The Year Social Commentary was Front and Center in the Movies
by Jason Koenigsberg
Overall judging from people’s reactions on social media, 2016 was a pretty lousy year. It felt like we lost a lot of beloved celebrities more than most recent years, we saw security breaches, exploding cell phones, the Zika virus, Brexit and the United States elected a Republican candidate president who was endorsed by the KKK, made lewd comments about women, and has never held elected office. Basically 2016 sucked. The motion pictures released during this calendar year were not much of an escape from the real world problems. The big blockbusters were uninspired, bland and all started to merge together into indistinguishable byproducts of studio excess. The comedies were not funny and the dramas did not elicit the emotional responses they intended. Even the usually reliable franchises like Star Wars newest entry felt flat and routine. 2016 was shaping up to be another fairly miserable year for motion pictures.
Then around the fall, something strange started to happen. All of a sudden there was a mini renaissance in cinemas. Arthouse movies started to resonate on a deeper level than just pretentiousness, horror movies started to not only be scary but also serve as a commentary about our society and fears as a nation, and the experience of going to the movie theater felt like a breath of fresh air, something that has not happened in quite some time. The big event movies were still not offering much to get excited about but all of the outliers were really very well crafted and artistic entertainments.
Even some smaller films that I saw back in the spring that I enjoyed started to resonate more with me to the point where I kept thinking about them and wanted to go back and revisit because I could not get certain moments out of my head. On the surface the big studio offerings this year left a lot to be desired. Beneath that, audiences had to search, luckily not too hard, for some very smart and rewarding movies. There were five areas in film that stood out from 2016 and delivered some truly special motion pictures.
The mainstream comedic films varied from passable (Ghostbusters) to unnecessary (Bad Santa 2), to just outright terrible (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot). However, comedy can be found in every genre of film and in 2016 some of the funniest movies of the year were not exactly what one would categorize as a comedy. Two of the best films of 2016 were the modern western Hell or High Water, and The Handmaiden, a solemn period piece about female repression in post World War II Korea, but those are also two of the films I laughed out loud in the theater the most during 2016. The humor was natural and never meant to steal the show like a punchline but instead made the films more realistic and ultimately more powerful. Despite all odds, Deadpool worked perfectly and was the funniest comic book film possibly ever, and definitely the best Ryan Reynolds starring vehicle of his career. Richard Linklater and Shane Black both delivered their unique comedic stylings with Everybody Wants Some and The Nice Guys respectively. Zootopia was a comedy for the whole family while also a smart satire on racism. Although not a straight comedy, Woody Allen gave his best movie in a few years with Cafe Society, which shared a lot thematically with current Oscar front runner La La Land. Edge of Seventeen touched on teenage angst and the pleasures and pains of going through high school in a very funny way and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is the first and probably only film that could possibly be categorized as a comedy about rape. All of these titles are smart character studies of different people facing different conflicts and none of these movies sacrificed the humor that occurs naturally in our lives to make their points.
There were three truly great horror films to come out this past year. Don’t Breathe, Green Room and The Witch all dealt with varying degrees of inflicting psychological and visceral terror on their audiences, but they are also smart social commentaries about the current economic and political climate of the United States in 2016. All three films involved their protagonists going through some sort of financial or moral difficulty where they needed to go to desperate measures to earn just enough money to survive, not strike it rich and become millionaires overnight. They dealt with themes of the economic recession, war, isolation and scapegoating, all of which are very relevant in the political landscape of 2016. They also managed to be successful at frightening their audience either intellectually or physically. If you have not seen Don’t Breathe, Green Room or The Witch do yourself a favor and seek these titles out. Rarely have three such intelligent and effective horror movies all been released in the same calendar year.
