You.

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Winter Light (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1963).

By lamenting Your absence, we discern Your outline.
We mimic Your heartbeat with our clenched fists.

Our words break like waves on the Rock of your reality,
and our thoughts, like foam, dissipate
on the edge of your Being
and we stand,
we stand,
on sinking sand.

Abba, Father, we don’t understand.

Your Words are the waves that shape our reality,
Your mind a furnace
that refines our being,
and we stand,
we stand,
on your outstretched hand;
You see,
You know,
You understand.

 

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My Favourite Films of 2018

All the of films on this list were made available in NZ (by theatrical release, VOD/streaming, or festivals) during the year 2018. Although I have managed to pick 10 favourites, ranking them was a bridge too far.

 

The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, starring Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones).

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CREDIT: FOX SEARCHLIGHT

I honestly think that Guillermo del Toro is, in many ways, CS Lewis’ modern-day successor.  He has a deep, intuitive grasp of fairy tales and their primal pull on the mind of an audience. The Shape of Water may be ‘adult’ (content-wise), but it never falls prey to cheap cynicism and lazy ‘irony’. Instead, the film is a wonderful tale of monsters and outsiders, pulling apart the reactionary attitudes that plague mankind with childlike (not childish) innocence and wonder. Additionally, Sally Hawkins’ performance as the mute Eliza is one of the best onscreen portrayals of a disabled person that I’ve seen in recent years.

Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps).

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CREDIT: FOCUS FEATURES

Like the other pieces in PTA’s filmography, Phantom Thread is difficult to pin down.  To me, the film occupies a strange no-man’s-land between period drama, psychological thriller, and ghost story.  Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps are both superb, dancing with (and around) each other in circles of jealousy and twisted co-dependency. An ethereal film, Phantom Thread is hard to grasp, but impossible to forget. It also has the distinction of being accompanied by my favourite original score of the year (courtesy of Jonny Greenwood).

STRAY (dir. Dustin Feneley. Starring Kieran Charnock and Arta Dobroshi).

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CREDIT: LONG ROAD FILMS

Having watched this film in cinemas twice, I think I can safely say that STRAY is one of my favourite Kiwi films.  STRAY tells an eerie story about two outsiders finding each other in Central Otago. Like Phantom Thread, the film is driven by fraught undercurrents of emotion and rewards repeated viewing. I’d be doing you a disservice if I tried to describe it further. Seek it out.

 Sweet Country (dir. Warwick Thornton. Starring Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, and Bryan Brown).

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CREDIT: Bunya Productions

An Australian Western, Sweet Country tells the story of an Aboriginal man (Hamilton Morris) who goes on the run after killing a white man in self-defence. He is pursued by a hard-edged lawman and a compassionate pacifist (played by Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, respectively), and the chase becomes an unsparing exploration of racism and justice. One of the (many) technical highlights of the film is its editing, which portrays the forces of memory and confabulation in a very striking way.

The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffery Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough…)

Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, John McCain, and General John Kelly ... or rather, their 1953 Russian variants.
CREDIT: IFC

It’s hard to believe that Armando Iannucci, creator of the tv series The Thick of It and Veep (among many others), had not turned his hand to directing before now. His first feature is a strange beast. Iannucci and his ensemble render the chaos that erupted after Stalin’s death as a high-stakes comedy of manners. This may seem like a tall order (and it did attract some outrage), but Iannucci and co.’s target is never in doubt. Horror and human frailty permeate every scene and reveal the absurdity that undergirds any totalitarian project.

First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried).

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CREDIT: A24

Paul Schrader, the renegade theologian of American cinema, gives Ethan Hawke a truly amazing role in First Reformed. Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke), is a severely depressed man struggling to keep his church (and faith) afloat. He befriends a young couple of radical environmentalists (played Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger), who force him to ask, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?” First Reformed both recalls and modernises the work of Carl Theodore Dryer and Robert Bresson (by way of Schrader’s own Taxi Driver), and the result is an extremely compelling film.

Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland. Starring Natalie Portman).

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CREDIT: NETFLIX

Of all the films on this list, Annihilation is the one that I have thought about the most. Alex Garland has made a film that is so uncanny, its aliens so…other, that it has taken up permanent residence in my imagination. The film follows a group of scientists who are tasked with investigating “The Shimmer”. This anomalous, expanding entity doesn’t just mutate the anything it comes in contact with, it appears to recreate things on a fundamental level. This film doesn’t just ask what it means to be human, it questions whether the idea of humanity has any meaning on any level. Unnerving, thought-provoking, and just a little bit terrifying.

 Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins. Starring Kathryn Hayn and Paul Giamatti).

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CREDIT: NETFLIX

A gem hidden among Netflix’s annual deluge of original content, Private Life follows a middle-aged couple as they navigate the minefields of adoption, surrogacy, and IVF. Fittingly, this film made me feel like a voyeur: the dialogue is well-written (but never unnatural), the awkwardness is excruciating (but never farcical), and the relationships feel authentic and lived-in. I’m very glad that the Almighty Netflix Algorithm (peace be upon it, may it live forever…) deemed it worthy of my attention, and it’s worthy of yours.

Anna and The Apocalypse (dir. John McPhail. Starring Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming).

