Gareth Higgins (garethhiggins.net) is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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The Best of 2016
THE LONG TAIL of media availability is one of the great cultural gifts of our time: All the films on year-end “best of” lists are easily accessible to anyone with access to a screen. For me, 2016 was a year that emphasized cinematic empathy—crossing lines of difference, yearning to connect, even while national politics were keeping people apart. There were many highlights, including:
The war-on-terror moral inventory of Eye in the Sky, the consumer critique and diversity-affirming Zootopia, the redemption of old age and delightful provocation to inclusive community in A Man Called Ove, and the powerfully honest portrayal of young gay experience in Being 17. In Life, Animated, the link between the stories we tell and how we treat ourselves was presented to happily moving effect; Morris from America brought new comic life to the single parent-child folktale; Midnight Special did the same from a far more somber, yet no less moving perspective; and Captain Fantastic imagined a way to be family that challenges oppressive cultural norms without staying isolated from the world. The Coen brothers created a brilliant satire of politics and religion in Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!; and the wonderful Pete’s Dragon, The Little Prince, and A Monster Calls each illustrated our internal conversations that either minister to or repress pain.
The unexpected box office failure of Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply shouldn’t detract from it as a touching, humane drama about healing divisions, and the individual spiritual search went deeper in Knight of Cups and Last Days in the Desert.
My top 10 of the year:
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Maori kid and grumpy Kiwi find their hearts on a bush trek.
9. Hell or High Water. A modern Western that’s serious about power, economics, and race.
8. Arrival. Soulful science fiction inviting us to listen.
7. Loving. The civil rights struggle as the story of just one family.
6. Queen of Katwe. A magical fable that also happens to be true.
5. Manchester by the Sea. Stark tragedy’s aftermath.
4. Lemonade. Beyoncé’s declaration of lament and healing.
3. Rams. Moving and hilarious Icelan-dic call for reconciliation.
2. Embrace of the Serpent. An astonishing journey into Amazonian mysticism, darkness, and light.
Conveying the milieu of high school tensions and romantic longing, a film that aches with trauma yet eventually sketches the possibility of hope.
Reimagining the Rules
WARREN BEATTY is an actor who truly deserves to be called a filmmaker. He produced many of his films, and the five that he also co-wrote and/or directed are classics that reimagine their genres.
Heaven Can Wait exchanges predictable alpha masculinity for subtle expressions of the need for companionship; Dick Tracy is the most exquisitely designed comic book movie ever made, with Stephen Sondheim songs to boot; and Bulworth is a wildly entertaining political satire (a big Hollywood comedy with a Greek chorus played by the political activist poet Amiri Baraka!) that in a parallel universe might have been co-written by Howard Zinn and Michelle Alexander.
Meanwhile, Reds is an out-and-out masterpiece—a romantic epic about the rise of communism in the U.S. with a convincing central love affair and dramatization of what building a social movement is actually like.
His latest, Rules Don’t Apply, appearing after his 15-year screen absence, is original, even magical entertainment. Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich perfectly play employees of the reclusive entrepreneur Howard Hughes who fall in love in 1958, despite the “rules” that say they shouldn’t. The actress and chauffeur must choose between the money, position, and power offered by Hughes or their forbidden love. Playing Hughes, Beatty invests him with a kind of vulnerability rare in portrayals of easily caricatured famous people. The psychological complexity that overcame Hughes is handled with sensitivity, and Beatty never lets the performance turn into attention-seeking awards bait or a joke at the expense of a powerful person. Our empathy with some of Hughes’ character doesn’t erase the part that invites critique: His greed, control issues, and manipulations are here too.
But the film is really about the constrictive rules that affect us all and how to discern those that make sense and are life-giving. Rules Don’t Apply is a kind of serenity prayer for people caught between twin American obsessions: God grant me the courage to transcend harmful religious puritanism and individualistic expansionism both.
