Dear Dana, Wesley, Stephanie,
Hmm … Which movies do I want to talk about before we close out the year? For starters, I guess I have to talk about Beasts of the Southern Wild at least a little, since I seem to be the only one of us still interested in defending it. My argument is almost subcritical. Narratively, it’s kind of a mess; politically, it leaves itself open to all sorts of unkind interpretations, and, yes, there’s a whiff of privileged cultural tourism to the film if you sniff hard enough. But, Dana, what you call its “unswervingly high emotional pitch” grabbed me by the guts from the first scene to its last. And I liked the voice-over. Maybe I’m just a soft touch for movies that combine lyrical imagery with florid narration—and that lean hard on Terrence Malick for inspiration for both. I teared up at the trailer for Tree of Life. (And, for that matter, at the trailer for Superman Returns, the one with Brandon Routh that nobody liked, not even the one coming up that seems consciously modeled after Malick.) There’s also a neat tension in the film between director Benh Zeitlin’s impulse to make everything look as gorgeous as possible, even post-apocalyptic decay, and the raw urgency of the lead performances. I found it as moving as it was winning, and for every clumsy patch there’d be an unforgettable sequence, like the dance between the lost children and the workers in that floating brothel. That didn’t get to anyone else? It sure got to me, and sometimes when something moves you, other considerations become secondary.
As for 2012 films I want to talk about before they slip away, can I steer everyone toward Only the Young, which I hadn’t even heard about until some of my colleagues started championing it as one of the year’s best? (And which I saw too late for my own best-of list.) It’s a year-in-the-life documentary about some Christian skateboarders living out their last year of high school at the crumbling, desert edges of a Los Angeles suburb. Co-directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet bring a strong visual sense, but it’s the kids’ openness and honesty about how they feel about one another, their past, and their unwritten future that makes the film. It delves into a specific corner of the world and finds there a universal sense of what it feels like to watch your childhood wind down and slip away.
My other impulse is to expand on what we’ve been talking about regarding the Oscar race altering the story of the year, and our need to push back against that. So here’s to the losers: Deep Blue Sea, home not only to Rachel Weisz’s best performance but to remarkable work from Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale, playing unsatisfying men at opposite ends of the spectrum. Oslo, August 31st, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s haunting second film, which follows a troubled young recovering addict drifting through a city, and a life, that seems to have no place for him anymore. Matthew McConaughey, who may not have gotten a nomination for any of his remarkable performances this year but found a way out of the bro purgatory into which he’d previously been consigned. And here’s to Jack Black and Ann Dowd, who in a kinder year would have been recognized for their work as softhearted characters pushed toward dark deeds by extraordinary, and quite different, circumstances in Bernie and Compliance, respectively.
Let’s take a moment also to celebrate those who dared, even if they overreached. I saw many better films than Cloud Atlas this year, but few as memorably, crazily ambitious, and few that moved me in spite of so many glaring flaws. I didn’t love every second of Casa De Mi Padre, but I love that it exists, that Will Ferrell turned his most experimental, and bighearted, comedy impulses into a feature-length film without much caring whom it left scratching their heads. And let’s have a quiet, respectful, slightly sleepy moment for Hope Springs, a solid drama with fine performances from Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (newly vital this year after a sleepy stretch). It probably looked a little better than it is simply by being, as my friend Scott Tobias pointed out at the time, a Hollywood “movie made about adults, for adults,” but if it’s a harbinger of more such films, I’ll take it.
So I choose to leave 2012 with a spirit of optimism. The machinery ground on and the system seemingly designed to churn out acceptable, commercially appealing movies tailored and marketed to one demographic quadrant or another failed to break down. It’s hard to turn out good work in such an environment, but good work finds a way of sneaking through, and in considering the best 2012 had to offer, I wasn’t left wanting for choices. It may have been a year filled, at least briefly, with talk about the death of film culture but what year isn’t? (It was certainly a year filled with talk about the death of film as a physical medium, but that’s probably a longer discussion than we want to get into at the close of this talk.) I’m hopeful that those of us who love it will keep it alive, and continue to be kept alive by it.
Best to all of you,