The struggle was real in 2019, yet courage and determination and agency (and a good bit o’ faith) defined the entertainment we could consider and enjoy at the movies or in the stream this year – and, I know…matters will continue to be and, even, get only ever more pressing in 2020.
I can either break through or break down. I arrived at that realization as the year was barely gettin’ going, and what I later learned (re-learned?) – along the way, as I sought enlightenment and alignment within myself with a renewed and more optimistic sense of purpose achieved through mental and physical therapy – is that it absolutely is a process, and I get to make the choices that define my everything.
You get to choose for yourself, too. We all do.
And so, as the proverbial and literal heat turns up, hope remains. Because it must.
I am a Peruvian man named after another, St. Martin the Porres, the patron saint of public-health workers and mixed-race people and all who seek racial harmony, who has been living and loving in a confronting and confounding city named after St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and the natural environment, since his feast day five years ago (what…a surprising coincidence – or is it?). The challenge of the year was not simply to #DoMore but to understand more as well. This search for spiritual insight at this stage in the game also will carry into the year that’s coming.
Bring. It. On.
Like, how could it not now that I’ve seen The Two Popes, one of Netflix’s big fall offerings directed by Fernando Meirelles, the Academy Award-nominated Brazilian director of City of God.
Starring an uncanny Jonathan Pryce as the Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who became Pope Francis early in the twenty-teens, and Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as the controversial German-born Pope Benedict XVI, the film came (to me?) at a time when I could welcome it as a sign. A nudge to go for it and explore spirituality again, using what I picked up – in terms of religion and religious studies – growing up as part of a non-practicing quote-unquote Catholic family while attending a bicultural, secular, Franco-Peruvian primary-secondary school in Peru. Then, filter that through the Light I found along the way and that I nurture in my own way to continue to keep on shinin’ as the torchbearer that I am (shout-out to FIU). Circle back and take stock of it all, little silly signs and surprising coincidences and all, and keep on sorting out my tikkun (my baggage). And eventually, transcend it all, shake the spirit up. Or something like that.
The film is a fascinating look at the winter of 2013, a key moment in time for the Catholic Church, as the old guard seemed to make room for a new point of Catholic view, as the script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten generously, cleverly, grandly suggests. It’s a savvy character study, too. Where one pope, Benedict, is obviously and admittedly old and rough around the edges and a little glib and, maybe, a Nazi, the other is simply zestier. Francis is a different flavor, a different cure. Doesn’t have rumors of being a Nazi stinking up the air wherever he goes. He wasn’t angling for the job, either. He came thisclose to becoming pope himself when Benedict XVI ultimately was named, and, as we all know, the erstwhile Cardinal Bergoglio definitely did go and become the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, the first pope from anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. In English: He hot. And he is the new guard.
This exercise that Hopkins and Pryce do, this dance, dramatizes to great effect what I hope is the constant search for and recognition of humanity in ourselves and in our neighbors. The calling for these men who have pulled the rare two-pope act may have been heavenly, but the vessel and the impetus remained human. Free will looms large. As much as they differ in style and, I dunno, everything that makes them who they are and how they think about their roles and or practice their values, there is a bond that unites that is paramount to both. Whether the real meeting between the two men around which this particular work of accomplished fiction revolves went anywhere as well as it does here, well, that is the leap-of-faith-type question, no?
Plus, it all looks oh-so-exquisite (better we put a pin on that conversation offshoot). Not quite the Vatican, The Crown-style vibes, featuring a full faithful recreation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at Cinecittà in Rome. (You still gotta see the real thing, OK.) This isn’t a blockbuster, in the classic sense, but it sure is as divine as it can be on Earth. It packs a punch.
I’ll say. And I have.
