Top 10 Films 2017

Cinema is God’s way of making me care. On the days when I feel on top of the world, film is there to remind me that existence is so much more than my emotions. On days when I’m drowning in despair, film lets me know that I should fight on, be brave, for there is yet hope. Above all, cinema works as a mirror in which I discern the version of the man I want to be, the one I should not be, the one I am grateful I left behind. When I think about the movies I think about God, forever grateful that He’s allowed me the privilege to watch, dissect, enjoy and live the greatest art form of all.

Here are, in descending order, my 10 favorite movies of 2017, an absolutely incredible year:

  1. CAFÉ SOCIETY

cafesociety_2016_09-h_2016

Were it not for the jazz score consistently playing in the background of near every scene, Woody Allen’s Café Society would feel like a tremendously sad film. An American fable of a New Yorker traveling to Hollywood only to get his heart broken, Café Society name drops ancient celebrities, features a visual gag or two and characters the audience is meant to laugh along to, or at. Had it been played a little bit more straight, comparisons to An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby would not have been out of place. Indeed, the film features a narrator who recounts even the most awful of episodes—when main characters die, for instance—in the same casual tone of voice he employs throughout the entire proceedings. And yet no amount of lightheartedness can make that final, memorable shot hurt any less.

  1. AMERICAN HONEY

american honey

It must say something about the Hollywood production system that the most damning indictment of contemporary middle America was a film written and directed by a British woman. Andrea Arnold’s film is a poignant tale of lost youth, of its wild enthrallments of the new, of rebellion not only against adults but against the very social mores that raised them, of its frantic attempts at encountering meaning in the mundane, of its doubts masked by the confidence that only irrepressible hormones provide. But if American Honey seems to condemn anyone, it’s not the young, but the old. Shots of dilapidated homes, wretched cities, a thriving drug scene, all seem to indicate that kids must stick together or perish in the hopelessness of their forbears.  

  1. EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS

secreto-de-sus-ojos--644x362

If reading certain novels makes it easier to visualize them on the screen, then this Argentinian wonder makes me feel as if I am in my bed, reading about the mystery of the murder of a young wife. The film works like a novel, from its opening voiceover narration, to its various flashforwards and flashbacks, to the dual romance at its center. One romance belongs to the victim’s husband, eyes peppered with longing; the other belongs to the detective assigned to the case and his boss. Above all, it manages to convey regret. Its lingering shots on door knobs, characters eyes and old photographs provide a sense of opportunities not taken, of wistfulness and a desire to love that went unfulfilled until the day bravery overcomes our fears.

  1. MULHOLLAND DR.

mulholland drive

Overwhelmed by the sheer ecstasy of the picture, I drove to Mulholland Drive a few days after watching it. I got my car towed, and a parking ticket. Thank you David Lynch!

6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

manchester

I watched 162 movies in 2017, and none could break my heart quite as spectacularly as the three minute conversation between Lee (Casey Affleck) and Randi (Michelle Williams) near the end of the film. I dare you to watch it and not feel something, anything, swelling inside you, not only for the on-screen couple but for everyone out there who exists solely for the burden of their unforgiven sorrows.

5. MUNICH

Munich-1

Munich will continue to feel timely not only for its even handed, impartial approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for how it portrays vengeance. In horrific events such as the one depicted here, vengeance is not only clamored for, but necessary. A couple of flashy executions later, however, and the full picture starts coming into view. What is the true purpose of revenge, if not seeing others suffer the way you have? And if we want to see others suffer, what does that say about us? “There is no peace at the end of this”, somebody says, and no truer words have ever been spoken. Munich is as bleak a film as they come, yet the lessons it imparts have the potential to change the world.

4. CIDADE DE DEUS

City_of_God_5

Beyond its unstoppable kinetic energy, more than the flawless union of humor and carnage, greater than the pirouettes the camera engages in, City of God remains with me for a very distinct reason: it reminds me of the madness of El Salvador, my home country. Until the day national cinema catches up to the greats, I’ll always have this picture as a document of what’s going on in my country.

3. 25th HOUR

25th hour

Sometimes I felt as if 2017 was too stacked, too much of a good thing. As this list makes clear, I was fortunate enough to catch many sublime films, which are among the best, if not the very greatest, of all the director’s oeuvre. It was not a problem until now, in which I had to go over all the fantastic films and settle on a mere ten. I settled on 25th Hour because there was no way around it: this is a monumental piece of work, Spike Lee’s crowning masterpiece.

