Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
Let me start by saying that half of the fun of writing for the Rabbit Room is finding the perfect image for your post.
Moving on… In late 2009, Andrew Peterson, esteemed proprietor of the Rabbit Room, sent an email to the contributors inviting us to offer up our top 3 “best of” lists for 2009. The only rules were that we needed to have discovered or consumed the said title this last year and he also modestly requested that we exclude mentioning his books or records in our list, not necessarily presuming that we would have thought to have included them anyway.
I, for one, followed his rules. Several of the others, though, are lawless rule breakers who seem shamelessly determined to get on his good side… but given that it’s Andrew, and that we’re all here in one way or another on account of our love for his work, I won’t cry “nepotism!” His work speaks for itself.
Still, Andrew, I hope you appreciate that at least I was a good rule follower… (and that you make me your favorite because of it)
(Speaking of rule following, one of my favorite things about this list is reading through and seeing all the ways us creative types bent the rules. Some only list one thing, some create their own categories, and even our own proprieter names more than 3, but of only two categories. Sheesh. It’s also fun to see common denominators throughout. Could UP be the best movie of 2009?)
So, what follows are some of the books, films, and music we enjoyed in 2009. We hope that you’ll discover a new film, book, or record that you can lose your heart to listed here, and we also hope you’ll suggest some for us and add to our list with your own faves.
The Hurt Locker
I wrote a piece about this for the Rabbit Room here
After reading the book, I had a hunch this film would hit me at this stage of life in a similar way to how Braveheart hit me in when I was a college student. I suspected it would move me to consider what mattered most to me, and how far I’d go to take care of those God has given me. I don’t know how filmable this book was, so the film left me wanting a bit but I can’t really think of any ways Viggo and the boy could have turned in better performances.
When a computer animated montage without a single word has me blubbering in my chair as my confused daughters wondering if their daddy is going to be okay (and if they can have another twizzler), how can I not put Up on my top three. Who knew Pixar had it in them to create such powerful imagery of growing up to be a man who lugs around his past like a burden out of a sense of obligation to the dead? Who knew I’d exhale when his burden finally drifted off into the expanse?
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Finally got around to this one. The imagery of the boxes of sermons in the attic no one will ever read again struck me as a pastor. I have boxes like those. And I’m continually making more.
The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
Sally Lloyd-Jones has crafted something I hope stays in print and becomes the gold standard of children’s bibles for generations to come. Why, you ask? Because there isn’t a parent alive who won’t come to know Scripture better as a result of reading this to their kids, and there isn’t a kid alive who won’t have wonderful images planted in their minds, if God so graces them, of stiff-necked people butting up against the truth and truth prevailing.
The Book of Genesis.
Have you read that book lately? The saga of Abraham and his descendants clues you in on why Jacob called God “the fear.” Oh man.
Andrew Osenga- Choosing Sides
I have decided the word I am going to use to describe Osenga to folks is “vibey.” I’ll be on this record for a while, I suspect.
Andy Gullahorn- The Law of Gravity
Gully gives us art that steeps over time, getting richer, sweeter, stronger and dare I say, darker. By darker, I don’t mean sin-dark. I mean, plumbing the deep waters of the heart, going places that don’t see the light of common day very often. And the confounding thing is he does it without a shred of manipulation, except for four tracks. (kidding)
Paul Simon- Surprise
This wasn’t released this year, but this was the year I spent time with it. I can’t say I’m a huge Paul Simon fan, but I have come back to this record more times than I can count this year. I especially like “Outrageous.”
Andrew challenged us to give our top 3s of 2009. I took this very seriously and made two rules for myself. First, it had to be a piece of media that I have actually consumed. No claiming movies that I will probably love that haven’t been released yet. No claiming to adore the Hurt Locker, which I missed in the theater. Second, it had to be something that was actually released in 2009, not just something I read in 2009. Finally, I decided not to mention any Rabbit Room contributor so as to expand our horizons, and so as not to make Andy Gullahorn mad at me when I didn’t choose him. Not because I don’t love his music but because he shames me in bowling. Cheating? Maybe, but who cares?
The film that you most likely haven’t seen but you really should, because it is just that funny/beautiful/thoughtful.
Get over your prejudices and Tarentino’s silly showmanship, close your eyes 3 or 4 times, and watch the best picture likely to be made this year.
Because if I can’t stop crying in a film, and I can’t stop thinking about it later, it has to be in this list.
