Tag Archives: Lincoln

The Best Movies of 2012

Now that the Oscars have come and gone I guess I have to get off my butt and write something about 2012 in review. There’s a few I haven’t seen that have been delaying a year in review piece, not to mention my general inertia. 2012 was a good year for movies. We had smart blockbusters, moving and intelligent dramas and creative genre flicks. It was not, disappointingly, a banner year for animation. Pixar’s Brave, despite its Oscar, was good not great; Wreck-It-Ralph was middling if above-average; the year’s stop-motion offerings never sold me on investing the time to watch them (we can’t all be Coraline, I guess). There are lot I would still really like to see, including the early-year Studio Ghibli offering from Disney The Secret World of Arrietty. If you’ve any desire to watch that, ArgoBeasts of the Southern WildSeven Psychopaths or something that I overlooked, call me up and let’s get together.

Here are my top 10:

10) The Cabin in the Woods

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If you’d like to see a Joss Whedon movie from the past year which holds up under multiple viewings and whose last act is not its weakest half hour, The Cabin in the Woods is your bloody alternative to The Avengers. Written by Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Cabin is a riotous deconstruction of the horror genre with loads (buckets?) of third act payoffs.

9) Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings somehow manages to feel sharp and loose at the same time. As evidenced by the all around nominations for its leads (Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), the story is lit up by vivid characters with believable personalities that aren’t romanticized. Director David O’Russell cooked up a spicy jumble with their various talents, but the different roles don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive dramatic texture. DeNiro is Acting and Cooper is Acting but often next to each other rather than in conversation. Still, the film is an interesting personal story involving mental illness, family and healing. Even if it doesn’t quite have the subtle charms of great drama, it’s involving nonetheless.

8) Flight

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Compared with its predecessor on this list, Flight is the better film about mental illness. It gets a lot about addiction right, even if Denzel’s DWI pilot skills strain credulity. His raw magnetism helps the film focus around the character and draw us into the question of what will become of his self-destructive behavior.

7) Moonrise Kingdom

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Wes Anderson’s latest changes gears by focusing his childish aesthetic on actual children rather than childish adults and/or adults with troubled childhoods. In a sense, the central question of the film is whether these kids will be allowed to thrive or whether they’ll one day wear that thousand yard stare Bill Murray always affects with such comic detachment. Its delightfully rewatchable, even if at times it feels like Anderson’s silliest effort.

6) Django Unchained

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Tarantino’s second revenge-themed historical fiction isn’t as narratively tight or philosophically intriguing as its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, but its hard to begrudge a film that wants to put slaveholders under the knife. Django may be the bloodiest, wildest and most uncomfortable of Tarantino’s myriad works. That said, the tone befits the subject material. There is no reverent historical detachment here: just queasy, loquacious cruelty.

5) Premium Rush

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Too few films have the single-mindedness of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a film so committed to its namesake that it reminds you of how threadbare elements can be masterfully spun into tension and thrills. The bicycle chase premise sounds lame but the movie makes a breathless, nail-biting go of it. What would seem to be the throwaway picture in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar year is actually the stand out winner.

4) Indie Game: The Movie

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Perhaps less deserving than all the acclaimed documentaries I didn’t see this year, Indie Game does for game developers what Exit Through the Gift Shop did for street art: reveal a little known and understood subculture as a lively home for the artistic soul. The film focuses on three very small development teams and illustrates how they put their hearts and bank accounts on the line in the process of trying to bring their games to market. If Roger Ebert still cares about whether video games can be art or not, Indie Game: The Movie should settle the question for him.

3) Les Miserables

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My friends (i.e. my readers) may be surprised to hear that Les Mis is one of the most critically contentious films of the year, seemingly drawing the intense ire of some voices due a perceived threat to what counts as “good art” in the film world. I have to say, there are a lot of creative choices in this film that don’t really work. But, like other adaptations of the same, Les Mis works nearly in spite of itself. It helps that the source material is so strong, the musical so well-written and deeply moving. But understand, those aren’t strengths of the movie–the critical question is how well this particular adaptation handles the various parts. But I’m willing to engage with it as a surface experience in toto, and in that regard it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

2) Zero Dark Thirty

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Otherwise known as the best Law & Order episode ever made, the ever-sharp Kathryn Bigelow has given us the War on Terror as the ultimate police procedural underscored by the heartfelt cost of human lives weighed against the ethical cost of “enhanced interrogation”. The film’s torture scenes read nothing like the grisly fare one might be expected to see at the movies, yet they’re deeply unsettling for their closeness to home and reflection of reality. Zero Dark Thirty sidesteps questions of rah-rah jingoism by recasting patriotism as hearts panged with the loss of innocents and faced with the dehumanized treatment of POWs. The film is tense, single-minded, emotionally arresting and by all accounts a masterwork of filmmaking.

