But this was no ordinary year.
Where to begin, when we speak of 2016? Most years, I just pick my favorite films, and that’s it. But this year, it felt important to really think about these choices, and what they expressed about my feelings this year. That’s not to say I picked a bunch of films I didn’t like as much just because they were “important.” Not at all. But I also know that when I look back at what cinema offered in 2016 many years from now — provided we’re still all in one piece by then — I do want it to reflect the turmoil, the despair, and the utter, unspeakable horrors inflicted upon so many of us over the course of the last year.
Sooo… no, La La Land will not be my pick for Movie of the Year.
Naturally, every movie released in 2016 was completed before the results of the election were clear. Not a single film was actually made in response to the events of 2016, because it hadn’t happened yet. Yet if we look at the movies, we can see so much of what we grappled with over the course of the past year:
A witch hunt (the literal kind) carried out against a woman who deserved far better in The Witch; the aimless, restless, reckless youths that the white collar world forgot in American Honey; the desperation of two lower-class outlaws who’ve been screwed by The Man in Hell Or High Water; the inconsolable working class grief of Manchester By The Sea; the angry young white men of the fiction-within-the-fiction of Nocturnal Animals; not-too-terribly distant battles over marriage equality in Loving; true tales of notable, questionably heoric Americans like Snowden and Sully; the gunman with a grudge taking it out on Wall Street in Money Monster; the fearless liberal lobbyist taking down corrupt, gun-loving right-wingers in Miss Sloane; the murderous white supremacists of Green Room; the insatiable bloodlust of the media in Christine; the racially charged bloody vengeance of The Birth Of A Nation; and two biopics centering on a certain young black would-be president, Netflix’s meditative drama Barry and the charming when-Barack-met-Michelle romance Southside With You.
Looking over such themes, it’s hard not to see that 2016’s sinister soul was bubbling in that stew all along, even if we didn’t quite know it until late last year. Granted, we were distracted — by superheroes of all kinds, the good (Captain America: Civil War), the bad (Batman v Superman), and the sassy (Deadpool); by lackluster summer sequels; by frivolous escapism.
And then, as we watched helplessly, our own world became stranger than any fiction.
In a way, it is pointless to assign any meaning to a group of movies from any given year. Scripts may have been written a decade ago, or be based on material that was written even further back. Filmmakers come from all over the world; they’re of different ages, and have vastly different viewpoints. I don’t consciously select my favorite films because they fit in any one category, yet I can’t help but notice certain themes emerge — like how my favorite films of 2013 spoke about the precarious state of the American economy, or the twin streaks of violence and childish innocence running through my 2014 list, or how last year’s picks all explored complicated, unconventional women.
What emerged amidst my 2016 picks was a sense of the passage of time — its ability to heal wounds, or its failure to. That’s resonant in a year that seemed to time warp us much further back than we ever expected to go — to a nonexistent time when America was greater than it is today.
Moreso than most years, my favorite films of 2016 spoke to me on a deeply personal level, some reminding me of various moments in my past, others raising anxiety about the present. Like many, I’m more concerned than I’ve ever been about the future. That’s in this list, too, somewhere… but we’ll have to go back to the past to get there.
Let’s go back.
“Well, boys, we came for a good time, not for a long time.”
Four of my Top 10 films of 2016 fall under the broad umbrella of a “coming of age” film, though they’re very different in other ways. This is the first, made by a filmmaker who wrote and directed two of the greatest films ever made about adolescence, 1993’s Dazed And Confused and 2014’s Boyhood.
Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some (I will hereafter leave off the two titular exclamation points for simplicity’s sake) was pitched as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed And Confused, which makes sense, since both films draw on Linklater’s own past and are set in eras he “came of age” himself. But Everybody Wants Some also picks up about exactly where Boyhood left off, with a young male getting his first taste of college life — and in its own subtle way, its storyline plays more like an extension of Boyhood‘s boy-to-man arc than a follow-up to his 1993 teen comedy.
Like Dazed And Confused, Everybody Wants Some kicks off with a hit period tune playing out of a cool period car’s stereo. Both films are essentially plotless, taking place in a fixed amount of time (Dazed And Confused on the last day of school in 1976, Everybody Wants Some counting down to the beginning of college classes in 1980). Both mire us in party culture that feels very authentic to its characters, its scenes very much about “just hanging out.” But like Dazed And Confused, Everybody Wants Some has a little more on its mind than meets the eye. Whereas Linklater’s earlier hit captured teens’ various levels of boredom or satisfaction about the present along with some stray anxiety about the future, Everybody Wants Some is about finding and shaping one’s identity once that future has begun.
This movie’s protagonist is Jake (Blake Jenner), who moves into an off-campus house for baseball players at a Texas university, which is for all intents and purposes a fraternity house. With his baseball buddies, Jake attends a disco, a country western bar, a punk club, and a performing arts party, finding that all have something to offer him (often, a comely young lady), but none manage to define him completely. Like all its central characters, Jake is a jock, but Jake is still searching for an alternate place in the world, aware that professional baseball is an unlikely future for all except the very best. Jake fits in easily with the other ball players; he makes friends easily and charms women, but he also seems to want a little more than what’s being offered by the macho posturing and bro camaraderie of his teammates.
