Top 10 Films of 2020

2020 was a weird year for cinema… the lines between television and cinema were blurred like never before as productions moved from once-crowded cinemas to streaming services. Major studios started choosing the small screen to debut massive films in light of the Covid pandemic, while many major projects were delayed.

On the surface this is a bad thing for cinema and the film industry at large, but this evolution has been years in the making – the pandemic merely helped push us to the next phase.

With much of our film consumption coming from Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon, Hulu, and more; we are also able to access a wider array of talent – and boy is there talent! This year, my top 10 is full of entries from independent directors and smaller projects… that would have been buried in the past.

Where is the future going? It’s hard to say. I don’t think the theater experience will die away for good, but we are certainly seeing a notable shift as directors and actors are attracted to streaming services for the freedom to make the projects they want. Less studio interference = a more unadulterated final product. 2020 showed us that in a big way, as our screens were filled with auteurs, unique vision, and passion projects.

So…. without further ado – here is my top 10.

10. Palm Springs, directed by Max Barbakow

Hulu surprised me with this touching and poignant modern redux of the Groundhog Day story trope. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti have genuine chemistry on screen, and bring an emotional heart and gravitas to an otherwise bonkers story. I laughed out loud constantly, but was also challenged and moved by Barbakow’s parable of relationship and commitment. What happens when you can’t escape someone, but you also can’t escape yourself?

9. S#!%house, directed by Cooper Raiff

Cooper Raiff stars in this film, which he also wrote and directed. An impressive debut, S#!%house evokes memories of early Richard Linklater films such as Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. The film focuses on struggling college freshman Alex, who meets Maggie at a party at the legendary (and titular) S#!%house, a party fraternity. The film is raw and vulnerable, honing in on the small details and intimate personal moments from the characters on screen. While it’s a low-budget indie project, the heart and precision of direction is beautiful and heartwarming. In an age of isolation, this film touches on the struggle of knowing and being known in a relatable way.

8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, directed by Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is not for everyone. His meta approach to storytelling is off-putting to many viewers, but to those willing to take on the challenge can be highly rewarding. This third effort in his directorial filmography is no different, but keeps things more confined to our few main characters – which ultimately results in a more cohesive and rewarding film experience. (It’s also his first film made specifically for Netflix). Jessie Buckley proves once again she is an actress capable of taking on any material, and brings a balance of innocence and paranoia to her role as the “young woman”, as the credits list. This film is layered, weird, and a lot to sort through – but functions as a fever dream about existence and meaning.

7. His House, directed by Remi Weekes

Weekes is yet another first time director on this list, and his horror film “His House” debuted on Netflix with little fanfare. The genius of this film is in the way it merges the horrifying experience of the immigrant characters with the ghosts and haunts they find in their home. It’s a game of psychological processing. As the viewer we are never truly sure where the line between trauma and reality is, which leads to some particular hair-raising sequences directed with chilling execution by Weekes. 2020 was a strong year for horror, and this film (along with Relic) managed to bring a fresh perspective to a genre that is often repetitive.

6. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Reichardt is a director with a wholly unique and reflective vision of filmmaking. From her grungy, dirty production design to the 4:3 aspect ratio; Reichardt invites us into a deeply personal and intimate tale of life on the frontier. It’s a unique and patient look at humanity, playing with the ideas of capitalism and moralism as they apply to a young man trying to make his way in the northwest. The beauty of the film is in its subtleties. Our eye and our attention are constantly drawn to the small moments and details, which is one of the beauties of cinema. This film hit theaters just before the pandemic hit, so it did have a limited run, but is now available to view at home.

5. Soul, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Pete Docter is the director behind the Pixar gem Inside Out, and his latest film could be considered a companion piece to it. While Inside Out addressed how we feel and process emotions, Soul goes even deeper – asking questions of life’s meaning and the purpose of existence. While the film uses humor well, this is really a film that feels directed at adults. Our lead character (voiced by Jamie Foxx) dies within the first 15 minutes of the film, and is taken on a journey that leads from New York City to the “Great Beyond/Great Before” – plane of existence. While Inside Out was a bit more literal with its message, Soul leaves a LOT to the audience to interpret and process – which I found to be more rewarding. If Soul had come out before Inside Out or Coco, it might have been my number 1 film of the year just for sheer ingenuity in story-telling. Regardless, this is not a film to miss. It debuted on Disney Plus on Christmas Day, after its initial theatrical release was delayed.

4. Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung

While Minari has not had a wide-release yet, I did have the privilege of viewing this beautiful story of an immigrant family trying to find their place after they move to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. The majority of this film is in Korean, but it is a distinctly and beautifully American picture of the sacrifices and challenges taken by a family to have a better life. Steven Yeun and Yeri Han lead the cast as Jacob and Monica, the struggling couple working through marital strife and the challenges of starting over. It is Alan S. Kim who steals the show, however, as their son David. The film is primarily shown from his perspective, as he processes each new chapter as a child would. There is a beauty and an innocence to this perspective that transforms the film from another A24 film to something that I found mesmerizing and relatable.

3. Nomadland, directed by Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao is the filmmaker behind my top film of 2018 – The Rider. Her filmmaking technique blurs the line of reality and cinema, as she likes to cast real people as themselves in her films. Academy award winner Frances McDormand leads her cast this time around as Fern, a woman living out of her van after losing everything in the Great Recession. The film does not utilize a traditional narrative, instead following Fern in an almost Malick-esque way as she moves around the American west from job to job and camp to camp. The west is beautiful, yet harsh – and that harshness is the ultimate challenge Fern faces in the film. It’s not only a film about survival, but about grief – and the way we as humans choose to process what life throws our way. Zhao has an affinity for emotional filmmaking, bringing us so uncomfortably close to a person’s pain and joy that we almost feel as if we are not privileged to witness what is before us. It’s beautiful, it’s raw, and it’s what I love most in cinema.

2. Small Axe: Lovers Rock, directed by Steve McQueen

Originally aired on the BBC, Steve McQueen’s series of Small Axe films are a perfect example of the way in which the lines are blurring between cinema and tv these days. Nonetheless, Small Axe has produced a couple of films so expertly crafted I would be remiss if I did not include at least one. While Mangrove may be the more complete film (and I must confess it was originally my favorite), Lovers Rock has been the film that stuck with me. Eschewing traditional narrative (sense a theme here?), Lovers Rock takes place during one night at a house party. We don’t follow any particular person, as the film weaves between the experiences of several young people. Film critic Josh Larsen says it best – “Freedom from narrative, freedom from main characters, freedom from whiteness, freedom from discrimination.” And this is what I loved about Lovers Rock – it was a film that celebrated Caribbean black culture, it allowed our characters to live, to love, and to be themselves. In a sense, that party serves as an escape and a reminder of what freedom looks and feels like.

  1. Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder

My number one film this year is an Amazon original from indie director Darius Marder. Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a young drummer who is suddenly afflicted with massive hearing loss and is faced with the biggest challenge of his life. His passions are now put on the line, his relationship is at risk, and he is forced to come to grips with a difficult reality – he is now deaf. Ahmed delivers one of the most meaningful and heart-wrenching performances I’ve seen in years. The intensity and despair conveyed on screen is impressive, but he also brings a joy and beauty to the role as his character begins to learn “how to be deaf.” This story arc ultimately is what landed this film on top for me. Deafness is never treated as a thing that destroys or devalues any life, and a great portion of the film is spent just living and learning with the deaf community Ruben becomes a part of. The ultimate struggle at the end of the day is not whether he will regain his ability to be a musician again, but whether his life will continue to have value or not. In a sense, Sound of Metal is the perfect companion piece to Soul (anyone up for a double feature?). Marder dives hard into those scenes, presenting the deaf community with beauty, grace, and appreciation. This film is not only a huge moment for Ahmed’s acting credits, it is a huge moment for disability representation in cinema.

So there you have it! My top 10 for 2020. I’m curious to hear your thoughts! Have you seen any of these? What are your favorites of the year? Please share and leave comments, and have a blessed 2021!

Signing out, The Real Bowman.

Missing Someone

Sorry it’s sad. But I wrote this free verse poem to help process/express. I originally posted it on social media but I wanted it to live on.
For you, Michael Cherry.

Missing someone is so much more than a hole in your heart

Your heart is
Run down
and trampled,
like the trails we used to walk

Missing someone is a weight that holds you down

Pinned down, can’t move

Can’t breathe waiting to hear from you

But I won’t

And I can’t make myself say that you’re gone

Those words, fumbled, feel fake

My lips refuse

My voice refuses to speak into existence what must be untrue

And it isn’t true, is it?

How can you really be gone when your fingerprints are all over so much of this beautiful world?

But no
there’s just a hole

Missing someone is so much more than a hole in your heart

Top 10 Films of 2019

With each passing year I like to take a moment and acknowledge the top cinematic efforts of the previous year. Some years my lists are more technical – celebrating the filmmaking achievements, while other years are more personal – where my post takes a moment to point out the films that made us more aware of our humanity, our emotions, and our dreams.

2019 was a deep year for me; full of deferred dreams, regained hopes, and rekindled loves. As one might expect, I gravitated towards those films that challenged the viewer to look deep within and examine our beliefs, our identities, and what makes us human. Some do this through high concept thrillers, while others ask us to slow down and breathe for a couple of hours.

