Black Excellence vs. White Mediocrity: The Best Films of 2016
Originally published January of 2017. See my 2018 list here.
The 2016 Oscar’s race is predicted to be a contest of La La Land, a relatively sunny musical that celebrates a timeless and relatively white fantasy of Los Angeles; against Moonlight, a deeply moving and poetic Black gay coming-of-age story set in 1980s Miami. Whoever wins the awards, Moonlight is this year’s best film. Like Beyoncé losing the album of the year Grammy to Adele, the fact that La La Land is even a contender reveals the prejudices of the entertainment industry. It’s not that La La Land is a terrible film. It’s beautifully styled and shot, even if its content is tone deaf. Even compared to the best films of this year, none compare to the transformative power and beauty of Moonlight. But Hollywood loves to celebrate itself, and the industry is wealthy, white and male dominated, so La La Land is seen as a favorite.
This was a great year for cinema, and many releases this year are relevant to this political moment. Director Pablo Larraín and star Gael García Bernal, who previously collaborated on the political drama No, return with Neruda, a poetic film about the importance of poetry in a time of fascism. French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, director of 2010’s underrated Incendies (and 2015’s overrated Sicario) returns with Arrival, a film about the importance of science over nationalism. David Mackenzie’s heist film Hell or High Water is an indictment of the soullessness of banks. Director Ava DuVernay’s 13th, while frustrating for the issues it leaves out, is a powerful introduction to the topic of mass incarceration. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, while unfortunately creating white saviors where none existed, is still redeemed by a powerful civil rights movement story and excellent performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. Finally, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos brought surrealism mainstream with his original and very funny dystopian satire, The Lobster.
This was also a year of great genre films, like Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe, a tense and original horror film set among the post-industrial landscape of Detroit. Director Jeff Nichols and star Joel Edgerton, who also collaborated on this year’s civil rights drama Loving, also released the surprising and very smart science fiction film Midnight Special. Cheang Pou-soi’s densely plotted Hong Kong action film Kill Zone 2 is much smarter and funnier than you might expect. Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is by no means a great film, but deserves credit as an action series in which every film passes the Bechdel Test and features a corporation as a villain.
As television becomes more experimental and risk-taking, there was some truly great and cinematic TV this year. Especially worth watching is the intricately plotted Mr. Robot, which follows a multiracial group of hackers working to end capitalism. Some of the best documentary work this year came from the show Rise on Viceland, in which a Native American producer and correspondent explore indigenous issues, starting with Standing Rock. And Atlanta and Insecure, while very different from each other, are two of the most creative, original, and funny comedies in years.
This year’s top ten films span categories and countries, but together they explore race, class and gender in new and intelligent ways:
10) If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to raise your kids in the woods with no exposure to capitalism, director Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic is the drama you’ve been waiting for. This may also be the only film I’ve ever seen that features a father having a healthy conversation about consent with his son.
9) “Doesn’t it take a man to raise a man?” asks a character early on in 20th Century Women, the newest film from former music video director Mike Mills (who also directed Thumbsucker and Beginners). “No, I don’t think so,” comes the reply, in this 1970s coming of age story.
8) First-time director Anna Rose Holmer (who also recently captured Alvin Ailey’s dance adaptation of Moonlight) directs a young cast of newcomers in The Fits, a beautiful and original film about a mysterious illness afflicting a group of young Black girls.
7) Oldboy Director Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an erotic drama about sex, seduction and betrayal that keeps the viewer guessing and enthralled.
6) Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, two of the world’s best actors, give performances they have been honing for years (at least since they starred in the play together on Broadway in 2010) in Fences, which Washington also directed.
5) Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room captures punk music subcultures in this suddenly-too-relevant thriller about a touring band fighting neo-Nazis.
4) Andrea Arnold’s Palme d’Or-winning American Honey is an ethereal drama about aimless white traveler kids exploring sex, drugs and financial hustles.
3) Craig Atkinson’s documentary Do Not Resist is a fierce indictment of modern policing featuring a frightening look at some of the ideas and individuals shaping law enforcement.
2) Filmmaker Raoul Peck grew up between Port-au-Prince and Kinshasa, later lived in France and New York City, and was Minister of Culture for Haiti. His Pan-African roots and deep intelligence inform his new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. The film distills the words and ideas of James Baldwin, whose insight is relevant in any era, but especially urgent today.
1) Director Barry Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney created a nearly perfect film with Moonlight, a story that is both specific to their Miami upbringings, and broadly about gender, sex, trauma, race, love and forgiveness. Whatever Oscar voters decide, this film is a modern classic whose legacy will far outlast La La Land.