Top Twenty Films of 2016 (#5-2)

5.) Moonlight

03-moonlight

dir. Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is a story about evolution. Not evolution in a big Darwinistic sense, or even on a microbiological scale, but rather it is evolution on a personal, human level. The journey begins with a young boy thrust into a society of unforgiving cruelty which quickly teaches him the rules of Survival of the Fittest. Through many hurts, attacks, aches, and pains, the boy evolves into that of a hulking, muscular being who can survive in a tough environment that could have been thought up by Jack London, if Jack London had taken up Miami social work instead of Alaskan mountaineering. The toughness, the ripped biceps, the gold teeth, and the thin beard give Chiron the armor he needs to protect himself and hide who he truly is. A frightened and deeply confused young boy exists behind the massive facade.

The film uses three actors to portray Chiron at different stages in his life. Each piece is like a different pane of stained-glass that focuses on the same subject, but bathes him in a new color of spotlight. The three actors apparently never met each other during filming, yet they each simultaneously convey the same quiet dread and Chiron’s sense of being uncomfortable in his own skin. Yet also, each actor brings qualities to Chiron that gives the whole character well-rounded qualities. By splitting up the acting work, the result is the creation of a character that is greatly more complex than the sum of his parts. Come awards season, the problem then becomes a matter of deciding which actor takes the prize. If all three actors are competing against each other, how can you choose who is deserving of the award, when they all carry the equal weight of a single character?

They tried something like this before with six actors playing Bob Dylan in Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There, but this film is more structured; it doesn’t allow one interpretation of the character to overshadow another. It is a very clear character progression that you can trace in Moonlight. The seeds that are planted in childhood sprout in adulthood. The relationships that are formed early will be tested by years of heavy emotional grudges. And there are tiny moments of tremendous emotional power. The only positive adult influence that young Chiron has in his life is a drug dealer- one who knowingly deals to Chiron’s mother. Their quiet confrontation doesn’t need the big melodramatic cues. The power in the scene comes from the unspoken understanding of one another. Without words, sometimes the biggest emotions can be conveyed through quietness; implied emotions are run through an amplifier.

Sometimes a film will hit an individual harder because of personal experience. I can’t say I’ve lived a life anything like Chiron’s, but I empathize where I can. I’ve seen the evolution of tough guys from before they looked like the four-armed, hulking Pokemon, Machamp and more like their baby form Machop. I remember the mounting insecurities during middle school, and the evolutionary adaptation of developing thick skin. Chiron’s story is a rare one for cinemas, but that does not mean it is made for an exclusive audience. In little ways, I found this story to be wildly universal. Moonlight is a quiet yet deeply moving film.

4.) Arrival

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dir. Denis Villeneuve

Kurt Vonnegut once imagined alien visitors called the Tralfamadorians who could see the entire spectrum of time all at once, like looking at a mountain range. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut introduces a philosophy that ultimately allows a survivor of the bombing of Dresden a chance to see beyond the immediate crisis- to ignore the negativity of the sudden, sharp dips in the mountains, and take comfort in knowing that the mountain range does not end suddenly. After the sharp drop, the incline can climb upwards again, so the Tralfamadorians find it quite sad that humans are limited in only being able to see the immediate present. The new film Arrival has a theme that is very similar with Vonnegut’s ideas. The film explores in many avenues how humanity would react to alien beings like the ones that Vonnegut imagined, as if humanity were on that mountain range, not knowing if it all ends at that sudden, sharp, mountainous dip.

Arrival joins the ranks of the higher echelon alien arrival movies. This film bypasses all those scenes of cigar-chomping, one-liner madness of Will Smith blowing space invaders into oblivion. The film is deeply thoughtful about the first practical issue in dealing with an invader from another world: how do we communicate? There is no magical writer invention here like a universal translator. There is no screenplay invention that sweeps away all the difficulty of communication with a stroke of a pen. Arrival considers first contact scenarios across history, and imagines humanity like a tribal village who first encounter Conquistadors who have the superior technology. As a general rule of thumb, it usually doesn’t bode well for the ones with the inferior weapons.

