My Top 20 Movies of 2012 – The List: Part 2
A girl named Hushpuppy lived in the Bathtub with her father, Wink. Though this sounds like the opening line of a bedtime story read by an insane, magical hobo, in truth, that’s not an inaccurate representation of the feel of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Bathtub itself is a joyous Louisiana shantytown community, jerry-rigged with ropes and slats of corrugated iron, where loose animals roam free, and everybody waits for the flood that’s coming to drown the lands. These are an abandoned people, ghettoised from the rest of the world to their place on the south side of the levee, by the pussies who live on the dry side, who “only get one holiday a year” and keep their babies “stuck in cages.”
The decision to back the story with the stumbling narration of a child gives a Gilliam-esque sense of a place caught between reality and dream, as we experience life through Hushpuppy’s eyes, filtered through her vivid imagination. It’s the spellbinding naturalistic performance of the six-year-old protagonist that layers the film with its sense of wonder; a weight of reality to the storybook pages. And it’s impossible to overstate the quality of Quvenzhané Wallis. She truly gives one of the great child actor performances, if not the best, ever, and credit to the director for filling the cast with non-professionals who blow you out of your seat in every scene. For instance, the father, purveying that kind of towering, post-Katrina, I-shall-not-be-moved pride, where he might not have much, but it’s all he needs, gives one of the most powerful turns of the year; and it all comes from some dude who ran a bakery across the street from the production office, having never acted in his life.
Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s meandering narrative further fits the analogy of that magical hobo, making it up as he goes along while we warm our hands over the burning bin, but we’re not riding a fixed rail along the confines of the three act structure or the hero’s journey; this is a tale of that age-old human question of where we might possibly fit inside such a big universe, when we’re so small. Wink’s one rule was “no crying,” but if you watch Beasts… it’s a rule you’ll break throughout, particularly in the last ten minutes, with a triumphantly uplifting ending, where strong recognises strong.
I could have sworn that The Grey came out in 2011 (actually February this year), and it’s testament to how good it was that it held onto its spot in the Top 10, all the way through to the end of the year. On its release, many reviews and reactions were angrily focussing on the idea that this was a movie about faith, and had snuck into theatres under the pretext of a good old survivalist yarn, while pushing a religious agenda. Propaganda in actual wolf’s clothing, as it were. While they were right about the first part, they’re dead wrong on the second. The Grey is, like all good art, a mirror for the audience, and while some viewed this as “Liam Neeson’s atheist parable,” I also saw Christians who’d interpreted it the other way entirely. When Neeson screams at a silent God to finally do something and earn his faith, and on receiving no answer, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself…” some saw this as man’s struggle in a Godless universe. But for others, Neeson’s refusal to lay down and die was God giving him the strength to carry on. Likewise, inside the film, there’s no more testing circumstance than being stranded after a violent plane crash, but as some survivors find the presence of God in their being spared, others find only his absence. I don’t want to get bogged down in theology, but it was amusing to watch people on the same side interpret the exact same material in completely different — and often, completely raging — ways, like the fable of the blind men and the elephant.
And while it is a movie about faith, and mankind’s introspection when death creeps at their heels, the survivalist yarn part is pretty fucking awesome too. Once Taken hit, and Liam Neeson made that switch from kindly priests and CG lions to double-hard bastards, like a photo of your dad with a banana up his arse, forget what he was, it’s what he is that can’t be unseen. There was no going back. The Grey trades on all of our deep desires to be cradled within Neeson’s lovely Irish arms as he stomps a man, or a wolf, to death with his bare feet. A haunted loner whose back story is only glimpsed, like those painful flashes of memory that never let us rest, he finds himself the self-appointed caretaker to an ever-dwindling cast of shell-shocked survivors reduced to the level of children. Only in this pitched battle for survival, stripped of everything but the impending footsteps of death, does he find a reason to keep on breathing. Amid the howls in the darkness, never letting the cast forget the fate that awaits them, Neeson’s there with a tender, no-nonsense humanity, where there’s no shame in fear, and the one thing that’s certain is that we must keep moving.
