Looper – The Year’s Biggest Surprise so Far

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Looper is a film you should go see without knowing anything about it. The more you know, the less surprised you’ll be and the less surprised you are the less you’ll be able to relate to those of us who walked out of the theater, stunned, moved, and mostly impressed that it was still possible to deliver those kinds of surprises these days.

There are so few of them, aren’t there? We are prepped way before a movie hits. Films are test screened, buzzed, reviewed, spoiled, marketed to death to such an extent, the spontaneous experience I had when I was a kid, for instance, does not exist anymore. Perhaps I might have already known about Looper if I’d gone to one of the many screenings I missed (#humblebrag). But as it happened, I missed them all and ended up buying a ticket (which I don’t mind doing because it adds to the overall box office take) to see Looper this past weekend. I really only went because all of my Twitter friends, Kris Tapley and Devin Faraci among them, kept urging their followers to go see Looper — but they did so mostly without explanation. It was at their urging that I forced myself to go.

Ideally, this is how a film becomes a success — good old fashioned word of mouth. In this case, it isn’t the marketing — and the movie’s end game was never to open with $200 million. Its end game was to entertain and enthrall. Full stop. When was the last time a major Hollywood film did that? I usually have a pretty good idea what a movie is going to be about before heading in. But there was kind of a team effort for this movie to keep it under wraps and let audiences be surprised. For once.

To that end, I will not give away Looper’s surprises here. I am not even going to tell you anything about the plot except to say that it’s about time travel. What it has in store is vibrant, uncompromising cinema. Looper means something. It doesn’t mean nothing. It has a strong theme — it isn’t just one showy set piece after another. It tells a story and it tells it extremely well.

The reviews for Looper have been as surprising as anything. It’s sitting at an 84, just a point under The Master and two points under Beasts of the Southern Wild. These three of the best reviewed films of the year are all originals. They are all directed by Americans, which is maybe the craziest part of all. Anyone paying attention to this kind of wave of vitality in American film should feel pretty confident about things going forward. I know I do. Yes, we are still hit with the globalization problem, and yes, the target demo means that most of the movies that come out anymore are under pressure to hit $100 million. And yes, the pool of dramas aimed at adults is getting smaller and smaller. But 2012 has already shows us that it’s possible, still, to create highly inventive, original masterworks. These three auteurs prove it.

Of the films put out so far this year — look at the list of writer/directors who either co-wrote or wrote the screenplay and directed as well:

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin
The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan
Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik
Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach
The Avengers, Joss Whedon
Amour, Michael Haneke
The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Sessions, Ben Lewin
Looper, Rian Johnson

That’s a fairly astounding list of names. They will compete with some of the strongest screenplays already — like Chris Terrio’s for Argo and those upcoming, like Lincoln by Tony Kushner.

2012 is one of the best years for film I’ve seen. Like ever. As for Looper, I’ll leave it to the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern:

It’s easy to be beguiled by the production’s dazzling surfaces; they’re so dazzling that the plot’s improbabilities and downright impossibilities are readily forgiven, if not forgotten. But there’s no forgetting the beauty and mystery that flow from the premise in general, and, in particular, from scenes that bring the two Joes face to face. Clever contrivances they may be, but these confrontations raise classic questions about living in the moment versus looking to the future, about learning from experience and being able—or not—to change one’s fate. On that last count, the news is good. The future, this film tells us, can’t be predicted because it isn’t fixed. All the same, it’s safe to predict that “Looper” will transform Mr. Johnson’s career, and give pleasure to popeyed audiences for a long time to come.

So, even if Looper is ignored for Oscar — I would hope that Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt at least get some attention, and perhaps a nod for screenplay — it hardly matters. The film has what it needs to really be worthwhile and stand the test of time. It has word of mouth — you can’t buy that for a dollar. And it has quality — you can’t buy that for 100 million dollars.

  • AnthonyP

    Agree!

  • Jerry

    One of the few films this year that lived up to it’s hype. I’ve been burnt before from internet hype. Highly recommend this movie. Great story and acting.

  • YAY LOOPER!!! 😀 It’s my second favorite of the year behind TDKR.

    but why not JGL for recognition? He’s the whole damn movie. In fact I’d recognize Willis last out of the cast, then 2nd to last Blunt. The kid and that guy named Kid come before them.

    But the film for BP!!! It must happen!!! DO EET!!!

    But for realies you guys who haven’t seen it, GTFO until you do. I mean off the internet. Don’t watch the news or read the paper or talk to people. Git goin’ to the movie! Shoo!

