Wednesday, February 20, 2013
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: THE ZOMBIE'S 2012 YEAR IN REVIEW
Yeah, I know, I know. It seems like every time I do this, the gap between posts to this blog gets wider and wider. But this time, I have an exceptionally good excuse: this. Officially published last month, Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure is the product of 35 years of work on the part of Dan O'Bannon, the late writer / filmmaker behind Alien, Total Recall, The Return of the Living Dead and other genre classics. Following my stint as a graduate student in the screenwriting program at Chapman University in Orange, CA, I worked with Dan for about two years on this book, assisting him with editing, research and film analyses. Dan passed away in late 2009, and at the request of Dan's wife Diane and of Michael Wiese Productions, the good folks behind Save the Cat!, The Coffee Break Screenwriter and many other terrific film production and writing-related titles, I spent a year polishing and finishing off the manuscript. The book is now available at bookstores nationwide and is coming out this week in the UK (it's currently the #4 best-selling filmmaking book on the UK Amazon site). Naturally, this has meant a lot of book signing events, panel discussion appearances, writing workshops and press interviews, which have kept me busy and away from my blogging station for quite an extended period now.
Not so busy, however, that I haven't had a good opportunity to see the lion's share of this year's major motion pictures. In fact, now that I'm spending a much larger portion of my time discussing films with the general public, I feel obligated to have seen and thought about more movies than even before (though to be fair, as far as current releases go, folks mostly want to speak to me about Prometheus and last year's remake of Total Recall, for transparently obvious reasons). I've seen a lot of very strong films and a few pieces of utter dross, and here, as for lo these several years now, is my Year in Review, starting with...
THE MOVIE ZOMBIE'S BOTTOM 5 FILMS OF 2012
Oh, yeah. The Zombie's going there. Genre fans and students of "smart" science fiction fell all over themselves praising Rian Johnson's time-bending thriller about a dissolute hitman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not the problem) tasked with taking out a special marked-for-death cargo from the future: himself, thirty years down the road (Bruce Willis, also not the problem) and not that eager to have his former self "close the loop" on his assassin's career. And I can't say that I entirely disagree with the praise for the film I just described, which is well-shot, witty, and contains some strongly managed action sequences. But the film I just described, the film that everyone has praised to the skies and that has been nominated for and won major critics' awards for its writing, is only half the movie that actually exists, a fact that all the advertising and even the DVD packaging conveniently ignores. The second half of the movie is the story of Cid, the sad screaming telekinetic five-year-old who lives on a farm with his mother (Emily Blunt, and if you were wondering why she's so little-featured in the ads, it's because she's only featured in this second half of the film that the marketing people are trying to make you believe doesn't exist), and who Levitt is driven to protect from Willis, who believes that offing the kid is the only action that will save the future and perhaps his own life. Needless to say, I don't care about Cid the sad screaming telekinetic five-year-old, and I haven't honestly talked to many folks, even fans of this film, who do either. This is not a knock on little Pierce Gagnon, who gives one of the better child performances I saw in a film this year. But he had the misfortune of being the star of the film I was stuck watching when I was supposed to be watching hard-bitten cross-time assassins shooting at each other. To be fair, this is a case where I may be penalizing a film for being what it is rather than what I wanted it to be. But it was what I wanted it to be for the first hour, and that's why Looper, for me at any rate, slides off the rails. And apparently the marketing people agree with me.
This year's winner of the Human Centipede Award for least cinematically rewarding experience is Pete Travis's grimy, cold-blooded, insanely violent adaptation of the classic British cult comics hero, previously brought to the screen in a much-maligned 1995 version starring Sylvester Stallone (spoiler alert: He removes the helmet, and a fanboy fatwa seventeen years running is declared against him). All of the brickbats directed against Stallone's over-the-top, stentorian performance have more or less completely ignored the fact that Karl Urban's Dredd, in its own be-helmeted way, is just as overplayed; that helmet can't conceal the ridiculous smirk contorting his face for the film's entire running time. Dredd boasts impressive art direction, a bone-crunching techno-inflected score by Paul Leonard-Morgan, and a nicely underplayed villainous turn by Lena Headey, but I would be hard pressed to name a recent action thriller that's less fun to watch than this one. An extra demerit for the 3D that added to the price tag, but not to the viewing experience.
