I don’t think I’m the only one holding the assertion that 2016 was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. However, from the ashes came quite a few amazing works of art that kept a smile on my face and stimulating thoughts in my head. Since I don’t have a functioning computer and writing extendedly is troublesome on my phone/iPad I will go in depth about only a few of these movies and albums.
These are my 10 favorite albums and movies released in 2016:
Movies of 2016:
Moonlight – directed by Barry Jenkins
La La Land – directed by Damien Chazelle
American Honey – directed by Andrea Arnold
Manchester by the Sea – directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Silence – directed by Martin Scorsese
Captain Fantastic – directed by Matt Ross
Star Wars: Rogue One – directed by Gareth Edwards
Denial – directed by Mick Jackson
The Lobster – directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (released internationally in 2015 but 2016 in the US)
Sing Street – directed by John Carney
Honorable mention: Arrival – directed by Denis Villenuve
Music of 2016:
Chance the Rapper – The Coloring Book
David Bowie – Blackstar
The Marcus King Band – The Marcus King Band
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood
Honorable mention: Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
I went to go see Moonlight at the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville, NC. I had very high expectations for the movie after reading pretty much every New York Times film critic’s ranking of Moonlight as the best movie of the year. Moonlight wasn’t playing anywhere near me in South Carolina so I went to see it one weekend in Asheville by myself. I bought a cherry coke and some milk duds, and proceeded to have my life changed for the next couple of months by this movie. I was moved in so many ways I didn’t even think were possible. Everything about the movie was masterfully executed: the music, the cinematography, the casting, the story, etc. Moonlight is set in Miami and is a cinematic bildungsroman of a lost-in-life black man named Chiron. His story is told in three chapters starting with his childhood ( I. Little), his teenage years (II. Chiron) and his adult life (III. Black). The movie is based on a play and was adapted for the screen by Barry Jenkins – a Miami native.
The story deals with in my opinion three main themes: identity, acceptance, and regret. Chiron is bullied from an early age for being small and not showing the same boyish qualities as his fellow classmates. Chiron receives little to no parental guidance or comfort from his single mother who spends most of her time away from home getting high on crack. Chiron is picked up and cared for by a drug dealer named Juan that looks after him and teaches him that it’s okay to be different. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa serve as the most important roles in Chiron’s life for their guidance in helping him understand his frustrations with not being cared for or accepted by anyone, much less his own mother. The movie seems to me to serve as a teaching tool for accepting your identify for who you are and not letting one person or persons that have mistreated you determine the fate of your life and identify.
The personal reflection of the drug wars and the struggle to identify one’s sexuality has never been portrayed so vividly in film. The most moving aspect of the movie to me was the music. Composed by Nicholas Britell, the musical themes for the different chapters of Chiron’s life have a minimalist yet heavy feeling that moved me deeply. Some of the pieces were created using the “chopped and screwed” technique made popular by underground rap artists in the early 1990’s. Just like Chiron’s personal development and shaping of his identity throughout the film, the musical themes shift literally to different keys with the same chord progression and symbolically to darker, heavier tones. I hear the music to this movie in my head everyday; it’s a perfect backdrop to the themes of repression and isolation in Chiron’s personal development and the stimulating cinematography.
The Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper
Anyone that knows me personally will tell you that I am not a rap guy. I used to dismiss rap music for being uncreative, abrasive, and synthetic. Before coming across this album, the only rap music I appreciated were mainstream hits of the 1990’s and early 2000’s like Jay Z’s The Blueprint (2001) and Outkast. Shortly before the advent of Summer ’16, I lent my CD case to a friend to burn CD’s on to their computer. When the case was returned to me my friend left a burnt copy of the collaborative mixtape Surf (2015) in the case. I listened to it and really liked it. It was only to my great fortune that The Coloring Book was released a few weeks later and I jumped on it as soon as it came out. I listened to it from front to back nonstop – I was enamored by this beautiful music. It’s the opposite of everything I thought I previously disliked about rap music. It’s delicate, creative, and full of a wide array of vibrant sounds. I’ve never been turned off by most hip-hop and I think I like this album/mixtape so much because it has a distinctly soulful, more hip-hop gospel oriented sound.
