It must be stipulated that other films may rank slightly higher but they aren’t movies that will be in the Best Picture race. The Master is that movie to finally stir critics, or so it seems right now, in the way no film has since Fincher’s The Social Network. After the Academy “went a different way” the critics were not united, as far as I could tell, behind any one movie, certainly not to score in the 90s or above on Metaritic. But The Master might just be that movie.

Currently running at a single point higher than Beasts of the Southern Wild with more reviews waiting in the wings.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers has given The Master the rare four star review. He only hands them out to two, sometimes three films in a given year. He opens his review for The Master with

I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson. Hollywood films give you zilch to believe in, tying up their narratives with a tidy bow so you won’t leave confused and angry. Anderson refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences. What a roll call: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood.

Travers calls Anderson the “foremost filmmaking talent of his generation.” And goes on to write:

Fierce and ferociously funny, The Master is a great movie, the best of the year so far, and a new American classic. No way is it the kind of cinematic medicine you choke down like broccoli. Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers. Anderson mixes sounds and images into a dark, dazzling music that is all his own.

Travers, like Anthony Lane and most other critics who write about The Master are wowed by it but they don’t seem to know why. It’s kind of like this: That was so amazing! That was so fucking intense! Incredible! I have no idea what it was about. That kind of sums up, to me, the brand of great films for 2012. In terms of fans and critics, the less it means the better. Could this be a reaction to the endless focus grouping of films with pat endings and predictable plots? Could it be that many movie goers who aren’t looking for entertainment aren’t looking to be told what anything means? Not sure what the answer is there but I do know a trend when I see one.

Anthony Lane writes an interesting piece on the film and closes it this way:

Here is frustration made flesh, with fearsome results; would it be heretical or ungrateful to say that there are times, when Phoenix is in full spate, and when Hoffman is revealing similar ruptures of rage in Dodd’s more genial façade, when there is just too much acting going on, perhaps with a capital “A”? Or that Jonny Greenwood’s rich and inventive score is used with such unceasing fervor that you almost want it, now and then, to take a break and leave the action in peace? On reflection, and despite these cavils, we should bow to “The Master,” because it gives us so much to revere, starting with the image that opens the film and recurs right up to the end—the turbid, blue-white wake of a ship. There goes the past, receding and not always redeemable, and here comes the future, waiting to churn us up.

Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies actually does dig into what it’s about:

But it’s also less about that specific set of beliefs than about how humans rely on belief systems in general to try and lift themselves out of an elemental rage, and to assert, yes, that man is not an animal.

But what if man is an animal? That’s the question, or a questions, posed by Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the first character we meet in the film, the man-animal who is to be Lancaster Dodd’s counterpart. Harmless enough, and even maybe a little poignant in repose, the sex-obsessed Freddie, who’s taken a wartime “Dear John” letter harder than most, is a real pistol when he’s got a few in him, and he’ll go to great lengths to get a few in him; one of his first actions in the movie, when he’s on a destroyer in the Pacific as the end of World War II is announced, is to cut the fuel lines in some no-longer-needed torpedoes to drain them of grain-alcohol fuel. Stateside, he gets a job as a department store portrait photographer, and the haunting kitsch factor of such items is evoked by Anderson with ruthlessly accurate alacrity, evoking a spell of familial self-mythologizing that’s broken by a scene of Freddie, drunkenly assaulting a patron, that plays like a brick going through a plate glass window.

He goes on to write:

The story of “The Master” does not move to any kind of conventionally revealing climax. Rather, Anderson walks the viewer through a series of scenes that bring the characters a step forward, a step backward, a step sideways, always maintaining a sense of awful tension that seems as if it could spin itself into a frenzy at any second. Phoenix, slimmed down to the dimensions of a live wire for his role, makes Freddie a compellingly watchable embodiment of human tragedy at its most mud-wallowing loathsome. Hoffman, a longtime collaborator with the director, is absolutely magnificent as Dodd, a bluff man whose air of absolute assurance doesn’t quite mask an unquenchable longing for something he knows he’ll never have. Adams is all business — very odd business — as Dodd’s wife, and Laura Dern is very aptly used as one of Dodd’s more fervent patrons.

