REVIEW: Minding the Gap

Death defying kickflips from concrete ledges. Balance bending rail grinds that will leave you breathless. One of this year’s films in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary is “Minding the Gap,” a film that should have also been nominated for its cinematography. The film is about the skateboarding community in Rockford, Illinois and features camera work that could have only been honed in alleyways, empty swimming pools, and public stairwells trying to capture the sickest tricks. The film is about the sport it depicts so well, but as it unfolds is about something else entirely, generational patterns of sin and hardship.

As filmmaker Bing Liu follows his skater friends around, he allows the story to develop naturally. Digging deeper into their lives he begins to recognize the broken homes and abusive families they come from. These dark commonalities give Liu the open door to shed light on the unusually high rates of domestic violence in the city of Rockford. Unfortunately, this is a trend continuing in Liu’s friends as they enter young adulthood.

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They have trouble keeping jobs, they drink excessively, and they abuse their significant others. Liu takes his evolving movie as an opportunity to unpack his own childhood with help from his mother. It’s heart-wrenching hearing his mother show deep remorse for the ways Liu was abused by his stepfather, while also documenting the disintegrating, unhealthy relationship of his friend Zack and the mother of Zack’s child. Two generations living out the same story.

This generational deja vu is something very human, and something God speaks into from the very beginning. In Genesis 20 we read,

“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’”

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before. As Genesis continues in chapter 26,

“So Isaac stayed in Gerar. When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’”

You’re not going crazy. Here are father and son, Abraham and Isaac, their hearts filled with fear and insecurity, lying an identical lie. They didn’t trust God and took the protection of their wives into their own hands. In both cases, the lie backfires and they nearly lose everything. In families, in institutions, and in the hearts of man we are prone to these generational patterns. We are stuck dragging the heavy chains of the past, slaves to the sins of our parents. They are thick chains, but they are not unbreakable.

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The book of Deuteronomy gives us a painful instruction manual. In chapter 12 we read, “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling.”

The prior inhabitants of God’s chosen land left patterns behind, almost grooves in the land leading to the worship of their gods. These verses are warning God’s people that if they’re not careful as they enter the land, they could easily click into the grooves of the past. The only way to prevent this is to tear it all down. Patterns are comfortable, they’re easy. Sometimes clicking into the routines of the past even feels good. The process of tearing it down is always the opposite. Changing the direction of a generation always comes with pain.

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For Liu and his friends it involves bringing the generational patterns into the light with his film. Zack will see this film and come face to face with some of his worst moments. Liu sat behind his camera and watched tears stream down his mother’s face. Even as an outsider, it is heartbreaking to watch, but that feeling of lament is the feeling of chains of the past being broken. What you hear in the film isn’t just plastic wheels filled with ball bearings hitting pavement, it’s the sound of shackles falling off. It’s the sound of future generations being freed. “Minding the Gap” is about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, but it’s also about hope.

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REVIEW: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Netflix)

What were you doing at 13? Many of us, our bodies entrenched in the chaos of puberty, were professional eye rollers. Discovering rebellion for the first time, we’d roll our eyes at the authority of our parents shirking off any kind of wisdom, instruction, or discipline they’d impart. These optical protests weren’t restricted to the home, of course, because school was also “such like a total drag, am I right?” At 13, we are taking significant leaps towards adulthood and recognizing our unique agency in the world and we often use it to act like we don’t care about anything. So we roll our eyes telling our parents and teachers to, “ugh, get a life.” Meanwhile, William Kamkwamba, at 13, was saving lives.

This is the story of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s based-on-true-events directorial debut headed to Netflix this week, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind. In the 2000’s, crushed by the growing global financial crisis and feeling the very real effects of a climate in chaos, Malawi was experiencing life-threatening circumstances. The harvest that the local economy rested on was dangerously light. Unregulated grain prices were causing hunger and violence. Every aspect of life was being torn apart. Land that belonged to families for generations was being sold off for pennies. Schools were shutting down. Families were being forced apart.

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All of a sudden, more so than ever before, insurmountable dollar signs were associated with every human need. It was the kind of tragic reality that made Kamkwamba and his family question their worth every day. In the film, Kamkwamba’s father, played by Ejiofor, is tortured by the decisions of how to use the family’s resources. Every move feels like a gamble, even investing in his children’s education. In their village, if you excelled in school it was a way out. So why would he spend money only to break up his family and lose his best help around the farm?

So education becomes a threat to their family, to tradition, and to their resources. Kamkwamba, however, saw great value in education and, despite what he saw around him, knew that his village, his family’s land, and his family itself were worth more than anyone thought. He had to keep learning. Without money for tuition, he had to sneak into school and his local library. In the film, there’s a scene after Kamkwamba gets caught and a teacher coming to his defense says that he’s not sneaking into the school, he’s sneaking out of the fields. It was in that library where he got the idea that would save his family and his village.

Life in Kamkwamba’s village was wholly dictated by the harvest, so much so that the film itself is framed by the seasons of planting. This is not unique to Malawi. In the Old Testament, much of the lives of God’s chosen people are controlled by the harvest. Even their calendar of festivals is framed by seasons of sowing, seasons of growing, seasons of harvesting, and seasons of hunger waiting for the rains to come. This rhythm of life put into perspective man’s reliance on God to provide.

Deuteronomy 16 describes the festival that ends their harvest calendar, “For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” With the harvest complete, the joy of God’s people was also complete. A fruitful harvest showed them that God was with them. So imagine how Kamkwamba’s village felt when the harvest dried up.