The soundscapes of the album vary from gospel choirs to more produced rap anthems – or a combination of both with “No Problem”. Chance’s voice on tracks like “Blessings” and “Same Drugs” singlehandedly made me a fan of rap music. The way that he breathes and alternates between a delicate/youthful/nasally sound and a more aggressive/biting tone in his lines is very interesting to me. I know this mixtape doesn’t display your conventional, mainstream rap sound because it’s more of a gospel album than anything but it encouraged me to search out for more rap artists like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Ocean – three artists I have come to immensely enjoy and appreciate. I have listened to this album more than any other released in 2016 and I think I won’t stop listening to it for years to come.
La La Land
La La Land is a musical, and therefore a very musical movie – something I’m naturally attracted to. I had not seen this movie before it swept the Golden Globes and I will admit I was pulling for Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea to sweep the Golden Globes the way La La Land did. The next day I went to go see La La Land and I was blown away by a number of elements in the movie. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling display their amazing talent as actors, dancers, and singers in a way I’ve never seen from them in other movies except maybe for Emma Stone in Birdman (2014). The music is beautiful and the visual grandeur in many of the fantasy musical sequences is mesmerizing. Usually romantic comedies are hit or miss for me since so many of romantic comedies today are lazily written and have weak stories. La La Land on the other hand is just the opposite. A long time passion project for writer-director Damian Chazelle, La La Land is the second film after Whiplash that Chazelle uses to display is immense admiration for jazz music.
I have a feeling that La La Land will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. There hasn’t been a movie like this in quite some time. The movie is innovative for a musical: it’s a love story that doesn’t follow a conventional Hollywood formulaic happy ending and conversely offers a powerful message about the unexpected outcome of the two lovers, and the movie pays tribute to old Hollywood musicals while creating new elements at the same time. The movie has you crying, dancing, and cheering all at once.
Blackstar by David Bowie
For all the musician deaths in 2016, David Bowie hit me the hardest. This album was released on his 69th birthday just two days before he died and acted as the final piece of the puzzle in Bowie’s long career as a musical performance artist. I can’t say I would appreciate the album as much musically if it didn’t have the implications of his impending death in the lyrical content, but as far as it’s release as a statement made about the end of his life/career, the power is all the same. The album sounds like his previous album The Next Day but with a less rock sound, especially considering Blackstar was recorded entirely with a New York-based jazz combo including Tedeschi Trucks Band bassist Tim Lefebvre.
The communication between musicians and instrumental expertise on this album is spectacular. Bowie was always good at recruiting the best musicians for his albums and the quality of musicianship on Blackstar is no different. The album has an experimental jazz, art rock sound which can be attributed to Bowie’s deliberate move away from a mainstream rock sound and his fondness for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), which he listened to all throughout the recording process of Blackstar. Songs like “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are so haunting to me. The music and lyrics of these two songs have a heavy, macabre tone that refuse to leave my head for hours after listening. The album serves as Bowie’s swan song, a perfect summation of his amazing career and life, and is in my mind one of the greatest albums of his career.
American Honey is a nearly 3 hour road film. There isn’t much of a clearly defined plot line and the movie seems to flow as if the interactions and conversations between the characters are happening in real time outside the confines of a movie script. The idea for the movie came to writer-director Andrea Arnold after she read an investigative piece in the NYT by Ian Urbina about magazine crews. It’s worth mentioning that Ian Urbina’s stories in the NYT have gone on to inspire the scripts of a number of movies including Promised Land (2012) and Machine Gun Preacher (2011). The basis of this movie in my mind is the ultra-realisitc view of the white-trash American dream. The characters in the film are runaway teenagers that abandoned their broken homes to join a traveling caravan of likeminded teenagers and go on the road in a van getting drunk and high everyday while selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. To these teenagers, getting intoxicated and experiencing life one American city to the next selling magazine subscriptions is the sucking the marrow out of life.
