Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Movies, Music, Books

For a number of years, I have shared my favorite movies, music and books on the blog. While the list is certainly not exhaustive, it represents my favorites of what I was able to see, listen to, and read in 2014. I'll offer a few scattered thoughts about some of my top picks in each category.

Movies: What a strange year for movies. I felt like there weren't very many quality releases until the last half of the year, but a few were just under my radar. While I haven't yet seen Selma, I'm pretty confident in my picks for now, based on what I've been able to see. Calvary is my film of the year. I watched it recently on a plane ride back to California from New Jersey and found it deeply moving. Forget the recent flurry of Bible-based movies like Noah, Exodus, and Son of God - this is the most Jesus'y film I've seen in a long time. It deals powerfully with themes like forgiveness and nonviolence, while the writing, acting, and cinematography are absolutely stunning. As for Snowpiercer, I thought it was a deeply theological film that presents a forceful critique of both classical theism and capitalism. Interstellar has been lodged in my mind since I saw it last week with its amazing imagery, stunning use of current cosmological theories, and excellent performances. Nightcrawler has much to say about the violence of our 21st century reality-media machine while the hilarious but thoughtful Obvious Child portrays one of the most important female characters in cinema in years.
  1. Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh
  2. Whiplash, Damien Chazelle
  3. Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
  4. Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy
  5. The Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre
  6. Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson
  7. Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
  8. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
  9. Snowpiercer, directed by Joon-ho Bong
  10. Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Honorable mentions: Blue Ruin, The Skeleton Twins, The Normal Heart, Theory of Everything, Lucky Them, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Frank, The Immigrant, A Most Wanted Man, The Double, Under the Skin, Edge of Tomorrow, Enemy.

Music: I am so pleasantly surprised to discover The War on Drugs. It is my album of the year. Driving rock that reminds me of Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits, but with the swirling atmospherics of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. Spectacular. And if you know me, you know that I'm a massive U2 fan, so I can't help but place their latest album high on my year-end list. A nearly perfect late-career album, even if it is not quite at the same level as Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Ryan Adams' latest album is one of his best - not a bad song on it. And how surprised I was to love Simpson's brilliant country album (which has almost nothing to do with contemporary Nashville country-pop, thankfully). A fine year for music, indeed. I hope this list helps you discover something fresh for your music library.
  1. The War on Drugs, Lost In A Dream
  2. U2, Songs of Innocence
  3. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
  4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
  5. Damien Rice, My Favorite Faded Fantasy
  6. Beck, Morning Phase
  7. Luluc, Passerby
  8. Asgeir, In the Silence
  9. You+Me, Rose Avenue
  10. FKA twigs, LP1  
Books: Like last year, I don't pretend to lack a serious bias in this list. How could I resist? A number of my professors, both past and present, are listed below - but the truth is, I have had the privilege of studying with some of the most amazing theologians working today. Plus, most of these books engage process philosophy in different ways, which happens to be my primary interest (as readers of this blog are well aware). Keller's Cloud of the Impossible offers a compelling reading of the apophatic and mystical traditions, weaving contemporary science, continental philosophy, and relational philosophies into a provocative new postmodern theology that will create discussions for years to come. Cobb's theological autobiography is a wonderful introduction to his work. Faber's Divine Manifold is a deeply complex but impressive synthesis of Deleuze and Whitehead (hopefully a paperback version is in the works soon!). As for Organic Marxism and Universe of Things, check out my recent blog reviews of these fantastic new releases for 2014.

  1. Cloud of the Impossible by Catherine Keller
  2. Theological Reminiscences by John Cobb
  3. The Divine Manifold by Roland Faber
  4. Organic Marxism by Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr
  5. Universe of Things by Steven Shaviro
  6. Worlds Without End by Mary-Jane Rubenstein
  7. Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth Johnson
  8. Iconoclastic Theology by F. LeRon Shults
  9. Way To Water by L. Callid Keefe-Perry
  10. Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism by David Ray Griffin

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Apocalyptic Cinema

I've been thinking about my love of movies while writing a paper on theology and the recent film Snowpiercer (one of my favorites of 2014). While my family regularly watched many of the great blockbuster movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, by the age of 15 or so, I fell in love with the "Art House" section of my local video rental store (R.I.P.). My cinematic world thus opened out beyond the action-packed movies that I was raised on and into an often grittier, challenging, more subtle, and...well, "artsy" style of film. Visiting the rental store rather often - sometimes multiple times a week - I discovered some of the great directors of the last few decades:
David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Daren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Terrence Malick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson.

While a few friends and family members enjoyed these kinds of films as well, I often found myself watching them alone. Unlike your average Hollywood action movie or romantic comedy (genres I do not completely dislike!), these art films were particularly attractive to me because of my thirst for meaning, provocation, beauty, and depth of experience. But despite their ability to engage me in all of these ways, they were also sometimes disturbing, frustrating, and exhausting - even depressing. Many of the above directors flirt with nihilism and most of them raise deeply uncomfortable questions about human (and divine) existence. Nevertheless, while I located myself within evangelicalism until my early 20s, art house cinema provided me with numerous challenges and inspirations beyond the boundaries of my sometimes suffocating church experiences. These experiences have made me very sympathetic to (though not quite convinced by) Mark Lewis Taylor's claim that art will be our salvation as religion fades, as well as my own professor Robert Corrington's argument that we should leave religion behind for aesthetics.

The arts have apocalyptic potential. They can dis-close novelty, surprising us, interrupting us with flashes of light and darkness, beauty and tragedy, love and death - and so many confusing spaces between. No, this kind of art does not appeal to everyone. Our culture of reality television, Justin Bieber pop, and global capitalist consumerism thrives on overstimulating distractions and quick fixes. It shapes bodies in ways that make many of us resistant to the kind of vulnerability, patience, and attention required for truly transformative art. Art won't solve the world's problems. No, it will not. But it does have the power to shift consciousness, to deconstruct certainties, and to release new possibilities in our lives.

As I look back on certain stand-out films for me over the last 15 years, I recognize that movies have indeed played a decisive role in the development of my philosophical and theological curiosities. Rarely do I write on theology without relating my work in some way to the movies that have shaped my imagination over the years. Here's just a small list of relatively recent movies that have particularly influenced my thinking, especially in terms of their ability to raise theological questions:
  1. No Country For Old Men (The Coen Bros)
  2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  4. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  6. The Matrix (Wachowskis)
  7. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  9. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)