Justificiation by N.T. Wright
Not his best book, but better by far than any other theological book written this year (I assert having not read all those books). He is humanity’s greatest living theologian. Anglicans Rule!
Lost to the West by Lars Brownsworth
Based on a fantastic podcast, this history of Byzantium is well worth your time.
The Prodigal God by Tim Keller
Didn’t love the last half of this little book, but the first half unveils the heart of the Gospel.
Yes, it has its Christian bashing moments. But it is the one TV show guaranteed to make me laugh, smile, shed a tear, and feel all warm and fuzzy.
Battlestar Galactica, the final season
If you have not watched the new Battlestar Galactica from the beginning mini-series through the end, you are missing out on the best television show of this decade.
The music isn’t just the notes, it’s the silence between.
In all seriousness, this film is near-perfect in every way. A proper summer blockbuster that paid proper homage to the source material enough for the nerdy cult following while still being absolutely fun for the rest of us.
The Hurt Locker
Riveting, absolutely riveting filmmaking.
Small indie film chronicling the unexpected friendship between an old man wanting to die and a young immigrant just trying to start his life. Affecting in every way.
The Fidelity of Betrayal by Peter Rollins
Rollins, an Irish philosopher/pastor/theologian, delivers a thought-provoking (and Spirit provoking) work on the necessity of betraying the very religion we love as a part of our spiritual journey.
Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby
The latest novel from the author of High Fidelity and About A Boy strikes gold with this novel about an out of work songwriting legend.
Provenance by Laney Salisbury
Fascinating non-fiction work detailing an insane fraud ring in the world of European art in the ’90s.
Vic Chesnutt – At the Cut
Paraplegic songwriter and session guitarist in Athens, GA makes the best album of his decades-long career with absolutely heart-wrenching songs about bravery and cowardice, life and loss.
The Doves – Kingdom of Rust
An absolute tour-de-force of a British rock album that shows there’s more than Radiohead and Coldplay out there. The title track alone is my favorite track of 2009, moving like a locomotive from the Doves’ signature rock sound to Johnny Cash to an orchestral explosion.
Metric – Fantasies
Canadian synth rock that mesmerizes from beginning to end; not a bad track on the entire disc.
A beautiful, truthful story about father hunger, loyalty, love etc. The entire family will enjoy, unless your family is dumb.
Beam me up for this thrilling…oh, nevermind.
A telling contrast of lives and views in this Darren Doane documentary (featuring Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson). Actual debate. Not like the yelling TV “news” shows.
Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl by N.D. Wilson
An artful apologetic for joy and thankfulness. Seven out of seven stars. Best book I’ve read in years, as the saying goes.
North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson
The adventure continues for Janner, Leelie and Tink. A wonder hardly to be believed at the heart of the world, terrifically dark peril, outstanding.
The ESV Study Bible
Useful notes, particularly on genre, literary aspects of the different types of books of the Bible. Cool pictures and maps. On the downside, it’s very heavy.
If you strictly enforce the “No AP” policy….
Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson
A story set in a future with no electric power, a second steam age, a dominant feudal culture, a conflicted hero and a charming tyrant-in-waiting. Loved it.
Eric Peters – Chrome
An honest, difficult, delightful record. Bonus: Songs that confuse my brother.
Sara Groves – Fireflies and Songs
Feels like life, as usual. Good.
Coldplay – Viva La Vida
Because of Pete’s review I got this and I liked to listen to it with the ear area of my head.
I tried to narrow it down to my three favorites and I just couldn’t do it. I comes down to these four and I can’t bring myself to cut one of them.
Despite flaws like a horribly crass “love” scene and trying too hard to be an action movie, this is still one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve seen in years and one of the best science fiction movies since Blade Runner–and I mean science fiction in its true sense of speculation and consequence, not in the sense of space ships and robots. Like the graphic novel, it’s a movie that asks a lot of really good questions and is smart enough to follow its drama to its logical conclusions while leaving the viewer to decide who was right or wrong long after leaving the theatre. Complex questions + complex answers = great art.
This movie reignited my belief in the power of cinema. Hyperbole? Maybe. There might not be as much depth to it as I’d like but it’s so well done and so completely sweeps you into its story that I found myself grinning like a kid throughout the entire thing just because I was so happy to be watching a story unfold in such an original and compelling way.
