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Best Moments in Film in 2012

In alphabetical order, these are the moments in film in 2012 that moved me greatly. Here are a few words about them.

There are SPOILERS — fair warning.  

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Amour
I can’t really remember a more powerful or memorable moment in a film than Jean-Louis Trintignant finding a pigeon in his apartment. With his beloved, dying wife all but gone, the pigeon signifies letting go. It is the thing about life we can’t keep to ourselves because it is always meant for another place. A pigeon must fly and people, sad to say, must eventually die. What Amour means to me is nothing less than the true meaning of life. It is all in who we cling to and what we get out of our time here. Maybe that in itself is selfish. Maybe we owe it to everyone else in our lives and to life itself to hang on to the bitter end, no matter how miserable we may become. Those aren’t easy questions to answer and Amour doesn’t try to answer them. It simply shows the story of a life in decay. All good things must, sooner or later, fly away.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild 

Hushpuppy has seen a lot such a short time but not everything she sees is meant to be taken literally, as so many critics decided to do. The film is full of breathtaking dazzlers, like when we see the mother for the first time and just walking by the stove sets the burners aflame. But the strongest moment of the film the one that literally took the breath out of my chest when I saw it in Cannes was the end, when the beasts bowed down to Hushpuppy and declared her queen. This was the true spirit of Where the Wild Things Are, the true spirit of a child’s imagination, the freedom of storytelling, the glorious, heart-stopping beauty of artistic courage. How do you color the magic of a place? How to capture who people are? How do you make a movie that really wants to be poetry? You do it by letting go of what other people might think. And so we bow down to Hushpuppy and to all other things that command the spirit of the wild.

CLOUD ATLAS

Cloud Atlas
This is a beautifully rendered, underappreciated, deeply moving story about souls cascading through the ages, and soulmates reaching to rejoin with each other and all of the obstacles they encounter along the way. It’s about human bondage and repression. It’s about love. The moments that still stagger in memory are those that are intertwined with the lovely score, but specifically the “all boundaries are conventions” scenes where the film’s most romantic couple, James D’Arcy and Ben Wishaw throw the plates in the air and we watch them shatter. This scene transitions through to the other romantic sequence of Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae, their own trajectory as memorable. When Doona Bae is at last executed and separated from her true love, you are either a soggy wreck or it doesn’t phase you at all. Either way, it is a moment for all time. Thinking of it now brings tears to my cynical old eyes. The film mercifully cuts back to the two of them living out a different life together and we know they will be paired for all time but still, watching them separate in death, it’s devastating. In fact, even if it is imperfect, the film is full of these pockets of richness.

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The Dark Knight Rises
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is still the best thing about The Dark Knight Rises but more than that, Nolan’s film is given over to women. The men come off as near-blunderers, chasing around after them. Sure, this isn’t going to serve your target demo that well — they prefer women who have their little moment of toughness but leaving the dirty work to the men. But Nolan upended that paradigm and made the woman the mastermind. Her nemesis is Batman but it should have been Catwoman because, frankly, Catwoman is a bigger threat. Hathaway’s performance is magnificent because she takes victimization as just another mask. In truth, no one can really get the best of her. She uses whatever mask she needs to accomplish the task at hand, be that her charm, sex appeal or smarts. My favorite moment in the film is when Catwoman is first discovered by Bruce Wayne. When she says “oops” it turns the whole thing around. What a thrill to watch someone so in command of herself.

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Django UnChained
There are so many great moments in this film it is hard to single out just one. From the opening scene to the Klan ambush — Django is chock full of riches. The most thrilling moment in the film for me is what Tarantino himself described as kind of a film within a film, when Django and Broomhilda are escaping from their slaveowner, running free, together. Their desire for that is really what drives Django and in fact, many slaves did try to escape, continually, which is why there was an economy around slave hunters. But the blending of music and imagery there really set my imagination aflame. Tarantino said that when he met with Bruce Dern, who has a small part in the film, he went into two hours of talk about Dern’s role in the film and indeed, it is a movie onto itself, Django’s backstory. Tarantino thinks that way, in these long, strange continuous jaunts through history, imaginary and very real. Django Unchained, controversial, no doubt, but full of life in every dazzling frame.

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Flight
One of the better moments in Flight in a film full of them is when Denzel Washington is put in the hotel room for his deposition. His testimony is supposed to get him off and get the airline off and protect anyone who is supposed to take responsibility for the deaths. When all of the alcohol is removed from his suite he ends up next door where there is a whole mini-fridge full of drink. He takes a little bottle out, sets it on the top of the fridge, then he leaves. Robert Zemeckis has us sit with that image, the little bottle that seems so harmless. We wait, and wait … and then a hand grabs it off the fridge. The next scene is utter mayhem. To put Humpty Dumpty back together again they call the fixer, in this case, John Goodman who returns to the hotel room, gives Washington coke as an upper, and a hair of the dog. Pretty soon, Whip is back in shape and ready to testify. It’s a great sequence in the film, such is the power of a great director and team of actors collaborating.

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Life of Pi
Why is Life of Pi in 3-D? Even the raindrops look like miracles.  In keeping with some of the themes in this year’s best films, the meaning of life is something to consider while watching this film, if you are attuned to such notions.  The idea that it’s all around us all of the time, the magic and the beauty of the natural world, is told wonderfully well by director Ang Lee and screenwriter Scott McGhee.  Pi is about storytelling, the power of it, the varying ways we interpret our personal truths.  Through a difficult journey, Life of Pi ends at a point where it is no longer possible for many of us to hold back the tears.  Sure, some will have given up by film’s end, and decided that there wasn’t anything worth knowing in this playful meditation on religion and reality.  But when it’s time to sum things up, Irrfan Kahn says the thing that bothered him the most was Richard Parker’s not saying goodbye and how much he wanted to thank him for all that he’d done.  And in that instant, doesn’t it just break your heart? Isn’t that just like life.  We never really get that chance. Most of the time, we are caught by surprise and our gratitude then must linger.  What a memorable moment from one of the best films of the year.