  • BOriginal

    Truly a remarkable film. Rian Johnson is growing into a great director to watch out for. The one action movie I recommend this year.

  • Bill

    LOVED Emily Blunt in this movie! I would keel over backwards if she wound up as a Supporting contender!

  • Sasha, I really would love to know what you think of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.

    Looper was incredible. I saw it back in February at a test screening, and was there on opening night at the Arclight (Rian Johnson introduced the screening dressed as an Arclight employee and did the introductory bit they always do. It was awesome). My list of the best movies of the year so far is already arguably better than 2011’s at the end of the year. There’s still so much I haven’t seen, but check this list out:

    1. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
    2. Looper
    3. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
    4. Seven Psychopaths
    5. The Master
    6. The Cabin In The Woods
    7. The Raid: Redemption
    8. Moonrise Kingdom
    9. The Dark Knight Rises
    10. Jeff, Who Lives At Home

    This is before seeing Argo, Django Unchained, Killing Them Softly, Lincoln, Skyfall, The Hobbit, Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, The Silver Linings Playbook, Cloud Atlas, Rust And Bone, Not Fade Away, Flight, Anna Karenina and The Impossible. I’d imagine at least half of this list will wind up being great. If the world really did end in December, this would at least be a hell of a movie year to end on.

  • Sasha, I really would love to know what you think of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.

    Looper was incredible. I saw it back in February at a test screening, and was there on opening night at the Arclight (Rian Johnson introduced the screening dressed as an Arclight employee and did the introductory bit they always do. It was awesome). My list of the best movies of the year so far is already arguably better than 2011’s at the end of the year. There’s still so much I haven’t seen, but check this list out:

    1. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
    2. Looper
    3. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
    4. Seven Psychopaths
    5. The Master
    6. The Cabin In The Woods
    7. The Raid: Redemption
    8. Moonrise Kingdom
    9. The Dark Knight Rises
    10. Jeff, Who Lives At Home

    This is before seeing Argo, Django Unchained, Killing Them Softly, Lincoln, Skyfall, The Hobbit, Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, The Silver Linings Playbook, Cloud Atlas, Rust And Bone, Not Fade Away, Flight, Anna Karenina and The Impossible. I’d imagine at least half of this list will wind up being great. If the world really did end in December, this would at least be a hell of a movie year to end on.

  • Mattoc

    Add leos Carax to the list that directed their screenplays this year.
    I won’t tell you why, but go see Holy Motors.

    I agree this year is a rare one indeed, and hopefully with word of mouth great films (Holy Motors) and even very good ones ( Wish You Were Here, The Hunt ) get a following over the years.

  • Adam Lewis

    Man, I have different movie tastes to Sasha!

    Thought the first half hour was great and was then bored. Thought the plot meandered all over the place and thought the ending was awful.

    I was disappointed big time by LOOPER.

    Joseph GL was great though!

  • Jon

    Saw it over the weekend and like CABIN IN THE WOODS this one caught me off guard too. Easily one of the most entertaining movies of the year and certainly one of the best.

  • James

    Very good sci-fi noir that sort of turns in to a western though I disagree with Sasha regarding the first hour half. I think most of the film’s inspired moments, sequences, and creativity come within the first hour. Joe is more or less the anti-hero archetype we rarely see anymore. The guy we know had inner turn moil and a conscience. It’s clear in how he sold out Paul in a fairly quiet scene or how we see a week’s work of killing is tiring him out. Now that being said I’d like to see it again and see how that 2nd hour sits with me in it’s pace. Blunt is a superb femme fatale with a southern voice that has a regional feel to it rather being too board. I like how he does what he does for Cid given their backgrounds and not for her. To me those two characters were merely hooking up. Though it’s possible there could have been a relationship down the road. One bit I liked is as he saw it which then started to affect Old Joe’s memories.

  • Jeremy

    I also thought the first half hour or so was the best part. Then it devolves into fucking around the mid-west, trying to see how many better movies it can rip from(“A little Terminator here, some Akira there, how about some 12 Monkeys…”). It made me want to see those movies instead.

    Emily Blunt/Bruce Willis were good, though.

  • I totally agree about 2012 being a fantastic year for film, I’ve been preaching that for a while now, and I still have SOOO much more to see. Even if half of the films like Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark, etc. are flops, we will still have a significant amount of fantastic films to look back on.