If there was any doubt that Tarantino is a genius (and there really wasn’t), can we please put it to rest? Riveting from the first frame to the horrifying finale. I think I saw it three times and it just kept getting better.
Where the Wild Things Are
A movie that is nearly a miracle. There is every reason for it not to work, and yet it not only works, it excels. I can think of no other movie that so perfectly captures the complex nature of boyhood, not on an explicit level, but on a visceral, deep, emotional level.
Mew – Frengers
It might not have been released this year, but I discovered it this year and wore it out. It’s not the sort of music that I’m typically drawn to, but it’s complex and beautiful and I just can’t get it out of my head.
Sara Bareilles – Little Voice
Once again, it didn’t technically come out this year but this was the year that everybody heard it. You might be sick of “Love Song” playing on the radio but the entire album is beautiful and her writing is incredible for a girl of her age.
The Killers – Day and Age
I fell in love with The Killers thanks to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I had never heard of them before playing “When You Were Young” on the Xbox. When the new CD came out I jumped on it and it’s one of my favorites. “Dustland Fairytale” is just plain epic, not to mention that any album featuring lyrics about spacemen, neon tigers, and asking the eternal question of “Are we dancer?” has simply GOT to be genius…I’m not sure if I’m kidding or not.
This list is seriously limited because I read very little that actually came out anywhere near this year.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
A book that examines some interesting theories on why people are successful. It’s a fascinating read and there are a couple of chapters that have seriously affected the way I think about my writing and what I do with my time. Well worth reading.
And because it’s the only other thing I read that came out anywhere near this year:
The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
If the Coen Bros. decided to write a book starring Adrian Brody, this would be it. It’s a strange, surrealistic mystery, that’s fascinating in its voice and imaginative scope even if it loses some of its narrative steam in the last few chapters. I look forward to reading Berry’s next book.
Books (of which I’ve barely read three this year):
Every Man A King: The Autobiography of Huey P. Long
A book every Louisianan should read. Mr. Long, easily the state’s most colorful and entertaining governor-character.
The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith
I read this in college, forgot what it was about, so I pulled it from the shelves and read it again. The history and story behind the fatal, and ridiculous, Charge of the Light Brigade.
So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger
I’m unable to adequately put into words why I like Enger’s works so much, but his characters possess that trait of humanity that can never ultimately be erased or forgotten: the comprehension of truth.
Music (of which I’ve barely listened to three albums this year):
The Weepies – Hideaway
I honestly believe I like this album MORE than their previous, more widely acclaimed album, Say I Am You. I don’t know how Deb Talan does it, but her quirky voice is my gold standard for believability.
Jill Phillips – The Good Things
This album is my favorite of Jill’s thus far. It feels like the most vulnerable project she’s done to date. Killer, memorable, singable songs. The string parts on this album clobber me. Kudos to Jill, Andy G., and producer Cason Cooley.
Movies (of which I’ve barely seen three this year):
“I barely know you, and I love you.” Laugh, cry, laugh some more. Pixar understands storytelling.
My three-year-old son’s favorite movie, even though he hasn’t the focusing ability to sit through the entire thing yet. I still can’t watch the three-car race finale without tearing up. Pixar understands storytelling.
Land of the Lost
I cannot recall a third movie I’ve seen this year, so this will have to do. This movie is terrible, but it’s funny in a few places if only because of Will Ferrell. Sorry – One-Minute reviewer, Thomas McKenzie, I am not.
Sara Groves – Fireflies and Songs
because the songs about marriage and family on this record are so beautiful, to me they are already timeless.
because I’m just so thankful that I can be so deeply moved by something that my kids want to experience over and over as well.
I’ve only read 2 books from this year, and North or Be Eaten was my favorite. And I say so in direct defiance of Andrew Peterson’s ban on listing his works on our lists. It is excitingly fast paced, it is so convincingly written that I believe the characters and scenes and harrowing plot twists and get caught up in the story. I would read ahead every night after I stopped reading to the kids so that I could find out what happened next.
Can’t believe how impressed I was with this. I also can’t stop watching it over and over. Being a fan of the original series, I have to say: this is how you reboot an entire series. To accomplish a great piece of film-making in a well-loved series without dismissing its entire history and giving it a chance to start over – simply brilliant.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
In another year, this wouldn’t have made my top 3 list, but I’ve barely been interested in or seen many films this year. Overall, well done and a nice addition to the X-Men series.
