The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

Disappointments:
The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Brave
Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Missed:
Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

Amour
The Imposter
Lincoln
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook
Shame

-Adam

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The Top Films of 2012

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to look at the exercise of compiling a year-end list in a different light. In younger days, I found it to be a monumentally important exercise, a grand opportunity to drop my cinematic knowledge on friends and family; to take up a “movie cause,” that one film that I loved unequivocally (often times casting a blind eye to its faults, no matter how numerous or egregious) and thought others should too, hoping that my prose would sway their opinions or lead them to discovering a movie they normally would have missed. It was a process that I loved and an undertaking that was not handled lightly.

Now, I find them somewhat painful. I agonize over placement, knowing that I will never get it right and that 10 years from now I will look back on it and quite possibly wonder what I was thinking at that particular time. These year-end lists do offer the benefit of allowing me to remember where I was in my life when I created a prior list; so in that way, it provides me with an interesting historical document of how my film tastes have evolved over time. Revisiting them is akin to participating in an archeological dig, but instead of the overwhelming feeling of awesomeness one must get when uncovering a fully preserved Pterodactyl, all I get is that self-conscious feeling associated with thoughts along the lines of: “Wait. I thought A Beautiful Mind was one of the best movies of the year?” Clearly, eating my weight in ham and cheese Hot Pockets and cheesy taco pizza rolls in college had an impact on not only my cholesterol levels but my brain matter as well.

Another problem with making a year-end list at this point in my life is that I don’t get to see the amount of film that I once was able. Working in movie theaters for the better part of the decade gave me the added benefit of seeing everything for free, so I was able to stay caught up on the year in film and provide this list in a timely manner; unlike now, when it comes out several months late with an apology (I’m sorry!) and a list of movies that I have yet to see but could end up making a hypothetical revised list that we both know will never come to pass:

  • Holy Motors
  • End of Watch
  • Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Amour
  • Life of Pi
  • Deep Blue Sea
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
  • The Sessions
  • The Hobbit

The corresponding “worst of the year” list has fallen by the way side as well since I no longer have the time to waste on that new Anaconda sequel or the new movie staring the grown-up little girl from Panic Room that I thought was a boy until the end credits of Fincher’s film clued me in on my blunder. Now it is limited to a 3 movie disappointments list:

  • The Man with the Iron Fists
  • Killing Them Softly
  • This is 40

You can read my thoughts on Fists and the unfortunate use of “shaky cam” here. I have heard that the director’s cut out on Blu Ray is better, so I plan on revisiting it in the future, hopefully with better results this time. Killing Them Softly could have been an entertaining, nasty little crime movie but got weighed down with social and political commentary as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, and This is 40 made me wish that Apatow would stop straddling the fence and just go ahead and make a drama already; I would love to see it as long as there wasn’t needless comedic riffing on the size of one’s vagina for 5 minutes. But enough with the grousing, let’s get on with the list.

The Top 15:

15. The Grey

Kicking off the list is Joe Carnahan’s latest film, a good ole’ fashioned kick-ass survivor flick. Despite carrying the dubious distinction of being mismarketed as a Liam Neeson versus a pack of wolves movie, The Grey delivered the goods, featuring the actor’s best and, at times, most painfully personal performance of his career, as he lays bear the grieving process one goes through after they loose their significant other, a topic he knows too much about, unfortunately. The Grey is a brutal, unflinching, gut-punch of a film; anchored by a director working at the top of his game and cast who vividly portray men who know death is knocking at their door, yet continue to find things worth fighting for, making their insurmountable goal of living all the more harrowing.

14. Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning

Do me a favor would you? Don’t see this entry and immediately laugh, thinking I went and lost my damn mind. Instead, take a second and play the red band trailer for the latest installment of the sci-fi action series and finish reading the list once you’re done.

As you can see from the images above, Hyams’ latest franchise installment is of a different breed. By combining the action genre with elements typically found in film noir and European horror, along with loving references to widely divergent cinematic influences including Apocalypse Now and Halloween, he has created a DTV effort that stays a couple of disorienting steps ahead of its audience. As an action buff, I love that Hyams has made a balls out actioneer that veers into the art house realm, turning in an effort that contains a highly subjective look at the issue of identity in a world where cloning exists while also wrestling with the theme of what really animates a person.

