Last spring, with #OscarsSoWhite in the rearview mirror and Donald Trump’s victory on the as-yet-unglimpsed horizon, I reviewed Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room.
It struck me at the time as a smart, brutal, slightly contrived thriller about members of a rock band battling a gang of white-supremacist punks. In retrospect, though, it seems possible that this scrappy little indie was something more than a bit of nasty fun. Maybe it was an unheeded political signal amid the pop-cultural noise, a pre-emptive allegory of battles to come.
Relevance is one of the great shibboleths of criticism, and after a real-life event as dramatic and complex as this year’s election, the temptation to seek clues and answers in works of popular art is almost overwhelming.
But cinema is better at exploring than explaining, and the screen is more like a prism or a kaleidoscope than a mirror or a window. We seldom get the news from movies.
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 in search of an escape from reality.
We’re also looking for alternative routes to the truth, for sparks of imagination that can ignite our own thinking when it gets muddled. The 11 releases listed below were not only my most memorable movie-watching experiences of the year; they were also helpful.
They stirred my curiosity, troubled my sleep and increased the range of my understanding.
Much has been written about Barry Jenkins’s luminous second feature, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which depicts three phases in the life of a young man named Chiron. And much of that writing has drawn out the film’s complicated themes — of race, place, sexuality and manhood — and the exquisite artistry Jenkins and his cast bring to them.
2. O.J.: Made in America
History, biography, sports, celebrity, race, gender, police brutality and media insanity — Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary touches on nearly everything horrible and fascinating in the last half-century of American life. A triumph of archival research, it’s also a masterpiece of insight, a rare documentary with the heft and sprawl of great literature.
3. Toni Erdmann
Maren Ade’s squirmy comedy will change the way you think about a lot of things, including fatherhood, daughterhood, joke-shop false teeth, Bulgarian folklore, German humour, workplace sexism, team-building exercises, petit fours and 21st-century global capitalism.
Kirsten Johnson, a widely travelled cinematographer, makes her living shooting other people’s films, many of them dealing with war, injustice and sexual violence. She assembled this memoir from outtakes and home video, and the result is revelatory testimony to the simple, mysterious power of the camera to bridge the chasm between personal experience and public history.
Radu Jude’s Romanian western — a wide-screen, black-and-white epic set in the mountains of Walachia in the mid-19th century — was barely released in the United States, which is a shame for several reasons. For one thing, its rugged humour, high adventure and ethical seriousness pay tribute to an enduring and often misunderstood genre. For another, it takes up the moral and political problem of slavery with unsparing honesty and startling nuance.
6. American Honey
British director Andrea Arnold leads a raw and ragged adventure into the heartland, discovering it to be a strangely innocent zone of greed, lust, youthful idiocy and natural beauty. Sasha Lane, a fearless non-professional, is thrilling to watch, as is Shia LaBeouf. There is also a single shot — of Riley Keough standing in a motel doorway, wearing a Confederate-flag bikini with the price tag still attached — that might say more about the state of USA in 2016 than the words of a thousand pundits.
The United States was not the only country undergoing a wrenching political upheaval this year. In his generous and angry second feature, the film-critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho tracks the changes shaking Brazil as they play out indirectly in the daily life of Clara, a retired music critic played by the great Sônia Braga. A mother, a cancer survivor and an avatar of culture, sensuality and intellectual independence, Clara is an embattled and indomitable heroine for our times.
8. Sausage Party
This animated feature, with the voices of Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig, is a profoundly religious film that explores, with devastating rigour, a stark and scary existential predicament. What if you woke up one morning and found out that everything you had always believed in was a lie?
9. A Bigger Splash
Commissioned to remake a sun-dappled late-60s thriller, Luca Guadagnino composed a gorgeous shaggy-dog meditation on sex, rock ‘n’ roll and the enduring decadence of European art cinema. Tilda Swinton is silent, Ralph Fiennes never stops talking, and the gorgeous volcanic island of Pantelleria plays host to a divine and lethal vacation from hell.
10. Elle & Things to Come (tie)
Paul Verhoeven’s lurid thriller and Mia Hansen-Love’s meditative domestic drama are complementary portraits of Frenchwomen in middle age, both of them played by Isabelle Huppert. Each movie has its flaws of directorial perspective — reflexive sexism in Verhoeven’s case, generational condescension in Hansen-Love’s — but Huppert transcends all limitations. She’s at once the most ferociously intuitive and the most serenely intelligent actress working in movies today.