Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

It’s the end of another year in cinema and, looking back on the year that was, I can definitively say that we are living in a golden age of television. That’s right, with streaming services and cable channels churning out tons of risky, unique stories on the small screen, I can’t help but be disappointed by the onslaught of passable, at times directionless fare we got on the big.

I had a ton of fun with movies like Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-man: Homecoming but then screamed in disappointment at a underwhelming new King Kong, a beautiful but bloated Blade Runner sequel, and, in my opinion, an offensively bad first shot at the Justice League. By the time awards season rolled around, I was feeling pessimistic about the movies 2017 had to offer.

I still don’t think it’s been a particularly strong year for film. Here’s hoping the trend of studios trying to make their own Stranger Things will pass soon. Even some of the early awards favorites like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri failed to connect with me. However, after a solid binge of movies we missed or were recommended to us, I’ve filled out my top ten movies of the year.

10. Split

Confession time. I love M. Night Shyamalan. Sure he peaked way early with The 6th Sense, and may have made a few enemies with The Last Airbender, but I still think he’s brilliant. Thankfully, we are moving into an era of not having to hide Shymalan fandom any longer. After surprising fans with The Visit, the “Shy-man” was back to form and this year rocked my world with Split. An incredible performance by James McAvoy and a story that both narratively and visiually kept me guessing makes this one of Shymalan’s best. Perhaps my favorite parts of this film were the things unsaid, the nuanced details I’ve since gone back and realized. Toss in a beautiful theme that would make Alessia Cara proud, and I’m ready for the upcoming sequel.

9. The Lego Batman Movie

When 2014’s The Lego Movie came into my life, I thought there couldn’t be a movie more tailor made for me. To that, The Lego Batman Movie says, “hold my drink.” Legos, super heroes, jokes, stunning animation, and a story about friendship and, really, the family of God, come on! Does it get any better? Batman isn’t even my favorite superhero, but watching him make mouth sounds to lobster thermidor warming in his microwave made me fall in love. Here’s hoping for a Robin-centric sequel. Fly, Robin, fly.

8. Detroit

From two movies that I’ve already watched multiple times, to two movies I’m in no hurry to watch again. The first of which is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Telling the story of the 1967 events that tore a city apart, Bigelow brings her expertise in depicting war to the streets of Civil Rights America. The content is horrific and has left audiences split, but I don’t remember this story even being a footnote in my history books. The story has to be told, and, to do the story justice, the horrors had to be real. Our history is ugly and Detroit puts that ugliness on display. There is so much in the movie that will break your heart, but, after everything Bigelow takes her audience through, watching John Boyega’s character, Melvin, in his final interrogation scene might bring you to your knees. Read Heather’s complete reflection on Detroit here.

7. Wind River

Throughout Wind River, you’ll hear again and again how desolate, how draining, how terrible the living conditions are in its rural Wyoming setting. That narrative is so present it’s often the sole excuse given for the deplorable actions in the film. You may even feel cold watching the movie. Then you realize, for many of the characters, they have no choice but to live there. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who topped by list last year with Hell or High Water, here tackles the shocking reality of missing indigenous women. I’ve got mixed feelings about depicting sexual violence in film, but, again if this story is going to be told it has to be given justice. Wind River is heartbreaking, suspenseful, and masterful storytelling but telling that story means shining a light on the dreadful things happening in America’s dark shadows.

6. Molly’s Game

Molly Bloom is a fascinating person and her story, written in her book “Molly’s Game,” is a fascinating story, but those things do not make a fascinating movie. Aaron Sorkin’s writing makes a fascinating movie especially when telling remarkable true stories. Just as he did with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs, in Molly’s Game, Bloom, a former world-class skier who at 26 was earning millions of dollars running poker games for celebrities and mobsters, gets the total Sorkin treatment. In the hands of a less capable storyteller, this movie could have been a Rounders remake, but alongside thrilling performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Sorkin’s directorial debut had me all in.

5. Baby Driver

Baby Driver is a technical achievement. If you’re unaware, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), wrote this heist movie with the entire soundtrack in mind. The soundtrack is pumped through the headphones of lead character, Baby, who uses music to drown out his chronic tinnitus. Wright then took that soundtrack and blocked, crafted, and choreographed a symphony of chases and action scenes. It is breathtaking. Every step, every gunshot, every background noise plays into the music creating a chaotic harmony that puts fully on display Wright’s filmmaking genius. Underneath the technical skill, also lies a story about maintaining innocence in an increasingly harsh world. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put Baby in a corner, but straight into your blu ray player for repeat viewings as you unpack everything Wright jammed into the film. The soundtrack is also available on Spotify in case you find yourself on the run. Read my complete reflection with companion Psalms for Baby Driver here.

4. Get Out

The best theater experience I had this year (maybe ever), including Star Wars, was Get Out. With every twist and turn the the sold out theater came unglued with gasps, laughs, and screams. When it came to its climatic end, row after row jumped to their feet cheering, clapping, and dancing in the isles. It was cinematic magic. For many, it was a therapeutic, genre bending take on the horrors of their reality. With Get Out, Jordan Peele is giving audiences a creative taste of his own experiences. I suggest you watch it, maybe with someone who doesn’t look like you, because it is a film best enjoyed in community. Read my complete reflection on Get Out with discussion questions here.

3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I love The Last Jedi. Come at me! I’ve often considered my Star Wars zeal to be fairly moderate. I’ve read some comics, but haven’t read the expanded universe novels. I have a few toys on display, but haven’t attended a convention or own my own stormtrooper armor. I’ve seen every episode of Clone Wars, most of Rebels, and both Ewok spin-off movies. I’m a fan and I know that fans love how much they know about Star Wars, and director Rian Johnson took that hubris and knocked us right off our high horse. I would say, the majority of the hardcore fans I know did like it, but still there’s a lot of hate out there and I just don’t get it.

I don’t want the galaxy to return to the state it was in when Episode I begins, a too-big-for-their-britches Jedi order and a world steeped in bureaucracy. It has to evolve to something more. For decades now, Star Wars has been a beautifully simple story that anyone can relate to, but as the universe expands, the complexity has to expand. War is not simple, and The Last Jedi, led by a conflicted and weathered Luke Skywalker, isn’t a simple story and one even the most learned fans couldn’t see coming. The original Star Wars was a surprise to fans in 1977, and now the finale of this new trilogy has the opportunity to do the same. Read my complete reflection on The Last Jedi here.

2. Mudbound

Mudbound is a beautiful and tragic film. Director Dee Rees took a book about life post-WWII in the Mississippi Delta and created a film that feels like your reading an epic southern novel. This is a time-period that feels like a world in flux. America just got back from helping to liberate countries at war, countries ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice and, yet it was an America that was still being ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice. Under their brilliant auteur, this cast gives so much life and breath to the lives of these characters. Sometime soon Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Detroit) will win an Oscar and I hope it comes from this one, along with a potential statue for Mary J. Blige as well. Mudbound has the ability in the matter of minutes to take you from the thrilling hope of progress, togetherness, and healing into a space of fear, division, and ignorance and still the characters keep pressing on into the future. As we keep pressing on today, it was a helpful reminder of the ups and downs of progress. Read my complete reflection on Mudbound here.

