The Movies, The Oscars and Catching Up on the Year (2017) That Was:

Last year I posted a blog on Valentines Day discussing the upcoming Academy Awards. At the time it made me realize just how far behind I was when it came to seeing all the Oscar nominations. Likewise, the more I caught up with the Oscar nominations the more outdated my personal picks for Top 12 films of the previous year (that would of course be 2016), started to get. And what compounded the problem (of course) is that some Oscar picks usually don’t even see wide release until January of the New Year. This meant some of the films that might have made my list would end up lost in that middle ground during the long, dark days of January.

So this year I decided to change things up. I figured it would take me a good month and a bit into the New Year to catch up on the films I wanted to see in 2017 and for all of the 2017 films to get wide release, and so I aimed to hold off on any best of lists until February 14th, After all, what better time to write about my love of cinema than Valentines Day. And with the Oscars right around the corner and the nominations officially announced it would also be an opportunity to reflect on those as well.

What I have done here is used select categories from the Awards nominations as a stepping stone for looking back at some of my personal favourite films and cinematic moments of 2017. And to note this right off the top, for as much as 2018 has been proving to be really strong coming out of the gate, 2017 was a stellar year for movies in its own right. Narrowing down my personal favourites was not easy, but as always it was rewarding.

With all that said, here is a look back at the year that was, the upcoming Oscars, and my favourite films.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
I dropped the ball on seeing documentaries this year so my thoughts will be necessarily limited. But I wanted to include this category because of 2 films I am really looking forward to seeing and one film that I did see which really resonated with me, even if it didn’t make any of my top lists.
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Faces Places
The much praised and talked about “Faces Places” tells the story of a French artist and a willing Director who team up for a trek across France, during which they begin to create portraits of the different people that cross their path.download

I have heard the doc is an incredibly intimate and touching portrayal of the ways in which we see ourselves, not only through the privacy of our own personal mirrors but also in the ways we imagine the world sees us from the outside. In this same sense I have also heard the film is an “eye opening” experience, which is keeping this film near the top of my must sees list when it finally becomes available.

 

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
This one appears to be a bit polarizing given the subject matter, and your experience of the film from what I have heard could very well be determined by your level of interest in the subject matter.

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Given that it is about The New York Public Library, and of course set in New York, It happens to fascinate me on a number of levels. It feels like this will be the sort of doc that raises questions I didn’t even know I had while taking me inside a world I knew existed by I am not sure I ever actively imagined.

 

 

downloadJim and Andy: The Great Beyond
As one of the documentaries I did get a chance to see, Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond is a film about Carey’s groundbreaking performance in Man on the Moon, examining what the performance represented for Carey and how his career led him to this point.

Although the title of the film does suggest a singular moment in time, the film also deals with Carey’s career and life as a whole, which for me was the most captivating part of the film. Affording Carey some context provides us with a fascinating study of the power of method acting as means of losing yourself in a given role, and an intimate look into the challenges of navigating Hollywood as someone who is also trying to find himself. The friend who recommended this to me suggested if you appreciated the man’s talent before, this film will take that appreciation to another level.

 

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CINEMATOGRAPHY
This might be the category that has me most excited as I look back at 2017. There were a few films that really managed to represent themselves as true cinematic accomplishments, reminding me of why the theatrical experience can be so powerful and so rewarding.

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Blade Runner 2049
Hands down the single greatest cinematic achievement of 2017. Visual, expansive and truly immersive, Blade Runner 2049 transported me to another world while leaving plenty of room for me to really wrestle with the questions this world evoked. A truly remarkable and satisfying sequel.
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Dunkirk
Nolan’s much anticipated experiment in making a war film owes much to his deep (and also studious) appreciation of Saving Private Ryan. It is an experiment most notably in his desire to pattern this after the great thrillers as opposed to following in the footsteps of his hero by recreating Spielberg’s emotionally resonating dramatic reenactment. Alternating perspectives between water, land and sky is intended to build the tension necessary for the thriller elements to be effective, and it is these three perspectives that provide Nolan an opportunity to really entertain the full cinematic possibilities of this film by taking the Imax cameras into places they had never been before. This is a truly immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate.

 

Mudbound
Mudbound occupies space on the other side of this same cinematic discussion. It is a film that never saw a theatrical release and thus must find ways to fully immerse the viewer on a smaller scale.
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I do feel the film was underserved by being denied a theatrical release as it is the wonderful cinematography that truly moves this film forward. But the film still manages to loom large, commanding our attention to the detail it affords its setting. There is a definite poetic force to the way the mud and the earth are used to symbolize the human stories it protects, and the way the narrative flows out of the ground and into its human stories in intimate and visual ways was one of the more compelling cinematic moments of 2017.

 

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Kong: Skull Island
If I was going to measure this category on pure spectacle, Jordan Vogt-Roberts deserves a mention for Kong: Skull Island. His use of lighting, setting and period piece, all components of cinematography, was rather incredible to witness on the big screen, and although I consider this one of the most entertaining blockbusters of 2017, the cinematography should not be understated as its most impressive accomplishment.

 

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The Shape of Water
The cinematography is this passion project’s greatest strength. From one of my favourite all time directors, The Shape of Water might not be his best film but it just might be his most beloved work. As a love letter to the art of film, it is a true celebration of the capacity for visual and cinematic storytelling to move our imaginations. It has been nominated in a number of categories but this might be the category I feel it is most deserving of.

 

 

 

 

 

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ORIGINAL AND ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Original:
When it comes to the Oscars these are the two categories (original and adapted) that often tend to honour the films not likely to win Best Director or Best Picture but that still deserve acknowledgement in the eyes of the Academy.

Of all the categories, this is the one I also find the most fascinating to consider. The power of a good screenplay should not be understated. There are many different aspects of film, but whereas direction and performance can often elevate a film above its weaker points, subpar writing is the one thing that has the power to bring everything else down with it.

 

The Oscars have rightly recognized Get Out, The Big Sick and Lady Bird in the category of original screenplay, 3 films that commanded an undeniable cultural presence largely due to the strength of the writing. These are not flashy films, but each of them offered something unique to their particular genre thanks to an original screenplay. Get Out reimagines the horror genre as a commentary on race relations. The Big Sick proves that great comedy can be both subtle and timely. Lady Bird proved to the world that a small, unassuming, coming of age indie could be personally affecting in big and unexpected ways.

 

And yes, each of these films would be well deserving of an award, but from my own perspective there were a handful of films that did not make the Oscar list that I felt also demonstrated the power of a great original script.

download-4The Book of Henry
I am somewhat alone in my love of this film, but there was something about this small, independent passion project that evoked my love of cinema in a very real way.

In terms of screenplay, Trevorrow uses his original script as an opportunity to transcend genres. It is a risky move and likely cost him his hold on the Jurassic franchise, but it definitely deserves respect. download-3More so it deserves attention as one of those films in 2017 that took me on a truly unexpected emotional journey, moving through moments of laughter, sadness, edge of my seat thrills and finally contemplation. Yes, the film takes some incredibly sharp turns, but this is what made it so exciting to me. It might not all work, but it is trying something new, and much of this is a credit to Trevollow’s commitment to a particular idea, an idea his commitment to his original screenplay, one he had been working on for years, ultimately helped bring to life.
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Mother!
A polarizing film that left some people feeling a bit betrayed, and this polarization is largely thanks to the powerful script that shifts this film away from the traditional horror elements and into the realm of a modern day parable. There are great performances and the pacing of this film is extraordinary, but the true strength of Mother! is found in the sheer brevity of its story. The film’s allegorical intention keeps each scene and each interaction intimately connected to the symbolism of the films larger vision, and this is a testament to the strength of the script that it all eventually comes together. Definitely one of the more intellectually rigorous and engaging film experiences of 2017.

Downsizing
Another slightly polarizing film thanks to a script that helps shift this film away from preconceived assumptions and pushes it into some unexpected territory.download-1 There are big ideas in Downsizing and the screenplay deftly manages to flesh these out using an equally big and ambitious narrative arc that centres around people getting small. The best screenplays work to leave the audience with much to think about in the days after seeing a film, and Downsizing is one I continue to think about well into 2018.

 

 

Adapted Screenplay
If you are interested, this informative article written last year just prior to Moonlight’s Best Picture win explains why some films qualify for original while others compete in adapted. There are of course obvious differences between the two, but suffice to say that this discernment can sometimes get, well, a little complicated: https://www.vox.com/2017/2/25/14693400/oscars-2017-original-adapted-screenplay

Beyond the Oscars though it is certainly true, especially when adapting source material that is familiar and beloved, translating the images we have in our minds of these characters and stories into more concrete forms is delicate and incredibly subjective territory to tread. It is always worth remembering that book and film are two very different artistic mediums, and the best adapted films in my opinion are the ones that manage to tap into the unique strength of visual storytelling in order to give a particular narrative fresh perspective.

And what are these strengths?

My first love is books, but with the sheer accessibility of so much visual material along with being in a phase of life that seems to be demanding more and more time in my older age, I tend to watch far more films than I am able to read these days. Which highlights one of films greatest strengths: It’s ability to use a single visual to interpret pages and pages of written exposition in a short amount of time.

Screenplays tend to be much tighter, move much faster, and are much more intentional than a novel. Writing slows down the story and tends to be more organic, more free flowing. Novels can be sprawling by nature where films need to condense. Novel writers have the freedom to take time in building the world and the characters it desires to help us to see and imagine for ourselves. At the same time books have to be much more concerned with creating a hook that will draw people in since people are far more willing to give 2 hours of their time to a film than they are days to a book.

But even beyond all this and most pertinent when it comes to film adaptations at their best and most distinguishable is that films by nature an “interpretive” process. Writers begin with the visuals they have in their minds and then invite us in to imagine it for ourselves. Adapted screenplays in contrast are one persons “imagining” of another authors intention in realized form.

Sometimes a film does inspire me to read the book, but in general I am someone who prefers to read the book before seeing the film. This is mostly because I enjoy engaging with a visual artists interpretive process over and against my own. If I read a book after seeing a film I am already reading their interpretation into the process, and thus I miss out on being able to imagine it for myself. It becomes more of an intellectual exercise than an immersive one. I like to consider the ways a particular director or actor sees a shared story differs and compares to my own.

When I haven’t read a book upon which a movie is based, the differences between adapted and original are often indistinguishable. When I have read the book upon which the film is based I tend to view a film differently. And the question I generally ask and will be asking as I turn to consider some memorable adaptions from 2017 is this. Did the artist effectively show me their imagining of the source material?
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Logan
There is no shortage of reasoning for considering Logan in any of these categories, but the most interesting part of this films inclusion in the adapted category is the fact that the Oscars rarely consider comic book films outside of technical categories. The closest example I seem to find is The Incredibles being nominated in the screenplay category, and certainly shutting out The Dark Knight remains etched in my memory as one of the Oscars greatest snubs.

What makes this even more interesting is the way Logan takes a specific series (Old Man Logan) and interprets it through the larger mythology of the X-Men comic book world. Narrowing down the actual source material that informs this film is not an easy task. That it managed to capture such a cohesive and realized emotional narrative arc using such an expansive possible slate of material is an exceptional accomplishment in this category.

 

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Their Finest
This is a film that flew under the radar in 2017, but it is one that definitely deserves to be seen. Spoiler alert, it makes my personal top 12 list in the final category. I adored the way it uses a film within a film premise to shed light on the power of storytelling, something that adds even more layers to the whole screenplay as an interpretive process discussion. download-2It is apparent that the glue which holds the narrative together is the strong source material, and given how much the story is anchored in the idea of imagining visual storytelling on the page, it seems tailor made to be adapted for the screen.

 

Wonderstruck
I caught up with this one rather late in the game and I found it to be truly exceptional. Although these two films really only share the New York setting, it reminded me of Brooklyn, one of my top films of 2016 and a film that uses two distinct worlds in order to explore a single narrative arc. It is also worth mentioning both films utilize colour in very interesting ways.  download-3

The strength of Wonderstruck is its narrative force, which is why I am considering it in this category. The fact that the film uses an absence of dialogue, colour, music and visual cues to bring its competing timelines together in a single narrative arc is exceptional and makes this film a standout choice for me in the category of my personal favourite screenplays of 2017.
 

