Top Twenty Films of 2016 (#10-6)

10.) Zootopia

10-zootopia

dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore

Zootopia is like George Orwell’s Animal Farm applied to race relations in modern America. It seems like the movie truly couldn’t have come at a better time, as it aims to combat the fear and divisiveness that some very specific politicians thrive on. I don’t envy parents who have to explain to their kids how fear of outsiders and nationalism, in this modern day, can be used to win an election. Zootopia is a movie that uses animals as symbols to lay out the case against such hateful thinking. Imagine a whole cartoon movie about Affirmative Action clashing with Trump’s xenophobia, but illustrated with cute bunnies and talking animals, and that’s Zootopia.

Zootopia uses animal prejudice as metaphors for racial prejudice. Only bunnies are allowed to call other bunnies cute. It’s wrong to assume that all foxes are cheats. Don’t call sloths slow; that’s a stereotype. These are not prejudices in the sweeping sense of the ride of KKK members in Birth of a Nation, but rather these are racial prejudices in a post-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. era. It’s subtle. The animals have evolved to form a civilization, and are still trying to navigate the road to equality. At the same time, they must acknowledge their troubled and violent pasts and work beyond it. Mistakes are made. Some big, and some really big, but the drive is there to keep moving forward toward King’s Dream.

Judy Hopps strives for that ideal, yet she still keeps a can of fox spray. You know, for just in case. Those foxes have a history of being violent. It’s in their DNA. When her fox partner, Nick (Jason Bateman) calls her out on her prejudice and asks her if she is afraid of him. She essentially tells him, “Well, you’re not like those other foxes.” Even an idealistic and good-natured bunny like Judy is capable of making huge errors in judgment. She is strives for equality for all, but she is flawed and makes mistakes. She makes big enough mistakes that can really hurt her close friends.

The movie is deeply thoughtful about racism in its many forms. The prey outnumbers the predators 10 to 1, but the prey are almost shut out entirely from various jobs. This poor bunny has to face institutionalized racism. (Maybe Institutionalized Racism is the wrong term, for she is a bunny, after all. Institutionalized Speciesism?) Her police chief (Idris Elba) seems to think that the only reason why she got the job is because of affirmative action. Judy has to work over twice as hard to stand out. When she dreams of solving big cases, she is given the remedial task of writing parking tickets. She is supposed to write a hundred by the end of the day, so she sets out to write two hundred before lunchtime. She gets back up and stands eleven rounds after life in all its unfairness keeps knocking her down. She is exactly the type of Disney hero for young kids everywhere to look up to as a role model.

 

9.) Hell or High Water

08-hell-or-high-water

dir. David Mackenzie

Hell or High Water takes the Old Western, the gunslingers, the sheriff, the poor rancher bent out of luck, and successfully reinvents the mythos for a 21st Century Texas. All the same staples are here that you could find in any classic Western, but occasionally next to the cowboy on a horse will drive up a loud Lamborghini with wannabe tough guys, making you wonder how a John Ford character could survive in this day and era.

The clear-cut good and evil aspects of the film are blurred, as they are with the best of revisionist Westerns. The “good” Sheriff won’t stop his racist tirades. The “bad” bank robbers have a reverse mortgage to pay off to provide for their family. These characters are true to themselves and true to the fate that they carve. It holds back its judgment, leaving it up to the audience to decide who has the best claim to our sympathy.

And as for the rest of the rural folk, the film makes some sharp observations. A half Comanche-half Mexican deputy makes a rather beautifully ironic point about these people whose great-grandparents took the land of his ancestors. He starts off by explaining that every group of people are at some point the ‘Indians’ to another group that will eventually overpower them and force integration. “All this: my ancestors’ land. The lease folks took it, and it’s been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it, it’s those sons of bitches right there.” He points to the bank across the street.

It’s an interesting point. How are Western heroes supposed to respond to a villain, if the villain comes in the form of an interest loan instead of a gunslinger? If the weapons of the villain are high interest rates, how exactly can a good sheriff save the town?

Some of the best Westerns asked difficult questions about the lives of the good rural folk that are protected by the heroes. The film is no exception, and it lays out scathing social criticisms. The empty, small towns seem to be filled with ghosts of the past. Cowboys are finding it difficult to get their children interested in cattle work. Small town hardware stores have prices double that of Home Depot. A grumpy old waitress barks ultimatums about what her customers cannot order. Either the filmmakers here are showcasing the tough, small-town Texan spirit that survives harsh times, or they are showcasing its last moments moments before the banker vultures descend from overhead. It is a finely written modern Western, and it would get my vote for having the best original screenplay.

