Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
What were the most-meaningful cultural influences of 2017? 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 goal of our list is to illuminate and appreciate the good both in and outside of the church, to show the way God uses Christians to shine a light on the world and the ways God’s common grace spills out into the most surprising places. We counted down the list each day this week, and now here’s a full list of our 25 of 2017.
While our list is in no way meant to be authoritative or objective, it is a serious attempt at appreciating culture, a task that is at the forefront of Christ and Pop Culture’s purpose.
Nominations covered a wide array of potentials from film, television, music, games, Internet, and people. We then used our magic algorithm to compile those choices into a tentative list of around 30 items. Finally, a panel of six (aka, the CAPC 25 Council), each representing various perspectives and expertise, met over the Internet for three-plus hours to hash out exactly how the list should look. Our final deliberations were recorded and produced into a two-part podcast in which you can hear exactly how the CAPC 25 Council determined the order and make-up of the 25 of 2017. Listen to the whole process via Part 1 and Part 2.
Jason Isbell finds plenty to lament on his sixth solo album. He’s still equally at home crooning the lonely, dive-bar lyrics of “Tupelo” or fronting the 400 Unit on the rollicking “Hope the High Road.” But it’s his songwriting, his willingness to engage the stereotypes of his own identity, as well as the fearsome world we live in now, that make The Nashville Sound a great record.
From the latent racism that helped make him possible (“White Man’s World”), to the loneliness and longing of the working class (“Cumberland Gap”), to the detritus of love and lust (“Chaos and Clothes”), few songwriters tell a better story than Isbell does, helping us see a way of life as he can, even if he harbors no sympathy for it. The working man of “Cumberland Gap,” for example, has watched his way of life disappear, “swallowed whole” by a new and not entirely intelligible world.
Isbell sees that broken and beautiful world for what it is and still finds reason to hope. “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleepin’ well, / uninspired and likely mad as hell, / but wherever you are, / I hope the high road leads you home again.” Sure, the world has changed in ways he couldn’t have anticipated, and we might say we need new perspective to navigate the rough waters ahead. Instead, Isbell offers an ages-old answer in his two-song benediction, inviting us to live virtuously into a world worth living in. —James Cain
Pixar’s Coco is the heartwarming story of a young boy named Miguel Rivera who dreams of becoming a famous musician. His family objects, so Miguel sets off on an adventure in the Land of the Dead to find his long-lost grandfather. Coco is an authentic celebration of Mexican culture, from the bright colors in the Land of the Dead to the masked luchadores, the story highlights the importance of matriarchs and the sacredness of memory. Yet, the genius of Coco is the way it celebrates Mexican culture and identity, while also telling a universal story of the struggle to find your place in the world without forgetting where you came from. It is also the perfect antidote to the fear and racism that have swirled around conversations around immigration and the virtues of Mexican immigrants. It is a celebration of family and love and telling the full story—even the parts you would rather forget.
Where American culture is often very individualistic, prioritizing personal fulfillment at the expense of others, Coco cautions us that no part is greater than the whole. It emphasizes our need for each other, a truth stated by Martin Luther King Jr. as, “all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Coco celebrates the beauty of Mexican culture at a moment when diversity and difference seem to be under attack and reminds us that we really are better together. —Kathryn Freeman
As the third act of Logan begins, the titular hero (also known as Wolverine of the X-Men franchise) falls asleep while driving. There are many moments in the film that deviate from typical superhero plot lines, but this one captures the feeling of exhaustion that permeates the movie and the struggle with mortality that we assumed a character who could always heal from any wound would never have to face. The plot sets up a world where the bad guys have won and the good guys are frail, providing opportunities to deal with many fascinating themes: the responsibility we take up for others, the question of how to love people who have been deliberately harmed by scientific experiments, and the fraught family relationships created by the same horrors of technology. While these questions and the compelling action sequences are a lot of fun to dig into, in the end Logan is a great movie because of the incredible relationships between its characters and the ways they choose to love and honor one another in a world gone mad. —Matthew Loftus
If you were anywhere near the InterWebs in August, you likely saw some variation of what is now known as the Distracted Boyfriend meme. The photo features a young, hand-holding couple, but their faces tell a story that’s more war than love: The man’s head is cranked to openly gawk at another woman. The girlfriend’s face is contorted in disgust.