13. Compliance

Craig Zobel (The Great World of Sound) continues to show serious directing chops with his sophomore effort, filming a true story so certifiably insane that the viewer can’t help but wonder what ever happened to good old-fashioned common sense. Dramatizing a story of this nature is nothing short of a Herculean endeavor, and the performance he gets out of Ann Dowd as the fast food manager who places trust in others until they prove otherwise is one of the best of the year. It’s truly a shame this longstanding character actress didn’t get more attention in awards season for her work.

12. Bernie

Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a perfect staring role for its leading man, Jack Black. So good in it is Black, one has to wonder if he should act in movies for any other director. Maybe he should just ply his trade in films that have a strong music connection for his character to exploit? Either way, this hilarious fact-based docudrama gives the actor the best role of his career, one that allows him to (for the first time) completely disappear into a role and not rely on his arsenal of ticks and spasms that have long grown tired and stale.

11. Silver Linings Playbook

You know what I’m tired of? I’m tired of people always dropping the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” argument whenever I discuss Russell’s latest cinematic concoction, and in particular, Jennifer Lawrence’s wonderfully nuanced performance. This isn’t Natalie Portman in Garden State* here people. Lawrence brings nuance to a role a lesser actress couldn’t, transcending the material, which without her, could have turned into just another quirky rom-com. The film itself goes down smooth, and seeing Russell harnessing his considerable talents, pouring them into another fully focused movie, is a treat for any film fanatic.

10. Looper

Let’s all just agree on this up front and get it out of our systems. Time travel movies are nigh impossible to get right and by merely taking on the task, a screenwriter is opening themselves up for all types of criticism focusing on the mechanics of the whole endeavor. For my money, Rian Johnson’s script is dynamite—plot holes and all—and also gives Willis and Gordon-Levitt an amazing character arc to play with in their duel (see what I did there?) role as a Looper going through one heck of an internal struggle/awakening. Bradbury would have been proud.

9. The Master

With the The Master, Anderson has made the most intimate movie of his career without sacrificing the characterization and acting bravura his films have become known for. His latest isn’t so much a commentary on Scientology as a film that wants to explore our need as humans to find meaning in our seemingly meaningless existence. For a more in depth look at the most challenging movie of the year, see my full review here.

8. Frankenweenie

Over the past 10+ years, I’ve given Tim Burton tons of shit. When I was growing up, he was one of my favorite directors and I looked forward to each one of his new releases with a level of excitement that few directors had ever been able to unlock in me. Then he started down the remake chain (Planet of the Apes) and putting new spins on old, classic material (Alice in Wonderland) that was ugly, unneeded, and worst of all, indulgent to the point of self-parody. Frankenweenie is the first Burton film since Sleepy Hollow that I have loved unequivocally; it is a stunningly beautiful film that contains an emotionally satisfying ending as well as being a carefully crafted homage to the movies of his youth, chockfull of loving references to the characters and themes that inspired him to direct, and made him one of the top directors in the ’80s and ’90s.

7. Django Unchained

Part of me has to wonder if Tarantino has finally outgrown the film medium and would be better suited doing miniseries for HBO. He definitely has topics on his mind (rewriting the history books) that he feels deserves epic treatment, and for the most part, I agree with the type of approach he wishes to take with his latest material. The flip side of this is the pacing gets muddled in the last third when Django goes back to Candyland to exact his last measure of vengeance, and secondary characters that had been fleshed out in the script get lost in its translation to the screen (more Walton Goggins on the Blu Ray, please). The elegant editing that graced all of the master’s prior works is missing here, and I chalk most of this up to the absence of his longtime editor, Sally Menke. QT’s latest had me grappling with my thoughts and feelings on a variety of topics, certainly more than any other recent film has, and that is always a good thing. Seeing the film with a sold-out crowd that was racially split at about 50/50 made me wonder to myself if it was OK to laugh at Don Johnson’s wonderfully profane performance as Big Daddy or if I would just be seen as another white male laughing off the seriousness of slavery. And while it didn’t turn me off entirely like some people I’ve discussed the film with, the ending left me wondering if that much violence (which blasts past Corbucci levels of spray) was needed. One thing isn’t up for debate: Quentin has succeeded in making slavery into the disgusting, soul-crushing enterprise it was. After multiple viewings, I still have unresolved issues with the film that I need to iron out, but there is no doubt that Tarantino’s latest is built to stick with you.