Thankfully William Kamkwamba was at an age when he was discovering his agency and self-worth. His optimism kept him searching for ways he could bring flourishing to the world around him. Where everyone else saw nothing but dry lands, he saw potential. Thus began a journey that led him to the TED stage and, eventually, across the graduation stage at Dartmouth College. His father thought education was the enemy of his family, but Kamkwamba’s time in that library restored his family and his village to their God given glory.

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The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a movie about the importance of education, it’s a movie about family, it’s a movie about God’s ability to provide beyond our imagination, but it is also a movie about the growing influence we have on God’s good creation. Learning more about how the rest of the world economy depends on the health of America’s economy should make us consider more deeply our democratic responsibilities. Seeing a story about people whose lives are so impacted by the weather should make us think more about how we impact the weather.

William Kamkwamba sought to be a blessing to the world around him. His pursuit of knowledge saved lives. Ejiofor showed incredible talent in telling this story. It is exciting to continue to see Netflix give filmmakers the opportunity to make films you may not see otherwise. In his TED Talk, Kamkwamba suggests that there are young people out there that may one day watch his story and be inspired to change the world and believe in themselves. Now, on one of the most popular streaming services in the world, maybe his story will stop the eyes of 13-year-olds from rolling and instead looking for ways they’ll make the future better.

 

REVIEW: Shazam!

Lex Luthor stands before his arch nemesis, the fully human/fully Kryptonian savior of the masses, Superman. A showdown of fists awaits Superman over in Gotham City, but not before he must sit through Luthor’s attempt at an intro to philosophy class. Luthor contemplates how Superman could possibly be so powerful but also without corruption. Several decades prior, Wonder Woman enters a similar discussion. The god of war, Ares, is trying to convince her that war and suffering aren’t products of his evil scheming but are the natural yield of the depraved hearts of humanity. The DC Comics film and television world, dubbed the DC Extended Universe or DCEU, has been doing a delicate dance to the tunes of power, morality, and depravity for years and that dance continues in their latest effort, Shazam!.

Shazam Flossing GIF

Those philosophy exercises have left the DC fan base pretty mixed and has added more pressure on a franchise constantly trying to catch up to Marvel and their Avengers. Starting with Wonder Woman and then, a largely reshot, Justice League, DC has been trying to lighten things up. The result was Aquaman, a mindless, CGI adventure more on par with the recent Fast & Furious films than the engaging, blockbuster comic book movies always topping the charts. While it was fun, DC’s resident fish wrangler may have been an over correction. Shazam!, though, could be their new sweet spot.

If Batman v Superman was their exploration of God’s sovereignty, and Wonder Woman is their white paper on total depravity, Shazam! is DC’s doctrine of grace. The movie is about one ancient wizard’s quest to find a human who is pure of heart. Once this champion is tracked down, the wizard, Shazam, can pass on his incredible powers equipping this human to battle back against the seven deadly sins, actual embodied representations of greed, envy, and the like. All Shazam has to do is find the perfect human. Should be easy right? It is not. Turns out the perfect human doesn’t exist.

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Time’s running out for Shazam so he’s forced to settle for Billy Batson, an almost 15-yeard-old foster kid preoccupied with running away from group homes on a quest of his own to find his mother. Now this pre-teen that has a hard time avoiding police custody is imbued with the power of six Roman gods to become the new Shazam! The movie is about confronting Billy’s imperfections, healing from his wounds, opening his heart to forces outside himself, and finding something all the Roman gods in the world can’t provide. Shazam! is an interesting look at the nature of man, it’s a heartfelt story about wounded and broken people, and it is also hilarious!

Sure Shazam! evokes all the Hanks-ian charm of Big, a kid trapped in an adult body navigating the often absurd world of increased responsibility, but it just works. This is partly due to Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck) playing the child-like hero. They also fill out Billy’s foster home with cast mates that challenge the adolescent rosters of Stranger Things and It.  Now that might be an easy, crowd pleasing formula, but just try not buying in to the smile of This is Us’s Faithe Herman or the teddy bear wiles of The Walking Dead’s Cooper Andrews. Shazam! is impossible to resist.

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DC still has a long way to go in building trust with its fan base as well as average movie going audiences. Unfortunately, the news out of the DCEU doesn’t exactly instill confidence. There’s reportedly going to be several different Joker stories (one that’s already in production), a Suicide Squad sequel/reboot, a separate Harley Quinn movie, another Batman reboot, and maybe a Green Lantern Corps movie with the studio saying they’re scrapping the idea of a shared universe moving more towards isolated stories. Not to mention there’s also an entire league of heroes in developmental purgatory like Cyborg and The Flash. There is hope, though. Aquaman was fun, there is a new Wonder Woman movie next year, and Shazam! does take place in the interconnected Justice League universe. If DC wants to continue to build towards another team up movie, Shazam! could be the spark they need or it could be a bolt of lightning in otherwise dark and stormy sky. Either way, go enjoy DC’s new boy wonder!