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Mudbound
I have already mentioned Mudbound, but it is a great example of film using visual interpretation to capture the spirit of the novel  Director Dee Rees (it is worth mentioning here this is the first film directed by a woman to be nominated in the cinematography category) takes full advantage of helping us see the poetic prose of the novel in visual form.  

 

 

ANIMATED FEATURE
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Coco certainly stole the spotlight in 2017, and probably for good reason. It might fall short of some of Pixar’s best, but the way it shines a light on an underrepresented (and misrepresented) Mexican culture, and the fact it is the culmination of a true and honest labour of love makes it worthy of all the attention it is getting.


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Loving Vincent

For me it is the remarkable Loving Vincent that deserves the nod in this category. It pushed the art of animation into new realms of creativity as the first fully painted animated film. Influenced by Van Gogh’s own particular techniques and using some of his paintings as a means of telling a part of his story (namely the period of time following his death), the film is as gorgeous to look at as it is compelling to consider. As a uniquely biographical drama it works to humanizes one of the worlds great artists while using the art to explore central human questions about longing and belonging that haunted him.

downloadCars 3
I know my opinion here will likely merit much criticism, but I would consider Cars 3 over Coco as my favourite Pixar film of 2017 for a few reasons. First, I was genuinely surprised by how good it was. It departs from the spy centric plot line of Cars 2 and deftly returns to the story’s humble beginnings, bringing Lightning McQueen’s story arc to an emotional and fitting conclusion. In doing this Director Brian Fee narrows in on the originals greatest strength, its use of nostalgia to evoke a powerful sense of competing visions of the American Dream. If you get a chance it is well worth looking into the story behind the film, as for anyone with a passive interest in Americana lore, this love story to Route 66 and the way its demise sheds light on the growing affects of economic progress is captivating and infectious and full of heart.

For as much as the original really did wear its heart on its sleeve (for better or for worse depending on who you ask), Cars 3 raises this to the level of challenging and insightful. There is a deeply felt commentary that moves us from the American Dream to the art of aging and learning how to age well. The fact that this also happens to be a film for kids is impressive and somewhat daring given that it deliberately slows down the pace (ironically) and speaks mostly to an older audience. For as much as this exercise in risk taking might have isolated the film in the process, it also helped make this the best of the 3 Cars films.

download-3Lego Batman
I could not let this category go by without pointing out the travesty of failing to include Lego Batman in the Oscar Nominations conversation. This is a film that was vastly underrated and under appreciated for just how good it actually was. I think it got lost in the shadows of the original Lego Movie, which is unfortunate, because even if it is decidedly different and perhaps slightly marginalizing (given the inside jokes on everything Batman), it was equally deserving.

 

 

BEST PERFORMANCES

Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game
What stands out for me about Chastain’s performance in Molly’s Game is the way she carries this film on her shoulders. The story itself is interesting, and the screenplay chooses to juxtapose the story of Molly Bloom’s journey from Olympic hopeful to girl on trial in some interesting ways, giving us glimpses along the way of the idea that who she is and what she is doing owes something (or much) to a untold past. And the more glimpses we get of this idea, the more layers it adds to what would otherwise be a straightforward narrative.

This requires Chastain to balance a film that is constantly shifting back and forth between these two pictures of Molly Bloom, and she manages to balance this incredibly well. The idea that she allows us to connect so readily the Molly we come to know near the end of the film with the Molly we see in the midst of this slow-building and otherwise undefined character development is what makes this performance one that deserves recognition.

download-4Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel Esq.
Roman J. Israel Esq. gets my vote for most underrated film largely because of what Washington brings to the table.

On the surface Roman J. Israel is a man defined by a series of physical quirks and ticks which Denzel manages to recall by offering a very physical performance. Underneath these physical traits we also find a powerful story of what it means to reconcile our need to respond to the moral corruption we see around us with our inability to fix ourselves.

Here Washington is required to give a performance that is able to reach across a rather large emotional arc, with Israel’s own journey reflecting the nature of the social reality he observes. We tend to exist between two very real economic realities, one that moves us from poverty to riches, and what his performance captures so vividly is the truth that no matter how well intentioned we might be, these economic realities tend to dictate our choices sometimes (hopefully) for better and often for worse. Which is why grace is so necessary, both for ourselves and for the world in which we live as we respond to the moral corruption we see around us.

Washington is prone to choosing redemptive narratives, and in his role as Roman J. Israel he embodies the idea that we must learn, and relearn, what it means to truly forgive ourselves first before we can do the work of extending this grace outwards to others. There is a fine line between righteous and self righteous, and the minute we lose sight of where we actually stand on this line is the minute we lose the ability to extend grace where it is needed. And as Denzel’s character reminds us, especially in the powerful final 30 minutes of this film, the hardest place to extend grace is nearly always in the direction of our own need.

 

downloadJake Gyllenhaal in Stronger
I am generally a fan of Gyllenhaal’s work, but his performance in Stronger finds him at the height of his game. This is what I would call an invested role, as emotionally taxing as it is physically demanding while it works to recount the story of a real life Boston Marathon Bombing survivor who loses the use of his legs and must now learn how to live without them.

Gyllenhaal’s character is not exactly likeable, and one could say he doesn’t necessarily redeem himself either. He is clearly dealing with stuff, and being injured in the bombing only serves to bring this stuff to the surface. He is caught between being seen as a hero and coming to terms with the reality of his own failure and hating who he really is. The ways in which losing his legs now makes him dependent on others only heightens this sense that he is a failure. And so slowly over the course of this film we can see this realization begin to wear on him, watching as he uses his own feelings of inadequacy to mistreat those who love him and whom he needs the most.

The most remarkable thing Gyllenhaal does is commit to giving us a reason to extend compassion even when it doesn’t feel deserved. He commits himself to this idea that this man is stronger than he realizes. In doing this he invites us to consider what it is that drives this person to be so enslaved to the demons of this past, and invites us to consider further that sometimes, even for the best of us, just figuring out how to survive another day is the most remarkable and heroic feat of all.

 

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother
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I am big Jennifer Lawrence fan. Watching her grow over her rather illustrious career from young Katniss to what we witness in Mother reveals someone who has grown tremendously in her risk taking and her willingness to truly challenge herself. I have always had the sense this is an actress who is dedicated to her craft, and what she brings to Mother! shows the fruit of this labour.
As one of the most compelling and thought provoking films of 2017, Lawrence’s performance is key to telling this story in a way that works. She embodies a role that requires her to entertain a balance of subtlety and commitment given the nature of how the narrative unfolds. It’s a role that must guard the secrets that are driving the films allegorical twist while also committing wholesale to the character we are watching unfold in the moment. It’s a daring experiment in the art of performance, and by the time we reach the climax of the film, when this mystery begins to be revealed for what it is, Lawrence simply explodes with a force that absolutely knocks you upside the head. It’s quite startling actually to be reminded of just how talented she really is, and the older she gets the more raw and uninhibited she seems to become. And in my eyes we are all the better for it.

 

 

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DIRECTOR:

 


If there is a category that is able to express just how strong 2017 actually was it would be Best Director. Just looking at the Oscar Nominations alone we find legendary names like Christopher Nolan and Del Toro, both of whom happen to be chasing their first Oscar win, to promising younger voices in Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig. And this is not to mention Spielberg could easily be considered in this mix as well.

Any of them would be equally worthy of the award, but it is no secret that 2017 is the year I get to cheer for Del Toro. He is one of my favourite directors, and even if Shape of Water isn’t his best film I am pulling for him to be recognized for his body of work.

With that said, here are some others that I would also readily consider on my personal list:

Kathryn Bigelow for Detroit
I would consider Kathryn Bigelow for her work in Detroit, a film that made my personal “most underrated films” list.

Bigelow brings an intimacy to a film I heard one critic label as a “riot epic”, bringing an incredibly complex picture to life in a very confined space over a defined (and isolated) period of time. Bigelow is great at capturing a sense of frenetic motion and tension in confined spaces over defined periods of time, something that is on full display in the incredibly taught Zero Dark Thirty and the much praised The Hurt Locker. But where Zero Dark Thirty focused on recreating the tense moments of the manhunt over and above any exposition of the larger political conversation, Detroit can’t help but speak to the politics. I think her greatest accomplishment in Detroit is acknowledging this reality while still having control over the specific story she is looking to tell. And while I am happy Greta Girwig got the nod for Lady Bird and would have loved to see Patty Jenkins nominated for Wonder Woman, I would consider Bigelow the most deserving female director in 2017.



Todd Haynes for Wonderstruck
Director Todd Haynes, who brought us the rather wonderful Far From Heaven has a really sharp sense for recreating the period piece. In Wonderstruck he manages to bring to life New York City as a living and breathing character, allowing the city to develop alongside the characters through two contrasting timelines. There is a profound sensibility that forms his ability to use the city as a means of fleshing out the characters.

Equally compelling is his ability to visually capture what it might feel like to live without one of your key senses (in the context of the film this would be hearing). In the absence of much dialogue, Haynes is free to imagine the world through its visual cues, and in a feat of creative force uses an understated soundtrack to aid us as viewers in imagining what it might feel like to find ourselves lost in an unfamiliar part of the world without the ability to hear.

Wonderstruck really did captivate me in ways that few other films did in 2017. The narrative arc that brings the two timelines together is incredibly intentional, so much so that the film invites us in on the mystery by offering visual cues along the way. But it also feels incredibly organic. And Hayne’s ability to attach us as viewers to his creative vision with such emotion is something that set this film apart.

 


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James Mangold for Logan

James Mangold has accomplished something incredible with Logan by reimagining the comic book film without allowing the R rating to feel like a gimmick (hello Deadpool). He also gives us one of the most redemptive stories of 2017, both of which are elements of his direction that make him an easy pick for my list.

SOME OTHER CATEGORIES TO CONSIDER…
Before I get to the final category (Best Picture), here are a couple other brief categories just so I can sneak in some honourable mentions.

FAVOURITE BIOPICS

Goodbye Christopher Robin
An insightful look into one of my favourite childhood authors. As with most authors of children’s stories, his real life story is one full of struggle and conflict. But it is this story that gives greater weight and meaning to the stories he wrote.

 

download-1The Man Who Invented Christmas
I really liked the way the film explores the story of a man who gave us the most iconic Christmas story of all time. Offering us some context allows us to appreciate not only who this man was, but what drove him to write the story that he did. It is no understatement to say this book truly transformed the way we understand and celebrate Christmas in the West, for better or for worse.


FAVOURITE MUSICAL
download-2The live action retelling of the iconic Beauty and Beast took the world by storm, and for good reason. It rises to the level of pure spectacle. What is most impressive is the way it holds the integrity of the story together while nudging it just slightly towards a bit of creative reimagining. Modernizing the tale in this way really helped to bring it life in fresh way.

Most Underrated Films of 2017
I have already mentioned Detroit. The idea that more people didn’t see this film is disappointing to say the least.

download-5Worth adding to this list is Marshall, the perfect film to mark Black History Month. The film isn’t flashy, and the director colours the period setting in an almost charming, fictitious fashion, but the true life story of the man who who happened to change the face of civil rights in America is far from fictitious of course, and hugely important in helping turn the page on an important part of our history. As timely today as it was years ago, the film does a great job at evoking this sense of urgency.

Along the same lines is Roman J. Esq, a film I’ve already suggested boasts one of Denzel’s great performances.

Lastly, The Book of Henry is the single film I happen to stand furthest apart when it comes to obvious critical disdain. Thus it is a prime candidate for most underrated.

BIGGEST SURPRISE
Two films stand out for me in this category.

downloadJumanji: Welcome To the Jungle
Wasn’t sure what to think when I heard they were remaking this one. Didn’t expect it to be nearly as good and as fun as it turned out to be. It is a modest budget film that just keeps on ticking well into the new year.

Brad’s Status
A film that flew under the radar, but what surprised me about this Ben Stiller drama was just how close to home the film hit. It speaks of a man hitting that midlife mark and his struggle to reconcile his life with the life of those he grew up.download-1 It’s about his struggle to really make sense of what is most important and the places in which we find our value in the midst of our tendency to measure this all against our perception of other’s success. And as it helped to remind  me, our perception of others rarely tells the whole story.

