Spencer (2021, Pablo Larrain)
Spencer boasts a perfectly off kilter and eccentric personality befitting both its leading star and its subject matter. From the brilliant and immersive opening sequence, which sees Diana as someone lost in a world intent on containing her larger than life persona, we are introduced to this potential future Queen by way of a fable of contrast and conflict. Her larger than life persona is swallowed up by the endless hallways, massive rooms, and illustrious customs. The films ability to gradually coach the internal struggle to the forefront is thus almost unexpected, leading to a film that is as daring in its casting as it is in its direction and maybe even more so the transfixing score.
This all takes place over the course of a few days, which means it’s far from a sprawling or epic period piece, and that lends this a particular focus on its essential subject that brings to light not a life, but a person stepping into a life not necessarily her own. The fact that it is an imagined history; that is, an interpretive take on a very real time in Diana’s life that explores what might have happened behind closed doors, gives this film a ton of freedom to really unpack the idea behind the person as well, melding together what we know of who she is with the potential ideas of how this might have translated over the course of this couple days. Definitely one of the strongest films of the year, and one that I hope to revisit soon
The Humans (2021, Stephen Karam)
Might just be the new quintessential viewing for the holidays. The context is Thanksgiving, but it could work for any family holiday.
Categorically the film belongs with the likes of The Big Kahuna or Sunset Boulevard. It’s based on a play and the single location shoot revolves around a script that delves into matters of existential concern spanning life, family, relationship, circumstance, religion, forgivness, restitution, and hidden secrets coming to the surface. The film is beautifully shot, and script exceptionally written, and the performances perfectly captured. Viewer beware, this lays all the messiness of family gatherings to bare and thus should come with a serious trigger warning.
What the film does with these family dynamics is where the sharpness of its vision gets fully articulated. It encases it as a gradually emerging nightmare, with the momentary feelings of necessary escape being bound to the expectation that we are obligated as a family to be and to stay precisely where we are. The problem is the more we coexist within this space, the more the unspoken tensions, stifled as we try to make them, bubble up to the surface, leaving these family gatherings as an inevitable process of laying the dirty laundry on the table. In some ways this is the necessary therapeutic process, the thing that enables us to return to this space again and again despite its potential horror. For it to remain stifled is to have nowhere to go but into isolation. And yet the irony of this, something this film captures in its essence, is that this cast of familial relations are perhaps never more aware of this feeling of isolation than when they get together. This, it seems, is the conundrum of this necessary coexistence.
The definite horror notes then breathe through the narrative with an inspired sense of awareness of this dillema, using it as a way to visually represent the common experience. And yet, what undercuts this are silent moments of beauty and assurance, this unspoken word that seems to leave us with the conviction that despite its dysfunction family is necessary.
Nine Days (2021, Edson Oda)
Nine Days is a high concept film filled with intriguing existential questions about life, death, and suffering. Following a lone arbitor who has the arduous task of interviewing souls for the potential occupying of vacant life on earth, a process that takes nine days to conclude, the film digs deep into that central tension- is the chance at living truly worth the potentoal suffering, and what do we do with life when it appears that the bad far outweighs the good.
Belfast (2021, Kenneth Branagh)
This crowd.pleasing, one of a kind family drama is argubaly one of the Directors best works, taking a heartfelt and compassionate approach to a deeply personal subject- family and home, and more specifically that of Ireland and its past and its people, and weaving it into a story for audiences young and old.
The film features some exquisite framing that works with the constantly shifting camera work. There are times where it feels we are watching an elaborately screened stage production, complete with entrances and exits and choreographed to precision. There are other times where it immerses us in a dramatic sequence, with the artists imagination drawing us in through the creativity of the visuals. Still other shots settle on a specific scene, or it employs a static positioning, gradually revealing the details in the periphery that lie just outside our line of sight. Taken all together it’s a marvelous tapestry that functions as a perfect marriage with the films astute use of pacing and editing. There is a larger story being told, but much of this tends to ebb and flow with the sporadic nature of everyday life. One moment we are running through the streets, and the next moment we are navigating riots. We go from laughing to crying to shouting at the drop of a dime. It’s a beautiful ode to the experience of living in a particular moment, something this film captures so well. It’s one of the most natural and effortlessly written scripts I’ve encountered all year, and I soaked in every second of it.
Late Spring (1949, Yasujior Ozu)
It’s always incredible to witness a master at work. Here, Director Ozu, the one behind the equally beautiful Tokyo Story, brings his penchant for simple frames, quiet narratives and memorable characters to bare in this story about a 20 something year old daughter and her aging, widowed father. Every frame is crafted with care and precision, which makes it all the more striking that the Director is able to allow these scenes the room to develop on their own. The precision like approach is simply the means through which the true, natural beauty is captured in its essence. It really is an incredible work by an all time great, and has one of the most powerful final scenes you are likely to encounter.
