Strange Negotiations (2019)

In the opening scene of filmmaker Brandon Vedder's documentary Strange Negotiations, as the buzzing bass of David Bazan's song "Impermanent Record" pulses with grim resilience, we find ourselves seeing through a drone's camera eye high in the air above a stretch of I-5, the freeway vertically bisecting the screen and vanishing at the top into a fog bank.

Those cars and trucks descending on the right, ascending on the left, might be angels on a rungless Jacob's Ladder, silent as souls. Or they might be images of Protestant proposals about heaven and hell. But does this path lead to someplace heavenly? Those clouds are less than bright; they look more like a frontier of uncertainty, a place people go to get lost.

It's an effective stage-setting for the drama that's about to unfold. Strange Negotiations is about an artist we cannot discuss without bringing up the toxins that have poisoned evangelical Christianity in America. And before long, Vedder will slant those lines, giving us a sense of how this poet's understanding of faith has tilted off of its axis.

If, during the last 25 years, you've lived in the world of rock, or, if you've lived in the world of Christian pop culture, you will already know the outline of this story: David Bazan became a rising rock star when he fronted Seattle's beloved band Pedro the Lion in late '90s and early 2000s, singing about Christian ideals, religious hypocrisy, and a yearning for an authentic faith. Then, he disbanded Pedro in 2006 and made a startling departure from the stage that this distinctive band had built, declaring that he didn't believe in Christianity anymore. His belief, it seemed, had been broken by the relentless contradictions between what Christians profess and what they actually do. The Scriptural mantra "You will know them by their fruits" had led him, as it has led so many recent generations of young Americans, to the conclusion that the fruit of Christianity, at least in America, is rotten.

Since then, Bazan's spent 15 years zigzagging around the country on solo tours, releasing solo records, and starting up collaborative side projects like Headphones and Lo Tom. Every step of the way he has borne the burden of those betrayals by people who had taught him that they believed in love. And ever since he left the name Pedro the Lion behind, the names on the covers of his albums and concert posters have seemed almost inconsequential. What has kept listeners — believers, agnostics, and atheists alike — coming back has been the ongoing saga of Bazan's wrestling match with the angel of American evangelicalism, as well as his raw and rigorous self-examinations in verse. These conflicts are boldly and bravely expressed in his beleaguered baritone, one of the few voices that has ever raised the words Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and sounded worthy of the task. The main attraction has become more about a struggle than a sound, more about a man haunted by the Jesus he left behind than about hits or show business.

In this intimate portrait, Vedder puts us in the passenger seat of Bazan's car on "the 137th day on the road in 2015," as he drives around America performing shows in fans’ living rooms and engaging in emotional Q&A sessions about his beliefs, his family, and his "breakup with God." His face is a compelling subject for the camera: a canvas fraught with anger, grief, regret, and longing. His rugged forehead is furrowed with world-weariness, his expression wounded and yet resilient, his eyes vigilant tot he road as if determined to find some exit toward relief.

As the scenery rolls past, he describes how the demands of this career have separated him from his family, his journey becoming a manifestation of that famous U2 refrain "I can't live / with or without you." "I'm on the road all of the time," he says, his composure almost crumbling. "I recently realized I was gone two years and nine months of my son's first five years on earth. Over half."

Even more prominently, he gives voice to the challenges of navigating a darkening world after having thrown the imperfect compass of his Christianity out the window. "I want Christianity to get better," he tells a crowded living room. "I want it to quit shittin’ the bed." These monologues in the car and the exchanges with his fans are occasionally sewn together with montages of radio news and NPR stories about Bazan himself. Inevitably, he ends up berating the abominable marriage of evangelical leaders and Antichrist con man Donald Trump.

"Until the [2016] election," Bazan eventually laments, "I was under the impression that the white American church was not a lost cause. I thought I saw it maturing and evolving.... But the fruit that showed up on the tree was, for me, very much the 'cut the damn thing down and throw it in the fire' kind of fruit. For everything Christians claim to believe, the election, I think, laid bare what they actually believe. They reliably work against the best virtues of their tradition. The people who taught me how to be a decent person are losing their minds."

The prodigal troubadour also describes how his traveling road show became a journey of self-discovery and re-invention, his intimate performances for fans revealing that "vulnerability was the antidote for all of this anxiety and self-loathing."

That vulnerability is what makes the film so fascinating. I was particularly delighted to see excerpts of Bazan's onstage conversation with my friend David Dark, one of the most provocative conversationists I've ever met, and then doing an interview with another Christian author and musician whose insights I appreciate: Justin McRoberts. Bazan's willingness to engage and embrace those who still believe and those who don't in the very same living rooms is a model of behavior that few Christians I know could carry off so effortlessly.

I doubt that Strange Negotiations will unpack many surprises for Bazan's fans, Christians or otherwise. He's worn his broken heart on his lyric sheets so brazenly that his frankness has become his most familiar feature. I may have hoped for more historical background, more specifics on the influences that inspired Bazan's doubts. I may have hoped for a greater focus on musicianship and performances of full songs. But the movie might lead his Christian fans and friends to reflect on how the power of love — or what I would call, more specifically, the True Holy Spirit — often speaks most powerfully through the music of those who have enough distance from the church that they can see it clearly and proclaim uncomfortable truths.

And lest I paint too grim a picture of this testimony of torment, let me assure you that you'll find glimmers of hope breaking through those relentless Pacific Northwest rainclouds.

Watching the film a second time, I could not help but think about the disheartened men who away from the sight of Jesus's death hanging their heads, despairing, believing that their Messiah has failed and that the bad guys have won. But when these men, their faith in shambles, nevertheless invite a stranger to dine with them, they realize suddenly that it is Jesus in their midst. They are blessed by his breaking of the bread, and the sequence is significant: He blesses their goodness and turns their simple meal into sacraments without requiring any apology or formal recommitment first. I feel that flash of recognition and restored hope when Bazan, at the end of the film, reaches for new terms to express his sense of a Grand Design: "What if the divine is just balance and harmony itself? In harmony... that’s where you experience transcendence." It's as if he is tasting salvation in a new vocabulary, having too much trauma associated with his first language.

Bazan finds the vocabulary of America's churches too toxic to accept — that much is clear as he drives headlong into the fog of his uncertainties. (And, in view of how many professing Christians now openly endorse practices of cruelty, racism, misogyny, and child abuse, who can blame him?) But in his honesty and sacrifice, he reveals what a life touched by a true Gospel might look like. His open arms are a picture of Jesus's own teachings, one more visceral and inspiring than many — if not most — celebritiy "testimonies." I continue to admire him, and I am grateful for this intimate filmic portrait, which is as honest, as earnest, and as soul-searching as David Bazan himself.

[Full disclosure: While I wouldn’t call Bazan a “close friend,” it’s true that he lives a few minutes from me and we’ve had quite a few conversations in local coffeehouses. I'd been a fan of Pedro the Lion for years before that first encounter in a local cafe, where I had trouble containing my enthusiasm. (That beautiful Zu Cafe in Edmonds, Washington, has been closed for quite a while now.)  We would have several conversations in years to come in that space of gourmet espresso drinks and exquisite French pastries. The day he greeted me with an enormous grin and announced No Country for Old Men to be his new favorite film is an occasion I’ll never forget.]


Knife in the Water (1962)

This is only my second attempt at this 500-words-or-less film-review format. What can I accomplish within stricter constraints? This will be give me practice in saying more with less — good exercise for any writer.


A few thoughts on
Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water

[Watched on Criterion's Essential Arthouse DVD edition.]

My recent preoccupation with Rian Johnson's Knives Out has me thinking about movies that cultivate suspense and then consistently deliver solid surprises. And — speaking of knives being out — I've just caught up with Roman Polanski's legendary 1962 breakout thriller Knife in the Water, which does exactly that.

I've seen other thrillers set on small boats at sea. 1989's Dead Calm comes to mind as a memorably jarring jaunt, even though I haven't seen it in more than 25 years. But Knife in the Water has got to be the gold standard: A drifter thumbs a ride from a couple on their way out for a day of leisurely sailing in their swimsuits, and eventually — in perhaps the film's most implausible turn — he gets himself invited aboard.

I'm not usually interested in watching two men try to out-man each other to impress a pretty girl, but this gets much more complicated than that. Every single scene ratchets up the suspense for... what? Will the stranger kill the man? Will he seduce the woman? We expect the hitcher's knife to end up in somebody's throat. We expect a hostage situation. But what we get unfolds slowly in a dance of brash boasts, subtle insults, and uncomfortable silences.

Striking visual composition, like this over-the-shoulder shot, amplifies claustrophobia and tension in Polanski's groundbreaking thriller.

Testing our patience as Andrzej, the overbearingly arrogant alpha, Leon Niemczyk's huge face and fearsome teeth are asking to be punched. As the twitchy, wounded wanderer, Zygmunt Malanowicz gives a sensually unsettling performance; it's a role a young Ewan McGregor would have rocked in a remake. Jolanta Umecka makes the alluring Krystyna quietly fascinating — she seems at first to be a blank-headed passenger, a willing audience for Andrzej's abrasive vanity; but as the film progresses, we wonder if she's trapped and eager for an escape. Whatever the case, the stranger seems like he might just seduce them both.

I won't give away the film's sudden turns, but by the end I'm uncomfortable with Krystyna's character. She seems a little too content to play a trophy, a little too willing to endure abuse as men compete for her attention. Checking Rotten Tomatoes, I'm disappointed that all of the linked reviews are by men; I'd like a woman's perspective on this one.

Still, it's a thrilling brain teaser, boldly crafted. Jerzy Lipman's cinematography is full of surprises, sometimes as detail-oriented as a primer on how to manage a sailboat, sometimes startlingly artful. (Watch for the God's-eye shot that turns the stranger into a religious icon.) Editor Halina Prugar's juxtapositions are brilliantly subversive, calibrated to make us brace frequently for shocks, shocks that rarely arrive. It's easy, with all of the visual cleverness, to overlook the subtly affecting sound design. Shifts in weather and waves amplify the characters' isolation and vulnerability. Then, at the peak of tension, well... sometimes, the soft rustle of wind in a sail is the only musical score you need.


A Hidden Life (2019)

In A Hidden Life, the masterful, influential, and divisive director Terrence Malick brings his visually sumptuous and poetically complicated cinematic vocabulary to an epic poem in honor of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a man who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. A poem? Perhaps it's better to call it a symphony — it's almost impossible to resist musical terminology when describing Malick's style. Or maybe an allusion to the Sistine Chapel would be more appropriate. The effect of watching this film in a theatre — I hate to say it, but that's really the only way to experience what Malick has to offer here — is that the details we see "on the ground" are always drawing our eyes skyward to remind us of the scale of the cosmos and the ever-presence of beauty and mystery.

Whatever  metaphor we reach for, we cannot deny that this is whole-hearted celebration of moral courage; a lament over the sufferings endured by those who embrace the call of Christ; an indictment of those align themselves with an Antichrist (especially those who betray the name of Jesus in doing so); and, ultimately, a weary but hopeful suggestion that God sees, God knows, and that God is drawing everyone — even those complicit in atrocities — back into his arms.

That may sounds like more than a movie can hold. But the fact is that A Hidden Life is more accessible, more linear in its storytelling, more focused in its themes and aspirations than anything Malick has made since Days of Heaven in 1978.

The outline of this simple narrative has inspired some to call A Hidden Life more conventional. Some — like David Ehrlich at Indiewire — declared that "Terrence Malick is back," and complained about his last few films: "Malick has always been the cinema’s most devout searcher, his faith and uncertainty going hand-in-hand. But the work he’s made over the last few years hasn’t been searching so much as lost."

Personally, I think it's ridiculous to write off Malick's last several films as some kind of misguided tangent, something to be dismissed. Yes, by nature of its simple narrative about one man's difficult decision and the dominoes that fall from it, bringing heavy consequences upon himself and his family, A Hidden Life isn't nearly as complicated as To the Wonder (2013), Knight of Cups (2015), or Song to Song (2017). Those films asked more of their audience, required more interpretation; they were storms of soul-searching among larger casts of characters in the midst of messy contemporary contexts. They were a more demanding form of poetry.

But in other ways, A Hidden Life is a continuation of what Malick's been doing all along. If there's one issue at the heart of all of Malick's work, it's the risk and responsibility that comes with pledging allegiance — to another human being, to a cultural tradition, to a national ideology, to God... or only to oneself. It's as if his whole filmmaking career has been a response to Bob Dylan's song "You Gotta Serve Somebody." Over the last decade, characters played by Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Rooney Mara, and Ryan Gosling have suffered through all kinds of relationship troubles because of their fickle hearts, all of them as tangled up in blue in their searches for God as they are in their searches for a meaningful marriage. A Hidden Life's images and dialogue circle similar questions about priorities: To whom should one be faithful? And what allegiances should have highest priority? What does it mean to be faithful to one's marriage and to God? To be faithful to one's country and to God? And how much should a person be willing to sacrifice for any of these commitments?

And what if fidelity to God requires us to put not only our own lives but others' lives on the altar? After all, this is also the story of Franz Jägerstätter's wife Franziska (Fani), their children, her sister, and his mother. Franz's decision threatens to take him away from their quiet, hard-working routines on the farm. It risks a future in which they must keep the farm going on their own, labor in prayer for his safe return, and suffer the persecution of their disgruntled neighbors.

Come to think of it, these are dilemmas that have driven some of the most talked-about films of recent years — at least in communities of moviegoers concerned with questions of faith. Compare and contrast Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men, Anne Fontaine's The Innocents, Martin Scorsese's Silence, Paul Shrader's First Reformed, or — Scorsese again — The Irishman. What a challenging film festival we could organize, watching some of these in dialogue with A Hidden Life.

Just as I was moved watching all of those films I just mentioned, I was powerfully moved and challenged by A Hidden Life in a crowded theater.

Of course I was. Stories of those who, in the name of love, find their heads on the chopping block, face fundamentalist firing squads, or stand up against big-business distortions of the Church, are perhaps the most powerful, inspiring, world-shaping narratives known to humankind. They run against our basic animal tendencies to save ourselves. They suggest that there are more important things to consider than self-preservation. And they whisper to us that perhaps our idea of self-preservation is, in fact, self-destructive, and that the surrender of self for a higher cause might be the way toward the very peace our hearts desire.

But that's not the only reason I was moved. To watch A Hidden Life in a theater is to see Malick's work at the scale he intended. Nobody takes advantage of the big screen like Malick. He knows, perhaps more than any filmmaker alive, the power of nature's beauty as a language that transcends the limitations of our spoken and written texts. Mountains loom over the audience. The not-so-subtle fish-eye-lens effect that alters much of the imagery creates an immersive you-are-there effect when seen at this scale. (I suspect it may be distracting and even aggravating on smaller screens; it tested my patience even on this grand canvas.) It's also affecting to experience this with a large audience, as you can feel tensions rise, hearts break , and, perhaps, even a raising of silent prayers.

The more time I spend with Malick's films, the more I sense that he is not manipulating images to insist upon some predetermined meaning, but that he is seeking what the cosmos themselves might mean. As C.S. Lewis said of all true artists, we do not create — we re-arrange aspects that God has "provided." "And that is surely why our works never mean to others quite what we intended," Lewis writes, "because we are recombining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our works and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.”

I think Malick would be delighted and surprised by the revelations his more attentive viewers experience while watching his work. By following his intuitions as a "reader" of life, teasing out the implications that emerge as he looks from human behavior to nature and back again, he is leading us into contemplation that cannot be easily paraphrased. A Hidden Life is poetry in pictures, and thus endlessly suggestive and mysterious. When he cuts from an image of a woman in prayer to a magnificent tree bending in the wind, and then to a long and lyrical shot of a river winding around all obstructions in answer to the sea's gravitational call, he will leave some viewers thinking "Those are pretty pictures." But those "with eyes to see and ears to hear" will understand that these images give us a way to think about the Soul, the direction of its yearning, its source and its destination.

And there is yet another reason that I was moved. Recalling the message of that terrifying angel in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, the giant who appears in a spotlight to tell the detective that "It's happening again," this movie burns with prophetic urgency.

It speaks to me directly in the audience, saying, "Pay attention. The forces of evil that tested the faith of Franz and Fani Jägerstätter have risen again. They're here now, all around you — in your own country, your own city, your own community. Even this movie theater, there are those who are afraid of immigrants, afraid of skin unlike their own, afraid of anyone who seems different or speaks an unfamiliar language. There are those who are drawn to figures of coercive and violent power because they think that these tyrants can give them safety or advance the cause of Christ. Be vigilant. The Antichrist is a spirit that rises again and again, saying 'Be afraid of your strange new neighbors. Fight to recreate the more comfortable and familiar world you once new.' Do you really believe in love? Are you ready to take up your cross and fulfill the greatest pledge of allegiance?"

Perhaps your experience will be different. Perhaps it will say something new to you.

And perhaps my feeling of inspiration, that surge of admiration for Franz's courage and zeal to stand up for Truth, comes too easily. Perhaps it's a confidence that would crumble under the first wave of a direct challenge. I don't know. I think the movie wants me to ask this.

At this particular point in the history — the tearing down of American democracy by an uprising of white supremacists, nationalists, and religious extremists; England's self-interested and narrow-minded departure from a community of nations collaborating on a better future — it's hard not to feel those surges of enthusiasm at the sight of a conscientious objector staying true to the ideals of the Gospel.


And yet....

This is the point where I must acknowledge that, while many of my friends and colleagues are hailing A Hidden Life as not only Malick's greatest masterpiece but also one of the greatest films ever made, I also feel some frustrations with this film.

For all of the film's swells of aesthetic and musical beauty, its constant enthusiasm for timely rays of light, for panoramic views of natural beauty, and for symphonic crescendos of familiar classical compositions (Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa gets particular attention here), A Hidden Life does not captivate and enthrall me as earlier Malick films have.

My frustrations may well be due to the fact that I've seen all of his films several times, and I am so familiar with his style that I can walk through my day imagining with some confidence just how he would film particular spaces and how he would coach his actors to engage those environments. This film gives me the impression that Malick is just too eager this time to achieve a familiar transcendence, and not willing enough to live with these characters in substantial scenes, observing the distinctive details of their days and their difficulties.

