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A Year in Cinema, 2017

This past year, my theater attendance was much lower than prior years. Nevertheless, I found some gems I highly recommend. Here are my top three movie highlights from 2017, with an honorable mention from Netflix. Long live cinema, folks!

Split

split_film_2017As someone who immensely enjoyed The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a welcome return to his tried and true form. James McAvoy is thrilling to watch displaying a wide range with Anya Taylor-Joy more than holding her own. Look forward to Glass in 2019, with Bruce Willis reprising his role as David Dunn against McAvoy’s The Hoarde. Read review here.

Silence

silence-oscars-633x356I hesitate to recommend this movie because, honestly, I kind of never want to see it again. It is a brutal film to watch, but the uncompromising questions it raises are haunting. Beautiful cinematography, moving performances, Silence is perhaps the quintessence of an existential crisis of faith. Read review here.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO

three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-frances-mcdormandThis was perhaps the most cathartic cinematic experience I’ve had in quite some time. The witty dialogue and strong performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson are exhilarating. Flannery O’Connor’s literary influence is both welcome and rewarding. Read review here.

Stranger Things 2

stranger-things-poster-featured-10222017I was skeptical the Duffer Brother could deliver the same magic again, but they more than succeed with ST2. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole with ST2: solid acting, engaging story, nostalgic 80’s ambiance, and deeper, richer character development. And when is Stranger Things 3 coming out? Not soon enough.

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Goodbye to All That

You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here. That’s… That’s just an awful feeling.

elijah-institution

This year, I will turn thirty. The mixed emotions I feel about my ephemeral youth and the oddly swift passage of time are beyond the limits of language. The humbling truth is, I’m just beginning to understand my purpose and what I have to offer the world.

The aspirational  20-year-old I was is such an enigma to who I am now, as I imagine each decade will view my former self. However, this particular age shift feels strangely significant. As I celebrate this wildly unpredictable journey, I’m hitting the brakes for a brief moment to contemplate what I’ve learned.

But so yo: here’s my official Commencement Address to my twenties, directed to all those  in the midst of their own tumultuous twenties.

***

As a naive 18-year-old, I thought money was merely a means of being more materialistic, shallow, and existentially jaded.  Fight Club‘s “what you own comes to own you” pretty much summed up my monetary mantra. In fact, nearly everything was existential when I was eighteen, especially the clothes I wore.

After ten years of living on my own and working with a variety of folks, the meaning of money has changed dramatically. Materialistic excess and existential angst aside, money can help you live a comfortable, meaningful life. With money, you can buy a house, travel, and adorn your body in swanky, soft flannel and stroll the grocery aisles with astronomical levels of confidence.

Money, though, is not an end in itself. It’s a potentially useful tool that can allow you to thrive. How wise you are with the little you make as an intern is how wise you will be when you have an actual salary with kids to raise.

You are not what you earn, and any metric that measures self-worth based on income is a torturous feedback loop that will only make you miserable. Money matters, but it isn’t everything.

***

If I had to refine life’s existential essence – what really matters, considering we’re but dust – it’s the bonds you form with others. We as living, breathing individuals are irreducibly complex, but our need for each other is as simple and straightforward as it gets. You cannot live life alone.

People will surprise you. Friends who initially seem like all around gorgeous, likable people will morph into manipulative and untrustworthy nags. Other people who initially seem too distant or overwhelming may turn into rich, lasting friendships. Those connections you cultivate over the years will become sacred and more meaningful than your most prized flannel shirt. Seriously.

No matter what you do in life, the people you live and work with (co-workers, spouses, roommates) will be the most significant factor for your happiness. Landed a dream job but your boss is a micro-managing control freak? Or marry someone after only a couple months (because you’re like really like in love), only to realize that they are terrible with money and they have commitment issues? Welcome, Dark Night of the Soul.

One piece of wisdom I continually repeat to myself like a prayer comes from Proverbs: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

Those who are uncomfortably honest with you are truly trustworthy because they have your best interest in mind. True friendship leads to growth. As Eleven of Stranger Things said, “Friends don’t lie.”

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***

Much of my twenties were fraught with anxiety over identity and career trajectory and what I’m going to do with “the rest of my life.” I’m all for keeping the big picture in mind, but at some point you just need do things – take risks.

At the end of the day (especially if you’re single), what do you have to lose? Teach English abroad, spend a season on an organic farm in New Zealand, backpack across Europe. The best investments of your time are through travel and education. Experience and knowledge, once gained, can never be lost.

While the FOMO of our hyper-connected times can be overwhelming, the oceanic opportunities available today would astound those of even a couple generations ago. The cups are overflowing, so it’s simply a matter of which cup you choose to drink deeply from.