Critics of the film complained that the jokey jocks didn’t offer a “way in” to this film — some couldn’t identify with these guys, whose primary preoccupations are sports, getting drunk, and getting laid. (That’s no different than Dazed And Confused, except that it focuses exclusively on the athletes.) I can understand why that might be the case, but as a former fraternity boy myself, I’ve never seen another film that so perfectly captures the carefree early days of college life, days that are all about exploration and finding an identity for oneself. Relationships made in this time are tenuous — how many of us are exactly the same person coming out of college as we were going in? Yet the people we meet at this time become an important part of our personal history, sharing the bond of a very special moment. That is, I believe, why Linklater chose to make a film that’s a tribute to them. The memories of these days are about as golden as they come, which is what makes Everybody Wants Some so fun and buoyant.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the film ends on Jake taking a snooze in class, emitting a small smile. Everybody Wants Some is a rare movie about contentment, about a brief window of time in which life is worry-free and full of possibility. We know the future holds plenty of conflict for these immature jocks, but this movie doesn’t take us to that point. I can identify with those detractors who find Everybody Wants Some too slight, finding fault with this easy, breezy narrative. Me? I was perfectly content to “Let the Good Times Roll,” as the Cars song playing over the credits urges.
In 2016, a difficult year for so many of us, many filmgoers sought refuge in the nostalgic escapism of La La Land. And that’s fine. Consider Everybody Wants Some my equivalent — the most optimistic and light-hearted film amongst my favorites of the year by far. It’s a film that takes me back to better times and lets me live there for an hour or two; to what seemed like the dawning of the brightest possible future.
The everymen of Everybody Wants Some are straight, mostly white, and sex-obsessed. They could hardly be more privileged. They’re not bad guys, because Linklater doesn’t write people that way — and yet, it’s exactly the demographic that grew up to vote for you-know-who in 2016. Perhaps, in the simplicity of Everybody Wants Some, we get some answers? Maybe most guys just want things to be nice and easy, and don’t see much beyond what’s right in front of them. I don’t know that I buy that so many of these characters are so obtuse, but maybe that’s my problem. Regardless, Everybody Wants Some makes a strong argument for going back in time to a certain greatness, even though there was plenty of not-so-great around the margins. These guys got lucky.
“You don’t understand the feeling. I went to Portland, and in Portland I was a whole other person, and I felt reborn. But then after a while, it started to feel too familiar, and I realized I could just step out of it. I could just start again.”
Have you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be somebody else?
Almost certainly, you have. But not many have ever done it. Complete Unknown is a tribute to those who have, exploring the consequences of seizing complete control over one’s identity.
Every film in my Top Ten list deals with a search for identity in some sense, but the one that grapples with it most directly is Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown, the story of a woman named Alice who shows up as a plus one to a dinner party and proceeds to fascinate the guests with her tales of adventure in Madagascar and a recording of a newly discovered species of frog. The problem is that the host of the party, Tom, believes that he knows this woman from the past, going by a different name.
The nifty thing about Complete Unknown is that it captures a science fiction premise and unleashes it in the mundane world. Tom is more or less happily married to Ramina, though their union is headed toward a rocky patch because she wants to move to California and he’s hesitant to leave his work behind. But in Tom’s past, there’s a woman named Jenny he broke up with long ago, and there’s a part of him that’s always wondered what happened to that girl, and if maybe he would’ve been happier with her. We all wonder what might have happened if our lives had gone in different directions. In Complete Unknown, Alice and Tom explore such possibilities over the course of one evening.
See, most people accept who they are early on. Their names, their history, where they live, what they do. Their identity — there’s continuity. To do anything else? Well, that would be crazy!
That’s why Complete Unknown shows us a number of characters reacting to what unfolds in exactly that way — as if they’re dealing with someone dangerous, someone insane, someone who deserves to be demonized simply for shaping her narrative in defiance of the one that has already been shaped for her. You can certainly see this side of things — a person’s sudden absence causes confusion, sadness, fear. Is it still wrong to deceive people if the fib feels like the truth?
Complete Unknown deals with morally complex situations, such as a sequence in which Tom tries another life on for size, helping an injured woman by pretending he’s a doctor (at Alice’s urging). We see the temptation in adopting a new life. But such a gambit is hardly for everyone, and comes at a high cost of loneliness. Alice isn’t immune to ordinary feelings — which is what brings her to see Tom in the first place. She has begun to wonder if she might not have been happier in her original life.
Complete Unknown is a small-scale drama featuring evocative performances by Michael Shannon as Tom and Rachel Weisz as the fascinating Alice. Its setup suggests a bigger mystery than the one that is ultimately explored, which is more about one person’s unique response to an identity crisis, and how another person comes to understand that that response is okay. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, nor does distance — sometimes, we need to seek out and confront our pasts in order to gain closure. The past year has seen people on both ends of the political spectrum accused of living in “bubbles”; Complete Unknown is about a woman who passes in and out of these spheres at her leisure, unobserved, leaving behind no trace of her former self.
Too many people these days cling stubbornly to a comfortable identity — a set of sheltered beliefs, an occupation, one geographic location, an education that likely ended too soon, and a lack of intellectual curiosity about the way the rest of the world operates. And yet it is a character like Alice who ends up condemned, for wanting to see and experience more of the world, more than any one person is able to. In 2016, perhaps we all could have learned a valuable lesson from her.
