Sunday, January 11, 2015

Favorite Movies of 2014

1. Selma - Such a powerful movie about the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the voting rights marches in 1965. Most movies don't grab me emotionally, but this one definitely did. I was deeply saddened and angered by the hatred and violence displayed by many. I was moved by the endurance, conviction, and reliance upon truth in the face of such strong opposition and injustice that was exhibited by Dr. King and those leading the charge with him. With all the "Christian" movies that came out this year, some say it could be the most Christian movie of the year. I think I agree. You can read more thorough reviews here and here.

2. Boyhood - From director Richard Linklater, this was filmed over a period of 12 years with the same cast. That in and of itself is a pretty incredible feat. However, it's not just a gimmick. It creates a very relatable movie as it shows the ups and downs of life for a boy and his family that has become broken through divorce and multiple re-marriages. It is so incredibly seamless as it shows bits and pieces of life through the different stages of his life. I also liked that it wasn't overly dramatic. There were times you thought something bad was going to happen (because Hollywood has trained us this way), but they ended up being very normal scenes, which kept the drama centered on the dialogue and the typical experiences of growing up. You can read other reviews here and here.

3. Calvary - Brendan Gleeson is a great fit to play a priest in a beautiful coastal town in Ireland. Near the beginning of the movie, a mysterious parishioner tells Gleeson that he has one week to live, and that he will be killed simply because he is a good man. The rest of movie shows a priest as he tries to love his deeply flawed community while also trying to discern who this mysterious killer is. I really like this movie because it portrays a man who is trying to do good, but who is mocked and disrespected by the recipients of his grace. Other reviews can be found here and here.

4. Interstellar - I had high expectations for this Christopher Nolan directed blockbuster and expectations were mostly met. Dialogue was a little cheesy at times, but I enjoyed the concept and beauty of the deep space quest. Other reviews here and here.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel - I really enjoy Wes Anderson movies, and this is another great one. If you pushed me, I think I would rank them best to worst: Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket, GBH, Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore, Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Grand Budapest is as creative and quirky and funny as the rest. Ralph Fiennes makes a nice addition to the crew of Wes Anderson regulars, as he plays a hotel concierge at a fictional hotel in the 1920s and 1930s. Other reviews can be found here and here.

6. Noah - I was excited when I heard critically acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky would be bringing us his vision of this biblical epic. While many were upset about the rock monsters (though who really knows what the nephilim were), an environmentalist agenda (which I heartily disagree with), and other ways the story seemed to stray from the original, I actually felt like much of the heart of the story was intact. It was clear that Noah was a sinful man, who didn't always trust God, but who ultimately knew that God provided for and was gracious to his family despite those things. Other reviews here and here.

7. The Lego Movie - This was just a very enjoyable and funny movie. The voices and humor of Chris Pratt and Will Arnett were among the highlights for me. Other reviews can be found here and here.

8. Edge of Tomorrow - I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Tom Cruise lives a Groundhog day, continuing to die and re-spawn until he figures out how to save the world. Very entertaining and great performances by Cruise and Emily Blunt. Another review here.

9. Locke - Tom Hardy in a car, talking to different people on his phone. That's the entirety of this movie. Yet, it's very compelling to watch as this man seek to do right as it causes his life to fall apart. Great performance by Mr. Hardy. Other reviews here and here.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy - Chris Pratt was a great choice for the lead role, as this movie seemed to fit his humor and likable personality. Enjoyable movie. Another review here.

Saw, but didn't make the cut: Night Moves, 22 Jump Street, Godzilla, Non-stop
Didn't see, but hope to see soon: Birdman, Fury, Joe, Top Five, Manakamana, Child's Pose, Ida, Snowpiercer, Emeny, Foxcatcher

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Favorite Books I Read in 2014

Like last year, I'm somewhat disappointed with the amount of books I was able to get to this year. My pile of "can't wait to read" seems to get higher with each passing year. However, out of the ten books I got around to reading, I thought eight were good enough to mention on this list of my favorites. Hopefully that means I'm getting more efficient.

