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The Young Pope — and pop culture in general — can't stop asking one question: where did God go?

HBO’s The Young Pope is much more thoughtful (and much weirder) than the rampant memes it’s spawned would have you believe — and this only becomes more evident as the series continues. The actions of Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), a.k.a. Lenny Belardo, are unpredictable because the forces driving him are complicated, and the show reveals the specifics of these forces very slowly.

But the main cause of Lenny’s erratic behavior and yen for papal revolution boils down to something simple: a sense of abandonment. Not just abandonment by his parents, who dropped him at the gates of an orphanage when he was a boy, but, more fundamentally, abandonment by God.

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Paterson, the quietly philosophical tale of a bus-driving poet, is one of 2016's best films

Great poets are masters of words, but their most finely tuned skill is often simple attentiveness: to the matches on the kitchen counter, the water slipping over the boulders in the falls, the beer softly frothing in the half-drunk mug.

In Jim Jarmusch’s outstanding film Paterson, a poet named Paterson — who drives a New Jersey Transit bus in Paterson, New Jersey — spends his days in the same simple rhythm of work and home. But he notices things, and we notice them too: the matches, the water, the beer, and also the conversations of the people who ride the bus, and the pictures hung on the wall of his home, and the people in the bar around him. He writes poems about them in his spare moments: before starting his route for the day, on his lunch break sitting near Passaic Falls, or while sitting alone in the basement.

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Silence is beautiful, unsettling, and one of the finest religious movies ever made

Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence (first published in Japanese in 1966 as Chinmoku, then translated into English in 1969) is slippery and troubling, a book that refuses to behave. It flatters no reader; it refuses to comfort anyone. In telling the story of Portuguese priests and persecuted Christians in Japan, it navigates the tension between missionary and colonizer, East and West, Christianity and Buddhism and political ideology, but refuses to land on definitive answers.

Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating film Silence is based on Endō’s novel, which he read shortly after his 1988 film Last Temptation of Christ was protested and condemned by the Catholic Church and other conservative Christians 28 years ago. It’s almost impossible to capture the nuances of a novel like Endō’s for the screen; Masahiro Shinoda tried in 1971, and Endō reportedly hated the ending. But Scorsese comes about as close as one can imagine, and the results are challenging for both the faithful and the skeptic.

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How 2016's movies and TV reflected Americans’ changing relationship with religion

I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it's not surprising I spot it around every corner.

But even by my heightened radar's standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don't mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God's Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God's Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.

“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.

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Hidden Figures, about 3 black women at NASA in the 1960s, is the best kind of historical drama

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect film for the holiday season than Hidden Figures: an inspirational, family-friendly historical drama about three black women whose work at NASA was instrumental in putting John Glenn into orbit around Earth.

That could have been the recipe for a much hokier film, but the story — based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly — is just Hollywood enough to stay entertaining, but smart enough to know how important its story is. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincentsticks to every convention of the genre, but sometimes conventions are there for a reason. The story works, and the characters shine. (Pharrell Williams executive-produced the movie and supervised its soundtrack, which also helps account for its overall buoyancy.)

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A Monster Calls is a beautiful movie about dealing honestly with negative emotions

Despite its title, A Monster Calls is not a monster movie, though monsters lurk within. It’s more like a darker, sadder Inside Out: Both are stories about children whose emotions are too overwhelming for them to process, and both take those emotions seriously. Neither gives glib answers.

A Monster Calls explores a common but devastating emotion: the grief — and attendant rage and fear — that comes with losing a parent. The movie starts off looking like a conventional children’s fantasy story, but it morphs slowly into something surprising, and all its own.

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“Dare them to censor you”: Ken Loach talks art and activism in I, Daniel Blake and beyond

Ken Loach is one of Britain’s most prominent (and sometimes controversial) political filmmakers and activists. Since the 1960s, his films — such as Cathy Come Home (1966), Kes (1969), Hidden Agenda (1990), and Land and Freedom (1995) — have tackled social struggles, especially those faced by the working class, and sparked debate.

His latest film, I, Daniel Blake, won Loach his second Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Written by Loach’s frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, the film is a tragedy of bureaucracy, equal parts Kafka and Dickens, in which Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter and widower, suffers a heart attack and is ordered not to work by his doctor. He quickly discovers, while trying to collect social benefits, that the layers of inscrutable procedures and forms are all but impossible to navigate. Along the way he befriends a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who struggles to feed her children after her benefits are “sanctioned” because she was late to a meeting after getting lost.

I spoke with Ken Loach via phone about his work, the future of political filmmaking, and the innovative way I, Daniel Blake is pursuing a wider viewership beyond arthouse audiences.

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"Your job as an actor is to be a raw nerve": Billy Crudup on his roles in 2 of 2016's best films

Billy Crudup has supporting roles in two acclaimed 2016 films. In Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, Crudup plays a journalist modeled on Theodore White, who’s working on a magazine feature about the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman). In Mike Mills’s 1979-set 20th Century Women (led by a stellar Annette Bening), he’s a burned-out hippie who finds himself unsure of how to connect with women, or anyone.

Both roles showcase Crudup’s strengths as a character actor, skills he’s honed on screen and stage since bursting into most people’s awareness in 2000 when he played guitarist Russell Hammond in Almost Famous. And both films, though stylistically very different, tell stories firmly rooted in memorable, politically charged times.

I recently spoke to Crudup by phone about playing characters in period films and the politics of art in an uncertain age.

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