Cinema, after all, is a kind of collective memory. Films are both time capsules, preserving the original period of their release, and a collection of thoughts and ideas that extend from the artists and craftsmen that lived in its time.
Thus, the Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Memory is an exercise in commemoration. It is an attempt by Image’s Arts & Faith online community to celebrate and examine the unique ability of cinema to speak to the theme of memory.
From Ryan Holt’s excellent introduction to the Arts and Faith top 25 films on memory.
I have been a member of Arts & Faith for over two years, and I participated in voting for the titles on this list, and I wrote three of the blurbs as well. Including films from How Green was My Valley to The Tree of Life and Rashomon to Last Year at Marienbad, this is an all-around great list of movies. Check it out!
A mediocre film elevated by a very good performance from Julianne Moore and an excellent one from Kristen Stewart.
Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Joshua Overbay. Starring Chris Nelson, Luke Beavers, Shannon Kathleen Baker, Jin Park, and John Lina.
What if the wolf in sheep’s clothing really believes he is the shepherd? That is not unusual, many false prophets take themselves seriously. But what if the wolf really, deeply believes he is helping and pasturing the sheep and putting their interests ahead of his own even as the sheep’s lives become increasingly miserable? That is the angle of As It Is in Heaven, and for me that is a thought provoking and semi-unique take. Even Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher from The Night of the Hunter, perhaps the greatest film about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, knows he is first and foremost helping himself, even though he thinks he is doing the Lord’s work.
David (Chris Nelson) is not only convinced he is doing the Lord’s work, he also thinks that he is helping to prepare his followers for life as it is in heaven. Having recently taken over a doomsday cult after the unexpected death of their prophet Edward (John Lina), David believes he has been chosen by God to prepare the community for the rapture in thirty days, as predicted by Edward. Further complicating matters, Edward’s final act was to anoint David as his successor, passing over his son Eamon (Luke Beavers). Naturally, a sort of rivalry begins to form between Eamon and David; however, it is not motivated by jealousy, but a difference of opinion on what the cult was supposed to be. With David’s increasingly strict guidance as he mandates a thirty-day fast to purify everyone for the rapture, Eamon is genuinely concerned for the well being of the community, which is a family to him.
As It Is in Heaven is interested in much more than just a conflict between two ways to lead a doomsday cult. It explores the dangers of interpreting scripture without any guidance, the trust people naturally feel for a respected leader, and the confused emotions of the members of a religious sect through a period of upheaval.
David has all the fire and enthusiasm of a recent convert (which he is, having been baptized only one year ago), and along with that comes a stubbornness and arrogance that he knows exactly what God’s will is. Chris Nelson is excellent at portraying the passion of a man who truly believes his own words and that he is preparing the last remnants of the faithful for the second coming of Christ. He makes David surprisingly sympathetic to a point, until his actions become truly monstrous, at which point it is hard to know what to think of him. As Eamon, Luke Beavers conveys a deep respect for this way of life and a reluctance to do anything that might harm the community, but he balances that with increasing determination as he witnesses the costly consequences of David’s orders. As the newest member Abiella, Jin Park is reserved and portrays the conflict of someone who wishes to believe she made the right choice even as nothing turns out as she expected.
First time feature director Joshua Overbay beautifully films the community and its quiet rural setting. Opening with a couple fluid long takes, the camera slowly follows one member to the river for a Baptism, by which Overbay suggests an idyllic world where a community lives in peace. When that world is shaken by David’s leadership and harsh proclamations, the camera begins to shake as well. The effect is not overdone, and it subtly suggests the upheaval through which the community will soon go.
It has been remarked that Night of the Hunter ruins then redeems the favorite hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the similarly themed and nearly as compelling As It Is in Heaven ruins then redeems not only its very flawed protagonist, but also the entire doomsday cult. Although the community could at first appear to be nothing more than a group of fundamentalist extremists with a monstrous leader, As It Is in Heaven portrays misguided, sympathetic characters who struggle to do what they believe is best. The result is gripping and tragic, and it underscores the film’s greatest irony: as these characters become more confident that they are doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, their society becomes less and less like heaven.
Information on viewing As It Is in Heaven can be found here.
Content Advisory: Mature themes including the death of an infant, a non-graphic murder, and implied off-screen adultery. Not Rated
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Year of Release: 2015 Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, and Keir O’Donnell.
