Monday, February 20, 2017

Jordan's Top 20 Films of 2016

Oscars season is here! This Sunday, ABC will host the 89th annual Academy Awards honoring achievements in film-making from the year 2016. It also just so happens that I watched pretty much everything that came out last year, so I figured I'd write a post ahead of the Oscars celebrating my favorites. Of this year's nine best picture nominees, seven of them made my top 20 (Hell or High Water and Lion are also excellent), but like most years, my list looks quite different than the Academy's. I like to think my tastes are pretty eclectic, so there should be something here for everybody. Or just trust that my taste is exquisite and watch all of them.

But first!


Hush: a home-invasion thriller with a deaf protagonist
Other People: written/directed by SNL head-writer Chris Kelly
The Meddler: Susan Surandan is adorable!
Paterson: Adam Driver's a bus-driver/poet in this poetically naturalistic film
The Jungle Book: a masterpiece of motion capture technology, and my mom loved it!
Dr. Strange: not just a drug trip; also one of Marvel's best origin stories yet
Rogue One: I liked Force Awakens a bit more but RO is a great addition to the SWU
The VVitch: grim, atmospheric, upsetting and flawlessly executed
The Lobster: weird, but, like... in a good way?
Green Room: unbearably tense and irresistably clever. RIP Anton Yelchin
The Nice Guys: Ryan Gosling! Russell Crowe! Shane Black can write a buddy comedy!
Hello, My Name is Doris: Sally Field is adorable!
The Invitation: a slow-burn low-concept psychological thriller
Queen of Katwe: chess never looked so cool!
Love and Friendship: Kate Beckinsale can act! Jane Austin can be funny!
Don't Breathe: gross but amazing
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: so much funnier than you're imagining

What a year for movies! And now, the real show!

20. Edge of Seventeen

Coming-of-age movies are some of my favorites, but outside of the John Hughes oeuvre, most of them center on adolescent males. The last few years in particular have suffered from a dearth of female-centric coming-of-age stories, so expectations were high for Kelly Fremon Craig’s Edge of Seventeen (especially since it’s named after a killer Stevie Nicks song). Thankfully, with Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld playing protagonist Nadine Franklin, the whole things comes together with a lot of heart, humor and earnestness. Woody Harrelson also plays a delightfully sardonic, put-upon mentor figure. For a feel-good film very much in the John Hughes tradition, definitely give this gem a watch.

19. Kubo and the Two Strings

Image result for kubo and the two strings

Nominated for 2 Oscars, for Best Animated Feature and Visual Effects
In a year full of unexpectedly theological films, Kubo and the Two Strings stands out for its potent message about storytelling and incarnation (just ask my best friend Tony!). It’s also one of the most visually resplendent animated (or stop-motion) films I’ve ever seen, which is no surprise, given how it was produced by the same Hillsboro, Oregon studio (Laika Entertainment) which also brought us Coraline and ParaNorman. For a thoughtful adventure story, check out Kubo.

18. Zootopia

Nominated for 1 Oscar, for Best Animated Feature
When I saw the first trailer for Zootopia, full of CGI bunnies, sloths and foxes, I didn’t guess that it would be a poignant parable about racial prejudice and structural inequality, but lo and behold! Disney films usually pack an emotional punch and preach to adults in the audience along with the kids, but Zootopia transcends the typically-profound bar set by Disney, achieving legitimately incisive and timely social critique.

17. Hacksaw Ridge

Nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor
Given that I’m an avowed pacifist, war movies are hard for me. I can appreciate the stories of brave men and women who lay down their lives for their people, but I have a hard time rooting for one country over another, when most wars are more complicated than “good guys vs. bad guys”. And that’s what makes Mel Gibson’s big comeback film Hacksaw Ridge so remarkable: even while telling a story about World War II (where there was as close to a “good” and “bad” side as we’ve seen in recent history), real-life war hero Desmond Doss’ story complicates the categories. His legacy is a reminder of how nonviolent conviction, love and faith can transform a violent world. How timely.