And now for Best Picture…

 

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BEST PICTURE
If there is a film I would have loved to see at the top of this list it would have been the final film in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy (“War” if you are keeping track). As arguably one of the great trilogies of our time, the final Apes film moves us towards a truly epic conclusion, full of impressive scope, incredible affects and memorable performances. Taken together, all three films are truly exceptional works of cinema.

And yet, as a stand alone film it didn’t quite make it onto my personal best of list. There was simply too much competing for a spot in this final category, and for as much as I loved the trilogy I feel I would likely put Rise and Dawn before War.

Also worth mentioning is my own personal list deviates quite drastically from the Oscar Nominations, which doesn’t surprise me at all. Over the years I have come to recognize this as the most subjective category. There are just so many factors at play when it comes to determining which films stood out for me on a personal level.

With that said, and with much wrestling and heart ache (I do hate leaving films that I loved off the list), here are my top 12 favourite films of 2017, starting at the bottom with number 12 and moving up to my choice of favourite film of 2017 (the only category here that I ordered according to number).

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12. The Shape of Water
Yes, I am pulling for this one to win out at the Oscars even though it sits at number 12 on my list. It is worth mentioning however this is the only nominated film that makes my list. I have always loved film, but Pan’s Labyrinth changed the way I see film. The potential for a film to accomplish what that film did thematically is something that I will forever be measuring every other film against, and as the only film to receive a 5 star rating from me it remains my favourite film of all time.

The Shape of Water doesn’t rise to the level of Pan’s Labyrinth, but it is certainly a well crafted passion project. And as a window into Del Toro’s mind and heart, and as a love letter to cinema, it stands out for me in 2017 for its delicate visual touch and its call back to some of the great cinema of old.

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11. Brigsby Bear
An overlooked gem of a film that took me to unexpected places. Crafted with a compassionate hand, the film takes a story about innocence lost and weaves it into a powerful picture of what it means to belong in a grown up world. Brigsby Bear is one of those films that I think has the potential to mean many different things for many different people, and although I have no idea if this was intentional or not, as a father to an adopted son I happened to see it as a powerful picture of adoption, something I talk about in this space i a previous blog post (see Brigsby Bear). This was something that helped elevate this film to a truly personal level.

 

download-310. Spiderman
There were some genuinely decent Superhero films released in 2017. Marvel keeps finding ways to surprise us, and although Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was met with somewhat mixed reviews (some felt it toed the line a little too closely instead of branching out), Logan and Thor Ragnorak caught most a lot of us off guard with their collective tonal shifts. And then there was that small film called Wonder Woman which changed the game not just for the D.C.U. but for female directors and female heros being represented on screen moving forward.

And hey, lets not forget the genuinely underrated Captain Underpants.

But for anyone who knows me well, it would be near impossible for me to ignore how excited I was for Spiderman: Homecoming to accomplish a true return to form. I was hopeful going in, and it exceeded my expectation, mostly for the ways in which it proved a younger Peter Parker was the way to go. I made the cautionary statement afterwards that I think this film might have even transplanted Sam Raimi’s Spiderman as my all time favourite superhero film. I am not convinced that it did, there was just something about the way that original film captured a moment in time and paved the way for the M.C.U. we know today to emerge. And when push comes to shove, I prefer a more super human Spiderman swinging through the sky to the much more grounded and rationalized Spiderman we get in Homecoming.

But the fact I even considered that it could transplant that film says something significant about my experience of Homecoming as something wholly other, and I think where a more grounded version of Spiderman might not connect with me on the same emotional level, it did allow Director Jon Watts to give me the most developed on screen Peter Park I have seen to date.

 

download9. A Ghost Story
A truly haunting film, A Ghost Story lingers as a testament to the unfinished story, the power of a singular perspective caught in space and time where we must struggle so see how grief, sorrow and desperation all fits into the bigger picture. It is a film in which I found moments of grace in the midst of what is a great and concealed sense of sorrow, but in which these rather profound moments of sorrow are allowed to find their place in the midst of the grace.

A Ghost Story is not for everyone, and if its not, you might very well end up seeing this film as a colossal waste of your time. But if it does land for you there is potential for this film to land on an intensely personal and deep level. I think this is what it is intended to do. It’s a very particular story in which the pacing of the film is indicative of the grieving process. And it’s unsettling to say the least, but for me it was unsettling in the best kind of way. The restlessness I felt as I watched the film became a kind of meditation, seeing the movement of life and of death in perspective, a movement the film imagines through the lingering presence of a single white bedsheet with holes cut for eyes.

 

 

download-68. Downsizing
This is a film that muscled its way into my top 12 list late in the game. The more I think about this film the stronger and more compelling it seems to get, which is a big part of why I included it at number 8. Based on what I expected from the previews, the film unfolds in ways I did not expect.

The story itself builds as a rather strong (and surprising) social commentary, raising some important questions about the ways in which we choose to see life in this world and the things we deem to be the most important. And in raising these questions it looks to point out that there is a very real problem with the way many of us choose to see life in this world and with the things we deem to be most important, and a problem we need to address sooner rather than later.

What really struck me about Downsizing is the way it takes a purely humanist construct entrenched in materialism and plays it backwards through a poignant and pervasive (if undefined) spirituality, one that becomes increasingly in focus the closer we get back to where we started. In doing this, and in telling the story this way, it recognizes our dependance on our ability to solve the problem is in fact a part of the problem. How we choose to see life in this world and the things we deem to be most important is a problem that runs far deeper and is far more complicated than we often realize. We can’t simply “downsize” and have all of our problems go away, because in a spiritual sense humanity is the problem. Thus the film calls us towards rethinking the way we do life and what we deem to be most important by reshaping our view of ourselves. It’s a rather big statement to make in a film about becoming small, but it is both necessary and effective.

 

 

download-57. Wind River
Wind River brings to light important issues while also delivering a taught, edge of your seat thriller. It just might be one of the best and most important films of 2017, shedding light on the problem of missing indigenous women and providing us with an important commentary on racism, reminding us that pain, suffering and hardship is indiscriminate. That it also dares to entertain is a part of why this film makes #7 on my list.

 

download-26. Mother
I’ve already spoken to the polarizing nature of this film in an earlier category. But if you are able to get past that feeling of betrayal (this is not the horror film it was advertised to be), you will find a film that circumvents the tradition narrative structure. On an allegorical level, the true work of watching Mother! is figuring out who these characters are and what the story is supposed to represent. Once you are able to wrap your mind around what the film is actually doing (which is quite the mind blowing revelation) it leaves a lot of room to begin peeling back the layers. How you interpret the film should also reveal much about the ways in which you tend to interpret the world at large, which is what makes this film so profound.

To add to this, the film is also executed with some breathtaking fervour. The trajectory of the narrative and the fervour of the pacing offers us one of the most intense cinematic experiences of 2017, and the performances that bring this to life are equally astounding.

 

5. Their Finest

Their Finest checks one of my favourite cinematic boxes: films about making a film. The fact that it is also a gorgeously shot period piece with some great performances (Gemma Arterton is phenomenal and Bill Highy is wonderful) simply raises this to another level.

Their Finest deals with some darkness, detailing the sort of fear the tends to bind us in times of uncertainty (war) along with shedding light on the problem of inequality in Hollywood (representation of women). But it deals with all of this with a light and endearing touch that desires to evoke laughter, joy and love in the midst of the darkness.

 

download-44. The Big Sick
A brilliant dramatic comedy built on a sharp script, realized emotion, and well defined characters. One of the smartest and most deftly realized comedies to hit the screen in a long time.

download-23. Wonderstruck
An exceptional film in which the wonder is in the details. Wonderstruck calls us to participate in the unfolding mystery of a narrative that reaches across time, and it does something profound with a city that is both the setting for the story and a layered and complex character within the story. It demonstrates some of my favourite kinds of storytelling in film and more than any other film in 2017 managed to draw me into that sense of wonder that make sorts of films so important to me.

download-32. Logan
A beautiful and touching film that acts as a fitting bookend to Jackman’s (now) iconic interpretation of Logan/Wolverine. But the question of legacy is only scratching the surface of what makes this film great. More than just a gimmick, director James Mangold uses the R rating to explore the darker parts of Logan’s incredibly human story, and it resonates like few other films did in 2017, providing us with one of the most poignant on screen pictures of redemption I have encountered in a long while. The sheer brevity and weight of the films many lasting images will stick with me for a long, long time, and Jackman’s “give it everything he has left to give” performance is one for the ages. 

 

 

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1. Blade Runner 2049
A truly remarkable cinematic achievement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim and Andy

The Big Sick
Wonderstruck

Wind River

Logan

Their Finest

Spiderman Homecoming

Blade Runner 2049

A Ghost Story

Mother

Lady Bird

Brigsby Bear

Downsizing

The Book of Henry

The Shape of Water

Kong: Skull Island

Loving Vincent

Beauty and the Beast

Stronger

Roman J.

Molly’s Game

Cars 3

Personal Shopper

Valerian

Coco

The Dark Tower

King Arthur

Detroit

Smurfs

The Great Wall

Breathe

Anabelle

Baby Driver

Atomic Blonde

Power Rangers

Guardians 2

The Wall

Alien Covenant

Life

Lego Batman

Before I Fall

Happy Death Day

The Sense of An Ending

Battle of the Sexes

Planet of the Apes

American Made

Goodnight Christopher Robin

The Foreigner

The Man Who Invented Christmas

 

 

 

Biggest Surprise

American Made

Happy Death Day

The Foreigner

 

Biopic

Goodnight Christopher Robin

The Man Who Invented Christmas

 

 

Most Underrated

The Dark Tower

Detroit

2018 Reading Challenge- Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

“Driving down 93, I realized once and for all, that I love the things that chafe. The things that fill me with stress so total I can’t remember when a block of it didn’t rest on top of my heart. I love what, if broken, can’t be repaired. What, if lost can’t be replaced.

I love my burdens.”
– Patrick Kenzie (Moonlight Mile)

One of the best things about the Reading Challenge I took on this year is the ways in which it is helping me to rediscover some books and series that I had long forgotten. This part of the challenge had me choosing 5 of the first 10 books I added to Goodreads when I signed up many years ago. When I logged on and came across Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane I got really excited. I can remember adding it to my list, and even heading out to the bookstore to buy it. But then it sat on my shelf for all these years. I had forgotten why I added it, and being able to finally dig into this one also led me back to other loves of my reading past, including Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, and even the film (and novel) Mystic River.

 

Mystic River and the Uncovering the Question of Motivation
It was the adaption of Mystic River for the big screen that happened to be my introduction to author Dennis Lehane’s vast body of work. As one of my favourite films of all time, director Clint Eastwood made some curious choices that left me eager to read the novel. He lets us wrestle with the films central themes of sin, guilt, and friendship through the ambiguity of the central character’s motivations. And given this is a film about the ways in which the choices of our past tend to catch up with our present, a notion that we see in the stories memorable catch phrase “We bury our sins, we wash them clean”, the lack of backstory leaves plenty of room for us as viewers to fill in the gaps ourselves.

This is a wonderful cinematic device that allowed me to really walk in these characters shoes, but it is one that also left me eager to dig into the literary source. And what I discovered in reading the book was an author who was equally adept at handling the question of motivation, only Lehane chooses to fill in the gaps using words and description. This is a literary device that also allowed me to walk in these characters shoes, just in a slightly different way. I found myself needing to interpret Eastwood’s use of space, whereas I found myself needing to imagine Lehane’s use of dialogue and descriptive.
Motivation can be a difficult thing to flesh out not matter the narrative form, and I understand what drew Eastwood to want to adapt Lehane’s novel for the big screen. It takes a special voice to be able to do this without falling into caricatures of either good or evil. And what impressed me about Lehane after having the privilege of reading some of his other works (another favourite of mine was Shutter Island) was the way he is consistently able to use the question of motivation to hold his characters, usually complicated characters who are being haunted by a particular choice or tension, in balance.
Kenzie-Gennaro and The Difficult Choice
Moonlight Mile finds Lehane returning to world of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, whom many might also remember from the popular film Gone Baby Gone. Midnight is actually the sixth novel in the Kenzie-Gennaro series, but it also happens to be a sequel to Gone Baby Gone, one that picks up a number of years down the road.

