Jojo Rabbit

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There’s a very poetic scene near the end of Jojo Rabbit in which men, women and children are charging blindly towards certain doom. The camera slows down time, capturing these figures in all their pitiful foolishness. Here they are, the self proclaimed master race, dying for a cause that’s not only evil, but stupid. Perhaps they deserved it. Jojo Rabbit makes fun of Nazis by painting them as buffoons, but it also humanizes them as creatures to feel sorry for.

The friendship that Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) eventually build is based off an understanding of one another as God’s fellow creatures, united not as much in what they have but in what they’ve lost. There’s a beautiful scene in which the two kids stare out the window, the night sky tinted by explosions, and discuss their pain. It has taken time and effort to arrive at this point; Jojo and Elsa had to go through many misunderstandings, but finally, in their darkest hour, they found the solace of each other’s company.

The message “we’re all human, so be kind to one another” is far too simplistic, reducing people’s experiences to mere hurdles that can be easily overcome with enough love. Thankfully that’s not what Jojo Rabbit does. While certainly both human beings, Jojo and Elsa are quite different from each other. By the end of the film their differences haven’t vanished, and they’re both their own person. They did not learn to look past each other’s backgrounds, but came to love them.

Jesus Christ famously cried out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’ve done” as Romans drove nails through his limbs. It’s a nonsensical response to a heinous act until you realize it was based on love. Jojo Rabbit invites us to look at our enemies, yes, even the Nazis, with love. For they know not what they do. But what if they do know exactly what they do, and just don’t care? Dear reader, I dare say we love still.

Jojo Rabbit had me sobbing my eyes out because I remembered how tough it is to love our neighbor, and what a rotten, dirty, unjust world we live in. It also filled my heart with so much joy because there are things that can make everything so much bearable. Small things, like looking into the eyes of the ones you love and dancing.

A+

The Edge of Democracy

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It’s the story of our world. A person decries the unethical actions of those in political power and then, years later, when the person has achieved political power for themselves, via the ballot or the gun, said person engages in the same type of behavior they used to criticize before.

What’s stupefying is not that men and women keep on doing this; it is in our fallen, human nature to be deceitful, after all. What surprises me is how everybody else keeps thinking that their candidate is the chosen one. Everyone thinks government sucks because it hasn’t been done right, but with their candidate, everything will be made right. Nobody learns, so we are doomed to repeat the cycles of history, and on and on until the world finally stops spinning, and God finally rescues us from this madness.

Best Films 2019

My mom watches movies in segments. She divides her attention between her phone, the screen, the kitchen, the weather and the neighbor’s dog. It takes her literal days to finish watching movies sometimes. My dad watches one movie every month, sometimes every two months. I joke with them by asking how I can possibly be related to them when our movie watching habits are so dissimilar. But sometimes I don’t joke. Rather, I look Godwards in gratitude. Surely I’ve done nothing radically different from my parents that would cause me to live cinema in a way that breathes vigor to my bones. Yet here I am again with the yearly list of the best films watched in 2019. 160 they were, a surprisingly high number considering I spent many months traveling. There must have been some nights in which I watched more than one, more than two. I recall these moments very, very fondly. And the following films even more so. 

 

HARRY POTTER SAGA

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Simultaneously a tender look at being a teenager and a parable of the biblical story of Jesus and Satan, the Harry Potter series is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Watched over the course of four spellbinding days, the level of engagement it stirred within me is unparalleled. Unmatched too are the echoes of the Gospel story present throughout, from the Messiah-like Harry to the astute ways the evil one assails our commitment to the cause. I won’t soon forget the night in which, after finishing my dinner, I rushed to my bedroom to watch Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. I sat in bed for five hours, bewitched by every little thing. The next day I told my mom that I was going to finish watching Harry Potter that night, and she apologized for not allowing me to watch them years before. I told her there was no need for an apology because it had turned out to be for the best. I discovered Harry Potter at just the right moment in life. 

THE FOUNTAIN

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Here’s something I’d never done before. Once the credits started to roll, I hit play and watched The Fountain all over again. A feast for the senses, The Fountain is a tragedy of lost love. It is also a triumphant reminder that one need not be crippled by the fear of death, for together we will live forever.

THE IRISHMAN

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The most elegiac film of Martin Scorsese’s storied career, The Irishman mourns the lives that are lived in service of all that is ultimately inconsequential. Subverting the expectations created three decades ago with his masterpiece Goodfellas, in which crime was glamorized and life was fast paced, The Irishman is a film only an old man could make. Rueful, wise, patient. Scorsese, pushing 80, has never shied away from his faith. The confession scene is not only for his protagonists, not only for his audience, but also for himself.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

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“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved.”

