Best of 2012

Lincoln

There are three possible responses you might have to Lincoln, the long-in-development biopic from Steven Spielberg. You might instantly love the film, case closed. Or you might find it so shatteringly dull that you never want to come near it again. Or you might have a delayed response, a complicated mixture of the first two responses, one that admires the film but isn’t so taken with its inherent stodginess. I proclaim that I’m in that third category of audience member — within the first 15 minutes of Lincoln, I couldn’t believe how bored I was but, by the end, I knew I loved (and was fascinated by) enough of Lincoln to want to take another look (and another) down the road.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner take as their dramatic impetus Lincoln’s intense (and ultimately successful) efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. Against the politicking and agitation pro and against the bill, the Civil War rages — another great weight on Lincoln’s shoulders. What’s more, Lincoln’s family life and relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), are pained and haunted by the recent death of a child. The tragedy has driven Mary closer to a nervous breakdown and Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) must maintain a facade of strength — a kind of tough love — whenever Mary’s mental state begins to crumble.

The first impression that hits you about Kushner’s screenplay is how just how talky it is. We don’t come upon movies this talky anymore. Lincoln is supremely talky, almost to the exclusion of all other qualities. Scene after scene is rooted in dialogue — mostly dialogue among politicians, Lincoln among them, cajoling, bribing, and browbeating others into supporting the passage of the bill. When word arrives that the South may be ready to surrender, the news throws the chance of the bill passing into jeopardy — after all, would Americans care any longer about freeing slaves if the war over slavery is brought to an end? Thus, Kushner and Spielberg arrive at an effective race-against-the-clock device as Lincoln’s convictions about the moral imperative of the Thirteen Amendment are tested.

Apart from seeing the great moral crusade of American history devolve (by necessity) into a battle between Lincoln’s shrewd Machiavellian plotting — he hires lobbyists to bribe functionaries with sought-after posts in the administration in return for their votes — and the fire-and-brimstone fearmongering of anti-abolitionists in Congress, Lincoln offers a tender and heartbreaking look at the dynamics within the President’s family. As Mary seeks to shield her older son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlistment, we feel his anguish, his determination to join the Union effort not only to be of service to the country but to honor his pride and his manhood. We feel too Lincoln’s inner battle between his reluctance to endanger Robert (especially after suffering the death of another child) and his duty to let his son be his own man. Gordon-Levitt and Day-Lewis’s scenes together prove Spielberg’s keenness for depicting father-son relationships — something he’s shown mastery with throughout his career. Even more powerful are those moments — however fleeting they are — between Lincoln and his younger son Tad (Gulliver McGrath); we sense the bond that father feels for his son in every interaction they have. Tad adores his father and Lincoln is an infinitely loving and patient father. Spielberg shows us as much when, in one scene, Lincoln — weary from another’s day fight — finds Tad sleeping on the floor with this toys scattered before him. Lincoln lies down next to Tad, strokes his hair, and kisses him — actions which seem so organic, so unforced and natural as could only occur in those spontaneous moments between parent and child. Then Tad wakes — and without saying a word — climbs onto his father’s back before Lincoln stands and carries his son, piggy-backed, to bed. There’s another breathtaking moment, conveyed entirely though imagery and behavior, when Lincoln hears the pealing of bells outside his office — signaling his hard-fought Congressional victory. Father and son walk to the window. Spielberg’s camera views them through the curtain, blanched in heavenly daylight, as Lincoln holds his son and absorbs the moment’s exultation. It’s a moment of deep, thoughtful silence and extraordinary poignance, captured by a filmmaker working in peak form.

There is directorial mastery here, and, even for those like me for whom the power of Lincoln is a percolating realization, one thing is certain: The performance by Daniel Day-Lewis is astonishing. It is an uncanny, almost atavistic accomplishment of one man channeling the spirit of another and bringing him to life on-screen. Enough has been said in praise of Day-Lewis, both for his performance in Lincoln and his career as a whole, so I won’t delve much into it. Please note that the performance is nothing short of miraculous, the result of the actor’s (and the director’s) willingness to take major artistic leaps and span the chasm of time and between two souls, one invoking the deceased spirit of the other. Supporting performances from Tommy Lee Jones as fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and James Spader as cunning lobbyist W.N. Bilbo stand out in a solid cast.

Lincoln is, in many ways, Spielberg’s boldest and most committed picture. It is absent of the director’s visual showmanship as well as, thankfully, his propensity for drippy sentiment (something that’s marred otherwise solid Spielberg efforts). This is a straightforward, sharply written telling of one man and one nation facing their toughest crucible, workmanlike yet reverential. As a portrait of political acumen, moral resolve, and leadership (both within a family and as a President), Lincoln magnificently makes the case that the man it depicts more than deserves the iconic status that history and affection have afforded him.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, James Spader, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill

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Looper

Looper is among the cleverest, most skillfully crafted and entertaining sci-fi thrillers of the past 20 years. Writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the smart, savvy high-school-set noir Brick in 2005, opts for a cat-and-mouse action-movie with not the easiest gimmicks driving it: Time travel. Often raising more questions of narrative logic than the filmmakers’ originally intended — and which detract from the movie’s ultimate enjoyment — the time-travel gimmick can become more trouble than is worth for all concerned. But with its swift, sure-footed pacing, Johnson’s shrewd staging and framing, and pitch-perfect performances, Looper is so winning and absorbing that any plot holes and time-travel gaffes are easily overlooked.

