ONLINE EVENT: “Theodicy of Beauty” by Sarah Clarkson, March 6, 2:30 p.m. ET: “The question of suffering is one of the central, aching questions of faith. Too often, we meet suffering with an argument for God’s goodness, rather than an invitation to find and discover his goodness anew. Join me for an exploration of what it means to encounter and trust the beauty of God in our times of darkness, suffering, and pain. Drawing on my own story of mental illness and depression, I’ll explore what it means to engage with God’s goodness in a radically healing way, one that restores our capacity to imagine, hope, and create. We’ll use literature, art, and poetry to discern the ways that God arrives in our darkness to heal us, and also to restore us as agents of his loveliness in the midst of a broken world.”
This Crowdcast talk by Sarah Clarkson is based on her book This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness. Registration is $7 and includes a complimentary downloadable copy of “Encountering Beauty,” an arts-based reader’s guide to Clarkson’s book. I have appreciated her From the Vicarage: Books, Beauty, Theology newsletter and her wise, gentle reflections on spirituality, literature, and motherhood on Instagram @sarahwanders, so I’m looking forward to hearing from her on this topic!
LECTURES (available on podcast platforms):
>> “The Loving Look” by Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt: In this keynote address for the 2018 Beautiful Orthodoxy conference, art historian Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt [previously], author of Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art, discusses how contemporary art—the type of art we typically want to look away from—can drive us to confession, empathy, and love. Sharing her encounters with three contemporary artworks, she talks about art as a place where we can experience sanctification and common grace; how the Incarnation further invested our material world with significance; art as an invitation to embodied knowledge; art as part of how we order and understand our physical world; artworks as mirrors and shapers of culture; and how viewers, not just artists, are called to faithfulness.
She cites Esther Lightcap Meek’s Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology, in which Meek says that all acts of coming to know are integrative; they become part of us. Knowledge is an act of covenantal care, Meek says. We don’t know in order to love; we love in order to know. Weichbrodt says, “For me, contemporary art—particularly art made by artists grappling with histories and experiences that have remained largely unseen, unknown, and unloved by the dominant culture—has served as a catalyst for faithful knowing.”
>> “The Arts as a Means to Love” by Dr. Mary McCampbell: In this lecture given for English L’Abri, Mary McCampbell [previously], an associate professor of humanities at Lee University, discusses some of the ideas from her book Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy. I appreciate how her writing and teaching embraces the arts of film and television alongside literature, such that not only are works like The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, and Beloved by Toni Morrison explored, but so are, for example, the comedy-drama Lars and the Real Girl and the drama series Better Call Saul. Discrediting the recent odd assertion from a prominent evangelical corner that empathy is a sin, McCampbell affirms that empathy is, on the contrary, an essential Christian virtue, and one that the narrative arts are adept at forming in us, exposing us to people and stories outside our realms of experience and helping us recognize the image of God in unlikely places.
EXHIBITION REVIEW: “Mourning and Perseverance Stitched into South African Tapestries” by Alexandra M. Thomas: Through March 24 at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, you can see Umaf’evuka, nje ngenyanga, dying and rising, as the moon does, a major retrospective of the work of the Keiskamma Art Project. Founded in 2000, the project archives the collective memory and oral histories of the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa through textile artworks, mainly by Xhosa women. Monumental and small-scale works tell stories of trauma, grief, hope, faith, resilience, and celebration. One of my favorite art research projects has been the one I did on the Isenheim-inspired Keiskamma Altarpiece in 2015, which resulted in the article “Sewing seeds of hope in South Africa”; this altarpiece is one of the many works on display. Let me call out just two others. The photos are from the current exhibition.
Keiskamma Guernica, after Picasso’s famous antiwar painting, laments the limited access to HIV treatment in rural South Africa in the 2000s and the negligence of government hospitals, which resulted in many HIV/AIDS deaths. The piece repurposes the blankets and clothes of the deceased and serves as an expression of outrage as well as a form of commemoration. Creation Altarpiece, modeled loosely after the Ghent Altarpiece, exults in the region’s abundant wildlife and natural resources and in life-giving initiatives like Hamburg’s music education program, its capoeira group (a dance-like martial art), and the memory boxes made by orphaned children to remember their parents. The three top central panels depict a fig tree eating up an old hotel built by colonialists (a real-life scene observed in the nearby village of Bell!), and the bottom three show villagers of all kinds gathering around Christ, represented as a bull (whereas lambs were commonly sacrificed in ancient Israelite religion, traditional Xhosa religion calls for bull sacrifices).
SONG: “Kyrie” by Ngwa Roland:Ngwa Roland is a composer and the director of De Angelis Capella [previously], a Catholic choir from Yaoundé, Cameroon. Here is his choral setting of the Kyrie eleison (Greek for “Lord, have mercy”), an important Christian prayer used in liturgies around the world.
>> “To One Kneeling Down No Word Came” by Jonathan Chan, Yale Logos:Jonathan Chan is a Singapore-based poet and essayist who graduated with a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Yale in 2022. In this personal essay he reflects on the poetry of R. S. Thomas, a twentieth-century Anglican priest from Wales, particularly as it relates to the toil of prayer—prayer as a discipline requiring persistence and solitude. Thomas’s poems often express a sense of alienation from God, which is not what we might expect from a pastor, but, as Chan remarks, “God’s absence cultivates a desire for God’s presence.”
>> “Stabat Mater: How a 13th Century Lament Resonates Today” by Josh Rodriguez, Forefront: Back in July 2020, composer Josh Rodriguez [previously here and here] published this article on four modern settings of one of the most celebrated Latin hymns of all time, the twenty-stanza Stabat Mater Dolorosa (lit. “The sorrowful mother was standing”), about Mary mourning the death of her son Jesus. Written in the Middle Ages, it continues to inspire composers today, and it remains “a powerful vehicle for ‘grieving with those who grieve,’” Rodriguez writes. He spotlights the settings by James Macmillan, Julia Perry, Hawar Tawfiq, and Paul Mealor, analyzing some of the musical elements of each and quoting the composers in regards to the piece’s meaning to them.
11. After Yang, dir. Kogonada. Set in the near future, After Yang is a patiently minimalist, transcendent film about learning to treasure those moments of mundane beauty that make up our lives. When Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopt their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) from China, they purchase a preowned “technosapien,” a humanoid robot, named Yang (Justin H. Ming) to educate her about her cultural roots and to be an older sibling to her. But one day Yang malfunctions and shuts down, and Mika is devastated.
When Yang is opened up at the repair shop to be diagnosed, Jake discovers Yang’s memory bank, where Yang stored all the memories he thought important. He unlocks it. By viewing the world, especially his family life, as processed by Yang, Jake realizes he has failed to engage meaningfully with the small daily gifts he has been given. He also becomes aware of more of Yang’s history—of his previous families and loves.
Streaming on Showtime.
12. Petite Maman, dir. Céline Sciamma. In this poignant French drama, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) accompanies her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) on a trip to clear out her mother’s childhood home following her grandmother’s death. As she explores the nearby woods, she meets a neighbor girl her own age (Gabrielle Sanz), and the two strike up a bond. There’s a fantasy element I won’t reveal—it’s better to let the movie unfold it for you—but suffice it to say, I love the imaginative way that writer-director Céline Sciamma tells this mother-daughter tale of grief and loss.
Streaming on Hulu.
13. The Wonder, dir. Sebastián Lelio. Inspired by the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the “fasting girls” and based on Emma Donoghue’s celebrated novel of the same name, this psychological drama is set in a rural Irish Catholic community in 1862. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) has allegedly not eaten anything for four months but has been miraculously sustained by “manna from heaven.” As pilgrims begin flocking to witness the miracle and rumors swirl about possible sainthood, a council of local dignitaries initiates an investigation to determine whether Anna’s survival without food is indeed a holy feat, or a hoax perpetrated by Anna and her family.
The council hires Lib Wright (Florence Pugh)—a scientifically minded English nurse—and a nun to independently observe Anna over two weeks in alternating eight-hour shifts and to report back. Lib grows increasingly concerned for Anna’s health and safety, and when Anna reveals to her the reason for her fast, she knows she must act drastically.
Streaming on Netflix.
14. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Adventure, dir. Richard Linklater.Apollo 10½ is writer-director Richard Linklater’s nostalgic homage to growing up in a Houston suburb in the 1960s, the youngest of six. This was during the Space Race, and Linklater uses that context to interweave real childhood memories with his childhood fantasy of being an astronaut. So in a tongue-in-cheek revision of history, he has NASA recruit fourth-grader Stan (Milo Coy) to fly a secret mission to the moon to test out a landing module shortly before Apollo 11 goes up. The film uses an animation technique known as rotoscoping, which layers animation over live performances.
