The Cross

The Cross, a short story by Jacob Andrew Wilson

 

1

Prologue

It was a normal church gathering: worship, talking, worship, talking, worship. People greeted one another with smiles, they closed their eyes a lot, their spirits were lifted. Yet in that final stretch of worship—as if to emphasize the sermon—amidst sounds of exasperation and exultation, it happened.

The sermon was about repentance that day; grappling with the sin inherent in our hearts. What are we without God? The preacher kept repeating.

What are we without God?

That Sunday a community was left shaken, the scope of that question shattered and stretched into the resulting forms: where is God, or, although illogically worded, why is God?

For the faithful every moment is weighed in relation to the supreme being. At times this can make life quite absurd—oh holy one, what color socks should I wear today? This question is never important but may at any moment be granted the pathos of the eternal.

This makes tragedy at once the simplest and most complex experience to deal with. In a world subservient to a divine being, one is merely a life raft in a raging sea, caught in all the ebbs and flows the divine desires. But why does the divine choose our suffering? And what is our role to play if we are all proverbially without a paddle?

That Sunday when the holiest of Christian symbols crashed down upon Catrina, the 23 year old prodigal daughter, striking a blow that would result in her passing, the effect was far grander than the mourning of friends and family–it sent questions flooding through an entire community. These are the accounts of three members.

 


2

Johanna

He gives and He takes away. Johanna had believed that her entire life. She had comforted many with those very words, staying up late nights with those whose wick was about to expire. She had always prided herself as being one who comforts the mourner–it had been her gift.

In this moment, she wondered why no one had told her how this phrase scratched at infested wounds, the words shot at her like one spitting in her face.

Johanna’s relationship with Catrina was strong, she counted herself (and The Lord) among the reasons she had been on the return home. Catrina’s disobedience had been similar to her own, late high school popularity outshone spiritual diligence and college experimentation quickly eclipsed any need for a God.

God had called her back, out of depravity and into His arms. He woke her up by placing her through a torrent of difficulties–an unwanted pregnancy that would become her beloved son, an assault by a stranger, and an overwhelming depression. The church, this church, is where she was lead. The Lord had allowed these things and He had glorified Himself through His body.

All these years later she really had seen herself in Catrina. Johanna was friends with her mother, a praying woman who worried for her daughter daily. Catrina had been to college and come back with that college know-it-all attitude they all dreaded. She hadn’t really heard about Catrina in some time, although her mother had mentioned her in some prayers and there were those Facebook photos that had shown up.

But then Johanna had ran into her one night in a bout of predestined grace just after she had graduated from college. She had a vulnerability about her, one Johanna recognized from her own pre-grace days, like a cocooned caterpillar whose only hope is that breaking free is just around the corner. Again it can only be counted to God’s grace that Catrina was so receptive. Johanna invited her to coffee and she had accepted–the following Tuesday.

That Tuesday Catrina was open with her wounds and Johanna had listened, remembering the state of her heart at that age. She let Catrina speak her mind, but then in one instant, Johanna had felt a tug from the Spirit to challenge her to go to church. Catrina, taken aback, said yes and that very Sunday was there, albeit late and separate from her family.

Three weeks later she had begun attending Johanna’s small group. She was tentative about speaking her mind and some weeks refused to show up at all, but her presence was a welcome one and her arc toward grace was blossoming.

That was just over a year ago and the imminence of clear cut repentance had never been seen.

 

Her redemption story was cut short.

It was all over. “Neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God,” but in this instance that’s exactly what it had done. Death, in fact, had ruined everything. All those moments leading toward the forgiveness required to save her soul were seemingly for naught.

Why would God end the life of one about to be saved? Before, Johanna had seen her entire life as an archetype of the way God moves in the world, creating situations to draw His children toward Him, but what was He making of this? He had literally cut off one of His children from grace!

There was one more creeping question, one nobody wanted to talk about: the question of hell.

What the hell? Really, what the hell? Divine punishment always seemed fair when it was fair, but this was God as tyrant–as Lucy taking away the football as soon as she had regained Charlie Brown’s trust. All this time has God just been messing with us?

Well, Johanna thought, if God wanted to act this way, then God could do it alone.

 


3

Trenton

Trenton woke up. His dream had terrified him to the point of waking. He had been swimming in a pool when crocodiles appeared. He swam in fright as their jaws reached for his feet, inches away from shredding him to bits. Then he awoke.

Dreams had always given Trenton insight to his life. When he was young he dreamt of a burning fire encapsulating a forest–this was weeks before his father left in a violent drunken rage; he still had scars to remind him of the moment. The dream had given him a sense of anticipation, partial dread, but partial guardedness to everything that would occur. When he had found The Lord, he recognized it as that same presence that protected him as a boy, the presence that comforted him as he slept.

The meaning of this dream was obvious; after the events that had occurred, how could it not be? Unlike before, these dreams The Lord was giving him were not anticipatory, they instead haunted him, reminded him of that great loss.

