Filling out my ballot for this year’s Muriel Awards (the results of which you can follow here) naturally led me to think back on a year that was almost as great for movies as it was horrifying on almost every other level. I still hold out hope that what we’re living through is the death rattle of a toxic strain of provincialism, the futile wish that America would return to a distinctly racist, xenophobic and misogynist kind of greatness that never existed in the first place. Still, living through a barrage of disinformation, anxiety-inducing edicts from a White House run by a coked-up wannabe Goebbels and angry, incoherent tweets reminding us that a thin-skinned, oatmeal-brained old rage case who yells at cable news has the nuclear codes…it’s enough to make any sensible person feel completely exhausted and emotionally raw (or numb). Almost immediately after the election, well-meaning people started declaring that it’s up to the artists to save us; I hope I can do my part, but right now, I count every day I can basically function as a competent adult as a victory. I even procrastinated on writing this post for two weeks (you’re welcome).

I do want to believe that movies (and art in general) can make a difference, but I can’t claim to know how that is with any certainty. One of my best moviegoing experiences this year was a screening of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert organized by Wicked Queer: Boston LGBT Film Festival in August. My movie, Most Likely, had played in the festival in April. It was my first festival experience and the first time I felt a legitimate sense of being a queer artist and part of a community. Most Likely screened at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, the location of many of my fondest moviegoing memories; seeing the movie at the Brattle with an appreciative audience and my friends who’d helped make it a reality was a dream come true, the kind of night where it feels like anything is possible.

The mood was very different at the Brattle in August; the screening of Priscilla was a benefit for One Orlando in the aftermath of the murder of 49 queer people at Pulse. The mood was emotional as James, the director of the festival (who has become a friend), introduced the movie and talked about his desire to do something, anything in the wake of the Pulse massacre. It’s an impulse that has grown, encouragingly, in recent months; the world is falling apart, but we have to do something, right? In this case, it was packing a theater with queer people to watch a hilarious movie that celebrates and loves its queer characters. Priscilla got a lot of big, cathartic laughs that night; there are moments when the central trio of drag performers are harassed and threatened, but the joy of the movie (without ever being saccharine or self-important about it) is in how this barely breaks their stride. They remain defiantly, loudly themselves, ABBA numbers and all. There are a lot of queer-themed movies about surviving life, but Priscilla is about celebrating it, and though I attended by myself, there was a sense of a communal experience that night that was genuinely healing.

My wife and I returned to Cambridge in October for a screening of Jackie Brown at the Harvard Film Archive, featuring a Q&A with the movie’s star, Pam Grier (who was in town to receive the university’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal). The screening was a welcome break from the time we were devoting to volunteering for the New Hampshire Democrats (I’m not registered with the party, I’m just into trying to prevent apocalypses). The movie was as brilliant and funny as the first time I saw it on the big screen two decades earlier; it’s Tarantino’s loosest movie, in a good way, and it’s insightful about aging and regret in ways that cut deeper as I get older. The whole movie hinges on Grier’s performance as a woman who has to think on her feet as she plays both sides of the law against each other to make a killing. I don’t want to overstate a connection between the movie and current events, but it was deeply satisfying, near the end of an election defined by its misogyny, to watch a quick-witted heroine who outsmarts all of the men surrounding her.

Grier — who admitted as she took the stage that she’d had a few drinks — was hilarious, endearingly scattered and immediately likable. Though most of my encounters with artists I admire have been positive, by the end of Grier’s Q&A, Jen and I were both basically falling in love with her. Grier had plenty of interesting anecdotes to share about Jackie Brown, her earlier movies and her time in Hollywood; she’s the kind of person who can offhandedly mention “Marlon” and it in no way comes off as name dropping. The conversation grew more personal as she made reference to her experience as a rape survivor and the effect it has had on her work and life. It was disarming to meet a celebrity in that kind of setting who is clearly an open book and didn’t shy away from being emotionally earnest — as she spoke about her experiences as a wide-eyed newcomer and the actors and filmmakers she’d still love to work with, you could see the young girl who fell in love with movies in the first place. While I was already a fan of Grier’s, really getting a sense of her as a person gave me a whole new appreciation for how downright inspiring it is that a multiracial kid from North Carolina could make the trip to Hollywood, find success and eventually star in a masterpiece. She ended the Q&A by encouraging the artists in the audience to tell our own stories and not shy away from letting the world know who we are. I left feeling validated in trying to tell my own stories and, as with the screening in April, like anything was possible.

