Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest darts in and out of your grip – one moment you’ve captured it, the next it’s escaped you. Its elusiveness is precisely what makes The Master such a hypnotic film. It enthralls you without you ever fully knowing what it is you’re witnessing. At least until you see it again. And again. The great joy of Anderson’s film is that the more you see it, the more you are able to probe the pockets of meaning scattered within the film. In doing so, The Master’s meanings expand and it begins to reveal itself – through a variety of thematic avenues – as the richest film of the year. It’s a rewarding reminder that cinema that achieves the level of art can be most profound when it challenges the viewer to seek meaning – not be handed it.
Leos Carax’s film is a wondrous cinematic fever dream that shifts between the intimately familiar and the hallucinatory surreal. It’s a joyous present to film lovers and film itself – a celebration of cinema and its range, history, power, life (and possible death). But Holy Motors above all else provokes with its effective genre-hopping (anchored by the stupefyingly great performance from Denis Lavant) a kind of dizzying cinematic euphoria that ensures one never becomes the comatose, emotionless viewer that Carax fears in his prologue. The accordion Entr’acte alone should jolt just about any complacent moviegoer into remembering the power a movie moment can hold.
Oslo August, 31st
Thanks to the wave of “man-child” comedies and general society harrumphing, existentially and aspirationally stunted twenty/thirty-somethings have seen their anxieties become an easy source of ridicule and scornful dismissal. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st admirably avoids punchlines and patronization to instead give quarter-life angst the serious artistic treatment such a prevalent societal phenomenon deserves. Trier honors Anders’ crisis and fear of maturity with empathy and consideration. Though that’s not to say there aren’t moments of nuanced criticism of Anders’ privileged indulgence and avoidance. But that’s what makes Oslo, August 31st stand out. It’s a great and fair representation of young men’s fear of growing up and how not doing so (or doing so) can lead to life ending before it ever really began.
The Kid with a Bike
It’s curiously difficult to describe why I loved The Kid with a Bike so much, which perhaps speaks to its subtle power and resonant emotional thrum. You feel the movie more than you think it. Its understated story telling and sympathetic realism make you care so deeply about its characters, everything they do (or might do) takes on all the tension of a thriller because you’re invested in what happens to them. Rob Hunter said it best: The Kid with a Bike is “the most untraditionally suspenseful movie I’ve seen in years.” It’s also one of the movies I’ve most cared about.
I’m Wes Anderson indifferent. The appeal of the films of The Maestro of Oddball Misfits eludes me, and considering his modus operandi never changes, I’ve long operated under the assumption he’d never make a movie I would love. I was wrong. Moonrise Kingdom is a nostalgia seeped, French New Wave spotted, hazy pastel colored delight. It proved to be a movie impossible not to fall in love with. That’s largely because of its refreshing and firm belief that the love of Sam and Suzy isn’t of the “Aw, isn’t it cute?” variety. Instead Moonrise Kingdom affectionately believes that their love – in all its acceptance, understanding and devotion – is one all adults should aspire to.
This Is Not a Film
It’s hard for me to even conceive of any other film as the best of the year. Nothing else is on the same level because nothing else is comparable. Jafar Panahi’s subversive and charismatic non-film is the sort of trailblazing work that can only come from the fortuitous coincidence of brilliant cinematic vision and repressive, yet artistically liberating circumstance. It, and its iguana, are unforgettable.
I continue to be haunted by this film, even months and months after seeing it the first time. And, like This Is Not a Film, I love it because there’s almost nothing like it. It’s like an animated ghost story from “Prairie Home Companion,” yet more enigmatic and with a deeper, Mid-Western sadness. It is about the immediate and mundane problems of alcoholism, but also about history and the magic that lies hidden in our quiet, forest-bound towns.
How do you even begin to adapt a massive, classic Russian novel? Some have gone big, like the Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk in his 7-hour War and Peace from 1967 that broke the bank (one of my all-time favorites). Joe Wright, on the other hand, decided to whip Anna Karenina into cinematic shape by enclosing it in a theater. The results are enchanting, blending Fellini and Tchaikovsky into a ballet that lifts you up into a waltz on the ceiling and doesn’t put you down until Anna finally meets her famous end.
Zero Dark Thirty
What is there to say about Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? Jessica Chastain is, of course, a force of nature as a CIA agent perpetually on the case. The construction of the film, especially the final sequence, raises the bar so high that 2012’s many other procedural films just look like silly, extended episodes of “Law and Order.” The only over 150-minute film of the year that doesn’t feel too long even for a second, Zero Dark Thirty is a feat of strength.
Oslo, August 31st
The best character studies are the ones that take place in a single day, or even a few hours. At least, those are the ones that feel the most cinematic. We’ve gotten a number of beautiful examples of this recently, from Certified Copy to the revelation that is Oslo, August 31st. Their power lies in the details. The short time frame takes every individual event and raises it from the level of simple character development to a universal human moment. Anders Danielsen Lie is also terrific, giving perhaps the best performance of the year.