Did the studios fiddle while Rome burned in 2016? In other words, should Hollywood have done more to stop Trump and the Republican Party taking over the government in every conceivable way? Maybe. If so, surely one reason is that the industry is far less concerned with fiddling, and more concerned with the following question:
Do people still watch movies? Among their other screen options: video games, music videos, YouTube from around the world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Reddit, blogs, podcasts (usually talking about a screen), TED Talks, and what used to be quaintly be called “TV.” Why bother with movies with all these other options? In other words, what exactly do movies offer that the other choices don’t?
Well, 2016 marked a year in which the line between TV and movies got blurrier and blurrier, as in some Netflix content, bigger movie stars “stooping” to the smaller screen, “Sherlock” (is each episode a movie?), and “O.J.: Made in America,” which is claimed by partisans of each medium. As TV has become better and better, movies may be seeking some of TV’s cultural cachet. Certainly, films are getting more episodic and serialized, with fewer pretensions that any particular “episode” represents anything like “it all comes down to this.” 2016 saw the 8th Star Wars film, the 8thand 9th X-Men film (depending how you count), the 9th Harry Potter-related film, and the 9th and 10th Marvel Avengers-related film (also depending). Is franchise fatigue setting in? Sort of. The films are making money, even if evidence accumulates that people are tiring of rinse-reboot-repeat-ism. Sometimes Hollywood resembles a legacy energy industry like coal or oil, extracting every last nugget from the ground while hollowing out its future prospects.
In previous years, there was usually an original blockbuster comedy or two to provide a breath of fresh air, a Hangover or Ted. In 2016, not so much: Kevin Hart had a few base hits, Bad Moms was okay, Ghostbusters isn’t original, most of our other SNL heroes were in hibernation, and Adam Sandler took his racist pablum to Netflix. On the other hand, horror is rocking as hard as it ever has, with films like The Witch, The Shallows, and Don’t Breathe. In 2016, Hollywood was better at screaming than laughing. In a way, The Purge: Election Year emerged as the town’s most trenchant commentary on the year of Trump.
Another tiny problem Hollywood had in 2016 was “Hamilton,” clearly the most-favored entertainment choice of America’s teenagers (at least listening to the soundtrack). “Hamilton” suggests that Hollywood could fruitfully mine new territory by casting non-whites as historical whites, but it’s not like the town was ready to release such films in 2016, so that gave the year a sort of “Closed for Remodeling” vibe.
At the beginning of 2016, #oscarssowhite hit the town like a Pineapple Express (not the movie, but the weather system). In the moment, famously, Fox Searchlight overbid on Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation at Sundance, only to see its Oscar chances squelched by some of the same forces that brought it to prominence, including energized political correctness. Less famously, but more consequentially, after #oscarssowhite, long-lingering projects Fences and Hidden Figures were finally put into production. Good thing, too.
This season’s Oscar race seems oddly symptomatic of a town that chooses not to frontally confront Trump, in one sense: all of the most-favored films are made-up tales, not based on true stories. While last year’s power trio, Spotlight, The Big Short, and The Revenant, were based on actual events and people who really lived, this year’s power trio, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight, are entirely invented. If we go to Oscar handicappers’ sites like Goldderby, we find that the other films with the inside lane are also made up: Fences, Hell or High Water, Arrival, and Silence. Meanwhile the based-on-a-true-story films are very much on-the-bubble, considered 50/50 at best for Best Picture nominations: Hacksaw Ridge, Sully, Lion, Jackie, Loving. (Even the late emergence of Hidden Figures as a BP favorite feels more like a thing that happened in 2017.) This feels appropriate for a town riven by internal dissension in 2016, as expressed through #oscarssowhite and other liberal-policing twitter campaigns. Fantasy won 2016, along with the fantasy-peddling campaign of Donald Trump. 2017, in response, feels like it will have to bring some hard truths.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, here’s one: Denzel Washington just produced the best self-directed performance on film, ever. I mean, what’s the competition? A Bronx Tale? One-Eyed Jacks? Citizen Kane? I’ll give second place to Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. But Don Lockwood ultimately can’t approach the nuances and depths exhibited by the profoundly self-delusional Troy Maxson in Fences. In a year that may have been owned by “Hamilton,” Hollywood still has at least one trump card named Washington.