“It’s going to be super dangerous, and it’s going to be super scary.”
The second “coming of age” film in my Top 10 is also a “coming out” film, a genre I’m rarely very fond of. These tend to be predictable, artless affairs, but in the hands of 27-year-old Canadian Stephen Dunn, this overly familiar old material is given fresh style and a welcome touch of the macabre.
Closet Monster isn’t an overly dark story. It has some welcome comic relief in a hamster named Buffy, voiced by Isabella Rosselini (because why the hell wouldn’t she be?). It is the story of Oscar (Connor Jessup), who crushes on Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a French boy of ambiguous sexual orientation, while pretending that he’s dating his best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) to keep up appearances for his homophobic father. None of this breaks new ground on paper, except that Oscar is haunted by a violent incident he witnessed in his youth, carried out against a young gay boy, which has tainted his own fears and desires.
Most gay films depict a certain degree of emotional turmoil that accompanies an acceptance of one’s non-hetero sexuality. Few go much darker, but Closet Monster is peppered with nightmarish visions of what Oscar is grappling with in his mind, heart, and soul — because, for many, the coming out process involves more than just “he loves me, he loves me not” anxiety. It can be a violent, even deadly reckoning.
Closet Monster is about a young man struggling to find his identity, just as Everybody Wants Some is. The difference, of course, is that Everybody Wants Some‘s jock Jake is someone “everyone wants,” while Oscar stands to lose the affection of everyone he holds dear. (Except Buffy the Hamster… she’s quite open-minded, naturally.) There’s a looming threat of bloody rage simmering throughout Closet Monster, threatening to come to a boil and destroy Oscar, or perhaps someone close to him. Most coming out stories end with acceptance — time does tend to heal the gnawing agonies of our youth — but not all of them do. Closet Monster threatens not to. There’s no guarantee of survival.
Like many, I grew complacent with the astonishing advancements gay rights made during the Obama administration. The eve of his first election was also a crushing success for the discriminatory Proposition 8 in California, yet by the time he left office, things had taken a turn for the better in so many states. For all the strides LGBTQ people have made this century, however, 2016’s ominous shadow has made it clear that our battles are far from over. From the unfathomable Pulse massacre to the rise of Republican leadership that seeks to snatch back everything we’ve achieved in the past eight years, being gay is still dangerous and, by many, misunderstood. Our first, most vicious attackers are often ourselves. If we survive that, there’s still a whole other world to reckon with.
I appreciate Closet Monster for splattering some blood across a tired genre — this is the coming out film that most resembles my own personal experience. But it also has arresting visuals, appealing teen characters, one of the best soundtracks of the year, and — never forget this — Isabella Rossellini playing a hamster named Buffy.
“There’s a nut job out there. Nut jobs are my specialty.”
If you’d told me a year ago that Donald Trump would be president and a Paul Verhoeven movie would be one of my Top Ten films of 2016, I don’t know which I would have found more preposterous. But that’s 2016 for you.
Complete Unknown, Closet Monster, and several other films further down this list feature protagonists who struggle with self-destructive tendencies that threaten to alienate them from loved ones. Chop them up and toss them in a blender, and you’d still need to add an extra scoop of emotional damage to get you to Michèle, the heroine of Elle — and that’s before she is violently raped by a masked assailant.
In 2017, there’s still a national debate about what claim men can make over women’s bodies (somehow). A presidential candidate was caught on tape bragging about his ability to get away with sexual assault, and it didn’t make him any less popular with his constituent. He was elected anyway. Elle isn’t exactly the “fuck you” to men you might expect from a film with its premise, but it does challenge our preconceptions about what should and should not happen following a rape. Do you dare cast judgment on Michèle? You’d better take a long, hard look at the world around you first.
Elle begins with that shocking rape, which is calmly observed by Michèle’s cat. When he’s finished, her attacker leaves and Michèle carries on with her life. Over the course of the next few weeks, she does a few things we expect her to do — buy a gun, investigate potential suspects — and quite a few things we would not. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t call the police. She doesn’t shave her head. She doesn’t become a hardened badass.
In my original review, I dubbed Huppert’s Michèle the “Trauma Queen,” and the more I think about it, the more I consider this character the epitome of traumatized females of the screen. (Second only to Sidney Prescott, perhaps.) We’re used to seeing one of two narratives play out when a woman is raped in a film: either she helplessly allows the male hero to avenge her, or she does it herself (usually through a less-than-convincing transformation process).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the female fantasy of a rape-revenge thriller, except that it bears little resemblance to the aftermath of such trauma in real life. These films inherently suggest that a woman is “ruined” by rape. Elle cannily bucks audience expectations with its unpredictable heroine, who alternates between being sympathetic and off-putting. There’s a mystery in Elle — beyond the identity of the rapist — regarding the horrors of her past, a level of unimaginable anguish that, in some ways, prepared her for this next attack. One traumatic blow is more than enough for one person, but life doesn’t dole out suffering in such equal measure. Michèle deals with more than her share of shit flying at her from all angles. She’s not invincible, the way the heroine of your typical wronged-chick-makes-things-right thriller can be — but she is strong, in the most believable way.
