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:



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.


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.  



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.


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!



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


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.


Saving Private Ryan


I have a admiration/cringe relationship with Steven Spielberg. On the one hand, I consider him a master storyteller, a genius of his craft, a man that was born to sit behind a movie camera, and has worked his way up to become one of the finest cinema directors the medium has ever seen.
On the other hand, however, is all that cheese. I still recall my double eye roll at one of the final scenes of Bridge of Spies, when the Tom Hanks character sees some children climbing on top of a fence, and the picture segues into German citizens trying to escape from East Berlin.

The same is true of Saving Private Ryan. You get the inspired Spielberg, shooting his actors in a dimly lit church in the middle of the night,  sharing childhood stories, and it is beautiful to behold. And you also get a moving coda from an old veteran, meant to stir emotion into the hearts of viewers.

I think the reason I find Schindler’s List and Munich to be stronger films overall is because Spielberg is not trying to move you to tears. That is very rare, but since he lets us bask into the humanity of the story and the characters-those two previously mentioned movies have plenty scenes like the church one, but none like the cemetery confession-, we feel much more connected to everything that happens on screen.
And when the tears are not forced, the emotion feels better.
It feels, in the words of one character here, earned.



Wonder Woman


What could have been the most insightful moment into the very nature of superheroes since that thrilling final scene in The Dark Knight occurs in the final act of Wonder Woman, when Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) realizes that evil carries on despite her executing the main baddie.

I say could have because the movie flirts with a very interesting idea that ultimately falls flat: superheroes are not just different from humans because they are stronger, but because they believe goodness can eventually overcome evil. If heroes did not believe in such a lofty ideal they would not be superheroes to begin with. Superheroes exist to achieve and aspire to heights us mere mortals cannot. That is why they punch Hitler in the face and stop a nuclear bomb at the last minute. They serve as inspiration into who we should strive to be.

The moment Diana Prince learns that the people she is trying to save are the same ones that take glee in annihilating their neighbor should be painful. It should illustrate that perhaps humanity is not worth saving after all. But that superheroes, because they are so much better than that, can see past our flaws and into the other side of our nature: the one that loves, laughs and finds the horrors of wars repugnant. Unfortunately it does not (settling for another slo-mo CGI trope ridden extravaganza), but the effort, like the heroine herself, is still noble.





The tragedy of Steven Spielberg’s masterful Munich resides in the hearts of men. A Jew and a Palestinian are arguing about the necessity of armed conflict between its people in order for goodness to come out of it, when the Palestinian declares something along the lines of “In the end, it will all work out. It took Jews thousands of years to get a home, it will be the same for Palestine.” Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) shoots down his reasoning.

Later in the movie, before Avner and his crew embark on a train ride to Holland, Avner turns to one of his men, who is displaying increasing signs of reluctance at all the killings they are doing, and says “Eventually, it will all end. What we are doing will be worth it.” But it is not only that Avner has turned into a version of the Palestinians he’s fighting against, or that the Palestinians have turned into the Jews they try to emancipate from; that would be too shallow a read, and Spielberg is too much a genius to leave it at that. The scene displays the incapacity for empathy that characters in the movie possess.

During the opening sequence, there is a perfect cut which delineates this idea. When the news broadcasts that all the Israeli hostages are alive, the action moves to the wives and families of the athletes, cheering with relief; the action then moves to a living room where the wives and families of the terrorists are gathered, which mourn the death of their loved ones once the news broadcast the death of all of them.

“This is what’s missing in the world”, Steven Spielberg tells us in that brief scene. “There is no peace at the end of this because the human heart doesn’t cut back and forth between both sides and realize that all of us weep”



Jacob’s Ladder

jacob's ladderJacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is descending the steps that will take him directly to Hell.

An eerie look into mental disorders and demonic influence, Jacob’s Ladder is many films in one- war picture, horror flick, conspiracy thriller, drama.
It succeeds at every one.



Good Kill

good killThe thing about cinema is that it can be more than pure entertainment. Done right, it serves as a powerful commentary on the social, political or economical state of any particular country or situation. In some cases, cinema is powerful enough to actually bring about change.

I think this is what Andrew Niccol tried to do in Good Kill, a movie that features a sermon about the evils of drone warfare in every other scene.
This is American Sniper for pilots.



Testament of Youth

testament of youthAlicia Vikander is such a gifted performer that she does not even have to shed a tear for me to start doing so.
Thoroughly mournful from fade in to fade out, Testament of Youth is not so much about war, as it is about a young woman’s resilience in the face of a cruel and cosmic joke.
And Vikander absolutely shines.

The film opens on a close-up of her face, and you can see pain on every muscle of it right away.
It’s pretty clear from the outset, as we are introduced to her brother (Taron Egerton), friend (Colin Morgan) and lover (Kit Harrington), that this will be a story of loss.
And while the first 30 minutes might almost convince you otherwise, as we are presented with some incredibly romantic moments and alluring photography, once the War begins, Alicia Vikander gives such a haunting performance that it proves almost impossible not to cry alongside her.

You are moved not only by her plight, but at the knowledge that it wasn’t only her alone who had her soul ripped apart by war.
During one of the final scenes, set after the conflict has ended, Brittain offers a rousing plea for peace.
“The only way”, she says, “is if we forgive our enemies.”

But we never seem to get that right, forgiveness.
And so as it was in her time, is in ours, and will undoubtedly be for future generations, the madness carries on.
What testament of sadness.




71This is a different kind of war film.
There are no bomb runs, or tank showdowns.
In fact, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) rarely fires his gun, let alone utter a word.

What we see, however, is that war is not only tragic, but avoidable.
It is a game between men who long ago got rid of their scruples, and everyone else, like Gary, is trapped in it, just trying to do their best to survive.