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: Hell or High Water

15 08 2016

Hell or High Water“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.

Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.

And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?

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