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This Is the Movie Essay We Need Right Now

Nothing seems to matter as much as the present, which informs the way we talk about the relevance, urgency, and distraction of film in 2017

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Some real headlines: “Tonya Harding Biopic Is the Movie We Need Right Now.” “‘Loving’ Is the Movie We Need Now.” “Why ‘Hidden Figures’ Is the Movie We Need Right Now.” “‘Bodied’ Gives a Middle Finger to ‘The Movie We Need Right Now.’” “‘Sorcerer’ Is the Movie We Need Right Now, Not ‘Star Wars.’” “Why ‘Moana’ Is the Movie We Need Right Now.” “Why Andrei Tarkovsky’s Interminably Dull 1979 Sci-fi Masterpiece ‘Stalker’ Is the Movie We Need Right Now.” “‘Get Out’ Is the Movie We Need and Deserve Right Now.” “Why We Need to Stop Saying ‘This Is the Movie We Need Right Now.’”

First impression: We’re very needy.

Second impression: Nothing—not the past, and certainly not the future—seems to matter as much as right now. We don’t typically say, despite undoubtedly feeling it, that a movie is the movie we needed five or 15 years ago, because who cares, we’ve moved on. And yet I can think of a few reasons Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a feature-length side eye at white liberalism and one of the most profitable movies of the year, would’ve been a perfect movie to release during, say, the Clinton era, rather than in the tailwinds of the Obama era. Meanwhile, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, another of the year’s biggest box office success stories, is the biggest Hollywood project helmed by a woman to date. When we say it’s the superhero movie we need right now, it’s out of impatience: We were 50 movies deep into a genre by and large devoted to men before we got it. We say “right now” when what we really mean is: Woman superheroes, woman action heroes, where have you been? A genuine answer is that they were in two profitable, long-running franchises that ended earlier this year, just as Wonder Woman was getting started: Underworld, starring Kate Beckinsale, and Resident Evil, starring Milla Jovovich, neither of which gets called “the movie franchise we need right now,” perhaps because they weren’t vying for such a lofty status—or better yet because no one thought to sell them to us on those terms.

Wonder Woman was long overdue, so of course the hunger for it was especially keen, just as the hunger for Marvel and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, which drops next year, is reaching a fever pitch. It’s a sign of the times that we now have these movies, and that we’ll be getting much more of them. It’s also a sign of the times that issues of representation—seeing more people of color in front of and behind the camera, in a genre that had previously minimized them—should feel political, despite having so little to do with the fundamental, regulatory politics of our everyday lives. The urgency of recent history has made us all the more jittery with demands to this end. We need, we need, we need, right now, right now, right now. I love movies, but the second it occurs to me to “need” a movie about, say, the political climate of the past two years, I quickly catch myself. I want that movie, but what I need is, well, a better political climate than the one we’ve faced for the past two years. And better journalism to help me make sense of it. And better politicians to help me bring it to an end. After all that, or better yet as a running supplement to it, sure, give me a movie. But don’t mistake one for the other.

As a collective sentiment, “the movie we need right now” makes sense. We all have our reasons for running screaming from whatever it is we’re running from—work, politics, other people—into the open arms of movies and other entertainment. Oftentimes it’s about distraction, or the adrenaline rush of vicarious experience, things movies are still quite good at providing. Other times it’s about education, the ability of a movie to make us feel nobly informed and morally better off while also satisfying us in the least taxing, lowest-stakes ways possible, like when high school teachers let us get away with watching Doctor Zhivago or a Shakespeare adaptation instead of forcing us to read the real thing. The “movie we need right now” is always, first and foremost, a movie: It can challenge us, but the premise of the category is that it has to appeal to us, which means it has to entertain us.