Christy Lemire digs in to what the movie is about (although I suspect, as with Tree of Life, the experience of watching it trumps any ability to grasp its meaning – its meaning is in its meaninglessness)

But “The Master” isn’t interested in anything so clear-cut as joy vs. misery. It’s about the way people’s lives intersect, if only briefly and perhaps without a satisfying sense of closure. Anderson, long a master himself of technique and tone, has created a startling, stunningly gorgeous film shot in lushly vibrant 65mm, with powerful performances all around and impeccable production design. But it’s also his most ambitious film yet – quite a feat following the sprawling “Magnolia” and the operatic “There Will Be Blood” – in that it’s more impressionistic and less adherent to a tidy three-act structure.

If you like answers, you will feel frustrated. And yet, as fond of ambiguity as I usually am, I still felt a bit emotionally detached afterward. Wowed, for sure, but not exactly moved.

It would be easy to claim this and other films like it (meaning in its meaninglessness) is really just the Emperor’s New Clothes; how do you stop critics from nailing your film? You make a film they can’t possibly understand and they will not have the nerve to trash it. On the other hand, Film School Rejects did just that – calling it “failure disguised as a masterpiece.”

As stated before, reputable critics already disagree with that assessment. On the other hand, none of them have been able to agree on what the movie was about as each of them offered their own patched up explanation of why we should care for The Master. Almost all of them called the need for a second viewing, thus bearing the responsibility of the film’s confusion on their shoulders. The most recurrent theme mentioned in a number of reviews (but never in the film) is that Anderson presents us with a Freudian exposition through the perspective of his two eccentric leads. Which is absurd; the signposts of Sigmund Freud’s theories that someone would desperately search for on the road to cinematic relevance come one every hundred-thousand miles.

It’s hard to get behind either reaction – so I have to see the film for myself, I guess. But some films really DO need a second viewing. In fact, great films get better WITH each viewing. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have mostly been strong on character, less on visual impact — but with There Will Be Blood and now The Master it looks like he’s moving away from character and more to absurdity.

Anyway, a lot to chew on for a Tuesday.

More Metacritic reviews here.

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  • AlecFPrice

    PTA has always been a strong visualist, right from the outset. Whether in terms of formal composition or elaborate tracking shots, the visual design of each of his films has always been striking. His command of technique is one of the foremost things that distinguishes him from other directors – there has always been a muscularity to his images to match the painstaking aural design that makes his work do immersive. Obviously, he is also a great writer and has created several fantastically full-bodied characters, but the appeal of his films to me lies in their completeness, without emphasis on one aspect over another.

    I also don’t see any new move toward “absurdity”. There is no shortage of the unexpected, inexplicable or flat-out bizarre throughout his filmography. Again, this willingness to indulge and even embrace the absurd has been integral to the nervous energy that adds so much life to the experience of his films. I have yet to see THE MASTER but, in truth, I believe it’s unlikely he will ever make a film as impenetrable and fraught with inner mystery than PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.

  • robert k

    From the photo stills it looks like Anderson is using the same two-strip color palette that Scorcese used in the first half of The Aviator.

  • hjj

    It doesnt appear that critics know what to make of the film, but they are afraid of giving it a negative and not getting it. This could be the biggest emperor has no clothes film of modern times.

  • steve50

    “Could this be a reaction to the endless focus grouping of films with pat endings and predictable plots?”


    “Could it be that many movie goers who aren’t looking for entertainment aren’t looking to be told what anything means?”

    Please – yes!

    Some of us aren’t 4 yrs old. We don’t need once upon a time, clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and endings that make us feel better. We want to experience something, make up our own minds, figure things out for ourselves, and feel the need to revisit something.

  • rufussondheim

    I haven’t read the review snippets because I know I am going to see the film when I get a chance so I have no need for more information.

