Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 26
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 26: 2012
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Silver Linings Playbook: If this movie taught me anything, it’s that everyone – medicated or not – is just as f*cked up as everybody else.
Returning to live with his parents in suburban Philadelphia after a stay in the mental hospital for his bipolar disorder, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is obsessively driven to overcome his illness and reassemble the pieces of his life. After “the incident” – the one that led to his now estranged wife obtaining a restraining order against him – Pat is ready to win her back.
Pat’s mission to rebuild his life manifests itself in various activities, including jogging around the neighborhood in a large garbage bag. He claims he wears it to sweat off the calories, but it’s also a poignant metaphor for a life that has been outwardly trashed.
Despite therapy, a personal mantra (“Excelsior!”) and a caring familial support system, Pat still succumbs to uncontrollable fits of rage. He throws a temper tantrum at the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (fair) and even breaks into physical violence when he can’t locate his old wedding video.
In an effort to better his social interactions, Pat accepts an invite to a dinner at his friend’s house. It’s here where Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who is also in recovery after a self-destructive sexual bender where she slept with everyone – everyone – in her office after losing her husband in an accident.
Tough on the outside but clearly broken on the inside, Tiffany is the feisty yin to Pat’s yang. The two fall into a friendship and Pat is slowly drawn out – and in – when they agree to swap favors. Tiffany convinces Pat that she can deliver a letter to Nikki (Pat’s wife). In return, she asks Pat to be her partner for a dance contest she’s been wanting to join for a while. He agrees, and Tiffany and Pat begin rehearsing in her dance studio. She leads, he follows. Together they waltz, foxtrot and tango their way to romance.
Silver Linings moves in every sense of the word. There’s jogging, running, dancing, violence and football, but it also navigates those tonal shifts between comedy and pain, leaving quiet space for true tenderness. Bradley Cooper brings to life a man who can unleash dramatic fury in one scene, then not realize why he’s so funny and charming in the next. Jennifer Lawrence is older beyond her years (their 15-year age gap is barely noticeable here) and she shines as a broken woman who is trying so hard to just feel something again.
Robert De Niro also stars as Pat’s father, himself an OCD bookie obsessed with his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Like an older Jake LaMotta, Pat Sr. has a touch of raging bull in him, having been banned from watching his Eagles play for throwing one too many punches. He now spends game days performing superstitious rituals from the comfort of his own couch. His OCD has him convinced his son is a good luck charm, inspiring the Dirty Dancing meets Friday Night Lights ending where all these storylines finally reach their climax.
As unlikely as it might sound, Silver Linings Playbook uses mental illness as a catalyst for romance. Pat’s bipolar disorder, his father’s OCD, his mother’s over-protective nature, even Tiffany’s self-destructive behavior are all treated with great respect. Most of this film is watching how these characters cope with their illness on a daily basis: taking or rejecting meds, coping with triggers, and how they interact with others who are also just trying to make it to the end of the day.
And maybe that’s why Silver Linings Playbook did as well as it did. It grossed over $236 million worldwide, more than 11x its budget. It was also nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Actress (Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro) and Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver – Pat’s mother). Jennifer Lawrence would win her category, earning the film its only Oscar.
With a witty script, a kookie cast of characters (all with amazing chemistry, I might add), and a semi-stereotypical ending, Silver Linings Playbook has all the ingredients for a classic rom-com…yet it’s strengthened with its sophisticated insight into real human behavior. Sure, the ending wraps things up just a little too neatly, but what rom-com doesn’t? What makes this movie truly unique is how it allows Pat and Tiffany to form an unlikely bond despite of, and not because of, their neuroses. In a very honest and heartfelt way, it explores the fear of overcoming our challenges by making it okay to laugh at them.
Les Misérables: There’s a lovely moment in Tom Hooper’s adaption of Les Misérables when Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who just spent the last 19 years of his life in jail for stealing a piece of bread, is brought in by the bishop of a local church. Starving, exhausted and without a penny to his name, Valjean is shown profound kindness by this man, who helps Valjean get back on his feet by imbuing him with a moral code that profoundly shapes the course of the rest of his life.
This bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway in the 1980’s. He played the part for more than 15 years, including on both the original London and Broadway cast albums. This scene between them, where the bishop offers Valjean his most valuable possessions in order to give him a fresh start, is highly symbolic – a passing of the musical torch, if you will.
Though Jackman honestly can’t compare to Wilkinson when it comes to bringing Jean Valjean to life, that’s not to say he didn’t offer a mesmerizing and compelling performance. In fact, I went into watching this movie with very little expectations and was surprised at how I was basically battered into submission by this vulnerable adaption. With the final chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing”, I felt so invigorated by the patriotic fervor that I was ready to hang a red and black flag out my bedroom window.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables spans about 20 or 30 years, beginning with Valjean's release from prison and centering around his desire to turn his life around in 19th century France.
However, Valjean is relentlessly hounded by the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) after he breaks parole. Valjean flees town, changes his identity and becomes a wealthy factory owner and liberal mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, but that doesn’t stop Javert. The man hunt continues for 17 years more until they finally have their day of reckoning on the barricades in Paris during the uprising of 1832.
But back to his days as a mayor. For Valjean, fate intervenes when Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a worker at his factory, dies (it’s a long story) and Valjean agrees to care for her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). From here on out, Valjean is a changed man, a “…father and mother”, as he says, to this young girl.
Through Cosette’s romance with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Valjean becomes entangled with a group of young idealists, which eventually leads to the political uprising at the end of the play.
These revolutionaries include a woman named Eponine (Samantha Barks, reprising the role she played on the London stage and in the 25th Les Misérables anniversary concert), who harbors an unrequited love for Marius, as well as a slew of other handsome Frenchmen who sing “…the music of the people who will not be slaves again.”
Not only does Les Misérables feature at least 50 songs, it is – with maybe 2 exceptions – ENTIRELY sung, making it feel more like an opera than a stage musical. Every line, every note, every scene is belted out with such conviction and intensity that the physical strength of this movie alone is quite impressive. As one reviewer said, “You can almost see the movie’s muscles flexing and the veins standing out like whipcords on its forehead.”
Part of the reason is because all the actors did their singing live on set, with a pianist playing in their ear via earpieces. This led to very raw and emotional performances where actors were given the freedom to really live in the moment…and, as much as it pains me to say it, no one really showcased that quite like Anne Hathaway.
I’ll be honest, I’m no fan of Anne Hathaway, but this was clearly some of the best acting she’s ever done. Her raw, gasping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” does the song’s beauty absolutely no favors, but her emotion is so real, so desperate, that I found myself holding my breath the entire time. Though her part in the show equates to no more than probably 30 minutes at the most, the raw ugliness of her performance is unmatched by anyone else in the cast.
As Valjean, I found Hugh Jackman’s performance a little…strained. Granted, the guy can sing – but he seemed a little less comfortable with the higher notes of Valjean’s daunting two-octave range. For example, his performance in “Bring Him Home”, arguably one of the show’s peak emotional moments, was visually uncomfortable for the poor guy. I haven’t seen so many forehead veins since watching the Strongman Competition at the Alma Scottish Festival.
In the stage production, the only comic relief in Les Misérables comes in the form of the innkeepers, Mr. and Madame Thenardier. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for this film. Played by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, the innkeepers were nothing but a Tim Burton caricature, just predictable, tired choices. I was half-expecting “Master of the House” to turn into “The Worst Pies in London” at any given moment.
For me, the real shocker here was Russell Crowe. As Javert, one of the show’s most interesting characters, Crowe sounds miscast at first listen…but I think he really gave a vulnerable, human performance. As perhaps the weakest singer in the cast, Crowe had some heavy competition in Les Misérables, but I don’t know, he worked for me. His Javert felt honest and real – a portrayal of a man who knows he’s not as strong as he appears.
For her part as Fantine, Anne Hathaway took home the award for Best Supporting Actress. Les Misérables also won Oscars for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Sound Mixing. It was nominated for 5 other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Jackman).