***

In Tommy Caldwell’s recent memoir The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits, he reflects on how his various trials made him a better person. He attributes his ability to overcome these hardships to his father, who taught him to view adversity as adventure:

tommy-caldwell-dawn-wall-qaI think the greatest gift that he gave me is that he reframed adversity as adventure, and taught me to be bold. He showed me that if we allow ourselves to be exposed to challenge, then that challenge can energize us, and show us who we are. And even if we don’t open ourselves up, conflict is going to find us. It’s the rare, pathetically privileged person that doesn’t get their share of hardship. So we should make an effort to be prepared.

Like Tommy, learn to view each life trial as an adventure. The seasons of life are unpredictable in scope and depth. In more ways than I’ll admit, my twenties were an exhausting process of trial and error. My failures in work and relationships still haunt me, but I’m slowly realizing how they made me stronger.

Archive the wisdom gained from your failures as well as your successes and adapt to your gradual self-awareness. Above all, be a good steward of your pain and allow it to fuel your passion, whatever form it may take. Perhaps you write or draw or sing or dance or just canoe over calm waters and drop your fishing line into the depths – whatever it is, do it boldly.

***

As taxing as the twenties are, you’ll have to learn for yourself: what you value, what challenges you, what makes you come alive. Be mindful of how you spend your time and money. Invest in quality flannel shirts. Get outside your comfort zone. Embrace whatever hardship comes your way. Most importantly, only connect with those with your best interest in mind.

No matter how terrified and emotionally exhausted you may feel some days, wondering deeply about your place in the world, never never never never give up. Your ass will be knocked to the ground again and again and again, but the art of getting back up is your opportunity to cultivate the rarest of traits: boldness and courage and seasoned grit.

I wish you well!

A Year in Reading, 2017

Of all the books I read this year, here are my three highlights. Though I’m not a voracious reader of memoirs or biographies, for whatever reason, this year they were my jam. Read on, folks!

 Modern Romance 

51smrbglnul-_sy346_Co-written with NYU Professor Eric Klinenburg, Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (2015) is predictably entertaining with many laugh-out-loud passages, and his research is though-provoking and wide-ranging. He ponders the increasingly ambiguous state of dating and how technology is making it easier to hook up but more challenging to find a mate. Did folks have it better when their marriages were arranged – or do we have it better today with free range to marry anyone from anywhere in the world? Ansari makes you wonder.

We want something that’s very passionate, or boiling, from the get-go. In the past, people weren’t looking for something boiling; they just needed some water. Once they found it and committed to a life together, they did their best to heat things up. Now, if things aren’t boiling, committing to marriage seems premature.

John Steinbeck, Writer

51mpe1ziqfl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Obsessed with John Steinbeck since high school, I’m surprised it took me this long to read a comprehensive biography on the man and his work. Jackson J. Benson’s John Steinbeck, Writer (1980) is a must-read for anyone interested in becoming a writer. Unlike many dry biographies, Benson weaves his research with narrative thrust, deeply illuminating the life and art of Steinbeck. Benson reveals the agony and ecstasy of Steinbeck’s ambition and talent and how it led to masterpieces like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden as well as dry periods when he felt as if he’d never write another meaningful word again.

The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible.

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits

51k1uuwet7l-_sx329_bo1204203200_The most memorable and surprising read of the year, as Caldwell’s The Push (2017) is a very personal account of his life trials. He actively practices what he preaches: embracing hardship as a path to growth and adventure. The verbose title is somewhat misleading because this is not just another cliche sports memoir; instead, it’s a well-crafted page-turning read that I easily related to, even though I’m a far cry from a professional rock climber. His honest accounts of his struggles provide a convincing message of hope.

I think the greatest gift that [my father] gave me is that he reframed adversity as adventure, and taught me to be bold. He showed me that if we allow ourselves to be exposed to challenge, then that challenge can energize us, and show us who we are. And even if we don’t open ourselves up, conflict is going to find us. It’s the rare, pathetically privilege person that doesn’t get their share of hardship. So we should make an effort to be prepared.

Chris McCandless, Reconsidered

 

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.

slideshowIn high school one day a friend handed me a book with a black and white photo of an abandoned, snowy bus on the cover.  “Read this,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.” I  raced through the book in two or three nights, carrying it with me from bedroom to bathroom and back. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a riveting read for my impressionable adolescent mind, and I admired McCandless’s extreme search for a meaningful life.

Today Chris McCandless’s story has expanded beyond Krakauer’s 1996 book into a Hollywood movie, and many admirers travel to Alaska to visit his final resting place, the Magic Bus. Chris’s quest echoes Thoreau’s claim that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” where creature comforts dull our passion. 

