In the US presidential election year of 2016, so livid and disuniting in so many ways, movies often took a back seat to the headlines. I was reminded of how I felt during Watergate, when the congressional hearings dominated the TV screens and Hollywood couldn’t hope to compete.
And yet movies, when they strike the right chord with audiences, have the ability to be great unifiers – not simply as escapism in times of stress but also as sounding boards for the zeitgeist. Given what is going on in the United States and around the world, it may seem paltry for a critic to cite a stunning performance or a lovely sequence. It may even seem secondary to praise a movie for decrying injustice. After all, it’s only a movie. But movies, when they are strong, are every bit as vital as any other form of discourse, political or otherwise. As I see it, movies are never just movies.
Having said this, I do wish 2016 had been an incendiary movie year to match the political theater. My wish may come true down the line, when filmmakers, especially those not tied to the studios, find ways to grapple with the era’s confusions and complexities. In the meantime, in the current mix, there are some small favors to be found, and some large ones, too, as well as some misfires and a handful of high-profile snoozefests. In other words, it was a year like most others.
The #OscarsSoWhite indictment against Hollywood for marginalizing the experience of racial minorities, both on screen and at awards time, was perhaps somewhat rectified by the appearance of such documentaries as Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which is about race in the US criminal justice system, and Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” which draws on the explosive writings of James Baldwin, though I found both films to be heavy on the agitprop. This criticism could certainly be leveled at Nate Parker’s controversial “The Birth of a Nation,” which is about America’s bloodiest slave revolt. It’s a film that deifies Nat Turner while turning a blind eye to the worst of his murderous transgressions.
At the temperamental opposite to these films were such racially themed dramas as “Loving,” about the interracial couple whose marriage led to a landmark US Supreme Court decision, or “Hidden Figures,” about the black women mathematicians whose unsung efforts at NASA in the 1960s helped put astronauts in space. Both films had a pleasing dutifulness that marked them as well-intentioned history lessons (although Ruth Negga’s performance in “Loving” is not easily forgotten). The stagebound “Fences,” featuring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis doing a whole lot of acting, is set in the 1950s and could have been made in the 1950s. The same could not be said of Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” about the passage to adulthood of a bullied gay black man, which, for all its overpraise, did have an allusive power to it. For my money, the best racially themed movie by far was Ezra Edelman’s
7-1/2-hour documentary “O.J.: Made in America.” It leads my list of best films of the year.
Retroness was the order of the day for many of the year’s best films, and also for some that were not so good. “La La Land” is a tribute to the great MGM musicals, and it sports its very own spiritedness and melancholy. “Florence Foster Jenkins,” starring Meryl Streep, is old-fashioned in the best sense: It dispenses with cinematic filigree in favor of unmitigated human emotion. “Hell or High Water” is a new-style western that satisfies in many of the old-fashioned ways. The very slight but appealing “Rules Don’t Apply” has Warren Beatty as an alternately benign and benighted Howard Hughes.
Beatty has insisted that “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a biopic. So be it. The same cannot really be claimed for “Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s hero-worshipy take on Edward Snowden; “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman in a tinkly-voiced, zombified performance as the grieving, controlling first lady Jacqueline Kennedy; and “The Founder,” featuring a sly performance by Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. None of these films, whether they be straightforward or, in the case of “Jackie,” fussy with filmic folderol, really adds much to what we already know about these people.
There were movies I didn’t love or, in some cases, much care for, that yet featured unmissable performances. Who would want to skip Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson in “Denial,” Dakota Fanning in “American Pastoral,” Kristen Stewart in “Certain Women,” or Bryan Cranston in “The Infiltrator”? And then there was the terrific “Manchester by the Sea,” which had so many powerful performances happening all at once that you didn’t know where to look first.
The Old Guard directors, some of whom had once been Young Turks, served up a mixed bag. Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” was an autopilot fantasia; Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan, was a long-term passion project that, while sometimes powerful, was also strangely unmoving. The hagiography of Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” was mitigated by Tom Hanks’s agile performance. As for Terrence Malick’s origins-of-the-universe docuthingamajig “Voyage of Time,” it’s time he stopped being so wowed by shots of exploding nebulae.
I could go on, but I just know you’re panting for my top 10 list, plus assorted runners-up. So here goes, in roughly descending order:
O.J.: Made in America – Ezra Edelman’s documentary is the most comprehensive examination ever filmed of the maddening complexities and contradictions of race relations in this country. It’s the most powerful movie I saw on any screen, big or small, all year.
La La Land – Damien Chazelle’s entrancing fantasia starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling makes you hope that maybe Hollywood will again make the kinds of musicals that once enraptured us.
Florence Foster Jenkins – Meryl Streep gives a tremendously touching performance as a real-life New York society matron whose love of singing supersedes, to put it mildly, her talent. It’s a movie about how life is more important than art.
Manchester by the Sea – Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s family dysfunction tragedy might portend an unremitting downer, just going by its plot. But the afflictions, even at their lowest, are laced with knockabout humor. Just like life.
Demon – The late Polish director Marcin Wrona’s furious fable about a dybbuk invading a country wedding accelerates to a fever pitch. Ostensibly a black comedy, it’s an allegory about totalitarianism and Polish wartime guilt.
Hell or High Water – Set in a desolate sprawl of West Texas during a major economic downturn, this modern western, beautifully directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, has pitch-perfect performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges.
Rams – Writer-director Grímur Hákonarson’s movie about estranged Icelandic sheep farmer brothers might not seem like the most promising of prospects, but it just goes to show that sometimes the best movies come from the most unlikely places.
Things to Come – Isabelle Huppert gives perhaps her best performance in this movie, , directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, about a jilted wife, a college philosophy professor, who attempts to reconcile her circumspect mind with her wounded heart.
The Red Turtle – This animated marvel is the result of a long-term collaboration between Japan’s Studio Ghibli and Dutch-born, London-based animator Dudok de Wit. It’s ravishing, wordless, and the best family-oriented movie around. (Opens wide in 2017.)
Sweet Bean – A Japanese pancake shop is the setting for this delicate little fable starring the great Kirin Kiki as the elderly woman who holds the secret to the perfect dorayaki. She portrays an afflicted character whose sheer happiness is heroic.
Besides those films mentioned favorably in the preamble to my 10 best list, here are some other worthies to check out: “Little Men,” “Christine,” “Our Little Sister,” “Queen of Katwe,” “Zero Hour,” “Land of Mine,” “Notfilm,” “A Monster With a Thousand Heads,” “Moana,” and “Measure of a Man.”