An evening out with my favorite film critic and movie date. On our way to see ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

This is not a comprehensive list of all the best films that came out in 2019 but rather a summary of several films that I enjoyed, or that impacted me, last year. There are so many titles missing from this review that either I didn’t have the chance to view or didn’t have time to devote to summarizing…as you know, ‘life happens’. Notable films that should be in the following list include Waves, Knives Out, Parasite, The Farewell, Lego Movie 2, Harriet, Us, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Ad Astra, Joker, and of course…A Hidden Life. And the list could go on to be sure.

Here’s my attempt to give you a snapshot of ten films I felt worthy of recapping and/or sharing about. Hope you enjoy! And be sure to weigh in on your favorites for 2019 in the comments… A few spoilers below:

The Irishman 

The Irishman is classic Scorsese from the opening shot as his signature long-take accompanied by nostalgic pop music guides us through the hallway of a nursing home where we meet Frank Sheeran, a man who in his personal memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, claims to have assassinated Jimmy Hoffa. Allusions to Raging Bull, Casino, and Goodfellas abound as stylish cinematography, chronological shifts, and voiceover narration display Scorsese’s fascination with characters seeking self-atonement through street violence and a proclivity for reliving their glory days. If Goodfellas romanticized the lives of gangsters, this film, while it doesn’t necessarily condemn the violence depicted, does present a somber reflection on the futility of selfish ambition.

By the time The Irishman resolves its primary arc, everyone Frank knows is dead, his family have distanced themselves from him, and the only solace he can find is in his reconciliation to accepting the imminence of mortality. Frank is abandoned in a world that has no recollection of the realm that once contextualized his identity as a hitman for the mafia and, more specifically, as Hoffa’s personal bodyguard and close friend (a dynamic excellently played out by Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino).

It’s close to Christmas Day as Frank confesses his sins to the nursing home’s chaplain and later requests that the door to his room remain open upon the priest’s departure. Clearly a reference to the last shot of 1972’s Godfather, this scene also underscores Frank’s desire to leave the door open for grace to enter that he might be atoned for the countless murders he’s committed.

Though he makes himself relatively transparent to the chaplain, he struggles to produce sincere contrition in his confession and instead obscures the full extent of his heinous crimes. Frank does however express a measure of remorse as he reflects on the one ‘hit’ that literally cost him everything — namely the alleged execution of Hoffa (the film’s historical accuracy is disputed). The priest graciously validates his imperfect confession and absolves him of all his sins.

Thankfully, it’s not our responsibility to leave the door open for God’s forgiveness. Christ is our open door…a High Priest who knows the full truth of our lives that we can’t even be honest with ourselves about. And knowing that, He still accepts our insincere repentance and freely pardons. 

Fast Color

Julia Hart’s second feature film, Fast Color, is like Frozen for Black girls. It’s the end of the world, water is scarce, and a young woman named Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-raw) nomadically evades a government scientist in pursuit of her as she harbors a secret power she fears, yet attempts to control. A synth-pop soundtrack, X-Ray Spex’s Germ Free Adolescents, and Nina Simone records aurally punctuate the landscape of this highly visual dystopian sci-fi film about superpowers, familial bonds, and redemption in the midst of a post-apocalyptic age.

“When a thing is broken it stays broken…it can’t be repaired,” Ruth informs her 12-year old-daughter, Lila, who discovers that she belongs to a long line of women who can magically disassemble and reassemble tangible objects in the natural world. The film centers around the interaction between Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), Ruth, and Lila who consist of mother, daughter, and granddaughter respectively. 

Ruth, a recovering drug addict whose frequent seizures trigger massive earthquakes, returns to her childhood home, a sequestered farmhouse located far beyond the city limits where Bo has been raising Lila in her absence. The prodigal daughter returns seeking asylum in her family’s vintage-yet-futuristic home where cross-generational dialog and tension persist. The quaint country house preserves the integrity of a matriarchal dynasty of unassuming superheroic women of color and becomes both a sanctuary maintaining the family secret as well as a commentary on the limitations imposed on women according to antiquated societal roles.

In a scene bearing Biblical undertones, Bo shares with Ruth a journal documenting anecdotes recorded by ancestors who sought to understand and mediate their inexplicable inherited powers. For me, this called to mind the importance of genealogies in the ancient Hebrew culture as well as the centrality of the line of Christ to our understanding of the gospel and Christianity.

