Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of 2016: The Top 10 Movies of the Year

I was going to open this year-end overview by writing, "2016 started out so promisingly," but then I actually thought back to the early months of this year. My grandmother died, I was convinced my wife and I had made a terrible mistake with the purchase of our condo ... there were plenty of things to lament then, too. My point isn't to make 2016 sound like a ceaseless wave of sadness but, rather, to suggest that sometimes we have to choose to find a little light amidst the gloom.

So let's try this: 2016 was a fantastic year for movies, a suspicion that started back at Sundance but was cemented by trips to True/False and especially Cannes. Here's my Top 10....

1. Moonlight 
2. American Honey 
3. The Other Side
4. O.J.: Made in America 
5. Paterson 
6. Certain Women 
7. The Lobster 
8. Notfilm 
9. La La Land 
10. Everybody Wants Some!!

After a couple years of being out of the critical consensus, I found myself pretty aligned with my colleagues in 2016. I go into my choices in some detail over here at The New Republic, and you can check out my Village Voice ballot right here. (An even-more-detailed ballot can be found over at the IndieWire site.) The two selections in my Top 10 that are probably the least familiar to readers, The Other Side and Notfilm, were among the year's finest documentaries, and both are available on home video -- or soon will be. (The Other Side is up at iTunes and Amazon. Notfilm hits DVD in March.)

Professionally, 2016 had plenty of highlights. In April, I flew to Las Vegas for Rolling Stone to review the first official date of Guns N' Roses' "reunion" tour. (That sentence is something 16-year-old me would have never believed he would be able to say.) In June, I spoke with former Esquire art director George Lois in the wake of Muhammad Ali's death to talk about the iconic cover they made together in 1968. Lois was still reeling from his friend's passing, but he was incredibly gracious with his time: The resulting piece is one of my favorites I've written for Rolling Stone. I am grateful to write for a publication I adored as a kid, and I'm thankful to have a great editor in David Fear, who asked if I'd be interested in interviewing Alden Ehrenreich after his delightful turn in Hail, Caesar! I was, and wrote this piece, which is a lot funnier now that he's been cast as the young Han Solo. For David, I got to profile everyone from Elizabeth Wood to Andrea Arnold to Julie Dash, and he also let me write about Stephen Colbert's disappointing performance during the Republican and Democratic national conventions -- a piece that, in retrospect, was my way of letting go of my hope that his Late Show was ever going to pull out of the nosedive of mediocrity that seems to be its fate.

I wrote a ton of reviews, for Screen International, The New Republic, Paste and Popular Mechanics, which allows me a consistent opportunity to interact with film culture in a way I prefer. (As much as I enjoy tweeting reactions after screenings during a festival, the process of sitting down and composing something still feels more nourishing.) And the opportunity to go back and reconsider movies between a festival viewing and a theatrical release has been illuminating. More times than not, my initial impression remains, but the nuance of my understanding of the film deepens.

Then, there are the happy accidents that come your way because of an assignment. I'd been a fan of Emayatzy Corinealdi ever since seeing her in Middle of Nowhere. But hanging out with her the day before the Oscars for Backstage was an absolute treat. She couldn't have been lovelier. I've mentioned this before, but I relish my experiences interviewing actors for Backstage: They are open and honest in a way that's refreshing. It's partly because of the publication, I imagine, but I'd also like to think that they feel that they're in good hands with me -- that trust means a lot. Corinealdi saying grace before our meal, or Michiel Huisman taking a break to really enjoy the opening cut off Stevie Wonder's Innervisions while it was playing in the room, or Emma Stone sharing her secrets about dealing with voice issues (it didn't make the final piece), or Derek Hough talking about being lucky ... each of those moments felt unrehearsed, and I was thrilled to have been present when they occurred. (My Backstage year culminated with a chat with Lily Tomlin. More about that in 2017.)

