Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

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The Beautiful Struggle

In a year of ugliness, hatred, division and dread, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight arrives as a bulwark of beauty, love, compassion and hope.  Following a presidential election in which the forces of deceit and bigotry prevailed—calling our whole national creed into question—here is a movie about a boy (and, in time, a man) who struggles against those very same forces to understand his own identity in a universe that seems determined to make him someone else.

Truly, there has been very little in 2016 to assure us there is any beauty left in the world.  At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner—an affair that was largely (and blessedly) politics-free—we agreed that, through the darkness of the next four years, a great deal of light is likely to come from artists—a community of eccentrics with the boldness and optimism to create outsize the box, allowing us to escape our narrow window of existence and be exposed to different points of view.

Great art doesn’t always make us feel better—often, by design, it makes us feel worse—but it does expand the parameters of what it means to be fully human.  Outside of religion and science, it is our only mechanism for achieving transcendence.

Moonlight is great art, which is a rarity even among great films.  In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott wrote, “From first shot to last, ‘Moonlight’ is about as beautiful a movie as you are ever likely to see.”  I’ve now seen it twice, and Scott was not exaggerating.  You could play Moonlight with the sound turned off and still be unable to look away.  Indeed, you could print and frame dozens of randomly-selected screenshots and wind up with the most galvanizing photography show in New York.  Setting aside plot and character, Jenkins’s movie is an aesthetic triumph—a marvel of visual virtuosity.

Yet, in the end, you can’t separate the film’s beauty from its subject matter any more than you can separate the beauty of “Imagine” from John Lennon’s fantasies of socialism and world peace.  To experience Moonlight—specifically, the travails of its young hero, Chiron—is to be elevated to a level of consciousness about other people’s lives that only movies can attain.  Roger Ebert famously described the cinema as “like a machine that generates empathy,” and it has been quite some time since a film has lived up to that lofty ambition as deeply and as movingly as this one.

How so?  First, by adhering to the No. 1 rule of storytelling:  “Show, don’t tell.”  Second, by showing us exactly what we need to see, and nothing more.  And third, by providing us a leading man whose existence is at once unfathomably complex and wholly, tragically comprehensible.

For point of reference, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed its protagonist, Mason, from age 6 through the end of high school.  By the end of that journey, we felt more or less like we knew everything about Mason, even as we conceded that a great deal of the movie consisted of fairly mundane events—going to a ballgame, getting a haircut, etc.

The audacity of Boyhood was its very conceit:  It was filmed piece-by-piece over a period of 12 years, so that the actors aged in concert with their fictional counterparts.  Arguably the film’s greatest flaw—although many considered it a strength—was the relative ordinariness of Mason himself, a middle class heterosexual white man whose cumulative coming of age was more compelling than any particular moment along the way.  Mason wasn’t exactly the poster child of white privilege, but nor was he particularly deprived, as far as American childhoods go.

Not so with Chiron (pronounced “shy-RONE”), the centerpiece of Moonlight, who through a series of genetic accidents begins life as everything that Mason is not.  Born and raised in a depressed, heavily African-American section of Miami known as Liberty City, Chiron is a diminutive, moody, soft-spoken outcast with no siblings, no father and a mother largely dependent on the friendly neighborhood crack dealer.  To complicate things, that very same kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes a liking to Chiron and, with his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes his de facto guardian angel.  By the end of the movie’s first act, it falls to Juan to confront Chiron’s unexpectedly pointed question, “Am I a faggot?”

The answer is yes (in a manner of speaking), and the implications of this realization—namely, that he is young, black and gay in a cultural milieu that cannot abide all three at once—sows the seeds of doom for the remainder of Chiron’s adolescence.

I shan’t say anything further on the details of that painful sexual awakening, other than to note how—as with Boyhood, in its way—the details are everything.  How extreme tenderness in one moment leads, inexorably, to extreme cruelty in the next.  How one wrong word, look or impression—propelled by centuries of repression, prejudice and fear—can irreparably alter the course of a person’s life, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

However, sometimes there is.  If the first two-thirds of Moonlight are a slow-burning human tragedy about the price and meaning of black masculinity in 21st century America, the final act suggests that if you manage to survive the crucible of your teenage years, there’s an outside chance you can begin life anew with whatever scraps are left over.