1) Lincoln

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Finally, though Lincoln doesn’t have the austerely taut perfection of Zero Dark Thirty, I’m giving it extra points for moving dramatic sweep. Spielberg frames Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb turn as the sixteenth president with the political process of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, sublimely underscoring the connection between the personal and the political. Like Les MisLincoln celebrates the Christian-liberal virtues of human dignity and equality–it just makes a seriously fewer number of mistakes in being a movie that does that and is so much stronger for it.

While I am sure I am eventually going to get to the smaller films I didn’t see this year, I have to say this was a great year for studio movies. Even the year’s biggest film, The Avengers, had the wit and verve of Joss Whedon animating it. I am disappointed that the year’s animation offerings weren’t stronger, but what is most clearly an artist’s medium will surely yield great works again in the future. It would be great for there to be a 2D animation renaissance driven by a Miyazaki-like auteur, though it’s safe to assume the CGI films will continue to dominate the market.

I am happy that the some of the strongest films on offer this year were full of hope. I still love No Country for Old Men, but I think our culture doesn’t need any help in being amoral and nihilistic. Les Miserables has proven the deep and broad appeal of fundamental Christian proclamations, probably showing the church part of the direction it should take in order to intuitively appeal to our culture. Lincoln has this moral urgency as well; even its twisted counterpart Django Unchained has its own morality, however bloodthirsty. And Zero Dark Thirty stands at their intersection, squeamishly juxtaposing heartfelt humanism–and its enduring symbol, the immutable value of a single life–and bloodthirsty revenge.

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Django Unchained (*** 1/2)

You've got red on you.

If you heard a movie pitch best summed up by saying, “It’s Shaft in a Peckinpah western set in the slavery years of the South”, you’d be forgiven for laughing it to scorn or deciding to be offended. “Who would want to make such a film?” would be one natural response. “Who could make such a film without horribly trivializing the suffering and injustice of that time?” might be another. The answer to both questions, in my judgment, is Quentin Tarantino.

The latter end of 2012 has already given us one nigh-impeccable slavery-era picture in Lincoln, an unquestionably great film perhaps weakened only by its near exclusive (and by most accounts necessary) focus on the agency of white males. It is a “prestige picture”–restrained, beautiful, moving and noble. Quentin Tarantino’s historical revenge follow-up to Inglorious Basterds is at times beautiful and, yes, moving in its own way (and emotionally wrenching in a way Lincoln was not). Restrained and noble, however–those are for the white boys. Django Unchained is excessively bloody, ridiculous, cocksure and self-consciously witty. And it celebrates from beginning to end a black male agency that leaves no white oppressor unavenged.

The story begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), chained, trudging for miles with other slaves towards an eventual sale at market. This is interrupted by the return to Tarantino World of Christoph Waltz in the role of a German (Dr. King Schultz) working in America as a bounty hunter. That Django can help him with a bounty inspires him to secure his freedom, setting the plot in motion. They ease into a mentor/protege relationship, with Schultz training Django in reading and sharpshooting and the two of them earning several large bounties over a long winter (via montage, of course). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Brunhilde (a gorgeous Kerry Washington), who was sold off to different owners after a joint escape attempt. Why help this black stranger? “I’ve never freed anyone before. I suppose I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.”

Brunhilde now lives and works on the vast Candie plantation, or “Candie Land”, which is overseen by an unctuously cruel Leonardo DiCaprio and his old Uncle Tom house servant played with refreshing nuance and intelligence by Samuel L. Jackson. The majority of the film depicts the protagonists’ efforts to rescue her, which they must accomplish by legal means (purchasing and manumission) for Django and Brunhilde to have a hope of a peaceful future. Framed by a German fable related by the benevolent Schultz, the plot is a self-conscious fusion of mythology and history that seeks to provide a romantic and victorious hero for an oppressed people who had too few.

This is all problematized by Tarantino’s love for the violent vengeance flicks of the 1970’s and our heroes’ occupation as bounty hunters. For the white viewer, Schultz is the closest one has to audience surrogate and moral compass, and by admission his bounty hunting job, like slavery, trades in cash for human bodies. Tarantino is egging us on. His depiction of the worst of slavery (we must assume Django’s horrors only scratch the surface) is edited so as to both spare us and revolt us. It begs the question of whether good men (in the classic Western tradition the film has little use for women except as prizes) can get along in such a world. His most virtuous characters are yet enraged and energized by the violence around them, resulting in a climax of orgiastic arterial geysers intended as cathartic comeuppance for the worst the white man had to offer the black.

