The Best Films of 2016, Part Three (#1–9)
Meryl Streep was right. In her Golden Globes speech she talked about how Hollywood is, like all refuges for the creatively minded, is “crawling with outsiders and foreigners.” She was talking mostly about the latter in her sly jab at the oppressive nationalist impulse that swept a dangerous thug and neophyte into power last November. But just as important were the former, those Americans who, whether because they’re the wrong color or class, or born in the wrong zip code or into the wrong body, aren’t considered part of the “real America” that breathed a petulant kind of fire on Election Day.
Those outsiders gather in places like Hollywood because, for all the shallowness and cruelty and money-grubbing, it’s a place that still occasionally gives people with the creative drive a framework to do their work and craft their art. Conservatives, much as they’re annoyed by art with its suspicious inefficiency and inability to be monetized, tend to forget that it’s those irritating creative types who make the TV and films that they like. As Streep said, if all those outsiders and foreigners get booted out, “you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts.” And maybe the occasional Michael Bay film.
Below are some of the greatest things that those filmmaking weirdos added to our culture in 2016.
Eight years after his cool little black-and-white love poem, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins returns with one of the year’s most affecting stories. It’s a beautifully-shot triptych about Little, a kid growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood shadowed by bullying because of his suspected gayness, who is taken under the wing of a kindly drug dealer (the ever-amazing Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (singer Janelle Monae, sparklingly good). Jenkins’s style is spare but passionate, packing color and passion into the wide lonely spaces left around Little. In terms of incident, the film appears to peak in the second, high school-set section. But it’s the seemingly hushed final segment, where we see the seemingly confident man that Little has become, that the undercurrents of Moonlight practically roar with fear, wonder, and love.
(8) Things to Come
Isabelle Huppert’s star turn in Paul Verhoeven’s terrifically nasty little revenge thriller Elle was rightfully seen as a bravura turn. But it was her performance in Mia Hansen-Love’s more studied drama Things to Come that showed even more what a genius Huppert is. Playing a philosophy teacher and writer whose life is upended by divorce and falling sales, Huppert tracks her character’s questing desire to keep on with things and find meaning in her late-in-life transformation instead of falling into despair. The humor is sharp, the intellectual debates tart, and Huppert magnetic throughout.
(7) The Childhood of a Leader
Starting with soaring, screeching strings played over newsreel footage of World War I and dropping like a dive bomber into a David Lynch-ian scenario of brooding menace, Brady Corbet’s creepy-crawly historical horror film about the disturbed son of an American diplomat assigned to Europe on the brink of World War II mashes up sinister-child tropes with apocalyptic authoritarian overtones. The result is overwrought and often overreaching. But it’s a nerve-rattler of an experience and, given the winds of fascism now sweeping yet again across Europe, more timely by the month.
What if a news woman committed suicide on air and almost nobody remembered? That’s the unspoken question behind Antonio Campos’s claustrophobic and unsettling film takes on the story of Christine Chubbuk (Rebecca Hall, achingly earnest), a striving South Florida TV reporter whose personal struggles combined with frustration at her station’s desire for what she derisively called “blood and guts” sensationalist reporting. A slow-motion tragedy of bad timing and miscommunication, the film shows Chubbuck as a demanding and uncompromising presence, but also a woman with drive and brains who had the misfortune to pick for herself a career where meaning can be difficult to find, if ever. Tracey Letts and Michael C. Hall turn in effortlessly superb work as Chubbuck’s gruff boss and glib co-worker, respectively, neither of whom were able to see the woman drowning right in front of their eyes.
Like any first-contact film, Arrival has to live in the shadow of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all the way back to the original The Day the Earth Stood Still. While it can’t quite escape that legacy, Denis Villeneuve’s twisty and engaging entry into the genre can certainly stand on its own. Amy Adams plays a linguist brought in by a stern officer (Forest Whitaker) — is there any other kind in these films? — to translate after a dozen alien spaceships appear in the sky. Her mission, to turn the aliens’ circuitous and baffling language into something recognizable, is threaded into a luminously romantic subplot and steadily up-ratcheting world-war scenario. Villeneueve skillfully torques the idea-dense screenplay, adapted from a story by Ted Chiang, into a film that’s as tense as it is thoughtful.
(4) Do Not Resist
What happened when the U.S. military started winding down its presence in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan? Well, the Pentagon didn’t want to leave all of their hardware behind, so in an act of munificence, they offered everything from combat gear to armored personal carriers to police departments all around America. Coming on the heels of an increasingly warrior-centric turn in police training, this militaristic gearing-up of the nation’s police forces was put on display in the Ferguson riots. Craig Atkinson’s sobering documentary shows how police overkill goes beyond the disturbing optics of up-armored stormtroopers stalking suburban streets like an occupying force, warning that the very concept of “Protect and Serve” is in danger.
(3) American Honey
For her American debut, Andrea Arnold took the same fierce streak that inhabited all of her British films from the creepy surveillance-relationship drama Red Road to the explosive teen liberation saga Fish Tank and her percussively modern take on Wuthering Heights and transmits them to the wide-open skies and frightened economic terror of the heartland. Sasha Lane plays Star, another of Arnold’s wily and independent young women, who jumps from a bad home situation into a potentially even worse one: roaming the Midwest with a gang of street kids hawking magazines. Bleakness is rampant in the streets they roam. But the kids boost themselves with drinking, drugs, music — Arnold packs the sprawling road film with bright and raging anthems, particularly Rihanna’s “We Found Love” — and an abiding American capitalist faith that They Too Can Make It. Also with a sly and understated Shia LaBeouf as a predatory older sales manager and Riley Keough as the kids’ vampish Fagin.
(2) Manchester by the Sea
Finally being able to see the long-in-the-wings Casey Affleck get his shot at an honest-to-God starring role would be enough of a reason to see Manchester by the Sea, in which he plays a man returning to his small town after his brother’s death to tie up loose ends and be faced (unwillingly) by the ghosts of his past. But the rich screenplay by director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, You Can Count on Me), pivoting from tragedy to black humor, gives Affleck’s deadpan sarcasm and slow burn anger plenty to work with. Affleck is more than supported by the electric cast, particularly Michelle Williams as a woman from his past who brings up every horrible memory his character has been spending years trying to bury. A transfixing tragedy that is so full of life it almost never feels like one.
(1) OJ: Made in America
The narrative TV series of the year was clearly Ryan Murphy’s limited-run miniseries The People vs. OJ Simpson. But Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary takes you well past his sensational murder trial that transfixed the nation for a good part of 1995, that lost year. In Edelman’s hands, OJ, the star athlete, businessman, and performer who both stood as a symbol of black progress and also of self-loathing (a good part of the film talks about how hard OJ worked to escape being thought of as black), becomes a lens through which to see everything corrosive and destructive about the intersections of celebrity and race in America. Edelman’s powerfully dramatic narrative reaches from the Watts riots and the ins and outs of LAPD corruption to the still-hard-to-believe trial and all its attendant tabloid sordidness. In short, it’s an American epic that almost everything; except a happy ending.