3. JACK REACHER
Jack Reacher is a beautiful showcase for my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, playing itself for once and effective both as a beautiful backdrop and a gritty setting for an action thriller. Sad to say, that's about all the movie has going for it. Usually capable screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who also directed) has a not-very-compelling story to tell, and he presents it in a not-very-compelling way. In a continuation of the trend established in the Mission: Impossible series, Tom Cruise seems unwilling to play an action hero with recognizable human dimensions. This character is all wisecracks, thrown fists, and predictions that are always 100% right, and honestly, he doesn't give Reacher the appropriate edge to make that enough. Still, Alexia Fast is nice to look at, as is my friend Robert Seibel, who has a wordless but memorable moment as a guy at a bus stop who helps Reacher give the slip to some crooked cops. Honestly, if you like this sort of thing, you'd be better off checking out the Tyler Perry / James Patterson thriller Alex Cross from last October. Not great, but better than this.
2. DARK SHADOWS
I have heard people I trust (notably J.B. on the fantastic F This Movie! podcast) call this the worst movie they have ever seen. It wasn't even the worst film I saw this year (obviously). But it is arguably the worst film ever made by Tim Burton, a man of considerable talent who has spent the last decade or so marred in a dreary cycle of "Burtonized" takes on classic properties that have provided a running demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. On paper, Burton taking on Dan Curtis's beloved cult supernatural soap opera should have been a slam dunk; its combination of gothic atmosphere and sympathetic outsiders falls right within the director's chosen catalog of obsessions. But working in collaboration with screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who, with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, gave us two subpar vampire-themed films this summer), Burton's efforts produce a film that is neither scary nor funny enough to justify the tens of millions of dollars expended on the admittedly impressive art direction and special effects. Johnny Depp brings what elegance and style he can to his portrayal of the tragically murderous vampire aristocrat Barnabas Collins, but the rest of the cast is left largely adrift by Grahame-Smith's all-over-the-place screenplay, which plays like five soap episodes awkwardly crammed into one two-hour mishmash. Storylines go nowhere (Jonny Lee Miller's duplicitous brother-in-law...or maybe he's a cousin...disappears two-thirds of the way into the film, never to return), characters are treated unconscionably harshly by the film (Helena Bonham-Carter's desperately lustful family psychiatrist gets the worst of it), and the comedy never comes together quite as it should (Jackie Earle Haley's groundskeeper character is clearly meant as comic relief, but he's given nothing actually funny to do or say). This is not, of course, to bring up the fact that Dark Shadows is not a comedy and should not necessarily have been treated as such. Someone needs to ask Tim Burton why he would take a property that so clearly taps into so much of what makes him Tim Burton, only to spend two hours pulling the rug out from under it.
1. GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE
I pride myself on the fact that I have never walked out of a theatrical screening. But I have never come closer than I have during the witless, stultifying "gritty reboot" of the would-be Marvel Comics franchise centering around a cursed motorcyclist who turns into a flaming-skulled demonic avenger when evil is about. I was ready to bail about twenty minutes into this one, firmly convinced, even before the end of the first act, that there was no way this was going to get any better. And everything that followed bore my initial assumption out. Neveldine / Taylor, the filmmaking team behind the bonkers-but-exhilarating Crank action thrillers, would seem to be the ideal filmmakers to put some much needed roughhousing juice into the Ghost Rider's cinematic saga. But working from a misbegotten screenplay by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer (whose comic-book-film resume somehow also includes Batman Begins), the tyro directors manage to squeeze out a disastrously boring film that only sparks to life with some FX work that is admittedly superior to what the first film offered up (the Rider's head here looks less like a flaming-skull tattoo and more like an actual flaming skull). I wish I could go into greater detail about what's so terrible about this film, but its badness is utterly generic, and all of a piece; the performances, writing, directing and production are all so flat and uninspired that it leaves a critic with little substantive to even criticize. Though I can say that this film is, for good and all, the one that made me revoke the "pass" I've often given Nicolas Cage. I've granted this doubtlessly talented man the benefit of the doubt for far longer than most; I shelled out hard-earned dollars for DOA action spectacles like Drive Angry and Seeking Justice, and I still take any opportunity to praise his performance in one of my top ten films of 2009. But after his performance here, alternately erratic and noncommittal, he's got to show me something real from now on if he expects me to pony up at the box office. Of all the popular cinematic buzz-phrases of the last few years, "gritty reboot" is arguably the one I detest the most. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is the nadir of that reductive cinematic impulse.
