2016 Top 10

My favorite films of 2016 depicted a lot of suffering. The characters in them faced that suffering with courage, determination, compassion, and introspection. That’s not to say they were all saints. Pain, like fear, can drive us to extremes to try to make it stop. Anger is often the fuel that energizes us to confront injustice, and comedy often rests on a foundation of sadness. If the subjects of documentaries and the characters in narrative films were not uniform in their response to suffering, they never failed to provoke empathy…and maybe catharsis.

The purgation of fear and pity that Aristotle posited was the purpose of drama was much needed and much on display in a year where social and political conflicts pervaded public discourse. Most of these films expressed ideas that resonated with me amid a year where so much public discourse bordered on the wrong side of madness. Surprisingly, though, a few espoused ideas I disagree with. Art can cut through the echo chamber much more effectively the polemic. It doesn’t always convert us, but it does make us wrestle with questions we may have thought we had already answered to our satisfaction.

I am happy that 2016 is over. It was a difficult year politically, socially, and emotionally. But I am happy for the way art seeds even the most barren landscapes, providing refreshing oases that slake our thirst for beauty without ever denying the challenges that are facing us.

10) Starving the Beast – Steve Mims

Documentaries are as important as ever. Maybe more than ever. With newspapers dying and the Internet giving rise to a tidal wave of fake news and misleading headlines that are shared and re-shared until perception becomes reality, documentaries have become one of the few sources of information that I trust to probe beyond sound bites and talking point memos.

Education is important, too. Starving the Beast explains what education reform is, where it comes from, and how its consequences have been detrimental to some of our greatest institutions of higher learning. Whether those consequences were unintentional is open to debate. The documentary doesn’t appear to think so, and I found it all the more persuasive for its willingness to take sides.

More and more, the questions that divide us politically are about wealth, not values. In America, we agree education is good, but we disagree about who should pay for that good. On one side of the aisle are those who argue that those who benefit directly from education – individual students – should bear the burden of paying for it. On the other side are those who argue that an educated populace is a public good that benefits all of us; thus, the costs of educating that populace should be shared. Starving the Beast should be praised for letting each side have the podium to make their argument, but should be praised more for showing the effects of these arguments rather than keeping the debate an exercise in strict deductive logic.

9) Captain Fantastic – Matt Ross

More so than in recent years, I find myself aware of the perceived flaws of the films I am championing and understanding of those who are turned off by them. Matt Ross’s story of a widower who insists on a rigorous home-schooling curriculum for his kids is, like its title character, alternately inspiring and maddening. One minute the kids are eating the raw heart of an animal they just slayed, the next they are reciting the Bill of Rights from memory. I like these kids, and, yes, I like this man. Does the film rely a bit too much on caricature? Probably. The complexities of the home school issue would be more powerful if every kid not put through dad’s boot camp weren’t such crude, unengaged, video-addicted slobs. Ross’s work here reminds me of Alexander Payne’s: the emotions it evokes are undeniable but its insistence that its protagonist alone sees the worst of human behavior often feels like card stacking. Its third act shifts from sympathizing with dad to raising legitimate questions about the welfare of the kids is also a little too quick, making the resolution less than satisfying.

And yet…the revulsion that Ben (Viggo Mortensen) feels as a parent about the superficiality and unhealthiness of the world his children will be inheriting transcends political party or ideology. Captain Fantastic is also one of four films on this list about children coming to terms with death. Ben’s way of life, his devotion to Thoreauvian self-reliance, has not exactly prepared him for life’s emotional challenges. Mortensen manages to tone down Ben’s eccentricity and suggest his sadness. His conflict with his in-laws is gripping precisely because he does care more about his kids’ well-being than his own pride, and he appears plagued by some reasonable doubts. If his life-philosophy is powerless against life’s biggest challenges, to what has he sacrificed life’s pleasures and luxuries? The first two acts are also pretty stellar. Films that allow you to spend time with characters before setting the narrative’s conflict in motion are increasingly rare. The conflict itself is pretty generic, but by the time it rolls around we have enough invested in these characters to feel the effects of the conflict all the more deeply.

