The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 2/2)

Part two of my look at the ten best picture nominees, giving you insight into each film and predicting its award chances.

Belfast

Belfast is based on director Kenneth Branaugh’s life as a child growing up during the Irish Troubles. Filmed beautifully in black and white, the film shows from nine-year-old Buddy’s eyes the confusing political turmoil around him, his struggling but loving family, and the hallmarks of growing up, from first crushes to peer pressure and school troubles. In many ways, it reminded me of Jojo Rabbit. While not nearly as funny or satirical (or devastating) as Jojo Rabbit, Belfast has an overall hopeful tone and messages of resilience and family. 

The best part of the movie is its performances, which are all lovely, from Jude Hill as Buddy, to Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench (both nominated for best supporting!) as his grandparents, to Caitriona Balfe as his mother (I think she deserved to have been nominated) and Jamie Dornan as his father. 

When I saw the film, I walked away thinking it was a very sweet, well-made movie, if not one I could call the best of the year. While it’s valuable to see the Troubles being explored on screen, and the family drama feels universal yet deeply personal, I don’t know if Belfast really encompasses 2021 in filmmaking or breaks any new ground. 

But it was later that I came to reconsider Belfast in a new light. In early February, Dua Lipa asked Stephen Colbert on his talk show about how his comedy and Christian faith overlap. In his answer–which you absolutely should watch, it’s a fascinating response– he brought up Belfast and how he liked how the movie “is funny, and it’s sad, and it’s funny about being sad. In that same way sadness is a little bit like an emotional death, but not a defeat, if you can find a way to laugh about it, because that laughter helps keep you from having fear of it.” 

With that in mind, Belfast becomes a little more profound. It’s a tricky balance, to give sadness its full weight and still have humor and joy. Jojo Rabbit dilutes its sadness through snark and satire– to great effect. But Belfast is incredibly sincere, and in that way, pulls off a trickier feat. 

Belfast seems to be in the top running for best picture, alongside Power of the Dog and CODA. Besides that, its best award chances may be either best supporting for Hines, or original screenplay for Branaugh. 

Drive My Car

Also nominated for best international feature, adapted screenplay, and best director for ​​Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car snuck up on many as a heavy-hitter this year. The Japanese film will inevitably draw comparisons to 2019’s South Korean Oscar juggernaut Parasite, which won best picture, international feature, and best director for Bong Joon-Ho, along with original screenplay, editing, and production design. But beyond their nominations, the two films have little in common, and because of that, Drive My Car’s winning chances are much slimmer. 

At three hours, Drive My Car is a meditative character drama about a widowed actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who goes to Hiroshima to direct a play, and as part of his residency, he is given a chauffeur, which ends up being a young woman (Tōko Miura). The two slowly begin to become friends and through this friendship and the play they process their past. The movie reflects on the value of art, language barriers, intergenerational friendships, and the regret and burdens that block us from connection with one another. 

Like many of the nominees this year, it has a beautiful and cathartic ending that makes the whole movie better in retrospect, and there is much to admire and appreciate in the film. However, I couldn’t help but find it a bit tedious, never quite feeling like my patience was fully rewarded. But part of that may have been going in without any sense of what the movie was, so I think it might be the kind of film where it is better to go in having read some reviews or analysis of the film to better be able to appreciate what is carefully being built in the story and what literary references and allusions to be on the lookout for. 

While there are things the Academy usually likes to reward in Drive My Car (it’s a story about actors making art, after all!), there is still a big barrier to the Oscars awarding international films in non-international feature categories. Parasite was an anomaly that it was able to break through, not only because it is a truly outstanding, deserving film, but it was also mainstream enough, with a semi-recognizable director, to appeal to an American audience. 

Drive My Car then is a near lock for international feature, but probably nothing else, with maybe a sliver of a chance for adapted screenplay. But its inclusion shows progress in the academy recognizing and rewarding international films, which is an exciting step for Hollywood at large. 

Dune

Dune is this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Like Mad Max, Dune was a genre hit with both audiences and critics that was nominated for a slew of technical awards along with best picture (10 nominations in all!). And it has a fighting chance in many of those categories, especially Han Zimmer’s score, sound, and special effects. But unlike, say, Return of the King, which swept its ceremony and got best picture, Dune is a part one of two, and feels very incomplete, so its best picture chances are very slim (and we’ll see about part 2). 

Helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) and featuring an all-star cast (Timothee Chalamet! Zendaya! Oscar Issac! Jason Mamoa! Javier Bardem!) the film admirably translates its dense source material into a sprawling epic that really does feel like it can both satisfy fans and general audiences alike. Along with West Side Story, it may be the best feat of adaptation and remake this year, and deserves to be nominated. The story of a young man discovering his destiny on a new planet is full of classic science fiction and literary tropes, so we’ll see if this timelessness appeals to academy voters, or if it’s ultimately snubbed. 

Don’t Look Up

Maybe the most broadly polarizing film on this list, Don’t Look Up is a Netflix release directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice, Anchorman) and featuring an ensemble with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande. Don’t Look Up follows DiCaprio and Lawrence as an astronomy professor and his grad student, who discover a comet is on the fast-track to collide with Earth. In their efforts to warn the public they face opposition from everyone from the self-serving president (Meryl Streep) and her obstinate administration, to the media that refuses to alarm the public, to pop stars, activists, and tech billionaires who all want to co-op the comet to advance their own agenda. The comet serves as a clear metaphor for climate change, and the film satirizes the modern indifference to this threat. While I thought the movie fairly critiqued all sides of the political aisle, I have talked to many people who didn’t think the film was nearly as fair. 

If there’s a common theme with these best picture nominees, I think I would say that it’s sincerity.  Belfast and Licorice Pizza were both inspired by the director’s childhoods and fondly recreate their adolescent years. King Richard and CODA are both classic heartwarming stories about underdog families. Nightmare Alley, Dune, Drive My Car, West Side Story, and The Power of the Dog are all remakes or adaptations that lovingly breathe fresh air into their source material with clear respect for the originals, and tell stories of complex protagonists with clear empathy. But Don’t Look Up, is, to be frank, a mean movie about horrible people. And I say that as someone who actually liked it! But there’s no denying that Adam McKay, whose most recent work shows a general disdain for general audiences and no problem skewering everyone from the everyman to the most powerful politicians in the world, has made a movie that to many comes across as overly preachy and spiteful. 

Besides best picture, Don’t Look Up is nominated for original screenplay, film editing, and Nicholas Britell’s score. It may have a fighting chance at original screenplay. But for a movie that touted its all-star cast as its greatest strength, the lack of acting noms is an indicator of how little the academy voters may actually care about this film. There’s always a chance for a surprise, but I think all signs point to this, once again, not being Adam McKay’s big year. 

The Power of the Dog

Netflix’s Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion, has been a critical darling, but treated with ambivalence by audiences, following a trend of the Oscars showing favor to small movies that few have seen (or will remember). I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, smaller films are often the most groundbreaking and move filmmaking forward, and shouldn’t those be recognized in a ceremony that aims to celebrate the art of filmmaking? But on the other hand, I think the Oscars should strike a balance to also recognize movies that have defined and shaped the year, and will be remembered in public memory, which I don’t really think Power of the Dog will be.

Okay, but is Power of the Dog good? And to that I say…. yes. It’s a movie I have a lot of respect for. It’s a slow-burn, acting tour-de-force about Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) a spiteful cowboy who terrorizes his brother (Jesse Plemons) and his new wife and stepson (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee). But as the film progresses, you begin to realize the power dynamics in play are not quite what they seem, and Phil’s aggression is what ends up blinding him to even more sinister forces.

Power of the Dog is an anti-western, a movie that turns the historically macho and violent western genre conventions on their head to instead be a quiet, psychological movie about sexual repression, grief, resentment, and familial strife. A main undercurrent of the film is that Phil is suggested to be gay, and is mourning the loss of his mentor/partner, and his cruelty is a symptom of his grief and repression. The four main characters are carefully drawn to be fascinating foils of each other, and Campion’s directing shows clear precision and restraint. 

My biggest problem with the film is that it’s sometimes so subtle you don’t know what’s going on or where the movie is going, and the twist at the end is so quiet that many people I know completely missed it (and I would have too if I hadn’t been spoiled beforehand). The ramifications of the ending cast the rest of the movie in a fascinating light when you really think about it, but I wish the film had found a way to build up to a more cathartic end, instead of tapering off like a whisper. 

While it was considered the frontrunner for much of the race, CODA and possibly Belfast have gained enough momentum to catch up to Power of the Dog, meaning the race might be way more surprising than expected. Interestingly enough, we may also have a situation where voters don’t vote for Power of the Dog because they assume it’s the frontrunner anyways, so they vote for another film, and no majority ends up voting for it in the end. If Power of the Dog won, it would be a huge win for streaming services.

I think besides best picture, out of its 11 other nominations, its other best chance for a win is Jane Campion as director (she deserves it). And while not the frontrunner, I think Kirsten Dunst could be a dark horse for the best-supporting actress. And while he definitely won’t win, I’m rooting for Jesse Plemons, who I genuinely think should have been nominated for best supporting in 2019’s El Camino. He’s good in this movie and deserves the nomination, but he’s building a fascinating career and I definitely don’t think this will be the last time we see him nominated. As for Benedict Cumberbatch, I don’t think he’ll win, but I think this too will set him up nicely for a future win one day. And maybe, if it doesn’t win best picture, that will be Power of the Dog’s biggest lasting legacy: setting up its actors and director for even greater future success, and a new opportunity for the Western genre to reinvent itself. 

Happy Oscars everyone!

– Madeleine D. 

The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 1/2)

Hollywood’s biggest night is only a few days away, and with that, it’s time for all of us to place our bets and pick our favorites. But with 10 nominees for best picture, and the weird release schedules that COVID and streaming have created, it’s easy to have missed some of them. Never fear! I’m here to give you a little background on each movie and a look at its award chances, with a bit of my personal commentary, so you can win your Oscar ballot. 

