Gareth Higgins (garethhiggins.net) is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Top 10 of 2012
THE BEST experiences I had at the cinema last year were nostalgic—re-releases of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Lawrence of Arabia were uncanny reflections on the cost of war to soldiers and some roots of contemporary Middle East strife. Here's my list of the best films released in 2012:
10. A tie:The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a gloriously rich, smart comedy for all ages, full of life and self-deprecating humor, and Life of Pi, which envelopes its audience with visual wonders and spiritual questions.
9. Wes Anderson's delightful treatment of childhood first love amid dysfunctional adults, and a film not afraid of the shadow side of growing up, Moonrise Kingdom.
8. The Cabin in the Woods, a gruesome horror comedy that not only enacts and portrays, but understands the lie of redemptive violence.
Assassins and Psychopaths
THREE OF THE best films of the year arrived in early fall and will hopefully still be around to experience by the time you read this. Each deserves to be seen on a big screen—I've long believed that the experience of watching films in a cinema compares with home viewing the same way that visiting the pyramids compares with seeing a mummy in a museum. But whether or not you see these in a cinema, please do see them.
Samsara, Looper, and Seven Psychopaths open up worlds of possibility where the varieties of human experience are respected, the myth of the cool assassin is revised, and the morality of violent fiction is stared in the face, interrogated, and not let go without an attempt at a convincing answer.
Samsara, the sequel to 1992's Baraka, travels the world seeking examples of our diversity and unity: dancers and warriors and builders and menders, broken things and healed things, innocent and wounded. It contains some of the most extraordinary imagery you've ever seen, in tune with vast musical cultures, reimagining our view of what we, a little lower than the angels, are and can be, and, when we're not conscious of our power, the damage we can do.
Battles for Self
THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, might be more deeply understood as a tale of two egos. We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), while another struggles to distinguish imagination from delusion, his simmering rage emanating perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd). Neither of them knows how to love; both are desperate to be loved. They find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover. They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us in a long time; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.
There are many key moments: The first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; the master holding court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his “knowledge”; the protégé being experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom and driven nearly mad in the process; a science-fictionesque digging for buried treasure on Arizona flatlands that could pass for Mars.
The moment that remains most resonant in my memory after two viewings is still the most ambiguous to me. After Freddie and Dodd first meet, the new father invites the new son (the relationship—and failings of relationship—between fathers and sons is where this film really aches) to attend his daughter’s wedding. The invitation is accompanied by a warning or an invocation: Dodd tells him either “Your memories aren’t welcome” or “Your memories are welcome.” Two viewings leave it unclear—I could check a third time, but it doesn’t really matter, for each is a blessing. You don’t have to carry your trauma always and everywhere. Or you can join this community and still be fully yourself.
Becoming Who We Are
RECENT MOVIES have been dominated by a surprising theme: the exploration of gender through black goo in outer space, strippers in Florida, and a red-haired teenage rebel in mythical Scotland. Detours among British ex-pats in India in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a genetically modified high school student in New York in The Amazing Spider-Man, and a scout troop on a coastal New England island in the fabulous Moonrise Kingdom added flavor to the mix. But it was the deceptively simplest of films that caused me to think most about what it means to be a human being, and how the fact of gender must be wrestled with, negotiated, and contested rather than assumed.
The wonderful thing about Pixar’s Brave is how it negates the historic disempowerment of female fairy tale protagonists. This is a new kind of Disney princess: one who doesn’t need a man to save her, nor homicidal violence to achieve victory; one who develops a healthy relationship with her mother; one, ultimately, who takes responsibility for her mistakes, integrating Snow White purity with Mulan’s steel. It’s also a physically beautiful movie, delightfully entertaining, and alive for adults and kids alike.
On the other hand, the world of Magic Mike, wherein Channing Tatum relives his earlier career as a bachelorette-party treat, is a film about lost men who play on stereotypical female desire for tips. The soulful yearning for intimate connection that Mike embodies is the most emotionally resonant part of a film otherwise of average interest.
