Variety Critics Weigh in on the Year in Film

La La Land Cinematography
Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Were you thrilled or disappointed in the films this year? In an effort to sum up the themes of the last 12 months of cinema, we posed three questions to a panel of Variety critics and pundits.

1. How do you rate the 2016 slate against those of previous years?
2. What was the biggest scandal or most-talked-about issue of the year?
3. What aspect of film this year made you stand up and cheer?

Not surprising, there was wild variation among their answers. There were highs (“Moonlight”) and lows (the Nate Parker fiasco). Also not surprising: Politics were a big part of the conversation. Here’s how our panel weighed in.

Andrew Barker
Senior features writer
1. On the whole, 2016 had more than its share of disappointments: unusually soul-crushing sequels, middling attempted Oscar-bait, and some head-scratching misfires from typically reliable directors.

But any year in which moviegoers are treated to a genuine masterpiece from artists they hadn’t previously heard of has to go down as a successful one, so thanks to “Moonlight,”, it’s hard to be anything other than grateful for 2016. Barry Jenkins, Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Nicholas Britell: These are names that didn’t mean a lot to me last February, but just the thought of seeing them on a future film poster is enough to pique my interest.

2. Aside from Michael Moore’s quickie documentary, no film released in 2016 (and probably few scheduled for 2017) was made explicitly in response to the rise of Donald Trump. But rarely has a single historical event helped shift my perspective of the cinematic year on a dime. Some films I’d seen just before the election felt immediately dated; others that hadn’t made an initial impact gained sudden relevance. It was shocking how prescient the year’s crop of documentaries suddenly felt, none more so than Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin study, “I Am Not Your Negro.”

3. It was an indisputably great year for film music — I say that even as someone who was left lukewarm by “La La Land” — and I was happy to see that despite the many established composers the Academy could have rewarded, four of the five Oscar-nominated scores came from first-time nominees. Most heartening was the attention for Mica Levi (“Jackie”).

Geoff Berkshire
Associate features editor
1. The Oscar race was a letdown for me, but I’d call the overall year outstanding. Some contenders are worthy of hall-of-fame status (“Moonlight,” “La La Land”), but who cares what’s nominated for best picture when you can sit back and enjoy a diverse menu of great movies that weren’t: “American Honey,” “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Aquarius,” “Elle,” “Christine,” “The Handmaiden,” “Loving,” “My Life As a Zucchini,” “The Lobster,” “Sing Street,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “13th.”

2. The controversy around “Ghostbusters” was sexist and disturbing — and a foreshadowing of bigger scandals to come in the presidential election. As fanboys whined about a female cast taking over their beloved franchise, the entertainment media feasted on a middling box office performance for a movie that probably should’ve been better but easily could’ve been worse. And then Hollywood was able to throw up its collective hands and say “We tried,” while going back to business as usual.

3. We take it for granted now, but there was no guarantee “Moonlight” would break out of the arthouse circuit and be the No. 2 most-nominated movie of the year. For the Academy that looked at “Brokeback Mountain” and “Boyhood” and said, “We’ll vote for the other one,” recognition of Barry Jenkins’ sublime achievement would mark a sea change in the kind of movie that can win best picture. No disrespect to “La La Land,” but that would be something to sing about.

Peter Debruge
Chief film critic
1. The year delivered a wealth of great cinema — assuming you could find it among the sequel- and superhero-dominated megaplex culture, that is. Look to the festivals and art-house screens, however, and there were many films that advanced the medium — “Moonlight,” “Toni Erdmann” — or offered political engagement over mere escapism — “Hell or High Water,” “I Am Not Your Negro.”

2. The election trumped everything, gobbling up attention from the moment a half-fictional character from “The Apprentice” announced his candidacy for president. His latest campaign is to discredit the very media outlets that put him in office, and though such attacks are undeniably chilling, I challenge my fellow media members to not get defensive but to analyze — and learn from — our disconnect with the audiences we intend to serve.

3. Biggest snub: “Zootopia,” which was nominated for best animated film but not for the overall prize. The fact is, the Oscar seldom goes to the year’s “best picture.” There’s a pretty good track record of recognizing “the film of the year” — the one that connects with audiences and becomes a runaway phenomenon — and frankly, I fail to see how “La La Land” qualifies. On the other hand, “Zootopia” shrewdly co-opted the Disney formula to engage with real-world issues of bullying, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence in a way that delighted audiences to the tune of more than $1 billion. It deserved to win.

