2016 has come and gone. In the eyes of many, they are happy to turn the calendar and look to a new year as a fresh start after a year that saw a lot of discord and upheaval. The news of 2016 was dominated by the U.S. presidential elections and the election of Donald Trump. Trump’s election was a shock to many, as even a lot of his supporters did not even expect him to win given the public polling data that was available leading into election day. Donald Trump and the 2016 Election sharply divided this country. As the great Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips wrote, “America now exists in a state of disbelief, roughly one half of the country in a belligerent good mood, the other half in a cold sweat.” Regardless of which half you fall into, 2016 was a slog that wore people down, regardless of whether their guy won or not.
On top of that, a slew of famous cultural icons passed away in 2016. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds are just a few of the iconic names that departed this year. Obviously, it’s a little arbitrary to confine the impact of celebrity passings to a 12-month period, but these are the demarcations we choose for ourselves. And while celebrity deaths have occurred in the past and will occur in 2017 and beyond, the loss of these iconic figures felt like a kick to the collective stomach each time, an unnecessary additional indignity to add to the heap.
How does this all tie in to the year in films for 2016, and, more specifically, to my list of the Top 20 films of 2016? In some ways, it is an oversimplification to say that the films of a given year reflect in any way the current mood of Hollywood, the country, or even the world. If anything, the cultural commentary of films are slightly dated because the films or today were hatched as concepts and scripts over the past few years. Any cultural import and relevance to the news and events of the year they are released is often stumbled upon prescience. However, the events and news of the time can make an impact on what films resonate with audiences and what aspects appeal of a film appeal to an audience.
So as I looked over my Top 20, I looked to see if there was an overarching theme that connected them and if there was any relation in that theme to 2016. In a broad sense, I do find two major threads running through my list, and both are closely tied together. The first is identity, who a person is and what defines them, and then the second is how they fit into the world around them. Any election could be framed by the question “What kind of country do we have to be for the next 4 to 8 years; the public is presented with two paths forward to choose from. This choice felt especially stark in 2016; from “Make America Great Again”, to the push to keep out illegal immigrants, the reluctance to admit refugees from war-torn areas of the globe, potentially electing the first female president, and a handful of other issues.
I believe there is also a sense of an identity crisis going on in this country over the last few years too. Economic recovery has been slow, people have lost their jobs, some of which were shipped overseas while some were replace by computers and automation. The complexion of the country is rapidly changing too. A lot of the things that people use to define themselves have been in upheaval and 2016 gave some of them an opportunity to do something about it. The world around us is changing even more rapidly every year and a person’s place in that world is seemingly more in flux than ever before. That’s why a slogan like “Make America Great Again” can find an audience.
The theme of identity and making one’s way through the world is not a particularly new theme in films; in fact, it’s an aspect of many films. But for the films in my Top 20, it is a strong theme that stood out to me. Let’s break this down a bit.
In The Jungle Book, Mowgli a man-cub, is raised by wolves but has to leave them because his life is threatened by Shere Khan, who makes Mowgli an outsider in the jungle and family he has been adopted into. He has to embrace his human background over the course of the film in order to ultimately survive in a world that is suddenly hostile to his presence and kicked out of the place he has ever called home.
A few other films fall into a similar category of characters finding themselves in a hostile environment. In The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning’s Jesse enters the ruthless, competitive, dog eat dog world of the fashion industry which transforms her almost immediately. Midnight Special features a family being hotly pursued by cult members and government agents as they try to get their special son to a specific location by a specific time. While outside pressures threaten them, internal and external forces slowly undermine the family dynamic in The Witch, as that family unravels on the edge of a forest in 1600s Massachusetts. In Green Room, a punk band has to literally fight their way out of a green room at a gig at a white supremacists bar when one of the band members stumbles upon a murder, and the “outside” world is trying to kill the people locked in that room. In a year which saw the rise of the white supremacists trying to rebrand themselves as the “Alt-Right” this film displays their darkest aspects and while an unsettling film, it gives them their comeuppance.
In some cases, characters are openly hostile to the world in which they find themselves. Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen perhaps embodies this the most, as she tends to reject everyone around her because she believes everyone around her rejects her because she doesn’t have a lot of friends at school. She paints her brother and ex-best friend as villains and enemies, even though they are not. Hell or High Water features two brothers who are robbing banks to exact revenge upon them for the predatory lending practices they exacted on their ailing, recently deceased mother.
