This is the first of three surveys of 2012's end-of-the-year bounty. More than ever, the major studios trot out their award candidates between Halloween and New Year, assuming (perhaps wisely) that critics have short memories and movie connoisseurs have time for movies only during the holidays. This does not, of course, mean that we have to ignore the fruits of other seasons, but it does concentrate the mind.
Of the four movies in this review, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is the transcendent success, the worthiest candidate for honors. For once there is no compromise in a Spielberg film with the audience's possible impatience or lack of historical sophistication. The drama is almost entirely about the scheming and finesse that made possible passage of the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery. Few movies better illustrate the adage that, if we have refined sensitivities, we had best turn our attention from the making of good laws or good sausages. Lincoln knows that connivances and compromises were needed to achieve his goals, and he embraced them with commitment rather than resignation. He was the idealist as consummate pragmatist. Spielberg, working with Tony Kushner's seductive script, makes the dark realities of politics gripping and transparent.
In a year of wildly impressive performances by male leads (Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, John Hawkes in The Sessions), Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln is the performance by which the Lincolns of the future will be judged. His Lincoln is modest and self-reflective when he has the chance, commanding and charismatic when he needs to be. He has many faces and few illusions, and he dispells any simplistic illusions that we might have about what it takes to achieve his successes. Tommy Lee Jones, as Thaddeus Stevens, a leader in the House fight for the amendment, is, if anything, Day-Lewis's equal; the film catches fire whenever he's around. And Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln reminds us why she is a two-time Oscar winner, and why she may well (and deservedly) get her third statue. Her "Molly" is equal parts mad (in all senses) and shrewd.
The film can be faulted, although I would not do so, for occasionally sounding like a history tutorial. And while it is often a flaw for a movie to feel "stagey" the airless confinements of Lincoln give it a concentration and coherence that seem necessary. It's a terrific movie.
Ben Affleck's Argo deserves most of its acclaim. It is a palatable concoction with three potent ingredients---a plausible re-enactment of a historical crisis (the Iran hostage taking of 1979-80), an adventure story with hair-breadth escapes and heroes and villains, and a satire of movie production. Ben Affleck, wearing multiple hats as director and star, plays Tony Mendez, who in real life orchestrated the escape from Iran of six American civil service agents, using the pretext that they were a movie crew scouting locations for a blockbuster sci-fi feature. The movie is canny about the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction, but it strays increasingly from the truth in trying to hold our attention. The final sequences owe more to Indiana Jones than they do to Khomeini.
Argo makes superb use of the older pros in its supporting cast. Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman are good company, even if they do not quite threaten Tommy Lee Jones' claim to the supporting actor trophy. The movie is a very smoothly-oiled entertainment machine, but hardly any of it is memorable in the way that most of Lincoln is.
The Life of Pi, Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker-prize-winning novel, is a gripping and spectacularly beautiful adventure. The core of the story involves the survival over several months of an Indian youth shipwrecked on a 26-foot lifeboat, adrift in the Pacific Ocean, with a Bengal tiger. The novel and movie struggle a bit to make Pi's predicament plausible. His parents, having exhausted their resources in maintaining a zoo in India, travel by freighter to Canada for a new start, accompanied by their animals. Pi seems the lone survivor when a storm destroys the ship, except for an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and the tiger, who all share his lifeboat. Eventually, the rule of survival of the fittest dictates that Pi and the tiger remain.
The movie's virtues are that it is gorgeous and exciting. But it stumbles on its way. Pi's narrative is awkwardly framed as a flashback told by a middle-aged Pi to a young novelist who may choose to transcribe his tale. Needless to say, the middle-aged Pi, with bulging eyes, looks nothing like the teenager, played effectively by Suraj Sharma (who was not a professional actor), whose eyes are deep-set. Anecdotes about how Pi chose his name (giving up the name "Piscine") and how the tiger came to be called "Richard Parker" are distractingly cute. The story dabbles none-too-seriously in exploring Pi's faith in God, a matter that has preoccupied some critics. Somewhat more seriously it concludes by half-heartedly offering an alternative narrative in which people and not animals populate the lifeboat. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Life of Pi, however, is that, once one knows that tiger is a computer-generated simulation, one can't help but notice how many of the scenes have a children's-storybook artifice and unreality about them. It becomes increasingly hard to suspend disbelief.
The Master follows There Will be Blood in the ambitious corpus of Paul Thomas Anderson. Both films flirt with megalomania, the older movie depicting an empire built on oil and the newer film showing an empire built on faith. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, who, in the years following the second world war, puts forth a new charismatic religion. L. Ron Hubbard's scientology is said to be the inspriration for Dodd; if so, the connection is a loose one. Dodd takes as his assistant a war veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile and haunted man without roots or goals.
Critics have found the movie's opacity to be something of a virtue rather than a sign that it is unresolved and unfinished. There are tantalizing themes. Dodd allows himself to take a paternal interest in Freddie, and that seems to compromise his mission. There are hints of resistance within his flock, and there is tension between himself and his single-minded, ambitious wife (effectively played by Amy Adams). But Dodd's message and Quell's obsessive and ungovernable character remain fluid and unclear---and one cannot help questioning whether all this uncertainty is part of the movie's intended scheme. To be sure, Phoenix inhabits his role tenaciously and convincingly. His character's nature is to flail and founder. But, unfortunately, so does the film.
Next time, I'll look at The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook---and a few other new movies.