Owen Gleiberman
Chief film critic
1. This has been a powerful year, brimming with achievements of every stripe — “Moonlight,” “Hell or High Water,” “Jackie,” “Deadpool,” “I Am Not Your Negro.” But one stands out. I have a special reverence for years that revolve around a popular achievement that is also an intoxicating work of art (“The Godfather,” “GoodFellas,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Titanic,” “Gladiator”). This will go down as one of those years, because of “La La Land.” It’s already mythic, iconic, defining. It has become an event: the new-style old-fashioned musical you have to see, a movie that speaks to us because, at a dark and turbulent moment, it represents a glorious escape — but also because it meditates on love, the creative life, and the economic pinch felt by dreamers in a way that’s very much of its time. Years from now, people will still be watching “La La Land.”

2. It would be a challenge to think of anyone in the movie industry who started off a year so high and ended it so low as Nate Parker. At Sundance, “The Birth of a Nation,” his acclaimed dramatization of the life of the rebel slave Nat Turner, was picked up by Fox Searchlight for $17 million, and many believed it to be on the fast track to Oscar glory. Cut to nine months later: By the time “The Birth of a Nation” was released, fallout over rape charges brought against Parker in 1999 (he was acquitted at trial) had completely stolen the movie’s thunder. It limped along at the box office and was out of the loop for awards love. The bottom line is that many people who might otherwise have seen it, especially women, chose not to. What was defining about the scandal is that it felt like a new paradigm: the educational example of how an artist’s career and reputation can be torpedoed in the age of social media. The fallout from the Parker saga raises a crucial issue for the future: Will there be new levels of scrutiny toward the off-screen behavior of those who make movies? The answer, in all likelihood, is yes.

3. The most significant surprise was the complete overlooking of Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” in the Oscar race. Think about it: It was decisively acclaimed, a box-office hit, and the story of a national hero. It made Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who executed an emergency water landing in the Hudson River, valiant and fascinating in ways we hadn’t considered. It was Eastwood’s most powerful film since “Million Dollar Baby,” and it featured Tom Hanks at his wily and sympathetic neo-James Stewart best. A decade ago, “Sully” would have had “complete slate of Oscar nominations” written all over it. The snub indicates just how much the Academy has shifted to an edgy/indie/progressive sensibility. “Sully” was a marvelous film, but it was a traditional marvelous film, and so — astoundingly, according to the new math of movie-culture acclaim — it was treated as an awards-season irrelevance.

Tim Gray
Senior vice president, features awards editor
1. It was a really good year for films. There are at least four best-picture contenders that could have easily taken the top prize in 2014 or 2015. And the lineup of documentary features, animated films, and foreign-language fare was also really strong. I only wish some of them (“Elle,” “Zootopia”) had scored a best-picture nomination.

2. The big news was #OscarSoWhite. Variety may have been the first to observe, back in January 2015, that this was an industry problem, not the fault of the Academy alone. But when the controversy flared up again in January 2016, executives, agents, and financiers began to recognize — finally! — that their vision has been limited. One hopes the effects will be long-ranging.

3. The year-end glut of films was more pronounced than ever, and most of the late openers didn’t get the awards recognition they’d hoped for. I wish “Captain Fantastic” and “Hidden Figures” had gotten even more attention, and I think films from two masters, “Sully” and “Silence,” will be appreciated more as years go by.

Jenelle Riley
Deputy awards and features editor
1. Any year that sees stellar blockbusters such as “Captain America: Civil War” and thoughtful indies like “Moonlight” is a pretty solid year. It was great to see popcorn entertainment like “Zootopia” tackling big issues with humor and heart, while offbeat, niche films like “The Lobster” and “Captain Fantastic” also thrived.

2. It’s tough to imagine anything more talked-about than the journey of “The Birth of a Nation” from Sundance sensation to fizzling at the box office after the controversy surrounding Nate Parker.

3. After #OscarsSoWhite, it was gratifying to see diversity in the acting nominations, with nods for seven people of color. It’s also heartening to see so many films led by people of color — “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight” — doing well in the race and resonating with audiences.

Kristopher Tapley
Co-awards editor
1. Overall it was a very weak year. I was disappointed or underwhelmed by far more films than I had anticipated. It started with the summer months, which were more of a slog than usual, then dipped into the prestige plays of awards season, when it seemed like master filmmaker after master filmmaker just didn’t connect with me. Happily, though, the Academy did a good job of distilling some of the better offerings into a largely agreeable slate of Oscar nominees.

2. The Nate Parker fiasco was bungled from the start and compounded as Parker appeared to take his own counsel on handling press. But I would mushroom that into a wider-ranging topic of entertainment journalists feeling overly intrepid in re-litigating past issues with no real compass on the matter. Oscar nominee Casey Affleck also weathered this around a sexual-harassment lawsuit he had settled out of court.

3. No matter how you slice it, “Moonlight” is an unlikely Oscar success story. Its beauty is in how its specificity reaches such a quantum level that it becomes universal. That it was able to remain a significant presence on the awards circuit, not just as a scruffy indie that could but as a dominant force to be reckoned with, is nothing short of miraculous.