16. Fences

Nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress
Plays don’t always translate well to screen, as some of the magic often gets lost in translation. In adapting August Wilson’s classic stage-play Fences, director (and star) Denzel Washington sidestepped the problem entirely by translating the play to the screen as literally as possible. Indeed, Fences feels like a play, with a few central locations and long, dialogue-driven scenes featuring big, scenery-chewing performances. Denzel may even take home a record-breaking third Oscar this year, but if you watch Fences, do it for Viola Davis’ bravura performance which will, God-willing, win her a well-deserved and long-overdue Academy Award. She’s remarkable in it.

15. Jackie

Nominated for 3 Oscars including Best Actress and Original Score
Emma Stone is my pick for 2016’s best actress (keep reading), but I wouldn’t be a bit disappointed if Natalie Portman picked up her second statue this year. Her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy isn’t just technical or precise; it’s also harrowing. She isn’t an impression of Jackie, she’s a flesh-and-blood character with doubts, fears and frustrations, swimming in grief in front of the world’s largest audience. It’s an impossibly complicated performance, pulled off miraculously; plus, the film that surrounds her is inventive, thoughtful and appropriately sober. It’s a film for film fans, for history buffs, and for those who struggle with grief and doubt. It’s a thing to behold.

14. A Monster Calls

I knew going into A Monster Calls that it was just my type of movie. Coming-of-age story meets fantastical, allegorical treatment of deep human emotions. I didn’t quite expect, however, what an emotional gutpunch the film would turn out to be. A Monster Calls also features some of my favorite working actresses (Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones) and a brilliant breakout performance by the young Lewis McDougall in a rich, layered story about grief, guilt and the art of storytelling. If you have some emotions to work through, A Monster Calls is just what the doctor ordered, but don’t dare watch without a full box of tissues in hand.

13. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

At their most indulgent, indie comedies are known more for their eccentricity than their humor. Occasionally, however, one strikes just the right balance. A perfect example of indie quirk leveraged for character, heart and humor in perfect doses is this year’s lowkey comedic masterpiece, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, written and directed by What We Do in the Shadows director Taika Waititi (also directing this year’s Thor Ragnarok). The narrative takes a few sharp turns early on, but once Wilderpeople settles in, expect to feel and laugh and feel again and laugh again. Rince and repeat.

12. Moana

Nominated for 2 Oscars, for Best Animated Feature and Original Song
I've already written quite a bit about Disney’s newest musical Moana, which turned out to be an emotionally rich, thematically mature take on the standard Disney formula. While Moana may owe much to the studio’s older hits, however, its unique combination of elements, paired with a dynamic protagonist, an inspired lack of love interest, and a soundtrack to rival Disney’s best, all make Moana the best animated musical in years.

11. Hidden Figures

Nominated for 3 Oscars including Best Picture and Supporting Actress
Some have written off Hidden Figures for its formulaic approach to the biopic, but I could not disagree more. In the first place, there’s nothing trite or cliche about the performances at the film’s center. Indeed, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and (the surprisingly luminous) Janelle Monae all bring their characters to life with verve and vulnerability. Inspired by true events, the film tells just the kind of story that needs told right now, one about women of color who shaped our shared history and got no lasting credit for it. Sure it’s a feel-good crowd-pleaser, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If done well, feel-good family films can shape our collective consciousness for the better, and Hidden Figures has what it takes to do just that.

10. Captain America: Civil War

There was no way Marvel’s second-most recent blockbuster Captain America: Civil War wasn’t going to make an impact on me. I’m a tried-and-true Marvel devotee, but even so, I could recognize Civil War for what it was: a cut above. Sure, it was essentially another Avengers outing, with the most impressive rogues gallery of heroes committed to film yet, but the Russo Brothers (sibling sitcom producing team turned Marvel in-house directors) managed to integrate into the Avengers aesthetic the paranoid spy-thriller feel of 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, resulting in a bombastic superhero film with real perspective. Still, though, I must admit: the first Avengers is still my favorite. Sorry.

9. Sing Street

Sing Street is the third musical film directed and written by Irish auteur John Carney (after 2007’s Once and 2013’s Begin Again). While all his films are sweet, Sing Street is, for my money, Carney’s crowning achievement. The story is set in the 1980s and centers on a handful of Irish Catholic schoolboys who band together to make music and impress girls. To quote a character, it’s a thoroughly “happy-sad” affair, which happens to be my favorite combination of cinematic emotions (see Inside Out). Given the film’s musical inspiration (80s new-wave pop-rock), it all seems specifically designed to delight me, and so it does. This was a good year for musicals (keep reading).

