This year, Best Director seems to be pairing up in interesting ways.
Tarantino has launched into the race in a spectacular 11th hour surge. Whether this means he will, in fact, steal the last director’s slot from Tom Hooper or David O. Russell is still not known. But what is known is that Django Unchained and Lincoln are two views of the same moment in our history. Both are satisfying smackdowns of the worst among us, the racist beginnings of our country, which could not have profited nor succeeded without slavery. Even Thomas Jefferson praised the value of having free labor, among other things. Lincoln, though, tells the story closer to the truth, farther from the bloody speculative spectacle than Tarantino has delivered. As real as Lincoln is, Django Unchained is unreal.Sequestered in clean orderly chambers where slavery was at last undone, Lincoln presides above the pain of slaves from a luminous distance. Django brings that bloody pain up close, thrusting the messy, brutal torment in our faces. Both of these American storytellers have gone out of their way throughout their careers to expand the American experience to include the African-American experience. It isn’t a surprise that they would each come at slavery, this year, from such wildly different perspectives. The story of 2012 in film can’t be told without either of them, as they have each made two of the best films of the year.
Spielberg’s tightly reigned direction, following the dense, profound script by Tony Kushner with the career-best work from Day-Lewis has made, to my mind, 2012’s best film. Tarantino’s lead actor, Jamie Foxx, gives one of the best unsung performances of the year. Tarantino’s script fully explores the director’s vision, even if it is disjointed and sloppy in places, the polar opposite of the Kushner’s precision. Still, these two films somehow convey equally vital messages about this American life in 2012.
Likewise, Kathryn Bigelow’s astonishing, unforgettable Zero Dark Thirty goes hand in hand with Argo in many ways. One is deadly serious, the other is fiendishly funny. But both deal with treacherous episodes of our ongoing conflict in the middle east. Zero Dark Thirty takes us right up to today, as we grapple with our own definition of what torture means, whether we are prepared to accept that we employed torture as tactic when “questioning” Al Qaeda suspects. The film is about that — how could it not be — but it is also about the larger notion of revenge and its hollow compensations. Did we kill Bin Laden to avenge those who died in the attacks on 9/11? Or did we kill him in an effort to stop future terrorist attacks? It’s not a question the filmmakers try to answer. They want to ask it. The best reviewed film of the year, Bigelow’s has become a lightning rod for controversy, some earned, some undeserved.