Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

This year I was drawn to movies that tried new things or told stories I hadn’t seen before. There ended up being multiple autobiographical films in the bunch, reflecting writers/directors going to places of vulnerability and authenticity. I have always loved the way movies can help us make sense of our stories or enter into the experience of others. All of these do just that.

10. Endgame

I had my issues with Endgame, which I wrote about. But I also think Marvel accomplished something really difficult, which was to create a (mostly) satisfying finale to an intricate and beloved franchise. The expectations were incredibly high, and they delivered. I’ll write more about the Marvel saga in my top ten of the decade, but for now Endgame deserves some recognition.

9. Frozen 2

The music is still pretty good, the cast receives some welcome additions, sisterhood remains strong, but Frozen 2 is about much more than that. At its heart, this installment is about the treatment of indigenous peoples and confronting our past. It’s about interrogating the narratives we’ve been given about who is in power and why. About reexamining relational dynamics and shared history. About willingness to make sacrificial changes in order to resolve deep wrongs. And about not being able to move forward until we tell the truth about history. Frozen 2 was much edgier than I expected, and much more impactful as a result. Disney still fell short in some of the voice casting, not matching the ethnicity of the characters with that of their voice actors. But they also took some better steps to incorporate and honor the input of Scandinavian indigenous artists and historians. All in all, putting forward some important lessons for the next generation.

8. Waves

What is it like to be young and reckless? How does it feel to be at once invincible and also deeply fragile? How do we process the impact our actions have on others? How do we move towards forgiveness? Waves is a family drama that beautifully explores these questions. Helmed by a stunning cast, the family navigates the volatility of their teenaged son’s dating relationship, multiple forms of loss, anger and rebuilding. The first half is frenetic and chaotic, embodying recklessness, anger and fear. The second half is quiet, withdrawn, cautious. It’s a look at what can break a family and what can hold them together.

7. Queen and Slim

On the surface this movie is about police violence against unarmed black people, but it quickly becomes an exploration of the breadth of the black community. From the emerging creative powerhouse of Lena Waithe, this first screenplay takes the catalyst of a police shooting and uses it to launch a complex story about survival, community, vulnerability, protest, and nuance. As the title characters (played deftly by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) go on the run, they must learn to trust each other and observe the complexity of the black community’s response to their situation. It has generated mixed reactions from audiences, but it is undoubtedly unique and poignant.

(Content warning: the film contains an explicit sex scene. The encounter is tender and is used in the story to convey healthy vulnerability and trust. However it will not be appropriate for all viewers.)

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6. Honey Boy

I have seen a willingness and I believe a level of courage in Millennials to confront our past traumas and work towards emotional/mental health. That often includes processing the trauma of one’s parents, both theirs and the ones they have inflicted. Honey Boy does this is an unprecedentedly vulnerable way, with writer and star Shia LaBoef playing his own father. In a semi-autobiographical take on his own experiences, the story is set during what very much resembles the Even Stevens era, overlaid with his young adult stay in rehab. Young LaBoef is playing heartrendingly by Noah Jupe and the young adult version by Lucas Hedges (who, can we just acknowledge somehow ends up in all indie darlings?!) LaBoef literally steps into his father’s shoes and his perspective, embodying all his toxicity and abusive behavior, all his volatility and unrealized dreams. It is an emotional and disturbing story. It is also a brave exploration of the humanity of our parents. LaBoef demonstrates unflinching honesty combined with generosity towards his emotionally broken father and his isolated childhood self. That is the journey of healing, honesty and generosity. Honesty to name that which was deeply damaging, and generosity to also name the ways we all do the best we can with what we’re given at the time. We get to be witnesses to LaBoef’s process of healing, and we might be inspired to keep engaging our own healing along the way.