Pictures do indeed speak a thousand words, but memes like this one require a bit of definition. Countless memes were created by labeling the trio, providing a vehicle to express wit and sarcasm about the fickle ways of the human heart. The narratives were plentiful and cut through a wide cross-section of society, from highbrow to low, from professional to profane. In a time when solidarity has been scarce, the Distracted Boyfriend united us in common scorn over frustrating situations and insensitive human behavior. We could relate to the situations depicted in the memes because we live them in some way, shape, or form. We need to laugh to break the tension. But humor serves a second purpose. It also catches us off-guard, showing us truths that we may not be willing to accept otherwise. Life is full of scenarios that could fit this meme because life is full of humans who are wayward and duplicitous. As incensed as we may be—and should be—by such behavior, this meme also reveals a truth none of us want to hear: We have all been the Distracted Boyfriend. We are more alike than we care to admit. And that truth should give us great hope for the days to come. —Erin Straza
Silence, based on a book by Shusaku Endo by the same title, is a beautiful and harrowing film. Christians may disagree with the theological ideas presented or fume at the movie’s ambiguous ending, but a major studio releasing a movie about faith and featuring Christians wrestling through some of the most difficult questions about life, death, and faith is still pretty significant. Yet the film’s poor box-office numbers also suggest that many Christians aren’t particularly interested in watching a film that is this challenging to their faith and many non-Christians aren’t interested in a film that is filled to the brim with explicitly religious themes and ideas. (The shoddy marketing and limited release probably also affected the film’s returns.) That’s a shame not only because it will likely discourage people from making more mature Christian films, but also because Silence‘s themes are incredibly relevant at a time when Christians are asking what sort of compromises we ought to make in a hostile culture. If you haven’t seen it yet (or if you have), go buy the DVD and watch it with some friends. Then talk about it. It won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile. —Matthew Loftus
You can file S-Town in the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction category. Touted as the next production from the folks behind the massively popular Serial podcast, I thought that S-Town was going to be another foray into the complexities surrounding a crime, possibly a murder. That’s what the first episode hints at anyway. What I didn’t expect was to feel so conflicted when the series concluded.
A marvel of deft storytelling and expert editing, the podcast introduces us to John B. McLemore—a man who seems a bit like a cross between Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes and True Detective’s Rustin Cohle. Though his speech matches his small town Alabama setting—“sh*t-town” is John B’s actual moniker for the place—it quickly becomes clear that he’s a kind of backwoods savant, excelling at everything from horology to maze-building. He’s also a deeply embittered man whose misanthropic view of life holds tragic consequences.
Given the nature of John B’s highly complex personality, S-Town occupies an uneasy place in our pop culture lexicon—a place that some critics have deemed borderline unethical. It also provides yet another example of our dubious habit of viewing other people’s lives as entertainment. This voyeuristic trend has been heightened by the kind of access made possible by social media, but a podcast like S-Town complicates matters by adding professional production values to the mix. Though we’ve arguably been in this territory ever since the premiere of Cops and MTV’s The Real World, S-Town occupies some new frontier in “reality” entertainment, a place where your eccentric “friend” gets a show. Naturally, serious questions about privacy, embellishment, and motivation arise, but perhaps the most important question for each of us is: What are the consequences of this kind of entertainment? I can’t say I’ve settled that question, but S-Town certainly highlights its significance. —Cameron McAllister
For decades, those who knew the name “Beth Moore” associated it with an energetic, blonde, passionate teacher of Scripture. None of that has changed, but Moore’s recent use of her massive platform has revealed a previously unseen layer—how the Word of God sheds light not merely onto the hearts of individuals, but onto systems that are just as acutely infected with sin.
