I spent Christmas break exploring the America I’d only seen in movies, from John Ford’s Monument Valley to Clark Griswold’s Grand Canyon. The goal was to remind myself why I love this country, to chug gas station coffee, nod to old men climbing out of their RVs to walk tiny dogs, and chit-chat with a bartender in an Arizona ghost town, population 128.
Route 66 starts in Los Angeles and most rest-stops along it still deify James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Old Hollywood stretched as far as we drove. (Will Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence ever join them on T-shirts and thermoses? Even Brad Pitt hasn’t earned a magnet.) But we did find a cutout of Nicolas Cage in an unusual place: a Burger King housing the world’s largest exhibit on World War II Navajo code talkers. Maybe you forgot Cage starred in Windtalkers, John Woo’s salute to the Navajo translators who played a pivotal role in winning Iwo Jima. Maybe that’s for the best.
The surprise of the trip was that most tourists were international. They’d pilgrimaged from everywhere—Munich to Mumbai—to snap selfies at famous film locations. And not-so-famous ones. Passing through the Mojave Desert, I grabbed a burger at a diner that was the setting of the 1987 indie Bagdad Cafe. Maybe you forgot about that film, too, though it did fairly well in art houses. (It made more money than this year’s Midnight Special, a promising Michael Shannon thriller that torched its third act.) In France, however, Bagdad Cafe won the César Award for best foreign film. Three decades later, it’s so beloved that every other customer in the restaurant was French. “Only three percent of visitors are from the States,” admitted our waitress. “Seventy percent are from France. The rest are from everywhere else.”
That’s the power of Hollywood. It doesn’t just represent America to Americans. It represents America to the world. My road trip reminded me that movies are our country’s most public face—they’re our export and our ambassador. What do our films say we stand for? And how do they shape our identity when the president-elect is tweeting stale zingers from Wayne’s World?
Superhero blockbusters, our biggest export, have gotten increasingly glum ever since Christopher Nolan put Batman through therapy. This year, they officially gave up on white-hatted heroes. Suicide Squad starred convicts. Deadpool is a mercenary. Rogue One rallied behind insurgents until nostalgia made audiences about-face and cheer for that fascist Darth Vader. On a smaller scale, I liked Hell or High Water slightly less than Bilge and Mark. (As a Texan, I swear on my mother’s bluebonnets that no local would ever tag “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us” on a parking lot.) Still, I admired how director David Mackenzie deepened his hot yellow western—the genre that invented white hats and black hats—with shades of gray.
The darkness was so powerful it rewrote the past. We used to believe in happy endings. The Avengers saved Sokovia. Superman defeated General Zod. Jason Bourne exposed the government. But 2016’s sequels gutted those triumphs. Captain America: Civil War tallied up the civilian body count of the Avengers’ “rescue” operations and reframed patriotic Steve Rogers as an anti-U.N. Russian sympathizer. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice accused Henry Cavill’s Superman of being a skyscraper-smashing terrorist. In July, the week after Putin leaked the Democratic National Committee’s emails, Paul Greengrass’ fifth Bourne flick name-checked Edward Snowden and introduced an agent who was tortured because of Bourne’s previous online info dump. Was Bourne’s cyberattack wrong or righteous? Greengrass couldn’t answer. He just threw a bunch of cars at the screen.
When Captain America’s gone rogue, something’s up. Still, I adored Captain America: Civil War. The Russo Brothers grounded the franchise in human morality. It ditched Hulk and Thor—the big green guy and the cartoonish blond guy—to focus on Avengers forced to rely on their brains and supersuits. Black Widow and Black Panther and Hawkeye and Rhodey and Falcon aren’t magical. They’re just ordinary people doing their jobs with exceptional equipment.
That’s how I’d describe 2016’s purest film heroes. This year, we cemented a new genre: the docbuster, which regales audiences with brave tales of real-life modern men. Docbusters first bleeped on the radar when Lone Survivor and American Sniper were shock hits. This year, we had four: Sully, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day, two of which reteamed Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg with Lone Survivor director Peter Berg, and all of which took recent-ish headlines and simplified them, and their idealized saviors, into a satisfying adventure where the good guys win—or, at least, make it clear who’s to blame. Docbusters are strangely soothing bedtime stories that whisper yes, the world is cruel and dangerous, but everything’s going to be OK if a competent white man is in charge. They’ll be martyred for the world’s sins. For Sully, Clint Eastwood even had to invent an enemy. They must face down suits and skeptics and killers with strange names and bombs and guns. He falsely accused the National Transportation Safety Board of witch-hunting the pilot for the sole purpose of a slow clap. Forget sifting real news from fake. In two hours or less, docbusters flatten journalism into a GIF. They frighten me.
So let’s speed back to Hollywood for some razzle dazzle. Dana, I guess I’m left being the sole grouch who didn’t like La La Land. I’m also the only one who lives in L.A. Maybe that’s why I rolled my eyes at Damien Chazelle’s paint-by-numbers portrait of Los Angeles. The traffic! The sunshine! The baristas! Chazelle’s lived here for seven years, but the film could have been written by the French tourist peeling the breading off her onion rings at the Bagdad Cafe.
It must sound like sour grapes to fault a musical for being unrealistic. Musicals are unrealistic by nature. That’s why we love them—they force us to play by their emotional rules. But La La Land didn’t have a heartbeat, despite Emma Stone’s electric performance. Like Mark, I can’t stop thinking about her first audition scene, and the way she flings her head back before launching into a soft shoe shuffle, as though she knows the choreography is lazy but damned if she won’t give it her all. She’s a human defibrillator, and she deserves that Best Actress Oscar, if only for distracting people from how Chazelle barely bothered to write her a character.
My best friend Eva groaned that La La Land is “gonna be like Swingers for this new generation of dipshits.” At least Chazelle chose out-of-the-way landmarks that locals rarely visit: the Hermosa Pier, Watts Towers, the defunct funicular Angels Flight. Bros in fedoras won’t clog up our favorite bars. I wonder if tourists will visit La La Land’s filming locations in 30 years? Honestly, I wonder if we’ll remember it five years after it wins Best Picture.
For now, let’s make peace with the La La Land lovers by imagining a third alternate ending. What if Emma Stone hadn’t returned to Los Angeles? She might have turned out like Krisha Fairchild, an aspiring actress who gave up on L.A. in her 30s, moved to Seattle, and finally scored her first starring role in her nephew’s film Krisha at age 64. I ranked Fairchild as one of the breakout stars of the year. (Along with Neon Demon’s Abbey Lee—Bilge, I didn’t like Nicolas Winding-Refn’s glamsnooze either, but Lee’s ferociously funny performance is a must-see.) Dana, you put Krisha in your top 10. Unlike with Moonlight, it’s hard to say we need stories about pill-popping middle-aged women terrorizing their families, but what made Krisha feel vital in 2016, and is it a film you can see bursting out of the nerdy Film Twitter bubble?
And Mark, first, allow me to apologize for bringing up the bubble, and second, help me make the case for the year’s actual best musical, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Who wants to hop in the car and help me find the film site of Akiva Schaffer’s weed farm?