In advance of the Academy offering its nominations next week, I thought I’d weigh in on a few films I’ve had the pleasure of watching this fall. First off, why is it that the only films to get nominated are released post-Halloween? I realize the holiday season is a great time to see movies, but rarely is a March release or even a summer release nominated for a major award.
The Oscars lowered the bar a few years ago and started nominating however many movies they thought ought to be nominated, instead of a fixed number. Seems like a good idea, one that I’d love to see incorporated in other parts of life. Like the NFL. Clearly, there should have only been three or four teams in the playoffs this year. But no, we still had to go through two fairly meaningless rounds to find ourselves where we knew we’d always be. What if we decided to do more than two readings of scripture on Sundays? What if we felt like doing eight or ten? I mean, if they’re good, why not use them?
Anyway, I imagine we’ll see a bunch of films up for Best Picture, with really only one or two with a realistic shot. Of the movies I’ve seen this year, here are my thoughts:
4. Manchester-By-The-Sea. This movie will get a lot of pull because of the serious nature of the storyline, as well as the desperately haunting performances by the leads Casey Affleck and the always magnificent Michelle Williams. Unfortunately, the screenplay does not build the necessary tension for the explosive scene that serves as the summit of the film. So there. It’s still a fine film, and Affleck will be a co-favorite for Best Actor.
3. LaLaLand. Or is it LALALand? Or Lalaland? I don’t know, and it shouldn’t matter because it’s a really nice, fun piece of film. And as I’ve said often before, Hollywood loves nothing more than movies that remind itself how wonderful it is, in spite of broken dreams and shattered hearts. This film, in the same vein as The Artist, explores how people get mixed up in the Industry, and if they can just stay true to themselves, and believe in themselves, when they are at their lowest, things will turn up Millhouse for them. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance their way through it all, and again, Hollywood loves nothing more than seeing two youngins' paying homage to the glorious past of Rogers and Astaire. Well, I never liked musicals. Not on the stage and not on the screen. And I loved this film. But it’s not the best film I saw this year.
2. Hidden Figures. I am more inclined to positively review films that are historical in nature, political in subject and progressive in tone. See Milk. Hidden Figures showcases the talents of Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, as well as Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner and emerging challenger to “My Favorite Actor” title, Mahershala Ali. Many displays of the racism faced by African-Americans, both overt and subtle are shown throughout the movie, and none are quickly dismissed or righted completely. It’s an impressive message, given the current state of race relations (and gender relations, let’s not kid ourselves) in this country. So it’s both feel-good, and real. Manchester is feel-bad, and LaLaLand is not real. So I liked this movie better.
But my favorite movie of the year was Moonlight. This movie didn’t hang around Annapolis very long, if at all, but it is still playing up at Arundel Mills. That’s where I saw it. It’s the story of a boy who grows up in Miami, and comes of age realizing who he is in the world in which he lives. Beautifully acted by three separate actors, each time period contains its own lessons, and its own story arcs. Mahershala Ali was nominated for a Golden Globe for his supporting work in the first story. But the real beauty in the story is captured fantastically and realistically by the cinematography and the editing. Closeups, cuts and following shots all have a purpose, and nothing is wasted in this film.
Sadly, I think this film won’t have enough heft to bring home many Oscars. LaLaLand, while not my favorite, is a good enough film to sway enough votes for Best Picture.
I haven’t seen Moana yet, but what a year for animated films. I’ll be very surprised not to see an animated film up for Best Picture. Sing, Zootopia , Kubo and the Two Strings are all excellent movies for multiple ages. I’m also convinced that Sing takes place within the city of Zootopia. The sequel should be a story about Officer Hopps and Johnny.
I don’t see movies about bad things happening to kids. I’m looking at you, The Shack. And Nocturnal Animals.
I haven’t seen Lion, Fences, or Hell or High Water, but I hear they’re all fantastic.
Here are two other movies I wouldn’t watch for free: Live by Night and Patriots Day.
That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed these reviews.
