Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Year in Review: Best & Worst of 2016

In year three of this annual Year in Review series, it occurs to me perhaps “best” and “worst” represent an inadequate way to analyze trends in cinema. To a degree, it is a matter of formatting. It was my initial mistake to try to bifurcate the film landscape in such a manner, to pass judgment by way of a subjective pro/con list.

With that in mind, this entry called out for a different approach this time around, a new format. In the interest of becoming more open-minded and considerate of other viewpoints – a condition sorely lacking in so much public and private discourse – here is the proposal: Point/counterpoint. Not a new idea, by any stretch, but with this twist – it’s just me.

I have assumptions and preferences like anyone else. Perhaps by challenging my own prejudices, I can come to a new understanding and point of view. That is the hope anyway, and not a bad goal for life outside the cinema as well.

Point: Home distribution models threaten the nature of the cinema

You do not need me to restate the mission statement of this site, which I have done a dozen times before, including yesterday in the introduction to this Year in Review series. A film is meant to be seen on the biggest screen, heard through the loudest speakers, and felt in the darkest room. The cinema is a transporting experience, allowing you to walk through dimensions, envelop yourself in new worlds, and leave behind the grievances of real life. Show me the living room that encompasses all of these and make it available to the masses, and I will tell you that is called a movie theater.

This is not a new problem, but it is an expanding one. The rise of Netflix and other video-on-demand services has made it possible to see new releases in the comfort of your home sometimes the same day as they become available in theaters. Being reasonable, I see the allure of a comfortable couch, a big-screen, hi-definition television, and surround sound. No one can be blamed for blanching at the cost of a movie ticket, the price of concessions, or any of the dozens of nagging annoyances that plague the theater-goer’s experience.

However, this devalues the medium. Going to the movies once was and still can be a glorious night on the town. There is no better way to spend an evening than with a good film, and the ritual of the cinema is as important as any other aspect of it – the sound of a ticket being torn, the smell of freshly popped popcorn, the feeling of sinking into a worn-out old seat, and the moment the lights go down and the image begins to flicker on that big, white screen.

Counterpoint: This model democratizes cinema, making it available to anyone, anywhere

Around March every year, once the Oscars have passed and release schedules firm up, I sit down and make a list of every upcoming movie I want to see in the next calendar year. I have spreadsheets with lists of films, directors, and release dates (as well as check marks for those I have seen) for every year going back to 2006.

When I first moved to New York City three years ago, I thought of those lists of release dates and how so many of the best films came with the same disclaimer: New York and Los Angeles only. I hated that disclaimer because it meant I would have to wait or, worse still, miss out entirely because I lived in a small, secluded college town, four hours from the nearest metropolis, let alone New York or Los Angeles. Moving here was a permanent reprieve from having to wait or miss out.

This is not true of most people. Large swaths of the population of this country live nowhere near a movie house even, never mind the kind of screens that might show the independent and foreign films that nurture an appreciation of cinema. Some of the best films of this year such as The Lobster, 13th, and Under the Shadow never played near many of my friends back home, yet they are experiences that cannot be missed. The theater remains the best place to watch a movie, but if the choice is at home on your television or not at all, then there is no choice to be made.

Point: It has been a great year for African-American representation and movies exploring black life in America

After enduring two years of #oscarssowhite controversy, the Academy has a chance to course correct in a big way, and not through some benevolent tokenism but rather due to the quality and volume of black voices and black stories in theaters this year. From Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to Denzel Washington’s Fences, as well as documentaries such as Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, powerful, comprehensive stories about the black experience in America found their way into cinemas.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences
Each stands as a damning document of struggle and oppression, a radical call for change and re-evaluation, and even in times as bleak as those we now face, an inspiring message of hope, survival, and transcendence. The central question of movies like these, as well as Loving, directed by white southerner Jeff Nichols, is whether we can do better than the generations that came before and whether we can leave a path for future generations to do better than we have.

Counterpoint: And yet, we still have not come far enough

Not one of those wonderful movies has made more than $32 million (Fences), which is good for 82nd at the domestic box office in 2016. The rise in strong black voices on screen and behind the scenes is a wonderful development, but it means little unless we can pack theaters and show financiers and distributors these stories are not only profitable but fill a gaping hole in the marketplace. Put plainly, audiences need to want these movies more or risk losing them.

Point: Documentary films this year provided a powerful, necessary lens through which to view our world

We already touched on O.J.: Made in America, 13th, and I Am Not Your Negro, which address issues of race in America. In addition, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg documented the folly of our political system with Weiner, Josh Fox showed us a new outlook on an environment teetering on the brink of disaster with How to Let Go of the World and Love Everything the Climate Can’t Change, and Kirsten Johnson showed us the world as a set of puzzle pieces, waiting to be put together in a portrait of humanity, with Cameraperson.

In Newtown, Kim A. Snyder delivers a poignantly human take on the gun violence epidemic, while the prolific Werner Herzog gave us a pair of films (Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World and Into the Inferno) that made us question the very nature of human civilization and demonstrated how tenuous the grasp of society truly is. All of these are vital works that taken individually or as a whole, shine a light on who we were, who we are, and who we could be, answering questions it has never been more important to ask.

Counterpoint: To what end, the truth

Angela Davis in 13th
As a journalist, it has been clear for some time you cannot tell someone something he does not want to know. Throughout the 2016 election and certainly since, it has become fashionable to refer to this as a post-truth society. The proliferation of fake news and propaganda online and elsewhere contributes to a world in which facts are meaningless in the face of belief.

This is a country in which people believe the Sandy Hook massacre was a government plot to confiscate guns. This is a country in which the fact of global warming is debated while the planet rapidly dies. This is a country in which racism is denied as it is perpetuated and a history of systemic oppression is seen as just the way it is.

Powerful as these documentaries are – and many of them are perfectly constructed artifacts of a world gone mad – they lack the power to change hearts that have hardened and grown cold. In this, however, the fault lies not with the films but with us. Our blindness, apathy, and self-regard mean we will not notice when we are being led off the cliff but will grow ever more confident as we take the plunge.

Check back tomorrow for more of Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review as we count down the Top 10 Quotes of 2016, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.

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