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2016: The year was Rocky Balboa and humanity a slab of meat. Beloved celebrities died, more young African-Americans were unceremoniously killed by authorities, and a bitter election campaign between a woman who’s a bit too politically slick and a man who espoused bigotry as his ultimately winning platform has led to increasing violence and hate crimes against Muslims and people of color.
Many films of the year remarked on the horrors facing our country, as well as our checkered history. But other top-notch releases were blissful, funny, or entrancing. So take your pick: education or entertainment? You can’t go wrong with either.
OJ: Made in America
Running nearly eight hours and spending only a week in two theaters before airing on ESPN, this documentary embodies the increasing acceptance of multimodal film presentation. But director Ezra Edelman has shaped something extraordinary, offering not just a biography of O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills star and alleged murderer, but a deep dive into racial tension, police brutality (particularly at the hands of the LAPD), and the star power Simpson wielded to essentially become colorless in a country roiling in the era of Rodney King. It was that charm and privilege—and a bungled prosecution—that resulted in Simpson’s stunning acquittal of killing his wife, Nicole Brown and acquaintance Ron Goldman. Relive the Trial of the (Last) Century and contemplate the decades-long forces that led to it.
Director Kirsten Johnson is a documentary cinematographer, and here she’s assembled footage from previous projects to create a sort of visual memoir as well as a presented-without-comment reflection of people and governments from around the world. It’s nonlinear but mesmerizing nonetheless, evoking wonder, horror, fear, inspiration, and pockets of beauty amidst brutality. It’s universal instead of editorial, which makes it all the more satisfying.
Selma Director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix-released documentary opens with a shocking statistic, voiced by President Barack Obama: The U.S.A. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated. 13th’s expert editing traces the trail from the Emancipation Proclamation to the recent prison boom, arguing that the clause “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” in the 13th Amendment has essentially allowed a different kind of slavery to exist, with laws and systemic social thinking that have deemed African-Americans second-class and disposable. That there must be a Black Lives Matter movement in the 21st century is tragic and angering, but DuVernay presents one sequence that’s truly frightening: It’s footage of a black woman being pushed out of a rally for President-elect Donald Trump, spliced with archival footage of a black man being pushed along a street in the very same way.
A February surprise. Produced by asshats—according to the opening credits—Marvel’s R-rated standalone about its only pansexual superhero finally gave Ryan Reynolds a script worthy of his comedic talents, with filthy and self-deprecating humor that rarely lets up. (When the film announces that it stars “God’s perfect idiot,” it’s followed by Reynolds’ Sexiest Man Alive! cover on People magazine.) The safe-for-teens Avengers movies may be full of quips, but few are as entertaining as what comes out of the Merc with a mouth.
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s 2013 phoenix-like run for New York City mayor merely two years after his sexting scandal—a campaign quashed by his sudden return to political ruin—made for a car-crash of a documentary. His charisma and sound mayoral platform shine; equally impressive is the support of his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, from whom Weiner is now separated. You root for him, then cringe when his inner circle presses for details about his latest whoopsie—an aptly juvenile term regarding a man whose on-camera confession is this: “I did the things.”
La La Land
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s modern-day musical is at times so ethereal, dancing partners Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling float among the stairs. It’s all hope and love, not doubt and bitterness, for this actress and jazz pianist who, among many, are struggling in the City of Angels—there’s even jubilance on a jammed L.A. freeway. You may think you don’t like musicals, but give this one a try.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years
Ron Howard’s valentine to the biggest band of all time. Paul, John, George, and Ringo charm whether they’re playing (the music is irresistible) or just goofing around with press. The documentary uses fan and archival footage never before seen, making this a treat for even diehard fans.
Movies about family dysfunction and holidays are about as cliche as pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. But Krisha, writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ first feature, is an explosive, stomach-knotting debut that’s more Leaving Las Vegas than Four Christmases. Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a middle-aged black sheep who’s reuniting with her estranged—and large—family after 10 years. The result may be what you expect, but Shults’ lively dialogue and searing plot turns lend the calm moments some humor and the horrific moments a knife to the heart.
Director Kim A. Snyder spent three years in Newtown, Connecticut, the site of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. The result is wrenching as parents show photos and videos of their slain kids, recall stories and charming habits, and bond together to lend support for a trauma no one else can understand. No parent should have to bury a child, the saying goes, and Newtown shows us why.
Hell or High Water
Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges face off in present-day Texas as the latter (playing a Texas ranger with all the sarcastic gnarliness of his True Grit marshal) pursues Pine and Foster’s bank-robbing brothers. The film is full of small-town humor, such as a crusty old waitress, a bank whose video surveillance system was undergoing a remodel without a backup, and squabbles about whether the thieves were tweakers and what exactly those are. (“Tweakers don’t sleep. They just…tweak.”) With one brother who’s typically law-abiding (Pine) and the other who continuously tempts his probation (Foster), the theme of this story is that the end justifies the means. It’s not right, but Hell or High Water is more than OK.