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And now from the ridiculous to the sublime (and sometimes sublimely ridiculous). Proudly presenting the Movie Zombie's top 10 films of 2012...
10. 21 JUMP STREET
Every once in a while, a Hollywood production comes along that surprises by being better than any filmgoer had any reliable reason to expect. That was certainly the case with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's cinematic goof on the cult '80s TV cop series that made a star out of Johnny Depp and a career also-ran out of Richard Grieco. What could very likely have turned out to be a thuddingly obvious pastiche / parody in the mold of the conceptually similar 2004 bomb Starsky & Hutch was elevated, thanks to a clever and gleefully vulgar screenplay by Michael Bacall (from a story he conceived with co-star Jonah Hill), into a film that did many things, and did them all unexpectedly well. The film's spoof of action-thriller conventions was spot-on thanks to Lord and Miller's energetic staging of action scenes; no surprise that they did well here, considering their background as animation directors (their previous credit was the well received cartoon feature Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). But the film also scores with its surprisingly perceptive observations about the anthropology of the modern high school. Bacall nails the strange new cliques to hit American teenhood in the years since Jump Street left the air, and he's smart enough to cast as his villain not a boilerplate thug, but a sensitive vegan hippie type who's secretly slinging a major league drug. And perhaps most of all, this film was the most unanticipated event of what turned out to be, in a small way, the Year of Channing Tatum at the multiplex. We all assumed he'd acquit himself well in a romantic tearjerker, as he did early in the year in the surprise hit The Vow. But was anyone expecting the performance we got here, taking full advantage of previously untested comic timing and slapstick skills? It's one of the most delightful pieces of acting I saw all year, and the Golden Globes missed the boat when they failed to nominate him for best actor in a comedy. He's well-supported by Hill, who has some superb moments as a former nerd who finds, in the new American high school, that he's now the big fish to Tatum's flailing jock guppy. The film does not succumb to easy homage to its source material (with the exception of a couple of cameos from a few of the show's original stars...but the moment is a doozy), and when all else fails, it's not afraid to pull out some shockingly out-there vulgarity to get laughs. Nobody will mistake it for high art, but 21 Jump Street provided the biggest laughs I heard, and had, in a theater all year.
9. AMOUR (LOVE)
Ironic, really, that most movie "love stories" end when the romance is actually just beginning, when the breezy games of courtship have just ceased and the real, strenuous spadework of building a real love bond with someone have just commenced. Never one to do things the easy way, writer-director Michael Haneke has given us, with this unblinkingly empathetic chamber drama, one of recent cinema's most definitive portraits of the bruising, emotionally taxing, sometimes overwhelming costs of loving someone unconditionally, and truly, "till death do us part." Haneke's plunk-the-camera-down-and-don't -look-away-no-matter-what aesthetic has never been put to more harrowing use as it is here, chronicling the slow, sad decline at the end of the life of a once-vibrant music instructor (Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva, in a performance that bravely refuses any notions of sentimentality) whose tragic physical and mental self-betrayals are witnessed by her stoic, unwavering longtime husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant, never asking for our sympathy and thus engendering it effortlessly), who tends to her in her own beloved home against the wishes of his own family, the doctors, and seemingly reason and sense itself. Never pandering, never succumbing to soppy disease-of-the-week cliche, Haneke lays bare the notion that when we pledge to love someone for the rest of our lives, it will many times end up exactly like this. The question is which side of the wall of mental and physical collapse we will find ourselves on. The filmmaker is ably supported by clean, spare cinematography by the great Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) and perfectly authentic art direction that makes the couple's apartment, which the film almost never leaves, alternately a sanctuary and a crypt. Critics are a jaded bunch, but when I saw this at a screening on the Sony lot, the roomful of critics filed out afterwards slowly, and in bare silence, struck dumb by the film's simple presentation of a reality that all of us are facing and no one wants to contemplate. And if they were anything like me, they followed the screening with an immediate call home to their parents. I had to make sure. I had to make sure they were okay...at least for right now.