The Lord was the great comforter, He had always been. Through his dad’s abandonment, his mom’s inexplicable capability to survive alone, the accidents and failures that had made up his life. God was the only thread of good in the world, the only reason his light still shone.

The Bible had many stories of this deep loss, The Lord Himself had been through the deepest suffering of all, purposefully so, that His followers should live in abundance. Job had revered God though his life had crumbled; it was a test of his faithfulness.

Was their faith being tested now? Trenton had come too far to doubt God’s plan. When he had started attending this church, he knew he immediately wanted to be a part of the youth ministry. His own childhood was difficult, a perpetual set of woundings that only the most immaculate of healers could fix. That’s what Jesus had done, piercing through a calloused soul to mend parts of himself that hadn’t been exposed in years. He wanted to be a part of this for others, a counselor to healing before the pain even began.

He had started in the Junior High group, the same year Catrina began 7th grade. She was an easy one, a potential pillar that every youth leader hoped would appear to stabilize the whole group. As she grew older and those hopes disintegrated the leadership spoke in whispers, wallowing in what went wrong. What did it mean to fail as a youth leader?

But now all Trenton could think is what if they had succeeded, would Catrina be gone today?

“Even so it is well with my soul”

A later Sunday they sang “It is Well” and told the story of its author. A man beaten down by life, who chose providence in the wake of tragedy. He had penned a great hymn, one

that had inspired many. God would move like this in His church, Trenton knew it. He looked at his scars again, forever proof of God’s love toward him, he could never be a doubting Thomas.

God was all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, it was foolish to think anything that happened was outside His will. Even in this, Catrina’s death, he must submit all the glory to God.

Otherwise he would be on his own, and Trenton knew what man would do when left to his own devices. He saw it in himself every single day. God is good and He always would be. When he preached at their next youth meeting, he declared this to all the youth, they stared back, tears in their eyes.

 


4

Andrea

Andrea sat in her room praying. When she did pray she always concluded with The Lord’s Prayer. She felt it best represented how God worked—of course it was fickle to pick and choose parts of the Bible—that was obvious, but the ways those around her had used prayer to justify their own desires always irked her. The Lord’s Prayer covered the simplest of theology: worship, guidance, dependence, forgiveness. Others spent too much time seeking the Lord’s wisdom in the mundane—even the most personal of all gods cannot be blamed for your bad day at work. This version of God was arbitrarily placed into the current emotional state of the individual. She found it amazing that the way God interacted with people was so in line with their hormones.

When Catrina died, Andrea took it hard. She had been close friends with her. They had spent high school nights worshipping side by side at youth group and summer camp. When they each went away to college they had kept in touch through occasional Skype chats and group texts. She saw Catrina abandoning her faith and had mourned it, something that paled to how she now mourned over her.

Their relationship had been rekindled when Catrina returned to the church. Others had called her a prodigal, Andrea saw her as a Samaritan, an outsider bringing life into the community.

Andrea’s own faith had stalled a bit, spending week after week within a religious community can cause one to become indifferent to the words and motions. That’s where she was when she met up with Catrina again. They had surprisingly long discussions, mostly about dating and relationships, but eventually a subtle depth leaked into their discussions.

Catrina was yearning for truth, one that Andrea knew but had lost years ago. Catrina’s search for faith that went beyond what she knew in high school had awakened Andrea. They explored the depths of their souls and even occasionally read the Scriptures.

Catrina was gone now, but this wasn’t God’s fault. God was no monster in the sky causing crosses to fall to teach a community how to mourn. He wasn’t Zeus, throwing lightning down at whatever sinner last caused him to be angry. Reaching for this explanation called attention to the most primitive parts of humanity. Imagine a God who would destroy His creation on the basis of misunderstanding the Bible—a 2,000 year old book that’s been translated multiple times and has layers upon layers of ancient cultural context. God was not teaching a lesson, he hadn’t rigged the system against His own creation.

She truly believed God was love. He was a compassionate redeemer allowing for the freedom of humanity, pursuing and forgiving along the way. Catrina’s death was not God’s choice. The plethora of factors that went into Catrina’s death: light/building manufacturers, building code inspectors, church workers who had set up the cross, and the ultimate un-luck of picking row 7, seat 12 were more to blame than the creator of the universe.

 

She accepted the position that God wanted to bring glory to Himself and would use this tragedy to do so, but did not think God had caused it for His own purposes. As if God was some glory hungry being who set up situations for His own success. He is no man, filled with pride.

She read the words written so long ago:

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

Whatever form life would take after death, she knew it would be better than this one and, ultimately, she knew Catrina would be there.

 


5

Epilogue

The church would end years after Catrina’s death. Its doors were never shut, but a burned out pastor, constantly changing eldership team, and influx of new members saw the church evolve into an entirely new being. The new pastor focused on leadership and a happiness prosperity message and the church grew a lot. For those who had been there before it seemed like a willful ignorance. The pain had been glossed over and all that was left were smiling greeters in the doorway.