A year or two ago, many would have said that the springtime of Beth Moore as Queen Mother of white evangelical women’s ministry was coming to an end. But Moore turned over a new leaf, raising her prophetic voice on behalf of her fellow sexual assault victims, against “Christian nationalism,” in repentance from racism, and for the dignity of women. The response to her strength and clarity was mixed—many of her former disciples wish she would stop being so “political,” accusing her of causing division when she merely pointed out divisions that have too long existed.
Moore disrupted the status quo for white evangelical female leaders, exhibiting humility by learning from the marginalized and embodying truth as she beckoned others to repent of the tentacled grasps of power and privilege. 2017’s Moore proclaimed liberty for the captives, the light of Christ within her shining and refusing to let the darkness overcome it. —Abby Perry
Being catapulted into the national spotlight with the popular and critical success of his mixtape Coloring Book (which occupied the #2 spot on last year’s 25), 2016 was a big year for Chance the Rapper. Rather than spending 2017 basking in his newfound fame, Chance has leveraged his 2016 success, establishing himself as a household name in American pop culture and plowing new ground for music and social activism.
After winning three Grammys including Best Rap Album and Best New Artist, Chance spent the rest of the year deeply involved in the life of his home city. He joined the board of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. Through the non-profit he started, SocialWorks, he expanded the OpenMike program in partnership with Chicago Public Library creating artistic opportunities for high schoolers. He donated over one million dollars to Chicago Public Schools and met with political officials to advocate for public education. He even hosted SNL. Despite all of this, he never lost focus on his music, giving scintillating performances at the Grammys, on late-night TV, and on a full tour that included headlining the Chicago festival Lollapalooza.
What makes Chance unique, even more than his musical genius or infectious personality, is the way that even in the midst of his meteoric rise, Chance has used his fame as a platform to advocate for ideas and causes that he believes in. Just as Chance would not have his success without his community, we, the public, cannot enjoy the fruits of Chance’s artistic successes without his community either. Whether creating a more equitable music industry, advocating for public education for his hometown in Chicago, or providing opportunities for Chicago youth like himself, Chance has used his power for the sake of the various communities of which he is a member. For the sake of all of our communities, we can only hope that more public figures follow the trail he is blazing. —Andrew Whitworth
Ever since season one of BoJack Horseman ended with possibly the biggest gut-punch I’ve ever seen from a TV comedy, I’ve known this series was something special. Deftly combining every flavor of humor (satire, slapstick, character-based laughs, straight-up silliness) with heart-rending moments of pain and tragedy (plus an impressionistic watercolor aesthetic and a weird-but-ultimately-charming “furry” sensibility), BoJack has consistently proven to be one of the best things on TV. This year’s season—the fourth—is no exception, devoting entire episodes to capturing the experience of clinical depression (“Stupid Piece of Sh*t”), skewering Hollywood hypocrisy on gun violence (“Thoughts and Prayers”), and exploring how the pain we cause can echo through generations (“The Old Sugarman Place,” “Time’s Arrow”).
Permeating the series is a theme as painful as it is true: We are, all of us, broken. There is no easy fix. We’ll keep hurting each other, and we’ll keep hurting ourselves—even after we’ve found wealth, fame, power, love. The American Dream is a lie.
This is, admittedly, a bit of a downer, and after season three I was wondering if the show would end up chasing its own tail or running itself into the ground—but season four ably rose to the occasion by diving deep into the genetics of self-loathing, spoofing American politics, and even humanizing the series’ perennial punching-bag, Todd. I can’t wait to see where the story goes next. —Luke T. Harrington
The Big Sick, based off the lives of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, was the perfect antidote to what ailed 2017 (including xenophobia, Islamophoba, and a general pervading sense of despair). Nanjiani, who both wrote and starred in the movie, is a comedian who gave America the gift of a look inside the often misunderstood and flattened stories of Muslim immigrants in the United States. His humor, care, and compassion for the communities that uphold and sustain us as people in the world resonate deeply in a world where romantic comedies normally focus on individual couples.
