Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Films of the Decade (2010s) So Far

The Twenty-Tens are nearly halfway over. Thus, it's (apparently) time to make a list of one's favorite films from the past half-decade, the exceptional movies from 2010-2015.

Movie list-making is one of those activities that has seemingly little purpose--hey world, here's an itemized examination of a bunch of stuff I like!--yet can also guide others into discovering or revisiting a filmic masterpiece or a new favorite.

For this list of my favorite films of the 2010s, I gave myself a few boundaries. First, this is a "favorites" list, not necessarily a "best of" list. Hence, it is deeply personal--these are the films I have both enjoyed and will continue to revisit in the years to come, regardless of critical merit (though, I believe, all the films listed would be found on similar film critic lists). I also attempted to list only one film per director. So, one Dardennes, one Malick, one Anderson, one Linklater, etc. I could have included multiples--how does one choose between The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night; which is better, Before Midnight or Boyhood?--but ended up listing the film that personally resonated with me more. I also counted a film's year based not on IMDB or film festival runs, but on its release in New York city, aka the Mike D'Angelo Rule.

In creating this movie list, I noted something: 2011 was a remarkable year for film. I could make a solid Top 10 of the Decade list just from that year alone: Certified Copy, The Tree of Life, The Mill and the Cross, Take Shelter, Hugo, Pina, Drive, A Separation, Of Gods and Men, Incendies. There were also plenty of excellent films that almost made my top 20--Frances Ha, Ida, Inception, 12 Years a Slave, Toy Story 3Boyhood, and Two Days, One Night all rank very high in my estimation (some of these weren't included due to my "one film per director" rule.)

Finally, every list is personal, meaning there is a real-life human being--their hopes, dreams, stories, experiences, opinions, ideas, paradigm--behind the presented list. So I invite you to explore the films I've listed not only to experience some of the best films cinema offered us these past five years, but also to understand the Joel Mayward of the past five years. So, here are my top 10 favorite films of the decade so far:


1. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick). A poem and a prayer, both cosmic and intimate in scope, all centered on the marriage of nature and grace. The best film of the decade, and slowly becoming my personal favorite of all time.



2. The Kid with a Bike (2012, Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne). A parable of grace embodied in the simple narrative of a boy, his bike, and the adults who come in and out of his life.



3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson). Whimsical and wondrous, a nostalgic examination on romantic love and the lost innocence of childhood, set in the lush and quirky world of Wes Anderson.



4. Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Daniel Cretton). One of the best filmic portrayals of the emotional and wonderful world of youth ministry, all embodied in the broken-yet-beautiful person of Grace.



5. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi). Relationships are complicated. Reconciliation is costly.



6. Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth). A mashup of Malick, Miyazaki, and memories. Also, pigs.


7. The Immigrant (2014, James Gray). This beautiful period piece examines the difficult trials of the sojourner in a new land, and the powerful price of forgiveness.


8. Of Gods and Men (2011, Xavier Beauvois). The most Christian film I've ever seen from this past decade shows the cost of discipleship and incarnational love. Haunting.



9. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher). The ultimate Facebook post, and still one of Fincher's finest. It also launched the careers of some of best young actors working today.


10. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller). A maddening and thrilling world of fire and blood, as well as a parable of personal trauma and the journey of redemption.

Honorable Mentions (Or, The Top 20, in alphabetical order):
  • The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)
  • Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
  • Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
  • Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuaron)
  • Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
  • The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
  • Philomena (2013, Stephen Frears)
  • Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
  • Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
  • This is Martin Bonner (2013, Chad Hartigan)
What were some of your favorite films of 2010-2015? Share your lists and links to films in the comments!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland


When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I attended a private school for the gifted. "Gifted" meant "advanced intellectually," "academically mature," and "capable." Basically, it was supposed to be a school for the smart kids. Ironically, while I was intellectually and cognitively challenged by this educational environment, it also left me a bit socially stunted for the moment I entered the public middle school in sixth grade. It also tacitly fostered a subtle elitism in me, a sort of "know it all" aloofness that I've been trying to heal from ever since.

I brought up this "school for the gifted" story at a dinner conversation recently, and it ended up fostering laughs and ridicule, a derision seemingly stemming from a distaste for the word "gifted" in describing children. I admit, I find the phrase a bit strange. But I also think it's incredibly value to recognize gifts in young people, to encourage those individuals and foster those gifts for the good of our world, to inspire those who will inspire, to be advocates for the dreamers and creatives and artists and lifelong learners.

I bring this all up because Brad Bird's latest film, Tomorrowland, attempts to do the same thing--recognize and appreciate the special dreamers in our world. The titular environment is a special place for those special dreamers, a world meant to foster imagination and wonder. Much like the results of my experience in a school for the gifted, the notable ambitions behind Tomorrowland lead to disheartening and muddled results, marking the first time in history that Brad Bird has been behind the creation of a mediocre film. Tomorrowland reeks of elitism while also never achieving the same exceptionality it promotes.

The film opens on the cantankerous-but-charming Frank (George Clooney) and optimistic teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) as they tell us the story of Tomorrowland. As a young boy, Frank met Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a bright and capable young British girl who advocates for Frank's entrance into Tomorrowland, an alternate dimension where the best and the brightest of our world are recuited in order to experiment and tinker with freedom from bureaucracy and interference. Tomorrowland is the utopia for creative and intellectual types. Despite its confusing name, it's not the future, per se--it is another world separate from ours, a sort of cosmic realm of technological wonder.

Well, there's supposed to be wonder. Tomorrowland suffers from a serious lack of joy, awe, and fun. Some of the overly long scenes showing the sights of Tomorrowland clearly are intended to make us feel a sense of transcendence, but the world of Tomorrowland looks like a fancy mall. Clooney's Frank is perpetually sarcastic and grumpy, bitter at being exiled from Tomorrowland for creating something he shouldn't have. Casey is characterized as extra special, the hope of both Tomorrowland and Earth, but the film does nothing to explain or show her specialness apart from her ability to "know how things work." She does spend the early parts of her story lying to her father, effectively sabotaging NASA equipment, getting arrested, and blowing up buildings or stealing cars with Athena. But she does it with a positive spirit!