If 2017 has taught me anything … well, no, I can’t reduce it to any one thing. 2017 has taught me a lot of things. For one, the movies vying to be “the movie we need right now” were almost universally letdowns. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, about the 1967 Detroit uprising, sought to be a sobering account of police violence and black political activism—it could’ve been a movie ripped right from contemporary headlines—and yet the movie was a complete misfire, a study of the brutal state violence enacted on black people that forgot to make sure those black people came off as people, rather than merely victims of history. Ditto to Martin McDonagh’s misguided Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which reduces the current cultural uproar over police misconduct into a platform for white Midwesterners to show off their most abrasive quirks and get redeemed for it.

Even some of the good movies, like Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Post, about the fight of The Washington Post and The New York Times to publish articles about the Pentagon Papers while trying to withstand the hostility of Nixon’s White House, feel a little on-the-nose, though not in a damning way. On paper, the movie is a lot of things we (meaning liberals) currently need, squished into one movie. It is, for one, about a hostile White House—no explanation needed. It is, for another, about the heroic duties of the press, which again, in our current context, feels like it needs no explainer. It’s also, finally, about a woman in the workplace, undermined from every side by meddling men. The Post was entirely filmed, and largely written, in 2017: It is one of the first movies we can say is fully of the Trump era, and doesn’t the movie know it. It’s telling, and sort of inspiring, that the Trump era should push Spielberg to make what can only really be described as a “You go, girl!” movie with deep political implications. Yet, seeing the movie twice, in the middle of ongoing debates about how the press should cover Nazis, Trump, the white working class, and so on—debates, in other words, that have called the strategies of the press and its fundamental duty to the nation’s citizens constantly into question—I admittedly felt a little weird. The Post is a good civics lesson about the Nixon era, but it not-so-subtly tries to transpose itself onto our current moment, with less success. It’s evocative, entertaining, handsomely made, beautifully acted, smartly written, earnestly heroic, and it is very much self-fashioned as a movie we need. But that only makes it easier to notice the needs it can’t quite meet, the contemporary questions about the power of the press that it both deliberately invokes and naively avoids.

Maybe it’s unfair to be unable to forget the rest of the world when you’re watching a movie, given that entertainment is so often premised precisely on our ability to let go of everything else. I think a lot about who we are when we walk into a darkened theater, or plop on the couch, and whether we can really leave that person behind once the movie starts. This is especially true right now, in light of the sexual harassment and assault scandals currently ripping Hollywood and other industries inside out, and deservingly so. It’s a good thing that the film distributor Orchard decided, in light of allegations of harassment, to pull Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy, a movie premised on thorny “artist vs. the art” questions that simply made it impossible to watch in good faith, free of justified rage. What’s telling, however, is that in some other universe, that movie—which is at heart about how we respond, as fans, to the art of known abusers—could also very easily have been fashioned into a “movie we need right now.” The known abuses of its maker have, ironically, only made the questions at its center thornier, more relevant, and more inescapably gross.

Relevance is complicated. I keep being told that movies suck, that they’re irrelevant, that they’re going the way of jazz—and then I keep seeing surprising, moving, adventurous, necessary movies, about immediately urgent matters as well as other matters that aren’t so urgent. Movies don’t need to be sold to us as what we need right now, or ever, to be relevant as art, but it’s true that this form of relevance is the way our culture is currently swinging, and it’s doubly true that art should strive to be about the world in which it exists.

But that requirement can mean anything. What made the best movies I saw this year—movies like Get Out, or a tiny prison documentary called The Work—so urgent wasn’t that they appealed to our immediate political needs in an explicit way, but that they appealed, first and foremost, to our humanity: our personhood, desires, identities, history, and so on. I can’t say I’m too interested in any grand pronouncements about the future of movies, but what I know is that movies, as an art form, will keep changing, and that there will also always be artists who seek to make movies about their own time. I’m not anxious about movies being relevant, or winning out, in the public conversation, over Stranger Things. The more movies I see, the less I’m inclined to impose my own needs. 2017 was the year of going wherever movies were willing to take me, and letting them be whatever they wanted to be—which was everywhere and everything, so long as I was willing, for two hours, to take a back seat.

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