What is immediately impressed on us as viewers in the opening pages is the recollection that Patrick was left to make a difficult choice in Gone Baby Gone, one that left him, and us as viewers/readers wrestling with how to interpret the decision along the line of right and wrong. Moonlight Mile falls in line with Mystic River in the sense that it leaves plenty of room for Patrick’s choice to haunt him, especially given that this story takes place 12 years later. Lehane uses the opening pages to give us the feeling of a life and a world that has both managed to put itself back together in some sense, but in which many of the pieces still lay scattered. Lehane leaves us with this lingering sense that however the story moves forward, Patrick is going to need to deal with his past in order to move forward, especially as it relates to his relationship with Angela. And what becomes clear the further we get into this story, is that the question of motivation remains incredibly important when it comes to really understanding who these characters are.
Maturing as an Author, Diving Deeper as a Writer
Lehane has also matured as an author, and I believe this is his best book in the series. He allows this story to dive a bit deeper and really seems to understand what it might mean to walk in Patrick’s shoes after some of this stuff has been left lingering for so many years, someone who must learn to wrestle with his demons and engage a difficult past even while he struggles to hold things together in the present. And one of the things Lehane elevates here is his ability to flesh this out within the context of relationship.

 

It is Patrick’s relationship with Angela, something we see challenged in the end of Gone Baby Gone, that becomes the foundation through which both Patrick and Angela, who also gets some wonderful characterization here, are able to understand and accept what it means to live as broken people. The power of this relationship was the consideration they gave to the same moral question coming from different perspectives. And what Moonlight Mile reminds us of is that, when it comes to wanting to better ourselves, often times this growth happens in the midst of the grey, not the black and white. And it in this place where the question of motivation, why we make certain choices and what these choices say about us, becomes to important. And the fact that Lehane is able to bring this out with such attentiveness, and in the guise of a crime novel is a testament to his talent as a writer. He understands that when it comes to characterization, leaving room for us as readers to really wrestle with the characters choices is the process by which we become endeared to the characters he is developing, and also the means by which we find compassion for their position. And where Eastwood did this using space and ambiguity, Lehane does this using the power of words.

2018 Reading Challenge: Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

downloadHave you ever stopped to consider how we measure what qualifies as Children’s literature, or what makes Children’s Literature “children’s” literature?

It might sound like an obvious question, but the more I think about it the more I wonder why I have never asked this question before. It is a question I feel author Bruce Handy presupposes through the premise of his book Wild Things The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, a book I recently finished as part of my 2018 Reading Challenge. It falls under my goal of reading 5 recent books from either 2017 or 2018. This was released last year and so it hasn’t been sitting on my TBR list for very long. But it is one I had been anticipating. And it didn’t disapoint.

For Handy, Children’s literature really isn’t all that different from adult literature. They tend to tackle similar themes, they have layers and character development. If there is a difference for Handy it would seem it relates to the perspective of the reader themselves, or perhaps more important, their disposition, which as handy puts it, for a child is looking upwards at a world that looks a whole lot bigger before it becomes small. To revisit these childhood stories as adults, as the subtitle suggests this book intends for us to do, is then to make our world bigger again.

 

From Birth to Death
The structure of the book narrows in on select books and organizes them in a way that reflects a journey from birth (our awareness of dependency in Goodnight Moon by Margaret Brown) to maturity (our awareness of death in Charlottes Web). In organizing it this way, which is essentially chronological, Handy is able to narrow in on the different nuances of each age category in a way that makes for a fascinating study of how literature shapes us and the ways in which our life experience, our our age, shapes the way we engage with story in different ways according to the different phases of our life.

 

For example, stories written for a very young age tend to begin in what Handy describes as that “sacred space” where the world is not yet messed up, and more specifically, parents have not yet messed up. It reflects a period of innocence as opposed to naivety, the sort of hopeful disposition that is able to see and embrace the world in simple terms.
The older we get the more complicated the world becomes of course, and this is where children’s literature begins to adapt to reflect the anxieties of growing up in this world, encouraging imagination (Dr. Seuss), and then expanding our capacity for imagining into the introspective (fairy tales), and then ultimately our ability to reflect outwards in meaningful ways (Chronicles of Narnia). All of this builds independence and equips us to step out into (and make sense of) the messiness of the world.

 

Handy also underlines the cyclical nature of Children’s literature. There is a point in which these books begin to cross the line between what is for children and what is perceived as adult literature, and the ways in which this happens reveals a lot about the world that we inhabit and how ambiguous this line can sometimes be. It is not static. Every childhood experience is different. But what is shared is the truth that, as we grow older we, all of us, gain perspective. And the further we get from our childhood, we, all of us, also lose perspective as well. We no longer are able to see the world from looking up in the way we once did. So Handy is suggesting there is worth in returning to these stories that shaped us in order to help us remember what it was to see the world from the perspective of looking up rather than down. And the strange and wonderful truth that comes out of revisiting these stories is that we are given the opportunity to reengage with themes that meant something to us growing up but that we are able to understand more fully as adults. This concept is both humbling and informing. These books teach us to use our imagination before the world is able to steal it away, and revisiting these stories is a way of reimagining once again, just from a slightly different, grown up perspective.
 

The Lives That Shaped the Stories
There were so many great reflections in this book that helped me along the way to see the idea of Children’s literature in a whole new light, and much of this revolved around the lives of the writers themselves. Each of them were fascinating and unique individuals who often found themselves writing their own experiences into their books in different and sometimes unexpected ways. I found it shocking to read that so many (most actually, with very little exception) children’s authors were childless and didn’t seem to care for children. A. A Milne was a great example of this, something that the recent bio-film (Goodbye Christopher Robin) captures with great clarity as well. As was Margaret Brown who penned stories for those who are really young, and, ironically she was the only author Handy deals with who actually studied “formally” to write Children’s literature. Or there was Lewis, who writes as one who was never truly able to let go of his own childhood experiences even as he held great respect for the capacity of a child like imagination.

 

In truth, as the author posits, they all respected children in their own way. That’s what made each of them such great and captivating authors, and perhaps it is worth considering the fact most of them did not study formally might mean the true colour of children’s literature is far less standardized and far more nuanced than we might assume it is when we first consider the question of what Children’s Literature actually is. There is a fluidity to these stories that tends to reach beyond static boundaries and which is eclectic and surprising, even more so when we come back around to reading them from an adult perspective.
Fairy Tales
One of the more interesting sections of the book for me was the chapter on fairy tales. There is something about this middle ground, that space when our ability to imagine is being tested and pushed and challenged, that is so exciting for me, and Handy has so many great things here to say about what fairy tales are and why they are so effective. As Handy suggests, “we can never know fairy tales. They remain wild things at heart”, seeing the power of Fairy Tales as a “fusion of mystery and immediacy”. It gives us a place to question while being extremely attentive to our need to still see the world through hopeful eyes.

Handy goes on to say that “fairy tale worlds mimic the real world as kids experience it- the strangeness, the newness, the unfamiliarity, the fear of hidden monsters, the arbitrariness of adults demands, the supernatural assumptions about almost everything (paraphrased).” They are, as he goes on to say,  “the last echos of “ancient myths”. They bring us face to face with the horror of the world, and admittedly as Handy points out, most fairy tales if adapted from their source material would earn a hard R rating.

But the thing is, they also tap into our need for wonder and light and good. Handy has some interesting things to say as well about the way Disney helped tap into this need for wonder and light and good in a much more definitive and forming way than the Grimms did.
Another really interesting part of this section is seeing the contrast between fairy tales and animal characters. Handy outlines the specific nature of animal characters, suggesting that animals are easy for children to engage and sympathize with in terms of understanding good and evil, but they also emerge because of the apparent lonliness of the writers themselves. The animals tend to take on “the political and social colourations of their own era” and helped the writers to examine these traits in ways they could make sense of in light of their own troubled lives. Animals, in this sense, according to Handy, incite their feeling of smallness in a big world, and there is something considerable about the way animals can take us deeper into the messiness of growing up in a way that, if it were a grown person telling the same story it would likely look something more along the lines of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones.
“Fairy tales look inwards while animal stories look outwards.” We don’t identify ourselves with animal characters, but we do identify the animal characters with the world in which we live, and thus animals can in some sense capture the brutality of this world as well as its potential for good in a similar way Game of Thrones does for adults.

 

A Love Letter to Children’s Literature
Beginning with what is possibly the first children’s book in 1690 with the New England Primer, Handy has written a love letter to children’s literature. He helps us see it as a sacred space, offering us the chance to navigate the forming years of our life in a way that allows us to reconcile the simplicity of the world we once accepted with such ease with the messiness of the world we come to discover and wrestle with and ultimately embrace.

There is poignancy to the suggestion, as we arrive in the end at Charlottes Web, that “as adults we weep for Charlotte (death), as kids we rejoice that Wilbur had all these new friends (life).” Handy admits he is not a religious or spiritual person, and if there is a slight downside to this book it is that this creates a visible tension between the wonder we find in the stories he deals with and his more pragmatic and binding world view (something I sensed before ultimately coming to know his position in the chapter on Lewis). But this statement for me, even with its obvious humanist undertones, was profound for me in a religious and spiritual way. Handy sees this as a reflection of the “cycle” of life. I saw this more as a call to learn to see the world again through a fresh sight of eyes, eyes that are able to challenge our sense of control and certainty.

 

The joy of reading children’s literature is ultimately, for me, about holding on to wonder and imagination and, above all, hope. It reminds me as an adult that cynicism does not need to overshadow joy, and that the truth about our world that these stories have to share and mirror for us is truth that we need to hear as adults as much as children, possibly even more so. And as Handy ultimately comes around to say in his closing words, the joy of reading children’s literature as an adult can really come down to this simple idea- it’s so that we “keep reading”.

My 2018 Reading Challenge: Mother Tongue: My Families Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert

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Christine Gilbert might not be the most distinguished writer or seasoned academic you’ll ever read, but she is a great storyteller. It is her ability to provide a platform for these stories to be told that gives the necessary weight to an impressive and diverse body of work/personal projects (see http://christinegilbert.com/), including a recently released memoir titled Mother Tongue: My Families Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish, a book I chose to include as part of my personal 2018 reading challenge, filing it under the category of: Read 3 travelogues or non-fiction books related to the theme of travel.

 

The Power of Language
It is clear from the title that Mother Tongue is a book about language, and while she is certainly knowledgeable about the subject it is worth noting that Mother Tongue is not (primarily anyways) a book about the science of language, nor is it a scholarly work on the history of linguistics. She is not looking to redefine the field or offering anything necessarily new for serious students of the subject.

 

Rather, this is a book about the ways in which the power of language helped to inform an incredible personal journey of self worth and social awareness. In other words, it is intended to be read as a conversation, one in which she invites us as readers to participate with her as she attempts to make sense of what her experience, her quest, taught her about herself and about the world in which she lives.

 

On the surface this is a conversation about her personal quest to be fluent in 3 languages. Beneath the surface though is a conversation about why she is on this quest in the first place. And as it is with any great storyteller, she finds ways to explore and express this deeper question by weaving the details of her quest into a compelling narrative that ends up holding some surprising thematic force.
A Motivating Hope
Early on in Mother Tongue the author lets us in on an important piece of this motivation- hope. Hope that is fueled by the evidence that learning 3 languages might help combat a genetic predisposition to dementia, and hope that her decision to be bilingual, or trilingual, might help to break the cycle of dementia for her young son as well.
Already as a reader I was being offered a sense in the early pages that the author’s journey was a deeply personal one anchored by a strong emotional undercurrent born from the pain of watching a loved one suffer and die, and the desire that grew out of that to help protect her son from having to go through the same thing.