If Les Misérables proves anything, it’s that its themes of love, forgiveness and hope transcend time. The fight for freedom, acceptance and truth forever marches on, past the people singing, past the distant drums, marching ever-forward to the moment tomorrow comes.
Argo: Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, not all heroes are actual human beings. They say there’s no business like showbusiness, and there’s no showbusiness like the movie business. In Ben Affleck’s film Argo, Hollywood is the hero that helps save the day – no wonder this film took home Best Picture.
It’s November 4th, 1979. In a scene not unlike the recent storming of the Capitol Building, Iranian civilians fight, push and force their way into the U.S. Embassy in Iran. As Embassy employees and diplomats race against the clock to destroy any sensitive material, six of them: Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), and Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe) escape, running like hell to the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), where they hunker down in hiding for nearly 90 days.
Back in America, the State Department, assisted by the CIA, decides to mount a rescue mission. CIA director Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) calls for the help of Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration expert, to come up with a plan to help the six Americans escape Iran without getting caught. Just one problem – why on Earth would six Americans be wandering around Iran in this political climate?
Mendez and his team try to come up with a plan, finally landing on “…the best bad idea they have…”: With the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez creates a fake production company hoping to shoot a Star Wars-like sci-fi movie in the deserts of Iran called Argo. He devises a cover story for the trapped Americans, turning them into the screenwriter, director, scouting manager, etc. for the fake Argo film. With new identities, passports, and background stories, the hope is that the six Americans can board a Swiss Air flight with Mendez after scouting locations in Iran for their movie. But what looks good on paper rarely works that way in real life.
Though there are no shootouts, explosions or fights in Argo, the movie is still exciting and fast-paced. The suspension lies on the implication of what could happen if our characters get caught in their scheme. There are too many close calls and a constant, ever-present sense of danger. John Goodman and Alan Arkin help break the tension when they can, but there’s really not enough of either one of these loveable doofises in this adrenaline-pumping thriller.
If none of the actors playing the American six sound familiar to you, it’s probably with intension. Though some have had smaller roles in other projects, these actors, for the most part, are pretty low-profile. This certainly helps give the movie a little more realism. Even Affleck, complete with long, shaggy 70s hair and a bushy beard, is almost unrecognizable.
Argo also feels very 70s. The film is intentionally grainy and archival footage of President Carter, Ted Koppel and Walter Cronkite adds flavor of the era. The end credits even show the actors side by side with their real-life counterparts, proving that whoever cast this movie did a freaking A+ job.
Besides winning Best Picture, Argo also won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It was nominated for only one acting award – Alan Arkin for Best Supporting Actor – and a few other sound awards. Somehow Affleck failed to get a Best Director nomination, which seems like a bit of a snub, to be honest.
But for everything it is – suspenseful, dramatic, entertaining – Argo is certainly no docudrama. Though based on real events, Argo also has us in the oldest of Hollywood’s vises. As the Americans run, run, Rudolph their way through the Iranian airport, the guards – just one step behind them almost constantly – gradually learn they’ve been hoodwinked. As the Americans board the plane and can finally relax, a fleet of Iranian police begin chasing the plane (which is taking off, by the way) down the runway. While the action lover in all of us can’t help but scream, “Go. Go! GO!!”, the actual escape was nothing like that. But every hero deserves great ending - and this was Hollywood at its best.
Django Unchained: I wish Quintin Tarantino wasn’t such a freaking weirdo so I could proclaim publicly how much I love his films.
Watch any Tarantino movie and it will soon become abundantly clear how much the man loves cinema. He pays homage to it all the time. In Django Unchained, he tackles the most beloved American cinematic genres: the Western.
Well, kind of. Strictly speaking, Django isn’t a Western. Tarantino himself said, if anything, it should be tagged a ‘Southern’. For one, Django takes place before the Civil War, while most Westerns take place years after it. There are no banditos, no Native Americans, no dusty main streets or tumbleweeds, all of which are standard in the traditional American Western.
