faith is integral to me, I believe it will show up in my work, but I’m very partial about what a work of art should be. I don’t get anything out of films or music with a hidden agenda; audiences are smarter than that. Nor do I enjoy art that is intended for Christians alone.

Overstreet:

Is there anything about your own experience, growing up in on a farm in Arkansas with parents from Korea, that might incline you to approach a story like Munyurangabo differently than other American filmmakers? Or perhaps, to be interested in a different story?

Chung:

I’m not sure other American filmmakers would have enjoyed filming the farming scene in Munyurangabo as much as I did. A lot of my memories of farm work involve me working with my dad and hoping that the way I work gains his approval. Perhaps that scene is autobiographical in a way. To be honest, I only just came up with this connection now.

I don’t know how the Korean aspect plays into it at all, and I don’t want to psychologize too much.

I have felt like a foreigner in many places. For instance, when I first got to Yale and was surrounded by one of the wealthiest and intellectual student bodies in the US. I don’t know how any of this links together, but I also felt very foreign in Arkansas because we were the only minority family in my town for the longest time. When I’ve traveled in developing world countries in Asia, I’ve enjoyed the act of trying to be at home, as I have in Arkansas or at Yale. In Rwanda too, where I felt very much at home by the end of my stay.

I also like traveling in places where farming is still a large part of the lifestyle even though I wanted to move far away from the farm when I was young. For a while, I thought this meant I would become a missionary doctor in a developing world clinic, but I turned to filmmaking instead, mostly because I don’t like science. I still feel the need to escape to non-modern places or nature here and there.

Anyhow, I think all of this helped me to know that farming and simple daily moments—breakfast, fetching water, telling stories—are worth filming, and not the bloodshed and violence that we assume makes Africa interesting.

Overstreet:

Is there anything in particular you’d like to see happen as Munyurangabo reaches more people?

Chung:

Going through this entire process has let me see that cinema from Africa is always going through this threat of almost disappearing. There have been a lot of films from Hollywood that are made in Africa, but that’s no true replacement. There is a lot of great cinema coming out of Africa. And it would be great if those films were given much more attention than they are now. If Munyurangabo can point people towards cinema in Africa, I’d be very happy.

I know people mention [African filmmaker] Ousmane Sembene often when they talk about Munyurangabo. To be honest I only discovered Sembene a few months after we got back from Rwanda. I felt as though I saw in his films the types of works that I wished my students in Rwanda could make someday.

Overstreet:

Where should I start in watching Sembene’s work?

Chung:

One of his later films is quite good. Moolaadé.

Overstreet:

I’m thrilled that Film Movement has made the film available to a wider audience. I’ve been very impressed with their collection and vision. What has it been like working with them?

Chung:

I have become a great fan of Film Movement, which is easy to say because they decided to distribute the film. But their love of cinema and desire to bring overlooked films to a greater audience is very courageous.

We were told a few times by other major distributors that Munyurangabo could not be sold in the US because it has three difficult aspects: subtitles, non-famous Africans, and “arthouse” storytelling. The independent film world can be progressive in raw content, but not so much in what is sold. Many distributors confuse “controversy” with “progress,” so charting new territory is often a matter of innovative sex and violence. The market itself tends not to be very progressive. There are many films such as Ballast or Treeless Mountain that deserve a wider audience.

Anyhow, this is supposed to be about Film Movement. Part of my contract with them is that I have to say they are 100% perfect and the best distribution company in the world. I’m just kidding of course. But I have been very happy with them.

Munyurangabo is a hard sell—I can tell that they are running with the film the way I have, as a labor of love, and I would like to think that all cinema could be approached in the same way.


For more on Munyuragabo, and the experience of Lee Isaac Chung, read Darren Hughes’ excellent essay and interview “The Storm of Progress,” originally published in Sojourners Magazine, June 2008 (Vol. 37, No. 5, pp. ).


Lee Isaac Chung Week, Day Three: reviews of his first two films

I first heard about director Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of Minari, as his first feature film Munyurangabo was playing in film festivals in 2009.

The movie had been discovered by my friend Darren Hughes, and Darren was raving about it in writing. Hughes is a brilliant film critic whose inspiring work has led me to many of my favorite films. His outstanding interview with Chung appeared in Sojourners, but that is now, alas, only available to subscribers. But I'm happy to say it's also archived here — on Hughes' website Long Pauses — and available to all.

I was so impressed with Munyurangabo when I finally saw it that I reviewed it more than once, screened it at The Glen Workshop, surprised the Glen Workshoppers with a Skype visit from the filmmaker himself, and now I've made it a standard part of the "Film & Faith" class I teach at Seattle Pacific University.

https://youtu.be/zUt4Ohe9OWY

You can read my original review of Munyurangabo for Response, the magazine published by Seattle Pacific University, here. It was a review meant for readers who might be adventurous enough to try watching something more challenging than the typical Friday-night movie, and it includes excerpts from my own first interview with Chung.

I also wrote about the film for Image, a more contemplative, image-focused essay. That original publication has receded into the Internet Archive, so I re-published it here at Looking Closer. That, too, has excerpts from the interview.

That first interview was epic, and I'll re-publish that for you tomorrow, on Day Four of Lee Isaac Chung week... along with a brand-new surprise.


Then, in 2013, came the film Lucky Lifewhich even fewer people have seen. Hopefully the success of Minari will change that.

Lucky Life is a startling follow-up to Munyurangabo — startling in its confidence, its quality of lived experience, and in how it bears little to no resemblance to Munyurangabo. It's a delicate meditation on memory, friendship, marriage, faith, and death that feels inspired by Terrence Malick and yet it was released before The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the two Malick films it most resembles. I think it's one of the great undiscovered masterworks of poetic American cinema.

I reviewed Lucky Life for Image's blog Good Letters.

And you can rent Lucky Life for only $1.99 on Vimeo. I hope you will. Even better — just buy it for a few dollars more.

Lucky Life (2009) from Sgraffito Entertainment Inc. on Vimeo.


Two more films by Lee Isaac Chung — Abigail Harm, starring Amanda Plummer, and I Have Seen My Last Born, a documentary that brought the filmmaker and his collaborator Sam Anderson back to Rwanda — are also available on Vimeo. Somehow, I've never published a review of either one. That's about to change. Stay tuned.

 


Lee Issac Chung Week, Day Two: Retrospectives

This week in The Los Angeles Times, you can read an article by Lee Isaac Chung, the director of the semi-autobiographical film MInari, about how the vision for the film came to him. Normally, something like this would appear as an interview, but here Chung has taken the time to compose an intimate testimony of a strange and "mystical" experience.

Lee Isaac Chung has written an article for The Los Angeles Times.

This isn't the first time he has offered an essay of his own about his experiences.

Soon after Chung's extraordinary debut Munyurangabo, which he made in collaboration with his longtime filmmaking partner Sam Anderson, he offered an essay about his journey into filmmaking to me and my co-editor at a short-lived journal for film enthusiasts called Filmwell. It gives us several glimpses of Chung's curiosity and his conscience. We encounter his grandmother, the woman who inspired the character of Soonja in Minari. We learn a bit about film history. And we learn about a world of filmmaking that most of us have never read about before.

(You can find the archives of Filmwell at The Other Journal, and you can see the original publication here.)

Lee Isaac Chung, 2009

Retrospectives
an essay by Isaac Chung

1.

My grandmother didn’t finish elementary school and lived a daily resignation to poverty and struggle for most of her life. Her illiteracy caused both shame and sympathy for my father, notably because he is a gifted writer. Yet, he remembers the way others revered her in the village because she told stories. They were recollections, simple stories sprung from a memory that gathered passing moments others had disregarded, occurrences with meanings she alone discerned.

My father told me this when I was ten — it is a small footnote in our family history but one that I revisit often. How can storytelling bring a humble woman the respect of an entire village? Then, I remember that even scripture is an epic narrative.

2.

In the 1880s, a great argument arose between the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison about their new invention, the motion picture camera. To this day, no one is sure who invented it first.

Edison’s Kinetoscope featured vaudeville performers and fighting animals while the Lumière’s captured everyday life; both foreshadowed a division between the US and France that remains today — cinema as spectacle and cinema as art.

One could argue that cinema has become the most powerful form of storytelling in the world. Anti-Western sentiment, especially the type directed against Hollywood, does not deny this contention; it disagrees with the stories.

3.

In the 1990s, Kenneth Nnebue, a businessman in Nigeria, imported blank videotapes from Asia to sell in the local marketplace. Finding that he had ordered too many, he decided to make a small movie to include on the tapes as an extra incentive to buy. 750,000 sold copies of the film and thousands of imitations later, “Nollywood” is now the third largest film industry in the world behind the US and India. It remains the second largest provider of jobs in Nigeria, after subsistence farming.

They are crudely and quickly shot with over two thousand new titles a year to keep up with local demand for African films. Western audiences might cringe at the exaggerated acting and stories of HIV and witchcraft, but each of the noisy videos proclaims, “we wish to speak too.”

4.

The art of memory collects disparate details from the past and reshapes them into a harmonic whole. It is a dying art in much of the world where society has less of a demand for remembrance and a greater emphasis on daily production and consumption. So great is the divide between everyday existence and active reflection that modern storytelling — the cinema — is no longer interested in life. There is a common saying, “I go to the movies because I wish to escape.” Meanwhile, the culture of escape spreads from the West to the rest of the world like industrial haze.

It reaches Rwanda, where, after the tragic Rwandan genocide of 1994, several personal accounts recall that genocidaires liked to mimic Rambo films when slaughtering others, a chilling detail for moviegoers.

In a great irony, Western penitence has invaded Rwanda several times to recreate the genocide for film crews that resemble, at first glance, a military occupation. Its height is reached in Hotel Rwanda, in which American actors fake African accents in a story that many Rwandans dismiss as overly exaggerated to sell tickets. Its target audience is the West, and as the spectacle — with its prestige, Oscars, and box office data — passes from our minds to obscurity, Rwanda is left with few resources to share its own recollection of the tragedy, to engage in the art of memory.

(My work in Rwanda is:
– A quiet endeavor — to train and equip a group of fifteen Rwandan filmmakers who want to share their stories and transform their nation and perhaps the world.
– An act of resistance — against a pervasive and spreading fog that allows only the powerful to have a voice.
– A remembrance.)

 


Do the Wrong Thing: a portrait of betrayal in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Who was Fred Hampton? How and why was he murdered at the age of 21?

My overdue education in Black American History continues in reading, listening, and moviegoing.

A new subject for me is the history of the Black Panther movement. And Fred Hampton is a name I haven't known until now. As is so often the case, it's at the movies that I am learning about significant and astonishing events that happened during my childhood. Events I never heard growing up among white American evangelicals — either because they weren't aware of them, were made uncomfortable by them, or just didn't care. Great injustices, carried out with the blessing of law enforcement and the government right here in my country — the land that congratulates itself on offering "liberty and justice for all." You might think that the private Christian schools in which I was raised would have bothered to teach me about the abolition of slavery, the righteousness of the civil rights movement, and the long road still ahead of us in "loving our neighbors" through the ongoing consequences of racism and inequality. Such subjects should be at the center of contemporary Christian conversations. They provide a perfect context in which we can answer Christ's call to stand with and suffer alongside the vulnerable and the persecuted.

But I am getting my introduction to the martyrdom of Fred Hampton from director Shaka King and his co-writer Will Berson. And they bring to vivid life the rise and "fall" of this charismatic young leader of the Black Panthers with raw early-Scorsese energy and a fantastic cast.

I said "rise and fall," but, by my lights, the violent conclusion to Fred Hampton's story doesn't look so much like his fall as it does another kind of rise — the hero-making stuff of martyrdom. A leader who is murdered by a conspiracy of cowards doesn't fall — he becomes more of a symbol for generations to come, and becomes beloved in a way that will be remembered long after those who hated him are forgotten.

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) forms a "rainbow coalition."

And this movie certainly helps me understand why Hampton's name might be revered today. King and Berson track the young man's strategic progress in connecting factions of Chicago's fractious tribalism — the Crowns, an African American uprising; the Puerto Rican radicals called Young Lords; and disillusioned white Southerners known as Young Patriots — and building "a rainbow coalition" to stand up against the flagrant tyranny of local law enforcement and government rooted in white supremacy.

I wish the movie had the courage to dig deeper into the "revolutionary" tactics of Hampton's Panthers. It seems pretty clear to me that by following Malcolm X's movement — one armed to the teeth and easily triggered — Hampton's way was bound to perpetuate and heighten a cycle of violence rather than promoting real change. But the movie has other things on its mind that are well worth our attention.

Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton, yes — but it may be an even closer examination of the reprehensible tactics used by white supremacists under the protection of their badges and government letterhead. And, as the title makes plain, it raises up Hampton as a savior. But the film is even more interested in the "Judas": Bill O'Neal, a car thief who, in 1968, was bought by the F.B.I. to infiltrate the Illinois Black Panthers and lay the foundations for a violent overthrow of the organization.

Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is a poet who partners with a prophet.

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya delivers in his most demanding role yet — he's charismatic and energizing; if this plays in theaters, it might have audiences shouting right along with his call-and-response campaigns. And his relationship with Panther poet Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) brings out some quieter, softer notes to his character. (Deborah is more than likely to bring to mind Breonna Taylor for contemporary audiences, as she finds herself caught in a violent crossfire where police are shooting first and never asking questions.)

And yet I can't say I am convinced by Hampton's character as written — he seems more Icon than Human. (And he never, ever looks like he's the 21-year-old that Hampton really was. He never looks younger than 30.) A bit more of the nuance we saw in David Oyelowo's turn as Martin Luther King in Selma might have been helpful here — and that has more to do with the screenplay than with Kaluuya.

Lakeith Stanfield gives us a more persuasive, three-dimensional human being as O'Neal, a weak-willed opportunist who, as he plots Hampton's ruin, finds his conscience tweaked if not transformed by what he witnesses in that furnace of righteous anger. Stanfield's iconic turn in Jordan Peele's 2017 breakthrough Get Out makes this performance even harder to watch; we so want O'Neal to break the spell that has been cast over him, to seize Kaluuya's Hampton by the shoulders and whisper, "Get out!" We so want to see him rescued from himself and the pressures persuading him to do the wrong thing.

As the "Judas" of the title, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying as Bill O'Neal.

Jesse Plemons is here as Roy Mitchell, the conflicted F.B.I. agent who discovers O'Neal and sees the potential to make a "rat" of him. I say "conflicted" — you can see the dismay in Mitchell's eyes, as if he senses that he is losing his soul but has no capacity to save himself. But it doesn't take long for the last glimmers of conscience in his character to be stamped out by the peer pressure of his superior, Agent Carlyle (Robert Longstreet). The killing blow comes from F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover (a chillingly effective Martin Sheen under heavy makeup) who poses a question to Mitchell that could only come from the Devil himself: "What are you going to do when your little girl brings a [insert a racial slur here] home?"

So the heart of the film is about the compromises that lead to moral collapse for two crucial characters: the Black American who will turn against his own oppressed community to better himself, and the White American who realizes that he will lose whatever privilege and power he has enjoyed if he listens to his heart.

I love film critic Sam Van Hallgreen's Letterboxd take on this film: "More proof that the Amadeus school of biopics is the best school of biopics." The POV here, while inconsistent, does indeed make this more interesting than a standard biopic. (And now I'm distracted by the idea of seeing him play Salieri in a Lin-Manuel Miranda remix of the Mozart play.)

But anyway, back to business: I think the "Salieri Template" works well here in giving us exciting access to the whole map of this historic battle and its tragic consequences. O'Neal's zigzagging reveals him to be rather a tragic figure as well — he's so alone, so desperate, and so terrified, that his slow enslavement to the F.B.I. is painful to behold.

