We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
Usually, the end of the year is a time for cozying, for reflection, for comfort. This year, as we look into an unknown future, the world seems increasingly unable to cool, either in temperature or in tone. We’re closing 2016, and the world is not at rest. It’s a delusion to believe that material instability is an aid to a healthy artistic community, but within cinema the atmosphere of anticipatory restlessness that has hung over this last Obama year has curiously produced a kind of artistic product as enlivening as the news has been toxic. Beyond the mostly abysmal studio releases, artists have been experimenting with the boundaries of what movies can look like, what stories they can tell, and what mediums they pass through on the way from set to screens. If we’re all tossing and turning with the anxiety of not being able to change the circumstances of our world, cinema in 2016 has been a wellspring of blissful disruption. In the year of cinematic restlessness, the conversation has been led by those filmmakers who are willing to disturb the norms and expectations of their art form if it means making something better out of it.
2016 was a year in which what may have been the most important films never played in a theater. Beyoncé released Lemonade to HBO and Tidal in April, but her hour-long special placed itself more in conversation with work produced by artists like Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash than it did with the conventions of prestige television. Lemonade disrupts the conventions of film authorship, directed as it was by seven separate directors, with spoken-word interludes by the poet Warsan Shire, and lyrics written by dozens more. Yet from the wreckage of film’s static traditions, Beyoncé emerges as a total author, the unshakable constant among a sea of variables, and her final product is an experiment in visual storytelling to stand alongside any of the films that are actually eligible for the Oscars she probably should be winning.
If Beyoncé packed massive returns into a small package, elsewhere cinema expanded to fit the stories that couldn’t shrink into the boundaries of a traditional two-hour feature. Though the eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America premiered at Sundance and played briefly in theaters, most of the millions who watched it did so on ESPN, where it was produced by ESPN Films as a part of their 30 for 30 series. As a documentary, O.J.: Made in America is a work of archival brilliance, bringing to life 50 years of American history while reconstructing an event that people thought they knew from all its angles — all the more impressive for the doc premiering months after The People v. O.J. Simpson blew the top off of the same trial. As it follows the opera of O.J. from slick starts into surreal ends, the film reveals itself to be graphic, complete, exhaustive, and exhausting — a disruption in sports doc style and delivery, a suggestion of the depths that can be reached in popular documentary filmmaking.
Even among the movies that didn’t totally reject the familiar conventions of moviegoing, there was a creative recklessness in the air, a will to discard what is logical but unnecessary. If television has risen in the last decade to become a primary force in the way our culture consumes stories, the film class of 2016 uncluttered the muck that can come from a devotion to narrative storytelling in favor of cinema that was poetic and perceptual. Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight exploded a single story into three distinct chapters, with different actors embodying the same characters; a triptych to match its tricolored poster, with each section a different shade of blue. Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo disrupted his own amiable walking-and-talking style with Right Now, Wrong Then — completely restarting his own film halfway into its slim 90-minute runtime to replay the same story with minute variations. Meanwhile, Kelly Reichardt approached trisection with her film Certain Women, connecting three short stories from Maile Meloy through little more than the beautiful and bleak fixative of the Montana landscape.
2016 saw the first the first feature-length Paul Verhoeven provocation in over a decade, and the release of a Martin Scorsese decades-in-the-making passion project, but it has also been the kind of year in which two of the best movies were produced by total newcomers, with Trey Edward Shults’s portrait of an auntie under the influence in Krisha and Anna Rose Holmer’s meditation on dance team hysteria with The Fits. 2016 began with filmmakers who entered the jungle and it ended with filmmakers exiting volcanoes. 2016 made heroes out of farting corpses and wiener dogs and military linguists, and Marvel pushed its superhero formula to an R rating with Deadpool, while the soft-lit and familiar Big Friendly Giant and reclusive Hollywood moguls failed to connect. 2016 was a year of reversals, a year to raise the dead. Some of the greatest artists in the history of cinema died, even as some of cinema’s greatest long-dead artists released new work.
Maybe more than anything, seen together, the film class of 2016 picked at the parts of our lives that leave us dissatisfied. Facing racism, homophobia, rape, anger, disappointment, and doubt felt like an inescapable side effect of staying alive in the world this year, but for once the movies didn’t run for the escape valve. Death hangs over Manchester by the Sea, aging awaits in Things to Come. Shame haunts Spa Night, trauma troubles Moonlight. Musicals are known to pile on the production numbers and the popping complementary colors, but this year’s La La Land records its starstruck dreams in a minor key. If we were denied rest at the movies this year, denied easy answers, if slipping into the dimmed awnings of a movie theater was sometimes like slipping from darkness into the abyss, what we were given at the movies was the kind of dissatisfaction that produces longing, the kind of dissatisfaction that drives the self into reflection, the kind of dissatisfaction that builds rather than destroys.
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.