REVIEW: Tolkien

Have you ever seen the Saturday morning cartoon Captain Planet? With its infectious theme song (“Captain Planet, he’s our hero. Gonna take pollution down to zero!”) and cast of young people changing the world, it was hard to deny. The kids in the show held rings that gave them the power of the elements of the Earth. Their powers were magnificent. One controlled water, another earth, and another fire! There was one that seemed a lot less cool as a kid, the heart ring. What was the power of heart anyway? Then I met artist, Scott Erickson. He explained that as he discovered what it means to be an artist in the world and in the church, he realized he’d been given the heart ring.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien, Fox Seachlight’s new movie about the life of the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings tells the story of his upbringing, his schooling, his military service, his loves, his friendships, and his art. The John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, we meet in the film believes that art has incredible power. It does, doesn’t it? It is the artists of the world that give us words, images, and melodies to name, express, process, enjoy, or escape our emotions. Great art unifies, questions, challenges, and comforts sometimes all at once. In the film, Tolkien needed all that art provides but lived in circumstances that didn’t exactly allow a young man to explore it. This puts him on familiar ground with a group of other young men that become the foundation of this story.

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There is a famous moment in the film adaptation of Return of the King when Sam tells a despondent Frodo, “I can’t carry [the ring] for you, but I can carry you!” This is what the “Tea Club, Barrovian Society” or TCBS does for each other. Tolkien along with Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Smith, and Robert Gilson form a bond around their passion for art, culture, language, and love. In the film, they push each other to challenge the status quo and carry each other through the Mount Dooms of life. There is something about this era of world history with the great wars (The TCBS all served in World War I) and stories of great courage and loss that have birthed incredible works of art. Tolkien is the story about how the TCBS and Tolkien’s friend turned wife, Edith, inspired a fantasy that still captures the world’s imagination today.

Tolkien’s life falls fairly short from being a fairy tale. He was orphaned at a young age and encouraged to place the loves of his life on hold. First, to pursue a stable career, and then by war. His response to the horrors of the world was to offer it a different story. His mother gave him a love of languages which led him to create his own. In the film, Tolkien says that language is the lifeblood of people and culture. Well it’s through his created languages that he gives life to Middle Earth, and to all the characters fans have grown to cherish.

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You can expect with Tolkien to see images and references to the author’s famous works, but the film does a great job at not hitting you over the head with the visuals seared into our hearts and minds from the Peter Jackson trilogies. This is an intimate film that pulls you into the trenches of war where beauty is hard to find, but also gives you a door into the mind that created a world filled with it. This world, Tolkien’s art, is about journeys and adventures, magic and love, quests to prove ourselves, courage, and, of course, fellowship. It’s art like this that should be consumed with a friend. It may help you discover who, in your life, has carried you up the mountain.

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The Ultimate Avengers: Endgame Think Piece (SPOILERS)

Every time I think about the history-making finale to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, my mind swells with the sweet sound of Adele’s hit from another movie, “This is the end. Hold your breath and count to ten. Feel the earth move again. Hear my heart burst again.” Avengers: Endgame capped off a major movie franchise 11 years in the making and has eclipsed dozens of box office records including a Galactus-sized opening weekend haul of over $1 billion. The Endgame has obviously struck a chord and did so making bold character choices, paying off a ridiculous amount of story arcs and references, and laid a solid foundation for the mysterious future of one of Disney’s biggest cash cows. Let’s take a deep, SPOILER-FILLED dive into the biggest movie of all time and marvel at the beautiful journey “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” have been on since Iron Man debuted in 2008.

The Avengers Initiative Failed

Seriously, we are headed for spoiler land. If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame turn back now. The opening scenes of Endgame almost serve as a major trolling of the fan base! For a year now, fans have wondered why Thor didn’t go for the head, why wasn’t Captain Marvel there from the beginning, why couldn’t our heroes punch Thanos harder and faster and win by the force of their wills. That is not the story of Endgame.

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When Thanos’s years long quest to bring the universe under his power unfolded in Avengers: Infinity War, he was battling against a divided Avengers. They were battered and broken from the battles that led them up to that point and the team was in shambles. They had all had their heroism challenged by their own mistakes but also the mistakes of their literal and metaphoric forefathers.

Think about the impact that Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Ego the living planet, the founders of SHIELD/Hydra, and Odin have all had on the Avengers! Think about the mistakes that had led to the creation of the Hulk, the creation of Ultron, or that war in Civil War. Just tally all Thor has lost by the end of the opening scenes of Infinity War! The story of the Avengers leading into the Endgame was filled to the brim with failure. If report cards were handed out after Thanos snapped his fingers, the Avengers would have earned a hard ‘F’. Endgame is about the grief associated with the last decade of collective failures not about how hard they can punch. Thanos dies in the first twenty minutes of the film, and still the Avengers are left stewing in their losses. Where do they go from there?

The Hulk Smashes Relationships

Five. Years. Later. Endgame features a heartbreaking time jump for the “snapture” survivors, and, as we catch up with the heroes, it’s easy to define those five years by what the Avengers have been doing in that gap. However, what might be more telling is what they haven’t been doing. With the exception of Tony, no one has established any new relationships and they certainly haven’t revisited past ones.

Professor Hulk

Hulk finally returns from space and he and Black Widow survive the snap. Why are they not together? It’s not even just that they’re not together, but Bruce Banner has been working instead to reconcile his relationship with the Hulk permanently transforming into the hybrid Professor Hulk or Mister Fixit. Bruce can say all day that he did this to exist in a healthier state, but it’s also a really convenient state to avoid starting a relationship with Natasha. Before he left for space, they had all but admitted their love, but after the snap, after so much loss, they are avoiding having to lose anyone ever again.

Why haven’t they rebuilt a version of Vision? Sure, Scarlet Witch was dusted, but Vision was everyone’s friend and Bruce and/or Tony definitely would have the means over five years. It only took them a handful of days to turn the Mind Stone into Ultron. Recreating Vision would be too strong a reminder of the casualties of the Infinity War and that the joys of loving are paired with the grief of loss. And grief sure has taken hold in the MCU.

