Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
What were the most-meaningful cultural influences of 2019? The Christ and Pop Culture 25 is a list* of our favorite people, works of art, or cultural artifacts from the past year that we feel best represent God’s truth and grace in the world. The list is extremely weird, a meandering, whiplash-inducing product of the diverse perspectives of our writers. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
The final season of The Good Place is at hand, but the series hasn’t concluded yet. While this show landed at number 25 this year, it has been a mainstay on our year-end lists because it is consistently one of the most popular and talked about television shows in the Christ and Pop Culture community. And we’ve got to hand it to the creators of The Good Place for knowing how they want to end the show and sticking to the plan. It’s not unusual for a show that has garnered so much popularity to continue indefinitely, or in the case of Lost, end with most of its mystery and questions unanswered. Ending something near the height of its popularity is rare, and whether or not the conclusion is as ultimately satisfying as I’d like, I commend the show runners for telling the story they set out to tell from the beginning.
After proving to the Judge that humanity’s final judgment is ultimately flawed and cosmically unjust, The Good Place‘s final season begins with Eleanor Shellstrop and friends attempting to change the eternal fate of all humans by proving that people can change, and in particular, bad people can become good people. After all, if the demon Michael can become good, it’s certainly possible us mere humans can flip our moral compasses, right? The pop ethics of The Good Place has always been an anchor for the series, with each episode and season revealing more of what the creators of the show have to say about humanity. While we’re still waiting for The Good Place‘s final conclusion, it certainly seems to be barreling toward an ultimately humanistic answer about our potential for good when we work hard enough and lean on our neighbors. Christians understand this answer to be only half-true—we are created in the image of a good God and have inherent goodness knit into our being—but it misses the mark on the origin of evil, the stain of sin that covers all humanity, and the necessary grace and mercy through atonement that frees us into goodness. Though we’re only given a half-truth (why would we expect anything more?), The Good Place speaks quite powerfully to our need for community and our inability to be good on our own. Granted, the show hasn’t ended yet, and if I’ve learned anything from watching it to this point, the creators are pretty good at upending everything we think we know. —Tyler Glodjo
Back in 1968, Andy Warhol noted that everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. This may have seemed outlandish 50 years ago, but with today’s access to media, fame-for-all is our reality. What Warhol didn’t mention was fame’s intoxicating nature that would drive people to all manner of behavior to secure their 15 minutes—and keep it.
With so many of us caught in the scramble to the spotlight, it’s refreshing (and obvious) when someone refuses to get blinded by fame’s dazzling gleam. Keanu Reeves is was that person in 2019, despite his star power as a lead actor in blockbuster films over the past 35 years. Reeves had four projects release in 2019, including the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe, in which he plays… himself—well, an exaggerated Keanu that is both painfully serious and humorously esoteric. His ability to poke fun at himself and at celebrity is not only endearing but also serves as a wink from Reeves to us, pulling us in on the joke. Because celebrity, despite its attraction, can fool us into thinking we’re something we’re not.
That’s why we’re so enthralled with Keanu Reeves. Instead of adhering to some well-crafted celebrity façade, Reeves is genuine with people and honest about himself. When Stephen Colbert asked Reeves “what happens when we die,” Reeves reflects, then offers this stunningly beautiful reply: “I know that ones who love us will miss us.” When his flight to LA was grounded in Bakersfield due to mechanical issues, Reeves helped arrange van transportation for fellow passengers—then read Bakersfield trivia from his phone along the way.
Such common behaviors—laughing at ourselves, considering our own mortality, helping our neighbors—aren’t typically the sorts of feats that lead to celebrity. But they do make us more human. This is why we’re drawn to someone like Keanu Reeves. He doesn’t seem to care about the spotlight as much as being a real person. And in him we see the sort of person we want to be even as the spotlight of celebrity continues to beckon. —Erin Straza
Captain Marvel was a long-overdue installment in the MCU’s Infinity Saga, coming in just before the release of Avengers: Endgame. After twelve years of superhero films, Marvel had yet to produce a female-led vehicle despite having a multitude of characters to choose from. When Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel was finally announced, excitement ran high amongst fans to see one of the MCU’s most powerful heroes come to life on the screen. But Captain Marvel was bound to succeed—and to be particularly special to women viewers—not because of her binary powers or photon blasters, but because in Carol Danvers, we finally had a hero who was uniquely relatable to the female experience.
