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 2018? 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.
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. Final deliberations were recorded and produced into a two-part podcast. Listen to the process here: part one and part two.
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.
God of War is more than a reboot of a 15-year-old action-adventure game. It’s a cautionary tale from its director, Cory Barlog, to the gamers that have aged along with the franchise, which debuted in 2003. As an animator on the original God of War, Cory became obsessed with Kratos, the lead protagonist of the series whose reputation revolved around wanton violence and anger, without much else. Cory often worked into the wee hours of the morning of his own free will.
The 2018 version of Kratos asks players to look at the external forces that help define us. Cory’s new influence was his son who was old enough to notice that daddy was working very late hours. The result was a reimagining of Kratos as a father. Having murdered his way through the entire ancient Greek pantheon in previous entries, Kratos now can not bring himself to have a simple conversation with his son Atreus, or even put a hand on his shoulder for comfort when he is sad. The estrangement between the two sets the tension for the adventure and mirrors Cory’s tumultuous relationship with his son due to hours spent on the franchise. Cory, via Kratos and Atreus, asks the player to know when it is time put Kratos’s axe down and look at your child or loved one and go on an adventure with them instead. —Jonathan Clauson
Launching in April of 2018, the podcast Apocrypals bills itself as “Where two nonbelievers read through the Bible and try not to be jerks about it”—and it delivers on that premise and more. Ex-vangelicals Chris Sims and Benito Cereno (both best known as comic book writers for Marvel and other publishers) hop around in not only canonical Scripture, but also Deuterocanon, apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and even occasional medieval Christian writings, managing to be funny, fair, and well-informed about the material, while both keeping it clean and coming off as genuinely affectionate toward listeners of all beliefs—Christian, Jewish, nonbelieving, and everyone else.
Based on good humor and solid info alone, Apocrypals is the sort of podcast I can recommend to any friend—Christian or not—who wants to learn more about the Bible, but it’s also more than that. It’s an invitation to dig into some of the best writings from humanity’s past, and a weekly reminder that the universe is a much richer and more mysterious place than any of us usually acknowledge. It’s an invitation to sit around the fire, share heritages, and swap stories (exemplified by the duo’s determination to acknowledge every Jewish and Christian holiday adjacent to each episode). When I listen to Apocrypals, I feel very seen. I can’t be the only one. —Luke T. Harrington
Everything Is Love is the long promised joint album from Beyonce and her husband, Jay Z. Released after her groundbreaking visual album Lemonade, which exposed their marital struggles due to his infidelity, and his confessional album 4:44, where he wrestles with the damage of his actions. This album released under the moniker of “The Carters” tells the story of their life together on the other side of forgiveness. For the Carters there are a lot of luxury items, but there is also resistance to injustice, the empowerment of others, and the celebration of love. Love should help you to see clearly the places where love is lacking whether its “on MLK Boulevard” or in the false arrest of young black men. Jay Z raps about wanting to “free the world” and Beyonce sings about still having love for the streets. Everything Is Love recognizes that love extends beyond yourself and your immediate familial bonds. Jesus exhorts us to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and Paul instructs the church of today on the ways of love in 1 Corinthians 13. In this way, Everything Is Love is an ode to the power of love to restore brokenness, to interrupt the status quo, and to transform us into something new. Love is not weak, it hopes and endures in all things, just as Beyonce reminds us, “love is deeper than pain,” and it changes things. —Kathryn Freeman
John Krasinski may have produced one of the most surprisingly appreciable horror films of 2018 in A Quiet Place. He directed, co-wrote, and starred in the movie alongside his wife, Emily Blunt. Both admitted they were nervous to work together, but you wouldn’t know it as they portray husband and wife in the film.
Krasinski, who is best known for his role as Jim, the sneery middle-class worker on NBC’s The Office, transforms into an intelligently courageous father who is tasked with protecting his family from strange creatures that hunt humans by sound alone. These alien creatures have a dense reptile-like armored exoskeleton, no eyes, but ears with impeccable hearing that can pick up the slightest sounds from miles away. This feature sets up the key elemental layer for the film’s suspense and highlights each actors skill to masterfully use their facial expressions to convey fear, affection, and helplessness to audiences. The plot is thickened when it is revealed that Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) are pregnant with their fourth child.