While I can appreciate the blend of dream and reality, I was much more interested in the real-life portions of the movie, which are substantial, than the revisionist space stuff. Playing kickball on the school blacktop, getting disciplined, eating Frito pies at the pool, watching cheesy TV shows with family, listening to the Monkees and the Archies and the 5th Dimension, riding to the beach in the bed of a pickup truck, braving the Black Dragon at AstroWorld, fighting Roman candle wars in the backyard on New Year’s Eve, competing in Little League, stealing plywood from home construction sites with his cheapskate father, listening to Grandma’s conspiracy theories—ordinary memories like these are narrated with such fondness by adult Stan (voiced by Jack Black) and so meticulously rendered, and it’s here where the movie really shines. If you like The Wonder Years, you’ll like this.
Streaming on Netflix.
15. Decision to Leave, dir. Park Chan-wook. A slow-burn crime drama with a heavy dose of romance, this film follows the married police detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), who, when investigating the death of a mountain-climber, becomes infatuated with the prime murder suspect, the climber’s widow, Seo-rae (Wei Tang). In an interview, the director said his goal was “to make a love story that does not say the words, ‘I love you.’” The film is all about what’s not said, what’s observed. For much of the movie we question whether Seo-rae is manipulating Hae-joon or is actually falling for him too.
I have to admit, I didn’t like either of the characters; I struggled to understand them or to be invested in their “love” story, which to me seems more like simply lust or intrigue. Seo-rae’s inscrutability is, I think, part of the point; she is a mystery to be solved, as much as the murders happening around her. And attraction is rarely rational, I suppose. (But c’mon, Hae-joon, you’ve got a loving wife back home!) Despite my failure to connect with it on all levels, this is a beautifully shot, craftily edited, engrossing film with a sustained, understated sensuality that is to be commended.
Streaming on MUBI.
16. God’s Creatures, dir. Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. Aileen (Emily Watson) works as a shift manager at a seafood processing plant, alongside most of the other local women, in a remote Irish fishing village. When one of her coworkers, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), files a rape claim against her son, Brian (Paul Mescal), Aileen fabricates an alibi to protect him. Is she incredulous that he could be capable of sexual assault, or is her denial more sinister? Atmospheric and tense, the film centers on Aileen’s psychological grappling with the limits of maternal love and her duty to what’s right and just.
17. Elvis, dir. Baz Luhrmann. Frenetic and flashy, this music biopic traces the meteoric rise and fall of rock and roll’s biggest legend, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). The story is narrated by Elvis’s exploitative manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), and examines their complex, twenty-plus-year relationship. Butler is amazing in the role, embodying Elvis’s energy and sex appeal while also showing his emotional vulnerability.
I appreciate how the movie shows the influence of Black artists on Elvis’s music, even dispelling the myth that he was the founder of rock and roll—a credit that he himself, in multiple interviews, rejected, instead crediting his Black predecessors. Elvis grew up in a Black neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, and when he moved to Memphis as a teenager, he frequented Beale Street, a hub for African American culture. From these environments he absorbed the sounds of Pentecostal gospel and rhythm and blues.
Elvis features stunning performances by historical Black characters. An early scene intercuts bluesman Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) performing his original song “That’s All Right” in a juke joint—which would become Elvis’s first single—with “I’ll Fly Away” sung by a Black congregation at a tent revival; preteen Elvis observes one through a hole in the wall and participates, Spirit-caught, in the other. As a young aspiring recording artist, prior to mounting the Louisiana Hayride stage, his first big premiere, he pumps himself up by singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
Later, Elvis hears Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) perform the raunchy “Hound Dog” (written for her by a Jewish songwriting duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) in a bar on Beale Street, which is then sampled and interpolated in a song by Doja Cat commissioned for the movie. At Club Handy, Elvis hangs out with his friend B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and is blown away by the vitality and genius of the young Little Richard (Alton Mason), who performs his original and then-unknown “Tutti Frutti” for the crowd; the conversation Elvis has about it with King, and what King says and doesn’t say, speaks volumes. As people shuffle out for the night, the pioneering rock singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) sings “Working on the Building” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”
All these and more were part of Elvis’s music education. They came before. His use of Black source material has always been controversial, deemed “cultural appropriation” (i.e., theft) by some. He profited greatly from the creative contributions of Black women and men, many of whom failed to attain proper recognition and compensation for their work. They lacked the platform and the acceptance across racial lines, whereas Elvis’s whiteness opened doors for him. And so he brought rock and roll—developed in Black churches, juke joints, streets, and nightclubs—to the masses. For sure, he added his own stamp, synthesized it with other influences, and was a majorly talented performer in his own right. Elvis celebrates the title character’s inventiveness but also recognizes his indebtedness to Black musicians. It’s not a central concern of the movie, but it is present. More central is, as one might expect of the genre, the toll of fame.
Streaming on HBO Max.
18. Nope, dir. Jordan Peele. In this neo-western sci-fi thriller, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Em (Keke Palmer), own a family ranch in California, where they train and handle horses for television and film productions. But their business is struggling, and to keep it afloat they sell some horses to Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who operates a nearby theme park that capitalizes on his surviving an infamous violent attack on the set of a nineties sitcom. (Best opening scene of the year?) Then their ranch becomes a site of abduction—a UFO takes some of their horses. They attempt to capture video evidence with the help of tech salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). The film’s epigraph is a quotation of Nahum 3:6, a pronouncement of divine judgment: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”
Nope is not as concise as Peele’s other two films, Get Out and Us; I couldn’t follow all the threads. But surely a major thread is an indictment of our voracious need for spectacle. Another is the traumas that the film industry can inflict on people. Another, or maybe a subset of the previous, is the erasure of Black cowboys from our stories of the American West. Nope pokes and prods at these issues and raises questions rather than providing answers. For example, there’s a tension here between the magic of spectacle and its insidiousness. Peele participates in what he condemns. As film critic Thomas Flight articulates, “Nope is a spectacular horror film about the danger of spectacle. It’s a big-budget Hollywood film that critiques the Hollywood industry. It’s not a movie that can draw a clear resolution to those dualities. Instead, it’s a film that explores the queasiness that arises when we’re not sure if something’s good or bad but we find ourselves in the midst of it.”
Entertaining; suspenseful; riveting sound design by Johnnie Burn; and an infectious performance by Palmer as the charismatic Emerald, her live-wire personality a perfect foil to the taciturn OJ’s.
19. Cha Cha Real Smooth, dir. Cooper Raiff. Andrew (Cooper Raiff), a Gen Zer, is a recent college grad who lives with his mom, stepdad, and younger brother and works as a party starter at bar mitzvahs. At one he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who has autism, and strikes up a friendship. This movie is sweet and maybe slight, and it takes a few missteps, but I enjoyed it a lot.
I find Raiff’s onscreen persona—essentially the same one he adopted in his debut feature, which I also really liked—charming, though I know others find it insufferable! Andrew is vulnerable, quippy, awkward, real. He loves his mom. He cries openly. He lacks direction. He seeks connection. He’s trying to figure life out, and growth comes slowly. He’s someone I recognize and have empathy for.
Streaming on Apple TV+.
20.Causeway, dir. Lila Neugebauer. This quiet drama follows the physical and emotional recovery of Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), a US military veteran who returns home to New Orleans after suffering a traumatic brain injury serving in Afghanistan. In the process, she develops a friendship with her auto mechanic, James (Brian Tyree Henry), who bears his own wounds from a tragic event—some visible, some not. The two help each other work through the lingering effects of their traumas and move closer to wholeness. Their gentle, easy vibe with one another is really beautiful to witness.
Since 2020, I have been publishing an annual list of my top twenty films of the year, with trailers and microreviews. (See my lists for 2020 and 2021.) I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking, the coming together of so many talents—writing, acting, directing, shooting, editing, set design, costume design, etc.—to tell a story through moving images. Movies are actually my favorite mode of storytelling. It’s a shame that in some circles they’re denigrated as inferior to novels, less worthy of our time. That’s absolutely not true!
Moviegoing can be transformative. Like other art forms, movies reflect back to us the many aspects of the human (and in the case of my #5, animal!) experience, and can demand something of us.
Here are the first ten of my twenty recommendations for films to see that were released in the United States (though several were made internationally) in 2022, ranked in order of preference. Please be aware that many of these have R ratings and that you can consult content advisories if that concerns you.
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once, dir. Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). Bighearted and bizarre, this comedy sci-fi action adventure is about a first-generation Chinese American woman, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), who’s trying to hold it all together as her laundromat business is failing and her relationships are fraying, especially with her twenty-something daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), whom she just doesn’t “get.” Then one day, out of nowhere, Evelyn is enlisted by a version of her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), to stop the evil Jobu Tupaki, a version of Joy, from destroying the multiverse. As Evelyn travels to alternate universes, she’s able to access skills and emotions her alt-selves possess and bring them back with her to help her fight.