8. THE RAID
A rush of sheer kinetic and cinematic fury, Gareth Huw Evans's modern-day martial arts blowout was the year's best pure action thriller. Like many of the best action pictures, Evans's narrative is simplicity itself: A team of highly trained Indonesian SWAT cops are sent to liquidate a high-rise building used as a safe house for the city's deadliest criminals, and are forced to battle their way from floor to floor en route to a showdown with the big boss and his henchmen, including the wayward brother of the fiercest of the fighting cops (played with whitter-quick physical grace and bruising power by martial arts master Iko Uwais). But even this bare sketch of a plot is merely set-up, a pretense for the most explosive series of action set pieces served up by any motion picture this year. The action, from heavy firepower assaults to close-quarters battles with knives and bare hands, is masterfully shot and edited (Evans himself did the cutting) and choreographed with equal parts balleticism and brutality by Evans, Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. Among the highlights: A stunning eyeball-to-eyeball shootout in a dismal squatter's hovel of an apartment; a hallway battle that's like the nastiest combat video game showdown of all time come to roaring, bleeding life; a drug-lab free-for-all that knocked me out by carrying every shot just a beat or two longer than I expected; and a final three-way dust-up between Uwais, the rogue brother, and the crime lord's principal henchman, the diminutive but deadly Mad Dog (played unforgettably by Ruhian). A few major critics, notably Roger Ebert, accused The Raid of being nothing but a brainless exercise in brutal violence. No, that was Dredd, a larger-budget take on basically the same exact plot. Sure, this is a violent, at times frequently vicious picture (just like Amour struck a roomful of critics dumb, this one had some of them gasping in shock at particular action beats). But it's also pop action filmmaking of a very high order, and it's got me tremendously excited to see what comes flying out of Evans's imagination next. (Note: I saw this film prior to its official U.S. theatrical release, and can thus happily post this review sans lame, pointless subtitle words.)
It was a happy happenstance that I saw Josh Trank's unexpectedly potent found-footage "superhero" drama on the same day as a theatrical viewing of Marc Webb's lugubrious and largely superfluous The Amazing Spider-Man. Everything that Webb's film tried and failed to say about the potential perils of an unformed teenager finding himself with otherworldly powers was essayed with intelligence and surprising emotional heft by Trank's lower-budget sleeper. Max Landis's smart screenplay takes its time setting up its trio of unlikely super-beings, small-town teenagers whose senior year takes an unanticipated turn when they find a glowing asteroid in a crater out in the woods. The results of their encounter with the cosmic debris are newfound powers of flight and telekinetic skills that start out with cute, crowd-pleasing juggling tricks and eventually escalate into full-on battles with the cops, flying cars, exploding gas stations, and all the comic-book mayhem a blockbuster can hold (brought to life with flawlessly realistic special effects that warranted an Oscar nomination). The film admittedly struggles at times to justify its found-footage gimmick, the presence of a cute classmate (Ashley Hinshaw) who's turning her day-to-day life into a "video blog" being probably the film's most tortured iteration of the conceit. But there's no denying the authenticity of the chilling lead performance of Dane DeHaan, who with this performance and his impressive supporting turn in the Prohibition-era crime thriller Lawless emerged as one of the year's most promising new acting talents. Essaying the social outsider of the super-powered teens, DeHaan turns in a letter-perfect embodiment of adolescent awkwardness, tied-tongue foot-in-mouth disease, and simmering rage, brought about by a home life scarred by a terminally ill mother and a foul-mouthed, abusive father (Michael Kelly). No wonder that a kid with this much against him would see his newfound powers as a lease on a new way of life...and who cares if to make it happen, he has to turn into a mad, lightning-slinging super-villain? Taking comic-book narrative to exciting new cinematic places, Chronicle is one of film's best reminders yet that with great power, indeed, comes great responsibility...and great danger as well.