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has helmed two devastatingly good films in his short career, 2014’s Whiplash and this year’s La La Land (keep reading), but few realize he also helped pen the script for 2016’s most unexpectedly masterful sci-fi thriller and spiritual sequel to 2007’s Cloverfield: 10 Cloverfield Lane. The setup is ingeniously simple, with (criminally-underrated) Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing a woman who wakes up after a car wreck holed up in a survival bunker, held captive (or not?) by the never-better John Goodman. It’s a twisty ride to the finish, but I won’t spoil any of it for you. Because I’m a really, really good friend.

7. Don't Think Twice

It’s no secret that, if this whole youth ministry thing doesn’t pan out, my plan B is to move to Chicago and pursue improv comedy full time. The whole lifestyle just seems so kinetic and creative to me. Watching this year’s Don’t Think Twice (directed by stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia and largely improvised by its talented cast), however, cast my dream in a whole new light. Sure, improv is fun, and creative, but it’s also hard, and heartbreaking, as so many of the dreams of our youth turn out to be. What starts out as a naturalistic comedy about improv turns into a reflection on growing up when old dreams become unsustainable. It’s sobering, but so so good.

6. 20th Century Women

Nominated for 1 Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay
Interestingly, autobiographical mother-son relationships feature prominently in three of my favorite films from last year (this one, Other People, and Moonlight). 20th Century Women, set in 1979 and anchored by a textured performance by the always-stunning Annette Bening, tracks a relationship between an older single mother and her teenage son. She enlists the help of his platonic female friend (Elle Fanning) and their roommate (personal-favorite Greta Gerwig) to teach her son how to be a man. Having been raised by a village of caring adults myself, I always treasure seeing big, complicated found-families in film, and 20th Century Women is my favorite in some time. Also, listen for some of the best, cleverest dialogue from any film last year.

5. Manchester by the Sea

Nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor
In a year inexplicably full of movies about grief, one faces it head-on: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. When hard-nosed Bostonian Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck in a stellar, grounded performance) learns of his brother’s passing, he’s forced to return to his hometown to look after his teenage nephew (the also-brilliant and also-Oscar-nominated Lucas Hedges). The prodigal son of Manchester must then face the demons that drove him away in the first place. Manchester’s alternately funny, earnest, sweet and gut-wrenchingly sad. For some real catharsis, cry your way through it and thank me later. Or hate me. Both acceptable options.

4. Moonlight

Nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor
There are movies that defy cold, “objective” analysis, and this year’s Moonlight is one of them. It must simply be absorbed, bathed in. Plus, I am particularly ill-equipped to say anything meaningful about the story of a queer, black young man from inner-city Miami, so please just trust me when I say that Moonlight is the most tender, innovative, important movie you could watch from the last year. It’s not my absolute favorite of 2016 (keep reading), but I’m pulling for it to win best picture.

3. Arrival

Nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay
Amy Adams is a force of nature, with a growing list of rich, fully-embodied performances under her belt (The Fighter, The Master, American Hustle, Enchanted, Doubt, Julie & Julia, this year’s Nocturnal Animals). Denis Villeneuve (Arrival's director) is one of the most confident aestheticians working in Hollywood today. Together they made a philosophically dense alien invasion movie about language, time and grief. Thinky sci-fi is right in my wheelhouse, so I expected to love Arrival, but I didn’t expect for it to change how I relate to my own memories and relationships. But it did. That’s all I really have to say about that. Anything more would be spoilery, and I respect you too much to do that to you.

2. Silence

Nominated for 1 Oscar, for Best Cinematography
Legendary and consistently-groundbreaking director Martin Scorsese has been gestating an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel about 17th century persecution of Japanese Christians for nearly twenty years. And the director’s deep passion for the material shows throughout the film. Sure, Silence is long and serious, but it’s also the most respectful, complicated, messy, flesh-and-blood portrayal of faith in the face of suffering I’ve ever seen on film. Period. Imagine that, a “Christian” movie which takes the human experience seriously, in all its messiness. If you’re a person of faith, please go see Silence. If you’re a Scorsese fan, you probably already have.