1. Logan

Logan did the impossible. I hate Wolverine. I hate that he is a terrible teammate. I hate that he constantly runs into battle with no plan just screaming and slashing. I have hated his two solo movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, mostly because they feature him running, screaming, and slashing for two hours. Even in X-Men movies I like, for example Days of Future Past, Wolverine is the worst part. Seriously, watch the final battle in Days of Future Past…with no plan and no thought he runs straight at Magneto, who can control the very substance Wolverine is made of, and immediately gets tossed aside. He’s the worst, but Logan made me love him.

All of his mistakes, all of the running, screaming, and slashing, is coming back to haunt an older, regret-filled Wolverine. He now hates the things I hate about him. This is an uncomfortably violent and bloody film, but that is kind of the point. His life has been defined by violence and this is now a cycle he can’t rip his way out of. Tragedy has struck everyone he’s been close to and all of the running and screaming in the world couldn’t save them. Logan plays out as Wolverine’s penance. Throughout the film he is emotionally and physically torn apart piece by piece until there is little left.

Still, what is left, is hope. What Wolverine had never realized in movies before is that he’s not the X-Men’s greatest weapon, but he could have been their greatest protector. As he comes to terms with his mistakes, he begins to change his role and, in doing so, preserves the future of mutant-kind. Also, watching Logan care for an aging Professor X, with an awards-caliber performance by Sir Patrick Stewart, showed me vulnerability I’ve always wanted and had never seen from Wolverine. As superhero fans begin to expect more complex stories from their big blockbuster films, the brutal and emotional Logan has sent me running and screaming into the next era of comic book movies.

Check out Heather’s Top Ten movies of 2017 here!

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Heather’s Top Ten Films of 2017

This has been a strange year for movies. Normally I have a very difficult time narrowing a list down to what I consider the best ten of the year, but in 2017 it has been a challenge to fill a list of ten. In my perception so many films lacked heart and focus. Movies like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and even “The Shape of Water” felt flat or preachy or simply lacked resonance. For me there was a deficit of beauty, and stories that captivated. Perhaps it reflects our cultural moment in 2017 that we are all struggling to find meaning and honesty. We are still struggling to open our hearts to one another. That may have influenced the stories we told this year and the way we reacted to them. Here are the movies that stayed with me and caused me to think, feel, and connect to the human experience.

Honorable mention: These did not make the final cut but were well crafted stories that could be worth your time.

Molly’s Game – Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game is terrific. Sorkin is known for snappy dialogue which Jessica Chastain and Idris Alba deliver perfectly. Based on the true story of a young woman who creates a high-stakes poker empire, you do not want to miss this superbly written, wonderfully acted film.

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The Square – This is a Swedish film so the European style may feel strange to some, but it is a thoughtful exploration of the way humans relate to each other. It is quirky and uncomfortable at times, but makes beautiful use of motifs and symbols. If you are looking for a movie to give you plenty to process later, give this one a try.

Ingrid Goes West – This was a small movie which came out over the summer that focuses on Instagram culture and how we curate ourselves to others. It highlights the tendency to collect experiences in order to present a meaningful life. What is special about this take on social media is that it explores how we use the platform rather than categorically condemning it. The ending is controversial, but I find myself frequently returning to the themes in the story.

The Big Sick – The ideas in this story will feel familiar to audiences of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None”, but it is a warm and funny true story. It is acted beautifully with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter turning in particularly poignant performances.

Top Ten:

  1. The Beguiled – Director Sophia Coppola’s most recent film, a clever remake of a 1970s “exploitation” film of the same name and based on a novel. The original film was heavily sexualized, focusing on the male lead Clint Eastwood. The novel was also authored by a man, and the story follows an inter-generational group of women living in a girl’s school during the Civil War when all the men were away. One injured soldier wanders to their home and they take him in to tend his wounds. What I love about this story is the way Coppola reclaims the emphasis of the film to turn the focus onto the dynamics of women relating to one another during an extraordinary time period. Make sure you watch the special features for the film, Coppola’s vision for the story is beautiful as are her relationships with her cast.

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  1. Coco – Pixar’s major film for the holidays is a charming and heartfelt story about family, legacy and forgiveness. The animation is stunning, the music is catchy, and the narrative is well developed and sweet. A great choice for the whole family!

 

  1. Baby Driver – The remarkable aspect of this film is the incredibly creative and precise use of the soundtrack. The story follows a young getaway car driver nicknamed Baby who suffers from constant tinnitus. To balance out the ringing in his ears, he has a collection of iPods with carefully selected playlists so he has music for every situation throughout his day. The soundtrack to the film is the music Baby is listening to, which is intricately choreographed with each movement and sound in the movie. Writer/director Edgar Wright gave the screenplay to the cast on iPads so they could listen to the corresponding music which would punctuate each scene as they read. The story is fairly simple but the use of sound editing makes it a feat of filmmaking that will you bring you back for multiple viewings.

 

  1. The Last Jedi – You do not have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this movie (although it probably helps). There are many things to appreciate about this installment. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are wonderful, the story is developed well. What struck me most is the theme of generational hand-off. How does the older generation work through their past failures and habits and empower the next generation to take their places? How does the younger generation step up to wisely channel our energy? These are important questions for the Church that Star Wars could help us think about.

 

  1. Ladybird – This is a great coming of age story that embraces and also transcends the genre. Director/writer Greta Gerwig lends an insightful take to not only depict youth but also parenthood and place. Ladybird beautifully explores adolescent ambivalence between trying to distance oneself from roots and what has shaped us, and desperately wanting to feel connected to those same things. With a wonderful lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and terrific supporting roles, this was a stand-out.

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  1. Wonder Woman – This movie produced one of the most emotional connections I had with a film this year. I think for me and for countless women in the US and around the world, Wonder Woman met a need we did not know we had. She is a female super hero in the truest sense. She is strong and capable and compassionate and determined. Her power is not in acting like a man, but in channeling the best of femininity. There is a specific scene in the middle of the film when Diana runs towards a fight, without hesitation and without fear. I still feel proud and empowered every time I think of this scene and what it means to see a woman act with courage and advocacy. The third act of the movie is a little clumsy, but otherwise it is a rare gift in the super hero genre.

 

  1. Silence – Based on the Japanese novel of the same name, this adaptation was ten years in the making for Martin Scorsese. It was released in early January 2017 which is why I am counting it in this year’s contention. The book is a haunting story of Portuguese Jesuit priests who were missionaries to Japan in the 1500s. The plot deals with faith, culture, doubt, martyrdom, and the question of where is God in human suffering. It is also a rare movie that portrays white characters entering a foreign culture in a way that honors and elevates the Japanese characters, treating them as equals with meaningful dialogue and autonomy. The runtime is long and the content is intense, but the story raises questions that are worthy of your wrestling.

 

  1. Mudbound – Ivan wrote a full review so mine will be brief. What I appreciated about this film is that it told a story not often highlighted. It follows two WWII GIs, one white, one African-American, coming back to the Mississippi Delta and readjusting to a Jim Crow South. The US tends to ignore our racial history between 1865-1965 so this is a story that very much needs to be told.

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  1. Detroit – This summer offering was met with some controversy, perhaps because director Kathryn Bigelow’s approach was misunderstood. As a director who has previously told stories that follow war and torture, she lends a fascinating take to US race relations. Her style brings a fresh lens to how we might view the policing of communities of color. It is very intense to watch, but that is the point. Check out my full review for synopsis and thematic analysis.

