Best & Worst Films of 2016
The problem of looking backwards at the year in film is that it involves looking backward at the year 2016, and who wants to do that? All the switches failed, all the canaries are gasping, all the sirens are sounding, and it's hard to keep one's eye on the screen in times of emergency. We've been through times like these before. As soon as someone can explain why we have to go through them again, it'll be easier to function.
Times of fervor often spawn great films—which is why the end of year list includes a film that could be dismissible as a dumbass blockbuster, instead of, say, some glacial tidbits from the avant-garde freezer, such as Elle, Neon Demon, The Lobster or, shudder, Nocturnal Animals.
How much unadulterated escapism was there in the latest adventure of Captain America? Consider what Robert Downey Jr. brings to the movie in the descending part of his arc as Stark. The Cracked.com writer David Wong wrote one of the best of the 900,000 essays published online this fall, seeking to explain what hit us in November. Wong suggested that if Trump was a pussy-grabbing rogue, it's not like Tony Stark is more politically correct than all that, and we love him for it. (Lovable also is the glimpse of Stark and Marisa Tomei's Aunt May shooting the breeze on a sofa—no one seems to have remembered that Tomei and Downey co-starred in a highly kissy Roman caprice titled Only You, way back in the 1990s.)
A longtime movie-goer might be touched by the cracks Downey displays in Stark—the strange scene he makes demonstrating his new cybertherapy software at MIT; catching himself in the weirdness, he tries to cover up the oddity with gross Oprah-like largesse, donating scholarships for everyone in the room. Captain America was quite possibly an unnecessary sequel with one fight scene too many. But the Russo brothers caught the sense of division, of blowback begetting blowback, of strength crumbling, of the schoolboy's lesson in the Auden poem: "those to whom evil is done, do evil in return." If only butthurt liberal snowflakes are threatening to get out of the U.S. now, what does it say that even noble Captain America decided to head for the hills?
Strange that with all the efforts to retrieve the magic of the studio-era film, in La La Land, Rules Don't Apply, Café Society and Hail Caesar, that the most original pastiche was The Witch—which took cues from the Swedish classic Häxan a.k.a. Witchcraft Throughout the Ages. The Witch's Georges de la Tour lighting and ingenious payoff worked its magic. Required relevance? Some Americans still believe in witches. Google "Hillary" and "pizza" to find out what they're up today.
Made for TV it might have been, but the eight-hour OJ: Made in America took the long look at this hero's plummet, and the way he allowed himself to be used as a palliative against America's racism during the white backlash of the 1960s. Here's some intriguing speculation of what would have happened if Simpson had gone to SJSU and become a Spartan instead of a Trojan.
Zootopia, Loving and Moonlight—the last of these being perhaps the best film of the year—did justice to our reeling times in three different approaches to the subject of dangerous liaisons. Fences is a haunting film about how post-traumatic slave syndrome destroys a tough, ingenious man.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople seems like a movie that'll find its niche during repeated viewings; it remains as the one film you can recommend to anyone, even during times of schism. The kinky and beautifully framed The Handmaiden describes the cost of snobbery, a subject we'll be dealing with a lot in the coming years. And Hell and High Water's splashy, sagebrush rebellion populism is less key to its quality than the way it treats—with wit and fierce excitement—the lives of outlaws.
Captain America: Civil Wars
Hell and High Water
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
OJ: Made in America
Yoga Hosers was, without a doubt, the worst film of the year. Seriously. Look it up.
Why search for a more dispiriting movie than Alice Through the Looking Glass, you ask? It cost a fortune. It rubbished a great book. It posed as an event. And it had the last of Alan Rickman in it, as if to remind us of one more loss in a year of heavy losses.
Well, because while both featured Johnny Depp in ridiculous makeup, at least Yoga Hosers seemed acutely aware of just how bad it would be.