Regardless of your experience with cinema in 2019, I hope you glean something from the following top 10 list. The films I have selected as the best representation of cinema carry an overarching theme of longing for better days, whether those days are long gone or are yet to come. It’s interesting to see how so many filmmakers in the industry today all took those deep concepts and reflected them in completely unique and thrilling ways. So without further ado…

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Peanut Butter Falcon, directed by Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz
  • The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang
  • Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson
  • Ford vs Ferrari, directed by James Mangold
  • The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers
  • John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, directed by Chad Stahelski
  • Her Smell, directed by Alex Ross Perry
  • Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde
  • High Life, directed by Claire Denis
  • Uncut Gems, directed by Benny & Josh Safdie

10. US – directed by Jordan Peele

There is much that can be debated about Us’ depiction of race, class, and privilege; yet it is Jordan Peele’s unflinching look at humanity that lands this tale at the number 10 slot. Lupita Nyongo double delivers as both Adelaide and her “tethered” doppelgänger Red, nuancing pain, horror, and fear into her layered performances. There is much to unpack in this film, and it requires multiple viewings to catch its grim indictment of judgment against the injustices of its world. Scriptural doom looms over the heads of our characters, yet the film doesn’t preach. Instead, we are rewarded for thinking for ourselves and reflecting on American culture.

9. Ad Astra – directed by James Gray

James Gray’s film preceding Ad Astra was the criminally underrated “The Lost City of Z,” which pitted man’s explorer spirit and wanderlust against his familial relationships. In many ways, Ad Astra follows this same narrative, as Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride sorts through the meaning of his own life in light of his missing father’s emergence into his life. Roy is a cool, calculated character who refuses to show emotion, who has spent the majority of his life excelling at his work. Gray’s film is dark and existential, much of its time spent in the musings and thoughts of Roy. Nothing is rushed, emotions are heavy, and the horrors of space parallel the spiritual journey within. Ultimately, the journey is one of self discovery and freedom from those whose negative impact scars our memories.

8. Jojo Rabbit – directed by Taika Waititi

Jojo Rabbit is scandalous enough that it’s a surprise to see so few people talking about it. In 2019 a filmmaker made a film in which most of the main characters are Nazis. The film is funny, yes, but also takes an unflinching look at toxic nationalism and the natural ending point of tribalism. It’s truly a film for our times. Taika Waititi knows how to charm his audience, as evidenced by his previous films “Boy” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, yet he is not afraid of subverting genres. The lead characters in Jojo Rabbit are young boys, both sworn to serve the Fatherland. (At one point Jojo declares Hitler to be his best friend). These characters are self aware, and are willing to question their motives – even if it takes time to arrive at the right conclusions. Jojo Rabbit is a fable of sorts for American in the current age, calling each viewer to challenge our beliefs and the systems we buy into. Will we continue to blindly pledge loyalty to an ideal, even in the face of gross injustice and prejudice?

7. The Irishman – directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has gotten a lot of publicity for its technological achievement in digital de-aging technology, yet I barely even noticed the presence of any such effects – I was so engrossed with the characters and the narrative setup in this epic. Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (making his return to film, no less) deliver depth and heart to the characters in this film, which spans multiple decades of their life. DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran time and time again sacrifices morality and integrity for the sake of security, and the 3.5 hour runtime allows us to follow that descent of a man as he runs from his ultimate fate. At the end of the day, we all die, and that is a fate that is hard to face. Scorsese is more poignant and thoughtful in his older age, although there is a good amount of fast paced narrative to make any Goodfellas fans happy. Perhaps Scorsese himself has realized his own mortality? Regardless, The Irishman is a film that shows the futility of fighting the inevitable. In the end, we are all judged.

6. Marriage Story – directed by Noah Baumbach

It’s no secret that Marriage Story begins right as Charlie and Nicole’s marriage is ending. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver deliver career-defining performances as their husband and wife characters must say goodbye to the life they had, and sort through the difficulty of separation. It is clear that Baumbach’s desire is to not paint one character in a more sympathetic light, as he gives both equal empathy in his heart-wrenching screenplay. The true enemy is the divorce process itself, as we see Charlie and Nicole struggle to let each other go while still respecting the humanity of the other. This films elicits MANY tears, and the inevitable end is as painful as you’d expect. The fights are raw and real, and Baumbach’s screenplay is one of his most emotional efforts yet. We often fail to see the persons behind the conflicts in our lives, and Baumbach’s film explores that dynamic in a way that challenges yet delivers. In the face of pain and lost relationships how does one find the strength to maintain their identity, and still respect the identity of the other person?

5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco – directed by Joe Talbot

Joe Talbot’s directorial debut is a cinematic wonderland. Every shot is art, perfectly framed and dripping with hidden detail. The simplicity of the story is what makes its beauty so sincere. The casting of unknown actors lends itself to the relatability of Talbot’s vision, as Jimmie Fails plays a fictionalized version of himself trying to save his childhood home. The film takes its time with Jimmie and his best friend Mont as they sort through the loss, pain, and disappointment in their lives. The Last Black Man is a film of finding oneself in a world that has forgotten you. Talbot is more interested in the how our past has helped us grow than where we come from, and that beauty and simplicity doesn’t require much exposition or explanation. Once again, the audience is trusted to feel and follow.

4. A Hidden Life – directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s 2011 film “The Tree of Life” is my all-time favorite film, and until A Hidden Life I feared we would never see this master filmmaker explore such a rich spiritual tapestry ever again. A Hidden Life is the true story of an unknown dissenter in a small Austrian mountain town who dared to stand against Hitler. The film spends a great deal of time with Franz (played by August Diehl) and his wife as they spend their days ‘above the clouds.’ Malick takes time to capture the everyday beauty of this untouched valley, from the wind in the trees to the small loving moments between Franz and his family. This is a man clearly respected and loved by his village, and the time spent with him creates a much stronger emotional response as he wrestles with his duty as a Christian in the face of the evils of Nazi Germany. A tale of sacrifice, faith, and integrity – A Hidden Life is a timely film but also a timeless film. Don’t let runtime steer you away from this one 😉

3. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – directed by Quentin Tarantino

Much like “The Irishman”, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film mourning the loss of a life. Except in this case, Tarantino mourns the death of Hollywood through his new protagonist Rick Dalton, an aging action star in the midst of a career and existential crisis. Helping him sort through his meaning is Cliff Booth, played with an Oscar worthy confidence by Brad Pitt. As the two men reminisce about the “good ol days” of show business, Tarantino intertwines their tale with that of infamous actress Sharon Tate, just before her murder at the hand of Charles Manson’s cult. The juxtaposition of beauty with the looming presence of death is constant throughout this film, and Tarantino exercises a surprising amount of restraint to allow himself and the audience to properly miss the old days. Even when the film goes full Tarantino in its final act, the heart is not lost in the midst of the violence. Featuring some of the most fully formed characters Tarantino has ever created, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows the audience to go on this personal journey with him, even if he says his farewell through Rick Dalton.

2. Little Women – directed by Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig took the world by storm with her directorial debut Lady Bird, yet it is her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel that proves she is truly an expert writer and director. Infusing the story with a bit of added passion and a new storytelling structure, Gerwig doesn’t “modernize” the story so much as update it in a way to make the characters more fleshed out, the plot more emotional, and the payoff more satisfying. Dare I say it, Gerwig MIGHT have improved the original. Many of the scenes in this film play out as vignettes that show the character of the March sisters, played here by Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), and Eliza Scanlon (Beth). Each scene where these ladies share the screen together is sheer electricity. The dialogue is witty, the chemistry strong, and the acting ability on display par to none. Timothee Chalomet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper also deliver strong performances – traditional in nature, yet with an added emotional core to their characters that must come from Gerwig’s solid direction. This film made me cry multiple times, and is a wonderful example of the power of cinema to move and delight.

1. Parasite – directed by Bong Joon Ho

Bong Joon Ho is not a name many people know in America, yet his most recent directorial effort is cinematic perfection. Balancing humor, drama, art, and social commentary; Parasite is a film that has much to say about the state social inequality in the world today. On one hand, the film is the story of a family who cunningly works their way into a wealthy household as tutors, maids, and chauffeurs; yet at the same time Bong Joon Ho also flips the script by introducing some truly exciting plot twists that rapidly change the direction of the entire film. What begins as passion and some truly clever manipulation gradually turns into deceit and desperation as the humble help staff fights to keep their heads above water so to speak. In a culture that feeds itself on wealth, how then do the little guys stay afloat? Parasite is my top film of the year not just because it is a technically perfect feat of filmmaking, but for how much it made me think. The acting and the subtle ways these actors interact was impactful and I was barely even aware of the fact that I was reading subtitles. Parasite has so much to offer the filmgoer, it is no surprise that it is garnering so much praise and recognition this awards season. This is a film that dares to ask what you would do to escape from the life you have.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed these brief snapshots of the cinematic offerings of 2019. I am curious to hear what YOUR favorites were! Please leave a comment letting me know impacted you the most this year.

Top 10 Films of 2018

2018 was a long, difficult year. It seemed as if each month only brought a new wave of strife and disorder to our country, our world, and for myself and many friends – our personal lives. More than ever, we sought to escape the mess or make sense of it through stories – whether that be in film, books, or music.

It’s amazing how much it can help us process real life to escape to a galaxy far, far away; or to join forces in our mind against Thanos. But at the end of the day, it was the films that faced our struggles head on that made the most lasting impact.

This past year in cinema is one that will long be remembered for giving everyone a voice, a chance to speak out about their experiences. Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, and Love Simon were all highly successful films made by, starring, and about minority groups – proving that there WAS an audience after all for stories about the rest of us.

Some of the films on my list this year are a bit controversial for one reason or another, but these are the ones that stuck with me – that haunted me. Films have the power to challenge us, to delight us, and to move us… and as usual these are the criteria from which I judged this past year’s releases.

Let me know what impacted YOU the most at the theater in 2018! I want to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment, message me, and feel free to share this with your friends!

So without further ado…

Honorable Mention:

Eighth Grade – directed by Bo Burnham.

A Quiet Place – directed by Jon Krasinski.

The Death of Stalin – directed by Armando Iannucci.

Isle of Dogs – directed by Wes Anderson.

Game Night – directed by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein.

First Man – directed by Damien Chazelle.

