"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Still Another Top Ten List - 2014 Edition

It's that time again.

As I have done in the past, I have opted to compile my list of Top 10 Favourite Films of the year.  As it stands right now, I admit that there are lots of 'heavyweights' that I haven't seen thus far.  Films like Unbroken, Fury, The Imitation Game and Interstellar I simply wasn't able to take in due to time constraints and I'll likely have to catch up with on video.  (I hear that's simply not doing Interstellar justice but can't help that...)  What's more, I don't count last year's Oscar fare either--some of which I would have seen in January--because it feels stale and it's already 'been done'.

With that in mind, it's important to remember that this list really is a composite of my favourite film experiences of the year.  Some of these wouldn't qualify as the 'best' movies I've seen but, rather, the ones that have had the most impact on me for any number of reasons.  (And hey, there's still two weeks of the year.  Who knows if this could change?)  In a year of cyber-terrorism, Biblical "non-Biblical" epics and the continuing dominance of comic book films, these are the ten most likely to end up on my BluRay shelf, if they're not there already (and yes, I still buy hard copies... I'm an old man...).  Some are more intense, others simply fun.  In fact, as I stare at the list, I can see they're all over the map.  (I also admit it's heavier on 'blockbusters' than previous years--which I think is both good and bad.)

Since you're positively bursting with the fruity flavour of anticipation, let's get down to it...

Top Ten 2014 (So Far...)

10.)  Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (rated PG) -- "On your feet, maggot!" One of the more entertaining and ambitious blockbusters of the summer, Edge of Tomorrow was skipped by many at the box office... but it shouldn't have been.  Smarter than Spiderman and more entertaining than Godzilla, Tom Cruise's latest sci-fi had a brain and a sense of humour.  Not only is it one of Cruise's best films in the last 20 years, it also provides excellent conversations about redemption and the value of our actions.  (It was also scientology onscreen... but that's besides the point.)

A true summer blockbuster that most people didn't give much of a chance.

They were wrong.

9.)  Noah (rated PG-13) -- This was the year that Christians were invited to go back to the movies.  With films like God's Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, Mom's Night Out and even a remake of Left Behind, there was an intentional draw for evangelical Christians to head out to the multiplex.  Every one of these films was designed to pat Believers on the head and affirm what they already knew.  In many ways, I felt it was more of a blatant cash grab than some franchises.

But Noah gave us something different.

Something we'd never seen before.

With Noah, Darren Aronovsky sought to challenge his audience and their Biblical understanding.  This was much to the chagrin to many people--even causing Rick Warren to tweet his own disinterest--but, personally, I found it engaging and even honest.  Aronovsky genuinely wrestled with the text and attempted to grapple with one of the more famous--and difficult--passages in Scripture.  An atheist himself (but, having been raised Jewish, passionate about the story), Aronovsky took a more humanist perspective but also opened up tremendous doors for conversation about the nature of God's love, grace and wrath.  The sheer impact of a film like this demands it be in my Top 10 as the church and Hollywood engaged in a spiritual conversation for roughly two solid weeks--which is a long time by their standards.  Whereas God's Not Dead only resonated with believers (although it's box office run was astonishing), it really didn't open up doors to speak with not-yet Christians as well.

8.)  Guardians of the Galaxy (rated PG-13)-- The fact that this is so low on the list will bring the ire of many a fanboy I'm sure.  The truth is that it is a very good Marvel movie.  One of the better ones, in fact.  Director James Gunn manages to take a well-worn formula with well-worn stereotypes and, somehow, make it feel fresh.  Christ Pratt officially catapulted himself into leading man status,  Bradley Cooper made a talking raccoon believable, and Groot... well... he danced...  To an amazing soundtrack...  In addition, the film issued a fun illustration of the value of the broken and redemption for those who society ignores.

But calm down, people.

The film is far from perfect and, although a fun ride, doesn't stick with you much long-term like other MCU entries like Iron Man and The Avengers before it.  Also, Batista and Zoe Saldana were quite forgettable.  (I also admit that my enthusiasm was a little less than others simply due to the over-enthusiasm for it.)  Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it deserves a space on my Top 10... just not as highly as some might expect or desire.