This is not to say that Moonlight is principally a film about hope, or about the inherent moral rightness of the universe.  There is much more to a fulfilling life than simply not getting shot or overdosing on cocaine.  No one with an upbringing like Chiron’s would (or should) ever consider himself lucky—and certainly not grateful for whatever Valuable Life Lessons those hardships might’ve imparted.

Barry Jenkins, the director, is not about to let us off that easy:  Along with his co-creator, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Jenkins adapted the screenplay from McCraney’s original stage play), he understands that a hard life is undesirable on every level, and Moonlight is finally about the struggle that awaits every gay black man who dares to carry himself with honesty, dignity and pride—and, most of all, the awareness that mortal peril exists on both sides of the closet door.

It is to the credit of everyone involved that such an ugly ordeal has been made into one of the most achingly gorgeous movies of our time.  In this political moment—as we find ourselves staring into the abyss in search of the tiniest shred of humanity to get us through the next thousand-odd days of America life—Moonlight provides cinema’s first answer to how the darkness might be endured, and it’s the same answer W.H. Auden gave in 1939, on the eve of another global cataclysm:  “We must love one another or die.”

A Boy’s Life

Every great movie is a little different each time you watch it.  If there is any clear divide between good cinema and bad cinema, it’s that the former contains depth and subtlety that the latter lacks—much of which remains hidden until you’ve digested it many times over.

Watching Boyhood for, let’s say, the fifth time was, for me, distinguishable from the fourth for a very particular reason:  I was, for the first time, viewing it in the presence of an actual boy.

Over the weekend, Richard Linklater’s 2014 film debuted on cable TV, right around the time a big family get-together of ours was winding down.  A handful of us tuned in, many for the first time.  Among these was my 13-year-old cousin, who was skeptical about why a director would take 12 years to make a single movie, let alone why anyone would watch it—especially with its nearly three-hour running time.  (No doubt many grown-ups feel this way, too.)

Then the movie got underway, and he grew mildly engaged—not least by the friction between Mason, the protagonist, and his slightly older sister, Samantha.  (He has a sister, too.)

As Boyhood approached its halfway point and Mason’s age aligned with my cousin’s—leading to such vignettes as getting verbally accosted by schoolyard bullies and discovering the wonders and mysteries of women—he sat up in his chair and remarked, “That’s exactly how it is!”

I don’t think Linklater could’ve asked for higher praise than that.

If Boyhood is about anything, it is all the little joys and horrors of being a kid from first to twelfth grade in today’s America, particularly if you’re a guy.  Naturally, this makes those within that age range the movie’s target audience—or, at the very least, the people who can best judge whether what it portrays rings true.

As a 20-something American male, my own adolescence played out only a few years removed from the movie’s time frame.  And so I have felt reasonably confident, up until now, that Boyhood is as accurate and insightful as most people say, hence its magnetic effect on my psyche.

But memory is unreliable, and there are innumerable films about childhood that reflect their directors’ assumptions about the experience that, in fact, are either romanticized or traumatized beyond any sense of realism.  (Sometimes this is deliberate, but often not.)

Now I know, much more confidently than before, that Linklater nailed it.  I know because someone with much more authority on the subject than I has said so.

That means a lot to me, because it helps to calm one of my greatest cinematic fears:  That my deepest and most memorable film-going experiences somehow weren’t real.  That they were manipulated, mistaken or emotionally fraudulent.  That it was all in my head.

This fear is especially acute when it involves movies that are universally acclaimed, heaped with critical praise bordering on hysterical.  Boyhood is a classic example, with Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calling it “profound” and a “masterpiece”—terms used very sparingly in the paper of record—with the Times’ other film critic, A.O. Scott, writing, “In my 15 years of professional movie reviewing, I can’t think of any film that has affected me the way Boyhood did.”

I know how he feels, but it can be dangerous to employ such gushing appraisals about works of art, since they inevitably raise viewers’ expectations to impossible levels, leading to an equally-inevitable backlash featuring contrarian critiques and the barking of words like “overrated.”  While there hasn’t yet been a ton of this with Boyhood, there has been just enough to make me nervous.

To be clear:  I don’t fear opposing views about my favorite movies.  I only fear persuasive ones.  I fear that someone will point out some fundamental flaw that I hadn’t noticed before and that I won’t be able to shake it when I see the movie again.

