Films of 2016
2016 was a bleak year at the cinema, not in terms of quality—many wonderful pictures got released—but in terms of content. With the notable exceptions of The Handmaiden, Hidden Figures, and Moana, every film in my top twenty explores, with a distinctly downbeat tone, issues of death, grief, abuse, hopelessness, or the arduous search for identity. These themes were common even in most of the sci-fi and fantasy offerings, from Rogue One and Batman v Superman, to Midnight Special and Arrival. Both the multiplexes and art houses were markedly death-obsessed. My pick for the best film of the year, Manchester by the Sea, has jokingly been referred to as the most depressing movie ever made (though it’s hardly that). And the other major awards contenders—Moonlight, Hell or High Water, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Lion, Jackie, Loving, Nocturnal Animals, and Captain Fantastic—didn’t exactly send people out of the theater with a jaunty spring in their step. Even the critic’s darling and favorite of Academy members, La La Land is, on the whole, a rather melancholy affair. Indeed, it doesn’t require much imagination to read La La Land as a metaphorical eulogy for the art, industry, and experience of cinema, a form of popular American entertainment which may have long since passed away if not for the dwindling millions of us who keep it on life-support through our denial and dollars.
As is often the case, an astonishing number of movies released this year seemed to align with the prevailing anxious moods of the viewing public, even though the screenplays were written years prior and the productions green-lighted long before the start of 2016 and its various political upheavals, acts of violence, and cries of protest. Just as many film-industry deaths occurred in 2016 as in a typical year, but the stature of those we lost hit most of us harder than usual. From the January passing of David Bowie and Alan Rickman to the one-two punch of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in the final days of December, 2016 racked up a devastating memorial list of iconic stars and cinematic innovators: directors Héctor Babenco, Michael Cimino, Guy Hamilton, Curtis Hanson, Arthur Hiller, Abbas Kiarostami, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Garry Marshall, David Swift, and Andrzej Wajda; character actors Kenny Baker, Alice Drummond, Miguel Ferrer, Fyvush Finkel, George Gaynes, Steven Hill, David Huddleston, Anne Jackson, George Kennedy, Burt Kwouk, Bill Nunn, Doris Roberts, Andrew Sachs, Angus Scrimm, and Abe Vigoda; and legends Ken Adam, Patty Duke, Bob Elliott, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Florence Henderson, George Martin, Marni Nixon, Prince, Nancy Reagan, Peter Shaffer, Garry Shandling, Douglas Slocombe, Robert Stigwood, Peter Vaughan, Robert Vaughn, Gene Wilder, and Vilmos Zsigmond.
My personal experiences at the cinema, however, were excellent. The first movie I saw this year was Manchester by the Sea, which I caught during my first pilgrimage to the Sundance Film Festival. I awoke early after a late night out, made way in the dark, cold, winter morning to stand in line for two hours in the hopes of catching an 8:30 a.m. screening of this latest offering from Kenneth Lonergan. I was one of the last ten people let in and rushed to our seats in the back row corner of the giant makeshift theater just as the opening credits began. The conditions were not ideal, but the picture couldn’t have been more satisfying. After Sundance, I also attended the South By Southwest Film Fest for the first time, to cheer on three friends who each had features in competition—one of which, Transpeccos, won the audience award. And at the end of the summer, my local cinema, the Somerville Theater, finally held their long-awaited 70mm film fest. They took a huge financial risk, which paid off handsomely for them, and provided me the opportunity to see for the first time, in gorgeous 70mm, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim (1965), and the venerable, all-star, epic, widescreen comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). This last film, presented in its intended Ultra Panavision, multichannel audio format, became one of my top twenty favorite screenings of all time.
While there may not have been much joy depicted on screen this year, I personally derived great amounts of pleasure watching it all.
BEST YEAR OVER ALL:
Isabelle Huppert: Every year is a great year for Isabelle Huppert, as she’s pretty much amazing in everything she does, but 2016 put the great French actress into a larger than usual spotlight. Though I was not a big fan of ELLE, and don’t consider it one of her great roles, there’s no doubt it brought her much deserved recognition outside the usual circles of French audiences, film critics, and American art house devotes. The fact that Huppert also turned in arguably the year's best performance in Mia Hansen-Løve’s wonderful THINGS TO COME (L'AVENIR), makes 2016 an especially great year for Huppert.