It’s 2044, and there’s a new breed of criminal thriving in the mercenary underground: Loopers. These are killers hired to assassinate individuals from the future, sent back 30 years — from a time when time-travel has been invented and immediately banned — by a criminal syndicate commissioned to eliminate them. Apparently, disposing of dead bodies in the future is a tricky ordeal, so it’s a better bet to ship those you want to kill back in time and have the loopers do it for you.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper who’s made a killing — pun intended — at his profession who works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a kingpin in the time-travel assassination business. Business is brisk, but a wrinkle appears when the loopers discover that more and more of their targets are older versions of themselves, shunted back 30 years from the future. It turns out that a nefarious figure, dubbed The Rainmaker, is tyrannizing the future, bringing governments to their knees, and one of The Rainmaker’s decrees is to eliminate every ex-looper still living.

It’s not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with his future self, played by Bruce Willis — at his chiseled action-hero best. Unlike his previous targets, Willis isn’t going to go so easily; he escapes his assassination and sets off on a mission to hunt down and kill The Rainmaker — the sole cause of all his grievances, including the death of his future wife. Willis narrows down his targets to one of three possible suspects — all young boys — and, it’s at the home of one of them that Gordon-Levitt arrives, anticipating that Willis will soon show up. Watched over by a tough-as-nails, protective mother — played by the always-captivating Emily Blunt — the young boy (Pierce Gagnon) is alert, observant, and he possesses seismic telekinetic powers, enough to tip anyone off that he’s the boy Willis is after. The dramatic tension between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt earn the romantic sparks that ensue while the former’s growing bond with Blunt’s son is also richly layered with close scenes of the two. With Gordon-Levitt, determined to save his charge, and Willis, bent on erasing the evils of his past, on a collision course, the final third of Looper becomes a riveting example of how shrewd storytelling can hold audience sympathies with both its lead characters, despite their being in direct opposition with each other.

Gordon-Levitt and Willis play two versions of the same character, that is to say, Gordon-Levitt does an impression of Willis. And, as impressions go, it’s an incredible one, channeling Willis’s tics and mannerisms to a tee. But it’s also performance that stands on its own — Joe is a tough, business-as-usual killer with a deference to his employers and with a cocky, assured sense of his future. All of that comes crashing to pieces when he slowly, surely falls for Blunt and vows to protect her son at all costs. Willis is commanding as always but now, showing his age and his wear-and-tear, he’s becoming our next Eastwood, especially since his on-screen persona — laconic, morally clear, and purposeful — is in line with Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Dirty Harry.

If Looper has a fault, it’s that it has too many moving parts, too many plot lines weaving together motives and counter-motives to keep track of. For plot-driven sci-fi thrillers, this is an occupational hazard and as clean as Johnson’s script is, it’s too busy — especially once Daniels and his minions go hunting for both Gordon-Levitt and Willis — to allow for a full immersion into the story’s wonderfully drawn characters. That frenetic quality also rules out any chance for Looper to achieve its potential for exploring those themes it openly invites — the meaning and purpose of life, the ethics of altering the future, and of sacrificing oneself for the good of humanity. It’s all there, touched upon, but Johnson could’ve slowed or simplified his plot for these themes to breathe and permeate our experience of his otherwise excellent storytelling.

Grade: A

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Quing Xu, Tracie Thomas, Garret Dillahunt

Argo

Ben Affleck stars in and directs Argo, a tense, absorbing true-life espionage yarn about a CIA operative who embarks on a daring, borderline foolhardy, mission to extract six members of the American embassy in Tehran during the most heated days of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. Facing a diplomatic stalemate and smoldering anti-American sentiment among Iran’s Islamic hardliners, the State Department finds itself with no options as it tries to orchestrate a plan to lift the American men and women who fled the embassy just as the protestors were storming the building and who are now holed up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Affleck plays agent Tony Mendez who comes up with a scheme to cobble together a fake Hollywood production company readying to start production on a fake science-fiction movie set in the exotic Middle East. With the help of a pair of hard-nosed Hollywood old-timers, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, Mendez manages to create a convincing enough facade. Undercover as a Hollywood producer, Mendez sneaks himself into Tehran and manages to persuade the six hideaways into posing as his film crew in Tehran on a location scout and attempting a risky exit across the city and through Tehran’s airport — a minefield of suspicious government hardliners on the lookout for the fugitive Americans — and out of Iran.

From the retro Warner Bros. logo that appears at the beginning, riddled with faux scratch marks and film grain, to the camerawork, screenplay and editing, Argo is an uncanny evocation of the best political thrillers of the 1970s. It was Affleck’s intention to recall the works of Alan J. Pakula, particularly All the President’s Men, and he succeeds brilliantly. Much to his credit, Affleck manages to fashion a Pakula-esque vibe and style without tipping over into the no-man’s-land of indulgent homage; Argo is in itself a riveting and fascinating drama, not only for its genuinely tense spy-game elements, but the very real fears, doubts, loyalties, and bonds among this tight-knit group of escapees that get tested as Mendez hatches his escape plan. The acting across the board is crackling in the grand 1970’s tradition, with Affleck effectively channeling Pacino, Redford or Hoffman, while Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’s superior with an intensity and moral certitude that would make Jack Lemmon or Jason Robards proud. Argo is among the worthiest spy thrillers to come out of Hollywood in years, and it puts to rest (at least for this reviewer) any doubts over Affleck’s chops as a smart, shrewd director of consistently topnotch fare. Not only is the movie one of the year’s best, it could also usher Affleck into the short list of directors to watch (and root for) this awards season.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clean Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane