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: Cameraperson

7 09 2016

camerapersonSXSW Film Festival

Towards the outset of Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” we see a beautiful shot of a raging storm in Missouri – and then hear a sneeze out of frame. This is a clip repurposed from the raw footage of another documentary for which Johnson shot footage, though it’s the kind of moment that never makes the final cut of a documentary. Non-fiction films might reference the presence of a director hovering outside the scene, molding our perceptions after the fact, but they rarely acknowledge the cameraperson who makes innumerable important decisions in the moment that contribute to our notion of reality.

When writers describe cinema, we often filter it through the lens of auteur theory – that pie-in-the-sky idea which puts faith in the genius and willpower of a single visionary artist whose indelible stamp appears in every aspect of the film. But if the director is the brain of a given project, they need hands to execute their vision in a collaborative medium. Johnson, in her role as cameraperson and director of photography for nearly a quarter-century in documentary filmmaking, serves as those hands. This boundary-defying filmic memoir achieves the impossible by both isolating her technical contributions and illuminating her own artistry as the authoritative presence capturing moments as they unfold.

Johnson’s impeccable non-fiction Rolodex features Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick and more, all of which granted her permission to reshape the raw footage from their completed documentaries into this new, living interrogation of the role of the cameraperson. On occasion, the scenes reflect back on the directors themselves, showing who views her as an artist and who sees her as a mere technician (*COUGH* Michael Moore). But the majority of “Cameraperson” shows how we can apply to Johnson the language traditionally reserved to describe the body of work of a director.

Through the gentle flow of scenes edited to a thematic rhythm, we come to learn how Johnson’s subject position as a woman, a mother weighs on what she shoots and doesn’t. We begin to notice emerging themes, such as the placid and straightforward presentation of sites where atrocities occurred. We see, through the juxtaposition of her own childhood prayers with prayers at a mosque, how she relates to subjects on different continents. We witness her evolution as an artist, observing how she comes to makes the call on how to portray a subject – impressionistically, or with standard establishing shots.

In reclaiming the previously shot footage to tell her own story, Johnson also comes in control of sound and montage. While we come to know her by the images she captures, we also come to realize that no craftsman or artist on a film works in a vacuum. Any great work of filmed art represents the sum of the efforts of its many collaborative elements. “Cameraperson” is more than just an autobiography. It’s an ontological document of the cinema itself. A-3halfstars