Often in action movies, women are played as the love (or sex) interest, the side-kick, the prize for the male, or the damsel in distress. In female-led action movies, such women usually have to transform themselves into virtual men in order to succeed—become tough enough, crass enough, casual with sex, emotionless, and otherwise prove themselves “worthy” to act on equal grounds with the men. In Captain Marvel, this is the sort of transformation the (ultimate) villain of the story is constantly pushing Carol into. He wants her to suppress her emotions. To fight him. To prove herself to him.
But Captain Marvel is a superhero whose power comes from a distinct place of femininity. As the story progresses and she learns who she is, she resists the transformation. She doesn’t need to become like a man to be powerful. Freedom from bondage and release into her purpose as a hero comes hand-in-hand with this realization. Between the layers of superhero fantasy in the story of Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel, the MCU gave us a story in which the primary message is that there is a distinct and unique strength in being a woman, with all our emotions, complications, and fears. It champions a truth that gets too often forgotten: We don’t have to prove ourselves equal to men; we were created that way. —K. B. Hoyle
Season three of The Crown, in many ways, is starkly different than the previous two seasons; succeeding the magnificent Clare Foy is the equally brilliant Olivia Coleman, who plays a seasoned, perhaps even jaded version of the show’s titular character. If the audience could not deduce a jump in time on their own, the opening scenes of episode one, during which Queen Elizabeth ponders her more mature portrait on a stamp, certainly hammer the point home. Season three explores the monarchy in the 1960s, a tenuous moment in which the crown is stretched between the kingdom’s social progress and the inherent immobility of the office.
In many ways, the crown is an archaic tradition, and the royal family’s attempts to prove otherwise only exacerbate the problem. As the crown becomes more and more obsolete, the audience’s gaze is drawn toward the human beings charged with the crown’s upkeep. This tension serves to draw out the dichotomy between humanity and function, which has informed every season of The Crown thus far. Ironically enough, however, for the first time, season three of The Crown casts Elizabeth as more of a background character, instead focusing on Philip, Charles, and Anne. As Elizabeth finds her footing as queen, her personhood seems to dissolve into the crown itself. While perhaps disappointing, this underlines the point that this show has never been about the queen; it is about the crown, which will eventually pass to her son—and which will never be worn by Philip, a fact that has long been a source of tension in The Crown. This, in addition to the exploration of faith and ambition, humanity and duty, make season three of The Crown undeniably worthwhile. —Val Dunham
For many, the “30–50 feral hogs” meme seemed like something that had landed from another dimension. In many ways, it had.
The whole thing started when singer-songwriter Jason Isbell posted an anti-gun tweet. Along with the standard “nuh-uh”s and “yuh-huh”s such posts tend to garner, one reply stood out: “Legit question for rural Americans—”tweeted one William McNabb—“How do I kill the 30–50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3–5 mins while my small kids play?”
To most, everything about McNabb’s tweet seemed absurd: Hogs? Kids? What? Why were the numbers vague enough to require a range, and yet still so weirdly exact? Twitter, as Twitter does, had a field day. Within thirty to fifty minutes, tweets like “30–50 feral hogs in your area want to chat” and “my milkshake brings 30–50 feral hogs to the yard” had reached all corners of the site.
The twist, of course, is that the feral hog problem actually is a real one. Anyone who lives in rural America—particularly the central south and inland northwest—is familiar with the roving bands of feral pigs that have been a problem since early colonists introduced them, and whose numbers have skyrocketed in recent years. They’re tough as nails, and they take what they want—everything from crops to, yes, kids. Certain states have made it legal to hunt them with explosives and helicopters, which hasn’t helped anything, but might be the most American solution to a problem ever.
Ultimately, for anyone who paid attention to the feral hogs meme for more than three to five minutes, it proved a profound metaphor for just how deep the divide in America is right now. Those of us in urban ivory towers found the whole thing absurd, but for anyone in a red county, the hogs are a serious problem—and, like most of the problems the country is facing, one that no one has any real solutions for. —Luke T. Harrington
Actress and TV host Keke Palmer did an interview with Vanity Fair to help promote her movie Hustlers. As part of the interview, she was hooked up to a lie detector test and asked a number of questions about herself, her career, and pop culture. At one point, the interviewer shows Keke a photograph of former vice president Dick Cheney. Keke responded that she hoped she did not sound ridiculous but she did not know who the man in the photograph was and hilariously concluded with “sorry to this man.”
With those four words, a meme was born. In Keke’s defense, she was in grade school when Vice President Cheney and his boss, President George W. Bush, were elected. The “Sorry to this man” meme is funny partly because of its earnestness and partly because it’s slightly bewildering that one of the formerly most powerful men in the world was now unknown.
