2016: My Year in Pop Culture Discoveries

Real life in 2016 was an ordeal, to say the least. Every day seemed to bring news of another mass tragedy or terrorist attack. Civil war continued to rage in Syria, killing thousands of people and forcing millions of others to seek sanctuary elsewhere. A reality TV host got elected to the White House by exploiting long-dormant racism and xenophobia. Beloved entertainers, from actors and athletes to iconic musicians, died at an alarming rate.

You’d think that times like these would sap entertainment of its potency, exposing it as nothing but a trifling, fleeting anesthetic. On the contrary, however, good movies, TV shows, books, and other works of art feel more crucial now than ever. They transport us across time and space, expanding our little circles of existence. They invite us to look at the world and its inhabitants in different ways, to explore the unknown. They remind us of humanity’s capacity for dreaming. A species that creates such beautiful things can’t be truly irredeemable, can it?

I was lucky enough to experience an abundance of moving, thought-provoking, and just plain engaging pop culture this year. This is some of the stuff that I loved:

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Arrival Tells a Glorious, Alienating Story of Life

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Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner face the unknown in Denis Villenueve’s Arrival. (credit: Paramount Pictures)

Denis Villenueve has a history of turning genre pulp into cinematic gold. After winning acclaim and awards in Canada for harrowing, topical dramas, the director broke into Hollywood in 2013 with Prisoners, a harrowing thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal that follows two fathers looking for their kidnapped daughters. On paper, it’s pure macho melodrama, disguising sentimentality with violence, but Villenueve lends it a beguilingly meditative quality, forcing the audience to soak in the heightened emotion even as the characters fight to repress it. Similarly, he infuses Sicario, an ostensibly straightforward drug-war Western, with primal dread. Enemy is barely coherent, but it looks good.

This continues with Arrival. In terms of its tone and narrative, the science-fiction flick marks a radical departure from Villenueve’s previous work, but it displays the same confidence, the same panache.

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Hell or High Water Finds Poetry in Pulp

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Chris Pine and Ben Foster shine in David Mackenzie’s neo-Western. (credit: CBS Films)

For a supposedly dying genre, the Western has shown a lot of life in the past decade. Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat transplanted the action to the Outback in his uber-violent The Proposition. In 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik fused history with myth, and in last year’s Slow West, newcomer John Maclean steeped painterly landscapes in Wes Anderson-esque, fairy-tale whimsy. 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit successfully remade classics, while Kelly Reichardt gave the genre a much-needed feminist spin with Meek’s Cutoff. It’s infiltrated television as well, from Deadwood and Justified to Preacher and Fargo season two.

Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie’s follow-up to his harrowing prison drama Starred Up, is perhaps the first one that feels completely grounded in the present day, neither a period piece nor a throwback. It takes place in West Texas, during an unspecified year after the 2008 economic recession. The derelict railroads and lawless saloons that populate most Westerns have been replaced by open highways and gaudy casinos. Whatever promise the frontier once held – of prosperity, of freedom, of redemption – has long since been vanquished by civilization, with its mundane rules and rigid institutions.

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The Golden Compass and the Failure of Fantasy Cinema

Although I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first read The Golden Compass (sometime in late elementary school, probably), I can pinpoint the exact sentence that ignited my interest. It appears early on – the second page, in fact – when the heroine, Lyra Belacqua, sneaks into the Retiring Room of her home, Jordan College:

It was a large room, with an oval table of polished rosewood on which stood various decanters and glasses, and a silver smoking stand with a rack of pipes.

I assume you’re thinking some variation of “why?” or “really?” For sure, in an epic fantasy tale that explores the nature of evil and free will, this sentence seems unremarkable. Who cares about furniture when you have talking, armor-clad bears? Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity, the wording has an almost poetic quality to it – the soft alliteration of “silver smoking stand”, the way “glass” sounds as clear as the object to which it refers. It perfectly evokes the elegant austerity of academia. And like the best literary descriptions, it conveys not only the look of the room but also the texture. You believe that you could slip inside this place and wander around, touch the furnishings like a kid in an antique shop.

That meticulous world-building formed the foundation of my love for the initial volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, more than the rip-roaring plot or even the notion of dæmons. (To be honest, I didn’t get past a chapter of either sequel because they felt too detached from the original.) It’s also what drew me to fantasy in general. Realism has its own rewards, but nothing quite compares to the thrill of venturing into a completely unknown world. Fantasy is pure fiction, concocting narratives out of figments, myths, and dreams. Ordinary things – a glass, a photograph, electricity – seem lit with an otherworldly aura.

