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.

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Top Characters in Film 2017

A film character is defined by several traits. The first and perhaps most prominent one is the performance by the actor hired to perform the role. And while movies rise and fall on the strength of its performances, solid acting alone is not enough to sell me on them. So beyond acting chops, I consider the setting these characters are in, their backgrounds and contexts, and how they must feel in the adventures that play out for my viewing pleasure.

The following 10 characters provided me with memorable lines, great story lines, wild entertainment and above all, reminders that it is not how much money is put into a project that matters, but how much heart.

In alphabetical order:

BEN—CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

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When Ben (Viggo Mortensen) tells his six children that their mother has just committed suicide, he utilizes the same tone of voice and manner that he employs when he is teaching them about Noam Chomsky and lecturing them about Lolita. As most loving parents do, he believes this to be the right way to raise his children, but the film argues that love is not a good enough excuse to do certain things. Ben, we come to discover later, is kind of a kook. This is his journey of realization, occasionally moving, hilarious and insightful.

DOROTHEA, JULIE, ABBY, JAMIE and WILLIAM—20TH CENTURY WOMEN

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The greatest film narrator of 2017, Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) cares so much about everybody that she invites strangers over to her house for dinner. It’s a house where she already lives with two girls and two guys, and though only two of them are still teens, everybody is in the process of growing up. The film, which appears lyrical at times, presents the interactions between them as almost poetic, tinged with wisdom, sadness and the hope of a freer tomorrow.

BROOKE and TRACY—MISTRESS AMERICA

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For somebody who utterly loved Frances Ha, it took me a while to finally get around to this Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach collaboration. But when I did, there was nothing I wished more than being witness to the writing process of this acting/directing duo. The witticisms they make their characters express! The last stretch of the film, when Brooke, Tracy, and some of her friends invade a rich guy’s house with a business proposition, is absolutely genius and one of the funniest moments I’ve had at the movies all year.

K—BLADE RUNNER 2049

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Nobody does dejected misery better than Ryan Gosling. What he accomplishes as an android with dreams of a soul in Blade Runner 2049, however, stirs the heart so that the only appropriate response is silence, astonished at the sacrifice.

LOGAN—LOGAN

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Delivering the performance of a lifetime, Hugh Jackman is a wounded, depressed and alcoholic Wolverine in a film that’s almost uncomfortable to watch. The opening frame makes it clear that Logan does not want to be in this world anymore, and for the next two and a half hours he will slice, dice and cut up fools who want to help him get to his final destination quicker. Therein lies the tragedy of Logan: in its inability to see beyond the scars and blood, deep into the soul that is worthy of redemption.

NADINE—THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Sometimes we are the asshole. Far too often movies present the hero of the story, making us relate to the hero’s righteous indignation, in one shape or another. With Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), we are forced to relate to a person who’s not all that likable. Nadine is such a fantastic creation not because she is cruel and insensitive for meanness sake, but because she is so human. Her flaws and follies are the ones of all of us, and by seeing her we can confront ourselves with the question: “am I in the wrong here? Should I be the one asking for forgiveness, instead of demanding it?” It is no easy feat of course, but the movie makes clear that though the path to redeem oneself is tough, at least it’s there for everybody to embark on.

REY—STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) is what happens when writers are allowed to explore characters motivations and be bold with their behaviors. I did not care much for Rey when she was first introduced, seeing her as a bland Luke Skywalker rip-off. Now, however, she has truly come into her own, and it is exhilarating to watch. “You’ve got spunk”, somebody tells her in the movie. She does, and you wish more characters around her did too.

RICK BLAINE—CASABLANCA

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In a perfect world, men would be like Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Selfless and brave, he recognizes that his demons don’t amount to a hill of beans in this messed up world, and he lets the woman he loves fly away to a better world. In a perfect world, men would not be like Rick Blaine. Bitter and grieving over the loss of the only woman he has ever loved, he shacks up in Casablanca, sticking his neck up for nobody. Bogart perfectly encapsulates the duality of love, its heroic deeds and restless nights.

SOUTHEAST TEXAS CHEROKEES—EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

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I’ve never watched a single baseball game in my life, but this made me want to join a team. More than any other experience in 2017, the shenanigans of the Southeast Texas Cherokees are so damn fun its near impossible not to have a good time.