From his debut Badlands in 1973 to what I would argue to be his greatest masterpieces — The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011)Malick has made a few of my favorite films. But even in The Tree of Life, as I made clear in my early reflections on the film (including two-part review of first impressions at Image), I was beginning to feel a repetitiveness in his images that, for a while, seemed like a deliberate endeavor to place the films in dialogue with one another. It's the visual equivalent of what it would be like if he began weaving five or six pieces of music in and out of all of his movies — it would be distracting to those who notice.

In addition to the over-familiarity of certain images, there is the increasing familiarity of how his characters speak and move through space. The more he wrestles his philosophically and theologically complex questions, the more the voices of his characters — and their body language as well — all blur into a disappointing 'sameness.' That may be a statement about brotherhood, but it makes words and the voices that raise them less interesting. It's increasingly obvious that his actors wander around being coached by offscreen voices that might be saying "Look like you're suffering a memory of grief. Now raise your eyes to heaven. Now... you're playing! You and your family are playing! Chase each other and laugh!"

Even more disappointingly, Malick's visual poetry, which has worked in such distinctive, complex, and surprising ways in the past, is becoming increasingly predictable. It's also becoming simpler, as if he's been listening to those impatient critics who, like literature students who want to "solve" a poem upon first reading, punished The Tree of Life for being confoundingly inscrutable. (I recently co-hosted a community conversation following a screening of The Tree of Life, and we were able to find exciting ways to read just about every scene in the film, finding coherence, integrity, and glory in its architecture. It felt like an in-depth study of Eliot's "The Four Quartets.")

I suppose I could look on one of the film's bright sides: Maybe A Hidden Life is the best film for introducing people to Malick's work. It's easy to care about these characters and their dilemma, and the suspense of it carries us easily through the more abstract flourishes. If someone likes this one, maybe they're ready for Days of Heaven or The New World — and maybe someday they'll be up for the surrealistic struggle of Knight of Cups or the monumental task of climbing The Tree of Life.

So, yes, I have come to praise Malick — I admire this film. Any I'm glad it exists. B-grade Malick is, in my book, still more meaningful and magnificent than most filmmakers' A-grade work. Any movie that inspires a response as unforgettable as this testimony I stumbled across on Letterboxd is a treasure worth celebrating.

But I come also to justify my lack of enthusiasm about this film — specifically, for friends and colleagues who have called it the crowning achievement of a magnificent career. I've held back for more than a month since the advance screening in Seattle that Image hosted; I've been reluctant to voice some disappointment with any cinematic appeal to the conscience, any movie that asks us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, any art that urges us to reject contracts with an Antichrist. In the light of this film, it is easy to see how that too many in America's evangelical Christian culture prefer to do deals with the Devil than to walk the hard and sacrificial road of true Christianity.

But I miss the days when Malick movies surprised me and gave me that sense of revelation, that I was experiencing a kind of cinema I'd never experienced before. I suppose it's unfair of me to make an issue of this, since artists who can break through to such new visions come along once or twice in a generation, and even rarer are those who sustain a drive for innovation and discovery to the end of their careers.

More importantly, though, I miss characters who captivated me and discomforted me with a familiar human complexity. I still hope for a recovery of distinctive characters and voices like those that inhabited The New World and the best stretches of The Tree of Life. I miss the man who gave us the idiosyncrasy and grit of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands — they sounded like real people. Franz is inspiring, but he would have been more inspiring if he had seemed more particular, less of a stained-glass-window sort of saint; his words are rarely more complex than "What do we do if our leaders are bad?"

In that sense, A Hidden Life has exactly one scene that sticks with me, only one that feels particularly thought-provoking. We're introduced to a painter, played by Johan Leysen, who is illuminating the walls and ceilings of a church with depictions of saints. As he does, he laments — like the self-doubting artist of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev — the insufficiency of his artistic endeavors: "I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” (In this moment, we may be hearing the filmmaker himself; Malick's next movie, after all, will be the first he has made about Jesus, the Apostle Peter, and the Devil.)

Here, I see a glimmer of what could have been a far more interesting and compelling film. As stories of Christian martyrs go, A Hidden Life doesn't strike me as being nearly as curious about, or as attentive to, its characters as Of Gods and Men or Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

In his poetic masterpiece Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders immersed audiences in a symphony of interior voices, the thoughts and prayers of the people of Berlin. But he didn't stop there: He also animated angels that drifted through the city, listening in on human hearts and then comparing notes with one another about the trouble and the glory they found there. That screenplay was penned by a poet — Peter Handke — and it's easy to imagine how the film could have seemed pretentious, pious, overly literary, and detached from the grit of human experience. But it wasn't. Those voices were textured and detailed, so that I count some of the exchanges between Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin among my favorite conversations in cinema. A movie can be both elevated and grounded, cerebral and salty, contemplative and complicated.

Here's hoping that Malick will, in his upcoming film about Christ, Peter, and Satan, bless them with human voices as distinct as those that Wenders gave humans and angels. With closer attention to his characters' complexity, he may yet provide the cinema with something it's been missing: a powerfully and redemptively discomforting Christ.


"Hymn for the 81%" — a new anthem addressed to the American church

I'm grateful for this new hymn which was shared with me on Facebook.

It sums up much of what I'm feeling as I welcome students into my classrooms, so many of whom are eager to declare that they want nothing to do with the Christianity of their families, the churches in which they grew up, because of how evangelicals are supporting and endorsing a leader who persecutes the poor, scorns the immigrant, and throws fuel on the flames of racism and hatred.

It's by Daniel Deitrich. You can look him up at Danieldeitrich.com.

https://youtu.be/3GT-LfLpzzo


1917: a forgettable war story cleverly staged

It's a rare thing that I am deeply moved by a war movie — especially one that is daringly unconventional in its architecture, its storytelling, and its visual innovations. But here we are: 2019 has given me one of those rare and unforgettable experiences — a mesmerizing and harrowing journey through the trenches of World War One. I am very grateful for it.

Ah, but I've already written about They Shall Not Grow Old, haven't I?

Yes, Peter Jackson's 2019 documentary about the ordeals of World War War One soldiers stands as one of my favorite films of the last year. I was shaken by the experience of that tapestry of testimonies, amazed by the battlefield footage that Jackson's technicians restored and enhanced, and, above all, moved the voices of the soldiers telling their own stories about horrors and nightmares — worst of all, the Battle of the Somme.

So I was reluctant to revisit World War One on the big screen again so soon. And when I saw the trailer for Sam Mendes's 1917, I was skeptical. Then I began reading about the Big Idea that would set this war movie apart from others — the idea of a film designed to carry us from the trenches of British forces up and over the front lines into German territory and all the way to the end of an impossible mission... in one continuous shot.

One continuous shot!

"I'll go wherever you go, Mr. Frodo."

What a thrill, I thought — to be taken through such a spellbindingly realistic hellscape, one of the ugliest and deadliest wars ever fought, in a way that will have us all gasping and applauding at the daring of the filmmakers, not the sacrifices of soldiers! After all, what good is it to fight a war, sending countless human beings to their deaths, if you're not going to give filmmakers material for an endless game of big-screen one-upsmanship? I can hear Maximus's challenge to the audience at the Colloseum echoing in eternity: Are you not entertained?! 

Okay, I admit it. I was not only skeptical — I was cynical, too.

After seeing the trailer, reading an article about how the film was made, and seeing some behind-the-scenes footage, I posted my concerns over at Letterboxd, where I regularly share my off-the-cuff, unedited, hasty first impressions. In short, I wanted to make clear that I was keeping an open mind, but that experience has already taught me that too many war movies lead to conversations about How They Did That instead of Why This Happened and How We Can Prevent It From Happening Again.

"Hello. I'm Colin Firth. I suited up for just one minute of screen time, so listen closely, boys."

Then, 1917 began winning awards, gaining some of the highest honors of a year full of outstanding, meaningful cinema. I began to hope again that maybe this would be an exception. After all, I've seen director Sam Mendes make memorable movies before. While I've written far too often about how unfairly American Beauty plays with its audience, I remain an admirer of Road to Perdition and Skyfall, and I found much to admire in both Away We Go and Revolutionary Road. Maybe the movie would end up being more than just a stunt of technical showmanship.

It's difficult to tell from a plot synopsis whether this movie will give us memorable characters (it doesn't), new perspective on the historical context and causes of the war (it doesn't), or interesting new takes on traditional war-movie scenarios (there aren't any) — like the moment when "the good guys" encounter a severely injured German soldier and their ethics are put to test (and things go rather predictably).

I couldn't help but think about Frodo and Samwise of The Lord of the Rings as I watched our two anxious heroes — Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). They made me think about the World War One troubles suffered by British soldiers who turned their stories into art: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Richard Adams, in particular. It was easy for my mind to wander as these faint sketches of characters received their orders from One Famous British Actor (Colin Firth as General Erinmore) to venture into enemy territory and prevent many hundreds of other British soldiers, led by another Famous British Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie), from advancing into a trap.

"This barbed wire is giving me flashbacks to that awful scene in War Horse!"

Just as I did when I first watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, wanted to care. I wanted to see past the distraction of the film's elaborate artifice and find myself absorbed, believing. These cameras were, after all, controlled by the legendary Roger Deakins who has created many of cinema's most unforgettable images.

But the film's insistence on simulating moment-to-moment you-are-there experience kept me always conscious of the effort. Nothing cast much of a spell as Schofield and Blake ventured across corpse-littered battlefields full of "Ew, gross" moments; as they encountered even more Famous British Actors (Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden); as they dodged occasional German soldiers who jumped out to say "Boo!"; as they became what must be the thirtieth or fortieth characters I've seen run from a crashing airplane and toward the camera; as they strove to beat the clock and stop a slaughter. As Filmspotting's Josh Larsen put it (at Larsen On Film), 1917's mise-en-scène "begins to resemble that of a video game—only without the user interaction that makes games so compelling."

While I considered the art of surprising viewers who have seen too many war movies, Mendes's scheming caught me off-guard exactly once with a sudden explosion. I admired the execution of that moment so much, I heard myself say aloud, "Wow, that was cleverly done!" I immediately clapped my hand over my mouth, embarrassed, worried that I might have disrupted the suspension of someone else's disbelief. But overall, the simplistic pin-balling of our heroes from one bit of ugliness to another doesn't amount to much more than a series of How Did They Do That? spectacles.

"And now I'm having flashbacks to North by Northwest!"

It's as sure as shooting: War movies, battlefield scenes, piles of dead bodies in uniform, photographs of loved ones back home— these things will move an audience as definitely as if "Amazing Grace" is being sung in a commercial for health insurance. Perhaps this will be some moviegoers' first war movie, and thus it will inevitably move and challenge them like nothing they've seen before. But I've seen far more war movies than any human being really should, and very few of them have amounted to more than two hours of jolts that aim to make me Feel What It's Like, and I've learned that these feelings are not the same thing as being challenged, inspired, and moved by art. So at this point in my moviegoing life, if I'm being dragged through this kind of aesthetic pummeling and come out the other side without something compelling to talk about, then I'm going to want those hours back.

I saw this movie with one of my former college professors who introduced me to so much great literature — war stories included. He counts Apocalypse Now among the most meaningful films he's ever seen, and he shares my enthusiasm for Gallipoli and my admiration for Saving Private Ryan. When the credits rolled on 1917, he looked at me, shrugged, and said, "I don't think I need to see this again. And, forgive me, but I'm not sure I can think of much to talk about."

"Did you see They Shall Not Grow Old?" I asked him. And his eyes lit up. We immediately began talking about the greatness of a movie we'd seen many months earlier.

"Hello, I'm Benedict Cumberbatch. I suited up for about one minute of screen time, so listen closely."

Anyway, Mendes's technical achievement in a genre that is sure to pack theaters will probably end up earning him the Big Heavy Shiny, just as it was designed to do. It'll be the safest, most traditional choice in a field of far greater films that ask far more of their audiences.

But alas, even if we grant 1917 the distinction of being the first war film to play from beginning to end as one unbroken scene, I think we may also conclude that it's less than the sum of... its part.


Favorite Films of 2019: The Top Twenty-One

Okay, I've waited long enough. It's time to stop organizing and reorganizing my year-end list.

[You're looking at Part Two of my year-end movie list — these are the Top 21. If you missed Part One, and you haven't seen my parade of Honorable Mentions — the long list of movies that I wish I could have found room for on this list of favorites — well... here it is.]

Sure, I'm going to see more films that were accessible on Seattle's big screens in 2019, films that I missed during my busiest year of full-time teaching yet. That's the irony of my new career: In teaching writing, I struggle to find time for writing. In teaching film classes, I have fewer opportunities to catch current releases in theaters. I still need to see quite a few heavy hitters: 1917, The Hottest August, and Just Mercy, for example. And more. And when I do, if they merit special attention, I'll revise this list.

But it's time to post a rough draft of my 2019 favorites list.  Why am I posting 21 instead of 20? Well, a couple of days ago it was a Top 20. Then I discovered that one of my must-see movies was streaming on The Criterion Channel — and, wow! It surpassed my expectations. Now, Black Mother has leapt up onto the list. So here they are — my 21 favorite films of 2019... for now.


21.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni

Am I dreaming? Or did I actually see this? It finally exists?

I really should have included The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in the Honorable Mentions list, but I'm just so glad — so relieved, really — that Terry Gilliam can finally say "It is finished" at the end of his long Quixotic passion play. Do you remember Lost in La Mancha, the 2002 documentary about Gilliam's many failed attempts to make this movie? Today, that documentary feels like ancient history. (Perhaps a sequel documentary needs to be made about the 19 years since then!)

Here's my essay about the movie. It was published at Good Letters, the Image blog.

In short, like the story of how it came into existence, the movie is a glorious mess. Of course it is — it's Terry Gilliam, after all. The pacing — if you can call it that — is erratic, relentless, and in dire need of some quieter passages. Gilliam's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach overcrowds the film, which prevents us from falling in love with his Quixote the way we should (in spite of Jonathan Pryce's sly performance). Late in the film, we suffer one of the most abrupt and baffling departures of a major character I've ever experienced. And exchanges between Adam Driver's Toby and Pryce's Quixote too often resemble the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in The Fisher King.

But this is a Big Screen Movie built on Big Ideas, boasting whole-hearted performances from both Pryce and Driver. I enjoyed every minute of its colors, its light, its locations, its ambitions, its madness. I can't wait to find time to watch it again.

https://youtu.be/xVArq_Qs9lY


19., 20. (tie)

Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

written and directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

and

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story

written and directed by Martin Scorsese

Two extraordinary concert films, both of which capture stellar performers at their very best onstage, both of which preserve the mysteries of their artists.

And both serve as perfect portraits of their featured artists.

Beyoncé makes the movie about herself, her family, her ancestors, and the generations of young black women she aims to inspire. She is both egomaniacal and humble, self-indulgent and collaborative. I may not be the biggest fan of her singing, but I'm a huge fan of how she uses her influence to stir up a generational tidal wave that can wash over the stubborn stones of prejudice and hatred that demean, diminish, and discourage African American women today.

Dylan's movie is made by Martin Scorsese, and good luck finding the "Real Dylan" in it at all — which is why it's such a great representation of the real Dylan. Fictional characters are woven into the fabric of real history, so that we're often unsure what's documentary and what might be mere mischief.

I expected Rolling Thunder Revue to be pure indulgence for Dylan fans. I didn't expect it to be the laugh-a-minute marathon that would set the comedy bar high for the rest of the year. Nor was I prepared for the intensity of the concert footage, which had the audience in the film and the audience in the theater cheering. What a joy to see it on a big screen at Portland's Cinema 21, with several of my closest friends, and the movie played at concert-level volume. I wish I could relive the experience.

One question: How could this movie feature so much footage of T Bone Burnett live onstage and never once pull him aside for an interview?

I wrote at length about Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé in an essay about three recent concert films for Image's Good Letters blog.

https://youtu.be/fB8qvx0HOlI

https://youtu.be/PS4gsWDSn68


18.

Wild Rose

directed by Tom Harper; written by Nicole Taylor

I’m exercising restraint in praising Wild Rose as one of the best times I spent in the theater during 2019… with a suspicion that I might enjoy it even more the second time. For all of its formulaic turns, Tom Harper’s country-music fairy tale cut right through all of my skepticism and made me a fan.

That has a great deal to do with actress Jessie Buckley, who is everything you’ve heard about and more. She rules the screen as Rose-Lyn Harlan, a Glawegian 23-year-old who, released from prison, immediately launches herself into a mad pursuit of her dream to conquer Nashville as a country music star.

Buckley, who apparently took second-place in 2008 on a BBC talent show I’ve never seen (I’d Do Anything), is absolutely convincing in every aspect of this complicated character. Rose-Lyn radiates recklessness, convincing us that she was rightfully incarcerated. She implodes under the pressure of crushing anxiety when she looks at two children she has somehow introduced to the world, children she must raise at the risk of her dreams.

Read my whole review here.

https://youtu.be/l_Ths6k7qXk


17.

Toy Story 4

directed by Josh Cooley, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom

I hope Andrew Stanton, in particular, feels great about this movie. After being unfairly punished for the record-setting box-office failure of John Carter—which was a failure of marketing, not a failure of filmmaking—he’s more deserving of a substantial “comeback” than any filmmaker I know. And with the help of an inspired team, he completes a stunt here that few would have thought possible (not unlike one of the jumps completed by Duke Kaboom, the stunt motorcyclist perfectly played by Keanu Reeves in this episode). Can we restore Stanton now to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Family Filmmakers?

Instead of focusing on Woody’s community and their chemistry, Toy Story 4 is the first story in this world to focus on the children as much as the toys. And in this, it finds three important new questions to explore:

First: What happens in this world when a child goes beyond loving the toys she’s been given and applies her imagination to making toys of her own?

It’s surprising to realize how little attention was given, in the original trilogy, to what a child brings to imaginative engagement with toys. In the first three movies, Andy and Bonnie played with what they were given. But my memory of childhood was all about improvisation,  repurposing what I was given into crazy new inventions. With the introduction of Forky, Bonnie’s first homemade toy, the Toy Story universe has exciting new questions to consider.

And that leads us directly to this story’s Second important question: Can someone who has been taught they are trash be redeemed and given a sense of their true value by someone else’s love?

Third: Is a person’s value ultimately defined by having found someone who loves them, or is their value defined by finding a way of showing love?