Thor’s Dark World

The Marvel movie machine was in desperate need of a course correction after the universally panned Thor: The Dark World. Yes, it introduced the Reality Stone. Ok, it featured continued growth in the relationship between Loki and Thor. Absolutely, Rene Russo was a great Frigga (Thor’s mom). Definitely, the final battle was creative. However, Thor 2 was birthed in the midst of The Hobbit taking us back to Middle Earth and Game of Thrones sweeping the media landscape. What is so appalling about Thor 2 is that it tried to copy the vibe of both of those universes without succeeding at either. Marvel has always tried to be a cinematic innovator, but this just felt like they were copying people’s homework. Then came Thor: Ragnarok with a new comedic thrust, a galactic setting, the companionship of The Hulk, and the vision of director Taika Waititi. Pairing Thor with the Guardians of the Galaxy in Infinity War cemented this new direction. Thor is funny now! But humor can often be used to hide deep pain.

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Across the 6 films that have featured Thor, he has lost his entire family and his entire support system. His story in Infinity War was a quest for redemption for all he has lost. He travelled across the universe and took the full force of a star all to prove that, even with all of the bodies in his wake, he is still worthy. A new weapon was born, and, if he could plunge that weapon into the universe’s biggest threat, his worth would be proved once and for all. Thor did plunge, and it meant nothing. Thanos won and, while all the others were tossed aside, Thor stood alone watching from inches away as a simple snap murdered billions. He fails once more in the opening of Endgame when the team realizes there is no reversing the snap. Not only could his worth not be earned with an axe, but it’s quite possible he was never worthy at all.

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The Thor we meet in Endgame is very different from past films. Some of that is played for comedy, but the truth is far more tragic. Thor is depressed and coping by self-medicating with alcohol. The character change is jarring unless you realize it’s always been there, and he has actually been covering it up with a smile and a wink. Thor’s comedic transformation served him in hiding deep trauma and pain all of which comes crashing down at the beginning of Endgame.

How fitting is it then, that for Thor to be redeemed, he has to return to the film that was Marvel’s biggest creative failure to date, Thor: The Dark World. Not only does he get some closure with his mother, but gets a powerful reminder that he was born with inherent worth into a family that unconditionally loved him. He has virtue that no amount of failure can take away. Thor needed to have his armor of bravado and masculinity ripped away and his comedic defense mechanism defeated in order to set him up for future flourishing, and he’s not the only one who has a past that needed confronting.

Cap Had to Move On

Steve Rogers has always been a man out of time. Contrasting him against morally complex characters like Black Widow and Tony Stark, his personal constitution has never really fit in the modern world. Even the war that created Cap was slightly more clear cut. There were pretty clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Then he came out of the ice in an era of modern warfare, political corruption, and anti-heroes galore. Hardened by the Infinity War, Cap’s optimism and morals are still there, but this is a man who, over the course of these films, has gone from blurting out, “Language!,” in Age of Ultron to exclaiming, “Let’s go get this son of a [expletive]!,” in Endgame. The present reality has been tearing down the man of the past.

Cap and Peggy

For awhile, Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier has kept Cap tied to some part of himself from the past, but Bucky was dusted. His friend Sam the Falcon understood Cap on a level that a fellow soldier only could, but he is gone as well. In the five years after the snap, Cap tries to move on by helping others move on. The problem is that he can’t forget the Infinity War because he never really forgot the past. You can see it in his face in that support group early on in Endgame. He’s saying all the right things and talking about how the survivors have to hope for the future and what could be. Steve tells that group that if they don’t start living their lives than they might as well have vanished too, but you get the feeling that part of him wishes he had maybe vanished, not in the snap, but all those years ago in the ice.

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He’s tried for years to accept his present. Joining the Avengers, defeating Hydra, and saving Bucky were all attempts to move on, but at the end of the day he’s still looking longingly through the window of the past at Peggy. She was supposed to be his future. In the final moments of, Captain America: The First Avenger, he runs into Time Square in a completely unrecognizable world and when a stranger in an eye-patch asks him if he’s going to be ok he says, “Yeah, its just…I had a date.” In the Endgame, Cap is surrounded by hundreds of Avengers and finally utters an, “Avengers…ASSEMBLE!” The problem is, no one in that battlefront is Peggy. So it should come as no surprise that, with time travel now in play, he can finally move on…to the past. As the credits are about to roll on the Infinity Saga, we are treated to a scene just moments after reuniting…Peggy Carter’s home…the door still swung open from Cap’s entrance…and they finally have their dance. It is a poetic and perfect end. Steve had to return to the past just as…

Tony Stark Had to Die

He started it all! There’s two ways to look at that. Iron Man, Tony Stark, can take credit for launching the MCU and creating a space for heroes to rise or it’s fair to say that it’s all his fault. Well, to be fair, it is his fault but the blame also lands on his father, Howard. Think about the big events that have pushed us through a decade of storytelling. Stark weapons and the wars they featured in manufactured and created the need for Iron Man. Sure, Tony had a literal and figurative change of heart, but when we put weapons down it nearly always creates new fears. Fears that simply never let Tony rest.