It is also a sidesplittingly funny movie, all the more so because the stakes are both high and yet also extremely relatable. In a world where we have to learn how to live with clashes in culture and religion, where people get sick and even die, and where we try hard to live up to what is expected of us and often fail miserably—well, in this world we need people like Nanjiana and Gordon to give us these real stories to spark our imagination for how to love each other better. —D. L. Mayfield
Christopher Nolan’s film recounting the British evacuation from Dunkirk is a harrowing affair, unrelenting in its depiction of the horrors of war. The closing lines, drawn from Churchill’s iconic “We Will Fight” speech commemorating the withdraw, belie Nolan’s primary focus—not on abstract notions of patriotism, heroism, or sacrifice, but on particularities in all their murkiness.
From the opening scene, where soldiers are pinned down by German forces, to the bombing raids, aerial firefights, and violent clashes that follow, the film’s hundred and twenty minutes allow the characters and audience alike little reprieve, a tension hauntingly intensified by Hans Zimmer’s masterful score. The soldiers and civilians on screen move from one devastating challenge to another, hardly recovered from the first before survival demands their attention once more. By interweaving three unique perspectives, ranging three different time frames, Dunkirk manages to be both epic and intimate, evoking the grand sweep of the celebrated Miracle of Dunkirk while immersing viewers in the action on land, sea, and air. In this way, Nolan impressively crafts a tale of suspense from well-known historical fact. And in so doing subverts our expectations, calling us to honor, not idolize, these fellow human beings who endured unimaginable trauma. —Marybeth Davis Baggett
This War of Mine is a co-operative board game experience simulating an Eastern European civil war from the perspective of a house full of civilians. Players work together desperately to survive day-to-day life in a city under siege. It’s very story-driven, with a book of nearly 2,000 story scripts that get triggered by your actions and choices and, of course, by things entirely outside your control since war is unpredictable. As players do not control individual characters, this is maybe the first truly cooperative game I’ve played, which works well to invest you in the story of these characters.
The great thing is not even whether you win or survive (though, hey great, if you do!). It’s about experiencing this terrible situation from the safety of your dining room table. It’s about living within this story that you’re making up around you. One reviewer for the game is a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo and talks about the game from that perspective. At one point he says: “I am, often, asked ‘How was it, living under the siege?’ Talking about it does not do it justice. From now on, if I get that question, I’ll sit down and play a round or two of This War of Mine with ones who asks.”
So much of the American 2017 has been concerned with cleaning out our own houses—the present eye on harassment, abuse, racism, and sexism—and our continued national and cultural investment in it is a constant. Every action of our international policy will have effects on civilian lives. It’s important for us to be able build empathy in ourselves and in our community for those who will feel the effect of what we might be fooled into thinking are merely political decisions. —Seth T. Hahne
As motifs go, the mud in Dee Rees’s film Mudbound (based on Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel) is a doozy. The film, which stars Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, and Mary J. Blige, follows the fortunes of two families working the same farm in the Mississippi delta in the Jim Crow South of the 1940s. The McAllans are white farmers, and the Jacksons are black sharecroppers. The racial hierarchy between them is clear, and it shapes their prospects and vulnerabilities in different ways. When Ronsel, the Jacksons’ son, and Jamie, Henry McAllan’s brother, return from the war, their presence—and their unlikely friendship—brings an end to the uneasy peace between the two families and leads eventually to a harrowing and violent climax.
Throughout the story, the mud clings to everything. “When I think of the farm, I think of mud,” says one character. Mud is, firstly, a pervasive reminder that their lives—and their hopes for the future—are intertwined with the land, albeit in different ways. But it’s also a metaphor for the land’s history, which covers and encrusts everything. In the movie’s chilling opening scene, the two McAllan brothers dig a grave in the farm’s mud as the rain pours down. We don’t know at first whose grave they’re digging, or why. But as they dig, they find bones: slave’s bones.
