I’ve been setting aside some time over the last few weeks to look back on the year that was in film. Every time I do this I am struck by how how many of my favorite films tend to share in a common theme, and how timely those themes tend to be in my life. I like to think of it as the Spirit at work, as film is often the place where I find God speaking most loudly and most clearly.
If there is a single word that has defined my year in film in 2018 it would be this- perspective.
The need for perspective. Losing perspective. Gaining perspective.
I was struck by this word after a recent viewing of Mary Poppins Returns, a film that I felt provided a perfect bookend to where I began- with the equally lovely and positively endearing Paddington 2. The sheer optimism and unbound joy of these two films, both of which invite me into their fantastical worlds, calls me to submit, even if only for a moment, my cynicism to the idea that hope is real. These two films act as an invitation to see the world anew from that childlike perspective which the challenges and struggles of life often cause me to forget or leave behind.
Challenges like those deeply felt struggles with depression that I found resonating in the story of Tully. The depiction of the ongoing struggle with addiction that we find in Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back. The deep set loneliness that McCarthy so masterfully channels in the powerful Can You Ever Forgive Me. The struggle for identity and with the way people perceive us that we find in Isle of Dogs and Ready Player One. The systemic racism that we find in Blindspotting and BlacKKKlansman and the Hate U Give. The despair that we see in Lean on Pete and First Reformed, or even the darkly rendered imaginings of the wonderful Christopher Robin, a film that wrestles deeply with that notion of lost childhood perspective.
That same childlike perspective I wrote about after rereading and seeing A Wrinkle In Time, where I expressed that “the joy of reading it again and seeing it again as an adult is the ability to now recognize my childhood experience from a more informed perspective, which we see imagined in the shaping and shifting perspective of the way the daughter sees her father, beginning with wonder, being shattered and finally reconstructed. A process that mirrors her perspective of being in the world in which she lives as well.”
What A Wrinkle in Time imagines in a fantastical and metaphorical way, films like the incredible cinematic accomplishment of First Man set into the frame of our real life frame of reference. There is no more powerful scene in 2018 than being swept away into those first steps on the moon, the way the camera opens up and broadens our point of view in an astonishing fashion. This discovery of a new world can shift our perspective and grow our respect of the human story, even while also, as First Man did so exceptionally well, bringing to mind the personal struggles that keep us bound here on earth and to the moments.
Or the way that Spielberg used Ready Player One to shift our perspective of that personal, human story from the eyes of Wade to the eyes of Halliday, the one who creates this virtual world as a means of escape only to find himself in desperate need of gaining some perspective of his own life and struggle. Halliday’s process of looking back over the joys and regrets and questions that he is leaving behind both haunts him and frees him, much in the same way that it does for the aging father and husband in The Mule and The Old Man and the Gun.
Perspective also becomes important when we imagine it against our fears, such as in the way A Quiet Place did by exposing and challenging our efforts to try and escape these fears, calling us, much as God does throughout the Biblical narrative, to make a home in the moment, in the struggle’s midst, while also building on this hopeful posture which calls us to trust that what we cannot see in the present moment has worth and purpose, like the love the father has for his daughter in A Quiet Place.
Or the incredible way that Infinity War offered us multiple different entry points into a story of our shared struggle and our shared defeat, reminding us that no matter how defeated we feel in the moment, this larger story, this human story has a purpose and that all of these singular stories are working together to create something beautiful. Something hopeful.
Indeed, hope is not lost. This is the childlike perspective.
As we learn to hope, as we learn to trust in this larger perspective that our momentary struggles can offer us, what drives us forward are the relationships that God has placed in our path. Like in Isle of Dogs where we see this push back against feelings of being lost and out of control and given towards conformity, meeting with this revelation that as we find ourselves stuck in the cycles of our political and social systems and our constant battle against injustice in this world, relationship and community becomes the ultimate and necessary answer to the problem. As Green Book reminds us, we are constantly being shaped by the others that surround us, and it is in our willingness to share in the stories of others that we gain the freedom to tell our own as well.
The same freedom we witness in White Boy Rick where a family stuck in their own cycles of unforgiveness and despair come to gain the perspective of their need for one another. Or the heartbreaking and heartwarming message of Hearts Beat Loud which reminds us that when all we see is our own sense of desperation, that single note left without a song to sing, that these places can push us to learn how to enter once again into the melody of others, just as Mr. Rogers does in the inspirational Won’t You Be My Neighbor as well, and just as the powerful road story exemplifies in Green Book. Or the brotherly relationship in the deeply intimate sci fi film Kin, and the painful process that a struggling and beaten down war vet facing PTSD must go through in the film Welcome to Marwen. Time and time again these stories emerge as a reminder of our need for relationship. In Instant Family we see this reaching into the brokenness of our social system to raise up children who are without a family. In the sweet Dog Days we see through these dogs the human stories that all stand in need of one another. This same message is true for Love, Simon and Eighth Grade and The Long Dumb Road, all stories of loneliness and isolation being healed by the power of relationship to free us from ourselves and our need to live up to our own expectations.
Perhaps the most important film to me towards this end is my number one film of the year, The Rider. In fact it is working through the process of this blog post that convinced me it belonged in my number one spot. It is a film that captures this narrative of perspective in its entirety and in its fullness, and it stands as the most spiritual and pastoral film of 2018 for me personally.
A story of being stuck in the cycle of struggle and despair.
A story about the power of relationship to both break and to heal.
A story about the prayers that define our brokenness and the healing God desperately needs to breathe into these places.
A story, as I wrote in my personal blog space, that helps us to see that “our true identity in the midst of this brokenness comes not from our individual freedom or accomplishments, but from our willingness to receive and extend grace in relationship to God and one another. This, in the Rider, is the answer to that question of why we choose to live.”
As the epic Bilal reminded me just yesterday, God is for the world and it is in this truth that we find life. This is the same message that we see Paul staking his life on in Paul, The Apostle. In The Rider we come to see one man’s journey towards seeing beyond the struggle and towards this sort of liberation from his pain. Not simply masking it or escaping it or drowning it away with vices, but embracing it and letting it raise his eyes towards a broader perspective of God, of others and of life.
If Paddington 2 and Mary Poppins provided me with those necessary bookends, The Rider represented a necessary center. And I am grateful for the way that God used all of these films to offer me perspective, perspective I have spoken of at numerous points as feeling largely lost and hidden amidst my cynicism in 2018. In the imagery of Mary Poppins, I find myself being beckoned to look up and to take flight as I continue to imagine my cynicism giving way to hope in 2019.