Dec 21, 2016

2016 in Review: My Year in Movies and TV

At the start of 2016 I decided to make an effort to watch more movies, as I’d more or less lost the habit in recent years. The intention was to watch one movie a week; when I look at my Letterboxd diary I see that in reality I didn’t even quite manage one every fortnight — but still, that’s over twenty movies I probably wouldn’t have watched otherwise. It was worth doing, and I intend to keep up the effort in 2017.

In January I started making my way through this Indiewire list of the best women-directed films of 2015, and it turned out to be how I found many of my favourites. Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother was the standout: it’s a Brazilian film about a middle-aged woman who works as a housemaid for a well-off family in São Paulo. It focuses on her relationships with, on the one hand, the family who employ her, particularly the teenage boy she’s raised; and on the other hand her own estranged daughter Jessica, who she’d left behind a decade before so she could move to the city to earn money to support her. When Jessica comes to São Paulo to take her university admission exams, these two relationships come into collision. I loved this movie: it’s incredibly perceptive and thoughtful about things like structural inequality, emotional labour, and the way class and gender dynamics shape people’s lives. The ending in particular floored me: I don’t want to give it away, but it’s an illustration of how ties of care and alliances between women can help them survive the horrors of capitalism. It’s moving and hopeful and never facile. I highly recommend it.

My other favourite was Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The film is set in a Turkish village, and it tells the story of five sisters growing up in a conservative environment, where female sexuality is heavily policed. As the sisters enter their teenage years, their freedom of movements is increasingly curtailed. Mustang is incredibly claustrophobic, but that’s exactly because it does such a good job of humanising its characters and capturing what it’s like to be a young girl in a patriarchal world.

Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays was lovely: it’s about a sixteen-year-old girl, Billie, and her relationship with her mother James. James is a trans man who has just started the process of transitioning, and over the course of a year Billie visits him every Tuesday so they can catch up. Again, this is a sensitive and perceptive movie, which highlights the tenderness, complexity and pockets of joy in Billie and James’ lives as they navigate gender, sexuality, and their relationship with each other. Billie slowly learns to acknowledge her mother’s full humanity, and the process is difficult, frightening, tender, and worthwhile.

This year I also watched more documentaries than usual, though to be fair my usual is pretty much zero. My two favourites were Free Angela and All Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP by Jim Hubbard. They’re very different films, but they were important to me for similar reasons — they’re reminders that life doesn’t just happen to get better, or society fairer. Every inch we’ve gained we owe to people who came together — in this case, black and queer people — and fought day after day. Progress and justice are fragile and hard-won, but they’re also possible through collective action. I want to keep this firmly in mind in the years to come.

I’ll say more about Angela Davis when I write about my year in reading, but suffice to say that I stand by what I said when I finally started reading her last year. She’s the best structural thinker I’ve ever come across, and has become one of my favourite feminist writers and activists. It was such a privilege to watch her tell her story and talk about her commitment to freedom and justice for all. As for United in Anger, I found it immense powerful and moving. I also watched How to Survive a Plague this year, which covers similar ground and is better known, but to me Hubbard’s film has the edge, for two reasons: because it features and gives voice to more women, and because it does a better job of illustrating ACT UP’s commitment to structural social change. For example, fighting for universal access to healthcare and changing the CDC definition of AIDS so women and IV drug users were not excluded from disability benefits were at the forefront of ACT UP’s campaigns, and neither of these things is incidental.

2016 feels like a quieter TV year to me, but then again I should probably note that I’d spent the past four years or so on TV catch-up mode. Last year I watched The Wire for the first time, the year before that Friday Night Lights, Parks and Recreation in 2013, and so on. No wonder I’m slightly less impressed with my 2016 discoveries.

This year, the series that looms largest in my mind is Deadwood, though I have a more complicated relationship with it than I did with previous favourites. I’d often seen it mentioned in the same breath as The Wire, and now that I’ve watched both I can see why. I was drawn to the sociological lens the two series have in common, and I can even see a parallel in the way the two narratives position Marlo and Hearst in relation to Stringer Bell and Al Swearengen respectively. I didn’t feel that the latter were defanged in either case, but the former take unrestrained male violence, ambition, and brutal capitalist exploitation to a terrifying new level. The way different characters react to these men — who challenges them, who appeases them, and the how and why of it — feels all too relevant in today’s world.