Elle deals with some heavy subject matter, to be sure, but the film is also a stylish, twisty thriller with unexpected bursts of comedy from a vibrant supporting cast. Elle is the kind of film you could watch a dozen times, coming away with a different interpretation in each. Huppert’s bravura performance never gives away exactly what this woman is thinking, and she doesn’t exert any extra effort in making her endearing. Time cannot heal wounds that run so deep and so nasty as Michèle’s, but it can build them into a sort of armor. In Elle, it’s fascinating to watch her fend off a new wave of terrors, in part by forging her own past as a weapon.
Michèle refuses to let a man’s abuse change who she is as a woman. She deals in her own way. You’ll never meet another woman quite like Elle.
“There are reasons you die. There are causes. A chain of events linked by causality. And those events include decisions that you have personally made. How did you end up here, on this exact day, at this exact time, with this specific event happening to you?”
The third coming of age film on my list is by far the bleakest. A far cry from the easily assimilating jocks of Everybody Wants Some, Indignation is about what happens when you’re not a part of the alpha group. It begins with two scenes, seemingly disconnected from our main narrative — the first, set in a nursing home in present day; the second depicting a Korean soldier who meets a tragic end in the 1950s. It’s the first half of 2016’s best cinematic bookend.
We meet our protagonist, Marcus Messner, at the funeral of a friend, a Jewish boy sent off to die in the Korean War, as so many young men were. Marcus is bound for a different fate. He’s a straight-A student who dreams of a career as a prominent lawyer, standing in front of the Supreme Court. He’s destined for great things, everyone knows, because he’s a smart boy who works hard and avoids trouble. How could a good kid like Marcus not have a bright future ahead of him?
Well… Marcus is a part of the Jewish minority at the Ohio college he attends, far from his comfort zone in Newark, New Jersey. He falls for Olivia Hutton, a comely blonde from a good family, but soon learns that she, too, is an outsider at this school, for very different reasons. An act of oral sex, in part, sets in motion a chain of events that will seal the fates of both characters.
Thematically speaking, there’s a lot to unpack in Indignation that feels freshly relevant in 2016, from the way America has periodically been reckless with young men’s lives to the double standard slut shaming young women faced at this time. Primarily, the film deals with the perils of non-conformity — Marcus leaves his safe Jewish neighborhood for a community in which he’s a minority; he declines an invite to join the Jewish fraternity, preferring the company of his two Jewish roommates. Soon, Marcus finds himself ostracized even by these two. Marcus has the pride and arrogance of an intelligent youth — he’s perfectly willing to go it alone, if he has to, not realizing how vulnerable this makes him should things take a turn for the worse. He barely notices the number of supporters around him dwindling until he’s completely on his own.
The 1950s are often remembered as an idyllic era. It is often forgotten that, at this time, being an outsider could be very dangerous for anyone who didn’t subscribe to cultural norms. Now, in 2017, we are once again dealing with a movement to whitewash diversity, a threat to those who dare to think and live differently than the majority of Americans do. We still haven’t escaped the potential for oppression from a white Christian majority.
That makes Indignation sadly more relevant than it was ever intended to be, more relevant than it was during its theatrical release last summer. The film’s villain is the college’s Dean Caudwell, a white Christian whose mouth says everyone is free to practice a religion of their choosing while his policies fail to back that up. Sound familiar? The Republicans who have risen to power in 2017 will still say America is a safe haven for all comers, but their actions won’t back that up — not by a long shot. Marcus is an independent thinker — an atheist who challenges his professors in the classroom and rails against Dean Caudwell’s policy of forcing students to attend mass. It’s easy to imagine American conservatives in 2017 condemning Marcus the way he’s condemned in Indignation, railing against the smugness of intelligentsia. Indignation is a caustic reminder of what, historically, has often happened to those who dared to be different.
At once theatrical and cinematic, Indignation is anchored by riveting performances across the board, including one 12-minute powerhouse scene between Marcus and the dean. Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon perfectly play the young lovers caught up in forces greater than their unlikely romance. Though based on a Philip Roth novel, James Schamus’ film makes Olivia Hutton far more than just a tragic sex kitten — she’s mature and vibrant, and if any girl is worth what Marcus ends up paying for her, she’s it.
Indignation makes effective use of floral wallpaper to stir nostalgia in an old woman who, otherwise, appears emotionally vacant. So much time has passed that only a faint whisper of the past still echoes. But it does linger — even when it is unkind, time does not completely erase the memories of our better days.
“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”
And now we’ve arrived in the Top Five.
Of all the films I saw in 2016, no film will be branded into me quite the way Arrival was, by pure happenstance. Arrival is the first film I saw in theaters following the devastating election results of November 8, a point in time that felt very much like the end of the world. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie, otherworldly score is the perfect accompaniment to that mind-blowing moment, which felt very much like everything we knew about our place in the universe had just imploded.
Arrival is surprisingly optimistic and life-affirming for an alien invasion story, one in which the government at least attempts some friendly contact before opening fire on our extraterrestrial visitors. (Aliens, if you’re out there, please wait at least four years before touching down on Earth, okay? Trust me, it’s for your own good.) You can tell the film was written during the Obama administration, a time when science was valued and reciprocal communication between nations was deemed essential in a global crisis. The somewhat level-headed response of government officials in Arrival now just feels… quaint.