As the story moves forward, landing her in China and then eventually in Lebanon and Mexico, this same emotional undercurrent begins to uncover some added baggage from Christine’s past as well, baggage that begins to redefine her journey into the world of language, or at least her expectation of what it might be, through the reality of the neglect that coloured her past. Breaking the cycle of dementia becomes synonymous with breaking the cycle of this neglect, turning her own broken definition of family and motherhood into one that is being redeemed through the life she now has the opportunity to give to her own child, and eventually a second child.

 

And what is so fascinating about watching her navigate these waters is the way her own experience with this neglect has made her intuitively aware of the distance that language can create between cultures. The trials she faced in China of being exposed as the ambiguous and stereotypical “other”, the freedom she finds in Lebanon’s multi-cultured and multi-linguistic environment, and the learnings from these two places that she is able to take with them into Mexico, offer a profound statement of what it means to accept and to belong, both in the context of family and in the context of culture.

 

To Barcelona and Back Again
The book opens with a romanticized picture of Barcelona, the place in which her and her husband began their journey together, and offers us a promise that we will eventually return to these same streets on the other side of this journey. But first she must tell her story, one of having to leave and one of eventually choosing to return. And it is in the leaving, the stepping out, that she notes 2 central facets to learning a language that become absolutely necessary for her in order to understand the language she is learning-

1. That which we absorb through immersion
2. Information which we learn through study and the classroom.

And in understanding these two facets she begins to see a common thread running through her own experience, first of learning Mandarin, and second of learning Arabic. And this is the idea that learning the culture tends to be more important than learning the language itself. The marriage of language and culture was far more prominent than she imagined it would be when she first set out on this quest, and near the end of her journey she eventually comes to realize that it is more important for her to be bicultural than bilingual, and it is this revelation that ultimately brings them, and us, back to the streets of Barcelona.

 

Embracing Our Misconceptions
So much of Christine’s journey circles around the idea that we live with misconceptions, both of ourselves and of others, and often these misconceptions arrive as a result of the barriers that language tends to create. Being able to communicate, to see and hear one another, becomes far more important when we experience life without this communication. And the further she goes on her quest to conquer and tear down this barrier, the more misconceptions she finds being uncovered.

 

It might have began as a misconception surrounding the technicalities of becoming trilingual, such as the fact that it was far less of a step by step process and far more fluid and nuanced than she expected it would be. Or the very base level misconception that to be bilingual is to be smarter and more intellectual. She discovers that being bilingual is more about context and necessity than an increase in brain or intellectual capacity (a point in which engages with some of the serious science as well). Bilingualism doesn’t make us smarter, but it does make us more social. At birth and at a young age the brain that controls multi-languages is the same part of the brain. For those who learn another language at an older age, separate parts of the brain control the different languages. The differences are subtle but also real, with the most glaring one that learning older sets back the capacity of dialect, sounds, linguistics, accents. But what she finds is that we are all equally capable of becoming bilingual.

 

All of this eventually transforms into some larger misconceptions as well, such as thinking that Mandarin should be easy to learn if she simply puts in the time. There are some very clear reasons (for her) as to why she was able to fall and love with and connect to the Arabic language and not Mandarin, the biggest of which was the access she was given to the culture itself. She was not able to immerse herself in the Chinese culture, and what shocked her was just how far this set her back in being able to appreciate and learn the language.

Or misconceptions about the diversity of language, something we see in her absolutely beautiful and passionate rendering of Arabic as a threefold language of expression- written, street and verbal. Here she helps us as readers to see just how entrenched language is in the culture that gives it shape, and how big of a role it plays in defining different segments of the same society.

Or the shock of knowing the role of cultural expression in forming language as tonal shifts. We don’t hear this in our own language because we are immersed in it. It becomes automatic, allowing us navigate the language of social cues through tones and expressions. When it is not automatic though, these social cues become a massive obstacle to overcome in order to belong and not to be misunderstood.

 

Or one of my favourite misconceptions that emerges along her journey was the role that food plays not only in culture, but in language. Where bilingualism becomes biculturalism, food inevitably seems to be never far behind.

More Than Just a Language
In all of these misconceptions Christine has weaved together a story that reminds us as readers that language is not simply something to master or the building of a social construct. It is a means by which we either connect or distance ourselves from each other. It is learning to communicate who we are to one another so that we understand one another. In this way language is built on relationship, one that uncovers the motivations, dreams and passions and longings of the other (something that hits close to home during their time in Lebanon), but also helps us to gain a greater grasp on our own self as well. And as Christine so demonstrably shows, it is the beauty of time and space and community that shapes our marriage to language more than anything else. In giving time, in increasing her sense of space and in broadening her sense of community she came to see language as more than simply words, but also as a face and a place that holds personality and meaning, a face and place worth getting to know and investing in, a face and a place that, for as different as they are from their own, reminds them of how much we all have in common.

Liturgy, Breathe and The Gospel of John

Without going into detail, it would be fair to say that these past few years have seen some tough moments for us as a family. I shared some of this story with a good friend who happened to be in town visiting a few weeks back. We are childhood friends and shared a a similar Christian upbringing, but after attending the same Christian university we both found ourselves wrestling with our faith. He made the choice to walk away from the Christian faith he grew up with while I ended up (eventually) being pushed further towards it. Our friendship however thankfully has persisted, and is perhaps even stronger for, even considering the fact that we really only talk at most a couple times a year.

Given the geographical distance to our relationship we have developed a knack for picking up exactly where we left off the last time we connected. These are always the best kind of friendships. It affords us the ability to dig deep without wasting a lot of time with unnecessary pleasantries or surface banter. In truth we don’t often discuss religion,  however, when I shared our story it caused him to ask a rather revealing question about faith, one that was obviously very important to him on his own journey as well.

How do you reconcile that experience with your faith in God?

Of course this is not the first time I have encountered this question. In truth I find myself asking it often, even on my best days. But what surprised me was just how unprepared I was to answer it coming from the mind of someone else. This caused me to walk away from our conversation feeling unsettled, needed to seriously consider revisiting the question again for myself.

 

A Co-Existing Relationship Or An Irreconcilable Contradiction
I think the reason I felt unprepared to answer this question is that I don’t necessarily recognize my faith to be at odds with the idea there is suffering in this world. That is not to say I don’t wrestle with the questions suffering evokes, but I have learned to be okay with the idea that these questions can co-exist with the confessional nature of my faith.

 

What left me unsettled though was the fact that my friend posed this question to me in the way that he did. This told me, considering our shared upbringing and education, that I didn’t always believe this co-existing relationship was possible. Looking back on my life I think this feeling is most likely right, which means that my faith is something that has evolved over time. For me is a good thing. In fact, the willingness to learn and to evolve, which is never an easy thing, has strengthened my faith rather than weakened it. But the fact that my faith has changed meant that my ability to make sense of my friends question in the context of my life required me to figure out why it changed.

 

The Lutherans and the Liturgy
The time I spent working in the Lutheran Church in my 30’s stands out for me as having a significant impact on my understanding of the relationship between suffering and faith. Every Church has a liturgy. Not every Church recognizes this liturgy for what it is. For me, the first time I had walked through the doors of a Lutheran Church was when they gave me a job as a Youth Pastor. This was also my first encounter with something I recognized as liturgical, a Church that practiced a liturgy that was visibly and audibly connected to a long standing faith tradition. The opportunity to learn the liturgy in this environment helped me to rediscover the power of the Christian narrative in a new light.

 

Liturgy in its most basic sense evokes an expression of both service and work, two words that provide some context for the original Greek. We participate in the “work” that God is doing in our midst by being called to praise, confession, prayer, Word and communion, the components that make up this liturgy. And it is this communion with God and one another the pulls the liturgy in this direction, becoming the means by which we are then equipped to “serve” God by being in “service” to the world around us.

 

So back to the question at hand. How do I reconcile the idea of suffering with my faith? I think my first response might be that not unlike the liturgy, it is a process, one in which the way I see God in the midst of my experience is rarely the same as the God I encounter in my confession. Which is why I feel the need to keep returning to this liturgy week after week. I need to be reminded every day of who God is in the midst of a world that doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense.

Service is sacrificial language bound together by humility, submission and grace, something that permeates the direction of the Liturgy and holds it together. Service is a willingness to subvert our own need for control by submitting our needs and our sins to God and in turn allowing God to move us towards attending to the needs of others. And the truth of this process is that it leads us is into the midst of not only our own suffering, but the suffering of Christ and ultimately the suffering of others. And suffering, captured in the light of service, is something that remains very much outside of our control. And so this becomes a willingness to enter into service to one another’s suffering in a way that is not dependent on the condition of our own lives or our ability to control the way we believe things should be. Rather it teaches us to depend on God’s ability to use our lives regardless of where we find ourselves and despite what we feel we might have to offer.

 

Learning To Breathe
A recent viewing of the film Breathe, starring Andrew Garfield and the rather wonderful Claire Foy also helped me on my journey toward considering my friends question. The film tells the true story of Robin Cavendish whom, after contracting polio ends up confined to a bed and a breathing machine and given mere months to live. Through the inspiration of his wife, the reality of his new born son, the help of an inventor, and the support of friends, Robin finds the will not only to keep on living, but to transform the idea of what it means to live with such suffering. Cavendish inserts himself back into public life against what society, in this day and age, had deemed all odds.

There is a moment in the film when Cavendish has first been hospitalized and received his dire diagnosis where a priest comes to visit him at his bedside. The Priest is moving from bed to bed blessing the souls of the sick and the dying, and when he gets to Cavendish he goes on to suggest to him that it is in our suffering that we can see God’s plan for our lives more clearly. He then leans over Cavendish’s bed ridden body so that he can offer him God’s blessing, at which point Cavendish spits directly into the priest’s face. It is a singular moment in the film, but it is a moment I can’t help but feel the real life Cavendish’s son, who produced this film, inserted with intention. It feels necessary and important for setting the film up to tell the rest of the story in an honest way, an important mountain to climb and a pertinent question to address in the face of his impending (and desired) death. As if to hear Cavendish say, here is my suffering, there is the idea of God, and so let’s not waste our time chasing after foolish notions that cannot be brought together.

And although the scene is only a moment, it does manage to linger just long enough for the sentiment to emerge that, if this idea of God is true then this “God must be playing a joke on us”, as a fellow terminally ill resident suggests to Cavendish in the aftermath of watching the Priest run out the door. A bit later during Cavendish’s eventual trip to Spain, a trip intended to give a figurative finger to death’s supposed upper hand, a Spanish resident also follows up this sentiment up by adding, “God plays a joke… so then we might as well throw a party”.

Which brings me back to my conversation with my friend. Breathe is a film about one mans decision to face his suffering head on and give it meaning. But for my friend, as it also seemed to be for Cavendish, suffering without meaning is what caused God (or the idea of God) to become irreconcilable.

Which brings me to an important realization as I work through my friends question for myself. The message of Breathe is that we need meaning in this life in order to live in this life. So the real question becomes, where do we find this meaning. For John and his Gospel, this meaning flows out of the work that God is doing in the midst of the suffering, a work that is made visible by our own call towards the service of God and others.

 


The Gospel of John
If, as I mentioned above, “work” is an important part of our liturgy, work also becomes an important theme in John’s Gospel as he continues with his testimony of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.

In my previous blog on the Gospel of John I reflected on the fact that in his first chapter John establishes the single most important theme in his Gospel, the idea that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness, as weighed by the witness of history itself, has not overcome it (1:7-8). And it is because of this witness that we can believe (trust or hope) in the work that Jesus is doing “as” the light of the world (1:7). This presupposes a strong correlation between the work that Jesus is doing in the world and our ability to believe, a relationship that John’s Gospel is deeply interested in exploring through demonstrating the way in which he sees the witness of Jesus taking shape in the lives of his original audience.
As John begins his “testimony” (1:19) we see this pattern emerge where nearly every person who encounters Jesus first encounters Him through the witness of someone else, beginning with the priests and the Levites whom are sent by the Jews to find out who Jesus really is and then to bring this information back to them. Upon encountering Jesus, we see the priests and Levites insist,

“We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself? Who are you?” (1:22)

There is this need for the Jews in this story to have an answer for who Jesus is, and yet they remain distant from the , filtered through the testimony of others in a way that they can’t quite make sense of for themselves standing at arms length.