A Quiet Place isn’t all suspense and nail-biting, though. Embedded within the sparse and plain dialogue are cultural indicators about the ways people approach child-rearing and marriage in the midst of expected and unforeseeable difficulties. The most interesting analysis for viewers to grapple with, however, is the management of noise in a society where access to it is abnormally central to everyday life. Could noise be the silent killer for future generations, or are we just merely mismanaging it? A Quiet Place’s suspenseful take on this question is award-worthy viewing for audiences interested in such inquiries. —Timothy Thomas
Christian faith memoirs are often as flimsy—and as ubiquitous—as Christian clichés. Unless you read Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. This memoir redeems the genre while demolishing easy faith commentary. It’s no easy read though. It forces us to face our practical theology and how we use that to avoid mystery and pain and anyone whose life is drenched in both. Kate pulls us into this reckoning by sharing of her fight against incurable stomach cancer and the intolerable clichés offered by the naively imprudent trying to offer a word of support. Too often, we are such people. In an attempt to point the hurting toward hope in Christ, we have tossed out a cliché—“everything happens for a reason,” “you’ll get married when you stop looking,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and so on. Kate received a deluge of these comments, none of which were helpful or consoling when life began to crumble and deep faith was the only solution. Everything Happens for a Reason is the theological lesson we all need to live this life with substance and grace and in a way that honors the only One who can soothe us in the dark unknown. It is the theological corrective to our flimsy faith, delivered to us in a story that’s raw and real in ways we use clichés to avoid. —Erin Straza
American Public Media’s In the Dark podcast exemplifies not only the best of the true crime genre, but also the best in journalism and podcasting. Hosted by Madeleine Baran, In the Dark’s 2018 season follows the disturbing case of Curtis Flowers, a man tried and sentenced to death six separate times for the same homicide in Winona, Mississippi. As an African American man convicted by predominantly white juries, higher courts repeatedly overturned Flowers’s trials, citing prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias by District Attorney, Doug Evans. However, following each failed trial, Evans re-indicted Flowers over the course of thirteen years.
Employing the highest standards of investigative journalism, Baran tells a grippingly human story while masterfully weaving in the systemic implications of her reporting. The result is a fascinating production which not only shines a sober light on a justice system failing its community, but was directly responsible for Flowers’s referral to the United States Supreme Court.
True crime can often smell of voyeurism at its very best and shoddy journalism at its worse. It’s here where In the Dark shines most brightly, standing a cut above the rest by avoiding the pull to tabloidism and serving the public’s good rather than just its morbid curiosity. —Matt Poppe
The Dragon Prince might not have the place in my heart that Avatar: The Last Airbender does, but it has the potential to come close. With a 1,000 year-old war; elemental-inspired magic of the sun, moon, stars, earth, sky, and ocean; the intriguing race of Moonshadow elves; and a cast of eclectic characters, The Dragon Prince’s first season compels me to want more.
The main trio—Callum, Ezran, and Rayla—struggle to understand a conflict between humans and elves that began before their time. Their adventure is strengthened by their child-like dedication to doing the “right” thing, coupled by a willingness to understand each other (though their arguments are often accompanied by much frustration and Rayla stomping off to fume by herself). The show is somehow dark and humorous, fitting for both children and adults.
I especially love the inclusion of a deaf, female warrior who uses sign language to communicate; Callum and Ezran’s aunt, General Amaya is not defined by her disability, but it is a part of her. With these diverse characters and the beginnings of an epic adventure, The Dragon Prince is a show to look out for. —Allison Alexander
Kim’s Convenience is a Canadian television series reminiscent of beloved classic 90’s sitcoms—family drama, lots of laughs, and typically some lesson or moral to be learned. But rather than duplicate the sitcom formula of the past, this series iterates on it, adding a refreshing perspective and weight to the characters and issues at hand. Kim’s Convenience centers on the Kim family, a Korean Canadian family running a convenience store in the Moss Park neighborhood of Toronto: the father “Appa” (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), the mother “Umma” (Jean Yoon), daughter Janet (Andrea Bang), and son Jung (Simu Liu).
