1. The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966))
The story follows two essential characters- a man with a facial disfigurement who gets a mask which he wears to cover up his blemishes, and a young woman with a scar that holds in its presence the larger story of war, post war reality, and socio-political headship. Here the intimacy of the indivual story is seen through the larger context of the world that forms it. Whats powerful about this is the way the camera awakens us to matters of perspective, the one that we perceive looking in on us and making judgments of us and the one we perceive and judge looking outwards. These perspectives are shaped togther informing one another as we attempt to move out into the world and participate as we are, or as the mask suggests, perhaps as we wish to be seen.
2. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)/For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965)
Two blindspots that are both undeniable classics and masterpieces in their respective genres. Come and See is a war film that simply needs to be experienced in order to truly appreciate. It is an inspired story of two young lost souls caught up in the unimaginable horrors of war being forced, well beyond their years, to wrestle with the tension that exists between hope and despair. For a Few Dollars More is a Western by one of the masters. There is an earthy, stated realism to this rough and tumble, back to basics genre film. The way it frames the two main characters using the shared desire to trap these outlaws “in the middle”, putting one on the inside and the other on the outside creates some wonderful tension. Every aspect of this lives, breathes and oozes genuine and well established western motifs, functioning as a veritable collage of best of scenes that dance with the rhythmic beats of it’s calm, cool narrative focus. Rich characters embody this focus enabling it to tell its story with a sense of intention and urgency.
3. High and Low (Akira Kuosawa, 1963)
A superbly written detective story that moves with the choreographed dance of its effortlessly positioned performances. The first hour alone features some expectionally written dialogue stationed as it is in a singular apartment. The high and low of the story frames the films setting as it moves through the city with the second half broadening our point of perspective with the unfolding mystery. Everything about this, from the small details of the story and the set pieces to the cinematography is richly designed and an example of genuine craft that demands your attention and likely several rewatches. Simply brilliant.
4. Mass (Fran Kranz, 2021)/A Hero (Asghar Farhadi, 2021)
Two 2021 films that finally got wide release, both of which muscled their way into my top 20 list. One of the most beautiful aspects of Mass’ conversational approach is the amount of restraint it shows with the dialogue. The premise alone carries an immense amount of weight, following one couple as they travel to meet another couple who’s son took the life of theirs. We.are introduced to these four characters as they arrive at this Church, a neutral space in which they are able to sit down together. From here the movie simply captures this conversation as it moves through awkwardness, pain, snd uncertainty in an attempt to find some kind of healing. The church provides the perfect setting for the conversation itself, and as the title suggests this process echos parts of a religious liturgy being played out in real time, one that sees the call to forgive as I have been forgiven and struggles to make this fit with what feels like an impossible space already occupied by pain, anger and grief. And yet what is clear is that where there is forgivness there is freedom. The question, or the tension being played out between these four is whether this is a freedom any of them can know, and whether they can know it together. That is the part of this film that should keep you on the edge of your seat all the way to its emotionally laden conclusion.
A Hero, a new film by Farhadi, one of the all time greats, is a true marvel of filmmaking genius, bringing together the films moral crisis and its poignant and expertly crafted reflections on family, political, and social systems. That our main character, a man given a temporary 2 day leave from prison using this time to try and convince the debtor who sent him there to extend forgivness and grace, is also formulated with such depth and detail within this larger framework is what makes Fahardi one of the all time great filmmakers of our time. A steady hand guides the narrative from its simple beginnings through the persistent and eventually inevitable unravelling of this man’s choices, beginning with a simple decision concerning the finding of a purse with gold coins, finding in this unravelling something profoundly complicated and important when it comes to the world we are forced to make these choices in. What’s fascinating about the film’s title as well is that there are no true hero’s and villains in this story, rather there are people emerging within a system that enables such balances of power to exhibit their control over the other, something that seems to demand some level of necessary manipulation.