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CREDIT: BLAZING GRIFFIN

 

Any film that comes with the label “zombie Christmas musical” has a lot to live up too, and this film delivers in spades.  By balancing humour, horror, and catchy songs (with a few old-fashioned jump-scares), Anna and The Apocalypse became the most enjoyable time I had at the movies this year. If you thought that La La Land would’ve been improved by an undead horde (or two), then this is the film for you.

Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley. Starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson). 

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CREDIT: ANNAPURNA PICTURES

 

It’s so, so exciting when weird movies get a lot of mainstream attention, especially ones as confidently bizarre as Sorry to Bother You. Boots Riley (another first-time director) crafts a hyper-stylized, heightened tale of late capitalism and corporate control that utilizes a mishmash of genre conventions and aesthetics. On top of juggling many different stylistic influences and tones, Riley manages to pull off on of the most effective (and memorable) left-turns I’ve seen in a recent film. I hope that he has more movies in him.

 

Some of the other films I enjoyed in 2018:

  • BlackkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver).
  • Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan).
  • Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan).
  • Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson. Starring Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum…)
  • First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy).
  • I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie. Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, and Sebastien Stan).
  • Bumblebee (dir. Travis Knight. Starring Hailee Steinfeld and Jorge Lendeborg Jr).
  • A Wrinkle in Time (dir. Ava DuVernay. Starring Storm Reid, Levi Miller, and Deric McCabe). 

 

Defiant Light

Kintsugi.JPG
The Japanese art of Kintsugi. Photo: Wikipedia

Grey armour shot through
with shades of blue
punctured by defiant light
turning the old world upside down,
it confronts the eyes
with a blinding night
Defiant light,
can’t you see
the strangers
on the balcony?

I know you,
I know you.
We are bound
by the God Between us.
The strangers on the balcony
sing their songs and free us:
they’d wilfully,
so happily,
shed their wings
to be us!
Defiant light,
quiet might,
are the strangers are glad to see us?

I know you,
I know you,
Rebel Blue,
is it true?
Can this light,
quiet might,
can it live
in me too?
O, relief!
Sweet relief!
Help me in my unbelief!
Defiant light
I can see
the angels on the balcony.

Footnote

Hebrews 1979
A Letter to Hebrews (Colin McCahon, 1979)

Let us not mock God with metaphor1,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

-from Seven Stanzas at Easter (John Updike, 1960)


1 Yes, and…

Let us not fashion our stories,

our buildings, our books

into blunt instruments.

Let us not value a lower form of Knowing

over a Higher Learning.

Let us not re-crucify the Wild God

and venerate his toothless corpse.

Let us leave our words

with The Word,

and search for soft-spoken Spirit,

its Word unbroken,

and its own words unheard.


True to form, I can’t stop riffing on TS Eliot (even when I’m writing about Updike)

Praise Bee!

BEEKEEPER
Beekeeper (Ivan Kramskoy, 1872)

A Monarch in the wind,

torn and tossed

by the waves of the second sea.

 

Oh, thank God for the humble honey bee!

It defiantly flies,

stubbornly survives,

and makes its home among the crumbling hives!

Is this the last principled prophet?

Praise Be for the pollen-bearing pilgrim!

Its golden, gaudy coat of kings

is borne by the beat of impossible wings.

 

Caught

_Zdzislaw_Beksinski_2000
Untitled (Zdzislaw Beksinski, 2000). It reminds me of ‘The Valley of the Dry Bones’.

Caught in mid-air,

mid-step,

midstride,

above the old, Unformed Divide:

You reach out, with punctured hands,

and to draw me into your open side,

You reach out,

and your weeping hands

grasp, snatch,

ensnare my hip:

we dance as One

on the Unformed edge

and I cannot escape your grip.

 

I want to know You.

I want You to talk.

I want You to teach me how to walk,

and I won’t let go ‘til You bless me.

I won’t relent

or tire,

I’ll patch my every open wound

with ink,

and pulp,

and wire.

I won’t let go ‘til You bless me-

 

We fall

from the arcane, Unformed edge,

past every

single

turning

stair,

as angels, mid-flight, observe our fight

and continue trudging through the air.

 

The sword protrudes from your open mouth,

cuts down my Self, my heart, my pride.

Calling me

deeper

into Your side

You ask,

“Don’t these bones speak?

Don’t these bones sing?”

I can’t hear anything.

I can’t hear anything.

I just want to know You.

I just want You to talk.

I want You to teach me how to walk,

and I will not let go

until You bless me.

 

 

 

 

Reaching for Memory

 

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From Strange Tales #138 (art by Steve Ditko, copyright Marvel)

I reach for Memory,
devouring
the volumes on the shelf,
trying
to scrounge a meal
for my Self

I feel

Sensation   without stimulation

Force          without form

Smell          without source

Noise          without vibration

 

Where are these colours coming from?

Is there a story

waiting

in the changing shade?

Are there connections waiting,

waiting,

wanting to be made?

 

Where are these colours coming from?

Powers? Principalities?

suggested realities?

Powers, Principalities,

and suggested realities,

sit ‘round The Fire

telling stories,

creating Selves,

devouring Memories

from the old bookshelves.

Where are these colours coming from?