8) Loving – Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols’s biopic begins with its mixed-race couple already together. We don’t get a cute meeting, a budding romance, or early opposition from their friends and family, though we must presume all those elements were part of Richard and Mildred’s life. Instead, their marriage and love is presented as a fait accompli.

That turns out to be a brilliant decision, pushing Loving away from becoming the lesser genre piece many writers or directors would have crafted it into. This is not a romance, because it is not a story about romance; it is a story about love and marriage. Neither is this a courtroom drama, revolving around legal procedures and culminating in the dramatic announcement of the verdict. It is an hour into the film before the couple interacts with a lawyer. This, too, turns out to a great writing choice. The couple does not know that they will be at the center of a case that will change the law. That society could change seems as unfathomable to them as their love is to the Virginia judges and police officers that oppose them.

Loving is – and I use this term admiringly – a small movie. At first, I was bothered slightly by the lack of exposition about the relationship’s origins. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is a mystery why any two people fall in love. That’s why we are inclined to celebrate it when they do.

7) Tower — Keith Maitland

Today the story of a campus shooting sounds all too common. The endless stream of gun violence is best evidenced by how few of us who didn’t live through the events chronicled in Tower had heard of them. Is it possible, we wonder, that in forty years people will look back on those of us remembering Sandy Hook, or Charleston, or Orlando and feel linked to us across the spans of time by their own shared experience of tragedy?

Director Keith Maitland uses a technique known as rotoscoping to turn what is essentially an oral history of a local event into a dramatic recreation with mythic undertones. It would be easy to call the animation a gimmick, but it succeeds in defamiliarizing us in more ways than one. We are so conditioned to animation used to defy the laws of physics that when it is used the depict stillness, the tension is steep. Time seems frozen, as it must have felt to those who measured their lives by the intervals between crackling rifle shots.

What truly elevates Tower, though, is how much emotional weight it gives to the post-trauma reflection rather than the dramatic confrontation. Life unexpectedly thrusts us into situations where our stories intersect with those we don’t yet know and others we may never see again. There’s something awe-inspiring about that fact.

6) The Edge of Seventeen – Kelly Fremon Craig

It sounds strange to say, but the moment that sold me on The Edge of Seventeen was when its protagonist doesn’t get raped.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is obstinately self-destructive, practically slapping away any hand of grace or friendship that might help her navigate the intrinsically difficult teen years that have been exacerbated by her father’s premature and sudden death. She masks her mistakes with a strained, I-meant-to-do-that irony that fools no one.

About two-thirds of the way through The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine, as disgusted with herself as she is tired of her own depression, sits on the toilet and says, “Please, God, help me.” The immediate response is a cheap gag, and those, like me, who figured that a cynical character’s prayer would be met with silence from an indifferent universe, might be forgiven for reading too much into that sequence. Because while Nadine’s life remains unchanged in the immediate aftermath of her prayer, it does take a turn for healing not long after.

Before it does, she finds herself in a car with a boy, unable to differentiate lust from loneliness. The scene in the car mirrors the overall structure of the film. Nadine is alternately clingy and panicked. He responds as he should when she says, “no,” and she almost immediately doubles-down on her bets against fate. At that point, the film seemed primed to veer into tragedy rather than melodrama. Try hard enough to self-destruct and the universe eventually lets you.

The moment in the car is not a come-to-Jesus moment for Nadine, nor is it exactly the rock bottom that prompts her to get her affairs in order. What it may well be is a moment where life could have punished us by leaving us to our own devices and instead, through luck or providence, allows us to draw another breath with which we can continue to cry for help.

5) Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan

“I can’t beat this,” says Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) about a personal tragedy that makes him a pariah in the town he can neither leave for good nor settle into. That tragedy is revealed mid-movie, accompanied by classical music, in a scene so bombastic that it would verge on self-parody in the hands of less skillful artists. But Kenneth Lonergan is at the top of his craft, and Casey Affleck gives a star-making performance. Lee’s self-destructive, anti-social behavior suddenly makes sense, and the film sets itself up for a redemption arc in its second half as Lee tries to do right by his nephew, Patrick, who is dealing with a tragedy of his own.