Tomorrowland is the tonal and narrative mashup of the National Treasure films--hey, let's travel to various locations and try to figure out elaborate clues behind this mystery!--Alex Proyas' sci-fi film Knowing--the world is going to end soon, and we need special children to save us--and an Old Navy commercial--think lots of fake smiles and bright colored nostalgic-yet-trendy clothes (this is Disney, after all). There are so many plots holes and confusing narrative elements that I am still unsure if the purpose of Tomorrowland is to *save* the earth or to ultimately *destroy* it. The recruitment of all the special individuals on Earth to another dimension feels a bit like escapism at best and manipulative kidnapping at worst (What happened to Frank's family on Earth? Who raised him in Tomorrowland?). What is very clear is the heavy-handed message of Tomorrowland, an idea made so overt and clear to draw comparisons to the didactic tone of faith-based films. Essentially, this is a secular evangelistic piece, a preachy sermon with a film built around it. The message: be more positive and give special privilege to the dreamers. If we don't, we're all doomed. So cheer up! Be more optimistic! Together, we can make the world a better place...or at least the gifted individuals can for us, if we give them enough money and get off their backs! *pats self on the back* Now, I'm all for optimism, positivity, creativity, and ideals--I'm probably too idealistic most days. But Tomorrowland espouses that the savior of our broken world is the power of positive thinking and the unreserved support of gifted individuals. We are both idealistic and optimistic; we just have differing views on the true Savior of this earth.

Tomorrowland is deeply confused about its intended audience, but I can make this claim with confidence: it is not a movie for kids. Despite being a PG-rated Disney film based on a section of the happiest place on earth, the film is surprisingly dark in tone and has a significant amount of violence. While much of the violence is between robots, they nonetheless look human, and far too much time is spent on their hand-to-hand combat. Robots also vaporize innocent police officers, try to kill Frank and Casey multiple times, and the final climactic scene involves the villain being crushed by his own technology. Spoiler: A particularly disturbing scene happens when Athena is suddenly hit by an oncoming truck and dragged many yards down the road. She isn't killed, of course--Athena is a robot--but this is still a scene involving a young girl being graphically hit by a vehicle. If my kindergartner son saw this, he'd immediately want to leave the theater.

There are a few positive aspects I should note. Cassidy as Athena is the highlight of the film, and she is far more charming than Clooney or Robertson in every scene she shares with them. Some of the visuals are interesting, if one is impressed by CGI cityscapes and the quick edits between earth and Tomorrowland. I liked the scene in Frank's farm house, as it was likely filmed in British Columbia about a mile from where I used to live, eliciting a nostalgic feeling for me. A brief scene in a sci-fi nostalgia shop is lots of fun due to the huge amount of classic sci-fi paraphernalia in the tiny store--I do love me some sci-fi!

Overall, in spite of its attempts to be special and positive, this is a disappointing and forgettable film. A thematic parallel is Martin Scorcese's Hugo, a far better film featuring an inventive and creative young protagonist who attempts to make the world a better place by fostering more creativity and wonder. Hugo's visuals and narrative elicited the childlike joy and delight that is missing from Tomorrowland. Were I a parent deciding whether to take my children to see a film this weekend, I would encourage them to seek out Hugo, or Brad Bird's previous masterpieces, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, or Ratatouille. Those are special films made by a gifted person, and I'll wait with optimism for a well-crafted film made by that filmmaker. Mr. Brad Bird, I have hope.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pre-Order "Jesus Goes to the Movies" Today!


My next book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide has a publishing birthday: August 11, 2015. Check out the cover below:


Here's the back cover blurb:
Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.-Walt Disney

Today’s youth are growing up in a culture where films are no longer relegated to the big screen and the family television. Movies have spilled onto our computers, our tablets, and even our smartphones. Our young people are saturated in a movie-watching ethos, yet they often don’t know how to process the films they consume. How can we guide teens and young adults into viewing films through a Jesus-colored lens?

Drawing on engaging stories and thoughtful cultural critique, Jesus Goes to the Movies provides a framework for discipleship and faith formation. It offers youth workers a theology of movies that can be passed to the next generation, equipping them with critical-thinking skills, discernment, and the ability to engage the film culture surrounding them with wisdom, grace, and truth.
I'm so excited to get this book into the hands of youth workers and parents, but it's really for any person who wants to dive deeper into their faith and film. The first half of the book unpacks theological frameworks, worldviews, the history between Hollywood and Christianity, youth culture, and some very practical ways to engage with movies in youth ministry. The second half of the book is a rich resource of 50 film discussion guides, with movies ranging from last year's blockbusters to black-and-white classics, and everything in between.

You can get ready for my book's birthday right now by pre-ordering the book at The Youth Cartel's online store. Click on this link, and pre-order the book today, on sale for $17.49! Please share this post on Facebook and Twitter with your youth ministry and film-loving friends!

Looking forward to heading to the movies with you in August. I think Jesus will be there with us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road



"My name is Max."

Those are both the first and final words spoken by Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth chapter in George Miller's post-apocalyptic mythology. Max doesn't say much in Fury Road, partly due to circumstances--a metal grate attached to his face, or intense car chase sequences not suitable for small talk--but mostly due to his character: he is a man of great action and few words. His weary-but-sharp eyes reveal much of the complicated soul inside this weathered road warrior.