There’s a terrific recurring use of Jamin Winans’ beautiful score for his 2009 film Ink throughout, and a poetic ending, which comes right where it needs to. As far as the faith thing goes, while I’m pitching from the Godless, Hell-bound side, one thing I do know, is that when I die, I want to do so with Liam Neeson looking into my eyes and tenderly talking me into the black.
You only need to fire up Facebook or Twitter on a weekend to see those elite, cultural geniuses who delight in telling the world how super smart they are for not watching this week’s X-Factor or Big Brother, unlike the rest of the morons out there. While all those other dolts are chuckling through their buck teeth, these winners are presumably composing symphonies or reading to hospitalised children. The sneering nob-heads spend as much time bragging about not watching shitty television as the people who do watch shitty television spend watching shitty television. Either watch or don’t, but whatever your choice, there’s no need to be a dick about it.
That said, popular culture hasn’t exactly been on an upward trajectory of late, as Bobcat Goldthwait happened to notice. Goldthwait, still best remembered as the guy from Police Academy with the voice of Anne Widdecombe in the violent throes of a first, unexpected, late-life orgasm, has assembled a hauntingly familiar picture. Frank’s (Joel Murray) television shits out an endless stream of farting pig ringtones and tampon-throwing reality skanks, while there’s nothing on the news but paranoid, hateful, right wing propaganda spewed by homophobic nutcases, and stories that make you want to slide a warm gun between your teeth. Our world, basically. What comes next is a furious dissection of modern culture, which is knowingly heavy-handed and and unsubtle, but holds nothing back.
Pushed over the edge by a workplace crowding round monitors to watch the latest crazy being exploited on an American Idol-type show, and the warping of his weekend daughter into a shrieking ingrate, Frank does what people watching shows about vacuous fucks joke about; he kills somebody. Once he pairs up with Roxy, a schoolmate of the teenage reality star he shot in the head, we’ve got ourselves a daddy-daughter Mickey and Mallory, a pair of “platonic spree-killers” equally in disgust at, well, everything. Joel Murray’s quiet, melancholic rage mingles nicely with Roxy’s sweetly murderous, foul-mouthed blood-lust, bouncing off the walls as she reels off lists of the people who need to die — Twi-hards, anyone who talks about Funk Rock, and Diablo Cody, who gets it the worst. (“The only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem…”) She’s a Hit Girl for people who aren’t wankers.
There’s disappointed anger at every turn, with even the simple question of “Do you think I’m pretty?” setting off an impassioned rant about the sexualisation of children that implores both R. Kelly and Woody Allen to go fuck themselves. A film like this could easily turn into a long list of the director’s hates, and while it kind of is, it’s always funny (“hit her in the defective tit!”) or thoughtful, and there’s more meat on the bones than pure empty bile. God Bless America is a modern, cubicle-farm escapist fantasy; a Taxi Driver for a world where every boob-headed Kardashian has their own clothing line, and where trash-culture is so ridiculous, you literally can’t parody it. Hence, this is not a subtle movie, but it’s not just the low-hanging fruit of trashy TV in Goldthwait’s sights. In one telling part, Frank laments how “everything is so cruel now,” and despite the constant stream of monologues and everyman fantasies — assassinating parkers who take up two spaces; mowing down ‘God Hates Fags’ funeral protesters — Frank’s inevitable Network moment still produces goosebumps.
In a film that’s dense packed with rage, the myriad of background detail is perfectly observed, including a brilliantly savage takedown of TMZ TV, while, like with previous effort, World’s Greatest Dad, Goldthwait’s soundtrack choices are a perfect melding of music and image. The one thing holding God Bless America back from a stone cold classic to merely a great movie, is a cheap, too-small looking finale that feels like a scene from another film with a tenth of the budget, along with a cliché that’s never really worked for me. But is it a great movie, and while there’s so much half-assed, impotent ranting against where we’re at as a people, God Bless America is the rallying cry against a culture where “the shallowest, meanest, dumbest and loudest are celebrated,” and a wish-fulfilment fable for any (or all) of us who, at one time, had to ask that question “What’s a Snooki?”