Arrival is the story of a linguist named Louise, Earth’s most sought-after scientist when mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe. We get only a minimal glimpse at the world’s reaction to this phenomenal event, but we’ve seen plenty of that in other films. Arrival is primarily concerned with Louise and fellow scientist Ian’s process in interpreting the aliens’ strange graphic language in order to ascertain why they’ve showed up on Earth. Time plays an important role in the film, less as a healer of wounds than as a necessary component of them.
As usual, Denis Villeneuve’s arresting filmmaking transcends what we’d normally get from a genre piece — he depicts familiar sci-fi events as we’ve never quite seen them before. The film is book-ended with Louise’s fraught personal story involving a daughter she lost to cancer, which turns out to be both emotionally powerful and intellectually ingenious in how it dovetails with the extraterrestrial elements of the story. Arrival goes for both the heart and the head at the same moment, and nails both.
The film’s message about transcending the superficial barriers that isolate us from one another is more crucial now than ever, though I’m afraid it’s already lost on this country. In Arrival, humans and aliens bridge the wide divide between species using patience, trust, and communication; in 2016, Americans had no such patience, acting in opposition to their best interests, spitting in the faces of those who want to help them, preferring to just blow the whole system up. Our relationships with foreign neighbors grow more precarious by the day, thanks to the disastrous leadership of the incompetent. Communication itself is under attack by those who prefer misinformation and manipulation.
I don’t know what it means when an alien invasion story contains more measured reason than the real life headlines. But here’s to science. Here’s to communication. Here’s to a woman who tried her best to build bridges across a great divide and save a planet in peril.
Too bad it’s just science fiction. Arrival is a painful glimpse at the better world I’d hoped we’d be.
“Well, hello, Richard. Yes, I’d like to leave a message. I want to say I hope you’re very happy. I hope that you really like the way this all turned out. When you didn’t return my phone calls, when you told me to need you. ‘Call me if you need me, baby. Be vulnerable. I’m your big man, right? I got your back.’ Well, it’s too late now, okay? All my hard work. It’s too late. Because not one fucking person on the planet would answer the phone when I called them for help. So you know what? Fuck you. You are dead to me.”
At many dinner tables across the country, November 2016 was a very tense moment indeed.
Homecoming is a common theme in films set around Thanksgiving, but few have the concept so thoroughly baked in as Krisha. Filmmaker Trey Edward Shultz, who, like Closet Monster writer/director Stephen Dunn, is in his 20s (damn you!), filmed Krisha in nine days at his family’s home in Texas, using mostly his real family as actors, including his leading lady. That sure sounds like a recipe for an unwatchable disaster, but you know what? Krisha turned out to be one of the most compelling films of the year, the rare family drama that plunges us so deep into conflict, it sometimes threatens to become a horror film.
Krisha (played by Krisha Fairchild) is somewhat new to being sober, and though we don’t learn many concrete details about her past, we can sense just by the way everyone walks on eggshells around her that this family has been through it. This black sheep shows up on Thanksgiving Day, missing a finger, and insists that she be the one to prepare the turkey. This gesture is important to her: a reparation. Gradually, we learn that Krisha’s “nephew” Trey (played by the writer/director himself) is actually Krisha’s abandoned son. More than anything, she wishes to reconnect with him. So far so good, right?
This setup might suggest a heartwarming family dramedy, but Krisha is not that film. As with the protagonists of Everybody Wants Some, Complete Unknown, and Closet Monster, Krisha is still searching for an identity. Unfortunately, she’s already got one — she’s the drug-addicted, alcoholic mess who turns everything she touches into chaos. As determined as she is to escape this role, it won’t be easy. It may not even be possible. There’s a certain fatalism hovering over Krisha that almost — almost — absolves her of any agency in what unfolds.
In my estimation, Krisha is not a story about substance abuse. It doesn’t seem that Krisha has chosen any one drug as her poison; rather, she’s addicted to the addiction. To being a mess. To fucking up, over and over. Her better self rails against it, but something dark deep within her always drags her away from those who are poised to forgive her. Krisha is the villain of the horror movie that is her mind. No matter how languid and idyll her family is, there’s always something sinister looming in Krisha, threatening to take control and alienate her from those she loves. Krisha can’t help but bite the hand that feeds her — the only hand that’s even reaching out to her anymore — and it’s not that she doesn’t want to be better. She just doesn’t know how to be.
Krisha is painful to watch — we know how much is at stake and sense that this is Krisha’s last chance to make amends. The turkey’s not the only thing that’s slowly roasting through the second act; over the course of the film, Krisha reaches a point of no return. Shults’ camerawork, alternately frenetic and observant, depicts a family gathering for a holiday in a wholly believable way rarely captured on film. The non-professional performances work perfectly alongside those from more experienced actors, including Billie Fairchild as Krisha’s mother — both the character and the real woman playing her have Alzheimer’s, lending the scene a remarkable poignancy. At times, Krisha is reminiscent of Boyhood in its homemade verisimilitude, though it clocks in at half the length and contains some showier cinematography, particularly in its doom-tinged final act.
Ultimately, Krisha does become a sort of horror film — one in which Krisha is both the victim and the perpetrator of her resurgent evils. The holiday plays out to its inevitable conclusion — one that all of these characters, including Krisha herself, sensed was coming.
They hoped for better. What they got was history repeating itself. More often than not, that’s how things go for women like Krisha. Some people just want to watch the world burn. Others don’t — but still can’t seem to stop themselves from lighting the match.
