As the buzzer sounds and marks halftime, and the films of 2016 go back to the locker rooms to catch their breath, we find ourselves looking at the scoreboard and realizing we’ve been watching a sluggish and underwhelming game.
It’s easy to shrug and say that the early months of any given year are usually more rife with pretenders, and not contenders. January, for instance, is usually a graveyard…February and March not much better. In recent years, though, both by design and by dumb luck the early months have ended up providing for some worthwhile offerings. Last year, spring brought us EX-MACHINA and CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA…the year before that ONLY LOVER LEFT ALIVE and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
Spring no longer forces the average movie-goer to feast on scraps…and for a while, this spring was looking to continue the trend.
Winter and late spring brought a few treats. SING STREET for anyone who wonders if a song can save their life, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME for anyone who wants to remember a life free of responsibility. Everyone outside America was taught an emotional level by way of THE LITTLE PRINCE; those inside America were reminded of the lengths a family will go to with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.
Talk amongst yourselves about the fact that one of the very best films of the year had its American theatrical release scuttled.
For a while, things were looking good. Then the calendar flipped over to May, and things seemed to come to a fast end.
The franchises arrived as April-turned-to-May, and took the wind out of our movie-going sails. Sure, they tend to do that by their very nature, but let’s not forget that in the past the franchises have given us volumes that have been mentioned as some of the year’s best (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD), and could breathe life into series long ago left for dead (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES). Very seldom do these blockbusters get cited when time comes to talk about the year’s top films, but if the studio can deliver something that entertains and doesn’t completely insult our intelligence, so much the better.
That’s where this year feels like it has fallen back a step. Much as I enjoyed CIVIL WAR, it doesn’t feel like it really reached any level higher than “Good Marvel”. Pixar, who have sometimes hit grand slams at this time of year were likewise short on muscle when they went about finding a familiar fish. INDEPENDENCE DAY lacked fireworks; Alice’s reflection through the looking glass sneered back at us.
None of it was able to elevate itself beyond “very good”, and it left us feeling…malnourished. There was nothing to eat for dinner except cheeseburgers, and they were all cold, greasy cheeseburgers made with low-grade meat. On the one had, it’s unfortunate that studios aren’t able to give their mass market product more weight. On the other hand, it makes one that much more thankful for the times in the past that they have.
May and June offered little counter-programming. Admittedly, I am yet to catch-up with SWISS ARMY MAN, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, and A BIGGER SPLASH, but they would all need to be four-star gems to seriously turn the tide.
So, with three months out of six giving us nothing of substance, 2016 can be considered a “down year”, right?
Not so fast…
When considering “2016 in Film”, we need to step outside the multiplex and consider what one of the biggest musicians on the planet did on TV. In April, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album arrived, and with it, a one hour film of the same name that premiered on HBO the night of the album’s release. At a glance, that might not seem like anything out of the ordinary. Bands and artists have accompanied albums with specials, and videos in the past (Bey herself a whole album’s worth of videos alongside her previous album).
What made “Lemonade” special was the way it built upon the story this artist was telling with her music. It took songs that told tales of betrayal, anger, introspection, and redemption, and used them to frame a short film that heightened it all. The film is innovative, stunning, both literal and abstract. It brings together some of the best new filmmakers on the scene who, though all working independently, still manage to produce something singular.
Talk amongst yourselves about the fact that the sharpest visual commentary on America in 2016 comes from this “visual album”.
It is as evocative and timely as anything we’ve seen on a big screen in 2016, and deserves to be in the conversation where the best films of the year are concerned.
And then, there’s O.J.
Believe me, if you’d told me twenty-two years ago that I would be thinking about a piece that told “The O.J. Simpson Story” as one of the best pieces of art in a given year, I’d have thought you were nuts. For anyone who wasn’t there at the time, no stone seemed left unturned where the saga of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial was concerned. Everything was discussed, everything was scrutinized, everything was scoffed-at and mocked. Even this year, there was a fictionalized version of the events that played to much acclaim on FX.
What could possibly be left to be said?
Lots, as it turns out.
O.J. : MADE IN AMERICA, that has had theatrical presentations in various festivals to go hand-in-hand with its TV presentation this past month, is one of the most audacious documentaries in recent memory. Clocking in at nearly eight hours long, it isn’t interested in strictly going over the trial again. It wants us to fully understand the man and the environment that made him who he is. It has the balls to say that in order to understand what happened twenty years ago, we need to go back thirty years before that. We need to discuss the time and the place, and maybe then can we begin to get a grip on how one man fits in to that time and place.
Talk amongst yourselves about not only how there was more to say about O.J., but about how much more there was to say.
‘Ballsy’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The big screen might have left us wanting, but the small screen is there to pick up the slack.
So what are we to make of 2016 as the players come back out on to the court to start the second half? Will our disappointments continue? Are we in the midst of a “down year” and not yet realizing it? Will the blockbusters that are yet to arrive turn the tide and show that studios can make a buck and give us something that will last?
My belief is that no matter what lays ahead, things aren’t going to be simple. Consensus isn’t going to rally around one film, and petty arguments will continue amongst film-goers, studios, and critics.
But then, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, the world stage in 2016 has already been so chaotic, and it’s nowhere close to being settled. Maybe this is the sort of year that film shouldn’t be distracting us…maybe this is the year that we need to pay attention to what’s going on outside the cinema walls.