There’s a queasy feeling associated with the past. Everybody has a handful of things from their childhood, be it TV shows or adverts, or context-less scenes from movies, that continue to chase them from the shadows well into their adult lives. My own personal demons are the Tall, Thin Man from BBC schools program Look ‘n Read’s ‘Boy from Space‘, and an experience at an amusement park that stuck with me forever, as my first handshake with that kind of distilled, sense-robbing terror. Picture this. A room full of jangling, end of the pier amusements; plastic eggs with a toy inside; push-penny games; that thing where you roll a ball up into a hole — and a glass box, six feet high. Behind the glass, on a rocking chair, sits a life-sized old lady, dressed like a 1930’s washerwoman; blanket over the knees, bonnet on her head. My mum drops 10p into the slot, and the washerwoman lurches into life, rocking chair rattling against the floor as she cackles maniacally. One of my earliest, most vivid memories is that gut-punch of fear that led me shrieking out of the amusements and into the model village, where I was found sobbing beside a tiny church, like a pathetic Godzilla. This moment festered with me for years, until, in my teens, black and white footage of Old Mother Riley (a popular music hall drag-act) popped on a TV screen, and I instinctively fled for the nearest miniature cathedral. Even now, distorted by time, the thought of hard-faced, cackly washerwomen puts the proper shits up me and no mistake. “Where the fuck is this anecdote going? Tell us about the film, you helmet!” Well –
The experience of Beyond the Black Rainbow is a through-the-bannister glimpse of something your parents were watching when you should have been asleep, before creeping back to bed to lay awake all night with the sheet pulled up to your chin. It’s an eight-year-old’s sickly flu-hallucination about a marble that weighs as much as the Earth. Black Rainbow‘s Arboria Institute, a mysterious place of sterile surfaces and glowing hues, evokes nausea and wonder in equal parts. A hypnotically languid doctor receives a phonecall of sentient electronic sounds; a throbbing pyramid dulls the telekinetic powers of a captive teenage girl; Daft Punk robots with baby’s faces stalk the droning hallways, soaked in brain-melting reds and yellows. Even if the oft-thrown accusation by tedious dullards of “you’re just being weird to be weird” were true (it’s not), visually Black Rainbow is engaging, stimulating and highly original, more-so than anything else in 2012, or for many, many years. Above all, it’s deeply unsettling.
More than any film on this list, I’m loathe to offer specifics on plot or scenes that would be best enjoyed with as-yet undestroyed eyeballs, and brains that sit unmolested inside the skull in innocent, pre-mulch form. The entire film has a soporific rhythm that gives the sense of having been drugged. Coupled with the extraordinary visuals, the speech patterns are drowsy, the silences long and uneasy, and there’s an analog synth score which drones like an overhead light in a padded cell. The villain of the piece has such a rattlingly alien quality, there’s no way this guy is a regular human actor. I think he just appeared one day when the director was dicking around with a ouija board inside a mystical cave. It all harks back to an era viewed through well-worn VHS tapes, and this legitimately feels like an undiscovered film from 1983; a film that was redacted from history by sinister forces trying to protect our fragile minds. A lot will be made of the visuals — one sequence in particular is truly the most horrifying, beautiful sequence of primal horror — but it’s a fusion of sights, sounds, and performances that turns this twist on the most Lovecraftian of concepts, of man’s attempt to cope with sights his mortal brain can’t comprehend, into an act of audience participation.
As with Piggy, at first glance, Wild Bill seemed like something that could only result in my kicking over the TV like a furious mule. You’ll find it under the genre of ‘British crime drama’, and it’s set around a tower block; it’s even got that weasel-faced bloke in it. You know the one. Its writer/director, Dexter Fletcher, is someone I associate solely with ruining the third series of Gamesmaster by repeatedly gurning right up the lens while a schoolboy in global hypercolour thrashed Shadow from Gladiators on Ecco the Dolphin. Thankfully, I stopped being a judgemental cock for long enough to give it a shot.
