In an age of social media bubbles, red-blue divides, and post-truth politics, movies may be the closest thing we have to unified culture. Movies are events, whether experienced while sitting on a living-room sofa or after settling into a theater seat. You can wait for them to show up on Netflix. Or you can shell out the money and see them when everybody is talking about them.
Movies take too long to produce to reflect up-to-the-minute news, but they have a way of both isolating and defining the zeitgeist. Movie bits regularly find their way into our language. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “Make my day” can be heard in corporate boardrooms and around the family dinner table. “May the force be with you” is a nondenominational benediction.
There is no more careful observer of the movies than the Monitor’s Peter Rainer. Peter recently won first place in the Ninth Annual National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards online critic category. The judges described his reviews as “a compass showing True North.” If you read him regularly, you’ll likely agree.
Peter’s compass right now, he told me recently, indicates moviegoers are hungry for authenticity. (Click here for his 10 best of 2016.) The best current cinema isn’t about special effects and shock appeal but about real problems and real emotions. There can still be thrills and chills, but the finest filmmakers know, Peter says, that “we want to see ourselves on the screen, not just racially and ethnically but emotionally.”
The best movies do that while tackling difficult issues honestly and entertainingly. This is why the documentary “O.J.: Made in America” is at the top of most critics’ lists. The life and times of a gifted football star-turned-celebrity-turned-murder defendant is woven into the fabric of America’s troubled racial history. In a similar vein, “Hell or High Water” employs classic western and crime-film tropes to highlight the economic desperation afflicting small towns in the United States. Authenticity can also be found, oddly enough, in a hit movie powered by that most escapist of cinematic forms: song and dance. “La La Land” has been acclaimed for exploring the compromises people make en route to the life they end up with – and packaging that exploration as an homage to Hollywood musicals.
Movies with some measure of artistic care behind them hold a mirror up to us and our world. I don’t want to make too much of this. Movies are built to entertain and are rarely rigorous with facts. They flop more often than they hit and aim, above all else, for box-office gold. Movies certainly don’t have a corner on truth. But sometimes, they ring true. And more often than that they break us out of our bubble.
Next time you sit in the dark surrounded by strangers – laughing together, gasping together, choking back tears together – consider this: Maybe we’re not so different after all.