I have thought much about my response to this film. I am uncomfortable with eagerly getting in on the vengeance thrill ride, something I more readily participated in when Taratino’s targets were Nazis. I am uncomfortable with implicitly saying, “I feel all the righteous anger of this oppressed people as if I know what it means to be personally affected by their oppression.” In other words, as one never having been the victim of American racism I am hesitant to pretend like I “get it” the way a Black American might. Also, the systemic mass murder of Jews had an end put to it with the force of a World War, whereas despite the Civil War and all the events of Lincoln white-on-black racism is still very much alive in this country and the socioeconomic fallout of slavery continues to affect the black experience in this country in countless toxic ways. It’s a living issue for me in the way that murderous anti-Semitism is not, and that complicated the film for me.

I also found myself, during Django more than any other film by Tarantino, questioning the morality of the director’s viewpoint. Does he wholeheartedly endorse everything Django does? Does he have a healthy dose of humanism (a thin line he danced nimbly in Basterds) in the way he treats his racist villains? Or, as it is for me and no doubt many others, is race still too potent of an issue? Does Tarantino find himself, like his characters, ignoring what seems reasonable in favor of what satisfies his righteous anger?

I am reminded of something the frequent Tarantino-critic Spike Lee said about his incendiary Do the Right Thing, which ends with a violent act of vandalism against whites. Asked whether the vandal–the main character of the film played by himself–had in fact Done the Right Thing, Lee responded, “No person of color has ever asked me that question.” Does Django do the right thing? Tarantino doesn’t seem to care.

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Lincoln (****)

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With certain kinds of subjects, it can be hard to separate out the quality of movies made about them from the relative significance and emotional freight which they carry. Given that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln had me fighting back tears in the first five minutes, it just might be that race in America is one such subject for me. As a critic interested in aesthetics, I have to insist that movies that are righteous in their values may in fact be reprehensible in their quality. Taking on racism or genocide or Jesus does not get you a free pass and, in a better world, would guarantee you a universally higher standard. The world we have, however, celebrates all variety of creative abominations solely for their noble intentions (not least in the Church, Kyrie eleison) and such I feared would be the cultural pressure attending a movie about slavery in an election year with a black president. Unlike so much noble agitprop, however, Lincoln shows the craftsmanship of Spielberg, et al. gelling virtuosically into a wonderful film that is by turns a political procedural, a character study and a historical snapshot.

It is not, in fact, a war movie, despite opening with a few spare minutes of combat that are just enough to register the bloody stage on which the rest of the film will be set. It’s an arrestingly chaotic sequence, shockingly intimate bayonets thrusting and fisticuffs in the mud. Black soldiers are center frame in this sequence, unsubtly underscoring the life and death struggle of which they are the unwilling locus. We stay with them immediately following the initial battle, as we’re introduced to Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) speaking one-on-one with troops after battle. As famous as he is for his speeches, in Lincoln it is face-to-face that he seems more at home. Spielberg and Day-Lewis present us a wily introvert with an iron will and a thousand undercurrents, not a gregarious statesman.

Day-Lewis, a brilliant and notorious method actor (likely much of the inspiration for Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder), turns in yet another intensely mannered performance which avoids calling undue attention to itself. It’s somehow both studied and seemingly effortless. The punctilious method fits the task of depicting this certainly punctilious character. We get Lincoln the pragmatist, the do-whatever-it-takes political workhorse. The film literalizes one of the president’s many metaphors, assuming that we know the “true north” of the situation (slavery is wrong and must end) and immersing us in the deserts and swamps which waylay our heroes on their journey towards the goal. It’s only in the contested, miry thick of it that we are introduced to our most lionized and mythologized national leader.

The crux of the film hinges on the sixteenth president’s decision to push for an amendment to the Constitution that will abolish slavery. Rather than take us through the tired motions of yet another hagiographical biopic replete with infancy and passion narratives, Spielberg wisely chose to make a film about Lincoln-as-leader, a man revealed in the process of doing what it was that makes us keep on remembering him. We don’t need to know where he went to law school or what dating Mary Todd was like, we just want to know what made that iconic bearded beanpole so special. Lincoln charts out a fascinating picture of federal political process during the height of war–the backroom deals, the speechifying, the intractable divisions, the hand-wringing, the pull-no-punches lengths deemed to be necessary means. And it shows us how Abraham Lincoln walked a tightrope through all of them.

I am cynical about politics, and Lincoln kind of Leslie Knope’d me. I am easily distracted and distraught by the darkness of human past and present; Lincoln lit some flickers of hope in my soul. It inspired me. It’s a picture of a hard-nosed man who decided what was right and did what it takes to ensure that it happened. The notion of a political “decider” fell out of vogue this past decade, but Lincoln should stir you with its willful leader and his electrifying appraisal of human dignity. It’s a beautifully composed painting about doing the right thing and a righteous inspiration to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s reminder that you might get shot in the head if you follow in his footsteps.

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Lincoln Teaser

Should we be expecting simply more of Spielberg’s middlebrow liberal sentimentality, or an actual film to boot? Only time will tell.

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