This need for an answer, for a way to reconcile our experience of this world with our faith in a God whom seems unconcerned with our suffering, remaining distant and allusive from our struggle, is also reflected in my friends question. We need to find meaning in our suffering, something the story of Breathe so eloquently reveals, and yet it is the idea that we seem to suffer without meaning that is the very thing that appears to keep God at a distance.

This is the darkness.

But John insists that the light still shines. For as allusive as Jesus seems to be in the midst of our struggle, in the midst of the darkness, perspective, He is in truth, walking in their midst, the one “crying out in the wilderness” (1:23), a phrase that not only resonates with the voice of the prophets and the Israelite story, but one that also resonates with the voice that brought this world into existence.

Jesus has been walking with us throughout history. This is the light that the darkness has not overcome. Which means we can also believe that the darkness will not overcome it in our present tense. As the brief recollection of the storm in chapter 6 reminds us, it is when the darkness persists, both literally and figuratively, and when the storm rages that we can also find glimpses of Jesus and an opportunity to invite Him into the boat with us. And a significant part of this storm passage, one that we must not overlook, is the persistent rowing of the disciples in the perceived absence of Jesus. They want to do work themselves, and yet for all the strength they show in rowing in this passage, they find themselves stuck without Jesus. It is the work of God then, in bridging the distance between our struggle and His love and grace, that welcomes Jesus into the boat in the midst of our darkness. This is what it means to believe.

And for John, to believe, this activity of hoping and trusting in the work that God is doing in getting into the boat and taking control of the oars,  is to see God in the pattern of Jesus’ own witness. And not only to see, but to see the “greater things” (1:50) that God will continue to do to shine a light into the darkness.

To say this again (because it is worth saying again), if most of the people in these opening pages of John’s Gospel discover Jesus through the witness of someone else, John uses this to awaken us to the truth that it is in the witness of Jesus that we come to see God. And what John seems to covet is this idea of bridging the gap, of coming to see God in the person of Jesus with our own eyes, of welcoming Him personally into our boat, our lives. And the “greater things” that Jesus is referencing is coming to believe (hope and trust in) with our own eyes the work that God is going to do in Jesus, the work of Resurrection (2:18-22; 1:51; 5:25), the giving of life in the midst of suffering, the shining of the light that will one day break through the darkness for good.

 

The Work of God
So what is the work of God?

The work of God is the person and ministry of Jesus, the Word that John testifies of in the opening moments of His Gospel.

And what is the work the Father is doing through Jesus?

He is making Himself visible, moving us from seeing Him at a distance towards an up close and personal relationship with the one through whom all things are made, the one who is walking in our midst.

This is the sentiment we find in chapter 4 as the Samaritan witnesses finally declare, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.” They believe, and this belief is the work of God in bringing them into this relationship so that they can know who God is personally.

 

The Gospel of God’s Work Continues
This sentiment allows John’s Gospel to become a growing exposition of  God’s “work” in this world as we move from chapter 4 into chapter 5, the beginning of a 5 chapter arc (chapters 5-10) known by scholars as the “festival cycle”. And it is in this arc that we see opposition to Jesus’ ministry set against the idea that God is still working, a work He has been up to since the beginning of time, a work in which we are called to reap “that for which (we) did not labor” (4:38), to reap the work of the One, as John puts it in chapter 1, who has gone before us to be a light in the darkness.

As we enter chapter 5 we encounter a story of a healing, and then we are abruptly pushed into the presence of this growing opposition as we read “now, that day was the Sabbath”.

The Sabbath reference here is equated with the law to which Jesus, as a Jew, would have been obligated to follow. Context is important of course, and for Jewish readers this phrase would have uncovered an important debate in the Midrash (Jewish commentary or exposition), noting an important piece of the puzzle when it came to deciphering ones moral responsibility or obligation to the law. It is true that one does not work on the Sabbath, yes, but if, for example, one is sick (as this invalid at the pool was), the obligation to care for this person (also under Jewish law) should take precedence over the Sabbath as law.

The issue of the Sabbath comes up a lot in the Gospels and in Jewish tradition, and this noting of this piece of the puzzle is what lies behind Jesus’ response in Mark when He says “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”. In other words, to make sense of this moral obligation, for Jesus we must begin with the truth that the Sabbath is about God’s work in us, not about whether we do or do not work on the Sabbath. Is it possible for them to work on the Sabbath and still be in relationship to God’s law? Yes, if that work is the work of God. And as Jesus informs us in John, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” And the work God is doing is a healing work, a light giving work, a work that informs the Sabbath for our benefit rather than being defined by it.

 

Framing and Reframing the Question of God’s Work
John frames work in chapter 4 around the idea of the Sabbath in chapter 5 in order to reframe the questions surrounding God’s work in the world in chapter 6 in a more definitive fashion, a point in which we once again arrive at an important and familiar question, one that sits well alongside my friends question as well.

Following a call to enter into the work of God in the passage that begins in 6:22, the crowd asks,

“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”

To which Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 6:29

Which awakens me to a couple of important points:
1. Jesus juxtaposes their question against His answer by switching the order of the question, emphasizing that belief is the work of God not our own. It’s a way of repeating their question back to them and setting it into proper perspective.
2. What must we do? We believe. Once again, this is the purpose of God’s work.
3. And what is belief? It is seeing God in Jesus.

To which they naturally ask, if the point is to see you, what work do you perform (6:30)?

To which Jesus responds by saying that He is feeding his people (the image of the bread becomes important in John), and he is giving life (Resurrection) (6:33).

If we move back in this passage ever so slightly we discover that the reason the crowd came seeking Jesus is because they had already ate their fill of loaves (6:26). Jesus uses this to remind them that it was not the physical signs that caused them to believe, but the taste they got of Jesus Himself and the life that He came to bring on His terms. It is a contrast that is intended to remind us that to see God’s work we must give up control of our need for God to work in the way we think He should. God’s work is Jesus, not the absence or fulfillment of hunger, and to hunger for Jesus is the real point of His work. And if we move forward ever so slightly in the passage we see the motivation for this work that Jesus is doing, “that I should lose nothing of all he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

So back one final time to my friend’s question. How do I reconcile our suffering with my faith in God? I think it is significant that this passage begins with a story of one man’s healing in a crowd of many suffering invalids. There are multiple characters in this story that I might be able to relate to in different ways at different times. It could be the man receiving healing. It might be the many invalids surrounding this man who is healed. It might be the ones who are struggling with the question of who Jesus is in a world where so many still suffer.

The truth is, whoever I might relate to in this passage, a good practice to be in when we meditate on scripture, I think the most important point still remains the same- God is working even when I can’t always see it. God is still working even when I don’t always know it. And this might sound trite. It might sound cliche. But in a world full of suffering, in a crowd full of invalids who do not appear to see Jesus and who do not appear to be healed, I find myself taken aback by the thought that God still sees the life of this single individual. This, for me, is what allows me to enter into the insistence of Jesus in 6:51 that the bread (in the form of his flesh, in both His literal suffering and the figurative sense of His life giving spirit) He is giving is for the life of the “world”. Or the concern He has for losing “nothing” of all the life God has entrusted to him. Or that familiar phrasing of John 3:16 that declares that “whoever” believes, the belief that is the work of God and God alone, should be given life. Where Jesus singles out one man in chapter 5, here in Chapter 6 he sees the crowd, a crowd that eventually eat their “fill” and become seekers as Jesus uses the limited resources of a few to fee the multitude. And this curious phrase, “gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost” (6:12) seems to indicate to me this powerful picture of Christ intimately concerned still with the one even as he sees the multitude.

I don’t have all the answers and I don’t always feel confident in my faith, but like the ones who come to Jesus I have in the past ate my fill of loaves (6:26). Which is why I keep seeking even in the midst of my suffering. Which is why I have hope that God is still working. Which is why coming to this liturgy, the liturgy that leads me back to the communion table, is so important to me.

 

And The Light Still Shines
There is an important scene in Breathe where they have travelled to Spain, they find themselves stuck on the side of the road with only a breathing pump to keep Cavendish alive, and they are given the opportunity to sit in this moment and watch the sunset and the sunrise. It’s a moment that conjures up this sense that in each day lies the promise of another, that in the darkness the light still shines. And as Cavendish looks to find meaning in the midst of his suffering, this realization of a new day reminds him that any meaning he is able to find this life, in these moments, is a gift, not something he can create.

It is a scene that also reflects the narrative bookends of his own story, one in which his suffering causes him to lose sight of the light of the sun as he loses control of not only his body, but his life, confined to a room where the darkness is given space to consume him with sorrow. This is where he wants to die, where he becomes apathetic to the ones who can be a light to his world and who need him to be a light to theirs, the ones through which he will eventually find the meaning he needs in order to live again. It is an important realization that digs deep into the root of the growing question, exposed by the presence of this priest, about why this sort of suffering exists, and it rings out through his eventual efforts to give new life to those who need it in the world that surround him, the world in which, I believe, God has placed him.

This is the same realization I came to in my wrestling with God and the Gospels. The work of God in my life, the glimpses I am giving of Jesus in the people and places in which God has placed me, is where I find meaning that can’t be stripped away, no matter what suffering I may or may not face. And the truth that I mean something to God is what allows me to enter into this work as one who can choose to extend this meaning outwards. Because the world needs meaning in the midst of its suffering. It needs the light in the darkness. And where God’s story intersects with my own, I can confidently declare that the light persists, not because I have all the answers, but because I have tasted, and that is what keeps me seeking.

A Review of Easy Street (The Hard Way): A Memoir by Ron Perlman- My 2018 Reading Challenge

232632392018 Reading Challenge
Challenge #: Read 2 books that were recommended to you by a friend
Book: Easy Street (The Hard Way): A memoir by Ron Perlman.

Thanks to a personal recommendation my 2018 Reading Challenge is off to a great start. I have discovered a new favourite book! Or at the very least my new favourite autobiography/memoir. Although confining it to a sub category seems unnecessary in the moment, I happened to love it that much.

There is little question in my mind about why I loved the Perl’s Easy Street (The Hard Way) as much as I did. It managed to check off most of my favourite boxes, painting a vivid picture of growing up on the streets of New York, offering me an intimate look at the inner workings of Hollywood, inviting me to consider what it means to truly wrestle with faith and doubt in an industry that is as rewarding as it is difficult and, in a rather remarkable and genuine fashion, celebrating film as one of the great art forms.

How could this not grab me. The only thing missing is an element of time travel, but in its own way, as a memoir, it even offered me a bit of that. And truth be told I found it really hard to put down.

With that said, it is the fact that the book is also so much than simply a checkbox of my favourite things that really caught me off guard and exceeded my expectation, and this owes much to Ron Perlman’s knack for storytelling. There are moments in this book that genuinely brought me to tears, others that had me laughing out loud in the middle of a Starbucks, and many more that had me riveted to the page in anticipation. There are sections that function as a sort of call and response, molding itself into a biting social commentary that manages to shed light on the divide that exists between the haves and the have nots in Hollywood, while using his life story to extend this light into the reality of every day life.

I have to imagine that if one was to seek out this book you likely have some level of a pre-determined interest in or connection to Perlman’s list of films/television series. And if you are like me you will find yourself heavily anticipating the chapters that touch on those specific movies or shows that connect with you personally. This is where it might be fair for me to forewarn but not deter. The way you read this book might depend on the particular show or film that you are especially passionate about, which means your experience of the narrative could be very different than the next. But I think this lends much to the books accessibility and charm.

To offer an example, I was especially interested in Perlman’s relationship to Del Toro given that he is one of my favourite directors (and hopefully the subject of a planned research project in 2018). And so I found myself waiting in eager anticipation for these chapters, only to find that Del Toro doesn’t really show up until well near the end and gets very little page time. Some of the films do get more attention than others, but this is primarily because of the ways in which certain films or shows overlap with important periods in his life.