7.)  The Lego Movie (rated PG) -- Yes, everything is awesome.  Not because they somehow managed to make an entertaining movie strictly about a brand name.  (Next up: McDonalds: The Movie!  Watch Big Mac stop the Hamburgler!)  Ultimately, Instead of simply making a commercial for their own product (and, it is), they manage to do something more: they managed to tell a human story amidst these cgi bricks and figures.  With an ending that goes completely meta, the film actually speaks directly to families and the importance of time spent together.  What's more, with its insight into a reality outside our own, the film also has tremendous spiritual implications as well.  Through Emmett's journey(Incidentally, the film is also far more self-aware and better researched than you realize.  Google 'Cloud Cuckoo Land'.  I dare you.)

6.)  The Fault in Our Stars (rated PG) -- I admit it.  I'm a man in my mid-30s and I thought this was excellent.  The truth is that I had no idea that this book was a big deal until around mid-March.  It was about that time that the youth (girls, especially) started talking about the film with anticipation.  Of course, no one else my age seemed aware of it either so I took an interest.  John Green's novel of two cancer-riddled teens struck me right between the eyes in such a way that I felt they couldn't possibly match it with the ensuing film.  Again, I was wrong.

TFIOS was one of those truly rare young adult novels that grappled with suffering and hope in honest, realistic ways.  While I found the story to be a tad too nihilistic, it does offer a perspective on faith that is shared by many and is worth engaging.  I know I wasn't their target demographic but I was tremendously moved by both the film and book.

Okay?  Okay.

5.)  Chef (rated R) -- Taking a page from his own film, Jon Favreau takes a break from Iron Man to rediscover the type of filmmaking that he relishes.  (No pun intended.)  Even though it has cameos from some of Hollywood's biggest stars, the film plays out like an indie film that is accessible to anyone.  By telling the story of a man attempting to find himself by starting over, he creates a story of hope for both the individual and the modern family as well.  Plus, it was just plain fun.  If you haven't seen it, rent it and enjoy.  (But eat first.  It will make you insanely hungry... lol)

4.)  X-Men: Days of Future Past (rated PG-13) -- This was the X-Men film that I didn't think they could make.  While much debate rages over whether or not this film is better than X-Men: First Class, this one wins my vote for sheer audacity.  Managing to improve a rebooted franchise and restore respectability to the original films, DOFP offered nostalgia and fresh perspective.  What's more, it's simply incredibly entertaining as well.  Time travel movies can be difficult to pull off but DOFP manages to do so while also wrestling with the damage of sinful past and the effect of hope.  Although I'm a huge fan of X2: X-Men United, this likely wins my vote for best entry in a franchise that should have run out of gas ages ago.  (Even if the ending technically threw away the original trilogy--hey, if Star Trek can do it...)

3.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (rated PG) -- Unequivocally my favourite action film of the year, Dawn did what so few franchises accomplishes: making you think while blowing your mind.  Whereas the film's predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be an excellent opener to a much larger story, Dawn expands and deepens its impact in just about every way.  Other than the incredible performance by Gollu... er... Andy Serkis as Caesar, these apes engage us emotionally and even spiritually as they struggle with their issues.  There are no definitive lines of good and evil.  In fact, these apes have very human struggles of their own.  The film even serves as a tremendous metaphor for the Cold War or even post-9/11 international diplomatic relations.

2.)  Whiplash (rated R) -- This was one of the films that truly stuck with me this year.  While the story isn't overly complicated, it is committed to its purpose early and never deviates.  Grappling with the power of obsession, this film is intense and surprisingly gripping considering it's about a boy who wants to join a band.

Still, this is no ordinary band... and no ordinary band leader.

J. K. Simmons' performance as the crazed maestro of this orchestra is so good that, when he's not on screen, you wish that he is.  He balances charisma and terror in a way that I haven't seen since Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight.  (And Simmons absolutely deserves one himself.)  Whiplash is one of those films that is simply a must-see.

1.)  Boyhood (rated R) -- Okay, here's where my not having seen the other Oscar faire this time of year is an issue.  But, from what I've seen and heard, this is my opinion.  And it won't change.

Boyhood deserves to win Best Picture at the Oscars in February 2015.