King Richard

King Richard is probably the most “commercial” film on this list, in that it’s a feel-good sports movie with broad appeal with a big star. But being “commercial” is not a bad thing– in fact, I think it’s actually a positive thing when it comes to the Oscars because so few of the movies nominated have broad appeal and have actually been seen by a wide audience. King Richard stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father behind one of the greatest female tennis players of all time and two of the best athletes in the world- Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is a role seemingly tailor-made for Will Smith. It makes perfect use of his charisma, his dramatic and comedic chops, and provides some interesting meta-commentary on his own personal family life and the kind of dad he’s been to his celebrity kids. But while I think he is deserving of best actor, the whole ensemble is excellent, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena respectively to Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays their mother Brandi, is nominated in the best supporting actress category. While Ellis has a very slim chance of winning, she was a standout and I’m so glad her work was recognized with a nomination.

The movie is a classic sports movie, but its focus on black athletes and a strong black family unit (and centering dad/daughter relationships), the focus on having integrity over winning, along with an eye towards the business savvy athletes must have, make it special. However, its chances of winning best picture look slim, although Will Smith looks like the best actor frontrunner (although it’s a competitive category!). While it may end up walking away with nothing, like the movie itself says, it’s not necessarily about winning, but how you play the game, and King Richard puts it all on the line. 

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, starring Alana Haim (who I wish had been nominated for best actress) and Cooper Hoffman, is nominated for best director and original screenplay along with best picture. With Jane Campion looking like the frontrunner for director, Licorice Pizza’s best shot is probably screenplay. PTA is a famed auteur who has made a film with a lot to like, especially to Academy voters. Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic look at Los Angeles and Hollywood past, with a quirky love story (the ten-year age gap between the leads has led to some controversy, but not enough, I think, to dampen the film), and great performances. It is the quintessential “hang out” movie, with three hours of episodic storytelling, evoking the feeling of an anthology of shorts rather than a plot-driven movie (Bradley Cooper’s “episode,” where he plays real-life Jon Peters, a boyfriend of Barbara Streisand, is the best part of the film). It might remind voters of the similarly Hollywood-themed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s last film (although Licorice Pizza does not contain any gory shoot-outs). 

I enjoyed Licorice Pizza while I watched it, and I think it’s a must-see for fans of PTA and Hollywood history. I think a breezily-paced, episodic structure to a film is not necessarily a bad thing, but there were certainly times when I wished the movie had an editor who would curb PTA’s more self-indulgent moments. Overall, I think Licorice Pizza is certainly deserving of the nomination but won’t win. It doesn’t break any kind of filmmaking barriers, it doesn’t have any timely or important messages, and its award campaign has seemed a little weak. However, PTA has been nominated for an Oscar eight times before and never won, so perhaps that will make the Academy more favorable in giving him a win. 

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 film, based on the 1946 novel. The film, directed and co-written by Guerillmo Del Toro, stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a mysterious down-on-his-luck man who begins working as a mentalist at a carny, and quickly spirals down into his own deceit. It co-stars Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara. 

To be honest, I started watching Nightmare Alley on HBO Max, got through thirty minutes, then turned it off. Then it got nominated for Best Picture, so I begrudgingly went back and finished it after two more tries. At first, I didn’t find myself gripped by the achingly slow-paced noir. I didn’t know where the film was going or if it had any substance under all the style (and to be fair, it’s a gorgeous production). But, unfamiliar with the source material, I was completely caught off guard in the last act, and specifically, the very last scene. The last moments of the film are so perfectly executed, with such a wonderful marriage of Cooper’s performance and Del Toro’s directing, that I got literal chills. It’s the kind of gut punch of an ending that makes you reconsider the whole film. 

But, even with that scene, in retrospect the film is still weak as a whole, looking the part of a psychological thriller without delivering one. Critics and audience reception were all over the place, making its nomination a real surprise. Besides best picture, it is also nominated for cinematography, production design, and costuming, which seems to be evidence it won’t win anything (best picture winners usually also have nominations in other major categories like actor/actress, writing, and directing). I think if the movie had to have been nominated for anything, I would have nominated Bradley Cooper. But as it is, I’m not personally rooting for it to win anything. Del Toro won best picture and best director for 2017’s Shape of Water, so there’s no rush for the academy to reward him again anytime soon. 

CODA

CODA, on Apple TV+, is a coming-of-age story about Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high schooler who is caught between her desire to go off to college to pursue singing, and her family’s need for her to work for their fishing business. Why is that a problem? The rest of Ruby’s family is deaf, and need her to translate for their business, and can’t appreciate her singing. 

My roommate, who considers herself to be a “voice for the people” when it comes to movies (i.e, not a critical snob), said of CODA: “It’s the perfect balance of being chill and having something to say.” And I agree! CODA is progressive in that it is depicting a community not usually seen on screen, which is a great thing, and it’s also a broadly appealing, heartfelt family drama that is subversive and smart about its tropes to tell a new story (with excellent writing and performances to boot). While its status as a streaming movie made it an unlikely contender, in the past few weeks CODA seems to have become a dark horse that might just pull off a win for best picture, and I’ll certainly be rooting for it. 

Besides best picture, it’s also up for best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur and best adapted screenplay. While I don’t think it has a shot at either of these (Dune should win for best adapted screenplay, although The Lost Daughter will probably win), Kotsur is certainly deserving of the recognition. 

West Side Story

This Steven Spielberg-directed remake of the 1961 musical (an Oscar heavy-hitter itself), is up for seven nominations, including best picture, best director, and best supporting actress for Ariana DeBose as Anita (the role which won Rita Moreno her Oscar). The remake has been praised for the way it infuses modern sensibilities (including the casting of actual Puerto-Rican actors as the Sharks) with the emotionality and old-school feel of the original.

I was skeptical of this project when it was announced and was prepared to dislike it, having grown up with a great fondness for the 1961 film. However, having seen it, I now agree that it is an example of a great remake. I think Spielberg chooses the right things to change and lean into (like more attention paid to the class dynamics; not subtitling the Spanish) while retaining elements of the original. While not as colorful or theatrical as the 1961 version, I think the musical numbers retain their energy and are well-done. It’s a remake that hopefully will appeal to modern audiences while encouraging them to also check out the original. 

Despite all the ways I enjoyed the film, it didn’t personally grab me or register as one of the best films of the year, and I actually expect it’s not most Academy members’ best film either. But because of the ranked-choice voting system the Oscars use, the movies that win are usually everyone’s second or third choice. And that’s where West Side Story could win a lot of awards, if everyone thinks, “hmmm, I want Jane Campion or Paul Thomas Anderson to win for director this year, but I’ll put Steven Spielberg next because, well, he’s Steven Spielberg!”

West Side Story was a commercial flop, but it’s definitely one of the most audience-friendly films being nominated. While I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, I would like the best picture award to start going to movies people have actually heard of and seen, so I’m not opposed to a win. Out of its nominations though, I am rooting for the film to win for Ariana DeBose, and she’s currently the favorite. 

Coming soon: Part 2 of the nominees!

My Top 5 Horror Movies

A guest review by Eliza Dorst

*Includes spoilers!!!

What makes a good horror movie? I think a successful horror movie traps its audience into a fantastical scenario that feels scarily intimate, something a little too close for comfort. Good horror displays uncensored human instinct–both good and bad. Personally, horror is my favorite genre of movie because I enjoy how my adrenaline starts to pump and my brain somehow forgets I’m watching a screen. I believe good horror movies make you forget you’re watching a production and instead cause you to feel as if you are in a high-stakes situation along with the characters because you’re so entrenched. My top five horror movies all accomplish these goals.

5. Scream (1996)

Twist endings are my favorite endings. When they are done right, plot twists can make a movie more exciting, along with more meaningful. A lot of the movies on my list have twist endings and they’re all done magnificently. Scream is included on my list for many reasons, but it mostly stands out due to the beginning and ending sequences. With Drew Barrymore getting murdered right off the bat (at the height of her fame), the entire movie is set up to defy audience expectations. The dialogue shows how ironic the film is by discussing horror movie tropes. The movie also makes constant references to other horror films, not in a cheesy way, but to pay homage to them. And the last sequence is when the audience finds out who the killer… or killers– are. It’s truly terrifying because it makes you think about the people you surround yourself with, their secret lives, and the fact that most serial killers blend into society pretty well. 

I love the use of “rules” in the movie. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, there is a character in Scream who relays certain unspoken “rules” of the horror movie genre and these rules are what keep the characters alive or cause them to die. Then, throughout the actual film, the audience notices that almost all of these rules get broken. Scream is self-aware, as many horror movies are, yet is a breath of fresh air as it understands the sad, demoralizing history of female characters in the genre and other similar cliches. Scream doesn’t just reference and recreate tropes; it breathes life into the genre and its tropes by giving us new refreshing characters, along with amazing acting and creative dialogue. It’s can hard for a horror movie to strike a perfect balance of humor and horror, but Scream does it. And it’s not as if there is just one character to rely on for comedic relief, but rather multiple truly humorous characters that take the edge off. Scream is a re-watchable classic that opened up a whole new opportunity for horror movies.

4. Psycho (1960)

This classic Hitchcock thriller makes number 4 on my list for the way it changed cinema forever… More than 60 years ago Psycho was released and immediately gained traction for its outbursts of violence, sensuality, and twist ending. Adam Rosenberg writes, “On June 16, 1960, Psycho premiered in New York City. On that night, the world saw the birth of the slasher genre and one of the earliest examples of graphic violence in a film… There are many works of ‘classic cinema’ which, while important, seem unimpressive by today’s standards. Hitchcock stands apart; his work endures and his influence is still felt whenever a movie pushes you to the edge of your seat with tension.” Hitchcock’s stylistic choices and the dynamic characters helped create a phenomenal thriller that digs under the surface and reflects on mental illness.