1. La La Land

Nominated for 14 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress
I don’t know if there’s anything to say about La La Land that hasn’t been said a hundred times and better than I could say it. It’s colorful and fun and the performances are incredible (Emma Stone could win an Oscar this year!). Sure, personal mileage may vary depending on your taste for musicals, but even if they’re not typically your style, you may still resonate with the themes at the heart of this movie, like vocation or romance or the personal cost of pursuing your dreams. Honestly, just go see La La Land. Do it. Sometimes things are just lovely, and that’s ok. Don’t overthink it. Do it. Watch La La Land. You know what? You deserve it. You deserve a little happiness in your life. Just go watch it already. Why keep denying yourself? You’re a treasure and everyone thinks so.  Go watch La La Land. Do it.

(caution: some light language)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Listening and Resisting: Life in Trump's America

I tried to fall asleep early on the night of November 8th. I figured, as did many Americans, that the election would go in Hillary’s favor, but that it might be a rough ride to the finish line, so I tried to skip the drama and wake up in the morning with a new president-elect. Needless to say, sleep proved elusive, as I checked election results on my phone every five minutes or so for hours. Around midnight, when the unthinkable suddenly became the inevitable, I sat up in my bed and started sobbing.

Few of my friends spent much time before the election worrying about the results. Hillary would take it for sure, they figured. Nobody seemed to seriously consider the possibility that we might elect an unstable reality tv star (with a racist and sexist streak) to the highest office in the land. But it was all I could think about. I carried a sense of dread with me every day for about six months, as friends, coworkers and family assured me it would turn out alright. But on that night, as all my worst fears became reality, all I could do was weep. At one point my roommate came into my room to check on me because he’d heard my wailing and hyperventilating from the room over. All the anxiety I’d been carrying for months poured out of me.

And then a strange thing happened: I got calm. Sure, I spent the next few days mourning and commiserating with friends who felt as uncentered as I did. But all the anxiety I’d carried for months turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it had prepared me for the election’s traumatic results better than those who had never truly entertained the notion of a Trump presidency.

I was over being terrorized by fear and uncertainty. We had the results; the only variable was how we would respond to them. And I have spent the bulk of the last two months interrogating that very question: what will my life look like in Trump’s America? What do I do?

My first impulse was to come out swinging. I wanted my friends, particularly those who have been specifically targeted by the rhetoric, behavior and policy proposals of the president-elect (my female friends, my black and latino friends, my LGBTQ friends, my sexual assault-surviving friends) to know that I will stand with them, that they are loved and valued in spite of America’s election of a bigot and bully. So I shared messages of solidarity on social media, texted grieving friends words of encouragement. The only hope and meaning I could find was in presenting a singular message to the world, that I am with those who are afraid, who have legitimate reason to be if the president-elect is to be taken at his word.

I also took solace in my faith, in my commitment to a God who expressed solidarity with the poor, disenfranchised and hurting in the person of Jesus Christ. My religious experience came to life in a new way as I saw within the Christian Gospel a genuine hope for justice and reconciliation unlike anything else the world can offer. I wanted my LGBTQ friends, my friends of color, and the women in my life to know that God stands with them, just as God stands with all those who suffer unjustly. In continuity with the prophets of old (Isaiah, Amos, Jesus Christ) and the prophets of modern history (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Cone, John M. Perkins, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), I wanted to scream from the mountaintops:

“Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” - Amos 5:24

Even as I felt emboldened in my faith, however, I was haunted by my faith tradition. Indeed, I am one of those Evangelical Christians, 81% of whom voted for Donald Trump. In the months surrounding the election, major Evangelical faith leaders came out in support of this man, and closer to home, I had more than a few confrontations over facebook and in person with folks from my church who believed with every bone in their bodies that Hillary was literally in league with the devil, and that Trump would deliver them from hard times. They considered any vote for Hillary Clinton (or any Democrat, but especially Clinton) to be an outright endorsement of child murder. In fact, this election revealed to me how abortion has become the singular issue Evangelicals use to justify support of their candidates, no matter how blatantly the candidates themselves embody un-Christian values (Trump, for example, is a serial philanderer who regularly objectifies women with his language and boasts that he does not need God’s forgiveness).

