"That’s a moon rock," President Richard Nixon, played by Kevin Spacey, says. "Very proud to have that here in the Oval Office. That was given to me personally by a great American — Buzz Aldrin." He suggests his guest, Elvis Presley, pick up the rock to see for himself.
"No, that’s cool man," Elvis (Michael Shannon) says with a backyard ease. "Buzz sent me one, too." He’s Elvis, remember?
With that, Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, one of the best and most slept-on movies of the year, shows its hand. Its subject is a side story: the December 21, 1970 encounter between Elvis and Nixon in the Oval Office, and the resulting photograph that’s been a bizarre pop artifact ever since. There was a chance here to tell a zany story about a strained meeting between a president and a pop star (and in fact, the movie’s cutesy music is telling that story, to its detriment). But Johnson does something more imaginative, instilling her retelling with a sense of ceremony and symmetry; the Oval Office preparation is carried out with humorously delicate grandeur, aides and entourage handling the pop star and the president with nimble ingenuity. The result is a subtle provocation. Shannon’s Elvis, in particular, comes off as a surprisingly nimble, self-aware political mind. Even though his and Nixon’s statuses in Washington were not equal, their influence — depending on who you asked — might be.
That makes Elvis & Nixon a movie about political celebrity — a subject of some interest lately, or hadn’t you heard. Had it come out in November, rather than April, we’d probably have said it’s a movie about an entertainer who wields his popularity like political authority, going so far as to con his way into the White House. Which, sure — but I’m thankful I caught the movie in April and can play naïve. Like the rest of this year’s finest films, Johnson’s movie has a thing or two to say about politics, history, representation — "important things." But it’s not the kind of movie that can hold up under the joy-killing onslaught of our current cultural and political discourse. You wouldn’t single it out for its importance or instrumentalize it for its lessons: Elvis & Nixon, though still underseen, has been given a chance to simply exist.
That wasn’t the case for Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a movie that, because it’s a black, gay coming-of-age story, was being talked up after its festival debuts for the timeliness and relevance of its subject — less so for the sophistication of its vision. What’s with the tendency to measure serious black films in terms of their educational value? This will go down, movie-wise, as the year of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie whose lightning-fast rise at Sundance exposed, among many (many) other things, the farce of how a primarily white culture industry conceives of black art. I saw Moonlight twice before its release and thought to myself, each time, that I wanted the movie to be given a chance to be. Before the Oscar prognosticators, before the headlines declaring it the movie you MUST see, before the reviews asserting its importance (to whom?) and relevance (to whom?) — before, in other words, we’d all conspired to make the movie sound like eating your vegetables, or upping your woke credibility — I wanted it to exist as a movie. An experience. Not a duty, but a gift.
That’s because it’s an incredibly personal movie, with all its stylistic flourishes pointing inward toward the soul of its hero, Chiron. Speaking about it like an awards racehorse still feels crass, somehow, and beyond the point, as if what makes the movie worth seeing and talking about aren’t the ideas and lives it’s about but instead its place in institutional history and its necessity for white audiences. No thanks. Moonlight is granular and full of ellipses; rather than educate us, the film forces us to do the work of thinking about Chiron’s subjectivity. What had to happen to the wounded boy for him to become the hardened man? Those questions are where the sense of life that surrounds the movie suddenly floods into view. Moonlight shares with the rest of this year’s best films a tendency to find grandeur in the miniature, making the little details loom large.
The truth is in the details. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! depicts the social lives of a college baseball team in 1980, but what separates it from every other movie of its kind is the filmmaker’s attention to gesture and personal style, his habit of letting his actors discover their characters’ bodies on screen, in the moment. This film turns bromance into a physical vocabulary. (It’s also just a great baseball movie.) Whit Stillman’s Austen adaptation, Love and Friendship, exposes, through a woman’s conniving social negotiations, the extent to which language is power — as does the colorful, richly feminist ’70s pastiche The Love Witch, about a sexy modern enchantress who kills men by making them fall too head over heels (picture men post-coitus, crying themselves to death). The Love Witch was written, produced, designed, and directed by Anna Biller, whose signature talent is enriching her color-saturated retro style with the fierce intelligence of a feminist academic. Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, is an old-school clapback disguised (compellingly, beautifully) as an existential crisis. Its style is classic Eastwood: meticulous and precise, edited with the rhetorical force of a well-structured argument. He’s 86 and at the height of his powers. So, at 74, is Martin Scorsese, whose formidable passion project Silence, about the spiritual and political trials of 17th-century Jesuits in Japan, is the director’s most "your mileage may vary" release since his last religious film, Kundun. It’s as if he set out to rebuke everyone who posted a Wolf of Wall Street party .gif in earnest.
Each of these films tells a story — even better, each has rich ideas, and those ideas get expressed in ways that still feel unique to filmmaking. Maybe as a result of this, none of them seem too anxious over the state of movies. Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America does not care whether you consider it film or TV. The Witness, James Solomon’s documentary about Bill Genovese’s exploration of the infamous murder of his sister Kitty, tracks its subject with such a loose intimacy that it feels more like a diary than documentary. Movies like these were the reason I didn’t engage with each new breathless claim of the death of film. (Who killed movies? It was Lemonade, shooting from the grassy knoll! It was The Night Of / in the living room / with the razor-sharp prestige!) Movies aren’t dead — but my interest in that debate certainly is. And while Vulture columnist Mark Harris has rightly warned us against conflating the quality of movies with concerns about the health of the industry, I can’t help but want to remind people about Blake Lively’s sun-tinged Instagram feed in The Shallows, or about when Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice briefly morphs into a sexy CrossFit spot for Ben Affleck — the most brazen moment in a superhero movie this year. Movies are bad? Peep Paterson costar Nellie the dog’s mailbox gag and get back to me. Like, have you even seen Sully?
I had a good time in 2016. The pressures on the industry still exist. There are still too many superheroes, and Tom Cruise should still not remake The Mummy. But I am not anxious. Not about movies’ place, nor about their importance. Out of view of the zeitgeist, made culturally subsidiary to "San Junipero" and whatever the YouTube tweens are doing, Hollywood movies might learn how to become relevant again and start conversations, the way the 12 movies listed here did. This year’s best movies say: The pressure’s off. And they act accordingly.