The movies we see in theaters and on TV don’t get made overnight. Even the flimsiest, most hastily made film is the result of months, sometimes years, of production, usually with plenty of “pre” and “post” added on. And so, although it might be gratifying to imagine that this year’s remarkable wave of African-American releases was triggered by last February’s Oscars “Black Out” protests, most of the films were probably in production long before Chris Rock took the stage at the 88th Academy Awards to crack jokes about the lack of faces-of-color among the nominees.
In any event, the issues addressed in 2016’s bumper crop of Black films did not spring up yesterday. Slavery, rampant discrimination, racist violence, and the residual effects of 500 years of social injustice have been Topic A in this country for generations. Black people have systematically been made to suffer. Unfortunately, in real life as well as in popular entertainment, these obstacles show no signs of being overcome, particularly in light of November’s election. Hence, the outpouring of artistic protest.
Hang on tight, folks — this is only the beginning.
The Best Films of 2016
Let’s continue the discussion after we list the ten best films of 2016. In alphabetical order, they are:
Hell or High Water by David Mackenzie
Indignation by James Schamus
I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck
Miles Ahead by Don Cheadle
Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
Neruda by Pablo Larraín
O.J.: Made in America by Ezra Edelman
Paterson by Jim Jarmusch
Things to Come by Mia Hansen-Løve
Tower by Keith Maitland
To that list, we can add a set of notable movies either made by Black filmmakers or dealing with the Black experience: Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones, Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Jeff Nichols’ Loving, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, and Denzel Washington’s Fences.
It’s not merely the number of serious Black movies that impresses, but also the artistic and social power behind them. The accumulated outrage. The never-ending search for justice. The humanism. The Black pride. The diversity. The shared experience.
For instance, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, subject of Don Cheadle’s incandescent Miles Ahead, drove himself crazy with resentment over the hatred he saw, even as a celebrated musical adventurer. Actor-director Cheadle turns in one of the year’s eeriest character roles as Davis.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins, in his masterpiece Moonlight, shows us how a young man’s soul is saved by a few chance acquaintances who care. Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Ashton Sanders all deserve acting prizes, as does Jenkins’ screenplay and his beguiling direction. To those of us who admired Jenkins’ San Francisco-set romantic character study Medicine for Melancholy when it played the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2008, Moonlight is a promise fulfilled.
(FYI, Hell or High Water, Indignation, Miles Ahead, and Moonlight were all reviewed in these pages during the course of the year.)
The ESPN-produced O.J.: Made in America takes almost eight hours to lay out the strange case of one-time football hero and movie star Orenthal James Simpson, who had it all and then threw it away, violently. Ezra Edelman’s doc is a masterful pop-cultural analysis of America from the Sixties to right now, with emphasis on the concept of Black identity — in addition to being a true-crime story for the ages. According to IMDB.com, O.J.: Made in America played in very limited theatrical situations and at festivals after debuting at Sundance in January 2016, then ran as a mini-series on ESPN. Its length makes it a challenge, but anyone who starts watching Edelman’s portrait of O.J. and his times will find it addictive and indispensable. Highly recommended.
Writer-director-actor Nate Parker’s mission in The Birth of a Nation is to describe the whys and wherefores of the bloody Nat Turner rebellion of 1831. Some audiences and a few chicken-livered critics gagged at the sight of slavery’s cruelties — imagine how they would have felt in Nat’s place. Parker’s vitriolic history lesson is one of the strongest movies of the year, and utterly necessary.
Another old-time misery tour, Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones tells its own unlikely-but-true story of resistance to slavery, by free-thinking Confederate soldier Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and his followers. Similar sad ending.
Denzel Washington starred in at least two high-profile movies this year. One of them, Fences, was an actor’s party alongside Viola Davis, as the husband-and-wife guiding lights of a working-class Fifties family (with Washington directing). The other was less successful but undeniably gaudy, director Antoine Fuqua’s redo of The Magnificent Seven, with Washington as the flashiest gunslinger in the Old West.