The high points here aren’t about getting a Jeff Goldblum-type to plant atomic bombs into the alien headquarters. The milestones here are about successfully translating simple alien words into human language. True story: In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette met with Peoria Native Americans along the now-named DeMoines River. He asked them what the name of the tribe was that lived further up the river. They responded “Moingoana” which we derive DeMoines from. What wasn’t realized at the time was that “Moingoana” means “shitfaces.” So the capital city of Iowa roughly translates to “shitface.” How embarrassing.

There are many other examples of mistranslations like that throughout history. And when it comes to a completely alien language and dealing with superior technology and unknown intentions, the film makes a really compelling case that every detail matters in language translation. How exactly do you respond if there is language ambiguity in an alien word that can either translate as “tool” or “weapon?”

Arrival is a philosophical story that argues for human rationality in the face of the unknown. To recall another Will Smith alien movie, this film is like a poetic version of the observation that MIB‘s Agent K makes: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” Most action sci-fi movies are about how people would respond to an alien arrival. Arrival is about how an intelligent person would respond to an alien arrival. Given how toxic the current political rhetoric is right now, Arrival couldn’t have come at a more needed time; it urges unity and understanding in the face of fear and uncertainty. After listening to Talk Radio’s outlandish scare-tactics about outsiders and refugees, just imagine how conspiracy-nutso Alex Jones would really react to the news of real alien invaders. He sure wouldn’t be advocating for working together with other nations in unity and understanding with the aliens. I think his camp would blow up the world if it meant it successfully demonstrating their show of strength. So it goes.

3.) Swiss Army Man

swiss.png

dir. Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for Daniel Radcliffe telling his agent about agreeing to do this film. After starring in eight Harry Potter films, what role do you go for next? A farting dead corpse, of course.

No, you heard me right. This movie really is about a friendship between a man lost at sea and a farting dead corpse.

Swiss Army Man is the Citizen Kane of farting dead corpse movies. But even as high praise as that is, that probably does not give the slightest inkling of an indication to how good it actually is. Can you name another movie about a man who uses a farting dead body as a motorboat to propel across the sea? It’s not exactly a booming genre.

The trailer for this movie already is a small gem of comedy that could easily join the ranks of the best of the SNL digital shorts. But the long-form film pushes beyond flatulence humor into absurd beauty. Very rarely have I seen a movie that has inspired me to laugh and cry at the triumphant sound of the human winds.

With an absurd premise like this, lesser filmmakers would leave it as a one-joke movie: A Weekend at Bernie’s II mixed with a savior complex. But these are bold filmmakers who strove to pull every emotion out of this farting dead corpse movie. Once you are on board with the absurd premise, the movie turns strangely philosophical. The dead body soon learns to speak, and asks questions about life. These aren’t the big picture questions, they are the little ones. “Why is farting not okay to do in front of other people? If you hide your farts from your friends, then what else could you be hiding?”

We find the behavior of the dead body to be absolutely absurd, but the dead body has the exact feelings about us. The film uses an Alice Through the Looking Glass format to contrast two worlds that seem backward and alien to one another. Hank has to carefully explain what living in modern culture is like. He explains what trash is, and why people throw it away. And he explains why he has to go back to this society that throws things away. He needs to get back to the people who love him, even though he lives alone and sends automated birthday messages to his dad. This all seems absurd to the dead man. The dead man tells him something to the effect of “It sounds like no one actually cares for you at home, so why do you care about returning home? You are discarded, like the trash.”

The movie’s magical realism is used for such profound effects that I’m not sure if emotionally-guarded audience members will allow themselves to be swept up by the emotional currents that this farting dead body movie navigates. There are the kinds of moviegoers that are skittish, and that flee to the safety of summer sequels. But I know that inside those same people are quiet, unquenched curiosities. Even Bilbo was able to leave the comfort of his humble home of Bag-End because the Took part of him got curious enough. This is the kind of movie that will take you on a magical journey, where you will believe in the friendship bond with a farting corpse. You just have to be willing to take that first step out of Hobbiton.

In the post-screening interview that I saw at the Arclight, the directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinhert discussed their dreams of what this film could do. They talked about how they wish this movie could make people realize that if this movie could be made, then any movie can be made. I think there’s deep truth to that.