The drifting was not an entirely negative experience, some found new life and spiritual health as they landed at varying congregations. For others the load had been too great to bear and agnostic voices crept in, the comfort of sleep became louder than the voice of the Spirit.

Tragedy is the great presser of corporate belief, trampling all epistemological inconsistencies, and plowing through those places where unity once seemed to reside.

It asks what God’s cause is in this world and the answer to this question can lead any individual down numerous paths.

Life is often erratic, avoiding logic whenever it can. When confronted with this reality humanity will do anything to find that place of steadiness in their souls once again.

When Catrina died it shook up foundations once deemed solid, but if any being were equipped to handle this shaken space certainly it would be the author of life. The purpose of the Divine is to remain steady even as we fall.

 

Right?

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Peak Singalong: A Playlist

Everyone loves singing songs they know. Blasting the perfect song through your car speakers can bring a group of people together in elation and may even result in seatbelt constrained dancing and/or smiles–a sure sign the people with you are having fun. The following playlist is designed to bring you to that point of elation, to make you the coolest person in your car, and ultimately to help you reach peak singalong.

Before diving in, we must go over a few rules that helped to create this, the most perfect collection of songs to sing to; these are listed below:

  1. It has to be a song that everybody knows. My senior year of high school a bunch of my friends went to Chilis to celebrate my friend’s birthday. On the way home we played mewithoutYou’s “January 1979”, all of us yelled along to Aaron Weiss’ manic vocal delivery and had an amazing time doing so. But, how many of you could sing lyrics from that song right now? Thus, not acceptable—most people with you must know the song.
  2. It has to be foolish. There are great songs that people like to sing a long to, The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” is a great example of this— the most acclaimed band of all time singing a song that people enjoy singing along to; however, adding “Hello, Goodbye” to a singalong playlist does not help one reach peak singalong. Peak singalong involves each person in the car screaming their lungs out in foolishness, not caring what they look like or who sees them. To reach this state, the song must inspire foolishness and must have some level of kitschiness. The Beatles are just too good of a band to bring about the cheesiness required, but one hit wonders and momentary pop stars are perfect for this.
  3. It must be good. Rule #3 is an amendment to Rule #2. While the song has to have a kitsch level to it, it must also be a good song. There are certain songs that are very foolish and may inspire some level of singalong, but won’t get you to peak singalong. Baja Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” or “The Macarena” are both examples of this—they’re funny to play but one can only keep up the I’m ironically having fun bit for so long (usually not the length of one of these songs). Thus the song must actually be enjoyable to listen to in order to fully bring about singalong-ness.

Songs on any singalong playlist will reflect personal tastes which will naturally be based on upbringing and the era of music each person grew up in, that being said, this is the definitive peak singalong playlist for every person.

You can follow along on the embedded Spotify playlist (or here) (sorry Tidal subscribers)

Peak Singalong: A Playlist:

  1. “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton
  2. “Everywhere” by Michelle Branch
  3. “My Immortal” by Evanescence
  4. “Behind These Hazel Eyes” by Kelly Clarkson
  5. “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne
  6. “Numb” by Linkin Park
  7. “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” by Fall Out Boy
  8. “Ocean Avenue” by Yellowcard
  9. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson
  10. “Perfect” by Simple Plan
  11. “Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls
  12. “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers
  13. “Take On Me” by a-ha
  14. “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer
  15. “My Boo” by Usher w/Alicia Keys
  16. “Big Girls Don’t Cry (Personal)” by Fergie
  17. “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen

 

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100 Most Influential Cultural Items in My Life

A list of the 100 most important cultural items in my life to date. It’s focused more on items that are consumed/experienced. I’d like to think that each of these helped to evolve something special in who I am as a person, though I’m sure some are just things I really like a lot.

If you would like an explanation as to why something is listed on here, please ask and I’ll write up the impact.

Presented chronologically:

  1. Barney and Friends
  2. The Holy Bible
  3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 
  4. Disney’s animated renaissance (from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King)
  5. Adventures in Odyssey 
  6. The Giving Tree
  7. Youth sports
  8. Potstickers
  9. Whiffle ball
  10. Old Time Radio (Abbot and CostelloThe Aldrich Family)
  11. Matt Christopher books
  12. Star Wars
  13. Home Alone
  14. Madden video game series
  15. The Hardy Boys book series
  16. The Sandlot
  17. The Sound of Music
  18. The Super Bowl
  19. IMDB
  20. DC Talk
  21. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  22. Peter Pan (and Hook)
  23. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
  24. Any Robin Hood story
  25. Space Jam
  26. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  27. Backyard Baseball
  28. Recess (and Disney’s “One Saturday Morning”)
  29. The Wayside School series by Louis Sachar
  30. EB White’s Charlotte’s Web
  31. Boy Meets World
  32. Roller Coaster Tycoon
  33. CS Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia and later theological works)
  34. Sportscenter
  35. Google
  36. A Christmas Story
  37. Disney Channel Original Movies
  38. The Sims
  39. Relient K
  40. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 
  41. Sports Illustrated
  42. KNBR 680 Sports Radio (especially “The Razor and Mr. T” show)
  43. MxPx
  44. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  45. Tooth and Nail Records
  46. Ocean’s 11
  47. Survivor
  48. Wikipedia
  49. Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue”
  50. A Walk to Remember 
  51. Purevolume.com
  52. Snopes.com
  53. Myspace
  54. Underoath
  55. Warped Tour
  56. mewithoutYou
  57. The iPod
  58. Blue Like Jazz and other Donald Miller books
  59. Rob Bell (books, sermons, and more)
  60. Invisible Children
  61. Brand New The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
  62. Derek Webb’s Mockingbird
  63. Little Miss Sunshine
  64. To Write Love on Her Arms
  65. Arrested Development
  66. Keith Green
  67. Johnny Cash
  68. Good Will Hunting
  69. There Will Be Blood
  70. Wall-E
  71. The Dark Knight
  72. David Bazan
  73. Scene It (Xbox 360 edition)
  74. Manchester Orchestra
  75. The Format/fun.
  76. Shane Claiborne (particularly The Irresistible RevolutionJesus For President)
  77. When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett
  78. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  79. The works of Greg Boyd (particularly The Myth of a Christian Nation)
  80. NT Wright (particularly After You Believe)
  81. Friday Night Lights
  82. The Social Network
  83. The Tree of Life
  84. Anthony Bourdain’s tv shows
  85. John Steinbeck (particularly East of Eden and Travels with Charley)
  86. The AV Club.com
  87. Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet
  88. Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism
  89. Parks and Recreation
  90. Craft Food/Drink culture
  91. Grantland
  92. The Wire
  93. This American Life
  94. Radiolab
  95. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
  96. StuffChristianCultureLikes
  97. Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City
  98. Comedy Bang Bang
  99. FiveThirtyEight
  100. Hamilton
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In Memorium

I’ve never had to do this before and typically I’m not the sincerest person, but I felt this needed to be shared.

In honor of my Grandpa Wilson, who passed away last Saturday afternoon.


My Grandpa was an old school gentleman. He worked hard and knew his neighbors well, helping them out and conversing with them daily as he worked on his garden. He loved his wife and his family, providing for them, but instilling in them what it meant to work. He never paid for what he didn’t have to; I know this because I helped him to straighten out his used nails, hammering out each crooked one until it met his satisfaction and could be used again. He served his country in Korea and came back to start a business, raise a family, and live that dream that so many dreamed of during those days.

Even though his life was representative of that classic American male of his time, one thing that stands out to me is how loving and welcoming he was no matter what sort of people we brought his way. I grew up with a globalized world, with dreams of international travel, and an eye on multiculturalism. When cultures and generations come together they often clash, colliding in big fits of misunderstandings, but with Grandpa this was never so.

When we housed a Chinese exchange student for a little over 6 months, not only did he and Grandpa get along marvelously, but they might have had the strongest relationship out of anyone in our family while he was here. He would head over to their house and spend hours chatting away as many of us did. They were kindred spirits even if they were born worlds and decades apart.

When I was getting ready to get married we kindly asked (he might tell you we forced them) Grandma and Grandpa if they would house my wife’s Swedish grandparents for nearly a month before and after the wedding. Though they came from different cultural backgrounds and there was a fairly strong language barrier, they ended up developing a relationship so memorable that every time I visit Sweden they mention how wonderful a time they had and ask about them. Though his worldwide travel was much more limited than mine, his impact on the world stretched wide.


Grandpa, you were a local legend, I was proud to run into people who knew you and felt your influence seemingly everywhere I went.

I am grateful for every single day you lived on this earth, we were certainly all better off for it.

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Best Films of 2015

 

I still have a lot left to watch this year, like every year the prestige films get flooded upon us throughout December and mid-January leaving the unprofessional cinephile without extra cash or Friday evenings. There was a lot of stuff that was highly acclaimed that I was pretty meh on (It FollowsThe Duke of BurgundyLove & MercySpotlightTangerine) and quite a few movies that I recognize as flawed but excited me enough to ignore those flaws (DopeSicarioSlow WestStraight Outta Compton). I think I’ve become less willing to accept the merits of the “average” film, meaning that a movie better do something to excite me or I’m not having it. This probably happens after so many years and is probably why I haven’t made time to watch Oscar bait like The Danish Girl or Steve Jobs or super hero movies like Ant Man; they just don’t cut it for me anymore.

Another trend you may notice is that in nine out of the top ten, a woman is the most important character in the film. This wasn’t intentional by any means, but shows what could be an exciting new trend in cinema.

This is a list of films that did excite me this year, one that I will continue to update as I see more and more (so check back!).