Satire and Political Shadows
IN THE 1930s, the Marx Brothers took political satire seriously enough to make a comedy about imperialism. Duck Soup stands today as one of the most comforting movie antidotes to the depressing post-9/11, enemy-until-proven-friend political culture. The 1960s saw Stanley Kubrick upgrade the cinematic presentation of war into Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb—employing the Screwtapian dictum that if the devil cannot bear to be mocked, then the best way to reveal the horror of war is to laugh at it. A decade later, Mel Brooks attacked—and transcended—white supremacy in Blazing Saddles, a film whose coruscating offensiveness is merely a mirror to our own prejudices. Sacha Baron Cohen is the evident successor to the Marxes, Kubrick the comic satirist, and Brooks. (Some of Michael Moore’s work, and both Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop and Chris Morris’ Four Lions, deserve attention in this light too.)
Baron Cohen’s trilogy of fish-out-of-water-in-the-U.S.A. films, Borat, Bruno, and current release The Dictator, taken together, constitute both deliriously funny entertainment (sometimes confused, and with something to offend truly everyone) and a jeremiad against the monstrosities of our time: racism, sexual violence, homophobia, xenophobia—and that’s just for starters. The Dictator has post-9/11 politics, the war on terror, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism clearly in its sights. Our hero—for that is what he ultimately becomes—is a Middle Eastern tyrant in the Saddam/Gadhafi mold, with a bit of Ahmadinejad and even Kim Jong-Il thrown in for good measure. He gets lost in New York and experiences what life is like outside the palace, leaving behind its personal executioner and other amenities. His path to liberation and respecting others comes through working in a vegan grocery store—not an unrealistic program in the non-cinematic world. What’s remarkable about his transformation is that it comes in response to meeting a broader variety of characters than you’d find at the U.N., and to being mentored in treating sexuality (his own and others’) with more respect.
THE TRUTHS flickered into visible expression at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival are, minute-for-minute, usually among the cinematic highlights of the year.
The line between documentary and fiction movies has blurred: On the one hand, even a Hollywood package as huge as The Dark Knight has its share of verite-style intimate handheld camerawork (and thoughtful politics—Batman is presented as nothing less than the necessary sacrifice for a community that has to kill someone to stay “pure”). On the other, the top 10 grossing documentaries of all time were each released in the past decade: Audiences are attracted by the fusion of social engagement and entertainment like never before.
Michael Moore’s appearance at the festival reminded me how common it is for activists to want to make films just because it’s cool (which usually makes for bad films), or for filmmakers to inject a dose of socially “relevant” messaging into their movie because they think it will increase the box office. (Think of when churches jumped on the bandwagon for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Mel got rich. Jesus, I aver, stayed 99 percent poor.) Moore’s point is that you should make documentaries because you want to make films—you can be an activist without being a filmmaker.
But if you’ve got the heart and the talent, it should rise to the surface, and if it does, you’ll usually end up at Full Frame, where this year’s highlights were three films that mingle mature cinematic craft with ethical depth.
Art With a Brutal Heart
DISNEY ANIMATION is often criticized for masking cynical corporate values—Wall-E’s profound challenge to over-consumption was accompanied by the selling of toys and games; the company claims to be pro-feminist but only tweaks the fairytale princess archetype with heroines who express their “strength” by showing that they can fight like a man.
Yet there’s still some magic in the Disneymagination—Fantasia, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King, despite their political alarm bells (racism and homophobia are challenged and reinforced, the average of which can only compute to ambivalence), are examples of visual resplendence, a sense of humor, and an invitation to hope. The best parts of the Disney worldview look like the eschatological images in a Martin Luther King Jr. speech; the worst merely bolster a culture of privilege and exclusion.
The most Disney-like current film is Mirror, Mirror, a retelling of the Snow White story, directed by the fantastic visual stylist Tarsem Singh. It features Julia Roberts in a wickedly entertaining turn as the queen, with a witty script, gorgeous set and costume design, and some bawdy fun. But the portrayal of Snow White as a “liberated” young woman whose liberation depends on her behaving like a Bruce Willis action character produces a paradox: Any of the images from this film could be exhibited in an art gallery—so elegantly composed and imaginative are they—but the ethical heart of the film isn’t artful at all.