Racial oppression, Mudbound suggests, is deep in America’s soil, and it clings inescapably to each of us. Mudbound is a sober, haunting piece of filmmaking, and a timely one: at a time when our nation needs to reckon honestly with its racial sins, films like Mudbound can help us understand just how deeply we’re mired in them. —Ethan McCarthy
At first glance, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name appears like a remake of Freaky Friday in the skin of a Japanese anime. Tokyo high school boy Taki wakes up in the body of a rural high school girl, Mitsuha, and vice versa. While the body-switching humor only lasts the film’s first moments, the story quickly gives way to an apocalyptic mystery of the ties that bind Mitsuha and Taki.
Your Name is visually stunning and emotionally satisfying, both of which are staples of Shinkai’s other films, such as 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words. It was the highest-grossing film in Japan when it released in 2016 (the fourth highest of all time) and received an unusually wide distribution across the United States rarely given to foreign films.
While Your Name is critically acclaimed and an international success, we did not include it in The 25 for such accolades. Instead, the film has received such praise because of how deeply its story resonates with our need for human connection. Its body-switching, time-jumping narrative explores personal and cosmic loneliness, the limitations of memory and a longing for truth, and a broken world that has the power to bring devastation upon its people. In a year that has spotlighted how we struggle to connect with and love others, Your Name provided some much needed reflection and catharsis for 2017. —Tyler Glodjo
Each culture has myths: stories it tells itself to make sense of its people, values, and history. This is no less true of the United States, despite its paltry few centuries of existence, although—perhaps because of its relative youth—the USA has a way to go before its myths become as solidified as Britain’s King Arthur or ancient Greece’s Trojan War. This year marked an important phase in our mythological development, as the culture at large grappled with the legacy of slavery and the Civil War, and Americans debated about which monuments to preserve and which to tear down.
Into this environment came George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, an astonishing accomplishment of peculiarly American mythmaking. In his fictionalization of the events surrounding the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, Saunders presents his narrative as a fractured clamor of voices, with a huge cast of characters elbowing each other out of the way to tell stories—stories about themselves, about the world, and about the drama occurring right in front of them. In choosing this unique structure for his novel, Saunders paints a picture of history and of America itself: a babel of disparate voices, echoing cacophonously inside a graveyard.
That’s the other thing about Lincoln in the Bardo, by the way: almost all of the characters are ghosts. In this way, too, Saunders follows the footsteps of mythmakers before him. Like Odysseus and Aeneas, Lincoln descends to the underworld and emerges from it wiser and sadder than he was before. Not many contemporary authors would dare to write a book so nakedly mythopoeic, let alone one that imagines what the scene at Christ’s judgment seat might look like. But Saunders dares. Oh, how he dares. —Kevin McLenithan
Stranger Things was a 2016 phenomenon (season 1 made last year’s 25) and for good reason. In addition to being great storytelling in its own right, the Duffer Brothers’ series was a love letter to two Steves—Spielberg and King—whose stories provided those of us who lived through the 1980s with a kind of visual soundtrack. And like good and hopeful storytellers, the Duffer Brothers left us with hints of a world beyond Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), beyond Hawkins, even beyond the Upside Down. (Side note: Echoes of It, the Cthulhu Mythos, Goonies, and many ’80s movies are everywhere. But I digress.)
When we rejoin the Party, everyone’s a year older and trying to keep the Upside Down in the rearview. No spoilers here, but the first two episodes move a little slowly, highlighting the basic normalcy of the lives that Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will live now. The boys have traded D&D for Dig Dug, and Mike’s basement for the town’s video arcade. There, the Party encounters Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) who threatens the Party’s cohesion just as Eleven did in season 1. Only Will—still haunted by the effects of his sojourn in the Upside Down—gives us any hint that enemies still threaten in Hawkins. But before long everyone—old and new—drops into Will’s orbit and the Party’s heroic work continues.
