Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #1: The Master

This was a love-it-or-hate-it movie.  Every time I tell someone that this was my favorite movie of the year, I find myself doing so with an apologetic tone, expecting to receive exasperation in return, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised more than once to hear instead, “Thank you!  I thought I was the only one!”

Rules it exemplified:
  1. The Past is a Foreign Country, So Learn the Language: My favorite thing about The Master was that I wasn't thinking at all about screenwriting or other movies as I watched it.  Instead, I was overwhelmed by memories of my two grandfathers.  Despite the fact that they were extremely different men, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell was a fascinating combination of the two at their most troubled.  I felt like Phoenix must have known them personally to capture them so well.  PTA and his actors captured the lost language of the ‘50s with uncanny precision.
  2. Every Hero Must be Volatile: Overall, I loved how the movie, thanks to Phoenix and Hoffman's unbridled, unfiltered performances, seemed to hum with volatility in every scene.  I was squirming in my seat the whole time, fearing the next inevitable combustion of matter and anti-matter.
  3. Show Us a Relationship We Haven’t Seen Before:  The movie did what I never thought it could do: make me sympathetic to Scientology, by putting it in its proper historical context of the PTSD-wracked ‘50s and showing that, for thoroughly-damaged individuals like Freddie, who were impervious to conventional psychotherapy, only direct confrontation by a fellow nutjob provided any hope of self-help.  The violently symbiotic relationship that the two form is utterly believable to me and yet unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen.  I debated in my head for days whether or not the positive results (for Freddie) justified Hoffman’s megalomania.
Don't get me wrong, like almost everything else I saw this year, the movie was somewhat bloated and shapeless, and not the sort of thing that anyone should try at home, but Paul Thomas Anderson transcends traditional moviemaking wisdom here and writes with lightning onto the screen. For once, I’ll have a not-so-anxious Oscar night, because the movie I think should win isn’t even nominated.
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Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #2: Lincoln

I’ve praised this movie already, but let’s go into more depth...  

Rules It Exemplifies:
  1. A Hero Needs Special Skills Learned in the Past: The lesson of Lincoln, and Lincoln, is that the greatest weapon a president can have is the ability to disarm (and thereby defang) his adversaries, which Lincoln does with an endless stream of inappropriate (but pointed) back-woods humor. (This is a weapon that LBJ and GWB also wielded expertly, for good or ill).  Kushner and Day-Lewis masterfully recreate Lincoln’s canny charade: folksy hick on the surface, quick-eyed political mongoose underneath. 
  2. A Movie is About a Person’s Problem: Kushner famously started out by attempting to cover 1863-65, but he got though hundreds of pages without making it to 1864, so he started over.  Then he tried to just cover the four months of 1865, which turned out to be 500 pages!  (Somebody publish that version please!)  Spielberg, to his infinite credit, got to page 100 and said, “Hey, that’s a movie right there, let’s just stop at the end of January.”  This isn’t really a bio-pic: it’s just the story of one problem: the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House.  Of course, in Kushner’s capable hands, that’s enough to give a full and rich portrait of the man with the plan. 
  3. Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic: I talked here about how every step of this process is deeply ironic, but…
...Since I seemed overly-dismissive on that point last time, let me describe in a little more detail how this seemed to be different from the Spielberg I’d come to know and loathe.  My chief problem is Spielberg’s tendency to eliminate all irony and ambiguity from his movies.  I discussed Amistad last time, but there are so many more examples…
  • The real Oskar Schindler was just as heroic but far less saintly than the movie version, and he would have made for a more complex and human movie.
  • After a nice tense scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the platoon is left riven with doubt about whether or not they should have let that German go, he helpfully comes back and kills off a few of them, eliminating all ambiguity…
  • …and my all-time favorite example: The titular reports in “Minority Report” (indicating uncertainly about what the future will bring) turn out to be mere red herrings, and in fact Tom Cruise was falsely fingered for the crime not because of any unknowable gap between fate and free will, but simply because he was framed by his boss.
There were still glimpses of these problem in Lincoln: John Williams’s clunky score shifts gears between “this is a meaningful scene” and “this is a funny scene” with all the subtlety of a record-scratch, and Janusz Kaminski’s typically over-pretty cinematography tends to ladle on the pseudo-profundity at precisely those moments that Day-Lewis would rather underplay. 

My reflexive distaste for Spielberg is still strong enough that I give most of the credit for this movie to Kushner and Day-Lewis, but I am nevertheless willing to admit that the old duffer left me very pleasantly surprised this time around.
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Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #3: Argo

Allow me to warn you upfront that my attempts to praise Argomay get buried under complaints about Zero Dark Thirty. They make for such a perfect Goofus and Gallant pairing.  

