The 2016 Film Recap Extravaganza

Owen Steinberger, with Elaine Cullen, Hazel Byrne and David Monaghan, discuss the films released this past year and attempt to divine some sort of meaning from the madness.[br]NOTHING ever changes, some say. In media this is often the case—new ideas are merely old ones dredged up from the past, carted out with a new coat of paint. Below lies a festering pit of crusted, outdated ideals from out of which are born the same tired golems, shambling towards middling reviews and minor box office success. But sometimes, through some stroke of luck, the dial for artistic progress is pushed forward a millimeter or two.2016 saw film and television tug lightly at the boundaries of “what’s acceptable” in many encouraging ways. While race and gender issues remain damning flaws in both Hollywood and prime-time programming, the mainstream has embraced their expression like never before. And when the recycling of old material begins again, there is a new breed of self-awareness among today’s artists that sometimes elevates the resulting creation to new heights.
“While race and gender issues remain damning flaws in both Hollywood and prime-time programming, the mainstream has embraced their expression like never before.”
Blockbuster flicks have gotten worse than ever, while the “golden age” of new media remains a myth at best. Yet towering above the refuse are individual peaks of progress. The best of 2016 must be set against the worst to show us that yes, progress can and shall be made.Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight deserves first attention for its open defiance of Hollywood convention, as well as for the subtlety of its message. Black stories are often sidelined, deemed unpalatable for mass audiences or shelved in a distinct “urban” section separate from other genres. The same holds true for queer narratives, and especially queer love stories. Moonlight is daring in its unflinching embrace of both of these neglected perspectives.The film follows Chiron, a young gay black man, through slices of his early childhood, his formative teenage years, and his adult life, a coming-of-age narrative that has drawn comparisons to 2014’s Boyhood. However, unlike Linklater’s twelve-year passion project, Jenkins’ Moonlight is beautifully shot and edited with bold color and a taste for film technique.
“Jenkins’ Moonlight is beautifully shot and edited with bold color and a taste for film technique.”
The realities of black life in America are displayed with such intensity as to seem larger than life, and yet the film’s tenderness and intimacy is its strongest suit.Pushers and addicts are portrayed with sympathy to the harsh realities of their lifestyles and with recognition of the deadly risks they take to survive in their own neighborhoods. Moonlight is at its best as an implicit critique of institutional racism and homophobia in modernity, fearlessly bringing traditionally maligned intersectional roles into the light. As a love story it may lack some punch, but stylistically the film is a triumph, and a heartwarming one at that.Almost as if in response, Kenneth Logerman’s Manchester by the Sea submerges itself in cold waters, making for a frigid and unwelcoming film, and yet its characters are just as fragile, vulnerable, and human as those in Moonlight. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is summoned to his hometown after the death of his brother, only to find that Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his nephew, has been entrusted to his care. Lee’s deeply troubled past and continued strained relationship with his family make for a painful reunion.Flawless performances, editing, and a strong script mean Manchester deserves the universal critical acclaim it has received. Beneath its icy exterior, a dry wit and sense of humor keep the film from becoming another textbook melodrama. However, its overbearing score and generic “dying coastal New England town” setting make it feel like a film out of time, one whose narrative lacks universal appeal.
“Beneath its icy exterior, a dry wit and sense of humor keep the film from becoming another textbook melodrama.”
There are moments in Manchester that will hit any audience member with the emotional intensity of a fist to the gut. But there is also a sense that we have been here before, on this dreary coastline, perhaps one too many times. Even some of the best 2016 had to offer still failed to reach past the tried and true. Surprisingly, however, some of Hollywood’s largest studios embraced new models of inclusivity, albeit through the use of traditional formulas.It’s hard to connect with a film that doesn’t connect with you. Representation matters because everybody needs a voice, a place in society, somewhere to belong; as a mirror to society, cinema should be the place for it. This year, Moonlight notably aside, few films featured minority actors in leading roles, an issue of increasing prominence in popular discourse.One of our writers, Elaine Cullen, counted eighteen films she had watched this past year in which a heterosexual Caucasian male saved the day, whereas only three featured a black lead. Zootropolis, she found, helped to illuminate the vastness of these issues of representation in Hollywood, as well as in contemporary society.On the surface, Zootropolis stars a cartoon rabbit named Judy Hopps who follows her dreams of becoming a police officer in the big city, one populated with all sorts of species, predator and prey. Look closer and the film soon reveals itself to be directly concerned with discrimination in the modern urban sprawl. The film’s simplistic animated style allows its underlying metaphors to show through with ease.Surprisingly, the newest Star Wars prequel Rogue One made a strong stand for racial representation, launching as the most diverse blockbuster film to hit theatres. Felicity Jones stars as the young Rebel heroine Jyn Erso, while Donnie Yen of Hong Kong and Jian Wen of China both occupy major roles. Riz Ahmed, born to Pakistani parents in Britain, plays Bodhi Rook and Diego Luna plays Rebel Alliance Captain Cassian Andor, maintaining his Mexican accent for the role.