The Wild Bill of the title is a man fresh out of prison; a man trying not to return to his past, as he attempts to (re)connect with his estranged kids. As with other films on the list, by no means is this fresh narrative ground, but the ideas are approached with a deft storyteller’s hand that elevates it far above clumsy ITV dramas with similar synopsis. Like Lawless, Wild Bill has a legend attached to his name, which the local nutters, nonce-bashers and gang boss Andy Serkis aren’t so quick to confine to the past. It’s refreshing just how subtly it’s played, bypassing that kind of relentlessly bleak kitchen-sink struggle for very real turmoil with a very real heart. The threat of violence simmers quietly in the background, and when it finally does come, it’s almost a relief, like finally being allowed to exhale.
In a year of strong performances from younger actors, Will Poulter as the older son — forced to become a dad-bro to his younger sibling when permanently left home alone — lives up to the promise he showed in the underrated Son of Rambow, but the acting’s pretty faultless from top to bottom. First time director, Dexter Fletcher (which sounds like homework from a speech therapist) depicts Bill’s struggle, as events conspire against him, in a way that purveys a sinking feeling of dread, and you just know that this is not a story that’ll end well. But once again, just as if you’d ignored this on the shelf at HMV because it was next to a film starring Tamer Hassan, you’d be wrong.
Bernie is the story of a good man who did a bad thing, which is kind of apt, because Jack Black, an extraordinary talent in the right role, has made some not so great career choices over the years (Gulliver, Year Zero). Bernie was a really smart choice, and establishes his quality forever.
The character of Bernie is — how shall I put this — kind of a dandy. He’s light in the loafers, he’s big in the am-dram; he’s a kindly, jaunty soul for which the (sadly) rarely used in 2012 phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’ could have been penned. It’s this charismatic likeability that puts you squarely on the side of the townsfolk who can’t get their heads around such a gentle soul committing such a horrible act. See, this is a true story. No, it really is. That whole ‘inspired by real events’ tag gets stuck on the front of anything these days, with so much artistic licence, I think they re-releasing Crank 2 with a true story disclaimer, because there’s a dog in the background of one shot, and dogs are a real thing.
So anyway, the true story. Bernie was your typical pillar of the small-town, God-fearing community; he was was everyone’s favourite, everyone’s friend; but especially, he was the friend and — caretaker — to a wealthy elderly widow, with whom he drove, cooked, went on cruises, oh, and murdered. Brutally murdered. Funnily, I didn’t realise the locals giving to-camera thoughts on what we see play out were real people, talking about the real Bernie killing the real Marjorie (a sour Shirley MacLaine) until the credits rolled. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, it just went over my head, and I assumed it was down to Christopher Guest-style naturalism. Never has a film so danced the line betwixt fiction and reality; shot in the place where it happened, with people who were actually there adding a wonderful local rhythm to the dialogue. The realisation of this was incredibly moving; ditto the images over the credits of the real Bernie and Marjorie, reminding you of the tragedy behind the laughs. And speaking of laughs, at one point, a hard cut to a gleeful (and superbly choreographed) “76 Trombones!” made me laugh just about as violently as is humanly possible.
Matthew McConaughey, loitering around movie screens this year like he owned the place, is back playing another dick, but make no mistake, this is unforgettably Jack Black’s film. We’ve already been over my rabid lust for hyperbole, but this is the standout male performance of the entire year. It’s charming, tender, and with a level of pathos worthy of 1970’s British sitcom, all of which adds to the audience’s empathy when the dirty deed gets done. It’s a thoroughly delightful turn, and unrecognisable from the familiar bug-eyed rocker persona. I’m so head over heels cuckoo for his Bernie, that if Jack Black doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I feel like I’m going to react pretty badly. All I’m saying is, if you’re an elderly widow who’s been on cruises with me, watch yo’ back.
And speaking of the story behind a true story, I’d love to know the tale behind the thank you credit for one Dusty Rhodes. Shot in Texas; it has to be the Dream, right? Hey, the true story of Dusty Rhodes! There’s another role for JB. Take it to the paywindah, daddy!