 

  1. Get Out – I typically avoid horror films and have mixed feelings about the genre, but writer/director Jordan Peele blew me away with his February release. He harnessed the best of what horror can be, turning a magnifying glass onto daily realities to reveal the underlying atrocities. The narrative is a horror film about racism, cultural appropriation, and turns many classic tropes on their heads to bring the audience face to face with our prejudices. It is wildly creative and I think a brilliant work. The violence is relatively minor for the genre, so even if you dislike horror as I do, consider giving it a watch.

 

Viewer content guide: Please note that some of my selections are rated R and/or contain adult content. In my opinion the value of the overall story is worth the potentially offensive content, but use your own discretion and look up ratings before viewing.

 

The Power of The Last Jedi

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader to his son and desired apprentice Luke Skywalker. It’s one of those Star Wars lines that sticks with you. The line is meant to strike fear in young Skywalker, but it puts on display one of the major themes of the saga and one that is so beautifully at the center in the newest installment, The Last Jedi. In an expansive galaxy like that of Star Wars, with expert pilots, exotic alien creatures, and supernatural warrior priests, who has the most power? What does true power look like?

Luke_vs_Vader

The easy answer for many long-time fans would be “The Force.” After all, according to Obi Wan Kenobi, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The genius of The Last Jedi is that it, not only calls into question what we know about The Force, but shows us that it is not the be-all-end-all of power in the galaxy. The ancient war that has been waging for decades across the saga, framed by a simple conflict between light and dark, just isn’t that simple after all. Which is a lesson Luke Skywalker, the legendary hero of the original trilogy, has had to learn the hard way.

What the new movies have done so well is thematically and narratively explore the lives of the old cast through the eyes of the new. 2015’s The Force Awakens did this through Han. Han Solo has always been the ultimate lone wolf, on the run from one thing or another. In Episode VII, we meet Finn and Rey, two people at a point in their lives where they are ready to escape and Han is the perfect spiritual guide. Throughout the movie Rey, ready for a father figure, bonds with Han and with his ship, the Millennium Falcon, which has been the ultimate getaway car throughout Star Wars cannon. Finn escapes his life as a Stormtrooper and is confronted with a decision to keep running or be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels to what we know of Han’s story in both Finn and Rey. The Force Awakens was very much Han’s chapter. In the same way, The Last Jedi is Luke’s.

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Even in the final moments of Episode VII, there is a literal hand-off of the story taking place. Now if we’re going to explore the life of Luke Skywalker that means we have to explore The Force, the history of the Jedi, and the allure of the dark side. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is a failure. He tried to live up to his legend and lost control setting into motion many of the events of the new movies. He’s spent his time since absorbing all of the past mistakes of the Jedi, knowledge that brilliantly ties together the mythology of the prequels to the original trilogy. Back in 2015, I wrote about the failures of the Jedi order, but basically Luke has realized that the Jedi failed because of their own quest for power. At their peak, the Jedi assumed reign over the galaxy, but just when their power peaked, when they thought they had it locked down, they were vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and were over thrown. This was the story of Episodes I-III.

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Into Luke’s despair and regret walks Rey pleading with him to be her mentor, to show her where she fits in the grand scheme of things. Really, what she is pleading for is exactly what the Jedi were supposed to be. It is very difficult to be defined by your power when you are actively trying to help someone become more powerful than you. At the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells Rey she needs a teacher, a sentiment she repeats to Luke. She doesn’t need a Jedi knight to ride into battle, she needs a Jedi master. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” I won’t tell you who says this to whom in The Last Jedi, but it might as well have been Jesus talking to his disciples or Barnabas talking to Paul.

Pastor Efrem Smith tweeted recently, “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness.” At the height of Jesus’ ministry, he gave up his life and at the height of his power, after resurrecting from the dead, he ascends into Heaven giving space for the apostles to lead. This has to be the example Barnabas was following when it came time to develop his apprentice, Paul. In Barnabas we have the man who vouched for the murderer Paul, the man who took that villain and trained him to be a Biblical hero, but to do all that he had to risk all of his power and eventually give it all away to Paul.

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This is also a lesson ace pilot Poe Dameron must learn in The Last Jedi. He has been flying by on his ability and skills for too long, and now must learn what it really means to lead the rebellion. Luckily, he is surrounded by resistance leaders who, just like Luke has learned his lessons about the Force, have learned their lessons about war. Without the legend of Luke Skywalker supplying hope to the resistance, Poe and Leia are racing against the clock to keep the rebellion alive. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about The Last Jedi is that, as Han’s story handed off to Luke at the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII, in so many ways, hands the story off to Leia and the resistance. This, however, is a chapter we will never totally see. The story of Princess Leia has ended off of the silver screen.

There are times in The Last Jedi where it feels like everyone is failing, and they are. The film reminds us, though, that failure is the greatest teacher. When we feel like we can’t fail, like the prequels’ Jedi order or Supreme Leader Snoke, or when we are afraid to fail, like Luke when he was training Ben Solo, we may have failed already. What does it look like to give your power away to the next generation? What does it look like to lay your life down in the ultimate resignation of your power? The answers to those questions are the ones Rey, Poe, and the resistance learn in The Last Jedi and will guide the saga into Episode IX.

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Combatting White Supremacy with Narratives Not Our Own

The vast majority of white people wouldn’t identify as white supremacists. The vast majority of whites think white supremacy is ugly and unacceptable. It is also true that a significant portion of the white community does not have close relationships with people of color. Additionally, it can be easy for white Americans to see minority-generated art (such as movies and TV) and assume it is made for a minority audience and is not for them.  But when we have few friends of color, and seek out little or no stories that are about people who don’t look like us, we are allowing our stories to be supremely white.

When we aren’t regularly seeing stories about people in different walks of life, we unconsciously think that everyone’s story is like ours. We become confused and sometimes angry about the way others react, or we say thoughtless things that we don’t realize are insensitive and insulting. The more we immerse ourselves in a variety of stories, the more readily we can empathize with people of color and think more effectively about our own actions and perceptions. Especially for people who are limited by geography and do not live in diverse parts of the country, seeking out the stories of others is a very simple way to broaden your understanding. If you were upset by the events in Charlottesville and want to fight semblances of white supremacy in yourself, here are some suggestions for movies and TV that you can watch in the coming months to help make your narrative less white:

Television 

Queen Sugar

I think this is hands-down one of the best shows on TV right now, and a lot of us haven’t heard of it. In its second season, Queen Sugar airs on OWN and is produced by Ava DuVernay (director of “Selma” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time”). It’s a contemporary story set in New Orleans about three siblings and their extended family, and their struggle to maintain the family sugar cane farm. The storylines and characters are very complex and the show does a fantastic job of addressing social issues in ways that nearly always feel natural and relatable. The first season is streaming on Hulu, the current season is available for purchase on OWN’s website (or on demand).

Queen Sugar

Black-ish

A sit-com on ABC, this show is funny and at times exaggerated  while also addressing issues of race and socio-economics in poignant ways. It’s about a successful black family in the suburbs navigating the differences between how the parents grew up (in a poor neighborhood and a hippy commune) and how to raise their children to understand race in America in light of their current affluence. I appreciate that the show depicts a wide range of modern black experience in humorous and heartfelt ways.