And now the main event 🙂

10. Bad Times at the El Royale – directed by Drew Goddard


Bad Times proved to be a divisive film for critics and viewers alike. Drew Goddard’s study of the human condition and our desperation for redemption is certainly an oddity in the fast-paced world of modern thrillers. At times this film acts like a Tarantino film, but where Tarantino would choose to embrace cynicism and dark humor, Goddard chose beauty and hope. Goddard is most known for his work as writer for Lost and Daredevil, which also deal with intense religious themes and psychological drama – yet Bad Times proves he has what it takes to be a solid film director as well.

The voyeuristic nature of our own viewing experience transcends the film itself and we realize that we can find ourselves in the characters on screen – almost as if Goddard is painting for us a parable of our own brokenness. If this film is indeed a parable of humanity coming face to face with its transgressions, then it is only appropriate that the reckoning would come with fire and confrontation. This film plays like a supernatural experience, and though the supernatural does not play into the story, one feels as if the whole experience is a bad dream. We are forced to slowly watch the characters as they interact and gradually reveal their true nature to not only one another, but to themselves. As if Satan himself show up to the El Royale, the coming atonement plays as a powerful off-screen character.

The ensemble cast shines in this film, led by Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, and the very lovely Cynthia Erivo (who can also be seen in this year’s film “Widows”). Drew Goddard plays to the strengths of his cast, and likewise, they draw out the best from his screenplay. Technically speaking, this film is also gorgeously shot – embracing the garish neon of the hotel and comfortably to play in the darkness of the setting. Technicality of filmmaking is not what makes a good film, but when used in combination with the right screenplay and talented actors can help a film leap from the screen and into your own heart or mind. Goddard successfully accomplished this in one of the most discussion worthy films of the past year.

9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – directed by Morgan Neville


In a year marked by human strife and injustice, Morgan Neville’s heartfelt documentary is exactly the film we needed as a country. Documentaries can be difficult to rate based on the variety of experiences people might have with a given subject, yet Fred Rogers is one of those rare people in history that is widely respected and loved, and as this film shows, even in his doubts and low moments was true to his own character.

Although Fred Rogers is most widely associated with his PBS children’s show, this film does a wonderful job at showing the beauty of Rogers as a person beyond his television life. Many of Rogers’ closest friends, family members, and colleagues were interviewed for this film to honor his legacy in as honest a way as possible. We get a balanced look at the real life of Fred Rogers through personal stories and anecdotes, to his work in child psychology. Neville also does not shy away from the heavier topics – honestly diving into the racial issues, personal fatigue, and frustrations that Fred had as a human. Documentaries often struggle to balance the many facets of a person’s identity, yet Neville navigates these effortlessly and beautifully.

Through all of this, though, a picture is painted of a man who truly loved others and saw his life as an opportunity through which he could try to make the world a better place. Fred Rogers’ genuine desire for children AND adults to know they are worthy of being loved is a more timely message now than ever. This film serves as a reminder of what it is that unites us as humans, and what it is that we need to thrive in this world. While I highly recommend this documentary, I also warn you to have plenty of tissues handy for your onslaught of emotions that are guaranteed to well up inside you.

8. Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse – directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman


For the past decade Hollywood’s animation studios have churned out so many similar 3D animation flicks that the animation style as an artform has become stale and unoriginal. Pixar (and at times, Dreamworks) kept things afloat through compelling stories – but in the same way that traditional animation became stretched thin in the 90’s and early 2000’s, 3D animation is no longer capturing our imaginations.

Enter Sony Animation.

These problems challenged the animation directors to not only think outside the box, but to rebuild the box altogether. For Spiderverse, the computer process by which 3D animation is done was completely rethought, and the animation studio stepped into a new territory of computer animation that delivers a visually stunning, high energy, and wholly original animated film. Based on the trailers and images from this film alone, it’s apparent that Sony went for something different – and it pays off.

This is impressive, but so far not enough of a reason to include this film on a top ten list. What elevates Spiderverse to a top 10 film is it’s unique approach to a worn out character and storyline. The directors made a conscious decision to feature Miles Morales’ version of Spider-man as the lead character, which allowed the film to explore complex family and emotional storylines through the eyes of a minority youth. The script is fast-paced and witty, and some of the jokes fly by so fast you don’t have time to react… yet in the midst of the insanity is a heartfelt reset of the Spider-man origin story. Classic story beats are flipped on their side, reinvented, or omitted altogether to create a surprising and fresh comic-book film in a market oversaturated by the genre.

(Also of note, the soundtrack is STELLAR. And be sure to see this on a big screen if possible.)

7. Annihilation – directed by Alex Garland

Alex Garland is one of the film industry’s newest voices, but one worth taking note of. A couple years ago his EXCELLENT sci-fi exploration of humanity “Ex Machina” ended up in my top 10 list, and once again he’s delivered one haunting picture. Based on a science fiction novel of the same name, Annihilation stars Natalie Portman as a scientist faced with the daunting mission of exploring a supernatural phenomenon known as “The Shimmer” to find answers for what happened to her husband (played by Oscar Isaac).

The film itself is tense, heavy, and emotional stakes are high. Each of the team members (which are portrayed by a fantastic supporting cast) has their own baggage they bring into the shimmer with them, so the journey is less about wonder and discovery and more about facing one’s mortality and own pain. Garland doesn’t shy away from the horrific elements of this story, and some of the most terrifying images I’ve seen on screen this year were in Annihilation (Including the ONE moment that almost made me leave the theater to catch my breath). BUT, these elements are all necessary to properly build up the mystery of this alien happening – and offers us a philosophical and mind-bending lens through which to view and interpret the controversial ending.

I’ve read many different theories and views on what exactly happened, and all of them bring up unique points about this film and its characters that are valid and possible. Endlessly discussable, Annihilation is the rare sci-fi film that delivers high art and quality performances, while also being avant garde enough to be confident in its ambiguity. Almost a year after this film was released I am still discussing and debating the meaning of Garland’s latest.

The acting is superb, the cinematography gorgeous and haunting, and the direction impeccable.

6. A Star is Born – directed by Bradley Cooper

Perhaps the most predictable addition to 2018’s top ten list, the 3rd remake of A Star is Born earned its spot honestly. There have been 3 previous versions of this film, none of which failed to make the kind of impact the Cooper’s directorial debut has this year. Bradley Cooper also stars (and sings) across from his co-lead, Lady Gaga. While most musicals released in recent years have opted to embrace the difficulties of the music career world in a whimsical or sadly resigned way (looking at you, La La Land), A Star is Born fully engages with the personal pain, addictions, and life shattering repercussions that are plaguing our characters.

This is perhaps what makes the film so heartbreaking as a drama.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper both deliver career best performances, and their chemistry is pleasing, if not entirely shocking. We all knew Gaga could sing, and she did win a Golden Globe for her acting stint on American Horror Story; but where did Bradley Cooper come from? His performance here is mesmerizing, as he is fully believable as the jaded star Jackson Maine. His vocals are rich and authentic, and the Nashville-esque musical styles of this version lends itself well to the story as a whole.

While the plot may be predictable in some places, it’s never boring. Cooper knows well how to tell a compelling story, and uses close-ups and artificial light in beautiful and intimate ways. You’ll also be hearing a lot of this soundtrack this coming awards season (And “Shallow” is already beginning to win awards), but there are several gems on the soundtrack. A film is the sum of its parts, and in this case each part is masterfully crafted and tenderly performed.

6. The Favourite – directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Yorgos Lanthimos is not a name familiar with most film-lovers, yet his past three films have received quite a bit of attention for their stark styles and unique storytelling styles. (His previous film “The Lobster” ended up on my top ten list a few years back). This year’s offering takes his cold and cynical approach to filmmaking to the 18th century for a delightful and wicked parable of human cunning.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone’s characters wage an intellectual war with one another for the favor with Queen Anne, portrayed to perfection by Olivia Colman. The Queen is vastly insecure and barely able to make a decision, much less run the country, so she finds herself in need of Lady Sarah (Weisz) to maintain order – at least until Abigail (Stone) arrives on the scene to uproot the status quo. The majority of The Favourite is devoted to Sarah and Abigail’s power plays and cunning manipulation of the courts, which results in some of this year’s best dialogue and most hilarious scene-chewing.

The screenplay is at times uncomfortable and filthy, as Lanthimos wants the audience to come face to face with the vile nature at the core of these human beings. While most films have an obvious protagonist, each lead character in The Favourite will be hated by the audience at one point or another. The ways in which people are willing to use and abuse each other to get what they want is depicted as a matter of fact of life, with little to no emotional response required or expected. This film seems especially appropriate for the current cultural and political climate in the world, and serves as both a caricature of what IS, and a warning of humanity’s self-serving nature. At times Lanthimos distorts reality with his films, using fisheye lenses and unelegant framing to showcase the ugliness of the world around. Where another director might use fireplaces and candles to cast a warm, romantic glow on a shot; Lanthimos would rather emphasize the heat of the flames and the remaining darkness around. There is never a scene where one could envision themselves being comfortable, yet the case could be made that neither should we get too comfortable with a world that is so caught up in its cutthroat self-preservation.
4. Blackkklansman – directed by Spike Lee

2018 was a powerful year for black filmmakers. From the fantasy of Black Panther to the more serious subjects in Blindspotting and Blackkklansman, we saw black stories take a more prominent place in cinema, using the artform of filmmaking to share a unique perspective on the world today. Spike Lee is a seasoned director who doesn’t shy away from political statements and thinkpieces, yet through Blackkklansman accomplished an even greater task by engaging BOTH sides of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, Blackkklansman tells the story of a black police officer who infiltrated the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970’s. For a story this outrageous, the film very easily could have been treated as a comedy and under the direction of anyone else, might have failed to make its point. Spike Lee manages to maintain balance between the gravitas of black violence, and the humor of an utterly ridiculous inflitration mission. John David Washington delivers a spectacular lead performance as Stallworth, who communicates just as powerfully in his silent moments as he does when using his “white voice” to speak to KKK members on the phone. Washington, who is the son of acting titan Denzel Washington, own every scene in which he appears, exuding a confident machismo that is often exploited by the more backwards members of the police force.

