2016: The Year American Cinema Was Saturated in Beauty, and American Reality Was Saturated in Ugliness

Spoiler alert: this piece contains spoilers for Arrival, Moonlight, and La La Land.

Something rare happened this year: the best American film releases — MoonlightLa La Land, and Arrival — were also the most beautiful. And, though all of them were well written, that beauty was more bolstered by their words than reliant on them. These movies share an elusive, almost mythical quality I haven’t equated with what I consider “good filmmaking” in a very long time: a certain polished “movie magic,” a type of beauty in which textures, sounds, and expressions make the viewer almost desperately thrilled to be alive.

Last year, some of the best films — Ex Machina45 YearsAnomalisa — were disquieting, and left me, for one, cynical and claustrophobic within the vast vocabulary of insidiousness that is human nature. This year, in the theater, I wanted to hug the goddamn world; and then I exited that decontextualized darkness, remembered what the world really is right now, and wanted to vomit all over it. 2016!

Normally — especially in American filmmaking — the films boasting polished, swelling beauty also boast sentimentalism and emotional artifice. Carol, I’d say, was an exception in 2015, with an approach that very much carried into 2016. Moonlight, Arrival, and La La Land also aren’t afraid to create totally immersive experiences, which engage and mesmerize rather than distance. (The latter being a quality I usually appreciate.) But exquisite aesthetic in these films isn’t gilding some void, but is rather rich and meticulous on its own, and this immersive quality is therefore not meant, as in so many other visually impressive movies, to distract you from that void. Despite hinging on visual and sonic poetry over verbal expression, the “beauty” of these three films is actually an articulate language intrinsic to each movie’s means of transcendence. For beyond aesthetic judgement, their thematic outlooks are the kind that make you recall them and think of the word “beautiful.”

Let’s look, for a minute, at how each film achieves particular sense of melancholy uplift through hyper-aestheticized means.

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Moonlight is drenched in purples and blues, and a good deal of its storytelling is visual. As such, it can ruminate on the physical and manneristic changes (portrayed by three actors) of the lead character, Chiron, as he navigates what his surroundings want to make of his blackness and gayness, coupled with the consistency of a sensitive, observing quality at the core of his being.

Director Barry Jenkins wanted to avoid the documentarian look of typical indie character dramas in honor of something more lyrical. He said to Indiewire, “Tarell [Alvin McCraney, the playwright whose piece the film was based on] calls Miami a ‘beautiful nightmare’ and I think what we’ve done is paint this nightmare in beautiful tones. We wanted to embrace the tension of that beauty, juxtaposed with the very dark things that are happening to the characters in the story.” And if what the film drives the viewer, and its main character, through is the nightmarish landscape of American racialized poverty and bullying, its look is a testament to people’s ability to extract a divine beauty from what they’ve been given. The movie is so focused in its visual storytelling that words don’t offer up its thesis. Instead, that core is found in a very simple smile of melancholy and remembrance and desire in its third act, a moment for which Trevante Rhodes seriously deserves an Oscar.

As I wrote last year about Cate Blanchett’s final gazing look in Carol, there’s something revelatory about such simple facial expressions, in the way they denote queer desire cracking through the social veneers (in Carol, a performative white upper class austerity, in Moonlight, a toughened black masculinity) which characters in oppressive situations have been driven to wear. All along, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton imbue the visual with so much weight, and such a meticulous study of physicality, that the language of faces is allowed to express what other films would say with words. And while the movie may plunge Chiron into assorted hellish isolations in his childhood and adolescence, its final chapter is hopeful and “beautiful” insomuch as the film reveals a character victory through this tiny gesture: though he’s been three different bodies, and though all three of those have been challenged and shaped by society, there’s a persistent recurrence of something far deeper.

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Arrival‘s story, meanwhile, largely centers on the importance of nuance in words, but somewhat ironically, the film’s storytelling nuance comes from its visuals. Though the script, based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, is smart and inventive, the dialogue is often more crude than the ideas it enacts. Director Denis Villeneuve, his production designer, VFX team, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson managed to strike the perfect balance between wonder and intimidation in their visual/sonic depiction of alien life; in an aerial shot that careens through sloping clouds, towards the minimalist goliath of a spacecraft; in an encounter through glass, made anxiety-inducing and vital by the chirping of an excited bird. Through such images, the audience feels a vertiginous sensation of not knowing what to feel. Furthermore, through the successful alienness of the way it depicts, well, aliens, the film deploys a sense of — you guessed it — alienation from one’s own emotion. But it does this, it turns out, as a means to turn us back towards its emotive portrayal of humanity, now with a transformed perspective on it.

Amy Adams’ linguist-savior character is shown as having had a daughter who died, but who we later find out hasn’t actually died — or, for that matter, lived yet. We learn that the alien language she’s studied actually allows you to experience time freed of its linearity. In a genre that so often gives us horrific portraits of the unknown, Arrival rather opens up what is known, and then pays homage to our persistence in living and loving despite those things: the future, like the past, becomes a memory. And though Adams’ character can remember her future daughter dying, she still decides to have her, both accepting and creating the inevitable. All of this is shown, nearly wordlessly, in masterfully un-cheesy montage, with gasping, fragmentary portraits of familial intimacy veering backward and forward. And so the ending is not tragic, but rather something more complex: it’s beautiful.