5. Little Women

First of all, there’s very little I can say that hasn’t already been said by Be Kind Rewind in her excellent video comparing the 4 primary iterations of this beloved classic (contains spoilers). But I loved Greta Gerwig’s adaptation! The book is split into two parts, following the March sisters as children/teens and then as young women. Gerwig splits the timeline in the film to place events side by side rather than strictly chronologically. This will be startling for some who are used to the previous adaptations, but it lends more depth and insight into why their lives and decisions develop as they do. The scenes of childhood are shot with a golden glow, while the more challenging and somber adulthood scenes have a colder and flintier feel. Gerwig taps into the angst so many young people feel about becoming adults and leaving behind the carefree ways of youth. We get to watch Jo experience that same transition and navigate her process of owning her life and her future and her art and her place in the world. It is a much-needed window into the difficulties of young adulthood and also the rewards of taking risks and pursuing meaningful relationships as an adult.

Gerwig clearly has a deep respect for the source material and the life and work of Louisa May Alcott. She blends more elements of Alcott’s real story into Jo’s arc, which was already semi-autobiographical. Alcott was an abolitionist (her family participated in the Underground Railroad and she even met Frederick Douglass), and she remained unmarried. Those themes are subtly worked into the film, giving it a more robust reflection of the original author and allowing Alcott to express what she was unable to during her own cultural/societal time. Gerwig also totally reimagines Amy, retaining her childishness in early life but allowing her character to demonstrate more complexity and purpose. Florence Pugh plays her perfectly, and nearly steals the whole movie which is quite a feat considering the already all-star cast. The relationships between the sisters take on new warmth and vibrancy in this version, their interactions are bursting with life and love. It is a lovely coming-of-age story that will inspire both men and women to take hold of the things that matter most and engage life with courage and hope.

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4. Parasite

Let’s take a minute to talk about how South Korean filmmakers are creating some dynamite movies! From the twisty and insightful Burning last year (available on Netflix, check the content guide for viewer discretion) to this year’s stunning festival favorite, Parasite, South Korea is asking big questions about class, income inequality and the role of Millennials in society. Parasite works best if you don’t know much about it, so I’ll let the film speak for itself. Suffice it to say that it’s a drama/heist/thriller genre-bender about a poor family and a wealthy family, how their lives intersect, and how social class impacts the ways we live and treat one another. Ivan wrote about its unexpected parallels to Downton Abbey, check out his review and don’t miss this wild work of storytelling.

3. The Last Black Man in San Fransisco

I wrote extensively about why this film is so powerful in my review earlier in the summer. This is a semi-autobiographical story about a young black man in San Fransisco who is wrestling with themes of ownership, belonging, home, gentrification, and what it means to be part of a place. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It had a relatively short theatrical release so check it out streaming on Amazon Prime.

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2. The Farewell

What started as a This American Life episode became a powerful film about family and culture. Written and directed by LuLu Wang, (also semi-autobiographical) The Farewell follows a young first generation Chinese-American woman (played wonderfully in a dramatic turn by Awkwafina) who travels back to China with her parents to visit her grandmother who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The thing is, her grandmother doesn’t know about her diagnosis and it is Chinese tradition not to tell her. The family all knows and invent a reason to all gather and, unbeknownst to her, give her their last goodbyes. The film is an exploration of the experience of being bicultural, trying to find out where you fit and what you want to embrace and what you want to reject. It’s about the loneliness and potential isolation of being separated from your family in a new culture. It’s about family and the ways we carry one another’s burdens. It’s about seeing the value in what initially feels foreign but is driven by a deep commitment to connection and selflessness. Now available to rent or buy, make sure to check this one out.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I was reluctant to see this one. I LOVED the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and had a hard time believing anything could top it. But director Marielle Heller proved me wrong. Rather than broadly being about Mr. Rogers, Beautiful Day draws from Fred’s real life friendship with journalist Tom Junod which began when Junod interviewed him for an Esquire profile in 1998. You MUST read this incredible piece which moved me to tears multiple times, and the follow-up that he wrote this summer in advance of the release of the movie. Junod was a man struggling with anger and bitterness, and Mr. Rogers changed him forever. The film follows their meeting and the ways that Fred chose Tom to be his friend (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the movie) and entered his life. The film is loosely formatted like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and Tom Hanks does a wonderful job of capturing Fred’s personality and aura. Heller has said in interviews that one of her hardest jobs as director was to get the actors to slow down to Fred’s pace of life. His conversation and relating were so slow and deliberate, making whoever was in front of him feel important. Hanks translates the look of delight that would come to Fred’s face so easily anytime a person did something that was significant to them and that they wanted to share. But the movie is not just about Mr. Rogers, but about the impact of who he was and the way he lived. To learn to process our anger and hurt so that we can move towards forgiveness and healing. (As he said, “If it’s mentionable then it’s manageable.”) To live with intentionality and compassion is to effect the people around you for the better. And I think Mr. Rogers would be the first to say that’s something all of us can do.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk: The Difference Good Lighting Can Make