I believe, unequivocally, that the church is God’s vessel in the world, charged to communicate the good news of salvation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, but I am increasingly frustrated with the nationalism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering rampant in American Christian churches, which have rendered us unable to see the genuine threat in a person like Donald Trump. And this has caused me to look to my future with increasing uncertainty, as I have invested years of education and vocational experience into church ministry. This is my livelihood, but more importantly, it’s my calling, my raison d'ĂȘtre, but how do I enter into a field which is becoming increasingly hostile toward anyone who won’t line up behind a narrow political agenda? My friends assure me there are others within the church who feel like me, who are similarly disillusioned by politically homogeneous churches and are hungry for genuine spiritual experience apart from them, but it’s easy to get discouraged right now. Here’s hoping, I guess.

After some time of wrestling over what the appropriate response to Trump’s election might be, I’m less certain than ever. I feel so torn in two opposing directions that I’m afraid I might split in half. On the one hand, I must and will stand with those legitimately endangered by Trump’s nationalistic, bigoted agenda. On the other hand, however, I share space most every day with those who saw fit to vote for this man, and these folks aren’t going anywhere, nor would I want them to. These are friends, neighbors, family members, fellow church-goers, and while I disagree with them, I still deeply value their humanity and their perspectives. As certain other friends have reminded me, we must retain the ability to come to the middle and have productive, persuasive conversations with those of differing opinions. We cannot just write them off as irredeemable, no matter how beyond the pale their perspectives seem.

And honestly, supporting Donald Trump after the campaign he led does seem pretty beyond the pale to me. For a year and a half, I watched this man traffic in xenophobia, bullying and outright deception. Every other sentence of his was either a gross exaggeration or an outright fabrication, according to every reputable fact-checking resource. He caricatured, maligned and scapegoated whole races and religious groups in an attempt to make us fear them. He demeaned women, objectified their looks, and dismissed their professional qualifications. And, perhaps most disturbingly (though it’s all disturbing), he bragged about his ability to kiss women and grab them by their genitals without their consent, which is sexual assault. He bragged about sexually assaulting women. Then, when nearly a dozen women came forward to validate his claims, he shrugged off their allegations, saying they were not sexually attractive enough to assault. This man disqualified himself from any authentic claim to leadership a hundred times over. And yet he won the presidency. Not the popular vote, but still, he won the race that counts.

So I get to figure out how to live alongside those who supported this man, because cutting them out of my life isn’t only politically disadvantageous or counterproductive to progress, it’s un-Christian. I can’t write people off; I don’t have the luxury. Following the election I saw more than a few Facebook friends post that, while voting for Trump didn’t automatically make someone a bigot, those qualities in Trump himself should have been deal breakers. And I agree. But these posts usually conclude with something like, “therefore, if you voted for Trump, you voted against my best interests and the interests of those I care about, so I’m done with you.” And I so resonate with the emotions behind that stance, but I simply cannot go there. I have to believe there is hope that folks may still change their minds. After all, I was about as uncritically patriotic and conservative as they come throughout high school. I needed a few folks to share their stories with me, and for God to shake my foundations and lead me somewhere new.

I also must have humility enough to realize that I don’t have access to the experiences of others, particularly those who disagree with me. Even while I may never agree with the rationale behind their voting, I ought to listen to it. I should seek to understand, to see and know, to love more deeply. Because when folks feel unheard, they follow after someone who listens, even if that someone is a charlatan. A major reason Trump achieved the numbers he did is that there is a significant contingent of folks in this country who feel underrepresented and unheard, and he at least spoke to them, directly. Some of their grievances are legitimate, too. What could it hurt to listen?

But on the other hand, again, I will not compromise my advocacy for those who are most immediately threatened under the new presidential regime. Donald Trump promised horrific, unconstitutional things during his campaign. Banning immigration of Muslims. Deporting whole immigrant families (peaceful or otherwise), including revoking birthright citizenship for youths born in our country. Repealing the Affordable Care Act so millions of families lose health insurance. Instituting “law and order” policies as a response to civil unrest around police brutality. And if his vice president has much sway over Trump’s policies, we can expect greater support for “religious freedom” laws which make discrimination against LGBTQ citizens legal. The same groups who are already disenfranchised (the poor, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, religious minorities, and those at the intersections) may face real danger over the next four years.