2. SILENCE

Silence-03694-960x0-c-default

The most hauntingly despairing moment I’ve ever witnessed in a motion picture occurs 140 minutes into Silence. After suffering a series of horrendous torture rounds, father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is led to a courtyard where six people are hanging upside down, their heads stuck in a pit, blood slowly dripping out of their skulls. If Rodrigues does not recant faith in Christ, they will remain there for days, until the blood runs out of their bodies. I know what my response would have been, and have been asking God for answers as to why life forces some to pits of hopelessness and cruelty, while all you hear from the heavens is silence.

1. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

war

As a whole, the Planet of the Apes trilogy illustrates why the human race will never know peace. It doesn’t portray humans as naturally bad and apes as naturally wrong; by favoring a more shaded approach, the series is empathetic to all sides of a conflict, recognizing good and evil is not as clear cut as black and white. War for the Planet of the Apes features a flawless motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, conveying more heartbreak, regret and anger with one mere glance than most actors do in entire monologues. The picture belongs to him, and he will go down as one of my favorite film characters ever. It is through Caesar’s eyes that we understand the dangers of not letting go of our grudges; the decision to not forgive unleashed a series of events that culminated in doom not only for his people, but for the humans as well.
Caesar, weary and exhausted from a lifetime of conflict, becomes a hero the moment he admits to his flaws and recognizes his mistakes; yet he is not the only one. The picture is littered with many small moments of beauty, of selflessness and reflection that you start to wonder how the heck something this meditative and thoughtful ever made it out of the Hollywood blockbuster system. When you realize this tale of tragedy, betrayal and redemption is not really about monkeys but about us, about our ancestors and our children, about our apparent inability to let bygones be bygones and focus on the beam in our eye instead of on the speck on our brother and sister, the only appropriate response is admiration.

Advertisements

Narc

narc

Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by an enormous sense of despondency brought upon by what I perceive to be an utter lack of justice. It is a tricky feeling to balance. On the one hand I must continually keep my Christian faith in the foreground, knowing that though I am not of the world, I am in it, hence there should be some sort of strive to better it. On the other, I cannot help but be reminded of the poor state of everything, and how the only hope is the return of the King.

Narc is an intense and frenetic cop picture that kept reminding me of this dilemma. It is the mark of a great movie when motivations, consequences and behaviors are not black and white, when characters could be heroes the same way they could be villains. It is the mark of a great movie when, as the screen finally cuts to black, you are kept pondering on whether the ending was a “happy” or a “sad” one, and the events that led to it.

B+

The Departed

departed

The more Martin Scorcese films I watch, the more I am convinced that Silence was the picture he had been building towards to for a large portion of his career. The man has a preternatural fascination with affairs of the faith, or at the very least aspects that could easily be analyzed under a religious lens.

Before Bill Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) gnaws his way into Frank Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) crew, the mob boss mentions that it would probably be a bad idea to hire him, since he is probably a rat handpicked by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen). Later on, Costigan tells Frank that one of his crew members will be the one to probably end up killing him.

As they are having breakfast one morning, Costello approaches a table of pederast priests. One of them says “Pride comes before the fall”.
More than halfway through the proceedings, Costigan asks Costello why the hell he does what he does, if he’s a septuagenarian with all the money he could possibly need.
He does not need a straight answer, but he doesn’t have to; the audience, if they’ve been keeping up to the tragic tale Scorcese has been weaving for two hours, knows full well.

A-

City of God

city of god

A despairing thought that pops into my mind every so often has to do with the plague of violence that has been overrunning my country for over a decade now. My nation, which shall remain unnamed, harbors similar social and financial conditions as to those displayed in City of God. As the camera cut from one subject to the next, unrelenting in its energy, I had that thought again.

It goes like this. I do not think that the violence and crime epidemic of my country will ever go away because it is much easier to point a gun at someone and steal a pair of shoes in a matter of minutes, than it is to work five times a day for a meager salary in order to afford one.

More than any other movie that I can remember, and probably because it was made in Latin America, where the devils they fight are much more different than the demons of the United States, City of God perfectly illustrates the culture of death and corruption that is so ingrained in our poor, destitute nations.

A+

Last Days in Vietnam

Last Days in Vietnam

One of the passages of Scripture that I keep coming back to again and again is Genesis 18:25. “Will not the judge of all earth do what is right?” It is the trump card Abraham plays when trying to get Him to spare Sodom and Gomorrah; God agrees, of course.

I bring this up because one of the talking heads in Last Days in Vietnam says they had no way of knowing whether the refugees that were being airlifted out of Saigon were deserving of rescue. They were just doing the best they could.

When I think that justice on a massive scale is impossible, it’s because there is no way of gauging every individual human experience. For instance, the Vietnamese ransacked the embassy once they realized the Americans had betrayed them and left them behind. They could not know how the Americans were risking career, and in some cases even life, to get as many locals out as they could.
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong side to this scenario, but then where is justice? Both sides have equally valid and weighty arguments, so what gives?