And to round out this trifecta of geekyness, despite several big complaints about choices made in this film, it was paced well, mostly told the story it needed to tell, and was visually wonderful.
I read plenty of books this year, but only three from 2009. Two of the three are from the Brothers Peterson (North Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson and The Fiddler’s Gun by A.S. Peterson). All three would have made my top 5 books of the year list. Here’s the third 2009 book:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Excellent Gothic children’s story. Deserves the awards it’s won.
Only bought three new albums this year: One of the three is Andrew’s, of course. But I’ll follow his rule and only list my other two 2009 albums:
Bob Dylan – Together through Life
Bluesy with lots of Texas influence. Really great stuff, with a couple skippable tracks. Robert Hunter’s influence is definitely there.
Bob Dylan – Songs for Christmas
I was intrigued and a little scared when I heard this was coming out. It’s genius. I’ve been playing it regularly since I bought it in October, despite my “No Christmas music before Thanksgiving” rule.
It’s about a Catholic priest who learns that a high ticket call girl is going to commit suicide and feels compelled to do something about it, despite the fact that he would have to break rules of the church to do so. The ending isn’t sappy and tidy, like some of those less than honest Christian films. This film contains one of the best forgiveness scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Now I have a school boy crush on Kristen Chenoweth (I watched YouTube talk show videos of her for 1/2 hour after I watched the film), who incidentally is a believer. Jeremy Sisto as the conflicted priest was excellent too.
This one was directed by the quietly emerging Ramin Bahrani, who was also responsible for two other critically acclaimed films, Chop Shop, which I have seen and recommended here in the Rabbit Room, and Man Push Cart, which I finally saw this summer. It’s an unconventional friendship movie. Solo wants to be friends with a man that is too far gone to be anyone’s friend. He’s the most gregariously, likeable movie character I’ve seen since Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. In one form or the other, most of us carry an array of masks. How pure and refreshing it is to observe a character that hasn’t learned the art of sophisticated deceit in any form. Solo’s only agenda is to be a friend to a man that needs a friend.
The Hurt Locker
Despite growing weary of war movies, I was inspired to see this movie after reading Russ Ramsey’s review here in The Rabbit Room, and the subtext he highlighted, which on some level amounts to seeking fulfillment in all the wrong thing (s).
David Mead – Almost and Always
Melancholy goodness. It’s a musical journal of Mead’s divorce, but despite the sad topic, it doesn’t seem doleful. In fact, there’s a tone of forgiveness and compassion which comes through. Mead is to words and phrases as Grace Kelly was to elegance.
Jill Phillips – The Good Things
I’ll admit it: this one caught me by surprise. It transitioned me from Jill Phillips fan to Jill Phillips superfan. And I didn’t realize it until my iTunes play count reminded me that I was playing it more often than anything else I bought in 2009. “Cool” is typical of the kind of courageous candor and empathetic vulnerability that oozes out of this project, like a salve for the soul.
Andy Gullahorn – The Law of Gravity
I knew it. Andy’s debut, Old Hat, told me so. Songs like “Better Things,” “Bonsai Tree,” and “Steel Bars” made it clear that Andy didn’t need bells and whistles to sell a song. And now that he’s implemented some tailor-made bells and whistles (and snaps and claps) on The Law of Gravity, I think it will make his skills more obvious to those that may not have heard it in the subdued vibe of his first two records. Andy Gullahorn is a songwriting thoroughbred.
The Fiddler’s Gun by A.S. Peterson
When the author places a quote from your book review on the cover, how can a guy avoid putting the book on his list of favorites? But seriously folks, this book is everything one might expect from the brother of Andrew Peterson. Ahem. Let me quote myself: ” …beautiful, lyrical, and redemptive.” And besides, now I can use the word “blunderbuss” in a sentence and know exactly what I am talking about.
Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet
I’ve known of Jeffrey Overstreet for a long time, having written for at least one review website at the same time, so I expected a quality book, but Jeffrey exceeded my expectations. This is a book about watching and discussing film as a Christian. I felt like I was reading the words of my long lost twin brother because he words resonated so deeply. The author thoughtfully dissects the nuances of film with spiritual themes, which are not always hit you over the head with sledge hammer obvious. A major bonus of reading this book was the sometimes obscure film recommendations.