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Here’s a question I don’t have to ask of my Top Ten very often: is OJ: Made In America even a movie?
Critics are divided. OJ: Made In America was produced by ESPN for their 30 For 30 series. It can currently be streamed in five pieces on the ESPN website, and each segment has opening and closing titles. Sounds like TV, right? OJ: Made In America also played in some theaters, despite its colossal running time (467 minutes — nearly 8 hours). Most of this would lead me to the conclusion that it is a documentary miniseries, not a movie, and therefore should illegible for my Top Ten, which is why I originally discounted it for consideration. Add to that the fact that I’ve stopped including documentaries in my year-end lists at all, since, as a rule, I find them rather incomparable to narrative films. Making a documentary is about working with existing pieces — interviews, archival footage, available information. That’s not to say documentary filmmakers can’t be incredibly creative in how they present this material, or that their point of view isn’t heavily influential in what they make. But as someone who approaches filmmaking first and foremost through the lens of storytelling, I find this to be an entirely different set of skills than sitting down with a blank page and creating action and dialogue. (Though many of the more original documentaries out there blur this line by hiring actors to portray their subjects.)
But then I actually watched OJ: Made In America, and even though I watched it in the comfort of my own bedroom on a very small screen, afterward I could not escape the feeling that I had just had a cinematic experience. Like the greatest movies, its scope reaches far beyond its subject matter. Every minute of OJ: Made In America is necessary to tell the story of football legend turned pariah OJ Simpson, yet the film is also one of the best ever made about race relations, the city of Los Angeles, and American culture in general. While it deals explicitly with these themes in pieces, it reaches far beyond anything that is actually said or depicted in the film cumulatively. OJ: Made In America doesn’t moralize or even sum up what it’s trying to say, yet its many messages are crystal clear. To sum up what it’s “about” would be reductive and, ultimately, impossible. OJ: Made In America is essentially a movie about America itself, a thousand subcategories contained within it. Race, justice, fame, ego, identity, corruption, legacy… any one of these would have been enough, but somehow, OJ: Made In America contains them all. And then some.
OJ Simpson was never much of an actor, but somehow he ended up being the second biggest star of 2016 (following a certain other vain, rich prick who seems primed to get away with murder). It is very strange that the OJ Simpson trial had such a moment in 2016, with the success of the equally lauded American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson. But 2016 was no ordinary year. I watched OJ: Made In America recently, post-election, which made its depiction of systemic injustice and deadly narcissism particularly impacting. We are living in a moment when the bad guys win in the biggest of ways, when our values have been shaken to the core, when everything we thought we knew about our fellow Americans has been decimated. America has proven itself to be a dumber and uglier place than we would have believed. The reasons OJ Simpson got away with murder are direct precedents to the election of our new president, and both are shockingly unfair — yet, OJ: Made In America traces the path of the former so precisely that we can see how it was inevitable. Maybe in 20 years, a filmmaker as brilliant as Ezra Edelman can help us make sense of what the hell happened to us in 2016. For now, I look at OJ: Made In America as a prequel, of sorts, to that movie. OJ: Made In America contains such multitudes that, for me, at least, it is essential to call it cinema, and laud it as a necessary component of 2016’s legacy in film.
I said before that my Top Ten of 2016 struck a deep personal chord, and while it may seem strange to see much of myself in a documentary about an African-American athlete who was tried for murder, I did go to USC, like OJ did, and have lived most of my adult life in Los Angeles, which is such an integral part of this story. The OJ Simpson trial is one of the first news stories I can remember — Marcia Clark, Johnny Cochran, and Robert Shapiro were celebrities of my childhood, indistinguishable from more legitimately famous figures. A lot of Simpson’s experience is nothing like mine, but I know what it’s like to want to break free from one’s roots. Even tangentially, I’ve lived in OJ’s world enough to know that this documentary captures it with eerie, skin-crawly accuracy.
In 2017, our nation again finds itself divided by some very clear lines, all thanks to a famous man who is loathed and loved with equal passion. On my side is the evidence — facts, truth, justice. This side plays by the rules and doesn’t get too dirty. The other side is a slave to emotion, ignoring what seems plain as day for a narrative that was spoon-fed to them by slick, underhanded means. The distance we have in hindsight allows me to see what those people were thinking and feeling back then, to understand their own needs and misfortunes, and to not judge them for it. I’m unfortunately unable to watch the version of OJ: Made In America that could illuminate this present moment so clearly.
If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that the bad guys win big sometimes. Despite the infamous 1995 verdict that was almost certainly a miscarriage of justice, OJ: Made In America does end with OJ where he (almost certainly) belongs — behind bars. It’s a somewhat comforting ending that may restore our faith in the American process. Perhaps justice does arrive in this world, even if it shows up a few years late?
Can we expect the same now? Time will tell.
“A First Lady must always be prepared to pack her bags. It’s inevitable.”
I debated over this year’s #1 film more than any other year I can think of. My gut tends to tell me what my favorite movie of the year is, and it’s rare for more than one movie per year to punch me in that very same place.
But, like I said before… 2016 was no ordinary year.
If I had to pick one film that screamed “2016!” at the top of its lungs, it would be Jackie. That might seem unusual for a film set in 1963, which shows us both how far we’ve come since then, and how far we haven’t. The JFK assassination was a deep American wound that never healed completely, and now it’s been ripped back open.
