K.H.: Matt covered this pretty well in his essay on the Junto blog. All I’ll add is that the bodacious soundtrack has been playing in our apartment ever since.
M.K.: Yeah, go read that, and the comments, too. But listen to Rick Ross while you're doing it.
M.K.: Well, Katherine and I saw this on Valentine's Day, and our post-film argument made it into The Wall Street Journal. Yeah, that's right. We're Big Time, bitches. See if I care to respond to your sniveling little criticisms of 21 Jump Street now.
Obviously, Katherine and I disagreed about this picture. We both acknowledged its mastery and felt its power, but my standard complaint against Haneke still applies: he cares more for the situations he creates than the humans who are forced to inhabit them. As I tweeted after the movie, aging, disease, and death are hard enough without having to experience them inside a Michael Haneke film. (One of the privileges of being Big Time, now, is that I am allowed to quote from my own tweets.)
Some of my complaints echo Hollywood Reporter's callous grump of an Oscar Voter: shouldn't at least some part of every movie's agenda be to help its audience get laid? Not Amour. But there's more to it than that. What struck me about Amour, as in most Haneke films, is how meticulously the director lays the traps for his characters. Not the traps of decay and death, as I unsuccessfully attempted to convince Katherine after the movie: those are snares quite effectively laid by the ruling power of existence, which is at least as cruel (although much less narrowly so) as Michael Haneke. Not even the trap of constriction, which works well here: locked in Anne and Georges' apartment we are made to share, intimately, in the claustrophobia of a final ending. Even the street view from the windows, when left open, are usually shielded from the camera's direct gaze. Our only form of escape comes through the long, sustained close-ups of the landscape paintings in the flat, which in their gloomy way heighten our dread: a reminder, as Katherine said afterwards (but was not quoted in the Wall Street Journal) that Anne and Georges have been living with death for a long time.
But what about the characters themselves? The richness of their human lives, which is unmistakable in the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert? Anne and George approach death with great dignity and tenderness but almost no humor or sense of the absurd. (Anne doesn't want to be disturbed by her son-in-law's tedious "English humor.") Haneke never lets them have even one miserable, suffering, animal laugh -- a defiant sound that would have punctured his atmosphere of total suffocation. He can't let them laugh because that would grant them an unacceptable agency within his elaborately constructed palace of pain. For me, the cruel Haneke palace-world is more powerful when drawn out on a large social scale, as inThe White Ribbon, rather than implanted in a marriage, like Cache, or a single apartment, like Amour.
But don't take my word for it. Go read the Wall Street Journal!
K.H. Naturally, I find Matt's argument here very persuasive. (After all, I married him.) And I don't want to die like a character in a Haneke film. Not at all. I want to die laughing in the surf eating cookies. (Or something like that.) But I don't think it grants Haneke any moral privilege to say that sometimes life (and especially death) is as awful and unfair and isolating as he envisions it. None of us can really know how we're going to face down that great return but it's not hard for me to imagine that many, many people (maybe especially many affluent Continental Europeans) feel as trapped as Anne and Georges. As characters, they may not have had a choice in Haneke's plans, but then again, none of us have a choice against death. Director as death. That's Haneke. Which sucks, but also gives me chills.
Now enough of that and get me another plate of cookies.
M.K.: This is, as Kirk says, the most fun you could have had in a theater in 2012. Channing Tatum in a fake police vest, helicoptering across the stage and commanding our gaze with merciless authority; the "scorching hot sternness" of Cody Horn; Matthew McConaughey, reaching new heights of sublimity in the art of playing Matthew McConaughey. "Can you touch this? No, no, no, no."
Magic Mike is a strip-club movie, as you may have heard, but it's also a lot more than just a fun night out in Tampa. What balances Mike's irresistible charisma, and gives it weight and form, is his irresistible pathos. It is the pathos of a man who is "smarter than all the other dancers," as Ty Burr writes, but "still not smart enough." Mike's immense charms, overpowering on the stage and still highly potent off of it, are unequal to the tedious demands of the 'real world.' He can unmake a woman with a flick of the hip, but he cannot manage a real relationship. He can fill a briefcase full of cash, but he cannot get a bank loan.
K.H. I’m with Goldfarb: never has a movie about depression and addiction made me more eager to visit a city. We see much of Oslo in Joachim Trier’s film, and we hear about it, too, in opening voiceovers from generations of past Norwegian twentysomethings who have come to the capital to conquer the world. It’s a glamorous, intoxicating place, full of promise and Social Democratic compassion. “I remember how free I felt,” says one, “and then I realized how small Oslo is.”
The movie, which covers a day in the life of the recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), is ultimately an elegy for youth—which always dies even as we, rather comfortably, go on. On the surface, Anders’s day is pretty pedestrian: he sees an old Swedish girlfriend, visits a happily married academic friend, has a job interview, drinks coffee, and, like any good European young person, goes roving in a band until dawn. But through it all he watches people, and he asks them questions, and in fleeting glimpses, he imagines their lives unseen. He also argues with them, pretty fatalistically, about what’s important in life and what is not, and even as we worry for him, we can’t help being taken in by the beauty of youth—both his own and that of those around him, who have dreams and hopes and ambitions and fun. By the time a fire extinguisher goes for a ride on a bicycle, I was completely sold. Oslo 2013 anyone? As long as I can be twenty-two.
M.K.: I tend to find the thirst for self-aggrandizement more interesting than the thirst for self-annihilation, so I never quite warmed to this film, even as I was impressed by Anders' careful writerly noticings. For me, it worked better as a social portrait than a psychological study. But I'll admit that reading this blurb makes me want to rethink my rankings.
(K.H.: #14, M.K.: #1)
M.K.: By some distance, my favorite movie of the year. It's a perfect blend of classic, big-hearted Hollywood melodrama with French style, finesse, and sociological shrewdness. It's got jumping killer whales and awesome leg tattoos and the hottest sex of the year. Director Jacques Audiard and stars Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts would all win my individual Oscar categories.
The plot is simple, though hardly ordinary: a drifter and his young son arrive in the South of France, and he falls into a relationship with a crippled orca-trainer. But there's so much more. I'll borrow Nikki's catalog of Rust and Bone's "subtle and copious" themes, all of them centered around the charm, the force, and the fragility of the physical body:
[I]nterspecies 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.
The Body! Rust and Bone speaks the language of Robyn and of Madonna, of Shakespeare and of Whitman: it's a movie that knows that the soul, for all its self-importance, "is not more than the body," and that our limbs, or our lack of limbs, deserve their own poets, too.
Rust and Bone also contains the most powerful scene in 2012 cinema, as the previous references from Nikki, Katie, and Will all testify. Katy Perry's "Firework" crescendoes as Marion Cotillard's orca trainer makes her body move the body of a killer whale, and then, suddenly, loses control of everything. It's so awesome that apparently even a discriminating music snob like Marion Cotillard herself can't hear the song any more without being moved. Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon, indeed.
K.H. Reading this, it's really hard to remember how I could underrate this film so much. I mean, seriously, the body electric! I think at the time I was concerned that it was too sentimental, using every trick in the book. (I know that sounds ridiculous given what I've written about Beasts, below, but there it is.) Anyway, I'll have to rewatch it. And more on the body theme: Ali really does do a wonderful job of plowing through a cup of yogurt, feeding the human instrument while Cotillard's Stephanie tries to talk to him about something serious. That is a man right there, getting his fuel.
M.K.: It's too bad this is the last little review I have to write, because it really deserves much more energy than I have left to give today on a Friday at 5:00 pm. But hear this: if this list inspires you to see one movie this year that you haven't heard of before, see Elena. Well, actually, first go see director Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return (my #2 movie of the entire decade, 2000-2009), then see Elena. But you can't go wrong: they're both great.
Elena tells the story of an older Russian woman, rescued from the working class margins by her marriage to an even older, much richer Russian man. When her icy, calculating husband intends to cut Elena's own struggling family out of his will, an anxious and unsettling plot creaks into motion. Equal parts Dostoevsky and George Eliot, Elena asks what kind of justice is possible in a world managed by rich tyrants and populated by impoverished boors. It's shot with a calm, abstracted lens that works as well in the cool corridors of a plush urban flat as in the power plant wastelands of an exurban apartment complex. Queue it up today, fools.