Stylistically, Blackkklansman is a delight to experience. The use of blaxploitation filmmaking styles and a soul-train soundtrack transports the viewer into the 70’s, and simultaneously celebrates the black culture of the times. Despite this, the tension is real and raw – and the hatred espoused by the KKK is portrayed coldly and unflinchingly. Lee’s goal is not to take sides (which is actually a plot point as Ron was a black police officer), but also is very clear to show that the same kind of hatred found at a cross burning can also be found across a desk. Whether it’s through Stallworth’s interactions with his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), or through a surprisingly moving juxtaposition of a black power rally with a KKK rally; Lee is addressing the real issue – heart matters.

The film is never overt in it’s comparisons, yet it is obviously a challenge for people to renew their way of thinking. Lee closes the film with a jarring newsreel as a reminder that racism is still alive in America today – and it’s as ugly as ever. This film offers a plea for us to stop and listen to those who are different from us, to learn from each other’s pain and stories, and to TRY to understand.

3. Roma – directed by Alfonso Cuaron

And now for something a bit different 🙂

Roma came out of nowhere and surprised me this year, a calm and beautiful reflection of Cuaron’s youth. Inspired by his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the 70’s, Roma tells the story of a year in the life of a maid named Cleo as she navigates both personal challenges as well as the difficulties of the family she works for. At its heart Roma is a reflection on meaningful relationships, although Cuaron chooses an unlikely subject on which to focus his attention. This is in my opinion what makes Roma work so well. Yalitza Aparicio delivers a subtle, yet completely raw performance as Cleo. As is a theme with many films this year, she represents the ‘normal’ person and gives voice to those who are often overlooked in society. Cuaron clearly wants to honor the real-life person that inspired him to make this film.

Cuaron not only wrote and directed Roma, but is also the cinematographer and editor. Every element of the story is nuanced and beautifully crafted – which at times makes things uncomfortably intimate. We see Cleo in her fear and insecurity, yet are forced to watch her continue without having her own needs met – hoping that she will be seen and loved. Every little shot is intentional and perfectly framed and executed. Shot in black and white, each frame looks like it could be a still from a coffee table book. Light and shadow are treated as characters, and Mexico City comes to life in a unique and beautiful way through Cuaron’s creative decisions.

Roma is intentionally a slow film. Life does not always play out quickly, and Curaon asks us to feel frustrated and impatient with Cleo as she searches for love and hopes for a better tomorrow. While films this masterfully crafted are generally seen only on the big screen, Netflix released this film to the world on streaming a mere two weeks after its limited theatrical run. The smaller screens do not do justice to the detailed shots, but the power of Cuaron’s storytelling to mesmerize is still intact.

2. First Reformed – directed by Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader is a powerful storyteller, and his 2018 writing/directing effort is a tense and powerful return to form. Responsible for the iconic screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Schrader’s stories feature conflicted characters in a host of different scenarios. Some of his films have missed the mark, but First Reformed is a refreshing and powerful return to form. While at times echoing the story beats of Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”, First Reformed comes across as a timely and relevant story of questioned faith and jaded humanity.

Ethan Hawke delivers a career-best performance as the struggling pastor of a small historic church whose faith has been shaken with the loss of his son in war and the subsequent loss of his marriage. The film opens with Hawke’s character voicing the first journal entry in what is meant to be a year-long experiment. These entries are cleverly used by Schrader throughout the duration of the film as added insight into the emotional and mental struggle in the Reverend’s heart.

Each character in the film is purposeful, and serves to gradually reveal to the audience the backstory to our present crisis; and in the case of Amanda Seyfried’s character Mary, leads our character to both the climax of his faith as well as the opportunity for redemption. Schrader’s writing is sparse and simple, using these human interactions in a calculated and careful way to bring us into the agony of doubt and the joy of transcendence.

To reveal more about the plot would be to spoil the emotional journey, and so at this point I simply entreat you to view this masterpiece. Be patient, and be prepared to discuss the symbolism and meaning behind different moments that will occur as the film progresses. Just as Annihilation is a gold mine of imagery that leads to debate, First Reformed does not end with a tidy conclusion. With each viewing I notice more and more symbolism and importance to characters and story points, and my understanding of the ending has slowly been morphing. This film not only struck me as a haunting and timely tale of doubt and restoration, but it also will go down as one of the most perfect examples of good filmmaking as an art.

1. The Rider – directed by Chloe Zhao

Out of all the films I viewed in 2018, only Chloe Zhao’s melancholy masterpiece followed me and impacted me weeks and months after I first saw it. Whether it was a tender moment between two characters, or a line of dialogue, or a beautiful shot – The Rider was the most raw and moving film I’ve seen in years.

The last few years have each had their own moving films that went on to win awards and critical acclaim, but The Rider is a much more humble affair. Zhao first met and befriended rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau when she was on a South Dakota Indian reservation shooting her debut film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” She wanted to make a film with him, but it wasn’t until Jandreau was seriously injured in a rodeo accident that she realized what the film was going to be about. The Rider chronicles this major moment in Brady’s life by casting him to play a fictionalized version of himself working through the hardest thing he had ever faced.

At times the film is raw and uncomfortable, as we see Brady facing a future without that which he was created to do. There are moments of deep frustration captured on screen which are so realistic that it seems as if Zhao had somehow captured the true life moment itself. The camera unflinchingly stares as Brady removes staples from his skull, it stays with him as he struggles to make sense of the mess in front of him. Jandreau is not the only first-time actor in this film, as many of this family members and friends play themselves on screen. Each interaction is realistic and believable, which is miraculous considering the lack of acting experience. At the same time, the personal nature of this story and emotional stakes make this completely believable – this community was in a sense creating a visual diary of what was going on in their hearts and minds.

From a storytelling perspective, Zhao is a master at capturing the intimate moments and beauty around. Whether it is a moment between Brady and his sister, or Brady calming an unbroken horse, each moment contains both emotional and cinematic beauty. One of the most moving scenes in the entire film occurs when Brady goes to the local rehabilitation center to spend time with his friend who had suffered severe brain injuries from a rodeo accident in the past. Brady’s tender interactions and expression of love for his friend are haunting and beautiful. Although the magnitude of their injuries are different, it is apparent that Brady sees his own future when he looks at his friend.

As an audience member we are invited into this extremely personal space. We feel the pain, we feel the struggle, we feel the heartbreaking loss of meaning for Brady. This is a story that is relatable to anyone. Zhao and Jandreau have somehow created a personal story that represents every person’s struggle, yet stands above the rest as a lasting work of art. In a year of representation in cinema, it is important that the film that stands above the rest gives an ordinary person from a humble background a voice in the darkest time in his life. Through these moments captured on screen we suddenly realize that we are not alone. In whatever we are going through, we are seen and heard and are joined by others around the world also experiencing their own heartache.

But, in these moments of pain we see resilience and strength. Courage to face the future. Bravery to speak out. Love despite the circumstances. One step in front of the other through an uncertain and frightening future. If this is not the message we need as we transition into 2019, I don’t know what is.



I have run
So hard
I cannot keep running
To the beat of any drum
I cannot keep running
From any thing that may pursue
Yet I run
To a resting place
To a home
To a place where I belong
Where I may then collapse
In gratitude
Upon the hearth
That invites me in
To call it my own.

On Grief, "A Ghost Story", and Embracing our Humanity

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” 
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

This is definitely a sad post, coming from a place of sadness. But by nature sad is not bad. Just as joy is an integral part of life, so is grief.

We all at some point will experience the pain of loss, the heartbreak of failed relationships, the struggle of low self-esteem. Yet, these things do not define us, no matter how large a piece they play in making us who we are as image-bearers of God.

At its core, grief seems to be a recognition within our soul of the fragmentation of our reality. When a relationship is torn – either by death or something less permanent – our heart feels the ripping of what was meant to be whole.

“It is not good for the man to be alone.” God, Genesis.

We often grieve in different ways… some more healthy than others. C.S. Lewis, the legendary author of the Chronicles of Narnia and a plethora of non-fiction writings journaled his experience with grief following the loss of his wife Joy to cancer. This eventually was published as his heartbreaking expose on the emotions “A Grief Observed” and to this day has helped people of all walks of life navigate the tearing of reality due to the loss of a loved one.

Our hearts as humans were meant to be given to another, so when someone that possesses our heart is lost, we lose a piece of ourselves. We feel for a moment that we might not survive it ourselves… after all, part of my heart is now missing, and I must have my heart to survive.

Lewis felt this all too well. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” We fear pain, we fear loss.. because deep down we don’t believe we can survive on our own.

This is definitely a point worth pausing on… we WERE after all, created to be known and to know God and each other. This is a staple of the Christian worldview of humanity. So what happens if we are thrust into a situation in which we find ourselves violently alone?

In David Lowery’s poignant film “A Ghost Story,” this moving observation is made about our fear of being forgotten. “We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” While it’s coming from a different angle (and a different side of the grave), the point still remains that we are very much concerned with being remembered as people. 

In the film, Casey Affleck’s character (the titular ghost) is forced to watch in silence as his wife mourns his death in isolation. Unable to help, unable to connect, he is forced to watch as time speeds past. He exists in isolation, transfixed on his bride, unable to move on until he lets go. 

He cannot experience closure. The pain of separation defines his existence in this ethereal plane.

Through the art of cinema, Lowery is expressing what Lewis wrote so simply… “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”  Lowery cleverly decides to examine our human fear of loss from another angle – forcing us to gaze into the mirror of our own insecurities. 