 

8.) Weiner

14-weiner

dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg

At one point, the filmmakers ask Anthony Weiner why he wants them to keep filming. It’s a good question. The cameras have caught the worst kind of personal embarrassments imaginable. But he doesn’t tell them to stop filming. For those politically unaware of who Anthony Weiner is, he’s a former politician who publicly embarrassed himself and his wife with a sexting scandal. He tried sexting someone from his Twitter account, but accidentally sent out a picture of Weiner’s wiener for all of his constituents to see. He became the laughingstock of the nightly talk shows. After leaving Congress, he tried to run for mayor of New York and reinvent himself. Yet even then, he got caught up in an even more embarrassing sexting scandal which revealed his online alter-ego named “Carlos Danger.” The documentary that he allowed for showcases such a sorry, pitiful display of public embarrassment that plays like cringe comedy. Even Weiner himself admits that having a documentary be focused on his sex life is just simply the worst. Yet he allows the camera to keep rolling. Why? Is it narcissism? Is he obsessed with the spotlight?

The drama on display here is Greek tragedy. The ancient Greek heroes were done in by very specific personal flaws. Completely outside of the hero’s control, fate draws him to an inevitable downfall. Weiner suffers a fate similar to that of Oedipus or Narcissus. You would expect a man of his name to get all sorts of wiener jokes, but does a wiener joke really dictate his destiny? In a very real way, Weiner destroyed himself with his wiener. It’s an ironic tale that seems too outlandish to be fiction, but it was as real as the C-Span coverage.

The film also is remarkable in how it gives a glimpse into how a campaign deals with a scandal. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin wisely directs him on when she should stand by his side and when she shouldn’t. When news crews want to confront Weiner, his crew gives all sorts of directions for how they leave the building while avoiding the press. The film gives us a fly-on-the-wall perspective on campaign politics, and simultaneously it plays as a dark comedy.

Not only did Weiner mess up his own campaign, he is also indirectly responsible for the FBI reopening their email case with Hilary Clinton because Huma Abedin worked closely with her. He had gotten caught again sexting while his young son was in the same room with him. This case reopening was elven days before the presidential election, remember. That was really the final tipping point that ultimately lost the election for Hilary. So in some sad, twisted sense, Weiner’s failings indirectly contributed to Trump getting elected. Weiner’s wiener truly screwed America.

THAT is hubris, right there.

 

7.) The Handmaiden (아가씨)

06-the-handmaiden

dir. Park Chan-Wook

Park Chan Wook’s masterful thriller, 아가씨 (The Handmaiden), has nuances that I fear may be lost in translation. For instance, while the English title, The Handmaiden, refers to the principal character, Sook-Hee, the Korean title, 아가씨 (ah-ga-ssi), refers to a completely different character, Lady Hideko, who is the true fulcrum of the story. Firstly, 아가씨(ah-ga-ssi) roughly translates to meaning “Lady,” or “young woman,” and is used in a respectful sense. Secondly, it is also can be used as a pickup line, as in something akin to “Hey Baby” if shouted from the street, which I do not recommend doing. It can be used intimately. Thirdly, the way in which we come to explore Lady Hideko’s character largely stems from the ambiguity of her title. Is she 아가씨 (ah-ga-ssi) the respected Lady, or 아가씨 (ah-ga-ssi) the intimate young woman? The film will often rewind, showing the same characters from different perspectives. Using one perspective, she is cold and stoic, and by a different perspective, she is passionate and sweet. Because I am somewhat familiar with Korean, I caught this subtlety of the language, but this revelation only shed light on the fact that there are probably a great many other foreign film titles that lose charge and ambiguity through translation, meaning that I would have absolutely no idea that I missed anything important.

The film’s dialogue is spoken in two languages, meaning that dubbing would take out the careful subtleties as gracefully as taking a filet mignon and grinding it up and serving it as processed hamburger. The film is set in 1930’s Korea, during the Japanese occupation. At that time, there was great pressure for the people of Korea to assimilate into Japanese culture. Koreans were forced to change their names into Japanese, and they were made to speak Japanese. Not doing so could result in great penalty. That reality is reflected in The Handmaiden. The characters in the film switch freely from Korean to Japanese, and sometimes from Japanese to Korean. The Japanese language is subtitled in yellow while the Korean language is subtitled in white to give foreign viewers visual cues when a character specifically chooses to jump into a different language. The Korean characters will speak Japanese to seem more trustworthy, and to embolden their con, while in return, Japanese characters will speak familiarly in Korean to come across as understanding and compassionate, and perhaps also to send the signal, “I know your language, so don’t try to pull a fast one on me.” But the more that they change languages, the more the languages get encoded and recoded until it’s unclear who is deceiving who.