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A Stark missile planted the seeds of revenge that pushed Wanda to give Tony a nightmare that scared him into creating Ultron who incited the events in Sokovia that inspired the Sokovia Accords that started the civil war that broke apart the Avengers who then weren’t ready for Thanos. Tony is a futurist, but a side effect is that living in the future means living with fear. Allowing our minds to constantly live in the future places us in the prediction business and part of predicting the future means accounting for the worst possible scenario. The vision from Scarlet Witch wasn’t new. It was already something in Tony’s mind, but that’s not all that has been in his mind since the beginning.

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Tony wanted so desperately to shift the focus of his company and his family to making the future brighter, but it has always been tied to a dark past. All of his solo films featured villains born of his father’s mistakes and mistakes he made trying to be his father. So Tony’s tireless work isn’t just about ridding the future of fear, it was about breaking the cycles of the past. The problem is that Tony was a part of that past. So much of the world viewed Howard as a villain and that made it impossible to view Tony as a part of a purely optimistic future. When Tony wielded the iron Infinity Gauntlet and completed the snap that ended his life, he was breaking the thick chains of his father’s past mistakes and redeeming his present mistakes for all time. This could have only happened with the next generation watching, and now Morgan Stark will grow up in a world where Iron Man is the hero that saved the universe. Tony Stark gave his life very publicly for the sake of a future that his child, and many others, can now imagine without fear. That is what heroes do.

Black Widow’s Ledger is Clean

Redemption sure does come with a high cost. This is something Natasha Romanoff knows all too well. Tony Stark did almost everything in front of the brightest flashbulbs and biggest crowds he could. He was the Avengers’ most public hero, and his contrast was the Black Widow. From the very beginning, she has been the definition of a spy. She was complex, always playing multiple sides and evaluating every scenario like a chess board. Spies have to stay hidden to do their best work. And so it makes sense that while Tony’s death was very public, Natasha’s was very private and intimate. She died in the company of a close friend on a remote planet and was mourned by a small group at a secluded base. The nature of her death definitely makes sense, but the death itself definitely doesn’t to anyone…but her.

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Natasha could never have a family like Hawkeye or Tony. She didn’t have the purity of Captain America or the powers of Thor, but Black Widow’s life is no less valuable than any of the other Avengers. However, it has been obvious from the first Avengers movie, and even more so in Age of Ultron, that she felt very differently. Throughout, these films Black Widow has carried a very heavy weight, as she calls it a ledger with red in it. All she has ever wanted to do was to repay that debt to the world, and seemingly specifically to Clint Barton, Hawkeye, as she tells Loki in The Avengers. Tony couldn’t rest because of his fear, but Natasha could never rest because of the weight of this debt.

Then an opportunity arose for her to give all she had for the sake of her newfound family, and also, to Clint. It is obvious in Age of Ultron that she had been working hard for years to protect Clint both on the field and by keeping his family a secret, but in her final moments on Vormir she sees the chance to make things right forever and ever. She could protect Clint, her family, and the universe one last time. Now Black Widow’s ledger is forever clean and then some. It’s everyone else who owes a debt to her, one that can only be paid by a life of flourishing and a life spent helping the Natashas of the future see just how valuable they are regardless of the red in their ledger. Black Widow was the only woman in the initial circling shot in The Avengers. Her willing sacrifice paves the way for many heroes to follow and proves that actually…

The Avengers Initiative Worked

“There was an idea…called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could,” Nick Fury explains in The Avengers. This was the idea that started this journey. It was an idea of a man who saw the exact opposite happening. Before Tony Stark was kidnapped, before Natasha Romanoff was made a spy, before Bruce Banner was hit with Gamma Rays, before Thor was banished to Earth, there was still no shortage of remarkable people. Odin, Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Bill Foster, King T’Chaka, and Peggy Carter were all avenging the world at the same time but they were missing one key ingredient to Fury’s idea. They weren’t working together.

Avengers Hands In GIF

There is plenty of evidence right in front of us. Do you think there really wasn’t anyone in the span of history that could recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America? Everyone wanted to try but because greed, fear, ego, oppression, and division got in the way the story of the MCU is littered with the failings of not working together. The Hulk himself was the result of a failed attempt. What if Bruce and Tony worked together from the start? Maybe they would have gotten it right! Do you think nobody thought about time travel before Tony figured it out in Endgame? What’s interesting is that Tony wasn’t the key to time travel, Pym technology was! They needed Pym particles and the quantum realm research combined with Stark’s technology to do it. Tony and Scott Lang did something together that Howard Stark and Hank Pym were too proud to do. Imagine if more people were helping Peggy Carter succeed instead of holding her back because she’s a woman. Maybe Hydra doesn’t infiltrate SHIELD.

The story of the Avengers was never about any one hero, it was about the idea that if people could see the potential in the differences of others and combined our collective contributions and skill, no one could defeat us. In so many ways, the emotional state of the Avengers in Endgame were scars from the sins of the past, a past where the universe’s most remarkable beings couldn’t or wouldn’t work together. Now we move into a phase where T’Challa has opened his borders, everyone recognizes the power of Captain Marvel, and the wide-eyed optimism of Peter Parker is undeniable. The Avengers have assembled, and hopefully, one day may inspire us to do the same.

Avengers Walk of Fame

The women of Marvel ask, “What is a girl worth?”

I first heard this question posed by real life superhero Rachel Denhollander at the trial of Larry Nassar. Denhollander is a lawyer and a survivor of the decades of systematic abuse of girls perpetuated by the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State doctor. She presented this question to the court at his sentencing: “How much is a girl worth?” She and hundreds of others like her had been told by Nassar and the systems that protected him that they were worth less than him. They were worth less than Olympic gold medals, less than athletic achievement, less than the comfort of the adults in power. That day in the courtroom, more than 150 women told their stories and asserted their equal worth to the world.