All too familiar: "Law Enforcement" leaps at an excuse to wage war on those who inspire the oppressed.

I come away an admirer of the film as a thought-provoking contribution to the growing cinematic study of American racism, but I'm not exactly enthralled by it. My mixed feelings about this movie can best be summed up by its borrowing of a Taxi Driver flourish during its climactic violence. In reminding me of a classic film during a key sequence like that, it does not raise up its material — it dilutes the drama and distracts me. At times, throughout the film, its familiarity made me a little too comfortable in ways that Spike Lee would never have allowed me to be. Shaka King will make more movies and bigger movies. But does he have the vision to go beyond firing up the crowd and make a movie that is, itself, "a revolutionary"? Maybe that's asking too much, but this never seems quite subversive enough or reckless enough to spark the response Hampton would have hoped for.

Still, I do admire it. Compelling, occasionally impressive in its cinematographic finesse, occasionally obvious in its allusions, often too familiar in its form, eventually painful in its truth-telling, Judas and the Black Messiah is, ultimately, a necessary testimony. All we need to do is turn on the news to see another government official willfully conspiring with racists and fascists — and if you don't see one, wait five minutes. I often wonder how many of them are aggressively promoting hatred because they like being part of a club of bullies who really think they're going to "win," and how many of them are playing along out of fear, under some kind of threat of blackmail or retaliation. Stories like this one remind us of the truth: To wage a war of hatred under the guise of goodness will hollow out a man's heart, and to die for the love of the people is to rise, and rise, and rise again.

This movie won't inspire a revolution. But I suspect it will inspire, in some, the kind of curiosity that can lead to investigation and deeper understanding. It is doing that for me, helping me learn lessons that I really should have learned decades ago. My rude awakening, my humbling re-education, continues.


Lee Isaac Chung Week: Day One

It's Lee Isaac Chung Week at Looking Closer!

This week, I'm celebrating the theatrical and streaming release of the beautiful new film Minari in honor of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung. I ranked MInari in second-place for my favorite films of 2020 last week, joining a large chorus of critics raving about the film. And the movie world is now taking notice of Lee Isaac Chung as if he's a startling new talent.

https://youtu.be/KQ0gFidlro8

But he isn't! Roger Ebert was raving about him way back in 2009 when his film Munyurangabo impressed critics at festivals. I wrote about the film for two different magazines and for this website. (I'll share those links later this week.)

I've had the privilege of knowing Isaac (that's what his friends call him) for about a decade, because to meet the guy is to befriend him. He is so humble, gracious, and generous with his ideas and his time. He's a good listener, too.

To begin this week of flashbacks and reviews, I'll highlight a few words I said about Isaac and his film Munyurangabo back in 2010 when I was interviewed by Nick Olson for Liberty University's arts journal The Lamp (a journal edited by Karen Swallow Prior).

Here's an excerpt from that conversation:

. . . . . . .

Nick Olson:

Christians often cry for more 'Christian films' like Passion of the Christ or The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, but seem to automatically condemn and dismiss films that are not overtly Christian in this way. Is there such a thing as a “Christian film?

My Long-Winded, Rambling Response:

God made all of us in his image, which means we all have some kind of God-given creativity. What’s more, we all have eternity written in our hearts. That means that truth, beauty, excellence — all of the stuff that reflects God’s glory — can come shining through the work of any artistic human being, believer or unbeliever.

I’ve been drawn closer to God by the truth and beauty in more movies made by unbelievers than ones made by Christians. And most of the movies made by professing Christians are usually more focused on preaching a lesson, or advertising Christianity, than they are at giving us an imaginative experience worth talking about.

I don’t like using 'Christian' as an adjective. Should I go looking for a Christian surgeon, or a good surgeon? Should I look for a Christian mechanic, or an expert mechanic? Should we eat Christian meals, or nutritious meals? Should we drive Christian cars, or cars that are made well? Good work honors God, whether the worker knows it or not.

The truth is, there were several movies released in the last few years that came from Christian filmmakers. They were beautiful, thought-provoking films. But they were overlooked by Christian audiences. Why? Were they poorly made? No, they won international awards. Did they cover up the issues of faith? Not at all. One – Seraphine – dealt with faith directly, and it won more awards in France than any other movie this year. Another – Ostrov (The Island) – was given public blessings by priests and bishops who would stand in prayer outside the theaters when the film opened in Moscow. Another – Munyurangabo – had an American director, Lee Isaac Chung, who spoke very openly in interviews about his faith, and about how he made the movie with the help of a Youth With a Mission team in Africa. Roger Ebert called that one 'a masterpiece.' But I’ll bet most Christians didn’t give it a second glance in the video store.

So, why did most Christians ignore these films? Perhaps it was because the movies did not provide simplistic 'messages' like you might get in a children’s Sunday school class. Perhaps it was because they weren’t advertised as 'Christian.' Or perhaps it was because American Christians can be as lazy as most other Americans, bothered by anything foreign or subtitled. Perhaps it was because Christians are, like most audiences, bothered by unattractive characters — and believe me, these movies did not focus on glamorous celebrities.

So when many Christians start complaining that there aren’t any good movies out there that reflect the love and glory of God, they just don’t know what they’re talking about. They just show how little effort they’ve put into the search for meaningful art.


In space, no one can hear you scream. But on a podcast?

This weekend I had a blast talking with Sarah Welch-Larson for over an hour about her book Becoming Alien: The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction's Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise.

As that provocative title promises, it focuses on what the Alien movies suggest about good, evil, and God. It's an outstanding work of criticism. She shared her thoughts on every film in the series!

Listen in here:


Overstreet's 39 Favorite Films of 2020

The last films I saw on the big screen before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown sealed off movie theaters like Egyptian tombs, like temples of a lost world... 

... was The Invisible Man, a movie about living in fear of an unseen threat (like... a virus?).

That was March 9.

For the love of all things holy, put on a mask, Elizabeth Moss!

Since then, I've been watching feature films in my home office, linking my laptop to a 32-inch computer monitor and channeling the sound to some heavy antique stereo speakers that I've had since the late '80s. That experience has often reminded me of the early '90s, when I didn't have much money for movie tickets, and so, since I worked at a video store, I'd bring stacks of VHS tapes home for a do-it-yourself film school.

I won't pretend that everything about this strange new world of moviegoing has been fine. Streaming stuff in spaces filled with distractions just isn't an acceptable replacement for the real thing. It doesn't feel fair to the artists who composed their images for a grand canvas. And I don't have that electrical charge of experiencing new things with a large crowd in the dark. In the light of home, I am so easily distracted by what's happening — or, more likely, what needs to happen — around me, because almost anything that happens here is, to some extent, my responsibility and I can't block it out. It's too easy to find reasons to press "Pause," interrupt the flow of a film that is meant to play uninterrupted, and then return to it after an hour (or a week) having lost my suspension of disbelief.

So, if a film captured my imagination and made an impression in 2020, it did so by overcoming more challenges than might ever test a theatrical presentation.

What's more, it impressed me on a small rectangle in a well-lit room. It was like hearing a symphony playing on a cell phone in a train station instead of experiencing it live in a concert hall.

Whatever the case — many films still made powerful impressions on me.

And I'm eager to recommend them to you.

Here's are the annual fine-print disclaimers:

This list, like all of my film lists, is a work in progress.

Of course it is. The temptation to pronounce judgments on works of art is great — more than ever in this culture of “rating” things with “Like” or “Dislike,” “Fresh Tomato” or “Rotten Tomato.”

But great movies are like city parks: They invite you to explore, and your first exploration is just the beginning. Your first experience has as much to do with your own choices and preferences as it has to do with the park's design. Weather plays a role too, as do the other visitors who happen to be at the park that day. Go back again on a different day, in a different mood, and your experience will be different. Does that mean it’s a waste of time to bother with questions related to the quality of the park’s design and condition? Of course not. But it’s ridiculous to think we can pronounce a judgment on any work of art. Too much is conditional. Better to share impressions, keeping an open mind so we can be surprised and have that distinctively human experience of changing our minds.

I’ll probably expand this list in March and April as I catch up with films that got away. For example, Gunda isn't available yet on streaming platforms, but critics who found access to it have praised it as one of the year's greatest achievements. Others — City Hall, Beanpole, and Collective — are films I haven't watched yet for reasons related to timing, mood, or rental prices. I'll get to them soon. I'll go on revising the list as my appreciation of these films changes. I recently updated my lists from the 1970s!

I watched more than 150 movies in 2020 — eagerly pouncing on new films, happily revisiting personal favorites, and making new discoveries from decades past.

But let's focus on the newer stuff. Here's to 2020, a year that would have been so much more difficult if we hadn't had the blessing of movies.


39.
The Painter and the Thief

directed by Benjamin Ree

https://youtu.be/3yJ4r7ON974

For a detailed, thoughtful perspective on this provocative film, I recommend you read what my good friend Alissa Wilkinson, film critic for Vox, has to say about it. This is her #1 movie of 2020.

She writes,

The Painter and the Thief actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior. It highlights the way artists of all kinds, from painters to filmmakers, turn reality into something that’s at least a little fictionalized in order to make their work, and how everyone conceals the truth at times. And then there’s its last shot, which you’ll never forget.

I can understand her enthusiasm. I greatly admire this film as well. As we watch the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova paint portraits of Karl-Bertil Nordland, a young man convicted of stealing her artwork, we are challenged with questions — some of them troubling — about artistic motivation, about the intimacy that can develop between an artist and a subject, and about the ethics of documentary making. I end up admiring it more than I love it. Director Benjamin Ree's focus meanders in ways that keep me at a skeptical distance.

It's a compelling story. And its two complicated, photogenic subjects make for compelling characters. As Barbora and Karl-Bertil grow closer, it's difficult to discern the artist's intentions. Is her work helping her and her troubled subject move through hardships and neuroses? Or are they developing a dangerous co-dependency?

The person I find most compelling was Barbora's partner, actually, who is clearly unsettled by where the artist's experiment was leading her. So am I. Yes, there is a compelling illustration of Jesus' call for us to "love our enemies" here — but I can't shake off my concern that there is something about Barbora's interest in this troubled man that is more self-serving than loving, and the fact that she's living out these intimate, personal moments for an audience in front of a camera increases my unease about it.

This is one of those documentaries in which I am constantly distracted by the degrees to which the artist and subject might be collaborating in order to coax events in certain directions for the drama it can bring to the movie. Some scenes that I'm seeing play out in front of the camera — particularly scenes of high emotion — inspire more distrust than belief. As the documentarian zooms in on intimate conversations, I just keep thinking "There's a camera — and a cameraperson! — right there. And the subjects don't acknowledge it. In view of that, I have to wonder — how much are they acting?"

Still, I recommend it for the conversations it will inspire, and for how it might — inadvertently — become a cautionary tale for artists and audiences alike.


38.
The Willoughbys

directed by Kris Pearn; co-directed by Cory Evans and Rob Lodermeier;
based on the book by Lois Lowry; written by Pearn and Mark Stanleigh

https://youtu.be/HnG4ag3Nkes

Yes, I'm as surprised as you are to find this on my year-end favorites list. I may be the only critic who thinks so highly of it. And I'm sure I'm going to inspire concerns about my judgment when I say that I enjoyed this more than both of Pixar's movies this year.

What can I say? The Willoughbys made me laugh more often than Onward did, and I found that I enjoyed the company of its characters more than I did the odd couple in the spotlight of Soul.

I've never read the book, so I don't know how faithful it is to its Lois Lowry source material, but the film would seem merely formulaic and unnecessarily frantic if it weren't for a surprising hit-to-miss joke ratio which keep surprising me. I like its spirit of inspired mischief and high-speed mayhem, and, like so much great children's literature, it has a meaningful darkness to it related to child abuse and the need for empathy and love.

Director Kris Pearn pumps the movie full of bold colors and exaggerated style. The result is like a fusion of A Series of Unfortunate EventsCharlie & the Chocolate FactoryJames and the Giant Peach, and Mary Poppins — with a touch of Moonrise Kingdom ("Social Services" there is "Orphan Services" here). But it manages to distinguish itself from its inspirations.

And the Bad Nanny character played by Maya Rudolph is pure joy.


37.
The Assistant

written, directed, produced, and edited by Kitty Green

https://youtu.be/DzLWA3xIcFo

If you're listening closely to the "incidental" talk in the opening minutes of The Assistant, you hear several references to "grosses" and "biz affairs." These are mentioned literally, with no insinuations... but for those with ears to hear, it's clear that this screenplay is layered with clever double-entendres. Yes, indeed — the business affairs here maximize the, um, gross.

And from the sickly color scheme to the sound design (emphasis on buzzing fluorescents, the cold steel box of tissues scraping across a desktop, etc.), everything seems calculated to accentuate unease as we following the daily routines of an assistant to a major Hollywood studio executive. She's young, she's talented, and she has scored a job that thousands more covet — a seat within reach of a Man Who Can Change Lives and Grant Fortunes. The name of the Assistant, played with convincing anxiety and humiliation by Julia Garner, is Jane — of course: an obvious choice to emphasize the replaceability of her character. The camera focuses on her menial tasks that contribute, piece by piece, to our understanding of a monster — one who remains, like the shark in Jaws or the monster in Alien, mostly unseen. He's the the sort of predator who thrives in a context of Capitalism Without Conscience.

Writer and director Kitty Green does all of this very artfully, painting an effectively truthful portrait of systemic misogyny (and, of course, very specifically, of Harvey Weinstein). From the first time we see the two men who share the office and who treat Jane as if she were an AI service — they might as well have named her 'Alexa' — it's clear whose sufferings we are here to witness and grieve. As she prepares the office, cleans the casting couch, and picks up a hoop earring from the floor and tucks it in a drawer as if she's done this many times already, we can see the compromising position she's in.

So, it's clear what this is about, and what it's going to be about, for the duration.

Is there more to it than a sort of one-note lament for the countless women who have been chewed up and spit out by this system?

I'm not sure there is. Yes, it's exciting to see another major motion picture written and directed by a woman in a year that has given us quite a few of them. It's an encouraging sign of (overdue) progress.

But as scene after scene plays out, we just see example after example of the many and varied abuses of power and of the corrosive effect of complicity on the conscience and well-being of workers. Every little line contributes in a way that reaffirms what we know about such abuses, like a reference to a change in a screenplay that will "have has ripple effects a long way down the line," just as every decision reinforcing this system will go on doing damage for years to come. Some of the things Jane says to others in distress are clearly the things she needs to hear but never hears: "It's not your fault." And some of the incidental things the others say are revealing in themselves, like a new assistant (or victim) in training learning the phones and saying, "I can't figure out how to dial out." Neither can we, you poor thing. Neither can we.

About an hour in, though, I have very little to think about — just more to suffer through, more reasons to feel sorry for someone, more reason to wish Someone Else had never been born. Every scene is calculated to increase our revulsion and righteous anger, and to feel empathy for the trapped and the abused. It's accurate. But is it interesting? Is it leading us somewhere? Is there an arc to this story? Does it just insist on its one ugly understanding? Many of the reviews I've read go on about the brilliance of the mis-en-scene, and I can't argue with that. This is a fine example of what cinema can do that other forms of art cannot — it creates an immersive environment, an unnervingly slimy aquarium that we soon cannot wait to escape. But is the mis-en-scene opening up new questions, deepening the implications? I keep waiting for something that feels like discovery or revelation. Instead, it feels like a context for a film in which we wait for something to happen.

I can't help but imagine what someone with a vision beyond "I'm gonna show them what really goes on" might have done with this. I thought about all that David Lynch has already done with this. (Heck, even Woody Allen did more with this scenario way back in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and that was just one subplot in a web of stories. I wonder what Anna Rose Holmer might have done with this, or Kelly Reichardt.)