Despite my love for the first season, Stranger Things 2 defies the odds and improves the story because a higher love drives its story. Stranger Things ended with a costly triumph, love rooted in friendship. Season 2 seems more a triumph of family (though perhaps a family extended by even deeper friendship) and belonging. Because of that, the losses hurt a little more.
Just ask the Brain. —James Cain
“A coming-of-age story with warmth and humor and unexpected plot turn.”
In the opening scenes of Lady Bird, Christine McPherson (played with lovable realism by Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf, brilliant in this role) drive across a California desert, both wiping tears away as their audiobook—The Grapes of Wrath—comes to an end. The tender moment between them almost immediately dissolves into petty argument, though, and in frustration, Christine opens the door of the running car and launches herself out.
That kind of pitch-perfect representation of the precipitous emotional movement of adolescence and the complicated mother-daughter relationship is only one of the things that makes Lady Bird such a successful film. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird infuses freshness to an often stale genre, telling a coming-of-age story with warmth and humor and unexpected plot turns. Gerwig earns her audience’s laughs without resorting to tropes, and Ronan earns the audience’s tears without resorting to schmaltz.
These days, a film that genuinely makes its audience laugh and cry is a rare find. But Lady Bird earned its spot on our list because it went beyond even that; it expressed something true about the human condition and about female relationships that moved audiences to action.
I know more than one young woman who, leaving the film, called her mother, an awkward note of gratitude in her voice. —Amy Peterson
What if they made a sitcom blending your ethical philosophy textbook, The Far Side cartoons, a little Screwtape Letters, and that one Twilight Zone episode in which the gangster goes to Heaven (“A Nice Place to Visit”)?
Such is NBC’s The Good Place, which in season 1 finds deceased, narcissistic Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) deposited in a Heaven-like environment due to an apparent bureaucratic blunder. Desperate to hide her secret but also to become a truly good person, Eleanor begs for postmortem ethics classes from indecisive academic Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). Naturally there’s a “Twilight Zone”–like twist, which segues into season 2’s in-universe reboots, as Eleanor, Chidi, their two human friends, and even angel-like host Michael (Ted Danson) all try to become morally improved individuals.
Along the way, even this secular-by-design vision of the afterlife can’t help reflecting several partial Gospel truths, such as “None is righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Plus there’s the simple fact that any creative vision of morality and the afterlife, if divorced from its divine Architect and a biblical worldview, can only be reduced to the genre of satirical farce. But within that genre, so far The Good Place creators keep finding genuine cleverness, not in flippancy about virtue, but in provocative contrasts of likeable yet self-centered characters with our own manufactured moralities. —E. Stephen Burnett
Prior to 2017, gaming felt a lot like our current political landscape: divided into two insular factions, each one a vast wasteland. The PC/console camp seemed to cater exclusively to FPS addicts with hours to spend in front of their TVs/monitors and piles of cash for lootboxes; the mobile/tablet camp had become a race-to-the-bottom of free-to-play trivialities designed to hook rubes and empty their wallets. Fortunately, Nintendo, as they so often do, stepped up to offer us a “third way”: a new device that will appeal both to “serious” gamers short on TV time and “casual” gamers looking for a meatier experience.
The genius of the Nintendo Switch is how many different experiences are packed into a single, pocket-sized machine: It’s a home console. It’s a handheld. It’s a tablet. It’s a portable two-player system. It’s a (vastly improved) Wii. It fits effortlessly into your life however you want it to, instead of demanding that you use it a certain way.
None of that would matter without good games, but Nintendo has been almost single-handedly pumping out the year’s best games to back it up: system-sellers Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, plus quirkier fare like Arms and Splatoon 2, along with a parade of excellent indie titles and even a smattering of hardcore hits like Doom and Skyrim. Since picking up a Switch in April, I’ve already had too many great experiences with it to count: I’ve crashed on the couch to spend hours in Hyrule. I’ve grinded levels in I Am Setsuna during road trips. I’ve passed out controllers to play Overcooked with my wife and daughter. I’ve sat on my deck and watched the sunset while dungeon-crawling in Severed. I’ve strapped on a Joycon and Just Dance‘d till dawn. I’ve split the thing in three for some spontaneous Mario Kart with my sister.