However, this doesn’t mean I felt Del Toro’s films got shortchanged, even as the brief moments we do get with Hellboy are stellar and absolutely eye opening on their own. Rather, it is the insight we are given into Perlman’s life that told me more about his relationship to Del Toro and his work on his films than an actual synopsis of his filmography ever could on its own. The same goes for Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably given the fewest words in the book. Knowing who Perlman is and where he is at in his life during his time on this show sheds more light on the nature of his on-screen character than talking about the show ever could. I have a new respect of his character during these seasons, especially as it mirrors his real life arc.

The structure of the book essentially follows three threads:

  1. Perlman’s own history from childhood to present day
  2. The gradual development and growth of his acting career
  3. The odd excerpt from an outside voice who was instrumental in shaping his life (beginning with Del Toro who penned the forward).

This structure allows the book to meander in a sort of free flowing way, moving backwards and forwards between periods of reflection and recreations of his past. The structure also manages to mask the trajectory of what is, in actuality, a very clear and very intentional narrative. I’ll be honest. I was getting so lost in the different moments of his life and getting so much joy from reading his perspective of his experiences with the different film productions, actors, producers directors (I get giddy picturing him running around as a young kid in a shared playground with a young Al Pacino) that I failed to catch on to the trajectory of the narrative until I was nearly halfway through the book. And this is in large part because he is as genuinely funny as he is serious. The chapters on Marlo Brando (spoiler, he really LOVES The Godfather) and the making of The Island… were particularly memorable, especially in the way he recounts his interactions with Brando himself. This was one of those big laugh out loud moments for me. And the very short descriptive of Alien: Resurrection helped me to make some sense out of why that film remains one of my favourites of the franchise in spite of its overall lack of reception.

 

By the time I realized what he was actually doing with what melds into a very candid work of self reflection and the personal confession of a man formed and framed by the ragged edges of the streets, by his lingering sense of self doubt and his struggle with success and failure, devastating loss, and most notably by his struggle with a mental disorder, I was absolutely taken. He uses his life on the Hollywood stage to mirror his life off of it, demonstrating how the beast and the mask he was typecast with on screen became a means through which he needed to unmask himself and his own inner turmoil. And by the time he brings all of it together in the end in what ultimately becomes a compassionate and compelling call towards reform and accountability in Hollywood at large, the narrative is given the necessary force to truly knock you out of your seat and dare you to step into action alongside him. Action for change.

Perlman is a generation behind me, and it is from this place that he was able to provide me with an up close and personal look not only at his time in Hollywood, but of the Hollywood I grew up with. I can’t count the amount of times that I found myself feeling a bit nostalgic for the world he describes, even if I didn’t recognize it as nostalgia in the moment. Having him fill in some of the details of films I loved and actors I respect was intriguing and revealing. The respect and awe with which he talks about his own favourite films and meeting his favourite stars and being a part of the industry is absolutely infectious, and it helps bridge that line between the cynicism of those who see Hollywood as nothing but a picture of corruption, money and power driven by marketing, studio execs and manufactured stories, and that sense of wonder that has captured those of us who truly have an affection for the magic film can represent as a genuine art form and storytelling community. It would be hard for me to imagine anyone walking away without a greater appreciation for film and Hollywood after reading this book.

Make no mistake, this does not mean Perlman is blind to Hollywood’s struggles or honest about its shortcomings. In one of the most powerful parts of the narrative he helps shed light on just how pervasive mental illness is in Hollywood and offers us glimpses of why he thinks this might be (sharing the struggle himself). He humanizes Hollywood even as he remains in awe of it, and he also lays himself bare in the same process. Perlman is a flawed individual in the long process of discovering redemption and grace, and for as much as he recognizes the trappings of success in Hollywood, he also admits he is as prone to these vices as anyone else, being in so many ways a very broken man trying to accept that he has something to offer in the midst of that brokenness.

And yet he also stands as a picture hope in an industry that should be offering and demonstrating hopefulness. His respect for the power and the strength of art and filmmaking to transform us is a reminder of why Hollywood (and what it symbolizes) is so important, for him and for us. Even as he admits that most will likely look at him on the outside and simply think he is a jerk with a penchant for crass talk and short temper, the testimony of his determination to always be looking out for the little guys, the people working those menial jobs in the background that are so important for helping a film be successful, for the marginalized and the have nots, is what reveals who Perlman truly is on the inside. His willingness to give his all to everything that he does regardless of what others think is the mark of someone who is growing, changing and embracing.

And there is plenty that he offers me through this book as well, simply as a reader and a fan. He is a man who taught me personally what it means to prepare myself for what he calls the second half of life. His depiction of a midlife crisis is one of the most powerful definitions I have encountered, and it really transformed how I look at myself having crossed the 40 mark myself.

He taught me about what it means to see God when it seems like He is invisible, and to wrestle with the mystery that is faith.

He taught me about what it means to come to terms with my own struggle with anxiety and depression.

And he renewed my appreciation of film as an art form. Man did he renew that in ways I didn’t expect. I thought I loved film before. Now I cherish it.

Which brings me to the most important chapters of the book, in my opinion. This is where the trajectory of the narrative gains full force. This is where he turns it all inwards and than outwards towards a biting commentary of where Hollywood is headed in its now modern age. And not in a ‘back in the good ol’ days’ kind of way, but in a we need to be reminded of the best that Hollywood stands for kind of way. We need to be reminded to slow down and appreciate what art is, what good art does, and what it means to be a dedicated artist in a world that needs a way to make sense of a very complicated place.

And we need to be reminded of the ways in which art can speak into our own social context in meaningful ways, something that especially timely in the age of “me too”.

There is a sense of loss that we feel flowing through these pages as Perlman looks back on a Hollywood in motion. It is a loss of Hollywood of old in some ways, but in more important ways it is a loss of that magic that captured so many of us before Hollywood became diluted and unmasked in necessary ways. But there is also a sense of hope, hope in the sense that he sees an opportunity to recapture this magic and to redistribute the wonder that Hollywood is supposed to instill. It is a hope that he channels ultimately into his own aspirations for finishing well in his second half of life in the most practical of ways, by reentering the field, helping others in the way others helped him by reinvesting in the younger generation, and, most excitedly, doing something he has long felt he needed to do… Hell Boy 3.

I can’t wait to see what’s next for Ron Perlman.

perlman

The Gospel of John Part 1: The Light and the Darkness

The relationship that exists between the 3 Synoptics is helpful for understanding them contextually, politically and theologically. John, however, remains something of an enigma, as much for us today as it was for the original readers. And this being my second time working through this Gospel in the last 3 years, the sheer complexity of this book still manages to amaze me.

One of the questions I have been asking this time around is this. If I could narrow John’s Gospel down to one thing, one big idea, what would that be. And that one thing that I came away with was this:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– John 1:5

What strikes me about this one big idea is how present this message really is. How timeless it feels. In a book that feels incredibly engaged with the activity of looking backwards, it is this single message that offers us the foundation in which to look forward out of our own places of darkness. The light shines now in the midst of our present circumstance, and the darkness, no matter how overwhelming it might feel in this present moment, has not overcome it. And how do we know this? How does John know this? And we can know this because this light, the true light that John says was given in order to “enlighten everyone” (1:8), existed before all things were made (1:3), even before John himself knew who or what the light was, and long before we could even consider the nature of this light in the midst of our own darkness.

And this single message rings clear in the midst of the passive voice that dominates the opening chapters of John’s Gospel.

“In the beginning”… all things “were” made through Him, and the life “was” the light of men. To which John centres our focus on the truth that there “was” a man sent from God (John) to help us know the light, for the law “was” given through Moses, but grace and truth “came” through Jesus, the one who “has” been (again, past tense) made known as the light that shines into our present circumstance. Jesus is then the one who forms and informs the “testimony of John” that sets up the rest of this book in 1:19. Or perhaps more to the point, forming and informing a key concern of John in defining the nature of exactly “who” this light is and “how” it is that He shines His light into the world, particularly into his own context and the persisting disagreements surrounding Jesus’ earthly existence and the truth of His divine nature that dominated the communities that made up Johns initial audience

And even though the author uses more figurative and symbolic language than the language that we find in the synoptics, the Gospel according to John is very clear about the who and the how of Jesus’ nature as the light. Packaged between the “sign” narratives, which are visually and imaginatively intended to “manifest His glory” or “exalt” Jesus above “all” things, John is quick to offer his hearers this unequivocal statement, words He expects and hopes can set these disagreements to rest:

“He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth belongs to the earth.”
– John 3:31

For John, the joy of his testimony is complete (3:29) only when the voice and ministry of Jesus becomes louder and more prominent than his own. And the way he imagines the voice of Jesus “increasing” in his own life is by engaging in the practice of looking backwards, of reflecting on and remembering the ways in which Jesus has been speaking into this world, our world, since the dawn of Creation. By remembering that He (the one who is the light) who comes after me (who is shaping the promise of my future) ranks before me because He “was” before me” (1:15). Thus for John, Jesus is above all things primarily because He is the source of all things, something only one who is from above can be. To which the word “all” that we encounter throughout these opening chapters intends to call each of us to the same practice and the same consideration.

Which brings me to three final take aways from all of this as I begin this next journey in the Gospel of John:

First, the Gospel of John is speaking to anyone familiar with the darkness, which John seems to suggest would be all of us.

Second, the Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John desires to breathe hope into the darkness and to give light into the places in which we are finding it hard to see.

Third, the way we allow Jesus to breath hope into our lives, the way we come to know and see Jesus more clearly, is through the practice of reflecting and remembering.

As I prepare myself to engage more fully with the “testimony of John”, the fruit of his own reflecting process, the challenge I find for myself is to continue my own path of remembering, a practice that motivated me to start this blog nearly 2 years ago. And as I remember, I also pray. I pray that the spirit that I encountered in these opening pages of John, the spirit that moved and gave voice to all of creation, will be the same spirit opens my eyes and my heart to new truths and new conviction, to greater “enlightenment” if you will, to borrow from the ESV translation. And may these truths and these convictions be not only the light to my darkness, but a light that I am able to share with the world around me as well.

My Make-shift, Pieced Together, Made Up, Experimental 2018 Reading Challenge

My 2018 New Years Resolution (see: ROSEBUD) included a personal goal to come up with a different reading plan than my usual Goodreads challenge. I am still signed up to Goodreads, but I limited the number of books I expect to complete to leave room for reading with more intention and focus without worrying about quantity.

But to do this I needed to find another Reading Challenge. Of which a simple google search offers plenty. But none of them seemed to offer what I was looking for. To be intentional it needed to be personal. And so, with some online help to nudge me in the right direction, I created my own list, a list I hope speaks to 2017 while also helping to give shape to 2018. It’s a list that I hope can challenge me. It’s a list I hope can introduce me to to some new ideas and some new books. And it’s a list I hope can help me revisit some books that have been sitting on my TBR list for a while.

MY 2018 READING  CHALLENGE
1-5. Chose 5 out of the first 20 books added to your Goodreaads TBR list.
6-8. Read 2 books connected to the year I was born (released on that year, talking about an important subject from that year, the most popular author from that year, etc.)
9-12. Finish two different trilogies that you started and have yet to finish
13. Read a book by your favourite author that you have not yet read
14-15. Local Books: Read a book by an author from my home province/Country and by an author of a province/state that I visit this year.
16. Read a book with 500 plus pages
17-19. Read 3 travelogues or non-fiction books related to the theme of travel.
20. Read a book dealing with a food related theme
21-25.Read 5 new books released in 2017 or 2018
26-28. Recommended Reads: Read 3 recommended reads from 3 different friends.
29-30. Browse through an independent store in the city in which I live and in a place which I visit, find a (personally) undiscovered book and read it.
31. Read a biography of a personal hero
32. Read a book related to a favourite film/director/actor
33. Read a history of something you love
34. Read a book together with a friend
35. Read a book on the Gospel of John
– Just to provide context, the reason for this addition is that every year my Church goes through one of the Gospels. This year it is the Gospel of John. Previously I worked through Matthew and Mark.
36-38. Read 3 (personally) undiscovered books that I have not yet heard of.
39. Reread a book from my childhood
40-42. Read 3 different books on three different topics relating to theology that were important to me in 2017
43. Read a childrens book
44. Read a book of a film you have not already seen
45. Read a book of a film you have already seen

Rosebud: Continuing My New Years Resolution Plan

Last year I started a New Years Resolution Plan called Rosebud that I got off one of the podcasts I frequent. The process essentially looks like this:

Step 1: List Three Roses-
This is the stuff that I would consider the greatest strengths, successes or accomplishments of the past year, the stuff that has managed to blossom into a Rose.