TERRY MALLOY—ON THE WATERFRONT

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Single handedly transforming acting forever, Marlon Brando is something to behold. Sure, there’s the “I could’ve been a contender” monologue, devastating and memorable, but Brando was such a gifted performer that even in the most mundane shots, like picking up a glove from the floor, he appears as if he is a god among mortals. By the time he enters the warehouse bruised, battered but victorious, Marlon Brando has become a legend.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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In the immediate aftermath of the release of The Force Awakens, I felt like the most ignorant movie watcher in all of God’s green kingdom. Critics, fans and audiences alike were in unison singing the movie praises, and for the life of me I could not understand why. Had I maybe seen a different version of it? Was I on some type of drugs that did not let me fully appreciate the nuances and subtleties of this new space opera?

Thankfully, time has put everything in its right place. Since then, there’s been countless of pieces written on the deceitful effects of nostalgia and how it tricked many a great writer, high on the exciting memories of their childhood, into calling The Force Awakens a great film, instead of the series of recycled, uninspired, nostalgia infested pop machine it truly is.

Needless to say, I  had my reservations going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Now, a day removed from the experience, and having already established myself as immune to Hollywood’s emotional manipulation of childhood memories as a means of storytelling, I can safely say that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a thoughtful, occasionally moving, ultimately epic blockbuster that is light years ahead of what came before it.

Gone are the insulting callbacks for callback’s sake, replaced by characters and motivations that feel organic and even necessary; gone too, are the beat by beat repetition of fan loved moments that, while temporarily pleasing, just weigh the picture down. Of course this being a Disney production the creators cannot stray too far away from the conventional, but even in this limited creativity vacuum director Rian Johnson, helmer of the fantastic and perceptive Looper, finds new and thrilling ways to excite us.

The result is a film that lives in the now, that feels immediate and therefore earns my emotions. And while being in the present might prove too problematic at times, the uncertainty of what’s to come eating away at you, I find it is much more fulfilling than looking back through the rose tinted glasses of our memories, where only the thrills, on which man alone cannot subside on, live.

A

The Lost City of Z

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Above all else The Lost City of Z is a testament to the tenacity of filmmaker James Gray. Here is a man that, had he been born half a century earlier, would no doubt possess the the prestige of the Elia Kazans and Ford Coppolas of Hollywood. His previous film, The Immigrant, is a masterpiece. It is a harrowing tale of survival in the New World, of the beauty of the perseverance of dreams, featuring a once in a lifetime performance by Marion Cotillard. Its haunting final shot, which I am sure remains one of the most powerful ones in motion picture history, is worth everything.

With The Lost City of Z, James Gray has positioned himself as an unparalleled talent in his field. This not only because again he wows the senses and inflames the emotions with another powerful final shot, but because he has crafted an intimate and sprawling historical epic, the type of movie which had gone the way of the dodo. I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, Barry Lyndon, at times. The lighting seems to be natural, and the sets appear lived in.

There’s a sequence taking place at a large hall, where British men argue about the worth and value of the South American native. It is illuminating and hilarious in equal measure, both pointing towards the respect James Gray has to his audience, since when was the last time you encountered such a series of scenes in a major motion picture?

There’s moments that take place in war trenches, in the bedroom, and in piranha infested waters, and they are all intimate, beautiful and exciting. I think it’s fair to say that the description applies to the film as a whole, as well.

A

Narc

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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+

Wind River

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On the surface, Taylor Sheridan’s American Frontier trilogy pits an unstoppable force versus an unmovable object. In Sicario, the feds scrambled to put an end to the cartels; in Hell or High Water, a pair of deep Texas brothers were holding out the bank branches that were responsible for taking away their land, and that of the rest of the territory; in Wind River, the most emotionally engaging of the three, a tracker hunts down the murderers who prey on the most weak and vulnerable.

Diving deeper into them, one encounters a trilogy that paints a dire portrayal of America, the one not featured in postcards and pop songs, the one that could very well be a million miles away from the metropolis that dictate the rules of the land. I already wrote at length on this after watching Hell or High Water, a picture that elucidates part of candidate Donald Trump’s massive voter appeal, so even though I am tempted to do so with Wind River and its depiction of snow and solitude encroaching upon the lives of Native Americans, I must refrain.

This leaves me with praising the film’s dreary atmosphere and its unrelenting suspense. Sheridan`s world is a lawless one, in which danger lurks around every corner. This only makes the Mexican standoff near the end of the movie one of the most pulse pounding sequences of its kind I can recall.
And of course, as mentioned above, it is the most emotionally involving.

The ending of Sicario is deeply cynical, and the one to Hell or High Water offers a small bit of satisfaction. Wind River is by far the saddest of the bunch, offering a view of life where the wicked triumph, where pleasures are few and small in between, and where justice may only truly be imparted if we take matters into our hands.

