New York City on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 was an eerie place to be. No one could ever accuse Manhattan of being quiet, but that day—the day after the city voted overwhelmingly against Trump—a mood of silent dread seemed to hang in the air, broken from time to time by a passerby on their cell phone talking hurriedly about how fucked up the night before had been. On November 10, I was back in the city on a (previously scheduled) trip to take two friends to see Dr. Strangelove at Film Forum. By then, I was curious to see how it would play given the general dear-god-what-the-fuck mood. But the audience loved it, laughing at every little touch of pitch-black cynical comedy—at least, until the end. As the world blew up, everyone at Film Forum went dead serious, and were dead serious still as they all shuffled out of the theater. And I wonder, if 80,000 rust belt voters had gone the other way, whether or not that 50-year-old sick joke would have suddenly seemed so rattling again.
Needless to say, 2016 will be remembered for many things more than its movies. The year was a clusterfuck: it began as one and ended as one, and the political plot twists in between put the imagination of screenwriters everywhere to shame. And I suppose it was inevitable that cinema itself would get caught in the whirlwind. Flashing back to January 2016, two movie news items are worth noting. First, at the Sundance Film Festival, during the height of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Nate Parker’s slavery film The Birth of a Nation set a $17 million record for the biggest deal in the fest’s history, pegging it as an early Oscar frontrunner, essentially for political reasons. Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, and virtually at the same time, the Trump team organized free screenings of Michael Bay’s action extravaganza 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, with its anti-bureaucrat machismo serving as propagandistic catnip for any Trump fan’s hatred of Hillary Clinton.
From there, the year only got messier. The Birth of a Nation‘s Oscar hopes were dashed when Nate Parker’s college rape charges landed in the mainstream press. The studio tried to get out in front of it, but the disturbing details, a tone deaf response, and an acquittal that sounded more like a technicality than a moral exoneration effectively sunk the film and its writer-director-star. A contender had, by the start of Oscar season, become a footnote, leaving us with two ironies. First is that, even if you set Parker’s scandal aside, Birth is something of a sham. It is a thin and flimsy piece of filmmaking, inspired by Mel Gibson and adopting Gibson’s worst traits—bludgeoning simplicity, fetishistic violence, and one hell of a messiah complex—but without the craft. In short, what ended up on screen is less interested in promoting knowledge of American history than in promoting Parker himself.
The second irony is that, even with Birth out of the picture, 2016 was a far better than average year for people of color getting noticed by the Academy. Currently, non-white artists are all but locks for Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Documentary Feature at the very least. And while the usual suspects may wish to blame this on the Hollywood PC police, all of those wins (and maybe an additional upset or two) will be goddamned deserved. That a film as outside-Hollywood as Moonlight is receiving such attention—its impressionistic style is a bigger mainstream hurdle than its absence of white faces—is cause for hope. It’s one of the most moving films I’ve seen this decade.
Back in 2011, I started calling this series “More Interesting Than the Oscars” because, compared to the diversity of filmmaking styles on the festival circuit, the Academy goes by a painfully ordinary definition of what constitutes a good movie. It’s not just that the Oscars are a popularity contest, it’s the nature of the popularity contest: it always seems to me that the Oscars—Hollywood honoring its own vaunted position in film culture—want very badly to be liked. That is, they want to acclaim films that a maximum number of people could see and be moved by, not necessarily which films are the most inventive.
Yet, to give them their credit, this year’s biggest Oscar contenders contain some fairly interesting frontrunners, or at least share a larger than usual overlap with the cinephile literati. Either the Academy is getting edgier or we’re getting more ordinary ourselves. But the smart money is still on La La Land to take Best Picture and a big haul along with it. And it speaks to our divided time that “what did you think of La La Land?”—a frothy, cine-literate, visually marvelous trip to the movies—has become such a loaded question requiring such a circumspect answer.
I’ve heard the praise, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, and the analyses from as many sociological angles as possible. If/when it wins, La La Land won’t be the best film of 2016; it’ll be another in a long line of Best Pictures that prize escapism most of all. But it won’t be an abomination. It won’t even come close to being the Academy’s biggest Best Picture misstep this decade. The Artist didn’t display nearly as much understanding of the cinema it was paying tribute to, and Argo was such a banal piece of workmanlike entertainment—”it’s a rental”, as we’d say in the era of Blockbuster Video—that assigning it lofty importance was a bigger act of insider self-congratulation than any of La La Land‘s hype.
Maybe it’s best to set the Oscars aside, because this year was a fine year to be a moviegoer, and not just for the awards bait. I have to admit I had trouble narrowing my list down. There are a few easy-pick great films at the top, but then one has to sort dozens of films that, while flawed, belong in any highlights reel of the year. So I should take a moment to praise what didn’t make the final list but deserves mention: the musical numbers and brotherly bond of Sing Street; the cheerfully insolent title hero of I, Daniel Blake; the Danny De Vito segment of Wiener-Dog; Natalie Portman’s achingly forced smile as she guides a TV crew through the White House in Jackie; Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked hero in Sully; the flow of dialogue in Fences; the precious moments of lyricism in American Honey and Knight of Cups; the fact that a film as insane as The Love Witch even exists at all; and not one but two delightfully laconic Texan sheriffs, embodied by Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals and Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.
And now, my favorite 10 films of 2016. As always, the term “favorite” is way more honest than “best”. Objectivity is for suckers.
10. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year…