6. Queen of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary follows the Siegal clan in their quest to build the largest, most expensive single-family home in the United States, a replica of the Palace of Versailles. As you may have gathered, the time-share magnate’s family hubris is in equal turns jaw-dropping and infuriating. When the recession and the corresponding amount of titanic financial woes hit the Siegals, the construction of their dream home grinds to a halt, and the smug, arrogant nature of breadwinner David falls away, only to be replaced with Hughesain levels of isolation, leaving his seemingly vacuous trophy wife alone to hold the family together. While Greenfield’s work here scores some big laughs out of its subjects’ disconnect from reality (the renting of a car at a Hertz airport kiosk is a standout) and unchecked egos, it’s ultimately less interested in making them look like buffoons than making an attempt to understand them. The end result makes their struggles eminently relatable to anyone who has ever had to make do with less than they had imagined possible.

5. Skyfall

Who would have thought Sam Medes had such action chops, and on top of that, would manage to create the best Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? The continued evolution of Bond is fleshed out and after 3 films, we now have Daniel Craig’s version of 007 back to a place where audiences know the character best, a cold-blooded killer with a twisted sense of humor, flanked by Money Penny, Q, and, in my opinion, a new M that, if you’ll pardon my Anglophile expression, is “the tits.” All this plus fantastic cinematography from Roger Deakins, a killer Straw Dogs homage, a credit sequence that has some relevance to the events of the film, and the best use of an Animals track (Boom Boom, a cover of a John Lee Hooker song) in film since Scorsese used House of the Rising Sun in Casino. The next installment in the Bond franchise can’t get here quick enough.

4. The Raid: Redemption

If I could equate one film-going experience in 2012 to getting a shot of adrenaline, it would be Garth Evans’ sophomore effort. Gone are the pacing issues of Merentau, only to be replaced by bone-crushing martial arts sequences that take the genre to a whole new level. This is what I wanted out of every Tony Jaa film post Ong-bak and never got, and the fact that it was done by a Welsh-born, white-boy director makes it even more kick-ass. Based on what is on display here, Iko Uwais could easily become the next big action star and Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog) should be cast as a villain in every martial arts/action film from now to the end of time. The show-stopping brawl between those two is the Final Boss fight that dreams are made of.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson makes movies for dreamers. Movies that tell cynicism to screw off. Movies where characters and situations never feel like they are based in reality as some small something is always slightly skewed for the better. If this makes you feel that his movies are too precious, that’s your problem and your loss. I love the residents of New Penzance and will enjoy revisiting their quaint town again and again. For a more in depth look at Anderson’s masterful piece, here is my original review.

2. Cabin in the Woods

Between this and The Avengers, 2012 turned out to be the year of Joss Whedon, and until recently, this was my pick for film of the year, as it is the most original work in the horror genre for quite some time. Most of all, Cabin in the Woods gives me hope that in a genre bogged down by the act of regurgitation and where a lion’s share of the output are relegated to sequels and remakes, that originality will always endure. I hope that it will inspire future generations of horror directors to put their own stamp on a style of film I hold dear, and continue to find the darkest of humor in full-bore nihilism. For a more in-depth look at the brilliance of Cabin and Richard Jenkins, here is my original review.