On the same day I saw this movie, I read an interview in Vulture with the actress Thandie Newton. It gave me a much richer portrait of tyranny, misogyny, perversion, and complicity. It was complicated. I learned from it.

Now, having said that, I'm glad The Assistant exists. I think it might come as a wake-up call to some in the audience who don't pay attention to the news. It paints the ugly truth bluntly. This kind of systemic exploitation and harm happens everywhere — Hollywood, universities, megachurches, small churches, non-profits. The White House. It happens in the service of powerful men and women. It can happen wherever there is privilege, and wherever there is a queue of young people eager to get a foothold in the industry of their dreams, ready to pay prices and kiss rings.

I have some friends who, having suffered a long time in silence, recently worked together to find greater strength in numbers. They stepped up and spoke up about their mistreatment, and about the things they were told — from unkept promises to humiliating insults to quiet threats — in order to keep them on the line, to keep them around as attractive and resourceful servants, contributing to Someone Else's success and bolstering Someone Else's reputation. (I might not have believed their grievances except for the number of them and the overlapping details. What's more, I'd witnessed a few alarming flashes of misbehavior myself, when nobody else was looking; I'd experienced some demeaning comments that starkly revealed to me how little I and my work really meant to the Person in Charge in spite of the compliments I'd received from him before.) When they saw someone new walking in, oblivious to the mistreatment most likely awaiting her, they would not stand for it. They acted.

It won't happen again.


36.
Let Them All Talk

directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Deborah Eisenberg

https://youtu.be/Ljf8DOZBnoA

I came for the Wiest, I stayed for the Bergen.

Playing Alice Hughes, an author so self-absorbed that she dismisses her Pulitzer as too commonplace to discuss (although she'll be sure you don't forget about it), Streep is basically playing the rich and intellectual and, thus, disconnected from "the common person" sort that Catherine O'Hara plays with such verve and genius on Schitt's Creek. She's just dialing down the exaggeration in order to fit in with more recognizably "ordinary" characters.

And she's clearly having fun, speaking in the most casual situations as though she's still at the microphone philosophizing about the cosmos and consciousness, her hand directing some unseen ballerina. But she's also clearly "Acting" — something that often puts me off of The Great Streep's work. I guess I can understand it here, though, as Alice, her character, is sustaining a crafted, cultured, heavily mannered persona that she probably learned from listening to other prestigious authors. The center of this seemingly spontaneous, meandering comedy — if it has one — is just that: a crisis that quietly smolders between the writer and the old friends (one loyal, one grudge-bearing) she brings with her on a cruise. She has become, perhaps a little too willfully, someone Else, someone her friends can't connect with easily anymore, someone so drunk on her own perceived superiority that she doesn't know how to just hang with her friends anymore. She can't find her non-performative self anymore.

So, I suppose it works — Streep playing this character.

And yet, I suppose that also speaks to why I didn't find Alice's company nearly as enjoyable as the company of her friends Susan and Roberta. I suppose that's why the movie loses me in the final act — it seems to be built on the assumption that Alice is the character we're most invested in. And she isn't — not for me anyway.

Dianne Wiest always seems so effortlessly human to me — yes, even in Edward Scissorhands — and it's such a joy to take this ride with her. As Susan, she's the loyal, feisty, and empathetic friend who might seem sweet and grandmotherly if not for occasional bursts of temper or, in one cast, a startling personal footnote that suggests she's led a far more, um, colorful life than we'd ever guess.

And then there's Candice Bergen, playing Roberta, who has come along in the hopes of finally settling a score over what she perceives to be a personal violation, a public humiliation in the plotline of Alice's most popular book. In her quiet fury, Bergen is so good that she comes close to rocking the boat with her fierce, scene-stealing silences and flashes of side-eye.

On Letterboxd, Matthew Sibley labeled this "Soderbergh's The Trip," and now I can't stop thinking about how much I want sequels in which Wiest and Bergen get caught up in a variety of road trip movies.

I could go on about how perfectly Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan fit into this chemistry set of personalities. Hedges, who may be the most frequently cast actor of his generation, made me forget that I hit my Hedges Saturation Point a while ago. He's funny and endearing here. And Chan is almost as radiant as she was in Crazy Rich Asians.

But what interests me most here is Soderbergh — precisely because he didn't interest me while the movie was happening.

Maybe the best compliment I can give him here is that I kept forgetting this was his film. And that's his distinction as an auteur — he's a shapeshifter, capable of such deliriously stylish genre games (The LimeyOut of SightOcean't 12Haywire), such unsettling investigations into distortions of love and need (sex, lies, & videotapeThe Girlfriend Experience), and such giddy "What if?" experimentalism (KafkaFull FrontalHigh Flying Bird). He disappears into what interests him.

I wish there were more directors like this, artists who I don't find myself thinking about — and, more importantly, who don't give me the sense that they want me to be thinking about them — while I'm watching their movies. It's the art that matters, and when a writer or a filmmaker forgets that and starts falling in love with the sound of their own voice, the art — and, in most cases, the audiences (or, in the case of Alice and Company, the friendships) — will suffer.

During the brief season of my life when I was speaking and doing interviews about my writing, one of my biggest fears was that the attention — and my publishers' reasonable interest in helping me cultivate that attention — would change me, make me seem a fraud to my friends, and disrupt my relationships. Fortunately, I wasn't successful enough for that to become a serious threat. (And the friendships are fine.)

But I've been on the other side of that dynamic in cases of greater disparity. A wise friend of mine once warned me about developing friendships with others who are wealthy or famous: "In almost every case, they end up having all the power in the relationship. You get a subtle and unhealthy satisfaction out of being close to power, but they only get satisfaction so long as you're useful or convenient. It rarely ends without someone — probably you — getting hurt." I've known people whose work suddenly gained a lot of attention and, just as suddenly, our friendship proved conditional on my response to their work; or, in other cases, it became clear that the urgency of More Important Relationships revealed ours as expendable. So this movie, for all of its playfulness and improvisational spirit, explores some territory that's important to me.

Maybe this is getting a bit too ponderous for a review of this film, which is an enjoyable jaunt and not a lot more. But I'm talking about why I wouldn't have been able to sit still during Alice's Author Event and Q&A on this cruise, or been able to endure an hour at her table. I would rather have been off reading a good book. I would rather have followed Susan and Roberta around some more. I'm low-key hoping that Soderbergh has the same impulse.


35.
The Quarry

directed by Scott Teems; written by Teems and Andrew Brotzman;
based on the novel by Damon Galgut

https://youtu.be/EBY7fzCeKNE

I reviewed The Quarry in-depth here at Looking Closer when I saw it. You can read that here.

I also interviewed director Scott Teems and his co-writer Andrew Brotzman in a special Summer Stage event hosted by Image.


34.
Bad Education

directed by Cory Finley; written by Mike Makowsky

https://youtu.be/kbCy6X0JPrU

"When things are going well, who wants to go hunting for problems?"

And yet, integrity is better than happiness or "success." That's why we need journalists, whistle-blowers, and people of conscience to keep us honest.

What a story this movie tells. I haven't read the investigative journalism that it's based on, so all of the surprises worked on me. It's crazytown.

It's terrifically entertaining, but it's not particularly impressive as cinema. It's greatest strength is its ensemble cast: Janney is fierce as usual here, but this is Jackman's show — he's complicated and fascinating to watch. It may be his strongest performance yet. But there's not much poetry here — I can think of one all-caps metaphor in the whole thing (the leak in the ceiling).

Still, after four years of seeing this kind of corruption in the highest echelons of American government at a scale that staggers the imagination, knowing I'm not ever likely to see those responsible brought to justice (in this life, anyway), I found this story of journalists exposing elaborate cover-ups and bringing con-artists to justice just... well, cathartic. As a study of the way in which small lies lead to bigger sins — seemingly at the same rate that small rationalizations can quickly balloon into massive states of denial — it feels true to life.

Some have described this film as a comedy or even a satire. I think that's a miscalculation. This felt to me like it was played perfectly straight.

I've lived my life among passionate, selfless teachers and ambitious, driven administrators. And I've struggled to understand why there is often a contentious divide between them. Similarly, I have seen an almost irreconcilable divide in so many churches I've been a part of. There's a divide between those in leadership who focus on "growth" and headline-making achievements as measures of success, and those who find the real joy in meaningful service. Great teaching happens in a dynamic of intimate personal relationships; those who focus on numbers and engaging in the competitive market are playing a different game with different priorities. Both want what's "best" — but their definitions of the word are strikingly different.

So I recognize these characters: the teachers who want to make a difference for the students they love, the administrators who focus on national rankings and dazzling their investors.

And as a teacher, I've sensed how addictive the spotlight of Attention can become, how easy it is to become distracted by the desire for strong evaluations. When the desire to teach effectively morphs into a desire to for adoration, we forget that true Greatness is about integrity. No other measure of success matters. If we forget that, we become the tragic figures we once studied in our Shakespeare classes.


33.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

directed by George C. Wolfe; written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson;
based on the play by August Wilson

https://youtu.be/ord7gP151vk

Director George C. Wolfe's Netflix adaptation of the stage play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is strong but modest, handsomely produced, and filmed with intimacy but without much imagination. It's compelling because the great August Wilson's writing is savory and often stunning — of course it is! But as a movie it achieves liftoff because of its two equally powerful jet engines: Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, both giving everything they have.

I'll be the first to cheer if Boseman is honored with a posthumous Oscar. The loss of this extraordinary actor, best known for anchoring Black Panther, was the worst gut-punch of the year in celebrity news. He's very good, and the courage and stamina it must have taken to play this part (considering the advanced state of the cancer that was killing him) is amazing. I think it's likely to happen, considering the intensity of his Big Scene. And if it does, it will make for a moving and meaningful Oscar moment. But when it comes to movie magic, I was more moved by his quieter presence and subtler moments in Da 5 Bloods.

Still, Viola Davis is every bit as powerful, making Ma Rainey an unpredictable tornado of grudges and grief. As she moves from punishing her exploitative show-business oppressors for their disingenuous praise to thrilling us with convincing blues performances (sung mostly by Maxayn Lewis), she wins our sympathy and our cheers.

In composing this lament over forms of exploitation and abuse that are distinctly American and still going strong, Wilson offers us a sobering historical account. In adapting this for Netflix, Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have given us a provocative, engaging experience of Wilson's play. But even though I've never seen the play before, I think it feels substantially abridged, as if they were worried about audiences tiring of a talk-heavy drama that takes place in these few recording-studio spaces. I suspect artists with more cinematic imaginations might have explored and discovered more rewarding images and interludes. Watching this, I'm always perceiving it as a strong theatre ensemble acting for cameras instead of a live audience, and modulating their performances appropriately.

And I end up wishing I could have seen it onstage. Perhaps if I could have seen the whole play, the climactic scene might have been more resonant, felt more earned. Instead, it feels strangely abrupt, insufficient, and almost arbitrary.

Still, I'm glad we have this, more for the joys of seeing these two extraordinary actors in such fantastic form.

And I really hope that the blu-ray release will include outtakes where we see what really happens when Davis chugs a whole bottle of Coke. I mean, you know they have that footage somewhere, right?


32-31. (tie)
Rewind

directed by Sasha Neulinger

https://youtu.be/Dx0q7ETJRAI

This is one of those films where, every few minutes, as graphic details are spelled out in words and pictures, details we don't ever want to know, I find myself squirming and saying — Really? Do we really need to have these spelled out for us when the nature of this evil is already clear?

And then, as the scope of the project broadens and the purpose of these decisions becomes clearer, I answer myself — Yes. Yes, it is necessary. It is necessary for the liberation of victims. It is necessary for justice. It is necessary to seek to awaken some relic of conscience in the hearts of the guilty, that they might stand up in their shame and shout out "Give me some light!" Or damn themselves in refusing.

As documentary art goes, this is pretty standard stuff. As a necessary and vital testimony, a work of truth-telling that will make the world a better place, it is essential.

We're watching a young man make a daily, hourly practice of retracing the truth, hearing the truth spoken again, and speaking the truth again himself — because the truth will set him free, step by step by step. And by sharing the truth, others might be set free too.

We're also watching the unsurprising truth that the rich and famous get to live above the law, by completely different rules than the rest of us.

Let us not forget that God sees this happening too. And God will not be mocked. May God establish justice and show mercy as God sees fit in the name of Love.

Time

directed by Garrett Bradley

https://youtu.be/kq6Hh07oLvs

That show To Catch a Predator drew audiences with the lurid promise that they would see a sex criminal caught taking the bait set by a collaboration of both the entertainment industry and law enforcement.

This movie takes that idea and improves upon it by reversing it: Here we see an individual, Fox Rich, without any apparent conflict of interest — I don't sense any decisions made here for the sake of entertainment — commit countless hours of her life and her community's lives to the camera so that she can (repeatedly!) set the bait and catch a system — or, rather, an Industry — toxic with racism, classism, and cruelty.

And wow, does she ever catch them.

I often have mixed feelings about the disruptive roles that documentary cameras can play in documenting the "truth" of righteousness and wrongdoing. People doing the right thing behave differently when they know they're on camera. I had those questions watching Rewind, a 2020 documentary about the uncovering of sex crimes against children. And I have the same questions here, as the Rich family and their supportive community campaign for a re-sentencing of her incarcerated husband. The film has so many meaningful moments, and they are all captured by a collaboration of people eager to present their case as the righteous and the wronged. We see them saying profound and inspiring things, campaigning for a good cause, demonstrating superhuman patience and resilience, and bonding with others who have been wronged. It's not that I think they're terrible or dishonest people, these champions of justice. And hey, if making a movie of their long-suffering fights was in any way empowering and motivating, I'm glad they did it!

But I want to believe in the authenticity of everything I see here — that the cameras caught the truth of what was happening and would have happened without those cameras, and that what I'm seeing was done without any thought of how the "performances" would "look."

And I think I do.

And when I believe, I am moved — especially by the last act, which only works if what we've seen leading up to it can be trusted as genuine.

Let me be clear: My misgivings about movies like this stem from a clear-eyed awareness of how media can be sculpted to make heroes of its makers and villains of those they despise.

But I have no doubts that systemic racism in America's systems of "law and order" is inflicting far greater crimes on many — if not most — of those incarcerated than the crimes for which those individuals were arrested and entombed in a hell of hopelessness.

And this film's powerful documentation of the appalling indifference of America's heartless and ravenous mass-incarceration holocaust machine, which claims to represent justice but which routinely chews up and spits out Black Americans and their families and communities, is a necessary and hard-won point scored for justice, mercy, and love.

May God, according to the laws of physics that God established, bring about in response to the wrongful actions documented in this film an equal and opposite reaction. Let justice roll down.


30.
Small Axe: Education

directed by Steve McQueen; co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons

https://youtu.be/9uxPGMubvbQ

I shared my thoughts about this final film in filmmaker Steve McQueen's remarkable five-film series Small Axe on the Looking Closer podcast. You can listen to that 10-minute Cutaway Episode here:

 


29.
What Did Jack Do?

written and directed by David Lynch


28.
Little Fish

directed by Chad Hartigan; written by Mattson Tomlin

https://youtu.be/knPhaXYG4YA

2020 must have been a stranger year for Chad Hartigan than it has been for many of us, considering how long he's been working on this pandemic-focused project. Weird to compose science fiction that starts actually happening around you before you're finished.

And Olivia Cooke must be emotionally exhausted from investing so much in two 2020 movies in which she is traumatized by the prospect of beginning to lose someone she loves.