The Hold Steady is a great band, and their lyrics break down the false barrier between sacred and profane. Their song ‘Constructive Summer’ has long been a favorite of mine, not only because of the driving guitar engine and accompanying piano hammers, but for the bridge which explains so much of the emptiness we can feel around the church and religious experience these days:
I went to your schools, I did my detention
but the walls were so gray I couldn’t pay attention
I read your gospel, it moved me to tears
but I couldn’t find the hate and I couldn’t find the fear
I met your savior, I knelt at his feet
and he took my ten bucks and he went down the street
I tried to believe all the things that you said
but my friends that aren’t dying are already dead.
These words never fail to bring tears to my eyes as they hold me to account more than most other things. My role as a religious leader: priest, pastor, salesman, peddler of religion, spiritual caddy…what’s it for?
And I think about leading a community like St. Margaret’s. How do we paint our walls so that people pay attention, especially in the season of Advent when we’re supposed to stay awake? What hate and fear do we need to find in our gospel that will urge us to seek it out and eradicate it in the world today? What did Jesus hate or fear?
When the church offers Jesus as savior, what does it expect in return? Is it transactional, as ‘here’s Jesus, give him your money’ suggests? Financial malfeasance? Or does it have more to do with the thought that the Jesus the church offers is one that would stick around as long as you’re giving, but once you’re broke, he’s gone?
My friends that aren’t dying are already dead. Today is World AIDS Day, and I know people for whom that lyric packs a lot of punch. Is the church more interested in what you believe? Or is it more willing to step in the gap and be with people in their suffering? Oftentimes, and I’ve been guilty of this, the church and those who would claim Christ, will value their own standing and safety before stepping out to serve others. As long as this happens, Christ’s body, the church, is diminished.
So I thank Craig Finn and The Hold Steady for this song, not only because it rocks hard, but because it reminds me that to be the church, it’s more than just putting a cross on our building. We can all be something bigger.
As many of you know, I announced my plan to take a sabbatical this summer. I’d like to offer some less formal thoughts on the process of sabbatical, the decision to take it now, and what it all means. So here goes.
Being a priest is hard work: emotionally, physically and spiritually. No, it’s not ditch-digging, and I’m not splitting atoms or fighting cancer, but I know it’s taken stuff out of me. Sometimes it beats me up. Sometimes it beats my family up. It is customary for churches to offer their clergy the opportunity to refresh their call to ministry and spiritual centeredness in a time of sabbatical. This is written into letters of agreement like this: ‘Sabbatical time is given, two weeks per year of service, not to be taken after three full years of service’. I began here in September of 2010, so I’m taking some time this summer to step away, unplug from the role of rector of this awesome church, and spend time with myself, God and my family.
Why now? Well, when I started here, I thought I’d do a ten-week sabbatical in the summer of 2015, and another one in 2020. Best laid plans, huh? With the construction of our new building and other staff turnover last year, it wasn’t the time. After all we’ve accomplished over the past five years, I feel as though now is an appropriate time for me to reflect on my ministry here, and to give some hard thought and study to where we can go. I’m not anticipating any Damascus moments, but the future of St. Margaret’s won’t be far from my mind.
Now is also a great time for me to spend some unhindered time with my family. When Allison and I were married, I had been working in Rhode Island for just two months. So in essence, much of our honeymoon was entwined with my first year in a new job. When Allen was just three months old, we moved to Maryland. Now that our kids will be 9 and 6, I look forward to being as present with them as I can be. The clergy life is tough on families. There is a constant temptation to pour all of one’s emotions into the job, leaving nothing for home. This sabbatical will be a good time for me to take stock of how I balance those two parts of my life, and become refreshed for continued service at St. Margaret’s.
What are you going to get out of this? I hope you get a pastor who is recharged for another terrific year of ministry. I hope lay leaders continue to step forward to take their places in being the church. I have full confidence that this time away will be good for me and for you: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’m going to reconnect with friends, spend time with families, play some golf and read some books. And pray. I’ll always be praying. For you!
The Rev. Peter W. Mayer is the Rector of St. Margaret's Church in Annapolis, MD. He's a soccer dad, hockey fan, Pearl Jam fanatic, soup lover, cat owner, and one who welcomes all to the altar every Sunday no matter where they are on their faith journey.