    But this is where I always add that we have to wait until the end of the year to see what critics truly think of a film.

    I’m also of the opinion that as the film slowly opens wide and all of the local non NY/LA critics weigh in that the film will get more negative reviews. I don’t do Metacritic (for movies) so I have no idea if that will alter the numbers or not.

  • alan

    “…certainly not to score in the 90s or above on Metacritic. But The Master might just be that movie.”

    Why is Metacritic the site for film points/scores?
    Isn’t the better consensus and percentage film score site?

  • Alan

    Metacritic is always mentioned.
    Isn’t Rotten Tomatoes the better film score site??

  • alan

    there was a glitch….the site told me i had to post again…srry.

  • rufussondheim

    Most here prefer Metacritic since they are more exclusive with the critics they include. Also Metacritic attempts to use how enthusiastic critics are about the film. Rottentomatoes does a thumbs up/down approach.

    I think both are extraordinarily flawed and neither should be used to compare films with each other.

  • Leocdc

    I think that have to do with the critics that are mentioned in both sites. Metacritic is more about a group of prestigious critics, while RT is more about a mix of bloggers and critics, without much early pre-selection.
    I prefer the “Average Rating” from RT and the number of 100’s of Metacritic (or >80’s) to see if a film is being loudly acclaimed.

  • smoothcriminal

    I’m seeing this in 4 days!!

  • Ryan Adams

    I think both are extraordinarily flawed and neither should be used to compare films with each other.

    So many flaws. We could try to fix the flaws one by one. I’d start by eliminating Rex Reed from both sites.

  • Mohammed

    Movies aren’t only about critical acclaim. They are also about recognition and politics. It’s the reason the highest acclaimed movie of last year with 99% ( rottentomatoes) from over 140 critics and 95% (Metacritic) ( with over 40 awards) got 2 nominations , while movies in the high 70’s and 96’ers are in the talk of best picture.

    The Master is now at 88 with 25 reviews, three are rotten. Argo is at 92 with ten reviews and at least 6 more positive that aren’t yet rated. It’s too early to say anything about where this movies will end up.

    But be assured, there will be backlash.

  • alan


  • g

    Reactions to the film from fellow TIFF travelers were “amazing”‘ “unbelievable”, I missed getting in by only 2 people!

  • rufussondheim

    Rex Reed is proof that sleeping with the right people will get you everywhere. I, on the other hand, am proof that sleeping with the wrong people will get you nowhere.

  • RJ

    After seeing the film last night I can understand the critical reaction. It is the least conventional of Anderson’s films and because of that it’s hard to maintain a thematic and narrative grasp. That’s not to say you can’t surmise many different themes and have an emotional investment in the film, which I did both, but when a “new” kind of film is released it’s hard for some critics, seasoned moviegoers, and cinephiles to wrap their heads around. This may be an extreme parallel, but imagine walking into TREE OF LIFE blind? Because of the Scientology narrative driving the pre-release press for the film and the trailer giving small insight into the plot I knew kind of what I was in for. Early on, though, I realized I was in for a completely different experience. I’ll end with that since I don’t want to give anything away.

  • WHB

    A little off topic, but Roger Ebert has written an article on why Argo will win Best Picture at the oscars:

  • PaulH

    “The foremost filmmaking talent of his generation”? GMAF’nB. Jim Cameron and Christopher Nolan say hi.

  • AlecFPrice

    There’s a chasm between James Cameron and PTA. And I like Cameron – but he can’t hold a candle to Anderson when it comes to writing and, in all honesty, for all of his contributions toward technological advancement, he’s never made a film that looked as good as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and the prospect of seeing a film shot in 70mm excites me far more than digital/3-D/mo-cap.

    I’m also one of Nolan’s biggest fans but even he isn’t quite in the same league as PTA.

  • m1

    he can’t hold a candle to Anderson when it comes to writing and, in all honesty, for all of his contributions toward technological advancement, he’s never made a film that looked as good as THERE WILL BE BLOOD

    Aliens is a masterpiece that excels in writing and technological advancement. I would say Cameron does hold a candle to PTA.

