Zero Dark Thirty is seriously riveting, but by fictionalizing events that are most interesting for their factual value—for what they can tell us about the not-so-ambiguous moral questions that surround torture, about the slow, unreliable process of intelligence gathering and interpretation, about dynamics of gender in governmental and military agencies—the movie presents questions of accuracy that are pretty distracting.
Some hate, but I congratulate Looper; I mean, there’s telekinesis, a sense of humor about the ineluctable silliness of time travel narratives, and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s acting is muted by makeup artists to the point of tolerability. Finally, A Cabin in the Woods is such a fun horror flick; it’s scary (in a cartoonish, Joss Whedon kind of way), it’s a bloodfest, and it loves its genre, quite appropriately, to death; it pays homage to the horror film by deconstructing it with violent, dismembering glee.
My respect for this movie springs from two sources (besides its bracing directness toward a difficult subject). The first is Denzel, full stop. There was Glory, yes, and Philadelphia, yes, but in this movie he’s on a different, um, plane. I also respect Flight for its baller use of metaphor. The crash could have been a schlocky mechanism, but it was perhaps the most memorable single scene of any movie I saw this year. (Marion Cotillard’s reconciliation with the whale that maimed her in Rust and Bone is a rival).
Richard’s snoring may have just barely kept the rest of the theater awake, but I found this movie really absorbing. If you replace Talmudic scholarship with tuna, and Footnote’s ample backstory of father-son rivalry with true-life, elephant-in-the-room reticence about the same subject, you’ve got Jiro Dreams of Sushi (kind of--see below). It’s mostly visual and atmospheric, it’s true, but it’s admirably obsessed with the subject of craft; I love my non-human animal brethren and everything, but this movie makes slicing translucent, peony-pink flesh look like the most admirably artistic of human pursuits.
This movie is three to five very important minutes too short, but I forgive it. Its awesome surprise is how beautifully it depicts continuities between (moral) character and intellectual style—continuities that are super, super difficult to render in a visual medium. The father’s rigid, inhuman, scientific sensibility and profound respect for truth and the son’s creativity, interpretive power, and willingness to play fast and loose with facts find expression in the men’s demeanors, language, and scholarship alike—and both father and son suffer for the ambitious extremity of their points of view. I wish the mother, silent and suffering in the crossfire of the movie’s male rivalry, had been a little less silent, and that the father had been given as much sympathetic complexity as the son. But the movie is quirky and academic in a good way, and makes great use of whimsical, Amelie-style narrative interjections that brighten its tone.
Your classic unsung-presumed-to-be-dead-Detroit-vagrant-singer/songwriter-meets-orphaned-and-adoring-South-African-fan-base love story. This movie has pure luck on its side—its great strength is its unrelenting sinuousness, but the stranger-than-fiction plot twists are found, not made. What I like best about this documentary is its restraint; its makers are driven by dogged curiosity, but in the end the movie curates its subject without plundering its central mystery.
5. The Queen of Versailles
The pleasures of this documentary are all mixed up with its horrors. A central gratification, rather unusually, is Schadenfreude; watching its real-life villain suffer, and watching the grotesque economics, ethics and aesthetics of the McMansioned world he inhabits contract and decay, is really very satisfying indeed. But more startling and nuanced is the genuine affective confusion the movie’s anti-heroine, the queen herself, elicits; as patently intelligent as she is shallow, as exploited and she is exploitative, as dehumanized by consumption as she is addicted to it, her monstrosity and charm demonstrate the capacity of documentary to render character with the deftness of scripted drama.
It was a delight to watch this movie transcend the fun but meaningless bitch-fest it might have been and floresce into an exotic hybrid of sensitivity and satirical brutality. This is the most mordant movie I’ve seen in recent memory, but its merciless depiction of an explicitly female kind of psychological violence is balanced by equally scathing allusions to the social causes of that violence—and to the special, isolated fallenness that accompanies the onset of sexual maturity/sexual objecthood in American women.
The movie may share thematic genes with Bridesmaids, but the comedies are of totally different tonal species and modal families; Bachelorette centers, for example, on a quest to restore a desecrated wedding dress, a humpty-dumptified emblem of female restoration through romantic love. Though I normally object to Kirsten Dunst’s stock array of attributes—cruelty, vapidity, amoral intelligence—here she’s a well cast Grinch whose heart grows three sizes over the course of the movie. Bachelorette does seem to lose its nerve in the end, falling back on some pretty facile procedures of rom-com closure, but that’s just an assertion of its priorities—the movie comes to play, not preach.
This movie is so distinctive for its exuberant, bloody marriage of aggressive confrontation and comic caricature; it’s both challenging and entertaining, and it lovingly parodies the spaghetti Western and the bromance as it covers its unlikely thematic ground. For me the counterpoint of revenge comedy slasher violence and ‘real’ historical violence, however Tarantinified, worked. I have two major regrets, though; one is Tarantino’s very unfortunate, seeing-your-grandparent-naked style cameo as an Australian miner, the other is the movie’s lack, given all the stalking and carnage, of Inglorious Basterds’ memorable suspense. Would that the world could bottle Christoph Waltz’s charisma, and prevent Leonardo DiCaprio from doing accents!
Most of the awesome things that stuck with me from this movie are visual: the under-water courtship dance; the intergenerational locker room; the euphoric tilt-a-whirl; the twirling, time-lapse portrait of the descent of a relationship from sexual frenzy to domestic ennui. I didn’t need another reason to love Sarah Silverman, but her drunken “Life has a gap in it” speech kicked me in the face in the best kind of way. I still prefer Sarah Polley’s debut Away from Her, but at least Take this Waltz didn’t elicit a straight hour and a half of undignified blubbering.
Thank you for introducing me to this movie (and no. 4), Matt and Katherine! It worked some kind of black magic on me, and I’m desperate to see it again. Rust and Bone is all about the body in crazy sophisticated ways, and it’s so subtle and copious in its angles of approach: it’s got interspecies love, failures and triumphs of ‘natural’ parental instinct, mysterious impulses to violence in men and orcas, bruised fists on ice and fists broken on ice, emotional intimacy facilitated and impeded by sexuality, tattoos, prosthesis, puppies; most strikingly, the movie’s spiritual and psychological transformations arise from the physical, life and death crises of its three central characters. Both of my top two movies ask what to make of diminished thing--Rust and Bone, of a body, and Take this Waltz, of a marriage—but Rust and Bone is by far the more soulful of the two.
And it works its black magic on Katy Perry, to boot.