The Year in Film: Ten Old Movies that Explain WTF Just Happened in 2016

Editor’s Note: A Face in the Crowd, Idiocracy and The Manchurian Candidate were to this list as Isabelle Huppert was to the Best Performances list. What art isn’t “more relevant than ever” right now? When the world presses in, too oppressively to ignore, one comfort is that art is already there to meet it.

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Keep up with all of our Year in Film features here.

Being There

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A dimwit whose knowledge is derived solely from television and whose drivel is mistaken for a “simple brand of wisdom” becomes a leading contender for president. Enough said. Jonathan Stevenson

 

Citizen Kane

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Though arguably the movie on the hollowness of wealth, Citizen Kane would be even more on point if Donald Trump had one-eighth the wit, charm, and intelligence of the protagonist of his favorite movie. But the film’s real significance is its suggestion that a bad man’s undoing is the Rosebud moment in his past. What if Trump’s rise turns on the fact that he never had one? Jonathan Stevenson

 

The Decks Ran Red

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Andrew L. Stone (who Sarrisites know as Lightly Likable) was far too earnest for his own good. So when he made a movie about a murderer, it accidentally played like documentary. That that documentary has a 2020 freshness date is something no one could have predicted. The great Broderick Crawford stars as a greasy slob who’s fed up with his job as a mechanic aboard a navy boat, specifically the part where he doesn’t earn enough money. He tries to get the crew to agree to a mutiny so he can overthrow the new captain and trade the boat in for scrap. When that fails, he decides to start picking off crew members with a rifle. An oily entrepreneur who thinks he should be in charge of an operation that will line his pockets ought to sound painfully familiar to Americans right now. And we should all be very afraid. Scout Tafoya

 

Gabriel Over the White House

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The first fictional US president was scarily close to our present reality. Walter Huston played Judson Hammond, a fast-driving, yacht-dwelling puppet promising a return to prosperity, in Gregory La Cava’s 1933 film. “Cabinet nominations are taken as a joke, and he is more or less dominated by Jasper Brooks, Secretary of State, who was largely responsible for his election,” wrote NYT critic Mordaunt Hall upon its release. After a car accident, Hammond becomes imbued with the spirit of the angel Gabriel, fires his entire cabinet and has new sympathy for the common worker suffering in the Great Depression. His socialist solutions quickly turn violent and fascist in this fast-moving and crazy plot. The narratives are confused because there were so many authors: the liberal but skeptical La Cava (who made one of the best films about poverty, Primrose Path), producers at MGM, and even president Franklin Roosevelt, who approved some version of this work of mixed propaganda. Most meddlesome was Citizen Kane himself, producer William Randolph Hearst, who was FDR’s supporter then enemy, and met with Hitler the year after this film was released. It’s 1933 all over again, with fascism and socialism looming, and too many writers and producers behind the scenes. Miriam Bale

 

The Great Gatsby

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Enough people (including, I assume, Pussy Posse/Wolfpack alpha Leonardo DiCaprio) have mistaken self-deluded grifter narcissist Jay Gatsby for an American dreamer that at this point, they’re probably right. Mark Asch

 

Hot Fuzz

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“Fascism! Wonderful.” A city boy heads out to the comfortable, boring, picturesque “real” England (where “everyone and their mums” owns a gun), only to uncover a heartland conspiracy of homogenous Little Englanders killing off “travelers” in order to—jesus christ I can’t believe this is an exact quote from a 2007 comedy, is nothing safe from our horrible zeitgeist—“Make Sanford great again.” The climactic battle for the soul of Sanford, fought along generational lines, climaxes as I assume most Thanksgivings did this year: with the incredibly sweet and grandfatherly Jim Broadbent screaming “He isn’t even from ‘round here!” whilst firing two guns into the air. Mark Asch

 

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein 

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The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein was completed shortly before September 11th, 2001 as a study of traumas caused by the Gulf War and resonates with painful relevance today. The three New Mexico-based main characters of John Gianvito’s poetic fiction film are all types that continue to be seen. Its title character, Fernanda (played by Thia Gonzales), is a Hispanic woman with her Egyptian ex-husband’s last name who wanders the desert in search of her children after they fall victim to hate crime. The war veteran Carlos (Robert Perea) comes home unable to find work or social acceptance and swells with frustration and resentment. Raphael (Dustin Scott) is a white teenager of privilege who searches for the most effective way to protest the war and find himself through political action. The isolated figures in these three snapshots all represent groups that have been too easily demonized. There’s no common cause that exists in the film—just people stranded in a violent country. Aaron Cutler

 

Margaret

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When political discourse becomes the equivalent of high school students shouting over each other with fear-based opinions… well, yikes. In Kenneth Lonergan’s sprawling masterpiece from 2006 (meaning it’s ripe for a social media comparison), everyone’s struggling to not make every interaction a disastrous one. People process their grief by swatting it towards whoever’s in their immediate view. Let’s face it—we all could use a drama teacher sitting us down and ordering us to work out our shit. Max Kyburz

 

The Mortal Storm

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As meaningless as it has become to compare things to the Nazi era, it’s still sometimes unavoidable. Frank Borzage’s 1940 melodrama studiously avoids the words “Jew” or “Germany”, but it captures the insidious way that sympathy for totalitarianism creeps into a society, especially in a pub scene in which the local Aryan lads bully the decent anti-Nazi James Stewart. The initial oblivious times give way to censorship, forced labor and worse so subtly (especially for borderline war propaganda), and the only consolation offered by the bleak ending is a possible rethink by a newly sisterless Nazi played by the always-great Robert Stack. Justin Stewart

 

Sometimes a Great Notion

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Paul Newman had a real mean streak that he allowed to come through particularly when embodying self-defeating working-class pride. In his own adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, playing one particularly un-PC member of the Stamper clan of independent loggers, Newman is like Reggie Dunlop without the sense of humor, or Hud Bannon without the pussy-grabbing. The Stampers are a family-run small business who haze their long-hair black sheep Michael Sarrazin (though Newman’s passively pragmatic wife Lee Remick is secretly sympathetic), and go down fighting in a dispute against one of cinema’s least accountable labor unions. (The one in Paul Schrader’s heist movie Blue Collar, featuring a broken coalition of mixed-race autoworkers, is another one.) The film, featuring beautiful extended sequences of men working with their hands in bad weather, was also released under the title Never Give an Inch, and ends with a severed arm giving the finger to the gaping multitudes. Mark Asch

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