Unfortunately I came to Deadwood at a time when I’d reached a certain level of emotional exhaustion with stories that humanise violent men, and there’s far too much Al Swearengen in this show for my liking. It’s not that I don’t think these stories are ever worth telling, or that there’s no use in narratives that show us that horrifying deeds are done by people who are complicated and ambiguous, not by cartoon monsters, or that Deadwood doesn’t do what it sets out to do very well indeed. But it’s as I said: I’m tired of violent men, in stories as well as in life.

However! One of the main reasons why I stuck with Deadwood and why I loved it in the end is that it also features amazing women. I loved them all: Alma and Sofia and Martha and Trixie and Jewel and (oh my heart) Joanie and Jane. This is a series that literally ends with a woman’s blood being washed off a wooden floor, and yet there are also women who live and love and challenge injustice and protect the vulnerable; who show us that another way of being in the world is possible. There are men, too, who embody the ethos of care that makes life in Deadwood possible: Charlie and Ellsworth and Doc Cochran and Sol and even poor Bill Hickok. They all made this series worthwhile for me.

One series I loved in a wholehearted, far less complicated manner was Supergirl. I watched it at the start of the year, before 2016 unleashed its political horrors on us all, but the hope it gave me has stayed with me. Supergirl has the same kind, collaborative approach to superheroism that drew me to comics like Ms Marvel or Squirrel Girl, it explicitly tackles how fear and hope are used in political discourse, and is just generally an adorable show where people talk about their feelings and hug a lot. If there was ever a time when I felt compelled to follow this up with a paragraph explaining why this doesn’t make it shallow or naïve, that time is long gone. Also, I can barely describe how much I love Kara Danvers. I have yet to start season two, but Tumblr has given me a glimpse of some of the delights that await me. I can’t wait — it will probably be my January treat.

The Get Down, Netflix’s adaptation of Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree, made me incredibly happy. It’s set in New York’s South Bronx in the late 1970s and it juxtaposes the final years of disco and the origins of hip-hop, while highlighting the social and political context where they developed. The result is fun and gripping and full of heart. The music and the visuals are stunning, I feel hard for all the characters, and I absolutely cannot wait for the next six episodes to be released in the New Year.

I also watched Show Me a Hero, David Simon and William F. Zorzi’s mini-series about public housing segregation in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s and early 90s. The series dramatises real events, and as a European viewer with only a beginner’s knowledge of racism in public policy in America, I found Show Me a Hero well worth watching. I learned a lot, and although none of it was exactly surprising, it was impossible not to note just how recent the events depicted are. A whole city in the state of New York chose to go bankrupt rather than integrate their public housing, and this happened in my lifetime. Also, politicians ran for office on explicitly racist platforms, much like they’re doing now. This, all of this, is the context for what we’re seeing today. I liked Show Me a Hero a lot, though the one thing I would say is that in the end it proved too true to its title and highlighted the role of one individual at the expense of a more collective approach. But perhaps that’s an unfair thing to say, as the series sets out to tell Yonkers Mayor Wasicsko’s story from the start.

I feel like I ought to mention Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, since it was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Count me among the many people who have complicated feelings about it. On the one hand, revisiting Stars Hollow made me happy and brought me comfort just when I needed it. On the other hand, I found one particular turn of events heartbreaking, for reasons that are complex and personal and very spoilerific. I’ll just say that if any friends who have watched it want to discuss it with me and hear all about my Lorelai and Emily Gilmore feelings, please just say the word.

What about you? What did you love this year? And what do you think I should watch in 2017?

10 comments:

  1. Lots of good watching there :) I've heard of Mustang but haven't watched it yet, must try to track it down.

    I was one who didn't really get Supergirl. It was fine, and I watched it for a while but never really felt the urge to keep on, so I dropped it mid season 1 I think. Pity I didn't get it, because it has lots that I do like, just didn't hit the spot with me.

