For your viewing pleasure, I present the year’s most interesting yet neglected American movies. They reflect the varieties of American cinema and the kinds of reflection on American society that the movies can produce. Most will appeal especially to conservative audiences, but that does not exclude other audiences, nor does it include every kind of conservative.
You will find with each one of the movies a link to my essays on them, whether you want to be convinced to watch them or to give them a second thought. Here I explicate one of the big themes in American public discourse in 2016: what’s happened to American men? Whether it’s the white working class or political correctness or the future of the economy or the family, Americans know we have a manliness problem.
Of course, manliness is not an acceptable word in the American press, and perhaps even in public more broadly. Americans disagree, frequently along partisan lines, whether it’s possible, necessary, or acceptable to focus on men. These movies explore these questions with insightful, worthwhile reflections on American society. They’re not the box office successes of the year; nor are they the year’s most prestigious movies. They’re mostly unpopular, but nevertheless movies conservatives should watch, on the assumption that conservatives care to conserve the good in American society and to learn therefore about what’s good and what’s bad in it, and how they mix.
‘The Finest Hours’ (January 29)
This is the year’s most neglected movie, yet a good and entertaining one. It was costly and used its budget to make the sea look terrifying and American men look heroic with a combination of stubborn hope and practical skill in face of the sublime spectacle of the sea.
These are not important men, but American men with an important story. This is also a true story of a 1952 Coast Guard search and rescue in the most unlikely disaster imaginable, two ships sinking near one another in the same storm, off Cape Cod.
Chris Pine of Star Trek fame and Casey Affleck, a likely Oscar nominee again this year, deliver good performances as admirable men who have to rise to lead among equals in a situation of crisis. The movie might be dismissed as 1950s nostalgia, but it hardly glamorizes the Fifties. It says that in America various kinds of people could come together in a time of need and act for a common good, despite their private tragedies and life’s hardships.
That’s a lot to say for any society, but it’s hardly the way to talk about a golden age. It’s a realistic movie in its dwelling on human suffering and the mistakes inevitable to life. One wishes it had said much more about New England and the difficult relation men had to society. Nevertheless, it has charm and excitement on a first viewing and rewards some discussion of character and setting, so belongs on any list of the year’s worthies.
‘The Nice Guys’ (May 20)
This is the new Shane Black action comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in their best comedic work to date. Black is the best writer American action movies had in their heyday a generation back. He started his career in Hollywood with “Predator” and “Lethal Weapon,” then it collapsed with the action genre. He’s revived as a writer-director, with the hilarious action-comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), which helped revive Robert Downey, Jr.’s career and sent him back to Hollywood success as the helmer of “Iron Man 3” (2013).
In this film Black gives us a tour of Los Angeles in the 1970s. It’s by turn shockingly comic and shockingly immoral. The confusions of American freedom, in short, are everywhere on display. You cannot love what you see, but you have to admire the skill with which it is portrayed, including the manly yearning to protect something good and how a detective story can be a search for something truly worth protecting.
Black stories are attempts to find a place for heroism and manliness in modern urban America, though properly chastised by comedy. The story is a tad sentimental and the plot includes unlovely anti-capitalism, but these turn out to be small faults compared to the achievement of the film and the promise of more to come should a receptive audience be found. The movie is all about how men are judged against standards families set. Also, if you like action-comedies, Black stories are always set during Christmas, so this is a good season to go back and see them.
‘Love and Friendship’ (June 3)
This new Whit Stillman movie stars two of his lovely actresses, Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Yes, America’s Jane Austen finally decided to adapt an Austen story, if one of her juvenilia. Stillman is also America’s premier conservative writer-director, but rarely has a chance to find an audience, because his sense of humor is understated, and that does not fit an age of gross humor. Witty remarks are bound to lose the competition with attempts to exploit the body that basically reduce to existential despair.
A defense of moderation in an age of excess won’t please many people. However, he deserves conservative support. He’s about the last director who can tell interesting stories while preserving the decencies that make life civilized. His films are almost entirely free of the sordid and show a gentle sophistication that many will love if they but get the chance to experience it.
