We’re Here to Get Out Alive

The ten films I liked most in 2012. Many spoilers. Loosely speaking, I like them more as the list goes on. And though it’s not below, Holy Motors had the best scene.

not-fade-away-guitars

The 1960s as a canvas have suffered from diminishing returns. Most of the smart working artists of the decade would have found our nostalgia for the era unfathomable. And the recurring impulse toward finding the right stretch of the American past with which to explain the American present usually winds up as inaccurate history in the service of skewed diagnosis.

Small and specific even for a personal film, you couldn’t accuse Not Fade Away of failing to recognize these dangers, or reaching beyond its competence, or otherwise attempting to explain America to itself. Regrettably, the end result could make anyone question what the point is of authentic recreation of a couple families’ lives forty to fifty years ago. And it’s all the more easy to ask given how few of the characters are intrinsically likable, products as they are of David Chase’s sense of human limitations. They make the same mistakes, they contradict themselves, and when they change it’s a coin flip whether it’s good or bad. The lead goes from being an impotent member of the high school social fringe, to acting just enough like an ass to earn membership in the club, to closing off the film left out of the group once more, since it’s Los Angeles and they’ve been faking it way longer than some kid from Jersey.

And these drawbacks are all true, and that would be all there is, except then people sing, or argue about singing, or talk about the drum patterns they’ve heard on the radio, and Chase’s love note to music gathers itself and breaks out. A story about a rock band that didn’t conquer the world can only argue for music as a temporary escape. But as the last, most surreal scene of Chase’s career makes clear, it’s enough for some of us.

shut-up-and-play-the-hits-lcd-soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem played its last show on April 2, 2011. At Madison Square Garden, the concert unfolds. The day after, James Murphy tries to make sense of what he’s done. And throughout, Chuck Klosterman talks with him about it.

In taking in the threads of Shut Up and Play the Hits, it’s easy to miss how Murphy has provided the entire film, there for someone to grab. It’s not autobiography, but the central figure has clearly controlled the timing and nature of the filmmakers’ scrutiny. The entire film exists because he chose to decide there was an ending, which turned out to be a canny way to create a story.

Klosterman is smart enough to realize this, but unable to make Murphy step up and admit authorship. We experience the movie as something happening to Murphy, and to us. So the movie loops back in and out of itself, a half-remove from its own cleverness, hitting its stride for long moments that you recognize almost immediately and never want to stop, connecting with you at odd moments in unexpected ways.

It reminded me of this one band.

looper-movie-night

Looper is smart in all the right ways, well-conceived and rigorously thought through, conscious both of its influences and on what new it can contribute. Despite or because of this, on a scene to scene basis it fails to wrap you up as much as it makes you admire it. The film lifts off in fits and starts, but only stays in the air for so long.

The pieces, though, those many starts—they’re incredible. A man vanishing piece by piece. A brisk walk-through of a life lived and abandoned. A Bruce Willis action film condensed into one scene. The lurking unease of the movie’s setting and its vision of the future. A character figuring it all out at just the same moment we have, and deciding he’s had enough.

These make sense in the moment, and you know, in a way, why they’re there, and you understand them even better after the fact. This doesn’t mean it was the most satisfying film to actually watch. But it’s enough. And there’s no reason to think Looper won’t be an ever-growing joy to return to, and that it won’t reveal even more to admire. For a time travel movie, this is the only promise you have to keep. And Looper is nothing if not conscious of its obligations.

skyfall-house-burning-bardem

The third Daniel Craig Bond film took forever to make it to theaters, and Skyfall seemed determined to make up for the character’s absence by attempting, in a very overt way, to provide absolutely everything one could ever want for a Bond film. Or really, any film. Skyfall goes out of its way to be a big, rollicking movie, and almost all of its thematic and emotional aims exist in reference to Bond and our ideas and experiences with cinema. Holy Motors and Django Unchained were the two films this year with the most palpable love of film as a medium, but Skyfall isn’t too far behind.

That the characters are fighting over the narrative of events rather than any clear set of geopolitical aims is all for the better. Silva has a particular vision for how this will play out, the product of years of thought and tinkering, which he holds onto and unfurls with glee. Bond has far less time, and winds up luring Silva in only by presenting something even more fun—a personal Alamo. And when that doesn’t quite work, he foils Silva’s final Shakesperean flourish by bringing them both down from tragic heights to baser levels, making things “one rat to another.”