Multiply that on a global scale and you see what I mean when I talk of the nonexistence of justice. It is not pure bleak and despair, however. Since believers in the resurrection know that the judge of all the earth will eventually do what is right, we can rest and do the best we can, for ourselves and others.

B+

Prometheus

prometheus

Two of the classes I’m taking this semester overlap in such a way that I am regularly forced to ask myself the question that weighs heavily on the mind of the Prometheus’s crew: Why are we here? Where did we come from?
Anthropology posits that humanity evolved, throughout millions of years, from the proverbial ape, animals which in turned evolved from lesser creatures, and so on and so forth.
Philosophy, on the other hand, asks us to examine the cosmos. The flawless order of the universe, along with the intricate and meticulous working of the human body, demands for there to be a Creator.

In Prometheus, the ones who made us turn out to be the ones who also wish to destroy us. Reasons abound as to why. And yet, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) demands more. Nay, she says she deserves to know the origin of all things. The beauty lies in that she voices this statement to an android, a man-made creature that seems perfectly content with living out his destiny instead of asking questions in regard to it.
Twenty minutes into the movie somebody says that since the beginning of time human civilizations functioned under the idea that they are simply creation, and they seek to communicate with their Creator.

Is it the same today? Do we also feel as if we deserve to know everything simply because we are so very smart and enlightened? Do we also consider the Creator in human terms, and forget that if there is one, He must surely not abide by our puny rules and expectations?
In Prometheus, the crew gets the surprise of their lifetime when, upon finally encountering a creator, he starts to butcher them. In our case, will there be more of the former, the latter, or neither?

B

Silence

silence-poster

Faith is nonsensical. In a world guided by reason it makes sense for faith to be dismissed as illogical and pointless. What this dismissal fails to take into consideration however, is that faith is placed on One who is much higher than any of us. God is not governed by our reason or our logic; trying to comprehend His thinking in human terms is futile, since we cannot even begin to grasp the vastness of His knowledge. Were we aware of this, were somehow humans made privy to God’s mind, He would not truly be infinite. And if God is not infinite, then He is no God.
This turns every discussion arguing in favor or against the existence of God pointless, as it consists of humans, who are nothing but dust in the wind in a tiny drop on the gargantuan canvas of the universe, trying to use human logic to prove something that is irrational. Which faith, as mentioned at the start of this piece, is. Yet having faith does not mean one will relinquish the human capacity for discernment and reason and become a creature of the absurd. Believers may walk in faith, they may even live by faith, but that does not mean common sense is now as foreign to them as faith is to non believers. Human intellect and curiosity are after all part of the natural order that God set on this world.

A crisis of faith then, can best be described as a clash between the logical and the illogical, between human’s innate desire for answers and the choice we made to believe in someone who owes us none and has them all.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is the most important film I will ever see, tackles said dilemma in a manner that transcends cinema and turns it into something akin to the miraculous. It has crossed my mind on several occasions now that it would be unfair of me to compare it to other movies, or even to say whether it’s good or bad, since Silence works best not as a motion picture but as a document that believers should be required to have, next to their copies of the Bible.
Such necessity stems from the fact that in the four years since I professed faith in God I have been plagued by doubts that Silence explores, and if my conversion is genuine I don’t see why other believers will not have had, or will have, experienced the same.

The declaration I made once upon a time that I would be in constant communication with God  has been proven false. The ground for such statement was that, since I knew how much I loved God and He knew as much, any obstacle that could come between us would ultimately be obsolete.
But has it been proven false by the inexorable disenchantment of life or by myself? I know I’ve sinned, so is He punishing me by keeping silent? I also know I have repented and am forgiven, and that His love and mercy far outweigh my many failings, so is His silence evidence that my faith is not strong enough? Or perhaps, at this juncture in my life His silence is a test to gauge whether or not I have matured from the man I was four years ago? This unparalleled frustration may lead to doubt, which may lead to sin, which in turn may culminate in numbness at His silence. What are believers to do at such despair?

The only concrete answer Silence provides comes during an exchange between a soon to be martyr and his confessor. “My faith is not strong, but I have so much love for God”, the martyr says. “Is that good enough?”.
As I write this, still shaken to my core pondering on Silence from its first to last frame, I wonder if that brief exchange carried a monumental truth that I needed to hear. When faith flounders, love should thrive. Punishingly torturous as sitting through it was, Silence was also rewarding in that it allowed me to examine the current state of my faith under a different light. I may still cringe at the thought of receiving no answer from Him, but I find encouragement amidst the vacuum. I love Him, and He loves me. And if love is not enough, then no amount of noise in the world can be either.