Luke Cage

This is a recent addition to the Marvel universe on Netflix. Luke is a super hero whose super power is being super strong and bullet-proof (an intentional play on the vulnerability of black men who live under constant threats of violence). The show is set in Harlem where the community is being pulled in many different directions between crime and renewal. Luke is caught in the middle as he tries to protect his neighborhood against violence and corruption. The show is quite gritty and has some adult content, so check the viewer warnings and decide if it’s right for you.

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This Is Us

This show was wildly popular so many may have already watched it. It’s a show that has a blended cast and talks about issues of race very thoughtfully. The cast is phenomenal and the writing is great. The family is predominantly white so for audiences who are unfamiliar with diverse narratives, it is a good entry point into more diverse entertainment. Use this show to start paying attention to how black characters are portrayed, how many scenes/lines they have compared to the white characters, whether they are portrayed as equals or as weaker/inferior, etc. The first season is streaming on Netflix.

Movies

Hidden Figures

This movie does a wonderful job of striking a balance between gritty realism and inspiration. Based on real people and true events, the film tells the story of black women working at NASA during the space race. It’s informative, it’s very engaging, and it’s appropriate for young audiences as well as adults.

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Creed

I’m a life-long “Rocky” fan, and director Ryan Coogler does a terrific job of breathing new life into this franchise. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Rocky’s rival and friend, Apollo Creed. The film has strong black characters and explores powerful themes of family and hope. One of my favorites in a long time!

Get Out

This is a technically a horror film so it’s not for everyone, but I normally can’t do scary movies and I was fine. The genre of horror at its best is meant to focus on a social issue and magnify it through the lens of fear. (The majority of horror films fail to do this, so don’t hear this as a blanket endorsement for all horror.) Writer/director Jordan Peale creates an extremely clever exploration of the appropriation of black culture and black bodies. He reverses the typical trope of the black side character being the first to get killed off, and forces the audience to confront our perception of black men as aggressors. If you can hang in there for a few scenes of violence and some suspense, it will be worth it. Check out Ivan’s full review here.

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, this film was ahead of its time in discussing police violence. Based on the true story of a young man, Oscar Grant, in San Francisco killed by subway security in 2008. The film tells his story and the events of his final day. It is sobering subject matter and simply shows Oscar as human. An early role for Michael B. Jordan, this is a helpful choice for exploring the topic of the relationship between the black community and police.

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Please think about trying some of these suggestions, and please know that this is only scratching the surface. My hope for you is not that you will watch a handful of these options and then feel that you know all black people. I hope that this will spark on-going interest to learn more and to also seek out personal relationships with people who don’t look like you. This is one simple step out of many that we can all take to move towards being a more hospitable and unified country.

Note: I’ve enjoyed a few comedies, “Ugly Betty” and “Jane the Virgin”, which are Hispanic-centered. This is an area of American entertainment that needs to keep growing. Unfortunately there are very few options for Asian American media. “Man in the High Castle” on Amazon has one of the largest Asian casts out there, but it is also sci-fi and is therefore limited in its exploration of current cultural issues. “Master of None” (Netflix) from comedian Aziz Ansari is a brilliant look at first-generation children of immigrants as well as broader racial/social trends. (The show will be fairly edgy for many viewers which is why I am not widely recommending it.) As audiences our money and viewership matters and we can join with others in asking for more stories and representation than is currently being produced. Keep paying attention to how different people are portrayed and put your support behind art that is complex and equitable. 

 

Men and women can’t be friends

“You realize of course that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally, slyly sneaking this disclaimer in to open the conversation of how sex always gets in the way of friendship. Possibly, he was just trying to work sex into the conversation any way he could. It is 1989, and Billy Crystal sits in Meg Ryan’s passenger seat painting a picture of gender relations past, present, future in the film When Harry Met Sally. It is a statement that, at the time, was describing gender relations in a post-sexual revolution era, but it also predicted how men and women would relate today in our world of app-based community and romance. Harry expresses his worldview in this context of two flirty college students, and it is charmingly funny, but when we look at where our churches are in the department of gender relations, it is nothing to smile about.

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As the millennial generation continues to put off getting married, we feel a larger and longer relational gap. To fill this void, many turn to positive, healthy friendships for belonging and community. Many more, though, participate in hook-up culture and online dating, where people of the opposite sex are commoditized. What is then created is an environment where relationships are defined by sex and isolation is created by the void of loving friendships.

The church might be feeling the fallout of this trend most. Recent research shows that because of this, women are making their exit. According to Barna Group, since 2003 the percentage of churchgoers that are female has dropped 12 points, and it is not because more men are coming in. Coupled with this, Barna also reports that only 17% of women feel like they are “very emotionally supported” in their church or synagogue.

I wonder if we trying at all to create environments where marriage isn’t the only priority in male-female relationships? But here we are, and I think our churches could be spaces where our current generation, which is relying heavily on friendship as their main source of affection and support, should find what they are looking for. This is not a quick and easy task. Even though community is a major priority in the church, our inability to form friendships between men and women can leave us like Ricky Bobby in his first interview, scrambling to figure out what to do with his hands. If something doesn’t change soon, if we do not find a way to encourage friendship among singles, thereby offering women the support they need, we could lose an essential component to representing the image of God in our places of worship.

Men and Women Need to Communicate

Sadly, our culture doesn’t stress communication and friendship between men and women. Sex and romance are the current language of male-female relationships. The current state of interpersonal communication is frightening. Reading through Parks & Recreation star Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance makes talking to the opposite sex seem like a myth, a rarely sighted animal that culturally never shows its face. Look at the narrative both men and women have been presented in popular movies and TV. Men are always the heroes, flying, swinging, or smashing in to save the day. This is true for the latest Marvel films, anyhow. The most recognized and powerful Marvel female leads, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, weren’t even invited to the party in the latest installment of the Avengers franchise. Why would they come anyway? In a bloated, male-driven superhero movie they more than likely would have served as little more than scenery. They are excluded unless the narrative calls for romance.

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Looking for a positive narrative for women, let’s investigate Disney’s Frozen. In a lot of ways, the film has become a beacon of hope in the normal princess narrative because it is a female-driven story about sisterly love and triumphing over the societal pressure for women to hide who they are. Nevertheless, you won’t find positive inter-gender friendship-building in this most recent Disney flagship. It is reasonable that Anna lacks the skills to make friendships. Being locked in a kingdom her entire life could do that. But when she emerges from her isolated world, she falls for the very first man who catches her attention. Here is the problem with the majority of our princess narratives: The action begins when the man arrives and ends with the happily-ever-after wedding. There always has to be a love interest, right? Even the resourceful Tiana from Princess and the Frog and the courageous Mulan from Mulan have narratives revolving around a love interest. What made these women who they are? It wasn’t the men. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if Kristoff and Anna stayed friends or Tiana opened her dream restaurant without being betrothed to Prince Naveen?