Here's my three-part review: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

https://youtu.be/wmiIUN-7qhE


16.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

directed by Marielle Heller, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster

Director Marielle Heller needs a bright spotlight. So few women have opportunities to direct pop culture events as significant as this one.

And Heller isn’t content just to give the people what they want: She, working with a brave script from Transparent and Maleficent screenwriters Micah Fitzerman and Noah Harpster, takes real risks from the very opening scene. She asks us to engage in some imagination games (just as Rogers would have wanted it!). She asks audiences to reckon with the public prominence of Rogers’ Christian faith and his dedication to prayer (which are portrayed here as clearly as they have been in any Martin Luther King biopic).

Then, later, she asks us to lean into just how strange this guy was.

Here's my full review.

And here's Steven Greydanus at DecentFilms.com.

https://youtu.be/-VLEPhfEN2M


15.

Diane

written and directed by Kent Jones

Mary Kay Place is magnificent here as a longsuffering mother and a humble servant to her community. Rarely do we see feature films devoted to figures of such relentless day-to-day kindnesses and quotidian graces.

But the whole ensemble in Kent Jones's first feature-length narrative film is fantastic. There are more delicate and intimate moments between friends and family members here than you'll see in a whole year of moviegoing. The turbulent relationship between Diane and her son Brian becomes a bit too crisis-movie-severe for me, but builds to their best and most affecting conversation. For me, the highest highlight is the quiet, tender, platonic friendship between Diane and Tony, whose exchanges are near miraculous.

I feel obligated to note, given my usual film-coverage beat, that this movie takes an unexpected and alarming turn into one of the most frightening and upsetting depictions of tell-don't-show Christianity I've ever seen. Having grown up in a world focused of seize-preach-and-convert evangelism, I recognized the missionary ferocity of the "Christian" in question, and I was sore afraid. I felt like I was watching a horror movie, the scene bringing me so powerfully and empathetically into the experience of being on the receiving end of that kind of shallow and unrelenting religious zeal. It shook up me up and I won't recover anytime soon. Christian love is not and should never be wedded to the strategies of high-pressure salesmanship. In any of the countless gestures of unconditional love that Diane shows to her friends and neighbors, we see more Jesus than we can find in the whole show from these vampiric churchgoers.

Anyway, I'm making too much of one short episode in a rich, soulful movie. I found myself thinking of Jem Cohen's Museum Hours and Kogonada's Columbus (which Cohen also worked on) — there's a similar human authenticity to moments in this film. This is one of the year's very best. Don't miss it.

But don't just take my word for it. Here's Filmspotting's Josh Larsen at Larsen on Film.

https://youtu.be/Yl1WJA0T5II


14.

Penguin Highway

directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, written by Makoto Ueda

I'm not sure how this film slipped past the radar of anime-enthusiasts and Studio Ghibli fans. It is strong in ways that remind me of the best examples of the genre.

As animator and author Ken Priebe raves, "It’s like a Shaun Tan book, a Spielberg film, a Wes Anderson film, and a Studio Ghibli film all at once. It’s like a really strange dream, a trip through the looking glass, a chess game, and a science-fiction story, all at once."

Penguin Highway may be the most difficult movie to summarize for a review since Upstream Color. I'm not going to try. Suffice it to say that a young boy and his friends decide to apply scientific methods to solving the mystery of unexpected penguin appearances, and their investigation leads them into deepening mysteries related to sex, climate change, alien life forms, and a strange Annihilation-like bubble that is threatening the barriers that give our world its particularity.

Despite the difficulty I might have in describing it, this is a strangely moving film (emphasis on strangely).

Right now, I'm reading it as a child's emotional and imaginative endeavors to reconcile the enormity of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the inconceivable loss of life in that disaster, the complicated relationship that the Japanese must now have with the ocean's beauty and terror (now that it has swallowed up so many lives) ... and the increasing signs that the catastrophe was just a tremor, a precursor to a coming environmental apocalypse.

I'm making it sound dreadfully despairing, but it isn't.

For all the deep currents of grief coursing through the film's complex, indirect, Murakami-like symbolism, this is a film that chooses hope — even hope through and beyond death into whatever new forms life might take. It's a poem in celebration of the interconnectedness of everything.

And rather than lose itself in abstraction, it feels firmly grounded by bringing its main character — a boy on the edge of adolescence — to life in all of the sexual naïveté and confusion that boys know at the age. Even though the world is out of balance, penguins are showing up in metropolitan areas, and the debris of the ocean is suddenly everywhere, he still has a huge crush on a curvaceous and flirtatious woman from the local dental-clinic, and their unlikely relationship is not like anything I've seen in a movie before.

Sound heavy for a movie that tempts us with Totoro-like penguins? It is heavy. I also think it's beautiful. It avoids the sticky-sweet sentimentality of Your Name that kept me from surrendering to that seemingly unstoppable pop-culture favorite. It has bigger, deeper things on its mind and heart.

At the moment, I'm surprised at how few of my cinephile friends have seen this. \I want to know what you think, friends.

https://youtu.be/mKdQdy_5IoA


13.

The Lighthouse

directed by Robert Eggers, written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers

Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse is a thrilling follow-up to The Witch. The performances, the imagery, the sound design — it's an immersive experience in a meaningful vision of hell, one that got me thinking about Moby Dick, Apocalypse Now, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, a combination I can't recall associating with a movie before.

This is what might happen if a filmmaker were stranded on an island with only a small DVD library of There Will Be Blood, The MasterEraserheadPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the documentary Leviathan, and that beautiful edition of Moby Dick illustrated with those astonishing Barry Moser woodcuts.

And all those ignorant fanboys who thought Robert Pattinson wasn't worthy of playing the role of Batman will now have to accept that Batman isn't worthy of being played by Robert Pattinson. His performance here earns comparisons to Daniel "Plainview" Day-Lewis and Naked's David Thewlis. That he delivered this and High Life in such short order, and so soon after Good Time, is very impressive.

And yet, Willem Dafoe's performance is the film's crowning glory. His face looks as if it were truly carved from the rock by the lashings of a relentless storm. And there is one extended close-up near the end that is so exquisitely and grotesquely compelling I'm afraid that I'm going to dream about it.

The rock — it barely qualifies as an island — quickly becomes a singular cinematic subject, a location unlike anything I've visited before, possessed by a dark spirit that foghorns an alarm reminiscent of the T-Rex's commanding bellow. I feel as though it hath split my skull in twain.

Robert Eggers is the real deal. I swear I saw the Criterion Collection 'C' floating in a tidepool. My only reservation — and the only thing that makes this feel like a lesser film than The Witch — is that it plays at such a fever pitch throughout that when it tries to crescendo it doesn't really have anywhere to go. The glory of The Witch had so much to do with its pacing.

Nevertheless, I was delighted that a good crowd responded with enthusiastic applause when it was over. I wasn't expecting that.

P.S. There's a line in this film that I think deserves "I drink your milkshake" status, but I'm not going to spoil it by writing it down here.

Here's Filmspotting's Josh Larsen at Larsen on Film. And here's Joel Mayward at Cinemayward.

https://youtu.be/Hyag7lR8CPA


12.

Ash is Purest White

written and directed by Jia Zhangke

Ash is Purest White begins like a flashy hybrid of Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopically exhilarating expressionism and Martin Scorsese’s gritty gangster dramas of the ’70s and ’80s. But we have a long way to go, and we’re about to veer into a subtler and more challenging kind of drama, an intimate and interior struggle that serves as a poignant portrait of political desperation.

And you might even be reminded, as I was, of how Krzysztof Kieslowski, in Blue, drew us down into the continental shift of a woman’s heart during a season of loss.

Here's my full review.

https://youtu.be/l0fKX6VhovQ


11.

A Hidden Life

written and directed by Terrence Malick

I haven't reviewed this film yet, so I'm doing that here.

In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick applies what has unfortunately become an extremely predictable filmmaking method to the story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a man who surrendered himself to Nazi forces when he refused to fight for Hitler's hateful campaigns in World War II. It is also the story of Jägerstätter's wife Franziska (Fani), their children, and his mother, who are left behind to keep the farm going, to pray, and to suffer the persecution of their compliant and compromising community, burdened further by their fear that Franz might never return.

As I watched A Hidden Life, I was moved. Mostly that was because of the fundamentals of its story about standing up against fascism and the agendas of an Antichrist. At this particular point in the history — the tearing down of American democracy by an uprising of white supremacists, nationalists, and religious extremists — it's hard not to feel surges of emotion at the sight of a conscientious objector staying true to the ideals of the Gospel.

Still, for all of the film's swells of aesthetic and musical beauty, its constant enthusiasm for timely rays of light, for panoramic views of natural beauty, and for symphonic crescendos of familiar classical compositions (Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa gets particular attention here) gives me the impression that Malick is just too eager this time to achieve a familiar transcendence, and not willing enough to live with these characters in substantial scenes, observing the distinctive details of their days and their difficulties.

It has exactly one scene that sticks with me, only one that feels particularly thought-provoking. It involves a painter, played by Johan Leysen, who is illuminating the walls and ceilings of a church with depictions of saints. As he does, he laments — like the self-doubting artist of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev — the insufficiency of his artistic endeavors: "I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” (In this moment, we may be hearing the filmmaker himself; his next movie, after all, will be the first he has made about Jesus, the Apostle Peter, and the Devil.) Here, I see a glimmer of what could have been a far more interesting and compelling film. As stories of Christian martyrs go, A Hidden Life doesn't strike me as being nearly as curious about, or as attentive to, its characters; for examples of more compelling portraiture, see Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men or Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

From his debut Badlands in 1973 to his greatest masterpieces The New World and The Tree of Life in 2006 and 2011, Terrence Malick has made many of my favorite films.

Since then, he has made three more narrative features (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) that have been, by my lights, both stunningly beautiful and deeply moving — and yet, they've also begun to expose what appear to be disappointing limitations in Malick's aesthetic vision, stumbling into distracting stylistic redundancies. Malick's ambitions in wrestling with philosophically and theologically complex questions through imagery and editing reminds me of what cinema, at its best, can be; his best material deserves the kind of attention drawn by masters like Kieslowski and Tarkovsky. But it's increasingly obvious that his actors wander around without a great deal of guidance or focus, as if all animated by the same simple script of existential question. And, ever since The New World, their body language, like the scripts of their interior monologues, has devolved into a kind of 'sameness,' as if they're all working with the same unimaginative dance coach. Even more disappointingly, Malick's visual poetry, which has worked in such distinctive, complex, and surprising ways in the past, is becoming increasingly predictable — and, also, simpler, as if he's been listening to those impatient critics who, like literature students who want to "solve" a poem upon first reading, punished The Tree of Life for being confoundingly inscrutable.

Since The Tree of Life's startling and excitingly abstract tangents, Malick has explored a sort of improvisational and impressionistic style. Some have described him as pushing a new visual style to its breaking point. I've found it interesting, often exhilarating. But these films have often felt strained by their commitment to narratives about characters who never rise above their existential questions to become human beings of specificity and idiosyncrasy. I've often wished for a return to the successful balance of imagistic poetry and sophisticated prose that he achieved in The New World and in the best stretches of The Tree of Life. I miss the man who gave us the unforgettable characters played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands — they had the voices of real people, the physicality of antiheroes in great American literature.

So, yes, I have come to praise Malick, but also to confess that I'm also quite frustrated with this film. And I feel some call to justify my lack of enthusiasm to friends of mine who have been exalting A Hidden Life as one of the greatest movies ever made. I've held back for more than a month since the advance screening I attended, reluctant to share my observations about what I perceive to be the film's weaknesses because I believe that what we need now more than ever in cinemas are films like this that appeal to the conscience, that ask us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, and that urge us to refuse to sign any contracts with an Antichrist. In the light of this film, it is easy to see how that too many in America's evangelical Christian culture prefer to do deals with the Devil than to the hard and sacrificial road of following Jesus.

A Hidden Life is overwhelming and often glorious, stirring up some of the most breathtaking sights and sounds of 2019. I admire this film. I'm glad it exists. And I am including it among my 20 favorite films of the year because B-grade Malick is, in my book, still more meaningful and magnificent than most filmmaker's A-grade work.

I just miss the days when Malick movies surprised me and gave me that sense of revelation, that I was experiencing a kind of cinema I'd never experienced before. I suppose it's unfair of me to make an issue of this, since artists who can break through to such new visions come along once or twice in a generation, and even rarer are those who sustain a drive for innovation and discovery to the end of their careers. Here's hoping that Malick will, in his upcoming film about Christ, Peter, and Satan, bless them with distinctly human voices, as Wim Wenders did with such poetry and distinction in his masterful Wings of Desire.

Clearly, my views on Malick's cinema are complicated. Here's Steven Greydanus, who picked this film as his #1 of 2019. I have nothing but respect for his perspective.

https://youtu.be/qJXmdY4lVR0


10.

Us

written and directed by Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele's follow-up to Get Out exceeded my expectations, delivering a powerfully suggestive and provocative story that teases us with several possible interpretations that strike me as not only complementary but necessary.

As Peele makes one wild storytelling gamble after another, the film begins to lost its balance a bit mid-movie, with some sequences that feel too familiar, too thrill-happy, too jump-scare familiar. But I'll argue Peele restores the film's balance in time to deliver a a thrilling conclusion full of mind-boggling implications. And then, second and third viewings suggest that there might be ever greater storytelling sleight-of-hand at work — but that's a conversation for another time.

Us is about two women. It's about two families. It's about two Americas. It's about this moment in time.

But  — the following might be considered vaguely spoilerish, so jump ship now if you don't want any ideas at all before you see it it's also prophetic about any human being, any nation, at any moment in history: The selves that we neglect and hate and suppress will rise up. The idols that seduce us into living in denial will fail us in the end. God is sovereign. God's justice will prevail. Fear God, repent, and return to the path of embracing the poor, the weak, the outcasts, even and especially those pieces of yourself.

And, yeah, it's one of those movies in which just about everything is deliberate and meaningful, even the appearance of a VHS copy of The Goonies on a shelf.

Better, though... it has me thinking about how it contributes substantially to a dialogue that involves so many other impressive films, not the least of which is Annihilation: the finales of those two films bear some striking resemblances.

And Nyong'o gives a performance for the Horror Movie Hall of Fame. Any other choice for Best Actress this year will last as another Oscar embarrassment.

https://youtu.be/hNCmb-4oXJA


9.

Knives Out

written and directed by Rian Johnson

Or... Whodonut?

How rare is this? A large cast of big movie stars gather for an up-and-coming director to collaborate on a major commercial-entertainment event, and they all seem perfectly cast, delivering every line of a sensational screenplay with giddy enthusiasm, in a film that constantly sparks with inspiration, imagination, and even wisdom!

Don't worry — I aim to avoid spoilers here.

My wife Anne reads and watches murder mysteries as effortlessly and enthusiastically as most people eat their favorite chips. She also reads books about the art of writing murder mysteries. She enjoys almost any entry in the drama — formulaic or experimental, quaint or grisly, solemn or satire — but she has demanding standards of excellence. And she loves this movie.

That's impressive. Me, I approached Knives Out eager to see what Rian Johnson had done with the time that opened up for him after he completed The Last Jedi, which had impressed me as the most imaginative, surprising, and thought-provoking Star Wars movie in almost 40 years. What would he do with an Agatha-Christie-like murder mystery? I love a good mystery, but good mysteries are very, very rare, in my experience, and more often than not I come away aggravated by my pet peeves with the genre than grateful for having invested my time in it.

What pet peeves? Well...

First, whenever the Who that Hath Dunnit is revealed. I rarely ever find the resolution satisfying. I usually feel that the revelation fails to lead to any kind of meaningful takeaway. The identification and incarceration of a criminal resolves almost nothing—in fact, it just moves the pageant of human suffering from one stage to the next. My idea of a perfect whodunnit is Gosford Park, in which the whodunnit is, at least for much of the film, one of the least interesting aspects of the film. The last murder-mystery movie that won my enthusiastic support was Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz. And in recent years, the only murder-mystery TV series to inspire my applause has been Broadchurch, Season One — which somehow arrived at a deeply moving resolution.

Second, I can't stand how these stories almost always devolve into a long and preposterous act of explaining. There's nothing I dread more than a detective's long "How I cracked the case" speech in front of a cast of suspects, or the criminal's long (and entirely implausible) step-by-step explanation of how the thing was done as he closes in for his final kill (which always goes wrong). The way that these resolutions play with our ugly appetite for the lurid leaves me feeling unhealthy and a bit ashamed. “What’s in the box?” “Surprise! Depraity!

And I've gotta say, in the second hour of Knives Out, the explanations pile up to extraordinary heights, and villains get their big speeches. The speeches go on and on and on. And I'm not sure I'm finding any deeply meaningful takeaways here — unless you count the film's surprisingly sharp political commentary.

And yet, in spite of all of this... I love this movie.

Avoid all spoilers. Avoid reading even the cast list. The less you know, the more surprises you'll enjoy, and the more satisfied you'll be. This movie has something I rarely experience in American moviemaking: a sense of joy. The cast is so much fun, with everyone in their right place. (The surprise casting of the family lawyer made me cheer.) The production design is hilarious. The jokes are very, very funny. The movie's final moment is one of the most enormously satisfying punchlines I've ever seen in a movie. And I find myself hoping for a sequel—an impulse I almost never experience.

This year, when my Thanksgiving guests asked what I was thankful for, I think I said "Rian Johnson."

Here's a review by Evan Cogswell at Catholic Cinephile.

https://youtu.be/sL-9Khv7wa4


8.

Honeyland

directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov

Honeyland begins as a startling portrait of an extraordinary beekeeper, and then turns suddenly into a suspenseful drama with life-and-death stakes. And that detail that makes it so much more compelling is this: It’s a documentary, comprising footage from four years of attentiveness in the rocky wilderness of the Republic of North Macedonia by the filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska.

Their subject, Hatidze Muratova, is a genius — she seems to be known and even welcomed by swarms of bees as she carefully and routinely extracts honeycombs and honey from the rugged rises of rock near her home, leaving plenty behind for the bees to continue their architecture and art. She sings to the bees. She speaks to them. She reminds them of the terms of their contract. It’s the central principle of her stewardship: half for her, half for them. And she seems to go unstung — which is hard to believe, considering the immensity of the swarms and the sizes of those hives that are so impressively concealed in the landscape.