North! Or be Eaten by Andrew Peterson
It’s hard to believe, but I am nearing my 10th Anniversary of being an Andrew Peterson supporter. I’m certainly a little biased at this point, but no less accurate when I say that Andrew Peterson is one of our most gifted communicators in the Christian world today. As one might expect from Andrew Peterson, this book is full of humor, which lubricates an already joyful ride. The spiritual themes will move you to the point of tears.
AND A LATER COMMENT FROM THOMAS:
First off, some of you should see some real movies. Not you, Curt, you are artsy and I bow before your limited release chops. But Travis and Eric, I am definitely looking at you.
King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters
A treasure of a documentary about the reigning champion of Donkey Kong and the underdog who would be his challenger. Hollywood couldn’t contrive a better underdog and villain than Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. I’ve watched it several times this year, and one of them was with a big group of college kids who erupted into spontaneous boos and cheers at various moments in the movie. A thoroughly entertaining look at human nature and a bizarre sub-culture. Wow. Originally recommended to me by our very own Andrew Peterson whose copy I watched repeatedly before begrudgingly returning it to him.
Where The Wild Things Are
As Thomas said in his one minute review: it’s a children’s psychodrama for adults. On some levels it was unsatisfying, but I think intentionally so – it’s less about redemption than it is about what it feels like to be a kid. And it’s a singular film, unlike any I’ve ever seen. It was a ride that was unpredictable at every turn, and for that alone I would be grateful for it.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
I haven’t laughed out loud this hard and this often since… I can’t remember. Another singular film that was unpredictable and unlike anything I’d ever seen before – even unlike Wes Anderson’s previous films.
I’m realizing that my list features films that have a certain cool, aloof quality, and so I would like to add UP to the list as well because it’s a movie with a huge heart. In fact, I’d probably pick it over Where The Wild Things Are because of it’s heart, but since everyone else here already mentioned it, I thought it had its fair share of representation. I mean, they had me crying over husband and wife characters I didn’t even know or care about yet! Oh, wait a minute… they actually had me crying over my own relationship with my own wife…
I spent much of the year working on my own new record, and was in a kind of self-imposed music blackout, so I had very limited music discoveries this year, and it all happened in the last quarter. Besides rediscovering the Beatles with their remastered re-releases (lots’ of “re”s in that sentence), these are three (or th”re”) records I loved this year:
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
My favorite discovery since my obsession with Arcade Fire a few years ago! Beautiful, haunting, melodic… To my ears it’s a blend of Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, and CS&N, and yet very modern. Soooooo good. Check it out, it’s enchanting.
Andy Gullahorn – Law Of Gravity
Another amazing record from Gully. Of course. I wrote about it here: https://rabbitroom.com/?p=5096
Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome
I never saw this record coming. Bold and adventurous in both concept and production. And so dang groovy… It’s a really smart, relevant record that you can dance to.
Again, an exceedingly busy year with the new record that didn’t leave much time for books, but I did read a few good ones.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
My wife lost her heart to this book and made me read it, and then I lost my heart to it, too. Patchett has such a confident grasp of her storytelling. Her voice is so sure and she knows how to tell an amazing story. It’s about an opera singer and a room full of international businessmen and diplomats who end up being held hostage by a group of terrorists in a bungled attempt to overthrow a government. But it’s also not about any of that. At all. It’s like a love letter to music, an amazing read – I can’t recommend it enough.
A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Donald Miller
I thought I was over Donald Miller. There’s a part of me that didn’t want to read this book just because Don Miller is so cool that it feels kind of cool to not like him. And then I read it. Dang. One of the endorsements for the book says that it’s more of a book that reads you than one that you read, which is a true statement. Truly a great little book that engages you in a conversation with your own life and the God who wants to make it a meaningful one.
Christ The Lord: Road To Cana by Anne Rice
I was unsure going into Anne Rice’s novels about the life of Jesus. I mean, c’mon. She’s Anne Rice, author of the vampire novels. But Randall Goodgame swore by this book and left it with me when he came for a weekend of concerts in MN. I read the first one and then this one and was profoundly moved. Maybe not necessarily great literature, but a competent writer offering up a bold and reverent imagining of the life of Christ preceding the gospel accounts. The author’s notes about her spiritual journey are the best part of the books.
Honorable mention: I read The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones to Gus this year, and it is a gift of a book, for young and old alike.
AND A FURTHER COMMENT FROM TRAVIS:
Shoot! How did I completely forget about Where the Wild Things Are? Bump Wolverine from my list and put WTWTA in there instead.
