If you want to understand Hollywood in 2016, look no further than the year’s box-office winners. At the time of this writing, nine of the year’s 10 highest-grossing films in the U.S are either animated works or live-action movies based on comic books or animated works. There’s not a single conventional drama or comedy for grown-ups in the bunch. That’s an alarming bit of data, and one that reveals why Hollywood’s output feels so formulaic — the vast majority of resources are poured into a few narrowly defined film categories, all marketed primarily to children and young adults.
That said, there was no shortage of original and idiosyncratic cinema on local screens this year — from the margins of Hollywood and the world of independent and foreign film (see my list below). The February 2016 opening of The Broad Theater improved access to non-mainstream fare in New Orleans by substantially increasing both the quantity and quality of films screened at local theaters.
New Orleans’ status as Hollywood South continued its decline in 2016, as reductions to Louisiana film tax credits took their toll. Anecdotally, many from the local film industry pondered moves to Atlanta (where much film production has migrated). But not a single film industry worker I talked to this year wanted to trade New Orleans for Atlanta, and more than one held back tears at the idea.
The year’s most successful New Orleans-centric film was Clay Tweel’s heartrending documentary Gleason, which chronicles former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason’s battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gleason is on the “shortlist” of 15 films still in the running for the 2017 Best Documentary Academy Award. Nominations, whittling that number down to five, will be announced Jan. 24, 2017.
Following is an alphabetical list of my favorite films that opened in New Orleans in 2016. With the exception of three films currently in theaters (Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea) all these movies are available for home streaming.
Cartel Land. The troubling documentary delves deep into the morass of the Mexican drug war to reveal the moral contradictions at its core.
Embrace of the Serpent. Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra’s hallucinatory tale resurrects the lost cultures of the Amazon by adopting the perspective of one who endures that loss.
The Handmaiden. This mischievous and hard-to-classify work from Korean auteur Park Chan-wook had more unexpected twists and turns than any other film this year.
Hell or High Water. David Mackenzie’s entertaining crime thriller also captures something essential of the American malaise in 2016.
The Innocents. French director Anne Fontaine’s post-World War II drama recalls a time when smart, sophisticated films for adults were the norm rather than the exception.
La La Land. The year’s most unlikely artistic success takes the form of an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. Give it a chance even if you think musicals are not for you.
Manchester by the Sea. Playwright Kenneth Lonergan fulfills his potential as a filmmaker with a moving and impeccably acted study in sorrow and grief.
Moonlight. Barry Jenkins’ unexpectedly beautiful, three-panel portrait of a young life spent on the mean streets of Miami offers a ray of hope in a dark and challenging world.
Mustang. This humanist story of patriarchal oppression and female empowerment in modern-day Turkey is both harrowing and life-affirming in the extreme.
Theeb. The first “Arabic Western” turns Lawrence of Arabia on its ear with the elegant coming-of-age story of a Bedouin boy trying to stay alive during World War I.