I admire this ambitious step forward for Chad Hartigan as a filmmaker, the chemistry of O'Donnell and Cooke, the seemingly prescient envisioning of how a pandemic would play out in America today, and the focus on goodness and grace in the midst of unthinkable horrors. Where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feels like an epic treatment of this subject — and a subversive one — this feels more like an intimate short story told by a storyteller who finds it easier to believe that people can, at times, surprise us with tenderness.

By the way, if you haven't already, while you wait to see this you should revisit Hartigan's This is Martin Bonner and Morris From America, both of which are wonderful.


27.
On the Rocks

written and directed by Sofia Coppola

https://youtu.be/Xn3sK4WiviA

Or, Comedians in Cars Chasing Possibly Unfaithful Husbands.

I seem to remember that when this opened a bunch of critics rushed to assure us that this isn't meant as a companion piece to Lost in Translation — that it's something very different, and we shouldn't go in expecting to swoon over this film the way we did that film. I guess that's good advice — but not because this is frivolous or any less thoughtful. It isn't!

This is a very different story about the challenges of marriage further along the road than poor young Charlotte's. And it focuses on two very different characters. Rashida Jones's Laura is a busy mom, a frustrated writer, and a wife who has good reason to worry that her relationship with her husband might need serious attention. Murray's character — Felix, Laura's father — is far less charming than suave, mischievous Bob who was mentor to Johansson's Charlotte; Felix is abrasive, pushy, full of maddening speeches about "the male of the species," and downright upsetting at times in his pride and privilege.

But the conclusion (and I need to be careful here to avoid spoilers) has a moment that is a perfectly calibrated revision of a memorable flourish from Coppola's earlier masterpiece — a gesture as fleeting as a wink, but that that strikes me as a mark of wisdom and maturity.

That isn't to say that I think Lost in Translation is immature — it was just the right movie for that much younger filmmaker, an expression of frustration with betrayals and of longing for something true.

And this film is just right from someone older, wiser, willing to express that those hopes for something fulfilling might not be in vain after all.

Too cryptic? Let's talk sometime.


26.
The Personal History of David Copperfield

written and directed by Armando Iannucci;
based on the novel by Charles Dickens

https://youtu.be/xXh53I-Sdsk

If you're looking for a high-spirited new film to watch after your family's multi-generational Thanksgiving feast, and you want to please everybody in the crowded house, well, you could do worse than...

... oh. Wait.

Right.

Take #2:

If you're looking for a high-spirited new film to watch while you eat a plate of homemade nachos and try not to think about all of the usual Thanksgiving festivities that wise and charitable Americans are avoiding this year — for the purpose of showing love to others — you could do far worse than this ebullient celebration of literature, kindness, and generosity.

The cast is radiant — Dev Patel is winningly flamboyant; Tilda Swinton is even cleverer than usual; Hugh Laurie is a joy in a role that might otherwise have gone to Bill Nighy; Ben Whishaw is (I'm going to invent a term here) positively Crispin Glover-ly; Peter Capaldi looks like he was born for his costume; Gwendoline Christie revels in imperious severity; and Rosalind Eleazar is the warm and reassuring calm in the storm.

Sure, it's a Cliff's-Notes rush. I guarantee that those who demand faithfulness to the novel will be irked. And no, it doesn't all work. At times, it gets so boisterous as to seem like it's turning into a spoof of Dickens adaptations. (In its most meta moment, characters turn and comment, confounded, at the presence of a character who really has no business being in the scene at all.)

But I suspect that anybody who has become accustomed to Baz Luhrmann circuses will find Iannucci's extravagance refreshingly well-behaved by comparison. What's more, I sense sincerity in its heart — not what I'd expect from the writer who brought us In the Loop and The Death of Stalin. And I sense possibility in its imaginatively diverse casting. This is not your parents' PBS period piece.

At the end of a long and dispiriting week, this may not have been the kind of party I've been longing for, but it'll do until that party becomes possible.


25.
Tesla

written and directed by Michael Almereyda

https://youtu.be/e4U-23TOKms

Fun with light.

Accent inconsistencies aside, Ethan Hawke's despondent-Batman voice is my mood right now.

I'll bet Kyle "Agent Cooper" MacLachlan relished the chance to spark a current between this film and the Lynch-verse: "Gotta light?"

Maybe it's just that I miss the joy of sitting in a theater and being dazzled by the unexpected, but — watching this at home, being frequently surprised, and for a few blissful moments forgetting what cruel and heartless men are doing to my country outside — I really, really enjoyed this portrait of a man whose imagination was too busy, too in love with possibility, for him to take the path of the devil.


24.
Rocks

directed by Sarah Gavron; written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson

https://youtu.be/CqXhMYjasHM

Radiance and resilience — this is a deeply felt, seamlessly convincing story of a spirited young student called "Rocks" who seems like one of the stabilizing forces in the typically mercurial social circles at an all-girls school ... that is, until her mother disappears, leaving her alone with her younger brother Emmanuel.

This window on an immigrant community is believably bleak but also surprisingly hopeful in reminding us how relationships among young people can break and be repaired again in a matter of days. What's more, it also takes a somewhat hopeful view of social services — a rare thing at the movies, and not the first time that the movie made me think of The Florida Project. Newcomer Bukky Bakray is engaging in a seemingly effortless performance; we don't just care about her for her sufferings — we love her for her humor and her strength.

This is my first Sarah Gavron film. Maybe I should look back at previous work. (Sufragette didn't look promising back in 2015.)


23.
The Invisible Man

written and directed by Leigh Whannell

https://youtu.be/WO_FJdiY9dA

For at least 90, maybe 100, minutes, I thought that Leigh Whannell had made the most effectively scary — and almost heavy-handedly "relevant" — thriller I'd seen since Get Out.

But then I guessed a major twist, which was disappointing.

And then the last five minutes of the movie managed to go for the absolute worst of the endings that I was imagining possible. It's a crowdpleaser, but it indulges the audience's worst impulses, and the film spoils its chance to glean wisdom from its mess of trouble. I sat there saying, "No no no No No No NO NO NO."

(Sigh.)

This thing had greatness within its reach... within its grasp. And then, it let greatness slip through its fingers.

But yeah, Elizabeth Moss is great. She's always great. This felt a lot like a turning-up of her Top of the Lake performances to '11.' I think her work with Jane Campion will remain my favorite thing she's done. She gets to play so many more notes in those two fantastic series.

So, why is this among my favorites? Because, while the film is not greater than the sum of its varying parts, some of those parts — some of those nerve-wracking scenes — are as good as suspense moviemaking gets.

I should mention here that Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, is also an impressive thriller with a sympathetic sufferer at its center. But that movie revels in its vigilante justice from beginning to end, and I was never okay with the tactics it was, by way of celebration, endorsing. (Sure — the ending tries to excuse itself by saying, "Well, sure — this way leads to destruction," but it's hard to deny how much the movie enjoys its juicy revenge pageantry up to that point.)


22.
The Vast of Night

directed by Andrew Patterson;
written by Patterson (as James Monatgue) and Craig W. Sanger.

https://youtu.be/ZEiwpCJqMM0

Another movie that is absolutely edge-of-your-seat fantastic — a surprisingly fresh treatment of genre cliches — that brings us right up to the final moments and then abruptly loses the courage of its imagination. I loved this so much until its opted for an underwhelming conclusion. I can't wait to see this filmmaking team go to work again — hopefully with a knockout final act.

Here's what I wrote after seeing The Vast of Night.


21.
American Utopia

directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by David Byrne

https://youtu.be/lg4hcgtjDPc

You may find yourself... burning down the house.
You may find yourself... like humans do.
You may find yourself... on a road to nowhere.
You may find yourself... coming to my house.

You may ask yourself... how did he work this?!

Whatever the case, this audience was so, so lucky. Once in a lifetime, indeed.

Spike Lee is having himself a year! This is one of the best concert films I've seen since, well... Stop Making Sense. But where that film's frenzied performances were perfectly "suited" (sorry) to the songs about anxiety, these are staged to invite us into a more thoughtful, meditative place... and, at times, to elevate us with joy.

Welcome to HBO Max, Overstreet. This might prove to be worth a month's subscription after all!


20.
Vitalina Varela

directed by Pedro Costa; written by Costa and Vitalina Varela

https://youtu.be/-wsY9RsufuI

"So why fear death?
Be scared of living...."*

Pedro Costa's new film shows that to reckon seriously in art with the resolute silence of death may lead to something more haunting than any ghost story. To confront that void intently can make ghosts of the living.

Thus, the spirit-like strangeness of each and every human being who emerges from the shadows that encroach on almost every frame. One by one, a parade of men moves between light and dark, hunched under burdens of grief, shame, or awkward confusion, coming to a dead man's house to pay their respects, trying to figure out what to do or say about the loss of one of their own. The departed Joaquim's absolute absence inspires so many words — there are a lot of lists recited in this film, as if those who knew him must take a sort of inventory in search of some kind of closure.

Vitalina Varela, the wife Joaquim left behind in a state of wounded betrayal, watches these men with (no pun intended) grave suspicion — as if they might know things that will answer her questions and heal her wounds. She has her own storm of thoughts and feelings about Joaquim, having arrived here in Portugal from her her immigrant home in Cape Verde to Portugal a bit too late for her husband's funeral. And it becomes clear that there are few words she can speak, few words anyone can say, that can help her release those thoughts and feelings — they burn like hell in her eyes; they roar like a cold wind in the deep lines of her face. (We might indeed begin to suspect that she is a ghost, but then comes another moment that grounds her in the concrete details of her surroundings — in fact, in one scene she's literally stricken on the head by the concrete details of her disintegrating ceiling!) Vitalina bears a unique suffering, increased by the layered loneliness of being a woman in a community where men respect only men... and being estranged from her husband's people by her identity as a Cape Verde immigrant who doesn't speak Portuguese. (She's told by a priest of dubious authority that, due to the language barrier, she cannot dialogue with the spirits.)

The film is an invitation not only to learn the story of this an angry and grieving widow, but to do the hard and lonely work of suffering these silences, these isolations, these questions with her. These are cinematic moments most storytellers or artists would pass by more the "more exciting" stuff — but I'm at a point in my moviegoing life when I'm often exhausted by activity, and I'm instead drawn to those onscreen moments when the busyness of human beings quiets down, allowing the possibility of Another Presence in the negative space to intensify. The cinema of Costa and his brilliant cinematographer Leonardo Simões will test the patience of those who watch movies to see things happen; he will reward those who wish to meditate on the most meaningful questions we can ask, or those moved by transcendently beautiful images of mysterious human beings. Each image is exquisitely textured and carefully composed to suggest we read it as we would read a poem. (I should probably award this film a higher Letterboxd rating, but the fact is that I feel there is just too much cultural and historical subtext that I'm missing, knowing as little as I do about Portugal and this community that Costa has found so compelling over his last few films.)

There's a curious irony in the fact that my belief in God grows stronger when I am gazing into the face of someone else who is seeking God. The priest makes a speech about God's face being split between light and shadow — and it's hard not to stop thinking about how almost every image in this film lives in that stark contrast. Vitalina herself is torn between darkness and light, always in danger of being swallowed up by the void, always interrogating the light with her fierce eyes, always tragically beautiful in what the light reveals of her suffering. The time that Costa invites us to spend with her, attending to her silences, gazing into the mysteries of suffering in her face and in others — a privilege and and a patience that reminds me of gazing into the faces of monks in Into Great Silence — humbles us before her as we might be humbled by a saint.

We want to see her find consolation and peace. She won't find closure in chasing a ghost. She won't get no satisfaction from men. She may find the beginnings of it in strengthening what remains, in building something new with her own hands.

*[I kept thinking of this line from Laura Marling's "Hope in the Air" as I watched this.]


19.
Dick Johnson is Dead

directed by Kirsten Johnson; co-written by Johnson and Nels Bangerter

https://youtu.be/wfTmT6C5DnM

[On Netflix.]

One of the strangest fulfillments of the Fifth Commandment I have ever witnessed.

Inspiring, surprising, unsettling, conflicting.

I'm not entirely comfortable with this project. Filmmaker Kristen Johnson — whose Cameraperson was my favorite film of its release year — acknowledges her misgivings about putting her subject, her own father, through myriad stagings of his pending departure, but the fact that she becomes increasingly concerned that his consent to stage these grim fantasies might be influenced by his increasing dementia does not put my conscience at ease. At times he seems truly skeptical and even distressed by the project, and the climactic pageantry, which I'm sure will deeply move many viewers, feels a bit exploitative, like a documentarian contriving drama as much for the cameras as for the good of the increasingly childlike and baffled subject.

But I cannot deny that this imaginative and playful tribute represents a singular and fearless act of... what? Love and... let's call it "celebratory grieving."

And it was harder for me to watch than I'd anticipated as Richard Johnson often looks so much like my father-in-law, who we lost abruptly and traumatically as the culmination of repeated hospital errors and incompetence last year. We didn't get to say goodbye. The former chief of staff of the very hospital he eventually relied upon for rescue was badly misdiagnosed and neglected in ways that led directly to his death, leaving his family devastated and sick with fury. God grant them peace. Dr. Frederick Doe is dead. Long live Dr. Frederick Doe.


18.
Sound of Metal

 written and directed by Darius Marder; co-written by Abraham Marder

https://youtu.be/DkmDGBIEkO4

I won't soon forget about Ruben.

Wearing my film-critic hat, I'll point to about 30 minutes at the middle of this film (the stuff that comes after the obligatory "Angry Man Loses It and Smashes Everything In Sight" scene) and say this: It feels like some impatient moviegoer has hit Fast Forward and blazed through crucial chapters of the story. The film almost loses me there, and because we aren't asked to wait and, frankly, to suffer with Ruben as he does the hard work of learning, the rest of the film — which is much stronger — doesn't have quite the power it might have had.

But I have to take off the hat now and get personal. This film found a deep well of buried emotion in me and smashed it open.

My father began losing his hearing many years ago. A few years ago, it worsened to the point that I could not speak with him on the phone anymore, and since I only see him once or twice a year, that was difficult to bear. He has hearing aids, but they do very little good, and if he's in a crowded room, the noise congeals into an impossible cacophony. So he has withdrawn from community, lives with my mother, and sees my brother and the grandkids — but almost nobody else. His increasing isolation is harrowing for him — he's a former teacher who loves community and conversation. It continues to grieve me, day after day, that I have lost that joy of conversations with him, and that he has lost, one by one, so many friendships, so many communities, so many ways to contribute and serve.

Though it focuses on a person who could not be more different than my father, this movie draws us into what that experience of losing your hearing — and thus losing the life that you love — is like.

I'm grateful to find that it's a hopeful film, with a bold and affecting performance by Riz Ahmed at the center. And it's one of those that reminds me that, while I may think a film's artistry is significantly flawed, a movie need only do a few things well to become a profoundly meaningful experience.

I think I'll go email my dad.


17.
Driveways

directed by Andrew Ahn; screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen

https://youtu.be/0-j1p-U7nKw

[I watched this streaming on Hoopla. See if you can access Hoopla through your local library.]

Three observant and compassionate studies in grief, Driveways follows a young woman who discovers the painful realities of her sister's lonely last days by cleaning out her overcrowded house; her sensitive little boy who tries to make sense of this difficult world by being patient and helpful to his mother even as he is drawn to the quiet kindness of the grizzled war veteran who watches the world go by from the front porch of the house next door; and that veteran, played with gravity and grace by Brian Dennehy (in a magnificent final performance that bumps my rating up a half-star).

I would have liked to see a stronger sense of visual poetry here, and some of the supporting characters are undercooked, seeming to have wandered into a Real Movie from a neighboring TV show.

But few films are as attentive to silences, and few capture that sense, in the days after heavy losses, of the need to speak and move softly.

