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The Current Debate: The Best Movies of 2016

Contemplating this year’s “best of” lists.
Reading through the end-of-the-year “Best Movies” lists that seem to come earlier every year, it’s been hard to miss noticing that film—long understood as a popular art form—hasn’t had much in common with the mainstream this year. The best and the most viewed mostly don’t make the same lists these days. Kent Jones, in the latest issue of Film Comment (a companion discussion to the print-only article is available on the FC podcast), argues that this change marks the “marginalization of cinema,” like poetry and dance before it:
Throughout most of its first century, impurity made the cinema exciting, and gave it its edge. The fact that the art form has been predominantly understood and experienced as a popular one from its inception has given filmmakers and critics a dynamic and productive way of defining themselves. The exciting close-knit tension between box office and artistic considerations that animated the workshops of Val Lewton and Roger Corman, that powered the grandly scaled ambitions of Lean and Coppola, that drove Ford and Hawks and Truffaut and Ozu to greatness and gave rise to the great counter-examples of Welles, Cassavetes, Bresson, Godard, and Tarkovsky, no longer exists. We have now arrived at a stage where “popular” and “art” have been effectively disconnected.
This disconnect is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the industry’s financials, as Manohla Dargis observes in the introduction to her best movies list at The New York Times:
The divide between what most Americans see and what critics reward is not new or surprising. Yet it seems worth repeating that this gulf remains as vast and seemingly unbridgeable as the one that characterized the electorate. This is less about taste (or so-called elites versus Jill Popcorn) than the bottom line of today’s conglomerate cinema. As of early December, the six major studios have an 83.4 percent market share of the domestic box office. Disney alone enjoys a staggering 24.2 percent, a number that will increase with the release of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” It’s Disney’s world, after all.
To someone who wishes films like Manchester by the Sea or Aquarius got much more attention, this can look like a bleak state of affairs—“the death of movies,” as has often been quipped on Twitter. But it’s obvious, too, that those films are still being made; they still exist, if only on the margins of the Disney-industrial complex. Matt Singer, presenting his list at ScreenCrush, thinks that’s enough of a reason to hold out hope:
Winnowing down the contenders to a personal list of 2016’s best, I arrived at a nice mix of genres, tones, and budgets. I’ve got some big new releases and some tiny ones, and genres like horror, comedy, thriller, and musical are all represented — along with a couple truly original films that defy obvious categories. Some of these movies might help you escape from hard times; some reflect hard times with piercing honesty. All of them are worth seeing.
If you think movies have hit a new low, my advice would be to spend less time at the multiplex and more time at the arthouse. There are interesting things playing there almost every week of the year. I was almost tempted to ditch the standard “The Best Movies of the Year” headline for this top 10 list to simply call it “The Top 10 Reasons Movies Aren’t Dead Yet.”
Approaching the same idea from a slightly different angle, Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, cautions against reading the apparent decline in the quality of Hollywood movies as the loss of a benevolent cultural force. “The fact of good movies being available widely doesn’t help the world at large, and it’s an enduring critical delusion (as well as a mode of demagogy) to assume and assert that it does.”
That’s one reason that the usual run of overtly political movies, in which the liberal consensus finds itself reflected back upon itself with confident self-satisfaction, strikes me as both an aesthetic regression and a political frivolity. The dream of restoring Hollywood filmmaking to what it once was, of Making Hollywood Great Again, is noxious nostalgia that omits the unbearable circumstances in the world at large that went hand in hand with the best of classic Hollywood, the prejudices and the exclusions on which its films depended. It’s also why fretting over the decline in the artistry of wide releases is irrelevant at best, destructive at worst. (The best movies being made now, such as “Moonlight,” could never have been made in classic Hollywood—not even close.) In 2014, Ava DuVernay made “Selma,” an excellent movie about the struggle in the nineteen-sixties for voting rights, which (outrageously) hasn’t at all stopped officials from passing new laws specifically designed to suppress the vote of black citizens.
Brody’s argument strikes me as less about movies than about how we appreciate them: not denying the importance of politics, history, or representation, but recognizing the limitations of seeking to view them on only those terms. Launching another best-of list, at The Ringer, K. Austin Collins writes wistfully that one of his favorites, Elvis & Nixon, was “given a chance to simply exist.” He goes on:
That wasn’t the case for Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a movie that, because it’s a black, gay coming-of-age story, was being talked up after its festival debuts for the timeliness and relevance of its subject — less so for the sophistication of its vision. What’s with the tendency to measure serious black films in terms of their educational value? This will go down, movie-wise, as the year of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie whose lightning-fast rise at Sundance exposed, among many (many) other things, the farce of how a primarily white culture industry conceives of black art. I saw Moonlight twice before its release and thought to myself, each time, that I wanted the movie to be given a chance to be. Before the Oscar prognosticators, before the headlines declaring it the movie you MUST see, before the reviews asserting its importance (to whom?) and relevance (to whom?) — before, in other words, we’d all conspired to make the movie sound like eating your vegetables, or upping your woke credibility — I wanted it to exist as a movie. An experience. Not a duty, but a gift.
“Not a duty, but a gift” may be as good a way as any to describe the pleasure of moviegoing, the joy of which is not collecting and knowing, but discovering the seeing. Of this notion of relevance, which he calls “one of the great shibboleths of criticism,” A. O. Scott, alongside his own best-of list at the Times, notes simply that, “We seldom get news from the movies.”
Which is not to deny that they are useful tools for reckoning with reality. In a time of confusion, the best films can offer clarity, comfort and a salutary reminder of complexities that lie beyond the bluster and expedience of political discourse and conventional journalism. We go to the movies — and we still go quite a lot, by the way, in spite of the seductions of the couch and the streaming queue — in search of escape from reality. We’re also looking for alternative routes to the truth, for sparks of imagination that can ignite or illuminate our own thinking when it gets muddled or stale.
We go, in other words, without knowing what we’re going to find. As I look ahead at the coming weeks of Star Wars hype and endless awards jockeying, I’m reminded by all these “Best Movies of 2016” lists that this year was nonetheless a pretty good one at the movies: one that brought (and might still bring) a few surprises, and even one or two unforgettable filmgoing experiences. “Popular” and “art” may have lost their connection when it comes to movies, but, for me at least, film and viewer remain as linked and necessary as ever.
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The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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