The mysteries of history continue. 13TH, a documentary by Ava DuVernay (Selma), takes as its subject the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, whereby African-Americans were punished for gaining their freedom from slavery by states who then re-branded them as criminals — an outrage that began in 1865 and still pertains today. Jeff Nichols’ Loving, on the other hand, wants us to believe that love can conquer even the worst human-rights offenses, as in the case of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), who sued the state of Virginia for trying to prevent their marriage, and won.
And then we come to The Fits, which doesn’t hit us over the head with outrage, but instead asks us to consider the plight of a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, teenager called Toni (played by the delightfully named Royalty Hightower), who boxes with her brother at the local community center, yet inside really aches to join the other girls performing in the Lionesses dance team. Things go well for Toni in that quest, until they don’t.
I Am Not Your Negro may well be the single most important film to open in the Bay Area in the past twelve months. Its director, Raoul Peck, uses astounding period footage and Samuel L. Jackson’s voiceover narration to address the African-American ordeal as seen through the eyes — and blisteringly analyzed in the words — of novelist James Baldwin. Peck is a native of Haiti who once served as that country’s Minister of Culture, and perhaps not so coincidentally he’s also a dedicated maker of revolutionary documentaries and narratives. Baldwin (1924-1987), the author of Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and Go Tell It on the Mountain, can be described as the outcast’s outcast. As a gay Black intellectual and cultural critic, his lifelong subject was the struggle of the human spirit against oppression of all sorts. In Peck’s monumental 2016 doc, Baldwin’s comments on the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X — adapted from his unfinished book Remember This House — have the author’s characteristically dry, acerbic wit, but they’re bathed in flames. As a contrarian introduction to Baldwin, the interrupted lives of Dr. King and Malcolm X, and filmmaker Peck, I Am Not Your Negro exists to disturb and provoke. (It opens locally on February 3, 2017. We’ll review it at greater length at that time.)
Running in tandem with the African-American films is a large contingent of socially conscious fictions and documentaries, a genuine wave of protest movies, covering everything from the militarization of the nation’s police (Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist and Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird) to the melodramatic story of undocumented travelers being hunted down by a trigger-happy “border militia” killer (Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto).
The very best of these is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a putative shoot-’em-up with more than just West Texas gunplay on its mind. A pair of hard-luck brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), upset that a predatory bank foreclosed on their mother’s farm after smooth-talking her into a subprime mortgage while she was terminally ill, decides to get even by robbing the offending bank’s branches. Their opposite numbers, a pair of Texas Rangers (played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) set out to solve the case and halt the illegal withdrawals. Cue a hellacious volume of flying lead. As Taylor Sheridan’s perceptive screenplay would have it, every character in the movie with even one line of dialogue hates the bank. Sort of a wry narrative companion to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.
Rest of the Best
Presenting “The B Team,” four films that nearly made the ten-best cut. They’re just too entertaining to file and forget.
Captain Fantastic, writer-director Matt Ross’ lighthearted story of a hippie survivalist family led by Viggo Mortensen; Diary of a Chambermaid, starring Léa Seydoux as an evil-eyed domestic with class vengeance on her mind, directed by Benoît Jacquot in a remake of the Octave Mirbeau novel (formerly done by Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel); Embrace of the Serpent, directed by Ciro Guerra, which takes us on a magical trip to the Colombian jungle searching for organic miracle drugs, and finding miraculous people; and Maggie’s Plan, featuring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and an unforgettable Julianne Moore in a sophisticated romantic comedy, written and directed by Rebecca Miller.