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and without hesitating I replied, “The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It is one of the most important books of the 20th century.” I would strongly urge any American to read it, or anyone who is interested in understanding the history of race in America. James Baldwin brought a crucial voice to American society in the middle of the 20th century, one that is being carried on by many black American artists today. One of these rising artists is filmmaker Barry Jenkins. He hasn’t even turned 40 and already directed the 2016’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight. His next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel by the same name.

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Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, it is the story of a young black couple who are hoping to marry and start a life together when the young man is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. The creativity and insight of both storytellers results in a powerful combined narrative of love, injustice, powerlessness and resilience. The character’s lives are fraught as they try to pursue hope for a bright future while hitting constant roadblocks of inequality. From housing discrimination to racial profiling, the cards feel continually stacked against them. It is a story of families striving to protect their children to build a better life for them in the face of social degradation. It is a story of resourcefulness in the absence of access to resources, a story of beauty and hope intermixed with fear and disappointment. Beale Street progresses with a slow burn, but the gradual saga it weaves is finely tuned.

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Jenkins has a distinct and moving style of filmmaking. He has a unique ability as a storyteller to depict harsh realities with an aura of warmth and beauty. Rather than bleak lighting for bleak themes, Jenkins’ subjects exude vibrant colors. Both Beale Street and Moonlight are visually stunning, mesmerizing in the beauty of their cinematography. He uses long straight-on shots of the characters, endowing them with dignity and a sense of wonder. As you watch them move through their worlds you feel that it is an honor to see them in their fullness, that you are catching a glimpse of something rare and profound. Even when they are suffering or treated with cruelty by others, Jenkins’ camera imputes a constant tenderness that cannot be taken away. I recently heard a comment from someone in the film industry that you need people of color making films because actors with different skin tones have different lighting needs. On a technical level, it can be challenging to make all actors look equally good on screen. Jenkins’ skill in this area is unsurpassed. The actors in his films all look radiant, a testament to what can happen when structural changes are made to bring out the best everyone has to offer.

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What Jenkins accomplishes on screen speaks to a bigger call to our American society. A major theme of Beale Street is the creativity that the black community has been forced to cultivate in the absence of opportunity. Deprived of social equality, parents and individuals have to find alternate ways to put food on the table and to try to protect the next generation from harm. This is an exhausting and limiting way to live. Baldwin raises an important question in The Fire Next Time:

“The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not.”

What would America look like if racial inequality had not been consuming our energy and creativity for centuries? What could we have achieved by now if we allowed all our citizens to contribute the best of what they have to offer? What else could we have innovated by working together rather than keeping many groups silent and powerless? Segregation and inequality not only damages marginalized groups, it robs all of society. The characters in Beale Street wanted to create and contribute to the flourishing of society. Their contributions were dramatically limited by systemic inequality. Jenkins grew up with incredible environmental challenges and yet has managed to offer art that is lovely and compelling. The call for equality is so much more than a social crusade. It is a call to unlock the God-given potential that lies within our whole country. To seek the flourishing of the marginalized is to seek the flourishing of us all. If we have come this far with a very broken system, imagine how much farther we could go with a system that works for everyone.

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Content advisory: Beale Street contains some language and two scenes of sexuality, one including nudity. The scenes are filmed with tenderness and care and compliment the story, but viewer discretion is advised.

 

 

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.

 

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?