The Movie Club

A Grand Unified Theory of the Movies in 2012
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2013 5:27 AM

The Movie Club

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My grand unified theory of the cinema in 2012.

130104_MOV_DjangoUnchained
Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained

Courtesy The Weinstein Company.

Dear Stephanie, Wesley, and Keith,

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Thank you so much for joining me for this year’s Movie Club. You three are among the critics I keep company with in my head during the year: When I read you, I’m always wanting to throw in a joke here, ask a question there, and deliver the occasional (loving) smackdown. So it’s a genuine joy to get the better part of a week to make that imagined conversation a reality.

End-of-year trend pieces that confidently identify the dominant themes of the past 12 months in film, then use that dubious evidence to back up some grand theory about the national mood, usually drive me nuts. Who’s to say how many of the hundreds of films released in the United States over a given 12-month period were conceived, or even shot, anywhere near the same time? (It’s often the case, for example, that a movie will sit on the shelf for a year or more between production and release—would that history officially disqualify it from the 2012 mood-diagnosing data set?) But this year there actually was perhaps not so much a theme as a kind of emotion, a craving or longing, that seemed to return in movie after movie. It was a longing that, in a presidential election year, felt particularly poignant: a hunger for greatness, for a moment of triumph that would coincide with a moment of justice. Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln are explicitly about that very longing and openly seek to invoke it in the viewer. But many other big releases this year—Django Unchained, Les Misérables, The Master—seemed obsessed with enacting symbolic displays of justice, be it personal or political, revolutionary or retributive.

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Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are two films that skillfully and mercilessly exploit the viewer’s deepest reptile-brain desire to find the enemy and vanquish him with righteousness—to be, in the words of Jessica Chastain’s steel-nerved CIA operative, “the motherfucker that found this place.” That’s what makes both movies, whatever you think about their quality, morally challenging to watch: In order to experience the catharsis they offer, the viewer must acknowledge his or her own bloodlust while also recognizing some larger system of values that redeems the final conflagration of violence and gives it meaning. To my mind, Kathryn Bigelow handled the complexity of this challenge better than Quentin Tarantino did. Zero Dark’s matter-of-fact depiction of the CIA torture of an al-Qaida detainee may leave the viewer confused and sickened, but the film’s final shot of Chastain sitting on a transport plane, tears running down her dazed, immobile face, suggests she’s not feeling much different. Django Unchained, on the other hand, wants to function as a self-sufficient catharsis machine: For much of the first hour and a half, Tarantino makes us watch in horror as unspeakable violence is visited on the bodies of black slaves, and then for the last half hour—for dessert—we get to whoop in delight as similar horrors are visited on the bodies of white owners. The tone of jokey triumph at the end, as Jamie Foxx’s Blaxploitation vigilante rides off into the night, left me with the same reaction Harvey Keitel has to a colleague’s attempted witticism in Reservoir Dogs: Har-dee-fucking-har.”

Wesley and Stephanie, you both put Django on your 10-best lists. Go ahead and set Keith and me straight on this brilliant, sickening, confounding movie, which I suspect I may have somehow watched wrong. (Wait, you’re supposed to sit facing the big white rectangle?) And while you’re at it, please fill me in—all of you—on smaller films you saw and loved this year that readers may have missed. If it weren’t for Stephanie and Keith’s lists, I might have missed out on both Barbara and Oslo, August 31st, two extraordinary foreign releases that, had I caught them in time, might have ended up on my own list. Keith, you’re up next: What are the films, performances, or moments from 2012 you’d most like to excoriate or champion?

Happy New (Movie) Year,

Dana

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