6. THE PIRATES!: BAND OF MISFITS
I defy anyone to find a film released in 2012 that was more sheer fun to watch than the latest comic confection from Aardman Animation, the geniuses who gave the world Wallace and Gromit and who here, in my opinion at least, top themselves with the funniest film I saw all year. A motley crew of not-too-cutthroat buccaneers, led by Hugh Grant in fine, plummy voice as the Pirate Captain, set off on an adventure that makes a gleeful hash of 19th century British history, tossing Charles Darwin (here a lovestruck milquetoast voiced by Doctor Who's David Tennant), dodo birds, endangered-animal-eating "gourmet clubs", Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton, who proves again that she gives good psychotic harridan), Jane Austen, and even the Elephant Man into a candy-colored blender and hits the comedy puree button. The result is a nonstop barrage of visual gags, verbal sallies and effortlessly English comic brio that had me laughing and smiling for 88 minutes straight. Gideon Defoe's screenplay, based on his own series of madly satirical novels, is one of the finest of the year, and director Peter Lord marshals the considerable resources of Aardman's animation wizards to create one of the year's best-looking films, colorful and full of riotous details that will demand repeated viewings to allow you to pick up all of the film's densely packed-in jokes (my favorite throwaway: the carving outside the Royal Scientific Society proclaiming that they have been "playing God" since time immemorial). The film also boasts one of the year's hippest soundtracks, the pirates' merry adventures scored with everything from Tenpole Tudor to Flight of the Conchords. A considerable European success, this film failed to find a receptive audience in the States. It's a shame that families missed one of the year's most delightful entertainment experiences, and I hope that the film's pleasantly surprising Oscar nomination for best animated feature has led more presumably delighted viewers to discover the film's joys for themselves.
5. SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
I was fortunate enough to see the front-runner for this year's best documentary feature Oscar two months prior to its theatrical release. Even though Malik Bendjelloul's consistently compelling and ultimately uplifting film had already received the audience award for documentary at Sundance, it had still not yet broken into the wider national consciousness. Therefore, I was able to walk completely cold into the amazing story of Rodriguez, the enigmatic Detroit-area singer / songwriter who, following the release of two brilliant but commercially disastrous albums in the late '60s, vanished into obscurity amidst rumors of overdoses, murder, even baroque onstage suicides. All but forgotten in the States, Rodriguez's music managed to make its way to South Africa, where it became anthemic and inspirational to a generation of revolutionary apartheid-era youth. Then, following the country's liberation through the will of the same folks who rallied themselves with Rodriguez soundtracking their joyous insurrection, two super-fans set out on a quest to find out what really happened to their musical inspiration. The resulting film spins from detective story to sociopolitical document to kitchen-sink drama to celebratory concert film, and though I wouldn't dream of spoiling what happens for those few of you who might not yet know the outcome of this story, the overall effect is stirring, powerful and altogether moving in ways few films managed this year. Bendjelloul's film is made with consummate skill, beautifully shot and intelligently organized (the filmmaker received the Writers Guild award for best documentary screenplay for his work here), and it resonates with intriguing thematic notions: the value of art that serves the consumer more than the artist, the worth of a life lived in the detritus of a deferred dream, the way a man from a beleaguered underclass managed to unknowingly inspire the dreams of a similarly oppressed minority thousands of miles away. But of course, none of this would matter if the man's music wasn't good. And the man's music is simply superb, marrying poetic, socially conscious lyrics, smartly chosen instrumentation, and Rodriguez's powerful, Jim Croce-ish voice to create a sweeping, emotional aura that one can unhesitatingly imagine inspiring dreamy fantasies...or dramatic, life-changing action.