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*CONTAINS ENDGAME AND CAPTAIN MARVEL SPOILERS*

As our country wrestles with the way our society views and treats women, these questions are being reflected on the big screen of Marvel blockbusters. There are ways that Marvel is ahead of the curve and elevating women in important ways. Black Panther is a shining example of offering women extended screen time and complex and interconnected roles. I have written about that here. It is also a very good thing that the number of women in the MCU is vast and diverse and continues to grow. But it is not enough to simply be on screen.

Black Widow and Gamora are in the wrong stories

One more warning, I am about to discuss Endgame and Infinity War spoilers!

I hate the soul stone. This piece of junk has claimed the lives of two strong female characters, the only initial women in two teams of men (the Avengers and the Guardians). I understand that the movies needed to have real stakes. I understand that you can make compelling storyline arguments for why it needed to be them and why it made the story pack a deeper punch. And that is the problem. These two complex and wonderfully acted characters are in stories that see them as expendable. That use them to make the audience feel something. The story was written such that it did not make sense for any other character to be the one lying dead at the bottom of the cliff. Either because the other characters on their teams are too strong and powerful to die, or because the men were not written in a way where their death makes sense in the story.

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This reveals a systemic problem in the writing approach at Marvel. Having female characters who can fight effectively but who are clearly less crucial than their male counterparts is not a win. If you cannot have a good movie without Thor, without Captain American, without Star-Lord, but the movie can survive without Black Widow and Gamora, then you are not writing a good movie. Do not give us a strong and intriguing Gamora only to watch her die in a domestic abuse scenario where her abuser kills her because he “loves” her. Do not give us the option that she and Nebula are “the only ones” who can stop him and then lose them in the crowd. Do not give us a non-traditional Black Widow who is finding meaning and purpose outside of having biological children, just to have her sacrifice her life so the man with kids can live. Do not give us yet another woman who loses her life so others can flourish at her expense. That is already our every day. Give us something better. Write a better story.

Give us more Mar-vells and Marvels

The negative reaction to Captain Marvel is case-in-point why the movie was so needed. This story is about what it is like to be a woman in society. To be held back and to have your power diminished by others and then told by those same systems to be grateful for the small opportunities we are given. To be told that to be emotional and intuitive is a liability and should be suppressed if we want to succeed. To be told that we need to prove ourselves before we can be taken seriously. To be gaslighted into thinking that our instincts are wrong and we are misinterpreting and misremembering our own stories. Captain Marvel both names destructive social realities and paints a better way forward.

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Ask any woman who watched the movie how she felt when Carol simply blasts Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as he yells for her to prove herself. Or why it was important to make Mar-vell’s character be female and a professional inspiration for Carol. This was not just being “politically correct.” There is a reason why Carol sees Mar-vell when she visits the Supreme Intelligence, even when she does not know who she’s seeing. Most women do not have female role models in our fields and careers. We often do not have accomplished women who look like us (this can be especially true for women of color) who inspire us to think we can succeed. It was so meaningful to watch a female professional mentoring relationship. It was empowering to watch a woman refuse to prove herself within a false system but to instead shatter the expectations that were preventing her from taking ownership of her story. This is good writing. This is what we want to see.

Another woman, Kyle Stephens, in the circle of survivors in the courtroom with Denhollander and the others that day said:

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. We grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”

This is your audience, Marvel. We have some marvelous heroines in our universe who are changing the game. We are not content with old systems and old stories. We will support writing that reflects who we are and who we are becoming. And we will destroy that which tells us we are less. Because we are worth more than that.

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

C.S. Lewis is often quoted in A Grief Observed, “…pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The last time fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe checked in with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” The Avengers, they had taken the ultimate blow. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, their foe, Thanos, snapped his fingers turning half of the entire universe’s population to dust. Everyone on every planet in every galaxy lost someone.

 

Thanos Snap

 

If the Marvel franchise were reminiscent of the action/sports movies of the 1980’s, our remaining heroes (comprised mostly of the original 6 from 2012’s The Avengers) would engage in an exhilarating training montage, find Thanos, and punch him in the face even harder than ever before! So perhaps the biggest surprise in the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is that the villain in about two thirds of the movie isn’t one you can punch at all. It’s grief.

 

In Infinity War, the Iron Man that started it all, Tony Stark, was forced to hold a teenaged Peter Parker, his budding mentee and pseudo-son, in his arms as he faded away. Black Widow, who had finally allowed a group of people to become her family, had to watch it all come crumbling down. The Mighty Thor worked tirelessly to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos only to come up torturously short instead getting a front row seat to the finger snap that caused the genocide. Captain America has always been a little different. He is all too familiar with the cost of war. What we walk into with this movie is an exploration of grief from many different angles.

 

Captain America Crying

 

Black Widow throws herself into her work, trying her best to keep a grasp on what was. Cap dives into helping others process their grief harking back of his visits to veteran support groups in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Thor, having had losses building up across several movies, had all of his hope for a brighter future riding on him being able to take out Thanos. He is coming completely unglued from the Avengers team, from his responsibilities as king, and his own health. Meanwhile, Stark, the team’s futurist, has embraced the present to build something new. Anyone who has felt a loss will likely relate to one of our heroes’ forms of coping. Grief works itself out in so many different ways, and there’s really no perfect script to handle it. 