  • Jason B

    Having seen the film, I doubt the hype will last after people get beyond the spectacle of it. The film deserves directing, acting and cinematography nominations for sure. Those were all perfect.

    But the script’s earnest and cliched reliance on Freudian psycho-sexual dynamics of the superego, ego and id; its cheesy and unnecessary subplot (which I won’t spoil); and its shallow exploration of its content make it the least re-watchable PTA film. And I have loved every single PTA film but this is merely an acting and cinematography exercise.

    Oh, not to mention Laura Dern introduces the most fascinating idea of the film and it is quickly shot down in less than 5 seconds and the audience is left to think about a more interesting film in its wake.

  • Ernst Dante

    Last checked 83% Fresh on RottenTomatoes. Looks like one of those polarizing critics’ favorite, like the 82% of “Mulholland Drive” and 84% of “Tree of Life.” However, both of those movies ended up making Sight and Sound’s Top 250 film list.

  • Nik Grape

    Well I said I’d be back with my thoughts on The Master after catching it at TIFF and here I am. Sadly, the movie was almost an hour late in screening so Anderson just introduced it quickly, thanked the audience for “welcoming us to Toronto” and told us to enjoy the movie. Nothing spectacular and I was really looking forward to a Q&A which never came.

    Now on to the movie. I will say that this was the last movie I saw that night after seeing two before it, and I was operating on a half-assed 5 hour bus nap. That might have something to do with me not being completely blown away by The Master, coming out of the theater with the feeling that I really need to see it again. Talking a bit about it with random movie lovers, they felt the same way.

    The acting, direction and music are the true winners here. Phoenix is a revelation, it’s the performance of his career by a mile and DDL/Hawkes/Murray will have to do a lot to persuade the Academy not to give the Oscar to Phoenix. I’d say he’s the front runner now. Ditto on Hoffman as Supporting Actor, a nomination is a given but he is SO good as The Master, Lancaster Dodd, that you at once feel so grateful that him and PTA are working together again but because it’s the meatiest role he’s had yet for a PTA film you’re even more amazed. The underlining intensity and a few key scenes of outburst, coupled with the charm and charisma he brings as a public speaker and singer (yes, a highlight) are nothing short of amazing.

    The direction, watching it in 70mm was a blessing as the film can’t look any better than that. From the first shot of the parting sea to the last, you’re in constant awe at the use of color, light, darkness, the feeling of “being there” whether it’s exterior or interior. Simply breathtaking stuff. On top of that, Anderson is only growing as a masterclass director and if there is one thing this movie has over Blood is the use of close-ups and camera movement: genius.

    The music, which is being streamed in its entirety online, is also a huge part of the mood this film conveys: grandiose, emotive and a step up from TWBB in terms of complexity. Greenwood has really outdone himself and if its eligible, he should be another shoe-in.

    The story and its telling is the thing that makes you want to see it a second time, parts of the movie seem to drag towards the middle and end, ideas get stretched to their outerlimits and you’re left wondering what PTA is trying to say here. It’s like a pendulum that swings from completely mesmerizing to suspiciously obtuse. And like other reviews have already pointed out, it’s definitely the most ambitious non user-friendly film from PTA yet. There are no answers to be found here, no clear-cut conclusions and, perhaps a detriment to the story or a hidden masterstroke that can only be unearthed on second view, a sense of disconnect with its third “act”.

    So overall, yes it’s unique, brilliant in many moments, showcasing some of the best acting of the year, gorgeously shot and meticulously crafted from start to finish. However, I’m a little surprised at the massive praise it’s getting because it’s a film that can easily polarize viewers and critics and as such can be viewed as an Academy anomaly: loads of nominations are in its future but whether it actually wins over what will certainly be more neatly tied-up films with classic structures and emotions galore is another matter all together.