K.H.: It was a good year for the Civil War in cinema. Not that the history is always right; it just isn’t nearly as wrong as it’s been in the past. For maybe the first time ever, we had two major films that unequivocally argue that the North was right, instead of noodling around with brother-vs-brother, poor-Scarlett-Tara’s-burning ambivalence. Maybe people are finally listening to David Blight.
Though I can’t defend the maudlin, hagiographic ending, or the decision to make every single black character bow over in gratitude in the presence of Mr. Lincoln, there are still many, many good reasons to praise this film. It was refreshing and a pleasure to see Daniel Day-Lewis as a complicated hero (or at least a non-villain), to hear that reedy midwestern lilt puzzle over fiercesome legal questions, and to watch Lee Pace puff his chest in a vest. Tony Kusnher’s script offers a high-brow and high-minded literacy I thought gone from Hollywood forever. And once again I was reminded of the staggering historical fact—still staggering after all these years—that in 1863, a room of affluent white men voted to end slavery in the United States forever.
For the historian’s take, see Matt’s longer essay at The Glance Reveals.
M.K.: Yeah, go read that. But listen to John Williams's badass score while you're doing it. THERE WILL BE OBOES. Wait. Never mind. That syrup soup was the worst part of the movie.
Seriously, though, you must go right now to devour this collection of Lee Pace/Fernando Wood GIFs: "If it isn't the Postmaster of Millserburg, Ohio!... Is your maidenly virtue for sale?" Oh it is, Fern. It is.
K.H. Agreed, that score made me want to ralph.
K.H.: An incredibly rich little Israeli movie about fortresses of all kinds—between generations, within the contested territory of academe, and the Israeli state itself. Writer-director Joseph Cedar uses a father-son rivalry in Talmudic studies to pose serious moral questions about truth, justice, and compassion—and, get this, the whole thing is really entertaining! The scene in which an academic prize committee convenes in what is essentially a cabinet-lined closet may be the single best scene of the year.
M.K.: There's a lot more to be said about this film -- which rivals Lincoln as the best and smartest talky picture of the year -- but I'm going to farm it out to A.O. Scott, whose review quotes Yeats and just really nails the whole thing.
K.H.: I have heard all your protests: that it’s poverty porn, that it's casually racist, that it doesn’t even make sense, that…whatever. The fact is, I sat down in the dark with Behn Zeitlin’s movie and I cried. Once when Hushpuppy was just running through the Bathtub with sparklers, and then many times more after that. This is a film steeped in American folklore and the fantastical imagination of a child—in which a Michael Jordan jersey is as likely as any other piece of trash to stand in for your long-lost mom.
I'm writing from a place of emotional honesty right now, and my tears kill your critiques.
But let me back up for those of you who haven’t already had this fight a million times. Beasts is the story of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her dad Wink (Dwight Henry), who live in neighboring trailers in an off-the-grid community beyond the New Orleans levees. Locals call it the Bathtub, because it floods in every storm. Wink is an alcoholic who often disappears without warning, which makes Hushpuppy furious because she loves him, which makes him furious because he loves her. Because Wink, it turns out, is dying. It’s his own fault, but he has no remorse; he loved the way he lived. What he does have is a fervent desire to leave his daughter strong, capable of taking care of herself in a flooded world, and proud of the Bathtub life. So he teaches her to fish bare-handed, to flex her biceps and roar, and to eat her crab “like a beast.”
Unlike most stories about people outside the frayed American safety net, these people have no dreams of a better life. They don’t want to get to Alaska (Wendy and Lucy). They don’t want to upgrade from a single-wide to a double-wide trailer (Frozen River). They don’t even care that much about their shacks (Winter’s Bone). Instead, they relish their freedom, at times infuriatingly, escaping hospitals, charitable relief, and any kind of government care. These are people who share almost none of our values.
