Chaos and Compassion: The Definitive Films of 2016


The past year was a hard one to swallow. If we remove all the personal tragedies that we experience in private, our collective losses were still extreme. In the arts, we lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, and many other great talents. The country of Syria descended further into hell. Refugees flooded the western world’s borders even as westerners became increasingly bothered by immigration. Donald Trump was elected president after the most depressing election in memory. The world economy continued to hurt the poor and the middle class even as corporations and real estate bankers raked in record profits. The year 2016 will not be remembered kindly by a significant portion of the world—and rightly so.

In this sort of real world landscape, cinema was a rare comfort. It transported us and made us momentarily forget the troubles of our daily lives. However, even more than comforting us, cinema captured the personal and global chaos that defines our times. More than during any year in recent memory, the great films of 2016 embody the tensions of the reality in which they were released. And beyond mirroring the troubles of the real world, certain films provided catharsis from the chaos of everyday life. They showed a glimpse of compassion in hard times. It’s as if the great filmmakers of 2016 predicted the world we were entering and offered portraits of its capacity for chaos and compassion.

If we were paying attention, the signs of where the world was headed were there for us to follow. However, for most of us who are shocked by the state of the world, journalist and documentarian Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation acts as a sobering refresher on world history and mass psychology. Nearly three hours in length, the film examines the past 40 years of western civilization, focusing particularly on how governments, bankers, and technological corporations have stopped trying to better the real world and instead have created a simpler false world that caters to our egos while also robbing us of any agency.

The film’s title comes from a Russian word coined by Alexei Yurchak to describe the unreality of living within the Soviet Union during the 1980s. According to Yurchak, the dysfunction of the late Soviet Union was ignored by the people living in the country as they saw no functional alternative. This eventually lead the people to treat the dysfunction as the status quo, and furthermore, made them incapable of perceiving the truth of reality.

HyperNormalisation takes Yurchak’s thesis about Soviet life and applies it to the entirety of modern day capitalism. Despite the length, his film is rigorously paced, jumping rapidly between seemingly-disconnected subjects and linking them through lucid examination and provocative theorizing. In a year where so many people were left scratching their heads as to why the world is the way it is, Curtis convincingly and exhaustively explains how it came to be.

If Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation explains the superstructure of the modern western world, then Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America explains the particulars of race and celebrity in America. Produced by ESPN, the seven and a half hour long O.J.: Made in America examines the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson in painstaking detail. Divided into five chapters (which were broadcast on television), the film examines the minor facets of Simpson’s personality as well as the sociopolitical context of his life and trail. The film takes three hours before it even comes to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the ensuing trial. Before that, it examines Simpson’s remarkable career as an athlete and movie star as well as the Los Angeles Police Department’s long and racist history with African Americans.

O.J.: Made in America is a film that believes in context. While it stands as an exhaustive investigation of O.J. Simpson and his crime—a rare documentary to match a written work on its subject—it argues that Simpson is impossible to understand without examining the economic, political, and racial culture that he lived in. This sort of contextual examination is lacking in our public sphere and the media, where racial discord and heinous crime is often dismissed without understanding the environment which breeds it. O.J.: Made in America is an example of the sort of journalism that major media institutions were incapable of in 2016.

The past year also demonstrated that people no longer care about truth in the media because they don’t believe institutions capable of truth at all. The poor of America have been lied to too many times and 2016 was their primal cry of rage. Economic hardship from the 2008 financial crisis and government’s inability to correct the faults of that crisis have created a lost America. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water captures this America better than any other film of the year. It takes place in the rural towns in West Texas where jobs have dried up and banks and casinos are the only sturdy institutions in town. Within this landscape, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) rob the banks that promise to foreclose on their family land.

The West used to be a place of promise and personal destiny. According to American myth, by going West, a man could build a life for himself through his own efforts. He had only to answer for himself. In Hell or High Water, the West is a desolation where past promises have dried up. It’s a revisionist western in that it shows how modern America is incapable of the self-determination of its founding myths. Hell or High Water shows the desperation that underpins much of rural America and its absolute distrust of governments and institutions. In one of its most canny moves, it also outlines the hypocrisy of white America’s current rage at western civilization by linking the banks’ robbery of American land to America’s colonization of indigenous cultures.

It’s not just poor white America that was given a voice in 2016. Poor black America had its own story in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which told the story of a poor, gay black man growing up in Miami. The film divided the story of Chiron into three chapters depicting his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In the particulars of Chiron’s life—he’s gay, but doesn’t know how to verbalize his feelings; his mother played by Naomie Harris uses affection as a weapon; the boy he likes is pressured into becoming his tormentor—we come to understand how an individual hides his identity and his voice in order to avoid pain.

2016 was a banner year for identity politics, as women, the LGBTQ community, and racialized minorities fought for a voice in the midst of political and social opposition from conservatives and religious communities. If this very public fight for identity often ignored the complexities of human identity in favour of media impact, Moonlight shed away the myopic discourse in favour of particular humanity. It showed that identity is about personhood and self-actualization, not just pronouns and political hot takes. By ignoring politics and veering clear of any self-righteous sociopolitical statements, Moonlight personalized the issue in a way that felt universal and compassionate.

It also showed that hope is possible in dark times. In the midst of economic and emotional hardship, it depicts Chiron’s capacity for compassion and connection. In his relationships with Mahershala Ali’s Juan, Janelle Monáe’s Teresa, and André Holland’s Kevin, he learns to open himself up and give and receive love. Moonlight shows that despite being poor, black, and gay in one of America’s poorest neighbourhoods—in short, despite overwhelming economic, political, and racial pressure—a person can still find meaning and acceptance.

If Moonlight shows there is reason to hope for personal community and self-actualization, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival shows we can hope for global community and compassion. Villeneuve is a dark filmmaker, both thematically and formally. His films are full of ominous scores by Jóhann Jóhannsson and meticulous frames by Roger Deakins and Bradford Young. Arrival, which depicts Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) quest to communicate with aliens in order to avert global disaster, is formally no different than his other films. For instance, Louise’s initial journey into the alien ship is terrifying and milks every ounce of awe and terror from the viewer. But the message of Arrival is hopeful.

At every turn, Louise resists our basest impulses. Instead of fearing the aliens, she learns to speak to them and comprehend their unique way of seeing the world. Instead of refusing to cooperate with rival nations like China, she advocates for an open collaboration in order to crack the alien language. And as the stunning final act of Arrival shows, Louise comes to reframe a life ended too quickly as instead a short, bright burst of vibrancy. She looks away from death and focuses on life.

At a time when the world seems more divided than ever, when we are encouraged to be wary of strangers who speak different languages and conceive of the world differently than ourselves, and to lock away our hearts in order to avoid heartbreak and trauma, Arrival was a passionate declaration that there is another way to approach the world. It argues for compassion and compromise and an open mind and heart. It argues that we can save ourselves by focusing on life and not death, on discovery and not repression. 

In the chaos of 2016, Arrival shows that sense can be made of the world and that compassion will win in the end.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.