I think a lot of people were wrong-footed by the familiar log-line. A pair of cops patrolling the gang-ridden, condom-strewn back alleys of South Central; whatever, man. There’s a found footage hook, but nobody’s getting suckered in by the text on the back of the DVD. Yet at the close of the year, this movie is lighting up Top 10 lists like Snoop Dogg with one of those funny smelling cigarettes that make my eyes burn.
Well-trodden ground as is it, what elevates End of Watch into truly exceptional quality is the sensational chemistry of its two leads. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña’s relationship, with all its teasing, bantering, and obvious love that runs so deep, you know they’d gladly take bullets for each other, sells you from the opening scene. (Incidentally, any lazy twats who still describe interpersonal relationships between two friendly male characters as a ‘bromance’ like they’ve just discovered the world’s wittiest joke can go hang themselves.) By the time shit goes south, they’re so well developed that everything has huge stakes, and there are plenty of nice naturalistic touches, like Pena repeating an off the cuff remark (”Liberace’s AK”) to different people, as you might in real life when something gets a laugh.
The second part to End of Watch‘s success is the kinda-sorta found footage angle. The actual self-shot deal is used sparingly, and the general hand-held shooting style gives a devastating intimacy to proceedings — and a real urgency to action sequences. It’s as effective a use as there’s ever been, Blair Witch Project included. This is found footage, not as a pitchable, high-concept gimmick, but as a tool for drawing the audience deep into the bosom of the protagonist’s world. The structure plays like a series of day-in-the-life sequences over extended months, which is at turns, super-touching, but filled with a foreboding sense that something bad’s going to happen to the people you’ve grown to care about. The most important thing about telling a story is having your audience give a shit about the characters, or else everything that happens is just a series of sounds, lights and moving colours. While this is a story told many times before, it’s never been seen through eyes so close.
The Comedy should be taken as a warning. Tim Heidecker’s aging hipster is hollow, emotionally stunted, and completely unable to function. When we first meet him — after an slow-mo opening where he and his buddies spray each other with beer as they dance with their genitals tucked between their legs — he’s trolling his dying father’s nurse with endless questions about prolapsed anuses, without an ounce of joy.
Heidecker and friends speak only in straight-faced, ever-escalating improvisational riffs, having spent so long being ironic, like making a face when the wind changes, they’re all stuck. With no connection or purpose, any interaction with another human being is akin to a half-hearted prank phonecall, pushing and pushing, and wondering what it’s ever going to take to get a reaction; to have a feeling. It’s a brutal piece, racked with self-loathing and shooting for zero sympathy. He’s a man on the edge who took that final step and just kept on falling. The level of disaffectedness feels like that trollface style of humour taken to its natural end; when the “lulz” are over, what’s next? It’s Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, filtered through the eyes of an audience rushing to post funny memes about the latest school shooting to show everyone how hard they don’t care.
Yes, The Comedy is self indulgent, but it wouldn’t work any other way. Such an anti-comedy puts the question back onto the audience, asking how much more faux-sincerity we’re willing to tolerate, as Heidecker, eyes lidded with boredom, casually watches an acquaintance suffer a seizure. His hipster irony keeps the world at bay, but it’s clear that we’re dealing with a man who’s deeply, tragically unhappy. The Comedy‘s most masterful scene is when the numbness cracks, just for a moment, for a brief reversion to childlike delight; a connection found in the most unexpected place.
Tim Heidecker is the closest thing we have to an Andy Kaufman right now. Check out his anti-comedy stand-up sets on Youtube, filled with comments from clueless nobs who’re blissfully unaware of the sonic boom breaking over their heads. His Twitter feed likewise has a zero tolerance, suffer-no-fools disdain, and The Comedy is the distilled essence of that creative rage; simultaneously repugnant and poignant, mesmeric and difficult to watch. There are genuinely funny moments from the conversational improv, which goes into some super weird places, and he’s such a naturally gifted comedic performer that many scenes will have you laughing in spite of yourself. I imagine The Comedy will be this year’s movie that people will either love, or call me a cunt because I recommended it, but even if it doesn’t connect right away, you should sit on it for a while, because as an inverse to The Dark Knight Rises, The Comedy is a film that you’ll like more the more you think about it. But just as Tim and Eric’s regular work is incredibly polarising, The Comedy will alienate a huge chunk of the audience. But if they’re too dumb to get it, fuck ‘em.