If we look at the narrative of Jesus’ life, though, we find that He didn’t think it necessary to have a love interest in order to have women around. Luke 8 tells a little bit of the account:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

These women were diverse, faithful, and incredible. Perhaps what stands out at first glance is how they financially supported Jesus’ ministry. They were dedicated to the cause as well as the cross. They followed Jesus all the way to the end and beyond and no wonder! Look at Mary Magdalene. Think about the absolute torture her life consisted of before meeting Jesus. What a story she has to tell. Our author, Luke, is a great example for our churches to follow. His first few lines tell you how he was a meticulous recorder of the history of Jesus. Many believe as he was on his travels alongside Paul, gathering information for a complete record of this story, he collected manuscripts and conducted interviews, interviews in which the women in Jesus’s life and ministry were not left out. In fact, it is likely that he even interviewed Mary, mother of Jesus. Can you imagine that conversation? Luke hearing firsthand Mary’s incredible story of being visited by an angel and life never being the same again. Our biblical authors didn’t pass these women up, and it means our churches shouldn’t either.

Today, we have our first female NFL coach, the first female graduates of Army Ranger school, a U.S. women’s World Cup title, a female mayor bringing gangs to peace in Compton, and on and on and on. These are opportunities and contributions that we do not see in male-dominated cultures around the world. Where women are oppressed, the culture suffers.

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Why then does it seem that the church is still behind in this area? Can you imagine what stories the church is missing by not communicating well to the women in our midst? Jesus didn’t have women there alongside Him by accident; He thought it was necessary, and we’ve got to move beyond the romance narrative and have real conversations. Men and women need to seek each other out, talk face to face, and learn to ask good questions. You’d be surprised how infrequently women are asked, “What do you think about that?” Does the way we communicate with women in church communicate their value? Based on the Barna stats, it doesn’t sound like it. Our churches need to seek out women’s stories, talents, and opinions because they have great value.

Men and Women Need Borders Not Boundaries

Men and women in the church need to have more conversations and interactions if they are to lean on each other as friends. This is normally the point in the conversation when we talk about building up walls. Stories of professional athletes and pastors never going to lunch with women or riding in cars or elevators alone with them creates a sense of fear and confusion. Well get your trumpets ready, people, because we are walking around those walls and bringing them down.

For decades, male leaders in the church have lived by what is affectionately called, “The Billy Graham Rule.” It is said that the famous preacher and evangelist Billy Graham had a “rule” for his interactions with women. He would never be alone with a woman who was not his wife–not in a car, an elevator, or a meal. His thinking is that this is the best way to guard his marriage and his ministry. The fear is both internal and external. It is internal because it squashes a situation where temptation will abound. It is external because even the idea that a leader might be out alone with a woman could cause rumor, suspicion, or false accusations. This could be a valid fear for a church leader. But with one quick Bible app search, you’ll read what Jesus thinks about fear. Where is our trust in our sovereign Lord if fear is this severe in our churches? Also, what if these rigid boundaries are causing more harm than good?

In a recent article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, Dr. Halee Gray Scott tells some of the horrors of creating strict boundaries in gender relations:

“As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made business decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit.”

Yes, it can cause a myriad of problems to be alone with someone of the opposite sex, but strict boundaries can shut people out of important, valuable ministry. Instead of creating giant walls in our relationships, what if we created helpful borders that can be moved and crossed when appropriate? We’ve got to find a balance and that may involve balancing our intentions. 

Men and Women Need the “Friend Zone”

Oh, the “friend zone,” a term so dreaded in our society that it spawned a Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy, Just Friends. But what if the friend zone is exactly what we need in our churches?

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The friend zone begins with creating flexible borders, not steel-reinforced boundaries. For example, let’s say we are never going to hug anyone of the opposite sex in our church. After all, physical touch alludes to romantic affection (and not everyone even likes being hugged). But is this the model Jesus presented to us? Jesus touched. Jesus hugged. Jesus embraced people of all walks of life. It is true that hugs can become inappropriate, but they can also be incredibly appropriate. One way to navigate this is to always ask if it’s ok to hug someone. This can be awkward and difficult, but abandoning all physical contact creates a world much like a 7th grade dance floor, with each gender on the opposite side clinging to the wall for dear life. The church is about unity not division. There is no exact science or standard you can set because everyone has different needs and feelings about things like physical touch, spending time alone with someone, and frequency of communication. We need to work through these spheres with individuals to create a space where people are heard and friendships can flourish. As with anything that isn’t clear cut, mistakes are bound to be made but our churches and our friend zones need to have grace and forgiveness built in.

It may also be necessary to redefine why we are in the church. The church should not be defined by the romance narrative of the culture. Can anyone point me to the scripture reference where it says that the church is there for you to find your mate? The church is God’s invention to equip His people and bless the world, to restore shalom to all areas of life. Finding your future spouse may be a result but it’s not the main idea. Let’s say God has called you to be married. How many people are you going to marry? So then, what happens with all of the other opposite gender relationships in your life? If you are currently married, making your spouse your only friend is a surefire way to put crippling pressure on them to be your only source for support. The God of the Bible is a God of community, and friendship is a gift God has given us.

When marriage becomes your main target for bonding with people of the opposite sex, then it’s difficult to build relationships, even friendships, that aren’t defined by sex in some way. This is exactly what Harry was talking about.

“This myth, then—the belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships—has led many of us in recent decades to feel suspicious of, uncertain about, and at times even ashamed of deep friendships and has hindered our search for closer and more fulfilling ones,” says Dr. Wesley Hill, a leading voice in the spiritual friendship movement. Creating the friend zone involves both genders meeting in that space with the motive to hear each other’s stories, provide love and support, and build a vibrant, diverse church community.

Men and Women Need Each Other

Creating churches where genders are constantly divided is an effective mode of making people lonely and isolated. Do you remember the book Men Are from Mars, Woman Are from Venus? However gimmicky the title may be, there is some truth to the idea that men and women are different. Sometimes it does feel like we might as well be from different planets, but we both come from the same image. We carry the image of God together as the human race, and we need each other to show that image to the world and to the people in our church.

In my role as a campus minister, I get to meet and work with too many women who come from a background where they never had a healthy relationship with their father and have never been shown love and respect in a dating relationship. In fact, many come to college having been used and degraded in almost every relationship in their lives. What if a woman like that comes into a church environment where she is treated like something to fear? What if she is treated only as the romantic interest of a greater narrative? She will never experience the image of a Father who will never use and abuse her. She will never experience the image of a brother who has her back. She may never have the space to build relationships that speak the Gospel into her life.

When creating our friend zone, we must be looking and thinking about people as friends first. It means our first thoughts about these people are how we can love and serve them and wondering how they will positively contribute to the Body of Christ. It means recognizing gifts and hearing stories. It means bringing our true selves into our churches and sharing that with others by communicating openly and honestly. We’ve got to navigate these waters with the intent to be Kingdom builders, to welcome people of any gender into our houses of worship to meet our servant King. It’s time for our churches to step up and prove Harry wrong. Men and women can be friends, and if we are going to help our churches flourish and truly reflect the image of God we, in fact, are called to be friends.

This article originally appeared in Christ & Pop Culture Magazine. (Edit 2017)

On the run with Baby Driver

What’s your favorite song? Sorry, that’s a vague question. What’s your go-to road trip song? How about your shower song? Do you have a song for rainy days? What do you listen to after a break up? Is there a song that makes you dance involuntarily? Music can serve so many of our emotional needs. It’s hard to imagine life without the songs we pull into our own personal soundtracks. Baby Driver, writer/director Edgar Wright’s new film, begs us to inspect our lists of go-to tracks and wonder what they tell us about how we see the world.