So, ‘Southern’ it is…rather, ‘Spaghetti Southern’. But Django is also very much a fairy tale. Unlike Tarantino’s other films, there are no shifts in perspective, no chopping up of the chronology, no chapters. This is a straightforward-rescue-the-princess quest, complete with a hero, a trusty steed and a fire-breathing dragon.
Our steed comes in the form of a man – a doctor, in fact, by the name of King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Dr. King (symbolic? Yes.) is a dentist-turned-bounty hunter, who, at the beginning of the film, is traversing a deep, dark forest in his wagon, topped with a bobbling tooth that literally had me LOLing for a good 10 minutes.
It is in these woods where Schultz meets and purchases Django (Jamie Foxx), the hero of our fairy tale. It is Schultz’s hope that Django can help him track down three brothers and collect on their bounty. Django agrees, and soon becomes a partner in Schultz’s bounty hunting business, as a free man, of course.
One night, while enjoying a little campfire, Django confesses that he is married to a woman named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who was sold into slavery. The German-born Schultz then treats Django (and us) to the telling of the German legend, Broomhilda, who was abducted and taken to the top of a mountain, surrounded by hellfire and guarded by a dragon. Suddenly, our story is laid out for us. Django has a princess to save, and a dragon to battle – and Schultz is just the steed to get him there.
This leads us to one of Django’s most delicious pleasures – Leonardo DiCaprio. As plantation owner Calvin Candie, the owner of the grand plantation called Candie Land where Broomhilda resides, Calvin is our fire-breathing dragon, though he doesn’t breathe fire so much as hot air. In a role Leo plays to hateful perfection, Calvin is a spiteful, vain and violent man, complete with a crocodile grin filled with gross, brown teeth which, given Schultz’s previous occupation, may have been intended by Tarantino as an ill omen. Calvin’s pleasures include Mandingo fighting, making out with his sister and belittling his slaves. In fact, he’s so revoltingly racist that, during one particular dinner scene, he points out several times that his dessert cake is white (or ha-wite, as he says).
But Schultz and Django know Calvin’s game, and their act to capture Broomhilda bamboozles everyone…well, almost everyone. Candie’s head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is no fool…and he smells a rat the moment he sets eyes on Django.
Even if Django is more linear than Tarantino’s other films, that’s not to say he doesn’t throw in a few twists and turns along the way. Tarantino delights in unexpected surprises (John Travolta’s death mid-way through Pulp Fiction, for example) and Django certainly follows suit. He also stirs in elements of black exploitation, which helps give Django a pulpy, high energy feel. And, like the tamer Mel Brooks films, no one is safe in this story that pokes fun at Southern people, black people, even the KKK.
And, like Calvin, Tarantino delights in excess. The violence, the racism, it’s all taken up to an 11. The N-word is used more than 100 times in the film (a creative decision both Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson passionately defended). And it stings each and every time. There’s never a feeling that Tarantino is being gratuitous with it, rather it gives the impression that this violent and colorful vengeance epic is going to adhere to raw reality and cartoonish logic. Why? Well, because it’s a Tarantino movie.
As of today, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s highest-grossing film, making a worldwide total of $425.4 million upon its release. It earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Picture and Best Sound Editing and won the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Waltz).
When all's said and done, here's what I took away from Django: 1 – Christoph Waltz needs to rock the salt and pepper beard all the time and 2 – Tarantino’s genius is, in a word, unchained.
Life of Pi: Like little Piscene “Pi” Patel, Life of Pi seems to take on more than it can handle. A curious juxtaposition of the mundane and the majestic, this film strives for something grander than what is perhaps achieves.
At times, Life of Pi is a very simple story – one of basic human survival. But it’s also a story of spirituality and believing in something bigger. It’s filled with stunning special effects that take the story out of reality and place it into the realm of fairytale. But can the power of its narrative outweigh the superlative special effects? Well, that’s up to you to decide.
