As is tradition, President Barack Obama shared his favourite pieces of pop culture from the last twelve months on his Facebook page. If you’re familiar with Obama’s time as POTUS and the frequency with which he engaged in culture and the arts, none of his choices will seem all that surprising to you. His favourite books of 2018 included titles by authors as varied as Tara Westover, Zadie Smith, Lauren Groff and Esi Edugyan (and Michelle, of course). Music-wise, he loved Cardi B, Brandi Carlile, Janelle Monáe, Kurt Vile and H.E.R.
But it was his favourite movies list that had us losers in Film Twitter all a-flutter. Look at his amazing taste in cinema: Annihilation! Black Panther! Burning! Works by Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Hirozaku Kore-eda AND Andrew Bujalski! And the Mr. Rogers documentary! The jokes started flying. Which critics circle will he join now? Was Paddington 2 not on his list because he counts it as a 2017 release? If he’s truly one of us, then he must be asked who his favourite Chris is.
When I initially saw this list and excitedly shared it on Twitter, I remarked that it spoke volumes about Obama’s charm and authenticity that we never doubted the seriousness of his choices. We didn’t automatically think that some harried intern had put together this list to appeal to the hip young demographic of potential Democratic voters. No, this was pure Obama.
Well, that optimism didn’t last long. Soon, critics and writers were decrying the list as pandering. The guy who runs the Hollywood Elsewhere blog, a man who doesn’t deserve to have his name written here, said that Obama should write an essay for awards prediction site Gold Derby on why he ‘chose’ those films (the quotes around the word chose were added by him in a display of smug skepticism that was, as noted by Jason Bailey, akin to crying ‘debate me, you cowards’ in the comments section). Owen Gleiberman of Variety, taking time out for wondering if Green Book was being chastised for not being ‘woke enough’, became oddly critical of the list for being, in his words, ‘an example of caution masquerading as daring.’
‘His list of favorites dovetails so meticulously, so literally, with the films that have dominated the A-list of critical reverence this year that some have actually accused Obama of getting help in compiling it. But since I think of Obama as an essentially honest dude, I’ll take him at his word. I’ll take his list as a true expression of his taste. Yet what does that list then say about him? There are 1,000 feature films that come out in any given year, and Obama could have chosen any of them, but with the single (unassailable) exception of “Black Panther,” not one of his choices is an all-stops-out mainstream Hollywood movie […] He’s the former leader of the free world, yet in his year-end movie list, where he could express anything under the sun that he wanted, Obama appears to follow more than he leads.’
And I didn’t even get to the bit where he used this list - possibly jokingly? - to demonstrate Obama’s lack of leadership in getting Merrick Garland onto the Supreme Court bench. It’s a weird piece. So many words to try and justify a simple truth: Obama has good taste.
I’m not sure why it seems so baffling to so many people that a highly educated and charming man with money in the bank and unlimited access to the arts would have such an indie-skewing Best Of list. Is it really so shocking to imagine that Obama not only knows who Lee Chang-dong is but would find Burning to be an emotionally and creatively rewarding experience? This is the guy whose first date with his wife was to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. This is a man whose list of favourite films ever is practically the consensus on Great Movies: Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and the first two Godfather movies (he’s not a monster like Ted Cruz to include the third). Let’s be honest here: Barack Obama is cool and he knows it. So, why does his Best of 2018 list upset so many, beyond the hunger to just be mad at Barack Obama for a few hours once more?
We expect our politicians to be inauthentic. We’re married to the idea of stuffy suit-wearing elites who have no connection to their common man and haven’t read a book more contemporary than Dickens. Whenever a political figure tells us they love modern music or the latest Man Booker Prize winner or even a Marvel movie, we instinctively assume one of their younger and severely underpaid aides suggested they say that in order to appear in touch with the hip young kids. This is not a notion untethered to reality. Remember when former British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was a big fan of Radiohead and The Smiths? Or when Paul Ryan tried to fool us all into believing he both liked and understood the songs of Rage Against the Machine? In those instances, the artists involved quickly spoke out against the politicians using their work for personal gain. It felt so clearly like a ploy by personality-free shells to seem more relatable or interesting. Maybe Cameron actually is a fan of Radiohead, but there’s a reason we don’t think he is.
It’s probably a good thing that we don’t expect ‘authenticity’ from politicians. We’re too easily won over by calculated charm that masks bad policy, or in the case of Donald Trump, a truly repugnant personality whose cruelty is the point, concealing his intent with the truth. The Republican Party spent a solid decade or so slapping down Democrats in the Bush years by claiming what the American people really wanted was a President they could sit down and have a beer with (an idea that quickly goes out the window when Ted Cruz slithers into a room).
It would also be foolish of us to claim that our continuing love of Obama was not in some way fuelled by the fact that he seemed 100 percent human. He’s really cool and for eight years we had a really cool President. He went on treks with Bear Grylls! He read mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel’s show! He called Kanye West a jackass! He sang along to Aretha Franklin and shed a few tears too! I don’t for a minute doubt Obama’s impeccable taste, but the benefit of the doubt is in and of itself a privilege not afforded to many of us, especially women (hi, Hillary Clinton).
I don’t think Obama is pandering to the crucial Film Twitter demographic with his favourite films of 2018. Call me naïve but I think he’s got that vote locked down already and it’s hardly the key target in swing states. I’m probably exacerbating the issue by dedicating so much internet ink to this problem, but in an age where ‘misinformation’ was the word of the year and the current President is too obsessed with being a celebrity to be a politician, it seems like we could do with a little more good taste.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.