It’s a pleasure to be able to type to the three of you and the wider Slate world. Thanks, Dana, for inviting me. Thanks also for reminding me of the year’s most unexpectedly amazing line of dialogue. When you hear Jessica Chastain say that line about finding the house in Zero Dark Thirty, you get a jolt: The only way to brag about her labor of love is to experiment with being Samuel L. Jackson.
Generally, I had a great time going to the movies this year, and since we’re likely to keep drifting back toward the end of the year—the filmic cliff?—let’s trudge against the tide back to last January. It’s worth doing if only to bring up Contraband, the smart-stupid caper with the amazing poster of Mark Wahlberg strapping wads of cash to his abs—hardly an original image, but a great metaphor for most American movies. Because it was released in January, Contraband is the kind of movie we expect to roll our eyes at, as we’d done the previous week at The Devil Inside. January, we’ve been programmed to think, is the month when the studios dump movies they believe would stink worse in May or December. In January, no one can hear you fart.
But Contraband, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (Jan. 20), and the George Lucas-produced Red Tails (the same day!) along with The Grey and Joyful Noise are not terrible movies, whether it’s January or November. Some people who are not me really love The Grey—it grinds Liam Neeson-oriented existentialism to a fare-thee-well, and that last shot is amazing: at once a bold denial of movie-going bloodlust and the reason most of us went to the movie in the first place. He’s. Running. At. The. Wolf!
Raise your hand if you’d like to see Liam Neeson run toward a comedy—an intentional one. One of the highlights of the year involved Neeson’s resumption of his John Mills role in Taken 2, and watching Mills talk his daughter (who was abducted in the first movie) into being as amazing a rooftop sprinter and vehicular assault artist as her dad. Nobody needs Taken 2 to be good. We just need it to be ridiculous, and boy, oh boy, it was.
But my point is that this was a robust year for major and minor pleasures. I think the perception that the beginning of the year is garbage day, and that the end is, well, Christmas, is warranted but has changed enough to be an unreliable assumption. It’s true that December releases like Django Unchained take all the air out of the room, but I would just say to the Weinstein Company—and say so respectfully—if that movie is so good (and it is), release it in the spring, the way Focus Features did with Moonrise Kingdom.
I liked that I got to see a decent Soderbergh movie in the middle of January. Haywire was not as enjoyable as Magic Mike, which came out in the summer. But Soderbergh is a director who’s constantly fiddling with what an audience thinks it wants, and often that tinkering yields some subtly sideways results, movies that are eccentric, that are commercial-ish. Speaking of commercialism I seem to be the only person who loved almost all of the trash I saw this year (and not just Django Unchained and the lascivious underbelly of the holy Holy Motors): The Paperboy, Polisse, 21 Jump Street. There’s a primacy to good trash that cuts away at rational thought and propriety. It plays to the need for voyeurism not only sexually but emotionally: Sometimes you want to see feeling and eroticism and awfulness turned all the way up until the volume deafens you. That prison scene in The Paperboy, in which Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, and David Oyelowo watch Nicole Kidman and John Cusack have touchless orgasms is perfect trash. And the erection McConaughey quickly covers up is the perfect metaphor for watching trash.
The Paperboy was admittedly too trashy for any kind of audience (almost no one has seen it) and, conversely, maybe The Master—which underwhelmed a lot people and infuriated others—wasn’t trashy enough. Stephanie, I hope it’s not presumptuous to ask you to speak to some aspect of the negative response since you’re the only person who didn’t include it on your extended best-of list.
Of course, there’s also a lot to be said for leaving the luridness and melodrama to the imagination (or omitting them altogether). The reserve of movies like Barbara and Sister and Oslo, August 31st and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Amour and Middle of Nowhere stands among their considerable virtues. It’s surreal how some performances wind up being the ones we spend the year talking about and others don’t. Nina Hoss is perfection in Barbara, an eerie Stasi-era character study by Christian Petzold. It’s not even minimalism what she’s doing. It’s self-protection, and it’s devastating. Almost no one this year did more with less.
Even some very iffy movies this year had magic moments, like the wedding-reception dance Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick do to “Push It” in End of Watch. It just made me happy to see these people make choreographed sense to each other. The iffiness of the movie was due chiefly to it being the umpteenth production to rely on found-video footage—Devil Inside, Chronicle, and Project X preceded it, a Paranormal Activity sequel followed. It’s a tired device that brings to the movies a cheap homemade quality that is often more charmless than innovative. If I wanted to watch bad hand-held photography I’d watch my barber’s bootlegs on a laptop.
The found-footage device only makes an audience wonder where, narratively, all this hand-held camerawork is going. For my part, I’d like to know who the editor is. I’m sure Paranormal Activity 13 will pull back a curtain and we’ll see Thelma Schoonmaker seated at a cutting bay. But this is a development that should be used sparingly, when it makes sense. Honestly, I think turning the last 75 minutes of Les Misérables into a found-footage musical would suit whatever is going on with Marius, Cosette, and poor Éponine, whose restrictive waist-wear really redefines the idea of belting. There’s a self-indulgence about them that begs to be photographed with an Android.
The only found-footage movie that mattered this year was David France’s How to Survive a Plague, a documentary whose years and years of AIDS-activism-era video is just staggering. Talk about wizardly editing. I don’t know where you’d begin to locate a movie in that trove, let alone the magnum opus he sculpted. The footage—without narration and talking-head interviews—is shaped into a towering feat of storytelling, and one that has all the melodrama you need from a movie. It also has a keen, searing sense of social damnation. This is life and death and, God, you feel it both historically and personally. You’re proud of the men and woman in this movie and a little ashamed of yourself for not battling for change the way they have.
The only movie that was as formally ambitious, at the level of grand latticework, was Cloud Atlas, which I guess we’re calling a disaster (and I won’t disagree) but which is much more to me than merely a movie that didn’t work. Its earnestness is moving. Of course one man’s cosmic latticework is another’s amateurishly crocheted bootie. So if we have haters among us: Speak, but only in Tom Hanks’ astral pidgin.