3. Get Out (2017)

Can we take a moment to appreciate Jordan Peele? He came from a background in comedy acting, and then directed and released two fantastic horror movies in a span of two years. Comedy and horror have plenty of overlapping qualities, but it still always surprises me when someone can do both. His other film, Us, is one of my honorable mentions. But Get Out made it onto my top five for a couple of specific reasons. 

First, it shows the audience aspects of the Black experience, specifically the anxiety in an interracial relationship. I’ll give a summary of the movie: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are dating and Chris is going to meet Allison’s family for the first time. Allison’s family first welcomes Chris, who is Black. But as the visit progresses, the situation gets increasingly disturbing as truths are unveiled.As a white person, I come into this movie with a certain amount of ignorance to the fear a person of color would feel in situations such as this (meeting their white potential in-laws), but Jordan Peele makes it so easy for someone outside of the community to understand that terror. The brilliant twist ending causes us all to reflect on internal racism and microaggressions we may be participating in. Compared to Us, Get Out is less gory and is mostly a psychological terror. It’s a slow burn, and therefore I felt that the ending was more satisfying than in a typical horror movie where the thrills are scattered all over. Get Out is a lot more than just a horror movie; there’s social commentary and a focused narrative that gives the audience something more than just jump-scares. The film also has a structure and vibe similar to an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror due to its slow buildup and then extreme climax and “resolution.” This structure was brilliant and perfect for the story Peele wanted to tell.

2. The Shining (1980)

There is no doubt that The Shining is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. While the film received mixed reviews when it was released in 1980, it has since been reevaluated and is now critically acclaimed. Filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, Tim Burton, and David Lynch refer to this film as an inspiration for their work. Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail, the score, and Jack Nicholson’s performance make this horror film the masterpiece it is and number two on my list.    

Every actor in this film does an amazing job. from Shelly Duvall playing a completely hysterical mother and wife to Danny Lloyd’s eight-year-old performance as an abused child with a strange sixth sense. But, for me, Jack Torrance is one of the scariest movie antagonists of all time. As the movie unfolds, the audience finds out that Mr. Torrance has had a past of alcoholism. I was rooting for Jack from the beginning, hoping that he would continue as a sober man and loving father and husband. My hope was in vain, as the Outlook Hotel slowly turns Jack into an evil murderer who hunts his own family. Jack Nicholson was perfect for this role and truly gave us a performance horror history will never forget. 

One thing that has always stood out to me about this film is the psychological terror. It’s slow-paced but perfectly executed through an eerie plot and character development. It doesn’t just outright surprise the audience, it takes its time building suspense, creating high stakes, and showing Jack’s loss of sanity over time. 

Stanley Kubrick is quoted saying, “The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: ‘Jack must be imagining these things because he’s crazy.’ This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.” 

Although the movie is noticeably different from the original novel, Stanley Kubrick used his own vision to take a challenging manuscript and make it into something new.

1. Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is my all-time favorite film, I’ve watched it about 6 times and it never fails to surprise me. I will try to summarize the film without giving away too much for those who need a bit of a refresher. Hereditary is about a family that has just lost their grandmother. Through her death, the family has unknowingly been sacrificed to a sinister cult the grandmother was a part of (although this fact is not apparent, or even very relevant until the last 15 minutes). The movie mostly focuses on the family, specifically the mother Annie (Toni Collette), after the tragic death of her daughter. As blame is shifted to different family members and parental trauma unfolds, all while a spiritual awakening is bubbling over, Hereditary is straight out of a terrible nightmare.

One great thing about this Ari Aster movie is that it doesn’t need gore or actual horror tactics to be a scary movie. It perfectly embodies realism, surrealism, and fantasy. The family dynamic alone is suspenseful enough. The plot is completely plausible, every character’s personality and response to each situation is completely believable. Honestly, up until the end, this movie could easily just be somebody’s unfortunate life. Aster said of the film: “I enjoy turning things on the audience. I like working in genre because people come into films with certain expectations. They know the tropes so well that, when you turn on those, it can be shocking because there’s a complacency that comes with watching those films.” He accomplished exactly this with Hereditary. I went into the movie expecting the cliche horror movie tropes, and he completely defied those expectations. Another aspect that gives this movie my number one spot is Toni Collette’s acting. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her in Muriel’s Wedding, but she gives a phenomenal performance in Hereditary that shows her true acting talent and range. All the acting is terrific, but for me, Toni Collette deserved an Oscar, no question. She plays a believable mother trying to cope with the traumatic death of her daughter, right after the death of her mother. As Annie, Collette perfectly encompasses the emotions a person in her shoes would be experiencing, and the movie just throws in a couple of supernatural experiences to push her over the edge. 

Honorary Mentions (not in any specific order): 

A Quiet Place 1&2 (2018 & 2021)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) 

Saw (2004)

Us (2019)

The Haunting of Hill House (Season 1, 2018) -This is a Netflix series, but definitely worth the watch!!

Top 10 things of 2021 (So Far)

Twice a year- once in June and once in December- I make a list of ten things I liked this year. While the lists sometimes include movies I haven’t otherwise reviewed, it’s mostly a chance to talk about the television, music, podcasts, and books I recommend anyone check out. 

TV

Cobra Kai, Season 3 (Netflix)

Cobra Kai is the kind of show I would have never expected I would like. I’ve only seen The Karate Kid once, I haven’t seen any of the sequels, and I don’t have any nostalgia for the ‘80s (I wasn’t there!). But Cobra Kai, which follows the karate shenanigans of the now-middle age characters of Karate Kid and their children, is a delight. It’s a ridiculously fun soap-opera drama, full of ridiculous and cheesy ‘80s references that somehow aren’t obnoxious. How is that? The show purposefully explores how these characters are stuck in the past. The references and obsession about their past are fun for the audience, but the show itself uses them to show how pitiful Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) can be, and how their refusal to move on from their past manifests in their children. 

An exploration of generational trauma sounds like a weighty topic for such a light show, yet the show pulls it off, balancing serious drama with amazing stunt work and comedy. The whole ensemble is excellent, with the young cast, led by Mary Mouser and Xolo Marideuna, being especially strong (and Courtney Henggeler is a scene-stealer). Season 3 spends too much time setting up the next season, and the show’s attempts to counteract criticisms of cultural appropriation by having Danny taking a trip to Japan ends up weighing down the season, but the series is so strong that even a weaker season is worth recommending.

Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

The common theme in this list is fun surprises. Just like I had no real background knowledge or expectations for Cobra Kai, I had never read Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone books before deciding to tune into the first season of the eight-episode Netflix show. The young adult fantasy series is about Alina (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who realizes she is actually a Grisha, a magical being with elemental powers. She is whisked away from everything she’s ever known to be trained by the mysterious General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). Meanwhile, a trio of criminals set off to find Alina for their own purposes.

Besides the big budget, which allows for stunning fantasy sequences, the best thing about Shadow and Bone is the cast. There’s not a weak link here, but Ben Barnes as Captain Kirigan may be the best surprise. I’m tired of men in young adult franchises (which are usually female-oriented) who ridicule the property and their roles (looking at you, Robert Pattinson in Twilight). In contrast, Ben Barnes plays his role with total seriousness and sincerity, and it’s clear he and the rest of the cast are having a blast, which in turn makes it more enjoyable for the audience. Kit Young and Amita Suman are also standouts. If you’re looking for a binge-worthy fantasy epic with some confusing worldbuilding but big emotions, complex relationships, and thrills, Shadow and Bone will certainly scratch that itch. 

Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)

Like many great detective stories, HBO’s Mare of Easttown stars a grizzled and weary defender of good in a small town full of secrets and hidden darkness. And like the town she protects, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) has some secrets and darkness of her own. As she investigates the murder of a young woman and the disappearance of two others girls, Mare constantly wrestles with pursuing the truth, even when it comes at the expense of her friends and family. Her attempts to love those same people are what make the show incredibly moving. There are uneven parts of the series– Evan Peters is a little underwhelming, Guy Pearce feels out of place at times, and sometimes the show takes detours that don’t pay off for a while. But attention to detail and a strong spiritual undercurrent, as well as an astounding finale, make it a rewarding must-watch.

WandaVision (Disney +)

The great Marvel-Disney+ show experiment officially kicked off in January of this year with the release of WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprising their big-screen roles as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Vision. Even those of us who were familiar with the comic book inspiration the show was drawing from and knew the conceit of the show–Wanda creates an alternative reality that plays out her and Vision’s life in the style of different American sitcoms– were shocked by how weird the show is. It leans fully into the premise and does not coddle the audience until late in the game. Unfortunately, the show loses its nerve at the end and opts for a big Marvel CGI-battle instead of sticking to its guns, and the whole series suffers for it. But even though the ending is a bit of a dud, there is much to like here. Olsen is marvelous, effortlessly slipping into each decade of acting styles. Bettany, who has been underrated for a long time, gets a few moments to shine. Kathryn Hahn (who is now Emmy-nominated for her role here!) is the ace up the show’s sleeve. WandaVision isn’t able to totally reinvent the wheel, but it is a charming oddity in the ever-expanding world of Marvel and a promise of the potential of the Marvel-Disney+ experiment.

Books

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

I can’t stop thinking about The Echo Wife. It’s a small, tightly written story with a limited cast of characters, but enormous ideas regarding medical ethics, artificial life, femininity, marriage, and recovering from abuse. The book is about Evelyn, a scientist who discovers that her husband Nathan made a clone of her and then had an affair with this clone (named Martine). The clone is a more docile, gentle, nurturing and submissive version of Evelyn. When something happens to Nathan, Evelyn and Martine must work together. They must confront the differences, and similarities, between them as they untangle their connection to Nathan and their own senses of self. If you want an uneasy, twisty, character-driven science fiction story, in the vein of a movie like Ex Machina, I highly recommend checking out The Echo Wife.