For another group of films on my list, the world is changing, and the film is what is born out of that change. Captain America: Civil War pits two groups of superheroes on opposing sides in the debate over how best to handle security; Captain America’s crew is reluctant to just hand over control of their actions, while Iron Man’s side sees it as a necessary evil of something that is going to happen whether they want it to or not, so better to be involved in the process rather than have decisions on your future be handed down. Moana focuses on a young girl who is destined to lead her people, with her father pulling her in one direction and her instincts on saving her people pull her beyond their shores. Disney’s other animated feature, Zootopia stresses how and why diversity is a good thing and important in the face of a heavily populated, diverse city being on edge as a few formerly carnivorous animals are de-evolving in what could be described as an act of domestic terror. When aliens arrive and their intentions are unclear, Arrival grapples with the question of whether human beings can come together and unite to work as one as a planet or if we are to be forever fractious and divided by our languages, our national interests, and our mutual distrust of one another. With Sing Street, we see music and creativity being born out of a home life that is breaking apart and a difficult school situation.
Weaved into many of these is the question of identity, perhaps no place more powerfully than in Moonlight. Chiron, as a child, teen, and adult is called by three different names, and his appearance and behavior is different in all three phases. Mahershala Ali’s Juan tells the “Little” Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” Paul Dano’s Hank in Swiss Army Man allows his obsession to define him for much of the film, until he is eventually defined by his friendship. So what if that friendship is with Manny, the farting corpse? Marvel’s Stephen Strange undergoes a transformation in Doctor Strange from a self-absorbed neurosurgeon who has that identity taken away from him in a horrific accident, and spends the film trying to get it back before embracing that he needs to redefine who he is, and in the process discovers self-sacrifice. Everybody Wants Some!! is about a period in life where the characters are trying on all kinds of identities to see what works for them on the cusp of the start of a year of college in 1980.
Some of these characters reject the identity that the people around them place upon them. Jesse in The Neon Demon is young and innocent, but she bristles at the notion that people think she helpless or can be taken advantage of. In Midnight Special, young Alton is viewed by some people are a messiah, by some as a threat to national security. Alton ultimate response is, “I’m not any of those things.” The pair of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys have little aspirations of being much more than they are expected to be, respectively, a sleazy/drunk detective and an unethical thug-for-hire, until they team up and actually stumble into good detective work as a team. In Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler might just be too broken to do what is asked of him as the guardian of his nephew.
My top two films of the year, La La Land and The Lobster, are no exceptions to these themes. La La Land is about the pursuit of dreams, a celebration of the creative ones who dare to reach for them. Musicals were once a large part of the cinematic landscape, and while a lot of Broadway adaptations have happened over the last handful of years, very little original films are made in the genre anymore. Musicals came into prominence in the 1930s, during The Great Depression, a difficult time period to say the least. It’s little wonder in a year that featured a lot of depressing news cycles stories and events that seemed to beat people down that a film like La La Land would find an audience that is looking for an upbeat escape from that. But even Mia and Sebastian in La La Land wonder if their dreams are able to be achieved and if they need to give them up for something more realistic and attainable, especially in a city like Los Angeles, where everyone is angling for a very similar goal.
Ultimately, what places The Lobster at the top of my list is that it is arguably the most 2016 film that was released in 2016. As much as I loved La La Land, I still prefer the satirical, absurdist observations of our current world to the desire to escape from it (this is a gross understatement of what both films are). One could easily see a marketing campaign for this film, or in the world of this film, saying “Make Marriage Great Again!” Obviously, director Yorgos Lanthimos is making some biting commentary on how pushy people and society can be about marriage and coupling. But the fun house mirror that he holds up to our world can extend beyond the subject of being in a relationship or being single. The way of this world calls for people to be married or be turned into an animal of their choosing, and the people in this near-dystopia accept this for the most part, unless they are willing to run away and live in hiding in the woods. And it’s not enough to just be paired with someone; they have to be paired with someone who shares a similar defining feature (being short-sighted, having a limp, getting frequent nosebleeds). They all allow themselves to be defined by one physical trait. Given how people just accept this societal condition placed upon them, The Lobster openly wonders if individuals can even determine some things for themselves when they are so deeply dependent upon the rules society puts upon them. Even if they break away and live in a hidden society of single people in the forest, they still conform to like sheep to the expectations of their society.
In a year that seemed completely absurd and bizarre, it seems fitting that The Lobster is my favorite film of the year. I think Colin Ferrell’s David is a perfect stand-in for much of us in light of 2016. We’re living in a pretty comfortable place, have plenty of activities to occupy our time, but we’re also faced with some extreme options as choices on what to do going forward. And if we leave and opt out, the choices out there aren’t much more appealing either. Meanwhile, our methods of communicating can seem very convoluted and we’ve got this persistent pain that isn’t going away anytime soon and that we can’t reach to apply the pain-relieving ointment. And all of it has left us a little emotionally muted, like every line of dialogue in The Lobster. But, like La La Land, maybe there is hope going forward in the form of a special someone to whom we can connect. Like the end of The Lobster, the future seems uncertain, maybe even a little bleak, but maybe we can find the courage to persevere or, even better, not blind ourselves to the world around us and find a better way forward for ourselves and those we love.