A unique aspect of the Kim family as portrayed in the series is their religious faith. The family is active in a local Christian church, and the show does not shy away from this part of their shared identity. Several of the series’ funniest scenes take place during church potlucks and Sunday services, and it breeches some of the most niche church experiences—volunteering service to impress a pastor, or competing with parishioners (in the humblest of ways, of course) to donate the most valuable personal items for charity. The show captures the church and faith experiences of the Kim family perfectly, while subtly offering a vision of multiethnic congregations not often seen on screen or in American churches.
Experiencing the tensions the Kim family navigates as immigrants and minorities in a predominantly white society is much needed content in our culture, and wrapping it up in an American sitcom-style package makes these moments all the more poignant. Kim’s Convenience is an entire series built upon some of the best moments of immigrant stories in a show like Master of None or the film The Big Sick. In a year that has had such box office success centralizing Asian characters and stories in American pop culture, yet also filled with such anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment from the highest seats of power, Kim’s Convenience recognizes both the cost of our hatred and bigotry while also offering a glimpse of a better neighborhood that could be. —Tyler Glodjo
Editor’s Note: The second season of Kim’s Convenience aired in Canada in the fall of 2017, but the series was first introduced to an international audience following its Netflix release in the summer of 2018.
Kiese Laymon can write. For years, that writing mastery has been displayed in flashes throughout his previous works, Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This year, the flashes turned into fireworks with the release of Heavy, a book that promises an experience and exceeds expectations.
Heavy is intended to be a memoir about his family’s relationship with food and sexual trauma. With uncomfortable honesty, Laymon recounts the details of his own sexual violation and the violation of others around him. Throughout the journey, he manages to critique toxic masculinity, rape culture, and, of course, racial politics in the South. He interrogates the complicated relationship he has with his mother and grandmother, refusing to tame the narrative to protect his family’s reputation. Slowly, layer by layer, he unravels black generational trauma in a way that feels familiar yet unbelievable at the same time.
For a book with such rave reviews, it would be easy to expect something dazzling or bombastic, but Heavy is not a flashy work. The prose is beautiful but also haunting, almost quiet. Laymon tells each story in brutal detail, and the volume rarely rises above a silent scream. Yet, in the silence, the result is triumphant. In a time when the tragic presence of sexual trauma has dominated our news cycle, Kiese’s bravery to look his trauma in the eye makes this book an essential, cathartic, must-read. —Tyler Burns
Fans of Doctor Who, the long-running BBC series, were split when the decision came down to cast Jodie Whittaker (known for her work on Broadchurch) as the first female doctor. Opponents to the casting seemed primarily to camp out on accusations of political correctness, but outright misogyny reared its ugly head at times, as well. In contrast, many fans applauded the casting as being long overdue.
In Doctor Who, the character of the Doctor is an alien—a time traveling Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey capable of regenerating, upon death, into another iteration of his (or her) self. In such a manner, the Doctor is—for all intents and purposes—immortal, and the show can run for as long as the writers can come up with new stories and the producers deem it popular enough. With each regeneration, the Doctor retains memories and a sense of his/her former self, but also changes. He/she is both the same and different. Herein lies much of the popularity and the reason why Doctor Who has succeeded for so long. Viewers know that when the Doctor appears on screen, they can rely on him/her to be a certain way: namely, a savior, protector, and champion of the weak.
This is part of what makes Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the first female Doctor so important to the cultural climate of 2018. While all previous twelve Doctors have been men, and all true fans of the series love to claim their favorite Doctors, the Doctor has always had the potential to be a woman. In a time when women everywhere are boldly rising up to name their oppressors and reclaim lives shattered by abuse, a female stepping into the role of the Doctor—and everything the Doctor represents—means far more than just a progressive casting choice. —K. B. Hoyle
Long ago, before the reign of memes began, Discovery Channel’s American Chopper attempted to entertain the public with motorcycle construction (or something like that.) Alas, the public cared not for motorcycles, but found themselves enthralled with the volatile arguments between the show’s protagonists, a father and son famous for screaming and throwing things while they discussed appropriate clock-in times and details of employment contracts. Though the show was cancelled in 2012, someone (probably a Millennial) resurrected five images from the show to create the American Chopper meme. And thus, a star was born.