This fear transcends culture and religion, it is a deep-seeded idea in the heart of every man: I am not meant to be alone, and I am terrified of being forgotten – whether in life or death.

It traps us in life, and it dominates our motivations in what we do. Even in the core of Christianity is a question: Does GOD know YOU? Do YOU know HIM? 

Relationship is the core of a holistic healthy reality. So it stands to reason that the antithesis is isolation. 
The reason why death stings so greatly is that life is meant to be fulfilling! We are made in the image of a communal God, and when we are neglected that community, the Imago Dei (image of God) we bear is found lacking. 

“For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.” 

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The key to understanding our grief however, is in understanding our humanity. There is no way to cheat death, to live without experiencing loss. Once we heal from one pain, we move on into the next. It is a painful, yet inherent part of life. As David Malham stated in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, “Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love.” It is a necessary part of the human experience and there is no choice but to accept it and even lean into it as a chance for us to grow. It is not weakness to experience both joy AND grief. It means we are human. 

What then is the point? At times every human feels the weight of grief. We feel in our bones the ache that Lewis himself had at the loss of his wife. We feel the despair of our loss like a ghost waiting for the love that will never come back to him. We know in our hearts that something is broken in this world.

We are all waiting. Because eternity is in our hearts and we know there is something more. 
Death can’t be the end. 
We cannot just accept that life ends on such a melancholy nihilistic note!

“Grief seems to create losses within us that reach beyond our awareness–we feel as if we’re missing something that was invisible and unknown to us while we had it, but now painfully gone.” – Brene Brown, Rising Strong

This is why the hope of future restoration and the promises of God are so powerful to us. Revelation 21:5 encapsulates this hope with a simple statement from a reigning God in control of the chaos. 
“And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We often miss the real hope of Scripture as being heaven… but it’s not. The reason why the “GOOD NEWS” is GOOD is that Jesus will take the tears in our world, the rips in our emotions, the pain we feel.. and he will make it all WHOLE. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 

Lewis and Lowery both understood that grief is not something to be avoided, but something that is a sign of life. When we allow ourselves to feel deep pain, then we will be able to experience joy in its truest form. What we experience now is temporary. 

We are not alone. 
So we can let go, and embrace our grief.

“God does not want your loneliness; God wants to touch you in a way that permanently fulfills your deepest need. It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there. You have to own your loneliness and trust that it will not always be there. The pain you suffer now is meant to put you in touch with the place where you most need healing, your very heart…. Dare to stay with your pain, and trust in God’s promise to you.” – Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

(A Ghost Story is rated R for brief language and is available on all major streaming platforms and for purchase on blu-ray and dvd)

On Running from Pain, Vulnerability, and ‘Her’

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
– C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves” 
Hollywood has loved to feed our fantasies. For decades we have been given story after story of being swept off our feet, of being dazzled by an impossibly perfect human. The silver screen has made us buy into the delusion that human relationships can be fairy-tale perfect.
The cynic within wants to stand up and expose the lies, to bring our heightened dreams back down to reality, and to point out how let down we are going to be by each other. 
Yet, I do not know that I believe this. 
In my heart of hearts, I know that we are meant to live in community. Human beings are not solitary creatures. Both human intuit and divine revelation teaches this. 
“No man is an island.”
“It is not good for man to be alone.”
‘Her,’ Spike Jonze’s heartbreaking parable on human relationships explores this truth in a way that Hollywood seldom dares to attempt. While most films leave you feeling warm and fluffy, or at least a bit enlightened,Her’ is difficult to watch… because it touches those uncomfortably painful places in our soul.
(If you have not seen the film already, I would advise pausing for a couple hours… going and watching the film, then coming back here to finish this essay… a content advisory is on the film description on IMDB, if you would like to determine whether you feel comfortable viewing it)
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is the adorable nerd, the awkward sentimental type who has trouble facing pain… and this struggle is central to the entire plot. His battle with human emotions is raw and visceral, filled with fear and failure and the inability to formulate his thoughts into words that plagues all people at some point in their lives. We know he desires deep connection… but as so common in our lives, he doesn’t want the pain that comes with true connection. This, after all, is why his marriage failed.
Theodore’s mode of coping is to run. Run from the pain and seek fulfillment in ways that won’t tear his heart out – whether it’s sex, media, or casual dating. Even his job feeds his disillusionment with relationships. This ultimately leads him to Samantha… the sophisticated operating system that is programed to be a personal companion… a seemingly ‘pain-free’ relationship that knows you and exactly what you need.
But is any relationship truly pain free?
In order for love to be real, we must be vulnerable. If one does not open themselves up to love, is it even love at all? As C.S. Lewis stated in his book The Four Loves– 
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken….
To love is to be vulnerable.”
Jonze captures this all too well in the way he follows Theodore’s journey. Samantha was supposed to be that “perfect” relationship that could fulfill him in whatever way he needed, yet without pain… but by imbuing her with humanity, her creators basically gave her the ability to have hurt and be hurt. Samantha is only an OS, so Theodore hears only her voice, yet he feels like he can give himself completely over to her. However, he is always going to be haunted by the pain he feels from his failed marriage if he keeps running from it. Jonze cleverly shows us this by inserting fleeting shots of memories quickly interlaced with close ups of Theodore’s face. In many of these shots, dialogue is sparse, music is subdued, and his eyes do all the talking.
It’s obvious that Theodore deeply desires the very thing he has been running from. 
In the second half of the film there is a scene in which Theodore meets his ex Catherine for dinner (played by a particularly moody Rooney Mara). After finding out about Samantha, Catherine states “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real and I’m glad that you found someone. It’s perfect.”
The words drip with pain, yet are completely true. How can a person truly experience life without being willing to open themselves up to feeling? Emotions are necessary – both good and bad. Pixar’s Inside Out did a spectacular job of demonstrating this. Both sadness and happiness can coexist in our hearts… it makes our memories real and powerful. Only by embracing each other FULLY can we truly live life. 
Samantha: So what was it like being married?
Theodore: Well, it’s hard, for sure. But there’s something that feels so good about
sharing your life with somebody.
In ‘Her,’ Theodore is stuck in a rut… not truly living. He is existing. Surviving. Unable to realize his true capacity for love or creativity – because he is keeping himself isolated from within. He verbalizes his understanding that it feels good to share your life with somebody, yet he hasn’t aligned his life with this hope. 
Samantha even understands this, and she seeks throughout most of the film to help Theodore move forward – to live life, to seek beauty, to regain his confidence and creativity. It’s what many of us seek for in relationships – and what we desire in our hearts. We know we aren’t living the lives we were meant too. We are paralyzed by our fear… by the pain of loss. 
What if I lose you?
We say these words to so many things. Whether relationships, positions, emotions… we live our lives in fear that we will screw things up and lose them. We believe the lie that our identity is found in our performance, so if we fail at a relationship or lose our job it’s easy to automatically let it affect our self worth. So what would happen if we accepted the pain we cause each other as a part of growth? What if we understood that the difficult times are the things that help us grow? If we turn around and face the mess – even if we have tears in our eyes while we do it – and learn to let go. 
What if we forgave? 
What if we embraced the ways in which our stories shape each other into the people we are?
Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is unconventional, yet the point is not to decry the use of electronics in modern day society. It’s not even a warning about becoming addicted to our phones (and believe me, I know MANY people who thought that was the point of this film). The point Jonze makes is that we are all searching for love. We all want to BE KNOWN. Yet, this is impossible if we do not allow ourselves to open up to the possibility of pain as well. This is the only way in which we can truly allow people into our lives – vulnerability.
At the end of the film, Theodore finally stops running. It takes pain, it takes losing Samantha for him to realize this, but he embraces the loss as a way to connect – as a way to be human. One of the final shots of the film is a beautiful human moment between Theodore and his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) who had just experienced a painful breakup herself. They both have experienced pain, but neither of them shies away from it or pretends that they are fine. They allow each other to feel and silently watch the horizon from the top of their building together… It’s a beautiful, yet raw moment. Neither has answers. Neither has learned the secret to a painless life… but they are willing to share in that pain together. Jonze demonstrates in his final scene the importance and power of true community. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it just has to be real and honest. 
Maybe this can be a wake up call for our own relationships.
Letter from Theodore:
Dear Catherine, 
I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that. I’ll always love you ’cause we grew up together and you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.

‘Her’ is available now on blu-ray, dvd, and home streaming sites. It is rated R and contains adult language and situations. Viewer discretion is advised. 

On Masks, the Longing for Love, and "I, Tonya"

There is a scene about 3/4 of the way through I, Tonya in which the camera quietly sits with Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding as she tries (unsuccesfully) to pull herself together before her performance at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Tears flow from a broken Tonya as she shakily applies makeup in the mirror, then wipes them away and forces a smile. Neither Tonya nor the audience is convinced. This is a mask that is breaking down under the weight of public scrutiny and private turmoil. So what is it about Tonya Harding’s story that brings us here today?