Absurdity ensues. In one universe, Evelyn has hotdogs for fingers, and so becomes adept at using her feet; in one she’s a rock overlooking a canyon; in another, a teppanyaki chef whose colleague is controlled by a raccoon under his hat; in yet another, she’s a martial arts–trained movie star who never left China. She “verse jumps” from one to the other seeking to save her daughter from the vortex of despair into which she’s trying to suck everyone and everything, and all the while Joy is trying to find a version of her mother whom she can connect with, who can understand the emptiness in her.
The directors said the film is about a family trying to find each other through the chaos. At its core, it’s a family drama—one that explodes across the multiverse. It’s also about choosing kindness and joy (symbolized by a googly eye) and moving toward one another in empathy. It’s much louder and more outrageous than all my other picks, and I could have done without the scatological humor, but I found myself enthralled by the wild, disorienting ride that lands at a really tender place. Michelle Yeoh proves her versatility as an actor, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra, is hilarious.
Streaming on Showtime.
2. The Banshees of Inisherin, dir. Martin McDonagh. Set in 1923 during the Irish Civil War on a fictional island off Ireland’s west coast, this dark comedy begins when Colm (Brendan Gleeson) tells his lifelong bestie, Pádraic (Colin Farrell), that he no longer wants to be friends. Colm is a fiddler and composer who wants to establish a legacy, a musical output that will live on—a goal that Pádraic is impeding by distracting him with daily hours of dull conversation, he says—whereas Pádraic says he merely wants to be known for “being nice.” Baffled by his friend’s abrupt severing of their relationship, Pádraic repeatedly pursues understanding and restoration, escalating the tension toward acts of violence. Male friendship and loneliness, melancholy, and mortality are key themes in this artful buddy-breakup movie that had me laughing out loud as well as tearing up.
Streaming on HBO Max.
3. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, dir. Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson. Light overcomes the darkness in this stop-motion animated musical adaptation of the classic Italian children’s novel from 1883. It was written and codirected by Guillermo del Toro, a master of magical realism, and has been in development since 2008. When his young son dies, the carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) carves a boy puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), to fill the hole left by this profound loss. In an act of compassion, the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) brings Pinocchio to life and commissions Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan MacGregor), an itinerant writer, to look out for him. Curious and unruly, Pinocchio ends up trapped in a circus by an abusive showman. He and his father spend much of the film trying to reunite, to be family to each other.
These story points will sound familiar to most, but del Toro cleverly adapts them and adds new ones, setting the story in a Tuscan village during the rise of Mussolini in the 1930s, with one of the main villains being a Fascist podestà who’s trying to recruit Pinocchio into the army. It turns out it is the villagers who blindly subscribe to Il Duce’s propaganda who are the puppets, whereas Pinocchio, with his irrepressibility, is decidedly unpuppetlike. Thus the film explores contexts in which disobedience can be a virtue. Del Toro also places more emphasis on Geppetto’s growth than Pinocchio’s, making the story about Geppetto becoming a real father—learning to accept Pinocchio with all his quirks and difference, not making his love contingent on Pinocchio fulfilling his image of the perfect son—rather than Pinocchio becoming a real boy.
The artistry of this film is dazzling! I was blown away by the production design by Guy Davis and Curt Enderle (they designed the locations and characters and established the whole visual style), especially the evocation of interwar Italian life and culture, with the centrality of the church. I’m also dazzled by the puppets—shout-out to Georgina Haynes, the director of character fabrication—because remember, with stop-motion animation, all the characters are handmade, physical creations existing in three-dimensional space, not computer-made or drawn on a page; all but the “wooden” Pinocchio (made from 3D-printed hard plastic) consist of a manipulable silicone skin sitting over a mechanized system.
Streaming on Netflix.
4. Aftersun, dir. Charlotte Wells. Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on vacation with her single dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), in Turkey. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but he’s trying to create a memorable holiday for her. And despite its mundanity, it is memorable—the frame story is adult Sophie replaying its moments on tape and in her mind. Aftersun is a very personal project for first-time writer-director Charlotte Wells, who draws on her own history and relationship with her father; she says she wants people to be able to feel the warmth of these memories, even though they’re tinged with sadness. Though it’s never spelled out, it appears that Calum suffers from depression, and we gradually see more and more of his pain. The lack of exposition enables us to make our own inferences about it and about the ending. The “Under Pressure” dance sequence, which intercuts a frantic, stroboscopic nightclub scene where adult Sophie searches the floor for Calum with one of young Sophie and Calum dancing lovingly outside the hotel, safe in each other’s arms, is a contender for scene of the year—a metaphoric conveyance of mental health decline, of holding on and letting go.
5. EO, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski. Who would have thought a donkey’s inner life could be so captivating to watch onscreen? His memories, his imagination, his hopes, his fears, the affection he feels and longs for, his joys and sorrows. EO follows the life journey of the titular donkey as he passes from owner to owner, some of them kind, others cruel. He starts out at a circus in Poland, where he’s tenderly cared for by the young performer Magda (Sandra Drzymalska). But he’s seized by animal rights activists and ends up at a horse sanctuary, and from there he moves to a petting farm for children with disabilities. He escapes, looking for Magda, and spends a harrowing night alone in the forest. Chancing upon a soccer game the next day, he becomes a mascot for a time, a figure of great adulation but also vitriol by the opposing team. His next job is as a beast of burden at a fur farm, where he’s made to carry fox pelts, and then he’s acquired by an Italian priest.
There’s very little dialogue in the film, and there are no voiceovers to convey EO’s thoughts or emotions, which we infer by context. The cinematography, from close-up shots of EO’s dark, expressive eyes to wide shots of varied landscapes, is gorgeous—visual poetry. EO is an indictment of human violence and a call to empathy for animals. Dare I say I liked it better than the Bresson classic (Au hasard Balthazar) that inspired it? Unlike its predecessor, it stays entirely focused on the donkey’s perspective, with humans relegated to the periphery.
6. Hit the Road, dir. Panah Panahi. A road-trip dramedy from Iran, this debut feature by Panah Panahi follows a family of four as they drive across the Iranian countryside under the pretext of a wedding. Dad (Mohammad Hassan Madjooni), who wears a leg cast, sits in the back with the young, ball-of-fire son (Rayan Sarlak) and sick dog, while Mom (Pantea Panahiha) and the quiet older son (Amin Simiar) take turns at the wheel, sometimes evincing their worry. There’s something clandestine about this journey, and over the course of the film we learn more but not much. But even with the imminent separation hanging like a cloud, there’s a lightness and a sweetness that’s so endearing as we watch the characters bicker and goof around and connect with one another. Films that can hold together the weighty and the comical, like this one, tend to be the ones I enjoy most.
Streaming on Showtime.
7. TÁR, dir. Todd Field. Set in the classical music world, this drama explores the corrupting nature of power through the (fictional) character of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), an award-winning conductor, composer, educator, and author. It’s an intense and brilliant performance of a complex character who is amazing at her craft but who also uses her status to manipulate others, including the young female cellist who has just joined her orchestra, the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. The tension rachets up as they prepare to perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and rumors about Lydia’s connection to the death of one of her former protégés threaten to undo her.
8. Broker, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda. Found families is a key theme in the oeuvre of the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Shoplifters (2019) is one of my all-time favorite films. His latest, Broker, is set in South Korea. Seeking to place her newborn son, Woo-sung, in the care of a family better equipped to raise him, the young single mom So-young (Ji-eun Lee) leaves him outside a church, where he is intercepted by Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang), who attempt to sell him on the adoption black market. The next day she returns with doubts and demands to be included in the process of finding a home for Woo-sung. So she follows the two brokers in responding to the calls of prospective buyers, and along the way they pick up a stowaway from an orphanage, the ebullient Hae-jin (Seung-soo Im), the character that really brought it all together for me.
As they drive from city to city, the five travelers bond with one another, each of them carrying their own forms of rejection trauma and seeking love and belonging. The last night they spend together . . . wow! Koreeda is a deft handler of sentiment, never maudlin but rather inserting understated emotional moments in all the right places (another example: the flower on the wet car window scene). He tackles heavy subject matter and complex social issues with heart, always keeping his characters at the center and allowing for reprieves of warmth and brightness. He avoids simplistic endings but also unnecessarily bleak ones, taking a vantage point of hope.
9. The Fabelmans, dir. Steven Spielberg. This coming-of-age drama is a fictionalized telling of Steven Spielberg’s upbringing in a midcentury Jewish American household and, since seeing his first movie in a theater at age six, his developing passion for cinema. Spielberg’s stand-in is Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle). In many ways The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s love letter to his artistic and free-spirited mother, named Mitzi in the movie and played by Michelle Williams, who from the get-go fully supports Sammy’s dream to become a filmmaker, unlike his much more practical father, Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, who doesn’t initially see filmmaking as a worthy pursuit.
I wondered if The Fabelmans was going to be a self-indulgent homage to Spielberg’s successful career, full of Easter eggs to his other films, but it wasn’t that at all. The story stands on its own apart from its basis in the particularities of Spielberg’s life. It’s about vocation and family and the power of films to help us see the truth. That it’s also a semiautobiographical portrait of a director whose films I grew up on (E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park) and continue to admire is an added bonus!