Eve (Genesis 3:15) was essentially the first superheroine — i.e. the first human to be imbued with supernatural strength — namely a Divine promise of a Seed who would one day save the world. She was the progenitor of a seedline that included extraordinary women who played an integral role in the unfolding of redemptive history including most notably, the Moabitess Ruth. Much like the protagonist in Fast Color, the great grandmother of King David found herself wandering, yet bringing restorative hope to a world overtaken by drought, famine, and spiritual darkness. Mbatha-raw’s character eventually stops running long enough to confront her fear, embrace her vulnerability, and thereby find true strength by which she restores hope to a desperate world. Sounds a whole lot like grace to me.

Dolemite Is My Name

There’s a key scene in Netflix’s biopic Dolemite Is My Name (directed by Craig Brewer) where Eddie Murphy, who portrays Rudy Ray Moore, who in turn portrays the iconic character Dolemite, faces a mirror image and rattles off a profanity-laden epithet aimed at a photograph of Moore’s deceased father. The diatribe, however, is uttered in Moore’s independently produced 1975 movie, Dolemite, as an insult directed at the title character’s arch-nemesis, Willie Green. The film within this film became Moore’s way of channeling his frustration and vindicating himself. He made Dolemite to prove a point…to remind himself he’s enough.

From the film’s previous exposition, we learn that Moore’s father had been an impoverished sharecropper in the South who repeatedly told Rudy he would never amount to anything worthwhile in life. Much of Rudy’s life has realized this prophecy as we first discover him arguing with a local DJ (played by Snoop Dogg…resembling Stevie Wonder) about playing his latest recorded R&B single. From this opening scene, we are introduced into the world of this second-rate comedian who had dreams of moving to LA to “make it big,” yet finds himself trapped working in a record store by day, and at night, performing in comedy clubs to unamused audiences. 

When a local drunk stumbles into the store one afternoon poetically spouting off rhythmic lines of self-aggrandizing braggadocio, Rudy decides not to eject him from the premises…but instead to adopt from this man the African American tradition of cultural signifying implicit in such folktale heroes as the “signifying monkey” and later manifesting in the lyrical cadence of the numerous hip hop artists whom Moore’s career would inspire.

The whole idea behind the subsequent creation of the persona Dolemite was to put on an identity to silence the voice of accusation. We see this reflected in the scene where Moore meets who will become his sidekick in the film franchise, Lady Reed portrayed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Moore encounters her in a bar when she’s at her most vulnerable point as she has recently broken up from her marriage due to her husband’s infidelity. Moore proposes that they collaborate in film-making and via a parody country western musical routine. He then invites her to feel his costume wig, and commences to explain, “See… it’s an act!” In other words, being “Dolemite”  and being “Queen B” (as Reed would be known in Moore’s films) could be a means of covering their insecurities and weaknesses with curated and controlled identities. In Jesus, though, we don’t have to create an identity to silence the voice of the law…it is given to us by grace… “for as many of you have been baptized have put on Christ.”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

The strength of Rise of Skywalker is not in its plot which is unfortunately filled with enough holes to make it convoluted at best. Neither is it notable for character development as it introduces new faces, hints at heretofore unknown backstories, yet fails to give us depth, complexity, or even well written dialog.

However, as a whole, this adequate conclusion to the Skywalker saga successfully wove a tapestry of engaging visuals, themes of self-sacrifice and redemption, nods to familiar lines and scenes from previous franchise films, and an overall classic experience of watching Star Wars that evoked the same childlike awe that first engulfed me when my dad took me to see Return of the Jedi in 1983.

This was the first time I left the theater not thoroughly disappointed with what the movies have become since the original trilogy’s inception. It had the return-to-classic-form I appreciated about Rogue One, yet harmoniously merged elements of JJ Abram’s first stab at SW (2015’s The Force Awakens) with traits of the controversial chapter directed by Rian Johnson in 2017. Star Wars films have never been (imo) high art or deep cinema with the exception maybe of A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back. They’re entertainment, pop cultural fascinations like watching your favorite sports team even if they suck. They’re excuses for us to block out two and a half hours, suspend disbelief, and get swept up into a narrative bigger than ourselves.