Don’t Miss Docs
It would be very easy this year to make a ten-best list composed entirely of documentaries. Here, alphabetically, are the ten-best docs of 2016:
Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson
Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow’s Company Town
Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist
Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink — Robert Frank
Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro
Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird
Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America
Keith Maitland’s Tower
Alex Gibney’s Zero Days
(O.J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro have been discussed above. And Cameraperson, Company Town, Do Not Resist, The Eagle Huntress, and Zero Days have all been previously reviewed in the Express during their first runs.)
Eight out of the ten top docs deal in sociopolitical commentary, with only Don’t Blink — Robert Frank (a scintillating profile of Frank, the country’s pre-eminent counter-culture photographer) and the thrillingly ethnographic The Eagle Huntress diverging.
Tower, however, is not like all the rest. Filmmaker Keith Maitland chooses as his subject the August 1, 1966, incident on the University of Texas campus in Austin, in which a lone gunman climbed the university clock tower on a blazingly hot day and picked off 49 people before being killed by police. Austin resident Maitland, with the help of animation director Mathew Staggs, tells the story from the point of view of the victims and eyewitnesses, in a unique combination of period footage and rotoscope animation. The effect is at once dreamlike and immediate. We could look at it as a psychodrama of America’s ruinous lust for firepower. Or else as a subdued meditation on the unexplainable. Either way, it’s one of the year’s most compelling pieces of work. (For the record, Tower played both Landmark’s Shattuck in Berkeley and the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater in S.F., for about five minutes this past November. Catch up with this film any way you can — it’s worth hunting down.)
James Schamus’ Indignation showcases three of 2016’s finest acting performances. In effect, an idealistic but combatively contrary college freshman (Logan Lerman), the quintessential fish out of water, falls in love with the campus nymphomaniac (Sarah Gadon) and runs afoul of the martinet dean of students (lovingly, brutally played by playwright-actor Tracy Letts), thus sealing the student’s fate. It’s a conjunction of some of the sharpest talents in “grown-up” film today — writer-director Schamus, novelist Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain), and the actors.
A few weeks ago, some critics went into paroxysms saluting Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. In their haste to heap praise on actress Isabelle Huppert — rightly so, she’s probably the finest screen actress in the world — those reviewers selected Verhoeven’s lurid psychological shocker as one of the best films of the year, and as the basis for honoring Huppert’s performance.
I beg to differ. IFC Films’ Things to Come (L’Avenir), the “other” Huppert outing, stands head-and-shoulders above Verhoeven’s title, with a Huppert performance that contains all the personality quirks that make her the bravest thesp in the business. It’s the product of writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, maker of Father of My Children and All Is Forgiven. In Things to Come, Huppert portrays a middle-aged woman with almost as many problems as the lead character in Elle. True, philosophy professor Nathalie (Huppert) does not get raped every ten minutes, but she deals with a philandering husband, her dying mother, the fade-out of her publishing career (indeed, the phasing out of philosophy as a viable course of academic study), and various other believable predicaments. And, of course, she perseveres. Huppert always does. See Elle if you must, but dig up Things to Come if you want to see the best acting job of the year by the best actress of the year.
Return to the Ten
Gentle reader, you’ll notice we haven’t dealt with two of the movies on the ten best list: Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and Pablo Larraín’s Neruda. That’s because they haven’t opened yet in the Bay Area, even though they count as 2016 releases. Both films will be long-reviewed in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, try to catch up with Larraín’s Jackie for comparison’s sake. It’s not often that a Chilean filmmaker bursts onto American art screens so forcefully with not one, but two provocative character studies of real-life cultural icons, in one year. As for veteran hipster Jarmusch, Paterson may be his best outing since Broken Flowers.
