Hollywood is the world’s best money-laundering machineIt takes in huge amounts of money from the sale of mass-market commodities and cleanses some of it with the production of cinematic masterworks. Earning billions of dollars from C.G.I. comedies for children, superhero movies, sci-fi apocalypses, and other popular genres, the big studios channel some of those funds into movies by Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, James Gray, and other worthies. Sometimes there’s even an overlap between the two groups of movies, as when Ryan Coogler made “Creed,” or when Scorsese made the modernist horror instant-classic “Shutter Island,” or when Clint Eastwood makes just about anything.
There used to be more of an overlap, both before the age of television, when Hollywood was the only audiovisual game around, and in the age of television, when Hollywood was still the prime source of feature films. At that time—a time that has only recently passed into history—the laundering of Hollywood money took place inside Hollywood, which is how Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Joseph Mankiewicz, Fritz Lang, Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, Elaine May, Michael Cimino, and the other geniuses of the system were able to make their movies.
The machine is now more complex—the connection between Hollywood and the best movies is circuitous and intricate. Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” was produced by Amazon Studios, not by Hollywood, but its stars, technicians, facilities, distribution network, and movie theatres are Hollywood by-products. Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” and James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” (coming in 2017) were produced by Plan B, the company co-founded by Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and Brad Grey; though Scorsese’s uproariously bitter comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street” was made with private financing, it was ultimately released by Paramount.
Many independent filmmakers who started out with their own money and that of friends and family are now working with Hollywood without actually being a part of it. Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, “Listen Up Philip,” starred Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss, both of whom have made their names and their livings within the system; he followed it with “Queen of Earth,” starring Moss and Katherine Waterston; and his new feature, “Golden Exits,” premièring at Sundance in January, stars Emily Browning, Analeigh Tipton, Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, and Lily Rabe, along with Schwartzman. Joe Swanberg’s latest round of films (“Drinking Buddies,” “Happy Christmas,” and “Digging for Fire”) has featured such actors as Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Orlando Bloom; his forthcoming film, “Win It All,” will star Johnson and Keegan-Michael Key. Sophia Takal’s recently released drama “Always Shine” stars Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald. Dustin Guy Defa’s new feature, “Person to Person” (also premièring next month at Sundance), stars Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Philip Baker Hall, Olivia Luccardi, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., along with Tavi Gevinson and actors known mainly for independent films, such as Bene Coopersmith and Buddy Duress. Josephine Decker’s new film, “Movie No. 1,” stars Molly Parker and Miranda July, who, in 2011, made her film “The Future” with Hamish Linklater as her co-star.
Most of these actors make their living from Hollywood movies or television series, which frees them up to take on projects made on a very low budget. This is all to the good. Hollywood and independent filmmaking have engaged in an important division of labor: Hollywood specializes in making money, the independents specialize in making movies. Although there are still plenty of good movies produced by the studios, even at the most overtly commercial levels (“Pete’s Dragon,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Ant-Man,” for instance, are delights), and although, conversely, the mere fact of working independently on a low budget is no guarantee of artistic quality, there are many more boldly conceived and originally realized films emerging from the independent scene than from Hollywood.
This is, and should be, no surprise. My list for the best films of the year has hardly any Hollywood movies on it. I’m not sure exactly how to define the term, but I have maybe four or five major-studio releases out of thirty-five selections. It’s a commonplace to wring hands on the subject of how bad Hollywood has become, but it’s more than counterbalanced by how good independent films have become. And yet, the critic on my shoulder whispers, whereas everyone goes to the local multiplex to see studio movies, how many people ever see those independent films?
Answer: it doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what excites a viewer, what excites a critic. It’s a critic’s job to say, when necessary, that some movies being made widely available and being widely promoted—and sometimes even widely praised—are not good at all, and that some of the best movies being made might take a viewer a little work to find. It doesn’t matter that an overwhelming majority of viewers may never find many of the best movies in their local theatres—because they can find many of them streaming at home. Given the prominence of television as a presumptive artistic counterpart (or rival) to movies, there’s less reason than ever to disdain small screens at home as a primary mode of watching films.