Rise of Skywalker is driven mainly by the continued development of the Rey-Ren dynamic and while the lightsaber battles got tedious after a while, I thought Abrams used a unique approach to resolving the conflict…and bringing order to the galaxy. Furthermore, the final image is a visual footnote lifelong fans (especially readers of the canonical novels and comics) will find reverent without being too trite.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame employs inter-dimensional time travel as the means by which the world is ultimately saved. If we could go back in time, we presume we could right our wrongs and perhaps even rewrite our personal narratives. In this follow-up to Infinity War, we revisit and survey the multiple storylines that intersect to form one large story and one comprehensive Marvel universe. In the process, our heroes gain sobering insight from seeing themselves objectively and viewing their circumstances in a more comprehensive context than one can in the immediate moment.

In this respect, Endgame’s defining aspect is its self-effacing parody of classic Marvel characters: Beer Belly Thor, Hybrid Hulk, and Captain America fighting a past-tense version of himself while mocking his own signature tagline, “I could do this all day.” The MCU franchise typically depicts men as “gods”…yet they have all the human characteristic inconsistencies from which we all suffer: pride, contention, insecurity, etc. With this third Avengers sequel riffing on its own tropes, we see a humbler and more human side to these heroes, as what makes us fully human in the highest sense is our ability to not take ourselves seriously! We’re more bearable, we can enjoy life, and we are more in tune with reality.

The final battle scene in Endgame recapitulates the last fight of Infinity War, yet inverts the law-grace dynamic. Stories about ultimate cosmic conflicts appeal to us because they remind us that one day the internal war between law and grace (Romans 7:24-25) will soon come to an end. Two thousand years ago, John the Revelator graphically illustrated the consummation of all things by retelling the several battle scenes of Old Testament apocalyptic and wisdom Scriptures in a summary highlighting Christ’s victory over the last enemy to be destroyed…death (incidentally the very etymology of Thanos’ name). 

Amazing Grace

About halfway through Amazing Grace, a choir member tosses a handkerchief that comes toward the screen and inadvertently invites us into a worship service that facilitates our engagement with an ethereal realm whence we hear the first track, a haunting rendition of a Marvin Gaye classic, “Wholly Holy,” amid other selections comprising the best-selling gospel album of all time. The Reverend CL Franklin even makes an appearance as he iterates, “Aretha never left the church….” He is recounting an anecdote detailing his visit to a dry cleaning facility where the manager inquired about when Aretha would ‘return’ to doing religious as opposed to pop music. By the time she had performed this 1972 concert documented by Sydney Lumet (known for classic New York films like Serpico and Network), but retained in cans for years until Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule production company resurrected it, she had already topped the charts with several hits including her most well known, “Respect” (incidentally the title for the upcoming 2020 Jennifer Hudson Aretha biopic). 

The good reverend affirmed his daughter’s ability to bridge the divine, unseen realm with the accessible, tangible world of popular music. Mick Jagger’s brief cameo reinforces the reality that ‘American’ music owes its roots to the church…and more specifically, ‘the Negro spirituals’ that would later spawn not only gospel, but blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, and even hiphop. The transcendent reconciliation between earthly sorrow and redemptive hope has pervaded gospel music from as early as the Soul Stirrers through Thomas Dorsey and accounts for the timbre and distinction that accentuates popular music forms today.

This film reminded me of the actual experience of being in the 11 o’clock church service interacting with the call-and-response dynamic between the preacher and the congregation and being transported to another dimension via the choir’s cadence and unique vocal inflections. The Queen may be dead, yet she immortally survives via the atmosphere Lumet’s musical documentary captures — not dissimilar to his ability to evoke the soulful nuances the pacing of the The Wiz’s musical numbers successfully highlighted. Amazing Grace remains a faith film that evokes genuine conviction and raw emotion while defying the typical garden variety of “Christian movies” — i.e. moralistic, formulaic contrivances devoid of that which can literally touch the soul and register with something in us that testifies to the veracity of ‘something’ beyond the mundane. 

The Peanut Butter Falcon 

“I want you to know that I am a down syndrome person,” Zak reiterates to Tyler (Shia LeBouf) as they sit around a makeshift hearth during a pivotal moment of transparency in Tyler Nilson’s feature length debut, The Peanut Butter Falcon. This is the narrative Zak (portrayed by Zak Gottasgen) has internalized due to the cumulative rejection he has faced from family members, high school coaches, and even his social worker. The assisted living facility whence he fled in order to fulfill his dream of meeting pro wrestler, The Saltwater Redneck, has labeled him a ‘flight risk’. Like Zak, the grace of God is considered a flight risk as we often hear warnings to avoid releasing too much grace lest people go wild and sin indiscriminately.