Life of Pi begins when Piscene Patel (Ayush Tandon) is a young boy in Puducherry, India, where his family owns a zoo. Piscene, which sounds like “pissing” to young, immature boys of 8, instead goes by the nickname “Pi”. And he owns up to it, too, having the uncanny ability to write down that mathematical constant that begins with 3.14 and never ends. If Pi is indeed a limitless number, it’s certainly the perfect nickname for a boy who seems to accept no limitations. But more on that in a minute.
As a student of faith, Pi cherry-picks elements of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam to create his own iteration. With the sole purpose of simply wanting to “know” God, Pi figures it’s best to know all gods from all religions than try to just communicate with one.
A few years later, when economic issues force the Patel family to leave India, they – along with their zoo animals – board a freighter bound for Canada. However, a horrible storm causes the boat to sink, the only survivors being Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma in his film debut) and four animals: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Like Pi, Richard Parker obtained his name by comic accident. Originally called Thirsty, the tiger was captured by the British hunter, Richard Parker. However, upon delivery to the zoo, their names were accidently reversed. Was it fate or chance?
Despite his prim and proper British name, Richard Parker (the tiger) is still a wild animal. He’s never sentimentalized in the film and, as hunger abounds, he brings the population of the boat down to two. Pi avoids becoming tiger bait for a while by fashioning a raft which he tethers to the lifeboat; however, circumstances eventually force him to forge an uneasy co-existence with Richard Parker – which means he must dethrone the king of the jungle.
If the film would have stayed within this realm, I think I would have liked it more. Where it went wrong, in my opinion, was that the beginning and end of Life of Pi are bookmarked with scenes in modern-day Canada, where a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) is recounting his story to a Canadian author (Rafe Spall), who hopes to turn his adventure into a novel. Clearly this ruins the suspense of whether or not Pi will survive his ordeal, only how bad it will get before it’s ultimately all over.
But the most beautiful and indeed meaningful portions of the movie take place aboard Pi’s lifeboat, where he must learn not only how to survive on the ocean, but how to form a relationship with a wild predator, who becomes his friend only in his mind.
Unsurprisingly, the special effects used to craft Richard Parker are nothing short of amazing. At no point did I doubt that this was a living, breathing creature. In addition, the boat wreck, the flying fish, the glowing jellyfish, the island of meerkats, and the huge humpback whale are sheer spectacles to behold.
Director Ang Lee took home the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on Life of Pi. The film also won awards for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects (duh) and Best Original Score. It was nominated for 7 other awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Production Design.
Thematically, Life of Pi is as much about faith as it is about survival. For Pi at least, one cannot exist without the other. But is Pi’s story too fantastical to actually be real? Well, that’s up to you. Like any God-based faith, you get out of it what you put into it and Life of Pi is no different. If you want a magical, fairy tale story of survival on the ocean, you’ll find that here. But if you want a deeper, more spiritual experience, I think you can find that here, too.
Lincoln: Steven Spielberg is known for monsters of the deep; aliens who love Reese’s Pieces; dinosaurs that walk our modern earth. His larger-than-life pictures bring to life the stories that can only exist in our imaginations, with characters who become icons in Hollywood lore.
In Lincoln, Spielberg does the reverse, bringing a classic American hero down to earth, without diminishing or belittling him. For so many of us, Abe Lincoln is a president that belongs to the ages. He was an idealist and an opportunist. His platform and policies changed the course of our nation forever. But Lincoln’s true power was due to the fact that he was frequently underestimated by his opponents. An intelligent and folksy person armed with witticisms more than wisdom, Lincoln simply knew how to play the game of politics. He outwits and outmaneuvers his peers like a skilled chess player, then comes away with a win that alters the course of history.
Given the title of this film, you might think this was a story that covered all the pinnacle moments in this man’s life, from his days as a lawyer in the Midwest to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln actually begins just a month or so before his untimely death, covering just one aspect of his presidency: the passing of the 13th amendment. But we don’t need to see more of his life to understand how rare a figure he was – this window is more than sufficient.