The American Chopper meme manages to correct as it inspires. It is both an admonishment and aspiration, all crammed into five slides. The first slide offers an argumentative proposition, followed by a refutation, then a reaffirmation of the proposition, then another refutation, then a final statement. For a meme, or for an internet argument, the structure is fairly complex. Each subsequent slide engages the previous one, which is just shy of a miracle in today’s public discourse. The argument progresses, even though a clear resolution isn’t quite within grasp.
But the images are corrective. Rather than measured body language and respectful gestures, the meme depicts two very, very angry men, screaming, pointing, grimacing, and hurling chairs. The treasure of the argument’s nuance is lost to the indulgence of fury.
The lesson is clear—unrestrained emotion corrupts good argument. If you want to make progress in persuading others, you have to offer an engaging constructive argument AND stay seated in your chair. That kind of restraint is the only way to move forward, and potentially, the only thing standing between you and your future conscription into an unflattering meme. —Amanda Wortham
Kacey Musgraves has never had a number 1 hit on the Billboard Country top 100 charts. Part of the reason for this is the continued dearth of female singers on country radio, and part of this because she refuses to play the game. She doesn’t do songs about bar-rooms and back roads. Even when she does love songs, she never goes the predictable route.
On Golden Hour, her first full length album since getting married last year, Kacey Musgraves doesn’t ramp up the pace and volume to try to compete with the likes of Florida-Georgia Line’s good-old-boy frat-rock anthems. The album was created (per Musgraves’s own admission) with the aid of a generous handful of psychedelics, but the resulting sound is spacious, not trippy. It’s a backyard blanket, staring up into the sky kind of high. The album is unhurried, reflective, and unrelentingly gorgeous.
“Butterflies” and “Velvet Elvis” are a pair of genuine love songs that traffic in the good humored bounce and sway that made “Follow Your Arrow” a hit, with even stickier instrumental hooks. But the album’s real center is the way that Musgraves never shies away from exploring the bits of sorrow that are mixed up inextricably in the joy.
“Space Cowboy” details the ache and longing of the end of a relationship without any bitterness or desperation; the song’s narrator recognizes the futility of sharing a life with a partner who wants to roam, and she gently removes herself from that equation. On “Happy & Sad,” she tries to pin down why she gets in the way of her own happiness: “I’m the kind of person who starts getting kinda nervous / When I’m having the time of my life.” It’s not a lament as much as a personal reminder that her feelings can work against her, that part of happiness is conscious intention.
And it’s this kind of restraint and grace, both in her approach to melody and message, that make Musgraves at once a Nashville outsider and an immediately warm, familiar presence. Many country singers claim to speak directly to the lived experience of ordinary people; only Kacey seems to understand what that lived experience actually is. —Keegan Bradford
I can pinpoint the moment when Crazy Rich Asians won me over like the reluctant love interest in a rom-com. Our heroine, Rachel Chu, is at a meal with the preposterously privileged Goh family, and the children are picking fussily at their food. Mr. Goh cajoles them to eat: “You haven’t finished your nuggets yet, sweetie. There’s a lot of children starving in America!” The line inverts the cliché about starving children in China that American parents once used to reproach their own picky eaters, highlighting the undercurrent of cultural condescension that was always present in it. The moment reveals and skewers human foibles with a deftness that is the hallmark of good comedy.
Much of Crazy Rich Asians works along these lines. The story, in which class prejudices and money exert outsized pressure on Rachel’s relationship with her intended, is as old as Austen, but by recontextualizing the familiar tropes, the film rejuvenates them. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, working from Kevin Kwan’s source material, infuse the escapist fantasy of the rom-com with a fresh sensibility that is welcome in a pop-culture landscape where East Asians are rarely protagonists and even more rarely romantic leads. Crazy Rich Asians marked a point when these creatives looked over at white Hollywood and decided, “I’ll have what they’re having.” —Kevin McLenithan
It’s easy to imagine that Shirley Jackson purists would hate Netflix’s horror-drama The Haunting of Hill House—the adaptation retains almost none of the book’s characters or events, and shows little respect for its themes, either—but in some ways, that seems appropriate, given that the series is ultimately about learning to let go of the past. While the novel is about a haunting in the present, the series is about people coming to terms with a haunting in their own past—arguably an apt metaphor for the current political climate, and in many ways a better usage of the ghost genre than the book’s.