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For Baby, the title character in the film innocently played by Ansel Elgort, life is about escaping and there is no greater escape than music. The life pumped through his earbuds not only drowns out the tinnitus he acquired as a boy, but also pulls him out of the dangerous activities he’s being forced into. Baby has a face and a heart that fits his name but a life that’s filled with crime, drugs, and violence. This duality of morality pushes him into the songs in his many iPods to drown out the hum in is ears and the ringing of his conscience.

In his life of crime, is there a better profession for someone like Baby, constantly on the run from himself and others, than a getaway driver? In fact, Baby is the best getaway driver Atlanta has ever seen. The darkest day of his life happened in a car and as soon as he could see over the wheel (and learn how to steal cars) he made sure the driver’s seat would become his sanctuary. Somewhere along the line, Baby boosted the wrong car and found himself in serious debt with Doc, a notorious crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. Under Doc’s thumb, all Baby can do is listen to his music and drive. During the film, he pushes the pedal to the metal speeding closer and closer to freedom from what his life has become.

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It took Wright years to make this film because he broke many of the rules of traditional filmmaking. He assembled the soundtrack and wrote the scenes around the songs. Normally, movies are made the other way around…writing the scenes and then finding the music for them. It’s easier that way because you may not get licenses for the music. However, Wright had a vision and what a vision it was! He created a symphony with the world around Baby. Footsteps, car horns, tire squeals, sirens, screams, explosions, and gun shots sync to the beats placing the audience into Baby’s ears.

Anyone familiar with Wright’s other works (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) will appreciate his attention to detail. The soundtrack to Baby Driver has the diversity of a Guardians of the Galaxy more than it does the Pitbull laden playlists of your typical cars and crime action romps. Like a deep track book of Psalms, the music takes you on a ride through just about every possible human emotion. It is the kind of soundtrack that proves no song can be your favorite for every occasion.

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Baby Driver asks you to take this ride through Baby’s shuffle to find out just what kind of person he is. Is he a victim of circumstance? Is he more of a willing participant than he lets on? Baby can’t escape these questions forever. Luckily, music isn’t just a method of escape but is also how Baby experiences and processes the world. The life Baby leads is so saturated with music that his steps are in time. The slow jams give him time to reflect on his crimes, the screeching guitar solos perfectly accompany his anger, the break-up songs help explore his trauma, and the love songs help him hope for a better tomorrow.

Our favorite tunes offer us the same invitation to allow the words, the notes, and the spirit move us through whatever we’re dealing with. Watching and listening to Baby Driver might give you some new songs for your playlists but hopefully it also helps you think about what you’re using as your guide of melodic self-reflection. This is one of those films we’ll study in film schools because of its spectacular craftsmanship. It captures the complexity of being human in a unique way. So don’t be surprised if it also helps you study yourself. What songs are you drawn to and when? What are you often working through? What are you escaping from? Sometimes you have to face your music.

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Baby Driver Psalms Companion

Looking to take a ride through human emotion? The Book of Psalms in the Bible is God’s ultimate playlist. Here are some of the themes pulled out of Baby Driver and a selection of Psalms to help guide you through them.

Who are we?

Psalm 8

Psalm 139

Break up

Psalm 147

Love

Psalm 136

Conviction

Psalm 51

Celebration

Psalm 148-150

Hope

Psalms 16

Psalm 23

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

Let me describe a scene to you from the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Tell me if it feels familiar to you. The story’s lead Jyn Erso has agreed to help the Rebel Alliance gain access to her former mentor Saw Gerrera. They travel to Empire occupied Jedha, home to Gerrera and an ancient Jedi Temple. It’s not long before Erso and the rebels are caught up in scuffle, as Star Wars rebels tend to do. Erso is being led around the planet by rebel leader Cassian Andor. Andor has been carrying the weight of rebellion on his shoulder for years. He is constantly burdened by the safety of the mission and his team. There is a pride to this burden and this pride leads to my least favorite scene in the movie.

In the middle of the skirmish, Andor is leading Erso around a chaotic battlefield reminiscent of scenes of modern warfare we’re used to today. Naturally, Andor can’t possibly account for every danger around every corner and he and Erso get cornered by a squad of dreaded Stormtroopers. Looking at Andor you see the face of failure. They’re doomed, dead where they stand. Suddenly, Erso kicks into high gear and drops both the troopers and Andor’s jaw. He can’t believe Erso single-handedly dismantled the troopers. He can’t believe Erso, who is the mentee of the very accomplished rebel they were there to find, who had been providing for herself for the better part of a decade in a conflict-heavy galaxy, who he had rescued from a prison labor camp alongside other hardened criminals, who is the daughter of one of the greatest geniuses in the galaxy, could possibly have the skills to survive that situation. So why is Andor surprised?

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Andor is probably surprised because decades of film history have told him that whenever a woman fends for herself, its surprising. This is a feeling of surprise Han and Luke felt the minute Princess Leia grabbed a blaster and led them down the garbage shoot. So here we are, it’s 2017, and we have our first big-screen adaptation of the world’s most famous superheroine, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been around for decades, and, in that time, has fought her way from the Justice League’s secretary to one of the busts carved into DC Comics’ Mount Rushmore alongside her fellow pop culture icons of Batman and Superman. One would hope that, as we’ve entered a moment in cinematic history where studios are ready to put women in the title role and in the director chair, we would stop being surprised by what women are capable of. One would hope…

Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and her male companion, Stever Trevor, enter a dark London alley. They’re carrying crucial intelligence the British military needs to gain an advantage in World War I and are being pursued by undercover German soldiers. Just like Erso and Andor in the battle on Jehda, Trevor leads them into a corner. He doesn’t see a way out, and he’s burdened by a need to find a way out of this hopeless situation. A German gun goes off and Trevor knows the bullet’s for him. A “ping” familiar to Wonder Woman fans rings out as Prince stops the bullet with her signature cuffs. Trevor’s jaw drops. He’s surprised that Wonder Woman, the one who saved him from a plane crash, the one who he watched take out a dozen German soldiers in an earlier battle, a woman he learned is from an advanced race of Amazon warriors from a supernaturally hidden home world, could possibly be the solution to them surviving the ambush.

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Wonder Woman, as a film, is filled with breathtaking action scenes, charmingly fun banter between interesting characters, and some of the coolest, most memorable superhero moments committed to film. It belongs at the top of the list of DC’s most recent efforts and right alongside its Marvel Comics (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) peers. As reviews for the film have been positive, and as Wonder Woman continues to be a cultural icon, my fear is that story that comes out of the box office this weekend will be headlined by surprise.

Wonder Woman will lead the box office in bouncing back from the lowest Memorial Day numbers in about a decade. Last week, two movies were released that were supposed to kick start the summer cinema season. Helmed by a juggernaut franchise and a human juggernaut in The Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch were financial disappointments. They led the summer into a dark alley and had studios questioning if they’d survive. Here comes Wonder Woman to save the day.

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Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

We live in a world with Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, who led successful peace negotiations between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips. We live in a world with Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director who not only became the first female African America director to helm a $100 million budget movie with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time but, also, created the wildly complex and riveting Queen Sugar, a show she intentionally hires up-and-coming female directors to lead. We live in a world with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years for her political activism before being elected to lead the Myanmar government. We live in a world with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and sexual assault survivor/activist Kayla Harrison, activist for female education Malala, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa. We live in a world where more women than men are graduating college. We even live in a world where even American Ninja Warrior has seen Jessie Graff break course records. There are women of wonder all around us.