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  2. My 34 year old daughter, and I were very disappointed with GG. I quit before the end, but she told me the story. We both felt they were snarky. I thought it was as depressing a show as I had seen. And that stoopid Stars Hollow musical. So awful. The show didn't have happiness or joy or unselfishness except for dear Luke. The only high point for me was the little time Jess showed up. My daughter said she had to watch some of the old shows to get the taste of the new out of her mouth.

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  3. As I said on Twitter, I didn't watch a lot this year. Not much TV and very few movies. But it sounds like you had a pretty good year all things considered! I will have to check some of these out. Also, I've been toying with watching Supergirl, but I am realllyyyyyy super-hero'd out. But you giving it such a positive rec makes me interested again.

    I would love to hear if you would consider or did indeed try The Good Place. Of all the new shows this fall on network American TV, it's the only one I can say I just love, can't wait to watch when a new episode is available etc. It's just a thirteen episode comedy but it doesn't feel like a typical comedy to me. It's created by Michael Schur (co-creator of Parks and Rec) and stars our dear Kristen Bell. Anyway, I love it a whole lot. Anyway the first season is not quite over, there are a few eps left, but it's been a good discovery.
    I'll also have to get to the Get Down. I was so excited for it, but my mood for TV fluctuates quite frequently and I haven't watched it yet.

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  4. I wish I was more of a movie or TV watcher, but I am so bad at it. I should try to find a way to work it into 2017 more. I honestly would just have to read less, but sometimes I can hardly find time to read let alone anything else. lol

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  5. I loved Mustang! I put The Second Mother in the queue. I finally watched What Happened Miss Simone-found it on Netflix streaming. So, so, so powerful. And thanks for reminding me I meant to read Angela Davis this year but did not get to her. I put the Free Angela movie is my queue as well.

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  6. I'm so excited for you to see SUPERGIRL S2! I miss Cat awfully much, but I'm loving a lot of the other stuff they've been doing this season. There's lots of politics! And Alex is gay! And everyone hangs out in a warehouse bar, like they're channelling the Scoobies!

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  7. spoliery comments ahead for the new series, so read at your own peril!





    I found the treatment of Rory’s love life extremely problematic. On the one hand, seeing as how very she was into Logan, I can see why she’d continue dallying with him. On the other, I dunno—I mean shouldn’t the last ten years have given her some perspective, some movement, some growth, well, SOME THING?

    Same with Loerlai. She and Luke have been together for so many years, and they still have communication problems of the exact same kind they were having when they got together? In the first three episodes, right till Loerlai’s “wild” adventure, I felt the same lack of growth? movement? whatever both in L & L’s relationship, as well as in Lorelai herself.

    It felt to me as if the new series picked up EXACTLY where the original left off, and this was both comforting and disconcerting at the same time! I don’t know. . . I mean don’t people generally experience some movement/change over the course of ten years?

    I did love Emily’s character development. There were problems there too but Richard’s death made her story arc more believable. And I definitely loved the “job” she takes up! I thought it was SO HER!

    And the ending—I don’t know about it. It’s funny but if they leave Gilmore Girls as it is, and don’t make more sequels, I might like its open-ended feel.

    Anyhoo! thanks for all the other recommendations in this post!

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  8. My favorite new tv series of the year was The Crown. It's oddly addictive. I also really enjoy Mozart in Jungle and recommend it.

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  9. Oh good god, let's talk about Gilmore Girls. I procrastinated so hard on watching the series because I had fears (some of which came true). I'm not sure if I'm excited or panicked at the prospect of another season or a full come back for the show.

    You watched a ton of stuff this year! I'd love to make that a priority next year with some of your recommendations (as an aside, amen to violent men - I had to stop watching a few shows this year because of it).

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  10. Oh shoot, yeah, I need to go back and watch both The Get-Down and Show Me a Hero, two shows that I've felt an obligation more than an inclination to watch. I don't even know why! I think as I get older and older, I am more and more inclined to go to books for broadening my horizons and to television shows to take my mind off things. Is that an okay way to feel, do you think?

    I can't remember if you've watched The Good Place yet! Y/N? If not, I recommend it very much. It's a dear of a show that makes me feel better about being a human.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.