Who is Maud Dixon?, by Alexandra Andrews

In Who is Maud Dixon?, the trope of the “genius eccentric loner asshole artist” is put on trial. Florence, an aspiring writer, takes a job being the assistant of a mysterious author who writes under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. This author is the classic egotistical, tempestuous writer. But it turns out, so is Florence. As these two women fight over the mantle of Maud Dixon, in a beautiful Moroccan setting, author Alexandra Andrews slyly examines the myth of the author and the real price of creativity and ambition. A fast-paced, easy read, this is a “beach read” in the best sense of the term.

Raft of Stars, by Andrew J. Graff

Following in the tradition of boyhood adventure novels like Huckleberry Finn or Hatchet, Raft of Stars follows two young boys- Fish and Bread- as they escape into the woods after they think Bread’s father has been murdered. At first, the book’s attempt to pay homage to its literary influences feels overdone, but slowly the novel hits own stride, especially as it shifts its focus onto the winsome adult ensemble who are chasing the boys– Tiffany, the self-reliant gas station clerk and secret romantic; the haunted Sheriff Cal; Fish’s tough-as-nails grandfather Teddy; and Fish’s gallant mother Miranda. Author Andrew Gaff plays with genre tropes to fashion a story that, while sweetly-old fashioned in some ways, also gives a more inclusive, thoughtful update to the classic adventure novel. It’s literary but also very cinematic, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was adapted to the big screen soon, so check it out before then!

Podcasts

The Improvement Association, from Serial 

From Serial, the hit true-crime podcast that helped launch the age of true-crime podcasts, comes this more modest, intimate story of election fraud and small-town politics. Hosted by Zoe Chance, the series follows the allegations of election fraud in Bladen County, North Carolina, where a Black political activist group is the subject of suspicion and disdain by white citizens, and trust is broken across races and political parties. The Improvement Association refuses to be sensational or to manipulate viewers with explosive twists and accusations. Chance carefully looks into every lead and logically breaks it down. She’s not the most exciting narrator or storyteller, but she is a trustworthy one that feels steady and reliable, and she clearly cares for the people she encounters, even at their most irritable or eccentric. These five episodes are perfect if you want a better understanding of the mess American politics is in, told in a measured, methodical yet personal way, on a small-scale.

In God We Lust, from Wondery

In God We Lust, meanwhile, is the exact opposite of The Improvement Society when it comes to reporting. While TIS strove to provide a factual, balanced, restrained narrative, In God We Lust is like sitting by the pool with your friend after having one too many margaritas as she recalls a scandalous story she heard second-hand. Hosts Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams are fabulous guides who add plenty of color commentary to the central story: the story of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becky Falwell’s affair with Giancarlo Granda, a young pool attendant they met on vacation. What unfolds is a murky, juicy story at the intersection of all sorts of hot-button issues: #MeToo and sexual harassment, Christian institutions, Donald Trump, Christian leaders and wealth, and purity culture. There’s a lot here to think about, especially if you’re a serious Christian who cares about these issues. But the hosts don’t do much to prompt thoughtful discussion or questions; they’re more prone to laugh at the scandal than lament it. So if you do listen, enjoy it at face-value, but dig deeper into what this story really can be mined for.

Movies

Inside, (Netflix)

Comedian and writer/director Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside has been called a lot of things. A genre-bending meta-examination of comedy (true). Auteur achievement (true). A catchy musical (true). Inside is a fascinating examination of the internet and internet culture, and there are many reviews out there that break down its layers that I would recommend checking out. But there is something I haven’t seen discussed yet, so I want to bring it up here, which is the theme of “humiliation” throughout the film. 

I’m going to define humiliation here on more spiritual terms: humiliation is not just feeling embarrassed or having your ego bruised, it is the feeling of the gap between how you are being treated, and what you deserve. Humiliation is a betrayal of dignity. If we believe all humans have inherent worth and dignity, then humiliation is when someone is treated with less-than that deserved dignity, either by having to treat themselves poorly or by being treated that way by others.

The special starts with Bo Burnham (or, his protagonist character) making fun of comedians who are white guys with a lot to say (like him). It starts as typical form of self-deprecation, the kind we as the audience usually appreciate, with our love of self-awareness. Then the special moves deeper into Bo’s conflicted feelings about the internet. He started his comedy career making internet videos, and now he’s having to examine himself and his complicity in the space he is now ambivalent about. There’s the humiliation of examining yourself and realizing, Oh no, I’m embarrassed with how I have made my living and how it’s contributed to something bad and shallow. This self-examination creates doubt and begs the question: Can I ever be truly authentic?

Then the special digs into Bo’s mental illness and how his panic attacks made him quit performing comedy, and there’s that gap again, the gap of my body and mind has betrayed me, this is not how it should be, I deserve better. There is humiliation in being impaired in this way, and even more humiliation in wanting to tell people the truth of your experiences, but not wanting to be pitied. Then at the end of the show, Bo sings a song about how next time, he should watch the audience, instead of the audience only watching him. Shortly after, Bo appears naked under a spotlight. Being on the internet and performing on stage means you are always vulnerable and naked to the audience. Humiliation abounds. 

There are little parts of the special that strive to show that on the internet we reduce ourselves to one-dimensional caricatures, because that’s how these platforms work. The song “White Woman’s Instagram,” is a funny takedown of stereotypical white woman Instagram accounts, but halfway through the song Bo sings of a post where this hypothetical woman writes about her deceased mom, a touching, humanizing moment. But there’s discomfort here as well: this woman can only have an authentic, genuine expression of humanity in a space otherwise full of pictures of pumpkins and lattes. How could an Instagram page ever convey the complexity and three-dimensionality of someone? It can’t! We’re made for so much more than this! But this is all we have, so we have to settle for this lesser form of self-expression. This is a division of self, and that’s humiliation.

The last scene has Bo walking out of his house, then immediately trying to go back inside the house, but it’s locked. While he struggles to get back inside, a laugh track plays. This is the humiliation of being exposed to people, the humiliation of a parasocial relationship where you both desperately need the audience, and you also despise them. Inside is the best film to come out of the pandemic so far, and I think everyone will take something very different away from it.

– Madeleine D.

Top Twenty Movies About Oklahoma

A guest review by Jonathan Dorst

With the recent news of the Matt Damon film Stillwater (filmed in and around Stillwater, OK) getting a July release date, and the news that Martin Scorsese has begun filming Killers of the Flower Moon in the Pawhuska/Bartlesville area with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, it got me thinking about movies that are about my adopted home state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma has had its share of well-known actors– including Alfre Woodard, Kristin Chenoweth, Megan Mullaly, James Marsden, James Garner, Jennifer Jones, Vera Miles, Van Heflin, Ron Howard, Bill Hader, Tim Blake Nelson, Tracy Letts, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gary Busey, Wes Studi, and Will Rogers– but it has not had a plethora of movies made about it. The ones that have been made, however, include several that are fairly iconic, so it seems like a good time to rank the 20 best Oklahoma movies made so far. 

For starters, we’ll just consider feature films, not documentaries– apologies to Okie Noodling, Unlikely Family, and Tiger King. Also, movies simply filmed in Oklahoma (like UHF) or tangentially related (think Ruprecht yelling “Oh boy, Oklahoma, Oklahoma” in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) don’t count if they’re not essentially about Oklahoma. There are still a number of stories that could, and should, be told on screen about Oklahoma, including Clara Luper and the Katz Department store lunch sit-ins, Stanley Draper and the expansion of Oklahoma City, Stillwater’s Farm and the birth of Red Dirt Music, and the 2012 OKC Thunder. But for now, check out the stories that have made it to the big screen.

20. Home, James (2014)Native Oklahoman Jonathan Rossetti directs and stars in this story of 20-somethings in Tulsa (filmed in Tulsa) trying to figure out life together and by themselves. 

19. Mekko (2015)- Sterlin Harjo’s picture of homeless and vulnerable Native Americans. Much of it was shot in the block surrounding Tulsa’s historic Circle Cinema in the Kendall-Whittier district.

18. To the Stars (2019)- A thoughtful picture of 1960’s Oklahoma and outcast teenagers (and adults) trying to survive. Filmed in and around Oklahoma.

17. The Oklahoma Kid (1939)James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart star in this story about the 1889 Land Run, outlaws, family, and the establishment of cities and order in the West. Shot in California.

16. Oklahoma (1965)- Probably the first thing people think about, after country music, when they think about entertainment coming from the 46th state. Catchy songs but very strange in places. Shot in Arizona (why?).

15. Silkwood (1983)- Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Karen Silkwood in this true story. Filmed in Texas and New Mexico.

14. Where the Red Fern Grows (1974 & 2003)- The classic coming-of-age story of a boy who hunts raccoons better than anyone in Oklahoma, or Arkansas for that matter. The original (filmed in Vian and Talequah, OK) has a lot of country charm, the remake has Dave Matthews and a much bigger budget. 

13. Cimarron (1931 & 1960)- A Best Picture winner, this is the seminal movie about the Land Run. The 1960 remake might be an improvement, but it didn’t win Best Picture, so we’ll stick with the original (although neither was filmed in Oklahoma).

12. Far and Away (1992)- Ron Howard’s epic saga of Irish immigrants surviving the land rush has abundant Irish clichés and all the charisma of (then married) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Most of the film was filmed in Ireland, with the land rush scenes filmed in Montana.

11. Twister (1996)Filmed in Wakita and lots of other parts of Oklahoma, this 1996 movie is still a top-tier disaster movie with a great cast.

10. Rumble Fish (1983)- Coppola’s follow-up to The Outsiders, a grittier version of young adult life in Tulsa in the mid-20th century based on the novel by SE Hinton. Filmed in, with tons of great footage of, Tulsa.

9. In Old Oklahoma (aka War of the Wildcats) (1943)- With John Wayne in a comedic role, this 1943 film imagined the feuds over oil, with a dash of romance. Filmed everywhere but Oklahoma.

