Dear Dana, Bilge, and Amy,
Let me start out with a sobering fact—because every single day of the last year just hasn’t provided enough of those. Moonlight—our sole point of agreement, a beautifully accomplished work that takes seminar-room issues of race, class, sexuality, and identity and transforms them into something artistic, sexy, tragic, wrenching, human, and fully American—is, as I write, not a big hit. I don’t mean it hasn’t grossed as much as Finding Dory; I mean it hasn’t grossed as much as Norm of the North or Bad Santa 2 and has, in fact, only just neared the box-office total of Dinesh D’Souza’s excrescent crapaganda Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. It has been seen, so far, by fewer than 2 million Americans. That is not to diminish its genuine (and still growing) indie-scale success; I simply want to pre-empt anyone from smugly pointing out that Moonlight is only a hit to those of us “inside the bubble”—a term of condescending dismissal I have come to loathe deeply. It’s a movie I wish every adult American would see, but to love pop culture right now is to accept that we live in a niche world.
Thoughts of “the bubble,” and of its rhetorical cousin “real America” kept coming up as I tried to organize my feelings about the year’s movies. The phrases are both booby traps—labels that, when applied to culture, seek to impose a divide between art that is oblivious and art that is aware, or between movies that are about and for honest plain-spoken Americans (current example: Patriots Day) and movies that are for “coastal elites” who think rural white dudes are scary as hell (I don’t know … Nocturnal Animals? Aaron Taylor-Johnson was scary as hell in that, and he isn’t even American).
This is a bad way to think about movies, and an unsettling way to think about our country—as something half-real, half-delusional. It also ignores the fact that so-called timely movies don’t hatch fully formed out of the consciousness of that week’s headlines; their development is measured in years and, as Dana notes in the case of Silence, in decades. But as I was considering my favorites, it struck me that good movies almost always seem well-timed. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a movie about, among other things, the economic anxiety of white men in danger of displacement—for Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s characters, that manifests itself in bank robberies; for Jeff Bridges’ about-to-retire lawman, it emerges in racist jokes he now mainly uses to caricature himself as an old white guy past his sell-by date. I love the movie for its sense of place, for the joy it takes in giving all of its characters something to say, and for Taylor Sheridan’s tough, lean, salty script. To reduce it to a “Trump’s America” movie would be to sell it short. Hell or High Water’s story has years-deep roots in the mortgage crisis; it turns out that when you spend years paying attention to what’s in the news, your movie can feel prescient simply because it’s alert to the world.
The same holds true for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, which portrays a working-class white man beaten down by life who holds a job with no promise of growth or fulfillment. That character resonates not because, post-election, we’re suddenly attuned to guys like him, but because he’s been written as real—Lonergan has thought about who he is, where he lives, what he drinks, how he talks, how he would deal with a tenant who thinks he’s trying to rip him off when he tells him his bathtub needs resealing. Manchester by the Sea feels timely, but I believe it would also have felt timely a year ago or a year from now, because it’s honest. Moonlight shares that quality; Barry Jenkins’ work may have an extra kick to it right now because its characters belong to worlds and classes and groups that we have watched “Trump’s America” systematically demonize, but those worlds and classes and groups existed two and five and 15 years ago, and so did the demonizers. None of this is said in either movie. In fact, it’s hard to think of two less articulate central characters in 2016 than Manchester’s Lee Chandler and Moonlight’s Chiron. The eloquence of the movies lies in making their pain no less deep or real because they can barely express it.
These are movies for our time, and also movies for any time. But in trying to make a 10-best list, I tripped right over my own divided soul right at the top: My two faves of 2016 are Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, an infinitely gentle-souled movie about the poetry of life and the life of poetry that finds more pleasure and meaning in ordinariness than most movies do in extraordinariness, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, a perfectly sustained dystopian sick joke about the desperate, poignant futility of seeking human connection. So, uh, choose your own adventure, and draw no conclusions from my Jekyll-and-Hyde choices.
Dana, you asked if there’s a hill I’d like to die on. At this point, any one without a view of an actual mushroom cloud on the horizon will do. So here’s one: In this binary, divisive, love-it-or-hate-it, hatcheted-right-down-the-middle year, I will defend to the death my right just to like a movie. That’s how I feel about La La Land. It didn’t make my top 10, but it made my next 15. I could pick nits all day: It’s underpopulated. The sound mix in that first song is slightly off. Ryan Gosling’s character—the artistic purist whose rigor is going to put a ceiling on his success—is kind of a vanity construction. (She’s all about ambition and need and hunger, but he has knowledge and a curatorial sense of history and standards.) He looks at his feet when he dances. And, in this sickeningly high-stakes year, what’s at issue in La La Land—will two extremely pretty people get what they want and/or each other?—feels infinitesimal.
But you know what? I’ve watched it three times, too. And I’m still singing the songs, which only improve on rehearing, and thinking about Emma Stone’s face during her auditions, and the magic-hour light on certain L.A. streets, and the euphoric lunge toward virtuosity of a 31-year-old American filmmaker who clearly loves Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as much as anyone alive. Sometimes, good is good enough. La La Land is good enough for me.
2. The Lobster
4. Manchester by the Sea
5. Hell or High Water
9. Other People
And 15 more I liked, alphabetically:
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened
Fire at Sea
I, Daniel Blake
La La Land
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
*Disclosure: My husband is a co-producer of Fences.