Step 2: List Three Thorns
This would reflect my greatest personal struggles of the past year.

Step 3: List Three Buds
This is a list of what I would like to “bud” into Roses in the coming year.

Step 4: Come up with a word for the year
This should be a single word that can help reflect the direction I want to head in the coming year, a single word that can give my year a theme or a recognizable flavour.
The great part of the Rosebud system is that it allows you to document these things by year so that you can follow your growth, keep yourself accountable, and target the yearly summation of your  hopes and expectations in ways that are more practical, personal and balanced.

So looking back, here were the 3 buds from last year that reflected the things I had hoped to bud into Roses:
1. More focused writing
2. Small Steps, namely in areas like debt repayment, giving more, and taking smaller more manageable trips (because opportunity to travel and see new places is important to me).
3. Travel (in the manner mentioned above)

And my single word for 2017: Time

So how did I do?

The first bud was definitely successful (more focused writing). There were some lulls in 2017, but I am happy in general with how much “time” I was able to give to writing more and writing with more focus. My hope down the road, if I can continue to focus my writing, is to be able to take that time and figure out a way to turn some of it into a book.

The second bud (small steps) came with some hits and some misses. The latter half of the year saw some setbacks in certain areas (I was not where I wanted to be in terms of finding areas to give more), but at the same time we made some positive (small steps) towards positioning ourselves to be better equipped this year to tackle some small steps.

The third (travel). Not where I wanted it to be. I think looking at some of the thorns of last year, this lack of budding increased some of those thorns (namely anxiety, social isolation). Some of this is due to a phase of life. So much of our time (which is important to travel) was invested into our son over this year. And no regrets there at all, but it does speak to a reality that we have to learn how to navigate together if we are to increase our investment in “family” time. And I think (small step) travel is one of the best ways to do that. And the truth is it does help my anxiety as well, and that means I am better equipped to really give into the family in other ways as well.

 

So on to 2018:
3 Roses:
1. More focused Writing
I wanted to include this again not as a retread but as a way of making sure I don’t fall off the wagon. I just wanted to acknowledge that it did become a noted strength in 2017, not because my writing is great but because I feel I have been able to articulate some important things for myself in times and in ways that I have needed.
2. Engagement at my job
This wasn’t on my radar when I did this in 2017, but by the end of last school year I was not very engaged with my job. I am a school bus driver by trade, and last year was a really tough year. So much so that rather than engaging with my kids I just wanted to hide most days as I tried my best to trudge through it all. At the beginning of this school year I made a commitment to reengage with the students and to reinvest in the time I was spending with my bus (small steps). I feel like it has payed off. I am seeing stronger relationships, and although there are still challenges I have stayed engaged and involved and creative.

3. Risk taking and lifestyle changes
We made some tough choices this year, especially in the latter months, to try and reposition our family towards where we needed to be. Some of these choices involved taking a risk and a step of faith. But I feel like this is a positive strength for us as a family, The ability to make changes and to maybe do some things a bit off course than the way we normally might do it makes me excited for the potential and possibilities down the road.

3 Thorns
1. Anxiety
This is a retread, and for good reason. I suggested last year that this is one that will likely be ongoing. The struggle this past year grew from manageable to a negative and not very manageable in the latter half.

2. Social Activity
Again, a retread, and again for good reason. It goes hand in hand with the anxiety. When my anxiety is high the number one place it manifests is socially. And when social activity is low, anxiety grows. It is a bit of a vicious cycle.

3. Time
Time was a positive last year in certain respects. It was my word for the year, and I chose it because it was necessary for my buds to grow. But time also remained allusive and not balanced in other respects, especially in making use of the summer (we are all on the school system and are off for those two months), and also in balancing family time with a crazy schedule for our kid in the fall months.

3 Buds
1. Make Travel Goals
I have put this at number one not as a selfish goal but as a proactive one. Some of the changes we have made in our house involve planning with more intention, so I think with this bud I wanted to see something more intentional as well, keeping in mind that I also want to approach this according to the “small steps” mantra of last year. So here are some possible and intentional ideas:
Toronto- The ball was dropped on me getting our son Sasha (and us) back to Toronto. And time is ticking for opportunity to get him over there so that he can build some relationships with his extended family. This is a manageable trip. We know how to do it and we know how to do it on a budget. Couple this with the fact that they are also opening up a brand new, multi level go cart track in Niagra, and this will be a great opportunity for Sasha to get down there again and for all of us to see family.

Old Mid-West Trip– This will coincide with my second bud, but I had this idea for a blog that revolved around the Western. I wanted to pair some movies with a visit to some Western icons that are not far from where we live. Hopefully I can find that opportunity this year.

Duluth– Our son Sasha really wants to get back there to do some snow boarding.

Memphis/New Orleans– this is the year to think about racial issues and civil rights. A few different anniversaries are being celebrated in 2018, including an important anniversary of New Orleans.

Detroit and Cleveland- A short trip over the border from Toronto are two of the top cities to visit in North America in 2018. I had been hoping to get Sasha down to Detroit so that I could take him to the museums and introduce him to some of the history of race relations and civil rights. He got really interested in that last year in English class. Maybe this is the year where that is a possibility.

Omaha– weekend away with my wife. What better place than this mid-west city and the gondola ride down their canal.

2. More Focused Reading Challenge
I typically stick with the generic Good Reads challenge, and typically I make my goal of reading around 50 books in the year. This year I hope to become more intentional with my reading challenge. My goal is to research different creative ideas around how to read and what kind of books to read and then formulate it into a plan. I think this will help slow my reading down, give it more intention, and branch me out to different ideas and opportunities.

3. Creative Giving Ideas
Rather than just giving more, I hope to be able to look at this as branching out in more ways than just financially. It used to be a really big part of my character to come up with creative ways to give. And if this is an opportunity, it is an opportunity to challenge my social thorns as well. Because to give creatively means to give of time, to give towards specifics, and to know the people and situations and circumstance and personal ideas where giving might be meaningful or purposed.

One word for the year: Intentional

My Most Anticipated Films of 2018

Lots to get excited about in the year ahead when it comes to the world of film. A new direction for the Transformers universe (Bumblebee). Years of investment will finally pay off in Infinity War while diversity will finally come to the Marvel universe in the very promising Black Panther, an exceptionally intriguing multi-verse and multi-ethnic take on Spiderman, and the release of not one, but two new X-Men films.

But the real story of this year I think will be the unusual anticipation of a slew of new (and prominent) sequels for Paddington , The Incredibles, Pacific Rim, Jurassic World, Fantastic Beasts, Wreck it Ralph Tomb Raider, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible, Sicario, Oceans, Predator, and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.

And as if all of that was not enough, we also get more Star Wars (Solo), some big name originals with franchise potential (Ready Player One, Red Sparrow, A Wrinkle In Time, B.O.D), tons of great indies and smaller productions, and a follow up to the live action Beauty and The Beast (Mulan) that I am actually quite excited about.

And lets not forget Sherlock Gnomes. I mean come on. Who didn’t enjoy the first one. I know I did.

So with all that said, and perhaps willingly granting my anticipation of Infinity War and Solo right off the hop, here are the films I am most anticipating seeing in 2018.

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  1. Paddington 2
    The original swept me off my feet. The sequel looks to be even better. And judging by early reactions (plenty of screenings have already happened for this one) it has a chance to be one of the best of 2018.
  2. Annihilation
    A killer trailer, memorable source material, an incredible cast and the director of Ex-Machina come together to make this a must see film this year.
  3. First Man
    It’s hard not to consider this new film by Damien Chazelle to be in the running come next awards season. It is biography and it is distinctly American at a time when American seems desperate to find itself again. More than this though, the film harkens back to Apollo 13, one of the great space films of all time,

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  4. Isle of Dogs
    Wes Anderson follows the success (and brilliance) of Fantastic Mr. Fox with another animated feature set in Japan. Everything about this trailer looks and feels like Anderson, dripping with intrigue, creativity and charm. By far one of my most anticipated animated films, and in a year that will give us The Incredibles 2 and another Wreck It Ralph, this is no small feat.

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  5. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
    A film 17 years in the making, the story behind this story is probably the thing that intrigues me the most about this (once upon a time) time travel narrative turned 17th century period piece. It has gone through multiple actors before settling on Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, and has been considered one of the most troubled productions in film history, even spawning a documentary to try and shed light on this intriguing sentiment. It is a movie about the ways movies (and movie production) can impact people, providing us with a potentially fascinating look into the world of film culture at large.

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  6. Ready Player One
    I could not put the book down. The trailer looks to bring all of the stuff that made it such a fun ride to life. It’s one big geek fest celebrating everything that made 80’s Hollywood so magical. And with Spielberg on board I can’t wait. This is going to be one heck of a ride.

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  7. Sisters-Brothers
    I love Westerns. So much of American cinema owes much to the Western, and with this particular entry into the genre we get to watch an indie director and a stellar cast weaving the age old Western tropes (in the most positive sense possible) over 1000 miles of the rugged and notorious American landscape.

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  8. Wrinkle In Time
    A childhood favourite, I have been looking forward to A Wrinkle In Time ever since it was first announced. And now that they are promoting the heck out of it my anticipation just keeps growing.

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  9. Bilal
    With the subtitle “A New Hero”, this is a tale that jumps straight out of the pages of its ancient subtext. In terms of Biblical narratives I could easily note the long projected The Apostle Paul finally making headway, the epic looking Samson or the curiousity of the oddly marketed Mary Magdalene. But this is the one that really caught my eye. It lives and breathes as a Biblical epic, and inspired by the true story of one man standing against injustice is bound to be a larger than life big screen presence in 2018.

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  10. Please Stand By
    From the director of the emotionally rewarding The Sessions, this is a film that celebrates the wonders of geekdom and fandom while also managing to shed light on the challenges of living with autism. It looks to be an important film and a touching film, but even more than that a whole lot of fun.

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  11. A Quiet Place
    Three things elevate this film to my top must see list of films. First, I feel like I really want to see just how they handle the plot of this film. It would seem to me a real challenge to centre a film around a group of people who have to be completely silent. Second, I love horror and in a year that will also see Cloverfield: The God Particle, the fantastic looking Winchester and the next installment in the Conjuring universe, The Nun, this is the horror film that seems most unique to me. And lastly, it comes from the director of Away We God, and to say I loved that film is an understatement.

  12. Road Trip Movies
    We don’t get one in 2018, we get two, and so I thought I would highlight both of them. The first is called The Long Dumb Road, a film about two people from different walks of life who happen across each others path and end up on a road trip across the American South. I have long been fascinated by the American South and its culture, so this was a huge buy for me. And it just feels and looks like it has the potential to really hit home on the whole question of equality in a time when this discussion continues to be prominent on the American stage.The second Road Trip movie is called American Folk. In a similar way it follows two strangers who are brought together (in this case from the both of them being stranded), only here theme is music and musicians and the backdrop is 9/11. Again, fascinated and a huge buy.

 

 

3 Honorable Mentions:
1. Fast Colour
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a beast right now, as is bringing together the producer for La La Land and the producer for Jackie. In the case of Raw, following Beauty and the Beast, we can also see her in Cloverfield (can’t wait for that one) and a Wrinkle In time. That’s huge. But this is the film that will truly showcase her in a leading role, telling the story of a woman forced on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. It feels very X-Men in story, but decidedly unique and fresh in tone.


2. Maze Runner: The Death Cure

The Scorch Trials really caught me off guard and managed to work its way into being one of my favourite films of that year, or at least the biggest surprise. It is a film that our whole family can get behind which is great, and this final film in the trilogy looks to end on a high note.
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3. My honourable mentions could just as easily be another top 12 list in its own right with many competing categories including most anticipated superhero film (Black Panther) and reboot (Oceans 8). But the one I have to include here is Pacific Rim Uprising. This one just looks to be bonkers good, and given how much I enjoyed the first one my expectations are sky high.