I Can Only Imagine

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If I am ever ashamed of my faith it will most likely be after watching a Christian movie. Why is it that this genre has not matured to the point where all those involved in the production realize that they should be sharing the gospel to the sick, not to the healthy? Why are the themes and the messages in their movies just basic reassurances of the most commonly known beliefs that most Christians already know?

This is why the greatest “Christian” movies are not explicitly Christian at all. Silence is a haunting examination of faith in the face of God’s notorious aloofness in times of trouble; Shame is a wrenching portrait of the corroding power of sin and our superhuman effort to try and cope with it.

To a believer these kinds of movies are reminders of the world we inhabit and the life we once lived, while at the same time being reaffirmations of our hope, for we accept without it we are truly lost.
For those without faith, these kinds of movies can work by showing them that there might be something beyond the visible in this world. Jesus might not spare you the suffering, but there’s no longer hopelessness in it. Everything makes just a bit more sense when, at the end of the road, weak and tired, you can talk to a God who loves you in a way that you can only imagine.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

The Departed

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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.

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Patriot’s Day

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I had been away from Cinema Notes for almost two months because of something I did not think was possible. Since I watched Silence in mid January, no other movie was able to worm itself inside my head and force me to write about it. Until a movie I watched last night, which I will write about when I finish writing about all the ones I watched during this time.

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Silence

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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.

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