So, maybe the movie was bound to disappoint. By rendering a fantasy onscreen, you necessarily make it concrete and thus dilute the magic; it becomes, on some level, real. I saw Chris Weisz’s The Golden Compass when it came into theaters in 2007, which is slightly embarrassing to admit since I was starting high school then and like to think I had developed sounder judgment and more discerning taste by that age. At least I managed to curb my excitement, having already been disillusioned by Eragon, an adaptation so dire that I retroactively disowned the book. I wound up being underwhelmed but not outraged, quickly abandoning the movie to the attic of memory.

It moldered there until January this year, when I revisited His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult. To my pleasant surprise, the series not only holds up, its sense of adventure and romance as beguiling as ever, but it’s improved. Having now finished all three installments, I can properly admire the thematic complexity and emotional depth, the way it balances incisive religious commentary, which essentially argues in favor of original sin, with an intimate coming-of-age narrative. Afterward, I decided to check out the movie again – for curiosity’s sake. Really, how bad could it be?

It turned out to be a reverse of my experience with the books: while my fondness for Pullman’s trilogy intensified, so did my aversion to Weisz’s adaptation. What I previously dismissed as just one of many page-to-screen conversions that fail live up to their source material now appeared to be a debacle of mind-boggling proportions. As a standalone work, The Golden Compass is sloppy, making you long for the bland competence of the Hunger Games and Harry Potter films. As an adaptation, it’s unforgivable, actively depriving the story of its power. It epitomizes Hollywood’s clueless approach to fantasy, which mistakes spectacle for vision and platitudes for ideas.

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The Lobster Is a Feel-Bad Romantic Comedy You Can’t Resist

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The Lobster has no shortage of dead-eyed stares. (credit: Ricky’s Film Reviews)

Less than halfway through The Lobster, a woman jumps out a window. We don’t see her jump; we just see her sprawled on the ground, limbs askew, life leaking from her damaged body in a pool of red. And we hear her: a seemingly endless barrage of high-pitched, bloodcurdling wails that rattles the air like shock waves. The camera cuts away to show our protagonist, David (Colin Farrell, alarmingly frumpy with spectacles, a mustache, and a pot belly), among a crowd of rapt yet strangely subdued onlookers. He sidles up to a woman with a pixie cut and a cigarette in her hand and grumbles that the commotion is making it hard for him to nap. The short-haired woman, who we’ve been told is “heartless”, scoffs in agreement. The dying woman continues to wail.

That scene epitomizes Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut, a black hole of a satire about single people who must find a romantic partner in 45 days or else be turned into literal animals. The movie is often funny, in a wry, David Sedaris sort of way (Rachel Weisz’s narration in particular is a consistent source of laughter), but the humor is delivered with such a straight face, the surrounding context so perverted, that it doesn’t afford any actual relief or enjoyment. It is, on the whole, not a comfortable experience.

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Mr. American Dream: The Refreshing Anti-Sentimentality of J.C. Chandor

When you watch one of J.C. Chandor’s movies, you can’t immediately tell that it is a J.C. Chandor movie. The director, who spent 15 years on commercials before making his feature film debut in 2011 with Margin Call, doesn’t have a distinctive visual style the way celebrated auteurs like Martin Scorsese and David Fincher do; he’s more reminiscent of television directors, tailoring form to story instead of the other way around. Nonetheless, in making the kind of small-scale, character-driven movies allegedly on the verge of extinction, he has quietly become one of the most intriguing and dependable American filmmakers working today.

I recently decided to retrace Chandor’s short yet admirable résumé. In addition to Margin Call, it includes the 2013 Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost and the 2014 Oscar Isaac-Jessica Chastain duet A Most Violent Year. Here are some thoughts on each movie and the themes that connect them:

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In Margin Call, the American economy teeters on the brink of collapse. (credit: Before the Doors Pictures)

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In Batman V. Superman, Ambition Battles Sense

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Batman stares into the abyss in Hollywood’s latest superhero extravaganza. (credit: MovieWeb.com)

Things looked bleak for Batman V. Superman more or less from the get-go. First, after Man of Steel failed to resurrect widespread interest in Superman, Warner Bros. rebranded the already-greenlit sequel as a prequel to the eventual Justice League movie, effectively demoting the iconic character from his own franchise and skipping “Phase 1” of the cinematic universe-building template provided by Marvel’s Avengers. Zack Snyder also returned to direct, despite the aforementioned letdown of Man of Steel and his lackluster track record as a filmmaker overall; the fate of an entire (fictional) world was entrusted to the man who made Sucker Punch. Then, the official title was revealed, and it contained not only the incorrect abbreviation of “versus”, but also a subtitle that sounded like a parody of blockbuster subtitles. Every tidbit of information released during the production process and marketing campaign reinforced the prevailing perception that DC hates fun (monochromatic posters of various characters glowering) and generally has no idea what it’s doing (Jena Malone was cast in a “mystery role” that might or might not have been a gender-swapped Robin, only to later get cut from the theatrical version altogether).