The story becomes a psalmic lament over injustice. The righteous and innocent suffer the consequences of action taken by the wicked — or, at best, the desperate and irresponsible. And creation groans under the abuses of industry.

But bees aren’t the only agents in this environment that have the capacity to sting.

Here's my full review.

https://youtu.be/B27ORUHlp6E


7.

They Shall Not Grow Old

directed by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson has saved his best Middle-Earth movie for last.

I know — it sounds like I’m baiting a hook just to get you to read about a documentary. But no, I’m serious: If you want to understand The Lord of the Rings, you should probably understand the furnace into which Tolkien was thrown, from which he somehow emerged alive, and by which a fire was lit within his mind and heart — an ache that could only be expressed in languages he invented, in vocabularies beyond the limitations of realism or allegory. 

It would be inappropriate to treat The Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest and deadliest day in the history of British military engagement, as a footnote in the life of the guy who gave us Hobbits. Tolkien’s service there is not why the subject interests me. But I am interested in how a story that goes on inspiring readers with beauty and hope was born from such a hellish occasion. And so it’s remarkable that Peter Jackson, whose big-screen adaptations of Tolkien’s beloved fantasy trilogy were so celebrated (and whose three film adaptations of The Hobbit were maligned, and rightly so) would be the driving force behind They Shall Not Grow Old, an extraordinary tapestry of World War One testimonies by the surviving soldiers who were sent into that madness against the Germans.

Read my full review.

https://youtu.be/IrabKK9Bhds


6.

I Heard You Paint Houses

written by Steve Zallian, based on the book by Charles Brandt, directed by Martin Scorsese

Someday I'll write about this film in detail, and why, after a shaky first act that was unnecessarily compromised by insufficient special effects, it ultimately moved me so powerfully.

For now, though, allow me to point to an extraordinary review I discovered on Letterboxd by Neil Bahadur:

"The Irishman is a terrifying and ruthlessly deterministic work that actually plays side-by-side with Silence in an interesting way: more than Wolf of Wall Street, Irishman is partially the polar opposite of the 2016 film, one that might confirm that Scorsese holds a brutal, borderline Darwinian vision of the world where no matter which side you are on, good or evil, left, right or centre, there is one fundamental law and it is that the strong will always defeat the weak — a worldview that Scorsese perhaps holds but does not necessarily endorse and moreso than ever here. Instead, it's the first time Scorsese has managed to reach the realm of Greek Tragedy which he so often speaks about. This also clarified Silence for me in a way — of course Scorsese would need religion, how could he have any hope in the world as brutal as this?"

And if you have a few hours to keep reading, feast on this review by Roderick Heath.

https://youtu.be/RS3aHkkfuEI


5.

Waves

written and directed by Trey Edward Shults

Embracing a visual style as ecstatic and as exhilarating as Terrence Malick at his best, Trey Edward Shults — who once worked or Malick — delivers a human drama filled with characters, contexts, and crises that I believe in and care about.

Waves zooms in on the tragic collapse of a promising young man's hope. Young Tyler is a high school student who is deeply in love, full of ambition, and dedicated to wrestling. But when an injury threatens to do lasting damage, and when his relationship takes a terrible turn, his fears get the better of him. Terrified that he'll fall short of his father's masculine ideals (which are deeply flawed), and panic-stricken by the consequences of his mistakes, he begins spiraling out of control.

And then, the movie makes an abrupt turn, shifting attention from Tyler to his younger sister. We begin to see what all of this drama and calamity have done to her world, to her sense of security, to her capacity to trust. When a charming young man (Lucas Hedges, who is showing up in as many movies as Adam Driver these days) takes an interest in her, she responds with a passionate interest in his family dramas. By urging him toward doing the right thing, she ends up teaching herself about how to respond to her own family troubles.

The result is an unconventional but intuitive motion picture about the dangers of living in fear and the reconciling power of long-suffering love and forgiveness.

I was surprised to walk out of Waves feeling so deeply moved, gobsmacked, and bedazzled, and then look around at my neighborhood of critics to find that most of them didn't dig it at all. This really, really worked for me. Having been underwhelmed by the new Malick — mostly due to how familiar and predictable his vocabulary has become — I was buzzing with excitement at how consistently Shults' film surprised me. What many found "showy," I found purposeful and effective in its immersive effect. What many found simplistic and melodramatic, I found persuasively and engagingly specific. And instead of going sentimental or despairing, Waves arrives at a place of substantial hope by gambling on what seems at first to be a narrative tangent in its final 30 minutes.

This is my third Trey Edward Shults film, and each one impresses me more than the last. But this is the first one that completely suspends my disbelief beginning to end. I couldn't help but think, as I walked back to the car, about why this worked for me so much better than A Hidden Life. And I think it's in the distinctiveness of its characters, their dialogue, and the sense that the filmmaker is so inspired even he doesn't know what his cameras are going to discover next.

This is one of only three or four movies I've seen in 2019 that I would gladly go back and see again on the big screen the next day.

https://youtu.be/V5z3cr8AB5g


4.

Black Mother

directed by Khalik Allah

Perhaps I should start giving a specific honor to the year's most innovative documentary, and name it after a landmark film. I don't know — I'd like to honor Errol Morris, but the Fast, Cheap and Out of Control Award doesn't sound right. Instead, I'll could go with some recognition for Kirsten Johnson, whose Cameraperson was my favorite film of 2016.

Shall we try this out?

This year's Cameraperson Award goes to Khalik Allah for the spellbinding montage he has woven in celebration of, and lamentation for, Jamaica.

Allah, who, like Seattle's Khalil Joseph, worked on Beyoncé's Lemonade visual album, has a talent for soaking up colors, textures, faces, and suggestions of stories with a style that emphasizes portraits. During this collage of images that challenge us to attend with poetic intuition to sharp juxtapositions, we observe joys and horrors, pride and pain.

My heart is heavy as I observe just how desperately Jamaica needs the love of Christ manifested in hands of healing. Instead, they've received a Christianity polluted by colonialism, a culture of church that celebrates materialism instead of sacrifice and service. We hear this exchange between two men early in the film:

"Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world. And we understand that the religion came along with slavery."
"Yeah, but it ... took a different twist, though. It's business. Church is like a big business now. ... Just imagine 20,000 people do some social work every Sunday, and it would be better." 

This could easily become just a form of hand-wringing and rage. But it comes in a generous pageant of loving portraiture, so that we admire and love these people — particularly woman, from sex workers to grandmothers. The emphasis on these neglected, abused, and exploited women underlines the film's formal emphasis on stages of pregnancy. This is a world deep in labor pains, and it is difficult to avoid a sense that something powerful and beautiful might soon be born, even as these suffering mothers can become (whether Allah intends this or not) reflections of Mary and her sorrows.

For some insight into this filmmaker's passion and imagination, read what he shared with Vox's Alissa Wilkinson.

Then read Michael Sicinski's perspective on the film at Letterboxd.

And witness Scott Tafoya's enthusiasm — he compares the significance of seeing this to his first experience of Malick's The Tree of Life.

https://youtu.be/3h7QgIX3sGM


3.

Little Women

adapted for the screen and directed by Greta Gerwig

How rare is it that a classic work of literature is translated into a feature film so beautifully? Greta Gerwig follows up her masterful directorial debut — Lady Bird — with one of the greatest book-to-screen adaptations I've ever seen. She honors the heart of the work, bravely reorganizes the narrative by splicing up the timeline, casts the characters beautifully so that the March family becomes company we don't want to leave, and satisfies audiences profoundly without sacrificing complexity.

Here are a few notes I made about this beautiful film moments after I emerged from the theater:

Give me a whole movie of Beth (played by Eliza Scanlen) playing that piano and Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) strolling around his mansion listening to the music.

-

Give me a whole movie of Marmee March (Laura Dern), going from door to door in her community offering gifts of love and compassion. And give me a prequel about Marmee and her husband (Bob Odenkirk), so we can watch Dern and Odenkirk together. It's an intriguing combination.

-

By the way, Dern has now played the scariest character I've seen in 2019 — Marriage Story's divorce lawyer — and, in this film, the most benevolent. And she's perfect as both.)

-

Create a spinoff of Amy March sketching things. Florence Pugh is 2019's MVP. (She's good, and often great, in Fighting With My Family and Midsommar — both films that would fall apart without her.)

-

Create a spinoff about Mr. Dashwood, his publishing work, and his daughters who influence his publishing decisions. Tracy Letts is now the name that will get me out the door to see any movie.

-

I love the light in this movie.

-

I marvel at how much I believe that these four actresses are sisters.

-

I wish the film had paused from time to time to let some moments — and some images — settle in music or in silence: Beth at the piano, Jo and Laurie on the frozen lake, Friedrich at the piano, Jo and Beth at the seaside. This movie, like Lady Bird, is driven by its dialogue, and Gerwig choreographs so many voices beautifully. I just wish it had paused occasionally to let the movie catch its breath — or at least to let me catch mine.

-

But that is a minor quibble.

This is as beautiful and as satisfying as any literary adaptation I can recall. The bold and creative non-chronological approach is immensely rewarding. The casting is perfect.

And when Gerwig allows Jo a variation on her own famous Frances Ha downtown dash, I cheered. I hope they give Gerwig an Oscar, and that instead of an acceptance speech she just grabs it and dances up and down the aisles.

-

Let this be remembered as the first time I stayed through all of the end credits just because the font was so right.

https://youtu.be/AST2-4db4ic


2.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

directed by Joe Talbot, written by Talbot and Rob Richert, based on a story by Jimmie Fails

I haven't had sufficient time since seeing this film to compose a review worthy of it. It's an innovative combination of poetry, theater, cinema, history, and music. It's anchored by a singular friendship between two distinctive characters, both performed with endearing idiosyncrasy and heart.

If the movies are a map, I'm not sure where to place this. What other movies would be in its vicinity?

It's as quiet as Do the Right Thing is brash; it's as meditative as Ghost World is sardonic; it's as intimate in its character studies as If Beale Street Could Talk; and it's as personal and particular in its view of a familiar time and place as The Long Day Closes.

Actually, I like that last comparison best: There is something of Terence Davies in this film's elegiac nature, in its remarkable soundtrack, and in its intoxication with light.

I'm looking forward to seeing it again. This is a movie to have a relationship with. I hope everyone in San Francisco sees it, meditates on it, and talks about it. No feature film has stayed on my mind as much as this one in 2019, mostly for the distinctiveness of its style and its voices, the subtlety of its lament over loss, and the beauty of its love for its characters.

Lo... it's streaming on Amazon Prime!

https://youtu.be/C0FnJDhY9-0


1.

Amazing Grace

directed by Sydney Pollack

I can promise you that Amazing Grace is the film from 2019 that I will revisit the most in the years to come.

I've seen it four times already, and it continues to heal my heart and strengthen my faith. It's about as close as I've seen a movie come to capturing the movement of the Holy Spirit.

I suppose that some might argue that I'm responding to music, not cinema — but Sidney Pollack's direction and the labor of thoughtful editors have turned this event into an extravagant narrative full of characters, rich with suggestions of stories, constantly reinforcing that this is a community in crisis receiving the kind of consolation and reinvigoration that they need most. Again and again I'm surprised by what these cameras capture. Again and again I'm intrigued by the details the photographers and editors choose to highlight. The marriage of sound and image make this as immersive and as visceral as any moviegoing experience I can recall.

I wrote about my love for it in an essay about three recent concert films for Image's Good Letters blog.

And here's a 60-second video review by Steven D. Greydanus.

https://youtu.be/dDNviLXMN9c

https://youtu.be/ypHZbtqSU48


Favorite Films of 2019: Intro and Honorable Mentions

It begins with the usual disclaimer: 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 works of art are like city parks: They invite you to explore them, and your first experience is just the beginning. Your experience there has as much to do with your own choices and preferences as it has to do with the design of the part. Weather plays a role too, as do the other people 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 that it's a waste of time to bother with questions related to the park's design and the excellence or shoddiness of its condition? Of course not. but it's ridiculous to pronounce judgment on any work of art; it's better to share impressions, keeping an open mind so that we can be surprised and have that distinctively human experience of changing our minds.

[UPDATE: Right now, you're reading Part One: Intro and Honorable Mentions. Part Two has now been published. Check out the Top 21 when you're finished here.]

I'll probably expand this list in January and February as I catch up with the films that got away. For example, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the year's most highly praised feature films, and it still hasn't reached Seattle. Others, like American Factory and Missing Linkare films that just haven't yet risen to the top of my priority list during this mad end-of-the-year scramble to see all of the 2019 titles, popular and obscure, that have intrigued me. But I'm sure that my appreciation of films I've already seen will change too as time passes. I recently updated my lists from the 1980s!

I watched more than 150 movies this year. I've written about many and enjoyed spirited arguments about those and many others. So, to mark this occasion of transition, as our attention focuses on a new year, I guess it's time to get this party started.


Honorable Mentions

Ask me about my Top 20 of 2019, and I'll name the movies that have been most meaningful for me: films I will continue to discuss, reflect on, write about, and revisit for the imagination and insight they offer.

The important thing to know about this Honorable Mentions list is this: I found enough to admire and enjoy in all of these that I will happily go back to them a second or third time. The beauty, the challenge, the questions they inspire, the levity of their humor of the gravity of their meditations... these things have given me a strong sense that my appreciation for them will grow when I return to them. I can make strong arguments for why I've been confident about my choice for #1 Movie of the Year for many months. But what about the movies farther down the list? The arguments become shakier, the choices more debatable. This process of ranking movies always reveals just how subjective and even ridiculous it is. Any of the films on this "runners-up" list could easily have landed in the #15-#20 range.

And that is evidence enough that 2019 was a richly rewarding year at the movies!

These films are listed in no particular order at all.


Two Films About Friendships Emerging
from Crises of Faith

Light From Light

written and directed by Paul Harrill

Full disclosure: Since the release of his fantastic first film — Something, Anything — filmmaker Paul Harrill has become a friend. I continue to be inspired by his first film, Something, Anything, and I continue to learn from my conversations with Paul. So I've been looking forward to this as much as any other 2019 film.

And it was a rewarding experience indeed. It's easily my favorite ghost story of the year, one that is haunting in a variety of ways. This movie inspired a full essay on the tremendous questions it's raising. I posted it here at Looking Closer.

https://youtu.be/4H4YteJo0JQ

The Two Popes

directed by Fernando Meirelles, written by Anthony McCarten

To learn about just how wildly this film misrepresents both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, read Steven D. Greydanus's fascinating review here.

I accept everything Deacon Greydanus says — he's a reliable and authoritative source. So I have to regard this film as a preposterous work of fiction.

Having said that, historical fiction — even the most fantastical and unreliable examples — can still speak "Capital-T" Truth in powerful ways. These two characters, so beautifully and compellingly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, are mesmerizing, affecting, funny, and persuasively human. What's more, the script brings to life vital and ongoing debates happening with many branches of the Church around the world.

I was entertained, challenged, and surprisingly moved. And I've already been a part of several thought-provoking conversations that it has sparked.

https://youtu.be/T5OhkFY1PQE

 


Two Documentaries About
Rock-and-Roll Artists Wrestling With Faith

Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury

directed by Matt Hinton

Full disclosure (I'm posting this disclaimer a lot this year!): I've corresponded with filmmaker Matt Hinton occasionally over the last decade. But I went into this screening knowing almost nothing about this film or the band in the spotlight. When the screening was over, I was grateful for a chance to meet Matt in person for the first time. We talked for hours about the questions this movie raises. It was one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the year.

So, about the film itself: If you pitched a fictional narrative that followed this story arc, it would seem too implausible. I supposed you could call this description "spoiler-filled," but all of these points are clear in the early buzz about the film and in its promotion. This isn't a movie about shocking audiences with unbelievable twists.

Parallel Love tracks the following story: A punk band forms in the midst of small conservative Christian college community, made up of guys...

  • who have no interest in "Christian music";
  • who want to follow in the footsteps of The Smiths or Depeche Mode; and
  • whose sound is ferocious and groundbreaking, and whose live shows have rock authorities hailing them as the best live show they'd ever seen.

Their subversive and challenging lyrics, the "gender fluidity" of their lead singer's stage presence, the reckless energy (that's an understatement) of their live shows... Luxury have so many characteristics of legendary punk rock bands.

But then, they sign a questionable record deal. And then... they suffer an unbelievable highway accident that nearly kills them all. And then... and then... and then.... The story gets weirder, sadder, stranger. Eventually, a bunch of them become Orthodox priests.

But the band keeps going. Luxury gets even better.

It's an amazing story. And Matt Hinton, who made an extraordinary documentary about the tradition of sacred harp music called Awake My Soul a decade ago, has crafted a loving, challenging, complicated celebration of this band's resilience, imagination, and talent.

This is one of those documentaries in which the story needs to be told via many "talking-head" interviews; it's too much story to accommodate anything more abstract or poetic. The story and the people are the thing, here, and Hinton is wise to go that route. The goal of the movie is not to advertise and make you a fan, as the story makes it clear that this narrative is not going in the direction of myth-making or world-conquering. The heart of this movie is full of questions and conflicts, and you will be talking about it after you watch it, as I did with friends for hours.

And yet, I'm wondering: As a rock-loving young adult in the late '90s, how did I miss this band? I feel like I missed out on music that would have been inspirational, exhilarating, and ultimately formative.

Long live Luxury.

One complaint I have about this film: I wish I could have watched the band perform whole songs here. In fact, the film would've been stronger if we could have spent a little less time hearing about the performances and actually experiencing them.

https://youtu.be/8Y4jIPn96Ig

Strange Negotiations

directed by Brandon Vedder

Similarly, Strange Negotiations offers a portrait of an artist it is almost impossible to describe without talking about the toxins polluting evangelical Christianity in America.

In this film, director Brandon Vedder follows David Bazan, the singer who once fronted Pedro the Lion (and who, since the release of this film, has released an album with Pedro the Lion 2.o), as he drives around America performing shows in fans' living rooms and engaging in emotional Q&A sessions about his music, his family, and his faith. Inevitably, he ends up talking about the abominable marriage of evangelical leaders and Antichrist Candidate Donald Trump — the movie was made in the days leading up to the 2016 election.