There’s twenty-two Bond films and a hundred other movies in Skyfall, let alone the roads it suggests but does not take, but the compression and combination works. Shot by Roger Deakins, set-piece after precise set-piece, Skyfall does what far too few big-budget movies know how to do anymore: it leaves all its energy on-screen. I’m not quite sure how you follow this. In the franchise era, few realizations are so exciting.

jennifer-lawrence-silver-linings-playbook

Staking everything on three actors few audiences would trust anymore—Chris Tucker, Robert DeNiro, and Bradley Cooper—Silver Linings Playbook was unstable from its start. In pre-production, it swapped out and replaced leads, even as the finished film feels impossible to imagine without the people actually involved. On a story level, further, who we rely on constantly shifts. Most of the characters we interact with have significant mental problems, and the film isn’t afraid to change our minds suddenly on who the “crazy one” is in a given scene.

Dismissing its overall narrative as “safe” misses how many risks the film takes. The degree of difficulty for this kind of traditional romantic comedy is higher than other projects because the seams tend to show more often. We recognize them from other places, we question the logic, the intentions of the filmmakers, we fear the potential manipulation.

It works all the same because the film has a good heart, and because of Lawrence, who is incredible. Her character brings everyone up with her, in a desperate scheme, just long enough to have someone to catch her when she falls. Her presence provokes and highlights everything interesting about Cooper as a performer. And in a quintessentially David Russell scene, a dozen people in a room shouting at each other, she takes over just as easily. Initially presented as the wild outlier, she turns out to be the center of gravity. Like the film, she can’t afford to lose any of her bets, and like the film, she’s just crazy enough to pull it off.

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Inglourious Basterds slaughters most of a Jewish family in its opening, but that’s it. There are no concentration camp scenes, no cuts to Lidice or Treblinka. The bad guys are Nazis. The audience knows what’s up.

Django Unchained has whippings, lynch mobs, threatened castration, beatings, a slave ripped apart by dogs, locking a woman naked in a burning-hot enclosure overnight. I’ve never been more disturbed by anything in a theater than the scene of the two slaves fighting to the death. Violence hollowing you out, like someone has started drilling down your throat and won’t stop until they’ve taken out your guts—that’s something you don’t feel all too often. The most gorgeously shot Tarantino movie, one of the most beautifully captured visual experiences in years, very clearly wants to get your blood boiling. And the tragedy is that it needs to. Something about slavery remains not viscerally intuitive to American audiences. We get it, they’re Nazis. We need to be shown they’re slaveowners.

Making you feel it is hardly the only concern of Django. And I don’t know what the movie “means,” as some kind of cultural watermark. But the characters seem to. Schultz narrating German folklore by campfire tells you everything you need to know about him, everything about why he must see this through. Django knows he must become myth to triumph over a false god, and by sheer resolve, he succeeds in doing so. Stephen understands the beginning Django represents, and thus how he foretells an ending. They get it, almost instantly. We can’t seem to, after centuries.

Tarantino has always been great at finding cinematic gold in low places, but he’s increasingly after showing us a forceful new ethics that’s been hiding there all along. Films that work their way into your bones aren’t as easy to shake. And incidentally, they’re all the more fun for it.

zero-dark-thirty-jason-clarke-movie

Even counting Django, no reaction to a film was more interesting this year than Zero Dark Thirty, which divided many writers, critics and thinkers not often at odds. It’s hard to know what audiences will make of the film, what its legacy will be. It’s foolish to think films can’t have impacts upon political opinions. But it seems equally foolish to insist you can predict them, to diagnose them as they play out. Assessing films in bad faith for political ends is a losing game.

It’s also true that on a moment to moment basis, no theater experience was more gripping. Kathryn Bigelow’s film moves along with such clear, stripped-down, methodical purpose that you’re not thinking, and often not breathing, for the full 157 minutes, just taking in and taking in. There are few pauses, few turning points. Even when the characters falter, the film rarely misses a step.

Any reading of the film’s ethics or politics is a creative reconstruction (and often a Rorschach test), which is not to say what you see is amoral. But it’s also not the point. The film, the actual film, brings you into the space of its characters and then won’t let you out. There’s no remove. Its insistence in doing so is remarkable; that it holds your attention, even more so. It trades on American interest in these subjects, it’s conscious of American rage at attacks and responses, but it’s not about American policy. It’s about gripping its audience. Art should and must be political because stories about lives and people and the societies they live in cannot succeed without recognizing politics as a facet of human existence. But a film needs to draw you in, and Zero Dark Thirty understands how if it doesn’t, everything else won’t matter. When it draws you in this well, you wind up thinking, and maybe making you get mad all over again, and who knows where you end up.