And I found the unlikelihood and ease of these relationships to be comforting during what seems to be an increasingly abrasive and hostile time. And I was heartened by the film's respectful portraits of senior citizens in their VFW bingo games — most filmmakers would have played those guys for laughs, but these men seem like human beings.

It reminds me a little of of The Station Agent, although without the manic episodes, broad comedy, and need for Big Dramatic Turns. And it also reminds me of Chad Hartigan's This is Martin Bonner in its patience.

I'm going to keep my eyes open for more from director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen.


16.
Young Ahmed

written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

https://youtu.be/sTlhjBUikVw

This has happened before:

A favorite artist (or, in this case, artists) delivers new work that reminds me every minute of why I fell in love with them in the first place, and it stands up well alongside almost anything they've made before — but their tool kit has by now become so familiar that every minute, every beat, every aspect of the mise-en-scène makes me think of where and when I've seen them do that before. I'm more aware of the tool kit than the movie itself. The sculpture is new, but the materials are all recycled.

This happened for me with Malick's A Hidden Life. I suspect one day it may happen with Wes Anderson. And, as much as I care about the thematic territory the Dardennes are exploring here, it happened with Young Ahmed. Visionaries are visionaries because they teach you a new language, a new way of seeing. But it is not their responsibility to always be expanding that vocabulary with dazzling new possibilities. It is their responsibility to ask “What if...?” questions and then bear witness truthfully in their language to what they discover.

And they do. In a way, it seems like a very, very good imitation of a Dardenne brothers film by someone eager to make a film about the toxic allure of religious fundamentalism. It's a meaningful story, stirringly told.

It's just that the movie lacks the kind of standout performance or startling new idea that is likely to inspire and enthrall devotees of the brothers' filmography. Idir Ben Addi is fine in the lead role, but he doesn't have the kind of complicated presence that compels our attention like every Dardenne brothers' lead has had so far. And the abrupt conclusion, perhaps for the first time, feels a little contrived.

Others who may be new to the Dardenne brothers' singular style may find this more captivating than I did. Everything was reminding me of at least one, sometimes several, of their previous films. One moment seems modeled on a moment from The Son, the next from The Kid With a Bike, and on and on. It was like hearing a favorite band play a song with instruments they've played many times before, with chords they've played many times before, with pieces of melodies from songs they've sung before, and even a resolution very like things they've played before. It's still a damn good performance because it's that band — but the song itself lacks inspiration.

Do I recommend this film? Whole-heartedly. Do I think it's excellent? It's far better than 99% of the films people will watch this weekend. Perhaps this will be the movie that inspires someone to veer off of the highway of commercial entertainment and discover the riches of cinema. Perhaps it will inspire some to seek out other Dardenne films. I'm all for that. But will their familiarity with this film take away from or enhance their first experience with what I consider their masterpiece: The Son? Selfishly, I hope not.

And speaking of The Son, I so wish I had a way to share it with people. It's not available streaming anywhere, and there is no blu-ray release. DVD copies are rare and expensive.

Recently, I assigned Two Days One Night and The Kid With a Bike to eighteen undergraduates who had never seen a Dardennes film before. We discussed the films, and it was thrilling to hear their thoughts. Some of them were inspired and moved. That has only re-invigorated my gratitude for these filmmakers.


15.
Extra Ordinary

written and directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman

https://youtu.be/x1TvL5ZL6Sc

"Come on, Martin. That ectoplasm's not going to collect itself."

And in context, that's actually a very romantic moment.

This is the most riotous laugh-out-loud surprise I've seen since Game Night, an out-of-nowhere ambush of laughs that starts small-scale and understated and builds to an insane 21-car-pileup of panic-attacks—a hilarious climax of normal (childbirth) and paranormal (Satanic virgin sacrifice) proportions. The joke density is impressively layered throughout. I’d love to see it become the first of a new Cornetto-style trilogy.

And Maeve Higgins's Rose Dooley just might end up being my favorite character of the year.

The world needs more comedies like this one that take big risks. I'm confident that no Ghostbusters sequel or reboot can come anywhere close to the magic this movie conjures.


14.
Another Round

directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm

https://youtu.be/bj8Jmz_srDg

"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself."

Thomas Vinterberg is a filmmaker who dares — and thank goodness.

Something is buzzed in the state of Denmark. And it's given us the wickedly funny answer to the annoyingly popular genre of Inspiring Teacher Movies. It stops just shy of an "Oh Captain, my Captain!" moment.

Mikkelsen is just so good here — just nuanced enough to give the film real dramatic tension and thoughtfulness, just edgy enough to make the comedy cut.

So funny, so thoughtful, so playful. I love how an absurdity placed at the center of an otherwise realistic narrative can break open truths that are otherwise hard to express.

I don't know how I would teach with any effectiveness if I didn't sustain a sense of play, of joy, of daring. If I ever lose the spirit (not the spirits) that inspires teaching, the curiosity, the willing to ask "What if?" — please, help me recover it, or listen to where the spirit wants to lead me next.

Also: God save us from the inevitable American remake with Mortenson, Ferrell, Galifianakis, and McConaughey.


13.
Da 5 Bloods

directed by Spike Lee; co-written by Lee, Danny Bilson,
Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott

https://youtu.be/D5RDTPfsLAI

Here's what I wrote after seeing Da 5 Bloods.


12.
Miss Juneteenth

written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples

https://youtu.be/Vb3oREG_DdA

I need time to write about this one. Sure, there is plenty of formula in its structure, and yes, some of the characters are little more than "types." But the central character is impressively complex, and Beharie's performance is sensational. Even as it moves toward a somewhat predictable conclusion, I see remarkable restraint here — director Channing Godfrey Peoples refuses to indulge several big moments that would have been crowdpleasers.

And this may be the best-looking movie I've seen in 2020, as well as the one with the strongest sense of place.

What a surprise, that this transcends its familiar beats to invite us into an experience that feels human and truthful.


11.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

written and directed by Eliza Hittman

https://youtu.be/hjw_QTKr2rc

Thought #1:

I just accompanied 18 of my students through a reading of Sara Zarr's novel How to Save a Life. And while this movie had me thinking about Bresson and Mungiu and the Dardennes, it had me thinking far more about Zarr, and just how extraordinary it would be to watch this film and read that novel over the course of a class. They would complement each other in incredible ways — in storytelling, in subject matter, and even more so in a fascinating consideration of differing methods of character development.

Thought #2:

"…And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in."

– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Thought #3:

It pains me to say that the people in my life I most wish would watch this movie and discuss it with me would refuse. To them, the subject matter alone would disqualify it as a movie worthy of their attention. And in doing so, they shut and lock their hearts against the suffering — and they do so under the pretense of "caring."

When you care for only one part of your body, the whole body dies.

When you care for only one soul in any given scenario, the body of that community dies.

God is love. So love is God. And the way to love God is to love love. And the way to love love is to show love to your neighbor and to yourself as if they were one and the same thing. Because they are.

Thought #4:

Critics I've heard raving about this movie mostly focus on an intimate conversation between Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) and a counselor. Rightfully so — it's a powerful scene. But the moment I'll remember above all... well, let's just call it "The Kiss." It's one of the most surprising, specific, and moving moments of human touch I've ever seen on film.

Thought #5:

I love Sharon Van Etten. I could just play and replay the closing credits of this thing.


10.
Small Axe: Mangrove

directed by Steve McQueen; co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons

https://youtu.be/gQBuNeFlS7c

I've seen both The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mangrove, and I'd argue one feels like a screenplay reading by actors in costume; the other leans into the art form of cinema: compelling dialogue but also visual poetry, artful light, and silences that invite reflection.

Both are worth seeing. One is capital-F Filmmaking.

I compare these two only because they're both "prestige pictures" about the challenges that burden those who protest and demonstrate for the cause of justice and civil rights against systemic oppression, and because both are primarily courtroom dramas.

Chicago 7 made me think of Sorkin all the way through.

Mangrove made me believe.

I've had mixed feelings about earlier McQueen films, but if the rest of his five-part Small Axe series (opening week by week on Amazon Prime) is as good as this, it strikes me as a major statement — to release such an enormous work in the span of several weeks.


9.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

written and directed by Céline Sciamma

https://youtu.be/R-fQPTwma9o

So enchanting that at times I fought against the need to blink...

...and I'm just talking about the moments Valeria Golino was on the screen. I hadn't realized what an indelible impression she'd made in my late-80s moviegoing until I saw her here and immediately remembered her name.

That was worth the price of admission. And it was just one of the smaller joys of this exquisite film, which cultivates as powerful an intimacy in its glances as it does in its dialogue. There were some edits here that took my breath away. I'm trying to think of a True Love in cinema more persuasively compelling than this one. John Smith and Rebecca of The New World come to mind. Perhaps the enigmatic intimacy of Certified Copy. Others?

(Whatever it is, this film is the anti-Blue is the Warmest Color — it's as respectful as that film is lurid. Sciamma's camera loves her characters, making even more painfully obvious how Kechiche was exploiting his own actresses.)

Yes, Héloïse's last line is entirely predictable once she's been set up for it, but that doesn't make it any less devastating. And has there ever been a stronger and more swoon-worthy promise in the first hour of a romance than the moment when Marianne, rather than drawing the cover off of the harpsichord, reaches up under it and begins to play?

I won't spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that Krzysztof Kieslowski would have loved this movie's closing shot. In fact, the closing shots of all three of the Three Colors films may have inspired it.


8.
First Cow

directed by Kelly Reichardt;
written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

https://youtu.be/SRUWVT87mt8

1.

Dreamers
They never learn
They never learn

Beyond, beyond the point
Of no return
Of no return

And it's too late
The damage is done
The damage is done

– Radiohead, "Daydreaming"

2.

For several years, I attended backyard gatherings in New Mexico with my in-laws for a celebratory feast of something called "oily boilies." They were served savory and they were served sweet with cinnamon and sugar. I watched the whole process, amazed by how simple it was, and how scrumptious the results. They were even better for the generosity of the family that served them to us expecting nothing in return. Good people, good conversation, and a bellyful of happiness. Those gatherings are a thing of the past now. But I dream about those oily boilies.

And now... there's a movie about them, viciously calculated to taunt me.

3.

My compliments to the casting department. What a strange assembly, every actor an inspired choice — particularly Toby Jones.

4.

If I were to host a film seminar on the subject of capitalism, this might well be the opening night feature.


7.
Emma.

directed by Autumn de Wilde;
written by Eleanor Catton, based on the book by Jane Austen

https://youtu.be/qsOwj0PR5Sk

“Mother, you MUST sample the tart.”
“I advise against the custard.”

That these lines are delivered by the inimitable  Miranda Hart and the magnificent Bill Nighy, well... really, what more do you need to know about Autumn de Wilde's new adaptation of Emma?

Also, proceed with caution: The MPAA needs a new warning about Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes — they rule whatever they survey. Set a meeting for her with Whit Stillman immediately.

Were this movie to emerge from an oven on The Great British Baking Show, Paul Hollywood would shake somebody’s hand and never let go. It’s a dessert-week "showstopper" with so many technicolor layers of sugar work that you'll feel guilty just looking at it. Go for the frosting. You know you can trust Austen’s cake — it's substantial so long as it's respected, and it's respected well-enough here.

You'll hear a lot about Taylor-Joy, and deservedly so. She's strong except in scenes where she's asked to break down (she's good at Big Eyes Welling With Tears, but not at serious crying).

But don't overlook Mia Goth, who plays a difficult role here. Harriet can so easily disappear in any scene she shares with Emma, but Goth is key to why the movie works at all. We don't want to see her get hurt.

The week I saw this for the first time was a strange one: I saw Next-Big-British-Star Angus Imrie steal every scene in The Kid Who Would Be King — and then he showed up here in the opening scene! (And they give him no lines? Weird.) I had seen Anya Taylor-Joy in Glass two nights earlier as well — aaaaand here she is. But wait, there's more: I'd seen Johnny Flynn — and heard him singing — on an episode of Detectorists as well... and he's here, acting and singing!

The second time around, this was a date-night choice. And, big surprise! It was such a sumptuously colorful, extravagantly decorated film on the big screen, I anticipated it would seem like a lesser thing on a smaller screen and that its weaknesses would be more pronounced. But no, I enjoyed it even more. I suspect it's because de Wilde has such an outstanding cast, all of whom are excellent subjects in close-up, Taylor-Joy, Flynn, Goth, Nighy all have so many memorable moments of comic subtlety.

Between his singing here and his fantastic theme-song for TV's Detectorists — one of my all-time favorite series — I think I'm becoming a Johnny Flynn fan.

And speaking of music — this score by Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe's big sister! I hadn't realized)! I am going to be playing it for years to come. I have baggage with the song "How Firm a Foundation." I grew up singing it in churches that, over time, made evident that the foundation being praised in the song — "God's word" — was not really their foundation at all. What they celebrated on Sunday morning they turned and attacked in their world-condemning, neighbor-hating politics during the week. But it is such a surprise here, and I like how it frames Emma's slow journey toward repentance and grace in terms of finding "refuge" in Jesus.

Anne, who has read the book many times, said the film didn't feel like the Emma she knows and loves... but she loved the movie anyway.


6.
Wolfwalkers

directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart;
written by Will Collins (screenplay) and Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart (story)

https://youtu.be/d_Z_tybgPgg

"You never really understand a [wolf] until you consider things from [her] point of view ... until you climb into [her] skin and walk around in it.”

This is not a quotation from The Silence of the Lambs (although it could be). It's from To Kill a Mockingbird (of course). But it can meaningfully capture the conviction at the heart of the storytellers who bring us Wolfwalkers, a film about how humankind should (and shouldn't) treat other creatures... and, ultimately, a film about how we should (and shouldn't) treat one another. In fact, just look at the image representing the film (at least at the moment of this writing) and you'll see a suggestion of it there — a hand (the viewer's?) placed within the idea of a wolf's paw. What is possible when we set aside our fears of the Other and imaginatively inhabit their experience of the world?

It's the kind of idea that just might save the world.

So — Wolfwalkers. The film just played at the virtual Toronto International Film Festival, which enabled me the privilege of signing in and seeing it before its official U.S. release. What a thrill!

My impressions? Here they are:

You take the basic recipe of the studio's groundbreaking, masterful debut — The Secret of Kells, a film by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey — and you build on that: A child growing up in a Fear Culture, one governed by a False Christianity, is forbidden to go outside the walls into the dangerous woods. And so, of course, the child goes. And, with the help of a spirit animal sidekick (a merlin this time), the child is surrounded by symmetrical bands of wolves, teeth-gnashing, and then encounters a magical forest girl who is also missing a parent.

I'll be honest: At this point in the movie, the similarities were unnervingly strong.

But then the story starts moving in some surprising new directions that bring to mind the shapeshifting motifs and the missing-parent sadness of Moore's Song of the Sea and the female friendship at the heart of Twomey's The Breadwinner.

Big surprise: Clear connections to one of my favorite '80s fantasy films — Ladyhawke — including one early shot and musical flourish that feel like a respectful tribute. Ladyhawke fans, you can't miss it!

Perhaps I'm making it sound like this is uninspired and derivative. If so, forgive me. It's clear that Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart have a kind of story they like to tell. But their powers are growing, and they're exploring their familiar thematic territory with bigger, bolder strokes. Wolfwalkers is a demonstration of increasing confidence and strength in every aspect of the studio’s artistry. While this film doesn't move me as deeply as The Secret of Kells — I like wolves, but I love the four gospels at the heart of The Book of Kells more than anything in the world — I am in awe of the artistry on display here, and the story is thrillingly compelling.

If I'm to point out any particular lack in this film, my first impulse it to suggest that it's missing some of the madcap humor that snapped, crackled and popped throughout Kells.