10. Nanny, dir. Nikyatu Jusu. Marked by menace and mystery, this psychological horror-drama centers on Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant to New York City hired by an affluent couple to care for their daughter. Aisha is haunted by the absence of her six-year-old son, whom she left under the care of a cousin in Senegal so that she could earn money to bring him to the US. But that goal becomes difficult when her employers start withholding her wages. As she navigates the oppressive situation she finds herself in, she is visited by figures from West African folklore: Mami Wata (a mermaid-like water spirit) and Anansi (a trickster spider). They seem like malevolent forces, but her boyfriend’s grandmother encourages her to reframe her thinking and to ask what the spirits want not from her but for her. Could they be haunting her to help guide her toward a new and better life?
The film deals with class, race, exploitation, resistance, survival, motherhood, and guilt—all parts of Aisha’s immigrant experience. Despite the too-quick resolution that follows, the scene at the end of Aisha being reborn out of chaos is visually and emotionally compelling. I appreciate how writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, born in the US to Sierra Leonean parents, uses supernatural horror tropes in unique and subversive ways.
Many Catholics and Orthodox decry that Protestants really only ever talk about Mary during Christmas. While she does get some extra attention here on the blog in December, I also try to talk about her throughout the year, from the feasts of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Visitation (May 31) to her witness during Holy Week and Pentecost and her being such an important figure in Jesus’s life and exemplary for our own. Here’s a new Marian roundup, plus at the bottom a Christmas gift idea involving a product I helped create. 🙂
>> “Wondrous” by Paul Simpson Duke, Seeing the Sacred: In 2019, the Rev. Drs. Paul and Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastors of First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ran an Annunciation art series on their blog, meditating on one artwork on the subject per day for twenty-five days. I commend the whole series, but I was particularly compelled by Day 13, which centers on a terracotta sculpture made by the late Kenyan artist Rosemary Namuli Karuga when she was a student at Makerere College Art School in Uganda. Paul Duke considers especially the mixture of sorrow and awe expressed in the figure’s face.
>> “Pregnant with God” by Victoria Emily Jones, ArtWay: For the first Sunday of Advent, I wrote about the painting Blue Madonna by Scottish Catholic artist Michael Felix Gilfedder, which shows the Christ child developing inside Mary’s womb. Pregnancy has always been an image I’ve carried with me during Advent, as it embodies the expectancy characteristic of the season—the growth of new life, a hidden fullness, about to come forth.
PODCAST EPISODES: Both of the following come from For the Life of the World, the podcast of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Released back-to-back last December.
>> “Mary Theotokos: Her Bright Sorrow, Her Suffering Faith, and Her Compassion” with Frederica Mathewes-Green:Frederica Mathewes-Green is an American author and speaker, chiefly on topics related to Eastern Orthodox belief and practice. Here she discusses the Orthodox reverence for Mary; the scriptural account of her life; Mary as the mother of us all; the Protevangelium of James, which provides legendary material about Mary’s upbringing and betrothal; the ancient prayer “Sub tuum praesidium” (“Under Your Compassion”) from 250 CE, the earliest known appearance of the title “Theotokos”; and Mary’s role as intercessor. The latter point is something that Protestants like me are wary of—praying through saints who have passed on is not something I practice—but the way Mathewes-Green explains it is, just as we would ask fellow believers on earth to pray for us, why shouldn’t we also ask our friends in heaven to do the same, if we truly believe that they are alive and that we are in communion with them (as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed)?
Besides explicating several Marian doctrines, Mathewes-Green also speaks of Mary as an ordinary human being with an extraordinary call. With tenderness, she considers Mary’s experiences and emotions at different life stages: first as a perplexed young woman who is taken aback by Gabriel’s announcement but ultimately responds with humility and magnanimity, then as a parent who raises a child and later witnesses his violent death.
>> “A Womb More Spacious Than Stars: How Mary’s Beauty and Presence Upends the Patriarchy and Stabilizes Christian Spirituality” with Matthew J. Milliner: Matthew Milliner, an art history professor at Wheaton College and the author of Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon, is a Protestant who wants to see other Protestants embrace a more robust doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” and develop a keener sense of her ecclesial presence. In this hour-long conversation he discusses Mary as person and as symbol; the need for “hermeneutical adventurousness anchored in the revelation of God in Christ”; how icons work, and particularly how Marian icons are spiritually formative; how to read a Nativity icon; the feminist objection to Mary; how Mary upends the ancient pagan goddess culture; and how we all must be Marian if we are to be orthodox Christians.
VIDEO: “Magnificat” by SALT Project: This short film features a reading of the Magnificat in Spanish, its words fleshed out in contemporary images. For the same video but in English, see here.
ARTICLE: “The Political Is Personal: Mary as a Parent and Prophet of Righteousness” by Erin Dufault-Hunter, Fuller Magazine: What does the New Testament mean by “righteousness” (dikē)? Is it personal piety, or social justice? This article by Christian ethics professor Erin Dufault-Hunter examines how Mary upholds both connotations of the word. “Perhaps more than anyone else, Mary displays for us how saying yes to the kingdom, and its unlikely king, necessarily involves the personal but also reorients our social and political allegiances,” Dufault-Hunter writes. “Intimacy with God necessarily entails a political orientation, bringing or solidifying a way of seeing power and position.” Debunking the claim that Jesus’s coming was not political, Dufault-Hunter considers Mary’s Magnificat as well as other elements of the Christmas story—like the title “Son of God,” the word “gospel,” and the angels’ potentially treasonous news to the shepherds—showing how the good news of Christ is both personal and political.
The Daily Prayer Project is running a special Christmas gift offer that, for $50, includes a physical and digital copy of our hot-off-the-press Christmas–Epiphany prayer periodical (covering December 25 through February 21) and two hand-thrown, dishwasher-safe mugs with a raised medallion of our labyrinth-inspired logo and glazes that map onto our morning and evening prayer colors. Packages ship early next week, so get your order in soon! There are also yearly subscription options, individual or communal, on the website.
In addition to working as a copyeditor and proofreader for the DPP, I also curate the art for the Gallery section, which is expanded in this edition to eight pieces—in this case, Nativities from around the world, each accompanied by a short reflection. The cover image is Morning Star by the Japanese Christian artist Hiroshi Tabata (1929–2014).
Artist Xomatok translates the vibrant, geometric motifs of handwoven Andean blankets, or llicllas, into large-scale works that mark the pathways through the hilly Alisos de Amauta neighborhood in Lima, Peru. Painted during the course of two months as part of the Municipality of Lima’s Pinta Lima Bicentenario, the 13 interventions were a collaborative undertaking by the artist and local residents, who transformed the public staircases that wind through the district into multi-level canvases. The resulting patterns are kaleidoscopic and highlight a spectrum of bright colors and symmetries often associated with the traditional textiles.
The following video clip is the opening sequence of the 1973 film adaptation of the stage musical Godspell, which stars David Haskell as John the Baptist:
So. much. joy!
The ram’s horn issues its call. Ballet dancer, student, struggling actress, waitress, cab driver, businessman, businesswoman, parking attendant—they all leave their jobs, casting off their workplace trappings to accept John’s invitation to new and abundant life. They meet him at The Angel of the Waters, a sculpted fountain in New York City’s Central Park. They throw themselves into the fountain like children, receiving their baptism, their initiation into the upside-down kingdom of God.
But John notices Jesus standing at a distance, stripped down and ready for his own baptism. John’s lighthearted visage turns heavy for a moment in recognition that Jesus’s baptism is into suffering and death.
I wrote about Godspell two years ago when I featured one of its songs, “Turn Back, O Man,” to go along with a lectionary reading from Ezekiel. The musical is wacky, with the ragtag disciples forming a comic troupe to act out Jesus’s parables and teachings from the Gospel of Matthew. Some Christians find it all too silly and irreverent. Others, like me, see it as capturing an important element of the Good News, which is joy. This is what Godspell’s creator, John-Michael Tebelak, wanted to get across.
Perhaps the festive tone of the opening number seems disjunctive with what we know of John from the Gospels—a desert ascetic who preached about vipers and axes and fire and winnowing forks, warning his hearers of the wrath to come. Point taken.
However, while his message is a sobering one, repentance need not be a dour affair. We must take honest stock of our sins, yes, laying them out in confession before God, but scripture assures us many times over of God’s pardon, and that’s something to rejoice in! There is a joy to repentance and to following the way of Christ. Turning off the death-road, onto the road of life. As we unload the burdens that have accrued on our backs, we are freed to walk upright once again.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” John cries out on the riverbank.
I’d encourage you to read that not as a threat but as an invitation. The kingdom of heaven is marked by grace and possibility. It’s a pearl, it’s a seed, it’s a feast. When we embrace the gospel, our cities become a playground where we enact the values of Christ, childlike as they be, preparing the world to receive her coming King.
SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS by Lara Downes (with commentary!):
>> Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist (2021): Award-winning pianist and NPR radio host Lara Downes curated an excellent Spotify playlist for Juneteenth last year—a mix of jazz, classical, and soul. It is full of wonderful surprises, introducing me to the work of several African American composers, new and old, such as Wynton Marsalis’s The Democracy! Suite for jazz ensemble; a symphony by William Grant Still titled “Song of a New Race”; “Adoration” by Florence Price (originally written for organ but arranged here for violin and piano); “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork; and “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Jeff Scott, a French hornist who performs “urban classical chamber music.”
There are also several well-known names—Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and more recent popular artists like Jon Batiste and Rhiannon Giddens. Batiste’s arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” is gorgeous, and the music video—wow (see below). It features a group of Black nuns having fun around London—picnicking on a park bench, traversing monkey bars, sharing Jesus with passersby, eating cotton candy, riding bumper cars. It captures the tone of the song perfectly.
From Downes’s list I also really like the blues song “I Knew I Could Fly” by Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, excerpted in the following featurette. It’s from the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which sheds light on African American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope.
Be sure to read the NPR article that introduces the playlist. Downes calls out nine of the musical selections with blurbs that provide some background, and throughout there is a smattering of historical photographs of Black flourishing in and around Washington, DC, from 1904 onward, taken by the Black-owned Scurlock Studio.
>> Songs to Believe In: A Juneteenth Playlist (2022): As I was formatting this post I realized that Downes just published a brand-new playlist for Juneteenth 2022. I haven’t had time to listen yet, but it looks awesome. “I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long in coming,” she writes. “Music that counters the shrieking dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, that offers us comfort in our sorrow and sustenance in our struggle. Songs that ground us with the steadiness of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope and faith and even joy, urging us to stand and fight another day, reminding us that what we are celebrating on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the hardest of times.”
YOUTUBE PLAYLIST: Juneteenth Playlist by Victoria Emily Jones. Nineteen songs of freedom and faith—gospel, pop, funk, R&B, and spirituals. I wanted to choose all live performances or music videos so that there’s a visual element to engage.
One of the songs is “Clap Praise” by Diane White-Clayton, performed by Selah Gospel Choir. It’s a setting of Psalm 47, which opens, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
Dr. Diane White-Clayton is a composer, conductor, pianist, and lecturer in ethnomusicology specializing in Black sacred music. I love the exuberance and all the body percussion in this widely performed piece of hers. I learned about Selah Gospel Choir through Bridge Projects, an art gallery in Los Angeles where they recently performed. The choir was founded in 2007 “as a space for people who want to sing gospel music birthed by the spirit of the Black church and the ancestry of Black community but are either unable to find it in their home place of worship or do not identify with being in a church at all.”
DANCE WORK: Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey: This classic thirty-six-minute work choreographed by the pioneering Alvin Ailey premiered in New York in 1960 and since then has been performed continually around the globe. This particular performance at Lincoln Center premiered online on December 6, 2020, as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s virtual season during the pandemic. “Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.” Ailey said it was born of the “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and his affection for the Baptist church that nurtured him.
All the numbers are great, but my favorite is “Wade in the Water” (part of the “Take Me to the Water” sequence that begins at 9:41). Second favorite: “Fix Me” (5:22).
SONGS: The Holy Spirit Prayer is a traditional Catholic prayer that’s sung at Mass on the feast of Pentecost: “Come, Holy Spirit; fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” The following two songs are settings of the first part of this prayer.
>> “Kindle in Us Your Love” by Deanna Witkowski: This funky refrain by jazz composer Deanna Witkowski “works well as a gospel acclamation, prayer response, or opening song,” especially for Pentecost. I’m planning to introduce it to my Presbyterian congregation this Sunday. (For church services, Witkowski charges a licensing fee of just $3 per use.) You can purchase the piano score here; it also appears in the Voices Together hymnal. Hear a high school choir perform the piece in the video below, with Witkowski accompanying on keys.
Come, Holy Spirit Kindle in us the fire of your love Come, Holy Spirit Kindle in us your love
>> “Holy Spirit, Come to Us” by Jacques Berthier (Taizé chant):Taizé is an ecumenical Christian monastic community in France comprising more than one hundred Catholic and Protestant brothers from some thirty different countries. They welcome in around a hundred thousand young pilgrims a year, who come for prayer, Bible study, and communal work and worship. The songs of Taizé use simple musical phrases and few words that are repeated. Composed in 1998, “Holy Spirit, Come to Us” is one of 232 songs Jacques Berthier wrote for Taizé. It consists of solo verses sung by a leader over an ostinato refrain sung by the people.
Holy Spirit, come to us Kindle in us the fire of your love Holy Spirit, come to us Holy Spirit, come to us
Jesus said, “It is by your love for one another That everyone will recognize you as my disciples.”
Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this: To lay down one’s life for those one loves.”
We know love by this, That Christ laid down his life for us.
This is love: it is not we who have loved God But God who loved us.
Taizé songs may be sung in public worship settings free of charge, provided their simplicity is preserved (i.e., no elaborate arrangements are permitted); for other uses, see here.
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: Pentecost Party: Word & Wonder is offering a free twelve-page PDF of resources for celebrating Pentecost with children. Besides a list of party ideas, it includes an imaginative retelling of the Pentecost story from the perspective of a child, a prayer guide, prompts for talking about the Holy Spirit, coloring pages, and a pinwheel craft. On their website you will also find other family-friendly resources for the church year. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
BLOG POST: “Whitsun Week” by Eleanor Parker: “The week following Pentecost is a lost holiday. From the Middle Ages until the early 20th century the period around Whitsun was the principal summer holiday of the year – especially Whit-Monday”—which is June 6 this year. “It was the time for fairs, Morris dancing, games, ale-drinking, school and church processions, weddings, wandering into the countryside, and generally having a good time.” Gooseberries and cheesecakes were broken out for the occasion, and communities engaged in fun activities like cricket, archery, sack races, and donkey derbies.
British medievalist Eleanor Parker compiles several sources that describe the Whitsuntide festivities of medieval western Europe and calls her readers to revive the week’s outdoor merrymaking!
SHORT FILM: Stickmatch: Created in 2020 by London-born animator William Crook, this twenty-second stop-motion animation uses autumn leaves to simulate flames. [HT: Colossal]
DOCUMENTARY SERIES: Taste and See, dir. Andrew Brumme: “Taste and See is a documentary series exploring the spirituality of food with farmers, chefs, bakers, and winemakers engaging with food as a profound gift from God. Their stories serve as a meditation on the beauty, mystery, and wonder to be found in every meal shared at the table.” The Rabbit Room, who is partnering with them for a virtual cinema event (see below), says, “If, in some blessed alternate universe, Robert Farrar Capon had decided to make a documentary with Terrence Malick, guided by the foundational wisdom of Wendell Berry, then they would have made something like the pilot of Taste and See.”
Some of the people you see in the series trailer are Shamu Sadeh, cofounder of Adamah Farm and Fellowship in Connecticut, which integrates organic farming, Jewish learning, sustainable living, and contemplative spiritual practice (Adamah is the focus of the pilot film); The Soul of Wine: Savoring the Goodness of God author Gisela Kreglinger, who grew up on a winery that has been in her family for generations and who leads wine pilgrimages in Burgundy and Franconia (“a spiritual, cultural, and sensory exploration of wine”); Norman Wirzba, a professor at Duke who teaches and publishes at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies (see, e.g., his Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating); Kendall Vanderslice, a North Carolina baker, author, and founder of Edible Theology, which offers “curriculum, community, and communications that connect the Communion table to the kitchen table”; and Joel Salatin, who raises livestock on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.
You can buy tickets to a virtual screening of the hour-long pilot, which is happening twice daily from June 3 to June 19 and includes exclusive access to a panel discussion with singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, theologian Norman Wirzba, and director Andrew Brumme. Revenue from ticket sales will fund the production of future films, some of which are already in the works. “The funding raised will determine how far we can go and which stories we can pursue,” Brumme tells me. “We’re hopeful the virtual event will bring together enough of a supportive base of people who want to see this series made.” There’s also an option on the website to donate.
DISCUSSION PANEL: “Art Between the Sacred and the Secular,” June 6, 2022, Akademie der Künste, Berlin: Moderated by the Rev. Professor Ben Quash, this free public event (reserve tickets here) puts in conversation artist Alicja Kwade; Dr. María López-Fanjul y Díez del Corral, senior curator of the Bode Museum and the Gemäldegalerie; and Dr. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery, London. The questions they’ll address (see below) sound really intriguing!
“The abiding power of Christian motifs, ideas and styles in a host of modern and contemporary works that superficially look un- or anti-Christian indicates that visual art and Christian tradition have not become complete strangers. This invites analysis and understanding.
