For most of my life, I’ve been in what I will call the Ford Camp, in honor of the pantheistic creator and overlord of the worlds in Westworld (yes, I know this a film post, not a TV post, but I’ll get there). Ford believed stories were “Lies that told a deeper truth.” Like him, I believed stories, especially the ones consumed on a massive scale, i.e. movies, could change the world for the better. Could empower our best selves. Could elicit empathy. Could transform our thoughts and connect us to our fellow man. But like Ford, at some point this year, the seemingly unstoppable cruelty and rejection of rationality and fissures that continued to fracture modern society have led me to the conclusion that maybe a good story does not have the power to improve or connect us, does not change the world for the better, does not have the influence us storytellers would like it to have, because deep down, somewhere in our hard-wiring as homo sapiens, we are incapable of change, and to be good is simply unnatural.
Yes, we are capable of empathy, but maybe it’s only there when we put in the mental effort. Maybe it’s a frontal lobe phenomenon. Maybe, for the majority of us, to be good requires mental exertion and, as behavioral psychologists have shown, our default state is to not waste mental energy. Maybe we don’t care for empathy anymore, because the modern world does not require it. Maybe, like Agent Smith accuses, we really are a plague; a virus on the planet. Maybe, given the option, freed of judgment, hidden behind a veil of a digital identity or a group of likeminded defenses, good is something that we choose not to be. Maybe being good was simply a pressure imposed by society on man’s natural tendencies: To be selfish. To not think. To not put in the effort to learn. To not be empathetic.
I’ve always separated art and artists from the effect their work might have on a viewer, but extended universe franchises are no longer art (not that they ever were, but they at least had a sense of “commercial art” to them). They are carefully controlled brands and products, and in 2016, for the first time, I wondered if they must be held to a separate standard for the way the portray the workings of the world to their consumers. The same standard a corporate line of products might be held. Because that is what they’ve evolved into. And yet, there is a semblance of a resurgence on the other end of the spectrum. On the small and mid-budget original films I thought were lost.
My list this year is filled with much different types of movies than the last. And it’s because 2016 was, for my mostly privileged self, filled with real death, real cruelty, real bleakness all around. We’ve seen that most of our neighbors, fellow Americans, and human beings, given the chance free of consequence, are cruel, mean, divided, and tribal. And it’s pushed us farther into our bubbles of comfort. Our tribes. Farther and farther away from objective reality. Many have dubbed 2016 the year of post-truth. The year of Alt-Right and Hollywood Liberal and Elite Swamp-rats and Supposedly Conniving Climate Scientists. It was the year in which my ever-present cynicism towards humanity was overwhelmingly reinforced and confirmed. It was the year in which my hope that I could make a difference on the way people think flamed out. It was a year that existentially terrified me. Because I truly wondered if art, even the most commercial of art, Hollywood, could actually do any good.
I latched onto the films that were soaked in empathy, that were personal and kind and tender and emotional and about what it means to be a human being today. And other films that were simply escape to worlds that felt more gilded and redemptive and concerning than ours. And of course, just like the pleasure that comes from immersing yourself in extraordinarily sad music after heartbreak or suffering, one or two choices that were full immersions into that masochistically dark pleasure of misery. But even the dark and violent films on this list had tenderness at their core. Because, even if we, at our most fundamentally atavistic level, really aren’t good, I am convinced that what ultimately makes us better is our relationships towards our fellow man.
So without further ado… here are my top ten films of a most peculiar year.
**NOTE: This list is contained to domestic films that were theatrically released in multiple cities in 2016 -- this being the sample pool that both my viewing habits and my professional life leave me qualified to discuss. I neither saw enough nor have enough knowledge of this year’s trove of foreign and alternatively distributed indies to give them due justice.
Just missed the cut: Arrival, Zootopia, The Lobster, Rogue One, Don’t Think Twice.
10. Deadpool: Because it was irreverent and refreshing and didn’t feel like the sell-out version of a superhero parody I feared it might be. And because of that sex scene. And because it was 100 hilariously entertaining, blockbuster minutes of the filmmakers and writers and Ryan Reynolds all saying what I say in my usual day-to-day umbrage: “Fuck Marvel (movies).” Look, if you want to support shameless brand marketing and $200m budget commercials expertly disguised as ‘films’ that are then interpreted by audiences and Rotten Tomatoes critics as having thematic profundity to rationalize the fact that grown men are still watching comic book movies that in actuality are knowingly promoting simplistic thinking and encouraging myopic views of a world that is anything but… then by all means, keep giving them your money. *catches breath* But I will continue my embargo with my middle finger in the air.°
(°except for Iron Man. When they took a risk on a non-super-human character, weren’t owned by Disney, and had yet to commit to their extended universe franchise commercial cash grab. Iron Man was fucking dope).