Before we start, a list of things I haven’t seen (embarrassing, I know): Son of SaulThe TribeBridge of SpiesThe Big ShortThe MartianChi-Raq99 Homes45 YearsThe AssassinMustangHeaven Knows What

20. The Stanford Prison Experiment

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A thrilling movie that captures the debated prison guard/prisoner experiment that took place in the 70s on Stanford’s campus. There is a lot out there about the validity of the experiment and its results, but I think that’s inessential when talking about the quality of this film. Sure it get’s a lot out of its wow, this actually happened premise, but it’s a compelling piece of movie making, with great performances from its young cast, and reflects on the nature of power and violence really well.

19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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This might be a low placement for some, a high placement for others, but I think it perfectly encapsulates Star Wars in 2016. It deserves credit for being as good as it is, but its flaws should also be recognized. Daisy Ridley deserves 95% of the credit here, even if the rest of the film was awfully cast and there were terrible plot choices throughout, but Ridley was still the film’s star, I would have enjoyed it. Plus I’m really into what they did with Kylo Ren, where even if every moment didn’t work, they’ve created something more unique than anyone’s talking about: a villains whose conscience is haunted by the good in him.

18. Creed

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Like Star WarsCreed shows just how important casting is to a reboot. Sure Stallone is pretty good in what will likely be an Oscar winning performance, but this film goes nowhere without Michael B. Jordan. Jordan’s charm drives this film, whether it be his desire to follow in the footsteps of his father, his interactions with Rocky, or (especially) his blooming love story with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. Add to this Ryan Coogler’s great direction (that first fight scene!) and you’ve got something great. I can only see this growing in my estimation for years to come.

17. Timbuktu

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Timbuktu tells the tale of a fictionalized terrorist group has taking over a small town in West Africa. It’s timely in portraying how an all-encompassing and corrupt religion can destroy a culture. There are moments of deep distress at the injustice that occurs when certain powers take over. Perhaps more importantly there are scenes of heartbreaking beauty showing slight rebellion in the form of playing music or pretending to play soccer. No other film shows just how essential mercy is to the systems we create.

16. Sicario

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Sicario features the most thrilling experiences I had in a theater this year. Emily Blunt takes the lead and is our entry into the dark and politically muddled world of the drug war where she quickly learns the rules don’t matter. I actually don’t think the film really has any interesting insight on the drug war, but those big action scenes left me white-knuckled.

15. Dope

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The last third or so of this film completely undermines the tone by throwing in a strange plot twist, but for most of it Dope feels so fresh. It’s about a group of kids out of place in Inglewood, not only trying to tackle poverty’s obstacles, but also what it means to be an outsider in that situation. It’s got a great aesthetic, a great soundtrack, and tackles identity.

14. Room

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No other movie left me as wrecked as this one did and while usually this is a good sign, the happenings of Room were mostly presented in a way that I wouldn’t want to really watch them again. It’s a movie that brutally captures your imagination as it tells the tale of a mom (played by Brie Larson) and her young son being held captive in a room together. Luckily the movie isn’t all explicit heartbreak, the boy’s angelic voiceovers about  all he knows of the world offer a poetic beauty. I’m just not sure I’d want to experience it all again.

13. Slow West

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A movie I was mixed on while watching it that has grown on me ever since. It stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a Scottish immigrant who is trying to find his love who has recently fled to the Wild West. He’s in way over his head and is soon joined by a bounty hunter (played by Michael Fassbender) who begins to guide him with mixed motives. It’s a Western that allows itself to be weird, showcasing little quirks and a dry sense of humor. McPhee’s naivety drives the film, especially when placed in the midst of the self-serving evil the chaos of the West inspired. It’s a gorgeously shot film and features one of the best endings of the year.

12. The Hateful Eight

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I think this is Tarantino’s most nihilistic film, each of its characters don’t really seem to have any bit of good within them as they express their violent, misogynist, and racist tendencies. But throw eight of these people in a room together with Tarantino at the helm and you’re bound to get something worthwhile. Unlike most, and perhaps in spite of what I just wrote, I do think Tarantino has a conscience of justice that he expresses throughout (there are literally speeches about justice in this movie!). I do think it’s a little long and not quite as fun as his last couple of films were (as strange as that is to say about movies about slavery and the Holocaust).

11. Straight Outta Compton

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While not the most cinematic film of the year, Straight Outta Compton was both a banging music biopic and a treatise on the racial tensions present all throughout 2015. To see the events that inspired “F*ck Tha Police” presented in dramatic fashion at the same time as those sentiments were being expressed in various forms throughout the country due to violent interactions with the police was disheartening, but thrilling. In the midst of capturing this tension, and the effect of the group on culture, is a really fun movie that hits every note you’d want from a biopic.

10. Carol

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Todd Haynes’ latest is a gorgeously shot drama set in the 1960’s about two women’s love affair. While most of the dramatic tension lies in the forbidden romance, I think the film’s true thematic tone has to do with those who push against the traditional power structures. Carol’s husband (played by Kyle Chandler) is wrecked by his wife’s true sexual orientation, but he seems more distraught that he cannot control her. Therese is meek and mild-mannered and is inspired by Carol’s dominance as she wrestles with her relationships and career path. It is the system that holds them back more than any explicitly presented social mores. It’s a love story about a girl coming into her own and the love that inspired her to do it.

