By Josiah Wampfler
20. OJ: Made in America
OJ: Made in America was the last edition to my list. It is a five-part, nearly 8 hour long documentary that aired on ESPN, so as you may imagine, there was plenty of debate around whether or not it qualifies as a film or TV series. In the end though, ESPN put it into the theaters to qualify for the Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has named it an Oscar nominated film, so I figured it was safe to put it on the list.
Directed by Ezra Edelman, OJ: Made in America is one of the most meticulously researched and complex documentaries ever made. It covers not only the famous trial of OJ Simpson, but also his rise to fame, the racial climate in which he came to stardom, and how that climate ended up impacting the trial itself, American culture and OJ’s life after the trial. And like some of the other films on this list, even though it is a film about a different time and place, it is an extremely prescient work that speaks to many of the same issues we are facing today. OJ: Made in America is long, but it is engaging, fascinating and extremely worth that time.
19. I Am Not Your Negro
“The story of the negro in America, is the story of America… It is not a pretty story.”
If there is a quote that perfectly sums up what Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro it is this one. Based on an unfinished manuscript by prolific writer James Baldwin entitled “Remember This House,” I Am Not Your Negro is a powerfully personal documentary. Throughout its runtime, Peck uses only Baldwin’s own words, both from the manuscript and from his other works as he reflects on the lives of three Civil Rights leaders (Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.), discusses the root causes of racism in his time, considers the effects of racism on the oppressed and even engages in a bit of film criticism relating to therepresentation of African-Americans on screen.
I Am Not Your Negro, narrated beautifully by an unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson, is a film that is supposed to make you uncomfortable, like Baldwin did in his own time. Yet, what makes it all the more uncomfortable is how true Baldwin’s words still ring today. And Peck highlights this as he uses both archival footage from Baldwin’s time and images from recent incidents of police violence against African-Americans and the protests that resulted. It is as if Baldwin is speaking directly to this new generation in 2017.
But, what makes I Am Not Your Negro truly powerful is that, in Baldwin’s reflection on these three Civil Rights leaders who had very different strategies and styles, he never hails one as the correct one. I Am Not Your Negro is not about what African-Americans can do better in their messaging or anything like that. As the title suggests, the film is speaking directly to America as a whole and the white population specifically. Toward the end of the film, Baldwin crystallizes this thesis in a statement, calling for the white population to ask itself “Why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place.” He continues, “Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, then you need it. And you have to find out why.” Baldwin’s words, though meant for an earlier audience ring far too true today as he calls for a moment of national self-reflection I think we still clearly need.
18. Don’t Breathe
I have a whole review for Don’t Breathe that you can check out here, so I’ll keep this brief.
Don’t Breathe is one of the most intense theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. My heart was racing the whole way through and was still going miles away from the theater as I raced home. It is a tightly constructed thriller that knows the meaning of planting and payoff. It has a stellar villain played by Stephen Lang and a great pair of actors in the leads. And, the cinematography is simply stunning. If you are down for an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, then check out Don’t Breathe.
17. 10 Cloverfield Lane
From the very first frame of 10 Cloverfield Lane I knew I was in for something spectacular. The film starts completely wordless, Bear McCreary’s dread-inducing score underneath as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle races around her apartment packing her things and driving away. Then, suddenly, the car crash with the film’s credits inter-cut within the deafening carnage. This is the moment I was introduced to the confidence of director Dan Tracthenberg.
10 Cloverfield Lane is like a masterclass for how to make a thriller. Throughout the film, Trachtenberg plays the audience’s expectations and emotions like a fiddle. From his terrifying introduction, we are never totally sure of John Goodman’s Howard, and that is completely by design. Just as Michelle, and Emmett (John Gallgher Jr.) to some degree, we are trying to read Howard’s true intentions and whether he is telling the truth. And even if you know of the Cloverfield alien connection, you still aren’t entirely sure. It had me on the edge of my seat the entire film.
Combine that with incredible performances by the cast (Goodman’s is downright Oscar-worthy), an insanely good score (see our top scores of 2016!), wonderfully inventive cinematography in a tight space and an insane final act and you have yourself an incredible thriller. If this is how all the new Clover-verse films are going to be, please take my money now!
Loving is one of the most beautiful films of the year. Its cinematography is not overly impressive, its score is subtle, but it is the characters and how the film treats those characters that is so beautiful. The story of the couple behind one of the most well-known Supreme Court cases in the United States is told not through a procedural courtroom drama, but as a humanistic tale of love, family and struggle. Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving are given their full humanity in this film. The court case to end the miscegenation laws to which they were subjected takes a back seat to the true focus of the film: their love.
The film is completely carried by the performances of Edgerton and Negga and excels because of their quiet chemistry. Richard is a man of few words, yet Edgerton gives him a full emotional arc throughout the film by taking advantage of every look and gesture. Mildred is also quite reserved, but Negga gives her an incredible strength and a positive outlook that is simply infectious. Watching these two simply lay together on a couch is a pure delight, which is also what makes every injustice they face all the more heartbreaking and terrible.
Under Jeff Nichols direction, Loving is able to take incredible performances and give them a deserved home. Though the film is very different from his previous work in many ways, there is the same sense of anxiety hanging over his characters as they disobey the law of the land just by loving each other. And, growing up in the same type of southern town the film is set, Nichols has a very interesting perspective on racism that lends itself to the film. This is not a black and white journey of heroes and villains, but a complex tale about a simple couple just trying to love each other the best they could. It is this combination of simplicity and complexity that makes Loving such a joy to witness.