Few would disagree that 2016 will be best remembered for its political turmoil. It is interesting then that the films that most captured the year do not on face value appear to be ‘political’. Little Sister is set against the backdrop of the hope and optimism of Obama’s 2008 victory and Hail, Ceasar! sends up the “red under the bed” fear of 1960s America but neither, among other highlights of the year, deal with politics directly. Even in Mountains May Depart, a film by Jia Zhangke that is at times overt in its commentary of the westernisation of modern China, it is scenes almost apolitical that resonant most.
Instead, the most rewarding films this year spoke to politics in an abstracted way; 2016’s absurd blend of populism and radicalism was there but rather than snowballing onto front pages and TV screens it was placed above the characters, manipulative but unseen. In Handmaiden and Love & Friendship it was sex and power, erotically violent in the former and farcical in the latter. In Weiner-Dog and Happy Hour it was that unspoken social contract between us all.
But for the protagonists of those films, as much as these forces toyed with them, they were not the masters of their fate. For Tao, the woman we follow in Mountains May Depart, there is a sense of bliss in the way she dances to “Go West” by The Pet Shop Boys as if in spite of the widening distance between her and her estranged son. It is much the same for the Little Sister’s titular little sister, a soon-to-be nun that seems to be true-to-herself whether in religious drab or gothic black.
What is evident here is that this year’s best directors understood how things are always relative, however oft quoted that is. Perhaps rightfully lauded films like Arrival, I, Daniel Blake and Jackie were ambitious but their characters were never treated as more than just symbols. It is a shame; often a tale of personal suffering is more telling than one of ‘big ideas’.
Chiron, the star of Moonlight (arguably 2016’s greatest film), is a man like other African-Americans: besieged by an imploding community, institutionalised racism and questions of identity. But Chiron is never a synecdoche for the modern black man’s experience. He is Chiron and nothing else, and Moonlight is a story of his struggle, his fight. And by the end of it all, we can see a man that is battered and bruised but also a man who “ain’t trying to be nothing else”. Chiron is free, to some extent at least.
Essentially, that is what Moonlight is, not a universal truth of message for all, but an affirming story of one man, facing in intractable and suffocating public domain, finding liberation in himself.
Still of Colleen (Addison Timlin) from Little Sister
Best 10 Films of 2016
Mountains May Depart
Love & Friendship
Kate Plays Christine