2016 was the year that the ‘teenage coming of age film’ did just that. Audiences were treated to some of the funniest, and most honest depictions of teenage life that we have seen in a very long time. From the late 90’s and early 2000’s movies geared at teenagers were all the rage as studios marketed movies to target that age demographic to buy tickets. It worked until it fizzled out. 2016 saw a resurgence in dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing up in a more low key and grass roots manner. These movies were not marketed directly at teens like Varsity Blues (1999), She’s All That (1999) or more recently the Twilight films were, but instead they told smart well acted stories that involved teenagers and their honest experiences growing up and coming of age. The most blatant example was probably Edge of Seventeen which featured a fantastic performance from Hailee Steinfeld as an awkward teen forced to deal with difficult and awkward situations while trying to navigate her way through high school. The other films dealt with teenage issues in more subtle yet brutal ways. The main character in Moonlight faces loneliness and being an outcast during his high school years as he struggled with his identity and sexuality in one of the most honest and groundbreaking character portraits in recent movie history. I am still surprised that Moonlight ever was made and am even more thankful I was able to experience it. American Honey shows the teenage experience through the lens of poverty and lack of parental guidance. It is brutally candid and never succumbs to shock value or cliche the way other indie films of its ilk have. Lastly, I doubt that many people who went to see the critical and awards bait film Manchester by the Sea were expecting one of the best performances and stories about a teenager struggling with loss, but at the heart of Manchester by the Sea, that is really what it is about. Lucas Hedges as a high school athlete who loses his father gives a standout performance in a film loaded with great acting across the board. Moonlight, Edge of Seventeen, Manchester by the Sea and American Honey all deal with growing up in their own unique and effective ways and are all some of the best films of 2016.
Comic Book Movies
This was hopefully the nadir of the superhero sub-genre. When audiences were not having their visual and auditory nerves assaulted and beaten down by truly wretched and mean spirited special effects extravaganzas, they were being treated to some rather ho-hum superhero films as the comic book genre is starting to hit it’s fatigue. Two years ago Marvel was at an all time high with Captain America: Winter Soldier, X:Men Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy. Since then it has been a slow decline in quality and innovation. The new Captain America was boring and even the main characters seemed to just be going through the motions because the script demanded it and they had huge checks to cash. The DC cinematic universe suffered even more with dreadful team ups like Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad. Our imaginations and our wallets were the biggest casualties of those atrocities. But way back in February of last year Marvel delivered the sole bright spot for anyone on screen in a costume with super powers when they released the vulgar and violently refreshing Deadpool. As mentioned above, this was not only the best superhero movie of 2016, but one of the funniest films of the year as well and the best acting we have ever seen from the usually turgid Ryan Reynolds. Plus, it even had subtle political context with a liberal message about how the main character had to turn to an alternative medical procedure that made him into the black sheep of superheroes since he could not afford to pay his medical bills and would have likely died. I hope that we can get more pleasant and politically incorrect surprises like Deadpool because otherwise these comic book movies are going to drag on and on and make audiences yawn.
The one theme that resonated in all of the best films of 2016 involved the economy and how the films incorporated the socioeconomic hardships of 2016 and reflected them in their art. The boy growing up in poverty in Moonlight, the bank robbers trying to just make ends meet in Hell or High Water, the maintenance man forced to deal with tragedy in Manchester by the Sea, the young burglars in Don’t Breathe, the girl forced to dig through garbage to feed herself and her younger sibling from American Honey all encapsulate how most Americans feel in 2016. The subtle social commentary of The Witch, Green Room, Fences, Edge of Seventeen and even the character arcs in Zootopia all reflect American values, norms and mores of 2016. I do not recall a recent year where audiences were blessed with this many diverse social commentaries about our current economical, social and political issues. Normally we might get one or two movies a year that serve as a time capsule of our values like Up in the Air (2009), Her (2013) or Chi-Raq (2015), this year we have a surplus of riches that are as entertaining as they are a social commentary of our times. In fact the only “great” movie from 2016 that has no real message about 2016 is La La Land which is a universal love story that could have been made anytime during the past fifty years. Most years audiences are given fluff like that to embrace and uphold as great masterworks and one or two films that represent the current economic and political situation. 2016 was the year economic hardships were front and center as the catalyst for some of the best movies of the year and we are all fortunate to reap the benefits of artistic films with messages for us that deal with our current state of affairs.