Lee is harder on himself than is anyone who could punish him for his hand in his life’s downward spiral. That makes us root for some sort of recovery, even if we sense, like he does, that somebody needs to punish him. His soul revolts more at the prospect that this could be nobody’s fault than at the prospect that it is his own. Ironically, he is a better adult, parent, and guardian after the tragedy than before. That too makes us want him to have some measure of success and the attendant peace it might bring. When Patrick visits his alcoholic mother, we are struck, too, with the impossibility of apportioning blame for various personal failures. The present moment matters more to the living than do past sins.

Manchester is a cruel movie, though, a bit of a Chinese finger trap.  To heal is to forget. To forget is to forgive. To forgive is to excuse, which necessitates more self-punishment, which results in more scars that need healing. Repeat…endlessly? Maybe not. In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis compares grief to an upward spiral, with progress hard to measure as each turn of the wheel appears to bring one back to where one started, but perhaps an inch higher. I don’t think Lee is ever going to stop punishing himself, and for that reason, I can’t really love Manchester. But I do see evidence that he can prioritize something over his own pain, which is a start.

4) Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie

I wrote about Hell or High Water earlier this year at Christianity Today, where I focused on the film’s smart use of language to reinforce its themes. In particular, I was struck by how frequently its characters, good and bad (and nobody in the film is entirely good or bad), used euphemisms to gloss over ugly truths. Bankers label predatory lending and punitive self-serving red tape as “courtesies.” Inflicting vengeance is conflated with passing peace. And, of course, leaving a better world for one’s kids is equated with preserving wealth, even if the methods for doing so help make the world in which they will have that wealth a more hellish place.

Because of the presence of a sheriff on the verge of retirement, here played exquisitely by Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water has drawn understandable comparisons to No Country for Old Men. I see the resemblance, but I prefer Hell or High Water in part because the role of malevolent evil is played by the faceless corporations and systems rather than symbolized through the cartoonish Anton Chigurgh.

Also, the film exhibits a surprising amount of visual depth given the sparseness of the landscape. Bridges and Ben Foster have flashier roles, but Chris Pine provides much needed emotional depth as a brother who may see a bank robbing spree as necessary but doesn’t necessarily believe it is morally justifiable.

Ultimately, though, it is Taylor Sheridan’s script that wins the day. It is remarkable how frequently the film’s characters predict what is going to happen and yet still manage to share our surprise when it does.

3) Newtown – Kim A. Snyder

I wrote about Newtown after its screening at this year’s SXSW film festival. Director Kim A. Snyder told audiences there that she hoped, as painful as the film was, that it also provided some sort of uplift. It does, but as with Manchester by the Sea, its uplift is so intimately connected to its pathos as to be nearly indistinguishable from it.

Since I feel no great need to expand my earlier comments, I will only add here that Snyder deserves more recognition than she has yet received for Newtown’s achievement. The film’s emotional tenor only ever fluctuates slightly, from anguished to bittersweet and back again. There’s been just enough time for most of these people to come out of shock but nowhere near enough for them to heal.

What we see then is raw, volatile pain, and that is hard to sustain for eighty-five minutes. Yet at no time does the film feel exploitative. Some of the parents of Sandy Hook have become advocates for gun legislation, but the film wisely lets their advocacy be part of their story rather than the point of its own. As angry as I was watching Newtown, at no point did I think its blown up portrait of grief could make a dent in our national love affair with guns. The best we can do for now is to refuse to inure ourselves to the violence, not let its victims becomes statistics or abstractions.

2) La La Land – Damien Chazelle

My unscientific means of making Oscar predictions is to look at which front-runner is getting the most push back. This year, that’s Damien Chazelle’s melancholy valentine to those who put ambition before love.

This happens at least once a year, too. The thing that irks or rankles many of my friends about a movie is the same thing that makes me admire it. Sure, I love a happy ending as much as the next lovesick guy, but I don’t think anyone who watched Whiplash should be surprised by any of the choices made by frustrated actress Mia (Emma Stone) or Jazz-obsessed lover, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).