8. Leaves of Grass (2009)- An hilarious tale written by Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson about twin brothers from Oklahoma (both played by Edward Norton) who have taken very different paths in life but are brought back together near Tulsa for nefarious purposes. Filmed in Louisiana.

7. Hang ‘Em High (1968) One of Clint Eastwood’s best Westerns, this is a meditation on revenge and the development of the justice system in the American West. Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona.

6. Oklahoma Crude (1973)- A similar premise to the Susan Hayward film Tulsa, but a more realistic (and cruder) vision of an independent woman, played by Faye Dunaway, trying to take on the big oil companies. Like many older films, this one was all filmed in California.

5. To the Wonder (2012)- Terrence Malick’s vision of cross-cultural romance, with Bartlesville, OK playing as big a role in Ben Affleck’s character’s love life as Paris, France. Some scenes were also shot in Pawhuska and Tulsa.

4. True Grit (1969 & 2010)- A classic Western about doing what’s right, no matter how hard. I prefer the Coen brothers version with Jeff Bridges (and the excellent Hailee Steinfeld) over the John Wayne version, even though none of it was filmed in Oklahoma.

3. August, Osage County (2013)- An all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale (and Ewan McGregor, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Juliette Lewis…), anchors this funny and heartbreaking story that reminds us that we can’t choose our family, only how we treat them. Shot on location in Osage County, OK.

2. Grapes of Wrath (1940)- John Steinbeck’s iconic novel about the Dust Bowl and the Okie migration to California adapted in gorgeous black-and-white by John Ford with Henry Fonda. Some scenes were filmed in McAlester and Sayre, OK, but most of it was filmed in California.

1. The Outsiders (1983)- Francis Ford Coppola’s classic adaptation of Tulsan SE Hinton’s novel of greasers and socs. Filmed in Tulsa, it was a launching pad for a bunch of great young actors.

Honorable Mentions: Tex, Come Sunday, Return of the Bad Men, Four Sheets to the Wind, Where the Heart Is, Tulsa.

Others: Oklahoma Territory, Into the Storm, Thunderstruck, Home in Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Cyclone, Bringing Up Bobby, Barking Water, Keys to Tulsa (awful), Terror at Tenkiller (worse than awful).

The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 2/2)

With the release of Notos in 2017, The Oh Hellos set out to create a four-part series inspired by the Anemoi, the Greek gods of the four winds. Each album is named after one of the gods, and is inspired by their personalities and legends. The theme tying the four albums together is the question of “Where did my ideas come from?” These albums find The Oh Hellos examining the messy intersection of their faith and culture, the way white nationalism has bled into American Christianity, and the process of growth and sanctification. They draw heavily from the prophets of the Old Testament, echoing these prophet’s uncompromising calls for justice and repentance.The symbol of a wheel also unites the four albums. The band connects the ideas of changing winds and seasons as they ponder what it takes to break free of sinful cycles, both personally and corporately.

Notos and Eurus: Recognizing Patterns & The Beginning of Wisdom

Notos (2017) begins with “On the Mountain Tall,” which draws from the encounter the prophet Elijah has with God in 1 King 19:11-13. The song makes a comparison between all of the fearsome signs Elijah saw– the windstorm, earthquake, and fire– and the way religion is used to spark “a holy war” and sow deceit, discord, and hate. But like how God was not in those fearsome acts, but speaks to Elijah in a small voice, so does God here to the narrator: “Whisper to me words in a voice so small/Like the one that to Elijah called/Quiet as a candle and bright as the morning sun.” The chorus has the narrator reflecting on the momentous task God has called them to: “I know you want me to be afraid/I know you want me to love you.” Here we see the beginning of a motif of the album and the whole series: God as someone to be feared. He is gentle and gracious with his people (as emphasized in the two previous albums). But he does require something of us, and his justice and righteous anger should be feared by sinners. Notos sees God as a fearsome presence and the narrator struggles with anxiety towards him.  

Next is “Torches,” which goes straight into detailing this “holy war.” “Torches” evokes the imagery of a mob, and, specifically, of the tiki torches used by white nationalists in the 2017 Charlottesville protests to detail how divisive the world, and especially the Church, has become, singing “Ignorance will make brothers of us all” and how our sin and our fear of others means that “Over and over, again/We keep that old wheel turning.” The wheel here represents patterns we can’t break out of and intergenerational sins we can’t escape.

Constellations has the narrator reflect on how he has tried to interpret his experiences, but his lack of perspective has caused him to misinterpret them to be hateful towards others. He has relied so heavily on his preconceived notions that he is resistant to change, yet “Like constellations imploding in the night/Everything is turning, everything is turning/And the shapes that you drew may change beneath a different light/And everything you thought you knew will fall apart, but you’ll be alright.”

Notos” uses the imagery of a hurricane to convey the turning of ideas, power, politics, and emotions. Change is coming, and it’s scary for those who were content, but there is also the potential for a cleansing power to occur, like God restarting the Earth after the flood. If the Church has made a mess of things, God will baptize us again, and that’s something to celebrate, not fear. The album ends with “New River,” which finishes this thought, singing: Well, it’ll rain for forty days and nights, and nothing you do can slow the rising tides/But the river takes her shape from every tempest she abides/And like her, you’ll be made new again.”

Eurus (2018) begins with “O Sleeper.” The last album ended with a flood bringing about cleansing change, and this album continues this idea of God changing us and the world in sometimes scary, unpredictable ways so as to overturn our sins to restore things as they should be. The song ends with: “By God, I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” This is a recommitment to the work of change, of becoming vulnerable and allowing God to chip away at them until real righteousness can flow out of us and restore us to our true nature. This is a glimpse of glorification, of humans in their perfected state and Earth itself made into the New Heavens and the New Earth. “Grow” points back to Notos’s “New River” and tells of how we must sit back and allow change to happen to us: “Get your feathers ruffled/You got a lot to learn, if you’d just settle down/And let the river run its course.” 

Passerine” ends the album by bringing to the forefront what has been lurking in the background of the past two albums: critiques of the modern American church. “Passerine” muses on how the narrator’s fellow Christians have become like the dominant culture. They are compared to “centurions,” who are building the fires for “that Greco-Roman dream” (= American Dream). The narrator laments that while she thought she was following Christ, she realizes that by following these legalistic and hypocritical Christians, she “can’t shake this feeling that I was only/Pushing the spear into your side again.” The song ratchets up to a loud, anthemic chorus with the whole band sing-screaming: “When he comes a-knocking at my door/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?/When the cold wind rolls in from the north/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?” The sound is of overwhelming fear. Like the scariness of the flood/baptism change at the end of Notos, Eurus also ends with spiritual anxiety, a fear of God and what he’s going to do with us and our sin. It is the sound of a guilty conscience hearing the judge’s footsteps round the corner. The mention of the “cold wind” ushers in Boreas.

Boreas and Zephyrus: Humbled through Suffering into True Maturity

Boreas (2020), despite being winter-themed and about sadness and suffering, is full of tenderness, both musically and lyrically, providing relief to the fear shown in Eurus. It is scary to know that we are going to be disciplined and changed, but oh! God is good to us. The album opens with “Cold,” which introduces the winter imagery. “Cold” ends with a summary of the previous albums; the narrator says that she has relied on wealth for her security: “You paved your Hades/With precious stone/Made an hеirloom to patricians and the rich alone.” The narrator decides she’s not going to do this anymore, she’s ready to do the work of letting God change her: “Well, I’m not quite ready/To turn to bone/To petrify the shred of life/I’m holding onto.” 

Rose” is all about the Church, laying out The Oh Hellos’s loving rebuke of the modern American (white, Evangelical) church. Lines like “Your dowry, it ain’t fooling/The pyrite is showing through/It won’t buy you that empty tomb” show how the Bride of Christ has contented herself with fool’s gold rather than Christ, and how she has been promiscuous to another, a “leviathan groom” (call back to Dear Wormwood’s “Where is your Rider”). “Rose” ends on a melancholy note, saying that there is pain on our way– both the persecution Jesus promised all believers will endure, but also discipline for sin– “So lay compress to the aching/Of your body made for breaking/We’ve got a lot of breaking left to do.”

In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that the pain she is undergoing make her a better person: “Maybe then my brеath could embody/A wildfire starting/I’d sweep up the forеst floor/And my body breathe life into the corners/Be a darker soil… In the end all I hope for/Is to be a bit of warmth for you/When there’s not a lot of warmth left/To go around.” Glowing” ends the album on another bittersweet note. It acknowledges the difficulty of these winter seasons of life. But “Glowing” also promises that “It would feel like rebirth/Out of some kind of dying/To see yourself so glowing.”

Zephyrus (2020) finds the narrator in a much more secure position, now more humbled and gracious, self-aware and rooted in God’s love and goodness. The narrator has undergone the winter season and endured trials and pain, and God has used that time to turn her into someone more beautiful, giving, and free. The opening number, “Rio Grande,” tells us that the narrator has rededicated him/herself to the act from “Oh Sleeper.” In “Oh Sleeper,” the narrator sings: “I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” In “Rio Grande,” they sing: “Oh, maybe I’m naive for thinking/That a mountain so stubborn can move/But if I’m a mountain moving/I think maybe you can be, too.” Now the narrator is thinking of other people as well and is extending love to them.

In “Theseus,” a river goes from representing scary, abrupt change, into representing peace (which is stable but not static): “Oh, that peace like a river/Always going, but never getting.” This brings back the theme from “Grow” of change being the best place for people to be in, because that’s when we grow. They sing of this healing: “It’s gonna hurt like hell to become well/But if we set the bone straight/It’ll mend/It’ll fix/And we’ll be well.”

