Each year, the Christ and Pop Culture team develops a list of the Top 25 cultural artifacts of the past 12 months. The list covers everything from film and TV to internet memes to notable events and people to music and games. But the past 12 months have been unusual, as you already know. The entertainment industry has slowed to a crawl. Gatherings are impossible. News has revolved around a certain global monster.
Because nothing is the same, our team decided to forego our usual ranked list of 25 artifacts for this past year. Instead, each writer submitted items from 2020 that managed to break through the dark days and deliver a bit of goodness. Stop by each day this week to see the roundup for the pop culture categories of film, TV, music & podcasts, books & games, and happenings & people. We hope these provide a bit of hope and a few new artifacts to enjoy.
If you’d told me in January that I would only be seeing one movie in the theater in 2020, I would have been, well, shocked. But I also would have been glad that I got to see 1917—especially considering everything that has happened since. 1917 is a World War I thriller about two message runners who have to deliver a message across No Man’s Land and enemy territory to save a battalion of British soldiers from a German ambush. It is not a typical war movie in almost any fashion; there are no great staged battles, no metanarrative explaining what’s happening in the war, and no focus on the Germans as the enemy. Rather, time itself is the enemy in this film. Furthermore, director Sam Mendes shot 1917 to appear as a one-shot film, which is not only a neat visual trick, but also a deeply immersive storytelling experience in which you are locked in-step with the main characters for the entirety of the story.
There are several things that make 1917 a superlative film—not the least of which being the filming style and Roger Deakins’s stunning cinematography—but when I reminisce on it at the end of a long, dark year, I can’t help but think about how 1917 was eerily prescient. It is a story about the value of the ordinary, individual life in the midst of a hellish conflict, and through the use of the one-shot filming style, Mendes refuses to let us look away. 1917 forces us to remember that even in world conflicts that swallow up people as faceless casualties, it is ordinary men and women who are the real heroes, and every life—and every life lost—has meaning.
In my January review of the movie, I said that Mendes managed to film “a glorification of the achievements of unsung heroes against the backdrop of the horror of war.” This year we lived through the horror of plague, which is different in many ways from war, but it bears many of the same markers. In January, none of us knew what was coming for the year ahead. We could never have anticipated the catastrophic loss of life, the economic collapse, the isolation and loneliness so many people would face, the ordinary heroism of doctors and nurses on the frontlines, the race against time to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus. When the world is filled with horror, we need more art, more stories, that remind us what true heroism looks like, that demonstrate things that are actually praiseworthy. 1917 is one such story.
—K. B. Hoyle
In preparation for my quarantine viewing of Bill & Ted Face the Music, I revisited the original classics—Bill and Ted’s respective Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey—for the first time in twenty years. Early in the original film, we learn the future world owes its existence to William “Bill” S. Preston and Theodore “Ted” Logan’s excellent ways, all because the two hapless surfer grunge BFFs with a terrible band (WYLD STALLYNS!) eventually mature into rock gods of such caliber that their music brings peace to all the earth.
And so, because Bill and Ted unite the future world, the future world must recruit Bill and Ted to unite it. And if you’re trying hard to make sense of that circular logic, I want to remind you that this is a Bill & Ted movie, so calm yourself.
But it’s 2020 now, and time has allowed us to distill the Bill & Ted franchise down to its essential components and make one more great movie solely about that. Which is how, in the worst of years, we’ve been blessed with Bill & Ted Face the Music, easily the best film of the entire series, whose core message is the kind that really could unite a bitterly divided world.
Be quick to forgive yourself and others.
Be true, kind, and excellent to each other.
And never ever stop rocking.
Black Is King, a film by Beyonce, reimagines Disney’s The Lion King as the story of a young Black boy’s journey of self-discovery through the African diaspora. The film follows a young Simba-type character, but it is also a universal celebration of the African diaspora of the beauty, strength, and resiliency found among Black and brown people across the globe.
The film leans heavily into the Exodus narrative beginning with Beyonce placing her young son in a basket and setting him out on the river, much like Moses’ mother did with her son. The Exodus narrative has always been an essential part of the African American life of faith since our enslavement in this country because it is a testimony to God’s attentiveness to the cries of the oppressed and that he will liberate them from their sufferings both in this life and the next.
Black Is King is a story of beauty born from struggle, but also the beauty that came before the struggle. Before the Exodus, there was Eden and Abraham. Black is often treated as synonymous with lesser, but Beyonce invites her young son “to come home to [himself]” and to remember he was “beauty before others knew what beauty was.” But this reminder is not just for the young protagonist in the story, it’s for the brown skinned girls who have been made to feel less desirable. The opulence of the costumes and the stunning backdrops surround black and brown background dancers reinforces the narrative that Africa and its sons and daughters are much more than the horrible things that have been done to us.
This film is a celebration of both God’s image and intentionality in his creation of Black people with “skin just like pearls.” And in a year where African Americans have been beset by two pandemics—the racial reckoning brought on by the murders of Ahmaud Arberry, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor—and COVID-19, Black Is King serves as a testament to the defiant hope and creative cultivation of our gifts despite those that would try to diminish our dignity.
How does a person go on working, living, hoping in the midst of the past year’s events? I cling to Revelation 21, often desperately, reading and rereading its promise of a time to come when sorrow and death will be excised from existence. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The desire for this ultimate reconciliation of all things is an ache in all of us, regardless of religious belief. It is a hunger pang that occasionally subsides but never fully fades.