At the core of The Haunting of Hill House is the question of what we’ll do with the suffering in life. Will we deny it? Try to drink it away? Try to profit from it? Give up entirely? The series flirts with nihilism, but the answer it embraces is ultimately one that can only be described as pro-life—in a way that’s miles from the cynical, opportunistic sense the phrase has taken on in the political sphere. Life is worth living, Hill House says, not despite the suffering in the world, but because of it. There are hagiographies that haven’t said it better. —Luke T. Harrington
Atlanta’s first season followed Earn, a burnout in a backpack bumming around Atlanta with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Van; his cousin, the aspiring rapper Paper Boi; and Darius, their friend who is either some kind spirit guide or just really, really high. Earn becomes Paper Boi’s manager, Paper Boi manages a radio hit, relationships are navigated and negotiated, money comes and money goes. It was a fun journey through a brand new world: funhouse mirror Atlanta where anything could happen.
Season 2 continues this journey through the low levels of the music industry for Earn and Paper Boi, but the real bones of this season are in the spaces between events, the journeys. Standard 30-minute sitcom conventions are abandoned. The Teddy Perkins episode (the one that finds Earn and Paper Boi trapped in a house of horrors with a truly terrifying Michael Jackson-inspired neurotic recluse) is so gripping that it wasn’t until it was over did I realize there hadn’t been any commercials—an intentional choice to increase the episode’s claustrophobic atmosphere. One episode is an extended parody of a local access TV set interview between the host and a nonplussed Paper Boi, complete with fake commercials.
The surreal surfaces in every episode: Justin Bieber shows up but he’s black, an Oktoberfest party is haunted by a threatening monster, and Paper Boi gets lost in the woods on a journey that becomes about much more than getting out. Family, fame, the entertainment industry, being black in the entertainment industry, being black in America, and the responsibilities that we have to one another are the core themes, but they’re filtered through writer/director Donald Glover’s singular vision where everything, no matter how innocuous, has a hint of dread. Nothing can be taken for granted in Atlanta, which is what made season 2 so gripping; but, the show’s real success was centering the journey of Earn and company, making relationships the thread strong enough to tie all its disparate parts together. —Keegan Bradford
With NBC’s The Good Place, series creator Michael Schur once again struck sitcom gold. The writer behind The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine this time turned to the afterlife, which lends a fantastical element to Schur’s already prodigious talents. The show tells the story of four people who have died and now find themselves in the “good place,” or a secularized version of heaven. The conflict develops when one good-place-dweller reveals she, a chronic ne’er-do-well, could have gotten in only due to a glitch in the system and turns to another, an ethicist in his former life, for help in “earning” her place.
From its start, The Good Place has been an absolute pleasure, intertwining weighty questions about eternal values and human purpose with sheer hilarity and a brilliant ensemble cast. The quirky characters—the earnestly indecisive Chidi, the charmingly impish Eleanor, the comically vain Tahani, and the sweetly doltish Jason—come to relatable life in the masterful performances of William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto. Complementing, and unexpectedly befriending, these human characters are the otherworldly demon Michael and anthropomorphized database Janet, played respectively by Ted Danson and D’Arcy Carden. Come the final episode of the first season, the show established its comedic genius in an innovative twist that reset the whole narrative field and made possible the metaphysical hijinks of season two.