Honorable Mentions: There are a handful of older films that are worth mentioning here, including the 2011 neo-realist indie gem Hail, a film that explores the depths of our humanity and the inner turmoil of that which challenges it, the equally harrowing family drama Krisha which gives new meaning to holiday gatherings and dysfunction, the documentary style dramatic exercise Horse Money that just might be one of the most beautifully rendered culturally centered stories I’ve seen in a long while, the startling powerful animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed which is based on the stories from “The Arabian Nights”, and the wonderfully tantalizing and poetic drama about dance and art and romance and mystery called The Red Shoes.
In terms of new releases it would be hard to miss the release of Eternals this past month, and it deserves mention for its daring and unique take on the Marvel formula. It was met with a bit of divisiveness, but for me its a striking visual piece rich in theological concern, taking the Thanos question and reframing it within an origins story. That a movie this big is able to feel this intimate is a testament to one of the best young Drectors working today. Equally memorable was the recent release of the entertaining sequel (of sorts), Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which finds the perfect way to merge the famiilar with something that feels fresh and new. The young cast is a blast and the films thematic focus proved touching and thought provoking. On the other side is a smaller film called Test Pattern, a 2021 film with real potential as a hidden gem, exploring a weighty subject (experiencing sexual abuse as a woman of color). It has some issues, but this is a Director worth keeping an eye on. Lastly, for the musice fans out there is Edgar Wrights other film that you might not have heard of called The Sparks Brothers, a documentary about a band you also might not have heard of. It’s a fiim that benefits from going in cold, which makes discovering this influential group that much more exciing to witness through Wrights eclectic style.
This is the Voice by John Colapinto
It seems like every other week another book comes along offering a fresh theory for the sudden explosion of humanity onto the scene in a narrow moment of history, enabling us to develop the way we did. Colapinto locates the narrative as a chance encounter with a product of nature that accidentally gave rise to our ability to emote sounds with our vocal chords and eventually formulate this into speach. This isn’t so much a book about the development of speech, although it certainly has a lot to say about that as well. Rather it is a book about what lies beneath our speech that makes it unique to us, which is the sounds that operate as communicaiton and the corelating brain development that allows us to interpret these sounds the way we do. It’s a fascinating premise, a well written book and interesting in the information it offers.
Beautiful Joe/Beautiful Joes Paradise by Marshall Saunders
I decided to revist Beauiful Joe after finding out there was a sequel. The orignal is a childood favorite and arguably one of the most formative reads in terms of shaping my perspective on life and our relationship to other created beings. The sequel, a first time read, is a beautiful and imaginative take on the hopeful truth that the creatures of the earth will be redeemed, that the powers that hold this world hostage to our destructive nature will be overcome, and that the joy these creatures were meant to experience will one day be realized in its fullness. It brings Joe back as our guide through the world to come, and the story itself is inspired by the loss of the authors own beloved pet. It’s a wonderful, hope filled story and both books stand the test of time.
Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection by Brian K. Blount
I heard about this book through an interview and I thought it sounded intriguing. The writing is a mix of theology and philosophy with a unique use of the Walking Dead motif used to bring to light an often negected aspect of our theology- resurrection. It was a transformative read for me simply for the ways it helps to articulate these two views, the transcendent and the earthly perspectives, exploring what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead. Reimagining what we coin as the living as the walking dead, Blount makes the case that reframing our perspective in this way can help us better understand the biblical narratives focus on moving from death to life amidst the dualing realities of life and death. It’s a new way of seeing our present reality, and equally a way of imagining our future reality in the here and now.
Recovering the Monstrous in Revelation by Heather Macumber/Reading Revelaton Responsibly by Michael Goreman
To be fair, Macumbers book is one that would be best served by reading it alongside a theological treaties. Her theory surrouding Revelation, and more spcifically the role of the monstrous in Revelation, something she uses Monster Theory to unpack, is fascinating and tantalizing. Shook up my perspective of the other, and the idea of the Holy Other. However, she admits that to do the work that she does she needs to step outside of the thelogical realm before moving back in, with her particular concern then being for the practical, historical, and philosophical. She spends less time thinking about what we should then do with this information in light of the spirits movement. This is where Goremans book proved to be the perfect pairing, standing as one of the most necessary and seminal works on the text for our modern age. Both are must reads for anyone interested in Revelation, with Macumbers effort being more intriguing and experimental and Goremans being a more theologically centered academic examination of the text itself
Galatians: Commentaries for Christian Formation by N.T. Wright
I have found myself recommending this commentary to those unfamiliar with Wrights body of work. It might not seem the place to find a working summary of his most important ideas, but for me they have never been given a more concise and available treatment. That these ideas can be understood while working alongside the scriptures that inform them makes this an equally formative and informative exercise.