Zephyrus” continues the thoughts of “Boreas.” In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that she become kindling that will bring warmth to others. In “Zephyrus,” she speaks in garden-based metaphors of caretaking and love for others: “I wanna help mother up an orchard/From a seed/Up through sapling” and “Break the bonds/I’ve been holding onto/Let ‘em soften me…Till every part that I am made of/Waters deep/To the roots/Of something greener.” Soap” continues this thought, with the narrator now speaking to another character, telling them that “I think that you’re worth keeping around/I think that you’re worth holding onto…It’s gonna hurt like hell/But we’re going to be well/I’ll give you my best shot.” Personal growth is painful, but it softens you into someone that can better relate to and serve others. 

Rounds” closes the album and the total series, once again returning to the imagery of cycles and wheels. “Rounds” has the narrator realizing the cycle they have just gone through over the course of the four albums- conviction, repentance, discipline, and growth- will happen over and over and over again, but each time they will get more stable: “Round, around, a round again/Will you start where I end?/Am I still speaking?/Yeah I’m long in the wind/I’ll go on and on and on again/If my chest don’t cave in.” 

In conclusion: The Oh Hellos are good, I highly recommend listening to them! I don’t know where the band will go next. I think they could explore any of these subjects again, or they could go more in-depth into songs about suffering or examinations of the church. They could mine more from the scriptures (a concept album retelling Bible stories in song? Yes please!). Or they could move more towards glorification, imaging heaven and holiness and what we have to look forward to.

Happy Easter. He has risen indeed!

– Madeleine D.

Thank you to Genius.com for lyric annotations 

Sources and further reading: 

https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/01/23/oh-hellos-folk-rock-band-thats-not-afraid-address-politics-or-religion

https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2017/11/15/564156775/song-premiere-the-oh-hellos-torches

The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 1/2)

I’d like to take a small detour from movies to discuss a band whose music has recently captured my imagination: The Oh Hellos, a folk-rock duo from Texas led by siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath and a rotation of bandmates. Maggie and Tyler are Christians, and their faith is tightly wrapped into all of their music. Their music does not sound or read like many mainstream Christian artists, instead, they borrow from mythology and history as well as scripture to tell stories with skillful musicianship. Like an Oh Hellos cinematic universe, there is a continual storyline across the body of their work– two full-length albums and four EPs– which is what I want to explore here. 

This storyline is that of one narrator’s Christian walk, from conversion into spiritual maturity. Or, to use theological terms: Justification– being made right in the eyes of God; Sanctification– the ongoing process of being made more like Christ; and Glorification– the final transformation of believers into eternal beings united with God forever. I’m going to look at how their first two albums tell the story of justification and sanctification on an individual level, and then how their four EP’s tell the story of corporate sanctification with glimpses into glorification. After reading, I hope you will be inspired to listen to this band’s fantastic work, and enjoy the rich (and true!) story they tell.  

Through the Deep Dark Valley: The Prodigal Son & Justification

Through the Deep Dark Valley (2012) retells Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing from it the universal story of how every believer and, in turn, all of humanity, has broken away from God our loving father, and will eventually make their way back into his forgiving arms.

The album opens with “The Valley,” which sets up the premise. The band bellows: “We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked…We were born in the shadow of the crimes of our fathers/ Blood was our inheritance/No, we did not ask for this/ Will you lead me?…We came down to the water and we begged for forgiveness.” Being born in sin, we needed to be led away from it and saved. But who will save us? What will that journey from sin entail? “Inheritance,” “water,” and “forgiveness” are all recurring symbols.

The main meat of the album is a series of seven songs that directly retell the parable, beginning with the track “Second Child, Restless Child,” which draws up a portrait of the narrator, the younger son who desires to run from his father’s home and pursue freedom: “See, I was born a restless child/And I could hear the world outside calling me.”Wishing Well” tells of the son experiencing the freedom he thought he wanted, yet coming to the end of himself: “Curse my restless wandering feet/Prone to wander endlessly.” These lyrics are a reference to the old hymn “Come Thou Fount,” which has the line prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” References to “Come Thou Fount” litter the album. “Wishing Well” closes with the son realizing all of his adventures have left him feeling empty. The son has nothing left, both physically and spiritually, having squandered his father’s inheritance and love.

In Memoriam” is the climax of the younger son’s story. He returns home and is fully embraced by his father. The song explores the son’s feelings of shame and guilt: “But I’m sure I’ll find you waiting there for me/And by the time I blink, I’ll see your wild arms swinging/Just to meet me in the middle of the road/And you’ll hold me like you’ll never let me go…But you are far too beautiful to love me…Heaven knows I’m prone to leave the only God I should have loved/Yet you’re far too beautiful to leave me.” Note again the use of “prone to leave” as a reference to “Come Thou Fount.” Also note how the use of “beautiful” goes from explaining why God should not love us to explaining his mercy. 

The Lament of Eustace Scrubb is next (and is my favorite The Oh Hellos song). The title comes from the character Eustace Scrubb from the fifth book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Oh Hello’s love for C.S. Lewis drives their second album, which Maggie Heath describes as “basically C.S. Lewis fanfiction.” But we’re not there yet! Eustace Scrubb has a radical conversion experience in Dawn Treader, and the parallels between him and the prodigal son (and, by default, all of us) are sung here as the narrator asks forgiveness from his brother and father. This song ends with the lines “When I touch the water/They tell me I could be set free,” evoking baptism. 

I Was Wrong” concludes the younger son/narrator asking for forgiveness. It also ties in the larger story of man’s rejection of God starting in the garden: “And I was torn from the start/I was torn between my God and my Father…/As I took from the tree that was rotting…Now I’ll hide my shame with woven leaves.” “I Have Made Mistakes” comes after forgiveness as an acknowledgment that “I have made mistakes, I continue to make them” and detailing how, even though the narrator knows he will continue to sin and be prone to wandering, he will come back again and again to repentance, and “Nothing is a waste, if you learn from it”.

The Truth is a Cave,” I think, could be read as from the Older Brother’s perspective if the older brother came to repentance himself. This narrator sings of trying so desperately “To be the child that you wanted,” that he wore himself out with staunch obedience and duty, becoming self-righteous and legalistic so that “the truth became a tool, that I held in my hand/And I wielded it but did not understand.” But he comes to realize that instead of God/his father asking him to do everything, God/father has already done it, and simply calls out to the son for a personal relationship. “Valley- Reprise repeats many of the same lyrics as the beginning, but ends with “Still you lead me, never leave me/Never leave me” and then an instrumental cover of “Come Thou Fount.” 

Dear Wormwood: Leaving your abusive master & the beginning of sanctification

Dear Wormwood (2015) is inspired by C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters (1942) is written as a series of letters from experienced demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (also a demon) on how to better tempt his human project. In the album, each song is written like a letter between two parties. Typically, it is the narrator versus an abusive power. So it’s like the human is speaking back to his demons, his personal Wormword and Screwtape. After all, sin is our abusive master who we were slaves to, and the work of sanctification is the daily work of resisting again and again the sins of our flesh. We are not freed from all of our sins the moment we’re converted. It is an ongoing process; the three steps forward, two steps back of progress. But it’s not just enough to leave behind your sin– you must find something or someone more glorious to replace it with. 

After an instrumental “Prelude the album opens with “Bitter Water,” which has the narrator acknowledging that his/her relationship with the other party is toxic, but still desirable, singing: “I still taste you on my lips/Lovely bitter water/The terrible fire of old regret is honey on my tongue…I know I shouldn’t love you but I do.” Like a bad ex, we have sins we cling to that we know are destroying us, but we can’t imagine living without them.

There Beneath” has the narrator see a king character (Jesus) being presented as an alternative thing to worship and love–a beautiful, more worthy thing. This sets the stage for the narrator to finally end/leave the abusive relationship.” In “Exeunt,” the narrator ends the relationship, singing: “Even when you hunt me with ire, relentless/Batter down my door when you find me defenseless/I will not abide all your raging and reaving/I have set my mind and my will: I am leaving.”

Caesar” goes back to focus on the narrator’s new love and zeal for Jesus, the new and better ruler and object of affection. “Caesar” uses crucifixion imagery to set up the second part of the album, which is retelling how Jesus’s death and resurrection killed Death itself, Death and sin being our ultimate enemy. “Caesar” introduces a three-song storyline dealing with this death to Death, beginning with “This Will End,” which sees the narrator wondering if the afterlife is going to be worth the pain that comes with living. He comes to the conclusion that even though there is “endless battery” between him and sin/evil, there is a “kind of love” that the sin/evil cannot even comprehend, the love of Christ. This directly sets up the two-parter of “Pale White Horse” and “Where is Your Rider.”

Pale White Horse” depicts Death as a horse, with Satan as its rider, drawing upon Revelation 6:8: “Neither plague nor famine tempered my courage/Nor did raids make me cower/But his translucent skin/Made me shiver deep within my bones/It was a pale white horse/With a crooked smile/And I knew it was my time.Where is Your Rider has the narrator gloating that even though Death may kill him, this horse is riderless. Satan has been defeated! Death has no lasting power against Christ. The band gloats: “The shadow of Hades is fading/For He has cast down Leviathan, the tyrant, and the horse and rider/Where is your rider?” It ends with a celebration of Christ, proclaiming “He has hoisted out of the mire every child/So lift your voice with timbrel and lyre/We will abide, we will abide, we will abide.” The lyrics have multiple allusions to Revelation and apocalyptic literature, along with references to 1st Corinthians 15:55-57: “‘O death, where is your victory?/O death, where is your sting?’”

Dear Wormwood” is a return to the original concept of letters, with this titular song tying all of the themes of the album together. The narrator directly confronts his demon and calls out how the demon has worked through the narrator’s life: “You have taught me well to sit and wait/Planning without acting/Steadily becoming what I hate.” But he finally calls out, “I know who you are now,” and “Now I understand you…And I name you my enemy…/I want to be more than this devil inside of me” The album ends with “Thus Always to Tyrants,” which sings that while there will always be evil powers and sin, a victory is coming and it’s worth waiting for. 

