Our end-of-last-year series rolls on with a look at the sights and sounds of 2016. In this case, we actually did watch/hear things that came out in 2016. Our recommendations for reading material from the last year can be found here.
ASC: Moonlight, obviously–to my mind the undisputed champ of 2016 cinema. And Arrival, the best portrayal of human-alien contact I’ve seen, and a plea for sanity in an increasingly insane world.
Then there was Anna Rose Holmer’s criminally overlooked The Fits, a tense study of gender and sexual awakening, urban poverty and environmental racism that only now seems to be getting the attention it deserves: a compact gem of a film. Finally, Whit Stillman’s breezily delightful Love and Friendship offered a welcome escape in a bleak year.
La La Land was probably the year’s biggest disappointment, especially after director Damien Chazelle’s glorious debut, Whiplash. “All dressed up with nowhere to go,” as the great film critic Tyler Singh put it–a meandering mash note to classic old Hollywood, whose best scene was probably the soaring opening dance number that had nothing to do with the film’s actual story. The likely Oscar contender lacked narrative propulsion or dramatic weight but was still a bit endearing thanks to its own unbridled enthusiasm. Just like Billy Mumphries.
Jael: Los Caifanes (1967) by Mexico’s Juan Ibanez. “Caifanes” was a word used in the 60s, primarily in Mexico City, to refer to petty, low-life criminals who were mostly poor, working-class youngsters who developed a form of speaking, Calo, to hide their misdeeds from others and the police. The film takes place in Mexico City and touts a phenomenal cast- from Oscar Chavez, the Mexican protest singer’s first film appearance, Julissa, the 60s “it” girl who inspired my mom’s use of bold, black eyeliner, to Enrique Alvarez Felix (Maria Felix’s son) and a cameo by Carlos Monsivais, one of the best urban chroniclers of Mexico City. The script was written by Carlos Fuentes and the movie exposes the racialized and classed contradictions of Mexican society using popular language riddles often mocked by the Mexican elite for their “vulgar” and “inappropriate” content. It’s rare to see a non-caricaturized representation of the Mexican working-poor. The film positions the gang of caifanes in their ingenuity, know-how, and mischief in a brief and tenuous position of equality with the clueless rich kids from D.F. they end up spending a night out on the town with. Another reason I love this film is that a Chicano character is part of the main crew of caifanes as his zoot-suit inspired wardrobe denotes. Very rare and very cool for a film of its time. I grew up listening to the Mexican band Caifanes with my parents having a laugh that a band dared take the namesake of the gangs of their youth. They’d always take the opportunity to tell me what a caifan was and they’d also cite the film. Lastly, Oscar Chavez’s rendition of “Fuera del Mundo,” out of this world, is a beautiful song of a long-gone era.
Dan Lam, filmmaker in New York City: I didn’t watch 20th Century Women in 2016, when it was released last December. It’s been eight hours since I’ve left the movie theater and I still can’t stop thinking about this film. I have since watched interviews of the director and cast, before starting to write this.
I’m a huge fan of director Mike Mills, from his first feature Thumbsucker to his previous film Beginners (which I considered to be the best film of 2010). Going into 20th Century Women I knew it was going to be an unofficial extension or companion piece to Beginners. Yet I was still surprised by how enlightening and how engaging this film was, the story and it’s characters felt so familiar but they still surprised me.
The film is about Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) discovering what it is to be a teenager in 1979 California, growing up around strong personalities such as his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and roommate Abbie (Greta Gerwig.) Essentially the film is about the influences of women in Jamie’s life and how that transforms him. The film is also about Dorothea wanting Jamie to discover adulthood and her fear of losing him to it.
On a personal level, the story spoke to me very well. Like Mills, I was raised mostly by women and I’m friends with many strong and intelligent women. Annette Bening’s portrayal of Dorothea shows great strength, yet also with her own set of insecurities that makes her a real human being. It made me want to jump onto the screen and hug her whenever she’s sad. Same goes to the other two supporting female cast.
This is a wonderfully directed film. Everything from juggling a cast such as Annette Bening, Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig to discovering Lucas Jade Zumman, to the vibrant and romantic photography of California, to the choice selection of music that color the characters into flesh and blood (I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this.) Mills is a unique voice that I hope to see him turn out many films.
I have to mention that there has been two other great coming of age films released in 2016. Hunt for the Wilder People and Morris from America. I highly recommend check thing those film out as well.