I suspect it might lead his Christian fans and friends to reflect on how the Holy Spirit often speaks most powerfully through the music of those who have walked away, disillusioned, from the church and, sometimes, from Christian faith altogether.

[UPDATE: You can read my full review of Strange Negotiations here.]

Now, don't get me wrong — this story is very, very different from the one told in Parallel Love. But what a double feature they would make. I'm inspired and moved by both stories. And — I think Bazan would be okay with me saying this — I see evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in the choices and artistry of all of these artists.

Full disclosure (again): While I wouldn't call Bazan a "close friend" — we see each other rarely, even though we live in the same part of town — we've had quite a few conversations in local coffeehouses. But I was a fan long before I met him.

As a documentarian, Vedder gives this film wonderfully poetic flourishes — he finds them conveniently in footage of Bazan's freeway voyages from city to city, making vertical lines of traffic into images of Protestant proposals about heaven and hell, and then slanting those lines so we can sense one mans understanding of faith tilting off its axis. It's simple, powerful, and memorable.

And, again, as with the Luxury documentary, I wanted more music, more full songs, more of that live-music magic that I've experienced at Bazan's shows.

https://youtu.be/7xYNXG60fAA


Two Films About Art-of-the-Deal Makers and the NBA

High Flying Bird

directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney

It's a movie about people talking on phones — filmed on a phone.

But what smart and sobering talk.

Steven Soderbergh continues his "comeback" (was he ever really gone?) with this story of sports agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) who threatens longstanding NBA establishment policies and procedures by persuading a young rookie, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), to consider a groundbreaking and controversial new basketball endeavor during an NBA lockout. The clock is ticking, the pressures are high, and the stakes of their gamble are hard to measure due to the audacity of the idea. We're challenged to wonder if professional athletes, or professionals of all kinds, aren't increasingly drawn to careers that maximize their individual brands and turn them into isolated corporate entities rather than support the longstanding institutions that focus on teams, communities, and loyalty.

I may wish that the movie felt less like a script reading and demonstrated a stronger interest in imagery, but what Soderbergh achieves by filming this whole movie on an iPhone 8 is impressive, and 90 minutes rushes by like 45. For a movie that lacks of the genre pizzazz of Soderbergh's Ocean's series, this one still sparks with the same energy. As we find our bearings in this strange and complicated business, our adrenaline gets charged up by watching masterful magicians play tricks on each other in the rush for a big score.

And, like Uncut Gems, it's all about behind-the-scenes politics in the NBA. It seems like such an unlikely subject to be the focus of two worthwhile films, but both of them offer complicated portraits of the ways in which what we see on the screen in the news, in sports, in entertainment, and in politics represents very little of what is actually going on.

Don't miss this review from Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com.

And then, if you want to take it to another level, read Michael Sicinski's powerfully observant take at Letterboxd.

https://youtu.be/0iL1K_l8Jyo

Uncut Gems

directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, and written by the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein

As impressive in its execution as it is abrasive and discomforting to endure, Uncut Gems is a maddening motion picture — a jarring mix of strengths and distractions. For all of the technical excellence here, I feel a lot like I felt after watching The Revenant: This was a lot of stress to suffer just to arrive at some kind of statement about the glory of mere survival — or, worse, to witness the corrosiveness of #Winning.

Nevertheless, while I much prefer watching Adam Sandler's Punch-drunk performance as Barry, the blue-suited salesman wound tight to the point of bursting, I must admit that the Safdies get a more ferociously impressive performance out of him here, one that deserves something more like an Olympic medal than an Oscar. The sustained intensity, the inexplicable compulsiveness to gamble, the ability to improvise while surrounded by threats — watching Sandler play Howard is like watching a masterful video-game player steer a spaceship through an asteroid field not by dodging the rocks but by pin-balling off of them until he finds a way out... or doesn't... for the thrill of the game.

Kudos to the Safdies for bringing back some favorite faces I haven't seen in ages. Eric Bogosian makes a strong impression here, offering a gallery of expressions that must immediately be turned into memes: his terrifying gangster fury, his sullen resentment, and ultimately his sheer incomprehension at Howard's wheeling and dealing. Bonus points for bringing Judd Hirsch out of hiding in a strong supporting role.

The incorporation of Kevin Garnett as himself — he's fantastic — and the clever integration of the story with the Celtics/Sixers playoff games are impressive. And the underworld of grifting, pawning, betting, and assessing is entirely immersive and convincing. But the Safdies' incorporation of other celebrities, though — they makers of Good Time are seriously making a meta-joke about the cast of Good Times?! — becomes downright show-offy.

When it comes to distractions, though, I feel this movie bears too much resemblance to the Safdies' last movie Good Time in its methods, pacing, and aesthetic trickery (right down to another nerve-wracking black-light sequence). And even more distracting is how the Safdies riff repeatedly and inexplicably on PTA's Punch-drunk Love — in the controlled chaos of Sandler's office environment, in the startling return of his bright blue suit, and in another occasion of having him cower (in a closet instead of a corner) for a sort of phone sex. I found these echoes weird enough to be distracting.

Having said all of that, I've rarely felt a whole audience get so tied up in knots by one character's self-made predicament. And the magic of Sandler is that he somehow manages to make me care about him throughout. Contrary to what I've heard some other critics say, I don't want him to triumph — not at all. He's wrecking lives and hearts everywhere he turns in his frenzy of what seems like a kind of demonic possession: an obsession with fleeting and frivolous ecstasies based on temporal flashes of happiness rather than lasting investments in joy. I want him instead to wake up, to find redemption. His disordered loves make him an avatar of cultural ideals: the Most Resilient Salesman, the Most Resilient Politician.

But the movie seems to suggest that there's something cosmic and beautiful at the heart of Howard's insatiable appetite for gambling — in sales, in sports, in love, and in lust. But trying to find transcendence in Howard's commitment to scoring feels a lot to me like trying to find "beauty" in Lester Burnham's bloodied corpse at the end of American Beauty. I look into Howard's zigzagging gaze and I see a madness I never see in Punch-drunk's Barry. Barry's heart was in hiding, but he was ready to welcome Love even if he didn't know its name. Barry was a candidate for redemption. Howard, by contrast, just wants to score; he's too busy masturbating over his delusional ambitions to sense how lost he is. I want more for him, but the movie doesn't seem to want more for him — the movie seems convinced that this self-destructive path is just so much more exciting than anything that might steer him in the direction of health and wholeness.

https://youtu.be/sS6EE4D3tjQ


Two Films About Outer Space Voyages:
One a Riff on Apocalypse Now,
One a Meditation on How We Toxify Sex

(One I found frustrating as I watched, but I  came to admire a great deal about it later;
one I loved as I watched it, but became frustrated the more I thought about it.)

High Life

directed by Claire Denis, written by Claire Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau

Robert Pattinson gives one of his two (or more?) outstanding 2019 performances in this film, one of the strangest and most unnerving science fiction films since David Cronenberg's eXistenz.

And yet, I haven't been as unmoved — and as surprised to be unmoved — by a high-profile sci-fi film, during a first viewing, since Under the Skin.

It's directed by Claire Denis, who has made so many films that have become more and more meaningfully in the years after I first experienced them — so, of course, I can't stop thinking about it. I'm only occasionally able to tune in to her signal enough to make something of my time with her imagination while I'm watching it. But my first impressions were a quick, off-the-cuff description. I have a lot of thinking still to do, and a lot of reading that I've done has increased my appreciation of the film.

Consider, for example, Darren Hughes' deep dive into Denis work at Mubi.com. Or Adam Nayman's impressions and interview at Cinema Scope. Or the Seattle Scene conversation about it. But, then, there's Michael Sicinski at Letterboxd.

The relentless echoes of Tarkovsky, whether deliberate or not, intrigue me, as do the nods to Lynch (there are several shots here so Lynchian that they could've been lifted from Twin Peaks: The Return) and the fairy tale references.

I suspect that I could grow to love it if I can just find a path.

Maybe Filmspotting's Josh Larsen can help me.

Caution: Yes, this movie stars Juliette Binoche, so it's probably worth seeing. But she plays a sort of mad-scientist/witch-doctor who is obsessed with distortions of sex in a drive to create a sort of "perfect human." So brace yourself for some deeply disturbing depictions of, um, sexual experimentation... for lack of a better word.

https://youtu.be/AtOwfo1ypOw

Ad Astra

directed by James Gray, written James Gray and Ethan Gross

While I watched Ad Astra, I was enthralled. I loved it. And I'd expected to love it, since I loved the last several James Gray films.

But after I left the theater, the voice-over narration started bugging me. Too obvious. Too unnecessary.

Then, the narrative started bothering me. It seemed too implausible, too contrived.

And its last 30 minutes came to seem absolutely preposterous — a finale the physics of which I wouldn't have accepted in WALL-E or any other children's animated feature. Finally, I ended up struggling with just how much the film assumes that we will excuse its protagonist's violence to advance his quest.

Still, I cannot deny the power of its imagery, its performances, and its glorious special effects. I need to see it again, following a hunch that I might have misunderstood it altogether. Perhaps what now seem like bone-headed decisions are actually deliberate and meaningful, and I just need a chance to discover that. Or, perhaps I was duped by images that reminded me of the greatest outer-space voyages I've ever experienced, and that temporarily blinded me to the film's big problems.

Whatever the case, my compliments to Brad Pitt for making me believe in the character and the quest through a performance that I think is his best since The Tree of Life.

I feel evenly split between the views of the two hosts of Filmspotting, who argued heatedly and impressively about this film here.

https://youtu.be/BsCNKuB93BA


Two Documentaries About Detail-Oriented Attention
and Achieving the Unthinkable

Apollo 11

directed by Todd Douglas Miller

I'm ready for a moratorium on films about astronauts.

Don't get me wrong: As an elevating big-screen experience, this is second in 2019 only to my #1 of the year. And it's so much more compelling because it's not treating space merely as a backdrop for a personal drama: "He went to the moon because he didn't know where to put his grief for a lost child." "He went to outer space to discover that his dad was human after all." This is a hope-inspiring experience precisely because it doesn't make it all about the astronauts. It makes it about an extraordinary community effort of cooperation and precision.

If so many people could work together to achieve something so unlikely, then think about what could be achieved — regarding poverty, or gun violence, or inequality, or terrorism — if that kind of energy were harnessed to make a difference for the good of humankind. Imagine, for example, if an American government could work this way. Or a school. Or a church. Or a neighborhood. We need a shared goal and a shared motivation.

I remain skeptical and unsettled by the moon mission. Is it an awe-inspiring show of power? Yes. But power to what end? I mean, sure... we showed Russia. But is Russia worrying about that now? Why does it seem well-nigh impossible to apply ourselves to achieve something that alleviates suffering... For All (hu)Mankind?

https://youtu.be/3Co8Z8BQgWc

Maiden

written and directed by Alex Holmes

Storytelling and cinema are two different things.

Some stories are guaranteed crowd-pleasers if you tell them well. And once in a while, one of those is really worth telling. This is one of those.

To tell this story in a manner worthy of the big screen, though, you need a treasure trove of footage of the actual events — not clever recreations, not sequences dramatized with animation, not a Peter Jackson "Wait until you see it in 3D" gimmick. And it needs to be footage that works on a large canvas.

Maiden has what it needs. It follows a familiar and predictable format: talking heads, sailors reminiscing about a singular against-all-odds experience, sewing together rough late-80s/early-90s footage with emotional testimonies and occasional interruptions as emotions surge like tidal waves and overwhelm vocabularies and eloquence. I'm reminded of Man on Wire, for example.

But Man on Wire was a helluva movie because, well... if you heard the story, you wouldn't believe your ears, but seeing the footage and witnessing the complex emotions and rationalizations in the interviews elevated the cinematic experience into both an intimate encounter with extraordinary human beings and a sequence of metaphors that could inspire anybody to walk their own high wires, recover the courage to complete what they have begun, believe that the seemingly impossible is possible.

Maiden works like that.

Cinema is, after all, like an art achieved with a graphic equalizer: For some films, it's right to turn up the Story and make it the focus. For some, it's right to lean into the poetry of the dialogue. Some films would be much lesser things without their transcendent Musical Scores. So much depends on the vision and what will serve it best.

I'm of the opinion that Great Cinema will always be great achievements in Imagery. You can take all the rest of these elements away and still have a motion picture, but cinema is, at its most fundamental form, the provocative juxtaposition of images. In that sense, Maiden is not Great Cinema. It is a fantastic experience of storytelling made of a remarkable amount of strong historic footage as an unlikely boat, full of unlikely sailors, crashes through one big wave after another — not the least of which were the waves of criticism, doubt, disrespect, and mockery.

In these days when the world leaders are, in their arrogance and ignorance, still relying on abuse and derision in order to sustain the illusion that men are superior beings, Maiden is not only an exhilarating true story. It's medicine for the soul, and reason to have some hope for meaningful victories in the future.

https://youtu.be/OMBM10cBhIs


Thrilling Caper Movies About Admirable
Family-Focused Heroes Who Push Back
Against the Destructive Ignorance of the Rich

Parasite

directed by Bong Joon-Ho, written by Bong Joon-Ho and Han Jin-Wan

The most significant takeaway from Parasite for me is the unsettling sense that the cinematic prophecies about violent uprisings of the Poor against the Wealthy and Prejudiced are accumulating at an alarming rate — to the point that I feel I will live to see apocalyptic clashes and revolutions at a scale I haven't seen before.

But that's not what I'm here to write about. If I'm to write much about Parasite, I'm going to have to spoil things, because I feel that much of what this film is about was done better by another movie released earlier this year. (I won't say which, or I'd be risking a revelation of the film's Big Twist — which was clever.) And as stories of of families of co-conspirators who scheme their way through poverty go, I was moved much more by Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters last year.

Parasite has undeniable charms, no doubt about it. It has a certain Raising Arizona zaniness to it, as its sympathetic con artists improvise their way toward a livable income. I can see audiences enjoying it for its comedy of errors — until it isn't one anymore. The performances are pitched high, as they are in all Bong movies. And there are some clever twists. But the contrivances and coincidences pile up fast, spoiling my suspension of disbelief quickly. I couldn't take seriously the last 30 minutes, which often wants to be taken seriously — at least insofar as this is a film about Important Social Issues and the contempt that the rich have for the poor.

If I hadn't gone in ready for a Palme d'Or winner, I might have given this another half-a-star. I need to be generous with Korean dramas because I am just not, in most cases, on their frequency — the mix of high-pitched comedy and high-pitched drama rarely makes much sense to me. I admire the performances here, and Bong directs with such supreme confidence that what's happening is always interesting. There are a lot of beautifully composed images, and he does wonders with the architecture and layout of the house in which the cons are carried out. But the intertwining character arcs all fit together like a Rube Goldberg device in a convenient, mechanized way that emphasizes contrivance instead of suspending disbelief. And that closing chapter takes the implausibility to another level.

If this sounds like a negative review, it isn't: I highly recommend the film for the fun of the games it's playing. But when a film is embraced and exalted almost unanimously by the critics I admire and respect, I end up writing to understand why I was not similarly impressed. So, sure, go see it! But don't let the tidal wave of raves set your expectations too high.

https://youtu.be/PhPROyE0OaM

Woman at War

directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, written by Benedikt Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson

The night before I saw Woman at War, I was watching Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote charging at windmills. Then, at this film, I watched Halla charging at electricity pylons. What a satisfying weekend double-feature.

I don't much mind a preachy crowdpleaser if it's this clever, when it's led by an actress who is this strong in a complicated role, and when it's this generous with moments of tenderness and humor. Director Benedikt Erlingsson takes some big risks here, both in narrative twists and in tonal dissonance, and those gambles pay off. If this movie took itself any more seriously than it does, if it had an actress any less versatile than Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it wouldn't work.

And yet, while it's constantly admitting that it's something of a farce — I'll let you discover the running gags — it's easy to see that the seemingly unstoppable enemies of world-destroying industry are not at all exaggerated.

Ultimately, Woman at War is a sobering film that achieves only glimpses of grace. While the heroine is spirited, this movie isn't likely to give anyone hope that we can save the world through our protests. It can only inspire us to show each other what love and grace we can in the midst of oppression. And I think that, for some of us, it will do just that.

https://youtu.be/U2v3_jHrvBQ


Two Films About Surviving
and Thriving in High School

Booksmart

directed by Olivia Wilde, written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman

My high school experience couldn't have been more different than the one captured here... but then, mine was so unusual that I don't expect I'll ever see anything like it in a film. (The only moments in high-school comedies that have ever reminded me of my own high school have come during Napoleon DynamiteSing Street, and some of the more generous sequences in Saved!.)

Still, I don't dislike the genre: I was a huge Better Off Dead fan in the '80s; I saw Heathers enough times in 1989 to be able to quote the dialogue as it played; I became an Emma Stone fan when Easy A arrived; Sing Street strikes me as nearly perfect; and Edge of Seventeen — while more of a drama than a comedy — is just outstanding.

Nevertheless, I've felt somewhat alienated by most high school comedies, especially those that suggest that high schoolers are 90% preoccupied with sex. I loved high school. I enjoyed the company of almost everybody in my (very small) class (of about 60). And when I graduated, I didn't want to say goodbye to anybody. And what I remember is that my close friends and I were aware of that sex-obsessed-teen stereotype and made fun of it; we were just as interested (if not more so) in movies, music, and sports. And if were obsessed with anything it was a particular variety of comedy-one-upsmanship.

And yet, if the audience reaction today is any indication, this is obviously familiar ground for most, and my high school experience qualifies me as a visitor from another planet. So I guess that I'm grateful that, for all of these characters' preoccupations with getting laid as if it's the Meaning of Life, this movie plays with such heart, such an inclination toward empathy, and such a determination to liberate each and every teen character from the constraints of typical categories and stereotypes. This, like Napoleon Dynamite is a movie full of individuals, of human beings, not types.

And while the movie prioritizes delivering a kind of sexual "graduation" for its characters so highly that I found myself getting impatient, I'm glad that it ultimately ends up caring most about its central friendship — much the way that Lady Bird (which I find much more rewarding than this) ends up caring most about its central mother/daughter bond.

Miscellaneous notes:

- The much-hyped animated sequence — meh. It didn't strike me as particularly inspired or funny, and it went on too long.

