2016 in Movies
Everybody keeps saying how terrible 2016 was. Just today I flipped through a New York Times retrospective of the year in pictures and it made me realize just how many terribly devastating things happened in this year. Brexit, a divisive election, a worsening crisis in Syria, a refugee crisis with no clear resolution...the list goes on.
But, that feels so reductionist. Years aren’t solely bad, or solely good. They’re years - filled with good things and bad things. Things that make us laugh and things that make us cry all mixed up in the weird soup that will be bookended in terms of seemingly arbitrary dates dictated by a Christian calendar we’ve all adopted. And amid the torrent of anger and happiness and jealousy and all those other feelings that every year brings, I find myself retreating back into the only place wherein I feel truly comfortable: movies.
I didn’t see as much as I would’ve liked. Notable omissions from the list of movies I saw include the great looking oscar contender Moonlight, the modern western Hell or High Water and the cool looking animated movie Kubo and the Two Strings. (Just for symmetry some non-notable omissions include The Angry Birds Movie, Batman v. Superman, The Angry Birds Movie, Warcraft and did I mention The Angry Birds Movie).
As I was going through my list, I noticed a trend. 2016 in movies represented the exact seeming dichotomy that we, as a nation, or perhaps species, are currently undergoing right now. Namely, there is a fight between the cynic/pessimist and the romantic/optimist. My list is basically split in half between movies that are excited about life and its possibilities, and movies that show a dark, depressing reality.
I think this split is exactly where we are. We don’t know what’s happening or what will happen. Some people are proclaiming a terrible future and that life is a meaningless series of inescapable tragedy, while others are saying that no matter how bad things get, there is still joy to be had and the future looks bright. It’s true that things don’t always work out in the Hollywood way where our hero, after an hour and a half of travails “finds herself” and wins. She lifts her fist high knowing that she’s a better person, we freeze frame and the credits roll. But, it’s also true that things don’t always end with the main character dying a meaningless death as the music fades out and we see “A Werner Herzog Film” flash across the screen.
I think the main problem with either of these poles is that things don’t really end. Movies end because, well because we have lives to live and annoying Facebook posts to write. But, that’s a big difference between a Hollywood story and real life. It’s not that Hollywood ends things happily and life ends terribly or vice versa. Rather, it’s that movies end and life doesn’t. It keeps going and going and going until you die.
The other thing I noticed about basically all of these movies is that they’re all very emotionally resonant. These movies are not about ideas. They don’t espouse some dorm-room philosophy about life and meaning and death. These movies are not meant to be interrogated and beaten for answers about “what they mean”. They’re just about people trying to navigate their worlds. These movies are meant to be experienced and felt. I think it’s an unfortunate trend I find that many people I know watch movies only for their plot and theme and miss the most important thing a movie can offer that other disciplines can’t: character. All of these movies are just about people making good and bad choices and living with the consequences.
So, with that in mind, here’s my totally unnecessary and unwanted list of favorite movies of the year in order:
1. Don’t Think Twice - I’m very biased here because I love improv and comedy, and the Upright Citizens’ Brigade Theater is my favorite place in New York City. That may be why this was my favorite movie this year. However, I don’t think that means that if any of those don’t apply to you that this movie is not good. Don’t Think Twice tells the story of a group of five improv comics in a small improv troupe called The Commune whose group gets shaken up when one of them (Keegan Michael Key) gets a job on a Saturday Night Live-type show. It’s a movie all about success and failure and how real each of those possibilities is for everybody. It’s a movie about people trying their best to make it in the world and confront the very real probability that their future will not look anything like they expected it to. It’s funny and tragic and so so powerful. It perfectly embodies this fight between the cynic and the romantic as told through the world of improv comedy. There are no good answers - it doesn’t spell out whether anybody’s right or wrong. All we have is people trying their best to navigate a thoroughly confusing world that they don’t know wants them.
2. Green Room - I’m of the opinion that horror movies are the worst kind of movies. Not because horror movies are naturally bad. In fact, there are a ton of really great horror movies (The Ring, Rosemary’s Baby, Scream etc). It’s rather that there have been so many terrible horror movies recently that I’ve become disillusioned with the whole genre (yes, that includes The Babadook no matter what anybody else says) . Enter Green Room, a terrifyingly taut horror-thriller that I can’t stop thinking about. The premise is very simple: A band, after witnessing a murder, has to escape from a bar while being hunted down by neo-Nazis. The basic story involves the characters locked up in the green room of the bar trying to figure out how to get out alive while the leader of the neo-Nazis (a surprisingly great Patrick Stewart) does his best to make sure they don’t leave alive. It sounds silly. But, it is so good. It’s a movie that says what we’re all thinking: we’ll try our best to make it out of this, but like it or not, the neo-Nazis are coming for us and will stop at nothing until they’ve accomplished their goal. Bonus: This one is available for free on Amazon Prime right now.