But all that is after. In the theater, it’s rapt, tense, unyielding, for longer than should be possible. You shouldn’t look away, but Zero Dark Thirty does everyone the favor of taking away the option.

the-raid-beginning-redemption

As everything is falling apart around them, much too quickly, one of the members of the police team figures it out. “We’re not here to do good.” In a film where communication is mostly in silence, a succession of stares and gestures before joining battle in a frenzy of gunfire, knives, fists, legs, and knees, it’s the only memorable line.

The team’s sole mission after its opening mishaps is to get out alive. The Raid: Redemption‘s only real goal is to show you something you’ve never seen before. The clarity of intent is essential. The talent of the main actors and fight choreographers helps it along, but it’s astounding that the film sags so little in the process, how the tension stays there throughout without ever over-stimulating you on the human punishment being meted out. It’s just advancing and retreating, the whole way through, movement in and out of rooms, away from explosions, up and down hallways and staircases.

The Raid isn’t about anything other than what you see on screen, but that’s not to its detriment. It answers questions you never knew you had. It’s pure, unflinching spectacle, a drama of human bodies in motion. An action director made the best dance film of 2012.

emma-watson-perks-santa

I never read Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was certainly the right age at the right time with the right sensibility to have read it and become attached to it, and many good people I know have. But I never did. So when this film knocked me on my feet, it was something new.

The realism of the plot, as a representation of anyone’s actual lived experience, was shaky in 1999, and today there’s little left. Yet the story is never less than open about its artificiality. The film christens into life a set of very damaged characters, who continually pretend everything is okay, while no one in the audience can fail to register that they are not. They’re acting throughout, which makes every false note more poignant.

This frayed vulnerability underlies the language of the film, its dialogue and its epistolary narration, which is simple almost to the point of being infantile. The stripped-down expression is neither in the tough-guy tradition of Hemingway nor the fragile, necessary sloganeering of rehab residents. It’s self-defense. Charlie is a character who meets people, like him, who are willfully abstracting what they dare not say directly. If he ever hit specifics he would crack apart entirely.

I’m not sure if this is a film that works for anyone else. And I don’t know what it says that something keyed to the sensibilities of sophomores in high school hit me emotionally more than anything else I saw this year. But it hits a register I didn’t know was there before, and watching the film move effortlessly forward in so effortful a tone was like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

I don’t think I’ll ever read the book, or watch this again. It’s too fragile a thing to work forever. But for now, I couldn’t be more fond of it.

the-grey-staring-heaven

From the moment the plane goes down, everyone involved is dead. The filmmakers know this. For the audience, it’s a slow, excruciating realization. And it culminates in watching a scene used to sell the film, the way the movie will endure in pop culture consciousness, what played as borderline camp, a typical late period Liam Neeson movie moment: the unstoppable force gearing up for a knock-down, drag-out fight with the big bad wolf.

The marketing campaign for The Grey is in many ways a shame, but it’s a real question whether the film would work as effectively if it couldn’t trade on the assumptions of viewers that there’s a way out for the men involved. It’s not a deceitful film, either. It never provides any reason to think that they’re going to be okay. Nothing about the situation suggests hope. It only gradually dawns on you that everything you’ve brought to the theater is of no help. Only when everyone he knows is gone does Ottway wind up realizing that no one else is helping them, either.

No film this year had more empathy for its characters and no film was more merciless toward them. This wrenching combination is sometimes sad, sometimes miserable. When you’re left knowing that what you’ve watched is nothing more and nothing less than doomed men picked apart in excruciating detail, you might wonder why. The characters aren’t instruments. They aren’t for anything. None of it is. Sacrificing these men to Liam Neeson’s character growth would be one thing. Here they’re just food.

There’s no argument being made. The Grey doesn’t offer a takeaway, and in a film with many brave choices this absence is its highest courage. But in a long year, this surprisingly small movie, this darkest of dark tales played out amid bright-white snow, has hung in there relentlessly. It’s not something I can easily forget. It carves out a space no one else thought to occupy and took it over so thoroughly that any other film would be scared to come near it. You can’t ask for much more.

As for 2013… we’ll see. Been a hell of a year.

One thought on “We’re Here to Get Out Alive

  1. Pingback: We’re Here to Get There | Accidental Jellyfish

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