The philosophical heft of the show, which peaks in episodes like “The Trolley Problem” (season 2, episode 6), derives from its consultants, philosophy professors Pamela Hieronymi and Todd May. What results more than satisfies the Roman poet Horace’s famous standard for great literature; it simultaneously teaches and delights. Amid—and even through—the laughs, The Good Place poses and explores questions like what it means to be moral, what challenges one faces when embracing the moral life, what the proper motivations for right behavior are, if it’s even possible to be good for pure goodness’ sake. Again and again, through the characters’ interactions with each other, the show tells us that relationships and love matter most. More than rules, more than prohibitions, more than an educative program for moral transformation, what should govern our lives, these stories tell us, is love for the other. In this way, The Good Place season 2 is surely a show for our time, getting underneath the political discord of the moment and pointing us to ultimate principles fit for guiding our own lives. —Marybeth Davis Baggett
When I learned Latin in junior high, the first poem I studied was from Catullus. I translated it blushingly: “Give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred/ and then another thousand, then a second hundred…” It went on like that for a while. I thought of this poem again while listening to “Pink in the Night,” a track near the end of Mitski’s Be the Cowboy. As the drums start and the vocals intensify, she sings
I know I’ve kissed you before, but
I didn’t do it right
Can I try again, try again, try again
Try again, and again, and again
And again, and again, and again?
For Japanese American indie rock musician Mitski, love is a thousand kisses, but that’s not all it is. Love isn’t just “a many-splendored thing,” as another poet once said; it’s a many-splintered thing, a many-splintering thing.
Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s fifth studio album, and on it, she explores the manifold ways in which love blesses and bends and breaks us. Love is a jealous master on “Geyser”; it’s what we long for when we’re lonely, even if it won’t save us, on “Nobody”; it’s the illicit longing that almost drowned us on “Old Friend”; it makes our chests pound and bruises us in “Washing Machine Heart”; it’s bound up with nostalgia and longing in “Two Slow Dancers.”
While Mitski’s songwriting is often praised for its “vulnerability,” the true genius of these songs is the genius of the fiction writer; in each, Mitski creates an emotional experience for the listener, drawing out empathy for whatever story she’s telling. And in the process, she offers all of us a chance to reconsider how love works, how self-love and relational love conflict and how they might tentatively begin to co-exist. —Amy Peterson
Netflix’s Daredevil has been known since its debut in 2015 for overt Christian messaging. With a titular character who is Catholic and fights crime while dressed as a red devil, it would be difficult to get away from religious themes. Rather than kicking the against the goads, or falling into the Hollywood trap of painting Matt Murdock’s (Daredevil’s) religiosity in a simpering, oversimplified, clichéd manner, the creators of Daredevil have consistently allowed Murdock’s Catholicism to define not only who he is, but also to shape the parameters of the world he inhabits. Nowhere is this more apparent than in season 3.
Following Matt Murdock’s loss of faith, the third season of Daredevil sets out to show what it looks like when a person determines not only to live without God, but to mete out justice without God’s objective standard of morality. Through the use of color symbolism, settings, lighting, sound, costume design, and one character who acts as a chilling doppelgänger to Murdock’s Daredevil—every detail of the third season is carefully honed, an expert example of how the medium of the story itself can be a spiritual reagent not just for the characters on the screen, but for the viewers, as well. The redemption of Matt Murdock in season 3 of Daredevil sets the show apart as being so much more than a typical superhero story. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in the process of sanctification. —K. B. Hoyle
First Man chronicles America’s race to the moon by focusing on the individual who touched it first—Neil Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling). Less concerned with the more glorious moments of the Apollo and Gemini programs, Damien Chazelle’s newest project instead uses Armstrong to chronicle NASA’s slow, methodical, day-to-day lunar advance—an advance filled with victories and setbacks, promotions and death. For most of the film, audiences see only what Armstrong’s character sees. Linus Sandgren’s brilliant cinematography depicts space exploration as offices and training facilities flooded with fluorescent light and cheap ceiling tiles. Space travel is painted for what it truly is, too: claustrophobic, dark, and dangerous. There’s no mythologizing here.
Darkness is also an apt way to describe Armstrong’s domestic life. After losing his daughter to a brain tumor, Armstrong is propelled by grief into his work. But he would never say that himself. He’s a solemn, professional man. A man lost in the stars of oxygen tubes and electric wires, never fully present to his wife (Claire Foy) and their children.