This movie may have intersected with my life at the perfect time. I’ve found that the thirties are the decade for seething introspection, especially if you’re bitter about the loss of your entire twenties, and just figured you’d put all your eggs in the basket of being successful in the arts and somehow be okay. Partly, that’s why I connected so much with Safety Not Guaranteed, but that’s also down to it being an exceptional film.
On the surface, this is an “are they or aren’t they?” tale about somebody who claims they’re a time traveller — and look out for that motif once more — but as with Looper, it’s time travel as a means to explore other topics. Based off that funny personal ad by a guy looking to find a companion on a mission back to the past, it demonstrates the thing I love about writing, about how anything can be used as a jumping off point; although I can’t say I’m totally jazzed about the inevitable Grumpy Cat film. Aside from the main story of Aubrey Plaza’s training-cum-investigation of the possible time traveller/probable crazy person, there’s a subplot of her boss’s use of their trip as an opportunity to hook up with an old high-school girlfriend. This interweaves with the main story beautifully, with Jake Johnson — in a really layered performance — doing some time travelling of his own, trying to recapture a lost moment. This is where it gets into that whole introspection thing, and you’re suddenly wondering about those romanticised moments in your own life, when the rest of the world has rudely decided to move on.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie that appeals to the time traveller in us all, where a song can shoot you back to a specific moment in the past, leaving nothing in its wake but two flaming tire tracks. But while we sit weeping like twats in our Beats by Dr. Dre, we should probably be creating new moments, rather than obsessing over self-created folklore from way back when. While both plots summon up a big bowl of wistful regret for you to choke on, there’s more to be gained from watching than just a harrowing life-crisis, and it’s a charming movie. Plaza, as a girl named Darius, is less caustic than her Parks and Rec character, but anyone who watches that already knew she was great, while Mark Duplass, when removed from the utterly insipid Mumblecore movement, is capable of way better things. A premise like this is sold on the air of mystery — has he really built a time machine, or is Aubrey Plaza going to end up in a ditch? — and Duplass subtly nudges you this way and that, right up to to the reveal. Though relegated to the side-plot, Jake Johnson’s may be the strongest, most quietly devastating performance of the lot, while Karan Soni gives us the most revelatory nerd since McLovin, albeit far less of a comedy grotesque.
While this looks like the most quirky-indie flick of all time, be prepared to self-examine like a motherfucker, unless you’re one of those freaks that considers themselves happy. Are my best opportunities behind me? Did my dreams get away? And that big moment from your life that you shared with someone else — do they remember it the same way, if they remember it at all? None of us are getting any younger, and Safety Not Guaranteed examines the past like a piece of modern art; it’s worth reliant on the angle at which you’re looking from. Ultimately though, it’s a message about taking chances, and rather than looking back, moving forwards with a leap of faith.
“To go it alone, or to go with a partner?”
Sound of my Voice has you from the opening frame. We’re as much in the dark as Peter and Lorna, who under explicit instruction, strip, shower and scrub, before changing into plain white surgical gowns, and being driven, blindfolded and cuffed, to a secret location. It has the air of a voluntary abduction, and we’re immediately thrown off-balance. And then there’s a basement, a weirdly elaborate secret handshake, and suddenly we’re in. But in what? That’s when we meet Maggie.
At one point, a character says “It’s all about her. It’s all about Maggie.” This is true for both the story, and the film. Any cult — or film centring on such — lives or die by the magnetism of its leader, and this is where Sound of My Voice soars. Purportedly a traveller sent back from a broken future, Brit Marling turns in a searing performance; fragile, warm, intimidating, always in control, and never less than thoroughly beguiling. Newcomers are warned against sudden movements, as though preparing to meet a wild animal, but from the moment we first see her, shuffling and veiled in a sheet, and hooked to an oxygen tank, it truly is all about Maggie.