    I just saw Looper again last night, and the film holds up just as well the second go around. I still can’t decide what my favorite film of the year is between this, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Dark Knight Rises, but that is a very, very, good problem to have, right?

  • himynameiscole

    sasha i also thought bruce willis was the stand out. i was actually rooting for him throughout the entire film, even given some of the things he was doing. he was heartbreaking.

  • harry

    Maybe I’ve just watched too many genre films, but I kind of feel the opposite of the “Looper is filled with surprised” crowd. Once the other sci-fi element of the story is clarified halfway through, it became pretty obvious to me where the story was going.

    That said, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie. It’s not a film about plot mechanics but emotions. And outside of the Kid Blue character (who might as well have been named Kid Plot Device), I thought all the actors did a great job of selling the story.

  • Sam

    Great article.

    I thought Looper was amazing. From the performances to the futuristic landscape. Fantastic. Second best movie I’ve seen so far right behind TDKR.

    Just might have to go see it again.

  • I’ll be seeing LOOPER this week. Definitely a surprise. One quibble about your director/writer list: I’ve seen very little talk about director Craig Zobel’s screenplay to COMPLIANCE. I see no reason it should be left out of the conversation.

  • joe

    I’m seeing Looper tonight. I hope it’s a good surprise. Rian Johnson is such a talented director from Brick to the brothers bloom, which i have not yet seen, but the story of Looper engages me.

  • Bennett

    Saw LOOPER on Monday night and was blown away. Emily Blunt and the young boy were phenomenal.

  • Bennett

    Would love to know what you all thought of CHRONICLE – released in February 2012?

  • Bennett, I really liked Chronicle a lot. Probably my favorite movie so far in the “found footage” genre. Full disclosure, though, a friend of mine co-wrote the movie. I tried my hardest not to let that connection influence my opinion of the movie, but I feel like that should be said.

  • g

    Loved Looper, just saw it…woohoo Emily Blunt!

  • H

    I think this could get a screenwriting nom. The story was always inventive. (although it does owe a debt to Terminator)

  • rufussondheim

    This is the kind of stuff Nolan should do. Much more into character, much less about the twists. Great stuff.

  • Mel

    Just got back from seeing this. I liked it, but wasn’t floored by it like many people seem to be lately. The Paul Dano bit with the disappearing limbs made no sense if you thought about it and it kept me out of the movie for a good 15 minutes thinking about how it did not seem possible.

    In the end the idea that without a mother’s love yer doomed to be a bad guy was a little disheartening. Lots of people don’t have a mother’s love and they don’t end up hitmen or evil geniuses. Oh and the secondary idea that if you do find love someday that can make you good too. No wonder single people get so depressed. Society makes them feel like they must be broken or they’d have someone, and this movie just reinforces that whole idea. No mother? Doomed. Unless you meet someone groovy to save you with the power of looooooooove *Cue Celine Dion.

  • rufussondheim

    Maybe my take on the events that occurred are wrong, but I don’t get a sense that is a theme, Mel. The kid was going to grow up alone, without anybody. And with no one to protect him, he would heen forced to fend for himself with nothing but that singular power he had.

    I get the sense that originally, there was no reign of terror guy, that it just happened secondarily when the loop with JGL and Bruce Willis happened. Of course, like I said, I could be wrong. I’d need a second viewing to determine if I’m correct there.

  • Mel

    Well, the whole effect of time travel doesn’t make sense in many parts. The Rainmaker was closing the loops before Bruce Willis even got sent back. So, apparently this kid was going to grow up to be evil even before his mother was killed? Or did it change when the events of the movie made the kid realize that Emily Blunt was in fact his real mother so he was no longer bitter that the woman he thought was his mother had died? I don’t know what we are to make of it, really. But I do think it was an intentional theme of not having a mother does something to you b/c they go to lengths to make sure you know Joe grew up without a mother and even have him and the boy interact and talk about their dead mothers. And clearly in one timeline they both grew up to be bad men.

    I did like it and need to simmer on it more, but it did not wow me as I had been lead to believe it would. It was a real hodgepodge of many movies we have already seen, especially Terminator.

  • Grey

    Um…I think The Perks of Being A Wallflower is the surprise of the year.

  • Chris138

    What Grey said. Looper was a real disappointment for me as it started out interesting but then became a crashing bore once JGL got to the farm. I thought The Perks of Being a Wallflower was great, though. I wasn’t expecting to be as moved as I was by it; it’s very heartfelt and sincere with wonderful performances all around, especially from Lerman, Watson and Miller.

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