A collection of my publications from recent months
Song to Song is Cinematic Wisdom Literature (March 16, 2017, Christianity Today)
My review, for Christianity Today, of Terrence Malick's latest film, Song to Song
My top 10 list this year contains a 45-minute IMAX film and an 8-hour ESPN documentary. My list also includes films from some of my favorite directors: Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold, Denis Villeneuve, Jeff Nichols, Jim Jarmusch. It was a year in which established directors took risks and up-and-coming directors reached new heights. It was a year which saw a first in the history of cinema: two films by Terrence Malick released in one calendar year. It was a year that gave us not one but two nostalgic musicals (Sing Street and La La Land)
If you're lucky enough to live in one of the few places where Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is playing, do yourself a favor and go see it. Take your kids, your church small group, your fellow lovers of cinema and nature and awe-inspiring beauty. The 45-minute film (a 90-minute, non-IMAX version is set to release in 2017) is a perfect example of the sort of liturgical cinema Malick has mastered
It may be true that “You cannot conquer Time,” but the attempt to conquer it through moment-capturing art and particularly cinema can be quite beautiful. This pretty much sums up Richard Linklater’s "Before" trilogy, his "Boyhood" masterpiece and his just-released "Everybody Wants Some." Linklater is a filmmaker who knows well the powerful potential that cinema has to capture that peculiar, elusive mystery of time.
Never have I seen a movie so full of beautiful imagery and sound, yet so simultaneously empty, unsatisfying, and downright sleazy, as Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. But this is precisely its point. The film’s 118-minute parade of bodies, beaches, and landscapes, accompanied by painfully brief snippets of Grieg, Debussy and Vaughan Williams, provides a glut of beauty that is also a deprivation.
I think it was Kierkegaard who said that while life is lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. Certainly most art proves the truth of this statement. While life presses on breathlessly and leaves nary a moment for sense-making, artists are the ones who press pause and rewind, arranging the pieces, plot-points and colors for us in such a way that the full (or fuller) picture is seen.
Yes, our individual stories matter, but mostly because they are subplots and microcosms of the BIG story God is telling. Each of our lives can be a reflection of the redemptive story God authors on a massive scale. Each is a compelling chapter in the epic of creation.A movie that I think illustrates this well is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.
A few years ago I thought it would an interesting challenge to think of films that reflected the heart of the season of Advent. You can see that list of “10 Films for Advent” here. But what about Lent? What makes a film “Lenten”? As I thought about it, I first thought of images: films of desert, spartan landscapes; faces of lament and suffering; gray and drab color palettes. Then I thought of tone: somber, contemplative, quiet, yet with a glimmer of hope or a moment of catharsis. Finally I thought of themes: suffering, isolation, hunger, penance, hope. I came up with the list below (in alphabetical order).
How does one truly make an impact on culture without obsessing over building platform, managing one’s personal “brand” and constantly doing and saying things specifically to rile up and expand an audience? How can artists, writers, and other cultural creators who truly care about ideas and art avoid the pitfalls of ego and hubris while also wanting their work to have a wide reach?
I recently hosted a video panel discussion on 2013's best films for the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. In the discussion, which you can watch below, I discussed the spiritual resonances of 2013 films alongside film professors Lisa Swain and Nate Bell and student/writer Mack Hayden. Among the films we discussed: All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, To the Wonder, Prisoners, Stories We Tell, Museum Hours, Frances Ha and The Wolf of Wall Street.
The following are the five films that I enjoyed most during the first half of 2013
To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It's no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil's own cell phone camera (as they travel by train "to the Wonder"). It's the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; "All things shining" (The Thin Red Line).
Typical for a Malick film, very little is known about To The Wonder, and until critics see it and write/tweet their first impressions of it after the world premiere in Venice on Sept. 2, very little will be known.
I loved the world of this film, and the photography and (sometimes) the music. The first ten minutes or so are really superb. And I'll be darned if Hushpuppy isn't the most adorably precocious, pint-sized heroine since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine.But as the film goes on it feels more and more contrived, with emotional highs and lows that the film doesn't earn and audiences shouldn't be expected to be moved by. In the end, the film's utopian, dream-like celebration of Southern culture and a sort of "it takes a village" communitarianism rings somewhat false.
Among the many questions prompted by a close viewing of this finale sequence—and indeed, the whole film—is the identity and meaning of the mystery woman seen with Jessica Chastain’s older and younger self in the “Amen” sequence. She shows up in part (usually just her hands) and in full on a number of occasions throughout the film--especially at the beginning of Jack’s life and in the film’s final fifteen minutes.
There was so much good cinema that my “best of” list actually includes three different top tens: the best 10, the second best 10, and then 10 honorable mentions. Many of them are available now on Netflix Instant, while a few of them have yet to release in most parts of the country. However you can, I hope you get a chance to see them!
Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It's Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.
As I've reflected on The Tree of Life (I think I've seen it about 10 times now), I'm no less awestruck by its beauty now than I was in the beginning. It's a film overflowing with the sublime, the transcendent, the holy. I've heard others call it a worshipful experience and I certainly concur. The following are the scenes that get me the most, each time I watch Life. They are, in my opinion, the 10 most transcendent sequences of the film.
The Tree of Life, like Terrence Malick's other 4 films, is rich with layers of beauty and meaning, but its also stubbornly ambiguous at times and potentially maddening. It's not a film you can fully "get" on a first or second viewing, if at all, but that's not to say that it doesn't have intense and immediate pleasures and gifts to offer, if one is willing to receive.