Movie lists are stupid. And yet, every year around this time every newspaper, culture site, blog, radio station, shopping circular, what have you, trumpets their picks. I spent much of this year playing movie critic as one of my side gigs and thus saw more movies than any other year in memory. A good chunk of what I reviewed was utter garbage and I won’t rehash it here again (for those who are bored or have a lot of spare time, you can read all the reviews here).
Best Of lists are pointless because each book, movie, painting, artisanal doughnut, or whatever, doesn’t start out at the same point and doesn’t aspire to end up in the same place, so judging them against each other is absurd. The best any of us can do is talk about the things which moved us for whatever reason that they did. The novel complication with movie lists this year is that the definition of what a movie is is undergoing a drastic reappraisal. Much of the talent in the industry has gone over to the episodic series produced by the likes of Amazon and Netflix and away from the multiplexes. Most grownups can’t be compelled to watch anything but what can be accessed from their couches or cellphones; the only movies which make real money are gimmick superhero/product tie-in vehicles. In the last few months of the year, the requisite awards fare is trotted out to the theaters but the few who will bother to see any of these films will likely watch them at home. The era of the two-hour feature film is going the way of record-collector fetishism; there will always be a niche market for obsessives of the form but it is less and less a part of the mainstream conversation.
I can’t imagine a life without going to the movies. It has been one of my refuges from work-a-day reality for as long as I can remember and I can’t see that ever changing. But I have to admit that some of the films which moved me most in the past twelve months were ones I saw on my laptop. Louis CK’s Horace and Pete remains the thing I think about more than any other. It’s not quite a movie or a TV show or a play but it is the most eloquent statement about where we’re at in this country at this moment that I saw in the past year. Nearly as resonant, but for very different reasons and by very different methods, is Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. Edelman takes an event from over twenty years ago and shows how it reshaped the country and foretold the culture we inhabit today.
Of the movies I saw in movie theaters what moved me most was a Maurice Pialat retrospective at the Film Center early in the year. In films like We Won’t Grow Old Together, Loulou, and Van Gogh, Pialat explored the thorny, often-incompatible relationships between men and women with humor, rage and despair. The Film Center also showed Chantal Akerman’s last film before her suicide, No Home Movie. It is ostensibly a portrait of her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, but it is also a last testament from an artist who found it impossible to go on.
Hell or High Water was a really satisfying neo-Western/crime spree flick. As with some of the very best films about America, it was made by a foreigner who had the requisite critical distance to see the place for what it has become: a country where private institutions abuse the citizenry at will and we just keep coming back for more. It’s satisfying to watch the robbers seek to right the balance but also quite clear that what they do is but a pipe dream for the rest of us.
Manchester by the Sea surprised me with its slow burn style of revealing the tragedy at its core. I wasn’t a fan of Kenneth Lonergan’s previous two fawned-over features, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, so this one hit even harder for the low expectations I went in with. I plan to see it again to find out whether knowing the plot beforehand lessens the power of the film. I’m guessing it won’t.
Paterson is Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful ode to the poetry of the everyday (with actual poems by Ron Padgett handwritten on the screen). It’s filled with Jarmusch’s poker-faced humor and dozens of lovely vignettes. The fact that a film which celebrates poetry was partially financed by Amazon, a company bent on turning literature into a loss leader, couldn’t have been lost on one of America’s last remaining auteurist directors.
Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold was an oddly hopeful (for him) essay on our technology-glutted reality; Kelly Reichert’s Certain Women was like a short-story collection; Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was dreamy about people Hollywood is rarely dreamy about; Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen was everything John Hughes’ teenage films wanted to be but never were; and Rebecca Hall’s all-in lead performance in Christine had me right there with her, on the network news, about to blow my head off.
Weiner seemed like the ultimate portrait of celebrity-obsessed, political hubris until the results of November. In fact the daily accretion of absurdity in the news cast a long shadow over every creative effort of the past year. I doubt Rabelais, Cervantes, Bulgakov, Terry Gilliam or any other fabulist could’ve scripted the farce we’re living in. I’m glad I work in bars because in 2017 we’ll need all the self-medicating we can afford. No piece of fiction or non-fiction stands a chance against the toupeed golem dancing across our every available screen. From his loge in hell P.T. Barnum must be laughing his ass off.