2016, the year cinema showed its power
The best films of the year have also been the most diverse. From 'Moonlight' to 'Mustang,' 'Divines' to '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, direct, and be heard on the big screen. These films ranged in 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 solemn or humorless). Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Chi-Raq represented confident new strikes in black cinema. But none of this was reflected in awards season. Good films won gongs, from Amy to Carol, Mad Max to Spotlight. Yet so many were left out.
This year, Academy Award voters have no excuse. The best cinema of the year has also been the most diverse and 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 — who all play the same boy at different stages of his life. The supporting cast of Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monae punctuate stereotypes, give comfort, and 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, and powerfully demonstrates how 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. It's not that Beyoncé hadn't shown signs of a political awakening before the release of Lemonade; just that her previous eponymous visual album didn't quite point the way for her second to come out guns blazing. It's 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, import, and fact that 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 its films of the year. It was nominated for four Emmys.
The female gaze pulled into focus in 2016, too. The Oscars at least got it right with 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. A United Kingdom, another real life interracial love story, stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. The film was 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 political discourse on both sides of the pond.
Contemporary politics found upfront, angry expression in some of this year's best films. Ken Loach marked his fifth decade in filmmaking with one of his most incendiary works yet. I, Daniel Blake is 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 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 behind her impoverished life to join a merry, partying band of magazine subscription door-to-door sales kids — an opportunity that allowed 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 one of the year's biggest films, La, La Land, does — provide escape from it. 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, it's that we need to awaken to disruption more than ever. In art, it has found powerful voice from Beyoncé to Sasha Lane, Ken Loach to Moonlight — all films wrestling with the status quo. In 2016, cinema mattered; we will likely need more of it in 2017. Let's hope filmmakers take up the challenge.
Text Colin Crummy