4. THE MASTER
I have often said that Paul Thomas Anderson seems like a man working in the wrong medium; his tools of art-making are opacity, interiority and inscrutable metaphor, the tools of a novelist, and he's using them to make film. These inclinations led to what I perceive as the ultimate artistic failure of both Punch-Drunk Love and There Will be Blood, but with The Master, Anderson achieves what he has been attempting for the last decade, a film with all the depth, nuance and maddening complexity of the best literary fiction. It's a shame that this has been somewhat reduced in the minds of some viewers to nothing more than "the Scientology movie"; really, "The Cause", to me, stands in for anything, be it an addiction, a movement, a great love or a great hatred, that people lean on to give their lives meaning, to shout to the potentially nonexistent gods, to, like Dostoevsky, merely prove that one exists. That it fails the film's central character so utterly, as does everything he grasps onto for succor in his flailing downward spiral of a life, is a wrenching and often inevitable reality of latching onto an idea greater than the self and allowing it to define us. Joaquin Phoenix, in a gnarly white knuckle of a performance that made me physically uncomfortable to watch (and I mean that as a profound compliment), embodies the human struggle to connect with every sneer, slouch and thrown fist. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a broad-ranging portrayal of one of the year's most complexly drawn characters, makes us question his reasons and fidelity just enough all the way through; I truly feel he believes in the Cause, and clings to Phoenix's Freddie Quell so irrationally because this deeply failed human represents, to him, the ultimate windmill for him to tilt his theological spear towards. It's Hoffman's wife, played by Amy Adams, who is the true spiritual mercenary here, putting the Cause's advancement ahead of all else, all humanity, all sympathy, all life. Anderson gives no easy answers here. He's not here to hold your hand, to explain anything to you, to resolve his plot points or create dramatic catharsis. His job, and he does it with profundity and strength, is to present mankind groping for its own personal truth, and letting the rocks at the edge of the precipice slip through its fingers every time, like a welcoming bosom made of crumbling sand. No wonder Phoenix spends the whole film stooped over. You would be too, if you were carrying the world's whole weight on your woefully inadequate shoulders.
3. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
A singular mixture of cultural anthropology and fairy tale, Beasts of the Southern Wild is like no other film I've seen this year. Director Benh Zeitlin roots his fantasy in a gritty, grungy American somewhere teeming with life, vitality, passion and rage, a community utterly unwilling to forget who they are and what they mean to each other even in the face of a larger nation that has largely forgotten them, even willing to leave them at the mercy of a mortally destructive hurricane and the slavering, tusked prehistoric beasts the storm frees from their glacial slumber to slouch towards Bethlehem...or at least towards the Bathtub. Quvenzhane Wallis, in a remarkable debut performance as the young spitfire charged with saving the day and staring down the beasts, radiates wonder, strength and defiance, and she's more than matched by the uncanny Dwight Henry as her father Wink, whose nameless fury masks a never-spoken but always-plain love for his daughter. And what are we to make, precisely, of the film's craziest conceit, these stomping, man-eating "aurochs"? I think they stand for all the things that stalk all of us through our lives, the regrets and guilts and angers that threaten to devour us alive, unless we can stand pat and tell them "I gotta take care of mine." Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar (adapting Alibar's play Juicy and Delicious) create the best dialogue I've heard in a film all year; I'm just waiting for a chance to dismissively tell someone of my intentions to eat birthday cake all by myself on their grave. The film is also graced with brilliantly squalid art direction, wild but never wearying hand-held cinematography by Ben Richardson, and a sweeping score (by Zeitlin and Dan Romer) that all combine to take us to a place that we've never been to, one of foreboding and perverse beauty, and make us feel right at home.
2. MOONRISE KINGDOM
Sweet, magical, and ineffably sad, Moonrise Kingdom is the best film Wes Anderson has yet made. Marshaling all the usual tools in his arsenal, from singular soundtrack selections to storybook costume and production design to breathlessly graceful photography by longtime Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman, the director and his co-writer, Roman Coppola, have crafted a tale that on the surface has all the earmarks of a tall tale (right down to the presence of Bob Balaban's narrator). But at its core is a story about an olden and profound theme, one that, the older I get, I'm realizing is perhaps the central theme of all great art: the human desire to connect, somehow on some level, with someone. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, as two lonely and misunderstood kids who find one another on opposite sides of a sometimes fantastical-feeling island, enact the truth that no one is without worth if they can find someone to see them with the right kind of eyes (even if it requires the "magic power" of binoculars). This film is full of terrific performances. Edward Norton's blazing commitment to his scoutmaster's duties is comical without ever being condescending, and Bill Murray turns in the best work he's done yet for Anderson. Frances McDormand evinces her usual effortless authority on screen, and Tilda Swinton is a classic kid's-book villain. And everyone needs to take a good long look at soulful, quietly melancholy Bruce Willis in this film. He's sleepwalked through a lot of rote action thrillers lately, but when he gets something he can really sink his teeth into, the results are always impressive (it helps that he's got some strong scenes alongside children; working with kids often seems to bring out the best in him). Anderson and Coppola are Oscar nominees for this screenplay, and if they take home the trophy on Sunday, you will hear not a peep of complaint from me. Between this, Amour, Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, 2012 was a great year for unconventional cinematic love stories, and this might be the best of them all.
