Top 10 Movies of 2016
Yeah, I'm a little late to the party. What can I say? Busy year. The fall and early winter were particularly busy, and that's the time distributors release their best movies, all at once, blarghhhhhh, and if you're a regular person with a regular job in a regular city you're kind of screwed. No movies you want to see for months, then a dozen you want to see on Dec. 29. They save the best for last. Or never. I blinked and missed the weeks-long window for “Silence” and “Paterson.” I haven't been able to drag myself to see “Lion” or “Hidden Figures.” “The Salesman” still hasn't arrived in Seattle.
So this is a top 10 list with that caveat. Or several. Here's one more: God, 2016 was a sucky year, wasn't it? In every way. Bless these movies that gave us a glimmer of something better.
10. Love & Friendship
I was wary of this one, afraid of another proto-feminist British costumed drama based upon another 19th century novel, and this is that, but far from that madding crowd. It zipped rather than plodded. And the woman at its center was a Scarlett rather than a Melanie: a schemer, Machiavellian in her ability to twist the world, and men in particular, around her beautiful finger. Her lines are among the dishiest of the year: “He has offered you the one thing he has of value to give: his income.” Yes, her options are limited in Victorian England but she makes the most of those limits. Indeed, with her, they hardly seem limits. More Scarlets, please.
Inspired by a 2006 oral history in Texas Monthly, director Keith Maitland spent 10 years filming and then animating the ground's-eye viewpoint of the people trapped and shot at by and killed by former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman, who, on August 1, 1966, climbed to the top of the tower on the University of Texas and started shooting. It's truly “you are there” cinema. It's recreation and documentary and a revolutionary way of viewing history. In the '60s, that turbulent, violent decade, Whitman seemed an outlier since his violence was random. We now know he was a harbinger. On that day, a radio newman tried to tell his colleagues what was going on: “There’s a guy on top of the tower. He’s shooting.” Then he had to add for clarification: “Shooting at people.” We don't need that clarification now.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. Death is the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye. I liked hanging with them—that's the main thing. I liked their conversations, and meals, and women. We anticipate a lot of the third-act plot twists but that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's an inevitability to it, as in life. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.
7. La La Land
Throughout, there's a love of L.A., and the movies, and musicals. It's a modernist take on a classic, giving us a bittersweet ending rather than a Hollywood ending. Both of our protagonists actually get what they want—she becomes a movie star, he owns a jazz club—they just don't get each other. Is that bad or is it life? There's magic throughout: their first dance in the Hollywood hills; their first kiss floating amid the stars at the Griffith Observatory. I like her and her friends in different, primary-colored dresses strutting down the street on their way to a party. I like Sebastian on the dock with the fedora. Magic matters.
It's December 1945, and an intern with the French Red Cross in Poland—helping identify, treat and repatriate French citizens after World War II—is asked to go to a convent, where she finds a nun about to give birth. Then she discovers other nuns are pregnant. Six? Eight? Is it a miracle? The opposite. Backdate eight months and it's when the Soviet Army came through. These are women who hardly know their own bodies, whose bodies, they feel, belong to God. Some of them won't even let the intern examine them for the shame of it all. And Russians soldiers were at the convent for three days. That's the first horrific revelation. The second horrific revelation is worse.
A powerful rendering of one of the saddest weekends in American history, “Jackie” is interested in story-making and mythmaking and the difference between the two. As first lady, Jackie Kennedy tried to bring the history of the country to life. As first widow, she opted for myth because she knew myth resonated. Myth was remembered and she wantd her husband remembered. She politely stomped over the Johnsons, the Kennedys, and anyone else who got in her way to make this happen, then, with a priest, searched her soul and found a death wish. The movie does the opposite of what Jackie does: It reveals the human within the mythic.
4. O.J.: Made in America
I may have been the only person in America who didn't pay attention to the O.J. trial back in '95. There was just too much noise; it felt like tabloid fare to me. But it's actually a linchpin in the racial history of America, meaning the history of America. It's the story of a man who became famous for running, and who ran from his race and embraced his celebrity; and then when the chips were down, he ran to his race. He spent years being treated as a football celebrity, even by the L.A.P.D., and got away with so much because of it; and in the trial he may have gotten away with murder for the opposite reason. The ironies in this seven-plus-hour documentary pile up and overwhelm. O.J. is a subject worthy of Shakespeare.
How hard do sensitive men have to become to survive? How much of yourself do you have to lose? Early in the film, Juan, the drug dealer/mentor, tells our child protagonist, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.” But Little/Chiron/Black lets others make that decision for him. Or maybe he simply decides to survive and in doing so you become someone else. By the third act, he's unrecognizable from the skinny, sensitive kid he was. He's a drug dealer with a grill, who intimidates with his presence. But a line late in the film reveals that the sensitive kid is still there underneath it all. It's the most devastating line of the year.
Was a better movie less seen in 2016? And yet it's a film that so necessary for our time. It's 1979 but that was the tipping-point year. That was the year before the year we all opted for wish-fulfillment fantasy in our politics as well as our entertainment. We even get Carter's infamous “malaise” speech here, and in it he seems to be predicting the future if we go the wrong way. He's talking to us like adults but we were children. “20th Century Women” is about a single mom who enlists two other women to help raise and educate her teenage son. The kid comes of age just as our country decides not to.
So many people think this movie as depressing, but I was exhilirated. Yes, it's a movie about a tragedy so large that its protagonist is essentially a dead man walking. There's no “working though the unimaginable” here. It's about two types of male stoicism: one adult, and aware, and tragic, and the other young and blind, and how each shapes the other. We get large understandings and small redemptions. And the redemptions, for being small, for feeling truer than the life outside the theater, are poignant and exquisite. They are cathartic.