The most stirring expression of this universal longing came from documentarian Kirsten Johnson this year. Dick Johnson Is Dead is Johnson’s attempt to reckon with the impending decline and death of her father. Dick Johnson is one of those people whose zest for life makes it particularly difficult to imagine him leaving it behind, so it’s easy to understand why his daughter needs to make an entire movie to come to terms with the idea. Nonfiction cinema turns out to be an ideal medium. Johnson’s camera frankly documents the history and relationships that form the fabric of Dick’s past and present, but the artifice inherent in all filmmaking—editing, mise-en-scene, visual effects—enables her to probe the hypotheticals of death and the afterlife before her father experiences them in reality.
Much of Dick Johnson Is Dead involves Dick staging his own death in various ways (blunt-force trauma from plunging A/C unit, staircase fall, mishap with two-by-four plank) at Kirsten’s direction, denying death its sting by rendering it as slapstick. It is, unexpectedly, a very funny film. What sticks with me, though, is its staging of those afterlife hypotheticals. Although Kirsten is not a Christian, her father is, so part of her project necessitates envisioning what awaits him after death. In these sequences, Dick is reunited with loved ones, dances until he takes flight, and comes face to face with Jesus Christ. Dick Johnson Is Dead gives us the faintest taste of the glorious eschaton, in which Jesus makes everything new. This film is water in the desert.
The new film from The Rider’s Chloé Zhao, Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who leaves her defunct small town to traverse the American West. Fern lives on the road partly by necessity, partly by choice—she insists she’s “houseless, not homeless.” Yet, as we travel with Fern, from the stark, winter compositions of Nevada to the beautiful images of the Badlands, the film’s imagery hints that she just might be both. Fern’s white van functions as a mobile shelter, but she’s missing the roots that anchor any type of life, sedentary or migrant: relationships. When Fern begins to meet other nomads like herself—a mixture of both professional and nonprofessional actors—she learns to confront her disconnected existence, and the grief that simmers quietly in the background of her life.
At one point in her journey, Fern listens to the classic Christmas tune “What Child Is This?” Zhao endows the song with heavy resonance, presenting it as a point of familiarity in an uncertain environment. Who can’t relate to a child, born in the least of all circumstances, who, too, became a nomad? As the angels proclaimed to the shepherds, the hope of Christmas is that good news has come for the humble and the contrite. Fern desperately needs good news.
Later in the movie, a character named Bob speaks to Fern of this hope. While sharing the story of his son’s death, Bob explains that there are no “final goodbyes.” We will see the dead again. Peace will be achieved. Pain will be reversed. The words strike Fern just like they strike us. We all desire home, for all of our suffering to be reversed. Nomadland imagines what that home might look like, even to us wanderers.
Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin, Veep) has given Charles Dickens the kind of film treatment he’s rarely had up until now: fresh, funny, graced with whimsical special effects and uproariously high spirits. Forget the fog-filled streets of London—this David Copperfield lingers on the sunny open spaces of the countryside, a visual representation of the buoyancy and hope at its heart. This version of the story, while stringently condensed and different in several key aspects from the book, is nevertheless a gift to both longtime lovers of Dickens and those new to his work, eliciting a whole new appreciation of Dickens’s quirky and often childlike view of life. The multiethnic casting serves the story well, opening up our sense of possibility and strengthening our relation to these characters. Dev Patel triumphs as David, his air of wide-eyed wonder a perfect fit for the part, and is ably supported by Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, Tilda Swinton as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, and many more. Rarely has a period drama looked or felt like this, but let’s hope that many more of them do in the future.
In a year of tumult and social unrest, I think we’re all ready to move on from 2020. But Disney/Pixar’s Soul reminds us of the gift that life itself is. Soul is a tragically ethereal comedy that surveys the uneasy questions of how our souls are constructed before birth (our unique wirings, our likes, tastes, etc.) and death. But for how much we anticipate it to be about life before life and after death, it proves to be about so much more than that.
The underrated jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is taken on a whimsical near-death experience in the film, accompanied by 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who is disastrously uninterested in living. She doesn’t see the point of it. Meanwhile, Joe, desperate to return to earth to do the one thing he feels born to do, feels he’s missing out on his life’s purpose. “I’m just afraid that if I died today that my life would’ve amounted to nothing.” In this way, Joe embodies much of the American experience as we all are susceptible to chasing after dreams only to have life pass us by. At the end of 2020, Soul is a timely (and timeless) story that reminds us that life is more than accomplished goals, completed tasks, or achieved purposes. Life is about living in the present, recognizing that all of life is a gift from God no matter how much time we have to enjoy it.
With her documentary Time, director Garrett Bradley poses a more specific version of Langston Hughes’s eternal question: What happens to the dream of justice deferred?
Bradley introduces us to one of real life’s great characters, Sibil Fox Richardson (aka “Fox Rich”). She’s a tired yet unsinkable crusader on behalf of her husband, who is serving a protracted 60-year prison sentence for robbery. While they never take a pedantic approach, Bradley and Fox Rich still sound out a righteous sermon: The American justice system is long on punishment, short on mercy.
Substance and style engage a surprising dance until you can’t imagine the story being told any other way. The word lyrical was invented for a film like Time, in which Bradley makes black-and-white feel like living color. The director’s pacing is pure poetry, as she considers how injustice forges a family—molding its memories, blurring its sense of past, present, and future.
Time tells anyone who will listen that the awful, tedious act of waiting might just be holy work. Every day, love wakes up Fox Rich and refines her to the point of resilience. She forces herself—and us—to remember that justice might not be imminent, but it is inevitable.
While we wait with the Richardsons for justice to roll down, the director and her subject show us what it means to cling to twin promises. Our work for fairness and equality, down to the littlest detail, is not in vain. And all wrongs will be righted—but it will take time.