Having spent the last few years of my life obsessively snared in a project about Charles Manson, the language of cults is familiar to me, and Sound of my Voice has a superbly researched (and performed) take on that kind of self help-cum-control. On the surface, Maggie’s little world is replete with harmless new age wisdoms about “listening from your heart”, where barefoot followers in the lotus position stare silently into each other’s eyes, and where the shackles of embarrassment are cut loose with the sort of unthinking free-dancing you’d expect see at Glastonbury from naked 40-somethings in neon body paint. But there’s a chilling, predatory undertone, always lurking just beneath the surface, at the back of the eyes, sneaking around behind the love. It’s this dichotomy that keeps the film on its even keel of maybe/maybe nots, and without it, the audience has no empathy with its leads. Even the chapter split of sorts, with arbitrary points in time segregated by white-on-black title card numbering, feels as though we’re advancing up the ladder of cult progression, like when Tom Cruise hits OT19, and he can ski across the sky on his farts.
Maggie brings John Titor-style tidings of civil war, from a generation “comfortable with death,” but paints a picture of a hippie utopia thriving amid the darkness, and those who have faith shall be led to salvation. But as the story unfolds, more elements drop into the mix; there’s firearms and a shooting range, a narcoleptic loner girl at substitute teacher Peter’s middle-school, and then, a mysterious government agent. When Maggie’s true nature — time traveller, con artist, or maybe worse — is forced into question, their faith gets tested, and it’s as disorienting for us as it is for them. Whoever wants to believe that all this has been for nothing? The duel protagonists, undercover techno-hipsters filming a secret expose, consider the other members “weak and looking for meaning… suckers,” but from the first meeting, it’s clear that Maggie’s under their skin, and as they get deeper, she looms over their lives like a ghost; an unspoken infatuation, or the first stirrings of spiritual awakening.
I’m trying super hard not to spoil any of the wonderful secrets of the film, but there’s a truly standout sequence that I simply have to gush all over, like an amateur housewife on a Sybian. One of Maggie’s many tests requires the literal expelling of shame and self-loathing; all over the pristine white carpet. Though grotesquely humorous at the start, it develops into the most intense, incredible scene of 2012. Maggie is at her most alluring, her most cruel, destroying to rebuild, or just because she can. Using that magnetism to psychologically devastating effect, it’s a truly mesmerizing performance. Likewise too, in a later sing-along scene, which exposes the first genuine crack of vulnerability, and distils the film’s perfectly balanced duality of belief and cynicism.
A story this intricately constructed, with myriad threads, misdirections and possibilities, is a delicate balancing act, and pulling off a ending that doesn’t reduce it to a deflating, one-watch film is a huge ask. Brit Marling, co-writer of Sound of my Voice, also co-wrote 2011 pick Another Earth, which had the most breathlessly beautiful ending in recent memory. Once again, Marling, and her co-writer, pull out a conclusion that somehow fulfils that unimaginable hope we always have, that whatever’s behind the curtain will live up to the booming voice and the promises. There are answers, but as with every great story, as the credits roll, there are a dozen, intriguing new questions.
My writer-brain was in awe, while also wondering how the fuck I’d ever be able to convey it when Top 20 time came around. While co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij, a man so awesome his very name actually has Batman in it, brings a close, intimate direction that helps ease this up to the number one pick, it’s hard to overlook the common link between the most uniquely moving, creative films of the past two years. Marling, having tired of the stereotypical roles on offer and deciding to just write her own, is the most exciting voice in cinema today, and in these two films, she’s established a style; high concept, yet deeply rooted in human emotions; and set the bar so high that Felix Baumgartner uses it to do chin-ups.
As Michael Bay preps another Transformers, and Peter Jackson spreads a 300 page children’s book over a dozen hours of film, it’s hard not come away from such original, entertaining, and affecting cinema believing you may have finally found the one who’ll lead us all out of the wastelands, and to artistic salvation.
Alright, that’s it for another year. Let’s close again with Genrocks’ annual ode to the awesomeness of cinema.