Although my initial fear was that the film was a bit 'gimmicky', I have since come to believe what a special film it truly is.  Although I've heard it called 'slow' by some, I can understand why.  Whereas most films attempt to keep you gripped by the next 'twist', Boyhood actually gives us something rare in modern narrative: reality.  Taking over 12 years to complete, Richard Linklater's fictional tale plays out like a documentary as we follow a young man through his life from the age of 6 until his high school graduation.  By the end, there have been no 'earth-shattering' moments.  No 'shocking reveals'.  Just... life.  I've heard it described that the film carries with it a sense that 'we will get through it'.  I would completely agree.  Where is God when life is happening?  How do we get through the difficult seasons?  Is life truly a journey?  These are all questions that Boyhood asks and we are invited to discuss.

Without question, Boyhood is an experience unlike any you will get at the cineplex this year.  And Oscar needs to recognize it.

Honourable Mention:  CalvaryThe Grand SeductionRosewater, The 'F' Word (aka What If), The Judge (Hey, I liked it... even if the critics didn't...)

Unsung MVP:  Brendan Gleeson -- He's not a key name on the marquis--and he's hardly new on the scene--but this Irish actor was in three fantastic films in 2014.  Calvary was probably one of the best films I saw this year that didn't crack the Top 10 (but it almost did).  The Grand Seduction is a must-see Canadian film that, although it premiered at TIFF '13, it didn't officially open until June of this year.  (And, of course, there's Edge of Tomorrow.)  Why Unsung MVP?  Not only for the quality of each film but the sheer variety of each role.  Each one was challenging in it's own right (although, to be fair, his involvement in Edge was minimal and required less work) and every role was entirely different from the last.  He is definitely on my radar from now on.

Most Underrated:  Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow -- No question.

Most Surprising:  Men, Women & Children -- Surprising isn't necessarily the word to use here as I am a great fan of Jason Reitman's work.  Still, when we saw this film at TIFF this past year, my expectations were low.  What we discovered was a dark, cynical--and painfully accurate--examination of the Internet age and the manner in which we communicate now.  Of all the films I've seen this year, I don't think I've been more disturbed... or had a better conversation about afterwards.  In many ways, the film is hard to recommend.  One needs to prepare themselves for it.  Still, you'll rethink your Facebook usage afterwards..

Most Overrated:  Grand Budapest Hotel -- I admit it.  I really fought the urge to put Guardians of the Galaxy in this slot due to the over-enthusiasm of the film's fans but, in the end, that film simply won me over.  Grand Budapest has yet to do so.  While I admit it's beautiful (most Wes Anderson stuff is) and well written (most Wes Anderson stuff is), I still find the film relatively inaccessible in a number of ways (most Wes... you get the picture.)  It has appeared as an Oscar front-runner and I understand why I suppose.  Still, I found the film left me relatively cold as though I was on the outside of the hotel, asking for permission to come in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exodus: Kicking and Screaming into the Kingdom

By now, it should be no shock to anyone that I've come to enjoy this latest wave of Biblical epics.

Personally, I'm not threatened by a revisionist take on a narrative that I hold closely to my heart.  I believe it reveals so much about our culture's understanding of the very stories that we proclaim as truth that I can't help but get a little excited about the opportunities for conversation that seem to sprout up around the release of such films.  (In fact, Noah may very well make it into my Top 10 this year... we will see...)

So, let's talk Exodus: Gods and Kings.  (Caution:  This will be Spoiler-Heavy...)

Directed by Ridley Scott, Exodus: Gods and Kings is (another) revisionist tale on a popular Biblical narrative, this time examining the life of Moses.  Without question, Ridley Scott's vision is far closer akin to Aronovsky's Noah than De Milles' The Ten Commandments.  Instead of taking a traditional reading of the story, Scott feels free to play with the narrative, cutting out scenes and details that will leave many Christian viewers frustrated.  (What?  No baby in a basket?  No staff into serpents?!  No "Let My People Go"?!?)  What's more, while Scripture depicts Moses as a man of intimacy with God (after the Burning Bush anyways), Scott's vision creates a spiritual void within the film's hero.

In essence, Scott's vision of Moses is one of skepticism.  For example, as Pharaoh consults the mystics early on, Moses stands by and sneers.  However, his attitude stems not from a worshiping heart of the Hebrew God, but rather his disbelief that there is anything truly spiritual beyond what we can see.  This vision of Moses is a man of strength, courage and, above all else, self-reliance.

No, this Moses does not carry a staff.  He carries a sword.