“How have Christian artworks and artistic traditions found new articulations, caused new departures, or provoked new subversions in the last 100 to 150 years? What forms of engagement between theology and modern and contemporary art do such developments in the relationship between art and Christianity invite and reward?
“How do viewers (Christian and non-Christian) interact with historical Christian art today, and how do modern sensibilities affect our viewing of earlier Christian artworks and artistic traditions?
“Is contemporary art an alternative to religion or can it sometimes be an ally? How do contemporary art and religion each respond to human experiences of the absurd or the tragic? What do contemporary art and the spaces in which we encounter it, tell us about the histories of both Western Christianity and Western secularisation?”
FUNDRAISER: New Ordinary Time Album: The indie folk trio Ordinary Time is one of my favorite musical groups—I heard them in concert at a church here in Baltimore a few years ago!—so I’m really excited to see that they’re working on their sixth full-length album, their first since 2016. It will be produced by the esteemed Isaac Wardell, founder of Bifrost Arts and the Porter’s Gate. Per usual, it will comprise a mix of original and classic sacred songs, including the new “I Will Trust,” demoed in the second video below. Help fund their production costs through this Indiegogo campaign, which ends June 15. A donation of just $25 will get you an early download of the album.
The music video was shot in February at a bar in Daphne, Alabama, with some eighty of Kimbrough’s friends and supporters, and it premiered May 13. It was his way of saying farewell to his Church of the Apostles community in Fairhope, Alabama, where he served as worship leader and artist-in-residence for eight years. He left this spring to take a new job as uptown artist-in-residence at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.
“From the time I wrote ‘Oh Give Thanks,’ I always pictured it as a bar tune, specifically set in New Orleans,” Kimbrough says. “The image Psalm 107 conjures for me is a group of friends sitting together swapping stories of God’s deliverance and raising their glasses to celebrate his goodness.” He has noted that some people are uneasy about singing the line “We cried like drunken sailors” in church, but he points out that it’s there in the Old Testament psalm! (Recounting how God rescued a group of men from a storm at sea, the psalmist says that as the waves rose, “they reeled and staggered like drunkards / and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, / and he brought them out from their distress,” vv. 27–28).
CHURCH ARCHITECTURE: Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno, Italy: In 2013 architect Mario Cucinella won a competition held by Italy’s assembly of Catholic bishops to create the new parish church of Santa Maria Goretti in the hilltop town of Mormanno in Calabria. Because a third of the funds had to be raised locally, the project wasn’t completed until last year. Cucinella says that gave him time to win over its most important constituency: the elderly women who go to Mass every day, and who at first “were suspicious of its modernism.” [HT: My Modern Met]
Cucinella designed an elegantly minimalist concrete building with sinuous surfaces that form the shape of a four-leaf clover, a reinterpretation, Cucinella says, of the shape of Baroque churches. The enclosure has only a few openings. “On its north side, two walls part to create an entrance—while also contributing edges to a cross cut into the curves and lit by LEDs at night. On its south side, a small window is positioned to focus afternoon sunlight on a crucifix on July 6,” Maria Goretti’s birthday.
Inside, the walls are hand-finished in plaster mixed with hemp fibers and lime, which give them a mottled, earth-toned look. The most dominant feature of the interior is the twelve-foot-deep scrim that falls from the ceiling in swirls, filtering in sunlight. Artist Giuseppe Maraniello (b. 1945) was commissioned to create the lectern, tabernacle, baptismal font, and figure of the Virgin Mary, while the simple steel and wood seating is by Mario Cucinella Design. Click on any of the three photos above to view more.
The church’s namesake, one of the youngest saints to be canonized, was stabbed to death in 1902 at age eleven while resisting a rape. She is the patron saint of purity, young women, and victims of sexual assault.
11. Summer of Soul (. . . or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), dir. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The Harlem Cultural Festival of summer 1969, consisting of six free concerts spread out over six sequential Sundays, is a touchstone of Black music history and culture. Attracting over 300,000 people and known colloquially as “Black Woodstock” (Woodstock took place the same summer), it featured major pop, R&B, blues, jazz, funk, and gospel artists, including Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B. B. King, Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, Edwin Hawkins, Mavis Staples, and Sly and the Family Stone. But because the festival got so little media attention, both during and in the fifty-plus years since, few people actually know about it.
Questlove combines archival footage of the incredible live concert performances—drawing from the forty-plus hours shot by festival coproducer Hal Tulchin, most of it never before seen—with interviews he conducted with participating musicians, audience members, and cultural commentators, as well as with other historical footage that gives a broader portrait of the times. Thoughtfully constructed, Summer of Soul highlights several movements taking place at the time within Black communities—civil rights, antiwar, Black pride, Black Power—anchoring them in musical expressions of those ideas. One thing that keeps coming up in the film is the therapeutic aspect of music, especially gospel music; several interviewees mention how music is one way they cope with unrest, trauma, and injustice and express their pain as well as their hope.
The concert took place only one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and one of the highlights for me was gospel veteran Mahalia Jackson and a young Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as a tribute to him. (Seconds before King died, he had requested that song from Ben Branch, who was set to perform that night.) At one point Jackson passes the mic to Staples to let her solo, which could be read symbolically as her passing the gospel music baton to the next generation.
The most revelatory sequence for me was the one where the Staples Singers’ performance of “It’s Been a Change” is interwoven with contemporary interviews about the moon landing. As Apollo 11 touched down on July 20, 1969, and the astronauts’ disembarkment was being broadcast live around the world, thousands of Black people were gathered at a park in Harlem watching the festival concert, just as they had been for the past three Sundays, instead of their television screens. A journalist was there asking attendees why they were missing this important historic event, and the responses overwhelmingly boiled down to: it wasn’t relevant to them; this music was. Several expressed frustration that with the rampant poverty, hunger, and urban decay, the pouring of tax dollars into space exploration was not only a serious misuse of funds but also immoral. These sentiments are best encapsulated in the spoken-word poem “Whitey on the Moon,” written and performed by Gil Scott-Heron the following year.
Streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.
12. West Side Story, dir. Steven Spielberg. I was skeptical of this musical being remade, as the original film adaptation from 1961 is so iconic and well loved. But I must say, I actually prefer this version! The choreography, dancing, and cinematography are phenomenal. Filming dance sequences, especially with large ensembles, is a notorious challenge, and the scene of the school dance in the gym nails it. And rather than being confined to an apartment rooftop, as it was in ’61, the “America” number moves through the streets of Manhattan and is even more colorful and dynamic.
You’re probably already familiar with the storyline, which is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: two teenage lovers associated with rival New York street gangs, the Sharks (made up of Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (who are white), fall in love, with disastrous consequences. I’ve always thought the love story to be pretty shallow, and for all the narrative and character fixes/updates Tony Kushner makes to the source material in this screenplay, that doesn’t really change here. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) are given a little more dimension, but I’m still not totally invested in their romance. And Maria’s quick forgiveness of Tony for what he does to her brother (no spoilers) is just baffling to me.
Still, I appreciate the added backstories given to several of the characters, and even to the turf wars. Spielberg makes it clear that the story is unfolding against the backdrop of the real-life slum-clearance projects in San Juan Hill (Lincoln Square), in which, beginning in 1959, the neighborhood’s majority Black and Hispanic tenants were evicted to make way for the building of Lincoln Center.
Spielberg also corrects an egregious flaw in the 1961 film, which was the casting of white actors in brownface to play Puerto Rican characters. (Even Rita Moreno, who was a Puerto Rican playing a Puerto Rican, was made to wear skin-darkening makeup as Anita in the original.) Spielberg took care to cast Latinx actors of various skin tones. He also has them speaking occasional Spanish in the film, which is not subtitled (he did not want to “other” the language). So there’s more ethnic and cultural authenticity, and the Puerto Rican characters are more rounded. However, I understand the criticism that the story itself, despite Spielberg’s modifications, still stereotypes Puerto Rican males as violent and ignorant, and Puerto Rican women as either virginal (like Maria) or fiery (like Anita).
For an alternative musical depiction of Puerto Ricans in New York City, set in the 2000s, I commend to you In the Heights, which also released last year. It didn’t crack my top 20, and I was not impressed by the female lead, but it’s a really enjoyable watch—and the concept, music, lyrics, and screenplay are actually by Puerto Ricans (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes), not by white guys.
Streaming on Disney+ and HBO Max. (But if you can catch it on a big screen, do it!)
13. Together Together, dir. Nikole Beckwith. A type of aspiring parent that I’ve never seen onscreen before, and frankly have never even thought about, is the single man in middle age who, because he has no partner but really wants a child, uses a surrogate. This heartwarming pregnancy dramedy explores the odd relational dynamic between these two people—Matt (Ed Helms), who’s getting ready to be a father, and Anna (Patti Harrison), the young woman, a stranger at first, whom Matt hires to grow his child inside her.