Now the rest of the best, in alphabetical order:
For confronting America’s police-brutality crisis and examining the tense rhythms of a discussion in which no one meaningfully, actionably wants to engage but that some parents must have much too often in this (in)tense Broadway-to-Netflix transfer adapted by playwright (and lawyer) Christopher Demos-Brown and starring Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee. Anguished and confronting conversations and reclamations share space, in a once-segregated downtown-Miami police station during the wee hours of a rainstorm-y night, with determined stances at the intersection of love and prejudice and authority and a stacked system that’s still eating its young on screen, the stage, and IRL.
For deftly bringing to a close the Marvelous sleeper-hit 10-year superhero saga only a creative few really saw coming but that pretty much everyone ended up loving (no matter what they claim), balancing far-reaching intergalactic action, heart-tugging emotion times 3,000, and adventurous soul with ever-evolving style – and for cracking open the door for what’s eternally to come.
The Biggest Little Farm
For transcending the reductive Superbad-but-with-chicks descriptives (including this one) and roaring.
Brittany Runs a Marathon
For taking what could have been a pedestrian based-on-a-true-story…uh…story of a young, overweight New York woman played by scene-stealer-no-mo’ Jillian Bell, and digging deeper to assure us all that, yes indeed, we all can become healthier, better, stronger, kinder versions of ourselves.
Dolemite Is My Name
For making me laugh while introducing me to and celebrating the DIY, never-give-up essence of a truly great American self-made man (and legend), comedian Rudy Ray Moore, who comes to larger than life thanks to full performances by Eddie Murphy, Ruth E. Carter’s immersive costumery, and a rarely seen, yet vital element of 1970s L.A. as captured by the hustling and flowing eye of director Craig Bewer
For being – in a world that saw a Legally Blonde and a Legally Blonde sequel, and entertained talk of a Legally Blonde threequel, long before it took a bow to the life and fight of the indomitable slave-turned-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman – and for jump-starting the long-overdue appreciation of this real-life superhero as we witness her first biopic starring the Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony-winning dynamo Cynthia Erivo.
HOMECOMING: A Film by Beyoncé
For opening our eyes to and celebrating aspects of American and African-American cultures heretofore underappreciated in the zeitgeist as Beyoncé became the first African-American woman to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2018.
For telling a 2008 recession-era story about greed gone awry through the glittery prism of a group of women (strippers behaving quote-unquote badly), who decide to reclaim a little bit of their power, and some of the wealth stolen by the actually bad men of Wall Street (who shat the bed to begin with) to keep for themselves, dammit – and for showcasing Jennifer Lopez in a role that, yes, totally plays to all of her considerable strengths but also fearlessly serves as a reminder that J. Lo is the real thing. I mean, #Ramona2020 has got to become a vibe. Plus, Usher in cameo that will tug at your MTV TRL heartstrings. 💰
Joker & Judy
The former for telling a necessary story about how our derelict healthcare system and unkind ways can create and exacerbate mental-health crises, discarding and vilifying the sick along the way; the latter for showing us and especially for not shying away from the face of a well-worn and painful life nevertheless led with a measure of hard-fought grace by a talented woman who’s been put through the ringer for as long as she can remember. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger.
Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story
For reminding us that, if a wannabe dictator wants and sets out to go after someone, in this case an irreverent and provocative comedic Emmy- and Grammy-winning force, then they can go against anyone. If it happened to Kathy Griffin, it definitely can happen to you.
For consistently and ever so inventively keeping me guessing and on the edge of my seat.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Ready or Not
For taking the games rich white people play to diabolical new heights.
For being, too. Peru’s official entry into the 2020 Oscar race world-premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival a year after debuting at the Festival de Cine de Lima, casts a spotlight on the little-seen, yet no-less rich and vibrant life that exists outside the Peruvian capital, and on the issue of LGBT acceptance (and the lack of) back home. Co-written and directed by Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio, the film is a mostly Quechua-language, highland-set coming-of-age story about an artisan boy whose entire world comes to a halt after he realizes that his craftsman father might be secretly gay. The title of the film refers to the traditional and colorful boxed dioramas that folks make down in Peru to depict religious or everyday life. I simply cannot wait to catch it.