There should be a place for that in American cinema, but there hardly is any, to judge by how rarely the man gets the money it takes to make one of his movies, a small fraction of what is spent on any one of the many blockbusters of America. For all that, the Regency settings, dress, and manners are bound to charm some audiences in this age of English revival. The delightful story also doubles as an education about love and marriage, in a mode and with an intent that are far truer to Austen than the more famous adaptations of her more famous novels.
‘Midnight Special’ (March 12)
This is the first of two movies made this year by the most interesting young director in America, Jeff Nichols. His previous movies—from his debut, “Shotgun Stories,” to his most prestigious picture, “Mud”—illustrated what has become a highly politicized subject in America in 2016: the white working class and the terrible problem of anguished manliness.
This time, however, we get a strange story that blends rural America and science fiction. The result is wonderful, because it tells the story of a man trying to be a good father and to make sense of the world that way while running through a variety of strange American phenomena, from cults to the now omnipresent anxiety about America’s surveillance state.
At the same time, Nichols has some things to say about American religion and its place in society, as he did in one of his previous movies, “Take Shelter.” This film questions whether Christianity, with its faith in miracles, is a scientifically provable insanity or some kind of revelation of our true situation as mortal beings seeking God.
‘Hell or High Water’ (August 26)
This is the other movie about anguished manliness this year, the tale of two brothers in impoverished West Texas who turn bank robbers out of hatred against a mortgage company. Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who acted remarkably well together in “The Finest Hours,” have a very different, but even more compelling relationship in this movie, and one that dominates the story. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are their opposite pair: an about-to-retire U.S. marshal with politically incorrect ethnic jokes and his ironic deputy, an Mexican-Indian Catholic American.
Throughout the story we see women who suffer in a land where men are lawless or unsuccessful and the collapse of a society that once prided itself on self-reliance and whose defiance, bereft of the skills and the economy that made life possible, turns to self-destruction. The story is not without beauty and humor, but it is morally serious about killing and breaking the law and the strange sense of responsibility men can develop when it comes to failure. The writer, Taylor Sheridan, is also the writer of the recent hit drug war movie “Sicario,” and he seems to have a future in finding out where it is still possible to tell a story about the contradictions and dangers of manliness in America.
‘Sully’ (September 9)
‘Sully’ is the only big commercial success on my list. It’s the latest Clint Eastwood story and a show of his mature view of his responsibility as a film-maker, as was the recent “American Sniper.” Eastwood seems to think retiring is the same as dying, so it’s probably smart to think of these movies as his legacy. He’s trying to give America some sense of a future together as a country, despite the partisanship and fears that lead different groups into hatred.
This time, he’s trying to show that it’s still possible for Americans to find heroes in their everyday life. He takes his definition of manliness straight from Ernest Hemingway’s famous answer to Dorothy Parker: Grace under pressure.
Chesley Sullenberger, the man who landed a passenger plane in the Hudson after massive engine failure, is America’s mythical or poetic answer to 9/11. His story is in a sense boring or even banal. Very little happens. The only thing that’s really thrilling is the crash-landing, and that is what the direction denies us, the chance to treat this event as a thrill.
In America, everyone calls the man Sully, shakes his hand, and pats him on the back, but this story forces us to enter, as far as we can, into something like the friendship informality suggests. Eastwood wants Americans to take seriously a man who shows such manliness in a moment of crisis, in order to make it possible for Americans to have more reasonable expectations and a more reasonable admiration of men.
‘Hacksaw Ridge‘lo (November 4)
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is the second movie Mel Gibson made this year, in this case as a director. It is the true story of Army Medic Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. This is a movie about American manliness being tamed and redirected by the Christian faith and how this complex psychological make-up was necessary for America to win World War II without losing humanity.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is, for emotional impact, the Oscar movie on the list. Doss portrayer Andrew Garfield, who used to do ridiculous boy movies about Spiderman, gave another shocking, Oscar-worthy performance this year in the new Scorsese movie about Catholics being persecuted in medieval Japan, “Silence.” He has shown remarkable ability and made great choices for story and director, so I recommend him to your attention in future.
This movie is also an answer to “Saving Private Ryan,” which invented the modern way of making war films and started off the World War II nostalgia that goes on to this day. Most movies find it easy to focus on realism in depiction and find it very difficult to say anything worth mentioning about American character and about America. Where Spielberg came up with a meaningless myth, Gibson tells the truth about the war in a true story.