It is always unfortunate when a film generates such strong political reactions that those reactions dominate any discussion of the film. Such reactions make it difficult to discuss the film and its merits without first addressing the controversy. I must admit I’m baffled disappointed to see the intense politicized responses American Sniper is receiving because it supposedly celebrates the Iraq war and glorifies a man who may have been a war hero, but was apparently less than a role model in real life. I think that in calling the film a straightforward defense of the Iraq war, critics are seriously undermining the film’s strengths and selling short its sense of conflict and its depiction of the tragic effects of the war and a career dominated by violence.
In his four tours of duty during the Iraq War, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (a very good Bradley Cooper) is credited with 160 kills out of a probable 255, and he feels confident that every shot he took was the right thing to do. Kyle, having a penchant for violence, is eager to join the army, fight for his country, and kill those damn terrorists. Having hunted all his life he is a natural sniper, and he soon becomes a hero to his fellow soldiers who feel safe when he is overseeing them. American Sniper is the story of a very pro-war, pro-gun soldier, and thus, it makes total sense that the Iraq War is accepted as something that happened. Just because the film depicts the war without questioning its wisdom or lack thereof, does not mean the film glorifies the war or condemns it. American Sniper is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it is just war.
More importantly, there are many scenes which show the tragic effects and heavy toll of both the war and Kyle’s many killings. I really do not understand how someone could watch the scenes between Kyle and his wife, his son, and his colleagues and call the film unapologetically pro-war. When Kyle takes his wife for her prenatal checkup, his resting blood pressure is 170 over 110. He screams at a nurse who does not respond to his crying daughter quickly enough. He is unable to accept a complement from a marine when he is out with his son. The breakdown he has at a child’s birthday party is very painful to watch. To call the film a celebration of the Iraq war is to badly sell those scenes short.
American Sniper undoubtedly has some pacing problems, and there are a couple miscalculated subplots which should either have been removed or developed into much larger segments. The standoff/manhunt between Kyle and rival Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) plays too much like a conventional thriller, and the half-baked attempts to set up a rivalry between them would only have worked if Mustafa had been given much more back story. As it is, the scenes of him hunting Kyle distract from the story and make it too obvious how their standoff will eventually end. The resolution of that subplot is the film’s weakest moment, because it is handled like a triumphant moment out of a mediocre Marvel movie.
I also wish the final twenty minutes had been developed into a full hour. There is rich, poignant material in that section concerning PTSD, guilt, adjusting to a quiet life after being one of the deadliest SEALs, and one’s duty as a husband and father. While some scenes do capture the tension, raging emotions, and painful consequences, as a whole that part of the story is rushed through too quickly.
As a point of comparison, when Francis Ford Coppola was asked to write the screenplay for Patton, his first thought was, “Oh crap. Half the country loves him because they think he won the war, and half the country hates him because they think he was a sadistic war criminal. If I chose either side, I’ll alienate half my audience.” He chose to respect both sides, portraying Patton as a brilliant general who loses his temper and gives in to nasty violence, a conflicted character who too often gives into his violent nature but still has a strong sense of dignity. Jason Hall did something similar with his script for American Sniper. He does not shy away from portraying Kyle’s violence and even showing it to be at times successful, but he also portrays a damaged human being whose choices harm not only on himself but his family as well. The scene when Kyle’s brother (Keir O’Donnell ) makes a disparaging comment about the war, only to have Kyle look at him as if he were a stranger is a particularly acute example.
Kyle’s first kill, which opens the film, is another powerful example of the cost of violence. As a mother hands her son a grenade, Kyle hesitates to shoot. It is the first scene, we have no context, and this a perfect textbook example of self-defense. Taking the shot seems like a no-brainer. Before Kyle pulls the trigger, there is a half hour flashback to his childhood and training, showing him bonding with his equally violent father, protecting his little brother, grieving on 9/11, and flirting with his wife-to-be (Sienna Miller). After witnessing the hardships and joys of Kyle’s life, when the film returns to Iraq, his hesitation is perfectly natural, and the tragic evil of deliberately ending any life is fully dramatized.
Finally, if anyone doubts Eastwood’s stance on violence, remember, he wrote and directed this:
Content Advisory: Some brutal wartime violence, disturbing gory images, profane and obscene language throughout, intense themes of PTSD and family discord, and mildly sensual foreplay. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: B-