The public unveiling of MEL was one of my proudest 2016 moments. There's a part of me that's drawn to building something from scratch, and I couldn't be happier to work with a bunch of smart writers and editors in Venice, who have become a new little family in my life. For MEL, I got to make the case for Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience as the great movie about the 2008 economic collapse. I also bid farewell to Prince and Leonard Cohen, and I was able to revisit my 2009 EMP Pop Conference paper on George Michael's "Father Figure," having no idea that Michael would die 10 months later. And I was also given the freedom to interview documentary filmmakers whose work spoke to me, whether that be Brett Story and the remarkable The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (No. 17 on my 2016 list) or the directors behind last year's Welcome to Leith. In between, I also chatted with Max Linsky, who hosted the I'm With Her podcast alongside Hillary Clinton. A lot of my writing for MEL in 2016 reflected the rolling anxieties of a presidential election year. I suspect MEL will spend a lot of 2017 reacting to that election's aftermath, and I'm excited to see what the staff will come up with.

Other happy memories? I love my annual tradition of covering the Sci-Tech Awards, and going backstage during Oscar prep week was very entertaining. I wrote both of those pieces for Popular Mechanics, but my big feature for the magazine is my yearly salute to the best movie effects. Talking to Arrival production designer Patrice Vermette about our shared love of James Turrell was one of my most geeked-out conversations in 2016. (Seriously, Turrell's LACMA exhibition from a few years ago was amazing. Just ask me or Patrice, who took plenty of inspiration from it for Arrival, which ended up No. 19 on my year-end list.)

I continued to review television for The Wrap, which allowed me the opportunity to experience gems like the small-screen redo of The Girlfriend Experience, as well as Atlanta, Better Things and The Night Of.

As always, my hat's off to the great crew at Paste, who give me ample room to write about Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and True/False. I was very happy to write the site's essay on its Film Person of the Year, the magnificent Isabelle Huppert. (Elle ended up No. 13 on my list. Things to Come was No. 16.)

And then there's my old friend Will Leitch. This was our first full year at The New Republic, and it was a blast. The weekly podcast is a regular treat in my life, and I'm eternally grateful to my editor, Michelle Legro, for letting me write about The Killing of America, a movie I found arresting and deeply upsetting when I saw it at True/False. Will and I have cultivated a readership over the years, and I never take that for granted. And what fun it was to watch a movie with Will for the first time in forever, even if we totally disagreed about the movie. Eagle-eyed readers will know I'm referring to Rogue One, which, well, you can hear about that here.

I am not going to convince you that 2016 wasn't a terrible year. It was. For me, personally and globally, it was the worst since 2001. I feel very concerned that 2017 could be worse. But I refuse to assume that. I'm just more convinced that we have a responsibility to take care of one another -- because I'm not sure anybody else will.

The morning after the election, I wrote an email to my parents. Here's the part of it I feel like sharing:
Needless to say, I am heartbroken. I'm also angry and stunned and ashamed. I feel like I have tried to live a life in which I conduct myself as a good person -- the kind of person you raised. The man the country just elected represents everything that is counter to how I was raised and the values that I was given. I can't help but take last night's results incredibly personally -- it feels like an affront to everything that matters to me about basic human decency. 
I'm scared about what's ahead for America and the world. But I'm not going to give up on the idea of basic human decency still mattering. One of the reasons why I love Obama was because he was a role model for the values that mean so much to me. Those values are worth fighting for. Which is why I'm ending this wrap-up on the film that kept speaking to me most this year.

At True/False, which takes place in Columbia, Missouri, a last-minute premiere was announced of a documentary short made by a trio of University of Missouri students. It was Concerned Student 1950, named after the student protest movement that brought down the campus president in 2015. An attack on racism fueled by righteous anger, Concerned Student 1950 was an inspiring story in the newspaper, but to watch the fiery, triumphant documentary on the campus where the events occurred was another story entirely. It's the sort of disciplined, concentrated protest that many Americans would do well to study as we move into Trump's presidency. Next year may be worse than this year. But we have some say in the matter.