Across the film, Chazelle slowly carves away at Armstrong’s motivations. Within his stoic tenacity lies a longing for something. Something More. Just what is this? Armstrong doesn’t really know. Perhaps it’s a trip to the moon. Maybe it’s to be the first one to make that trip. Or, possibly, it’s to locate some sort of meaningful symphony among the speckled heavens—a vast dance of mystery, darkness, and light.
In this sense, First Man functions as a deeply spiritual work. Not because it finds fulfillment in the celebration of human ingenuity, but because it understands that behind our ambition, our pain, and our desire for More lies a longing that can’t be easily filled by making it into the history books. Or, as the famous quote from C. S. Lewis goes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Could this be why we travel to space? —Wade Bearden
Amid the welter and squalor of Manhattan in 1976, Travis Bickle confides to his diary, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That Travis will himself deliver said rain in a hail of bullets from a cache of illegal firearms is amply hinted at before Taxi Driver’s recklessly brutal climax—a sequence so intense that censors insisted on muting the colors so that the abundant carnage is the color of rust, rather than crimson. (The original footage has since vanished, leaving us with only the sepia-toned massacre.) For all his aberrant behavior, Travis sees himself as something more than a vigilante; he believes himself to be a cleansing agent in the heart of the city’s underbelly, the rain that will wash away the dirt and grime. A 34-year-old Martin Scorsese was behind the camera, and a 30-year-old Paul Schrader was behind the screenplay.
In 2017, in the bleached out winter of upstate New York, Reverend Ernst Toller grapples with a question from one of his parishioners: “Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” The question goes way beyond politics for Toller and brings him to a point of spiritual crisis in this remarkable movie. This time, a 71-year-old Schrader is both writer and director. In many ways, First Reformed is a hard-edged Diary of a Country Priest, with a deeply flawed priest at its center. In other ways, however, it’s a spiritual successor to Taxi Driver. Travis pined for a furious rain that would purge all the scum from the streets. In the wake of growing environmental devastation and widespread cultural collapse, Toller simply exclaims, “Well someone has to do something!” What kind of rain does our current predicament demand?
Despite its growing list of awards, First Reformed is not a crowd-pleaser. In fact, it’s almost comically devoid of concessions to audiences: Shot with half the frames of an average motion picture, its pace is slow and meditative. The dialogue and visuals are as harsh and austere as the New England winter in which they unfold. The slender rations of humor that we do get are as acidic as bile, and the act of prayer offers the protagonist about as much relief as a bed of nails. The ending will inspire some to scratch their heads; others, their screens. Just why is this ordeal-of-a-film so worth your time? Because its central question is, “Will God forgive us?” Most of us just ask, “Will God forgive them?” —Cameron McAllister
 The name also belonged to a Marxist playwright from Germany whose life would end in suicide.
This year, the British royal family added American actress and humanitarian Meghan Markle to their ranks through her marriage to Prince Harry. Their fairy tale–like romance, American girl gets set up on a blind date with a real life prince, has captured hearts and minds on both sides of the pond—29 million Americans tuned in to watch their wedding, compared to the only 22 million who watched the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Their union is a powerful symbol made all the more powerful by what the royal family signifies in the British cultural imagination. This royal wedding was a testament to the power of love to cross boundaries and bring people of different ethnicities and cultures together as one. Therefore, it was not your typical royal wedding. There was a gospel choir that performed “Stand by Me” and “Amen/This Little Light of Mine,” and the first black musician of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year Prize performed a collection of classical standards. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle not only embraced difference in their union, but in front of millions they elevated African American culture in their wedding as of equal import to royal tradition.
The love spoken about during the wedding address of the Reverend Michael Curry was not impotent or superficial. He reminded us love can “help and heal when nothing else can… lift up and liberate when nothing else will.” The church, as Reverend Curry, Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Curry stressed the church must rediscover “the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when do we will make of this old world a new world.”