MARRIAGE STORY

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2019 delivered some of the best acting by men I’ve seen in a while. You couldn’t take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Robert DeNiro was phenomenal in The Irishman. And Adam Driver was absolutely superb, the best he has ever been, in Marriage Story. You watch him slowly disintegrate as the film progresses. The scene in which he pretends he’s fine after cutting himself by accident is a marvel. 

LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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Ten months ago, reviewing this documentary for the first time, I wrote that “Brando’s story is our story, the small details varying but the overall picture looking the same: a life in a world with pain as its principal currency, with every soul aching for a more permanent release than wealth, or family, or sex”. No more needs to be said.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

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His films tend to be fun and easy to watch, but Tarantino outdid himself with this one.

COLUMBUS

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It happens, almost imperceptibly and not to everybody, but it happens. The moment you discover your parents, the people who were meant to nourish and see you thrive, are suffocating you. They don’t do it out of any ill will; they love you, after all. And you love them, and now you’re compelled to see them thrive, compelled to nourish them. It’s a reversal of the natural order, and it hurts your little heart. But it cannot be this way forever for you are young and you must leave them behind. This hurts your little heart some more. Columbus is a perfect distillation of this. 

SET IT UP

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In an age in which the rom-com is all but dead, here comes Zooey Deutsch to breathe new life into it and make it soar, soar, soar. 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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To call this the best superhero movie I’ve seen might be faint praise, considering my slight indifference towards most movies of its ilk. But it is anything but. Into the Spider-Verse is a colorful, hilarious, inventive and strangely moving picture about the hero’s journey. One, it turns out, we’re all in. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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The word “fan”, short for “fanatic”, is derived from the Latin “fanaticus”, meaning insanely but divinely inspired. No wonder then, that the most common use of the word is associated with religion. Indeed, “fanaticus” originally pertained to a place of worship, a temple, places marked by intense, uncritical devotion.

To be a fan is no bad thing. We should all be so lucky to have something or someone we deem worthy of our loyalty. History shows certain fans’s troubling behavior towards others, albeit usually in a small scale. Fandoms, general wisdom goes, are pretty harmless. It is not until the advent of the internet when cracks begin to crumble the facade.

I’ve written elsewhere how the internet has exacerbated virulent behavior in our species, but I now wish to revise that statement. By itself, the internet is a wonderful tool. Bullying, harassment, threats and violence are the result of our own failings, not some coding problem within the system. There’s a quote that goes something like, if you give a man enough power to do whatever he wants, and he ends up using that power for evil, then you’ll know evil is what he’s always wanted to do.

At this point you might be wondering, what does Latin, the internet and moral failings have to do with Star Wars?

Reddit and Twitter run the world. Perhaps one of the most baffling turn of events in this young century has been the capitulation of corporate America to the tumult of the internet. No sooner has a user lifted a complaint about anything, and there go multi billion dollar companies vowing to do better next time, swearing to make them happy in just the exact way they demand. There is no accountability in this process, just an endless litany of requests. This reveals corporations as spineless and amoral, breathing just to make a buck, and users as grandstanding self-appointed arbiters of good taste.

The Rise of Skywalker illustrates just how pathetic this new order we inhabit really is. Disney has destroyed every good thing that was built by The Last Jedi, not because it was bad but because some people kept making Reddit threads about how their immaculate childhood had been obliterated by a movie. Film insiders chose to appeal to angry people rather than continuing the threads of a good story. This movie means nothing, it stands for nothing, it is vacuous and soulless, a monument to cowardice. Any redeeming value it might have comes in the form of a warning. Today it was a movie that was dictated by the whims of social media. What’s it going to be tomorrow?

C

Marriage Story

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To call Marriage Story the most accomplished work in Noah Baumbach’s career risks implying that his filmography wasn’t already stacked with successes. Frances Ha remains one of the sharpest comedies of the decade, Mistress America possesses so much quirk it borders the genius, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is as perceptive of human behavior as I’ve seen in years. So what elevates Baumbach’s latest above his previous films?

Like Tarantino and Scorsese before him, Baumbach has slowed down. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood looks back at the passage of time and reflects upon it, simultaneously wishing for a better future. In The IrishmanScorsese employs the expectations that his classic Goodfellas set upon us and subverts them by delivering a picture tinged with regret, without any of the frenetic rush that was found in Goodfellas. Similarly, Noah Baumbach attempts something different. His characters still possess his trademark wit, but they’re not exchanging fast paced barbs with one another.

