Five years is an eternity in the life of a film.
Five years is an eternity in the life of a film. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these movies play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed films of 2012 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Argo, Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild didn’t make the cut in 2017. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading!
At his best, Steven Spielberg is a master of binaries. He wrings huge suspense and popcorn pleasure from opposites locking horns: man versus beast (Jaws and Jurassic Park), earthling versus extraterrestrial (War of the Worlds) and Allies versus Nazis (Saving Private Ryan). With his superb Civil War picture Lincoln, the conflict is instead procedural, one of vote-wrangling and statecraft. The gunfire is verbal, and it rings within dusty, candlelit interiors. Outside of these Washington rooms, Blue and Gray armies march and unseen Americans perish by the thousands. But the film’s central conflagration remains intensely political. Here, the fiercest of all weapons is persuasion.
Though Daniel Day-Lewis towers in his portrayal of yet another larger-than-life figure, his Abraham Lincoln breaks free of marble-monument shackles. He’s a man: a shrewd and humble tactician with a penchant for folksy anecdotes. Day-Lewis pumps blood through the animatronic, Hall-of-Presidents ideal of America’s first and greatest Republican executive. Lincoln’s two key supporting players are no less impressive. Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln, grounds her First Lady with personal turmoil and a mother’s heartbreak. Tommy Lee Jones roars as Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce abolitionist and congressional foot soldier for the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage.
Instinct tempts us to view the current political landscape as a devolution, especially when compared to the civility Spielberg dramatizes in Lincoln. Our sitting president, who once expressed mild surprise that Lincoln was a founding figure of the Republican party, thrives on bombast and political division. But Americans were once in literal war with another, trading munitions rather than tweets. If anything, Lincoln offers us hope, proof that “the better angels of our nature” have prevailed in the past and can again. – Peter Tabakis
Disney/Pixar revealed little about the subversive nature of Brave before its release in 2012. There were the striking posters of Princess Merida with her unruly mane of red curls poised with bow and arrow and the trailer highlighting her rebellious spirit. The marketing department failed to disclose any mention of demon bears, dangerous wishes or the struggle between Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, the relationship that provides the emotional fabric for the movie.
Merida is terrible at her royal role. She’s awful at reciting the history of the kingdom and more awful at quilting. If given the choice of learning to be a lady or riding through the Scottish Highlands on horseback, she’d take the Highlands every time. She would rather hunt than curtsy and needs no Prince Charming to rescue her. Defiant of traditional feminine roles, Merida wants to be accepted for who she is rather than pass as something she’s not.
The film’s creators, Mark Andrew and Brenda Chapman, eschew the conventional stricture of the fairy tale love story, instead making Merida a teenager concerned about changing her fate in the face of expectation. This struggle makes her identifiable to every kind of child on the messy journey of discovering their own identity. She can be read as queer, gay or straight but not as perfect or representing any irrational standard of beauty. She is a princess on her own adventure and thereby unique in the Disney canon.
In 2012, Disney kept the particulars of the plot of Brave a secret and there was open speculation whether it would break Pixar’s string of hits. It did not and five years later Merida persists with independence as the moral to her story. – Don Kelly
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal followed-up the Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker with Zero Dark Thirty, a top-notch procedural on the CIA’s “by any means necessary” manhunt of Osama Bin Laden. In development even before 2011 Bin Laden’s execution, from the moment of its release, Zero Dark Thirty caused a stir.
The film’s portrayal of torture was the source of much controversy, seen by some critics as implying that the death of Bin Laden came from intelligence gained in torture. The filmmaking team were denounced and even accused of being propagandists due to the CIA providing them access. Bigelow and Boal argued that their portrayal of torture was simply depicting the various tactics, many of which failed, of a manhunt that stretched multiple American administrations with different approaches on terrorism. As an example, the film shows CIA operatives watch Barack Obama state his anti-torture stance on television as they discuss strategy).
The most memorable set piece of Zero Dark Thirty is the recreation of the US Navy SEAL Team 6 raid of Bin Laden’s compound, shot in green night-vision by cinematographer Greig Fraser. The tactical, cold precision of the SEALs does not yield a type of flag-waving rah-rah moment for the jingoistic crowd and the scenes and sounds of the compound are filled with unsettling screams of women and children witnessing the raid. The sequence remains the crowning achievement of Bigelow’s directorial career. Five years later, as the so-called “War on Terror” continues, Zero Dark Thirty remains a source of unease for its gray-area-embracing depiction of recent history while simultaneously being a stunning, bracing and absorbing piece of filmmaking. – C.M. Gardner
The culminating work of Don Hertzfeldt’s career to date, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a smear of failing memories, a series of watercolor splotches that attempt to capture the collapsing mind of quotidian protagonist Bill. Narrated in deadpan observation by Hertzfeldt, the film unfurls initially as heavily-irised vignettes that trace Bill’s mundane but erratic life as a series of awkward encounters and micro-tragedies of missed connections. Gradually, things spiral out of control as the man’s chaotic personal history and his mounting health issues build to cataclysms that re-frame the drab monotony of life as a façade thinly papering over intense wells of grief and the anxiety of miscommunication.
Hertzfeldt has long been one of animation’s great modern innovators, but here he pulls out all the stops, piling into his minimal frames all manner of effects, from sudden leaps into crafts doodled around his drawn images to wild bursts of phantasmagoric color. Slowly, Hertzfeldt’s narration, first so bleakly comic, becomes a numbed testament to longing, confusion and fear. The simple pencil sketches grow more elaborate and grotesque, and somehow the combination of narration and sketch exudes profundity. By the time that Hertzfeldt shatters the lines between the film’s reality and his own ability to shape it, It’s Such a Beautiful Day enters the cosmos in a kind of narrative escape attempt that becomes more beautiful, and more tragic, than the story’s logical conclusion. In its deconstructive, existence-wiping finale is the most avant-garde, annihilative tag to a film, animated or otherwise, since End of Evangelion. – Jake Cole
Though it’s tempting to categorize it so, it is reductive to approach Looper as the film most responsible for putting writer-director Rian Johnson at the helm of the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Though that is likely true, Looper is much more than a job application; it’s one of the best science fiction films of the last decade, notable for its performances, special effects and, most of all, its exceptional world-building.
Looper’s initial premise is relatively simple; in 2074, the black market has discovered the means to traverse time, and they use this ability to send targets to the past to be tidily assassinated. When assassin Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself shotgun-to-face with the future version of himself (Bruce Willis), shit hits the fan. While this tidy mythology alone is enough to propel the film, the second half switches lanes, turning into part love-story, part bloody, steampunk Harry Potter-remix. Joe arrives at a farmhouse and not only finds love with a tough-as-nails woman (Emily Blunt) but also finds himself tasked with determining whether her son (Pierce Gagnon) ends up humanity’s savior or destroyer.
What Johnson does particularly well with Looper is create an inventive, believable and dense backstory for the world in which his story is set while putting the focus on the relationships between his characters rather than the backstory. He capitalizes on the excellent, ambivalent chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Willis and the heat between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt, and these relationships push the film forward. However, these relationships develop as hints, subtle and overt, are thrown at the viewer. These hints make the film perhaps even more rewarding now than it was five years ago, an achievement that will stand regardless of audiences’ reactions to Johnson’s The Last Jedi. – Mike McClelland