In general, I know better than to read things that will do nothing but upset me, and I am endlessly thankful that the overwhelming majority of Internet-based analysis is complete rubbish and not worth anyone’s time.

But then there are folks like Ross Douthat, who recently posted a New York Times blog entry titled, “The Trouble With ‘Boyhood.’”  Although Douthat is best-known as a Times op-ed columnist, he also reviews movies for National Review and, more to the point, is one of the most thoughtful and intellectually honest writers in the biz.  So when he is compelled to puncture the idea that Boyhood is perfect, I can’t just dismiss it.

As it happens, I did not ultimately find his gripes about the movie compelling.  I understand how he reached the conclusions he did, but my recent re-viewing rendered his critiques immaterial.  For instance, he says (and quotes others as saying) that by the end, Mason does not appear sufficiently affected by the various family dysfunctions in his upbringing, and that there is not nearly enough drama and conflict to get us across the finish line.

In one sense, Douthat and his co-contrarians are right:  Overall, Boyhood does not examine the long-term consequences of divorce and other familial unrest on children as thoroughly as it might have.  Nor is Mason himself an exceptionally assertive or colorful character, and he has a definite knack for deflecting would-be hardships instead of absorbing them head-on and having to nurse the resulting emotional wounds.

On the other hand, what does that have to do with anything?

Life only happens once, and we all handle it differently.  If Mason emerges from an adolescence of constant domestic turbulence with a general air of serenity, maybe it’s because that’s just the kind of person he is.  On what basis should we expect him to act any other way?  If the years of fighting and bitterness between his estranged parents give way to comity and near-reconciliation, perhaps it just demonstrates that adults, like their kids, are sometimes capable of change and personal growth.

It’s absolutely true that the players in Boyhood do not follow the conventions of similar characters in other films, nor does the film itself adhere to anything resembling a traditional plot.

Who ever said that it should?  I don’t know about you, but I prefer movies that approach their subjects differently than movies that came before.  If I wanted to watch the same thing over and over again, I would watch the same thing over and over again.

Indeed, that’s what I seem to be doing lately with Linklater’s little experiment.  Not only do I find it so very different from everything else that’s turning up in movie houses today, but also—if I may end where I began—a novel experience from one viewing to the next.  As Mason grows from a six-year-old into a college freshman, so does the movie itself assume a more confident and fully-formed identity.

I can’t explain this.  (Nor do I care to.)  All I know is that I’m still very much in the rapturous, love-at-first-sight stage in my relationship with this movie.  And like all such relationships, it contains a modicum of stone-cold dread for the moment when it all comes crashing down to Earth and I find out that Boyhood is not the greatest thing since gluten-free bread after all.

That’s the trouble with love:  It’s completely irrational, and therefore fragile—especially when reason suddenly enters into it.

I would love to think that my visceral adulation of great films is impervious to logic and to the criticisms of others.  But I am a logical being, too, and cannot depend on sheer faith to ensure that such adoration burns brightly forever.

That’s what makes it so heartening to find other people who feel that burn, too.  Or simply, in this case, someone who sees a portrayal of a young boy’s life and says, yup, that’s how it is.

Kanye and Me

I can’t say that I’ve ever given much thought to Kanye West.

I know he’s a significant figure in the world of hip-hop, but I don’t listen to hip-hop.

I also know that he is—as President Obama once observed—a jackass.  At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West famously stormed the stage to protest the awarding of Best Female Video to Taylor Swift, insisting it should have gone to Beyoncé, instead.

Smash cut to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where West came this close to repeating himself, creeping toward the podium as the trophy for Album of the Year went to alt-rocker Beck.  West paused and returned to his seat before reaching the mike, but the point was made:  Once again, this was a prize that should have gone to Queen Bey.

The following day, West explained himself thusly:

The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us.  We aren’t going to play with them no more. […] Beck needs to respect artistry; he should have given his award to Beyoncé.  At this point, we tired of it.  What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.

West has been roundly criticized for this and related comments, presumably for the way they seamlessly combine selfishness, arrogance, condescension and want of tact in a single thought.  West later clarified that his dig was directed not at Beck, per se, but at the Grammys themselves, saying, “Beck knows that Beyoncé should have won.  Come on man, I love Beck, but he ain’t have album of the year.”  So that clears that up.