Max is quickly caught up in circumstances beyond his control, captured by a marauding gang from the Citadel, a desert butte-turned-fortress ruled by the depraved Immortan Joe, a disturbing villain who has set himself up as a deity ruling over the War Boys--his gang--and the suffering crowds below his elevated stronghold. When one of Joe's best warriors/drivers, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), takes off with a war rig and his harem of wives used for breeding, it sets off the chase sequence which makes up the bulk of the film. Essentially, Fury Road is an extended chase sequence, with Furiosa and Co. on the run from Joe's War Boys, various vehicular gangs, and the desert environment itself. Ever the loner, Max finds himself on the side of Furiosa and the liberated women in their search for a hope and redemption in a new, greener home.

I don't often make such expansive claims, but I'll do so here: Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the top 10 action films I've ever seen, and even a significant, historic addition to the action pantheon, fitting nicely alongside Die Hard, Hard Boiled, and Terminator 2 as action films that will stand the test of time as influential and groundbreaking. The design, the art direction, the choreography, the cinematography, the story, the world-building--every aspect of Fury Road is exceptional and valuable. There's not a single wasted scene, and this is the epitome of the motto "show, not tell." Fury Road is incredibly cinematic, a visual smorgasbord both beautiful and harsh in its palette. The performances are outlandish where they need to be, but often are quietly affecting, especially Theron as Furiosa. She truly is the star of the film, a powerhouse of femininity and strength, and a perfect partner in survival with Max. Filmmaker George Miller can move quickly from elaborate overhead shots of the desert landscape, to intense and gritty action moments alongside the vehicles, to intimate close-ups of the human face, particularly the eyes. This visual rhythm makes Fury Road both intimate and sweeping in scope--it's both ridiculously huge, and authentically accessible.

The best word to describe Mad Max: Fury Road is exceptional: uncommon, atypical, remarkable, freakish, outstanding, unique, special. I still cannot believe a Hollywood studio would pay to make this, sending movie stars and inane vehicles into the desert to get blown up. To put it bluntly, Fury Road is batsh*t crazy in the best way possible. Example: one vehicle in Immortan Joe's war party is essentially a stack of amps and speakers carrying four enormous drums and a blind maniac strapped by bungee cords who plays a flame-throwing electric guitar. If that sounds bizarre, yet intriguing...well, this is Mad Max, a steampunk-meets-Revelation action flick. Also, in a film genre where women are typically relegated to being sex objects or sidekicks--the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron hullabaloo is indicative of this propensity--Fury Road gives women agency, character, significance, and intelligence, all while retaining their femininity. Furiosa and Max are peers and partners; their relationship is no budding romance, but instead is marked by a growing care, empathy, and even friendship that compels Max to remain at Furiosa's side through thick and thin. And he's at her side, not the other way around.

The Mad Max films are unique as post-apocalyptic action narratives, and I appreciate how Max is always the reluctant protagonist, a wounded person reeling more from his personal tragedy than the world gone to hell. In each Mad Max film, he's caught up in circumstances where it initially has little or no agency to cause significant change, but eventually accepts his role in the narrative as someone able to heal and save others, even if he cannot save himself. He's never looking for trouble or on some mission; he's just wandering this world of fire and blood, angry and dejected, until some larger communal struggle pulls him into its center and he becomes a hesitant-but-eventually-willing savior. The Mad Max films remind us we can never survive and wholly live entirely in isolation. Max always ends up in some sort of community and embraced. True life beyond mere survival can only be experienced in the context of relationship. Yet despite the significant of community, Max also reminds us that the wilderness-both literal and spiritual--is often a lonely place. These deserts of personal pain are normative, and even healthy to navigate alone. Max is a man who has experienced great personal pain and trauma; he is the walking wounded. Max's journey towards healing becomes an ongoing dialogue between solitude and communal life. As he embraces community to liberate and redeem those who are lost, he, too, finds healing and redemption. 

I don't think it's an accident that Max is a "blood bag" to those who are dying in Fury Road, a universal donor whose very existence in this world of death can bring about restoration and new life. Fury Road is a sort of "reversed exodus" story, the movement of a small band of liberated people who end up returning to their place of captivity in order to start afresh. They discover the home they seek is right where they started, but only when that home is freed from tyranny and depravity. For Max and Furiosa, the only way to truly go home is through the long journey into the wilderness, akin to Walter Brueggeman's spirituality of the Psalms and its movement from orientation to disorientation to new orientation. Then the cycle continues, spiraling into greater depths as individuals and communities experience both great loss and hope. Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling picture of this spiritual cycle, as well as the best action film of the year (perhaps the decade). 

He is Max. "Max" means the ultimate, the limit, the intensity, the most. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly lives up to his name.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Fires and Football, or What Really Matters in Your Ministry?


Take a moment to examine the above photo. Do you see what's really happening?

There's a football game. And a fire. Simultaneously, and in close proximity. And it's not a fake or posed. Here's what's happening, from this post at kottke.org:
Spectators divide their attention as the Mount Hermon High School football team in Massachusetts hosts Deerfield Academy during a structure fire in the Mount Hermon science building on November 24, 1965. The science building was destroyed, and Mount Hermon lost the football game, ending a two-year-long winning streak.
What I find so fascinating is the spectators' willingness to ignore the clear danger and urgency of the volatile situation right next to them in order to stay focused on the game.

I wonder how often fire-and-football situations happen for our church ministries.

Are we focused on what really matters?

We can often focus on church program attendance or events. But what about underfunded local schools, racial and economic disparity, destruction and exploitation of creation, systemic abandonment of children and youth, lack of unity between church leaders, dissolving marriages, or the countless people in neighborhoods who don't know Jesus and will never attend our church programs?

In youth ministry, we may spend our time crafting the perfect game, the ideal video for our talk, or the well-crafted logo for our next summer camp flyer. But what about the teens in public schools who don't have an advocate or mentor in their life? What about the fearful youth struggling to find a place to belong due to same-sex attraction? What is being done about the homeless teens, the young women and men manipulated into sex trafficking, or the lonely emerging adults trying to find any sense of belonging and community?