But I appreciate this narrative's focus on celebrating women as powerful and creative, worthy of so much more than being sentenced to the confinements and routines of "scullery maids." (Isn't that the primary idea at the heart of so many fairy tales?) I love the emphasis on recovering a more meaningful relationship with nature. And I respond more passionately all the time to depictions of the satanic forces that are unleashed when True Christianity is distorted by fear, arrogance, cruelty, and hatred — all of which contradict the fundamentals of the Gospel — into the very abominations that Christ preached against.

So this is beautiful and meaningful stuff — even if it is a bit familiar for this Secret of Kells super-fan.

And it's my favorite film of the year so far.

I'm tempted to watch it again before my TIFF link expires, but I want to wait. I want to let this first experience settle. And then, hopefully, I'll get to see it a second time in the proper context: a movie theatre, on a very, very big screen. The work deserves it.

Thank you, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, for investing so much art, heart, and soul in your work. You, like Miyazaki, Brad Bird, and so few animators before you, are reinforcing the standard by which all animated features are measured.

Here's my recorded review of Wolfwalkers, including a conversation with Dr. Lindsay Marshall about the movie.


5.
Shirley

directed by Josephine Decker; written by Sarah Gubbins

https://youtu.be/wxMtEean_V8

Here's what I wrote after seeing Shirley for the first time.

 


4.
Bloody Nose Empty Pockets

directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross

https://youtu.be/uEvilRp8we4

Bear with me for a moment: It's difficult to put this into words.

I increasingly believe that the gift of art is that it teaches us to discover meaning within a frame by inviting us to observe the relationships between elements within a frame. In doing so, it trains our minds to then go and do that same kind of work observing elements with the frame of our experience, and to show us just how much our own commitment to (or abandonment of) love can influence the meaning of any given scenario (because that is meaning's determining factor in any work of art).

In other words, art is, for the audience, practice. It is a rehearsal for how to make the most of our attention when we consider the scenarios of our own lives. It saves us from "the unexamined life."

And Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is one of those rare films that accomplishes the trick of looking exactly like an everyday, real-life scenario while also being so resonant with poetic artistry that it makes me want to look around at what is happening all around me with renewed intensity and curiosity. That's about as profound an effect as I can ask of any movie. (This is also true, for what it's worth, of Nomadland.)

This is a film that steers clear of most moviegoing styles in how closely and meticulously it imitates "the real world." It can easily be mistaken for a documentary — and much of what we see is, in fact, a documenting of actual people in actual incidental situations. But it has been crafted — in editing and, yes, with some directorial prompting (with a very light touch, it seems) — to become, or better to reveal poetry. The Ross brothers' subtlety makes it possible for us to perceive meaningful narratives and meaningful images that cohere into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Watching the celebrations and the grieving of the regulars in the waning hours of this Las Vegas tavern's closing night, it is easy to imagine — and I did, frequently — the angels of Wings of Desire drifting through this space and beaming with affection for these distinctively wonderful souls. And yet, the films that came to mind most often were Sean Baker's Tangerine and The Florida Project — both astoundingly true to life, both so rich with poetry.

We're given no exposition — we're dropped into it and left to fend for ourselves, learning the personalities and watching them careen and collide like billiard balls after a strike. Is this just chaos that could mean anything? I don't think so. As we begin to trace character arcs, discern backstories, and notice the suggestiveness of the songs being played and the seemingly random movies on TV (The Misfits, Battleship Potemkin), we can begin to see an elegiac tapestry woven with love for those on the edges and outskirts, the ruined and the lonely, the orphans who have found a family of sorts.

I'm grateful to Matt Zoller Seitz for writing the review that bumped this to the top of my Last-Minute 2020 Priority list. It's the last film I'm watching in 2020, and it will land near the top of my favorites list for the year. Thanks, Matt, for pointing me toward a fantastic grand finale for this punishing, heartbreaking year. This feels like the right way to wrap it all up.

What more could you ask for in a New Year's Eve movie than a vision of "a place to go when nobody else don't want your ass"? I won't ever sing the Cheers theme song the same way again.


3.
Small Axe: Lovers Rock

directed by Steve McQueen; written by McQueen and Courttia Newland

https://youtu.be/FVOhXowWqDU

Yes. Yes, they do.

More movies like this, please.

The second film in the Small Axe series — Steve McQueen's five-film examination of Black experiences in England in the 1970s — is the crowning achievement of the series. It's a celebration of the communal joys and laments of reggae-fueled house parties, where Black people could gather safely, without police raids, and find solace and self-confidence in numbers — dancing away their laments, dancing for unity, dancing for joy.

It's about such specific people in such a specific time and place. And yet, it feels like watching the cosmos, like the Big Bang sequence in The Tree of Life: forces at work beyond the reach of words, some of them dangerous and destructive, but all of them reconciled by the big music, and everyone at their best longing to be caught up in something grander than themselves. As the U2 song goes, "Love is bigger than anything in its way."

The last line of the film is about church — and it's ironic in the best possible way. Because this movie takes us to church.

[Footnote: After seeing the suave and stylish men in this film, I realize... I need better shirts.]

 


2.
Minari

written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung

https://youtu.be/KQ0gFidlro8

I will have an episode of the Looking Closer podcast soon in which I share my love for this film.

For now, I'll say this:

As a longtime fan of Lee Isaac Chung's films — there have been three of them that I've loved dearly and recommended for many years, and one of them gets a spotlight in my annual Faith & Film course at Seattle Pacific University — I am overjoyed to see a film in which he shares something of his own story.

Before I can say more, I need to offer full disclosure: I interviewed Isaac a decade ago, and have done so several more times since. What's more — I've been blessed by his friendship, and I had the tremendous privilege of participating in a reading of this screenplay two summers ago in which I got to play the five-year-old boy who represents Isaac's own experience.

So, to see this screenplay become such a glorious, intimate, graceful film feels like one of the moviegoing highlights of my lifetime.

There are so many gentle, subtle, observant moments. I don't want to spoil anything important for you, but here are a few things to watch for. Note...

  • moments when characters lie down beside one another; the way they face one another (or not); the way they reach for one another (or not);
  • moments when Jacob the father (Steven Yuen, excellent) washes his hair, or has it washed for him, and how that marks his experience;
  • how eloquently, with her silences and body language, Monica (Han Ye-ri) considers surprises good and bad;
  • how the condition of young David's blood pressure becomes a tangible measure of risk and danger for this family;
  • how the plant minari becomes the film's obvious but effective "objective correlative," its flexible and meaningful metaphor about how this family need not cast off their traditions and heritage, and how what they bring with him might enrich the nation they now call home;
  • the large-hearted, open-minded depiction of an American evangelical community, allowing them to be both the best and the worst of us;
  • the endearing holy fool played with sensitivity and nuance by Will Patton without making a spectacle of himself; and
  • the subtle illustration that the Kingdom of God is not some far off place to be earned or achieved, but here and now if only we have eyes to see it.

I am oh-so-tempted to call it my #1 film of the year — but to do so wouldn't be quite fair, as I am a little too close to it to be entirely objective. My judgment is clouded somewhat by several things:

1) how the last four years have made me, for lack of a better word, evangelical about the sufferings of immigrant families in America, a subject this film touches on;

2) my love for Isaac himself (he is such a humble and generous man);

3) my love for his family (they are so beautiful and kind);

4) my experiences as a cinephile learning from Isaac in his film seminars at the Glen Workshop; and

5) my gratitude for his past films; and my desire to see him find greater and greater opportunities to make the movies that inspire him.

So, although I honestly wrestled with this every day of the last few months, I'm going to give this 2nd-Place on my list of favorites for 2020. Don't be surprised, though, if, in time, I bump it up to 1st Place.


1.
Nomadland

written and directed by Chloé Zhao

https://youtu.be/6sxCFZ8_d84

On the map of cinema, I never expected to find an intersection of Varda, Malick, and Sayles.

But here's Chloé Zhao with Nomadland — making a place that brings those influences together while she breaks new ground all her own. Infusing a real-world nomadic American community with just enough fiction to sculpt a narrative arc, and following actor Frances McDormand at her finest, Zhao's movie keeps us moving from place to place on the edges of American society, and in doing so it establishes a new point on the map for our moviegoing souls — a place to grieve together, to look and listen, and to love. It's a lonely place, and a costly one. But it offers views and encounters that you will never forget. What a magnificent world these filmmakers, taking inspiration from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, have discovered!

Here, Zhao builds on the strengths of The Rider and reveals that she is growing fast as a filmmaker. She already has a singular voice and vision as truthful and as beautiful as any in American filmmaking today. But the thing is... she's not an American filmmaker! She's Chinese. Sometimes, it takes a visitor to show us who we are. If someone can hold up such a clear and revealing mirror and speak the truth with love, well... that is a rare and priceless gift. I am grateful.

Nomadland is full of expressions of love — I don't know what else to call it — for the people Zhao discovers in her journeys and for the filmmakers whose distinctive visions have inspired and shaped her own. The two I thought about most were Malick and Varda. I caught what I think to be deliberate callbacks to The Tree of Life, Vagabond, and even The Gleaners and I. But the casting of David Straithairn as one of these wanderers may be a nod to Sayles's Limbo, another attentive and compassionate look at people compelled to live on the literal edge.

But I don't want to give the impression that this is pastiche. Zhao's way of making movies is unique, and her passion for honoring those who live on the road, in the in-between places, and out on the edges of things strikes me as a filmmaking form of Gospel.

This movie had me thinking about people I've met along the way who I can't stop thinking about, people who you aren't likely to meet because they tend to keep to themselves — not because they're running from something, not because they're introverts, not because of... anything simple. It had me thinking about Jesus and how he sought out and loved those who didn't fit anybody else's idea of "success" and honored them by serving them. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and right now I don't know that I trust any filmmaker to capture it more than I trust Zhao. I have a hard time imagining I'll see a film that moves me more powerfully this year.

P.S. I haven't said enough about Frances McDormand, who gives here the most exquisite performance of her extraordanary career so far.


This Is Chad Hartigan: a conversation with the director of "Little Fish"

Imagine this: a pandemic that attacks the memory.

The streets are crowded with people meandering and confused. Lines form at the hospital for experimental treatments. Conspiracy theories claim the government has the cure. And two young lovers, desperate to escape the debilitating effects of the virus, are trying to figure out how to save not only their lives but their love.

Jack O'Donnell is a masked man trying to save his mind from the effects of a pandemic in Little Fish.

In this hour-long "Master Shot" episode, focusing on the new sci-fi love story Little Fish, I consider why memory is on so many artists' minds right now.

And then I ask the Little Fish filmmaker himself: Chad Hartigan, the director of This Is Martin Bonner and Morris From America. We talk about what it was like to make a pandemic-focused movie just in time for a real pandemic; the themes emerging across Hartigan's growing filmography; and how the secret of making great art is — wait for it — love.

Olive Cooke, star of Ready Player One and Sound of Metal, tests her boyfriend's memory with careful questions in Little Fish.

Listen to our deep dive here:


Favorite Recordings of 2020: Part 3 (#20–#1)

[This post is dedicated to the Looking Closer Specialists — especially Laure Hittle, Timothy Grant, and Winston Chow — whose contributions make this website possible.]

The word for this year was survive.

The Holy Scriptures caution us that with increasing wisdom comes increasing pain, and that to love is to suffer. The wisest and most loving people I know in this world suffered each day of this year as if it were another destructive wave striking a ship that was broken beyond repair. Waves of troubling headlines crashed over us: "Liars are venerated, losers congratulated / Cheaters celebrated, thieves compensated / Vultures satiated, murderers exonerated / Guilty vindicated, innocent incarcerated…." (That how Lucinda Williams summed up 2020's news updates, anyway.) And in the ensuing chaos we would scramble to strengthen what remained, while precious resources — and sometimes even precious lives — were lost in the violence. As a pandemic conquered and occupied for a year, our leaders stifled the experts, lied to us, and failed us. As anti-American forces rose within our borders, they were praised, privileged, and promoted by our President and by many of our churches. Our planet, our nation, our communities, our churches, our families ... they are fractured, bleeding from open wounds.

I'm painting a grim picture. But to do anything else right now is dishonest and unhelpful. Only the Truth will set us free.

I began making year-end music lists when I was 13, during a time when music was my window to the world beyond my small, insulated, evangelical Christian world. It gave me a sense, in those early days, that God was alive and well and doing magnificent things out there in the world that I was being taught to avoid for its toxicity.

And I was right. Music led me into a larger, more wonderful world. Music introduced me to a far more powerful God than I had been taught to worship in fear and ignorance.

This year — the year I reached the half-century mark — I needed music more than ever before. I needed it for escape from the constant clamor of evils wreaking havoc in the world around me — particularly from those being violently unleashed by the very churchgoers who had told me to fear the world. I needed it as a liturgy and a lifeline, to keep my spirits from failing as a death-cult led by an Antichrist raged across this nation that I love. I needed music for reminders of grace, beauty, and truth. I needed music so that my faith in God would stand, while so many of the very people who had kindled that faith in my early years abandoned their own teachings of love and peace for self-centered impulses of fear, prejudice, and violence. I needed it for a sense of community, for the reassurance that the artists I love were also seeing what I was seeing. I needed to hear a Gospel sung by the enslaved and persecuted — authentic voices raising a truth hard-won — rather than an easy, unearned gospel sung by the privileged, the spoiled, and the ignorant. I needed lamentations sung by grieving, raging prophets. I needed the playfulness of the childlike who could cast off fears and find delight even in the valley of the shadow of death.

This is the third part of a three-part post about the music that inspired and sustained me in 2020. (Did you miss Part One and Part Two?) Here are the 20 albums I turned to most often for solace, for surprise, for cathartic anger, for necessary lament, for confession, for gratitude, for joy.

20.


Laura Marling — Songs for Our Daughter

You're all welcome to your Taylor Swift blockbusters. Even though she's 30, Swift's lyrics rarely remind me of anything more substantial than the self-absorbed and boyfriend-obsessed poetry that classmates of mine were writing as melancholy first-year college students. Little else seems to interest her. By contrast, I find 30-year-old Laura Marling's songs remind me of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Suzanne Vega. They're more compelling, more literate, and more mysterious, and her journey strikes me as far more fascinating. Swift — whose pop numbers are catchy and enjoyable, sure — seems 30 going on 22, while Marling is writing songs far beyond her years. It's worth noting that while we rarely see Swift less than magazine-cover-ready, Marling appears here sans makeup. It's a choice that's consistent with the sound of her music. Songs for My Daughter isn't my favorite of Marling's albums — not yet, anyway — but I found it so appealing for its glow of humility, honesty, and sincerity. It feels intimate, generous, human.

https://youtu.be/7sOsILN_VI0

https://youtu.be/slTkqwbXxrI

https://youtu.be/oOIxtDuLwSQ


19.

Buddy and Julie Miller — Lockdown Songs

I certainly wasn't expecting a new Buddy & Julie release this year — not so soon after their excellent 2019 album Breakdown on 20th Ave. South.

This is only an EP, but it's a knockout, opening with a ferocious (and may I say prophetic?) anthem of righteous anger "When You Go Down," and moving immediately to a reverent eulogy for the great Rep. John Lewis called "The Last Bridge You Will Cross." Steve Earle and the McCrary Sisters show up on the spirited "Let It Rain." And then Buddy and Julie — known to play secret shows under the moniker Blue Ponies — unflinchingly align themselves with forces for righteous change in protest songs about corrupt corporations, confederate statues, and police brutality against Black lives. There's even an easy but amusing retort to Trump's spectacular and tragic mishandling of the COVID crisis: "Public Service Song #2 — Concerning Bleach."

These songs aren't subtle, but they're cathartic in their plainspoken fury and faith-based hope. Songs like these could so easily be cheap and heavy-handed — but these are the kinds of crowd-stirring calls to action that can fire up an audience to go out and fearlessly do the right thing: vote.