The Handmaiden has a thick plot that is so multi-layered that it relies heavily on a Rashomon type of storytelling device, in which it will rewind and reveal something that completely changes the meaning of a sequence of events. But while The Handmaiden uses the same storytelling device of rewinding, it actually has less to do with something like Rashomon, and more to do with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It takes a few rewinds for the real theme of the story to get untangled. In the film, the Koreans are all acting and speaking Japanese, but if every Korean character is doing this, then what is the distinction between Korean and Japanese? They could be Koreans deceiving other Koreans, because that cultural distinction is blurred. At some point, this stops being a story of Korea resisting the oppression from the Japanese; what it ended up being is the story of women resisting oppression from men.

As always, Park Chan Wook’s camerawork is commanding and thrilling. The costumes and set decorations are sights to behold. The way that he uses his camera to glide these long hallways and fly all around these great rooms is just simply riveting masterwork. His compositions suggest a mirror duality. Even in the scenes that likely would have given it an NC-17 rating are perfectly composed and meticulously framed. The sexual content may be gratuitous, but it is so because the work is specifically raising thematic points about how erotic material can be interpreted. Some will see these scenes as smutty, while others will see these scenes as empowering.

Given Park Chan-Wook’s track record of violence, this one is surprisingly one of his lesser violent films. That being said, his level of violence usually involves pliers and teeth. This film is restrained and nuanced, and he expands his wingspan to stretch into bold new territories.

 

6.) The Witch

05-the-witch

dir. Robert Eggers

The Witch is a masterfully crafted horror film that pursues creeping, building dread over shock thrills. The tagline promises us that this is based on New England folklore, but it should really read “based on the Puritan’s fear that the Devil is in everything and everyone is secretly a Satan-worshipper.” It’s a film that takes its 18th century Calvinist theology seriously, and it treats Satanism just as equally serious. I could imagine a Christian walking away from this movie with the impression that it is a profoundly strong Christian film that affirms biblical truth, yet I could also see a Satanist coming out of this movie and interpreting it as something profoundly Satanic. It has such ambiguous imagery that it could be interpreted as a spiritual warning against the power of sin, or it could be interpreted as something that promotes self-empowering philosophies. It’s like trying to interpret one of those optical illusions in which you can see both a young, beautiful woman and old, ugly hag simultaneously. Both interpretations are valid, but you can’t hold both views at the same time.

young-old

I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick’s confounding and ambiguous horror images in The Shining led to so many speculations and theories on its meaning, that the theories even led to a documentary, Room 237, which compiled all of the leading theories of Kubrick’s meaning. There could be something made like that with The Witch. A lot of what makes the film so unsettling is that it is hard to pin down what it actually means. The family is excommunicated for heresy, yet we see each one of them devoutly dedicated to the Lord. They recite prayers that shine with authenticity and Biblical knowledge. Given what Hollywood’s typical ideas of what a Puritan prayer should sound, its unusual to find these prayers without the tepid phoniness. But if each family member is so devout, why were they actually banned from the Puritan community in the first place? Were they wrongfully accused of being in league with the devil, garnering Arthur Miller’s sympathies? Or is this family truly in league with the Devil? When Thomasin reveals to her siblings about being the witch of the woods and dancing naked with the devil, is she just teasing or is she being serious? What has the witch done to the baby, and for what purpose? And when the twins say that the goat, Black Phillip, regularly speaks to them about signing their names in the Devil’s book, are they just teasing or being serious?

The Witch evokes a hint of The Crucible, in the sense that you just can’t be damned sure if there really was a Satan-worshipping ritual to begin with. Beyond that point, we can clearly see how each individual can be ensnared through each person’s specific desires. It’s pretty clear in the film how a God-fearing mother could possibly come to grips with writing her name in the Devil’s book. The larger question remains though: did any family member have an alliance with Satan from the start? I don’t think I have quite the answer for that. Like the great mysteries of why God allowed a devout man, Job, to undergo severe torment, this story is perplexing in the way that it shows a devout family being spiritually and physically tormented. The Witch is both ambiguous and dreadful, and I mean that in the greatest respect.

Next page:

Or to jump to a page

Part 1 counting down films #20-16 can be seen here.

Part 2, counting down films #15-10 can be seen here.

Part 4, counting down films #5-2 can be seen here.

Part 5 of the Countdown, film #1 can be viewed here.

 

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