2016 in Movies

The past few years have been a curious few at the movies, and decades from now this time period will either be remembered as the death of it all or the rebirth of the medium. Theatre attendance is down and the tickets that Hollywood does sell are, more and more, going to the same group of people. Yet at the same time as this, almost inexplicably, independent film is flourishing. While its easy to decry the death of cinema after walking out of another vapid Hollywood franchise film, critics like Richard Brody have been quick to point out that this amounts to little more than a Trump-esque make the movies great again hoo-ha-ing. Yes, Hollywood used to make better movies, but to blindly reminisce about the golden years is to ignore the fact that the old system and, to much extent the current system, was based in discrimination.

Brody points out that a film like Moonlight, a character study of a gay black man growing up in the south, never could have been made in the Hollywood studio system. The implosion of the studio system and the rise of the independents, he writes, is good.

Though I won’t argue his point on the rise of independents — more people from a wider background than ever are making movies now — I’m not sure the death of Hollywood should be dismissed so casually.

Still, musings aside, 2016 saw some great movies. Here are a few I loved:

Hail, Caesar!
It’s easy to forget how good the Cohen Brothers are when they seem to effortlessly churn out brilliant film after film year after year, but hot damn are they good. I missed Hail, Caesar! in theatres and I was reluctant to get around to it — it had some bad word of mouth — but I was shocked when I finally did. This film is a joy to behold. It’s one that grows on you with each viewing and the more you think about it. It’s not a complex film, it doesn’t have a grandiose message or scintillating plot, so it’s easy to see why it’s been largely forgotten, but years from now people will look back and at the snappy dialogue, the tight scenes, and all the charming moments between actors the Cohens have so carefully captured, and smile.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
After 2015’s What We Do in the Shadows and this years Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi has established himself as one of the world’s most interesting comic voices to watch. In Wilderpeople he continues his brand of Kiwi deadpand while also proving he knows how to write a story with structure and heart. Not to mention the fact that it’s a comedy that actually justifies itself as a movie — that is, it takes advantage of the visual medium and gives way to some truly beautiful cinematography and comic editing (American directors take note).

Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea has a creeping beauty to it so subtle you might it. It’s a perfect blend of tragedy and comedy — realism with poetic flair. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan hones in on the pain of loss whilst maintaining that the world is an absurd place. He shows us paramedics who can’t get a stretcher into an ambulance without the wheels coming down, Seinfeld-esque miscommunications across a loud wake, a fight over how to bury a loved one as the two characters simultaneously complain how cold they are and cannot find their car. You may cry, he seems to say, but the world never stops laughing, so laugh a little too.

20th Century Women
As with the above films, my favorite films tend to be the ones that grow on me the more I think about them, the ones full of beautiful little moments between characters captured perfectly by a director who knows what they’re looking for. 20th Century Women is such a film. It is a film of poignant exchanges people struggling to understand one another and themselves. To say any more would spoil it. Simply go see it.

Don’t Think Twice
For anyone struggling to succeed creatively Don’t Think Twice will hit home. It’s a simple film about the hard truth that not everyone is going to be successful as what they want to do no matter how talented they may be. Luck, drive, and other factors all count too and when some friends succeed while others no not the results are not always pretty. Oh but it’s a comedy — did I forget that? — and pretty funny one at that, albeit darkly so.

Swiss Army Man
Just when you think it’s all been done before someone will come along with a movie like Swiss Army Man to prove you wrong. Yes, it falls a part a little at the end, but that’s only in comparison to how astoundingly good most of the film is. Few films in recent memory have given much such child like glee.

La La Land
There’s been a curious backlash towards La La Land since it came out, as I suppose there always is when everyone goes absolutely nuts something, but it truly is an incredible film. Will it age as well the musicals it pays homage to? Maybe, maybe not, but for now it’s a film worth seeing.

Some other movies worth mentioning:

Witch, Elle, Moonlight, 10 Cloverfeild Lane, and Midnight Special

And a bunch of other fun but inconsequential movies that you might enjoy renting if you’re bored:

Deadpool, Zootopia, CA: Civil War, Green Room, Keanu, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Conjuring 2, Captain Fantastic, Little Sister, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Arrival, Fantastic Beasts, Deadpool, and Creepy.

To finish I want to say a few words on Fantastic Beasts and Civil War, two of Hollywood’s bigger releases this year. Both, in many ways, are fantastic. They’re incredibly well cast films with wildly entertaining scenes each made by talented directors (The Russo Brothers and David Yates, respectively) and if it weren’t their last thirty minutes each might be a great film. But each falls victim to the same problems of sequel-itis that has plagued Hollywood films as of late. One can feel the moments where the films almost became something greater, where the filmmakers behind each tried to steer them in an interesting direction only the have the wheel forced another way by meddling studio executives.

These franchise films, Marvel’s especially, must deliver huge amounts of city leveling spectacle while simultaneously doing nothing to endanger future sequels, meaning nothing bad can happen to the characters. On top of this these films must set up sequels and spin offs, shoe horning in other characters and side plots. To say that these films are bloated is an understatement — the are bursting at the seams.

But worst of all, and this is where I begin to worry about the death of cinema, by making films without consequences — films where destruction is redacted by the convenient flick of the wand or a clever life saving invention by Tony Stark — Hollywood has ceased to make films that are consequential. Say what you want about the reasons for low theatre attendance, that Hollywood is catering to a narrow market (young white men), that people are waiting to watch movies at home, that theater prices are too expensive — all of this is true — but I think, above all else, these inconsequential films are what may do us in.

People have not ceased to crave stories, nor to watch them play out in a visual medium (note the rise of risk taking auteur-driven television), but over the past ten years of relentless sequels, prequels, reboots, and reboots of reboots just a few later, audiences are learning that movies are not the place to go for stories of consequence; they are not the place to experience actual drama. Rather, they are a space to watch things that cater to us condescendingly. They are a space to spend a carefree afternoon dining on sugary nostalgia, but, sadly, they are no longer the place for an actual meal.

ZJT