Jackie takes place in the week following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, a man who is generally respected and admired as one of the great politicians of the 20th century. His death is one of the most famous murders in history, and one of the most iconic — the motorcade, the president and his wife waving and smiling in the backseat, and of course, Jackie’s iconic pink Chanel dress, which would be stained with blood before the day was over.
The president’s widow spends most of Jackie grieving what she’s lost — not just a husband, but a whole way of life. She believes that Kennedy’s legacy is important, much more important than the man he really was, an infamous philanderer. She wants him remembered like a knight of Camelot, fighting the good fight. It may not be entirely true; nor is it entirely fiction.
But Jackie is more than just a funeral dirge for a fallen figurehead. It depicts the first television broadcast from the White House, nearly 55 years before a man known primarily for his reality TV show would be sworn in as president — having defeated a former First Lady in the election. When Kennedy is killed, Soviet interference is suspected. Jackie shows us a nation in crisis. People are wondering what the hell is going on, when will this madness end?
Though it was never intended to be, Jackie is a requiem for the American dream, which has rarely been in as much jeopardy as it is now, in 2017. The Kennedys would be horrified to learn what has become of this country, and Jackie is a fascinating time capsule that helps us observe the ways in which American politics have always been a frightening and blood-soaked affair, and the ways it used to be more dignified and directed toward a common good. It took over 50 years for the melancholy madness of JFK’s execution to reach its logical conclusion, with a public that has lost faith in its leaders, that is both terrified and desensitized to acts of mayhem, that expects a presidential election to play out like a reality TV show, with a leader who cares only for his own fragile ego. John F. Kennedy fought for Civil Rights. Our current president would prefer to strip them away, after more than half a century of progress (in fits and starts, of course). Russia is again one of our most feared enemies. Jackie Kennedy turned to the press in order to carry on her slain husband’s important legacy; now, it’d be dismissed as “fake news.” Do you think Jackie obsessively counted how many people attended her husband’s funeral procession, and exaggerated the figures by two or three times?
As Natalie Portman’s Jackie mourns a dead husband and the shattering end of the glory of Camelot on what might be the darkest day of the 20th century, I grieved along with her for what we have lost more recently. And I also envied her, for not knowing what was coming… how things would get even darker, still, in the 21st. Jackie’s shell-shocked walk through the White House in a blood-stained pink Chanel suit is, without a doubt, the defining cinematic image of 2016 for me. It exquisitely captures exactly how I’ve felt since November 2016. And I have taken solace in the comfort the priest played by John Hurt offers to the widow, who no longer has much will to live: God ensures that every day contains just enough hope, just enough reason for us to keep on keeping on.
It took Chilean director Pablo Larrain to cut through the artifice that coats most biopics and just show us a widow on a mission, a First Lady who has one final job to do before she’s irrelevant. Larrain’s camera practically stalks Jackie through the White House, in good times and very bad; Jackie is artful to the point of being alienating to impatient modern audiences, weaving back and forth through time and memory. Portman is astounding as Jackie, embodying the woman absolutely, and Mica Levi’s unusual score is hauntingly sublime. Jackie may have narrowly missed being my #1 film of 2016, but it is certainly the film that best depicts how it felt to live through it.
Ever since November, I keep thinking about an “alternate fact”: Hillary Clinton just became President of the United States of America, a former First Lady risen to the leader of the free world, and we all feel really good about it — safe, and secure, and equal. That’s the way it was meant to be. I’m so sure. I still can’t really believe that the world won’t right this terrible wrong and restore order, and that’s only the first stage of grief: denial.
For one brief shining moment, there was Camelot.
And now there’s not.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Films don’t exist in a vacuum. Movies are created based on the history that has come before; alternate histories would create different movies, and a different response to them. I believe that Moonlight was the best movie released in 2016, qualitatively, while Jackie was the best movie of 2016.
What the fuck does that mean?
It means that I really, really wanted to kiss-off 2016 with a film about a former First Lady who literally shaped history. With the trauma of an assassination. With a blood-soaked widow stalking through the White House. A big part of me wanted that to be 2016’s cinematic legacy. The legacy it deserved. Fuck you, 2016… here’s Jackie!
But in the end, I just couldn’t.
The reason why is Moonlight.
Moonlight is the fourth and final “coming of age” story in my list, though only the middle chapter really qualifies. It is at once specific and universal, telling the story of a boy named Chiron, played alternately by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. Chiron lives in Miami, raised by a single mother in a rough neighborhood. The world doesn’t expect much of him. To most, he’s a nuisance, a target, or a problem waiting to happen. He might end up being another statistic; another drug addict, or another drug dealer. But there are two key figures who see a little deeper into Chiron throughout the course of the film — two men, who see him for who he is. The first is Juan, played all-too-briefly to perfection by Mahershala Ali. Juan merely offers the boy what little help he can — which both isn’t much, and means everything. This is the kind of cliche that has been explored in countless films, but in Moonlight, feels freshly illuminated. A simple act of kindness, of compassion, of love, can alter the course of a man’s entire life.