“Surprisingly, the newest Star Wars prequel Rogue One made a strong stand for racial representation.”
Perhaps more stories like Diego’s, whose performance has inspired audience members, proving that a hero in a blockbuster movie could speak with an accent free of whitewashing or modification, will lead to further positive change in Hollywood. Cinema has become synonymous with the “white male hero” over its storied history; soon, perhaps, this era will draw itself to an end.Such optimism may seem futile, however, when we stir the vicious current that is the superhero cinematic universe. While Marvel has managed to stay afloat and to milk its intellectual property for undue millions, DC is floundering, their profits slowly but surely sinking after scores of negative reviews for their latest offerings.2016 was the year of the ensemble superhero movie. Gone are the days where a single name could get an audience into cinema seats. Two films in particular, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, attempted to bolster their numbers for profit. They found little success.Batman v Superman’s problems stem mainly from the fact we have seen it all before. Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy, which ended only five years ago, stripped away DC’s flights of fancy for dark realism, which makes it hard for audiences to return to something less grounded. Instead of a cunning master criminal our heroes quickly join forces to fight… a giant monster and a beam of light from the sky.
“Suicide Squad may be the most disappointing superhero movie ever made.”
Dull and uninspired and more than a bit perplexing; this could describe either DC film released in 2016. Suicide Squad may even be the most disappointing superhero movie ever made. Despite pulling out all the stops with a loaded cast and plenty of memorable villains, the film manages to reduce these characters to mere shells of their former selves.David Ayers’ direction is so poor, the film’s editing so bizarre and lopsided, the action sequences so awkward in execution, that the film’s only highlight is its soundtrack, which is loaded with pop tunes that rarely suit their assigned scenes. Even star power from actors like Margot Robbie and Will Smith fail to save Suicide Squad from its own self-destructive tendencies.Adding insult to injury, the runaway superhero success of the year was Deadpool, an R-rated passion project spearheaded by Ryan Reynolds. Undermined by Marvel Studios before release, Reynolds opted to self-fund its production at a low budget. That such a film crushed DC’s litany of new releases with both audiences and critics, while being charming and witty at the same time, puts shame to the focus group writing methods such massive studios often employ.Hopefully Deadpool signals a shift towards superhero flicks where viewers are allowed to laugh and have fun again, and DC looks to be shifting in this direction. Despite rocking the boat, however, it seems like the superhero genre, bloated and rotting though it might be, is set to trundle along for another decade at least before its inevitable demise.
“Hopefully Deadpool signals a shift towards superhero flicks where viewers are allowed to laugh and have fun again.”
Speaking of death, the horror genre has a history with the subject, not only in its grim and grisly nature, but in the simple fact that popular horror has been at death’s door since its inception. It is rare enough to have one quality horror flick garner critical acclaim in a given year; in this sense 2016 exceeded expectations.10 Cloverfield Lane and The VVitch were both standouts—the former an unrestrained serpent of a film, twisting and turning until its very last moments, and the latter a stunning take on New England folk tradition, horror played straight and brutal. Both are well worth your time, but OTwo recommends Green Room highest of them all.Even for those of us who are not fervent viewers of horror cinema, Green Room seems particularly prescient: a punk rock group is accosted to perform to a group of neo-nazis, much to their disdain. They play a cover of The Dead Kennedys’ anti-fascist song ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ and things quickly go awry. The group finds itself battling skinheads wielding machetes, knives, and handguns. It’s a bloody awful mess.With a premise like that it would be easy to dismiss the film as another paint-by-the-numbers horror-thriller, but what helps it transcend the genre’s limitations lies in its clever script. Although there is gore (and plenty of it), the film’s twists and turns keep viewers engaged throughout.
“Although there is gore (and plenty of it), the film’s twists and turns keep viewers engaged throughout.”
The film stars Patrick Stewart as Darcy Banker, the leader of the fascist “true believers.” His performance is chilling: he retains the formal civility of his former roles, adding an apparent rationality and level-mindedness to an ideology that is inherently untrue and highly prejudiced. The late Anton Yelchin delivers, by comparison, an anxious, jittery performance, as his character is pushed to the brink and forced to enact great horror upon his Nazi captives.Green Room is gory, and it is this heightened ultra-violence that may have ultimately dissuaded mainstream audiences. Characters suffer violent cuts from a machete, dog bites, and bullet wounds, all to serve a point: their captors are not the innocuous threats they had initially expected them to be. And with the rise of fascist ideologies across Europe and America, such a message could not have come at a more poignant point in our world’s history.Together these films and others show 2016 for what it was—just another year cluttered with cash-grabs and utter nonsense. However there were some encouraging outliers, films that spoke truth to power and that pushed hard enough against the mainstream to bring fresh ideas to the surface once more. Perhaps, through a mess of disappointments and a few key victories, we may have learned something this year.