What can one possibly say that might even begin to distill and codify 2016? From an endless string of celebrity deaths that prompted an entire year of retrospectives and tributes, to almost daily mass shooting, to a presidential election that continually became more fiction that fact, movies somehow became background noise to the news. That’s not to say that movies were any less important in 2016 than they were in previous years. In fact, movies — the faces, genders and races they exhibited — became all the more important to explain the shape of the world outside of the viewer’s own, especially as that world became increasingly toxic. Movies and the conversation surrounding them started to reflect the world not as we hoped it would be, but as we feared it was.
This sentiment was no more evident than in the online discussion leading up to the release of the all-female Ghostbusters in July. What started as an outcry of the arrested adolescent white male — “You’re ruining my childhood.” — showed its true toxic nature when an entire campaign of racism, sexism and plain hatred was launched at one of the film’s stars, Leslie Jones.
Ghostbusters was an OK film, though one of the film’s stars, Kate McKinnon, was a revelation. But it lacked ambition, choosing to play it safe in hopes of setting up a franchise ready to be mined for billions. As of publication, Ghostbusters has grossed a worldwide total of $229 million, placing it at no. 30 on the list of top-grossing movies of 2016, most likely eliminating it from future installments. Not because the trolls won — though their outrage that women could ever replace male equivalents certainly makes it seem like they won the war elsewhere — but because movies like Captain American: Civil War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and, oddly enough, Trolls grossed so much more.
Franchises, sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots are just the way of things now, which makes a clear standout all the more interesting. In 2016 that honor went to Doctor Strange from Colorado’s own Scott Derrickson. This fun and giddy installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had everything the aforementioned movies lack: an undeniable exuberance for images. Not to mention Benedict Cumberbatch’s grounding and humorous performance that made the ridiculous seem all the more sublime.
It was a banner year for Disney, and not just for their franchise products via Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars, but because of the insight their two animated movies, Zootopia and Moana, brought to the table. Both feature solid storytelling meticulously layered for child and adult audiences alike, with complex images that make these films flourish, particularly on additional viewing. For Moana, it’s the show-stopping number “Shiny,” a catchy earworm that also provides a great deal of the plot, character backstory and scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda’s panache for puns. Plus, Jemaine Clement does one hell of a Bowie impersonation.
For Zootopia, the scene is a chase between officer Judy Hopps and a no-good-thieving Weasel. Hopps pursues Weasel through the towering metropolis of Zootopia into Little Rodenta, a mini-borough designed for mice and hamsters. In a single breath, Hopps and Weasel are transformed from tiny insignificant creatures in a big bad Zootopia to Godzilla-sized monsters capable of toppling whole buildings on unsuspecting citizens.
These blink-of-an-eye scale transformations are something animation can achieve with the greatest of ease. They make watching these movies a wondrous experience, none better than the stop-motion fairy tale Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that utilizes the hero’s journey to great effect while exhibiting a tremendous amount of style. Nothing else this year looked like Kubo.
The same can be said for Tower, Keith Maitland’s documentary of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin shooting and those that survived it. Maitland blends documentary and animation, past and present tense, to create a dreamlike memory that sadly resonates more with our current society than it would have 50 years ago. Maitland’s use of rotoscope animation wasn’t just necessary to transform an otherwise rote explanation of the events, it was an inspired touch.
Though 2016 was an outstanding year for documentary, none were more compelling than Ezra Edelman’s jaw-dropping dissection of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Running nearly eight hours, O.J.: Made in America, played the Sundance Film Festival before making its way to ESPN this summer where most digested it in five 90-minute chunks. But how Edelman constructs and presents the events, O.J. is best consumed in one lump sum, where the intersection of Los Angeles race relations, domestic abuse, celebrity culture and mythic sports hero becomes clear.
There isn’t much in O.J. that most don’t already know, or at least suspect, but never has the argument been laid out with this level of exhaustion. Edelman doesn’t let anyone off the hook, least of all Simpson, holding on to one image in particular: the ghastly image of Nicole Brown’s severed throat from the scene of the crime. Brown had been stabbed multiple times before Simpson turned his attention to Ron Goldman, slaying him before returning to finish Brown off. When Simpson cut her throat, he did it with such aggression, such violence, that he took a chunk of her vertebrae.
Did Simpson get away with murder because he was a celebrity? Probably. Because the prosecutors bungled the trial? Definitely. As payback for the cops who beat Rodney King and walked free? One juror even says so. Hell, Simpson probably got off because he was the University of Southern California’s greatest running back. But all of that is window dressing. At the center of all of this isn’t race relations, celebrity, football or an ill-fitting glove; it’s the loss of two innocent lives. It’s about the empty chairs at every one of the Brown and Goldman family gatherings ever since.
But what about the movies? Gallons of ink have been spilled over Barry Jenkins’s triptych of a young black man growing up gay in Moonlight, all of it deserved. The characters in Moonlight are fully fleshed out, and in all cases, wonderful subversions of stereotypes. As are the characters in the West Texas bank heist Hell or High Water and the road-tripping American Honey. All three are apt commentaries on economy and identity, but it is how deftly each weaves their commentaries through visually enchanting scenes that make them stick.
On the other side of the spectrum and bathed in the sunshine of Los Angeles, La La Land is candy-coated exhilaration that concludes by cutting viewers down at their knees; few this year had a better ending. The Neon Demon wins the top prize for what it’s like to be Little Red Riding Hood in a forest of big bad wolves. And the three most poetic movies of the year were Actor Martinez — a hall-of-mirrors look at a Denver-based actor who hires two directors to make a movie about himself — Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Paterson, a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry on the side.
Of all the movies released in 2016, none were as warm and comforting as Paterson. It’s like a heavy blanket you wrap yourself in to keep out the cold. 2016 was rough on a lot of people, and 2017 doesn’t look to let up, but at least we have the movies to keep our spirits warm.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Silence, Jan. 6 — It only took 28 years, but Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel is a cause for celebration in any year.
The Lego Batman Movie, Feb. 10 — Few people could have predicted that The Lego Movie would have been as good as it was, but this tangential follow-up looks like a lock.
Ghost in the Shell, March 31 — Whitewashing controversy aside, the inclusion of Juliette Binoche and Takeshi Kitano catapults this live action remake of the cult anime from interesting to must-see status.
The Lost City of Z, April 21 — James Gray is easily one of America’s preeminent directors. This one has already played the festival circuit to raves and could very well be one of the movies we’re still talking about this time next year.
Dunkirk, July 21 — Christopher Nolan tackles the war genre with help from Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. A big, smart movie smack dab in the middle of another dumb blockbuster season.