2016 was the year that… cinema showed its power
The best cinema of the year has also been the most diverse; from Moonlight, to Mustang and American Honey, it’s been a politically charged year on the silver screen.
2015 was a good year at the cinema but a bad one on the awards podium. Many films pushed the envelope of who can act and direct and be heard on the big screen from genres as varied as the period drama (Suffragette - a largely female fronted, directed and produced mainstream biopic) to the transgender comedy (Tangerine - renegade movie making and proof that LGBT drama needn't be po faced about it). None of this - or how Straight Outta Compton, Creed or Chi-Raq represented confident new strikes in black cinema - was reflected in awards season. Good cinema won gongs, from Amy to Carol, Mad Max to Spotlight. But so much was left out.
This year, Academy Award voters have no excuse. The best cinema of the year has also been the most diverse and its most politically charged. The year's best film, Moonlight, is an exquisite examination of life lived in the closet as a young, gay, black man in Miami. Director Barry Jenkins elicits three outstanding performances from its young leads - Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Saunders and Trevante Rhodes - all playing the same boy at different stages of his life. The supporting cast of Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae take it in turns to punctuate stereotypes, give comfort, provide laughs. The script is deft and elegant, no kitchen sink gay drama here, and the cinematography makes a dream of 80s Miami. Moonlight makes no bones about its context, how its themes of race, sexuality and gender intersect, but it does so with such eloquence that it feels light to the touch.
The most incendiary black cinema of the year came from an unlikely source. Not that Beyoncé hadn't shown signs of a political awakening before the release of Lemonade; just that her previous eponymously visual album didn't quite point the way for her second to come out all guns blazing, a piece of art shot for cinema screens. Whether Lemonade falls into the cracks between music video or pure cinema is the by the by; what matters is the 60-minute film's power and import and the way Beyoncé never wavers from the black, female gaze throughout. It is a tremendously, get-up-on-your-seat-and-start-hollering watch. It might not qualify for cinema awards but it has already won the hearts of cinephiles; Sight and Sound magazine included Lemonade in their films of the year.
The female gaze pulled into focus in 2016. The Oscars at least got it right in its nod for debut director Deniz Gamze Ergüven for her film Mustang, which examined the effects of arranged marriages on a family of five young girls living in rural Northern Turkey. At Cannes, Houda Benyamina stirred up the competition with her debut, Divines, a hugely entertaining and eye opening snapshot of immigrant lives lived on the periphery of the French capital. Houda - who has been blazing a trail in telling immigrant stories - did not neglect to put a human face on her politics, directing her younger sister Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena as the two young immigrants whose friendship survives adversity.
Historical adversity played out on cinema screens this year. In Loving, Ruth Negga and Joel Egerton play the interracial couple who face prejudice and intolerance in 1950s America. In A United Kingdom, another real life interracial love story was played out by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, this time directed by Amma Asante, who is proving herself a pioneering force in black, female, British cinema. Both films resonated with contemporary concerns as real life racism polluted our political discourse.
Contemporary politics found upfront, angry expression in some of the films of the year. Ken Loach marked his fifth decade in filmmaking with one of his most incendiary yet. I, Daniel Blake was an angry, impassioned stand against welfare cuts and a cry into the abyss for those trapped in the system. Cinemagoers responded, quickly turning the film into one of Loach's best ever performing at the British box office. Across the pond, British director Andrea Arnold, captured a snapshot of life lived below the poverty line in the forgotten states of America. American Honey, which premiered at Cannes, followed the teenage Star [played by Sasha Lane] who leaves her impoverished life behind to join a merry, partying band of magazine subscription door-to-door sales crew; an opportunity that allows the director to range about the southern states filming glimpses of the American dream gone awry. As a primer to what happened next in American politics IRL, it proved prophetic.
Cinema doesn't have to always reflect the present moment. It can, as next year's first big film proves, provide escape from it. La, La Land, Damien Chazelle's musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a necessary balm to all of 2016's bad news and a breather from too much reality. But if real life in 2016 has taught us anything is that we need to more awake to disruption than ever. In art, that has found powerful voice from Beyoncé to Sasha Lane, Ken Loach to Moonlight, all films wrestling with the status quo. In 2016, cinema mattered and it was all the better for it. We will likely need more of it in 2017. Let's hope filmmakers take up the challenge.
Text Colin Crummy