9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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This is a difficult film to recommend or praise because it is about an illicit affair between Minnie, a 15 year old girl played by Bel Powley, and her mother’s boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, an affair that is never presented as an immoral act. However, I would probably credit the film for this, because instead of moralizing, it shows the whole thing from Minnie’s perspective. She’s mostly thrilled about her newfound relationship and we hear her innermost thoughts through a voice recorded diary and her comics which often come to life throughout. It’s obviously not all daisies and writer/director Marielle Heller portrays her growth in flashes of excitement, confusion, and regret. It’s really well done.

8. Brooklyn

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The best pure romance film I’ve seen in a long while, I can only hope this takes the place of The Notebook as a go-to for romantic dramas. Brooklyn follows Ellis, a discontent Irish girl who seizes on the opportunity to come to America. While in America she struggles with the immigration experience which leaves her timid and uninspired. At an Irish dance she runs into Tony, a plumber from an Italian family who quickly expresses interest in her. The chemistry explodes even with her timidity and the two become a couple. Brooklyn is amazing at how well it pulls off the sincerity of each moment. It could have devolved into dramatic tropes, but instead lets its characters bask in joy; it gives them drama but grounds it in reality. Ellis is forced into a series of decisions that throw everything into question (and bring 2015 all star Domhnall Gleason into the mix) and the film pulls it off, giving us a fitfully beautiful ending.

7. About Elly

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Technically released internationally in 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s drama didn’t get an American release until this year. Like A Separation and The PastAbout Elly centers around a mystery and the gray areas that encapsulate the decisions of each of its characters. A group of friends go away for a vacation, bringing along Elly–a quiet girl with some sort of mysterious past. A serious events occurs that leaves the group traumatized and the leaves the viewer in a clouded knot. Farhadi is the master at showing how each of our decisions is based in a slew of cultural and religious biases that are so complex is becomes near impossible to declare rights and wrongs.

6. Tu Dors Nicole

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Tu Dors Nicole follows Nicole as she navigates her unsatisfying life during the summer in a small Canadian town. It’s about the restlessness of being post-high school, the overwhelming purposelessness that occurs, and the disillusionment that comes as a result. Director Stephane Lafleur guides us by giving the film an airy feel, lead by its black and white cinematography and the dreamlike quirks presented throughout whether overtly or slyly. Ultimately though, the film gets by on the charm of its characters who make every moment engaging.

5. Anamolisa 

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Charlie Kaufman’s latest film presents itself as being fairly straightforward at first, but throughout the opening, which features Michael Stone riding on an airplane, landing, and taking a cab to the airport, everything feels a little bit off. As we learn more about Michael, his experience of the world soon becomes clear, and Kaufman’s latest vision about a man in a midlife crisis all fits together beautifully. Life can be difficult to navigate, especially when it becomes mundane and all the joy gets sucked out of it–Kaufman illustrates this like Kaufman would. He also represents what it’s like to find joy in the midst of this and beautifully brings it to life in shocking and unexpected ways. Ultimately though, Michael is not allowed to be entirely cynical, he’s not allowed to seek joy however he pleases to, because neither of these are fulfilling life choices; Kaufman doesn’t tell us what will satisfy the man lost in his own life, but he does paint a great portrait of what will not.

4. Mistress America

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Noah Bambauch’s latest collaboration with Greta Gerwig is the funniest film of the year. It’s a His Girl Friday style screwball comedy where its throwaway lines are up there with the best written comedy of the year. It’s quick witted and manically paced, following its two female protagonists, Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig), through their lives in New York City. They are very different people and in different places in their lives–Tracy is a timid college freshman trying to figure it all out, while Brooke is a New York socialite with a new plan every minute–they hit it off and their relationship is a catalyst for the film which explores loneliness and personal growth.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

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This was everyone’s surprise film of the year and I must note it lives up to every bit of hype placed upon it. It’s a progressive post-apocolypitc car chase that nails every action sequence, storytelling device, and emotional beat it throws into the ether. I held my breath for large sections of the movie without noticing that I was doing it. I teared up as Max and Furiosa, two people unable to be vulnerable because of their experiences, slowly open up to one another. I laughed and cringed at the comic and ugly weirdness director George Miller places in the movie, showing at once how disturbing and lived in this world was. It hits on every level.

2. Ex Machina

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Alex Garland deserves so much credit for how he was able to set the mood of this film. It’s  set in a futuristic house where most of what’s happening is happening in conversation between it’s three central characters, but the tension is unbelievably high–evoking dread of whatever the outcome is to be. Domnhall Gleason plays Caleb, a young programmer, who gets sent to his CEO’s house (Nathan played by Oscar Isaac) for a mystery test. He soon learns he will be performing a Turing test on Nathan’s recently created robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). Even as the tension builds, Garland allows for his characters to be themselves, undermining the typical portraits of a mad scientist for one much more bro-ish and allows spontaneous dance scenes. It’s tense, surprising, well-written, and the kind of movie that actively engaged my mind more than anything else this year.

