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  • Jonny Diaz

2019 Top 10: Empathy for the Devil


I’ve been asked a version of this question approximately every six months by my mom for the past decade and a half:  “Why do you watch sad movies?”

To her, movies are meant to be nothing more than entertainment--an escape from the troubles of daily life. They’re supposed to be fun, not stressful; happy, not depressing. For over half my life, she’s expressed routine bewilderment when I describe a filmgoing experience as “devastating” or “overwhelming” with admiration or awe in my voice. I never really had a satisfying response to her confusion until 2014, when I watched Steve James’s Life Itself, a documentary about the life of film critic Roger Ebert, released shortly after his death. The film includes this excerpt from a speech Ebert gave at the dedication of a plaque in his honor outside the Chicago Theatre in 2005: 

“We are all born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We are kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people, find out what makes them tick, what they care about. For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.”

That quote, and the approach to experiencing the art of film that it represents, has stuck with me ever since. To me, movies aren’t just a source of entertainment and escapism (though they can often be that, and I very much enjoy when they are). The movies are a vessel that allows me to travel beyond my own inherently limited viewpoint and feel the entire spectrum of emotion from an extraordinary range of perspectives. Yes, that does mean sadness sometimes, but it also means joy, terror, triumph, wonder, and loss--all of which are essential elements of the human experience. As Ebert said (more eloquently than I ever could), movies are a way of understanding other people. They give us the chance to catch glimpses of lives we may never lead and visit places that we might otherwise never get to go. Like Zach put it earlier this week, they give us the chance to connect with other people: not just the ones in our lives with whom we share these movies, but also the ones onscreen who we get to travel alongside for just a few hours at a time. In 2019, I tried my best to expand my cinematic horizons. I sought out more foreign language films than I ever have before, caught an above-average number of documentaries, and I watched multiple horror films in theatres (a genre I have historically avoided, due to cowardice). Of course, I also maintained my regular consumption of animated features, tentpole franchises, and indie dramas. But as I hopped across genres, one recurring theme took shape. Many of the cinematic experiences that resonated most strongly with me over the past year were the ones where I saw reflections of my own experience in unexpected places. I may not have traveled halfway around the world to maintain an elaborate lie, but I’ve felt inexorably torn between two cultures. I’ve never painted a secret portrait, but I have let artistic passions give way to unexpected romance. As a high school student in South Florida, I wasn’t a young wrestler weighed down by the burdens of race, drug addiction, and athletic pressures, but I was a teenager struggling to live up to academic expectations and conceal my own emotional turmoil in that same building. And I haven’t been confronted by a red-jumpsuited doppelgänger who wants to kill me as part of an elaborate plot to overthrow society, but…well, okay, I don’t have an analogue for that one. So I didn’t see myself in all of my favorite 2019 movies. But each one of them transported me somewhere far away: another place, another time, another life. And through those journeys, whether I found bits of myself in them or not, I encountered new perspectives that helped to reshape the way I experience the world--hopefully, with a little more empathy. By that measure, it was a very good year. Here are my top movies of 2019. Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical): Avengers: Endgame, Her Smell, A Hidden Life, Knives Out, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse, Pain and Glory, Transit, The Two Popes, Wild Rose 10. I Lost My Body 9. Portrait of a Lady on Fire 8. The Farewell 7. Us 6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 5. Marriage Story 4. Ad Astra 3. Little Women 2. Parasite 1. Waves


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