The meme was a perfect metaphor for the generational divide also represented by “ok boomer.” The expectation that future generations will celebrate and value the things we value today is an idea grounded in hubris. The world is changing, and some of the ideas that were popular and useful in their time, like the Motorola two-way pager, are obsolete. It is okay to say “sorry to this man” to man-made methods that no longer serve our purposes. Frequently, the reaction to the generational shifts is to degrade and demean the differences. But we can honor the past yet not be tied to the same old ways of doing things.
“Sorry to this man” reminds us that notoriety is fleeting, that no one culture or person will be celebrated or remembered forever. More than personal achievement we should seek first the kingdom of God, because his name is the only name that will outlast them all. —Kathryn Freeman
If you don’t know Billie Eilish, you’ll want to remedy that ASAP. This 17-year-old musician/dancer sensation released her first album in 2019 to critical acclaim. The eclectic collection of songs included on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? blends styles from pop, EDM, industrial, trap, and even jazz. Tyler Burns says it best: She has the bops.
What places Eilish on our 25 for 2019 is the way her music serves to deliver her often-whispered lyrics, uniquely voicing the anxieties of her generation—and the human heart of every age. Listening to her work is a deep dive into all that’s wrong in the world. But by listening and singing along, we name the troubles together and find we are less alone. —Erin Straza
I admit that, when it started popping up in my timeline, it took me a while to figure out what it was and where it came from. The meme that consists of two pictures—one of a woman yelling through tears, the other of a white cat sitting at a table and seemingly looking back at her, unfazed—was suddenly everywhere I looked, with a variety of captions. (“Girls when they see a spider. The spider.” “YOU SAID I WAS THE GIRL OF YOUR DREAMS. I woke up.”)
I finally had to go digging for its history. Like so many of the best memes, it arose from a moment of casual inspiration—the juxtaposition of a tense moment on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with a popular cat photo from Tumblr. And the rest is history.
Know Your Meme declares that the cat is “confused-looking,” but I’ve never seen it that way. This cat, if you ask me, is the opposite of confused. The word smug would not be out of place in describing this cat. It’s the smug expression, in fact, that makes it so funny and so memorable. For any of us who have ever spent too much time being moody or sensitive or overwrought—in short, for any of us who spend too much time wrangling with each other on the Internet—the smug cat is there to take the wind out of our sails, to remind us to chill out. I like to think that the online world is just a little bit healthier with that cat there telling us to get over ourselves. —Gina Dalfonzo
When Harlan Thrombey commits suicide after his 85th birthday party, his family is obviously shocked and saddened. But once famed detective Benoit Blanc begins investigating the suicide—and the Thrombey family—in his unorthodox manner, suspicions arise that Mr. Thrombey was actually murdered. What follows is an intricate, hilarious, and thought-provoking take on classic murder mystery whodunits from writer/director Rian Johnson. Intricate because the movie frequently loops back on itself, containing twists via flashbacks and misdirection that force you to re-evaluate everything you think you’ve seen. Hilarious because that intricacy never comes at the expense of a good time; Knives Out is top-shelf Hollywood entertainment helped by a star-studded cast (e.g., Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon) who are clearly having a blast with Johnson’s story. And thought-provoking because Knives Out doesn’t ask viewers to turn off their brains. Instead, it touches on thorny topics like current politics, wealth and social class, and immigration with a sly deftness. Most importantly, Knives Out uses all of the above to tell a deeply moral story, one that affirms that kindness, selflessness, and grace always triumph over greed, cruelty, and selfishness. —Jason Morehead
Jordan Peele’s horror film Us is about a family, the Wilsons who are haunted by a monster-ish version of themselves while on vacation in Santa Cruz, California. But that’s not all it’s about. Us is filled with layered themes of social mobility, comparative economic philosophies, and equity that critique who we are as a nation and people, and from where we’ve come.
The most real and dynamic perspective from my viewing is the spiritual reality of God’s judgment on “Us”—the title working as a double entendre for both the U.S. and me and you (Americans). As the Wilson family seeks to survive by killing their respective doppelgängers, we see traces of a potential outcome for ourselves, how God may reverse America’s self-attained “blessings” by using our self-indulgent aspirations to become our own undoing.
As with any great horror film, Us has a tantalizing twist at the end that leaves you second-guessing everything you just watched. This makes it a great choice entertainment wise. But to move the needle beyond the trivialities of what happened and what meant what, the film becomes more mind-bending and introspective, especially as we ask the deeper questions of who we are and what that means in relation to God’s judgment on us and our nation. And this makes Us a great choice spiritually, as it has the power to quicken our spirits to the righteous aims of God’s justice. The Wilsons had to kill off what was killing them, thereby challenging us to do likewise. —Timothy Thomas
It’s easy to compare Netflix’s Russian Doll to the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day. In both films, the protagonist keeps reliving the same day over and over again, and in the process, begins to grow and mature as a human being. But there are some subtle differences that make Russian Doll its own thing as well as one of Netflix’s more intriguing original series.