1. Inside Out

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I am an unabashed Pixar fanboy, it’s become my tradition to see each new film the studio makes on its opening day and update my rankings soon after. When I heard about the idea and casting of Inside Out, I could not have been more excited, this was a film that was made purely for me and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I think this is a masterpiece for the way it portrays our mind so cleverly. I think it’s a masterpiece for being able to capture the complex emotions behind moving to a new place and growing up. I think it’s a masterpiece visually (the abstract thought bit nails it). I think it’s a masterpiece in how it created new classic characters and that all of our children will grow up playing with a toy called Sadness. I think it’s a masterpiece comedically, creating great bits about annoying tunes that come in our head and how we dream. And finally, I think it’s a masterpiece because of the way it embraces sadness, advocating for an emotional complexity, and being able to portray this all on screen.

Honorable mentions: Shaun the SheepWild TalesPhoenixPitch Perfect 2Spy

 

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Top 10 Albums of 2015

Penultimate list of the year! Movies will be coming soon…

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10. Carly Rae Jepsen Emotion

A lot of people were really surprised by this record, but I never really was. I championed (and still do) “Call Me Maybe” as a perfect pop song and placed it as my number one song of 2012. Emotion is a strong pop album that never made much leeway on the radio despite its catchy 80s influenced style. Jepsen is our best pop star, you all just don’t know it.

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9. Titus Andronicus The Most Lamentable Tragedy

A 90-minute plus punk rock opera that filters the band’s punk influences through Bruce Springsteen’s everyman representation with an added experimental edge. It certainly doesn’t have the highs of The Monitor, but it is pretty consistent from beginning to end. Patrick Stickles brain will always come up with raging rock songs, intricate and complex enough to inspire a plethora of think pieces and this is everything I love rolled into one giant album.

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8. Julien Baker Sprained Ankle

Quite the opposite of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Baker’s debut album is quiet and sparse. There are only nine songs here, most of which only feature Baker singing and playing guitar , but boy are these tracks affecting. She has claimed these songs represent her coming out of a place of depression and abuse and one can certainly see the inner-monologue taking place. It’s an internal struggle, with Baker battling over her own soul and just when you think the darkness will overcome, grace shines through.

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7. Future Beast Mode

A lot has been written about Future being the saddest rapper to brag about drugs, partying, and sexual affairs and this has certainly been the case across his two mixtapes (Beast Mode, 56 Nights), his full length (DS2), and collaboration with Drake (What a Time to Be Alive). There’s a weariness to the way he raps, an autotuned slur, that makes you wonder if he’s really enjoying any of it. DS2 was the most critically acclaimed of the bunch, What a Time had the most hype surrounding it, but my favorite was Beast Mode which I think shows Future at his most sincere.

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6. Grimes Art Angels

On Art Angels, Grimes takes pop music and puts it through the most eccentric filter it could probably go through while continuing to be pop. It’s pure bubblegum pop, but is also very weird. Grimes takes a page out of K-Pop–electronic pop songs that are given the spirit and enthusiasm of a high school cheer team. It works surprisingly wonderful and is so much fun to listen to.

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5. Vince Staples Summertime ’06

Staples’ studio full length debut is a biographical double album about one of the most important summers he ever had. It tells the tale of Staples growing up, learning who he was, and the outside factors imposing in on his life. There are stories of adolescent love, of depression, and of extreme violence. It’s one of the most complex coming-of-age stories I’ve ever experienced. Staples is one of the best young voices making music out there and he may have just come up with a masterpiece here.

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4. Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

It’s hard to say what the best thing is that Barnett does, is it her ability to come up with rollicking rock songs? Her clever wordplay? The fact that she came up with the introvert anthem (sorry Alessia Cara)? All of these things point to why Sometimes I Sit is an amazing album. It’s funny, it’s thoughtful, it can be blasted on any road trip. Women are crushing it in indie rock and Barnett is there at the top.

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3. Tame Impala Currents

Currents shows Tame Impala at their most accessible, like Grimes their sound perfectly mixes their more experimental tendencies with mainstream pop’s aesthetic. Currents is a blend of EDM with a singer-songwriter’s vision. Kevin Parker has created dance music for indie rock kids, blending in disco and R&B influences to make an album that grew with every listen.

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2. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly

This was probably the album of the year, with Kendrick building on all the goodwill of good kid, mad city to make one of the most ambitious, sprawling, and important albums maybe ever? It’s funky, jazzy, and altogether not what you’d expect from the most hyped person in rap music. But that makes it even better, showing Kendrick as a true artist, one that pushes the genre forward. To Pimp a Butterfly was a necessary album in a year filled with racial strife and police brutality at the forefront of our national conversations. It’s celebratory of black culture, comforts all the pain, and is also deeply critical of inner-city violence. Kendrick is never what anybody wants him to be and I think that’s what makes him all the more important.