Many Christians have strong opinions about how children should be brought into the world—that is, through the sexual union of a husband and wife. And while that is a beautiful and God-honoring process, not to mention the most practical, there are some for whom marriage never pans out but who still desire to experience the miracle of new life bred from one’s own genes, and the joys of parenthood. What might the bond between an expectant dad and his gestational surrogate look like? They share an incredibly intimate (but nonsexual) connection by virtue of the creative act they’re participating in together, but obviously it’s sticky, because one of the parties will have to cut her attachment to the child after the birth—or will she?
The movie subverts popular rom-com tropes by showing a deep platonic relationship between two nonrelated people of the opposite sex—and I really appreciate that. We’ve been programmed to want to see, and even to expect, these two people to become romantically involved, as that’s the happiest ending we can imagine. Beckwith gives us something different. Watching Matt and Anna’s friendship blossom throughout the film is so beautiful and gratifying, and the ending is perfect.
Streaming on Hulu.
14. The Mitchells vs. The Machines, dir. Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe: In this animated family flick, the quirky and dysfunctional Mitchell family must band together to save the world from a robot apocalypse. It’s genuinely funny, and I appreciated the foregrounding of the father-daughter relationship, which starts out strained but heals and grows through shared crisis.
Streaming on Netflix.
15. Judas and the Black Messiah, dir. Shaka King. It’s Chicago, 1968. When Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught impersonating a federal officer to steal a car, the FBI agrees to drop all charges, plus give him a monthly stipend, if he will infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose message of Black liberation and community activism toward that goal have made him a perceived national threat.
This American biopic dramatizes Hampton’s rise to power and his assassination by police. A charismatic leader with strong organizational skills, Hampton was building an alliance among gangs and minority groups in Chicago—an antiracist, anticlass Rainbow Coalition. He taught political education classes, launched a project for community supervision of the police (to hold them accountable for brutality), helped set up a free medical clinic and a free breakfast program on the West Side, and more.
After striking his deal with the FBI, O’Neal was able to gain the trust of Party members through deception. He became Hampton’s driver and, later, his security captain. The information he supplied to agents about Hampton’s apartment layout enabled the infamous police raid on December 4, 1969, in which Hampton was gunned down while sleeping next to his pregnant girlfriend (Dominique Fishback), who survived—and who served, alongside Fred Hampton Jr., as a consultant on the film.
Significant as he is, Fred Hampton is not a person I ever learned about in school, so this film was educative for me.
Streaming on HBO Max.
16. Hive, dir. Blerta Basholli. This Albanian-language drama from Kosovo is based on the real-life story of Fahrije Hoti (played by Yllka Gashi). The film opens seven years after Fahrije’s husband went missing in the Krusha massacre in March 1999, during the Kosovo War.
Fahrije is a beekeeper, but she’s struggling to provide for her two children and her disabled father-in-law with local honey sales alone. So she starts her own business making and selling ajvar (a condiment made from roasted red peppers), first at the grocery store in town and later for export to other European countries. For help in this venture she recruits many of the other widows in Krusha, of varying ages, who form a “hive” of support for one another. But because the culture is very patriarchal, the women meet with hostility from the older men in the village who believe it’s dishonorable for women to be entrepreneurs and who see their economic independence as a threat to traditional values.
Grief and empowerment are interwoven in this inspiring story of a woman who dares to imagine a future for herself and her family apart from her husband, whom she painfully acknowledges (though not out loud) may be dead.
It’s now been twenty-three years since the massacre, and people in Krusha are still holding out hope for husbands and sons to return, putting pressure on the government to redouble its search efforts. More than 240 men from the village have been confirmed dead, while sixty-four remain missing.
Streaming on Kanopy.
17. Licorice Pizza, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t know what to say about this one, except that it’s wacky and entertaining. An ode to LA’s San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, where writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson grew up, it centers on the “goofily chaste romance” (Alissa Wilkinson’s words) between fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twenty-five-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). She’s flattered by the attention he gives her and charmed by his precocity and cheeky drive; he, besides simply crushing on her, relishes her cheerleading and practical support for his upstart business ventures, like selling waterbeds and opening a pinball arcade. Although the age difference between Gary and Alana is a bit uncomfortable, the tone is light and the stakes are low. Their chemistry is not an erotic one, but rather one that’s sparked and sustained by their having fun together on ridiculous adventures.
18. The Tragedy of Macbeth, dir. Joel Cohen. “A tale of murder, madness, ambition, and wrathful cunning,” adapted here with stunning visuals that capture the mood of the play just right. Add to that a stellar cast. Kathryn Hunter as the three witches (aka “the weird sisters”) is especially compelling—sent shivers down my spine!
Streaming on Apple TV+.
19. Our Friend, dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A celebration of faithful, embodied friendship, this drama is adapted from the 2015 Esquire article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” that Matt Teague wrote after his wife Nicole’s death from ovarian cancer at age thirty-six. When Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed and starts getting sick, her and Matt’s (Casey Affleck) friend Dane (Jason Segal) leaves his management job and girlfriend in New Orleans and moves into the Teagues’ house in Fairhope, Alabama, to provide care and support for as long as he’s needed—which ends up being fourteen months! He gets their girls ready for school in the mornings, cooks meals, does the laundry, provides mental and emotional support, and helps Nicole accomplish her bucket list. The film is sweet and sad and joyful all at once.
Our Friend has been criticized for not portraying several of the physical horrors of cancer that Matt describes in the article. But I’d say that even though it’s not particularly graphic, the film still presents cancer as ugly and disruptive and painful and exhausting; rightfully, it does not romanticize terminal illness or death. What is a shame, I’ll mention, is that the central role Christian faith plays in the Teagues’ lives, as Matt has been vocal about in interviews and Nicole shared a lot about on her cancer blog and on YouTube, is entirely absent from the film.
Segal is excellent as Dane. And it’s beautiful to see not just Dane’s sacrificial love but also the Teagues’ dedication to and inclusion of Dane throughout their married life, as we see in the many flashbacks that develop their friendship story. Married couples, especially ones with kids, tend to maintain relationships mostly with other married couples, not with singles, which should not be so—so I love that the film highlights this trio of friends in a meaningful way.
Streaming on Amazon Prime.
20. A Hero, dir. Asghar Farhadi. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is on leave from debtors’ prison when he finds a bag of gold. He seeks to return it to its owner and becomes a local celebrity—until some people start to question his integrity.
I know, I know. My top 20 list of films from 2021 is very late. Several that I wanted to see before compiling the list didn’t come to a theater near me until after the Oscar nominees were announced . . . But better late than never, right?
I’m breaking up the list into two separate posts.
I am counting films as from 2021 if they were released in the US in that year. If the film is available for free through a streaming service to subscribers, I will mention that at the end of the description; most of the others can be rented online for a fee, or you might also try checking your local library for a DVD.
Note: Several of these films are rated R, and for a variety of reasons. If you want to avoid specific types of mature content, I suggest you consult the Parents’ Guide on the IMDB page of whatever movie you’re considering watching.
1. Belfast, dir. Kenneth Branagh. Drawn from writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s own childhood, Belfast takes place in 1969–70 in a working-class neighborhood in the Northern Ireland capital, at the beginning of the thirty-year period of political violence known as the Troubles. This conflict was between (mostly Catholic) nationalists seeking independence from Britain, and (mostly Protestant) loyalists who saw themselves as British and thus sought to preserve Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. The focus of the film, however, is on family, not politics, as all the events of the year are filtered through the perspective of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill). He sees his dad, for example, who refuses to participate in the riots, as a hero in the vein of his favorite western film characters.
Belfast is poignant and nostalgic and not at all the worse for being so. The “Everlasting Love” scene near the end is euphoric—and well earned!—and made me cry. In the wake of a death and amid financial debt, impending displacement from what has been their family’s hometown for generations, and other marital strains, Pa (Jamie Dornan) sings a pop song to Ma (Caitriona Balfe) from a lounge stage and pulls her into a dance, creating a moment of pure celebration, love, and defiant survival. The film’s highlight for me is how it holds together life’s joys and struggles, sorrows and laughter. Branagh, who moved with his parents and brother from Belfast to Reading, England, at age nine to escape the violence, dedicated the film to “those who stayed, those who left, and those who were lost” in Belfast.
2. The Power of the Dog, dir. Jane Campion. An adaptation of a Thomas Savage novel, this film subverts the traditional image of the western cowboy, exploring male virility, vulnerability, and agency. What is required to protect those you love? Is it muscles and bluster and a “gloves off” sort of grit, or a courage rooted someplace else?
Set in Montana in 1925, the film centers on the macho-posturing Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs a cattle ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). When George marries the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she and her impressionable teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) settle at the Burbank estate. Phil is set off by Peter’s “sissiness”—his willowy frame, his slight lisp, his delight in crafting paper flowers for his mother—and he reacts with incessant bullying. He is cruel, mocking, and emotionally abusive not only to Peter but also to Rose, whom he resents for layered reasons.