With this in mind, only two options seemed possible: 1) Batman V. Superman will be a stroke of singular genius that upends our notions of what superhero movies can be, or 2) Batman V. Superman will be a fiasco of epic proportions. Reality, it turns out, is closer to the latter – but not without some caveats.

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Hail, Caesar! Is Capital Mischief from Cinema’s Chief Mischief-Makers

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Channing Tatum shows off his dancing and singing chops in the Coen brothers’ latest. (credit: The Independent)

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

Joel and Ethan Coen have never been ordinary filmmakers. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the brutal neo-noir Blood Simple, they’ve conjured up everything, from a stoner comedy (The Big Lebowski) to a quasi-musical Homeric farce (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to a Western (True Grit) to a suburban period piece (A Serious Man) – all without sacrificing their idiosyncratic voice. And now, with Hail, Caesar!, they have given us one of the strangest movies about movies ever.

Movies about movies can generally be divided into two categories: self-deprecating satire (e.g. Sunset Boulevard) and earnest nostalgia (e.g. The Artist). Hail, Caesar! doesn’t fall into either of them. Instead, it merges the two, producing a hodgepodge of tones, genres, and themes that’s as engaging as it is mystifying. It is, in other words, vintage Coen brothers.

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Sewing Up Plot Holes and Movie Logic

When a high-profile movie comes out in theaters, you can almost guarantee it will be followed by a handful of articles, blog posts, and YouTube videos pointing out perceived flaws in its logic and plotting. It happened with The Dark Knight Rises. It happened with Frozen. And now, it’s happening with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Filmmaker Matt Granger attempted to rebut the Huffington Post article in a recent Facebook post that catalogues the “plot holes” and offers logical (or at least believable) explanations for each of them. Technically, I agree with him; the trend in entertainment journalism of publishing things to generate outrage rather than to spark a conversation is dispiriting, and the vast majority of the gripes brought up are either trivial or easily solved. Yet something prevented me from supporting it fully. First, while Facebook posts shouldn’t be held to the same standards of professionalism as newspaper stories, the tone at times bordered on patronizing, particularly with Granger’s baseless assumption that the Huffington Post article was written by a “millennial troll”. (Yes, he admitted his theory was erroneous, but that doesn’t make the initial assumption less grating.)

More importantly, though, I just don’t find many of the explanations satisfying. Take #25, the one about Unkar Plutt’s motives. Like seemingly a third of Granger’s explanations, it amounts to, “We’ll get an answer later. Stop being so impatient!” Which, as Damon Lindelof will tell you, isn’t a response that placates most people because, more often than not, it means there is no answer. Frankly, it never occurred to me while or since watching The Force Awakens that Unkar Plutt would have any grand narrative purpose. From what I can tell, he’s a jerk salesman who buys scavenged stuff in exchange for food and exists primarily so Simon Pegg can have a cameo. He wants BB-8 because he can tell the droid is important and he will be able to get lots of money for it. Why does there need to be any more?

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Carol Gives Us the Look of Love but Not the Feeling

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Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have perfect hair (and acting skills) in Carol. (credit: Fandango)

Romance is about expression. It attempts to forge a connection between people through eye contact, touching, and words, imbuing mundane gestures (such as the lighting of a cigarette) with profound meaning. At its most successful, it allows those people to traverse the distance that logic and physics say innately separates one individual from another – it allows them to be in the same place at the same time.

What happens, then, when expression is impossible? That’s the question posed by Carol, Todd Haynes and Phillys Nagy’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt. Our heroines, Therese Belivet and Carol Aird, live in New York City during the 1950s, when sodomy laws made homosexuality illegal throughout the United States. Public displays of affection for them consist mostly of exchanged smiles, an occasional hand on the shoulder. The few times they dare to push the envelope don’t go well: they have sex in a motel room, only to discover the next morning that someone had been secretly recording it; a heartfelt “I love you” gets interrupted by an oblivious friend who happens to be passing by.

So, perhaps it’s short-sighted to expect the sentimental grandeur of classic Hollywood romances, from Gone with the Wind to Titanic, in a film about midcentury lesbianism. Carol operates in the mode of previous Haynes works like Safe and Far From Heaven, observing the characters from a dignified remove, the way a photographer views his subject, as though afraid of disturbing the exquisite period details that surround them.

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