As is normally the case for my end of the year book list, the books below were all written before this year began. I rarely read current books as I feel that there are centuries of books yet to be explored. So here are my favorite books I read this year:

1. Common Ground by Gordon Bals (2012)

This is hands down the best marriage book I've ever read. When Lauren and I were in a difficult place in our marriage a couple of months into marriage, a counselor friend of mine recommended that we read this book. Time and time again, it proved to be so incredibly helpful as it laid out exactly what we were going through. In the book, Bals lays out a lot of wisdom about the lies we are tempted to believe, the unique struggles we face in the roles of husband and wife, and the unique ways we are called to love one another. I cannot recommend this book highly, to those of you are married, facing difficulty in relating to one another, but even to those who aren't.

Quote: "God burdened Adam with futility to frustrate his desire to have impact...He burdened Eve with disappointment in relationships to frustrate her desire to be connected...The burden of Genesis makes clear that the marriage relationship will be more vexing for the wife…The marital relationship is easier for the husband than it is for the wife...Marriage is more tenuous for a wife because she longs for more in marriage than her husband does, and she is wounded more deeply by marital pain.”

2. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (2001)

This is my fourth Berry book and my second that is written about the fictional town of Port William, a town loosely based on where Berry has lived for the past fifty years. This one is about the man who would become the barber of Port William. I love the way Berry writes and how he draws you in to the beauty of the rural life, a simple life centered around farming and community. It's hard to read this book and not want to give up on the hustle and bustle of our technology-saturated lives, to be immersed in a more restful existence, where "getting ahead" is rarely considered and where thoughts and experiences are real and important even though they aren't shared with the world.

Quote: "He was lonely because he could imagine himself as anything but himself and as anywhere but where he was. His competitiveness and self-centeredness cut him off from any thought of shared life. He wanted to have more because he thought that having more would make him able to live more, and he was lonely because he never thought of the sources, the places, where he was going to get what he wanted to have, or of what his having it might cost others."

3. Desire by John Eldredge (2007)

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and resonated with what was in this book. Eldredge's main point is that we are generally scared to listen to and live out of our deep desires. It's easier to distract ourselves than to feel and be let down. However, desire is a key part of the Christian life as it humbles us and causes us to admit how desperate our situation really is.

Quote: “There is a secret within each of our hearts. It often goes unnoticed, we rarely can put words to it, and yet it guides us throughout the days of our lives. This secret remains hidden for the most part in our deepest selves. It is the desire for life as it was meant to be...The greatest human tragedy is to give up the search."

4. Men of Courage by Larry Crabb (2013)

This is an updated and expanded edition of Crabb's, The Silence of Adam, which I had never read. It's a great book for understanding the struggles men face and what our calling is. On one of the hardest nights my wife and I faced this year, as we struggled to believe truth two months into our marriage, I remember reading the quote below out loud with tears in my eyes. It nailed me and my desire to run away from conflict. Although, I'm sure I felt some shame in that moment, the tears seemed to come more from a place of hope, a hope that God had indeed called me to more and promised to give me strength to become more.

Quote: "Since Adam, every man has had a natural inclination to remain silent when he should speak. A man is most comfortable in situations in which he knows exactly what to do. When things get confusing and scary, his insides tighten and he backs away. When life frustrates him with its maddening unpredictability, he feels the anger rise within him. And then filled with terror and rage, he forgets God’s truth and looks out for himself. From then on, everything goes wrong. Committed only to himself, he scrambles to make his own life work.”

5. David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

An interesting read from a great writer. Gladwell's basic premise is that weaknesses and disadvantages often create better situations than first imagined. He illustrates this through nine different stories that are intriguing and entertaining.

Quote: "There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources - and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” 

6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

In my quest for reading more and more classics, I knew I eventually needed to tackle this one. It was difficult at times, as I would sometimes grow tired of learning about the intricate details of the whale's anatomy, but overall, it was an interesting story, full of fascinating sentences like the quote below.

Quote: "All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

7. The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr (2001)

I picked up this book in the summer of 2013 when I began to become interested in this model of personality based on nine types called the Enneagram. The book gives some history to personality models in general and some history to the Enneagram specifically. The bulk of the book is a break down of each of the nine personality types (1-9). One of the reasons I enjoyed this book and profited from learning more about my type (which is 9), is that I so identified with my type, and Rohr's description gave voice to the unique ways I struggle in life. It helped me know that I am not alone in those unique struggles and that there are unique ways that God is calling me to persevere and mature in light of those struggles.

