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Looper – The Year’s Biggest Surprise so Far

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.