It’s stuff like that last bit that really illuminates why the Switch matters: this is a machine that can bring people together, anytime, anywhere. In a year like 2017, that’s worth a lot. —Luke T. Harrington
No film released in 2017 is quite like A Ghost Story.
Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, David Lowery’s latest release tells the story of a deceased man who quietly haunts his Texas Ranch home. Haunt is a strong word. Observe might be the better descriptor. Donning a simple white sheet, the spirit silent watches as occupants come and go, leaving scuffs on the walls, across the baseboards, and between the etches of the foundation. Eventually, time starts to skip and what was initially a story about grief turns into a piercing meditation on time, purpose, and eternity.
A Ghost Story is one of those rare movies that doesn’t simply elicit emotions. It goes a step further—it wants you to be a better person. In one sense, the narrative is crippling. Over the scope of human history, like this “ghost,” we are but one soul in a vast universe of beings. We are born. We die. People take our place. We are forgotten.
Yet, at the same time, A Ghost Story seems to imply that each of us is significant in our own way. Loved ones hold our memories dear. We leave marks (however so small) on the places around us. And, as the film subtly ponders, if there is a God, perhaps he is watching us, too. Then again, maybe he does more than watch. Maybe he sees.
Wherever viewers land regarding these ruminations, A Ghost Story’s square aspect ratio and long, deep takes require that we pay attention. Focus. Look closer. We must not only watch, we too must see.
And, if we’re lucky, this careful attention will continue long after the film’s final shot. —Wade Bearden
If Kendrick Lamar were a biblical character, you could easily slot his lyrics in among the apocalyptic prophecies of the minor prophets. In dense, harrowing, thrilling verses, Kung Fu Kenny narrates the ills of our times—our structures are broken, our frames of perception are limiting, our salvation lies in our collectively ability to right the entire ship, to help even the smallest waving hand as the tides rise. How are the oppressed and disenfranchise able to find hope when their oppressors continue to tighten the screws?
Kendrick’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was ecstatic. In both the dark and light, the anger and the hopefulness, it exploded with cacophonous live instrumentation, choruses and chants that invited the listener to participate. It was, ostensibly, about the perseverance of faith. From track to track you can hear echoes of Galatians 6:9. DAMN. is the obverse, the wearying of doing good.
There are the bops and the bangers (“LOVE.” is one of the year’s most masterful pop tunes, and “DNA.” has all the attitude and amplitude of a stadium rock song), but it’s also the most bleak and inward-facing of Kendrick’s catalog. “FEAR.” moves from the fear of childhood abuse to a list of ways that Kendrick will “probably die”: at a party or simply walking down the wrong street, gunned down by gangs or beat down by police. The boundary between society’s pains and personal ones becomes porous—they’re all of a piece. Kendrick expresses the pain of being black in America in his distinct voice, a kind of fatalism that applies to the whole and is still felt individually. When Kendrick says, “Nobody praying for me,” he’s despairing not just corporately, but personally.
The album’s closing track, “DUCKWORTH.” provides a clear demarcation between DAMN. and the albums that came before it: “It was always me versus the world / until I found it’s me versus me.” In 2015, Kendrick spoke for the culture. In 2017, he speaks directly for himself. —Keegan Bradford
Written and directed by Jordan Peele (Comedy Central’s Key and Peele), Get Out is the story of Chris Washington (played wonderfully by Daniel Kaluuya) going to visit the family of his white girlfriend, Rose, for the first time, only to discover things are not as they seem with her family. It’s supposed to be a horror tinged comedy, but it also felt like an episode of the MTV documentary series, True Life, titled “Being Black in America.”