This is the love that sent Jesus Christ to the cross, the love of 1 Corinthians 13, the love that casts out fear. This is the love that tore down “the dividing wall of hostility” and brought all who were far off near. It is this love that will envelop us as people“ from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stand before the throne proclaiming, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” The royal wedding reminded us that love is not all Hallmark movies and valentine hearts; it is the only force powerful enough to truly bring together disparate groups on earth, and one day in heaven. —Kathryn Freeman
In Celeste, players take on the role of protagonist Madeline as she embarks on a journey to summit the titular mountain—a difficult feat both narratively and through gameplay. For reasons not fully disclosed, the player quickly understands Madeline’s stubborn determination to climb Celeste is a way of proving she is more valuable and more capable in life than the lies she hears in her head. It’s not long into the journey when Madeline begins to doubt her ability, and during a phone call with her mother, we quickly see that Madeline does not always act and speak like the character to whom we were first introduced. While we don’t learn any specifics, Madeline suffers from mental illness, and Celeste is just as much about wrestling through that experience as it is climbing the mountain. Madeline builds a community of friends and acquaintances on her journey up Celeste, but she is also confronted by a dark reflection of herself—a manifestation of her illness that both verbally and forcefully tries to prevent her climb.
Developed by Matt Thorson, Celeste is a puzzle platformer that builds upon its genre in novel ways rather than duplicating previous formulas. The game mechanics—how Madeline moves, the obstacles she faces, the speed with which screens reset upon failure, etc.—all serve the story just as much the play. Inhabiting Madeline’s character, the player experiences the sting of depression and anxiety in their climb up Celeste. Celeste’s central drama of mental illness and its excellent integration through both narrative and gameplay make this game a memorable masterpiece. And Celeste has been recognized as such, being nominated for Game of the Year at The Game Awards and winning the Best Independent Game and Games for Impact categories. If you want to walk a mile in the shoes of someone wrestling with mental illness, try to climb Celeste. You’ll learn, as Madeline does, that it can’t be a solo feat. —Tyler Glodjo
In early 2018, former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar received maximum sentences after being convicted on hundreds of counts of child abuse and sexual assault. Key to this resounding, if not rare, conviction was a petite young woman named Rachael Denhollander.
Now a lawyer, mother, and wife, Denhollander was the first to publicly accuse Nassar and has become something of a figurehead, representing not only her fellow survivors, but the larger #MeToo movement as well. But beyond courage and determination, Denhollander contributes a distinctively Christian perspective and stands as an Esther—her faith and resulting moral clarity exactly the kind of leadership we need in “such a time as this.”
To Christians, Denhollander reminds us of our moral imperative to pursue justice and resist the temptation to cover up abuse when it occurs in our own communities. Or as she put it in her victim impact statement, “How much was a little girl worth? How much were these young women worth?… They are real women and children, real women and little girls who have names and faces and souls.”
But Denhollander is also the faithful witness that broader society needs. As we sort through the implications of the #MeToo movement, we must determine what to do with perpetrators. With justice as a baseline, what would repentance look like? And perhaps more controversial, what would redemption look like?
Addresssing Nassar, Denhollander reminds us that perpetrators face a justice far more demanding than any we could hope to mete out. Stripped of the earthly power, money, and nepotism that once enabled and protected them, perpetrators stand helpless before God and must own their guilt. “And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet” Denhollander testifies, “Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.” —Hannah Anderson
In 2018 we crossed our arms and shouted WAKANDA FOREVER. Black Panther was more than a movie, it was a cultural moment. In the 10 years of Marvel films, Black Panther easily sits in the top 5. From the epic chase scene in Korea to the gripping story of Killmonger trying to find a home to the poignant social commentary, Black Panther hit all of the right notes.
It was especially important considering the times we are living in. For many black children, this was the first time they got to see people who look like themselves on the big screen. They got to see themselves as the hero. They got to see themselves fully accepted. You know what else? It’s the first time many white people saw a movie with a majority black cast. It was the first time they saw black people portrayed in a positive light. This movie crossed cultures like nothing before it.
Black Panther painted a picture of beauty. The costumes, the lighting, the intricacy of the story, all of it came together to give us this great cultural moment. There aren’t many movies about people who run around in tights that have created the euphoric feeling that many have experienced because of this movie—and that is beautiful. —CJ Quartlbaum
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