Memes and trending topics come and go, but one truth remains eternal: If you want to start an argument on Twitter, declare that an art form is dead.
In the old days, people routinely declared the death of the novel, but these days it’s the movies that are always dying in one way or another. (One can only imagine some prehistoric critic scratching out 140-rune declarations of the death of cave paintings.)
But why be satisfied with merely proclaiming the Death of Cinema if you can also assign blame to TV? That conversation got kick-started (again) during this year’s Emmys, thanks in part to Mother Jones editor in chief Clara Jeffery:
There is a lot of good television. And almost all movies suck. Direct me to the piece that explains this best.— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) September 19, 2016
Film Twitter, TV Twitter, media Twitter, and randos-with-opinions Twitter flocked to the discussion, and thankfully everything got settled pretty quickly and civilly.
Just kidding! This is the internet. When the dust settled, the only thing that was obvious is this: When it comes to the moving picture business, nothing is obvious.
There is lots of great TV, but if you’re ever in doubt that there’s even more bad TV, just go channel surfing. And the complicated economics of both movie and television production — coupled with risk-averse movie executives and audiences with more at-home viewing options than ever before — mean that some kinds of stories that used to be on the big screen (serious adult dramas, for instance) are migrating to TV. (Matt Stoller lucidly explained these economics in a 21-part tweetstorm worth reading.)
Still, saying almost all movies suck is like saying music is bad — there’s plenty of good stuff, but most people don’t stray past the metroplex marquees. The statement "almost all movies suck" reveals more about the person who makes it than the state of cinema. If you think movies suck right now, perhaps you’re just not looking hard enough.
This year has served up lots of great movies — not esoteric, snobby cinephile bait, but good, accessible films — and the fall movie season has barely begun.
As evidence, here are five types of 2016 movies the naysayers are overlooking, and a few (thoroughly non-exhaustive) picks for your viewing pleasure.
It’s been a great year for kids’ movies
The No. 1 movie of the year thus far, according to box office returns, is the solid, fun Finding Dory, and that’s no shocker — Pixar movies nearly always do well, and this was a sequel to a beloved movie as well. But summer 2016 served up a bumper crop of great movies aimed at children; even the worst offering, The Secret Life of Pets, was mostly just derivative.
But if you were looking for an imaginative kids’ movie this year, you were in luck. The smart, subversive Zootopia charmed everyone early on, as did a strong remake of The Jungle Book. The BFG, based on the Roald Dahl story, is a gentle, visually clever film that underperformed but garnered great reviews. Pete’s Dragon puts a new spin on an old animated favorite and features a dragon that was more giant flying puppy than mythical reptile. And with its combination of digital and stop-motion animation, Kubo and the Two Strings is unusually visually rich and striking.
Taken together, these movies point to an important trend in films aimed at the younger set: There’s more interest in innovative visuals — just having 3D computer animation doesn’t cut it anymore — and in telling new stories. Three of these were remakes, and one is a sequel, but all of them take their source material and reimagine it in new and surprising ways. (And, yes, The Secret Life of Pets performed well at the box office, but not as well as Jungle Book.) Maybe blockbusters for grown-ups need to look at the younger set.
The horror renaissance continues
Without a doubt, the most deliciously terrifying movie I’ve seen this year is The Witch, a creepy tale of colonial New England possession set in the 1630s that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. (I had to walk home alone in the dark after that screening, which I don’t recommend.) The film’s dialogue is drawn from 17th-century Puritan accounts of witchcraft, and in a fashion typical of witch narratives, it ends with an unsettling and feminist twist.
But if colonial witches aren’t your thing, that’s fine: There’s been something for every taste in horror this year. 10 Cloverfield Lane (with a screenplay co-credit from Damien Chazelle of Whiplash and the upcoming La La Land) is a crowd-pleasing monster movie starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, two of the most fun-to-watch actors of our time.
On the other side of the spectrum, Green Room is a taut, bloody, pessimistic thriller about white supremacists and a punk band’s gig gone horribly wrong (and includes one of Anton Yelchin’s last performances). Don’t Breathe is a sparse take on the home-invasion genre, while The Invitation throws conventional dinner party etiquette for a horrifying loop. And while it doesn’t surpass its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is another satisfying exorcism flick.
Horror has been on an upward swing for a while, with filmmakers reinventing genres and exploring what scares us today. This year’s best films follow that trajectory, drawing on the same sources of inspiration that horror filmmakers always have — witches, demons, sadists, sinister villains of all sorts — but twisting them around to make something new. (And if you’re not convinced horror is on the rise, consider this: The UK just selected the masterful Iranian horror film Under the Shadow for its foreign-language submission at the Oscars.)
Independent filmmaking is more audience-friendly than ever before
The best crowd-pleaser out this summer wasn’t about any superheroes; it was the story of a working-class boy in 1980s Dublin who starts a band to impress a girl. Sing Street, the latest from John Carney (Once, Begin Again), is a classic story about teenage romance set against the backdrop of broken families. But it’s also a lot of fun, with winning actors, an earwormy soundtrack, and a real tearjerker of an ending.