Which brings me back to Hushpuppy and Wink. By most contemporary standards, he is incredibly abusive: drinking, ranting at her, hitting her once (that we see), neglecting her except when he doesn’t. Who is he to be raising her? And yet they cling to each other: their love is undeniable. She wants, ferociously, to be his child. It’s hard to say what will happen when she grows up, if she will retain her hardiness on the path to libertarian self-reliance, or if she will one day break from the trauma of her too-chaotic childhood. Though the film’s triumphant tone, and Hushpuppy’s own insistence that she be remembered certainly suggest the former. “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know,” she declares. “Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
Hushpuppy and her daddy in The Bathtub. It’s a story already right there. If we cannot relate to their values or the literal shape of their world, we are forced to look even more closely at their relationship. When I sat there crying in the theater, wanting the credits to roll as long as they could, I think I looked very closely. And what I saw was a parent and a child, who were, for better or worse, tethered to each other by that messy bundle of cords that tether every parent and child.
Fear. Joy. Responsibility. Separation. Love. Loss.
M.K.: I have no tears to kill the critiques, but I do think the criticisms of people like bell hooks and Thomas Hackett reveal as much about themselves as Beasts's actual worldview. hooks is particularly upset that the film cannot imagine a better future for its characters: "R and B artist Jackie Wilson sang of a love that lifts one higher. For Hushpuppy and those like her, there is no love, no hands holding on, just a blank emptiness onto which any mark can be placed, any fantastical story written." This, she says, fixes Beasts as an essentially conservative document, but doesn't it also fix hooks as captive to an essentially bourgeois vision of uplift? I appreciated the way Beasts, in its very romanticism, challenges our own class-bound presuppositions about purity, safety, and striving. It might not offer a helpful vision of change, but it's not exactly an affirmation of the status quo, either.
(K.H.: #3, M.K.: #2)
K.H.: Because we are such fans of the Dardennes brothers, Matt and I scouted out the single week in 2012 that this film was playing at the Ritz in Philadelphia. We saw it, we loved it, and we have been clinging to it ever since.
Children were in peril all over the cinematic universe this year (see: Moonrise Kingdom, Monsieur Lazhar, Elena, Rust and Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild). In every case, ill-equipped, morally-compromised adults do their best to protect them, and in every case, growing up on this planet is nonetheless really hard—especially when you’re poor. The Kid With a Bike, about a livid foster child in Seraing, Belgium, may just be the best of the bunch.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) is stony-faced, blond, and relentless in pursuit of his desires. He wants two things and two things only: his dad and his bike. The bike is usually easy enough to find—a little harder to track down Dad. Played here in a stroke of genius casting by Jérémie Renier (who in 2005’s The Child tries to sell his baby for cash), Guy is nice enough to Cyril, but that doesn’t mean he wants him in his life. So the burden falls to Samantha, a hairdresser and non-relation who adopts Cyril and loves him, despite his many unlovable acts. As Samantha, the lovely Cécile de France is resourceful and self-possessed, just the right mix of cool and warm, and as relentless in her way as Cyril is in his. Of all the parents and surrogate parents we saw on screen this year, I’d take her any day of the week.
Where the Dardennes really shine, though, is in their focus on everyday working-class compromise: often banal, but always, at some point, heartbreaking. Watching their films, and this one in particular, one has the sense of watching life, not some didactic authorial vision of life. Of course they have authorial vision in spades, and theirs is at once aesthetic, moral, and political. But it’s also one that fundamentally honors character and circumstance, that sets up these basic (but so hard to get right) narrative elements, and then tracks each story along its necessary course.
M.K.: In the Neopolitan ice cream carton of darling European filmmakers, I will always choose the Dardennes' unsweetened chocolate over Michael Haneke's austere vanilla and Lars Von Trier's poisoned strawberry. I could prolong this analogy, at great and tortuous length, but instead I'm going to follow precedent from 2011 and wrap up 2012 with my favorite film essay on our (joint) favorite film. Here's Christine Smallwood in the NYRB:
The combination of urgent immediacy with a larger impulse turns The Kid with a Bike, like the best of the
Dardennes’ work, into a fable—a fable in a state of emergency. The work is psychological insofar as it
presents individuals facing moral choices—to take a child in, to give your own up—but we are not introduced
to ‘characters’ and then permitted to witness the choices they make as the full range of their personalities is
revealed to us. We know them only as people in the present, doing things now…
The acting style, too, is a kind of assertion of presence: people simply, immediately, insist on being
themselves. This is a moral and aesthetic position, one that favors action and composition over dialogue or
explanation. It holds that, in some way, the very fact of existence, in all its color and movement and
overwhelming presentness, eradicates discourse about it…."