We could dismiss this whole episode as yet another eye-rolling instance of Kanye being Kanye.  Yet I am somehow inclined to run with it and take it semi-seriously.  The truth is that, however childish and inappropriate his series of rants was, I understand how he feels and I think the actual ideas behind the bluster are worthy of our attention.

All that he means to do, after all, is take the Grammys seriously as not just a TV show, but as an institution that judges the value of popular music.  Music artists spend 364 days per year pouring their souls into their work, and the Grammys represents the one moment of official recognition by the music industry—a means of determining which works rise above all the others.  It is not something to be taken lightly.

I confess I do not share West’s passion on this point about his industry—perhaps because my own tastes in music are not particularly well-represented by the Grammys in the first place.

On the other hand, there’s another trophy-leaden TV event next Sunday that I care about very much:  The Academy Awards.  In a good year—and as a consequence of spending far too much time in dark auditoriums—my feelings about the Oscars mirror Kanye’s about the Grammys, and I’m not going to apologize for them.

For reasons too complicated to explain, there are eight movies up for Best Picture this time around.  Word on the street is that it’s anybody’s game, and the final vote is expected to be very, very close.

It shouldn’t be.  So far as I’m concerned, the year 2014 in film can be divided into two groups.  There was all the usual fare, and then there was Boyhood.

Richard Linklater’s gloriously engaging film—originally called, simply, The Twelve-Year Project—accomplished nothing less than showing what it was like to grow up in the first decade of the 21st century in America.  Which is to say that, for the generation now coming of age—along with innumerable members of other generations, it would appear—it will stand as the definitive film about growing up, period.

By no means is Boyhood the first movie made about the infernal Millennials, and certainly not the first about the joys and horrors of adolescence.  However, it is the first such film to follow its protagonist through the entirety of his life from age 6 until his high school graduation, while also charting the travails of his mother, his father and his older sister.  All these people are allowed to age at the pace at which they actually did.  As you have surely heard by now, the movie was filmed, on and off, over the course of 12 years.

Granting itself such breadth—unprecedented for a non-documentary—Boyhood suggests the ways in which people change and grow over time.  How a deadbeat dad can eventually become responsible and mature, or how a single mother can weather several dead-end relationships while earning a graduate degree and securing a good job.  Not to mention how a young boy who spray-paints graffiti on the underside of a bridge can develop into a serious-minded photographer who embarks for college with confidence but also a nagging insecurity about where his life is headed.  You know:  Just like the rest of us.

Lacking a formal plot, Linklater’s experiment amounts to a collection of small moments that add up to something quite big, indeed.  After four viewings, I sense I am still only beginning to understand precisely how to account for its seemingly effortless (and bottomless) appeal.  In a way, I feel about this film as Roger Ebert did about the documentary Hoop Dreams—a four-year chronicle of two promising young basketball players—of which Ebert wrote, “It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

On Oscar night, the Academy should respect artistry by giving its top prize to Boyhood.  It’s a monumental achievement of cinema, and for Best Picture to go to anything else would diminish the form.  Seriously, Academy, don’t be disrespectful.

However, I won’t rush the stage if they go and give it to Birdman instead.  After all, I’m not a crazy person.

Political Sniping

Warning:  The following contains spoilers about the movie American Sniper.  Proceed with caution.

Reading the various reactions to Clint Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper, two facts immediately leap out.

First:  No one can seem to agree on the movie’s point of view vis-à-vis the Iraq War.  Some say it’s neutral or apolitical, while others consider it a full-throated endorsement of the theory that American involvement in Mesopotamia was (and is) a good idea.

And second:  In nearly every analysis of what American Sniper is about—and whether it’s any good—the conclusion perfectly matches the politics of the person making the analysis.  Generally speaking, those who opposed the Iraq War also dislike the film, while those who considered the war necessary and just think the movie is great.  Those whose politics are ambivalent, private or nonexistent fall somewhere in between.

Joined with the debate about the movie’s version of Iraq is the depiction of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL who killed more Iraqis than any other sniper and, as a consequence, spent the rest of his life struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder.  That is, until he was killed by a fellow veteran who was, himself, stricken with PTSD.

Does American Sniper portray Kyle as a pure All-American Hero and—far more interestingly—should it have?  Here, too, individual answers seem to track with whatever people happened to already think about these subjects.