In addition to Trump’s own actions, words and policies, we must recognize the subsection of Americans who have become emboldened by Trump’s hateful rhetoric, who parrot his bigoted words and go even further. This election has made clear to me that there are more than a few overt racists and white supremacists in our country, who now believe they will have an ally in the White House. They call themselves the “alt-right”, or boast similar beliefs and attitudes, and they have developed a significant presence in our social media communities. I’ve witnessed favorite writers, actors and preachers of mine become inundated by hundreds of hate messages from actual white supremacists, all with “Make America Great Again” in their twitter bios. Whatever subtle, systemic strains of racism we were wrestling with before, we now must add actual white nationalism to our list of concerns.

What little clarity I have at the moment, is that I ought to seek out productive conversations with those who disagree with me, but not at the cost of using my voice to amplify the concerns of those most directly affected by Trump’s dangerous lunacy. I can come to the middle to talk policy, to talk experience, to talk spirituality and faith, but I will not go as far as to pretend that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is in any way acceptable. I’m not saying Trump is “not my president”, but I will commit to actively challenging whatever actions he takes against my LGBTQ family members, my friends of color, my immigrant neighbors, my Muslims brothers and sisters, and anyone else he sees fit to target. It’s going to be an interesting four years, no doubt, but I am in the game. And I invite you to join me. Or if you think I’m delusional or brainwashed, I’d love to sit down and have a chat with you about that, too.

I’ll offer one final encouragement before I finish here: if you know someone who feels genuinely afraid for his/her/their welfare under Trump’s rule, who exists in a traditionally disenfranchised group, don’t demand this person come to the table and hash out your feelings with you. There is still some very raw hurt and trauma being processed over this election. If you see hurt, the compassionate thing to do may be to ask why, but it also might be to do some research on your own, or to talk to folks who are offering to talk with you. And here I am, offering to talk with you. If you don’t understand all the angst and grief over Trump’s election, I would love to work through some of that with you. And I would love to listen to your perspectives. Just don’t demand those experiencing real and urgent trauma to make an account for you; it’s unkind.

As I said right after the election: we’re all just gonna have to get a lot better at loving each other.
Grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

5 Most Unexpectedly Theological Films of 2016

I watched pretty much every movie that came out in 2016. Mostly that’s because I set out last January to watch a different movie every day last year, and I used that project to keep up on all the year's new movies as they premiered. I accomplished my goal (366 movies!), but it wasn’t an easy task, especially since I’m working toward my Masters of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and grad school doesn’t typically lend itself to an abundance of free time. This meant that I usually had to read theology and write papers while I watched the movie-of-the-day. Maybe that combination changed the way I watch movies, or maybe it was just an especially theological year in film, but I kept noticing in the movies I watched some specific insight into Christian faith and theology. In lieu of posting a “top movies of the year” list (although I reserve the right to do this at a later time), I figured I’d single out some especially theological movies from the last year, and hopefully make some novel connections for my fellow cinephiles and theologians out there.

For this list I singled out a specific scene from each film which captures its greater theological insight. Given this approach, a major SPOILER WARNING is in effect. I will address specific plot details for each of these movies, so if you have not seen one of them, but want to at some later date, please skip it!

Also, one movie that didn’t quite make the list is Kubo and the Two Strings (which has some interesting things to say about incarnation and storytelling), but thankfully, my best friend Tony just wrote his own post about Kubo’s theology! Check it out!

Last thing: I use some pretty technical theological language here (I’m still in paper-writing mode!), so if you have any questions or concerns about any of the content please contact me over email or facebook. If you don’t have my contact info leave a comment and I will get back to you.

Last last thing: major trigger warning for details of sexual assault in #2 on this list.