 

Naturally, in the world of comics, the bad guys never triumph for long and evil is rarely afforded the final word. In the midst of their grief, a tiny light of hope comes along as the film launches into another wild Avengers adventure. Much like in Infinity War, we get to see new combinations of characters interacting and many memorable moments being created. Endgame is a gigantic movie with a runtime to match. Clocking in at a little over three hours, hardcore fans will be settled in for every second, but it will challenge the patience of fans on the peripheral. Hopefully, casual fans can hang in there, though, because the climax is nothing short of cinematic history unfolding. The final battle of this film redefines epic. 

 

Avengers Endgame

 

Yet pain insists on being attended to, and for those who have been following this franchise for the last 11 years across 22 films, there is going to be pain associated with Endgame. It very much is the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Of course, the film sets up plenty to be explored in the future with Disney’s streaming service already promising limited series starring some of our favorites, but until Comic Con or D-23 (Disney’s annual convention) later this year there are no current plans announced for a Phase 4. 

 

This is the end and it feels like it, but what an end it is! Endgameis filled to the brim with threads and references built across the entire franchise. For those who have spent the last year rewatching all the films, studying every frame, quoting every quip, there is a lot of pay off and closure. For casual fans of the franchise who have been empowered by Scarlett Johansson, endeared to Chris Evans, charmed by Robert Downey Jr., or infatuated with Chris Hemsworth, there are plenty of laughs and thrills. It has been an incredible ride, and Endgame is a fantastic finale, but don’t be thrown off if you feel a little grief after saying goodbye to such a history making franchise.

Why Are Millennials So Self-Absorbed?

I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.

We have no heroes

Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?

We have no heroes…including our parents

I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?

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Pornography is everywhere

I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.

We don’t have the church

Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?

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So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.

Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

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Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

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John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

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Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

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Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

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Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

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Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

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Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!

Ivan’s Top Ten 2018

This was a stacked year at the cinema! I’m not sure what’s to blame, but this has been my most challenging Top Ten list to date. There were a gaggle of really enjoyable big budget blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and the cultural milestone Black Panther. The family friendly genre was spoiled with the richness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Paddington 2. That’s right, the Paddington sequel came out early this year and it was phenomenal! Documentaries made things difficult as well with the baffling Three Identical Strangers and the dizzying Free Solo proving reality is, truly, stranger than fiction.

More and more people were able to see themselves on screen in 2018. So much of what studios thought they knew about box office projections were defied nearly every week at the cinemas. The legacy of this year in film will hopefully be one that motivates producers to take more risks and tell more stories that surprise, provoke, and represent everyone. Here are those stories that moved me the most.

10. Leave No Trace (PG)

It’s hard to say why Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace was incredible. This is probably because a lot of the meaning and power behind the film were found in what the characters had a hard time saying. Granik doesn’t give you much in the way exposition in this story about a military veteran who chooses to live off the grid with his adolescent daughter, but so much is said in Ben Foster’s stoic and tormented performance. You know he loves his daughter more than anything. You know he’d do anything for her. But you also know that whatever scenes from his past are playing over and over behind his eyes, whatever trauma is boiling under his skin, whatever it is that he’s trying to escape…are driving him into isolation. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking picture of life after war, and one worth paying attention to.

Leave No Trace

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace (2018).

9. First Man (PG-13)

First Man, an account of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, is lightyears ahead of Damien Chazelle’s mundane and pretentious La La Land. Chazelle brings you into the rickety cockpit of the early space program while showing you that in order to reach the stars, you may have to detach from everything else. Ryan Gosling isn’t singing and dancing as the famous astronaut, quite the opposite actually. He perfectly exemplifies the stoicism of masculinity in mid-century America and the emotionless tenacity involved in taking this dangerous mission. Chazelle was the perfect director to ask these questions about what it takes to achieve such heights, a similar theme explored in his excellent film Whiplash. Helping guide the audience and her family through this mission is Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife. Next time you find yourself staring at the moon at night, this movie may leave you thinking about Janet and so many others that were left behind here on Earth by men reaching for greatness.

Read Heather’s review of First Man here.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

One of the dictionary definitions of a “prophet” is, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight.” I think James Baldwin was a prophet. His words paired with the directing of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, brings more than ordinary insight of life on Beale Street. A block of text begins the film explaining that the concept of Beale Street, is a street where communities of color form through systematic injustices. In this film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, viewers get to see the beauty of such communities painted, through the camera lens, on the back drop of the oppression they experience on a daily basis. In the story of Tish and Fonny’s love, Baldwin and Jenkins highlight inequality in criminal justice, housing, religion, employment, education, and so much more. Too often ugly stories are told under a light that makes the subjects look ugly, but Beale Street tells the story of beautiful people who are victims of ugliness. The film tells a story that feels hopeless, but Jenkins tells truth without surrendering any beauty.

Read Heather’s review of Beale Street here.

7. Vox Lux (R)

At this point, it’s possible that Natalie Portman has an automatic entry on my Top Ten list whenever she has a movie coming out. In Vox Lux, she is riveting! The film tells the story of a mass shooting survivor turned pop music star. There is a moment in the film when Portman’s character Celeste wonders how she, as a mega celebrity who seemingly achieves more fame when she does harm than when she produces new art, compares herself to terrorists. This feels like a film for our times and one that Portman brings so much to. The monsters of fame and trauma have made Celeste a dangerous person to those around her, but when her wireless microphone is on, when there’s glitter adhered to her eyebrows, and when she is hitting every step of her choreography even those most hurt by her are caught up in her trance and you may be too. Vox Lux carries an R rating and viewers could use a heads up that the depiction of the mass shooting that opens the film is terrifying and graphic, but the film asks if that is a fitting mirror to our everyday reality?