For starters, Russian Doll‘s protagonist—a hipster software developer named Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne, who also created and produced the series)—keeps reliving her 36th birthday by dying in the most ignominious and shocking ways (e.g., falling down a staircase, gas explosion, crushed by a falling air conditioner). Second, Nadia’s not alone in her death-to-death cycle. A neurotic young man named Alan, who is in many ways Nadia’s complete opposite, is also stuck in a similar cycle. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, their deaths—or perhaps more accurately, their lack of living in an honest and compassionate manner—affects the rest world, which seems to fall into disarray and chaos the longer that Nadia and Alan are stuck in their cycle.
Part of the fun of watching Russian Doll—and make no mistake, it is fun to watch, especially if you enjoy your humor a little more on the darker and more existential side—is seeing how the series loops back on itself, revealing all of the ways in which its characters’ lives are intertwined. In doing so, it reminds us that our lives are not our own. Rather, we affect and impact each other in subtle and incomprehensible ways every day. We can either choose to live selfishly, seeking to control everything about us, or we can choose to live with grace, understanding, and compassion (even for ourselves). Our lives, and the choices we make with them, matter. —Jason Morehead
An insidious half-truth occasionally finds its way into popular interpretations of the Bible story of the Great Flood. With the floodwaters receding and Noah’s family safely on dry ground again, God makes a promise. He spreads a rainbow across the heavens and tells Noah that it is a sign of his commitment never again to visit a cataclysm upon his creation. This is good news—hope distilled to its purest essence. It’s only too easy to twist that hope into hubris: God has promised he will not destroy us; therefore, we cannot be destroyed.
The HBO miniseries Chernobyl finds that hubris in spades in its recounting of the 1986 nuclear meltdown that came within a whisker of rendering a gigantic chunk of Asia uninhabitable. Methodically, the series walks us through the disaster in all its absurdity and horror. Gray-faced bureaucrats deny the evidence of their own senses because of their religious devotion to Soviet ideals. Officials who propose solutions to problems are punished for their pessimism. Innocent townspeople linger outside in the radioactive fallout to watch the prismatic light show as the nuclear reactor down the road burns. Everything will turn out right in the end.
The Year of Our Lord 2019 was a time of climate crises and natural disasters, malfunctioning bureaucracies and institutional cruelty, lying governments and alternative facts. These phenomena seemed to persist out of sheer inertia: It’s not great, but what are you gonna do? We’ll pump the brakes before going over the edge. We always do. In putting such sentiments in the mouths of people who very nearly precipitated a miniature cataclysm all on their own, Chernobyl exposes the words as the comforting lies they are. In its grim, irradiated world, the truth may or may not set us free, but falsehood is guaranteed to destroy us. —Kevin McLenithan
Where were you during the Scorsese/Marvel wars of 2019? If you were anywhere near social media, you knew about it. Martin Scorsese, legendary director and cinephile, was asked in an interview for his opinion on the superhero industrial complex that had just completed its victory lap with Avengers: Endgame. Perhaps predictably, Scorsese said he didn’t care for superhero movies: too much like theme park rides, too little like the sophisticated, psychologically rich films of masters like Bergman and Bresson, was his response. Perhaps even more predictably, Marvel fans erupted in outrage over Scorsese’s perceived elitism. What gave him the right to say that the cinema of Disney/Marvel wasn’t “actually” cinema?
The resulting online fracas between Scorsese’s detractors and defenders lasted for months. It was the most sustained and widespread discussion about art that the pop-culture landscape had seen all year. If catalyzing this conversation was all Scorsese had done, he would probably still belong on this list. Spurring people to think about and carefully articulate their own personal aesthetics regarding popular entertainment is hard to pull off in the age of Netflix binges and Rotten Tomatoes scores, after all. It was Scorsese’s next choice, though, that cemented his spot here at #13.
