For each day of Twelvetide, Christ and Pop Culture writers will point to some of the cultural goodness that gives hope in the midst of life’s messyness. It’s our version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, filled with things our writers have found to be life-giving. Some entries are 2018 artifacts, some are from years past. All of them point us to hope.
One of the wonderful things about cinema is its ability to capture and preserve a single enchanting moment that can then be experienced again and again. Every time you sit down for a movie, you are preparing to encounter such a moment, when sound and light coincide in a instant that can take your breath away or make you burst out laughing. The movies of 2018 were chock-a-block with shots that did just that. I submit for your consideration twelve of them below. Aren’t movies great?
First Reformed—Reverend Toller wrestles in the dark
It’s tough to pick just one image from Paul Schrader’s latest film. Schrader’s rigorous formalism results in shots that are framed and lit so meticulously that they wouldn’t look out of place if you framed them individually and hung them on a gallery wall. I eventually settled on the shot above as the film in microcosm. The depiction of Reverend Toller battling his own spiritual despair is deeply felt: just look at that hunched posture; the barren, hard floor; the hands covering the face in weariness. If that were all we could see in the frame, it would be striking enough. But Schrader invites us to consider the lone candle as well. We empathize with Toller’s anguish, but we also recognize how those hopeless hands cover his eyes, keeping him from seeing the light that is still shining, however faintly, in the darkness.
Black Panther—Seoul casino
After Black Panther’s release in February, everyone wanted to visit Wakanda, but the film’s standout action sequence takes place on a completely different continent. Tipped off that a shady deal involving a stolen Wakandan artifact is about to happen in South Korea, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther travels to Seoul with his associates Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) to put a stop to it. They wind up in the sort of fancy, lushly lit underground casino that shows up all the time in James Bond movies, and the trio have the suaveness to match the occasion. Black Panther was hailed for being the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a black protagonist and a primarily black cast, but the casino sequence showed that it could break aesthetic barriers as well, thanks to the magic touch of director Ryan Coogler. When Okoye leaps gracefully from a second-story balcony, her red dress streaming behind her like a trail of blood, the MCU finds something it has been missing for a long time: a sense of style.
Roma—New Year’s fire
Set during the social upheaval of 1970s Mexico, Roma is a film bursting with human experiences of all kinds, from the mundane to the extraordinary. The long takes and elaborate mise-en-scene that have become Alfonso Cuaron’s calling card fortify this impression. In one bravura scene, shot entirely in an unbroken take, Cuaron depicts a New Year’s Eve party for the privileged elite being interrupted by a forest fire on their sprawling estate. The hired help spring into action, forming a bucket brigade and flinging water onto the flames; meanwhile, the elite simply watch, some of them tipsily panicking while others treat the sight as one more spectacle. One man, dressed head to toe as a folkloric monster, sings a song as a burning tree falls behind him. The entire tableau has a stranger-than-fiction quality to it, bizarre in a way that only real life can be.
Widows—Driving through the neighborhood
I live in the Windy City, so a shot-on-location Chicago movie was always going to be catnip for me; but you don’t have to be a Chicagoan to be floored by Steve McQueen’s use of the city’s unique character in Widows. The film is interested primarily in tribes—how we identify “our people” using ethnicity, gender, and class as boundary lines, and how these perceived distinctions can cause us to forget about the humanity of those unlike us. Over 108 stunning seconds, McQueen’s camera follows a car as it carries a politician from the underprivileged neighborhood in which he’s campaigning to his headquarters just a handful of blocks away. The audience watches in real time as the neighborhood outside the car changes from rundown, vacant lots and apartment complexes to leafy front yards and luxurious townhouses. No green-screen trickery is involved; the segregation is onscreen, plain as day. McQueen uses the distinctive qualities of his setting to explore a universal human flaw: how easy it is for us to shrug off the struggles of others when the comforting familiarity of “our people” is so easy to return to.
BlacKkKlansman—The “Spike shot” makes its appearance
Few filmmakers have a signature technique as unique and immediately recognizable as Spike Lee does. By placing his camera on one dolly and his actors on another, then moving them both in the same direction at the same speed, Lee creates a gliding effect that is either otherworldly or hyper-real, depending on the person from whom you solicit a fumbling explanation. It’s a technique that calls attention to itself, demanding that you analyze not only the movement onscreen but also your reaction to that movement. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee saves the shot for the very end. Our protagonist has just triumphed over the Ku Klux Klan, sent a racist cop to prison, and delivered a supremely satisfying zinger to KKK grand wizard David Duke. Instead of rolling credits over the happy ending, though, Lee draws his characters out into a hallway, at the end of which is a window onto a burning cross. The Spike shot glides them down the hallway as if they are in a nightmare. And in his savage epilogue, Lee suggests that the nightmare continues even today.
Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is set in Lebanon, not North America, but its story of refugees and lost children seems especially urgent for Americans to grapple with. Capernaum portrays a Lebanon trying to cope with its own myriad societal problems at the same time that it faces an influx of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries. One of these refugees is Rahil, a young mother and undocumented immigrant who is arrested and confined to a group cell. Unable to get back home to her breastfeeding baby, Rahil can only weep as she expresses her milk, the fluid trickling between her fingers like lifeblood. It’s a graphic, heartbreaking image, and Labaki uses it to put the lie to platitudes about personal responsibility and obedience to immigration laws. For actual individuals trapped between violence at home and bureaucratic mechanisms abroad, such complacent thinking is an unaffordable luxury.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—A musical eulogy for Surly Joe
Joel and Ethan Coen’s strange and often bloody anthology film is packed with memorable moments, and one of the most indelible is the aftermath of a saloon confrontation between a snarling poker player and the affable, sociopathic singing cowboy Buster Scruggs. After disposing of his adversary in a manner that is “downright Archimedean,” Scruggs promptly launches into a song about the man, whom he dubs “Surly Joe.” Soon everyone in the saloon is laughing and singing along, their initial shock at witnessing a brutal murder forgotten in seconds. It’s vintage Coen brothers, hilarious and dark in equal measure. We may be unsettled by the blithe acceptance of bloodshed by the characters, but who are we to judge? We were watching too.
The Old Man and the Gun—First kiss
Movies like The Old Man and the Gun feel increasingly rare these days. This one is a star vehicle for an octogenarian (Robert Redford, whose nuclear-grade charisma should be the envy of men half his age). Its ambitions are exceedingly modest. The narrative stakes are low—Redford’s character is just a small-time bank robber. So why does my time with it remain one of my favorite theatrical experiences of the year? Part of it has to do with the cast, which features a radiant Sissy Spacek in addition to Redford and his small gang of crooks. But mostly it’s because of moments like the one pictured above, in which the soft red of Redford’s departing taillights glows on Spacek’s face in the seconds after their first kiss. That’s the sort of low-key cinematic magic that no amount of expensive CGI or youthful beauty can provide.
Eighth Grade—Pool party
Everyone who saw Eighth Grade had their own sympathetic-cringe moment—a scene where Elsie Fisher’s Kayla experiences a variety of mortification or angst so well-observed that it acts like a time machine, pulling us back into our own early-teens past and having us relive our own travails. I had a few such moments while watching the film, but the most striking was the pool-party scene, in which Kayla is obliged to socialize in a context seemingly engineered to spark awkwardness and insecurity. Kayla screws up the courage to leave the bathroom and steps onto what seems to be an alien planet, with scantily clad kids running everywhere and engaging in bizarre antics to impress one another. The montage that Bo Burnham gives us is comical, but it gets at something about teenagerhood in America that most of us come to understand only once we’ve grown out of it. Normal is weird; weird is normal.
Cold War—The God who sees
Poland had a rough 20th century. Invaded, re-invaded, decimated, subjected to various strains of totalitarianism—the fact that the nation could pick itself up and keep going is frankly amazing. This endurance in the face of devastation is encapsulated by a shot that bookends Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. A small church, blasted by warfare, sports a sacred mural on one wall. It’s damaged but not ruined—the eyes of Christ still gaze out at the people who enter the church. Why do the two main characters persist in loving each other despite the wounds they inflict? Why do they persist in loving their homeland even though it seems to respond only with hardship and oppression? There’s a hard-bitten faith at work in these decisions. Whether you think this faith is justified might come down to your reaction to the marred image of a crucified God, waiting in a solitary church out in the countryside.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—Gratitude
The climax of Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers isn’t actually about Rogers himself. After one interview subject mentions that Rogers often encouraged others to remember and be thankful for the people from their childhood who loved them, Neville provides a montage of all of his interview subjects falling silent, smiling to themselves. They’re thinking about the individuals who selflessly helped them become the people they are. One interviewee softly mentions his mother. Like so much of the rest of the film, it’s an emotional moment, but its true power lies in its implicit invitation to the audience to engage in the same contemplative exercise. When I left the theater, I wasn’t thinking about the celebrity at the film’s center as much as I was thinking about the people in my own life who love and uplift me. Mister Rogers wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Leave No Trace—Honey and abundance
The familial bond is the central focus of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, a gorgeously shot story about a father-daughter duo trying to live by themselves in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that they can’t cordon themselves off from other people forever. Tom, the daughter, isn’t as threatened by other people as is her father (a veteran with PTSD), and she welcomes the chance to join a rural commune when it comes. Granik romanticizes neither human society nor the impulse to withdraw from it, which lends the tension between Tom and her father both nuance and compassion. There is grace for both of these characters, signified by a scene late in the film when Tom shows off her newly learned beekeeping skills to her father. She encourages him to hold his hands above the hive, feeling the warmth emanating from the clustered insects. She then draws the bees into her palm, and Granik’s camera focuses on how the honey from the bees’ bodies covers Tom’s hands. It’s an image of abundance, of an almost Edenic harmony between humanity and Creation. A blessing is proffered to the man, and all he has to do is accept it.