For the first time in his career, Baumbach allows his camera to rest on his protagonists without them saying anything at all. When they do speak, almost every word is painful, funny, real, yours. The script is phenomenal, and it makes me jealous that I’ll never be able to write something as stirring and true as this. Like with Tarantino and Scorsese, you realize that the unforgiving passage of time has taught Baumbach that everything dies. Thank God for cinema then, for reminding us of this utmost truth and spurring us on towards the only reasonable way to live.

A+ 

Honey Boy

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I don’t know much about my father’s father, but I do know this. He cheated on his wife. Could that be the reason my own dad cheated on my mom? Are children incapable of escaping the cycle begun by their forebears, the sins of the father becoming those of the son?

There’s a scene in which James (Shia LaBeouf) is attending AA, and he tells the story of his upbringing. A nasty, evil woman raised him. She was violent with him. James cries during the story. A few hours later, James slaps his own son, Otis (Noah Jupe), hard across the face. Twice.

A decade later Otis (Lucas Hedges) is behind bars.

Honey Boy is a compassionate movie, showing father and son not as perpetrator nor victim, but as humans trying their best to love and forgive each other in a world that went astray a long, long time ago.

B+

On Chesil Beach

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If cinema works primarily as escapism, then sad endings are a horrible idea. Entertainment is meant to take your mind off things, to unburden your heart for a minute, to tickle your desires. Indeed, blockbusters are primarily entertainment.

If, on the other hand, cinema functions primarily as an art form, then endings that shatter your heart are not only appropriate, but vital. We relate to art by what it brings to the world, but also by what it takes from it. The experiences that lead artists to create are full of sorrow and regret. We appreciate art for the beauty it’s able to bring in the midst of an ugly world. It’s a deliciously ironic juxtaposition: true beauty is forged in the fires of the nastiest misery. Sad endings are completely logical here.

On Chesil Beach is a slow moving picture. At times, it feels like reading a novel. But this approach is effective in its own right, as when the emotionally devastating climax arrives, you have no idea when you got there. You just wish everybody could turn back time and make different choices. Some that wouldn’t condemn them to their miserable fates.

B

The Laundromat

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On October 17, 2019, the Pew Research Center released an update on America’s changing religious landscape. Since 2009, the last year the Center surveyed Americans, there’s been a sharp decrease in people who consider themselves Christians. At the same time, the number of those who claim to believe in no higher power has risen dramatically. At the current rate, it will only take two more decades for the number of Christians to be actually less than those who don’t believe in God.

These findings are aligned with the reality of our world. It’s not that people don’t believe in God anymore; adherence to an invisible Lord has been deemed foolish from the start. It’s that everybody is now aware that they have very good reasons not to. The rise of digital technology has brought people closer than ever before, and in so doing they have realized how deep and pervasive injustices run.

The Laundromat is a crash course on how the evil have no incentive at all to reform. It is technically a comedy, because if it weren’t it would be too depressive to watch. It is required viewing for everybody, not because of it’s quality, but for the urgency of its content. This is a movie that demands the viewer to be angry. It is a manifesto against unfettered greed and corruption, a call to arms in the name of a better planet. It might also serve as evidence by those who don’t believe in God. “Look at what goes on in our world”, they can say. “Why would an all-good, all-loving God allow such evil to thrive, and many more to suffer?”

I am not surprised Christianity is declining in America. It will continue to do so. But sadly, things won’t get any better. Eat the elites, destroy all the billionaires and millionaires, weed out corruption. In the end you’ll end up in the same place. Because it’s not a matter of a political or economic system, it’s not a game of culture or ethics. We are all flesh and bone, with indwelling sin. And as long as that sin is alive, we will be it’s slaves. Somebody mentions how society is now a slave to the wealthy and we don’t even know it. I say society is a slave to sin, and we don’t even know it. That’s why I pray I keep having the strength to trust and love God. Would it be nice if the good Lord descended and solved financial inequality? Absolutely. But money in my pocket will not really fix my sin. Only His love will.

B+

Joker

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Brimming with anger and sadness, Joker is a chilling cinematic experience unlike few in recent memory. Because there’s been a thousand write ups about it already, anything I would be bringing into the conversation regarding its qualities would be nothing new. As such, I’d like to note a story.

I watched Joker on a Monday at noon two weeks after its initial release. The room was surprisingly full. Two hours later, as the credits rolled, the audience started to applaud. Applause is nothing new here, as I’ve witnessed truly horrendous movies be cheered on by excited viewers. What I found interesting was what they were clapping for.

This is not a lighthearted movie. But beyond that, the picture delivers its thesis so strongly, so relentlessly, that the audience must have been clapping for what the movie portrayed. Class warfare; eat the rich; the government has failed.

America is in flux. The winds of change are already here, and a transformation is underway. I don’t know what that will ultimately look like, but shifts are coming. Joker is not the picture America needs, but the one it’s deserved.