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Lincoln
Most people haven’t read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and if you never read the book you probably would never know the details Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis get so right. One of the details was Lincoln’s son Tad who could really only be calmed down by his father. Tad is seen in the film fluttering around President Lincoln like a bumblebee, never still. But what Tad would do was fall asleep with his father still working and Abe would pick up the sleeping Tad and hoist him over his shoulder. In the film we see this play out. The never make direct reference to Tad’s learning disabilities or his desperate need for his father’s comfort but that scene is so beautifully played as Tad is being carried out of the room he asks where his dead brother is and Lincoln says, “he’s gone.” The camera focuses on a pair of slippers in the half-light. It is one of the many focused and pointed moments in the film where these brilliant collaborators had a single task in mind: to tell this story with loving, intricate detail. The lighting, the cinematography, the music, the acting, the writing, the directing all in perfect harmony. It is yet more heartbreaking when Tad has no one to comfort him after his father’s assassination. It was one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s enduring torments. I never thought Spielberg had it in him to be this restrained but it was clear to me that making this movie right and doing its subject justice was his primary concern.

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Looper
Syd, one of the more interesting characters in film this year, flares up when he gets scared and especially when anyone tries to hurt his mother (Emily Blunt). Towards the end of Looper her life is threatened, Syd’s shot through the cheek and the full force of his power explodes on screen. The characters are lifted in the air and held there, hovering. Syd can go farther but his mother’s voice calls him back, “It’s okay honey.” Slowly, his focus shifts to her face and in an instant he’s just a little boy again, crying, and needing his mommy’s comfort. It is literally a tribute to the power of a mother’s love and it’s the best scene in the film and one of the most memorable of the year. Looper is such a dedicated noir, we know the lead character isn’t going to have a happy ending. Still, in a way, it does, or it might. Syd’s future is unknown. Such is the mystery and beauty of Looper.

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The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s swan dive into faith, love, and sex is maybe a film out of its own time. It doesn’t appear to have captured the zeitgeist the way it might have done in a different era than the one we’re living through. That doesn’t diminish its beauty, even if its beauty is in its obscurity. For me the most memorable moment is the escape scene on motorbike when Freddie has finally had enough, or is questioning how he’s been spending his time, being the errand boy for a meglomaniac. There are many ways to interpret The Master, obviously, but one way is that it is a film about the battle between our need for control in our lives and our need for utter abandonment of the rules. So Freddie just keeps going, out of sight and gone from his master’s grasp. It is maybe one of the most visually stirring scenes in the film but also is the moment in the story that has the most people debating what it means.

Middle of Nowhere
One of the most satisfying surprises about Middle of Nowhere is writer/director Ava DuVernay’s visual sense — this is uncommon in female directors perhaps because we aren’t spacial learners in the same way male directors are. Women tend to be more interested in conversation and meaning, but purely visual female directors are few and far between. DuVernay is one and examples come unexpectedly in Middle of Nowhere, a film you expect to be just another female relationship saga. But she plays with light and depth of field in seductive, haunting ways. The moment that really stands out for me is the one when her main character, the beautiful Imayazti Corinialdi is lying in bed and imagining her lover is with her. DuVernay gets so right the agony of missing someone you desire so strongly but she captures it here. Her lover is, of course, still in prison but his presence is felt, emerging from the light almost. The film is moody throughout, and the work of a gifted director.

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Zero Dark Thirty
It’s difficult now to flat out love Zero Dark Thirty because that love, for me anyway, now comes with a conditional element. You have to stop and think about what loving that film means, where you stand on the issue and whether you think making a film about it was worth the trouble. Nonetheless, from a purely cinematic standpoint, Kathryn Bigelow is one of my favorite directors because her sense of the frame is compelling. There isn’t a scene in Zero Dark Thirty that can match the scene in The Hurt Locker where the soldier must clean the blood off the bullets before he can fire again but one that comes close is the Bin Laden raid, maybe the best fifteen minutes of filmmaking all year. It is the combination of factors that makes it such a pivotal moment in the film — the juxtaposition of our high tech arsenal (the most adept military in the world) against the all-powerful Osama bin Laden’s mostly broken down old palace is as depressing as it is inescapable; we can’t let Bin Laden get away because he wants to keep killing us and yet what we’re confronted with on camera is a house full of scared women and children and a very frail old man. Listening to screenwriter Mark Boal talk about the satisfaction he had in writing a female character who takes down a misogynistic leader leads me to believe that the intent wasn’t, perhaps, as ambiguous as Bigelow makes it. Nonetheless, whether that was the intent or not, the end result is the same. We are shamed by the disproportion between us and them.

Honorable mentions

Argo – there are so many great lines and funny moments in Argo. From “Argo fuck yourself,” to “This is the best bad idea we have.” My favorite moment, though, I think is when Ben Affleck and Alan Arkin have to talk an agent into selling the bad screenplay for Argo. “Go fuck yourself. With all due respect.”

Les Mis – as many complaints as I have against Les Miserables none of them have to do with the performances, which were delivered 100%. But I have to admit that I was more moved by Hathaway’s singing than just about any other singular performance this year (except maybe Daniel Day-Lewis). Yes, it’s melodramatic, yes the film is, at times, unbearable but that performance by Hathaway is one for the record books. I get chills now just remembering it.

Moonrise Kingdom – when the two tweens kiss for the first time. It’s so funny and awkward, so unplanned and clumsy — it is sort of how we all remember those sticky, tedious fumblings. In a film full of wonderful little beats, that one resonates.