My list sticks to films that have had what’s formally considered a theatrical release, a week-long run in New York, in 2016. Some of the best movies I’ve seen this year aren’t included solely because of the vagaries of theatrical distribution (or, rather, non-distribution), including two virtual top-ten films, “collective:unconscious” and “The Arbalest,” which were released by streaming video (the producer of the former, Dan Schoenbrun, discusses the subject at IndieWire and mentions the movie’s availability for free on a variety of sites). In all likelihood, neither film will get a regular theatrical release this year or ever—yet, by way of their streaming platforms, they’re available to far more viewers nationally than would ever be likely to catch them in a New York theatrical release. There’s also a phantom entry for the best movie of the year, the top of the list, what you might call a Movie Zero: “A Quiet Passion,” Terence Davies’s bio-pic about Emily Dickinson, which premièred at the Berlin Film Festival in February and screened at both The New Yorker Festival and the New York Film Festival in October. I thought it would get a year-end qualifying run, at least to promote Cynthia Nixon’s starring performance for awards consideration. That didn’t happen, and it’s now scheduled to be released here in March. Spoiler alert: I’d be surprised if it doesn’t top next year’s list.
The point of criticism is the long haul—as seen in the resurgence of interest in Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” currently playing at Film Forum, where it was released twenty-five years ago. I know . . . this doesn’t do Dash any good. Her career, which should have been propelled into varied and ceaseless activity by that film, didn’t get going as it should have—or, rather, producers didn’t come forward to enable her to make another feature—and I can’t help but think that, if critics had done their jobs more astutely and more vigorously back then, things might have gone differently. Had Dash made more films, it would have been good for her, for the movies, and for the world—the world of enthusiastic moviegoers, a coterie of cinephiles. But the fact of good movies being available widely doesn’t help the world at large, and it’s an enduring critical delusion (as well as a mode of demagogy) to assume and assert that it does.
Great movies made and put into wide release by Hollywood have had no effect on anything but the experience of watching great movies, as understood by the few people who recognize the terms of their greatness. This year’s best example is “Sully.” Though Clint Eastwood supported Donald Trump, “Sully” is no Trump-ite film; it’s a work of tragic imagination, an endorsement of hard-won and long-honed professional ability, a paean to steadfast and reliable character, and a vision of an inextricably interdependent society.
There may well be viewers who go to see an Eastwood film expecting that it will make their day, and they might choose to take the story of “Sully” as they’d prefer it to be, as the legend of an unambiguously confident American military hero. Yet that’s not what Eastwood actually presents in the movie; there’s little or nothing in the way of Trump’s personality or actions in the movie’s protagonist, but rather a great deal of Hillary Clinton’s character. This paradox shows that Eastwood-the-filmmaker is far greater and more important than Eastwood-the-talker—and that the essence of the art of cinema is for movies to surpass and even defy filmmakers’ intentions. “Sully” proved to be very popular, and very successful; it didn’t change the political landscape at all.
That’s one reason that the usual run of overtly political movies, in which the liberal consensus finds itself reflected back upon itself with confident self-satisfaction, strikes me as both an aesthetic regression and a political frivolity. The dream of restoring Hollywood filmmaking to what it once was, of Making Hollywood Great Again, is noxious nostalgia that omits the unbearable circumstances in the world at large that went hand in hand with the best of classic Hollywood, the prejudices and the exclusions on which its films depended. It’s also why fretting over the decline in the artistry of wide releases is irrelevant at best, destructive at worst. (The best movies being made now, such as “Moonlight,” could never have been made in classic Hollywood—not even close.) In 2014, Ava DuVernay made “Selma,” an excellent movie about the struggle in the nineteen-sixties for voting rights, which (outrageously) hasn’t at all stopped officials from passing new laws specifically designed to suppress the vote of black citizens.