5. The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961)/Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)/The Children Are Watching Us (Vittorio De Sica, 1944)
Three films that help uncover a story of pain and trauma by seeing it from the childs perspective. The Childrens Hour is about how the childs perspetve impacts the lives of two women who are best friends. Serious performances utilize the strength of the script to explore this complexity and embody it in a fully realized examination of two women living in this time period and navigating accusations of same sex attraction. It is the particulars of this world and this context that proves a powerful snapshot of a moment in time, and yet a moment that lingers far into the shadows of our own present day. In Bergmans Fanny and Alexander, a definite blindspot, it beckons us forward into the world of this film and invites us to linger in the shadows where we are able to experience the story from the perspective of a child. Or perhaps more poignantly from the the perspective of widened adult eyes peering backwards into the solace of those complicated childhood memories. It would seem, given that this was his final film, and a majestic one at that, that Bergmans desire was to capture the trajectory of his career, writing this story through the lingering presence of his own formative experiences and shaping that against a career of deeply expressed longing, exploration, questioning and curiousity. Where the darker edges still seem to haunt him here spiritual imagination takes over bringing to life visions of a world that is able to move effortlessly between this earthly reality and transcendent truths. The film weaves together the supernatural and the natural tightly until they cannot exist above or apart. Similar with the fluidity of the life and the dream which Bergman Directs with expert attention to the cinematic transitions. Certain key images, the puppets being a highly visible one, anchor is in a sense of belonging functioning as both comfort and fear.
In The Children Are Watching Us we are given a view from the ground up, capturing the childs perspective of the world around him immerses us in the true emotion of this experience, and the circumstances being captured become an intimate snapshot of a family unravelling as the family ideal and the reality of struggle clash in this desperate battle for this young child’s innocence. The final scene inparticuar is about as big of a gut punch as you will find, with the gradually deteriorating state of things coming to a head. It’s phenomenal filmmaking accented by some wonderful performances, and it’s the kind of film experience you won’t soon forget.
Honorable Mentions: The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) is a pyschological and spiritually concerned horror that examines the limits of our perspective, the challenge of faith, and the formulating power of doubt. All About Eve (joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) is an outstanding character study built on the stand out and largely complimentary performances of Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in the role of these two women in quiet contest each with their own interests and motivations. The script is equally wonderful as it weaves in some wonderful twists and turns. And that ending. Absolutely transfixing and haunting. Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978) and Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) are two of Bergmans most powerful internal dramas, one delving into the complexity of family relationship and the other into a startling examination of faith and doubt. Lastly, Microhabitat (Jeon Go-woon, 2017) reminiscent as it is of Frances Ha, pulls a meaningful story about being lost and finding our place in this confusing and difficult world from a largley improvisational approach.
The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif by Brian Verrett and Jason DeRouchie
A must read for anyone interested in understanding how scripture works. It’s main thesis concerns the use of the serptent motif in the book of Samuel, something scholarship has noted but as of yet hasn’t offered a definitive work, but this concern intersects with how the serpent motof plays throughout scripture. It’s fascinating stuff and helps to shed a whole new light on the text, particularly where this concerns the messianic motif that stands side by side.
Delivered Out of Empire: Pivoal Moments in the Book of Exodus by Walter Brueggemann
Not unlike The Serpent in Samuel this book is paradigm shaping stuff. The way Brueggemann explores and exposits the Exodus story is intuitive, incredibly aware and deeply challenging. It transforms it from a stoy to a liturgical exercise shaped by memory and action. A must read.
Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James
An imaginative teen novel about a young girl who discovers the gift of bookwandering, which brings characters and settings to life. It’s part adventure, part mystery, part family story, and a complete love letter to the art of reading. The allegories are obvious, using the reading experience to create the story, and any book lover will be able to know intuitively what it feels like for Tilly to experience the things she does as a reader. It’s what we all experience as readers, and its what makes encountering this and other stories so powerful and meaningful.
Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey
Yancey has been on record saying this is the most imporant book he has written in terms of his own journey and experience, and the passion shows. It’s the story of his life, moving through crisis to faith to doubt to an embrace of mystery. Much of it is beautiful, some of it is chalenging and hard, and given my fondness for a lot of his writing I found the whole to be inspiring.
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
This wonderful childrens story has been on my to read list ever since I started this blog space. One of my first entries was on E.B. White, and this story about a relationship between this young boy and this swan as one that seemed necessary given how much I adore Charlottes Web. The human-animal component of course gives this a different focus and flavor, and I really loved how he blends these two worlds so naturally. Nothing about a talking swan seems out of place, and the journy between the two is able to touch on something deeply familiar to any young persons story as they look to find their voice and make sense of the word. Challenges me even as a grown man.