From white liberal racism, to the dynamics between the African American men and women, to the profiting off black talent without caring about black people, to the sense of danger when the flashing lights arrived in the final scene, Get Out succeeds because it finds the right balance between laughs and searing social commentary.
Beyond the phenomenal storytelling, Get Out brought “the sunken place” into the American lexicon and for that alone millions of Black Americans are grateful.
Get Out made us laugh, but like the all the best black comedians, Gregory, Pryor, Murphy, and Rock, Peele made us think about the harsh realities of racism and the psychological terror it inflicts on African Americans in this country. —Kathryn Freeman
Wonder Woman was one of the most important films of 2017: it featured a powerful female lead, it proved that a female superhero movie could be wildly successful, and it showcased the talents of director Patty Jenkins. But while Wonder Woman holds special cultural significance in its own right, it’s Jenkins’s work, voice, and perseverance that have made such a significant mark on 2017.
Wonder Woman inspired and empowered women and girls, and a good amount of that power came from the crucial fact that the story was not merely about a woman, it was told from a woman’s perspective. Wonder Woman as a story has taken a myriad of forms—comics, TV, films—but the story is often objectifying or even belittling of its main character. With a woman in front of and behind the camera, the story not only became more compelling, it took on new meaning for the women who watched it.
Jenkins’s public presence after the release of the film was also a critical part of her cultural significance this year. After James Cameron made disparaging comments about the film, Jenkins responded with conviction and grace, by reinforcing the power of this idea: women’s perspectives matter. While responding to the substance of Cameron’s critique, she plainly acknowledged: “Though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.”
While Gal Gadot’s performance was captivating and the film itself was especially moving for women who have yearned to see themselves represented in powerful roles, Patty Jenkins’s work reminds us that there is incredible power not only in the stories themselves, but in those who tell them. —Kaitlyn Schiess
When Colin Kaepernick remained in his seat during the national anthem of his team’s third preseason game in 2016, no one anticipated this innocuous action would dominate sports headlines for well over a year. In 2017, his crusade took an unexpected turn. Following his pledge to continue protesting police brutality, the quarterback became the NFL’s most discussed topic without ever playing a down of football. Colin Kaepernick knelt in defiance of the richest, most powerful sports organization in the United States. And he won.
Historically, Kap doesn’t fit the profile of a sports activist. He doesn’t speak with the captivating bombast of Jack Johnson or Muhammed Ali. His afro and tattoos make him too edgy to embody the clean-cut images of a Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens. He didn’t choose the biggest moment of his career to express his views like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Kaepernick re-ignited a national conversation about justice without a clever hashtag, fancy ad campaign, book deal, or a dazzling personality. He simply knelt and let his actions speak for themselves. Those actions have included giving a million dollars of his personal money to dozens of documented causes and forcing the NFL to be accountable for how they address justice, leaving even his fiercest critics without much space to substantively critique his convictions.
Depending on whom you talk to, Colin has either ruined or purified the NFL. Yet, the most effective element of Kaepernick’s protest is just how small football looks in comparison to his cause. He is no longer defined by his involvement in the game he loves but by his sacrificial commitment to the people he loves. That example couldn’t have come at a better time. —Tyler Burns
Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ As a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
That’s the content of the tweet fired off by Alyssa Milano on October 15 that would glean far more than a few thousands likes and retweets, and it would snowball into more than Tarana Burke, the originator of the “Me Too” campaign more than a decade ago, could ever hope or dream. #MeToo quickly became a movement that gave women the power to tell their own stories, and many chose to do just that.
#MeToo is important because movements are important, because the shift of power is important, because women are important. #MeToo could have been what many hashtags are: trending, passing, fading. Instead, we won’t see the ripples of #MeToo in 2018—we’ll see the swells of waves that are still being produced from this tide. Shows are being cancelled, elections are being swayed, and victims finally feel as if their stories aren’t being met with indifference and incredulity. The church isn’t immune to these accusations, nor are they immune to the healing taking place. People are listening. —Joy Beth Smith
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