And if you think Gibson is sensationalizing the hell of war and Doss’s shocking achievement, read his Medal of Honor citation. If anything, the director is understating things.
‘Loving’ (November 4)
This is the other Jeff Nichols movie that came out this year, a story about the couple at the center of the best-named case in Supreme Court history, Loving v. Virginia, the anti-miscegenation ruling of 1967. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give very good, but understated performances in a story that’s itself too understated.
Partly, the story respectfully and adroitly avoids giving us the illusion that we know what is in their souls even as it shows us their private lives. Partly, it works under a certain burden: The couple famously were photographed for Life magazine, in a show of forward-looking liberal support for civil rights against a backward, unjust political order. But the couple did not attend the Supreme Court hearing of the case, although they could have. Nichols tries hard to show how the case arose out of their characters and the opportunities America gave them, for better and worse, but he fails or refuses to give the movie a powerful emotional appeal.
I recommend it not merely because its subject is of historical importance, but because of what the movie says about that importance. Loving is presented as a simple man from the rural South, looked down upon for his rusticity, but from a background that made him so friendly to black people that he simply treats them like other people. He is bound to misunderstand the political troubles of the South, and he wants no part in them.
Loving believes what Americans believe about family and happiness, and he seems decided to live out those beliefs. He is both a shy and a strong man. Instead of proposing to his wife, he takes her for a ride to show her the land he bought and his plan to make her a house. He is a bricklayer.
Mrs. Loving, on the other hand, is far more outgoing and it is she who insists on the lawsuit, in the context of the struggle for civil rights. At the same time, she refuses to turn the justice into a substitute for love and family, which is a shocking contrast to the civil rights pictures Hollywood makes.
I will add two more movies, briefly, which are too flawed to make the list, but which you might want to see, guided by elective affinities.
‘Bloodfather‘ (August 26)
Starring Mel Gibson, “Bloodfather” is a movie about self-destructive manliness turning toward protection and sacrifice, looking for redemption. It is a pretty good action movie and its moral core is surprising for its humanity, but it is not well written, either in plot or characters. Realism about suffering and about how difficult family reconciliation really is also recommend the story.
‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ (August 19)
This American animation set in medieval Japan is the story of a boy who has to learn about grief, how to separate the living and the dead, and what future he may have if he does not succumb to family tragedy. The writing is not good enough to recommend, but the Laica studios’ stop-motion animation and the moral core of the story are far superior to most of the animations that are massive successes in America.
This film is also remarkable for insight into the importance of poetry and music. It you want a shocking or provoking thought, the story teaches that grief is not an emotion, despite all modern psychology, with its stages and its fake rationalism or scientism. Instead, it is a song.
Go See Good Movies
Finally, movies are a business, so let me show the numbers for these, by worldwide box office / budget, to sketch the problem with making movies about America: It looks like a recipe for bankruptcy. Consider that a movie needs to make at least twice its budget at the box office to be profitable and you will see that telling important stories about America is not a winning proposition.
This is something conservatives need to change if they want to take the culture seriously. Generally, half the money a movie makes stays in movie theaters and the other half goes to the studio or distributor or whoever paid for it.
- “The Finest Hours”: $48 million / $70 million
- The Nice Guys”: $57 million / $50 million
- “Love and Friendship”: $19 million / ?
- “Midnight Special”: $7 million / $18 million
- “Hell or High Water”: $32 million / $12 million
- “Sully” $228 million / $60 million
- “Hacksaw Ridge”: $121 million / $40 million
- “Loving”: $7 million / ?
- “Bloodfather”: $1.8 million / $15 million
- “Kubo”: $69 million / $55 million
A majority of these films opened in the three most prestigious European film festivals. Cannes: “The Nice Guys,” “Loving,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Bloodfather.” Berlin: “Midnight Special.” Venice: “Hacksaw Ridge.” Further, “Love and Friendship” opened at Sundance.
Strangely, this year’s most interesting American stories made bigger waves in European festivals than in American multiplexes. It’s good to see European interest in genuine American storytelling, not least because it allows American artists to reach at least some audience, but there’s a real problem both in the press and in show business if audiences and stories cannot be brought together.