This leads to an incredible tension within his own life, especially after his exile.  When he finally encounters God on the mountain at Horeb, Moses literally has to be held down in order for him to listen to God speak.  He neither needs nor wants a God.  So, when he is enlisted to free the Israelites, he is the one who intentionally tries to do things by the sword.  In a scene reminiscent of Scott's recent reimagining of Robin Hood, Moses even turns the people of Israel into a revolutionary army--or at least attempts to.  (Even the visual omission of the 'baby in a basket' suggests that they should not show Moses in any vulnerable position.)It is only in those moments when Moses comes to the end of his rope when God is finally allowed the freedom to move miraculously.  Furthermore, during the plagues, the one who is most disconcerted by the circumstances is not Pharaoh, but Moses.  While Pharaoh clings to his son and attempts to understand, Moses glares angrily at the sky, screaming "Is this meant to humble me? Because it will not!"  As such, Moses refuses to acknowledge what is directly in front of him on many occasions: That the God of the Hebrews is the one true God.

Ironically, one thing the film really got right was the fact that Moses was a 'runner'.  Although he doesn't flee for his life into the desert, he is running from truth from the get-go.

He can't face the fact that he was born of another family.

He can't face the fact that there is anything beyond the physical realm.

And, it is not until the very end that he can truly except his faith in Yahweh.  (Maybe he's in... De-Nile? Bah hahaha).  This Moses may be full of courage but he fears anything that he does not understand.

And I believe Ridley Scott wants to understand.

Personally, the most interesting thing to me about this movie was the sense that it was less about Moses and more about Scott himself.  Having dedicated the film to his brother Tony (who took his own life last year), Scott focuses the film very much on his own personal life.  After having watched the film, one has to ask the question about whether or not this is really describing the journey of a man who desires to understand how other people can cling to faith in a world that has completely gone awry.  Grieving the loss of his brother, it would make total sense that Scott should be grappling with such issues.  (Incidentally, I am also drawn to Scott's previous 2012 sci-fi epic, Prometheus, in this regard.  Although sold as an alien horror flick, the film was really asking much larger questions about the meaning of life and the beginnings of the human race.)

As if he were trying to explain the story to himself and the world, Scott imbues his film with a sense of pragmatism.  Can't explain water into blood?  It must have been metaphoric.  (Enter horde of crocodiles!)  The parting of the Red Sea?  It must've been an earthquake/tsunami.  In fact, even the very centre of the Exodus narrative--Moses' privilege of communicating with God directly--is given an official 'explanation' by suggesting that these visions could simply be delusions as a result of a blow to the head.  In most instances, the miraculous is displayed as something that can be proven scientifically and quantified.

And yet.

There is also a strong sense within the film that there are things that cannot be explained.  Although Pharaoh's mystics appear to have a grasp on the scientific reasons behind the plagues, even they eventually give up.  Although one could argue that God is portrayed as distant and ineffectual (after all, He is only a Junior High kid...), I would take the opposite stance.  To me, I felt that the film portrayed God as ferocious, especially when it comes to His people.  His portrayal as a boy offers him a sense of innocence which makes him accessible to Moses--even understandable, if you will.  Although he struggles to believe, Moses also definitely wants to show God what he is capable of.  Yet, while Moses attempts to prove his worth to this new King, he is constantly reminded of his own failures.

But when God moves, He shakes the earth.

Without question, this leads to my favourite moment within the film.  While confronting God after his inability to muster an Israelite rebellion, Moses angrily blasts Yahweh and begs, "What would you have me do now?"  His response?

"Nothing.  Just watch."  [Cue the plagues.]

Personally, I found this the most poignant moment within the film as God reminds Moses of his ineffectiveness while displaying His own raw power.  Despite any misgivings that Moses may have about Him, this vision of the 'I Am' is not to be trifled with.  He appears both innocent and authoritative.  In fact, Yahweh appears so powerful that, eventually, Moses cannot help but own his faith in a way that humbles him.  (In this moment, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' quote of his own life when he states that he was 'dragged, kicking and screaming--into the Kingdom'.)

Is Exodus: Gods and Kings the 'must see' movie of the Winter?  Likely not.  Still, I hope that Christians will take the rare (albeit, increasingly less rare?) opportunity to hear the heart of a man searching for answers simply out of disgust that it doesn't meet their 'expectations'.

Even if it doesn't show a single baby in a basket.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
Directed by Ridley Scott
*** out of 5