Troy: Craig Atkinson, Do Not Resist (Roco, 2016).
Lauren: I have small children so, admittedly, my movie-going is rather limited, but I thought both the new Jungle Book and Moana were excellent. Both really well-done films with lots of humor and great voice-overs. Moana especially won me over with its strong female lead, NO stupid love story to distract from the story of her growth as a person, and a great soundtrack (also penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda!).
Nick: Weiner. I saw this in the summer, before the Anthony Weiner shitshow reached its disastrous denouement, but after watching it, it was no surprise that Weiner’s self-immolating tendencies eventually consumed his entire political world and potentially altered the presidential race. The very fact that the film got made is a testament to the two things it reveals in incredible detail: 1) Anthony Weiner is, at one level, a heckuva politician, and 2) he doesn’t just have a screw loose, he’s straight-up missing some essential piece of psycho-social machinery. Weiner the engaging, effective political communicator and media manipulator decided to let a couple of documentarians have intimate access to his 2013 comeback-kid bid for the NYC mayoralty. Weiner the narcissistic lunatic let them KEEP making their movie even as his campaign went down in flames. The resulting film is at times hysterical, riveting, and maddening, and while the particularities of Weiner’s situation are unique in their embarrassing details, I came away from it with a sense that the American political establishment rewards and promotes a whole lot of people with similar tendencies.
Joel: Moonlight by far. I hadn’t read the synopsis prior to seeing it, so I had no idea what to expect….and even a few minutes into the movie I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going, but it turned out to be a really exceptional movie with outstanding acting.
Rob: I saw precisely two movies produced in 2016: The Birth of a Nation and Rogue One. Nate Parker’s biopic about Nat Turner was filled with promise and disappointments. In the end, it was more Braveheart than Roots. Rogue One’s climax takes place in the Imperial Archives. The ARCHIVES, people! Thank you George Lucas for staying away from this film, which was maybe the best (The Empire Strikes Back?) in the franchise.
Cherie: (for both album and film) Beyoncé’s Lemonade. This is the best album and movie of my lifetime. It is love in all its complexity. It is the tenacity of human will. It is the suffering and strength of black women and all black people and all women, and, truly, of humanity. She is the musical genius of our times.
Stars in her eyes
She fights for the power, keeping time
She grinds day and night
She grinds from Monday to Friday
Works from Friday to Sunday
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves
Will Greer, graduate student in History at Georgia State: If you like dystopian fiction, but don’t like young adult novels, The Lobster is the movie for you. As with YA dystopias, finding love in The Lobster is an imperative, but the similarity ends there. The plot of the movie seems fairly straightforward: if the inhabitants of an unnamed city cannot keep a romantic partner, they are sent to a resort where they must find someone in forty-five days or be turned into the animal of their choice. Yet this film lets the complex implications of its premise really breathe, pushing the plot in unpredictable directions.
It is a cliché to call a movie “unexpected,” but what else can you say about a movie starring Colin Farrell that disdains the very notion of a clichéd love story? From its opening scene onward, The Lobster jabs viewers with grim humor and pointed questions about the arbitrary standards that make us so desperate to connect with other people. It is the only movie I saw this year whose ending truly surprised me. You will never see Farrell— or, for that matter, a llama or a peacock—the same way.
Best Song or Album
Troy: Fasenuova, Aullidos Metalicos (Discos Humeantes, 2016)
Nick: A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. We’ve lost so many musical titans in 2016 that Phife Dog’s passing in March already feels a lifetime ago, but when it happened, I spent nearly a month listening to all the old ATCQ tracks I downloaded from Kazaa back in college (some with comically misspelled titles, in the grand tradition of early-2000s musical piracy). They’re so, SO good. It might be impossible to overstate their influence; “Scenario” alone is referenced in a dizzying array of songs, including what feels like one out of every four Jurassic 5 songs and the Barenaked Ladies’ single-jingle “One Week.” So when We got it from Here dropped in November, and there was NEW stuff to listen to, well, it didn’t exactly make November 2016 good, but it provided some healing balm, that’s for sure.
