My top 10 list this year contains a 45-minute IMAX film and an 8-hour ESPN documentary. My list also includes films from some of my favorite directors: Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold, Denis Villeneuve, Jeff Nichols, Jim Jarmusch. It was a year in which established directors took risks and up-and-coming directors reached new heights. It was a year which saw a first in the history of cinema: two films by Terrence Malick released in one calendar year. It was a year that gave us not one but two nostalgic musicals (Sing Street and La La Land)
When I put together my annual top 10 movies of the year list, I consider a few things: the quality of a film upon first viewing, the extent to which it lingers (or doesn't), the beauty and truth it unveils and relevance it has in today's world. My top 10 list this year contains four films set in the past, four films set (more or less) in the present, and two set in the future, but they all have something to say about our world today.
The new documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amy, is devastating. Whether or not you were a fan of Winehouse's music, it's hard not to be moved by this film, directed by Asif Kapadia (Senna). It chronicles the singer's rise to superstardom as well as her roller coaster struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and other destructive behavior which ultimately led to her tragic death-by-alcohol-poisoning in 2011.
My best films list will be finished early next week (still a few films to see!) but I’ll go ahead and list my picks for the five best documentaries of the year. Many of these are available on Netflix Instant, and I heartily recommend them to you.
We Live in Public is an insightful but ridiculous film. It correctly theorizes that the Internet is pushing culture in the direction of vast openness and away from old notions of privacy. But, ridiculously, it assumes this will be some sort of jarring, fascist, unwelcome surprise, or that we won't all gleefully collude in the erosion of privacy. We will, and we are.
Yesterday I went to a press screening of the new film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. For those who are unfamiliar with this film, it’s an agit-prop documentary of the Michael Moore variety, with one main difference: it’s conservative. It’s about the evolution debate, and takes the position that Intelligent Design theory (ID) should at least be allowed a place at the table in discussions of biological origins.
The film stars Ben Stein as the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock/Al Gore figure—mounting an “op-ed” type argument that is less about why ID is right or evolution wrong as it is about why there is such a concerted effort by the mainstream science community to squelch any and all debate on the matter. The film begins by recounting about a half dozen cases of highly-qualified PhD professors at various universities who have been fired in recent years for daring to mention that evolution as a theory has some weaknesses. From here the film gives a general narrative of how the scientific and academic powers that be have aggressively sought to silence any dissent—either by ID proponents or anyone else with questions about Darwin’s theory.
I came into this film very, very skeptical, worried that it would be all about trying to disprove evolution and argue for creationism (thereby reinforcing stereotypes of anti-intellectual religious fundamentalists). I was worried that it would further reinforce the (false) binary that says Christianity and science are on two sides of a battle and can never have any common ground. But I was pleasantly surprised with Expelled on a number of levels.
First of all, it’s pretty funny and quite entertaining. Ben Stein’s hyper-dry way of interviewing people is great fun to watch, and his “everyman” persona makes him easy to sympathize with. His “anyone, anyone” Ferris Bueller character also makes him an appropriate choice for a film about the expulsion of dissenting ideas in the classroom.
Secondly, it’s a reasonably effective, well-mounted argument (if a tad on the manipulative side). The filmmakers interviewed many prominent figures from both sides of the debate, including an extended (and deliciously uncomfortable) interview between Stein and Richard Dawkins (atheist extraordinaire and author of The God Delusion). The film is smart to keep its focus on the glaring double standards and contradictions among the evolution advocates—who have built impenetrable walls around the sacrosanct theory of evolution and (in a very un-academic spirit) refused to allow any rational dialogue on the matter.
Indeed, the film hits a nerve in its critique of the contemporary American academy. As a graduate student immersed in academia and all its idiosyncrasies, I can attest to the pervasive and disturbingly hypocritical sense of close-mindedness that stifles the spirit of progressive discourse. It goes beyond the scientific communities in higher education and touches many disciplines. Quite simply: if you are not on the “right” side of the wall (whatever wall it may be), your voice is stifled, your work discredited, and your intelligence questioned. It’s gone beyond political correctness and is now something altogether more militant and sinister. Sadly, the academy today is less about the sharing and discovery of truth as it is about the wielding and protecting of power.
Critics will attack this movie and claim that it is manipulative propaganda, but if Michael Moore can get an Oscar for it, why hate on Ben Stein? Certainly the film has its faults. It is less-than-subtle at times and heavy-handed at others (the sequence on Nazism and Hitler as direct descendent of Darwinist thought is perhaps unnecessary), and overall it is very derivative of other films of this type. Obviously Stein knowingly mimics Michael Moore in his leading-question, “I’m going to make you look stupid” method of interviewing. But there are also direct parallels to Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. Like Gore in that film, Stein gives a speech in a lecture hall, incorporates “deeply personal” elements, and plays on apocalyptic fears (in this case, the fear that free speech is increasingly suppressed, East Germany style).
But Expelled’s lack or originality and copycat style is, in a way, sort of the point. It’s a film that very deliberately presents itself as an alternative type of film—the anti-Michael Moore, perhaps. It is trying to argue that there is (or should be) room at the table for both sides, for multiple arguments on any issue. But more than likely the film will be denied wide distribution or much (if any) press coverage, just as Intelligent Design theory is either ignored or laughed out of most cultural discourse. Whatever you may think of ID or evolution (and I’m not saying either is wrong or right) it’s hard to argue against the injustice of denying the discussion. But unfortunately that’s just what is happening.