I wonder whether this year-end glance at the world of movies would have turned out the same way had a few tens of thousands of votes in three states gone to a different candidate. Maybe the error would have been to believe that a system in which so much depended on so little (and so few) was anything but fundamentally shaky, if not terminally rotten. In any case, movies, and art over all, don’t help, can’t help, aren’t meant to help—in the short term or in specific terms. The good they do reaches deep into the marrow of the soul of a relatively few people and does so spontaneously, unexpectedly, irresistibly, decisively, and sometimes even unconsciously. The changes that the best movies wreak may not be perceptible in any reasoned public discourse close to the time of their release. But, for just that reason, these movies are all the more essential and enduring—they bring about changes in mood, tone, emotional tenor or temperature, changes in the inner life, in the inner inner life. That was also true in times that seemed better, too.
Best Movies of 2016
1. “Little Sister” (Zach Clark)
2. “Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins)
3. “Sully” (Clint Eastwood)
4. “Viktoria” (Maya Vitkova)
5. “Love & Friendship” (Whit Stillman)
6. “Men Go to Battle” (Zachary Treitz)
7. “Wiener-Dog” (Todd Solondz)
8. “Kate Plays Christine” (Robert Greene)
9. “Happy Hour” (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
10. “Knight of Cups” (Terrence Malick)
11. “Hail, Caesar!” (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
12. “Everybody Wants Some!!” (Richard Linklater)
13. “The Love Witch” (Anna Biller)
14. “Krisha” (Trey Edward Shults)
15. “Pete’s Dragon” (David Lowery)
16. “Mountains May Depart” (Jia Zhangke)
17. “For the Plasma” (Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan)
18. “13th” (Ava DuVernay)
19. “Manchester by the Sea” (Kenneth Lonergan)
20. “No Home Movie” (Chantal Akerman)
21. “The Witness” (James Solomon)
22. “Certain Women” (Kelly Reichardt)
23. “Sunset Song” (Terence Davies)
24. “Dog Eat Dog” (Paul Schrader)
25. “The Treasure” (Corneliu Porumboiu)
26. “Tower” (Keith Maitland)
27. “Nuts!” (Penny Lane)
28. “Mia Madre” (Nanni Moretti)
29. “Southside with You” (Richard Tanne)
30. “Michael Moore in TrumpLand” (Michael Moore)
31. “The Birth of a Nation” (Nate Parker)
32. “Right Now, Wrong Then” (Hong Sang-soo)
33. “Embrace of the Serpent” (Ciro Guerra)
34. “Silence” (Martin Scorsese)
35. “Hidden Figures” (Theodore Melfi)
Best Undistributed Film
“Coma” (Sara Fattahi)
“Hermia and Helena” (Matías Piñeiro)
“Yourself and Yours” (Hong Sang-soo)
“Univitellin” (Terence Nance)
Addison Timlin (“Little Sister”)
Agyness Deyn (“Sunset Song”)
Kate Beckinsale (“Love & Friendship”)
Samantha Robinson (“The Love Witch”)
Krisha Fairchild (“Krisha”)
Keith Poulson (“Little Sister”)
David Maloney (“Men Go to Battle”)
Tom Hanks (“Sully”)
Josh Brolin (“Hail, Caesar!”)
Parker Sawyers (“Southside with You”)
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”)
Tom Bennett (“Love & Friendship”)
Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail, Caesar!”)
Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”)
Tyler Hoechlin (“Everybody Wants Some!!”)
Aaron Eckhart (“Sully”)
Best Supporting Actress
Ellen Burstyn (“Wiener-Dog”)
Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”)
Zoey Deutch (“Everybody Wants Some!!”)
Blake Lively (“Café Society,” Woody Allen)
Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”)
Best Ensemble Cast
“Everybody Wants Some!!”
“Dog Eat Dog”
“Love & Friendship”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Men Go to Battle”
“No Home Movie”
“Embrace of the Serpent”
“Knight of Cups”
“Dog Eat Dog”
“Paterson” (Jim Jarmusch)