Jael: “Agricultura Livre” by Emilio Jose. There are three CDs and my favorites from CD1 are track 11 “Sepe Tiaraju” because of the line, “ETA no mato tanta gente como Espana” which translates to “ETA hasn’t killed as many people as Spain has/did.” I am a sucker for historical references in music and this song references massacres perpetrated by Spain in the Philippines in the 16th century. I appreciate that someone from the northwest province of Galicia, the birthplace of Francisco Franco, composed a biting song about Spanish Empire while singing in Gallego. While I don’t speak Gallego, I am able to understand enough to know that it is not easy to make a pop song about colonial violence that people actually want to listen to repeatedly. My second favorite is track 14 “ال قاضي.” I don’t know what the title means because it is in Arabic but the chorus mocks mayors and recognizes that they can never achieve happiness doing the kind of things they’re known for. Emilio Jose also talks about mayors’ tendency to rule with a “cacique flavor” and the song just sticks to you, so go and give it a listen.
Joel: I don’t know why, but I really loved Beirut’s “No, No, No.” I also listened to Laura Marling’s “Ghosts” over and over.
Will: “Rise” by Public Image, Ltd. Okay, so this song was released in 1986. Still, nothing closes out 2016 more appropriately than John Lydon (a.k.a. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten) yelling “Anger is an energy!” The fact that Lydon wrote the song to process his own disgust with South African apartheid offers some historical perspective, but makes it no less appropriate to the circumstances. Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, and a white supremacist is his chief strategist. The Republican Party has spent the past eight years treating our governing institutions as if they were a Vietnamese hamlet that American soldiers had to immolate to save from communism. If those aren’t sufficient reasons to make the thirty-year-old “Rise” the song of 2016, ask yourself: What will the GOP do now that Trump leads the party and the country?Also worth mentioning is that Steve Vai played guitar on this song around the same time he helped David Lee Roth record Eat ‘Em and Smile. Go figure.
You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zN-GGeNPQEg
Lauren: Hamilton. I think the cast recording was released in 2015, but I unfortunately came late to the Lin-Manuel Miranda party! It’s been on non-stop repeat on my iTunes. I even used the songs in my teaching this past semester.
ASC: Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Not as exuberant or fun as his extraordinary debut mixtape Acid Rap, but soulful and timely. We don’t do the same drugs no more, indeed.
Romeo Guzman, assistant professor of History at Fresno State University: Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Until the Hunter. But David Bowie dropped an album too… in dramatic fashion. Can’t think of a better way to go out…
Benjamin Coates, assistant professor of History, Wake Forest University: The Hamilton Mixtape. In a purely musical sense, The Hamilton Mixtape was not the best album of 2016. But it was perfectly targeted (even more so than the original musical) at people like me: that is, 30-somethings who read US history and listen to ‘90s hip hop.
Hamilton the musical became an unlikely crossover hit and cultural phenomenon by reworking Founders’ chic for the hip hop generation. The mixtape reverse engineers the process. Lin-Manuel Miranda convinced his own musical heroes—the artists who inspired his songs in the musical—to perform new versions of those songs. As with most collective album projects there are misses as well as hits here. But often the remixes here are better than the originals, in particular Black Thought and Busta Rhymes on “My Shot” and Nas on “Wrote My Way Out.” Listening to the mixtape also adds new depth to the original score by revealing Miranda’s musical inspirations. Miranda must have had in mind Ashanti and Ja Rule performing “Helpless” on the mixtape when he wrote the original for himself and Phillipa Soo.
As a work of history, Hamilton the musical has its problems. It exaggerates Hamilton’s anti-slavery convictions and downplays the exploitative aspects of his capitalist vision (manufacturing, Hamilton wrote in his Report on Manufactures, had the benefit of employing “persons who would otherwise be idle,” in particular “children, and many of them of a tender age.”) Still, featuring a Puerto Rican Hamilton and an African-American Jefferson does give the show some progressive street cred, and as the cast’s recent appeal to VP-elect Mike Pence made clear, the play’s message firmly supports an inclusive, multicultural vision of America. The mixtape furthers this sentiment, especially “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” which takes an applause line from the musical’s “Yorktown” and turns it into a spare, bass-heavy and angry yet resolved anthem for the men and women who made America great in the first place.
Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo /
But there ain’t a paper trail when you living in the shadows /
We’re America’s ghost writers, the credit’s only borrowed /
It’s a matter of time before the checks all come
Immigrants, we get the job done.
Whether or not the real Hamilton would have agreed, his remixed sentiments are well timed for the end of 2016.
ToM BEST OF 2016: Books | Film and Music | TV, Blogs, and Memes