It's not that programs don't matter. They have their place, just like football. But when there's an urgent situation--a fire--it can seem a bit trivial to focus on the football game in front of us. It's a question of values--what is important to us enough to draw our focus? Sometimes we need to pause the football game in order to address the fire.

We can examine our actual ministry values based on where we invest our time, attention, relationships, and money. What does your weekly schedule look like? What draws the majority of your attention? How much time is spent with actual real-life people, shepherding and discipling them in the ways of Jesus? What ministry tasks preoccupy your thoughts, conversations, and prayers? Where do your day-dreams lead? Examining our values helps us discern between the fire and the football, the life-and-death important stuff and the take-it-or-leave-it stuff.

What are the football games in your church? What are the fires in your community, your city? What do you think matters most for your church or ministry? What is taking the majority of your attention each week? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Top 10 Great Train Movies


Will you celebrate National Train Day this May?

I probably won't.

But that doesn't mean we can't remember and celebrate the best movies about trains. My son loves playing with trains. He has a huge toy train set that takes up a good portion of his bedroom. From Thomas the Tank Engine sheets, to the amazing TV show "Dinosaur Train," to shouting, "a train, Daddy!" at the sound of a distant horn, he adores trains.

These are ten great movies that prominently feature trains in their setting and story arc. More than just a few brief scenes, trains are significant in each of these films, with much or all of the film set on or around a train. Whether you're a train-lover or not, here's an eclectic look at great films featuring great trains:

10. Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones). In this heady sci-fi thriller set on a commuter train entering Chicago, a soldier wakes up inside the body of someone else and has eight minutes to find a bomb on the train. When the bomb explodes--as it inevitably does--he is sent back over and over again until he can find the terrorist behind the explosion.

9. The Train (1964, John Frankenheimer). Near the end of WWII, a German colonel attempts to steal priceless works of French art and take them back to German. He procures a train and loads it with his cargo, but is unaware the French resistance will try to stop him and the train at any cost.

8. The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson). This quirky Wes Anderson film centers on three brothers traveling on the Darjeeling Limited through India in search of their estranged mother. Hilarity and tragedy ensues.

7. Snowpiercer (2014, Bong Joon Ho). Set in a frozen future where the remnants of humanity live on a constantly moving train, this sci-fi allegory about class systems, wealth distribution, and injustice is an intense action film, and surprisingly funny.

6. Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater). The first encounter between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) occurs on a train. The two sit and talk, walk and talk, eat and talk, and talk some more, all in the beautiful setting of Vienna.

5. Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet). Featuring a phenomenal ensemble cast--Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, and Vanessa Redgrave--this British mystery based on an Agatha Christie novel was a box office success and won multiple awards. Also, Ingrid Bergman.

4. The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock). One of Hitchcock's earlier masterpieces--I also considered Strangers on a Train for this list--a few passengers on a train are alarmed when a fellow passenger suddenly disappears, but nobody seems to recall her existence. A gripping thriller made all the more claustrophobic and tense due to the train setting.

3. Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean). In a cafe at a train station, a fateful encounter between housewife and a doctor sparks a tragic romance. The desperate affair is set mostly in the train station, signifying the transitory and charged nature of the romantic tension between the two.

2. Arrival of a Train (1896, Lumiere Brothers). One of the very first publicly-shown films, and the center of a filmic legend--the audience members at a screening were alarmed when the oncoming train seemed about to crash right into them. Whether or not this is true, Arrival of a Train--a simple, 50-second silent film--remains a movie classic.

1. The General (1926, Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman). The greatest train film is Keaton's comedic action film, featuring Keaton as a bumbling conductor during the Civil War who embarks on an elaborate and hilarious train chase. The final sequence is legendary for featuring a collapsing bridge and an actual train wreck, shot in one impressive take.

What train films did I miss? Share your favorite train-related films in the comments!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Movie Review: Lost River


I wrote a review of Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, for Reel World Theology, an excellent Christian film criticism blog hosted by Mikey Fissel and Josh Crabb:
Ryan Gosling’s debut as a director is an ambitious mess. As an actor, he’s come a long way from early films and matured into a capable, brooding, interesting actor who tackles a diverse load of projects. Lost River certainly ain’t The Notebook, and finds much in common with Gosling’s recent collaborative work with director Nicolas Winding Refn. Clearly influenced by Refn, David Lynch, and John Carpenter, Lost River features bizarre and haunting images stretched around a paper-thin plot that holds the viewer at a distance. 
The town of Lost River is dying, and so are the hopes of Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother with two boys living in the decrepit remains of her childhood home. Surrounded by abandoned buildings tottering from neglect, the only things that seem to thrive in Lost River are weeds, rust, and violent thugs. Billy’s teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) earns money by stripping copper from the neighborhood in order to buy parts for his rusty car, though he’s always on the lookout for Bully (Matt Smith), the local small-time gangster. Billy takes on a new job from her banker, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), who hires her as a performer for his seedy, morbid nightclub known for its pseudo-violent productions. Billy’s desperation is evident; she clearly doesn’t want her sons to know about her job, but she’ll also do anything to keep their house. Bones’ motives are unclear—we’re not sure if he’s trying to save the house, or earn enough funds to help his family escape their deteriorating environment. When Bones discovers an underwater city in the nearby reservoir, he turns to his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) for insight and friendship, plunging them into a dangerous journey to discover the history of Lost River and break the spell that seems to hold it captive.
Read the rest of the review here.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 6


(Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5. Link to Top Youth Ministry Movies You Can Show To Your Youth Group)