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And then of course there’s the musical, a genre that naturally eschews dialogue from moment-to-moment, leaping past the use of words in their natural form at every turn. Often musicals falter because this can be an easy way out, even trite. But La La Land’s vital yet melancholy soundtrack, its cinematographic focus on light and color (it was shot on celluloid for that reason) and its impressionistic vision of reality also say everything there is to say about this film’s core aim: capturing the metaphorical soul of an idealized Hollywood. A film about a place over-saturated with dreams of grandeur is honest about the fragility of those dreams, and the sacrifices they entail. It heightens, colors in, and romanticizes the overlaps and mutual exclusivities between love and artistic ambition. Happy endings, in their dissonance with reality, are not that uplifting: what’s uplifting is seeing someone pay homage to the pursuit of happiness rather than the fallacy of its achievement. Like the others, this movie’s ending can’t be reduced to “happy” or “sad.” It uplifts because it achieves beauty.

In one of her final writings, the essay “An Argument Against Beauty” (which was actually more the opposite), Susan Sontag noted that in the 20th century, “The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty — and the caring about beauty — was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was ‘interesting.'” But, she emphasized, “unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.”

That last sentence brings me to one last 2016 film — an outlier, and one about an America in crisis. Pablo Larraín’s Jackie works as almost a compelling meditation on the the way these other films now live in juxtaposition with what’s going on in the outside world. Jackie is far more questioning about the human desire for rituals of beauty and catharsis than the others — though the movie, while surely not cathartic, is absolutely another of the year’s most sweepingly attractive. (And another where words are secondary.) It follows an American icon — Jackie O., played by Natalie Portman — in the days after JFK’s assassination, attempting to aestheticize a ritual worthy of his life, a ritual big enough that it’ll create a legacy for a President who actually spent very little time in office. It draws on how theirs was an iconic status that was bolstered by their rare youth and beauty. Jackie thereby ponders the divergence between chaotic reality and that which is aestheticized, organized and symbolized in beautiful gestures. So you could almost say that the questions the film brings up apply to the type of overwhelming beauty we’re seeing in American cinema his year, and why such a thing might be so deeply resonant to viewers in a country that’s been thrust into what — to those of us horrified by Trumpism — can only feel like a tragic downpour of political ugliness and chaos.

Last year, or the year before, one might have stepped out of one of these poignant movies into the comparative normalcy and un-lyrical mundanity of the day-to-day — and that would have been contrast enough. But this year, you step out of them into a reality that appears the same, but whose context has drastically morphed, and continues to dismantle itself as we speak. Though these movies were of course made before the onset of this chaos, it’s funny that that old, lost notion of “movie magic” should reemerge in a year when the outside world has lost so much of its own sparkle. That’s not to suggest that any of the first three films are simple or coddling. Quite the contrary: none of them give into a naive optimism at all. But they all fight through the hardships and complications of human existence and emerge from it with an undeterred desire to express its beauty. Further interesting in their appeal is their aforementioned focus away from dialogue, and onto images, sounds, expressions. After an election where we persistently saw speech, and news, stripped of its meaning, the search for reason — and truth — within words has begun to feel exhausting.

One of the more legendary things that happened on the RMS Titanic — aided in its legendary-ness of course by a certain James Cameron film — were the eight musicians playing as the ship went down, and their metaphorical value. As you probably know from the billionth time watching Jack and Rose’s experience, instead of attempting to get off of the boat — or, for that matter, physically helping anyone else — the musicians sat themselves down and started playing, wanting to calm passengers, supposedly ending with Archibald Joyce’s waltz in minor key, “Songe D’Autumn.

Much speculation has persisted over which song was the last; which was the swan song that gave the nihilistic event the only sense of human control it could have, curating the meaning of the meaninglessness through sound. Legend has also pervaded — again, with the help of James Cameron — that the song was “Nearer My God to Thee,” though this was probably just one song they played. But the idea of art that reaches towards transcendence and divinity, coming at the bitter end, is something people cling to. For people who don’t believe in God, art is what we have. Art it won’t help anyone get off the boat, but it at least shows a continued desire in our species for self-reflection, something beyond the animal instinct.

“Hope” was a popular word in 2008. I’ve seen “Hopelessness” pervading in 2016 among those of us who believe the American political shift is almost irrevocably dangerous. To me this year’s darkest realities and most swellingly beautiful fictions together create an interesting in-between; neither the useless, almost faith-like and detached “hope” we envisioned in the past, nor the totalizing “hopelessness” the present may often feel like. Seeing, say, Arrival — a film about connectivity and understanding — and then stepping out onto the soil that will soon belong to a nationalist regime, I feel a more activated, embittered in-between of hopelessness (like I’ve just watched a eulogy) and tentative hope (like I’ve just watched something that makes me want to do everything my insignificant self can to ensure this isn’t a eulogy.)

Movies will not fix anything at all; we know this. But these immersive films almost become alternate realities where artists show that our capacities for self-reflection and social complexity continue to become more nuanced and beautiful. In this odd time, our potential for greatness is both more robust and more unlikely than ever.