Quote: "The Enneagram is more about 'unbelieving' the disguise that we all are. Ernest Becker called it 'our vital lie.' Merton called it the false self. The Enneagram gets right to the point and calls it our sin."

8. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (2007)

This book is a nonfiction account of Dillard's year of retreat in Virginia's Roanoke Valley. I wonder if it would have been higher on the list if I had read it outdoors during the day, instead of in small 20 minutes chunks right before I went to bed. So much of her writing is beautiful and poetic. She spends a lot of time observing nature at a particular creek, and she often describes in detail what she is learning.

Quote: "I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, 'next year…I’ll start living; next year…I’ll start my life.' Innocence is a better world."

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Favorite Podcasts of 2014

After over a year away from this blog, I feel compelled to return for one of my favorite things: doing some best of the year lists.

I've typically done a best albums of the year list, but when I was thinking through this year, I couldn't think of many albums that would be on that list. That's not to say there hasn't been some great music that has come out this year. It's just that most of my listening time comes on my commute to work, and this year, I've mainly been listening to podcasts.

While I've been listening to a handful of podcasts for several years now, this year has definitely been the year of the podcast for me. Thankfully there are a lot of great options out there, so, in lieu of my favorite albums, here are my favorite podcasts that I've enjoyed this year.

1. Serial
This was an incredible journalistic story, told over 12 episodes, that seemed to have most of the country captivated. It came from This American Life producer, Sarah Koenig, who takes another look at a murder case from 1999. She wonders if the man presently serving a life sentence for the crime was wrongfully convicted or not. Sarah does a great job looking at a lot of different facets of the story and takes the listener on a roller coaster ride of emotions and convictions about what actually happened. Very well done. Looking forward to season 2.

Recommended episodes: ALL of them

2. Relevant
Put out by the creators of Relevant Magazine, this is 90-120 minute weekly conversation that I have looked forward to ever since I began the journey in the fall of 2007. Although there are foundational elements like news slices, entertainment releases, occasional interactive games, and spots for musical guests, pastors, leaders, writers, etc., most of it is just so very random and hilarious. Looking forward to many more years with this crew.

Recommended episode: Trip Lee (October 31)

3. This American Life
Produced and hosted by Ira Glass, this is a weekly collection of stories that center around a particular topic. I began listening in 2011 and it has been near the top of the most downloaded podcasts at least that long.

Recommended episode: 129 Cars (November 16)

4. RadioLab
I began listening to this after the two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, were interviewed by Relevant back in September. With each episode there is a central theme and they unpack that theme in a remarkable way, touching on religion, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and history.

Recommended episode: Shorts: For the love of numbers (May 2)

5. Freakonomics
This was another new one I picked up this year. Steven Levitt, the co-author of the book of the same name, is the host. The tagline sums it up well: "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything."

Recommended episode: How can tiny Norway afford to buy so many Teslas? (October 16)

6. NPR Planet Money
Another new one to me, these are short (usually around 15 minutes) episodes that look at different stories from a financial perspective.

Recommended episode: Why is the milk in the back of the store (July 23)

7. Here's the Thing with Alec Baldwin
Having started about a month ago, I've only listed to two episodes so far, but they have both been very enjoyable. Alec Baldwin basically sits down with different people and asks them about their lives. He is a really good host and interviewer because he is able to have fun with his guests and because he is so curious about all the little things that have made them who they are.

Recommended episode: Jerry Seinfeld (June 2)

8. Undone Redone
I began listening to this one some time in 2013. It's a podcast out of Birmingham hosted by Tray and Melody Lovvern that is centered around the theme of brokenness and the messiness of life. They are Christians who got divorced after Tray's sexual addiction came to light, but were re-married six years later, after a lot of counseling and healing. They interview many different types of authors, leaders, and counselors who discuss their own stories of brokenness and addiction. I really enjoy it because it normalizes the issues that many Christians face but are too ashamed to admit. And they always stay focused on how God's grace and love is present among those dark places, drawing us to himself though we don't deserve it.

Recommended episode: Living from our deep desires (February 11)