Confronted with vitriol of an intensity that only large groups of aggrieved nerds can conjure, Scorsese could have made the choice that so many others in his position have made: double down, get defensive, and impugn the intellect and good faith of anyone who disagreed with him. Instead, he wrote an article offering a detailed, thoughtful explanation of his perspective. His words weren’t those of a churlish, snarky gatekeeper but of an enthusiast whose affection for his art form shone in every sentence. Reading the article, you might still disagree with Scorsese, but you couldn’t doubt that he was a lover, not a hater. His piece—winsome, principled, passionate—is an exemplar of how to think and talk well about art. Be like Marty. —Kevin McLenithan
I love this anecdote from the set of Disney+’s The Mandalorian series. The story goes that famed filmmaker and actor Werner Herzog, who plays the Imperial “Client,” had just performed a scene with the Baby Yoda puppet when executive producer Dave Filoni informed him they would film it again without the puppet. The extra shot was a precautionary measure. If the footage of Baby Yoda’s physical, on-set performance didn’t work, Filoni explained, they would replace the character with a CGI creation.
Herzog would have none of it. “You are cowards,” he hissed. “Leave it.”
Why do I love that story? I suppose it’s because I can easily picture the rebuke delivered in Herzog’s trademark, Germaic scorn. But it’s also because it epitomizes everything we’ve come to understand about Baby Yoda from his eight-episode arc in The Mandalorian’s first season.
Baby Yoda is important. We must protect Baby Yoda at all costs.
We still know so little about Baby Yoda! Where did he come from? Why he’s so gosh darn important? What’s his gosh darn species?
Guys. We don’t even know his actual name.
They refer to him as “the Asset.” Or “the Child.”
Whatever, whoever (whyever?) he is, we love this little green guy—this foundling—to the end of our beings, with a love that can’t be explained. We will meme him, GIF him, and Etsy him, and there’s nothing Disney can do to stop us.
This is the way. —Matt Poppe
Disco Elysium is a stylistically gorgeous text-heavy game that has you, an amnesiac detective with serious mental issues, constantly arguing with, inquiring of, and hanging out with aspects of your own personality. (Also with inanimate objects, such as that necktie that almost killed you.)
Apart from all the other things that make Disco Elysium a cream-of-the-crop game experience (things like a wildly unique stats system, an absurd sense of humour, and a daring narrative panache), for me the shining crystal of its greatness is in something you have the opportunity to do. You can, if you wish, earn the friendship and respect of a detective sent from another precinct to help you solve your case.
Look. You are a disaster of a cop, a disaster of a human, and this guy is stuck with you. He knows you have a reputation for closing impossible cases, but he finds you raving and haunted—a detective with no memory, no badge, and no gun. And throughout the game, you have the option to win him over, to become his friend. And honestly, some of those moments where we grew closer, where we shared in simple human camaraderie? Those moments were as exciting to me as when I first saw that bit from Planet Earth 2 where the baby iguana is racing across the sands to escape 30–50 feral snakes. I was sitting there, laughing and clapping my hands like an idiot because of how much I had invested in this character and his approval. You don’t have to make friends with Lt. Kim Kitsuragi. You don’t have to win his admiration. You don’t have to stand up for him against the onslaught of bigotry he faces daily. But holy cats I wanted to—not because it’s necessary to finish the game—but because me and Kim? We’re friends, partners, a part of each other’s lives. What a thing to experience in the scope of a videogame. —Seth T. Hahne
In 2018, Beyonce became the first black woman to headline Coachella. In 2019, we learned that she had not only recorded the performance, but had created a documentary for those plebeians too poor to pay the $450 ticket price to attend in person (or who lacked the stamina to stay up till 3:00 a.m. to watch it live via YouTube). Thank God for both Netflix and Beyonce’s benevolence, because Homecoming, the resulting documentary, is a masterpiece, designed for an audience far beyond the limited stage of Coachella.
With Homecoming, Beyonce paid tribute to the importance of Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) in African American culture broadly and the HBCU phenomenon of homecoming specifically. Beyonce’s Coachella performance was her personal home coming, her first performance following the birth of her twins, Rumi and Sir. In a moment where she would have been totally justified centering her own triumphs; reaching one of the top musical stages in the world, fitting back into her costumes postpartum, being the first black woman chosen to headline Coachella, she chose a different path. Rather than centering herself, Beyonce made herself part of a collective. Beyonce could have put on her “flower crown” and made the moment about herself—after all, she had earned it. She was entitled to a moment of personal glory, but instead she felt it was more important to bring “our (African American) culture” to Coachella and for those who had never seen themselves reflected on a Coachella stage to see their bodies, their hair, their hips, their steps, and the things they valued being celebrated with excellence for once.