AND A FURTHER COMMENT FROM GOODGAME:
OK – I will bow to the pressure and pick the only non-AP book from 2009 that I actually read. In Don Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” – Don embraces the challenge of living proactively with a mind on writing a good story with his life. He does a great job of sharing his process without insisting that you are a loser if you don’t see it that way. I listened to it on my way to Africa and it was profoundly moving and inspiring.
AND A FURTHER COMMENT FROM JASON GRAY
Dude (as in Randall) you also read “Christ The Lord: The Road To Cana” – I know because I watched you reading it, and then you loaned it to me, told me I had to read it, and then I added it to my best of 2009 list. But you didn’t. And now I don’t know how to feel…
The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark
I can’t say enough about this book. I count David’s second book, The Gospel According to America: Meditations on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea as one of the few books that has actually shaped my thinking in very explicit, discernible ways, helping me to look at the world differently. This is David’s most accessible book, with many, many passages that are quotable and that have provided the starting point for countless conversations. The book opens with a quote by Augustine of Hippo – “What do I love when I love my God?” – and in the following pages, David asks us to question, among other things, our religion, our offendedness, media, language, and our interpretations. To what end? “We ask the questions with a sense of renewed attentiveness and a hope for renewed invigoration in trying to be agents of redemption, good rememberers, and witnesses to the promise that all that is and was – and is even now damaged by our perversity – will be healed and made whole.” Before giving a copy of this book to everyone on my Christmas list, I scribbled in the front cover a sentence that bears repeating here: “May you be appropriately challenged.”
The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales by Peter Rollins
I read all three of Pete’s books in a row this year, starting with How (Not) to Speak of God, continuing with The Fidelity of Betrayal, and ending with The Orthodox Heretic. One statement in his first book I quote often to help describe what I think Pete is doing with his writing is this: “The difference between the idea that our Christian traditions describe God and the view that they are worshipful responses to God is important to grasp, for while the former seeks to define, the latter is engaged with response.” The Orthodox Heretic is a good entry point into Pete’s work. A phrase coined by David Dark, explaining the value of certain kinds of media, is that they “expand the space of the talkaboutable,” and Pete’s parables here do just that.
Tie between two memoirs
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose
I’ve written before about Don’s book so I won’t go on about it here, other than to say that it is masterfully written, fun to read, and, like most great memoirs, provides a space for us to consider our own lives. As for The Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose’s story about how he, as a sophomore at Brown University, decided to spend his “semester abroad” at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, I don’t think I read a more enjoyable book all year. As someone who, while in high school, did not consider attending Liberty because it was too liberal, I found this a fascinating read, in part because these days I’m in a similar place as Kevin in the way I view that kind of conservative evangelical Christianity. Contrary to what one might at first think, Kevin does not use this book to mock those different from him, but rather to try to find common ground. He wasn’t able to make fun of the stereotypes he expected to find at Liberty, because while there he found the stereotypes didn’t fit his new friends. The fact that The Unlikely Disciple received a favorable review in Christianity Today from a professor at Liberty should tell you something about it.
David Bazan – Curse Your Branches
This album, by far my favorite of the year, is simultaneously a hard album to listen to and one that I can not listen to enough. David, formerly the lead singer of the band Pedro the Lion, presents here his most personal work, full of questions about God, faith, doubt, and what it really means to bear witness. He grew up the son of an Assemblies of God music minister, and after walking away from his faith of his youth, came to realize that he was rejecting, not God, but rather the version of God he had grown up with. This is an album he didn’t want to write, but after fighting it he came to terms with the fact that this is who he was – who he is – and he had no choice but to wrestle with these questions. There is a line in “In Stitches”, the last song on the album, about the questions his daughter is now asking him about God, that keeps me awake at night.
Joe Henry – Blood from Stars
After hearing about Joe Henry from some of my favorite music critics for several years, I finally picked up this album when it came out back in August and was immediately blown away. I don’t know of a better way to sum it up than Andy Whitman did in his review for Paste Magazine: “Joe Henry is a world-weary romantic; too jaded by false claims and hyped hopes to swallow the vapid Hallmark Card cliches, too cognizant of the tiny miracles of everyday existence to write off the promise and redemptive power of love.”
