On December 28, when Barack Obama posted a list of his favorite movies of 2018 (there are 15 films on it, listed alphabetically), you could see, hear, feel, and just about touch the paroxysm of rapture it set off within the film-critic community. To an extraordinary degree, he had validated their tastes. Obama, in that list, revealed himself to be a movie buff of the highest order, of the most exquisite and forward-thinking sensibility, the sort of avid consumer of big-screen quality who eats rarefied foreign films (“Roma,” “Shoplifters”) and critically lauded “small” movies (“Leave No Trace,” “Support the Girls”) for breakfast. Does he ever fall in love with a popcorn movie? On the evidence of this list: Not too often. But he’s got the goods to appreciate an obliquely sinister South Korean curio like “Burning.” I only wish that my own taste were half as excellent.
Actually, four of Obama’s faves (“The Rider,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Eighth Grade”) showed up on my own 10 Best list, so I guess I should be sharing in the celebration of his cinematic refinement. I suppose I should say that here’s yet another reason (as if one were needed) to feel nostalgic for the days when the 44th president was still president.
Except that I don’t feel that way about Obama’s list. The truth is, I found it dispiriting — an example of caution masquerading as daring. The critically approved good taste that Obama displays in his list of favorite films is so impeccable that I kept combing through the list in search of a flaw in the diamond, a micro glimmer of vulgarity or surprise, or just something a little offbeat, a dollop of idiosyncrasy that might tell us a bit more about who Barack Obama is, apart from someone with a platonically perfect record of movie fanship. His taste in movies is so good that it’s too good for its own good.
His list of favorites dovetails so meticulously, so literally, with the films that have dominated the A-list of critical reverence this year that some have actually accused Obama of getting help in compiling it. But since I think of Obama as an essentially honest dude, I’ll take him at his word. I’ll take his list as a true expression of his taste.
Yet what does that list then say about him? There are 1,000 feature films that come out in any given year, and Obama could have chosen any of them, but with the single (unassailable) exception of “Black Panther,” not one of his choices is an all-stops-out mainstream Hollywood movie — unless you count the logy sci-fi genre-bender “Annihilation,” which doesn’t quite qualify, since critics treated it (bafflingly, to me) as if it were “Alien” directed by Jonathan Demme. So it counts, for Obama, as another elevated highbrow choice.
Obama, I guess, is the film fanatic as supremely tuned-in connoisseur, but is he really that much of an artisanal purist? It’s a bit strange to peruse Obama’s list for a glimpse of what’s inside his heart and mind, only to be confronted by the hive mind of the cinephile-industrial complex. Maybe that’s just who he is, but if you accept the list as Obama’s own, what it reveals about him is that he’s a man who instinctively focus groups his own taste to within an inch of its life.
He’s the former leader of the free world, yet in his year-end movie list, where he could express anything under the sun that he wanted, Obama appears to follow more than he leads. For those of us who found Obama, as president, to be a man of awesome decency and intelligence, yet one who nevertheless failed to deliver a speck of the “audacity” he promised during the 2008 campaign, his list, in its scrupulous avoidance of anything that’s not officially approved or that’s (God forbid) controversial, highlights that wary, other-directed, go-with-the-flow-of-the-establishment side of him. The side of him that, in 2009, went far too easy on the criminals and sleazebags of the financial world who had brought our country to the edge of the abyss. The side of him that — I’m sorry, but stray outside of the box with me here for a moment — could and should have done more to try and lock in the confirmation of Merrick Garland as Supreme Court Justice.
I know, I know: That was all Mitch McConnell’s fault! Obama’s hands were tied. It was all about the Republicans’ procedural corruption. Yet just imagine if Obama — who, at the time, was the most powerful man in the world — had actually decided to break the rules. What if he had tried to shut down the government and take the issue directly to the American people? Imagine if he’d made a speech that said, “This can and will not stand.” You could argue that the trashing of the rule of law in this country began, at the time of the Garland nomination, with the Republicans hijacking the Supreme Court confirmation process. So maybe fire, back then, needed to be fought with fire. Imagine if we had a president from the liberal side who was willing, on occasion, to break the rules and make up new ones, the way that Donald Trump does (or, as “Vice” would have it, Dick Cheney before him). We used to have those people. They were called Abraham Lincoln and FDR.
In 2008, Obama came on like one of those people, but time and again (too often) he drifted along with the flow of the power of the system. The dutiful aesthetic correctness he displays in his movie list is, in a way, another version of that. Obama entitled his list “My favorite movies of 2018,” but did he choose the movies he loved or did he get with the program? The most telling thing about his list is that there may be no difference.