With it, Beatty has made another genre-transcender: a compelling drama, with delicious light touches, that stirs the heart too. This film believes in the mysteries of love and the necessity of forgiveness. Released after such a divisive election, it’s also a gift from one of the most important U.S. filmmakers: an invitation to reimagine the rules we live by, especially those that keep us apart.
Getting Ready To Be Heroes
THREE RECENT FILMS portray heroism as ordinary people behaving with conviction under extraordinary circumstances. In Sully, an airline pilot lands safely in the Hudson River; in Snowden, a man speaks truth to power when he realizes it has been lying to him; and in the three-minute short We’re the Superhumans, British Paralympians and others with disabilities dance, jump, run, and fly to a big-band soundtrack. They are changing the world by challenging dominant cultural images of “able bodies,” “normal,” and “strong.”
Musician and activist David LaMotte has a theory about effective activism: An individual hero single-handedly overturning monstrous injustice isn’t a harmless cliché trotted out in TV or film dramatizations. Projecting near-supernatural power on such people is not only inaccurate, it denies them an even greater power: to truly influence others. If Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. were merely magicians, how can any of us respond other than applaud their tricks and despair of our capacity to challenge the oppression we discern in our own times? In World-Changing 101 (a book whose title is both serious and ironic), LaMotte suggests that this harmful fantasy ignores the strategic preparation and community support that nurture effective activism. Montgomery bus boycott handbills were printed by a group led by a teacher, Jo Ann Robinson; she had worked for years as a civil rights activist, including preparing for such a boycott. Printing handbills, sharing cars, telling hopeful stories, serving lemonade to tired marchers—all were vital parts of the body of change. Rosa Parks sat down alone, but she got up with many.
The cinematic heroes who don’t look like real-life activists avoid community, tending to act alone (Batman at least has a butler). Instead of painstaking planning (trial and error too), they spring into action or reaction when the bad guy is already halfway to victory (the villain often confidently explaining his dastardly plan just before it is foiled). They’re typically not around for the work of integrating the aftermath.
But Sully sees heroism as doing what you are trained to do—repudiating the notion that an emergency landing is a “miracle” rather than an act of human skill. Snowden tells how a whistleblower enlisted distinguished journalists so his revelations could be ethically told. And in the most glorious image of the year, We’re the Superhumans parallels one man in a flying wheelchair with another cleaning his teeth. Just getting out of bed can be heroic
A GRIZZLED LAW enforcement officer, days from retirement, looking for one last challenge. A team of bank robbers, one with noble(ish) motivation, the other psychopathic. Great American vistas to enforce the notion that what we’re watching is Important. So far, so clichéd.
But Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan’s script directed by David Mackenzie, brilliantly transcends such hokum in favor of utterly honest dialogue, a plausible plot, and real settings. The drama, as embodied in career-highlight performances from its leads, takes on an almost-Shakespearean gravity. Two brothers steal from a bank that’s been stealing from them. People get hurt, but they were hurting already, so who cares? And the Old Man of the West experiences the lack of resolution that may result from even the most dogged pursuit.
Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), Texas Rangers chasing bad guys, have known each other for years. Marcus ignorantly throws racial insults at Alberto, believing them to be affectionate, while Alberto quietly winces. The memory of land theft and genocide is in Alberto’s bones, his half-Mexican, half-Comanche personhood betrayed by the forebears of the very authority he seeks to uphold.
Meanwhile, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) rob branches of the bank that’s been trying to manipulate their family. Like all families, it’s a family with secrets, but the lack of healthy community bonds has allowed those secrets to wreak havoc on the lives of its members. There’s no support for moving beyond the trauma of a violent upbringing, just resignation to things as they are and belief that maybe a bit of money could get them out of it. A bleak Texas standing in for a bleak America, one in which the aching desire to connect is buried under economic desperation and get-rich-quick schemes. Even the church is in on it—a televangelist merely replicates the system of social inequality and betrayal of trust. People need help, but no one shows them how to ask for it.