This is exactly what the film considers: what is it that sets us free to be ourselves? Grace or law? Liberation or control? A soundtrack infused with folk, blue grass, and hints of gospel perfectly complements and facilitates the film’s exposition of an unlikely bromance as ambiguity informs that which distinguishes the ‘bad guys’ from the ‘good guys’. Tyler is on the lam for a morally questionable (yet understandable) act of vindication while Zak longs to be a villain because all his life the people closest to him convinced him his disability defined and therefore limited him. Tyler, however, refuses to perpetuate the story line and verdict Zak has accepted for himself. Instead, he insists on breathing unconditional affirmation and acceptance on a man whom society has marginalized based on his physiological diagnosis.

As Zak attempts to convince himself and Tyler that all there remains to his story is his identification as a ‘down’s syndrome person’, Tyler insists on redirecting his focus away from that which makes him unconventional to that which makes him uniquely human. In a scene invoking Lord of the Flies sensibilities, we witness the transformation of Zak’s soul as he adopts the new moniker, ‘Peanut Butter Falcon’. The Peanut Butter nomenclature is understandable since this was the only affordable form of sustenance the film’s vagabonds could secure. But why Falcon? The idea of a falcon reconfigures the idea of flight as something done to evade the law (cf. Isaiah 53:6) into something done out of spontaneous, organic identity…created not by law, but grace. Falcons fly…because they’re falcons. We love…because like Tyler’s gracious disposition toward Zak, God first loved us.

Plus, there’s a really cool baptism scene where a blind man, whose property the fugitives trespass on, extends mercy to the hapless transgressors and affirms, “You’re not wolves…you’re just sheep who have lost your way.” Eerily reminiscent of a similar scene in the Cohen’s O Brother Where Art Thou, the impromptu baptizer grants the ridiculous assurance inculcated in the sacrament: “Nothing can touch you now…go in peace.”

Give Me Liberty

More of a cross-section of ironic cultural interchange than a well-developed exploration of racial tension in Milwaukee, Krill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty posits a “what if?” idealistic scenario in which a medical transport van becomes (in the director’s own words) a sort of Noah’s Ark salvific vehicle for reconciling ethnic differences in a city infamously distinguished as the most segregated metropolitan area of the United States. 

A cinema verite look emphasizes jump cuts, unstable camera movements, disjointed dialog tracks, and the lack of a musical score to convey a gritty, apparently unscripted ‘slice of life’ depiction that aptly captures the nuance and authenticity of Milwaukee neighborhoods…and people. Mikhanovsky, who drew from some of his personal experience, correctly identifies the prejudices and historically preconceived notions that characterize, but do not have to define, the Cream City. Give Me Liberty dares to imagine what could happen if more dialog would persist across the socially constructed boundaries we maintain to remain within our comfort zones and perpetuate the paradigms with which we feel comfortable…and by which we affirm our collective and individual identities. 

Social media influencer Lolo Spencer debuts as Tracy, a job developer from the North side of Milwaukee who struggles with ALS disease while advocating for job seekers who themselves face physical and development challenges. I have lived in Milwaukee my entire life and, until seeing this film, I had never heard of the Eisenhower Center —  a facility that provides recreational, rehabilitative, and professional support for persons with handicaps. Several of the ‘non-actors’ who proliferate key scenes in the film are Eisenhower participants and represent an often ignored segment of the population who despite their societal invisibility have learned to approach the banality of every day life as a sanctified gift to be received and relished. A talent show and a dance party resembling a rave betray the freedom and carefree disposition of the Eisenhower participants that stands in contrast to the life of encumbered transport driver and lead character, Vic (Chris Galust), who often takes on more burdens than he can bear.