Rules It Exemplifies:
  1. Know the Way the World Works: What makes Argo so good is the same thing that made Zero Dark Thirty so phony.  ZDTshows us what the CIA wishes it was: swaggering, hyper-focused, ultra-serious ass-kickers in a world full of pansies. It attempts to re-write a sloppy, shameful, sadistic, ten-year-long fiasco into a brilliant step-by-step manhunt by Very Serious People. Argo, on the other hand, starts by admitting the simple truth: The CIA, by design, is an agency of last resort.  All they can do, at their best, is dive into messy situations and try to make the most of the mess. ZDT imagines stoic superheroes doing righteous work in a black and white world (or, more to the point, white vs. brown), while Argo’s spies are everyday schlubs doing an absurd job in morally-murky situations the best way they know how.  Argo had its own falsifications (pretending they were almost caught at the end when they weren’t) but, crucially, its not lying to itself, or us, about how the world works.
  2. Listen to Real Cops and Criminals: I’ve read way too many CIA memoirs and the casual argot in Argo rang true in so many little ways, whereas every macho “You can’t handle the truth!” line in ZDTrang laughably false.  (ZDT actually showed one of its not-tough-enough bosses practicing his putting in the office!  Base your details on original observations, not clichés that you picked up from old New Yorker cartoons!)
  3. Ideas are the Enemy of Observations: But Affleck’s eye for detail also serves a deeper purpose.  He keeps circumventing our urge to form parallels between this story and our current troubles.  Instead, he keeps reminding us that 1979 is a foreign country, giving us an avalanche of amusing “I forgot all about that!” period details (I love the wrecked Hollywood sign!). His all-too-human Iranians (sometimes scary, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes both) would rather look back to 1953 than look ahead to 2012. 
Tomorrow, the other movie that might win on Sunday…
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Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #4: Django Unchained

I thought Inglorious Basterds was good but very overrated, so I was quite surprised at how much better I liked this follow-up...  

Rules It Exemplifies: 
  1. Genius Doesn’t Innovate, It Cultivates: At first, Tarantino wanted to be Godard, (he even named his production company A Band Apart) and they did have certain things in common: both were bold, visceral, post-modern, wildly talented bad-boy rulebreakers. But it soon became clear that Tarantino would never measure up.  Where Godard was lean, Tarantino was bloated, where Godard was prolific, Tarantino dawdled.  Each contrast favors Godard over his imitator: sublime vs. juvenile, poetic vs. ham-handed, visionary vs. derivative…  But now, with his two latest movies, Tarantino has finally come into his own.  He’ll never equal Godard, but he now stands within spitting distance of inheriting the legacy of one of Godard’s great influences: Sam Fuller.  Fuller’s movies were deranged tabloid visions of America at its best and worst extremes.  He sacrificed sensitivity and subtly in favor of telling the raw truth as he saw it.  His movies were bracing, brutal, and bizarre, with peripatetic, episodic structures that forced you to re-set your narrative expectations.  This is the legacy that Tarantino has belatedly embraced. Django lines up nicely alongside Fuller mid-period masterpieces, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, as a full-throated howl of unfocussed American rage.
  2. Plot Motivates, Character Complicates.  Though this movie is once again self-indulgent and too long, I give Tarantino credit for pulling way back on the amount of plot.  In the movie’s best scene, the plot has seemingly resolved…but one of our heroes just can’t resist his overwhelming urge to vent his spleen and ruin it all.  Tarantino is finally learning that, in the second half, volatile character complications should drive the conflict, not an endless torrent of external plot events.
  3. Villains Need a Solid Motivation, Too: Yes, the gore was typically excessive, but for once it wasn’t driven by meaningless psychopathy. I was delighted to finally discover a movie in which the villains were not motivated by a love of chaos.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, give horrifically logicalperformances.  Both characters coolly and calmly pursue their own best interests (and neither actor winks to us to let us know that he doesn’t approve).  In this movie, everybody only wants what they want.  Nobody wants to do good for good’s sake, and nobody want to do evil for evil’s sake.
Tomorrow, the return of Goofus and Gallant…
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Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #5: The Campaign

I’ve already spoiled the results, but you guys have convinced to go back and show my work, so once again, here’s my annual Oscar week best-of.  As with all of Adam McCay’s movies (though he was only a producer and co-writer on this one), The Campaign is meandering and bloated, with a fairly random second half, but, as usual, he somehow got me to check my narrative expectations at the door and go along with the jokes.

Rules It Exemplifies:
  1. Invest Possessions With Emotion: Specifically Zach Galifianakis’s pugs, who serve many purposes here.  They start out as just an opportunity to “pet the dog” (establish quick sympathy) and show what a down-home guy he is, but then Will Farrell attacks him for having Chinese dogs, so his campaign manager makes him kick his real dogs out and replace them with manlier American dogs.  From this point on, the exiled pugs lurk outside Galifianakis’s house, staring in accusingly as everything that goes on inside, nicely representing his excised conscience.  We know what it will mean when he lets the pugs in...
  2. Comedy Requires Pain:  I can get bored with political stories in which neither party is identified.  I’m the first to admit that both parties are just about equally corrupt these days, but that’s doesn’t mean that they’re corrupt in the same way.  These “who knows which party it is?” stories deny themselves the gift of specificity, limiting themselves to strictly generic observations.  This movie scores more effective points against both parties by naming names. 
  3. This is the sort of world where…: The reason I hired a babysitter and went out and saw this movie was because of the bust-a-gut trailer moment when Will Farrell punched out a baby.  Now you know that I’ve complained about CGI, but here (as with this other rare exception), it was a boon: If the punching of that baby had been at all realistic, nobody would have laughed.  But the slo-mo ripple of the punch across the baby’s face makes the joke work because it’s not realistic...  Comedy requires pain, but just enough pain to get a big laugh that doesn’t turn into a scream. 
Tomorrow, a much blacker comedy...
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