GOOD VIBRATIONS is a brilliant roof-raising musical from 2012 about making a difference in the world by being yourself. It’s the kind of film that makes you fall in love with life. And it was the last movie about which Ken Hanke and I wholeheartedly agreed.
Hanke, our local newspaper film critic in Asheville, N.C., recently passed away at the too-young age of 61. His byline identified him as “Cranky Hanke,” but he had a generous heart. He knew that good film criticism requires knowing three things, at least: something about cinema, something about how to write well, and something about life. The first of these comes naturally to people who watch enough good movies. The second is part gift to be channeled, part skill to be nurtured. As for the third, well, we all know something about life—the trick is whether or not we’re willing to let what we know of ourselves be known in our work.
Ken Hanke was a critic who believed his own opinions, but didn’t impose them on others. He understood film criticism as a conversation between movie and audience, in which being right isn’t as important as being authentic.
This kind of critical engagement is often ignored in favor of mere criticizing—reacting, not responding, snap judgments instead of considered reflection. “That’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen” limits the possibility of conversation to discover more of what the movie might be inviting us to. I want to know why you think it’s the worst (or best). I want to be invited into a conversation about authenticity and what it is to live better in the light of what artists and other provocateurs are trying to tell us.
When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in what has been seen as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, the venue was an unassuming house overlooking the sea in Reykjavík, Iceland. Höfði House had been previously occupied by the poet Einar Benediktsson, who once wrote, “Take notice of the past if you would achieve originality.” Whatever else Einar meant, at this house, the necessity of learning from history can’t be ignored.
It is easier to imagine today’s enemies talking once you’ve seen the house. You see, it’s not the Avengers’ home base or one of those underground lairs favored by James Bond villains. It’s just a house, surrounded by the typical trappings of a small city—business headquarters, cafes, supermarkets. The Icelandic government uses it today for social gatherings. And what happened in it 30 years ago was at heart two people communicating, with a shared goal that transcended them both.
The notion of enemies sitting down and talking with each other is also at the heart of the magnificent new Icelandic film Rams, which I saw in a cinema about five minutes’ walk from Höfði. Two sheep-farming brothers live and work beside each other, but haven’t spoken for four decades. A family shadow has driven them apart—one of those decisions made by parents seeking the best for their children but not knowing how to arrive there. And so, separately, the brothers endure twice the hardships and experience only half the blessings of life amid this most exquisite landscape. Success is ignored by the other, or serves as an occasion for jealousy rather than celebration; Christmas is spent alone, no one to share the feast, and Icelandic winters are hardest of all.
Welcome to the Jungle
THE MOVIES AND MEANING community recently published our list of greatest films, based on the idea that in a great film the highest aims of craft and the most humane visions meet. It seeks a “third way” between one reactionary notion, that art should be judged on the basis of what it portrays rather than how it portrays it, and another—that content is morally neutral. I say bring it all: love and pain and action and laughter and grief and sex and violence and horror and contemplation. To extend Roger Ebert’s notion, a movie is not only about what it’s about, but it’s also about how it’s about it.
The most beloved films on our list include The Tree of Life (in which the most enormous, transcendent existential questions mingle with the most ordinary of tragedies and blessings), Lone Star (which aims for nothing less than the healing of U.S. memory, for survivors and perpetrators alike), and Wings of Desire, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Spirited Away (which use magic and the supernatural to remind us of the miracle of everyday life). The top 10 also includes Schindler’s List—a testament to monstrous suffering and extraordinary courage alike—and the Three Colors trilogy, which does the seemingly impossible: take a national political virtue and fully embody it in the life of an individual.
The new version of The Jungle Book is too recent for the list and hasn’t had the chance to prove its staying power, but what a glorious surprise it turned out to be. The beloved 1967 cartoon is held in great affection, but affection that requires turning a blind eye to its colonialist and racist undertones—particularly the literal aping of some black cultural tropes by a character presented as nonhuman, whose greatest desire is to “be like you.” The 2016 version works to transcend white supremacy and even critiques human interference with the rest of nature. When a villain comes to a violent end, it’s not through the hero’s superior strength but through the bad guy’s own selfishness.
The Crosshairs of a Dilemma
STANLEY KUBRICK’S Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released in 1964, and it was echoed later that year by a film on a similar topic, Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet, Fail-Safe imagined the idea of a nuclear explosion being unpreventable by the people supposed to be in charge of it. Strangelove is hilarious but chilling satire; Fail-Safe is just chilling. The central notion, that ethics can’t be trusted to machines, lingers today: George Clooney produced a live television version of Fail-Safe as recently as 2000.
A current version of the dilemma is brilliantly portrayed in Eye in the Sky. Cutting between four main locations (a British government committee room, a military control center in the English countryside, a Nevada drone piloting bunker, and the Kenyan house from where a suicide bomb attack may be launched), it’s like a relentless tennis match in which the crisscrossing ball is a matter of life and death.
Who decides who can be killed? If blowing up the house will prevent an attack that might kill 80 people, how much does it matter that a little girl selling bread nearby will probably die too? What is legal? Does “legal” mean “right”? Such questions have rarely been handled with such compelling dexterity in a movie. Eye in the Sky deserves comparison with Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe because it doesn’t offer easy answers, only difficult questions, and its seamless movement between locations fully immerses the audience inside the debate. But it transcends those earlier films because of the way it treats the characters that might be seen as “other.”
Mocking Pretentious Power
EXTRAORDINARY British actor Mark Rylance has a noble theatrical reputation but has only recently found prominence in movies, most notably in the wonderful Steven Spielberg Cold War film Bridge of Spies, for which he recently won the best supporting actor Oscar. Speaking of Spielberg, Rylance made a beautiful point: “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he’s surrounded by masters in every craft.” This gentle wisdom—that good leaders attract good teams—echoes the message of Bridge of Spies, which illuminates the possibility of talking to each other across boundaries of militancy, misunderstanding, and fear. It is an invitation to loving leadership, criticizing a mutually destructive strategy by practicing something better.
Amid the noise of “some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days,” I’ve been indulging in a little comfort-watching, asking Charlie Chaplin to help me discern a way through. Chaplin’s brave, hilarious, and deeply moving film The Great Dictator does to authoritarianism what C.S. Lewis says the devil cannot tolerate: It mocks evil, revealing its pretensions. Chaplin’s courage has rarely been matched. Today his mantle may be held by Sacha Baron Cohen, whose trilogy of pride-puncturing, diversity-affirming films, Borat, Brüno, and especially The Dictator, is brave enough to challenge prejudice when it’s not safe to do so. These three are in the same tradition as Dr. Strangelove, In the Loop, Four Lions, Dave, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which make us laugh at the absurdity of political control, taking away some of its power.
If comic portrayals of bad leadership are comforting, serious cinematic explorations of bad leadership might help us learn how to avoid it. Nixon, Downfall, the Godfather trilogy, Citizen Kane, The Apostle, Beasts of No Nation, The Act of Killing, Leviathan, and There Will Be Blood all present warnings of what happens when leaders are self-interested, unaccountable to an emotionally mature community, and not mentored in tending to their inner lives.
Halfway to Brilliant
WATCHING THE much-awarded film The Revenant is an ordeal, but its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s films have such energy and compassion that I hoped the payoff would be worth the stretch. Iñárritu’s early films Amores Perros and 21 Grams rehumanize characters who make bad choices, with an attention to scale that might be described as Napoleonic.
The Revenant is the loosely historical tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an early 19th century fur trapper left by his companions for dead after a bear attack, agonizing his way to track his betrayer (Tom Hardy) through some of the most frozen wilderness in cinema. The commitment of DiCaprio and Hardy has been rightly applauded—this is a cold and exhausting way to make a film. And the craft is monumental—arrows seem to land on the audience, the bear attack is terrifying, the camera hardly ever stops moving. But the exploration of the futility of revenge at the heart of this story is confused.
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