- The pop soundtrack: One of the smartest, most carefully curated soundtracks of the genre.

- The cinematography: Surprising, much stronger than is typical of comedies — any comedies.

- The pool party scene? Lovely, but not nearly as memorable as the one in Eighth Grade.

- The performances? Strong throughout. I expect we've just seen breakout turns by a bunch of young talents who will become bigger and bigger stars for the next decade.

https://youtu.be/S0Mb6BgnhS0

Luce

directed by Olivia Wilde, written by Anthony McCarten

I saw this in an almost-empty theater — well, it was empty if you disregard the three people in front of me who were scrolling through Instagram (THIS IS HAPPENING FAR TOO OFTEN) — and it's one of the most provocative, unpredictable, and "talk-aboutable" films I've seen all year. A couple of turns in the last 30 minutes strained my suspension of disbelief, but it's braver and more complicated than the recent hit that wrestles with some of the same questions: Get Out

Moviegoers are missing out.

The cast are all strong. I wonder what's missing here that might have made it catch on. If Nicole Kidnman and Michael Shannon had been cast instead of Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, would that have worked? Are we experiencing Octavia Spencer fatigue?

Whatever the case, I'm so glad I saw it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqzgDB1CMI4

 


Two Haunting Revelations
of Real-World Tyranny, Toxic Propaganda,
and Resilient Courage

Dark Waters

directed by Todd Haynes, written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan

Stories like this one feel formulaic because they are true and they happen all the time. You can tell a familiar story poorly, and you can tell a familiar story well. Dark Waters is a David vs. Goliath story like countless others, but it's also a Todd Haynes movie — so that means it is crafted with enough subtlety, complexity, and grace to rise above most movies of this sort. It doesn't go for easy crowd-pleasing; it lets situations remain truthfully messy; and it never sets up a big "We got 'em moment." It's more The Insider than Erin Brockovich or Spotlight. And it honors a man who clearly deserves to be lifted up as a great American — or, better, a great human being.

Mark Ruffalo was good in Spotlight, but his big moment in that may has well have played with a "For Your Consideration" tag during the movie. He's much, much better here. Sure, he gets to state the obvious and moralize, but in this film I found those moments constantly convincing in their contexts. I think this may be Ruffalo's best work since You Can Count On Me, the movie that started all of those Brando comparisons.

And it’s a shame that I saw this movie tonight in an otherwise empty theatre tonight. It's no Jumanji: The Next Level, I guess.

We like Mister Rogers talking about neighborliness. But this is what love requires of the good neighbors that Rogers sought to inspire.

The movie doesn't need to spell out that we're watching the President, the Trumpublican Senators, and all who have sold their souls for power carry out even greater crimes against ordinary Americans with the same kinds of lies, false promises, and conspiracies to increase their wealth at the expense of our health and security. I emerged from the theater feeling compelled to pray for the brave individuals who are taking on those Goliaths right now, shouldering seemingly unbearable burdens, taking risks with their lives, in order to someday hold criminals accountable. I am praying that we get to hear their stories soon, hear songs sung about them, and see movies made about them. And I hope that this film will find a much, much larger audience so that it will increase Americans' desire to seek out and know the truth, and then to rededicate themselves to honesty, integrity, and service.

These movies about truth-tellers and Davids versus Goliaths rarely work. The Insider worked. And this works. God bless Todd Haynes and Mark Ruffalo.

Go see it. Before it’s gone.

https://youtu.be/RvAOuhyunhY

One Child Nation

directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

Somewhere right now, some church organization is pouring money into an amateur filmmaking endeavor, trying to make a feature film that will inspire audiences to "vote Pro-Life."

If there really was such a thing as a genuine Pro-Life movement — one that cares not only about making pregnant Americans think twice about rushing into abortion, but that wants us to care about cherishing and supporting human life from conception all the way through to care for the aging — then we would see that movement celebrating and promoting this film.

One Child Nation doesn't have anything particularly groundbreaking to offer in its artistry. Formally, it's a pretty straightforward documentary made of interviews and historical footage. Nanfu Wang's narration goes a long way to helping audiences understand a global crisis not as an abstract but as a personal and relevant challenge. It's compelling and, well... insert a bunch of words that have been overused in describing documentaries about injustice and cruelty. Devastating. Heartbreaking. Harrowing. It's all of the above, but it trusts viewers to understand the gravity of the situation — it doesn't punish us with horrors.

Perhaps its most distinctive characteristic is the grace demonstrated in its interviews: As Wang interviews older Chinese men and women who "had no choice" but to follow their government's one-child policy, she never strikes a judgmental tone. She listens with sensitivity and compassion, and draws out stirring and sometimes shocking testimonies.

It might be easy for American viewers to watch this, at first, as if watching testimonies of human rights abuses on the other side of the world. But Wang brings things all the way back and reveals a surprising level of American complicity in global human rights abuses, highlighting how many Americans don't know — and, worse, don't want to know — the dark secrets behind the adoption of Chinese "orphans."

Watching this at the end of 2019, I couldn't help but think about how the Chinese government's conspiracies to profit off of the oppression of their own people looks a lot like what the American government is doing through cruel family separation policies, taking children from desperate families and putting them on the adoption market. Further, the extremes to which the Chinese government has gone to suppress reporting on their own horrific operations should alarm Americans who have seen their own President brand journalists as the "Enemy of the People." America's crimes against its own citizenry are increasing at a sickening rate — and this movie gives us a vision of the kinds of atrocities that fascism (like the sort gaining ground right here) makes possible.

One Child Nation is now easily accessible via Amazon Prime.

https://youtu.be/gMcJVoLwyD0


A Music Video Par Excellence

Anima

directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, choreography by Damien Jalet, projections by Barri

Thank you, Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke, for some of the most beautifully surprising cinema I've seen in a while.

In less than 15 minutes, ANIMA cut through the hurt, the distraction, and the weariness of one of the toughest weeks of my life, and it spoke powerfully to me. I haven't experienced anything quite like this since Wenders captured Pina (in 3D).

"Everythiiiiiiiiing... is in its right plaaaaaace."

I've yet to read lyrics for ANIMA or hear the album, but the narrative of this 3-track excerpt arrives at a moment of intimacy that moved me to big fat tears at 9 AM on a busy Friday morning.

This highlights PTA's greatest strength: creating occasions of profound—profound because they're particular—human connection within worlds of madness.

You know, Anderson loves Jonathan Demme so much, I'm thinking that the next Radiohead tour could be the occasion for the greatest concert film of all time.

 

https://youtu.be/YNYJ_BJJbzI


 

Two Impressive American Period Pieces
Featuring Strong Shows By Leading Men...
Both of Which Veer Into Glorifications of Violent Vengeance
(One by Outsiders Against Privilege, One by Privilege Against Outsiders)

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

A few scattered first impressions:

“There is a ‘family’ in our driveway.”

When I have some time to write more about this, I’ll be noting some intriguing correlations with Jordan Peele’s Us. This is certainly a year in which the outcasts rise up and lash out. The attitudes of the lead characters — and the filmmaker, in fact — toward these troubled uprisings is interesting and, in this case, troubling.
-
Felt to me, on a first viewing, like a study of, and a declaration of love for, exteriors. Of a time. Of a place. Of people.

Interiors? Those moments that seemed intent on giving us glimpses revealed very little. Maybe that's the point — the hollowness of the Hollywood dreamers. But that makes the movie seem profoundly at odds with itself, celebrating the very religion that costs so many their sense of meaning and purpose.
-
But oh... the exteriors. Of course, this movie looks great. Tarantino still knows how to film actors and locations in ways that blaze with life.
-
Does it sound great, though? This screenplay does not snap, crackle, or pop like so many other Tarantino screenplays. I'm already straining to remember particular lines and exchanges. The music of the writing that was such a concert in earlier Tarantino work only plays in fits and starts here.
-
Rack this up with one of the many performances in which DiCaprio is just acting too hard for me to ever believe in his character. Sure, that's complicated by the fact that his character is a mediocre actor at best, but still — Pitt suspended my disbelief, and DiCaprio did not. If this had been a broader comedy, he would have fit in better. But Pitt is acting in a much subtler, more contemplative film than DiCaprio is.
-
Another thing: The last 20 minutes of this movie crushed my hopes that this might eventually escape the Curse of the Things that Keep Me Frustrated with Tarantino. Crushed them.

I grew tired a long time ago of the Tarantino "Stand Your Ground" ethic: Design a situation in which characters must commit violence out of self-defense or vigilante justice, and you have a free pass to unleash an orgy of human bodies being spectacularly destroyed for our entertainment. I used to strain for ways to excuse such things so that I could feel better about liking so much else in these movies, but now I just admit it: There's a lot to like in this film, and a lot I cannot defend in good conscience—particularly the bloodshed and bodily harm staged for pleasure rather than any kind of edification. I cannot shake the sense that men who physically abuse women will find some kind of exhilaration in certain graphic sights and sounds. The strange spots in the audience erupting in what sounded like joy during those moments did nothing to dissuade me of this.

(Sigh.)

At least the violence in Jarmusch's latest, as somewhat underwhelming as that film was, was accompanied by a sense of genuine fatigue and dismay.
-
If I were to highlight a line that I would like to focus on in a second viewing, one that is repeated in a way that seems important, it would be this: "I never stood a chance." If this film has a theme I find compelling, that line is key to tracing it.

-

A reader was surprised that I didn't rate the movie more highly, considering how much I admired about it. I replied like this:

The prolonged revelry in the desecration of human bodies at the end is enough to make me count it down significantly. (When Hayao Miyzaki inspires my admiration by his frankness about the "insults to humankind" he sees in the movies, I think this is the very kind of work he's talking about.) But the virtuosic sequences of driving in the city and the loving recreation of a time and a place, along with some typically wonderful Tarantino character work by great actors, contribute enough goodness that I have to take it seriously.

https://youtu.be/ELeMaP8EPAA

Joker

directed by Todd Phillips, written by Phillips and Scott Silver

If you want to read my thoughts on Joker, fine. But know that I wrote what I wrote before I read my friend Chris Hoke's extraordinary essay about the film, which increased my appreciation of it exponentially.

Okay — these were my first impressions:

Enough about Taxi DriverThe King of Comedy, and Fight Club. I kept thinking, "This reminds me of something." That feeling got stronger as the movie went on. But it wasn't until Joker marched up to the camera on the talk show that I saw it. So much about this character has been done, and so very well, for so long, by Bono... as MacPhisto.

But I don't want to dwell on that. Many — perhaps most — movies are made of other movies and media influences. Some of them do new and innovative things with the things they steal, and some turn out to be mere imitators. I don't feel particularly driven to give a Batman slap to this one. I want to point out, instead, why I finally went and saw this film.

This was a movie I really didn't want to see because

A) I've been burned out on movies inspired by comic book characters since before Tobey Maguire was done playing Spider-Man;

B) I don't care much about the Batman mythos, and have only ever been glad of seeing Batman Returns (for Catwoman), The Dark Knight (for Ledger), and LEGO Batman (for finally delivering a depiction of Batman that rings true);

C) Bob Dylan's right — "It's not dark yet / But it's gettin' there" — and my heart doesn't need the additional weight of heavy-handed movies about that fact;

and

D) I love Joaquin Phoenix, but he's already played much more sophisticated, original, and interesting men on the edge of madness.

But I finally talked myself into seeing this film because my undergraduate students are embracing it, and because it's fueling their skepticism (and even cynicism) about film critics.

No, it's not blind devotion to comic book movies that's making them respond. It is, to some extent, that they're tired of hearing scorn for works of art that are their first experiences of important ideas. They haven't grown up with Taxi DriverThe King of Comedy, or even Fight Club. (Or MacPhisto, for that matter.) They've grown up with superheroes and supervillains. And they're intrigued by a "sympathy for the devil" take on a villain that has only ever been a monster in their movies.

And one of the things I admire about this generation — well, at least the majority of those I'm getting to know — is their inclination toward empathy, their aversion to "Othering," and their solemn interest in understanding the causes of affliction and depression and dysfunction.

They see, in Joker, people they know. They see the alienated. They see the abandoned. They recognize (as audiences who made Garden State a hit recognized) the relevance of a story about a young man reliant on medication for lack of love. They talk about how, exiting the theater, they were speechless, grieved, even awestruck by what sounded to them like the ring of truth.

And they don't want to hear it dismissed as derivative by the voices they're supposed to respect just because those critics can point to "influences."

Granted, they're very strong influences — and I see clearly that Joker is an imitator that borrows, steals, and relies on the forms and functions of far more original artistic visions. And no, nothing in the movie surprised me because it was being so obvious, telegraphing its punches at every turn, and then underlining each punch with ominous tones as if hinting that the Director's Commentary for each one will elaborate on What It All Means.

But I'm much more interested in investigating why so many are taking this movie so seriously. It's speaking to them. We would do well to ask why. Marvel and DC are the prevailing mythos of more than one generation now, the way Star Wars and Indiana Jones were mine, and this has, for many of them, taken things to another level. It has them thinking about the causes of extremism. It has them thinking about the nature of destructive forces rising in the world, and about the complicity of the political and cultural entities that condemn those forces in cultivating those forces.

I worry that Joker's antihero is going to make too much sense to some of them, particularly to those who have, themselves, been abandoned and alienated and left fumbling for any kind of reliable role model. But I hope that it inspires those who have known enough goodness and love in their lives toward wisdom.

So, yeah — I'm irked that this movie treats You Were Never Really Here as if it was never really there. But I would love to use this occasion as an opportunity to ignite young moviegoers' curiosity about those films to which this film owes so much — not smack them for not recognizing movies that they've never seen, and certainly not prove Joker's Big Sermon (preachy and out-of-character as it is) to be true by responding with sarcasm and dismissiveness.

After all, I'd never seen Hidden Fortress when I saw Star Wars for the first time. And I don't begrudge my friends their love of Downton Abbey just because the far-superior Gosford Park exists.

Anyway, this movie, for all of its derivative characteristics, gets something right that U2 gets right: the Devil is born of an appetite for attention, and he'll feed on whatever spotlights we give him. What's more, he needs love as much as any of us.

P.S. De Niro's pretty good in this.

https://youtu.be/zAGVQLHvwOY


The Most Rock-and-Roll Movie of the Year

Her Smell

written and directed by Alex Ross Perry

I've never enjoyed self-destructive rock-star revelry as drama. And while I believe that style is substance, I'm not sure all of this ugliness is in service of much.

Still, as Becky with the Good Glare, Elizabeth Moss is rock-and-roll incarnate. And while most of the talk is going to be about her performance, the whole ensemble is otherwordly — particularly Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin.

This film rivals Uncut Gems as the most intensely immersive cinematic experience of the year. Both of them send us careening through a world of disorientation and distortion, inviting us to empathize with characters who are completely out of control, intoxicated by the drugs of ego and capitalism, torn from the contexts in which love and intimacy have any opportunity to save them. It's a harrowing experience. But I found it ultimately meaningful and even redemptive... something I can't really say about Uncut Gems.

https://youtu.be/PMlHDNdLGU8


The Movie I'll Stumble Across on Hotel Room
Television and Watch to the End Every Time

The Dead Don't Die

written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

"But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us." - J.R.R. Tolkien

Man, that Tolkien. He knew how to cheer people up, didn't he?

In a similar vein, Jim Jarmusch's new zombie movie is not interested in telling us what we want to hear. (Remember the epigraph at the beginning of The Big Short? It applies here too.)

During this opening-day screening, several moviegoers — some of the few who chose this over The Secret Life of Pets 2 and Men in Black 3 and Shaft — didn’t get what they wanted. They got up mid-movie and staggered out. And as they did they looked and acted exactly like Jarmusch’s zombies, expanding this movie and its wisdom into 3-D.

This may not be one of Jarmusch's strongest works — but it's too early to say. I usually need two or three screenings to start getting a good sense of he's up to. Whatever the case, I'm grateful for some more time seeing the world through his moods and lenses.

I love Jarmusch for knowing how to give shape to the sense of loss I'm feeling in 2019.

I love that the same imagination that packages this observant lament as a comedy (it's actually the most serious zombie movie I've seen since 28 Days Later) also gave us a gorgeous vampire movie about the timeless joys of pursuing artistic passion and the joyous affirmations of love and poetry that we find in Paterson. With Jarmusch in the world, I don't feel so lonely; with each film he makes, I have a stronger sense of having found a kindred spirit.

I love him for rejecting those zombie-movie genre conventions that allow audiences a convenient escape of just how truthful and timely these B-movie metaphors can be.

I love this world-weary, heavy-hearted, and — yes — heavy-handed eulogy for the America that aspired to value the mind and the conscience above the stomach. I suspect Cormack McCarthy will too. "You can't stop what's coming."

Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston are outstanding as Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton.

https://youtu.be/bs5ZOcU6Bnw


Okay, that's just the opening act. Coming soon... my 20 favorite films of 2019.


Overstreet's Favorite Recordings: 2019

Rather than cook up another introduction to this — my list of my favorite recordings of 2019 — I'll point you to two things you might want to read first:

The introduction to my 2019 in Review here:

http://www.lookingcloser.org/blog/2019/12/30/my-2019-in-review-an-introduction/

... And the first part of my celebration of the music of 2019 — a trip through the Honorable Mentions:

http://www.lookingcloser.org/blog/2019/12/31/favorite-recordings-of-2019-honorable-mentions/

Are you all caught up now?

Okay...

I will share two important re-releases here, and then my top 25 new-release recommendations.


BLASTS FROM THE PAST

The Beatles

Abbey Road (2019 Mix)

As with last year's Giles Martin remix of The Beatles' The White Album. my favorite listening experience of 2019 was Martin's spectacular remix of Abbey Road. Where The White Album was already my favorite Beatles album, Abbey Road had never made much of an impression on me. That changed this year when I heard layers of sound, clarity, and energy that I'd never perceived before. Ask you friends and neighbors until you find the best possible stereo, and then crank this up. You won't regret it.

https://youtu.be/KQetemT1sWc

https://youtu.be/l3SBBWIxGZA

Here's NPR's Bob Boilen talking with Giles Martin about the production:

Briane Eno

Apollo — Atmospheres and Soundtracks — Extended Edition

Another remastering from 2019 that provided beautiful and mysterious soundtracks for my creative writing classes, Brian Eno's Apollo — Atmospheres and Soundtracks — Extended Edition was a major highlight.

https://youtu.be/OlaTeXX3uH8

Now, let's focus on music that was entirely new in 2019.