I know what you’re thinking: Too many films with heavy social messages and depressing reminders of reality. Doesn’t this guy ever go to the movies for fun? Where are the sick laughs? Where are the old creepy movies? Where are the horror flicks? The answer is “West of Zanzibar,” our list of the year’s zaniest midnight-movie fare. Here, carefully selected for you, the connoisseur of things that go “huh?” in the night, are the West of Zanzibar Top Ten:
The Battle of Algiers
The Love Witch
The Neon Demon
Therapy for a Vampire
It would take a book to fully account for all the ways producer-writer-director-costume-designer-composer Anna Biller’s The Love Witch upends the dominant paradigm. Ostensibly the tale of a beautiful “white magic” wiccan named Elaine (Samantha Robinson), who moves from San Francisco to Eureka on account of boyfriend trouble, Biller’s latest sex-positive-feminist fantasy — other titles: Viva; A Visit from the Incubus, etc. — has love potions, full frontal nudity, murder, songs, still more boyfriend trouble, and Biller’s outrageous digression into a Renaissance Faire sequence. No wonder it clocks in at 120 minutes. And no wonder it’s the least easily defined cinematic oddity of 2016. “Sexploitation” doesn’t begin to explain it.
Ever been to a dreadful Thanksgiving dinner with drunken, surly relatives? Relive that experience with writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, featuring a demonstrably unique performance by Krisha Fairchild in the title role, as the alcoholic aunt primed to detonate the turkey. And you thought Mickey Rourke was the king of sloppy-drunk exhibitionists.
For Sixties re-releases with sizzle, try King Hu’s Dragon Inn, the quintessential Chinese wuxia adventure; Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, then as now a thrilling call to armed revolution; and Bleak Street by Mexican noirista Arturo Ripstein, the sleazy true-crime story of two aging prostitutes and their dirtiest tricks, a pair of diminutive lucha libre twin wrestlers.
French director Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys replays John Ford’s western The Searchers — not to mention Liam Neeson’s popular Taken franchise — as a frantic odyssey in the age of terrorism. Korean shockmeister Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden may indeed be the year’s most gorgeous visual feast; it’s also very, very perverse, a gothic WWII spyboiler with major sex. Nicolas Winding Refn, the Norwegian move-over who gave us Bronson and Only God Forgives, falls a bit short with his latest, The Neon Dream, but even his failures are worth a peek. Another Euro genre-buster, David Ruehm’s Austrian horror spoof Therapy for a Vampire, is no doubt the world’s first Freudian vampire pic, a topsy-turvy blend of romance and throat-ripping, set in Vienna, circa 1930s.
Dennis Hauck’s neo-noir LA detective yarn Too Late puts disoriented private eye John Hawkes on the trail of, well, he’s never quite sure. Jeff Fahey, Robert Forster, Crystal Reed, Brett Jacobsen, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vail Bloom, and the impossibly slinky Dichan Lachman portray a few of the bodies, dead and alive. To some, writer-director Hauck’s genre piece may seem a tribute to Thomas Pynchon. To us, it’s more like John Cassavetes crossed with Doris Wishman. It inhales the basic nastiness of Los Angeles riff-raff and remains standing.
As long as we’re in the neighborhood, let’s hear it for some of our favorite venues: the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater in S.F.’s Mission District, and your nearest Landmark Theatre, still daring to show “art films” in this brave new world.
Let’s not forget this handful of the year’s loudest, most rousing musical docs: Brendan Toller’s Danny Says, a helter-skelter profile of Danny Fields, the rock music press agent who “discovered” the Doors, Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, and Ramones — chock full of concert clips. Eat That Question, German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte’s thoughtful tribute to rock provocateur and classical composer Frank Zappa, the head Mother of Invention. Gimme Danger, the last word on Iggy Pop from the man himself, compiled and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Presenting Princess Shaw, in which filmmaker Ido Haar uncovers a genuine American original, YouTube star Samantha Montgomery from New Orleans. Beth Harrington’s The Winding Stream, an authentic roots document of the Carter-Cash Family of Virginia and Arkansas, with more hillbilly music than you can shake a stick at.
Finally, let’s do our best to learn a lesson from this year’s winner of the Passport to Oblivion Award, the year’s worst movie: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man. There’s a stiff at every party.