Lockdown Songs will stand as a record of conscience and courage during some of America's darkest days.

https://youtu.be/RCKoNBDpPRk

https://youtu.be/MPCV_pAxeB0

https://youtu.be/H57RJGfgsdI


18.

Nada Surf — Never Not Together

"Holy math says we're never not together."

That's line from a Song Exploder interview with Justin Vernon. I like it a lot — just as I like a lot of the wisdom and conscience in the poetry of this big 2020 discovery.

I know I've heard Nada Surf before, but maybe I've really underestimated them. This is one of the best rock-band records I heard all year, one that recalls the ambitions of the best bands of the '80s and '90s (I'm thinking U2, REM, Arcade Fire, and even Death Cab for Cutie) by enhancing hook-driven pop with big-arena sounds from the electronic to the orchestral.

"I need a tow up to clear blue sky," sings Matthew Caws in "So Much Love," the opening track... and before I can agree with him, I find that he's already pulled me out of my own funk and carried me up into a brighter, more hopeful place. There is so much positivity here — not just wishful thinking or sweet nothings, but substantial U2-"Beautiful-Day" dreaming — that it plays like an antidote to the toxins in the context of its its 2020 release.

If you want to feel better, put this on, turn it up, and clear enough space for some dancing and fist-pumping.

https://youtu.be/SETkPwSEgNs

https://youtu.be/bOhVeka8Jag

https://youtu.be/vT9cxbO87ak


17.

2nd Grade — Hit to Hit

It's one of my favorite genres in music: Get a bunch of multi-talented musicians together; throw songs together fast; hop, skip, and jump around the map of rock and pop genres; save a lot of room for humor; and if you find a good hook, grab hold and don't let go.

That was the formula for my own improv-comedy band in college, and much of what I hear on Hit to Hit sounds a lot like the spirit that kept bringing us back together, again and again, to record hundreds and hundreds of songs. So this was both a fresh and exciting new band for me and a flashback to some of the best times I've ever had making or listening to music.

https://youtu.be/xUoJjdlSRwY

https://youtu.be/DBd_EUCaj0E

https://youtu.be/vKrzmpRuvXQ


16.

Jeff Tweedy — Love is the King

15.


Rose City Band — Summerlong

His name is Ripley Johnson. If you know the bands Wooden Shjips or Moon Duo (I don't), then you may recognize quite a bit of what's happening in Johnson's latest project: Rose City Band.

Johnson plays most of these dreamy, gauzy layers in a way that sounds impressively like an inspired chemistry of several veterans. It's a blissful, sunshine-y guitar-and-mandolin country-rock effort that, played live (if he could find the right collaborators), could easily expand into a set twice as long that gives the musicians time to jam, solo, and lounge in these semi-psychedelic riffs.

Add Rose City Band to my list of "bands" I find most promising. Johnson's songs lifted my spirits whenever I pressed play, making me long for a chance to sit on a summer lawn and listen to this guy love what he's playing.

Rose City Band would make an excellent double bill with Jeff Tweedy (or Wilco, for that matter).

Tweedy made the most of lockdown by doing his finest solo work yet by composing intimate, personal, testimonial songs and playing them with his sons. I often find Tweedy's lyrics cryptic to the point of being opaque and confounding. But here, he's surprisingly open and seemingly as contended as he's ever been. It was a reassuring sound this year.

I love the opening title track — but I am deeply moved by "Even I Can See," his meditation on how he may be meeting God quite specifically within the love of his patient and understanding partner.

https://youtu.be/XJeKACEzKmU

https://youtu.be/jKyKxzc7xQ4

https://youtu.be/YHklzxUtLh4

https://youtu.be/QW9Kwv_2Lcs


14.

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

Biggest jump toward Blockbuster Status this year? Easily Phoebe Bridgers, with this spectacular album that veers between Cat Power intimacy and Sufjan Stevens ginormity. This is the album most critics will always point back to as the Big Bridgers Breakthrough: the confidence, the ambition, the performances, the production — it's a fantastic package. And the sonic spectacle doesn't distract from the lyrics, which are strong (and troubling) all the way through. It's personal, its poetic, it's beautiful in its quiet moments, its riveting and even terrifying in its furious finale. While "Kyoto" is the big single and "I Know the End" is the moment all the critics are talking about, I'm most moved by the hushed expressions of longing in "Halloween."

It also has the most imaginative, impressive illustrated lyric book that comes with the vinyl package. I always have to spend some time with it while I'm listening.

If I have any frustrations about it, it's just how much each sounds like, well... a Phoebe Bridgers song. I'm not particularly surprised by anything except the production until that finale, which is one of the most exhilarating and cathartic moments of the music year.

https://youtu.be/Tw0zYd0eIlk

https://youtu.be/WJ9-xN6dCW4

https://youtu.be/bVZTMyQ3SsU

 


13.

Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman

The album that caught me with the most unshakeable hooks this year — that is to say, I found myself singing these song constantly — was, surprisingly, a folk record of standards played with sprightly, skillful guitars and piano. The unsurprising part? It's Anais "Hadestown" Mitchell, one of my favorite singer/songwriters in America today, in the territory she loves so much: history, mythology, and Gospel. She's working with Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, and while I would love nothing more than a new Mitchell solo record, I'm loving their chemistry as a trio.

Here's an excerpt from Pitchfork's review by Grayson Haver Currin:

There are references to bygone wars and the bounty of a father’s garden, to the Biblical parable of prisoners Paul and Silas and the folk heroism of John Henry. If you’ve listened at all to English, Irish, or Appalachian folk music or any of their many revivals, you’ll spot familiar archetypes and icons. But Bonny Light Horseman gently cut these songs free from aging roots, transplanting them to the present."

Currin spotlights the revised version of the Napoleon-focused title track: "This version excoriates all-powerful leaders who dispatch the powerless to their death; as strongmen worldwide foment new nationalism, her rendition feels as much like a warning as a plea.

Timely and relevant, as they say.

https://youtu.be/OdgkBnxGZvY

https://youtu.be/GuG6iIr4uaY


12.

This is the Kit — Off Off On

Kate Stables' last This is the Kit record, Moonshine Freeze, was my favorite of 2017. It was such a surprise, such a fresh new sound in folk-pop: the musicianship so precise, the rhythms so layered and crisscrossing, the lyrics as playful (and as dark) as nursery rhymes. And lo, here she's working with the producer of the Bonny Light Horseman album I just described: Josh Kaufman. There's so much sprightly creativity in both the performances and the production, Kaufman may as well count as a member of the band.

While most reviews are calling this a stronger album — and I agree that, in some ways, it is — it also suggests that a This is the Kit song is a *type* of song. I'm worried that the band's work is going to become somewhat predictable.

But that's a quibble. Few albums have even a couple of songs as creatively complicated as these.

https://youtu.be/JVLCDNrQfdE

https://youtu.be/ArZTeT-Bh_c

https://youtu.be/y7Sh_Ic_2V4


11.

Run the Jewels — RTJ4

"Say their names!" The rallying cry continued, at the end of 2020, to crescendo like the orchestral tidal wave of anxiety at the end of the Beatles' "Day In the Life," amplified by the flagrant murder of George Floyd and the obscene killing of Breonna Taylor by police. Remarkably, the cry began to ring out from work beyond Black artists — it spread as a million memes; it resonated in the chants of peaceful protests; it inspired a Buddy and Julie Miller song; and it energized a stirring performance of a Janelle Monae song by David Byrne in his American Utopia show.

But that wave was, in fact, a phenomenon of people catching up as latecomers to causes and grievances that have been driving the laments of Black voices for decades. And so, before it's too late, it's time for a much wider (and whiter) audience in America to get over their phobic avoidance of Black art, and their prudish flinching at "harsh language" while they ignore their complicity in Black suffering.

Time to listen to the voices of experience.

This year, nobody raged, ranted, and lamented with more detail, more authority, more imagination, and, yes, more *humor* than El-P and Killer Mike, a partnership known as Run the Jewels.

I'm not enough of a hip-hop scholar to get into the influences and stylistic subtleties of the diverse sounds on this album. Nor can I speak with experience about the long list of important collaborators and guests — save one: The great Mavis Staples makes an appearance in "Pulling the Pin" as they decry "filthy criminals...at the pinnacle."

But I am riveted by the richly layered, literate, and sophisticated testimonies and confessions here. These lines are so spectacularly agile and inspired that Neil Z. Yeung at AllMusic.com claims the album "provides relevant history lessons that are more useful than a classroom textbook." And they're peppered with clever pop culture references in ways both eloquent and surprising, highlighting the pair's formative 1980s childhoods ("Goonies vs. E.T."). In "ooh la la," Killer Mike expresses a sense of desperation brought on by the relentless devaluation of Black lives and protests:

I used to love Bruce, but livin’ my vida loca
Helped me understand I’m probably more of a Joker
When we usher in chaos, just know that we did it smiling
Cannibals on this island, inmates run the asylum.

The music backs up that sense, often reaching such a chaotic intensity of organic and electronic sounds that what we hear resembles a car crashing so hard that it tumbles end over end down a freeway without stopping.

In "Walking in the Snow," Killer Mike raps some of the lines I find most personally convicting — lines written with the murder of Eric Garner in mind, but it's remarkable how they rightfully instruct us over the murder of George Floyd:

And everyday on the evening news they feed you fear for free,
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me.
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper ‘I can’t breathe’
And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.

As if that doesn't jab my conscience enough, they seize the moment to call out the hypocrisy of so many professing Christians, reminding me of the name I am so quick to claim as the foundation and motivation of all that I do: "All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves / Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state."

What to do, then, besides promoting solid journalism and express solidarity with the suffering? That's for each of us to decide. For me, the energy of conscience, rage, shame, and hope is finding a shape in teaching and writing, for starters. But I have a long way to go. I'm grateful for the difficult, demanding, but ultimately meaningful work that these major prophets of our time are doing in the minds and hearts of those with ears to hear.

For listeners like me have grown up with privilege that I have only begun to realize and reckon with, this kind of a record can be hard work, abrasive, and deeply unsettling. But that's not any fault of the artists — they're testifying of the hardships that people like me have — either in ignorance or aggression — forced them to suffer. They're speaking the truth. In doing so, I hope that their art is bringing comfort to the afflicted, because it is certainly afflicting the comfortable in meaningful ways.

https://youtu.be/GG8LcqR1kqw

https://youtu.be/vYPIOaqNlyg

https://youtu.be/_DFypFVnSS0


10. (How about a four-way tie?)

Gillian Welch — Boots No. 2, The Lost Songs (Vol. 1, 2, 3)
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings — All the Good Times

https://youtu.be/ALs3-Kkom3o

https://youtu.be/HaWmhAZzQFU

https://youtu.be/JYQj-xqU67c

https://youtu.be/f4DUnS3w4sY

 

Yes, I'm cheating — because I can. Four albums have tied for this position because I don't know how to break them up, and they all blur together for me as a spectacular four-part contribution to American music released all in one year.

In July, the official Gillian Welch Instagram account posted this update:

"For reasons better discussed in the history books, in the Spring of 2020 Gillian and I dusted off an old tape machine and did some home recording. Sometimes we bumped the microphone, sometimes the tape ran out, but in the end we captured performances of some songs we love. Five are first takes and five took a little more doing, but they all helped pass the time and held our interest in playback enough that we wanted to share them with you. We sincerely hope that you enjoy “ALL THE GOOD TIMES."

Now... that's just unfair. This duo's first takes are so strong, it can make you crazy imagining what kind of masterpieces they might be capable of if they really threw their backs into it.

Covering 10 folks songs old and new — including numbers by Bob Dylan (“Abandoned Love,” "Senor"), John Prine (“Hello in There”), Elizabeth Cotten “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”, dear old Johnny and June (“Jackson”) — they offer a pandemic-lockdown house concert in their own home. But if you didn't know they were covers, you'd swear they were originals drawn from the same well of timeless and seemingly effortless artistry that these two have become known for.

But I haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet.

If they got good stuff out of lockdown, wait until you hear the treasure they stole from a Tennessee tornado last March. As storms annihilated homes, tore out trees, and killed 25 souls, Welch and Rawlings risked life and limb to save equipment, writing, and master tapes from their own legendary Woodland Studio. The building flooded; the music survived. And this convinced them — for the good of the world — to stop hiding so much light under a music studio bushel: They began releasing archival recordings one batch at a time, giving us a three-volume bootleg series that literally doubled the amount of original work they've ever released.

And it is extraordinary stuff.

I'm most fond of Volume 3, but I'm sure this will be an endless debate amongst fans. It doesn't matter — the collection is outstanding, and even more impressive for the fact that Welch and Rawlings ripped through these songs, culling inspiration from a mountain of notebooks, in one weekend just to fulfill a recording contract so they could move on to new material. You can read the whole story in this Pitchfork article.


9.

Waylon Payne — Blue Eyes, The Harlot,
The Queer, The Pusher & Me

It's a rare country record that resonates far beyond the familiar territory of lost love, hard times, and love of the homeland. But this one has its roots deep in Johnny Cash confessionals and prayers of hope for last-minute salvation. These narratives have the ring of truth from a cracked and tarnished bell. "Sins of the Father" rocks and hooks and stands out as a clear single, but most of the album is mellower and more introspective. I can imagine other artists with bigger, more soulful voices covering these songs in the future, but that's not a jab at Payne's pained vocals, which are full of character and texture. And I am, of course, moved by the sincerity of the gospel threads that glimmer throughout, as many of these stories are framed with a heart awakening with conscience and an eye on eternity.

https://youtu.be/3FXujeMjo2o

https://youtu.be/V_3ZCvF8bwQ


8.

Brian Blade, Christian McBride,
Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman — RoundAgain

Simply the most joyous and spectacularly synchronous musicianship I heard all year. This outfit has been tight since 1994, although this is my introduction to them as a quartet. (Back in the '90s, I was seeing both Brian Blade *and* his brother Brady with different major live acts.) It sounds like four-way intuition of the best kind, from the cheerful to the wistful, without ever becoming showy. It's like the musical equivalent of the ideal friendship. And when my spirits were low — and they were weighed down on a daily basis this year by the constant background noise of human cruelty — I often turned to this well of inspiration. It always did my heart good. And man-oh-man, did it make me miss the jazz clubs in which I used to read and write during my college years.

I'm fondest of the imaginative and consistently surprising reinvention of "The Way You Look Tonight" in the third track, "Silly Little Love Song." Want to dance with your sweetheart in the kitchen? This is my favorite date-night track of the year.

https://youtu.be/kRr8Q43ejGk

https://youtu.be/i-bDMvvfCZQ


7.–8. (tie)

Image may contain: 1 person, standingThe Secret Sisters — Saturn Return
Elizabeth Cook — Aftermath

Hmm. How to choose here? I've tried to pairing up albums by different artists in numerical ties here... but due to an error in revising my rough-draft list, I had both of these listed at #7... and, well, I now realize that I can't figure out how to separate them. It was a surprisingly strong year for substantial Americana/country music, and these were, for me, the cream of the country crop.

Elizabeth Cook gives us her best record yet: bold and blistering new country-rock for 2020, alive with attitude, ambitious with U2-level arena-rock bombast, and a heavy-lyrics confidence that demands to be reckoned with. Alabama's Secret Sisters give us their best record yet: A vintage Americana act that some how avoids sounding "retro" by equaling and maybe surpassing the acts they bring to mind, with stellar harmonies, and Gospel soul that sounds like sweet medicine to me at the end of a punishing, soul-bruising year.