2.) Silence

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dir. Martin Scorsese

I often hear this argument from some modern Christian audiences that Hollywood doesn’t want to play ball with them. But whenever a fast ball is thrown their way, and Hollywood delivers something hard-hitting with its Christian themes, it seems like most mainstream Christians ignore it entirely. Then they still complain that they are left out of the game. It happened with Malick’s Tree of Life and I fear the same will happen to Scorsese’s Silence. It’s not for the kind of audience that feigns persecution whenever Starbucks uses red cups and writes the term, “Happy Holidays.” Silence is about burned-at-a-stake type of persecution. Silence doesn’t play softball.

Silence takes place during the Edo period of Japanese history, when Christians were mass executed. At one point, a poor peasant, Kichijiro, who has saved his own life by rebuking his faith, angrily shouts that it’s not fair that he was born into this time period. Had he been born into a culture that allowed for the existence of Christianity, he probably would never see a reason to apostatize. It’s really easy to live a privileged comfortable Christian life when you aren’t being threatened with being burnt alive, but how many people would really remain true to their faith if you take away their comfort? Such a tough question about faith is one of many explored in Silence.

Structurally, Silence could be compared to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but instead of traveling up the river and discovering what the jungle has made of an imperialist, Kurtz, the mystery here is what will be found by traveling further into the East and seeing what Japan has made of the Jesuit priest, Father Ferrara. In his own land of Portugal, Ferrera is considered to be one of the great, renowned demonstrators of Christian faith. He is so respected, so much so that even the other Jesuit priests look up to him. If such a man as he were to apostatize, it would serve as a blow more crippling to the Christian evangelism than martyrdom would. Martyrdom emboldens the peasants, but apostasy cuts the roots before it has a chance to grow.

The film presents a tough ethical and spiritual decision for the Jesuits. While the Jesuits themselves are happy enough to die for their Lord and Savior, what should they do if the new Japanese Christians are being tortured because of the Jesuits? When it comes down to it, are these priests refusing to apostatize because of faith? Or pride? At one point, Father Rodrigues is confronted about this: others will suffer needlessly because of him. Throughout the film he has likened his suffering like that of Jesus. But he is sharply reprimanded. The Japanese Christians would not even dare make that comparison with their own suffering and Christ’s, for they don’t consider themselves worthy enough to be put on that pedestal. Is Father Rodrigues not denouncing Christ for righteous reasons or prideful ones?

What exactly would Christ do in this situation? Christ had great mercy for those in suffering. If saving others meant self-sacrifice of one’s convictions, in this case, renouncing Christianity, how would Christ respond? The situation seems like one of those theological parodoxes in which no matter what, there is no right decision to be made, for both actions will result in suffering and sin. Rebuking Christ would save lives, but at what cost to the soul? Yet not rebuking him would slay innocent lives. However, even Peter rebuked Christ three times and was still regarded as being the first Saint. If you are familiar with all of this, then the ambient soundtrack of the film will suddenly become a whole lot more interesting; at one point you might hear a rooster crowing three times. There’s a lot being said simply in the unspoken silence of the movie.

The film also takes a serious look at the entanglement of evangelism and cultural imposition. If the priests are dedicated to starting a Christian ministry within Japan, then can they plant Christian seeds without also planting other Western ideas? By bringing Christianity, are they affecting the cultural sovereignty of the Japanese nation? And if the peasants have no cultural context for some of the Christian theology, do you simply change the imagery of Christianity so that it can easily be understood? I am reminded of a book I read in college called Peace Child in which members of the Sawi tribe came away from the story of the Gospels thinking that Judas was the hero of the story. In their culture, guile and backstabbing were considered positive traits. The missionaries had to take an idea from within the Sawi culture and twist it into a metaphor for Jesus to get them to understand that he was supposed to be the hero of the story. Silence explores something similar.

This is a movie that you could find yourself wrapped up in conversations about all day. Scorsese, himself, was interviewed in a discussion at Fuller Seminary recently about the film, which I highly recommend checking out. You can see that full discussion here:

 

Next Page.

Or to jump to a page:

Part I of the list, covering films #20-16 can be viewed here.

Part II of the list, covering films #15-11 can be viewed here.

Part III of the list, covering films #10-6 can be viewed here.

Part V of the Countdown, film #1 can be viewed here.

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