I love movies and I love youth ministry, so when the two interconnect, it's a beautiful thing. Here is part six of my top youth ministry movies: ten more films about adolescence, youth culture, discipleship, and identity formation, listed in alphabetical order. These aren't films for showing to your youth group; these are films for youth workers and parents to explore youth ministry themes. Use discretion and wisdom when deciding to watch any film, and let me know what you think about the films in the comments.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson). A parable of grace and depravity through the eyes of a donkey. The film follows the donkey Balthazar as he is passed between owners, sometimes receiving love and compassion, but often experiencing abuse and violence. The human parallel to his experience is found in Marie, the young woman who is Balthazar's single gracious caretaker, though she often rejects him for other frivolities. Marie grows from a girl to a teenager, and engages in activities teens have always done--the rejection of parental authority, a draw into rebellious community, and a sexual awakening. Au Hasard Balthazar is a deeply frustrating film to watch, partly due to the violence inflicted upon the donkey, and partly because of the reasoning behind the violence. As in, there is none--much of the abuse appears haphazard, impulsive, and random. The titular phrase "au hasard" means "by chance" or "at random." Bresson offers us a picture of how the world often feels--a harsh place where people's choices often make little sense, goodness is rarely rewarded or noticed, and death awaits us all. Through all the randomness, Balthazar remains stoic and present, fully aware of the painful circumstances yet seemingly unable to stop them. One character calls him a saint. I'd consider him more of a martyr, a silent witness of human beauty and depravity.

Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater). Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one's eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one's whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger's family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person's life in the images. This can be a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is frequently both. Richard Linklater's 12-year experiment in storytelling is a remarkable success, though Mason might be considered an overly passive and uninteresting character. By the third act, I was beginning to become fidgety from the tedium, hoping for a moment of catharsis that never fully came. I suppose real life is like that. Our personal narratives are a series of events, some more influential and transformative than others, yet simply a series of interconnected moments linked in time.

Class Enemy (2014, Rok Bicek). As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale set in a high school classroom which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety. It's a Slovenian film about a rigid substitute teacher and the escalating rebellion of his high school class in the wake of a classmate's suicide. What makes Class Enemy so fascinating and why it works so well is its ability to navigate the realms of the morally grey with apparent ease. Even the color palette is stark, using natural grey lighting from Slovenia to give a pale and monotone look to the film. Neither the teacher, the class, the parents, or the deceased student are the clear antagonist or protagonist--each elicits both sympathy and denouncement from the audience. Akin to 12 Angry Men, the film can feel taut and claustrophobic, a volatile film about ethics and groupthink.

Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly). A bizarre sci-fi film about time travel, hypnosis, cellar doors, and a large creepy bunny named Frank, Donnie Darko has amassed a cult following due to its ambitious narrative and breakout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. A brooding and lonely teenager, Donnie (Gyllenhaal) attempts to navigate the tragedies of his life by following the leadings of his invisible friend, Frank, a man in a bunny costume from another time/dimension. Darko offered a dark but sympathetic look at the underground world of teenage depression, anxiety, existential longing, and brokenness.

Ida (2014, Pawel Pawilkowski)The first thing you'll notice about Ida is the beauty. Shot in gorgeous black and white and structured in 4:3, every moment is out of a painting, picturesque and affecting. The story follows an innocent young nun, Anna, on the verge of taking her vows. She goes on a quest with her secular aunt, Wanda, to discover the secrets of her past and the dark history of both her origins and the Polish nation. A coming-of-age journey with a young woman wrestling with identity, spirituality, and her own ontology. Every person has a name, every person has a story, and every person undergoes a crisis of faith in their own way.

It Follows (2015, David Robert Mitchell). A creepy and original horror film, the "it" of It Follows is, at once, the consequences from our sexual actions, the lingering wounds of our past, and the impending certainty of death.  What I appreciate about It Follows and filmmaker David Robert Mitchell's previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is its portrayal of teenagers and youth culture in America. The adults and authorities don't seem to be fully present in the film, and that's certainly intentional. I think Mitchell's films capture the systemic abandonment of youth by adults in our culture. Much like the abandoned and tottering Detroit homes, the era of the 1950s suburban nuclear family is crumbling and antiquated.

The Kid (1921, Charlie Chaplin). A silent masterpiece, Charlie Chaplin's classic opens with this title card: "A comedy with a smile--and perhaps a tear." A distraught woman abandons her newborn baby in a car, which ends up being stolen. The thieves discard the baby in the garbage, only to be discovered by a bumbling and lovable Tramp (Chaplin). The Tramp takes in the child and raises him as his own son. Their relationship is put in danger when officers and the mother attempt to take back the Kid. While the Kid is no more than a boy in the film, this is still a youth ministry film in my mind. When both individuals (the mother) and the system have abandoned the child, the kindness of the Tramp models the sort of compassion and care we can embody for teens.

The Spectacular Now (2013, James Pondsolt). Sutter (Miles Teller) is a charismatic high school senior who has built the reputation for being the life of the party. He plays hard, works little, and drinks often. His lack of ambition for the future and desire to live for the moment are the embodiment of the teenage spirit, the "spectacular now" of the present. When he feels drawn to Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a quiet and intelligent girl with hopes for the future, he's ultimately confronted with the vapidity of his lifestyle and the potential future (or lack thereof) it holds. Honest, contemplative, charming, and insightful, The Spectacular Now could be considered a version of Ecclesiastes set in the life of a suburban America teen.

Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki). Hayao Miyazaki's animated masterpiece is a meditation on childhood, a prophetic voice for environmental care, and an ambitious fantasy that elicits admiration and wonder. A 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, wanders into an abandoned amusement park with her parents as they move from the city to the country. The reluctant Chihiro's fears are affirmed when her parents are suddenly turned into pigs and the family tumbles into a world of spirits, dragons, witches, and monsters. It's difficult to describe Chihiro's journey--Spirited Away is a film that simply must be seen, as its visuals, story, and imaginative grandeur are both childlike and mature, a perfect metaphor for the adolescent journey.

Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour). The first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia was also the first feature-length film from a Saudi female filmmaker. The story centers on Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of owning a new green bicycle in order to race her neighborhood friend, Abdullah. The film addresses themes of gender roles, religion, marriage, and childhood as Wadjda's struggle to procure the bike parallel her struggle to grow up as an independent young woman (who wears purple-laced Converse shoes!) in a Muslim culture. An inspirational and affecting film, Wadjda joins the ranks of The Kid with a Bike, Breaking Away, and Bicycle Thieves as a bicycle-themed coming-of-age masterpiece.

What youth ministry films would you add? Share in the comments! 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Movie Review: It Follows


The opening scene from It Follows sets its tone of invisible dread and intriguing visuals. The stationary camera pans in a slow 360-degree spin as unsettling events unfold in the middle of a suburban Detroit neighborhood. A teenage girl flees into the street, a look of terror on her face. She runs in a circle, ignoring the questions from her perplexed neighbor, then dodges her concerned father and heads back into her house, only to emerge again a moment later and drive away in her car to the edge of a lake. As she sits by the water, she calls her dad and gives a final farewell, then awaits her fate. What fate? We're unsure. We never see her invisible pursuer, but we are privy to the aftermath of their encounter--a violent, gruesome, lonely death. We get all we need to know about the film from this opening scene--impressive visual artistry, a notably frightening score, an unseen and formidable monster, a teenage protagonist, and the dark nights of a deteriorating Michigan.

It Follows transitions to Jay (Maika Monroe, in a phenomenal performance), a young woman enjoying the slow pace of suburban summer life. She has a new boyfriend, Hugh, and they're having enough fun together and share a strong enough mutual attraction to finally lead to sex. After their encounter, she lies on her stomach in the backseat of his classic car, letting her hand drift over the flowers and weeds in the abandoned Detroit lot, talking aloud about nothing in particular, relaxed and sentimental. This peaceful life is destroyed in a moment when Hugh drugs her, ties her to a wheelchair, brings her to an abandoned building, then shows her something he has passed on to her through their copulation--a specter, a phantom, slowly walking straight for her a steady pace, invisible to everyone else, but nevertheless real and dangerous. It won't stop its pursuit until she passes it on to someone else through sex, or it has killed her. Her peaceful adolescent reality and innocence is gone, replaced with the constant dread of an impending danger. Where did it come from? Why is it following her? How can she stop it? There are no clear answers here--there is only the monster, and it will not stop.

What I appreciate about It Follows and filmmaker David Robert Mitchell's previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is its portrayal of teenagers and youth culture in America. The adults and authorities don't seem to be fully present in the film, and that's certainly intentional. The actions in the final climactic scene with the monster seemingly should prompt an adult response, but they just...don't. Or at least not a response one we're made privy to, mostly because it doesn't matter: this is a teen's narrative. Jay's mother is never full seen--her face is always just out of focus or off camera. The young protagonists adequately fend for themselves, and while some might wonder "where are the adults in this?" I think the events of the film play out in a realistic manner, as much as invisible STD zombies could be considered "realistic." (Yes, I'm calling it the STD zombie.) Each scene makes sense and is necessary for the plot to move forward, and each action and reaction from the characters is a natural outcome from the situation.

I think Mitchell's films capture the systemic abandonment of youth by adults in our culture. Much like the abandoned and tottering Detroit homes, the era of the 1950s suburban nuclear family is crumbling and antiquated. Teenagers are not only left to their own devices by parents, but they prefer it that way--it is the new normal. Adults, both in It Follows and real life, are often seen as incompetent and unable to help (at best) or an uncaring or dangerous power (at worst). As a youth pastor, I've been allowed to see glimpses of this underground youth culture, this world of teenagers when adults are not around, their conversations and actions, their dreams and fears. These are teenagers who deal with and fight against very real and adult subjects, sexuality in particular. Maika Monroe as Jay does a fantastic job of being both adult and childlike, responsible and immature. Sometimes she curls up in tears due to the horrors of her situation; other times, she faces the dread with an emotional-but-grounded confidence. The other teen actors do likewise. Mitchell has somehow tapped into the underground youth world in his films in a unique and realistic way, and I can't wait to see what he makes next.

It Follows offers more than just a sex-equals-death trope in the vein of past horror films. The sexuality of It Follows is more holistic, a sex that transcends the hookup culture's paradigm that "it's all just biology." The act of sex connects and unites two people in more ways than just physical interaction or the sharing of fluids--it intertwines their stories and fates, leaving lasting impressions and a deep connection, what evangelical pastor Matt Chandler recently called the "mingling of souls" in his recent book. While the sexuality portrayed in It Follows doesn't necessarily hold to a Christian worldview, it does suggest that sex involves more than bodies. Sex is also not without bodies, a sort of Gnostic spiritualization of sex that considers purity or holiness as being separated from our flesh. Bodies and souls, fears and dreams, are brought together in the two-become-one act of sex.

While the clear allegory lies in its connection between sexuality and consequence, the themes and ideas of It Follows move beyond moral messages about the dangers of sex and into the lingering wounds of the past. It Follows is wholly nostalgic. The decaying neighborhoods and abandoned buildings of Detroit, the 80s-era TVs and cars, the pulsing soundtrack--its all reminiscent of a bygone era, a relic from the past. Jay is haunted not only by the specter, but by the loss of a father. He is only present in Jay's family through faded pictures, and though we are unsure of the circumstances behind his absence, the pain quietly persists. We can run from this pain for a season, but it always reveals itself again, sometimes in unexpected ways. Beyond the pain of our past, the slow-moving phantom also represents our own mortality. Death is coming for each of us, and though it lingers, it will eventually catch us all. How we choose to face our own death--whether with fear and trembling, naive denial, or a quiet confidence--reveals our character and the foundation of our hope.

The "it" of It Follows is, at once, the consequences from our sexual actions, the lingering wounds of our past, and the impending certainty of death. Mitchell has crafted a new horror classic, one which takes a simple idea and builds upon it with remarkable craftsmanship and ambition. Its original ideas and haunting images remain in your mind, trailing you at a persistent pace, unable to leave you alone as you contemplate what follows.