25.

Our Native Daughters

Songs of Our Native Daughters

No record I heard this year is more necessary than this one. Where banjo playing has typically been a man's show in American history, here it's taken up by not one but four women of color: Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. But that's just the beginning of this record's distinctiveness. Read the liner notes, especially Rhiannon Giddens' vision for the project:

There is surely racism in this country — it's baked into our oldest institutions — just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.

The music, then, puts the spotlight on America's shame — and not only America's shame, but the shame of professing Christians specifically. As Kiah sings in "Black Myself," challenging the vocabularies of white Christian slaveholders, "Is you warshed in the blood of your chattel? 'Cause the lamb's rotted away." During a year when so many white Christians — American, European, otherwise — seemed more than willing to throw the Gospel aside for the sake of gaining political power and advancing a white supremacist vision, songs like this sound like foreshadowing of a pending judgment, a verdict from a truer and higher ground.

The sounds on Songs of Our Native Daughters may sound like something drawn up from the Smithsonian archives, but their moral vision and righteous anger is all about the here and now.

https://youtu.be/uDvPZBjXa9o

https://youtu.be/uNi12x-1iTU


24.

Angel Olsen

All Mirrors

Angel Olsen's All Mirrors had one of the more interesting backstories about its development and how Olsen arrived at such a lush and complex production, one of the more spectacular aural experiences of the year, whether you hear it on headphones or speakers.

Here's Bob Boilen's NPR interview with Angel Olsen and producer John Congleton:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrHdJ50OHYg

https://youtu.be/kWUtALx9i14


23.

Wand

Laughing Matter

In a year when the closest thing to a great Radiohead record as a Thom Yorke album, Wand delivered the strongest and most ambitious art-rock musicianship. The complexity of their polyrhythms, the grace of their melodies, the confidence in their performance, and the patience they demonstrate in letting songs evolve and change — they have a lot of the characteristics of my favorite bands. Laughing Matter is a couple of tracks too long, in my opinion, and the focus, complexity, and inspiration of the record's first half isn't sustained in the second. But those first few songs are well worth the price of the record, and I'll be blasting them in the car for a long time to come. The promise I hear in this record makes me even more excited about whatever Wand does next.

https://youtu.be/mycVWg_2dqs

https://youtu.be/NJ48wdE4BLs


22.

Pedro the Lion

Phoenix

After so many other musical endeavors and manifestations, David Bazan's return to a band — and, specifically, to a band called Pedro the Lion — represents an important step in his evolution as an artist. He seems to have realized that all of those different costumes were just stages in the growth of one vision, and that he can be at peace with who he is and where his rocky path has taken him. His famed falling out with Christianity has led him to an ever-intensifying reckoning with the nature of sin, conscience, truth, love, and grace. He may have cast off the vocabulary of the church, and he may have given up any formal embrace of the Gospel's narrative, but the causes and motivations of his choices remind me a lot of what Simone Weill once wrote: "... [O]ne can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

Phoenix is a reassertion of a persona and a purpose. More importantly, it feels like the first album from Bazan in a long time that I would call celebratory and even joyful. At times, his trajectory suggested that the rest of his career would be an extension of a contentious argument — a lament. Here, he seems exhilarated, excited, and at times maybe even having fun.

https://youtu.be/OQik6WpwRug

https://youtu.be/1goT7Sd4eME


21.

Said the Whale

Cascadia

And speaking of bands that know how to have fun: Said the Whale drew sounds from Spoon, The Replacements, and even The Knack ("My Sharona") to cook up the most blissfully joyous pop-rock album I heard all year. Listen to "Record Shop," "UnAmerican," and "Cascadia" and then try to get those hooks out of your brain's music app. And then, right in the middle of it, they dropped a fierce anthem "about being a man in 2018 and the importance of listening to women."

https://youtu.be/vyLOqxbj9uc

https://youtu.be/vYY0eZHvSGo

https://youtu.be/S5fTZT2FWYY

https://youtu.be/P2oN4GRL8Ok


18., 19., 20. (three-way tie)

Okay, I'm cheating: Three albums are tied for #20.

Here are three albums by dynamic duos — Conor Oberst, Buddy Miller, and Daniel Levi Goans pair off with Phoebe Bridgers, Julie Miller (of course), and Lauren Goans (of course). And I can't tell you which record I like better, which represents a stronger work of songwriting and performance, or which duo is a match made in a higher heaven. You tell me. Make an argument.

Better Oblivion Community Center

Better Oblivion Community Center

https://youtu.be/UXzReYLuavg

https://youtu.be/lNqBuxjLDlE

Lowland Hum

Glyphonic

https://youtu.be/nYGpgoq4xks

https://youtu.be/1D0XjroEpOM

Buddy and Julie Miller

Breakdown on 2oth Avenue South

https://youtu.be/jDAZSmnzXrM

https://youtu.be/DYyNs72eRsA

 


17.

Thom Yorke

Anima

I needed a dose of Radiohead in 2019 to give me a way to sing about the end of the world. But then, Hail to the Thief plays like it was written about what's happening right here, right now. So instead, I'll take this much more personal, devotional, and meditative record from Thom Yorke, which comes with a Netflix movie that stands with the most exciting and affecting cinema I saw all year.

https://youtu.be/V9vx6J_pLCA

https://youtu.be/IZfCj7tuZ-E


16.

Lankum

The Livelong Day

As solid as as time-tested as the stone on the album cover, Lankum's The Livelong Day doesn't feel so much like a new rock-and-roll revelation as it does our discovery of something that has been there for more than a century.

https://youtu.be/5rukIHD7rNY

https://youtu.be/JxKx-BBWX8Q


15.

T Bone Burnett, Jay Bellerose, Keefus Ciancia

The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space

This is the strangest and most furious record of T Bone Burnett's career, which is saying something. And he builds it in the middle of a hurricane of percussion that only Jay Bellerose could stir up. In "To Beat the Devil," his spoken-word delivery channels the voice of a Great Deceiver who will seem familiar to those with ears to hear:

"I’ll tell you what you want to hear…

I’ll play upon your darkest fear…

then I’ll take what I want from you…"

And then he shifts to lines advising us in how to respond and how to maintain hope:

To beat the devil you must go deep as he stays shallow…

To beat the devil you must not be part of the dissonance…

Nothing that he does will last…

Listening to this, you'll find it sounds like someone has tapped into a fury — specifically, the fury felt by those who believe that the 2016 election was a sledgehammer smashing the very foundations of democracy and justice in America. But it's not nearly as narrow as that: It's a timeless description, applicable to any Antichrist. And it has to be heard to be believed.

https://youtu.be/Ymipes1QkRU

https://youtu.be/dgHuoItdNAc


14.

Kate Tempest

The Book of Traps and Lessons

Just listen, Israel, to the prophet in sackcloth and ashes at the ages of the city. She is speaking with the voice of the Holy Spirit. She is a human heart exposed and beating, calling us out and confessing her love to the end of the world. I'm so moved by this record that when I'm listening to it, I'll probably tell you that while it might be the best record of 2019, it's definitely the most potent, detailed, and personal response to 2019 I heard all year.

https://youtu.be/41rf3xXZkcM

https://youtu.be/aRULtXn6W0s


13.

Andrew Bird

My Finest Work Yet

Joking aside, it just might be.

It's prophetic. Poetic. Biblical. Haunting. And beautiful.

https://youtu.be/YEFLR2JnMd0

https://youtu.be/zug1B8DSkWw


12.

J. S. Ondara

Tales of America

It seems right that the most singular new voice on the big American stage in 2019 came from an artist born in Nairobi. J.S. Ondara's. Tales of America feels like a solid cornerstone on which he can build a body of work that will stand as a pillar of timeless American music.

https://youtu.be/nqlhx-t-kXo

https://youtu.be/EXeQgxPE2xc

https://youtu.be/36LTdV2_Y9o

 


11.

(I'm treating two albums as one here. Deal with it.)

Big Thief

Two Hands

and

U.F.O.F.

In the biggest flex of the rock-and-roll year, Big Thief followed up their promising 2017 record Capacity with not one but two tremendous records. I refuse to pick a favorite. It feels like the first and second part of a show that establishes them as one of the most vital, original, and gifted bands in music today. Best of all, it reveals a group more interested in mystery and discovery than popularity; these lyrics are unsettling in their raw honesty and intriguing ambiguity.

The new generation of rock headliners seems to be a generation intent upon leaving no identity unquestioned, no vocabulary unchallenged, no hierarchy unprotested. With "Not," Big Thief has given us an anthem for seekers who refuse to ever declare that they've "found it." For them, uncertainty is the only certainty. And that sounds like an invitation to hope and faith in the midst of disappointments. I'm sure that would sound too cliché for them and their fans, but the beauty in their music feels to me like affirmation of something meaningful — another language for love, mercy, hope in the midst of hurt, betrayal, failure, and trouble.

https://youtu.be/UIcVwH47uxQ

https://youtu.be/fx7AgJIYyH8


10.

Michael Kiwanuka

Kiwanuka

Like wonders drawn from a time mid-'70s time capsule refashioned into something vital and contemporary, Kiwanuka is both soulful and celebratory. If Marvin Gaye was working today, I suspect he'd sound something like this.

https://youtu.be/ivvs_qL6t_c

https://youtu.be/zO_wmEzfMRY


9.

Hand Habits

Placeholder

One of my favorite discoveries of the year. While I think their band name is terrible (somebody explain it to me so I understand), I think their lyrics are rich and rewardijng, and their sound is subtly compelling. The emphasis on grace and forgiveness woven through these songs kept me coming back for more during days full of provocation toward anger and retaliation.

https://youtu.be/EXKTKLrFWZ8

https://youtu.be/QYXwR9FFMVs


8.

Sharon Van Etten

Remind Me Tomorrow

I'm not sure any artist I've admired over many years made as substantial a stylistic leap forward as Sharon Van Etten did this year. This record is the sonic equivalent of a fourth-of-July fireworks show, but it isn't just flash and dazzle; it's deeply rooted in Van Etten's personal experiences of deepening wisdom in matters of motherhood and mercy.

https://youtu.be/W4etGf2PJcA

https://youtu.be/cBBRTiE4p0s

https://youtu.be/fGDW0wTiv84

 


7.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Ghosteen

It would have been naive to assume that Nick Cave's previous album The Skeleton Tree was the only work of art he would make from the rage and the grief of losing his young son Arthur. Ghosteen delves into even more fantastical imagery, and even more explicitly Christian imagery, in search of a vocabulary for hurt he feels and the consolation he seeks. In a time when so much of my own life's foundation is crumbling into ruins — the American church, America itself — I find this journey of heartbreak from the failures of human endeavor into a transcendent hope not only necessary but comforting.

https://youtu.be/cfKYImFP_Pw

https://youtu.be/Ch0hPzksH7Y


6.

Over the Rhine

Love & Revelation

As is usually the case, Over the Rhine made the 2019 record that feels most personal to me. I love exploring the vast geography of music, but the artists whose country I call home is a region of overlapping properties cultivated by Linford Deteweiler and Karin Bergquist (along with a few others: Sam Phillips, Bruce Cockburn, Joe Henry). To read the net of words I cast into the water in hopes of catching something resembling my thoughts and feelings about this record, read this testimony.

https://youtu.be/rL5_tL_X4h8

https://youtu.be/vXYs4Dm2zDQ


5.

Elbow

Giants of All Sizes

Elbow is a band working at the level of U2, Radiohead, and R.E.M., writing about the dreadful here and troubling now, with vision and humility and power, all the while giving us the sense that their best work might still be ahead of them.

https://youtu.be/EJa5FvCaBJc

https://youtu.be/-CR628yT7aE

https://youtu.be/BD_ZgAEjLNg

 


4. and 3.

Joe Henry

The Gospel According to Water

Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin

So many albums released this year are expressions of loss, lament, resilience, and hope — but two of the most substantial are expressions that come directly from the artists who have were plunged this year into the valley of the shadow of death and have been, for now, lifted back out of it.

Joe Henry's The Gospel According to Water is, for me, the more substantial work of lyrical poetry — these are songs written by a man strengthened by countless hours of attention to poetry (note the mention of Jane Hirshfield in the acknowledgments), and sobered by a cancer diagnosis that served initially as a death sentence. By God's grace evident through the work of doctors, friends, family, and Henry's own humble and spirited response, that sentence was lifted, and his cancer is in remission. But these songs demonstrate an increase in his powers: While they do not expand substantially on his musical style — if you've heard his last few records, you know the palette of colors with which he paints — the lyrics show an ever-lightening touch, a trust in the power of suggestion, an inclination toward nature (where past records had delved deep into historical and cultural references), and a prioritization of meditation over crowdpleasing. (There aren't any tracks here hashtagged as "Hit Single.") As Henry told The New York Times, “I write a lot of things that I can’t explain but I know them to be right."

In responding to the potential collapse of his body by a restorative work of imagination, Henry's album provides a path by which all of us worrying over other potential collapses — of health, of employment, of family, of country, of ecosystem — might imagine our way forward. "I process anything significant in my life by writing," he told Billboard's Daniel Ouellette. "I write to learn, to understand, to discover. When the shoe dropped last November, my beloved wife said that there are a lot of support groups. But that's not how I processed what I was going through. I needed to write to get through the darkest days. I could have easily coiled up on the floor and accepted that the walls were closing in on me, but as soon as I began to write, I found new access to my own imagination, and I could imagine my way to the other side of the forest — and I did."

https://youtu.be/U-doEDprb5U

https://youtu.be/I8Jq3YGgpCU

https://youtu.be/Bj05Wq15dac

https://youtu.be/5vn9sZ01M_w

Patty Griffin's is, when I look at the two artist's landscapes, the one that feels more like a career peak — a revolution of sound by the stripping away of anything decorative so that what we get is the rawest and truest expression of her strengths as an artist, and an exhilarating expansion of her powers. That's not to say it's better than Henry's records — that would be a pointless comparison. What I mean is that Henry's record feels like a chapter in a masterpiece of poetry that he is still composing. Griffin's record feels like a standalone work, a break from what she's done in the past, a metamorphosis.

Griffin, too, was in cancer treatment as she wrote these songs. Instead of writing directly about her crisis, she finds poetic correlatives by diving into deep reservoirs of storytelling, by engaging in inspiring works of portraiture, and by drawing from rivers of folk music and folklore — American and otherwise. As NPR's Jewly Hight writes,

Moving easily between idioms — tragic Scots-Irish balladry; gospel-blues repetition; earthy, narrative detail; dreamily poetic imagery — she teases out the album's subtle, animating tension. There's such a light, sympathetic touch to her accompaniment that the arrangements feel like they sprout from the moods she sets. And the homey production, achieved with the help of her longtime collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Craig Ross, at least partly stems from the fact that they recorded at her house in Austin.

It's a self-title record, and that feels right. But it could just as well have been the question-refrain of my favorite track: Isn't She a River?

https://youtu.be/m_bNyDrOeGs

https://youtu.be/FIm8UDKeNkQ

https://youtu.be/TEjBlIFJKe8


2.

Luxury

Trophies

If you pitched a fictional narrative that followed this story arc, it would seem too unlikely:

A punk band forms in the midst of small conservative Christian college community, made up of guys...

- who have no interest in "Christian music";

- who want to follow in the footsteps of The Smiths or Depeche Mode; and

- whose sound is ferocious and groundbreaking, and whose live shows have rock authorities hailing them as the best live show they'd ever seen.

The subversive and challenging lyrics, the gender fluidity of their lead singer's stage presence and writing, the energy (that's an understatement) have all of the hallmarks of punk rock legends.

But then, they sign a questionable record deal. And then... an unbelievable car accident that nearly kills them all.

And then... and then... and then... The story of Luxury gets weirder, sadder, stranger. And then, eventually, as if this were either the purpose of the suffering or else a final attempt to make meaning out of chaos, some of them become Orthodox priests.

Here's the amazing thing: The band keeps going. And improving.

It's an amazing story. And Matt Hinton, who made an extraordinary documentary about the tradition of sacred harp music called Awake My Soul a decade ago, has crafted a loving, challenging, complicated celebration of this band's resilience, imagination, and talent: Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury.

It's one of those documentaries in which the story needs to be told via many "talking-head" interviews; it's too much story to accommodate anything more abstract or poetic. The story and the people are the thing, here, and Hinton is wise to go that route. The goal of the movie is not to advertise and make you a fan, as the story makes it clear that this narrative is not going in the direction of myth-making or world-conquering. The heart of this movie is full of questions and conflicts, and you will be talking about it after you watch it, as I did with friends for hours.

And yet, I'm wondering: As a rock-loving young adult in the late '90s, how did I miss this band? I feel like I missed out on music that would have been inspirational, exhilarating, and ultimately formative.

I know what you're probably thinking: A band can have a great backstory. They can even have documentaries made about them. That doesn't make their music great. Right?

Right. But that's what I'm here to tell you: the music is great. They really were that good. They are even better now.

Long live Luxury.

https://youtu.be/-xD4U1iYTPk

https://youtu.be/yiqTWSOtHco

 


1.

Rhiannon Giddens

there is no Other

Produced by Joe Henry, there is no Other is Rhiannon Giddens' finest record yet, and one of two outstanding releases from her in 2019 (if you count Songs of Our Native Daughters). It's also the album I played most often — for the awakening of conscience; for the necessary work of lament; for the instrumentals that reach beyond our feeble vocabularies; for "Wayfaring Stranger" and how it spans traditions and generations with its everyman testimony; for the resilience in its expressions of hope; for consolation.

Giddens' voice is a national treasure, and her musicianship is outstanding. Henry captures her chemistry with Francesco Turrisi beautifully.