Beyonce’s Homecoming is a reminder that God has given us individual callings, but our callings are never about the individual. Our time on the stage is not about us. We are not seeking to just build careers, but we are seeking to build the church. The name we are seeking to draw attention to is not our own, but the name that is above every other name. We do not run for flower crowns (or as Paul called them “perishable wreaths”) of personal achievement, but for crowns of righteousness that can only be earned through knowing Him and making Him known to others. —Kathryn Freeman
If there’s a sure bet to make at the close of 2019, it’s that you’ve heard of American singer Lizzo this year. Whether it was her songs “Water Me” (featured on Wal-Mart’s Black Friday TV commercial), “Good As Hell” (featured on Grubhub’s TV commercial), or “Truth Hurts” (featured in Netflix’s Someone Great movie), you’ve heard Lizzo’s music. You might have even seen her closing out the season finale of Saturday Night Live alongside legendary comedian Eddie Murphy. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to attend one of her concerts and witness her well-choreographed dance and solo flute (yes, the musical instrument flute) performances. In whatever way your path may have crossed with Lizzo (Melissa Jefferson), her journey to fame was in full bloom this year.
As with most artists, Lizzo’s seemingly overnight success did not happen overnight. Most of her aforementioned songs were released earlier this decade. But only now is she being recognized as a top entertainer. There’s plenty of speculation circulating as to why the voluptuous performer is receiving so much attention now, though. Some believe there’s a shift in the culture as listeners are more attuned to honesty, women’s empowerment, and positivity. Other critics point to society’s acceptance of an “obesity epidemic” as Lizzo is an outspoken and unashamedly curvaceous, full-figured African American woman. Lizzo believes her fame can be attributed to her ability to “write good songs,” her talent, and the performance of her “high energy hour and a half shows filled with love.” Whatever the formulation for the singer’s high level of success now, she is worth mentioning for CAPC’s 25 for 2019. —Timothy Thomas
It’s been years since America was producing anything in the ballpark of the most exciting animated films out there. Part of that is the over-reliance on Pixar-style computer animation (a cost-saving measure) and another part is the American propensity to see animation as merely the province of children’s entertainment. Whichever the major factor, the end result is that for decades the best animated films have come out of Asia or Europe while America hasn’t pretended to want to compete or even to keep their hand in the game (apart from perhaps some nice entries from Laika). Even visually splendid films like Coco haven’t tended to stretch beyond tepid uses for animation.
With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, American animators have finally shown American audiences that animation can do wonderful things and have the audiences believe it. Not only did Spider-Verse deliver a top-tier superhero movie, but it brought the kind of visual creativity I’d been wanting to see from superhero cinema since I was in junior high in the ’80s and a real Marvelhead. (Back then, I was dying to see my favourite comics hit the big screen with the same respect for the material as Akira did with Katsuhiro Otomo’s comic; and this was the first time I’d seen an American superhero movie do that.)
Spider-Verse is a deliriously and gorgeously crafted film. The care with which shots are drawn and composed, with how movement works, with how scenes are lit and coloured; it’s all so fresh and humming with verve. There are perfect shots (Miles diving upward toward the city above him, Gwen balletically swinging through an autumnal forest). There are stretches of perfect visual storytelling (the entire intro set to “Sunflower”). There are great character designs, and the creators somehow brought Bill Sienkiewicz’s Kingpin design into the film, which was exciting. And then there’s the wilder, frazzled bursts of colour and energy that feel so very comic-booky and at home in a story about dimensional breakdown and returning things to a new status quo.
It wasn’t a perfect film. It could have done with a less racist/exoticizing depiction of Peni Parker. It could have trusted itself with a less slapstick Spider-Ham. The framerate in some scenes could be disorientingly juttery. But it was a good film and a treat to watch. And a treat to re-watch. And with more animated films telling the further adventures of Miles Morales and the other Spider-Men coming down the road, I’m hopeful that this film will be the kick in the pants American production companies need to begin again to contribute to the global animation scene. —Seth T. Hahne
In the second season of HBO’s series Succession, the Roy family continues their individual quests for control of the family global media and hospitality empire, built by its patriarch, Logan Roy. Logan’s health is on the decline, thereby escalating tensions between the various adult children, grandchildren, and sundry relatives who want their “fair” share of the wealth. Succession is tagged a satirical comedy-drama, with characters dispensing plenty of dark conniving and maneuvering and can-you-believe-they-just-did-that scenes.