Caution: It Follows contains scenes of sexuality, violence, and disturbing images. While the sex scenes aren't graphic, the phantom manifests itself a few times in full-frontal nudity. This is not an erotic film, but sexuality is one of its main themes. Use caution and discernment when choosing to view any film.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Golden Rule for Movies



Just because a film is quiet and contemplative, that doesn't mean it's "pretentious" or "snobby."

Just because a film explores new ideas and deep human emotions, that doesn't mean it's "dangerous" or "overly dramatic."

Just because a film is romantic, soft-hearted, and affecting, that doesn't mean it's "mushy" or "just for girls."

Just because a film is light-hearted, fun, and innocent, that doesn't mean it's "childish."

Just because a film is from another country, that doesn't mean it's "weird" or "unimportant."

Just because a film is old and gray and from a different era, that doesn't mean it's "boring."

Just because a film presents ideas you disagree with, that doesn't mean it's "sinful" or "wrong."

Now, replace the word "film" in the above statements with "person." The same rules apply.

Do unto movies--and people--what you you would have them do unto you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

4 Problems with the Funnel of Youth Ministry

Photo Credit: C X 2 (Creative Commons)
The funnel of youth ministry is dead.

If you're a youth worker, you've probably seen or heard of this funnel diagram. I've used it before in training volunteers, and heard many use it as the model for describing their philosophy of youth ministry.

This funnel is the primary metaphor and model for how evangelical youth workers commonly do ministry in North America. I'll make a bold statement here: I believe the model is inherently flawed, and does more harm than good to our views and practices of Christian spirituality.

The funnel begins with the pool of humanity, which includes any teenager within range of our church. It's wide at the top for the come teens, who we invite to our big, fun events and programs. They're just in it for the fun and friendships, and maybe someone they have a crush on. But if we can convince them to stick around, the funnel narrows a bit for the grow teens who will attend our main youth group-style program, which has a bit more "spiritual" stuff like worship songs and a teaching lesson. The funnel further narrows for the disciple teens, who are going to be mentored by adult leaders in small groups, then moves into the level of student leaders who develop others. The funnel finally ends with the multiply kids who, having reached teenage spiritual maturity, will now practice that maturity by inviting their unsaved friends to the "come" events. Variations of the funnel exist, using different terms for students and programs, but all have a linear-driven narrowing effect--students move from one spiritual level/program to the next, with each level getting smaller in attendance numbers.

Here are four problems I see in the youth ministry funnel:

1. The funnel assumes spiritual growth is linear. While I can appreciate ministry leaders and practitioners who have given quality arguments for the value of such a strategic approach to ministry programming, I also believe real life just doesn't work like this. I've rarely seen a teenager (or anyone!) actually follow such a linear model in their relationship with Jesus. I've experienced long-term Christians complain about discipleship or student leader programs because they aren't as fun as the "come" events, and I've seen non- or new-Christian teens excited about serving on a missions trip, which falls in the "develop" or "multiply" level. Human beings and spiritual formation are more complex than linear systems. There are no absolute formulas for spiritual growth. My own spiritual journey has had ups and downs, back and forth, darkness and light, joy and pain. There are students who may not fit within our linear model who are genuinely wrestling with living by faith. I think a linear model of spirituality stems from more Western Enlightenment-influenced thinking than it does the person and ways of Jesus.

2. Discipleship and evangelism are separated. A student isn't considered worthy of discipleship until halfway through the funnel. Similarly, evangelism is only meant for the spiritual elite, when the teens are called to "multiply" by inviting their unsaved friends to Christian events. This model for evangelism also places less emphasis on truly knowing and living out the gospel in everyday life; it's more about figuring out how to get students to come to the church event so the pastor or youth worker can share the gospel message. When we create an evangelism-discipleship dichotomy, it promotes the false notion that discipleship is only for super-Christians. Yet we don't see this in Scripture; evangelism and discipleship are intertwined in the Great Commission: "go and make disciples."

3. The measure of success is programmatic involvement. Ministry success becomes less about actual spiritual growth and development, and more about giving clear metrics for the youth worker in order to defend their significance and value. "Hey, look, I moved more kids through the funnel, so they must be spiritually growing. I am clearly doing a good job!" If more students attended your "come" event this year than last year, you must be doing something right...right? But what if the students are just good at moving through funnels, the systems adults put in place to maintain a sense of control and have a linear metric of success? That's exactly what students do with our current education system--we funnel them through, they pass the tests we give them (the standardized one-size-fits-all tests, instead of practical application or personalized assessment), and we tell ourselves that students are prepared when they graduate from high school.

4. Spirituality is divided from fun. I've written before about the fun-spiritual dichotomy. The funnel model of youth ministry promotes this separation of personal enjoyment and spiritual maturity. The wider the funnel, the more fun it is. As the funnel narrows, the fun dissipates and becomes serious spiritual growth. When we equate "spirituality" with "serious" or "boring" or "elite," teens will likely lack a desire to pursue Jesus further. If it becomes increasingly less enjoyable or meaningful the further I grow, why bother? The thing is, living fully for Jesus *is* fun, though maybe not in the sense of being constantly entertained. It's meaningful, joyful, enriching, and full of authentic friendships and purpose and direction.

I'm not the only one declaring the funnel dead. But the more I've thought about this and seen the funnel used in various youth ministry contexts, the more I doubt its effectiveness. I'm all for having strategic approaches to youth ministry and using metaphors to communicate our ideas. I'm also not saying that those who continue to use the funnel are necessarily deceived or poor youth workers--I'm just saying that I disagree with the premise, and think we can do better.

Spirituality as a funnel is a bad metaphor. A funnel is inherently static and linear and inert. Taken literally, it's akin to a toilet. Do we want to promote a downward spiral of spiritual growth as our model of ministry?