The success of Wonder Woman shouldn’t be a surprise, and, hopefully, will send a clear message that we’re ready for more. Just recently, Academy Award winning actress Jessica Chastain, while serving on the Canne Film Festival jury, commented on the current climate of female representation in film, “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” For this to change, our view of what women are capable of has to change. We have to believe women can lead brilliant, complex and compelling stories because they live those stories every day.

We’ve come a long way and Wonder Woman might be the beginning of something great. Her character, like the women of the world, has fought for her place on the marquee. We have forced women to fight for their place at the voting booth, in the classroom, in the lab, on the hill, in the battlefield, at the finish line, and in the conference room. Women will continue to fight, so when will men stop being surprised when they can fight better than us?

Justice League

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2016

It may seem like this year we’ve lost too much. Celebrities, loved ones, journalism, gorillas, never having seen Kevin Spacey as a cat…we saw major losses in these areas in the year that was 2016. While we can lament these as well as a summer of fairly disappointing blockbusters, 2016 still did produce some incredible cinema experiences.

While we were never quite mentally prepared for the darkness of Nocturnal Animals, couldn’t pull together the energy to watch another Tom Hanks biopic in Sully, and were scared away by mixed reviews for Snowden and Florence Foster Jenkins, we did make it to the movies a lot this year. So as we all anxiously await the release of 2017’s hottest offerings (ex: Monster Trucks), and spend our holiday off time looking to catch up on what this past year gave us, here are my top ten favorite movies of 2016.

10. The Lobster (R)

The Lobster is really weird. In this story’s dystopian future, heartthrob Colin Farrell is a virtually un-datable slob. His character is then forced to a remote resort where the goal is to find your mate and marry them. The catch is that if you fail to find your mate in the allotted time you will live your remaining days transformed into an animal of your choosing. If you can handle that odd premise along with some explicit content, The Lobster offers a very unique and insightful commentary on who we chose to love. This was by far the most unique movie watching experience I had this year, but it will not be for everyone.

9. Sing Street (PG-13)

Yes, I saw La La Land, and no, it was not my favorite musical of the year. That title belongs to Sing Street. Director John Carney knows how to make musical movies…or are they movies with music? Either way they are enjoyable. You may know him for Once or Begin Again, both worth checking out if you haven’t. The back drop of Sing Street is the grayscale dinge of poverty-stricken Dublin in the 1980’s. Contrast that with the synthy bright colors of 80’s pop like Culture Club and Duran Duran and you have the stand-out coming-of-age movie of the year. Not only that, but at least once a week, I find the music in my head.

8. Fences (PG-13)

A theme that has emerged from many of my favorite films this year has been generational patterns and familial influence on our behaviors and personality. Fences takes place entirely on a back patio in a working-class neighborhood in pre-civil rights Pittsburgh and brings the poetry of playwright August Wilson to life. I left the film wondering aloud if Denzel Washington’s Troy was a good man and I’m sure almost anyone who experiences this story might answer that question differently. The characters are layered and emotions run deep with the pains of being a generation before the waves of significant change. Still, the patterns both in this family and the world are relevant for today’s culture. Are we doomed to repeat these same patterns? Are you above the mistakes of the past? Are you a good person? Fences makes you confront these questions.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

There’s a chance that I will always be a supporter of having more Star Wars. Sometimes with that worldview, I get burnt. (Looking at you, droid-centric episodes of Clone Wars) With Rogue One, though, I felt the weight of the galactic rebellion more than ever and was given more context and depth to the universe I’ve loved for so long. Not many blockbusters landed on my list this year, but with its diverse cast and war-like feel, I couldn’t ignore the first in hopefully many Star Wars anthology movies.

Read my complete review here

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (PG-13)

2008’s Cloverfield will always be one of the most memorable times I’ve had at the movies. It was point-of-view found footage done right. It was large in scale. It put audiences into a monster attack of a major city. 10 Cloverfield Lane is its wildly different sequel…maybe prequel…maybe not related at all thing and it was my favorite horror movie of the year. It locks you in a bunker with a few of the best performances of the year. Growing up watching Rosanne, I did not know I would be floored by the work John Goodman is capable of, but he carried this movie. The suspense, the mystery, the terror of this story rests on his shoulders and they are broad.

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5. Jackie (R)

If Rogue One gave me some welcome context to the fictional history of Star Wars, then Jackie did the same for actual U.S. history. We often hear tales of our highest office through the lives of the men who held it, but at different times in our country’s story the narrative was advanced by women. Director Pablo Larrain worked very hard to make this story about Jackie Kennedy her story. Even when President Kennedy is on screen he is in the peripheral. It is difficult to imagine all that Jackie was juggling in the weeks after JFK’s assassination, but Jackie sheds light on what it might have been like. It’s heartbreaking, powerful, religious, and probably the best performance by an actress this year.

4. Arrival (PG-13)

We struggle in our current climate to understand each other. Arrival sends an impactful message that we need other people, other cultures in our lives and does so through an inventive science fiction world. It also demonstrates how deep the divide in cross-cultural communication can be while giving hope that it is an obstacle that can be overcome.

Read my complete review here

3. Manchester by the Sea (R)

Manchester by the Sea might be more accurately titled We Don’t Need to Talk About This Now. This story is largely about grief, but it is an intensely relatable depiction of grief for me. The men in this film are like many I know, including the guy in my mirror. Conflict, pain, and feeling are easy to avoid until they’re not…until a bump on the head or swing of emotion forces everything out. Casey Affleck probably will earn best actor honors for his work here but he is supported by amazing efforts from newcomer Lucas Hedges and everyone’s favorite TV football coach Kyle Chandler not to mention brief but stellar moments with Michelle Williams. Manchester is a very authentic story…maybe too authentic. I wasn’t ready for a therapy session, but got to see many coping mechanisms I employ played out right in front of me. Don’t worry, though, we don’t have to talk about that now.

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2. Moonlight (R)

Even people in the best of circumstances can have a hard time establishing personal identity. Moonlight is very much about trying to figure out who you are in the worst of scenarios. Aside from everything I’ve written already about Moonlight, this is a beautifully directed, written, and acted film. It deserves acclaim at every level of filmmaking. Like others on this list it won’t be for everyone, but it is a story seldom given the light of day.

Read my complete review here

1. Hell or High Water (R)

Many of the movies on my list this year are about families. I was floored by the complexity and inner turmoil of Denzel Washington’s patriarch in Fences. I found great inspiration in the matriarch America needed in Jackie. I empathized right along with Kyle Chandler’s older brother character in Manchester by the Sea. My heart broke when Naomi Harris’s character in Moonlight forces her son to give her money for drugs. Still, one role hit me hardest this year, Ben Foster’s sloppy, unlovable Tanner in Hell or High Water.

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In this modern day western, we witness the history of this family slowly unfold. The film makes you root for Chris Pine’s scruffy-yet-attractive Toby all the while his brother Tanner drives you crazy. As the story progresses, you start to see that Tanner didn’t become that way overnight and as Toby is making sacrifices for his children, Tanner has given so much more to offer his family a chance in a world that was beating them down. Hell or High Water is funny, suspenseful, action-packed, and an emotional punch in the gut. A punch Tanner would probably take for you if you were family. Overall, we learned a lot from these diverse narratives this year. We learned to do anything for family, to keep space in our lives for others, to express our emotions in healthy ways, and to be prepared to name your favorite animal. Mine is the T-Rex.

