Sunday, December 2, 2012

Things I Loved in 2012: Books, Movies, & Music

BOOKS: I didn't read a ton of books this year that were technically released in 2012, but here are five worth mentioning.  Below these four is a short list of a few more books that were not 2012 releases but were also favorite reads this year.

Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism by Richard Wolff - This is perhaps my favorite new book of 2012, which I had been anticipating for quite some time.  It did not disappoint.  Anyone familiar with Wolff's brilliant work in Marxian economics will want to read this highly persuasive book, even if they think they have a grasp on his ideas.  He presents his arguments so clearly and with great intellectual force.  Certainly one of the best living economists.   
The Predicament of Belief by Philip Clayton and Stephen Knapp - Philip Clayton was my advisor for my master's program at Claremont School of Theology, so I admit my bias in favor of loving this book.  But seriously, what a brilliant work of constructive theology in dialogue with modern science.  This is an absolute must-read for anyone concerned with developing a coherent argument for (noninterventionist) theism and (progressive/revisionist) Christianity.  If you want to read my review of the book, go to Imaginatio et Ratio and check it out for free in our first issue that is embedded on the website.

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan - I am a huge fan of these two authors who write within the broader field of political theology, and this new book that I just finished reading on the Occupy movement and its relation to religion is absolutely fascinating and so very necessary for our time. 
Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language Of Postmodern Homiletics by Phil Snider - A wonderful book for those who have ever read and been challenged by Peter Rollins, John Caputo, and/or Slavoj Zizek but were left wondering how these postmodern theologies "after God" might translate into the life of the church.

The Rich and the Rest of Us by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley - As a regular listener of the Smiley and West podcast and a long time fan of Dr. West, not much of this book surprised me.  But it is a great read with a powerful message about economic inequality, democracy, and justice.  Plus, it's accessible enough to give to just about any of your non-academic friends.

(Older books I read or re-read in 2012: On The Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process by Catherine Keller, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action by John Cobb, God and the Philosophers by Keith Ward, Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton, Discovering Girard by Michael Kirwan)

MOVIES: I've been watching a lot of movies this year, and fortunately quite a few great ones.  I picked six of the best and a few more honorable mentions below.

 The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

A rare, controversial, and painfully brilliant film by one of the best living directors.  It is perhaps my favorite movie of the year, a true work of art - though by no means is it easy viewing.  J. Phoenix and P. Seymour Hoffman are so good in this it hurts.  And Johnny Greenwood's (Radiohead guitarist) minimalist score is perfection.  Be sure to listen to the Film Talk podcast (Episode 212) to dig in to the film's themes and symbolism a bit more with Gareth Higgins and Jett Loe as your guides.

Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer

This enormous piece of work from the Wachowki siblings (directors of The Matrix) surprised me by, well, not being terrible.  It easily could have gone that way by trying to do far too much in one film.  Indeed, it divided critics on this point.  I do not claim that this movie is flawless - not even close. But in the end, I just didn't care about its many shortcomings.  It's a beautiful, moving, thrilling exploration of meaning, purpose, and relationships.  I also love how it resonates with process philosophy (as Bruce Epperly points out)! 

Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino

I was surprised to love this movie as much as I did.  I expected to respond to it in the same way I did to Tarantino's previous film, Inglorious Bastards (with which I have a love/hate relationship).  It turns out that Django works on a number of levels for me: on the one hand, it's incredible entertainment.  Tarantino makes movies that he wants to watch and enjoy, and that is definitely to our benefit as the viewers.  This film is long, but you never notice because it is so engaging, thrilling, and well-crafted.  On the other hand, it provides a lot of opportunity for fruitful discussions about violence - if you are so inclined to consider such themes in film.  Yes, it is extremely violent, but there is something different about the violence in this film, having to do both with the way that the violence means to call attention to itself as absurd and symbolic, but also with the way that violence is used by former slaves, not so much against individuals but the entire despicable system of slavery.  I couldn't help but think of reading Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in which he advocates for the colonized to use violence against the colonizers in order to recreate or reassert their humanity.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin

This debut film from director Zeitlin is quite simply astonishing: a gorgeously shot, perfectly acted movie with a wonderfully original story and a great musical score.  I have now watched it twice in order to get at the many layers of meaning that this film carries.  The film's main character is only perhaps 5 years old, but by the end of the film you find yourself identifying with her as if she is an adult because of the transformation she undergoes through an existential crisis of sorts.  Indeed, while watching this film and considering its cosmic themes, I couldn't help but think of Tillich's classic book on existential theology, The Courage To Be.  My interpretation of the film has to do with coming to terms with both the beauty and violence of nature and the anxiety of death and contingency.  We see in the film a young girl gain the courage to be in spite of the ever-present threat of nonbeing.   It is certainly one the most theological films I have ever seen.

Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson

Even though Wes Anderson has made better films (The Royal Tenenbaums), his lesser films are still a joy to watch and certainly better than many other director's best films.  With his signature style, a charming story, and a wonderful cast (especially Francis McDormand), Anderson has given us a gem with this one that is filled with careful attention to detail.  Like his other films, it merits repeated viewings.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg

A bit like watching a longer episode of the West Wing set in the 19th century (I mean that in a good way), this is a truly amazing film that is - so far as I can tell - surprisingly faithful to the historical record.  Spielberg resisted his old formula to make a grand epic with overblown action sequences and went for a more subtle approach to story-telling.  Daniel Day Lewis is magnificent as Abe Lincoln, but Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones are equally impressive.

(Honorable Mentions: Liberal Arts, Les Miserables, Skyfall, Looper, and Dark Knight Rises)

MUSIC: There has been a lot of great music in 2012, and I only wish I could have listened to more that just haven't made it on to my playlist yet.  But here are six albums that I loved this year, plus a few honorable mentions below.

Lost in the Trees - A Church That Fits Our Needs

I was lucky enough to see this band live not too long ago.  They won me over as an amazing live band and then their most recent album turned out to be gorgeous indie pop/folk rock with a unique classical influence throughout.

Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal

Iceland continues to provide us with wonderful music! While this album received mixed reviews from critics, I have listened to it many, many times since discovering it earlier this year. Truly a great debut album from start to finish.

Sigur Ros - Valtari

Sigur Ros has been one of my favorite bands after discovering their great album in 1999, Agaetis Byrjun.  I've seen them live twice, which remain some of the most intensely emotional musical experiences of my life.  Their new album does not disappoint, with their signature layering of guitars, samples, strings, and other sounds with Jonsi's otherworldly vocals.

Lana Del Rey - Born To Die

Following in the wake of other indie pop female songwriters like Florence + the Machine, Ellie Goulding, and Ingrid Michaelson, the debut album from Lana Del Rey is packed with wonderfully original songs in a style that is all her own.  She has a very unique way with lyrics, managing to fill the album's songs with dozens of pop-culture references to great effect.  Her follow-up EP, Paradise, is equally impressive.

Dave Matthews Band - Away From the World

What a surprise to discover Dave Matthews Band releasing a new album that reminds me of some of their best work from the 90s.  While they may never make an album as great as Crush (1996), this one certainly qualifies as one of their best studio albums to date.

(Honorable Mentions: Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls, John Mayer - Born and Raised, Jack White - Blunderbuss, Mumford and Sons - Babel, The Killers - Battle Born)