What is clear, in any case, is that Kyle is given highly sympathetic treatment by Eastwood and is meant to be shown, in the end, as a Good Guy.  What is more, the movie is ultimately meant to be about Kyle and Kyle alone—his experience, his struggles—and is not necessarily interested in the world that is going on around him.

Is this a valid approach to filmmaking?  Can a movie like this be truly apolitical, as so many critics say it is?

In a fiery column in Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi says no.  Referring to “the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain” as “the real villains in this movie,” Taibbi argues, “Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’  Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”

Taking this theory a step further, I think it’s worth considering whether any movie can lay claim to being completely removed from politics of one sort or another.  Or, indeed, whether there is any point in trying.  My inkling is that it can’t and there isn’t, and it’s just as well that this is so.

As it happens, this is not the first time that an ostensibly “personal” Clint Eastwood project has been attacked for having a secret political agenda.

In 2004, Eastwood made a movie called Million Dollar Baby, about a woman who believes her sole purpose in life is to be a professional boxer.  (Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead!)  When she is sucker-punched by an opponent and left paralyzed below the neck, she decides she has no further reason to live, and pleads with her trainer and only friend (played by Eastwood) to unplug her life support and allow her to die.  After a period of struggle and a talk with a local priest, he does just that.

Because both the boxer (played by Hilary Swank) and the trainer are shown as sympathetic characters, the movie was considered by some to be an “endorsement” of assisted suicide, leading to a brief but intense national debate about both the movie and the issue itself.  How irresponsible, many said, for a serious film to portray assisted suicide in a sort-of positive light.

Against this wave of condemnation, the critic Roger Ebert offered the following rebuke“Million Dollar Baby raises fundamental moral issues.  At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision.  I do not agree with their decision.  But here is the crucial point:  I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film.  It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them.”

In other words, movies are about individuals, not causes.  Directors are free to have their characters behave however is natural to them, and it is up to us, the audience, to make moral judgments.  In all cases, however, we should understand such behavior as being specific to those characters—Chris Kyle included—and not infer them to be representative of any larger philosophy of life.

The problem, though, is that we just can’t help ourselves.  As Taibbi points out vis-à-vis American Sniper, movies do not exist in a vacuum.  It’s silly and naïve to think otherwise.

The truth is that everything is political, whether we realize it or not.  Politics is life.  The word itself, in its original Greek form, means “relating to citizens,” meaning every one of us is on the hook.  So long as you’re alive and occasionally leave the house to interact with the rest of humanity (tiresome as it can often be), then you are engaging in the art of politics.

As such, once a movie presumes to be about anything at all, it becomes a political document, and we are free—encouraged, even—to wade through any possible larger meanings it might hold, whatever the director’s intent.

In the current Oscar race, for instance, the big pre-Sniper controversy concerned whether Ava DuVernay’s Selma is unfair in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson circa 1965.  Because it’s about the Civil Rights Movement and its present-day parallels, Selma is political to its core.  (Its theme song, “Glory,” even includes a reference to Ferguson, Mo.)

However, take a deeper look and you’ll find politics intruding upon every last entry on the Oscar shortlist.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is ostensibly about nothing more than the experience of growing up in 21st century America.  But it’s also about single mothers, deadbeat fathers, alcoholic stepfathers, inspiring teachers, and the virtues of hard work.  Do you mean to tell me those are not political issues?  Open a newspaper:  When have they ever not been on the front page?

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a dark comedy about a washed-up movie star attempting to resurrect himself by putting on a Broadway show.  As such, it’s also about the nature of celebrity and fame, the integrity of art and (again) what it means to be a good father.  All political matters.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is about an aspiring drummer and the terrifying music teacher who pushes him to within an inch of his life.  Which means it’s really about the costs of ambition and the lengths that some people will go to achieve greatness and immortality.  In America’s hyper-competitive culture, coupled with our meritocratic national work ethic, what could be more political than that?

And so forth.

So when people say that American Sniper is not a political movie, they are wrong twice.  First, in the view that the movie has no opinion about America’s adventures in Iraq (to wit:  could it really be a coincidence that the one soldier who questions the war’s purpose ends up getting shot in the face?).  And second, in the implication that a Navy sniper’s psychological profile has no political dimension.  As if killing Arabs for a living were a purely personal matter.

