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: Other People

6 09 2016

other-peopleSundance Film Festival

Chris Kelly’s “Other People” was the first film I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Had it also been the only film I saw, I think I could have left Park City feeling wholly satisfied.

This personal, deeply felt tale about a struggling writer (Jesse Plemons’ David) who comes home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon’s Joanne) contains everything people have come to expect from a quote-unquote “Sundance movie.” It’s a dramedy with real heart, surprising performances from a vast ensemble and a little something to say about the constant battle to claim one’s identity. David, an openly gay twenty-something who still has yet to receive approval from his stern father (Bradley Whitford’s Norman), marks a refreshing change of representation. He’s allowed to be defined by something other than his sexuality without denying him romance.

But “Other People” goes beyond delivering the expected. It reminds you why we love these kinds of movies to begin with, why we’re willing to sit through countless half-baked similar films to get one this moving.

You will marvel at how much the people in this film bear a resemblance to someone in your own life. You will feel that you lived a year with this bereaved family, not just watched scenes about them for under 100 minutes. And shockingly, you will come to like – and probably cry to – Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” Not just during the movie, either. Let’s just say you heard it at the gym. It might make you emotional there. (What, who? Me? Was that me?)

Oh, and you will weep. GOSH, did I weep during the screening. The crowd at the post-show Q&A I attended essentially posed no questions. It just featured people who tearfully ran through stories of their own tragic losses and how “Other People” resonated with them. Had I been able to gain composure amidst the veritable lake of tears surrounding my chair, I likely would have done the same.

I saw the film just days after losing a friend my own age – just 23 – to the same kind of cancer that afflicts Joanne. I remained stoic in the days following her passing, almost in disbelief that she just wasn’t here anymore. “Other People” played a crucial, cathartic role in helping me finally feel what happened. The film gave me a space in which I could work through the conflicting sets of emotions and make sense of what seems so unfair and yet so inevitable. While I could write impersonally about Kelly’s work and describe some kind of generalized viewer, it does a disservice to experiencing the film. This affected me because these tragedies affect us.

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