Sing Street is an independent film, made and distributed outside the major studio system, and like most of the year’s best indie films, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place in late January and early February in Park City, Utah.
A host of other great films played there, and then hit theaters later in the year — among them, the hysterical Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco); Ira Sachs’s small but poignant drama Little Men, which gently explored both gentrification and teenage friendship; the warmhearted and funny Morris From America, which gave The Office’s Craig Robinson the opportunity to showcase his leading-man talent; and The Fits, a startling, riveting debut film from Anna Rose Holmer.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a misfit buddy comedy from indie darling Taika Waititi — who’s slated to direct Thor: Ragnarok next — was pure delight, while Don’t Think Twice, from comedian Mike Birbiglia (probably best known for his appearances on This American Life), explored friendship in the context of standup comedy. And if dark comedy was more your style, The Lobster was ready with its bizarre, disturbingly humorous take on modern romance.
What’s most striking about these films is that few fit the stereotypical idea of a "quirky" indie movie. Most of these are comedies — though there are just as many tremendous dramas, the lion’s share of which are headed our way this fall — and there’s something here for everyone, from teenagers to Grandma. Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t make it to wide release, but if audiences pay attention and start clamoring for them, that could change — especially if big-budget studio comedies continue to flounder.
Nonfiction cinema has never been better
Once upon a time, many people thought about "documentaries" as informational movies that educate you about the world. But the world of nonfiction movies is bursting with imagination, and filmmakers are telling engaging, provocative stories that challenge viewers’ ideas about themselves. Most of the best nonfiction films can be found at the True/False Film Festival, which takes place in March in Columbia, Missouri.
This year’s most critically celebrated example is Kate Plays Christine, from Actress director Robert Greene, which blurs the staged and the spontaneous to confront how we think about celebrity and performance. Weiner plays like a raucous political farce (and it just keeps getting more farcical). Cameraperson, a haunting visual memoir by veteran doc cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, splices together footage left on the cutting room floor from films Johnson has shot to tell the story of a life.
The long, five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America, which played at some festivals and in theaters before airing on television, worked as both a strong companion piece to the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and a searing standalone take on the culture that produced the Simpson case and hasn’t healed from it yet. And Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is a documentary about the internet age, which sounds terrible but is actually insightful about the human benefits and toll being "always on."
Nonfiction filmmaking spans genres as broadly as nonfiction writing, from journalism to memoir to experimental work, and so there’s unlimited potential for viewers who are interested in the real world. (After all, memoir is still one of the highest-selling genres of books.) All most audiences need is a new way of thinking about documentaries as more than just something you watch on PBS. (Though the Hamilton’s America documentary, slated to air on PBS on October 21 after its premiere at the New York Film Festival, should pull in a lot of Hamilton-heads.)
Great movies come from beyond American borders
One of the most troubling aspects of declaring that "most movies suck" is that it suggests the only movies worth talking about are made in an American (or maybe British) context. But some of the best filmmaking on the planet is happening everywhere else.
The words "German" and "comedy" may not seem to go together, but Toni Erdmann is easily one of the best films of the year, provoking tears of both laughter and real feeling. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Son; Two Days, One Night) earned praise for The Unknown Girl, while French director Olivier Assayas cast Kristen Stewart in the ghost story Personal Shopper.
Isabelle Huppert stars in Elle, the controversial first French-language film from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct). Graduation, from Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) is a gripping look at the shifting balance of power — and the things that never change — in contemporary Romania. Asghar Farhadi’s suspenseful drama The Salesman explores gender and domesticity in Iran. And Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden is completely off the hook, which is no surprise, coming from the director of Oldboy.
True, you have to dig a bit to find out about these films, and there’s a sizable lag between when they’re introduced to critics and select audiences — often at the Cannes Film Festival in May — and when you can look them up at the theater or on demand. But there’s a lot to anticipate, and thanks to streaming platforms, more people can see them than ever before.
And let’s not forget the outliers
There’s a tendency to lump all wide-release movies together and declare them awful, but plenty of movies at your local multiplex were worth watching. There was the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, or the buddy-cop neo-noir The Nice Guys. You could go see Midnight Special if you were looking for a sci-fi flick with an artistic soul, or The Shallows if you wanted to see Blake Lively battle a shark for a few hours. Critic- and crowd-pleaser Hell or High Water, a contemporary take on both Westerns and heists, continues to expand into new theaters. In the past few weeks, you could see The Light Between Oceans and Sully, both good, serious films for grown-ups. As the fall movie season ramps up, more are en route.
Plus, of course, this year gave us Lemonade.
So here’s the moral of the story: To say movies suck is really to say that big Hollywood blockbusters aren’t what they used to be. But there’s a lot out there for people who are willing to look past the ends of their noses. And the curious are richly rewarded.