We recently watched Saturn and Jupiter align in a way that teased us with apocalyptic implications, so the title seems right on time: Saturn Return suggests a new beginning, which might refer to the Secret Sisters' new experience of motherhood, the loss of their grandmothers, or a commitment to standing strong in a time when strong women are under verbal and political assault from America's top echelons of power. Few artists start out with a boost from producer T Bone Burnett and then go on to do even better work after he launches them — that first collaboration is usually the peak. But The Secret Sisters just keep shining brighter, and this is easily my favorite of their records.

Cook's Aftermath teases pop divas who sing unpersuasively about pain, noting that they've "never had their heart slammed in a door." By contrast, her pain sounds real, but this isn't miserabalism — it's motivating, showing us that anybody who's hurt these characters in the past had better watch out for the missiles of righteous anger and truth-telling heading their way. I love the opening stomp-rocker "Bones"; the blissful layers of power pop in "Perfect Girls of Pop"; and the blistering defense of "Half Hanged Mary" (a woman who survived hanging in the 1680s for being a "witch"). And then there's the sweet, funny, and provocative tribute to "Thick Georgia Women." But the most intriguing song comes last, which PopMatters critic describes as follows: "The album's funniest song works as a tribute to John Prine. He wrote an imaginative song about Jesus' missing years. She creatively addresses Jesus' mother and her 'submissing years; with a wry panache that would make the Singing Mailman proud."

https://youtu.be/x3acSKlelJk

https://youtu.be/bAFyqfH36v0

https://youtu.be/hlGYypNDUbI

https://youtu.be/eeWtjx4XAJk

https://youtu.be/hmW6mE12zSo

https://youtu.be/qRZkH1Q6lZE

 


6.

Jarv Is... — Beyond the Pale

People have opinions about Jarvis Cocker, it seems. I confess, I missed out on Pulp fever somehow; I was only aware of a couple of the band's popular singles. And I haven't followed him since, save to notice him incarnate as a troubadour within the world of Wes Anderson's stop-motion animation (The Fantastic Mr. Fox).

But I happened to hear a track from this album early in the year, and there was something about its Bowie-esque ambitions, its Leonard-Cohen-as-art-rocker vocals, its irresistible beats, its layers of cosmic sonic experimentation, its joyously singable hooks that brought me back again and again, and its relentless capacity for *surprise* — I still feel like I've only scratched the surface of all that this album has to offer.

It took a while to realize that one of the album's prevailing themes is about surrendering to the inevitable disintegration of getting old. Do I love this album because this is how I want to feel going forward from my 50th birthday? "Do something new, or do something else!" he sings in my favorite track, "Am I Missing Something?" And I want to roar in affirmation. And then, in "Save the Whale" — "Embrace the darkness and all that it entails / Move beyond the pale."

And don't overlook the wickedly clever rhymes: "G-damn this claustrophobia! / I should be disrobin' ya!"

I hope Cocker feels at home with this new group and this new moniker: I would like a library of records this creative, ambitious, and strange.

https://youtu.be/RNFPFXAxhhw

https://youtu.be/U720Rz_jz_A

https://youtu.be/-12woUG3bEk


5.

Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways

When I first heard "Murder Most Foul" — Bob Dylan's longest, most layered, most complicated song in a long career of literary lyricism — I was deeply disturbed. I began to sense true prophecy in Dylan's work way back in the '80s — and I was a latecomer to sensing that significance in his work even then. Listening to this song now — this meditation on the nature of corruption at the very roots of American history, and its focus on the assassination of Kennedy as the turning point when it became clear that the ideals and dreams of America's promise would always be kept out of reach by the what Yeats calls the "passionate intensity" of "the worst" — I felt as if the prophet's poetry might speak powerfully into this present and historic trouble, as America teeters on the brink of a second civil war.

He might be anticipating, as I am, how the Antichrist President of 2016–2020 has stoked flames of long-simmering hatreds so high that no subsequent President will be likely to live long past Inauguration Day.

I pray I'm wrong.

But even as I write this, a man carrying fake Inauguration credentials and tons of ammo has just been arrested. [UPDATE: 24 hours later, *another* person has been arrested for the same thing.]

And just two weeks ago, our nation's most sacred sanctuary was raped; Trump supporters besieged our temple of Democracy, paraded through its corridors with Confederate flags, aggressively sought to apprehend and assassinate members of Congress and the Vice President, and literally squatted down and crapped on its floors.

So far, while Democrats try to recover from near-executions, Republicans are suddenly calling for the very "unity" they've actively opposed for many years, rather than demanding the accountability that is our only hope for meaningful progress. A few arrests have been made — that is all. Rumors and evidence of further conspiracies and plans for violence are everywhere.

While others count down the last days of Trump's presidency, I find myself preparing my heart for the heaviest blows yet, praying for the best but bracing myself for the worst. American history shows that the leaders who have a vision of an America finally repenting of racism are the leaders who end up dead.

Wait... isn't this review supposed to be about the new Dylan album?

I've only referenced one song here so far — the grand finale, the weary epilogue, the eulogy for an America so capable of imaginative genius and so much more capable of lies, idolatry, hatred, and destruction. It's sung with such love for the vision lost, such world-weariness and grief, and yet the lasting tone is one of gratitude for the fleeting glimmers of glory along the way. Things may be coming apart in these latter days, but we cannot deny that the Gospel has been proclaimed, the Gospel has been sung, even in the darkest chapters of this sordid history.

What comes before "Murder Most Foul" on Rough and Rowdy Ways is a tapestry of references religious, mythological, historical, and plucked from pop culture. It's full of self-knowledge ("I Contain Multitudes") and self-effacement ("False Prophet"). It revels in gratitude and tributes to the icons who have inspired Dylan's work. It is extravagant in it allusions, rhyming "Rolling Stones" and "Indiana Jones" as if both are equally real in their historical importance.

In fact, it's hard for me to attend to one song over another here. They all feel like part of one last epic-but-intimate American opera playing out in Dylan's imagination, as if his whole American life is flashing before his eyes. Just a few weeks ago — but it feels like years, in view of 2020's relentlessly punishing events — we heard retired-and-pardoned General Michael Flynn urging President Trump to "cross the Rubicon," referring to the moment Julius Caesar sparked the the Roman civil war and became a dictator. Soon afterward, Trump's minions answered the call and defiled the Capitol in a show of violence, arrogance, and privilege, actually committing the crimes they've accused civil rights protestors of committing. In view of that, it's hard for me to hear Dylan's 2020 song "Crossing the Rubicon" as just another poetic flourish about the singer's readiness to slip this mortal coil. It sounds more like a song from the point of view of someone losing his soul, having made one compromise too many. It sounds like Bowie's "Man Who Sold the World," the Judas who boasts instead of confessing: "I prayed to the cross / I kissed the girls / And I crossed the Rubicon." Yes, he did — this present Antichrist paid lip-service to Jesus, went on exploiting women, and went then went into full authoritarian mode. Dylan sees it all as if he's already reading — already writing — the history book on this.

Why, then, if this album is such a rich and rewarding peak in Dylan's legendary career, is it only #5 on my list of 2020 favorites?

That's about the music itself. Here, the band is brilliantly cohesive in providing the place settings for these generous servings of storytelling and poetry. But I'm not hearing the kind of musical imagination that would make the *sounds* of the album more than handsome frames from the documents of Dylan's playful and profound reflections. What moves me in the world of music is much more than lyrics. I love, well... music.

Anyway... with respect to Childish Gambino, this — THIS — is America. And I'm inclined to say that Dylan sees it with greater clarity and vision than any artist in any mode of American art-making. These may not be his greatest songs if we're considering their musicianship or whether or not people are likely to be singing them in 20 years. But they are his most sophisticated weave of poetry, and the greatest work of literature I heard all year.

https://youtu.be/3NbQkyvbw18

https://youtu.be/pgEP8teNXwY

https://youtu.be/r3stG270JaM

https://youtu.be/W-DG3g-ggdg


4.

Lucinda Williams — Good Souls Better Angels

Bad news hangin’ in the air
Bad news layin’ on the ground
Bad news walkin’ up the stairs
Bad news all around...

Feels like 2020, yes?

After my first listen to Lucinda Williams' 15th album on my morning commute, I started it again and posted this on Facebook: "This record is exactly what I needed. I'm blasting through it a second time on the home stereo. So cathartic. And I haven't heard guitars this righteously angry since U2 at their peak."

These aren't the subtlest, most sophisticated lyrics of Williams's career – far from it. But in a year like 2020, when your own nation's character is being stripped to pieces, when your own nation's dignity is being burned to the ground by a treasonous and self-centered President, you need a way to release your rightful rage without throwing fuel on the fires violence. You need to cry out in anguish. You need to lament. You need to pray like Jeremiah: "Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the treacherous thrive?"

You need to speak the truth about your assailants without stooping to their evil tactics. And she does. She laments:

Liars are venerated, losers congratulated
Cheaters celebrated, thieves compensated
Vultures satiated, murderers exonerated
Guilty vindicated, innocent incarcerated...

And she stares down a man manifesting the spirit of Antichrist:

You are a man without truth
A man of greed, a man of hate
A man of envy and doubt
You’re a man without a soul.

It's one thing when a simple, emotional songwriter in pop or in metal says something like that. It's another when a poet as perceptive and as careful with words does it.

To cast out a devil, you have to name him. She's naming the devil in the lyrics, and in doing so, the hot light of her righteous anger illuminates and reveals not only the devil but those who serve him.

Likewise, the band is using a language of suffering, a language of turmoil, and naming the devil with fearsome eloquence. Their music — including the instrument of Williams' voice, which has never been stronger, and the Edge-like guitar solos of Stuart Mathis — expresses the grief and the rage I felt every day of 2020, every day of the last five years. Their music, in expressing the truth, gives me a reassuring sense of company, a reminder that in God's time it will all be made right, It affirms for me that the glory of beauty and Gospel will every remain beyond the reach of liars and cheaters and fascists. The enemy's songs are feeble and foolish. They can't take away or even touch the Kingdom of God so long as their hands are busy scheming, stealing, and doing harm. No, the Kingdom can be given only to those whose hands are open in humble hope for God's provision, who hands reach out to one another with mercy, who receive the suffering brought down on them whether they know or not that Christ is there beside them, that he is already revealing how empty and worthless the "power" of the wicked really is.

Williams may still regard Christian faith with skepticism. (And who can blame her, considering the contradictions and hypocrisy that professing Christians are showing the world right now?) But just as Bob Dylan reminds us that "You've Gotta Serve Somebody," she picks up where that leaves off, calling out her would-be Masters and declaring "You Can't Rule Me." She is singing from a place of conscience alongside the poor, the abused, the neglected, the oppressed, the unjustly maligned. She, in an inadvertent imitation of Christ, prays Psalms for and with the persecuted, not compromising to stand with persecutors or revel in her privilege.

This album, in all of its righteous rage, is a timely consolation.

https://youtu.be/ZoC-0pihuVw

https://youtu.be/3dCgux3O1tM

https://youtu.be/272voTjeHy4


3.

Loma — Don't Shy Away

The top three spots on my list have changed almost every day of the last month as I've listened and argued with myself. And I may change my mind again. But for now, well... here's the most satisfying conclusion I've been able to reach...

Loma's Don't Shy Away is even better than the trio's debut record. It's also the most enchantingly beautiful album musically I heard all year. No doubt about it, this is the 2020 album I will play most often in the future. So, in that sense... it could be #1!

I'd say more, but I wrote extensively about the album already at Looking Closer at this link.

https://youtu.be/oq5X2G5qKQI

https://youtu.be/JkDXIcpQs2Q

https://youtu.be/gY-DfCFR7Fo


2.

Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

For the homemade-ness of it.

For the most inventive and resourceful percussion on a pop record I've heard since 1987's The Turning by Leslie (Sam) Phillips.

For the fact that it's an album full of righteous anger and defiance, and yet is also so full of obvious joy and creative inspiration.

For the time Fiona Apple takes — and this is a big deal to me, a characteristic of many of my favorite records of all time — to explore the possibilities of each song, and the willingness to let them morph from one thing into another, constantly changing up the instrumentation while boldly holding to catchy, singable melodies.

For the punctuation of laughter.

For the obviousness of the patience and the labor of love that this album was for Apple. She took her time for years on these songs, willing to disappear from the headlines and the hit parade until she had something that was ready, something that would stand the test of time.

Here's what I posted on Facebook back April when I first heard this record:

The Holy Scriptures tell us that the sins of the fathers (or, rather, those with the responsibility of parental and governing power) extend to the sons (or the next generation) and beyond. This can be read many ways. I think it's wrong to ever read God as making horrible threats: "If you're bad, I'm going to punish your kids." That contradicts any claim that God is Love. But it does make me think about how the hatreds and unloving behaviors of the Authority will be learned, imitated, and carried on by the Apprentice, to the harm of others and everything, most of all the one committing the sin.

On her new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple sings: "Evil is a relay sport / When the one who's burned / Turns to pass the torch...."

Then, yearning to escape the curse of receiving violence and turning it into violence of her own, she sings: "But I know if I hate you for hating me / I will have entered the endless race...."

And at the end of this incredible song, she sings with longing: "Wipe it all away / Wipe it all away / I used to go to the Ferris wheel every morning / Just to throw my anger out the door...."

What an incredible image.

Dig a little deeper — read her interview at Vulture (CAUTION: F-BOMBS GALORE) and you read these amazing words:

"I wrote the line 'Evil is a relay sport, when the one you burn turns to pass the torch' when I was 15. I just always liked it. [If] you get burned by somebody, when the person who burns you doesn’t acknowledge it — which rarely happens to people, acknowledging when they’ve burned you — it turns into you not knowing what to do with it. Then you just put it on somebody else. The assault when I was 12 made me think about innocence and guilt and forgiveness. It made me think about a lot of big things. Because the first thing I did after it happened was pray for him. But you can’t stop at praying for them. You have to hold them responsible."

https://youtu.be/yM63Tzv-uZg

https://youtu.be/OI1KfJTrixQ

https://youtu.be/Htumn1dIgYs


1.


Sault — Untitled (Black is)
Sault — Untitled (Rise)

Has a record — or, in this case, two records — ever represented the year of release more perfectly? I'd be hard-pressed to think of an example. And yet, I'm going to go on listening to both of these — particularly Untitled (Black is) — for many years to come.

  • Because these records play like the soundtrack of the greatest civil rights movement — not just in American history, but in all nations poisoned by white supremacy.
  • Because these artists are a community of creativity modeling brotherhood and sisterhood, and calling us to march non-violently despite the relentless and ongoing violence that is brought against them.
  • Because, in spite of the fact that these records exist due to generations of Satanic injustice, they are joyful, creative, life-affirming, God-honoring, and radiant with love from beginning to end.
  • Because it would be easy to write these records off as "protest music" merely preaching a message. But no — the music is fantastic, wide-ranging, funky, fiery, danceable, and often downright gorgeous.
  • Because I value the element of surprise in music so much, and though I've heard both records all the way through several times, I am still delighting in surprises
  • Because if we don't agree to affirm that "Black lives matter," then we are, in our silence, complicit in the system racism that has made such an affirmation necessary. If we brush off this cry, we are closing our ears to our neighbors who are suffering — still suffering after America made a promise of liberation that has never really been fulfilled.If you don't understand the movement, you have not been paying attention. Jesus stands with the poor and the oppressed, and while these records are not addressing American racism exclusively, it's clear that, in America, no community has suffered more injustice than Black Americans. At times it seems that the persecution will never end, but it is empowered by pride and ignorance and the idolatrous idealization of a "past" when America was supposedly "great" — a past that is a fantasy, believed in by those who aggressively deny rampant corruption.To say "Black lives matter" is to love your neighbor. It is to favor the injured hand, to attend to its radiating signals of pain, to love it into healing and wholeness.