Indeed, if American Sniper were truly non-political, we would not be arguing about it at all.  We wouldn’t need to.  And what a boring, worthless movie it would be.

No, the film’s inherent relevance to our national conversation about foreign affairs is what makes it so valuable and compelling.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t a deeply personal story as well.  Of course it is.  That’s what the cliché “the personal is political” is all about.  Chris Kyle’s suffering is real, but it has a context that we must acknowledge in order for it to make any sense.  We can only heed Eastwood’s central message—America must take better care of its veterans—by understanding what makes their return to civilian life so difficult.  There’s no way to do that without returning, sooner or later, to the policies that sent people like Kyle to Iraq in the first place.

Eastwood has been rightly criticized for simplifying this narrative into an old-fashioned “good guys vs. bad guys” story (every Iraqi in the film serves no purpose except to be killed), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should follow his lead.  Judging from the contentious response it has garnered thus far, we haven’t.  However unwittingly, American Sniper has re-ignited one of the most important debates in contemporary American life—namely, have the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy been one giant dead end?

To that extent, the movie has served a useful purpose.  Through the profile of one person, however lionized, it has provoked people to think more seriously about a subject of global importance they would just as well ignore.

Not bad for a movie that isn’t interested in politics.

Baker’s Dozen

Roughly a year from now, I will have lived in a post-9/11 world longer than I ever lived in a pre-9/11 world.

Presumably this means nothing to you, but it sure scares the hell out of me.

Know what’s even scarier?  Last month I attended the bar mitzvah—the Jewish coming-of-age—of a cousin for whom the memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks is no memory at all, because he was two months old at the time.

Worse still:  Last week I shot hoops and played wiffle ball with another cousin, aged four and a half, who probably doesn’t yet know what “9/11” is, and when he does, it will present simply as one more event in history, much as Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis did for me.

To my fellow twentysomethings, I ask:  Have we already reached that point where we talk to young people about September 11 the way our grandparents always talked to us about World War II?  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but:  Where does the time go?

While debate still rages, up until now my own definition of what it means to be a Millennial is that the formative global event of your life—albeit if only viewed on television—was the act of evil committed in New York and Arlington, Virginia, 13 years ago today.  For me and pretty much everyone in my graduating class, it most certainly was, if only because nothing else was quite so interesting.

Yet here are members of my generation—contemporaries, as it were—for whom September 11 means nothing because they were born just a few years later than I.

Indeed, Richard Linklater’s seismic new movie Boyhood, which effectively bottles up the Millennial experience for all future generations to consider, begins sometime in 2002, with a protagonist just old enough to be aware of the attack but too young to understand what it means.

Even as the film progresses—it covers 12 years in all—the only allusions to 9/11 are indirect or after-the-fact, such as when a young soldier recounts his tours of duty in the Middle East or when the boy’s dad rants about how the Iraq War was one big scam.

But the event itself seems to have had no immediate effect on this family.  It’s just something that happened far away at some point in the past.  So far as the movie is concerned, the world prior to September 11, 2001, is not worth mentioning.

So perhaps I had everything all wrong:  When the dust clears and the timelines are adjusted, maybe Millennials will be defined not as the generation on which 9/11 had the deepest impact, but as the first generation on which it had none at all.

In any case, it’s not like September 11 has grown any less important over time.  Au contraire.  With each passing year, it becomes ever clearer how the reality of so much of today’s world, good and bad, is a direct consequence of that horrible day, whether it should be or not.

To wit:  With no 9/11, there would have been no Iraq War.  With no Iraq War, there would have been no opportunity for a young, charismatic state senator from Illinois to oppose said war and rise to national prominence just in time for the anti-Bush backlash in 2008.  And with no President Barack Obama…well, I leave you to fill in the blanks.

(This is to say nothing of the effects of the Iraq War on the Middle East itself, but in the interest of time, I’ll say nothing of them.)

Every big political event has a way of altering the assumed trajectory of history, but 9/11 is still the Big Kahuna of our time.  It may not have “changed everything” right away, but 13 years out, we find there is very little about our lives that it did not change.  Its shadow only grows.

So in a way, it almost doesn’t matter that an increasing proportion of the world’s population didn’t experience the attack in real time.  For those born in the late-1990s onward, the post-9/11 world is the only world they know, and since it’s the only world we now occupy, there is little cause for alarm.