A-

City of God

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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+

Logan

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Superhero movies adapted from comic books have had such a tremendous impact on popular culture during the last decade that they’ve even received their own grading curve.
“Good by superhero movie standards”, or “terrible even by comic book adaptation standards” has become the de facto response to this kind of product. Whether this is harmful or beneficial to cinema as a whole is a topic that demands its own blog post (maybe when Wonder Woman opens?), so this entry will not approach Logan as another superhero comic book movie, but rather as simply another slice of cinema.

I note this disclaimer out of fear that I will be doing this movie a disservice by calling it the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight trilogy. A quick glance into the past reveals that in the intervening years there have not really been that many memorable movies of the kind, which would take away some credit from Logan.
So instead I will say that Logan is the most memorable film I have watched since Silence; it reminds me of the greatest television series I have ever watched, Spartacus: Blood and Sand; and features a performance by Hugh Jackman so magnificent that if I cared at all about awards, I would hope against hope he’d be nominated for something.

“That was not Wolverine”, a friend lamented upon exiting the cinema. “I hated the movie.”
“I hoped that character from the other movie showed up”, the other friend said. “That would have been cool”.

I kept quiet, pondering their words. How many people spend fifteen dollars hoping to see something cool on the big screen? Is that why superhero movies are so popular, since they feature a CGI infused extravaganza of explosions and shiny costumes? Why do so little people pay mind to the human element, and the pains and the joys of life on this earth?

Logan might be the story of a 200 year old mutant who cannot die, but his tale is agonizingly human. Hugh Jackman inflicts Logan with so much sorrow that a mere glance is enough to break your heart. I would say that Logan is a man battling his demons, but it would be a misreading of the film. Logan lost that conflict many years ago. What’s left is a man who is in constant agony every waking hour, considering death a welcome change to the life filled with regret and loss he’s led up until that point.

That the script for this was approved is some sort of miracle. Consider the scene in which Laura (Dafne Keen) is riding a mechanical horse, and Logan approaches to call her back to the car. She looks at him asking for one more ride, so Logan pulls out a quarter from his pocket and says “One final time okay?”, before inserting the coin into the mechanical box next to the contraption. Logan pulls away and Laura starts to ride again.
A moment like this, lasting about thirty seconds and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, becomes beautiful not only because it survived executives overseeing it making sure they made every penny back, but because it speaks volumes about the world we all inhabit. This is real life. A kid riding a mechanical horse; an old man lifted from his wheelchair and into a public toilet; a young man saying he will drop from college to go travel across the country.
Small, fleeting moments are what make up our lives, and small, fleeting moments are what Logan is incapable of grasping. He says the adamantium inside his system is slowly killing him, but that’s only partly true.
Logan has been dying since the day he let his sorrows overtake any glimmer of hope for a better future he might have had.

Again, Hugh Jackman delivers the performance of a lifetime. It will take me a while to get rid of the images of a bruised and battered Logan out of my head, his gaze lost somewhere where the camera cannot reach. Watching it in the dark in a packed room, I felt knots in my stomach, and I wondered if my neighbors felt the same. I wanted the movie to be over and go home imagining Logan living his remaining days somewhere happily ever after.

While not a perfect movie, mainly because the quasi generic bad guys keep reminding the audience that they are watching a Marvel adaptation every time they are on screen, it reminded me of the immense power cinema holds whenever a story is well told. It reminded me that even in the midst of all the deafening noise and chaos resounding that has been ruling our world for the past year, there is still room for the intimate, and that hope should not be given up on. But most of all, it reminded me that true heroes don’t wear capes after all.

B+

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.

A+

Life Itself

LIFE ITSELF - FINAL SUNDANCE POSTER-page-0015 years ago I sent an email to Roger Ebert and he wrote me back.
The questions included in my message were, looking back, painfully unsubstantial and nearly pointless, yet the man actually took time off and answered each and every one of them.
I still have the response printed in my room.

4 months before he passed away, I left a comment on one of his Journal entries. My writing was no longer pretentious and I was, by the mercy of God, past the point where I had lofty aspirations of being noticed by the wonder of my prose.
I simply wrote to him what was in my heart. I, like everybody else, wanted him to get better.
His 6 word reply to my message is one that I will always carry with me.
“I want to be like you”, Ebert wrote.

I nearly cried right there, and I cried the day after his leave of presence went up and his passing was in the news everywhere.
I have never cried and doubt I will ever again for the death of somebody I did not even know.
But I really do feel as if the power of his words and paragraphs was so that it did not matter if one read him on a computer screen thousands of miles away, or listened to him at a World Conference. It reached out and touched your soul, and even if limited, you still got to know him.

B