Few of us have a family fortune to vie for. Still, few of us would find it hard to relate to the dysfunction portrayed, even at this amped-up level. Sticky relationships, especially with family, is all too common. In the Roy family, we see brokenness at its worst, but it’s not glorified. Instead, this story teaches us about the power of unchecked greed and selfishness to ruin relationships and ruin lives. Succession delivers a needful lesson in any era, but one especially pertinent now in our narcissistic, materialistic, capitalistic age. —Erin Straza
It’s tough to explain Bong Joon-ho’s sensibilities to someone unfamiliar with his work. That’s because Joon-ho’s work shouldn’t work. On the surface, the writer-director’s films are like one of those assorted packs of candy you buy for trick-or-treaters when you don’t want to spend money on the good stuff. Comedy, social allegory, horror—like his previous movies, Bong Joon-ho’s latest release, Parasite, features a grab bag of genres. The only difference between this and a handful of Dots and Tootsie Rolls is that all of the elements in Parasite blend together to create something akin to a Michelin meal.
Set in South Korea, Parasite tells the story of a poor family as they slowly worm their way into the home of the Parks—an elite clan flush with power and influence. At first, the film leans toward its humorous sensibilities, relishing in the nefarious ways the Kims intertwine themselves in their new upscale environment. It’s not long, however, until Joon-ho serves up a twist that boils over into a violent satire of greed, privilege, and financial stability. It’s all fun and games until you could lose everything.
Joon-ho doesn’t let any group off the hook in Parasite, choosing instead to examine the nature of social hierarchy (the Park’s multi-level home represents at least that much) and just how our world comes to define class distinction in today’s economic climate. In other words, just who is the “parasite” in Parasite? As the movie comes barreling in for rollicking final turn, viewers ask themselves that same question. If all human beings are inherently valuable and, as the Christian faith presumes, made in the image of God, then why are there so many floors? —Wade Bearden
Evangelicals are notorious for our short memory. We often conceive of our communities and churches as individualized and untethered to historical and cultural context. Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism is a necessary corrective.
Tisby chronicles the history of race in America, highlighting the significant role the church has played in upholding racist institutions, leaders, and ideas. From the first chapter to the last, Tisby calls the church to be courageous instead of complicit: refusing to compromise with earthly systems of power while resisting political quietism.
The Color of Compromise also displays the transformative power of knowing our own history. Its persistent focus is the possibility for change, ending with a chapter of suggestions for how Christians can fight racial injustice today. As Tisby powerfully articulates, “One of the reasons churches can’t shake the shackles of segregation is that few have undertaken the regimen of aggressive treatment the malady requires.” Knowing our history—and for white Christians, repenting of and lamenting our history—produces the necessary perspective and energy for meaningful change. It also prevents us from charging headfirst into complicated structural problems with paternalism and naivete about our own biases.
The Color of Compromise is the kind of book I wish I could hand to every student on my seminary campus, because it tells the truth in love. For pastors and ministry leaders especially, this work should inspire greater awareness of a cultural and political context we cannot afford to ignore, as well as provide valuable resources for well-informed action. —Kaitlyn Schiess
When I first heard about HBO’s Watchmen, months before its first episode aired, I was bummed. There are so many great comics prime for a prestige drama adaptation; to me, Watchmen was outdated, and its previous film adaptation by Zach Snyder was a massive letdown. I enjoyed the original comic when I first read it—the narrative and subject matter is great literature, and its themes and setting were particularly powerful for its time—but it just doesn’t feel as important in 2019.
HBO’s Watchmen series, however, moves beyond its source material and situates itself in 2019 in such a striking and poignant manner that I questioned how this show could don the name of Watchmen. The first 15 minutes of the series depicts the race riot and massacre of black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. There aren’t any superheroes; it’s a visual depiction of a terrible event in our nation’s racist history that feels all too familiar in 2019. As the show pivots to the present day, when cops hide behind masks to maintain anonymity as they face a growing white nationalist terrorist group, the show’s creators make it apparent that while the original Watchmen comics were written for the 80s, this show is for present day America.
I was hooked in those first few minutes because Watchmen wasn’t Watchmen, and I was excited for this novel take. I could go on about how masterful the show is. Each episode is a mastercraft in storytelling, acting, and cinematography. Regina King anchors this show as Angela Abar/Sister Knight as this first season is really about her heritage and how America’s racist past persists through present domestic terrorism. As the season progresses, more and more connections are made to the show’s source material, and while I’d say it isn’t necessary to be familiar with the original Watchmen for that first episode, familiarity certainly helps make sense of much more near the end of the season. Watchmen is an HBO show, so the content warning should be assumed at this point, but it makes our list this year for multiple reasons: it’s an example of excellence in storytelling and television, it makes new something old in a manner that goes beyond a mere adaptation, and it does all of this while powerfully depicting and speaking to the important issues our country faces today. —Tyler Glodjo
Twenty-nineteen’s Avenger’s: Endgame was the movie that ended an era. Although not the official final installment of the 23-movie, 3-phase Infinity Saga (that honor goes to Spider-man: Far From Home), Endgame was the climax of the Saga and an achievement in film, in character development, and in storytelling that reaped massive dividends at the worldwide box office and in the hearts of fans and newcomers to the franchise alike. To ably weave together the stories of twenty-three films, which were all handled by a variety of directors and writers over the course of twelve years—and to do so in such a way that none of the individual films leading up to Endgame failed to contribute to the narrative arc resulting in Thanos’s story of defeat—is simply astonishing. That a producer (Kevin Feige) and his team at Marvel—including writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, composers, and more—did it without a single true failure in the mix demonstrates how the resulting climactic achievement in Endgame is certainly worth acclaim.