The Strangest Way: Walking The Christian Path by Robert Barron
I had never heard of Barron before, but the way he is able to take specific relfections on Catholic theology and bring them into dialogue with other Traditions was impressive and meaningful. The focus of this book is essentially unravelling how Christian spirituality leads to something like the Cross, navigating what is then the strangest way as Christianitys most compelling attribute, and Barron has many thoughtful and insightful things to say along this journey. He’s an obvious intellectual, but of the kind that wants to be a bridge between higher thinking and the practical expression of the Christian life and experience on the ground.
Beer Christianity, Episode 57- Horror and the Bible with Brandon Grafius
My introduction to Grafius, inspiring me to pick up a couple of his books. I love the marriage of horror and theology and this episode reveals someone who is intimately engaged with both on an informed and studied level.
Biblical World, Episode 29- Nomadism and Architectural Bias in Archaeology with Erez Ben-Yosef
I’ve long been interested in the nomadic character of the story of Isreal, and this architectural look at the subject really challenged and awakened me to just how it shapes our understanding of the Old Testament text. Yosef helps to explain what nomadism means, how it plays into our interpretation of the text, and how it can help enrich our understanding of the text.
The C.S. Lewis Podcast, Episodes 22-29- The Chronicles of Narnia
For anyone with an interest in, connection to, or passion for these stories. McGrath, a Lewis scholar, has a special awareness of how these stories reveal who Lewis was, and this walk through of the different books was a really enjoyable exercise.
History of Literature, Episode 357- Louisa May Alcott
This accompanies another episode on Little Women itself, but this primer on the life of the author was really informative, especially with my growing interest which developed from the recent remake. Helped to clarify certain facts and offer some context.
The Great Books, Episode 204- “The Jewish War” by Josephus
This might sound dry but for me it most definitely was not. The interview is with a teacher, and while I differ on some of his pressumptions and assumptions regarding what this book could or could not represtent as history; I think he limits himself in the potential applicaiton of Josephus’ insights because of these predicaitons; its an exciting walk through an important historical text and source.
On Script, Episode 199- Gary Schnittjer and the Old Testaamet Use of the Old Testament
Loved the insight of Schnittjer when it comes helping us make sense of the interconnected nature of the Biblical text. We often see a focus on the New Testament use of the OT, but the OT’s use of the OT gives us the necessary groundwork to enter into that discussion appropriately and with widsdom.
Adeles newest requires multiple listens to fully appreciate, which is slightly different to her previous album But she is back with an undeniable confidence and force that demands attention. It’s as familiar as it is foreign, providing the perfect opportunity to invest. The reward being those subtle surprises that help shape these songs along unexpected and particular paths along the way.
Charlotte Cardin- Phoenix
Cardin captures the soul of this record via a movement between eclectic pop and dialed back balads. This informs the bend but don’t break nature of both the songs thematic concern, which largely seems to revolved around navigating the world as a young woman, and the emotional heft of its musical and often wavering crescendo. The soaring vocals of course help to embody this in a profound fashion, anchoring this ablum in her disinct craft.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats- The Future
The vibe of this album is infectious, and as the third album for this group it proves to be well beyond their years, a well crafted and quite diverse cross section of tones and grooves and melodies that all come together in a truly inspired fashion.
Snail Mail- Valentine
For an album titled Valentine this albums tunes aren’t all sunshine and roses. And that is to its credit, providing something decidedly cathartic as it enfolds us in some rich and layered compositions.
Joseph- Trio Sessions (Vol 2)
Continues where the previous one left off, featuring a stripped down take on the bands effortless melodies and showcasing the intracicies of their songwriting. It’s a whole different way to appreciate a magnificent musical team.
Natalie Bergman- Keep Those Teardrops from Falling
Bergman is back with her soaring vocals and thelogically attune lyrics, offering up a smaller EP that hits just as hard as the full length effort.
Honorable Mentions: The quirky and inspired mashup that is the French Dispatch Movie Soundtrack, The poetic hip hop and rhythmic rhymes of Propagandas Terraform: The Sky, the smooth movement of Elise LeGrows midtempo and soul filled Grateful, and the Country musings of Gabby Barretts Goldmine