It's ridiculous, this process of listing albums when they're all so distinctly interesting and engaging. It's similarly ridiculous to select particular tracks from an album like this when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So take these as breadcrumbs that lead you to rich experience of the album, one with which I hope you find a meaningful relationship, as I am doing now.

https://youtu.be/KBIQ_tjBt0M

The originals are outstanding. Try "Black Swan" or the album's gospel closer.

https://youtu.be/U2xgNJ083ug

https://youtu.be/9RSwE92FGtk

And when they take on a timeless classic, their performance is, in this listener's opinion, as definitive as it gets.

https://youtu.be/mJw-jfjgvaI

But in a time when the fires of racism are fanned by the President, by Republicans in Congress, and by racist police officers across the country, songs like this are necessary occasions for those of us who care to sustain the greatest ideals of this failing American experiment: a land of liberty and justice for all.

https://youtu.be/Rp3McQkU46k


Favorite Recordings of 2019: Honorable Mentions

It almost never fails.

When my spirit is bruised and beaten by the world, or — more likely — dragged down by the foolishness of my doubts and the feebleness of my faith, if I reach for my faithful iPod and press "Play" on my playlist of five-star songs, I am saved by beauty, by creativity, by truth.

I am as thirsty for music during these dark days as I am for bright rays of sun through Seattle's infamous malaise. It seems that my desire to hear new songs grows greater as I grow older.

I have no favorite genre: I'm drawn to whatever feels challenging, whatever is characterized by a spirit of discovery, whatever has an energy that suggests the artist is leaning into ideas that they can't sufficiently express. As the world seems tired, out of ideas, and maddeningly prone to repeating the worst mistakes of history, great music reminds me that there are, as Hamlet said to Horatio, "more things [at work] in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy." And so great songs, whether they're about glory or trouble, give me hope.

I gave substantial attention to more than 60 albums this year — not as many as last year, due to the fact that I taught more than full-time hours and often worked 14- to 16-hour days on the University campus. It's hard to concentrate on great songs when you're looking at a stack of 80 five-page essays that need to be thoroughly marked up within 48 hours. My commute becomes, as a result, the best time for immersing myself in new sounds and for singing the poetry of great lyricists.

If you're new to reading my lists, here's what you should know:

Since I was 13 years old, I've concluded my year by producing a package of recommendations — mix tapes, at first, and now playlists and blog posts. When I was a child, full of pride and ambition, I called these lists "The Best of...." Now that I know a little more about art, I know that while we can say a few things here and there about excellence, our experiences with art are extremely subjective and personal, and that our relationships with each work changes over time in regard to our experience, our understanding, our beliefs, our questions, our preferences, our fears, and our social and historical context. So I wouldn't dare to presume and say what the "best" movies or albums of the year are. I've yet to meet anyone who can reliably make such a judgment. But I'm happy to share testimonies about the works that have inspired and rewarded my attention during this twelve-month span.

As always, I’m grateful to the Looking Closer Specialists — particularly Laure Hittle and Timothy Grant, two generous donors who faithfully make this website possible. Their generosity and those who make smaller donations along the way keep this site alive and enable me to continue my adventures in the wide, wild world of music and movies.

Here, I'm sharing a long list of "Honorable Mentions" — albums I played frequently and found rewarding. I highly recommend them all, and I suspect that I will grow more attached to some of them as I find more time to appreciate them. But these are just the "Honorable Mentions." In my next post, I'll count down my 25 Favorite Recordings of 2019.


Irresistible New Sounds

Three of the most exciting new sounds booming through my car stereo wove snippets of conversation and clips from other media to spice up their mix. But they couldn't be more different as aural experiences.

If you've heard the bands Alabama Shakes or Thunderbitch, then Brittany Howard needs no introduction. But this is her first solo record, and it feels like an introduction, or at least a full realization of just how much Howard has to offer. This is a record fusing hip-hop, funk, and jazz with soul that recalls James Brown, rock-and-roll that recalls Prince, and gospel that has something to teach the Church. Named for Howard's sister Jaime, who died while only a teenager of retinoblastoma, Jaime resonates with more passion than its often-fleeting tracks can contain. If anything, I wish the album was longer, and that the songs were longer and more exploratory.

Brittany Howard

Jaime

https://youtu.be/CfizQsGWOxI

https://youtu.be/FLZQjkOg3QI

Billie Eilish

When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

If you lived on Planet Earth in 2019, then Billie Eilish probably needs no introduction either. Her music was ubiquitous. It was the best thing, in my opinion, about the two movie trailers it energized. But Eilish can't successfully play as background to anything; she's the main event. She's very young, and her lyrics sound like the poetry of a pushy high-school kid — but that's not a complaint; it's part of her charm. And the music, produced by her brother Finneas, is relentlessly surprising in hit plays against the conventions of mainstream pop. In a world of noise, a hush attracts attention, and she knows how to work it. I hope she's surrounded by good people; I want to see her grow up to write songs as surprising in their lyrics as they are in their irresistibly surprising sounds. Whenever her songs come on, I can't interrupt them.

https://youtu.be/DyDfgMOUjCI

https://youtu.be/Z1r3KDb0Vx0

Konradsen

Saints and Sebastian Stories

This was one of 2019's biggest surprises. My friend Carl-Eric Tangen, who built my website and serves generously to keep it running smoothly, also works as a music promoter, and he came to me with this record full of genuine enthusiasm. I've learned to trust him, and that trust sure paid off here: This Norwegian folk-pop duo — Jenny Marie Sabel and Eirik Vildgren — has a unique sound and a shared imagination that makes things feel deeply personal. For a sense of what you're in for, read this review at Pitchfork:

With the creativity of a bedroom recording and the polish of studio production, these 13 songs often feel like sketches. Found sounds and samples create a sense of familiarity, even when the music meanders. “Dice,” the first song Sabel and Vildgren made together, swaps out traditional percussion for the sounds of cutlery and clinking dishes. “Television Land” arrives with a bizarre prelude from a family friend (both the friend and the track are dubbed “Big Bruce”) before interpolating Bette Midler’s classic “The Rose,” referencing the Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball, and incorporating a surprisingly jazzy groove into its climax. The left-field references complement the music’s found-art aesthetic without really clarifying anything.

https://youtu.be/R-yS1EvLWzo

https://youtu.be/GGiYjIWcQ_4


Original Soundtracks Overlooked as Albums

Music Inspired by the Motion Picture Roma

Two playlist-style soundtrack albums captured and held my attention time and time again this year. One barely registered with critics, as far as I noticed. The other was a blockbuster, and yet the conversation about it had more to do with the dissatisfying movie for which it served as merchandising, and that's a shame — it was a pretty great collection of wildly imaginative tracks.

I wasn't the biggest fan of last year's critically acclaimed film Roma from Alfonso Cuarón. It was visually impressive, deeply personal, and often moving, but almost every scene distracted me with its formal ambitions and I wasn't drawn in to the point of believing what I was seeing. This collection of songs, on the other hand — overseen by legendary producer T Bone Burnett — is loaded with tracks that would have been standouts on any of these artists' solo releases. It features Patti Smith (reimagining an early song), Beck, Laura Marling, Ibeyi, and the year's breakout pop superstar Billie Eilish. Why isn't this showing up on any other favorites lists?

https://youtu.be/reQgYd1zhsE

https://youtu.be/LH7yreeq7IE

And then there's Beyoncé, who makes headlines whenever she shows up at anything.

And she deserved headlines for her contribution to the critically maligned remake of The Lion King that was described as the "live-action" version. (Give me a break.) It wasn't her voice for an animated character that mattered — it's that she hosted a musical party that deserved much higher marks than the movie it supported.

As with last year's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, here's a hip-hop hullaballoo that is suitable for all ages and that stirs up genuine excitement. There are strong threads of gospel in this weave of styles and melodies. Listen closely.

Beyoncé

The Lion King: The Gift

https://youtu.be/14di5tJxn7c

https://youtu.be/I_I1cYf_U58


Dreamscapes

I can't say I fully grasp what's happening in these records yet. I haven't moved beyond the enchantment of their music to wrestle with their often cryptic lyrics yet. But the sounds were substantial enough to make these two records major events as I drove through grey Seattle days.

Weyes Blood

Titanic Rising

Speaking to Pitchfork, Natalie Mering says, “I want to make sure everybody feels like they deserve to be alive. I hope you could have a smile during the apocalypse.” As Weyes Blood, on the album Titanic Rising, she taps deeply into a David Lynchian dreamscape of sound, giving voice to longing and vision in fantastical musical and lyrical vocabularies. The one that connects with me most immediately is "Movies" (of course). But then there's "Nearer to Thee," a reference to the hymn that the musicians on the Titanic played as it sank, which best clarifies the needle-drawn thread of dread and darkness that runs from song to song.

https://youtu.be/RFtRq6t3jOo

James Blake

Assume Form

I seem to remember that NPR's Bob Boilen, a few years ago, described James Blake as "the future." That certainly seemed possible when I heard his breakout single "Retrograde" in 2013, a song that still feels fresh and innovative. But now we have an album that lives up to the potential of that track — song for song on Assume Form, this "forlorn balladeer" strikes a perfect balance of inspired playfulness and aching sincerity. I can't decide if my attention should be on the cryptic (and sometimes clunky) lyrics or on the relentlessly experimental sounds, but more often than not the latter wins out.

My favorite track is the last one because I spent a lot of my 2019 keeping my wife company through difficult years of insomnia. Blake's voice rang true here as a voice of experience.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_IjFskbl-g

https://youtu.be/V7ojBuyOXD8

https://youtu.be/sdnD09M5uj0


Exhilarating Original Scores for the Last Days

Here's a band that played as if their lives — as if all of our lives —· depended on it. I turned this up, perhaps a little too loud, perhaps a little too often. Don't ask me to describe their sound — just dive in and be amazed.

And just as my ears stop ringing, I learn that they've released a follow-up. Already! I haven't even listened to it yet!

The Comet is Coming

Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery

https://youtu.be/c8UWZRSg_Lg

https://youtu.be/Qt2WFAK53Hk


Favorite Bands Restlessly Expanding Their Sound

Both The National and Sleater Kinney showed a sense of ambition and adventure this year, expanding their palette and refusing to rest on familiar sounds.

Sleater Kinney's record is full of raw and righteous anger, just as we've come to expect. And in their lyrics, they're partying like it's 2099. But the record, for all of its thrills and highlights, seems so heavily influenced by St. Vincent, who produced it, that it feels a bit too familiar. (I love Annie Clark's music, but Sleater-Kinney were strong enough as they were. I'm all for evolution, but they didn't need to accessorize with so much of St. Vincent's sound.)

The National, by contrast, come up with some of their most surprising innovations and, for me, some of their most affecting lyrics. At this point, it's my favorite of the two sonic upgrades. I rarely hear "Not in Kansas" without singing along, and I inevitably tear up when they veer into singing the chorus of R.E.M.'s "The Flowers of Guatemala," one of the most important songs to me of my college years.

Also worth mentioning: Director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) made a short film to accompany the release, and it starts Alicia Vikander.

The National

I Am Easy to Find

https://youtu.be/MqPSNfMacx4

https://youtu.be/5FQtSn_vak0

https://youtu.be/ifElv18k2O8

Sleater-Kinney

The Center Won't Hold

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPNlINlZ0qM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpOw0GdlBmo


Acts of Gratitude

There were quite a few records made in tribute to giants of art and culture this year. One tribute album of covers was such a great idea, it's amazing it hasn't been done before. The other two featured formidable African American artists honoring giants who have influenced them. I can sing along and savor the first; the second and third demand my full attention, both in the imagination of the music and the layered allusions and references of the lyrics.

Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10ZmH-ql16w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQEoR1Qpz4s

Jamila Woods

LEGACY! LEGACY!

https://youtu.be/XezEKGO7Tys

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55W2w6lupgk

Rapsody

Eve

https://youtu.be/pJULxQKFsLo

https://youtu.be/jhMk_wLm07E

 


Essential Sounds From Around the Globe

I graded a lot of essays while listening to these records. The language barrier is a problem I can't easily solve, but the beauty of the voices and musicianship make these extravagant soundtracks that lift my spirits and make long hours at the laptop into medicine for the heart.

The Good Ones

Rwanda, You Should Be Loved

https://youtu.be/ekMKKb2vZHo

https://youtu.be/3u_8Wds9PAk

Tinariwen

Amadjar

https://youtu.be/9hdZ88JO-PQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_eQiBnNl6M


Steady Hands

These artists remain favorites over many albums. And while these records may not have floored me like some of their previous releases, they were strong enough for me to keep them in steady rotation. And their high points are very high indeed.

The louder I play Wilco's new record, the more I find to admire. What sounded simplistic and quiet at first blooms into deep complexity when you crank it up.

Beck's record feels like the midpoint of Sea Change and Midnight Vultures, and thus a record made to mark some time while he looks for something new and surprising — but I'd be lying if I denied being grateful whenever it comes on.

Wilco

Ode to Joy

https://youtu.be/VamTQr4kcKA

https://youtu.be/0hyUXXnyTE8

Beck

Hyperdrive

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXrlWw3yhW4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3PR2iJbLUE


For the Love of Guitars

Steve Gunn

The Unseen in Between

https://youtu.be/tqwx0r8n3tU

https://youtu.be/h6-dwxvTQd0

Bruce Cockburn

Crowing Ignites

https://youtu.be/YVimpbPMguI

https://youtu.be/A_nE5en5DGQ


A Voice from the Great Beyond

Let's wrap this up with something special. While this album is too short to register as one of my 25 favorites of 2019, it's an extraordinary surprise: an album of new songs — unreleased recordings! — by Leonard Cohen. And if that weren't a big enough surprise, get this: It isn't just the lyrics, which are astonishing. It's the music. While the music on many of the last Cohen records served as little more than scaffolding for his voice, the music here is good enough to make you wish that his past records might be reinvented with his voice being set to new arrangements by all-star lineups of musicians.

For the full story on this release, check out NPR's interview with Adam Cohen (Leonard's son).

Leonard Cohen

Thanks for the Dance

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AMMb9CiScI

https://youtu.be/mszJwXsZwKM

 


My 2019 in Review: An Introduction

Why bother talking about movies and music in 2019?


Over the next week, time permitting, I will post my annual lists — a tradition I've sustained since I was 13 years old, a compulsion that I don't fully understand, a process that feels both celebratory and maddening.

Back then, I thought I was doing something unique; I didn't know anybody else who had similar impulses. Now, I live in a world of lists, and it's easy to feel that such an activity is pointless.

But when I go to work on them, I forget my reservations because I remember that to testify in public about what creative work has blessed me is an expression of gratitude, and the world can always use more gratitude.

I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again: I would never be so presumptuous as to call my selections "The Best of the Year." I haven't seen or heard enough to make such judgments. Moreover, our encounters with art are as personal and distinctive and ever-changing as our relationships with people. If I share a list of favorites with you, I'm testifying that this experience was meaningful for me, and while I'm inviting you to experience it for yourself, I make no claims or promises.


For music, I'll post my 25 Favorite Recordings of 2019 (albums I've played most and recommended most highly), but only after I've posted a big list of Honorable Mentions (albums I'm enjoying and still learning to appreciate). These will be separate posts.

For cinema, similarly, I'll post a long list of runners-up, and then a 25 Favorite Films of 2019 list.


I admit — I've found it difficult this to concentrate on these lists, to find words for why music and movies are still so important to me during these troubling times.

2019 was a difficult year in the Overstreet home.

We are still wounded and weary with grief from a sudden and tragic death in our family, which meant that our summer was full of difficult conversations with family and complicated decisions. Soon after that, one of my dearest friends over the last 20 years passed away. And now, in this last week of 2019, we are saying another painful farewell.

These losses have seemed even heavier because of their historical context: Every day brings further news of the seeming self-destruction of the country I love. I feel the losses of betrayals as so many of the Americans — and more specifically, so many professing Christians — who taught me to prioritize justice and mercy have decided that to set these ideals aside for the sake of gaining political advantages. They have aligned themselves with racists and misogynists. They have turned back the clock on civil rights, and they have all but torn down the Statue of Liberty in hardening their hearts against immigrants and refugees. I've seen so many people I once respected and admired pledge their loyalty to a vile tyrant, and to a party that has locked arms in defense of his lies, obscenities, and atrocities. The nation I loved has abandoned its vision of "liberty and justice for all," profaning the sacrifices of generations before them, in favor of "power and riches for some" — the antithesis to Christ's Gospel of love and grace.

This present darkness has made it difficult to appreciate or enjoy some unexpected blessings. In my career, for example: I find myself now, much to my astonishment, after two years of adjunct work at Seattle Pacific University, blessed with the title "Assistant Professor of English and Writing." And, due to the trust and support of the SPU administration, that title has just been unexpectedly amended to include "Writer-in-Residence."

I am grateful. But it is hard to celebrate these occasions when I am surrounded by such obvious hardship and suffering.


So I am making the most of my opportunity: I aim to sharpen my students' minds, soften their hearts, and equip them with the skills to make a difference. I hope to cultivate empathy and appreciation for integrity, excellence, and justice, I pray that their lives will become testimonies of truthfulness and mercy, lights shining in the darkness.

And as I engage in this daily discipline, I find myself doubly blessed. I'm grateful for every opportunity that I have to introduce students to great art — literature, music, and cinema.

And I'm grateful for the occasions I've had — rare as they are these days — to write about and speak about those experiences. (This year, for example, I was delighted to speak at Brehm Cascadia's Story & Sacrament conference and at Seattle Pacific University's Day of Common Learning. Best of all, I led a week-long film seminar in Santa Fe, at the Glen Workshop, focusing on great films about friendship... in a real movie theater! And I contributed several long essays to Good Letters, the long-running Image arts blog.)


But this is strenuous work.

And, under the crashing waves of personal losses and large-scale betrayals, I often need to swim to the surface of this turbulent sea for fresh air and for illumination.

Music and movies provide that. I spend so much of my teaching time reading that I feel less driven to read literature in my "spare time." I want the mysteries of music and cinematography, which speak to me so differently from text.

Many of those occasions in movie theaters and under headphones have given particularly poignant expression to loss and to longing. Consider Ghosteen, Nick Cave's epic expression of longing for consolation after the death of his young son. Consider Over the Rhine's Love and Revelation, another travel journal of lament and hope.

And so, in the posts I'm preparing now, I invite you to explore, to see if you too might find rewarding relationships with any of these albums or films. And I hope I'll hear from you, as I have over so many years, about these selections and others that have become important to you. Though 2019 is ending, our exploration of its treasures is not — it's just begun.

And by providing this fuel for one another's fires, we can help each other burn in the dark.