The ending makes us see one of the characters in a completely different light and therefore prompts us to reread some of the emotional dynamics we have witnessed. The title comes from Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog” (KJV).
Streaming on Netflix.
3. The Lost Daughter, dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Ambivalence toward motherhood is rarely explored on screen. We see onscreen mothers overwhelmed and exhausted, even stifled, but the sacrifices they make in those roles are always portrayed as ultimately worth it for the profound love and joy they experience as a result of being a mom. Because we’re conditioned, culturally and religiously, to view children as an unmitigated blessing, to express any kind of regret about having children is taboo (we’re only allowed to regret not having children). Women are expected to relish their role as mothers and to find their deepest fulfillment in that role, and if they don’t, they’re branded as “bad” or selfish.
I can already hear the alarm bells going off with my readers right now. “Children are a gift from God! How dare we be anything less than grateful for them! Women are designed to bear and nurture life! What could possibly be more fulfilling than living out that design?” One of the great things about films is that they often help us to enter into other experiences and perspectives, to access the feelings of another and, through that, our own. That doesn’t mean we forsake our beliefs and convictions, but we open ourselves up to a story that could challenge our sometimes overly simplistic thinking. One doesn’t have to reject the Bible to acknowledge that motherhood is messy and that for many women it requires them to confront (or else bury) darker pulls and emotions. Contrary to what we’re often told, motherhood does not come naturally to everyone! There’s much more I could say about this, but let’s get to The Lost Daughter:
First-time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal, who herself has two daughters, wanted to make a film that explores all the complicated, unresolved emotions surrounding motherhood, which can include terror, anxiety, doubt, annoyance, and despair. An adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same title, it follows Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-age literature professor on holiday in Greece. One day on the beach she encounters a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson), who triggers Leda’s memories of her own two daughters, now in their twenties. We see flashbacks to Leda’s life as a struggling twenty-something mom (played by Jessie Buckley). She loves her children but feels plundered by them. And so she does something “aberrant,” as Gyllenhaal put it in an interview, which we find out about halfway through the film.
The film neither punishes nor condones its protagonist’s behavior. To what degree Leda feels guilt, regret, or satisfaction, and about what specifically, is largely left to the viewer to interpret, as she’s a hard one to read. (Colman gives us a very interior performance, which I think is to her and the film’s credit.) She is obviously troubled by past decisions, as her dizzy spells and thievery would suggest. There is also quite a bit of open-ended symbolism at play throughout.
Streaming on Netflix.
4. Drive My Car, dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The forty-minute prologue of this three-hour film establishes the relationship between theater actor-director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his screenwriter wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima). Within this pocket of time, she dies of a cerebral hemorrhage—after Yusuke finds out about her having an affair but before he confronts her about it. Roll opening credits.
Based loosely on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car is about grief, intimacy, betrayal, forgiveness, self-knowledge, and communication across barriers. Two years after his wife’s death, Yusuke participates in a residency in Hiroshima, where he has been invited to direct a multilingual stage production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, about a forty-seven-year-old man who is so world-weary that he wants to die. Yusuke’s concept is for the actors to act in their native language—Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Korean Sign Language—feeding off their dialogue partner’s tones, speech rhythms, body language, and facial expressions, while subtitles are projected on a screen for the play’s audience.
Yusuke’s emotional healing comes through his work on this play (“Chekhov is terrifying because his lines drag the real out of you,” he says) and through the friendship he develops with his assigned driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a young woman who also carries a private grief. The two help each other come to terms with loss and regret and learn how to live again.
Streaming on HBO Max.
5. Flee, dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen. This animated documentary chronicles the refugee experience of Amin Nawabi (not his real name), who fled from Afghanistan to Russia with his family in 1992 when he was eleven to escape the Mujahedeen attacks that became more frequent in Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal. He sought asylum in Europe for the next few years as an unaccompanied minor and eventually settled in Denmark, where he attended high school in Copenhagen and became friends with classmate Jonas Poher Rasmussen, now a filmmaker. More than twenty years later, he is telling his story for the first time, and it is Rasmussen he has entrusted it to.
The use of animation, a rare but not unheard-of choice for a documentary, has several advantages. It enables the subject to remain anonymous for his own safety. It allows for the re-creation of scenes from Amin’s childhood that were not, and could not have been, captured on film. And it enhances the expressiveness, tone, and meaning of certain scenes. The animation is supplemented, sparingly, with archival newsreel footage that gives historical veracity to some of Amin’s memories. And an important link to “the real” is forged by the use of Amin’s own voice in the animated interview sessions, conducted over several years, and sometimes in voiceover in the flashbacks. (His younger self is voiced by actors who capture him at two different ages—nine to eleven, and fifteen to eighteen.)
Throughout the film, Amin works to integrate his past and present and to make a home (“someplace safe, somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on”) with his fiancé, Kasper, whom he has not yet spoken his traumas to.
Streaming on Hulu.
6. CODA, dir. Sian Heder. Sure, this film follows a predictable narrative arc and hits all the notes you would expect. But it’s so good! Seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family (CODA = child of deaf adults). Before school each day she works on the family’s fishing boat with her dad (Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant), while her mom (Marlee Matlin) runs the business side of things. But she finds herself increasingly drawn toward singing as a career path, and she starts to consider applying to Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The conflict is a familiar one: follow the plans your parents have laid out for you, or chase your own dreams, your own calling. Ruby needs to find her identity apart from being her family’s interpreter. But how can she honor the talents she’s been gifted with and her family obligations? Ruby’s parents slowly learn to accept and support her ambitions, even though they revolve around an auditory art form that is not accessible to them, and even though it means she’ll have to leave home. A turning point comes when they see her sing a duet at a school concert. In what is the most moving scene in the film, they experience the performance through watching the reactions of others in the audience.
Streaming on Apple TV+.
7. The Killing of Two Lovers, dir. Robert Machoian. A stylish arthouse drama set in rural Utah, this film follows David (Clayne Crawford), who’s desperately trying to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi). He refuses to accept that the marriage is over. Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and with lots of long takes, the film is raw, potent, unflinching. And I love where it ends up.
Streaming on Hulu.
8. The Truffle Hunters, dir. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. This documentary made me smile more than any other film I saw last year. It’s so tender, and so gorgeously shot. And it’s got to be my favorite dog movie!
Truffle hunters are typically a secretive bunch, but the filmmakers got access to several of these elderly men from northern Italy who forage the forests with their trusty dogs, seeking out the edible fungi, a gourmet delicacy, to sell at high-priced auctions or on the black market. There are no interviews, no voiceovers—just a quietly observant camera. Despite the high prices truffles fetch, the hunters live simple lives in their Piedmont villages. And each has his own personality.
There’s a heavy focus on the relationship between the men and their dogs. They share meals with them, take baths with them, sing “Happy Birthday” to them, bring them to church. Aurelio, who is single and has no children, looks for someone to take care of his dog Birba when he dies; his chatter with Birba, and his expressions of love (like baking her a cake for her birthday), is the most endearing part of the film. It was also precious to see Titina, Carlo’s dog, being blessed by a priest—to use her gift of scent to serve others, to bring joy, as her finds will end up being used to make delicious dishes.
9. The Father, dir. Florian Zeller. Because of the COVID-19 extended eligibility period for Oscar submissions last year, this film was technically part of the 2021 Academy Awards, even though it was released in February 2021. Anthony Hopkins, who won Best Actor for this role, plays Anthony, an elderly man with dementia. As he loses his grip on the things and people around him, he becomes easily agitated and resists the care of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman).
Zeller said he wanted the audience to feel as though, like Anthony, they’re “groping their way through a labyrinth,” so he wove a complex narrative that mixes reality with Anthony’s memories. We are made to feel his confusion, terror, frustration, and disorientation, in part by the use of multiple actors to portray a single character, such that we’re also not sure who’s who and what’s going on. Kudos to editor Yorgos Lamprinos and production designer Peter Francis for their work, as both those skills are key in pulling off this kind of storytelling.
The film is heartbreaking—the biggest downer on my list, for sure, especially with its climactic scene where Anthony breaks down and cries for his mommy. But by inviting us into Anthony’s suffering, The Father develops our empathy for those whose brains stop functioning properly in old age, for whom the world no longer makes any sense—an incredibly fearful thing.
10. C’mon C’mon, dir. Mike Mills. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist who travels the US asking kids big questions about life. When his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) is forced to deal with a mental health crisis her ex-husband is experiencing, Johnny becomes the caretaker of her son (Woody Norman) for an extended period. The uncle-nephew bonding that follows constitutes the core of the film. UnlikeThe Lost Daughter, C’mon C’mon paints a bright and affirmative portrait of parenthood. It acknowledges the challenges of raising children while also celebrating the many small, beautiful moments of connection that are possible between adult and child.