Rather than building the legend from the ground up, Lincoln begins with the legend already in place, seated on a chair – not unlike the statue that would come to immortalize him – chatting with some soldiers about his recent Gettysburg Address. Lincoln is in the process of trying to pass the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery in the union and the southern states. But the president is short votes, and even his Cabinet is trying to convince him to forget it and move on to more pressing matters, like ending the war, but Lincoln is adamant.
In fact the conflict between the Democrats (who oppose the passing) and the Republicans is only barely more civil than the soldiers on the battlefields. Snippy remarks become the weapons that keep this legislative body at odds for a good majority of the film.
But Lincoln is not above vote buying. He offers jobs, promotions, title changes and more to those chief negotiators who can sway lame-duck Democrats to changing their vote. After all, that’s how the game is played and, as we discussed before, Lincoln is a chief chess player. With resolute abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) playing a crucial role in the passing of the amendment, Lincoln lines up his pawns for a delicious battle that involves persuasion, temptation and intimidation, culminating in an ending we all see coming, but is still no less thrilling to see.
If I were to sit down and talk about Daniel-Day Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance in this movie, let’s just say I could probably go on for four score and seven hours. DDL doesn’t just play Lincoln, he becomes him. This is a performance so effortless and invisible that it’s easy to forget that this is an actor playing Lincoln and not the man himself.
DDL’s Lincoln is soft-spoken and folksy, a gentle quiet being with a voice as thin and willowy as the man himself. It’s a voice that seems almost unfitting for a man of his stature, yet one many historians say is the most accurate portrayal of what Lincoln actually sounded like.
Day-Lewis also excels when shifting into what was perhaps Lincoln’s most comfortable mode, that of storyteller and father. Though overshadowed by the larger political story, Lincoln’s personal life does play a part here, with Sally Field starring as the tormented Mary Todd Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert. But his most cherished relationship, the one with his young son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath) is the one that pulls at the heartstrings, particularly when we see the President of the United States laying down on the floor beside his sleeping boy, kissing him gently on the forehead, and carrying him off to bed.
Not only did the 13th Amendment free some 3 million slaves, it cemented Abraham Lincoln into the foundation of America’s history. Though Lincoln had the pleasure of seeing the amendment pass the Senate and the House, he did not live to see it formally adopted in December 1865. Just 3 months after the amendment passed, Lincoln was assassinated. It is here where Lincoln ends, though it arguably didn’t need to. In this biopic that wasn’t so much a biography as it was a thriller, Lincoln wasn’t so much about a man as it was about a moment in time, a mere 31 days that changed the trajectory of the country forever.
Zero Dark Thirty: In recent years, particularly those after 2001, the American response to violence has been more violence. We may not want to admit it, but we are a nation fueled by revenge, payback, punishment and eye-for-an-eye tactics. Capital punishment is still legal in more than half of our states – 28 to be exact. With just 4% of the world’s population, the US is still #1 when it comes to civilian gun ownership, housing more than 393 million guns as of 2018. That’s more guns in the United States than people who live here.
With prisons overflowing, police murdering people in their homes and people literally storming our Capitol Building, there’s no denying that America loves violence. Why else would a film about the biggest manhunt in US history become a lead contender for the Best Picture Academy Award?
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a vivid reminder of 9/11. Audio tracks of people trapped in the Twin Towers calling 911 play over a black screen. It’s cruel and unsettling – and it sets the intention for the rest of the film. We will find the man who did this, and we will destroy him.
From here, we jump to 2004, where American intelligence is subjecting Iraqi prisoners to waterboarding, starvation, and other violent means of torture in the hopes of obtaining information about Osama Bin Laden. New recruit Maya (Jessica Chastain) is initially shocked by what she sees, but becomes motivated enough to work her way up the latter pretty quickly.
What it is, exactly, that motivates her is unknown because we know next to nothing about her. We don’t know her politics, her personal history, or even her personal life. The only relationship she has is with her job…and it’s with her classic American virtues of determination, perseverance and certainty that she navigates this male-dominated landmine.