1. Killer Joe

While making the rounds promoting Django Unchained, Tarantino mentioned that he couldn’t see himself directing into old age, as the films at the tail end of a director’s career often lack the bite of those at the beginning. While this is true for the most part, one has to look no further than William Friedkin—who turned 78 this year—and his latest effort, Killer Joe, for a counterargument. In his second consecutive effort with playwright Tracy Letts, Friedkin offers up a deep-fried, darker than a bull’s tookus on a moonless prairie night comedy that presents itself as the bastard child of Jim Thompson’s and Tennessee William’s literary legacies. Matthew McConaghey finally delivers on all the promise his early career contained as Joe, a corrupt police officer who is hired to do some dirty work for the sickest family to ever grace the silver screen. As the clueless, white trash patriarch, Thomas Haden Church gives the comedic performance of the year, and Gina Gershon proves to be more than game as the slutty, up to no good wife, also managing to get one of the more memorable entrances into a film since John Wayne cocked his rifle in Stagecoach. (Joking, of course. Kind of.) No punches are pulled and the NC-17 rating is earned several times over, which of course put it behind the eight ball, killing its chances of ever reaching a mass audience. Although it’s not for everyone, Killer Joe exhibits a staggering vitality and the urgency of a modern master who still has a lot of skin left in the game.

-David

*And while I’m at it, I would like for people to stop treating Portman’s performance in Garden State as the origin of this character type. The credit clearly belongs to Ruth Gordon for her role as Maude in Hal Ashby’s comedy classic, Harold and Maude.

The Master (2012)

In the not-too-distant past, I found myself in Boone, North Carolina, for the first time in what seemed like ages, and I was lucky enough to spend a good chunk of time watching and conversing about film with two of the editors of Film’s Okay, John and Adam. For those not in the know, John’s film collection is gargantuan (taking up a large portion of one room), so it has become common practice for me to sit among his collected cinema, wading through it for new treasures that might have slipped under my radar, all the while geeking out to the tune of a high-level movie conversation that would doubtlessly sound like a foreign language to most people if they chose to listen in. In the course of our talks on this particular voyage to the tip-top of the mountain range, our colloquy included a rather long dissertation from all parties on how we like to display our agglomeration of DVDs and Blu-Rays, John mentioning how he kept his movies separate from his FILMS (capital letters are important here, not superfluous). Under this filing system, popcorn flicks and movies that he would find entertaining but didn’t adhere to the auteur theory or add anything new or noteworthy to the cinematic landscape would go into the larger section of his collection. Annexed in the hallway adjoining his room are the films from the masters of the medium, your Hitchcocks, Goddards, Fullers, Fords, Clouzots, and Jarmuschs. Cinematic efforts from legendary filmmakers; movies that cineastes cherish when much of the general population doesn’t get them and doesn’t want to; films from visionaries that are still in the game that we often anticipate from the moment we hear production begins. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of these directors, and his new film, The Master, is walking on rarified air; it’s a movie that manages to transcend the traditional narrative structure, allowing the movie and its subject—along with its own peculiar creative process—to illustrate exactly what the film is about.

In Anderson’s latest, most challenging effort, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, an author and self-proclaimed philosopher (read instead, charlatan) who is in the midst of starting up his movement, “The Cause.” The mission statement of his life’s work is to explain, and hopefully cure, man’s ills by rummaging through their past lives in an effort to seek out the historical roots of their malady. When Dodd comes across Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, he realizes he has found his greatest challenge, and he focuses on containing all of Freddie’s rage and madness. Quell represents the film’s true protagonist, a former sailor who found himself stationed in the Pacific during the war, and who, upon returning stateside, has been diagnosed with an unnamed emotional disorder. The audience is already clued in on this fact, however. As the film opens we watch Freddie, on R&R with his fellow seamen, as he divides his down time by humping an anatomically correct sand sculpture and masturbating in the surf. Not your typical behavior, to be sure.

Once cut free of his obligations to the Navy, Freddie sets forth on an alcohol-fueled odyssey of debauchery. Even in this way, Quell is atypical, choosing to get loaded on his own concoctions, generally created through whatever ingredients he can find at the time, items like fluids from the insides of a torpedo, paint thinner, and film darkroom chemicals. This man that is ruled by nothing more than the sum of his impulses and addictions finally bottoms out, finds himself on the lam from the authorities, and decides to stow away on a boat that happens to be the home of a party and wedding Dodd is throwing for his daughter. The Master immediately feels a connection to this strange individual, insisting that they have met before in a past life, having shared an important interaction. Maybe he is attracted to Freddie’s primitive impulses, maybe the attraction is sexual in nature—or it’s also possible that he genuinely wants to help this man, to heal his broken mind and get his life back on the right track. Whatever the reason may be, from that point on, the writer takes the social outcast under his wing.