During one of the film’s interview portions, Tonya (well, screenwriter Steven Rogers) makes the statement “America wants someone to love, but they also want someone to hate.” In this simple line of dialogue the mirror turns back on the 21st Century audience. America unfortunately IS a rage-based culture at the moment. Each week new sacrificial lambs are selected from society to criticize and blast until they delete their social media accounts, or just wither away. In a world of subjective truth and self importance, people now struggle with the concept of seeing beyond each other’s faults. What makes us who we are? What are the stories of those around us? What kind of heartache and pain has shaped us into the people we are today? I, Tonya makes a gutsy decision by actually listening to Tonya’s side of the story – even when it doesn’t line up with reality – and attempts to understand who she is as a PERSON. 
For just a moment, the audience is asked to put aside their preconceived notions of the true Tonya Harding narrative fed to us decades ago by the media, and instead just listen…
When the audience agrees to listen, they will be faced with some uncomfortable truths. From the very beginning of the film we see the kinds of emotional and physical abuse Tonya faced at the hands of her mother (played by an unforgettable Allison Janney) and her boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan, with mustache). Gillespie’s directorial decision are sometimes uncomfortable and painful. He allows the camera to unflinchingly watch as blow after blow lands on Tonya. We see the fights, we see through quick succession of shots the ongoing pattern of domestic abuse Tonya faced as a woman. Yes, the figure skating element is always present in the story, yet it never takes over, as a Disney-fied sports film might have.
Close up shots reveal the intense emotion (or suppression) in Margot Robbie’s face… her depictions of elation and triumph so much more potent because we’ve seen the tears and the anguish in a raw and vulnerable way. Gillespie’s Tonya is a human, above all. We are reminded time and time again throughout the film just HOW human she is. 
So why the pain? Why can’t this just be a comedic satire of athletic fame? 
I, Tonya understands the importance of compassion. Honestly, this is where it differs the most from the film it gets compared to the most, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. While Scorcese’s crime drama is told in a similar storytelling style, featuring similarly depraved humans, it is lacking that ONE element that allows us to truly feel for Tonya – Compassion. Ray Liotta’s character arc in Goodfellas is more of a cautionary tale – a tragedy of the woes of pursuing excess and the slippery slope of sin. While the cast of characters in I, Tonya display a wide array of selfishness and depravity, we are always able to root for Tonya – because we’ve been allowed to experience her pain. 
Sympathy goes a long way in film-making. It allows the viewer to truly experience catharsis at the climax. It allows us to relate, to feel, and to hopefully take a lesson home with us after we’ve left the theater. Tonya just wants to be LOVED. After her big win at the National Championship she says “They loved me!” and in this moment we suddenly understand WHY Tonya skated in the first place. It was all to prove herself because she constantly felt unworthy of love. She never received it from her condescending mother – she never received it from her abusive husband – and ultimately she never received it from the world. At the end of the day, she was the villain.. and nothing she did was ever good enough. 
Spiritually, this broke my heart. There is a depth of longing within every human that NEEDS love. Not romantic love, not erotic love, just unconditional, AGAPE love. Tonya’s story is presented as a tragedy with a hopeful ending, yet the cynicism and fatigue present even at the close of the film is a stark reminder that there is only ONE source of love that truly fills that void in our soul. I was reminded of the beautiful and poetic verses from Romans 8 that say “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 
This love is a love that does not play requirements upon us to receive it, in stark contrast to the performance based cycle of hell that Tonya was experiencing at the hands of her mother and husband. Scripture once again says in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This stands as a marker and a reminder that the life we are able to have in Christ is entirely a gift of LOVE from God… Just because he sees us as his children made in HIS image to accomplish beautiful things throughout life. 
This freedom is beautiful, it is necessary, and it is vital for living life to the fullest. 
Each scene with Tonya reminded me of my tendency to try so hard to vie for the approval of others, and while I will still probably struggle with that for the rest of my life, it is good to know that in God’s eyes I am already seen as a perfect creation. 
As I create music, as I write, as I figure skate – it is all a reflection of the love I have already received. This is what sets us free!
Enjoy your time at the movies, and don’t forget to allow yourself to be challenged!
*I, Tonya is currently showing in theaters and will be released soon for home viewing. 
It is rated R and contains adult language and situations, so use discernment in who you watch it with! 

The Top Films of 2017

Hello, fellow cinephiles!
I am back with another installment of my annual “top 10” lists… with a slight twist. This year there were enough solid films released that I ended up with a top 15 list.

I still hold to my ordering, but entries 11-15 were just too good to not mention! (Plus, there are a handful of honorable mentions).

As a reminder, these are the films that moved, delighted, or impacted me at the cinema in 2017. I believe these films to be the highest examples of the art of cinema (no matter how polarizing a release it might be). Yes, some films that I really enjoyed didn’t make it, simply because as an objective art they lacked in some areas… This is often true of comic-book films, or science fiction. HOWEVER, I am very pleased that some of these bucked the trends of the past this year to make my list.

ANYWAY, without further ado… let’s begin!!!!


Logan (directed by James Mangold) 
– While the superhero genre as a whole has already become played out in Hollywood, Logan took a beloved character and gave him the gritty, western-styled sendoff that fans were clamoring for. It has become a cliche statement in Hollywood that a movie was made “for the fans” (especially considering this is hardly ever true), but Logan was exactly the film that fans HAD been asking for. Not only was the character portrayed with excellence one final time by Hugh Jackman, but the story asked questions about mortality, legacy, and relationships that were surprisingly deep for this genre. Mangold’s second turn at directing Jackman felt more sincere, more surprising, and more painful. We were now asked to watch very familiar characters cope with the end of their lives, which in itself was analogous to the audience saying farewell to two iconic character performances of the past 15 years.

Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)
– Get Out was one of those surprising films that was both effective as a thriller AND as a commentary on American culture. Peele, whose credits to date have almost exclusively been comic acting roles, gave a terrific debut as writer/director. With plot twists that genuinely surprise, this tense and superbly cast film is worth mentioning for its bold and meta approach to storytelling. While the story itself leaves a bit to be desired (it IS a horror film through and through), I was very much impressed with the ways that Peele addressed racism, fear, power, and relationships through this film.

Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan)
– Wind River was the directing debut of Sheridan, who wrote such previous hits as 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water. (Both ended up on my top-10 lists for their respective year) While the pacing suffers in places, Sheridan crafted a haunting and tense crime thriller set on a Native American Reservation. As usual, Sheridan dives deep into the struggles and suffering of forgotten people, and unabashedly examines human suffering and mourning, giving us ample reason to root for their search for justice. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen deliver fantastic performances, and the film’s climax is one of the most tense moments on screen of 2017.

Logan Lucky (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
– Soderbergh is a man who can’t seem to make up his mind. The director of Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike, Side Effects (and many more) previously had announced his retirement from directing, which lasted only a few years. Logan Lucky marked his return to Hollywood, and reminded me of how refreshing and stylish his directing style was. Logan Lucky is like a redneck version of Ocean’s Eleven, following a plethora of eccentric characters as they attempt to pull off a heist during a Nascar race. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver lead the cast, but Daniel Craig was the biggest surprise in this film. Sleek, witty, and engrossing, Logan Lucky was a welcome return for Soderbergh.

Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)
– Edgar Wright is not a widely established name, despite having directed some of the 21st century’s best cinematic gems. His quirky style is responsible for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. After dropping out of directing Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man, Wright focused his attention on Baby Driver, which was honestly a great decision. On the surface Baby Driver is a heist film, yet the characters, soundtrack, and fast editing make this one rise above the other genre films. The cast is stellar, including Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Lily James and Ansel Elgort; and the direction is expertly handled. The sound editing alone deserves awards attention, yet this could be an underdog in several areas when awards season rolls around later this year.

And now the main event 🙂

15. The Big Sick – directed by Michael Showalter

    First on my countdown is this delightful autobiographical film starring Kumail Nanjiani as himself. Nanjiani co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Emily Gordon, and tells the true story of how he met his wife Emily, played by the underutilized actress Zoe Kazan. Shortly after meeting each other, Emily ended up in a coma due to a rare medical condition. The Big Sick focuses on this period of time as Kumail copes with Emily’s illness while simultaneously handling a growing relationship with her parent’s (played her by the perfectly cast Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and navigating strained relationships with his own parents. The Big Sick addresses interracial relationships, cultural differences, and family relationship dynamics in a way that is very relatable and emotional, yet Kumail’s comedic background allows for many truly hilarious and heartwarming moments. Few romantic comedies have this much heart, and the cast shines under Showalter’s sweet and gentle direction.

14. mother! – directed by Darren Aronofsky

     Before another Star Wars film came along to divide viewers, there was Darren Aronofsky’s latest release. mother! is something of an allegory, tackling a handful of religious and philosophical ideas in one weird, stylish film. Jennifer Lawrence proves her acting chops in this deliciously complex role as a woman known only as “mother.” The camera follows her around closely for the majority of the film, taking in every horrified expression, every moment of resolve. Lawrence also is surprisingly good at using the tone of her voice to express emotion, as her voice warbles as panic sets in. The cast includes Javier Bardem as simply “the poet”, and supporting actors Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Domnhall Gleeson. Each has their purpose in light of the story, yet this is one film I dare not spoil for you! Each actor brings a seed of darkness to their character, purposeful yet nuanced. As the plot moves forward, several events occur that lead to an apocalyptic and insane final sequence. The camera calmly follows Lawrence as she descends into the madness, calmly dodging anything that gets in the way. Aronofsky uses this juxtaposition of close camera work to place audience right there with Lawrence, and his use of shocking violence and graphic imagery is necessary to convey the horror of the scenario as it unfolds. Creative, edgy, and vague enough to be fodder for many late night conversations on its meaning, mother! is a one of a kind film, which warrants its inclusion on my list this year.

13. Mudbound – directed by Dee Rees

     Mudbound is not the only Netflix original film on my list this year, which says something about their attention to quality this past year. Directed by the amazing Dee Rees, Mudbound tells the story of two families – one white, one black – whose lives become intertwined following World War II when their sons return home to Mississippi. Rees unflinchingly examines racism and PTSD, never sugarcoating the truth yet finding beauty in moments of unity and connection. The script (that Rees co-wrote) is human, vulnerable, and showcases the ‘sameness’ of humanity. All people love, have lost those they love, are struggling to find their place in the world, desire to know and be known, struggle with their faith when bad things happen. It’s a beautiful truth that comes through strongly in this period film. The cast is well rounded, featuring the always delightful Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, and Jason Mitchell. Rees knows exactly how to communicate the right emotion for the scene, with wonderful use of classic spirituals and gospel music, Malick-worthy nature shots, and honest closeups of the characters most painful moments. The film does contain some extremely disturbing content related to lynching and race-related persecution, but these are images that are necessary, especially considering the current battle against racism in America. This is a battle that is not over, and it has been raging a long time. Rees just reminds us that we are members of the human race, and to defeat this evil we must band together.

12. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – directed by Rian Johnson

    Where do I even begin with this? The surprise of 2017 was that a Star Wars film would prove to be the most divisive movie of the year. There is no doubt that Rian Johnson is an expert filmmaker, yet the backlash against his story decisions were strong and loud (despite being the minority). The Last Jedi is NOT a perfect film, as it is perhaps 30 minutes too long, and there are certain decisions made on screen that could have been avoided with just 5 minutes of thinking… yet Johnson’s Star Wars is a necessary shift in tone and direction. While the films before have depicted the force and the Jedi order as something of a dynasty, The Last Jedi shows us that anyone can be a hero if they have the courage to fight for what they love. Morality is greyed a bit, which makes many fans uncomfortable, but it creates a new canvas for future films that is rich with character development and deeper story arcs. Our heroes make terrible mistakes in this installment of the saga, and they are faced with dark moments and separated from the people and things they think they need the most. THIS is what makes The Last Jedi such a great film story-wise. Our characters all are forced to reckon their beliefs personally and they must make decisions for themselves as to why they fight. Even the slower and seemingly unnecessary story detours in The Last Jedi are necessary for this purpose. The things that fans thought were important are thrown out, and we are instead asked to look deeper at these characters and to really challenge what it means to be a hero. I was very pleased with where Johnson took the saga, and hope that J.J. Abrams will honor this vision when completing the trilogy next year with Episode IX.

11. Darkest Hour – directed by Joe Wright

     Darkest Hour was one of the last films I watched in 2017, and I am glad that it was not left off the list. I personally love films that explore historical events from a more personal viewpoint, and Joe Wright’s recent directorial effort gives a very inspiring and human look at Winston Churchill’s first few months as prime minister of England. If you are familiar with war history, Churchill was the prime minister that rallied Great Britain together to stand against Nazi Germany, as well as being responsible for the infamous Dunkirk rescue operation. Joe Wright’s films are always unique from other historical biopics. His use of camera angles, aerial shots, and long takes is artistic and never gets in the way of storytelling. In Darkest Hour the audience barely ever sees the warfront, yet by the way he depicts what happens at home we are more than aware of the great cost and threat being posed to the nation. At the heart of Wright’s film, however, is its lead actor – Gary Oldman. I have never seen a transformation more complete than this one. The prosthetics are so convincing that you would not have any clue that Oldman was underneath them. From his mumbling British accent to his gait, Oldman completely transformed into an almost exact recreation of Churchill. His iconic words are delivered with such passion and conviction that there was a noticeable change in the audience at such scenes. Churchill was not a perfect man (and Wright and Oldman are very clear to establish that), but he was a GOOD man. It is refreshing to see such a film in light of a year filled with political confusion and global tension, reminding us that there is always hope even in the face of such great evil. (Side note: The subway sequence in this film is one of the most moving and hopeful scenes in any film this year.)

10. A Ghost Story – directed by David Lowery

     One of the biggest surprises of 2017 was David Lowery’s low budget indie flick – A Ghost Story. Fresh off of his remake of Pete’s Dragon for Disney, Lowery shot this film under the radar and then released it to very little fanfare. Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (who spends the majority of the film under a sheet), A Ghost Story examines loss and loneliness from the perspective of a young man who tragically dies, leaving his wife to grieve in their small home. The film is slow at times, letting scenes play out in real time as we are forced to take part in the grieving, yet Lowery is not afraid to mess with our perceptions of time and space. One moment to Affleck’s ghost might be a year in the real world, or a century… as he waits and waits for closure with the woman he loves. The simple score is hauntingly effective, utilizing strings that weep as they sing, assisting the confined aspect ratio in depicting the depths of isolation and loneliness that one feels when they lose someone they love. As much a work of art as it is a film, A Ghost Story is definitely not for everyone, but it is capable of making you feel emotions in new and surprising ways.

9. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – directed by Noah Baumbach

   I have a soft spot for family dramas, and Noah Baumbach just happens to be one of the best storytellers in the 21st century when it comes to inter-relational drama and character. With an impressive resume that includes Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Greenberg; Baumbach’s characters are multidimensional and haunted by some sort of shortcoming or unrealized dream from their past. Despite his self-imposed genre limitations, each film that Baumbach releases is a delight, and examines a unique facet of self-growth and discovery. The Meyerowitz Stories was his first film produced for Netflix, yet the small screen does not hinder him in any way. Told in three parts, each told from the perspective of a different Mereyowitz sibling, Baumbach examines the relationships between these characters and their father. Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel lead the cast as the three titular siblings, with Sandler delivering his best dramatic performance since Punch Drunk Love. Even though each character has their flaws, it is always a delight to watch the ups and downs of their relationships. Although they wear their misery on their sleeve, the moments of humor and insight are deep and frequent. Baumbach likes to drop the audience in on a specific portion of life, without giving us much backstory as to how our characters ended up the way they are. The Meyerowitz Stories deals with harsh topics, and the amount of rivalry and jealousy between the three siblings is overwhelming, yet one can’t help but like these characters. There is something relatable about Baumbach’s writing style, even if his characters meet from brunch in gentrified New York suburbs. Beautifully shot, expertly edited, with some of the best characters Baumbach has created yet, The Meyerowitz Stories is a fantastic entry in his filmography. (Oh, and it’s now streaming on Netflix)

8. Blade Runner 2049 – directed by Denis Villeneuve

     It is truly an ambitious feat of filmmaking to try and make a sequel to a cult classic that was released 35 years ago. Attach one of the most highly sought directors and leading artists in their craft for cinematography and music, and then combine today’s most talented actors with the iconic characters from the original… and you are sure to have a smash hit, right? If box-office receipts are to be the deciding factor then not so. Denis Villeneueve’s epic and ambitious follow up to Ridley Scott’s original was ominous, heavy, stylish, and a far better film than the original to be sure; yet the 3 hour runtime and R-rating made this a difficult film to sell. Harrison Ford delivers another superb performance, yet Ryan Gosling is the primary actor for this installment. While Blade Runner hinted at questions of humanity and mortality, Blade Runner 2049 dives headfirst into them – the plot is twisted into and around these questions, and the eerie nature of just the idea of replicants makes this a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Hans Zimmer’s deep and seat shaking score paid homage to Vangelis’ original score, yet made it his own for a new generation. The script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is minimal, yet powerful. There is no need for superfluous dialogue when the actors and the scenes themselves communicate so much. Some sequels are cash grabs, yet Villeneueve is obviously a huge fan of the original, and managed to craft a sequel that both honored and built upon the world of the original, yet also stands alone as a science fiction epic. Ridley Scott’s original is a cult classic, but not without its fair share of problems and much-documented re-editing. At times that film can be confusing and boring. Blade Runner 2049 manages to build anticipation throughout its slower sequences, always respecting the audience’s time and intellect.

7. The Shape of Water – directed by Guillermo del Toro

     The macabre Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps del Toro’s most known and celebrated film, yet its cold and dark visage has led most to believe that he is something of a Tim Burton-esque auteur, more concerned with twisted imagery and haunting storytelling than anything. While Crimson Peak delved into it partially, The Shape of Water really puts del Toro’s heart on display. Something of a Beauty and the Beast retelling for modern generations, The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute girl named Elisa who develops a very unlikely relationship with a sentient sea creature that the military is experimenting on in its quest to beat the Soviets in the cold war. The retro setting gives del Toro a playground for his steampunk visuals and rich production, but more than anything it sets up context for the kind of prejudice and hatred that Elisa experiences for her relationship. Del Toro sets up Elisa with colleagues who help to express the emotion and pain she feels – from a black coworker to a gay neighbor, she is surrounded by the outcasts and misfits that can relate to her plight and understand why she seeks to be understood. Sally Hawkins does a spectacular job portraying Elisa, communicating primarily through her eyes and hands, and she completely holds her own in any scene with her costars Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, or Richard Jenkins. The cast shines, the script is potent, and the stakes are very real in this odd film. At times The Shape of Water is very uncomfortable, and rightfully so – yet its message is timeless and a fresh breath in such a derivative sci-fi market.

6. Coco – directed by Lee Unkrich

     Pixar’s name was once a guarantee that the film would be an outstanding work of animation, storytelling, and heart-wrenching emotion. After their takeover by Disney, however, sequels were fast-tracked and some of the initial magic and quality was lost as more common-fare animated films were released in place of the original ideas that put the studio on the map in the first place. THANK GOODNESS that Pixar has been moving once again towards these unique stories that allow their talented team of filmmakers to really let loose. Two years ago Inside Out blew me away, as well as critics and moviegoers alike, and once again they have established their place in animation with Lee Unkrich’s gorgeous labor of love, Coco. Set during the Mexican Dia de los Muertos festival, Coco tells the story of a young boy who get stuck in the afterlife accidentally, and must find his great-great grandfather in order to receive a blessing and be able to return to the real world. All is not as it seems, however, and a truly engrossing story takes off. The animation in Coco is unparalleled, as the detail to texture, depth, and different types of light are leaps and bounds above anything their rival studios put out. As seen in The Good Dinosaur, however, outstanding animation alone does not make a great film. No, that takes HEART – and Coco is the most moving and emotional film they have made since Toy Story 3. The emphasis on family, legacy, and forgiveness is told tenderly and gently – seen from the eyes of a child yet experienced through the mind of an adult who is trying hard to explain to his children why family must come first. The production design is also wondrous, particularly in the way that Coco takes Mexican culture and folklore and realizes it in a way that is both vibrant and artistic, yet true to the culture. A surprising amount of the dialogue is in Spanish, and it was a delight to hear the Hispanic families around me in the theater react to these moments with such delight and glee. Lee Unkrich had already established himself as a heartstring master with Toy Story 3, but Coco demonstrates that he is truly a master director to watch!