Though I wasn’t a huge fan of this film overall, I will say that Jessica Chastain gives us something we rarely get on-screen: a powerful, uncompromising female character with enough chutzpah to dominate the thriller genre. The whole film relies on Maya’s ability to trust her gut, even when every person in power is laughing in her face. Through her intuition and imagination, Maya is able to come to the conclusion that Bin Laden is not anywhere underground, but most likely hiding in plain sight. She is confident that she’s right, 100% confident as it turns out…but the real struggle comes with convincing her superiors, all of whom are skeptical, to follow her lead.
The title of the movie refers to the 12:30 am raid on the compound where Bin Laden was discovered. After a near 2-hour build-up, we’re finally rewarded with being able to witness the mission’s execution, which was supposedly eerily in sync with how it actually played out. Though we know how it all ends, the use of green night vision and shadowy movements offer an experience that’s both predictable and tense.
But Bin Laden is discovered, shot and bagged. Was his death worth the moral price, the compromised ideals, the violence? I guess that’s for us to determine for ourselves. The ending is not rah-rah, so to speak…in a word, it’s a bit sad. Maya identifies Bin Laden’s body with a passive face. Now, with Bin Laden dead beside her, Maya must face her apparent lack of purpose, having completed the one task she was so laser-focused on finishing for 12 years. As she sheds a tear and looks off into the distance, we can only imagine her asking herself what millions of Americans asked themselves when news broke of Bin Laden’s death: now what?
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.
In its simplest form, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fairy tale made of mud, sweat, and rain. It takes place in a desolate wilderness called The Bathtub, a small island cut off from the mainland (New Orleans) by the rising waters. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a fierce and unbreakable 6-year-old, lives there with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) and a handful of other folks who are all so tied to their land that they may as well be part of the earth itself.
The people of the Bathtub are left to their own devices. For children like Hushpuppy, that means running wild. For men like Wink, that means drinking. Though he is ill-suited (and just ill) to raise a child on his own, he has no choice. His wife is gone and it’s up to him to teach Hushpuppy self-sufficiency so she can better survive on this piece of land that is, in every sense, falling off the tip of the world.
In many ways, everyone who lives in the Bathtub is the same age – which is Now. In this place, age, race, ethnicity and sex don’t matter – what matters is survival. Most folks live on grounded boats with tin roofs so they are ready to float if and when the water rises. Many cobble together truck beds and oil drums to make floating devices for transportation and fishing. Existence here is, in a word, apocalyptic.
With a floating house and a school built into a literal houseboat, Hushpuppy’s world never seems entirely stable. And with a storm on the way (most likely Katrina, but never so named), it’s more imperative than ever that this little community do all it can to hold on for dear life.
Too young, too poor and too feral and fierce for the trappings of gender, Hushpuppy is a force to be reckoned with. She’s close with her father, but their relationship is more animal than human. Their connection is instinctive and primal…and it runs to the core of their being. Most of Hushpuppy is kind, soft, merciful. She cares for animals and believes they have thoughts like we humans do. Yet she must also be a fierce survivalist, and her father is passionate about teaching her how to cook, fish and take care of herself.
While these are good general life-skills for a girl like Hushpuppy to have, we come to learn that Wink is preparing his daughter for a life without him. A rare blood disorder has Wink in and out of the hospital, and you can’t help but ache for this girl and what she’s facing (and will soon face). When it comes to life and death, Wink is steadfast in his belief that the strong survive…but Hushpuppy sees it differently. For her, mercy has a role in survival, too.
Visually, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an intricate dance between filth and beauty. As Hushpuppy and Wink float down the bayou on their raft, the water is quiet and calm, until they pass a rotting animal corpse. Later, as a beautiful firework display lights up the night sky, we also become very aware of the dirty and grimy clothes Hushpuppy wears. Even her home, which looks tattered and broken on the outside, is filled with her whimsical illustrations on the inside, complete with fairy lights, toys and cherished mementos.