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1.Sufjan Stevens Carrie  & Lowell

While Kendrick spent time analyzing the affairs of a nation, Sufjan spends his time processing his inner-self, responding to the loss of his mother. It’s painstakingly personal, littered with references to the loss and the deep depression he went through as a result. Most of Sufjan’s work features beautiful, stripped down folk songs but these are usually places between quirky chamber pop tracks. Here we essentially get sad, contemplative Sufjan for 43 straight minutes, and as much as I love the baroque Sufjan, slowed down it is so beautiful.

Honorable mentions: Young Fathers White Men Are Black Men Too; Hop Along Painted Shut; Sports All of Something; Panda Bear Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper; Drake & Future What a Time to Be Alive

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Top 10 TV Shows of 2015

My favorite television shows of this year, of which I watched more than any other year. Shout outs to The Genius (a Korean reality show that is brilliant, but I didn’t have time to catch up with completely) and to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a musical comedy that showed half of its first season in 2015,  but will continue into 2016, thus disqualifying it.)

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10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 1)

I have many well documented opinions about this show, which I found fairly uneven, but also so enjoyable. I can’t help but think the show will only grow, making use of its Netflix freedom and the wonderful cast of characters it’s created. Titus’ “Pinot Noir” and rendition of “I’ll Make Love to You” at a funeral might be the two funniest moments of television all year.

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9. Fresh off the Boat (Season 1)

Another show that is fairly uneven, but is elevated by how likable every character is, plus Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang is probably the best new character on television. It’s a show with a unique perspective (literally only the second show to star an Asian-American as a lead ever) and it’s definitely worth the watch.

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8. Nathan for You (Season 3)

I’ve went through all three seasons of Nathan for You in the last month, so forgive me if I’m incapable of differentiating the three, but Nathan Fielder’s comedy spoof on business reality shows is both a brilliant sort of cringe comedy and a commentary on capitalism. Season 3 showed Nathan continuing brilliant ideas (Best Buy return policy, being a hero, weight loss through a moving company) and continued to mock viral media.

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7. Master of None (Season 1)

Aziz Ansari turned into an auteur this year with a show about all of the ideas that interest him. It’s definitely a product of the 21st century and could almost be given as a primer to adults who don’t understand those in their 20s. Ultimately though, Master of None, succeeds because of Ansari’s charm and the amount of heart he puts into each character’s story arc.

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6. Review (Season 2)

Review is premised off of a man reviewing everyday life via audience suggestions for a tv show. In actuality it’s an absolute farce, with Forrest MacNeil ruining his life episode by episode because of his commitment to following through with each review (the episode where he reviews giving something 6 stars is particularly hilarious). For being such a ridiculous show it actually is quite dark, like watching Job inflict himself with the punishments of God.

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5. Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chances

The season was really great, my favorite all-stars season ever (I’m also not the hugest Heroes vs. Villains fan), but what really made it was all the hype leading into it. For the first time ever Survivor allowed fans to vote in returning players–this lead to a barrage of campaigning and pre-gaming like has never taken place before. When the cast was announced at the Worlds Apart finale, it was torture knowing that each and every day the players you voted for were out playing Survivor. When we finally saw the product it was worth it, with some of the most fluid and impassioned gameplay in the show’s 31 seasons.

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4. The Americans (Season 3)

One of these days The Americans will be my number one show (it’s finished 2nd twice and now 4th), but it’s a consistent show for its intense spy games and the layers of relationships it creates whether they be familial, friend, or work. This season saw Clark and Martha more strained than ever, Paige going to a whole new character level, and all sorts of new vulnerability across all the leads.

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3. Fargo (Season 2)

Some people have hailed this as better than season 1, I’m not sure I agree (it was my favorite last year), but boy is this the most inventive show out there. It’s an anthology series so there were little ties to the first season (the connections that were there, played out brilliantly), but thematically all of the same ties are there–the fight for good in an evil world and the corruptibility of humanity when given the chance.

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2. Show Me a Hero

David Simon (creator of The Wire) brought a new mini-series to HBO about low-income houses getting brought into the suburbs of New York and the resulting political ramifications. Like Simon’s past work the show is complex, following a multitude of characters and how the placement of low-income housing affects each of their lives. If you know The Wire, you’ll know exactly how this turns out and Simon is a master of creating stories out of deep political and socioeconomic divides.

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1. Parks and Recreation (Season 7)

I mentioned that this was my favorite tv show of all time on the best episodes list and this year they put out one of their best seasons. It’s an encore that highlights each of its characters best qualities, making every episode feel like an event. It’s an emotional roller coaster that ends a great series just about better than any other show.

Honorable Mentions: Veep (Season 4), Community (Season 6), Bloodline

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