  • steve50

    gotta say it, @NikGrape – great post – clear, honest, intelligent and logical, as is the recent post in the actress stream. Yours is one of the voices I trust out here in the backwater.

  • g

    Nik Grape- the curator of our art institute here in Detroit was our leader at TIFF, he saw different films than we did and he was at the same screening you were for the master. It was so funny to read the beginning of your post as it was practically word for word what I had heard from him!

    Alot of films started late at TIFF hopefully you had only that one.

  • alan

    no original screenplay nom in the contender tracker??

  • Craig Z

    I still consider Beasts of the Southern Wild to be the best reviewed film of the year. 22 perfect ratings on Metacritic.

    Also The Master’s rating could very well drop. Most films do.

  • Craig Z

    Welp, it appears that the rating dropped as I was saying that. The Master is an 85 at the moment on Metacritic. One point lower that Beasts.

  • Nik Grape

    @steve50, thank you for the kind words! I can only reciprocate.. you’re one of not many I trust.

    @g, that was the only for me thankfully! Actually apart from The Master, my experience was that the scheduling and ticket business this year was very smooth.

  • Reform the Academy

    Ummm…false advertising? You guys really will stop at nothing to promote this film it seems. This is definitely not going to be the “highest reviewed film of the year”. It’s only 83% on RT and 85 on Meta. What’s shocking is it’s currently 90 on the BFCA site, but I expect that will go down. They know pretentious shit when they see it.

  • Craig Z

    “They know pretentious shit when they see it.”

    Have you seen it?

    Also who gives a shit about Rottentomatoes? Splitting all reviews to good or bad is idiotic.

  • Reform the Academy

    No, I haven’t seen it, but I have seen 3 of PTA’s other films and I’m good at extrapolating :p

  • Mattoc

    Scott, you’re good at cutting your nose off to spite your face…
    But you’re not good at extrapolating – not without ALL the data

  • steve50

    “They know pretentious shit when they see it.”

    Scott, you have no idea what a remark like that, from you, can do for a film’s cred. Puts it through the roof! On behalf of all the fans of pretentious shit, I thank you.

  • PaulH

    So the most critically acclaimed movie of the year has an 84 on RT, same as Hunger Games, and trailing Dark Knight (87) and The Avengers (92).

    Heh. 😉

  • Jason B

    @Nik Grape

    I saw it at TIFF as well. I agree with everything you wrote. I had the same impression except I have no intention to see it again… at least not soon. Despite wanting to bath in the opening shot, I’d rather go back and watch There Will Be Blood on loop.

  • mecid

    According to most reviewes TWBB is more better than The Master. If it is so Film will not get the same critical aclaim as TWBB.

  • Unlikely hood

    As others suggested around here a year ago, it’s feeling more and more like the kind of year that a 10-BP field was made for…

  • Tero Heikkinen

    I expect The Master being my favourite film of the year – or at least quite up there. But I’ll be damned if it manages to be even better than There Will Be Blood or Magnolia. I don’t think it can be. As great as Boogie Nights maybe…

  • It’ll be interesting to see how much I do or don’t like it because so far the look of it, that faded or whitewashed look, I don’t know what you call it, isn’t really doing anything for me. I have really liked most of his movies in the past, MAGNOLIA being my favorite. I know myself enough to know that visuals are a top priority for me so we’ll see how much the rest of it makes up for that or if it even gets me to forget about it.

  • g

    @Nik Grape- I’m so glad, I got lucky too only 1 late start for “Land Of Hope” boy was it awful!

  • Duck Soup

    This is Not a Film will still probably remain the highest rated movie of the year.

  • rufussondheim
  • Simone

    I dunno, my first impression of The Master at TIFF was lukewarm at best. it’s not a bad film, and I do want to see it again to get a better appreciation for it, but it was not my favorite out of Tiff, and I fail to understand all the hoop-la about it.

  • Excellent review Nik Grape. 🙂

  • Mattoc

    JUST IN!

    Tom Cruise not happy about “The Master to become the Highest Reviewed Film of the Year”


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