It would be easy to say that Beasts is sentimental in promoting the ol’ “it takes a village” mentality. It would be easy to feel sorry for these folks, but they don’t want your charity. This is a land of survivors. There is kindness to spare in The Bathtub, but survival comes first. “You gotta take care of the people smaller and sweeter than you are,” Hushpuppy’s teacher tells her. In that moment, Beasts of the Southern Wild suggests that mercy and beauty have their place, even in the dirtiest places on earth.
Amour: Love. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the so-called “human experience”. It’s the subject of thousands of stories, songs, books, movies and TV shows. But few outlets really explore the question of what it means to love someone, not necessarily because of the complexity involved, but because of the challenge required to express love at its purest.
In the French film, Amour, we see an elderly couple whose companionship has moved past soul mates and picks up long after most love stories have ended. Many are sure to find echoes of their grandparents, parents or even themselves in these characters. With simple, quiet, relatable moments, director Michael Haneke brings to life a story filled with a universal sadness, one that hits close to home because of its honesty and its realism.
Married octogenarians Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers who are enjoying their comfortable middle-class existence. They live in an amazing Parisian apartment surrounded by books, music and mementos from their long life together.
After attending a piano concert put on by one of Anna’s pupils, they return home to find there’s been a break-in. They immediately have the door repaired, but the damage has been done – someone has intruded upon their lives. In a symbolic sense, that someone could be death…but in a very real sense, that someone is us. From this moment on, we never leave the apartment.
The next day, as Georges and Anna sit down for breakfast, Anna suddenly freezes. She recovers but remembers nothing of those few moments where she sat immobile. Georges thinks she’s joking, but it turns out Anna had a mild stroke that ends up paralyzing the right side of her body. She’s confined to a wheelchair and must have help performing the simplest of tasks, including getting dressed, showered, going to the bathroom, eating, and going to bed.
It takes practice, but eventually Georges and Anna adapt to their new life…but then Anna has another, more debilitating stroke, which basically confines her to her bed. Their only child, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who is also a musician, lives abroad with her own family. She makes fleeting visits, but her advice to her father is shaped on her own needs rather than his and Anna’s.
As Anna’s condition deteriorates, her voice disintegrates, her ability to express herself disappears. She hallucinates, screams out in pain, then bursts out laughing. It’s all very common, according to the doctors, but that doesn’t make it any more manageable for Georges. Seeing someone you love literally falling apart in front of you is a punishment no one should endure, and Anna, though dying, is still very much aware of the fact that she’s losing the one thing most important to almost all of us – her dignity.
What makes Amour such a powerful movie is how it uses white space. For a movie about a family of musicians, there is basically no music in this film. A few pianos are played here and there, but there’s no soundtrack or background music. Some may complain that the pacing of this movie is slow, with long shots of the camera looking at an empty room or focusing on a painting, but I think the overall effect of these moments is truly remarkable. Anyone who has acted as a caretaker for a loved one knows how important it is to just take a moment and breathe – and that’s what these scenes do – they offer us a moment to just take a freaking breath.
Naturally the success of Amour rests solely on the shoulders of these two actors, both of whom give tremendously natural, nuanced performances that cut right to the heart of what it means to really love someone. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her part as Anna, but lost to Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).
Bette Davis once said something along the lines of, “Old age isn’t for sissies…” and neither is this film. All the grace and glamour is stripped from these real and raw performances, leaving us with a story that may look hard on the outside, but truly glows from within. When it comes to true love, a large romantic gesture only goes so far. True love is about cleaning bedpans, rubbing sore muscles, sometimes even changing diapers. It’s suffering along with a loved one because their pain is your pain. It’s making decisions about the future when you both know there really isn’t one. It’s growing old together, in sickness and in health, that makes life, and love, so beautiful.
From fairy tales to thrillers, musicals to biopics, 2012 really captured a little of everything.
Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo all brought moments of American history to life in amazing detail, while Django Unchained, Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild (my hidden gem this year) gave us modern fairy tales with valuable real-life lessons.
Through stories real and imaginary, all these movies really focused on the fight for survival. From shipwrecks to tropical storms, terrorists to revolutionaries, these movies showcased basic human resilience and the lengths we’re willing to go to in order to achieve it. Onto the next pull!