A better metaphor for spiritual growth is a garden. The metaphors used in Scripture are dynamic, agricultural, and living:

A seed sown in good soil

Planting, watering, tilling, and reaping

Bearing good fruit

Abiding in the vine

The movement and changing of the seasons.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Gardening requires creating healthy and safe environments for spirituality to flourish. Success is not measured by program attendance, but by spiritual fruit and character transformation. Patience and grace are required, because no formulas or linear methods will work here, and it requires time and a bit of the miraculous to see any growth. Most importantly, we don't make people grow--God does. We simply foster healthy environments and pray that the Lord of the harvest would do his thing.

Where I live, spring is slowly arriving with buds and flowers on the trees, sunshine breaking through the grey clouds of winter, and the chirping of birds in the trees. It feels like the whole world is experiencing resurrection. This is life, and I want to foster a living spirituality.

So let's kill the funnel. It was dead to begin with. Let's plant seeds, till soil, get our hands dirty, and pray for a fruitful harvest.

Youth workers: what do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Authenticity Spectrum

The language of "authenticity" has become ubiquitous in evangelical church circles. To be authentic is to be Christian. I almost included it as #9 on the list of 8 cliche youth ministry phrases, but this word goes beyond youth ministry into the larger church culture. More than just a common church term, it's a key value to the millennial generation, almost more than any other word or phrase:

Be real.

Be true to yourself.

Be genuine.

This is just who I am, take it or leave it.

If you're going to be anything in this world, be authentic.

Here's the thing: there is no Biblical command for authenticity. There *is* language in Scripture about living in the truth, speaking the truth in love, confessing one's sins, and bearing one another's burdens. There is the language of sincerity, most directly in the phrase, "love must be sincere" (Romans 12:9). But I can't find an explicit command in Scripture for "being real" or "be authentic." Looking at various translations, the word doesn't even appear once in the Bible in the NIV, ESV, NASB, or NLT. It does show up three times in The Message, most notably in Philippians 4:8, which replaces the word "pure" as "authentic" in the paraphrase.

I've noticed authenticity can become an excuse for being broken and sinful. This is using authenticity as a crutch, citing the reasoning of "I'm just being real" for unhealthy behavior. There is little sense of a repentant heart or having healthy boundaries with one's emotions. This sort of authenticity can cause all sorts of problems, because while God does call us to live in the truth, there is also a place for healthy boundaries, emotional self-awareness, and recognizing when a relationship or a community is safe to express one's authentic self. There's also a danger in over-sharing, placing our reputations and our hearts into the hands of strangers, who may use or abuse use due our lack of social boundaries.

I wonder if it's a generational thing. I've seen this in an approach to social media, where many of the baby boomers I know just don't get why their millennial children are sharing pictures of their dinner or embarrassing self portraits on the Internet. The older generation--or those older in spirit-- talk about not wanting to "air their dirty laundry" with others. They are guarded about their own struggles and doubts and failures, highly aware of social propriety and not wanting to make a fuss. Yet I wonder if they also quietly struggle with deep shame and brokenness, which often spills out into everyday life in (noticeable) poor habits or fears.

A lack of authenticity negates relational trust. You can't trust someone who won't be vulnerable with you; and you won't be vulnerable with someone you can't trust.

On the other hand, millennials and the younger generation (moniker TBD) seem eager and ready to share everything they can with everyone, ugliness and all. Their meals, their relational mishaps, their mistakes, their triumphs, their opinions--it's all recorded and shared via social media. They're confused when the employer doesn't hire them due to the Facebook profile pictures, or when someone is genuinely concerned or offended when they seem to be making unhealthy life choices. "I'm just being myself. You can't judge me," they say. Yet there is wisdom in having boundaries and recognizing when I've over-shared. I've had people emotionally vomit on me--or on the Internet--with their problems and issues that should have been handled in a more private setting.

Too much authenticity also negates relational trust. It rushes a relationship far past its present capacity, and it creates an anxiety about whether or not the overly-authentic person will over-share or over-step their relational boundaries.

I'm learning there's an authenticity spectrum. It's marked by two contrasting postures, held in tension by their approach to public genuineness:



On one end of the spectrum is being vulnerable. This is an open posture, where a person can be honest about brokenness and joy with sincerity of heart. It's being real, especially about one's failures and struggles and shame. It's bringing oneself out of the darkness into the light.

On the other end of the spectrum is being guarded. This is a reserved posture, having healthy boundaries where one has a clear sense of who they can trust with their heart. It's being cautious and discerning, guarding one's heart with wisdom and choosing relationships that are marked by sincerity and grace.

Vulnerability and guardedness aren't necessarily opposites, but I do think they create a natural tension. It's rather difficult to be vulnerable and guarded in the same moment. Yet both are necessary to foster trust in relationships, and doing too much of one or the other can break that trust. So what does healthy, holistic authenticity look like? Can we be both guarded and vulnerable, both open and closed?

The perfect model for authenticity is Jesus (of course). He was his true self everywhere he went, uncaring about social propriety or what others would say, while still very culturally aware. He was remarkably approachable. He was vulnerable and honest, open about his pains and doubts in Gethsemane while also clear about his mission and declaration of the good news of the kingdom. While vulnerable, he was also guarded, taking time to be secluded and alone, not driven by the crowds' needs or desires, but able to stay focused on his mission at hand while finding all worth through abiding in the Father. When I look to Jesus and abide in him, I can learn to be my fullest, truest self in every part of my life, living in freedom from shame or social anxiety.

Perhaps this is the secret to Christ-like authenticity--a constant abiding in God and a life motivated by mission. When I can find my whole worth and vocation outside of myself, recognizing identity as a gift to receive (rather than a persona I must form and create ex nihilo), I am free to be vulnerable, wise to be guarded, and healthy in practicing authenticity.

Where do you find yourself on the authenticity spectrum? Why are you drawn towards one side or the other?