As someone who was already a teenager on the fateful day, and who saw the smoke billowing from Ground Zero from the top of a hill in my hometown in Westchester County, I guess I just didn’t expect this moment to come so quickly.  I wasn’t prepared to treat my own personal memory of 9/11 as something precious—something that wasn’t also shared, in one way or another, by every other person on planet Earth.

For this emerging generation—Millennial 2.0, perhaps?—I don’t know whether to feel sorry or envious.  On the one hand, today’s teens have never known the relative peace, quiet and civil liberties of the pre-9/11 era.  On the other hand, they also do not know what it is like to lose them.

Act Naturally

What’s the sign of truly great acting?  It’s when you don’t realize it’s acting.

“The very best actors,” Roger Ebert once said, “are the ones who do the least.”  Given a decent script and adequate preparation, he explained, a player in a film need only perform the physical actions required of his or her character, and everything else will fall naturally into place.

Watching Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most peculiar new movie, I spent a great deal of time regarding its protagonist, Mason, as a largely passive character.  In scene after scene, everybody else is talking and carrying on and being dramatic, and Mason just sits quietly—serenely, even—offering little more than a raised eyebrow or a subtle grin.  Things happen around and to him—indeed, other people seem all-too-eager to tell him how to live his life—and he just runs with it, content not to generate any sort of drama himself.

Most movies don’t allow themselves a passive hero, perhaps from fear of boring their audience.  Screenwriting professors forever caution against it, and Kurt Vonnegut neatly instructed budding writers that a character in a story “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

As Boyhood progressed, and the full measure of Mason’s personality gradually took shape, I realized I was mistaken.  Those early moments of introversion and pensiveness were not signs of a dull or lazily-written character.  Rather, they were the opening stages of an ongoing process that we might hazard to call a life.

Ten-year-old Mason’s silent wince when his dad talks to him about birth control is explained not by a timid screenplay.  It is explained by Mason being a prepubescent kid being cornered into an awkward sex chat with his father.  (Did I mention it occurs in a bowling alley and that Mason’s sister is there, too?)  His reaction is exactly what you would expect of anyone his age, albeit rarely in a movie character of any age.

A few years later, when he joins a group of shady schoolmates on a camping trip, quietly sipping cheap beer and allowing the others to dominate the conversation, it’s not that he has no personality.  Rather, it’s that he is a naturally reserved and easygoing person, and is perfectly fine not being the center of attention.

In high school, where he shows every sign of becoming a highly gifted photographer, a teacher gives him a tongue-lashing for spending too much time in the darkroom when he could be out there doing something lucrative and practical.  His response—shrugging the teacher off and sheepishly defending his work ethic against a charge of lackadaisicalness—might be dismissed by many script coaches as insufficiently confrontational.  In fact, what the scene underlines is Mason’s continued and determined effort to avoid confrontations.  It’s just who he is.

The cumulative effect of all these vignettes—the payoff, as it were—is a character not quite like any other in mainstream movies.  As Mason, Ellar Coltrane’s is an exemplary performance, because it never for a moment seems like a performance.  From the opening frame onward, Mason is simply a person we have the unusual opportunity of seeing evolve and grow.  (The movie was shot, little by little, over the course of 12 years.)  Yes, he is a fictional character, and yes, his lines were written down on a piece of paper.  But by the end of the story, we feel like we know him as intimately as many people in our own lives.  He has, through the magic of cinema, been transformed from a puppet into a real boy.

In the film vernacular, the word for this is “naturalism.”  There were points during Boyhood when I felt like I could go on watching it forever—not because its characters are exceptional (they’re not), but because they don’t feel like characters.  As with director Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Midnight (and its prequels, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), the movie plays like a real-time documentary, but with all the exciting drama and wit that actual documentaries rarely contain.

I don’t have children of my own, but Boyhood instilled in me the sense of paternalism that comes naturally to the job of parenthood.  Like his mom, played by Patricia Arquette, I became protective of Mason—anxious when he went off on his own; horrified when his drunk, abusive stepfather took him and his stepsiblings hostage; proud when he placed second in a high school photography competition.  I felt those things as I rarely do for a fictional person, but in this case they were earned because the person in question was made to seem real and worth rooting for.

As it turns out, the secret to garnering affection in the movies is the same as in real life:  Don’t put on an act.  Just be yourself.