Frequently facing various moral dilemmas throughout the film, Vic clashes with Tracy in a dynamic that partly comments on the mutual mistrust and misunderstanding that continues to divide the North and South sides of Milwaukee. Such acrimony tends to be inter-generational, yet the filmmakers found a humorous manner by which to highlight the tension that keeps us on our own sides of town while imagining the transcendent reconciliation that grace can bring through scenes involving a funeral, a feast, and an unlikely kitchen table gathering where a conversation about the ‘right’ way to cook chicken springs up between two Senior citizens from opposite demographics. Hmmm…people finding common ground through a funeral and a feast? Sounds like the church. ‘We died with Christ’, and through the Eucharist, we from various ‘tribes, tongues, and nations’ come together to proclaim His death until He comes. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 

Grace triumphs over cynicism in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as playsets, puppets, and props recontextualize the grim New York City realm occupied by Lloyd Vogel, an Esquire magazine writer who reluctantly takes an assignment to interview the venerable children’s hero, Mr. Rogers. Based somewhat on a true story, Beautiful Day compliments 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, but instead of focusing primarily on Fred Rogers, director Marielle Heller chooses instead to foreground Lloyd’s transformation as the juvenile approach Mr. Rogers employed to connect with our innermost childlike sensibilities effectively bypasses the caustic journalist’s defenses and painfully reminds him, “You were once a child…”

We (adults) were all once children…trusting, uninhibited, and vulnerable even to the unexpected pain living in this world affords. Through his show, Fred Rogers never denied, but rather creatively affirmed the reality of the brokenness of this world…yet he refused to confirm the verdict that we are broken people because of it. “You’re not broken…In fact, there’s no one like you,” Fred insists right before he invites Lloyd to silently take a moment to remember all the people “who loved us into being.” 

Beautiful Day demonstrates Fred Rogers’ unique gift for helping us realize that while our hurts shape us, they don’t get to define us…we are defined by the love of those who did their best to love us.

Heller shows that Rogers himself was an imperfect man who imperfectly modeled this kind of love on his show. Jo, his wife, informs Lloyd, “If you see him as a saint, then he remains inaccessible.” She goes on to disclose that Fred had a temper…but he found ways to redirect and productively express his anger — namely through disciplines like swimming daily, striking dark chords on the piano, reading Scripture, and praying for all his friends and loved ones (by name) faithfully. The way the editing sparingly deploys the scenes of Rogers engaging in the aforementioned routines demonstrates the film’s subtle quality of testifying to the virtue of the religious life without overtly delivering a two hour sermon (as too many Christian films do). 

To be sure, there is a saccharine Hollywood gloss that undergirds the film, yet overall, it powerfully communicates what Fred Rogers strove to convey through every episode of his show: namely, “Children are people, too.” Heller’s film reinforces this message by reminding us…’adults are children too.’ 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco considers our inherent fear of being erased and forgotten in conjunction with the notion of utilizing art as a means of cultural reclamation. Talbot collaborated with childhood friend and star of the film, Jimmie Fails to write and direct a semi autobiographical story depicting the latter’s experience with foreclosure and displacement from an inherited family home. As the film infers, Fails’ grandfather had purchased a classic Victorian house during an era of economic flourishing for the Black middle class in a city that African American labor had established. The subsequent onset of hippie culture followed shortly thereafter by the encroachment of gentrification coincided with the financial straits that caused Jimmie’s family to lose the house thereby facilitating the identity crisis Fails and his best friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors) seek to resolve.

Jimmie doesn’t know where he or Mont belong or fit in. The film derives its name from the play Mont has written as a sort of story-within-a-story…within-a-story. While Jimmie meticulously paints every nook and cranny of the exterior of his grandfather’s home where upper class urban hipsters have now inhabited, Mont’s way of reconciling and processing an evading reality is to recast his daily observations and experiences as a theatrical production. Even the young men overdoing their macho posturing while hanging out on the corner, serving a sort of Spike Lee/Greek chorus function in the film become a critical component of Mont’s retelling of life as art. Their mannerisms, their dialect, and even their tragedies become the inspired characteristics of the microcosmic narrative he spins commenting on life as a mere stage…and our struggle to find meaning therein as a vain performance.

At one point, the film is punctuated by the interpolation of a soulful rendition of Scott McKenzie’s “Are You Going to San Francisco?” while reiterating its thesis statement via a public transit conversation between two aged punk rock hippies who confess, “I came out here for Janis and the Airplane…now it’s just dead…” Fails happens to be sitting nearby on the shared public transportation and replies, “You don’t get to hate it if you don’t love it.” In other words, there’s something disingenuous about the apathy of hipsters who have become disenchanted by their indulgence in the latest fad that remains distinct from the frustration of being sincerely invested in your community and having to witness its gradual dissolution.

The former insinuates ‘cultural appropriation’…the latter and the former reveal our need for grace. In Christ, we have a city,  we have a place…we are a people whose identity has been secured forever by the Last Adam and His finished work.