What “Hamilton” and “Rogue One” have in common

There were no Skywalkers, no wookies, no Millennium Falcon but Rogue One was a great addition to the Star Wars Saga. The movie’s conception began with a line from the opening exposition of 1977’s A New Hope,

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

For the first time since this text initially crawled across the silver screen, we get to experience that story and I think I enjoyed it so much because I spent a large part of this year listening to Hamilton.

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A New Hope has never been my favorite Star Wars movie. Empire Strikes Back has always been the best, and nowadays I prefer the updated effects and filmmaking of The Force Awakens or the new stories in the animated Clone Wars or Rebels. Don’t get me wrong, I love episode four…I love the characters and the overall story but it has always felt more like a space adventure than it has a film about war and peace.

Watching the original trilogy over the years I always knew Luke, Han, and Leia would prevail, evil would lose, and at the end the Ewoks would throw a party that I’ve always wanted to be invited to. That is why I think I have never totally written off the prequels…their story is a tragedy and that is often more interesting than the feel-good original trilogy. The stakes of war have never been higher, though, then in Rogue One.

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This isn’t a movie about Seal Team 6, it’s about the soldiers that gave their lives before the glory was had. There are no blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm boys here. This is a movie about rebels, revolutionaries who are rough around the edges, riding the line between freedom fighter and terrorist. They’re more scruffy looking than any Star Wars character we’ve seen before and they aren’t chasing their destiny…they’re chasing freedom and basic human needs.  For decades, Luke Skywalker has walked around with a gold medal around his neck paid for with the blood of folks that must have thought it must be nice to have the force on your side.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

Luke, Han, and Leia all have one thing in common…they’re a little cocky. It is probably what has always put viewers at ease watching the original trilogy. We couldn’t imagine any of our main characters dying, because they couldn’t either. The characters in Rogue One don’t have the luxury of confidence. They are young, scrappy, and hungry and even knowing the chances of success are slim, the politicians aren’t behind them, and none of them are Jedis…they’re not throwing away their shot.

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Whereas the prequels were complex to a fault, Rogue One is complex in all the best ways. The weight of imperial control is heavier than it has ever been. The Death Star looms larger. The rebels struggle with giving up and some do. Even Darth Vader is scarier than he’s ever been. It’s more real. Our arts community has been living in the real-life story of Alexander Hamilton for more than a year now. Its highly relatable because it’s a human story that really happened. Rogue One felt more human, more complex. The characters are good guys until you get in the way of the rebellion. They are filled with contradictions, but so is independence.

The action of Rogue One also felt more grounded including a sequence that felt ripped from Black Hawk Down or The Kingdom. The movie felt familiar because we see these conflicts played out on the news every day. U.S. intervention in civil wars like what unfolded in Aleppo is made impossible to navigate because of the political and physical dangers. In the original trilogy, the rebel “alliance” could have just been a catchy name, but in this movie we get to see what that word means. It is a mix of governments, revolutionaries, terrorists, prisoners, and traitors.

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Hearing the dreams that Hamilton had of a free nation makes the American revolution more inspiring and relevant. Rogue One fills in some interesting gaps in the Star Wars Saga. Luke Skywalker’s victory in A New Hope means more because we have the names, the faces, and the acts that made it possible and they are normal people.

If I lost everything to the government, I would fight it. If I witnessed any of the horrors of imperial control, I’d be willing to defect. If I had spent my life dedicated to protecting and maintaining faith in the force, I would be willing to show what that faith looks like. The main character Jyn Erso says, “Rebellions are built on hope,” and there is truth to that, but if so, then they are held together by ordinary people. Rogue One asks us all to consider, if you had Darth Vader’s saber aimed at you, what would you stand for? What would you fall for?

We all look different in “Moonlight”

“Running around, fishing in a boat of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

What is the best setting to tell a scary story? I’m imagining that you visualize a dark, moonlit night with your friends surrounding a campfire. The low light of the fire casts deep, cavernous shadows around your eyes. Maybe to enhance the effect you’ll hold a flashlight just below your chin.

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Light has a funny way of influencing our perception. It’s interesting that often when we talk about our mistakes or successes we employ a metaphor of a positive or negative light being cast. Let me cast some light on the story of Moonlight, a terrific movie out now directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is about Chiron, a boy growing up in an impoverished project in Miami. His mother is an addict. His father is absent and his closest father figure is a local drug dealer. He also struggles with his sexuality. Take a minute and ask yourself where this story is going?

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Was it easy to write Chiron’s story for him? This is a light that we have seen shed before and Moonlight features many elements you might expect, but the beauty of the film lies in the unexpected, both for the audience as well as Chiron. The movie is divided into three acts providing snapshots of pivotal seasons in Chiron’s life that established his identity.

In each of the three acts, Chiron, who’s normal demeanor is stoic and silent, guarded against a world that has hurt him again and again, lets that guard down. He exposes himself to the love, support, and judgement of another. For fans of the Bible, this act is often translated to the sharpening of iron, right? We expose ourselves to have our rough edges smoothed out, to sharpen our character.

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This Biblical metaphor is intimidating to me for one reason, we are the iron. We all have the responsibility to sharpen and we are all vulnerable to the sharpening. My ability to sharpen comes with my bias, my emotions, and my selfish motivations that are part of being human. Which then begs the question, what bias, emotions, and motivations am I vulnerable to being sharpened by?

When you imagined how Chiron’s story would play out, what identity or narrative did you project on him? We often homogenize the people around us, fitting them into assimilated boxes of our cultural identity to fit roles that make us feel comfortable. Moonlight is, perhaps, equally about the dangers of forcing people’s identities into boxes as it is about the hope that comes when we are free to be defined by something that transcends stereotype.

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Chiron sits at the dinner table with Juan, his drug-dealing father figure. He asks him about a derogatory term he has heard which Juan explains is a word used to “make gay people feel bad.” Chiron then wonders if that term defines him. In this moment, Chiron is vulnerable to sharpening, wanting Juan, who has shown him compassion and love, to cast a light on him. Juan sets Chiron free by saying that he doesn’t need to have his whole identity figured out yet.

From there, Moonlight takes many turns you might not be prepared for…some expectedly tragic, some surprisingly uplifting, some powerfully universal. Fair warning this film will not be for everyone and an inspection of the film’s content rating will help frame your viewing. That said, the narrative of Chiron’s life features a complexity seldom seen in modern cinema. It is familiar, but unique. It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.

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None of the specific instances, good or bad, define Chiron’s whole life. Each act is distinct. There is great freedom and hope in that. This is a freedom I am given by Christ. There have been many moments in my life that shined a negative light on me…but that light hasn’t defined my whole identity. There have also been moments that cast a positive light, that have brought me love and respect. That isn’t the full story either.

What if you were always seen in the perfect light? What would that change about the way you define yourself and make decisions? This is the beauty of the Gospel. Jesus not only took the punishment for our worst moments, he gave us the reward for his best so that God will always look upon us under a perfect, loving light. A light that will never be overcome by darkness.

While you watch:

What moments in the film surprised you? Why do you think that is?

What would you have told a young Chiron at the dinner table if he was asking you the questions he asks Juan?

When in the film does Chiron let others to define him? What is the result?