Honorable Mentions: How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason is a wonderful treatment of a small part of the world which played a significant role in the shaping of modern society. It’s entertaining, well written and full of interesting history. After Evangeicalism: The Path to a New Christianity by David Gushee takes on the history of evangelicalism in an honest and balanced fashion. The insights it brings on how this movement emerged and what it is is insighful and helpful, providing a way for those who come from this world to make sense of oruselves as well.
Pedro the Lion- Havasu
I love the idea of marrying music to a sense of place, this being the second in a planned series of albums centering on front man David Bazan’s childhood homes. This one focuses on the city of Havasu, with the first track following his arrival, with ensuing tracks capturing a mix of resistance, reconciling and hopefulness. It’s sparse, experimental (love the way it uses the guitar to evoke that sense of the unknown and to capture a feeling of empty space), and contemplative as it moves from the space he occupies outwardly to the space he occupies inwardly.
Comeback Kid- Heavy Steps
Full disclosure (or perhaps a shameless claim to fame)- I used to play in a band with the guitarist. He’s far more established now than those days of jamming in our basement and our bedroom, so I’m fairly certtain any potential bias is a moot point, but it’s still always an exciting timetohear what they come up with. This most recent album has all the familiar grooves, grind, and melody, but, as with much material produced during a globl pandemic, the album feels both stated in its awareness of the times but also deeply optimistic. It feels designed to tackle the angst head on and if we ever needed a tonic for hard times this album wants to provide this in what is there most polished, produced, and personal album yet.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones- The Alien Coast
Diversity seems to be the name of the game here as this beloved outfit continues to challenge themselves and reach for new ideas. This album moves through different genres almost as if there were no barriers between them, uniting it through a signature vocal sound that would be impossible to miss. The album feels and sings somewhat apocalyptically, moving through the material and the spiritual on its way to capturing something of the present state of things. And yet this isn’t dire stuff, rather it champions the beauty of the creative process in a way that places the artisty as its healing work.
The Wombats- Fix Yourself, Not the World
I’m not sure I could define this bands sound, which is part of what endures me to them. It continues to land somewhere in the pop/alt rock arean, whatever that means, and increasingly their songs are finding ways to adapt to their growing arena presence while still holding on to that necesssary piece that makes them who they are. As they get bigger they seem to get more undefined. However one defines it though its pretty dang fun.
The Lumineers- Brightside
If the title is any indication this album is a big old tall glass of optimism in a well designed signature mug. it does hit some emotional points, with songs dealing with the pandemic in clever ways, but it never lingers in the sadness or the solace or the lamenting. It’s full and ready to raise that glass to brighter times using that signature sound to do it.
The Faculty of Horror- Episode 102, Rule Breaker: Scream
I could also cite their 2021 in review episode which recently released and is a lot of fun, but given the Scream franchise was a first time watch for me early in 2022, getting ready fot the new film, I figured I would highlight this conversation about the much loved horror satire. It manages to dig deep into the subtext with a passionate voice as our guide.
Mere Fidelity- Episode 262, A Hermeneuitic of Wisdom with Dr. J. de Waal Dryden
Inspired me to pick up the book. Drydens concern for recovering the multifaceted nature of wisdom literature as something more than just a limited genre that make up those “other” books, is inspired. Seeing wisdom as a motif that runs throughout scripture and within genres is a fascinating idea that, after listening to this podcast, makes a lot of sense.
The Bema Podcast- Episode 255, Water, Spirit, Darkness, Light
I wrote in this space about how this exposition of John 3 transformed my understanding of the Bibles most famous and well known verse. The whole series has been really good but this one was particularly riveting and challenging.
History Unplugged Podcast- Episode 616, Are Cities Humanities Greatest Invention or an Incubator of Disease, Crime, and Horrific Exploitation/Episode 618, Dragons Exist in Nearly Every Cultures Mythology as a Mirror of Their Fears. What Are Ours?
Two interesting podcasts on different elements of our history (cities and dragons). I picked up the book for the History Unplugged episode called Metropolis: A History of the City by Ben Wilson and I’m excited to dive in, and dragons always make for interesting and enjoyable discusion.
The Book Review- Episode 382, The Chinese Language Revolution
After listening to this podcast I decided to pick up the related book as well (it’s been a good month for new book discoveries). It’s called Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu, and it fit perfectly with my recent drive to read books on China. I’ve encountered far too much racism lately and this felt like a way to change the tone and ensure I’m thinking, reading, and speaking in a different way.