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
What really needs to be said about this album? It’s U2 being U2, easily among their best work. In the middle of the turn-up-your-stereo rock tracks like “Get On Your Boots,” the slower, meditative songs like “Cedars of Lebanon,” and the breathtaking “Magnificent,” we find gorgeous string counter melodies and even an eight bar French horn solo in “Unknown Caller” that adds exactly what the songs need. And we find lyrics like these, in the middle of “Stand Up Comedy.”: Stand up, this is comedy / The DNA lottery may have left you smart. / But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart? / I can stand up for hope, faith, love, / But while I’m getting over certainty / Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.
I wasn’t able to narrow it down to only three, so here are my top four.
I saw this stunning Carlos Reygadas film at the Belcourt theatre here in Nashville on my birthday last year, and it ended up being a perfect way to end the day. Set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, this is a film of breathtaking beauty, opening with a shot of early dawn, the mountains off on the horizon, a tree halfway between you and the mountains, the sounds of nature filling the air (there’s no soundtrack to distract you). And then, over the next six or seven minutes, we are shown the rising of the sun. It is a moment that forces you to put distractions out of your mind, to focus on what you are seeing, to be still, to meditate. The film ends with another shot of the mountains, a sunset this time, and in-between those bookends we watch as the father of this family of seven kids struggles with whether to end an adulterous affair, to be faithful to the life he has or to pursue what he thinks he wants. It is a film about grace and compassion and hate, about the soul-destroying cost of unfaithfulness and about love – what it demands and what it offers – and in the end, it becomes a parable about redemption.
In this French film by Olivier Assayas, with a great ensemble cast including Juliette Binoche, we are prompted to ask questions about what makes art truly valuable, about how a global economy impacts our lives, about what it does to a society, to a family, when we have no place to go home, no place where we know we belong. It’s a meditation on death and what we leave behind and the value of relationships. One of the things I loved about this film was how the siblings all interacted with each other differently, depending on which siblings were in the room. Not in a back-stabbing kind of way, but simply showing how different people, siblings maybe more than anyone, bring out different sides of us.
Because several others have already talked about this, I’ll mention only how much I loved the music – it’s my favorite soundtrack of the year – and how amazed I am that in the second five minutes of the film – an animated film, no less – with no dialogue, only music, we are witness to the best love story that has been on the big screen in a long time.
(500) Days of Summer
The tag-line for this movie, starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, let you know what you were in for: “This is not a love story. This is a story about love.” We are shown, in random order, scenes from their relationship, from when it seemed everything was perfect (with some hilarious scenes at the greeting card company they work for) to scenes from after things don’t work out. My favorite moment involved a short black-and-white sequence where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing chess on the beach with Cupid, an obvious homage to the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish film The Seventh Seal where the knight is playing chess with Death on the beach. This was the most fun I had at a theater last year.
Where the Wild Things Are
This was a close tie with Up, but it won out. Why? Because I think it took more heart, more ambition, and was a much bigger risk than the Pixar film. Oh, how this movie could have gone wrong. There could’ve been a plush toy campaign, and an annoying Eddie Murphy character or copious CGI. Instead, we got a film with lines like, “Can you take the loneliness away?” We got a film that defied convention, was beautiful, frightening, and so very true to the messy, selfish, heartbreaking, and beautiful heart of childhood. I’m thankful that in a world where films like Transformers 2 and Saw XXI are being made, Dave Eggers, Spike Jonze, and Maurice Sendak took a deep breath, a step back, and a big risk to tell this story. Which leads me to…
Pixar is batting a thousand. True, some of their films may have missed the mark by a little (Cars comes to mind), but even their less-amazing films are heads above the competition, and they all manage to get to the heart of something. Sure, it was beautiful to look at. Sure it was suspenseful and funny when it needed to be. But in the end, this company in Hollywood released a film that was an ode to marriage. And not just marriage, but a long, faithful one. Millions of children and parents alike were given a glimpse of the fact that sometimes the husband and wife actually grow old together, selflessly love one another, and treasure the heart of another. I loved my wife more after watching this movie. Crazy, I know.
Now for the less heady fare. I’ve never been a Trekkie, but I watched plenty of the original Star Trek series when I was a kid. I also, like Andrew Osenga, have a weakness for spaceships and laser guns. So I was pumped about this film, especially knowing J.J. Abrams was at the helm of the ship. The best thing I can say about it is that when I watched it I felt the same as I did when I was a kid watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. I only wish it had been less sexy so I could bring my kids along.