1. DJANGO UNCHAINED
When I first saw the trailers for Quentin Tarantino's "Southern," I was very worried indeed. Tarantino is a supremely talented filmmaker who, to be fair, should never be underestimated, but given his past record with regard to racial representation and language in his films, this film was likely to be either his masterpiece or a work that would make Mandingo look tasteful and restrained. It is neither. What it is, unexpectedly and assuredly, is one of the most important films made about race and racism in America in the last twenty years, and probably the best film on the subject since Spike Lee's masterful and underrated 2000 media satire Bamboozled. Ironic, then, that Lee's voice has been among the loudest in the black community in criticizing Tarantino's film, claiming it denigrates the memory of lost slaves and the black struggle itself by turning it into fodder for an action thriller, or worse, making sport of it. But at the end of the day, Tarantino has marshaled his skills and those of his multi-talented collaborators (including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert Richardson and costume designer Sharen Davis, whose lively work here warranted Oscar consideration too) to craft one of the least romanticized, most bluntly realistic depictions of slavery I've seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. This is what all the teary-eyed folks at Gone With The Wind screenings and bloviating Southern politicians defending the Confederate flag are lamenting the passing of: men and women, human beings, marching barefoot in the mud in painful collars and harnesses biting their tongues, being ripped apart by dogs while overseers cackle, hung from the rafters like sides of beef and threatened with castration, forced to strip from their clothes for the "entertainment" of Massa's guests. Tarantino has never been a timid or ashamed filmmaker, but he is a uniquely American one, and these two elements may have equipped him better than perhaps any current American filmmaker (any white one, at least) to unblinkingly take on the baroque, singularly American atrocity that was black chattel slavery in the South.
The fact that Tarantino manages to couch all this in a really entertaining spaghetti western, one that serves the genre's tropes while never cheapening his subject, is impossible to contemplate. But he pulls it off. He's helped immensely by a tremendously gifted cast, from the magnetically restrained Jamie Foxx to the luminous Kerry Washington, from the thrillingly loquacious Christoph Waltz to the stunning Leonardo DiCaprio, who taps into evil places in himself I didn't even know he had (it can't be an accident that his scenes are almost always filtered in red; someone needs to cast this man as Satan in something in a big damn hurry). The shock of the film, though, is Samuel L. Jackson, who, playing DiCaprio's limping Uncle Tom whose playfully foul-mouthed sassback masks a sociopath's heart, lays bare the bald amorality inherent to the mindset of a country that reduces humanity to entries in a ledger book. In order for slavery to survive at all, rampant sociopathology was almost a prerequisite, and what was good for Massa was good for the house Negro, as Jackson's genuinely dangerous portrayal makes brutally clear. It's the best performance I saw all year, and its lack of awards recognition comes as no surprise to me whatsoever. The establishment is not often in the habit of rewarding the genuinely subversive, at least not in its own time. But I can promise you, after seeing Jackson's work here, you will never look at a box of Uncle Ben's rice the same way again. People want to talk about how we are now living in a "post-racial" society. Just the other day, I found myself in a conversation with two twentysomething girls who informed me that Americans need to "get over" slavery. But then what of little boys being slapped on airplanes and cursed with racial epithets? What of T-shirts exhorting us to "put the white back in the White House"? What, indeed, of Trayvon Martin? Django Unchained is not pretty, it's not polished, it's not as smooth as some of its competitors at the Oscars. But in an allegedly post-racial America that still refuses to fully come to terms with its own diseased racial history, Django Unchained is absolutely essential.