Vox Lux

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux (2018).

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

Outside of Heinz Field over on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a big statue of Mr. Rogers overlooks the three rivers. It sits, sculpted with a signature sweater and tennis shoes, with on leg crossed watching with a smile on his face. This is, similarly, how he has supervised over much of my childhood. From doing ballet with Steelers great Lynn Swann to visits to the crayon factory to heartfelt reminders that I am loved and my feelings matter, Fred Rogers’s influence on me is immeasurable. With this year’s best documentary, I realized just how many others have been and continue to be influenced by Fred. The equation was this; a Presbyterian minister, primitive puppets, cheap sets, and a public access feed. All of this added up to magic and it all came from one man caring in a different way. This movie left me in my theater seat dreaming of all the people who have cared deeply about me and hoping that others have felt that way about me caring for them. Fred’s influence continues.

Fred Rogers Statue Pittsburgh

Fred Rogers statue overlooking Pittsburgh.

5. Eighth Grade (R)

I am not a middle school girl. Neither is 28-year-old stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham, but he has created such an authentic picture of today’s youth culture that anyone can relate to it. There are many seasons in life where humans will stop and wonder who they are. Post-college, mid-life, end-of-life, and others are all ages when our identity is worth evaluating, but is there a more tumultuous time than the first? We hit middle school and, all of a sudden, it’s a mad dash for acceptance, affirmation, and our own individual truth. Today’s kiddos are going through this pubescent tumult live on Instagram. Burnham researched hours and hours of YouTube vlogs to capture the vulnerability portrayed by actual middle schooler Elise Fisher. The product is a movie that will take you back to every acne break out and broken heart of your youth. Thanks a lot, Bo.

Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham, writer and director of Eighth Grade (2018).

4. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

I want you to watch Netflix’s Daredevil creator Drew Goddard’s twisty-turny thriller, and to best do that you should have as little information as possible. What I will tell you is that it features two of my absolute favorite acting performances of the year. Cynthia Erivo brilliantly leads this wild ride and Jeff Bridges is only getting better as time goes on. Bad Times wrestles with morality, spirituality, and forgiveness so be ready to wrestle along with it. Nearly every scene in the movie changes what you think is happening and how you feel about each character. What never changes is how I feel about the movie. It’s a really good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

3. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Parenting is absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I would have responsibility for the well-being of something as uncontrollable as another human being, one with very little inhibition or wisdom, is a nightmare. This is a nightmare The Office’s John Krasinski brings to terrifying life in A Quiet Place. There’s no room for error for Krasinski’s Lee who, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt’s Evelyn, attempt to navigate their children through a word with unspeakable danger. The kids in the film are so authentic. Even in a world of monsters, they are kids with all their selfishness and wild tantrums kids have. A Quiet Place forces you to scream not only at the monsters but at these kids that just won’t sit still! The world Krasinski builds is immersive and doesn’t let you escape until the very last frame. It’s impossible to sit back, relax, and watch this one, but that makes it such a thrill.

Read Heather’s review of A Quiet Place here.

2. Crazy Rich Asians (PG-13)

Just when everyone thought Marvel’s Black Panther was going to be the only financial surprise at the box office this year, Crazy Rich Asians came in breathing new life into a genre many thought was gone forever to a world of mediocrity. Romantic Comedies have always been one of my guilty pleasures, but Crazy Rich Asians defies the category. I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the studios when it came to my expectations for the movie. I hoped to laugh, I hoped to have a cross-cultural experience, but, I never expected to be so deeply moved. I had heard an interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, before seeing the movie that added context. He spoke about his complicated relationship with the Coldplay song “Yellow,” how he wrote a letter to Coldplay talking about his experience as an Asian-American for whom the color was often used to belittle, and how important is was to include the song in his film. For Chu, this film was about capturing a story not often told. It was about showing others the beauty of his culture, and the minute that song played in the film, I started crying. This wasn’t just a romantic comedy, this was a movie with incredible characters and a meaningful story tied richly into their culture and tradition. It was one of many statements made this year that there are stories to be told outside of the majority culture and movie-goers responded making it the second highest grossing non-franchise movie of the year.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

1. Roma (R)

Netflix has a record of changing the way we experience content. It seems every week there’s a new streaming service, and competition has never been more intense to create the next great work. Well sit down, Prime Video. Get out of the way, Hulu. Who even invited you, Crackle? Netflix has offered us this year’s best film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This black and white, subtitled movie is autobiographical for the Gravity director. It tells the story of a maid, like the one who cared for him as a child, living and working in an affluent town in Mexico. The town of Roma basically runs through the hard work of indigenous Mexican women, and Cuaron drops the audience into her life, into her language, and into the politically volatile world of 1970’s Mexico. It was so surprising, and emotional. Cuaron cast a first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, to bring his lead, Cleo, to life. She fills Cuaron’s long, expansive frames with such beauty and authenticity. Much like Cuaron’s Children of Men, he rolls the camera and allows scenes to develop and evolve with very few cuts or movements. This is very much his love letter to Mexico and the woman who inspired Cleo and the film, Cuaron’s own live-in maid, Libo. This is a letter very much worth reading and the great thing is that anyone borrowing somebody’s Netflix password has access to it.

Roma

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

Check out Heather’s Top Ten here!