These two albums focus on the individual’s faith. In the next four EP’s, The Oh Hellos move into examining collective, corporate faith. Themes of power and abuse come into the forefront as the band reckons with the way the Church has responded to political upheaval and has compromised the Gospel. We’ll explore that in part

-Madeleine D.

Top 10 Movies of 2020

Three months into 2021, and despite some good news (Covid vaccines!), there has already been plenty of evidence that 2021 will continue to be just as strange as 2020. However, while we hope 2021 will be different when it comes to movies and theaters, let us also look back and celebrate the movies that helped 2020 suck less. As always, my criteria for this top 10 list:

  1. How much I enjoyed the film and how much it stuck with me.
  2. How “good” of a film it is, in terms of craft and use of the medium.
  3. Cultural significance and relevance

I have not yet seen: The Father and Promising Young Woman. And as a note: while the Oscars have widened their eligibility window to includes some films released in 2021, I will be keeping my list to films that were released during the 2020 calendar year in the United States.

Honorable Mentions: The Trial of the Chicago 7, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sound of Metal, News of the World, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Athlete A, Time, Bad Education, Run, The Old Guard, Nomadland, and One Night in Miami 

10. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead is a strange little documentary. The premise is wonderfully morbid: a filmmaker has her aging father stage a bunch of ways he could die as a way for both of them to process the end of his life. Along with being an honest look at dementia and a celebration of a man’s life, Dick Johnson is Dead looks death straight in the face in a way that we so rarely do in American culture. Memento mori. 

9. Minari

While I have never been apart of a Korean family in the 1980s that moved to Arkansas to start a farm, Minari feels both so intimate and universal that I feel like I have. While the film fails to have a satisfying ending, the superb ensemble cast and excellent directing makes Minari a highlight of the year.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t do much to transform August Wilson’s play into a film, but despite the lacking direction, the performances (including Chadwick Boseman’s last) and the writing are just too good to overlook. It has several things in common with Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, which I also debated putting here. One Night transforms its theater/play roots into something more cinematic, but it too has its historical characters embodying warring ideologies about Black uplift, performance, artistry, and autonomy. Both are excellent, but in the end, I simply enjoyed Ma Rainey and its stylishness a bit more.

7. Herself

Like Driveways (which is further down on my list) Herself is about neighborliness and community. It follows Sandra (Clare Dunne), a woman who escapes her abusive husband with her two daughters to start a new life. Sandra decides to build her own house, and must rely on the help of strangers and estranged friends to get the job done. Commentary on well-meaning but often restricting social services simmer under the more-important emotional story of a woman rebuilding her life with the support of others.

6. The Invisible Man

I debated between putting The Invisible Man or Run here, as I loved both of these female-led thrillers. In the end, I chose The Invisible Man because I was just so impressed with the creativity of this retelling of the H.G Wells story and how it becomes an examination of domestic abuse, gaslighting, and the psychology of victimhood. Elizabeth Moss and her agony carry the whole film.

5. Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love is a masterclass in acting by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. Neeson and Manville play an older married couple who get a breast cancer diagnosis. The film follows treatment and the stresses it puts on their relationship. Ordinary Love is an intimate look at a relationship between two characters you desperately want to protect, which makes every little blow devastating. It made me feel multitudes. 

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield

This was easily the best movie-going experience I’ve had this year (in part because I actually got to see this in theaters, just a few weeks before my town’s Regal Theater closed indefinitely). A quirky and whimsical adaptation that does right by the source material, The Personal History of David Copperfield was an unexpected delight.

3. The Assistant

The Assistant follows a young assistant (Julia Gardner) to a film producer as she struggles with what to do when she realizes her boss is sexually assaulting other women. We see our protagonist in an ethical dilemma where there is no way to do the right thing without being punished. It and Athlete A are the best films, I think, to have come out of the #MeToo movement, with The Assistant giving a clear-eyed view of the complex power dynamics within the film industry in a subtle, unflinching way.

2. Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You reminds me of 2019’s Uncut Gems, in that both are equally stressful films to watch. However, while Uncut Gems is about a man ruining his own life through terrible decisions, Sorry We Missed You sees an English family make every right decision they can, yet continually be pummeled by circumstance and external forces, never able to get ahead no matter how hard they try. The film is not explicitly political, but I still think it is the most political film of the year by showing the plight of the working class and the traps of the gig economy. It probably won’t get the same awards attention as Parasite, last year’s Oscar-winning class-conscious film, but it certainly deserves your attention. 

1. Driveways

Like Ordinary Love and Herself, Driveways is a drama with a small cast of characters, and here, the stakes are even smaller. Following a single mother and her son as they try to clean out her dead sister’s house to sell, Driveways is a meditation on neighborliness, loneliness, and intergenerational connection. It’s a gentle, sweet parable that encourages us to set aside our fear of strangers and pursue relationships with them. In a year where we were divided not only ideologically, but physically, Driveways felt exceptionally poignant. 

-Madeleine D.

Could 2021 Be the Greatest Year in Movie History?

A guest post by Jonathan Dorst

This past December, many of us watched a rare occurrence in the night sky- the ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn that some called the Christmas Star. As I look ahead to this year in movies, coming on the heels of Netflix’s announcement of their planned weekly movie release, I am wondering if there will be a great conjunction of films. With the many films that were held over from their original 2020 release dates combined with the normal slate of 2021 releases, will 2021 become the greatest year in movie history? To answer that question, we first need to ask three other questions.

The obvious first question is, When will people go back to theaters? Many people might not return in mass until the fall, or even into 2022 (and some people, having spent thousands of dollars on home theaters during quarantine, may never return to a traditional theater at all). But, with the news of Warner Brothers pictures now being released on HBO Max the same day as they premiere in theaters, it would seem that the streamers are winning the release war and will pick up the slack of theater revenue. Nevertheless, it’s possible that some of the big releases this year might get pushed back to 2022 by nervous studio executives, like Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Brad Pitt/Margot Robbie-starring film Babylon has already been.

The second question: What is coming up this year, and why should we expect a great year? To start with, let’s talk about the directors who have films slated to come out this year (how spoiled are we?): Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Soderbergh, Taika Waititi, Paul Schrader, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Jackson, Denis Villeneuve, Ridley Scott, Sam Levinson, Cary Fukunaga, Adam McKay, Jane Campion, Tom McCarthy, Ramin Bahrani, and more. 

You’ve got lots of potential blockbusters: Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow, No Time to Die (the new Bond film), Dune, Sherlock Holmes 3, The Matrix 4, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, F9, Cruella, Mortal Combat, A Quiet Place II, Godzilla Vs. Kong, Uncharted, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad (not to be confused with 2016’s Suicide Squad), and Death On the Nile

You’ve got auteur-driven films: The Card Counter (Schrader), Last Night in SoHo (Wright), The Northman (Eggars), The White Tiger (Bahrani), No Sudden Moves (Soderbergh), Next Goal Wins (Waititi), Pinocchio (del Toro), and possibly Killers of the Flower Moon (Scorsese). 

You’ve got your musicals and musical biopics: In the Heights, Respect, and The Beatles: Get Back. You’ve got Tom Hanks in Bios and the Untitled Elvis Presley Project. You’ve got Pixar (Luca), Disney (lots of stuff, including many of the aforementioned blockbusters), DC (Morbius), Marvel (Black Widow and a new Spider-Man), and a long-awaited Space Jam sequel. Get your popcorn ready, there’s a lot coming this year.

The third question is, What’s the competition? Which years in movie history are the best up to this point? This, of course, is a matter of great debate, and is probably hopelessly subjective (unless you just go by box office receipts, in which case 2018 would be the champ). But, it seems that there are three years that are regularly considered by critics and film buffs as the greatest year in movie history: 1939, 1962, and 1999. 

1939 has the distinction of having the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation: Gone With the Wind (which also won Best Picture). It was a time when the studio system was at its height, with great directors, stars, and producers cranking out movies for an audience hungry for entertainment. It also saw this murderer’s row of classics and very good films: The Wizard of Oz, John Ford’s Stagecoach (some believe to be the greatest Western of all time), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Gunga Din, George Cukor’s The Women, William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Destry Rides Again, Love Affair, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game

1962 benefited from a historical oddity: many international films that were released in 1960 and 1961 were released in 1962 when distributors realized they could make money on these films. As the book Cinema ’62 notes, 1962 was a time when the studio system was changing greatly, a slew of great international directors- including Kurosawa (Sanjuro), Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon), Bergman (Through a Glass Darkly), Truffaut (Jules and Jim), Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad), Antonioni (La Notte and L’eclisse), Bunuel (Viridiana), Tarkovsky (My Name Is Ivan)– were at their prime, and subject matter began to evolve to include more of the human experience. The slate of American and English-language films released in ’62 is pretty good, too: Lawrence of Arabia (that year’s Best Picture and box office champ), To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. No, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Manchurian Candidate, The Miracle Worker, The Music Man, The Longest Day, Gypsy, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cape Fear, Lolita (Kubrick), The Trial (Welles), How the West Was Won, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Days of Wine and Roses.