3. La La Land - From the very first moments of this movie, I knew that I would love it. In fact from the first time I heard of this movie I knew I would love it. It’s a modern day musical about people trying to fulfill their dreams and falling in love, written and directed by the guy who made Whiplash (which was one of the best movies of this decade). As a stupid kid, sitting on the brink of graduation staring at the rest of his life coming at him like a deer in the headlights, I want so badly to not be cynical. I want to be excited and optimistic that everything’s going to be great. I love meeting people who love life, if only so I can suck their romantic ideals out of them, hoping it will give me strength. So, here comes this movie which is big and loud and as uncynical as a movie could be and I can’t get enough of it...that is, until you realize that the nice songs and colorful dance numbers don’t mean that everything ends happily ever after for everybody. This movie is amazing for being both extremely fun and entertaining while never fully plunging into the ignorant romanticism that can be found in most musicals (both modern and old). How it manages this balancing act is beyond me. But it does it. It’s scary and sad and happy and fun and all of the things that make movies great and keep me going back for more.
4. The Nice Guys - This was the best comedy of 2016. In fact, the only really good comedy I saw this year. It makes me wonder why Ryan Gosling doesn’t do more comedy. He’s so damn funny in this movie. The Nice Guys is a comedy-mystery set among the 70’s porn industry. A porn star is killed, blah blah blah, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe team up and try and solve it. The mystery is totally irrelevant. What’s relevant is that this movie is super funny and super entertaining. These are the kinds of movies I love - escapist fun with great comedic parts that feel so big that they can only happen on the big screen. I love comedy in a way that I don’t love basically any other person or thing. I love to laugh at absurdism and silliness, and I find myself increasingly frustrated that good comedy is so rare these days. But here, in a sea of sequels, reboots and adaptations, sat an original comedy made by a major studio intended to be a summer blockbuster. It made no money, and very few people saw it. But, it was new. It was made by somebody who just had a great original story to tell. And, to quote our creator, it was good. Please see this movie and support major studios taking chances on original ideas.
5. Weiner - A documentary about Anthony Weiner, the New York politician who famously tweeted pictures of his crotch, might not sound like the most interesting thing to watch. But, what starts out as a rather typical political behind-the-scenes story becomes a funny and brutal look at the inner workings of politics, politicians and the media. The film follows Weiner on his 2013 mayoral campaign and the filmmakers had access to everything. So, they were there as the media ceaselessly berated Weiner about his scandal, and they were there as Weiner made an idiot of himself by flipping off the press. There are scenes that are laugh out loud funny as we see real politicking at its finest (and worst), and there are cringeworthy moments where he has to evade the woman to whom he sent dirty pictures. But, beyond all of that it’s a movie about a lot of things. It’s about the death of nuance in our politics. It’s about how a media that’s supposed to cover news, ends up playing a huge role in making it. And, above all else, it’s about a man named Anthony Weiner, oftentimes confused with a character in the news with the same name, who is flawed, noble, funny, angry and, above all else, just trying his best.
6. Arrival - Denis Villeneuve is one of the best working directors today. Of the three movies I’ve seen of his - Prisoners, Sicario and this - all three feel so purposeful and well crafted. These are all movies made by somebody who thinks through every detail and makes the exact movie he sets out to make. Arrival is no exception. It tells the story of a linguistics professor, played by Amy Adams, who is called upon to help the US military communicate with aliens who have landed on our planet. This movie is flawed and has many plot elements that I don’t think work as well as they would’ve liked. But, that’s not the point. The point is a movie that felt big and emotional. It’s a movie about the triumph of human reasoning and problem solving. It’s a movie about the toll that the unknown plays in our collective psyche, and about how we can look at people and things we don’t understand and remain human through it all. It’s about the tragically human decisions we make and don’t make when confronted with difficulties.
7. Manchester by the Sea - I’ll admit that even though this movie has been getting buzz like no other this Oscar season, when I first saw Manchester by the Sea I didn’t love it. I thought it was okay - not nearly as good as everybody else seemed to think it was. But, then I gave it some time and distance and I found myself continuing to return to this movie. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s a really powerful movie about grief and how to keep going when you don’t want to, and see no reason to do so. Casey Affleck is as good as everybody says he is, I’ll tread no new ground there. But, Michelle Williams in her scenes - her few short scenes - just absolutely devastates. I refuse to give anything away as the way the tragedy unravels is part of its charm, in a weird way. There’s nothing happy about this movie. That’s not to say that it’s not funny - in fact it’s very funny. Rather, every time you think that the characters are going to pull themselves up and “win”, you’re reminded of the torment that they have to live with every moment of every day of their respective lives. This is not a movie about redemption, or overcoming the odds. Don't read any life lessons into this - it’s not your story or my story. It’s the story of one specific set of characters who have a history that they have to live with. There’s no resolution. No life lessons are learned. Rather, the movie keeps going until, all at once, just like everything, it just stops.