A Sci-Fi Take on Adolescence's Brutal Truth
Along with the silent film The Artist, Haywire, and War Horse, the smartest wide-release recent movie is Chronicle, a kinetic fusion of Breakfast Club-style teenage angst with post-9/11 violence-as-a-way-of-life (or at least way-to-be-noticed).
In St. Patrick's Footsteps: Humor and Humanity
Fifteen-hundred years ago, a Dublin-based shepherd made his mark on history by turning the Chicago River green, staggering inebriated through the city, and inventing the "Kiss Me I’m Irish" hat. Along the way, he wrote Bushmills whiskey drinking songs about the pain of being alive, mixed a cocktail whose name evokes an act of terror, and dyed his hair red.
He magically expelled snakes from the island of his birth, wrote a lyrical memoir of his terrible childhood, won the Rose of Tralee beauty contest, mixed lager and Guinness together (presumably out of an excess of self-loathing and bad taste), had a great oul’ Famine, stared meaningfully across the Atlantic, and dreamed of America.
But he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.
It’s St Patrick’s Day weekend, and despite the fact that millions of people will celebrate something like this vision of what it means to be Irish, pretty much none of the above is true.
10 For Home Viewing
A perfect time to catch up on the 10 best Blu-ray releases of the past year.
Hope Three Ways
Hugo, Take Shelter, and The Mill and the Cross have little in common on the surface other than their quality; look deeper and you may find love-filled, theologically profound, hopeful invitations to live better.
Power and No Glory
Roland Emmerich is known for making the kind of disaster movies that fans of quality filmmaking love to hate.
A Few Good Men
Clooney's new movie, The Ides of March, serves as a thoughtful and entertaining mirror for next year's presidential election.
You Can Still Live
The round-up on late-summer cinema, including: Solaris, The Tree of Life, and Super 8.
Compassion, Destruction, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a surprising addition to the typical summer blockbuster canon -- for one thing, it manages to entertain and challenge, without resorting to gratuitous violence to make its point. But there's a deeper subtext that is even more unexpected -- for this is a story in which we start to lose.
It was fashionable in the late 1960s and early '70s for science fiction films to attempt to out-dystopia each other -- see for example the notion in Soylent Green that post-industrial humanity snacks on itself to survive, the suggestion that only robots can be trusted to look after creation in Silent Running, and the climactic revelation in the original Planet of the Apes that a few generations from now, the nuclear arms race will end in mutually assured destruction. All these point to a simple philosophical idea: that humans cannot be trusted to care for ourselves or the planet we steward.
6 Films for a Meaningful Summer
It's been a fabulous few weeks for movies -- at theaters and at home. There are images in the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, that are so beautiful they can evoke an aching longing for transcendent experience. This is entirely the point, for the film is about the search for meaning in a God-breathed universe. A man goes to space to investigate a mystery, discovers himself in the face of his loved ones, and ends in an embrace with the divine -- love itself. It's an astonishing work of art that repays multiple viewings, and serves as nothing less than an icon for worship. This summer's The Tree of Life, the fifth film in 40 years from the Christian humanist artist Terrence Malick, becomes something similar, and in the process makes excellent cinematic use of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as avatars of contemporary masculinity. It's the most moving film I've seen this year.
Life's Pathos and Slapstick
The award for most surprisingly profound film of 2011 might go to Bridesmaids. This story of a woman trying to figure out her path in the midst of witness
8 Inspiring Movies About Social Change
Ah the joy of watching movies in the summer! Of course, there are a number of summer blockbusters coming out that will woo crowds to the theaters, but with the sky-high prices of theater tickets these days, nobody will fault you for wanting to stay home and kick back with a rental. If you're looking for a film that will entertain and inspire you, consider adding some of these excellent films about social change to your online queue. If you have any other films to add to this list, please contribute your favorites in the comments section below. (To read more of my film reviews, check out my monthly column in Sojourners magazine.)
Fight or Flight
Gareth Higgins reviews Batle: Los Angeles, Saving Private Ryan, and Chinatown.
From Escape to Reality
Reviews of 2010 films, and looking ahead to 2011.