5. The “Magic” - Pete’s Dragon
Image result for pete's dragon 2016
Mid-century American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr referred to the revelation of God in Christ as the “intelligible event which makes all other events intelligible”, meaning that once Jesus came to reveal the fullness of God, and the image of true humanity, we as followers of Christ are forevermore called to see the rest of life through the lens of this revelation. Everything else in the world, and in human history, must be understood in light of the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and reign of God in Jesus Christ. Go figure that a similar sentiment would show up in a Disney movie about a CGI dragon.
In Pete’s Dragon Robert Redford plays an old man who saw the dragon once, years before the events of the film. At one point, Redford’s character delivers a moving speech to his daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) about how meeting the dragon changed him. He speaks of the “magic” he experienced upon seeing the beast, which has altered the way he sees and experiences everything else since the encounter. It was an event which changed the way he interprets every other event in his life. It was revelation. A sincere experience with God ought to be similarly cataclysmic. The “magic” of an encounter with the living God should change the way we see the world, and more importantly, the way we see other people.

4. Confrontation with Dormammu - Dr. Strange
Dr. Strange boasts perhaps the most unexpectedly (and specifically) theological scenes of the year. And it’s not the kaleidoscopic, minutes-long dimension-hopping acid trip, nor the tender goodbye of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One as she imparts one final bit of wisdom upon the protagonist (“It’s not about you”). It’s actually the film’s climax, in which Stephen Strange confronts the cosmic being Dormammu in the latter’s dark dimension. I can’t be certain whether it’s intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but the scene plays very much like an homage to the mythic period between Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection, what certain church traditions call the “Harrowing of Hell”. According to this quasi-canonical doctrine, Jesus Christ, following his crucifixion at the hands of Roman authorities and Jewish leaders, descended into hell itself to win deliverance for captive humanity. New Testament Scriptures do make passing reference to this descent (1 Peter 3:19-20, 1 Peter 4:6), but the specific narrative in which Christ meets the devil in hades and either pays our ransom or tricks the devil into freeing humanity owes more to tradition and interpretation than to Scripture. Still, given how the doctrine appears in some form within the text of the Apostle’s Creed (“He descended into hell”), it is alarming how seldom contemporary Protestant Christians talk about it.
Many of our fictional heroes function as Messianic figures, sacrificing their own lives for the sake of their people. Sometimes this Christ imagery is more effective than others, and personal mileage may vary, but I find the Harrowing of Dormammu’s Dark Dimension by Dr. Strange to be a moving reminder of how Christ confronts the powers of darkness not with a drawn sword, but with a vulnerable body and the creativity of peace. And how the love behind the gesture, behind the sacrifice, will prove stronger even than death.

3. Signing His Book - The VVitch
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The horror genre is often fertile ground for conversations around spirituality and faith, and this year’s bleak masterpiece The VVitch offers as poignant a spiritual message as I’ve seen in some time. The whole film, both a period piece about Puritanism and a paranoid supernatural thriller, functions as a text about humankind’s relationship to God, as well as to darker spiritual forces in the world. Indeed, this is one of those movies that confronts without flinching the notion that there is something like a “devil” in the world. As a Pentecostal, I happen to believe in some antagonistic spiritual force (although it’s not quite that I believe in the devil so much as I believe against the devil!), a stance which does not win many points in intellectual circles. I was curious to see how an art-horror film might treat belief in the devil in Puritan theology and culture. Would it render the devil as a mimetic or metaphorical presence, merely the sum of all the paranoia and fearmongering, inherent to fundamentalist religion, which force us to turn against each other? Or would it play the devil card straight, as do most blockbuster-y supernatural horror flicks?
What makes the VVitch particularly fascinating is how it splits the difference. There is a witch terrorizing the puritan family at the film’s center. There is a demonic figure out for their souls. But the family is only so vulnerable to attack because they see each other with mistrust, resentment and suspicion (like good Puritans). As much as they are victims of the devil, they are victims of bad theology and false images of God. The son is terrorized by the idea that he might not be an “elect” child of God (an earmark of Calvinist, Puritan theology). The mother is inconsolable after the loss of her infant child because she fears it might have gone to hell. The eldest daughter only finally surrenders to the will of Satan, signs his book and hands over her soul because she believes herself to be utterly abandoned by God. Because when you think God hates you, that you are a wretched, worthless thing in His sight (another feature of old Calvinist theology [and some neo-Calvinist theology]), you may as well hand yourself over to the devil. Bad theology has consequences, and can in fact leave room for the Evil One to worm his way into our hearts and relationships. Dread terror of God may drive us away from God. Only the love of God, which restores relationship and brings health and fullness of life, can deliver us from our hatred and suspicion of each other and draw us all closer to the heart of God. It is, after all, God's kindness which leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