Economics played a part in 1999 being a great year: DVD sales were booming, which meant that studios could take a chance on films that could recoup box office losses in DVD revenue, and it was not yet the golden age of TV. ‘99’s box office champ and Best Picture winner are not very good: Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace and American Beauty, respectively. The best films of that year, though, were made by a who’s who of the-newly-arrived great directors: Memento (Christopher Nolan’s best), Fight Club (David Fincher’s best), Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson), Election (Alexander Payne), Titus (Julie Taymor), Three Kings (David O’Russell), and The Insider (Michael Mann), along with great and very good films like The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, Run Lola Run, Brokedown Palace, The Sixth Sense, Topsy-Turvy, 10 Things I Hate About You, Office Space, The Green Mile, The Hurricane, Man on the Moon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Boys Don’t Cry, Eyes Wide Shut, The Straight Story, Bringing Out the Dead, Any Given Sunday, All About My Mother, Notting Hill, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

A couple of runner-up years: 1946 saw a number of great films get released on the heels of WWII, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Notorious (Hitchcock), The Best Years Of Our Lives, Shoeshine (de Sica), Great Expectations (Lean), My Darling Clementine (Ford), The Big Sleep, Gilda, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Stranger, Henry V (Olivier), A Matter of Life and Death, Paisan (Rosselini), Children of Paradise, and Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau). 1974 is a strong representative of ‘70’s cinema (which some see as the highest film genre yet invented!): The Godfather II, The Conversation, Chinatown, Scenes From a Marriage, Amarcord, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Murder on the Orient Express, The Front Page, The Great Gatsby, Lenny, The Parallax View, Sugarland Express, and A Woman Under the Influence. 1994 was influential in many ways: The Shawshank Redemption (the highest rated IMDb movie ever), The Lion King (maybe the greatest animated movie ever), Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Hoops Dreams, Ed Wood, Quiz Show, Crooklyn, Reality Bites, Natural Born Killers, Dumb and Dumber, Speed, Little Women, and Legends of the Fall.

One could make an argument for 2007 as the greatest year of this century so far (There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, The Lives of Others, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Counterfeiters, The Departed, The Queen, Dreamgirls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 3 Days, Gone Baby Gone, La Vie en Rose, Away From Her, Juno, Into the Wild, Zodiac, Once, Ratatouille, Babel, I Am Legend, Michael Clayton, and Atonement). As to whether 2021 will become the greatest year in movies, if I were going by the one and only 2021 release I’ve seen so far, I would say: “Yes!” Amazon Studio’s Herself is an excellent indie from Ireland. Ultimately, however, my guess is that 2021 will not be the greatest movie year ever for the simple fact that so many productions were shut down in 2020 due to COVID. But, it’s easier now than ever to make a movie, and many productions have improvised and proceeded. We’ll just have to wait and see where the chips fall, and then argue about the merits of 2021 versus all the other great movie years for the next decade or so. Happy viewing!

You can read more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

The 10 Best Things in the Second Half of 2020

Twice a year, I make a list of the best media of the year. This is my chance to recommend non-movie entertainment, such as books, music, and podcasts, to you. In a year without traditional theatrical releases or many of the movies we were promised, I relied more than ever on other types of art to get me through. 

TV:

  1. The Good Lord Bird on Showtime

First Reformed already showed us that Ethan Hawke was skilled at playing zealous religious figures burdened with righteous purpose and a melancholy temperament. The Good Lord Bird, which aired this fall on Showtime, based on James McBride’s book, just confirms that Ethan Hawke should play wild preachers for the rest of his life. In 2020, where we were constantly reminded just how stupid we as a country can be, we didn’t need a dignified, sanitized look at history. We needed something unorthodox and a bit scandalous. By exploring the life of abolitionist John Brown from the perspective of the Black people around him, McBride and Hawke pull off a series that never gives easy answers. Was Brown a madman? Was he the sanest person in the country? Was Brown a Christian hero? Did Brown believe himself to be a white savior? Well…. all of these might be true. While the seven-episode miniseries sometimes falters in its pacing, it is consistently insightful, uncomfortable, hilarious, and heartfelt. It’s can’t-miss viewing.

  1. Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II On Disney+

This technically should have come out during my first part of 2020 list, because this miniseries was released June 26th. But I saw it afterward, and this is my list, so I’m going to include it! This series gives a shockingly candid look at the making of Frozen 2. From the last-minute story changes to the herculean effort of writing Show Yourself, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the drama behind the drama. 

I first got interested in filmmaking through watching and rewatching the behind-the-scenes featurettes of my VeggieTales VHS’s, and then when I got older, watching the hours upon hours of extras on the Lord of the Rings extended DVDs. Watching this series gave me the same thrill. For anyone who loves behind-the-scenes stories or has an interest in filmmaking or other creative industries, Into the Unknown is a great watch. 

Music:

  1. Folklore and Evermore– Taylor Swift 

After dropping her album Lover in late 2019 and her documentary Miss Americana early this year, no one would blame Taylor Swift for laying low the rest of 2020. After all, the pandemic and subsequent quarantining created widespread fatigue and burnout. 

But Miss Swift brought us not only one, but TWO albums this year, both surprises, just a few months apart. And both, in my humble opinion, are excellent. If you like sad folk music in the woods, Taylor has you covered. If you like country songs that tell stories (especially ones about women murdering cheating men) Taylor has some songs for you! If you like “old Taylor,” with her confessional writing and references to her feuds, there’s a song for that too. If you like love ballads, wistful reminisces, and the work of Bon Iver or The National, that’s all here. I’m jealous of Taylor’s ridiculous productivity, but I‘ll take it if I get more trips into these woods. 

  1. Future Nostalgia– Dua Lipa (came out in March)

Dua Lipa’s sophomore album is nothing like Taylor Swift’s offerings this year, but both women are at the height of their powers, and it is equally exciting to see. Future Nostalgia is bringing disco back with an album full of club tunes, with a coherent vision that can be described in three words: neon, bouncy, and fun. Dua Lipa has been all over the top 40 this year, and if you’ve liked her singles (“Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating”) the full album does not disappoint. 

  1. Boreas- The Oh Hellos

The Oh Hellos are a sister-brother folk-rock duo from Texas. With lyrics that combine biblical allusions and mythology, paired with gorgeous vocals and energetic instrumentation, The Oh Hellos are perfect for fans of Mumford and Sons, The Crane Wives, and The Civil Wars. I can’t do much better than the band’s own description of the themes of the album, which feel perfectly suited to the pandemic-winter we are in right now. “Rose” and “Boreas” are highlights.

“Boreas, the northern wind, ushered in the harsh frosts of lonely winter… As we wrote these songs, we found ourselves confronted with the ways we’ve reflected this wind — how we often avoid discomfort, even at the expense of others, until we are left cold, hard, and unfeeling. In this record, we ask the winter to instead kindle us into something warmer and softer than who we’ve been.”

Books:

  1. Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh excels at writing unreliable, disgusting, and repulsive narrators in her works (Mcglue, Eileen, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Vesta Gul, the narrator of Death in Her Hands, is Moshfegh’s most likable protagonist yet (which isn’t saying much), but Moshfegh is still able to make every page become more and more disquieting and we spiral into Vesta’s mind in this twist on a murder-mystery. I generally think it’s harder to write earnest and hopeful stories rather than cynical and/or nihilistic ones, but if you’re going to read something nihilistic and grotesque, you might as well read from the best. And Moshfegh is one of the best. 

  1. Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortlund

A friend of mine described this book as “a balm to the soul,” and I couldn’t agree more. Gentle and Lowly does a deep dive into the heart of Christ. What is his heart towards his people? How does he approach us sinners? How do we understand Christ’s love as an outflowing of God’s love, when God can seem so unloving in the Old Testament? How does understanding the gentle and lowly heart of Christ change us? For fellow believers who are constantly racked with doubt and struggle with believing Christ actually is who he says he is, I urge you to read this book and let its truths sink in, and let it bring you peace. 

Movies:

  1. The Personal History of David Copperfield

Based on the Charles Dickens novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fast-and-loose adaptation directed by Armando Iannucci. Iannucci also directed The Death of Stalin, a brutally witty and sharp satire. This is another period piece, but a lot more wholesome and whimsical. David Copperfield is an ensemble film with a genuinely wonderful, oddball cast, but it is well-anchored by its leading man. As David Copperfield, Dev Patel is a delight. He has nice comedic timing, carries the film easily, and has undeniable charisma and star power. Irreverent adaptations are all the rage right now, and I think this is one of the best examples of how to do that approach right. 

  1. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin directs and writes here, telling the story of the real-life Chicago 7, an assortment of anti-Vietnam activists who are arrested for conspiracy after they hold a demonstration. The film explores leftism vs liberals and the complexity behind the freedom to protest, and how government often works to suppress activism. 

When I initially watched The Trial of the Chicago Seven, I thought it was fantastic. It’s no secret Sorkin can write one hell of a screenplay, and I was enveloped in the courtroom drama, excellent performances, and raw emotions of the story. But afterward, I discussed the movie with my friend Sam (who wrote this piece about Tenet) and he brought to light some key observations that I hadn’t even considered, including:

  1. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther party, is in the first part of the movie, and gets some of the most outrageous, moving scenes, but is reduced primarily to a symbol. Once he is out of the film, he is not spoken of again. In a film about leftist politics and the explicitly racist nature of the justice system, to silence and then eliminate the only Black character (and the presence of Black people in the story) is ridiculous. If I may speak in broad strokes for a moment: many Black people complain that the Democratic party in America takes them and their vote for granted. The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays into this completely. 
  2. Systematic problems, like the difference between leftism and liberals, are made into personal problems. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman represents leftism, while Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden represents liberals. By the end of the film, they have respect for one another, presenting the divide between their ideologies as one that can be simply fixed with the friendship between two people. While, on some level, all ideologies in movies must be symbolically carried within single characters, and personal relationships across the aisle is a good thing, this depiction is simplistic, serving the emotions of the audience more than the story. 

More has been said about the flaws of the film, and they’re worth considering. But I don’t think those flaws should make you avoid the film- if anything, they’re another reason to watch and consider it.

Other:

  1. Ambient Noise Mixes

Are you now working or schooling from home? Do you wish you weren’t? Do you wish instead you were studying by the fire in a hobbit hole in the Shire? Or riding the train to Hogwarts? Or drinking tea with Mr. Tumnus before he betrays you to the White Witch? Or do you just wish you had some ambient noise mixers to help you focus on your work? If you spend a lot of time writing or sitting at the computer like me, you may enjoy some kind of background noise but can’t always do a playlist with lyrics. I have loved using these mixes inspired by fantasy settings. 

– Madeleine D.