A month later, Jen and I were at a protest outside of the State House, both still reeling from the election. Though I knew it wasn’t their fault, I felt angry at all of my friends who spent the year keeping themselves above the fray, making a big show of how both candidates were equally bad, content in their ideological vanity. I wanted to say to them, “I did everything I could to prevent this. The fuck did you do?” I felt disappointed by family and acquaintances who voted for Trump; while I’ll concede most of the Clinton campaign’s missteps, I’m still stunned that so many white people’s response to “Don’t vote for misogyny and bigotry” was “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” I frequently thought of The Nice Guys, the most underrated movie of the year, and Ryan Gosling trying to comfort a drunk, defeated Russell Crowe by exclaiming “At least you’re drinking again!” We protested hoping for an outlet, but this was before the Women’s March and the realization that protest could actually work against the new administration, and at the time, it was hard to wonder if we weren’t just a gaggle of white people yelling into the street.

After the protest and a couple of drinks, Jen and I went to see Moonlight at Red River Theaters, the local art house. I’d heard great things about the movie, but I was unprepared for how hard Chiron’s story would hit me. Moonlight was deeply personal for writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and co-writer/director Barry Jenkins; watching the movie, the parts of Chiron’s life that I could connect to my own cut deep, and Jenkins and his cast did an amazing job of drawing me into the parts that were far from my own experience. By the devastating final scenes (which I won’t spoil), the film envisions a path for two characters to finding their own peace that, in its way, feels quietly revolutionary. Please see Moonlight. It’s the kind of movie that can deepen your sense of empathy and understanding of the world around you, and, on top of that, it’s incredibly entertaining and exuberantly directed. I still don’t know what role art can play in resistance — when it comes to literal Nazis, I prefer bricks and bats- but I know a really great movie has the power to open one’s heart, and that’s a start, at least.

My Top 10

  1. Moonlight
  2. The Nice Guys
  3. Paterson
  4. Green Room
  5. The Fits
  6. Silence
  7. 20th Century Women
  8. La La Land
  9. The Handmaiden
  10. The Witch

(Some notable movies I haven’t seen yet: Toni Erdmann, Loving, I Am Not Your Negro, Elle, Certain Women, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion)

Best Lead Performance, Male

  1. Denzel Washington, Fences
  2. Adam Driver, Paterson
  3. Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
  4. Michael Shannon, Midnight Special
  5. Mark Rylance, The BFG

Best Lead Performance, Female

  1. Viola Davis, Fences
  2. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
  3. Emma Stone, La La Land
  4. Amy Adams, Arrival
  5. Royalty Hightower, The Fits

Best Supporting Performance, Male

  1. Andre Holland, Moonlight
  2. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  3. Macon Blair, Green Room
  4. Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!
  5. Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Best Supporting Performance, Female

  1. Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters
  2. Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
  3. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
  4. Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  5. Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys

Best Director

  1. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
  2. Shane Black, The Nice Guys
  3. Jim Jarmusch, Paterson
  4. Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room
  5. Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits

Best Screenplay

  1. The Nice Guys
  2. Moonlight
  3. Arrival
  4. 20th Century Women
  5. Paterson

Best Cinematography

  1. La La Land
  2. Silence
  3. Moonlight
  4. The Witch
  5. Arrival

Best Editing

  1. Moonlight
  2. The Handmaiden
  3. Green Room
  4. La La Land
  5. The Fits

Best Music

  1. La La Land
  2. Jackie
  3. Arrival
  4. Midnight Special
  5. The Fits

Best Documentary

  1. De Palma
  2. O.J.: Made in America
  3. 13th

Best Cinematic Moment

  1. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land
  2. Hotel shootout/elevator, The Nice Guys
  3. “No Dames,” Hail, Caesar!
  4. “Father Figure,” Keanu
  5. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”, The Witch
  6. “Hello Stranger,” Moonlight
  7. Final scene, The Fits
  8. First encounter, Arrival
  9. Meteor shower, Midnight Special
  10. Dream pool, The BFG

Best Cinematic Breakthrough

  1. Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits
  2. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
  3. Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson
  4. Anna Biller, The Love Witch
  5. Robert Eggers, The Witch

Best Body of Work

  1. Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys, La La Land)
  2. Adam Driver (Silence, Paterson, Midnight Special)
  3. Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Hidden Figures)

Best Ensemble

  1. Moonlight
  2. 20th Century Women
  3. The Nice Guys
  4. Hidden Figures
  5. Hail, Caesar!
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