More than just the actual accomplishment of pulling off the movie, however, is the quality of the story itself. Despite juggling somewhere between forty and sixty characters (taking into account 2018’s Infinity War), Endgame still manages to do what Marvel does best: it tells personal stories. About Tony Stark, wrapping up his saga of redemption that began with 2008’s Iron Man. About Thor, detailing his devastation and loss. About the dual narratives of Black Widow and Hawkeye and the friendship bond that only death could break. It is the story of Thanos himself—an inverted Hero’s journey. About Nebula and her quest to not be defined by how her father broke and remade her. And about Captain America, who finally gets his happy ending. Somehow, in a film that is (admittedly) bloated with characters and burdened with the need to conclude over a decade’s worth of stories while also telling a unique tale, the personal narratives hold it all together. And in the midst of all that, the heroes not only reverse death and save the day, they remind us that grief and loss are not permanent and all great tragedies will be, in the end, undone. The total effect of what the Russo brothers (directors) and Feige’s team produced was something that has never been done before, and for those of us who gave ourselves over to the joy of it, a truly exhilarating ride. Endgame was a movie worth waiting twelve years for. —K. B. Hoyle
Childhood activism is treacherous work, and Greta Thunberg is evidence of the unique pitfalls of wading into contentious political issues as a minor. She has been dismissed as “indoctrinated” and mocked for her intensity, while her parents and other activists have been accused of weaponizing her youth for their own agendas.
Yet the 17 year old has proved adept at responding to criticism in a social media age. She has articulated her concerns with more force and grace than many adults, mobilized a generation of young climate activists, and defied harmful stereotypes about autism.
Thunberg is hardly alone in her generation: similar praise and criticism has been given to other youth climate and gun control activists. While there are certainly unique protections a society should provide children, much of the criticism discounts the historic role of youth activists. From Malala Yousafzai’s fight for female education to children protesting child labor in the early 20th century to the thousands of Black students who protested segregation in Birmingham, youth activists have produced real change. They’ve also given hope to a weary world.
Youth activists can remind apathetic and downtrodden adults that things do not have to stay the same. The destruction of our environment, mass shootings in schools, barriers to female education, child labor, persistent racism and segregation—these are all tragedies we risk normalizing. When our efforts at change fail or we become numb to injustices that surround us, a new generation can energize us. Greta Thunberg discomforts us—but maybe we need to be less comfortable with the world “just the way it is.” —Kaitlyn Schiess
“I’m sorry to ask, but can you put a little something extra on my commissary account? Mama, not much. Any little bit helps.”
“Boy, I ain’t got nothing to give you. I ain’t got it.”
The heart-rending dialogue between Korey Wise and his mother, Delores, demonstrates just how much injustice can take from its targets, until they are no longer seen with dignity, until they are invisible.
Ava Duvernay’s Netflix miniseries When They See Us is a soul-shaking glimpse into the harrowing reality of mass incarceration. Duvernay’s masterpiece tracks the tragic 1989 case of a murdered Central Park jogger and the massive hunt for the perpetrator. As a result, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise would never be the same. Through four relentless episodes, the series forces us to see the men at the center of the case as truly human.
The most haunting element of the series is how helpless it feels to watch. The law enforcement officers casually chose random Black teenagers to question. These detectives refused to give them adequate due process and repeatedly violated their rights. The prosecutor coerced confessions from the teenagers and stoked racial tensions during the trial. It all feels like a hopeless foregone conclusion. For many people of color who encounter the criminal justice system, injustice feels inevitable.
Yet, for all its haunting inevitability, When They See Us somehow manages to be equally hopeful. It imagines a reality where justice can ultimately prevail, where the incarcerated can be exonerated, where children can be themselves, where Black men can truly be seen. That reality is worth imagining and worth fighting to see in real life. —Tyler Burns
*Read how our list was developed in the introductory post.
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