The film’s three chapters are each titled after the name Chiron goes by at that moment in his life, showing that he assumes at least three different identities along the course of his life. But Moonlight isn’t about a search for identity, so much as it is about a young man who knows his identity, but is unsure how that can reconcile with the circumstances he’s been born into. No one and nothing in Chiron’s world is telling him that it’s okay to be attracted to other boys, until he meets Juan. As a straight black man whose occupation is dealing drugs, Juan is an unlikely candidate to preach self-acceptance to a young gay boy, but that’s just the first way writer/director Barry Jenkins manages to buck our initial judgments and show that every one of us is unique and unpredictable. We look at Chiron’s childhood, at his mother, at his neighborhood, at the color of his skin, and think we know what will become of him. But we don’t. It’s not that he avoids every trap that’s been set for him — it’s that, even when he falls in, there’s a lot more to this young man than meets the eye. To prejudge him would be doing a disservice to ourselves, moreso even than to him, to rob us of the experience of getting to know him.
The film I most regret having to leave off my Top Ten is Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, which is also a coming-of-age story, and one that is also about the impact people we just happen to meet through our lives have on who we become as a person. In a way, it makes a nice companion piece to Moonlight, and several other films on this list. (Consider that an honorable mention.) Moreso than in other years, I am moved by the fates of these characters, at the points at which each of their respective films leave them. Jake the jock, newly infatuated with a pretty girl, in the very early dawn of “finding himself” in college in Everybody Wants Some; Alice in Complete Unknown, walking away from her past once again down a busy sidewalk, on the hunt for a new name and occupation; Closet Monster‘s Oscar, having wrestled the demons within, ready to take on life as a gay adult; Louise, deciding that life is worth living to the fullest despite the emotional agony that requires, in Arrival; Elle‘s Michèle finding solidarity in female friendship, a safe haven in a man’s world; Krisha in Krisha, helplessly succumbing to darkness, unable to quell her destructive impulses and appetite for chaos; Marcus, learning the hard way that going against the grain can come at a high cost, in Indignation; the unlikely superstar who rose from a humble upbringing to transcend low expectations and stark racial boundaries in OJ: Made In America, only to become the ironic embodiment of everything that was fucked up about race relations in the 20th century, and ultimately incarcerated after all; Jackie in Jackie, shaping the narrative of her husband’s legacy for a greater good, wishing she didn’t have to carry on without him, but putting on a brave face for her fatherless children because it’s the proper thing to do. And Chiron. Chiron’s fate at the end of Moonlight is more ambiguous than many of these — like Everybody Wants Some‘s Jake, his polar opposite in my #10 slot, we get the sense that whatever’s coming is just beginning, and we’ve barely seen any of it.
Some of these people suffer much more than others. Some are privileged, some are not. Some have everything, and yet some self-destructive impulse within them destroys it. Some are born with everything against them. Some face unspeakable evils, and yet manage to find a way to carry on. Some make grand gestures that alter the course of history; others just live their lives as humbly as they’re able. Some dream of greatness, but a crueler fate cuts them down to size before they’ve ever had a chance to get there. Some flee their own identities, refusing to accept the rulebook the world has written for them. Some have their whole lives ahead of them. Others don’t.
That’s the most sense I can make out of 2016 at this point. Random chaos and cruel fate, avoided by a lucky few. It is tempting to despair. 2016 was the gloomiest year to come in a long time, and by most standards of measurement, the immediate future looks pretty bleak. It is very difficult to choose a film that doesn’t reflect that as the best movie of 2016 — and perhaps that is why it is all the more important to do so.
Moonlight is a story of hope. It is a story about a young man who grows up with everything against him — no father, a drug addicted mother, poverty, bullying, homophobia. One man reaches out to him as a child and offers what little assistance he can provide — temporary shelter, a hot meal prepared with care, and most importantly, a sympathetic ear. Juan listens to Little and, in his own way, tells the boy it’s okay to be who he is.
That alone isn’t enough to set Chiron’s life on the path of the straight and narrow. He’s still got to get through high school, where he faces the torment of bullies who seize upon the fact that he’s different. Before Chiron has fully accepted and embraced his own identity, the bullies recognize who Chiron is and punish him for it, the same way his mother does, in lesser ways. Juan is gone now, though his kindness resonates through Teresa (Janelle Monae), the girlfriend he left behind who still provides Chiron a home away from home. And that’s enough.
Chiron doesn’t initially choose a path we want to see for him. He follows Juan’s footsteps, earning a living in a way that is dangerous and destructive — at least, for now. But in the film’s final act, as he is invited into another man’s home, offered another hot meal prepared with care, it again offers hope that Chiron can and will make better choices. That, against all odds, he’ll get through this.
Jackie mourns for the past — a perfectly acceptable response, given what’s happened in the present. Moonlight is about moving on. Carrying forward. Moonlight gives us reason to hope for the future.
In the end, I had to choose that — hope and change, and all that. Because what else is there? We live in a nation led by men who want to hold Chiron back — for being black, for being gay, for being poor. They want us all to sit back, while they move forward. If Chiron can avoid all the booby traps that have been set for him and find love in a hopeless place, maybe we can all get through whatever we face… but I don’t know for sure, because Moonlight is just a movie.
Still, it won’t hurt to take Moonlight’s lesson to heart. Let’s help who we can, however we can, when they need it. Let’s make things better for each other instead of worse.
(Original reviews can be found by clicking film titles above.)