A+

Favorite Films 2016

I don’t take it as coincidence that the final film I watched this year had a character proclaim that “there is nothing a man cannot do once he accepts the fact that there is no God.”
I don’t take this as coincidence because the recurring theme for most of the 133 movies I watched in 2016, either above or below the surface, was a case arguing for the nonexistence of God.
In a year in which madness ruled the world and chaos abounds globally in earth changing events, but also personally with people seeking a way out of their loneliness and giving in to temptation, I used movies to inform me about such sad state of affairs.
From the unparalleled greed found in comedy War Dogs, to the existential despair of the gorgeous Knight of Cups, I saw God in everything. Or rather, I noticed the urgent need for Him. I noticed the need for Him in the sickening sequences of carnage of Hacksaw Ridge and in humanity’s innate inability to communicate with each other in Arrival. I understood that the only sane way to live in an insane world is for everybody else to think you are insane because you follow not in everybody else’s path, but in obedience to the Lord.
But as Sausage Party so bluntly put it, how do you know it’s obedience or just a delusion? Going back to my opening statement, isn’t it much easier to accept the fact that God is dead, as Rosemary’s Baby implies?

Let the following 10 films, 2016’s favorites, give the answer:

1. There Will Be Blood

twbb1

The greatest film I watched this year concludes with a preacher denouncing God and calling his faith a superstition. He dies soon after.

2. Steve Jobs

Steve-Jobs-pic-1

Utterly spellbinding, I was honestly surprised when the credits rolled because I could have sworn I had taken a seat to watch it not even half an hour before.

3. Never Let Me Go

never-let-me-go-poster

Dressed in earnest melancholy from the first to last frame, this movie robbed me of my tears for a solid five minutes after the screen had turned to black. Coupled with at least two other instances during the film in which I had to wipe my eyes for I could not see very well, I never cried as much during a movie in 2016 than I did when watching this one.

4. The Social Network

SN_IT_1-SHT_FRND_1

I watched this soon after Steve Jobs, can you believe my enormous good fortune?

5. Mustang

mustang

“Their spirit would never be broken”, the tagline reads. It’s just their dreams, and hopes, and hearts and family that shatters completely.

6. Sicario

sicario-poster

As I write this I am back in El Salvador. It has been 20 months since I moved away, and I am just back for the Christmas season. When I was away I had almost forgotten what it felt like to live constantly in fear of violence by gangs and cartels. Sicario reminded me of it. Being back home does as well.

7. Glass Chin

glass chin

If anybody is reading this and are intrigued by any film on this list, make this a top priority.

8. Green RoomPrintI think I mentioned before how the suspense is so unbearable for the first thirty minutes that I wanted to stop watching and run away.

9. The End of the Tour

end-of-the-tour-CLQrKrsWEAEmgL3

Stamped on David Foster Wallace’s (Jason Segel) wall is a Bible verse. The man was living in solitude and he ached. Naturally he turned to prayer. It didn’t work. How do we deal with situations like this one, when one believes in a loving God?

10. Spotlight

spotlight-1

While the first film on this list was a denunciation of the faith, the last one can serve as proof that doing that may be the wise thing to do. The heralds of the faith, those who are called to protect the weak, feed the hungry, abide by righteousness and lead by example have turned astray, taking with them a multitude of sad souls. This infuriates me. Belief in God is dwindling not so much because He is silent, but because those who are supposed to speak on His behalf have corrupted his message to the  point of disgust.
What are we to do?
If you have not seen this movie yet, there’s a character that gives an illuminating response on the matter.
I will leave it there.

Spotlight

spotlight-1

I still remember that Sunday, three years ago. I paid two dollars to go into the cinema because it was Movie weekend, and all movies that weekend were at a discounted prize. I watched Zero Dark Thirty, and here I am, over a thousand days later, still thinking about it.

I bring this up because Spotlight reminded me of the feelings and reactions I had that day. What impresses me the most is that I was watching investigative journalists do their job, and there was never the risk of somebody getting blown up to all hell, a danger which is ever present in Kathryn Bigelow’s film.
This is also a sadder and more infuriating film, for the Church is what human beings, albeit wrongly, put their faith in; nobody, as far as I know, put their faith in Islamic terrorists.
I say sad not only for the countless horrors inflicted by priests to their victims, but because those actions had consequences not only in the children’s lives, but in many of those who later witnessed or learned about these events.

Their faith is gone, perhaps forever.
“It’s a shitty feeling”, somebody says.”It is”, another replies. “It’s such a shitty feeling.”

A+