Both mocked for his foolish naivety and admired for his soulful searching, Chris’s tragic death, as recounted through Krakauer’s empathetic story-telling, has created a complex legacy. Although he is far from the luminous saint I saw him as an 17-year-old, I still respect his risk. In reality, Chris was neither a saint nor a hero – he’s not even the cultural emblem he’s become over the past twenty-five years. He was merely human. Ivan Hodes, writing for Alaska Commons, assures as much:

McCandless was not a transcendent saint, nor was he a bumbling, arrogant dis-respecter of nature, and to press him into service as an emblem of anything is a mistake. . . Chris McCandless was deeply kind and supremely selfish; tremendously brave and jaw-droppingly foolish; impressively competent and staggeringly inept; that is to say, he was hewn from the same crooked timber as the rest of us.

His greatest mistake was isolating himself beyond the reach of others. But no matter how sexy and dramatic Emile Hirsch makes Chris look on screen, Chris’s disregard for his family and others was selfish, and his final wisdom, scrawled in his paperback of Doctor Zhivago, displays his own epiphany: HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED. Although he experienced much joy in his travels, the deepest, most abiding joy demands connection and communion with others. Life is inherently relational, and all of our cultural emphasis on individual authenticity can, in extreme measures, be ultimately toxic. The truth is: life itself is only real when shared. 

Three Billboards and the Furnace of Reconciliation

ows_151127833372566Frances McDormand delivers one of this year’s most fiery performances as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Coping with the brutal death of her teenage daughter Angela seven months prior, who was raped and murdered, she rents three billboards on the edge her small Ozark town reading: Raped while dying – And still no arrests – How come, Chief Willougby?

She infuriates Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby feels attacked and appeals for sympathy, confessing he has pancreatic cancer. Dixon – a racist, ignorant mama’s-boy – aggressively flaunts her efforts by abusing his authority.

The story unfolds with utmost theatrical pizzazz with comical dialogue and superb acting. McDormand radiates a taut, transcendent anger as she flares up like flame; with lyric profanity, she chews out a Catholic priest who challenges her actions. With playful charisma, Rockwell humanizes Dixon as we (eventually) root for his redemption.

Three Billboards is a prayer of anger, a cry against Mildred’s tragic loss. Like real life, there is no clear resolution. But the emotional average of this intense, surprising film is ultimately hopeful. The best bonds are forged in the furnace of suffering.

 

Birdman (Or the Unexpected Sources of Self-Worth)

birdman-michael-keaton-posterIn America, we worship celebrities, adorning them with accolades. In Birdman, director Innaritu explores the fickle nature fame. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) formerly a famous Hollywood superhero in the “Birdman” trilogy, is rehearsing for his Broadway performance based on Raymond Carver’s short stories. He feels and looks washed up, saying to himself, “I look like a turkey with leukemia.” Haunted by his Hollywood days, his Broadway debut seeks both public relevancy and personal redemption.

His own alter ego trails him in a Birdman suit, hammering away at Thomson’s sanity with doubt and fear. While Thomson is walking in the street, he passes a man screaming Shakespeare:  “It is a tale. Told by an idiot. Signifying nothing.” That’s what Riggan most fears: he is nothing. Yet he presses on. When a NYTimes critic threatens him, he says, “You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything! The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything…” This is the heart of Birdman: self-worth in any artistic endeavor is not contingent upon the critics or accolades. What truly matters are the intangibles: risk, effort and vulnerability.

And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.

IT and Youthful Camaraderie

it-trailer-6There is much to love about Argentinian director Andre Muschetti’s much-hyped adaptation of Stephen King’s novel IT. The child actors have fantastic on-screen chemistry, leading the movie with sincere camaraderie, and Pennywise, played by up-and-comer Bill Skarsgaard (son of Stellan), is a true terror whose voice vacillates from a squeal to a snake-like slither. The film as a whole is intense, with jump-in-your-seat scares alleviated by the comical dialogue of the Loser’s Club. Like Stranger Things, the film simmers in eighties nostalgia, with kids roving around on bikes as the beast lurks in their small town.

Like Heath Ledger’s now iconic (and Oscar winning) Joker in The Dark Knight, Skarsgaard taps into the primal fear that clowns seem to embody so effectively. Whatever it is that makes clowns so perennially creepy, Skarsgaard makes any moviegoer skeptical of walking too close to the street sewer. The true hero of IT, however, is the Loser’s Club, proving that  whatever the form one’s shape-shifting demons take, only by sticking together are they able to combat the existential threat of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. No one can defeat the demons alone.

When you’re a kid, you think that you’ll always be… protected, and cared for. Then, one day, you realize that’s not true. If you open your eyes, you will see what we’re going through. ‘Cause when you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer. Until it’s too late.