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What I Watched in 2016

For my second year-end post, I'd like to talk about movies. There are five movies that stuck with me this year, perhaps not the five best movies, but certainly good ones that meant something to me. From my limited perspective as a routine movie-goer the gap between blockbuster movies and "quality films" continues to grow each year. Are these even in the same genre anymore? While certainly the basic technology employed by movies and films is the same (except when it isn't) the point of films seems to be diverging. The point of a movie like Marvel's Captain America: Civil War is to serve as the vehicle for cathartic spectacle while the point of my favorite movie is something closer to communication - the passing on of knowledge to the audience. In principle, I enjoy both modes but I wish they would cross-pollinate a bit more. It is the rare movie, (The Lord of Rings Trilogy, Star Wars, and Interstellar come to mind) that seems to want to do both: to create a grand and awesome spectacle with the idea of telling human and nuanced stories for adults looking for such things.

Streaming Light by Morgan Crooks 2016
I guess what I'm saying is that while a number of films I saw this year entertained me (Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ghostbusters, etc.) It took until the last fourth before I saw movies that really felt consequential.

  1. Arrival: This was my movie of the year for no other reason than its story asked the most from its audience. The scope required to tell this story meant wrestling all of the various pressures of science fiction, epic film-making, political thrillers, and the rest but still found time for a truly compelling story with interesting characters. This is also a study on how small changes can have profound influence on the meaning of a story. Not to get into spoilers, but the film-makers elected to alter how the aliens' perception of time works in the movie. This is probably defensible in terms of making the movie work as a movie but lends a different note to the main character's story. To be clear, I don't think this is a bad change, it's just an interesting one. For the record, I'd suggest seeing the movie first and then comparing it to the excellent short story, "The Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang. The movie is structured with a big reveal at the end, where the story is more of a slow mediation on facts as presented. 
  2. Manchester by the Sea: I saw this last night and immediately had to change my best-of list. This is a terrific film. Full of sadness, incredible and poignant sadness, this movie is propelled by the conflicting and often counter-productive ways humans deal with the intolerable tragedies of life. It's a deep and very moving film, made all the better by the unflashy cinematography and unhurried, judgement-free witnessing of the characters' story. The story feels inevitable in its conclusions but also hard-won. I went into the film prepared to be depressed, and to be clear, this is a very sad movie, but I was not prepared for how funny and real it was. 
  3. Rogue One: This is a movie about and composed of conflicting pressures. I may be putting this as my third film simply because I haven't quite figured out what I feel about it even after a second viewing. That it ranks as one of the better Star Wars movies doesn't seem too much of a stretch to say. While far from flawless it does excel at doing one thing: provide everything a potential audience might ask for in a movie as well as one or two more things besides. I left the film exhilarated both times. To own the truth, you could easily convince me to watch it a third time for one basic reason: I felt like this movie added more to the stories of Star Wars than it took away. It respected my time and money. On the other hand, I do want to know more about what was going on behind the scenes with this movie. The differences between the trailers and the finished movie suggest that some considerable changes happened late in the film's production. Was this a shift away from a darker tone or was it a push towards one? There's nothing that feels out of tone with the rest of the movie (except perhaps for the not-quite-ready-for-primetime digital actors) so perhaps the reshoots simply exaggerated the movie already there. One final thought: as the first movie of the so-called "Star Wars Story Movies," I found myself interested in the question of fictional provenance. While this movie slides deftly in the beginning of the fourth movie, it does not feel tonally the same as the original trilogy. When discussing this with a friend, I tried this analogy: episodes Four through Six at times feel like the New Testament - using historical cues to provide context for an essentially mythological story. Rogue One is more like the work of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, discussing events propelled by religion and belief in a more or less historical fashion. 
  4. The Witch: Speaking of tone in movies, we have The Witch, a movie I probably respected more than enjoyed. The time period depicted here, the early colonial days of the Massachusetts Colony, is one I find fascinating. The menace and peril of the events of the story really crept under my skin when I watched it, the sense of awful things happening just outside of the camera's view. It's a horror movie to be sure, but its use of historically accurate dialogue and convincing sets separates it from other historical horror pieces this year (the enjoyable Conjuring 2 and Ouija come to mind). Essentially, the movie obeys its own rules, the rules set out at its outset. This is a movie set in Puritan times about people who, if not Puritans, understand the world in those terms. I'm not sure the movie quite fits together as planned but it's undeniably unsettling, especially in its final reel. 
  5. Zootopia: This movie stuck with me. I'm not sure I can write more about it other than as a work of fantasy, it creates a world I didn't feel quite done with at the conclusion of the movie. Contrasting this to "The Secret Life of Pets," which I enjoyed but didn't find myself thinking about later; I think this movie is helped by its theme of tolerance and prejudice. The film-makers also demonstrate the importance of taking seriously their own premise. I'm not sure how this world of predators and prey living together in a slightly futuristic city-scape happened, but I never felt like the film-makers were winking at their material or playing it for a cheap joke. For the story they were trying to tell it was important for there to be animals living together in uneasy collegiality.

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