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: The Lobster

29 05 2016

The LobsterAt the risk of sounding perilously similar to Rep. Louie Gohmert, who recently suggested gays should be left out of space colonies since they cannot reproduce, there are important biological and social reasons why human beings should pair off. The simplest argument, of course, concerns reproduction and the continuation of our species. But bountiful research also suggests the tremendous drawbacks of living life in isolation – depression, poor health, low communal ties, and so on.

Writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou never tip their hand about what led up to the society they create in The Lobster,” though one imagines it likely involves some of the factors listed above. In their milieu, anyone without a life partner gets politely sent off to a hotel where they must find a match within 45 days – or face becoming transformed into the animal of their choice. Love, in other words, has been stripped of all romance and reduced to little more than social utility.

As public demonstrations from the manager (Olivia Colman) remind guests of why couples represent the ideal human arrangement, highly regulated activities nudge them towards identifying a partner with some shared characteristic over which they can begin a life together. Pretensions of status, class or wealth cannot cloud the decision, either. This total institution strips away individuality by forcing all participants to adhere to a simple, drab uniform by their gender.

The protagonist served to us, Colin Farrell’s David, serves as a guide through the many possibilities of this ecosystem. Some choose to throw themselves at anyone in the hopes of identifying someone equally as desperate. Others face public punishment for finding pleasure with themselves. A few brave souls are willing to stake their future on a lie in order to leave the hotel.

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