Looking over my year-end list, I sometimes hope to tease out a theme. It’s always kind of a willful projection. I do see that this was a fine year for children’s performances, and for films about fathers and kids. What strikes me this year, though (and it must be true every year), is that the true subject of the movies—sometimes hidden, sometimes coming right out with it—is love. This may also be a reflection of my own heart. (This was, after all, the year I found love.) But perhaps that’s okay as well. After all, that’s something else movies do: when we look into them, they look back into us.
Caveat: I have yet to see “Amore” or “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Django Unchained” or even "Footnote." In fact there’s tons of interesting films this year with which I'm scrambling to catch up. It is always thus.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s picture is the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an intrepid little girl who lives down in the bayou. It tells of her adventures when a Biblical flood hits “The Bathtub,” where people live off the grid and by their own rules. The lifestyle is celebratory, but it’s the flipside of having nothing. She must confront and care for her daddy (Dwight Henry), a force of nature. There’s a fierce love between father and daughter. He rages at his dying, rages to give her the strength and skills she will need to survive. Prehistoric beasts who once trampled this land have reawakened: they storm towards her. “Beasts” is an ecstatic sensory experience and an emotional wrecking ball. A small being radiating something huge, Ms. Wallis exhibits a preternatural sense of her place in the natural order, of her own story at the level of myth. The life energies shoot through her, and through this movie.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
Sam and Suzy were my favorite couple of the year. Anderson, who co-wrote with Roman Coppola, has said that he conceived of this movie as something that his young heroine, 12-year-old bookworm Suzy (Kara Haward) could put in her suitcase alongside her other fantasy books. She’s packed her bags to run away with Sam (Jared Gilman), a bespectacled, precocious Khaki scout. They are in love, you see. The picture features a community-theatre troupe of movie stars led by Bill Murray, whose deadpan is so well-suited to Anderson’s droll style. Anderson is fully himself here. For all of its almost autistic quirkiness, you wouldn’t call this film ironic. It’s too deeply, oddly felt.
Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski took us back to 1865, to the time and place when history and legend collide. It’s a nation torn, with a civilized structure—of law, of architecture—on top of a culture of raw lawlessness, where everything still feels up for grabs. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a man who spends most of his time in his own head. Thoughtful, gentle, folksy, weary in his bones, he has a steely core and an implacable will that is nothing short of gangster. He is the adroit chess player in the battle to get the 13th Amendment through the House. This cast makes the players blood and flesh, in all their irascibility, irrationality and ideology. When words are the rapiers, you will need a screenplay as smart as Tony Kushner’s.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
How often do we get real, messy, damaged people on screen? Smart performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. He’s trying to recover from a breakdown, she’s a cop’s young widow. She sees in him someone who will not take advantage; the movie is similarly good-hearted and non-exploitative. In Lawrence we have a duckling become a swan. As the couple learns to dance, David O. Russell’s camera admires her now-womanly curves without leering: she’s celebrating her own growing confidence. They’ve both got zero social skills, and it’s fun to watch their inappropriate, no-filter interactions. With her no-BS persona, Lawrence could be a hero for women here. (My baby cheered her line about embracing the sloppy and dirty parts of yourself.) It makes much comic hay out of all types of crazy, including Robert De Niro in a moving performance as Cooper’s numbers-running, Eagles-fanatic dad. Russell brings an eye and ear for the culture of these Philadelphia neighborhoods. His camera executes elaborate pirouettes and ecstatic zooms around his couple, intoxicated by their love.
Woody Harrelson gave a multi-dimensional, memorable performance as a cop caught up in an investigation of corruption/brutality in the LAPD of 1992. It’s all a joke to him: a joke that you would operate any other way than brutally in this game, a joke the hypocrisy of his critics in high places, a joke that people think he’s racist and sexist--until he finds the rules of the game changed when he’s no longer useful. He has an unconventional, woman-led home life that’s almost bohemian. He’s undone by his love for the women in his life—ex-wives and lovers, daughters—even as he repels them. He would argue that he’s never really been brutal, not to anyone he loves, until he realizes too late that he’s torn their lives too. He’s going down the drain, a man who’s realized too late the joke’s on him. Oren Moverman observes it all with an eye open to shades of gray (not that kind) that is almost Altmanesque.
6. The Kid With a Bike
The Dardenne brothers brought us the story of at-risk youth Cyril (Thomas Doret). Ditched by his father, her literally pulls a stranger, Samantha (Cecile De France) into his life. You can hold me, she says, just not so tightly. Sullen, stubborn Cyril is a coiled ball of hurt. When he breaks he lashes startlingly, and he hurts others. Doret gives a remarkable performance: raw, natural, reminding us how keenly children feel. Why would she take this boy in? How could she be so forgiving? De France’s performance manages to suggest all the reasons why for her those aren't even questions. This is a story about love as redemption and forgiveness. It has a good feel for work and play in this working-class neighborhood.
Hollywood as a quintessentially American dream factory is the subtext of this thriller about a CIA man’s plot to shepherd Americans out of Tehran in the wake of the Islamic revolution. The just-so-crazy-it-might-work idea is to disguise them as a film crew making a post-“Star Wars” sci-fi picture. You’re innocent when you dream. “Argo” is the kind of riveting night at the movies we always hope for but all too rarely get.
8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
A film about love for a job. 85-year-old Jiro has dedicated his life to being the best there is at what he does: making sushi. The film sits us down at his 3-star Michelin rated sushi counter (Sukiyabashi Jiro) next to the lucky people who actually get to taste his creations. He places the dish before them and then steps back, regarding his guests with a stately visage. Were his expression not so completely impassive, it might as well be saying “Bam! Deal with that!” It’s also about fathers and sons. We learn that the true Japanese master does not chafe at doing the exact same thing every day. Indeed, this is the essence of his way. And speaking of masters...
9. The Master
Here we have a love/hate relationship between master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and servant (Joaquin Phoenix). Rage-aholic and lost soul Freddie Quell is another of Paul Thomas Anderson’s demented powder kegs. The Master" is a curious, frustrating, exhilarating picture. With two juicy leads, as well as Amy Adams as the woman behind the man, apple-cheeked but no innocent, it’s fun as an acting showcase. Anderson is happy to leave us in bed with Freddie and a good-time gal, not knowing quite what to think.
10. The Deep Blue Sea
Love hurts. This begins as a rhapsody: a woman in the London of the early 50s begins an extramarital affair set to gorgeous music (Samuel Barber). It swoons for some time, and then it becomes the story of her surprise to find herself alive after trying to commit suicide. As a woman utterly defenseless in the grip of something she cannot explain, Rachel Weiz gives a performance that leaves her soul on the screen. Tom Hiddleston is the feckless young vet who can’t love her back. Her uncomprehending, kind husband (Simon Russell Beale) struggles with her, trying to understand. It’s absurd, after all. But there can be no explanation. My life is him, she offers, almost apologetically. Based on the play by Terrence Ratigan. Languid cigarette smoke fills still, close quarters and diffuse light falls through heavy curtains, suggesting her smothering. Terrence Davies makes beautiful, sensuous films, though they’re not for all tastes. Whenever I show my baby one of his films, she puts her head on my shoulder and has a nice nap. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
11. 21 Jump Street
Oh, I dunno, I thought it was really funny. And you know, I guess this one too is about love, now that I think of it.
The Cabin In the Woods, The Sessions, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Loneliest Planet, Rhino Season, Sinister, the bits in The Avengers with the Hulk
--December 14, 2012