What moved me most about this movie was the acting and verisimilitude of the characters. Most of the actors are amateur, inexperienced actors and their performances are all the more realistic for not having formal training – it’s more believable that they are these reject teenagers they’re portraying because it seems as if in most cases they really are who they’re pretending to be. Andrea Arnold did street scouting to cast her movie. Sasha Lane, who plays Star, was discovered suntanning on the beach while on her college spring break and other actors were found at places like state fairs, parking lots, and construction sites. The bond between the characters deeply moved me. They’re a collection of all types of people you find in your average American public high school: some are gay, some are quiet, some are outspoken, some have lots of tattoos, and one has an obsessive infuatuation with Star Wars.
Striking imagery exists in a number of scenes in American Honey. For one, Star’s obsession with insects and setting them free is a parallel to the appearance and predicament of the magazine crew in which they are looked down upon by society for being dirty and tattooed, and they just want their freedom away from the confinements of normal society. Another is the de-aestheticization of the American landscape. Most movies that show some part of an invention of the American dream will tend to aestheticize the setting in particular scenes with lurid imagery and picturesque cinematography. In American Honey, the scenes show the dark, Lynchian side of America: abandoned homes in the midland plains, impoverished neighborhoods in South Dakota where young children roam freely around the house listening to death metal music while their mother shoots crack in her bedroom, little children digging through trash dumpsters to find their dinner for the night. There’s no exaggerating or romanticizing rural America in American Honey.
The Marcus King Band by The Marcus King Band
This self-titled follow up to the Marcus King Band’s debut album Soul Insight (2015) is a breath of fresh air. It’s very exciting to follow this band and their growth for a few reasons: Marcus King is a dynamite guitar player, the music is a blues revival of the kind recorded by the Allman Brothers Band and “the three Kings” of blues (Albert, B.B., and Freddie), and the band originates from Greenville, SC. I can’t stress enough how amazing and inventive of a guitar player the 20-year-old Marcus King is – it’s my contention that he will go down as one of the best of all time. While Soul Insight introduced Marcus King as a phenomenal guitar player that can write catchy riffs and songs full of power, The Marcus King Band establishes Marcus King as a robust singer and creative songwriter. Marcus truly lives and breaths the blues, something you wouldn’t expect to see from a 20-year-old white kid from South Carolina.
I’ve seen the Marcus King Band perform live 5 or 6 times and each time I see them I form a deeper appreciation for the band. They just keep getting better and better. The band has everything that I like about a blues rock band: cutting horn section, forceful vocals, explosive guitar solos/riffs, and a very tight groove provided by the rhythm section of Jack Ryan on drums and Stephen Campbell on bass. Marcus tours and produces his albums under the tutelage of jam-band scene veteran Warren Haynes. The relationship between Warren and Marcus is like that of a father and son for the music industry. Warren, like many in the blues rock scene, recognizes Marcus’s immense talent and does everything in his power to promote his band’s growth and development – even performing on the track “Virginia” from the album (Derek Trucks also performs on “Self-Hatred”). One anecdote to highlight the relationship between Marcus and Warren: The Marcus King Band performed the Phish/Gov’t Mule after-party show in New York City at the Cutting Room on December 30th, 2016. The show immediately proceeded the end of the Phish show at Madison Square Garden and the Gov’t Mule show at the Beacon Theatre. You would think Warren Haynes would get some rest and go to bed after a late, sold-out show at the Beacon. Quite the contrary. Warren was in the crowd at Marcus’s show at the Cutting Room and stayed until the end of the show around 2:45am.
I anticipated the release of this album for several months and poured through it as soon as it was released on Spotify on October 7th, 2016. My favorite tracks on the album include “Jealous Man”, “Rita Is Gone”, “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That”, and “Self-Hatred”. It’s exciting to see this band perform live because I get the feeling that seeing this band early on in their career is like seeing the Allman Brothers Band or the Grateful Dead perform early in their careers because you just know seeing them perform that it’s only a short period of time before they get huge.