In A World… (The Top 10 Films of 2016)

31 12 2016

“In a world…”

Any self-respecting ’90s moviegoer can never forget announcer Don LaFontaine’s literally trademarked invocation. It was an invitation to enter a world apart from our own, be it an entirely invented fantasy realm, a different country or a fresh perspective.

I bring this up in regards to a year end list of 2016 because so many things I could say to describe the events of this year feel so unfathomable that they could only follow “In a world…” Both personally and culturally, the past 12 months have upended plans, expectations and assumptions. It’s not just the result of the 2016 election in America, or the outcome of the Brexit referendum, or whatever the hell happened when Batman battled Superman – and on the positive side, it’s not just the fact that I covered Sundance, tackled SXSW, and interviewed some really talented cinematic artists. It’s everything that led up to that, all the many breaks that went the way they did to get us to this point.

I always do my best to rewatch any movie I put on my year’s best, but this year I found that I had to rewatch more 2016 films not to determine whether they were as good as I had originally thought. Rather, I had to reexamine what I thought they were about at their core. I could go on and on, but for some examples: “Christine” played like a personal psychodrama at Sundance and an elegy for the dignity of television journalism in December. “Jackie” felt like an empowering tale of a former First Lady gaining her agency at the New York Film Festival in October, yet it seemed more like a requiem mass for a fallen dynasty in late November.

Melissa McCarthy as Michelle Darnell in The Boss

Films whose attitudes I had dismissed – “Deadpool,” “The Boss,” “War Dogs” – seemed validated. Others that seemed to champion the virtues of our era – “Denial,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Neighbors 2” – felt somewhat hollow, if not completely naive.

I remain uncertain as to which of these films is weaker or stronger for accommodating such a panoply of vantage points. In a world where nothing seems certain, it was a valuable and instructive experience for me to remember that while a film as an object stays the same, our ideas and understandings about are invariably shaped by the worldview from which we approach them. The conditions of its creation are unchangeable. The context of our reception is always subject to forces beyond our control.

So … in a world where seemingly so much is at stake and so little is known, what place do movies have? And what importance does writing about them take? When I started paring down the 200 theatrical releases from 2016 that I viewed this year (fun fact: that’s exactly the same amount as 2015), I was struck by how many of them had created an irresistible world or replicated our present one with a staggering amount of accuracy and honesty. I realized that for so much of the year, the best cinema was not an escape from the world but a means for better understanding it in this crazy year.

Without further ado, here are my selections for the top 10 films of 2016. Rather than lavish them with superlatives, I simply hope to convey what I found of value in those worlds. (If you want all the praise, look to my reviews – the titles hyperlink to them.) Now, on with the show: in a world…

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REVIEW: 13th

27 12 2016

13th“We have to understand before we can move on,” states an interview subject early in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” The movie does just that by establishing a baseline of knowledge among people who watch the film. There’s no title cards before the closing credits trying to funnel viewership into political action. In fact, we are more likely to feel complicit in our silence than empowered with our activism.

I’ve seen “13th” twice now, once before the election and once after. Among the many films that I have rewatched in the wake of Trump’s victory, this is the one that feels to have changed the least. That’s a huge credit to DuVernay’s laser-sharp focus on her thesis that the past 150 years of America’s prison system is a reincarnation of slavery thanks to a loophole in the titular Constitutional amendment. She did not try to predict the future; in fact, both of 2016’s major party candidates make appearances in archival material that their campaigns would rather have buried. Instead, DuVernay casts her glance backward at the structural and institutional conditions that allowed “crime” to become a proxy war against black Americans.

“13th” shows less of the inside baseball of politics than the standard political documentary, although some invisible actors like the FBI and ALEC do get properly chided. DuVernay opts to look at cultural flash points such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which fueled the popular image of black men as indolent indigents, and George H.W. Bush’s infamous dog-whistling Willie Horton campaign ad. These are important to examine both in their creation and their adoption. Were Americans willing to wholeheartedly dismiss these negative images as propaganda, perhaps we would not be in our current situation. But we didn’t, as recent events have shown, and our country may be forced to refight some of the battles that appear settled or reversed by the Obama administration.

But to talk about “13th” purely in terms of content does a disservice to the great artistry that DuVernay brings to the project. The documentary is far more than just a sleek presentation of introductory poli-sci college seminar material. She’s reliant on talking heads to convey the history of American penal injustice as well as to editorialize, yet she usually does not display the subject’s name or affiliation until they have spoken several times. The effect allows us to build up trust and judge their words before we can write them off based on their qualifications. (She also shoots some wonderfully dynamic interview framing, conveying mood and motion along with information.)

DuVernay repeatedly confronts us with the word “CRIMINAL” in big block letters every time the word is uttered. It’s a call to consider the term not as a person but as a construct, one that has been weaponized specifically against one group of our fellow citizens. True, it is technically race-blind. But we must understand that its conceptualization does not align with its practice in order to correct a systemic imbalance in our country. A-3halfstars