I like meat. And I like casseroles. I don’t like Michael Moore-type films that skew the facts to push an agenda. I could be wrong, but this documentary didn’t do that. I’m sure there are more sides to the story than a 90 minute film can show, but if even a fraction of the facts this film exposes are true, then I want to know more. I’m a Wendell Berry fan, and I think he’d applaud the point this film is making.
Once again, laser guns and spaceships abound. If Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer (whose films I loathe) believed their audiences were intelligent, and if they were interested more in storytelling than explosives and hand-cams and frenzied editing and Aerosmith soundtracks, they still wouldn’t have been able to make a sci-fi movie this good. I saw this one with Russ Ramsey, and we both left the theater heartily surprised. I loved the unfolding realization that Wykas was in fact the hero–and his transformation (literal and figurative) was satisfying to watch. Also, spaceships. And laser guns.
Poor Thomas. This was his first RR One Minute Review, and he was lambasted with a zillion comments, some of them pretty heated. (Glad you weathered the storm, TM.) It was a good conversation, in the end, and while we may have lost a few readers, I think some folks may have reconsidered their stance on how to think about a story like this one. Of course, this film isn’t for everyone. I’m no fan of violence for its own sake. But I think Tarantino marketed this film to appear more violent than it actually was in order to draw a certain demographic into the theater–only to hold up a mirror and show us how despicable is the enjoyment of violence for its own sake. Apart from the violence (and, don’t get me wrong, after three viewings I still won’t watch some of it) I’m convinced that it might just be an ingenious film. I have a hunch it’ll be studied for years.
(I only recommend a few of these with a caveat. I have thus applied the MPAA rating where appropriate. Also, these aren’t all 2009 releases. Big deal.):
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
Oh my goodness. Annie Dillard. Her writing is electric in the way that Mark Helprin’s is, but I resonate stronger with her because of her faith. If you’ve never read her work, and if Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is too intimidating, this is the book for you. It’s a collection of her non-fiction essays, none of which are too long for those of you with a short attention span. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. When I re-read it this year I stumbled on lines and ideas that I basically stole for my own songs (like “Lay Me Down”, “The Far Country”, and even “Mohawks on the Scaffold”).
100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson
Nate Wilson is one of my new favorites. I read this one aloud to my kids, and bought the sequel, Dandelion Fire, as soon as it released. The third one, The Chestnut King, releases early this year, and I’ve already pre-ordered it. Why do I like it so much? Because it’s clear that Wilson cares about sentences and words and Story–and he’s a Christian. There are moments where he speaks with a sort of literary accent that reminded me, after I thought about it, of Lewis and Tolkien. We’ll have these in the Rabbit Room store soon and very soon.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
I got into Mark Helprin because of Jason and Taya Gray. Jason recommended A Soldier of the Great War and I went for it–all two zillion pages of it. I’ve been a fan ever since. This is a story about New York City–sort of. Jason Germain from the band Downhere described the book to me this way: “It’s like New York City is telling you a bedtime story.” As weird as that sounds, he’s exactly right. Here are broadswords and flying horses and mysterious cloud walls and thugs and newspaper tycoons. Best of all, here’s a love story that defies the chains of Death and Time. Helprin’s sentences were dizzying. He does things with words that I would not have believed possible if I hadn’t seen the pages all but glitter before my very eyes. Helprin isn’t a Christian, but there are moments in this story when the story itself was electric with Eternity. I know that sounds weird, and there’s a better than good chance that you may read it and wonder what on earth I’m talking about. (Rated PG-13)
Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl by N.D. Wilson
Here’s another from Wilson, but this one isn’t fantasy. It’s more of a wild, poetic statement of faith, and a call to reverence. Way to go, N.D.–do you mind if call you N.D.?
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
I can’t tell if this book made the list because I just finished it, or because it was that good. It’s about a twelve-year-old genius cartographer from Montana who runs away from home to visit the Smithsonian Institute. The book itself is a beauty, with the margins of nearly every page full of the boy’s maps and drawings. It’s funny, scary, thoughtful, and mysterious. The ending didn’t knock it out of the park, but I closed the book satisfied none the less. This was Larsen’s first book, which makes me a little angry. (Rated PG-13)
A FURTHER COMMENT FROM JASON GRAY
Andrew, first of all, I LOVE Germain’s description of Winter’s Tale! That’s perfect… and second, I love that you rated your books. I guess you learned your lesson after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay incident. (Somebody should ask Andrew to relate that story here…)
And there you have it! What do you think? What are some of your picks for the best of 2009?