The easy, breezy tone and look of the film, so saturated in light, color, and melancholy, fools you into thinking love is not a zero sum game, that loving movies and music is the same thing as loving another person, and that earning success is the same thing as paying for it. In short, it fools you into thinking La La Land is a happy movie. It’s not.

The epilogue to La La Land is a fantasy played over music. Because the camera is on Mia, it is easy to think that it is the fantasy the music evokes in her, but I don’t think it is. Earlier, Sebastian has said that music allows people to communicate in ways words can’t, and I think the fantasy is his, received and decoded by her. It is not just a fantasy of a different set of circumstances resulting in a different outcome. It is a fantasy about being a better person. Relational happiness is built on a foundation of putting others first, not simply doing so at the opportune moment. Sebastian does this at least once in the film, but his fantasy in the epilogue is of a life spent reaping the rewards of doing so more consistently.

Because the narcisstic demands to put art before people is not externalized in the voice of a fanatical teacher, La La Land is less caustic than Whiplash. But the presence of Fletcher in Whiplash paradoxically makes Andrew’s selfishness in that movie more forgivable. It is easier to see him as a victim. I also think there is a not-so-subtle gender dynamic in play. Are we more understanding of Andrew’s drive than we are of Mia’s? Do we find Sebastian’s goals somehow loftier, less venal than Mia’s? He wants to save Jazz from extinction; she wants to be just another movie star.

The emotional climax of La La Land is an audition, culminating in Stone’s perfect rendition of “The Fools  Who Dream.” I thought at first that the film’s long anti-climax indicated that it didn’t know how to resolve its themes, but now I am not so sure. That the achievement of one’s dreams is never quite as unreservedly joyful as one imagines it will be is what adds the bitter to the sweet. And I think the film is well aware of the irony that Mia achieves success by appropriating her aunt’s story, cannibalizing her personal life in order to achieve professional succcess. Mia aligning herself with the fools of the world also subtly invokes the film’s title. It is easy to dismiss artists as venal and the art they make as trivial, but, like alchemists, they touch transform the mundane into the magical, lightening our own loads in the process.

1) A Monster Calls – J. A. Bayona

It was impossible for me to watch J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls without thinking about an oft-quoted adage from another story about children, that Aslan is not a “tame” lion. Stories are messy things, capable of saving us and healing us, but only to the extent that they elude our grasping attempts to control them and make them say what we want to be true.

Conor (Lewis MacDougal) is introduced in this story as too old to be a kid and yet too young to be a man. The last part is only half true. Death is no respecter of age, so Conor has a man’s burden in having to process his mother’s terminal illness. It is interesting how often, especially early in the film, Bayona’s camera shoots Conor from above or below, making him appear alternately smaller and larger than he really is. Getting the true measure of the boy-man is hard. He doesn’t know himself where he stands or how strong he is.

The monster of the title is an animated Yew tree voiced by Liam Neeson. It visits Conor promising to tell him three stories and demanding of him that in return Conor speak the truth of his nightmare, a hellishly recurring dream in which Conor fails to keep his mother from tumbling into a gaping pit of darkness. If, like me, you think that premise sounds a tad too didactic, you’ll probably be relieved when the movie proves itself more interested in what happens between the monster’s visitations than it does in the stories themselves.

Not that the stories are treated as throwaways – far from it. The first two are gorgeously animated. The second two prompt unexpected results, and for a while Conor seems even more miserable than before. The human soul in pain can bend the most obvious truths, whether they be stated directly or embedded in stories designed to make us take our guard down.

A large part of A Monster Calls’ effectiveness stems from the way it sidesteps genre conventions. Conor has a special bond with his mother, but his father and grandmother are not presented as bad people. They love him. More importantly, we see them loving him. It is through them as much as through the monster’s stories, that we are confronted with the truth that love can’t eliminate pain, only blunt its impact.

The highest praise I can give to sentimental films is that they earn my respect while milking my tears. A Monster Calls is such a film. It suggests, finally, that the stories we love are most important not for what they teach us but for how they unite us with those with whom we share them.

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