Violence in Movies? What Violence in Movies?: The Year in Film
When we remember 2012 in a few years and then a few more, what about this year in cinema will we retain? The death of film culture and then its resurrection via discursive lighting rod that Django Unchained proved itself to be, out of the gate? (Or the divisive Beasts of the Southern Wild, for that matter?) The release of two cartoonish movies about Abraham Lincoln? (Though Vampire Hunter was worse than Spielberg's Hall of Presidents recreation, at least it telegraphed how ridiculous it was from the get go.) The death (and death and death) of Taylor Kitsch's career? The reign of Channing Tatum? All the bow-wielding women heroes? Shawarma and branzino?
No, what I'm taking from this year is a sense of disappointment. This often came from movies that I was looking forward to that failed to live up to their hype. I tried rewatching The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-Ray and couldn't believe how dull the whole thing was, as though we really needed a rehash and slight twisting of the events and philosophies of the first two films, which weren't exactly ambiguous. An epic for epic's sake if ever there were. At least Prometheus looks great.
The disappointment also comes from inside the movies, when things twist and what's revealed is a movie that you didn't know you were getting. Oh, Looper's actually a weird-kid movie? That sucks. Under all the found-footage snuff, Sinister is a Japanese-biting ghost story? Yawn. Magic Mike is a mumbled musing on the American dream that gives Cody Horn way more than she is fit to do? Shoot me.
Broad ambitions were failed by their executions. For all of its artifice and emotional flooding, Les Misérables should be easy to read as a comedy, and yet its emphasis on empathy and open manipulation that even Michael Haneke would find too tacky, made it feel mundane. There is no rest from the melodrama so the songs all start to sound the same. Lincoln, too, failed to make a true emotional connection with me, except for when I was satisfied and shocked at how much better written Tommy Lee Jones' character was than any other, and when I was amused at Sally Field's throw-yourself-on-the-floor method of acting. I appreciated Tony Kushner and Spielberg making Lincoln out to be annoying. (Could you imagine having to endure one of those opaquely introduced, overlong stories in real life? In a theater was bad enough!) That was about as real as his depiction got, though – just a wrinkle or two added to an image we all know well. Les Miz and Lincoln both go out there, but we've seen this kind of out-there-ness and, particularly in the case of Les Miz, there's nothing within for the extremeness to contrast with. And so we get a monotone.
Nothing there surprises, unlike wackier, out-of-control flop offerings like Silent Hill: Revelation, Rock of Ages and, my favorite movie of the year, Dredd. Pete Travis' take on the dystopian crime fighter is shockingly gorgeous for an action movie, dryly hilarious by any standard but especially the genre-conscious, satirical standard (hear how Dredd makes "Yeah." into a one-liner) and violent enough to provide an oasis of catharsis in a year of PG-13 child murders and superhero pissing contests.
I rewatched Dredd yesterday with a friend whose eyes kept popping out at the beautifully composed shots, but who bristled at the carnage, most of which comes from automatic weapons (there is a scene when a giant mounted machine gun fires incessantly for what feels like minutes). This was infinitely harder to watch, he told me, in the wake of Newtown than it would have been before. That is fair.
But nobody watched Dredd in the first place. While critically acclaimed, the film only made $13.4 million domestically – a fraction of its $50 million budget. We like our violence in oblique and sanitized varieties. Long gone are the days when torture porn could command real money – now, even the suggestion of torture is enough to set off a chain of think pieces (see: all the hubbub over Kathryn Bigelow's lean and excellent Zero Dark Thirty). If anything, we are growing more sensitive as a culture, which makes the resurgence of condemnation against violence in media that much more ridiculous. Sure, even if tastes have changed, our violent pop culture is still available with just a few keystrokes, but to make a causal or even correlative argument over the content of our films and the awful people who take lives and our attention is foolhardy. Clearly, the conversation is more complicated than that, and the horror and compassion with which we, as a society, reacted to Newtown (and to a lesser extent, the James Holmes shootings) show how unaffected by cinematic violence we are, by and large. It is ignorable, déclassé, absolutely nothing compared to the real thing.
A few more musings:
Trends that I would like to see die include: Playing Velvet Underground songs during drug scenes (Flight, Killing Them Softly), charmless superheros (Spider-Man was the only one that made me giggle) and awful, awful screen makeup. I thought we had progressed as a society?
A trend that I would like to see continue: Melodrama. Even if they don't always get it right, it's nice to know that we can still feel, and feel big.
The scariest movie of the year? Amour. Runner-up: Ti West's V/H/S short "Second Honeymoon," which is barely a story with barely an arc or suspense – that makes its inevitable conclusion feel something approaching raw. Also of note: The found-footage snuff of Sinister.
Notable documentaries: The brilliant How to Survive a Plague (which added another poignant layer upon the passing of Spencer Cox), Bad 25 and The Queen of Versailles. For that last one, the dead lizard should get an Oscar in the Best Symbol of Unsustainable Excess, Reptile. But really, the compassion and revulsion director Lauren Greenfield provokes in its depiction of the financial ruin of timeshare Jackie and David Siegel is consistently shocking. If Spike Lee elevated the rock doc to an art with Bad 25, Greenfield did the same for Real Housewives-style affluence porn.
Continuing the thread started in last year's Young Adult, Charlize Theron took on two more unlikable characters this year – in Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman. In the latter, she was the best thing about the movie, her ferocious creative spirit matching the wicked tenacity of her evil queen character. She repeatedly makes bold choices, and even if she doesn't end up in the best movies, what she does is almost always admirable. This is particularly so in light of her superhuman beauty (this is not one to "rest on pretty," as Tyra Banks likes to say) and, at 37, her supposedly nearing, Hollywood-inflicted expiration date. Her solution to the idea that there are no good roles for women is to be bad as hell. It's working for her.
Finally, though Dredd was my favorite film of the year, Silver Linings Playbook was objectively the best thing I saw this year (but also consistently delightful and verging on my favorite, too). I can't even believe that Jennifer Lawrence is an actual human being. She's just so natural, talented, charming and witty that she seems biologically engineered in Hollywood Labs. Bradley Cooper has never been more appealing than when he's this slightly askew and on edge. Together, they bring vials and vials of chemistry – it's second only this year to The Amazing Spider-Man's Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (an actual couple). We want to see their characters together, partly because this is an extremely conventional love story and we know how it's supposed to work, but also because they are just so damn weird and complementary. The time they share is our pleasure.
There's a pivotal moment in this movie when Lawrence's character has caused a huge scene, a kind of chain of humiliation for Cooper's. Things go overboard, other people start getting on his case for harassing a woman and when a cop rolls up, Lawrence's character rescinds, placing blame on the punk kids that attempted to rough up Cooper's character. It's a beam of compassion, and David O. Russell has a full sun of it for his characters. The movie ends in a ridiculously orthodox way, with a lot riding on a thing that it's all been building up to and a make-or-break moment that may alienate cynics but that the movie entirely earns, not just because it is so feeling but because resolving a movie about optimism in a way that isn't entirely upbeat would be a disservice.
This is a beautiful, hilarious movie through and through. While watching it, I had the feeling that it was going to be something I'd return to for the rest of my life. I have faith I will. Silver Linings Playbook is the last movie I saw (for the first time that is) of 2012, and its tone and name were a perfect antidote to a year that was characterized by disappointments. On a good day, this movie is what I will remember most about this year.