2. “There is no God” - Don’t Breathe
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The claustrophobic Don’t Breathe caught many audiences off guard. I, for one, went in expecting a standard home invasion thriller, not a meditation on morality in a godless world. The film centers on three youths, two of whom are more-or-less well meaning but caught up in some bad business, and the third is a career criminal. They decide to rob an old, blind man (poor form, I know), only to discover mid-robbery that the man (Stephen Lang) is a horrifying force of nature with nefarious secrets hiding in the deep recesses of his home. The invasion goes as poorly as you can imagine, and the young woman of the three (Jane Levy) finds herself chained in the man’s basement, listening as he delivers a soliloquy about justice in a nihilistic, post-God world. He pontificates to her about how, since there is no God, the only justice he will find for the death of his pregnant daughter (killed by a drunk driver) is that which he can deliver himself. This, for him, involves kidnapping a young woman and forcibly inseminating her with his seed (this one's rated R kiddos). The only reason he can justify this horror is that there is no external, unbending moral authority; there is only his own vengeance (“There is nothing a man cannot do once he accepts the fact that there is no god”).
The film does offer an incisive critique against godless vengeance (secular non-humanism?), but what I find more interesting is how the old man’s justifications echo the way church folks talk about defending their homes and families. The paramount ethical concern in American Christianity is protecting one’s family, one’s property and one’s own life. Forget what Jesus said about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek or resisting evil with good; what’s most important is “being a man” and “protecting what’s yours”. Our conception of justice is bloody and retributive in a way God’s justice is not. God’s justice restores and brings life. God’s justice is mouths fed, arms laid down. When the church’s vision of bravery and manhood looks more like a grizzled old man who tortures home invaders than the slain lamb who laid down his life even for his enemies, we have to wonder if we’re missing something fundamental. And the stakes are high, as these attitudes have real-world consequences. Consider how this warped security-and-muscle ethic can justify the refusal of refugees or the necessity of personal gun ownership, stances which are hardly in line with the example of Christ. We must "look upon the cross" for our example of God's character, and then follow in His steps.

1.  “Know Who You Are” - Moana
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For a half-hour-or-so stretch in the middle of Disney’s Moana, I wasn’t sure if the film was quite pulling off what it set out to do. Its earliest moments had been winsome enough, with Moana herself standing out for her tenacity and sense of duty. The film’s songs, too, are uniformly inspired (thanks to a writing team which includes Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda), but something about the second act, with demigod Maui’s incessant quipping and hapless chicken Heihei getting in the way at every turn, left me a bit cold (although I adored Jemaine Clement’s glam rock crab monster). Everything snaps into sharp focus, however, when Moana’s grandmother returns from the grave to remind the young heroine of her identity and calling. The two musical numbers which follow are, for my money, among the most touching in recent cinematic memory. In the first (a reprise of the film’s catchiest anthem “How Far I’ll Go”), Moana recalls her life’s meaning and vocation as her tribe’s Wayfinder, boldly proclaiming, “I know the way; I am Moana!” In the second, the princess confronts her enemy (lava demon Te Ka) in 2016’s most theological cinematic moment:

I have crossed the horizon to find you; I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you
This is not who you are. You know who you are.

Moana is only able to confront the demon because she has faced down her own. Since she has remembered and reclaimed her own identity, she can now see her foe with clear eyes and tender heart, knowing even the demon is not beyond redemption. Rather than destroying her enemy, Moana identifies with the creature (“I know your name”). Instead of slaying the dragon, she calls it by name, offers it compassion (“this does not define you”) and emboldens Te Ka to remember herself (“You know who you are”). Having been known and loved, Te Ka becomes the earth goddess Te Fiti once again. Moana's love for her enemy doesn't just repair a relationship; it repairs the world, as Te Fiti's return to grace begins to undo the decay wrought in her absence. And in the same way, our love of friend and enemy alike can, in some small way, repair the world (as the Mishnah says, tikkun olam). Enemy love, identity, naming, vocation. It's all there folks. What a movie.