5. The Lost City of Z – directed by James Gray

     James Gray is not a widely known director in most circles, yet his films are beautiful and classic works of art that stand out in an increasingly middling film market. The Lost City of Z (based on the book by David Grann) tells the story of British adventurer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam of “Sons of Anarchy”), and his multiple expeditions to seek out a supposed lost city in the Amazon jungles. For a film about a lost city, there is not much screen time devoted to the city itself, as Gray is much more fascinated in the relationships between Fawcett, his family, and his colleagues. Spanning multiple decades in a short amount of time, Gray shows the sacrifice required by Fawcett and his family in order to prove that these assumed primitive Amazonians were in fact a ‘civilized’ people, capable of technology and language, and worthy of respect. Some films try and win over their audiences with spectacle, yet Gray strives to create mystique. The unknown is as intriguing to the audience as it is to Fawcett and his co-adventurers. From a technical standpoint, the cinematography is gorgeous and reminiscent of The Revenant in the way that it relies so heavily on natural light. Gray is more concerned with his audience being a hidden observer in the room, rather than being able to see every interaction in full light. With a strong supporting cast that includes Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, and Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z was a welcome change to the cinema, and a moving film at that.

4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – directed by Martin McDonagh

     In the literary world, few authors were able to dissect the nature of man quite like Flannery O’Conner. Her short stories were witty, dark, poignant, and tragic. Three Billboards plays much like an O’Conner story reads in this way. Martin McDonagh is also know for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and while those films leaned more heavily into humor, Three Billboards marks a distinct turn for his writing. Frances McDormand (a tragically underrated actress) plays a mother grieving the loss of her daughter, who had been raped and murdered tragically in a case that has gone cold. In order to shake things up at the local police department, she has three billboards put up that challenge the local police chief’s competence and ethics in the search for her daughter’s killer. While there is much more to the plot, these billboards are the catalyst that sets the entire film in motion. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson both deliver terrific performances as local police officers fighting their own demons, and their scenes with McDormand are electrifying. The dialogue is tense and weighty, yet McDonagh has the ability to move you from laughter to tears in just a few seconds. His characters are imperfect, yet relatable – each with their own baggage that cause them to make the decisions that they do. Moments of kindness are beautifully moving, and moments of evil are jarring and ugly. Three Billboards manages to capture an entire town’s psyche in just a few characters, and makes us question who our enemies truly are.

3. Phantom Thread – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

     Daniel Day-Lewis is a living legend. His method acting gives his performances a depth that few other actors can achieve, and in this case partially resulted in his retirement from acting altogether. His performance as Reynolds Woodcock an elite fashion designer in 1950’s London is both prideful and meticulous. Self-absorbed to a fault, yet able to find beauty in the most surprising of settings – including Alma, played with nuanced perfection by the amazing Vicky Krieps. Reynolds soon takes in Alma as his partner, whose boldness and stubbornness manage to turn the Woodcock household upside down. Every glance, every footstep, every stare, every word of dialogue carries purpose in Paul Thomas Anderson’s return to form. Only an accomplished cast such as the one Anderson assembled could have POSSIBLY pulled off such a nuanced script. Lesley Manville especially steals the show as Reynold’s icy yet graceful sister Cyril. The film moves slowly, allowing the viewer to absorb the details and routine of Reynold’s life. One can see why Alma is so intrigued by him, why she is so insistent on teaching him to open up to her. The production design is gorgeous, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood is a delight to hear – at times reminiscent of swing band decadence, and at other times heartwarming chamber music. Anderson’s previous two films were ambitious, but failed to make a mark partially in part to the cast. Daniel Day-Lewis truly is a paragon of the art, and is one of the few people that fits an Anderson script. While I hate to see him retire, what a magnificent performance to exit on!

2. Lady Bird – directed by Greta Gerwig

     Greta Gerwig has become a favorite screenwriter and actor of mine in recent months, thanks to her stellar writing and acting in the films of Noah Baumbach. Gerwig is known for her fast-paced stream of consciousness dialogue (affectionately referred to online as “mumblecore”) and searching, Bohemian characters. (If you have not seen her work in Frances Ha or Mistress America, you should definitely check them out!) With as solid a screenwriting resume, it was only a matter of time before Gerwig would end up behind the camera. Lady Bird is loosely based on Gerwig’s own teenage years and stars Saoirse Ronan as high school senior named Christine (who very seriously insists that everyone calls her Lady Bird). While the script could have easily relied too heavily on mumblecore witticism and cynical sarcasm, Gerwig has crafted a surprisingly tender and heartfelt memoire of the struggles of growing up. While it focuses primarily on the mother and daughter relationship, Lady Bird captures enough of the angst and struggle of becoming an adult at the turn of the new millennium that it has a surprisingly amount of appeal to male viewers as well. We are invited to remember our own stories, our own mistakes, and our own struggles of identity. Ronan’s acting is outstanding, once again, yet it is Laurie Metcalf who really steals the show as her mother. I would not be surprised to see both of these ladies nominated for acting awards, and both are deserving. The way they handle Gerwig’s bittersweet dialogue is so authentic to real life, that you instantly can relate. One moment their characters are in heated argument over young love, or college decisions, (or something far less monumental) – the next moment they are just a mother and daughter shopping at a thrift shop. Gerwig allows characters to enter and exit the story in abrupt and sometimes unexpected ways, yet it is all to give her characters the momentum needed to truly find themselves and grow. Sounds kinda like real life, huh? At a lean hour and a half, Lady Bird’s plot doesn’t feature any major life crises, yet the crises that do occur are shattering to Christine – and Gerwig implores us to sympathize and remember what it was like to come into our own as individuals, and invitation that I will gladly accept again.

1. Dunkirk – directed by Christopher Nolan

     Dunkirk is the film that Christopher Nolan was born to make. For the past decade Nolan has shown us time and time again his ability to weave multiple storylines together into a tense, engrossing theatrical experience. Inception and Interstellar both messed with our minds, challenging us to “dream a little bigger, darling,” and examine what was possible in storytelling. By bucking traditional narrative, Nolan allows us to see the intricacies of our stories.. the way that seemingly minute details of a simple person’s experience can create huge ripples in history. Dunkirk was advertised as a war film that told the story from 3 different perspectives – land, sea, and air – yet nobody knew going into the cinemas the way that Nolan would mess with our perception of time. In a genius feat of screenwriting, editing, and tension building, Dunkirk grows in intensity towards the end of the film, Hans Zimmer’s ticking score always reminding us of the race against time. Directionally, Dunkirk is perfect, yet we would be remiss to fail to mention the stellar acting. Newcomers Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan (and several other fine young actors) deliver stellar performances that capture the fear, the heartache, and the anxiety of war. These performances stand up next to those of such veteran performers as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy, all of which fully commit to their roles with a fervor and intensity that one might believe they are watching historical footage of the Dunkirk rescue.
      On a technical front, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is both cold and beautiful, unflinchingly showing the isolation and entrapment central to the Dunkirk narrative. Zimmer’s score is minimalist, yet effective, constantly ticking even in the most subdued moments. Dialogue is emotional and desperate, displaying a rare show of emotion for a Nolan film. While some reviews complained that Dunkirk was TOO cold and TOO mechanical, I see the heart and the bravery all throughout Nolan’s characters. Their emotion is filtered through fear, through adrenaline, through resolve – but make no mistake, it IS there. Nolan was adamant that audiences view his latest masterpiece on the largest screen possible, but even on a home television one can appreciate the  attention to detail. From the stunning practical effects used to film the aerial sequences to the vast number of extras on screen… Nolan made sure that his audience was transported to those beaches. Through this film we get to experience the intensity, but we also see the bravery, we celebrate the courage and character that everyday heroes displayed in a moment of global crisis.

Well there you have it! 2017 was a very difficult year to rate since so many great films were released, but I feel fairly confident in my list! What about YOU? What were YOUR favorites in 2017? Feel free to share and leave a comment!

Some Walls

Walls keep things out.
They also keep things in.

Walls are built to keep livestock from traipsing off property.
Walls are built to keep the neighbors from seeing into your private oasis of a back yard.
Walls are built for borders.
Walls are built to protect.

But walls are often built in fear. Fear of losing something, fear of being harmed.

Fear of the unknown.

(I often build walls in my mind out of fear… we all do it to one degree or another.)

We hide behind our walls, content to be isolate in our own little prisons.
I’ve been on something of a crusade for the last few years to help people find and create doorways in their walls… ways to find community, ways to let people in, ways to help us find meaning.

But sometimes we are kept inside these walls against our will.

Depression is that wall for me.
At times it holds me captive, and I am too weak to try and break down the wall from the inside.
People on the outside can’t tell someone is trapped, so they don’t try to break it down from the outside either.

Every once in a while, a piece of the wall happens to chip away a little bit, and I can see the outside world. Curious eyes peer in to see what this person is that was just exposed. HELP ME – I ask. But we are passing oddities in a world of constantly rotating distractions.

I want to get OUT of here.
I look up, and don’t see anything other than sky. My wall is just that – a wall… nothing more.
There is no roof to keep the rain out, so I get wet.

But I also can see the stars, and so I get lost in them sometimes. Letting my soul get picked up and carried into outer space. Floating.



Has it been 10 minutes? An hour? A day?
I don’t know. But I do know that in my mind, I escaped. And that escape was glorious.

Walls keep things out.
But they also keep things in.

You never know what a wall is really doing there… and some walls are meant to be knocked down.

(Free verse and photography by me, Steven Bowman)