Simply put, The Master is a relationship story between these two men. Anderson’s work has always carried the intent to examine the American nuclear family (Boogie Nights) or, more frequently, the dynamic that exists in father-son relationships (There Will Be Blood), and his latest effort is no different, as much of Dodd and Quell’s relationship can be seen as paternal rather than fraternal. But this time it seems that the director has more on his mind as the characters also seem to be two sides of one coin. The Master seeks nothing but calm and order, but his pupil represents pure chaos. Both of these characters have the capacity to indulge in the opposite side—Freddie, when he has to, can morph his thought processes into direct action; Dodd is prone to instant outbursts when confronted with a nay-saying nonbeliever or nitpicky followers get his dander up—making them a true yin and yang, even if their colors aren’t solid, instead swirling around with a drop of their opposite in the mix.

As Dodd’s wife, Peggy, Amy Adams seems to be more of an observer rather than participant, but in the few scenes where she is called on to make an impression, the actress proves herself more than capable, diving into a role that may make it hard for some viewers to rectify her character in this with her past onscreen persona, that of the cheery rom-com genre. I wish there were more to her character, as she puts forth a fascinating performance, one in which lays the heart of a true zealot, consistently pulling Dodd’s strings from the sidelines, course correcting his actions and keeping him fully focused in times of weakness. It becomes obvious that she will (has?) crushed anyone who opposes The Cause, and her mistrust of Freddie leads us to believe she could be the end of him. It is a wonderful, vanity-free performance, I just wished there was more of it.

Joaquin Phoenix’s work here is beyond reproach and I remained astonished at his level of commitment to his character throughout the runtime of the film. The actor creates a performance that is a bundle of ticks and mannerisms, making Freddie appear as if he is always on the verge of a complete and total meltdown. The actor looks 20 years older here, his eyes sunken into his gaunt visage, his gait and posture reminiscent of Quasimodo, perhaps weighed down by his unbridled anger or the poisons he continually pumps into his body. Quell has no doubt been worn down by life and Phoenix truly makes the audience uncomfortable; the performance is committed, real, and no safety net is employed, made all the more thrilling as the actor sticks the landing. Meanwhile, Hoffman continues to show why he is the best actor of his generation. His Dodd is the perfect vision of a preening, phony intellectual, only convincing enough to the lonely and lost around him that he is the only one with answers to their plight. It’s a performance in which the actor is called on to use every ounce of charisma he has as Dodd must constantly slide from cordial and welcoming to authoritative and domineering, and he does it without breaking a sweat.

The Master and its director aren’t interested in point A to point B storytelling;, instead Anderson takes his sweet time, letting his characters be who they are and letting the audience become familiar, all the while explaining The Cause through their practice of it rather than exposition. This allows the viewer’s reactions to seep in slowly, creating a magnificently rewarding (though no doubt trying at times) cinematic experience. The unique and alarming score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood throbs with menace, helping to accentuate the film’s rotten underbelly, and the photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Coppola’s go-to guy as of late) is nothing short of dazzling, proving that shooting the film in 65mm was the way to go, especially when close-ups of the actors’ faces fill the screen. The homage to Ford’s famous shot in The Searchers is wonderfully done and fits snuggly within the texture of Anderson’s current creation, giving us film nerds another point in the film when we can just look over at one another and nod silently.

The sum of its parts makes The Master the type of film that just doesn’t get made all that often, it doesn’t fit comfortably into the studio system’s cookie cutter frame of mind or fit the profitability mold they prefer. But with Anderson’s persistence and vision to see this effort to competition—which wasn’t easy with Scientology, the most litigious religion ever breathing down his neck—he has been able to guarantee that The Master succeeds in almost every way, fully worthy of the admiration and accolades it has received. It’s as rich and thought provoking as film gets and I can’t wait to see where the director goes from here.

-David