The year’s unexpected journeys in film—lest this be remembered as the summer Hollywood came to town and sucked us in once more.
“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” That’s the line Brad Pitt feeds Jonah Hill towards the end of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, an otherwise unsentimental sports movie that ranks among the best films of the year. In this adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling account of general manager Billy Beane’s trailblazing tenure at the Oakland Athletics, there’s next to no romance—his unfashionable team remain would-be champions, despite an enthralling 20-game winning streak and a world series berth within reach—and yet the point of the film is that he revolutionized the sport and found another way to win. Following an eye-catching but ultimately losing season, Hill’s character, Peter Brand, tries to console a depressed Beane with this fact by showing him a piece of game footage illustrating his success: an overweight batter connects with a pitch, sets off for first base, thinks about going for second, changes his mind, and then stumbles comically back to first, only to realise that he actually hit the ball out of the park. Beane is reminded that even if it didn’t feel like it, he also hit a homerun.
After viewing the footage, Beane’s remark about the romance of baseball reeks a little of Hollywood overstatement, especially when Brand adds, “it’s a metaphor,” but to which Beane, irked by his presumption, replies, “I know it’s a metaphor.” Writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin are smart enough to reverse the scene at this moment so as to not insult our intelligence—a self-awareness that’s all-too-rare in mainstream cinema. The scene has nagged away at me since seeing the film in February, not only because it’s an example of a juncture where movies often trip up, but also how the element of surprise—the unconscious homerun, if you will—has virtually evaporated. There’s almost nothing left to discover at the cinema these days, with the experience of movies—namely, tentpole studio releases—stretched and distorted to encompass their entire gestation period, from strategically leaked rumours and announcements, to first glimpses of production stills and trailers, to the final mass marketing onslaught. While this, granted, is the commerce of filmmaking in the age of the Internet, in reflecting on the year in movies, it has occurred to me just how few major releases warrant a second mention because of such overkill. Shell shocked, I can barely remember what I liked or disliked about The Avengers and Prometheus, and The Dark Knight Rises would be a distant memory if not for the senseless tragedy it was associated with. The premature lifespan of these blockbusters must be to blame: teased out, endlessly speculated upon, and overhyped long before their release, by the time they eventually hit screens, all that’s left for us is to follow the procession. Six months on, their shelf life well and truly expired, and there’s simply no reason to care anymore.
At the extreme end of the scale is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which even prior to opening to cinemas, already felt like a dead weight. Living in New Zealand only amplified the chatter—or should that be static—around the countdown to its completion, and on the eve of its worldwide release, it seemed like everything had been said, and nothing else was to be gained from seeing the movie. Inevitably, there have even been reviews of reviews—if the country’s embarrassingly desperate media coverage of the premiere wasn’t enough. The box office receipts, of course, will tell a different story, and my indifference towards viewing The Hobbit will be in the minority. Having read so much about the ugliness of Jackson’s 48fps presentation, though, there’s still part of me that wants to rubberneck and observe the reported train wreck for myself.
Topping the New Zealand International Film Festival this year, Leos Carax’s unforgettable Holy Motors wasn’t off the mark in its estimation of the slow death of cinema, especially its pronouncements about digital technology and the fading beauty of the medium. The motion picture industry has a long history of format innovations, and Jackson’s high frame rate gambit is yet another attempt to reimagine the big screen experience. But whether HFR takes off is beside the point. As one water cooler topic among many centred on The Hobbit, it merely serves to highlight the extent of the movie’s disembodiment from its artistic core. Pulled in multiple directions, and now a shadow of the auteurist vision Guillermo Del Toro promised, it has mutated into a one-size-fits-all production expected to perform all manner of roles: a rolling advertisement for the New Zealand film industry and tourism board; a calling card for local and national government; an economic booster shot; a platform for new state-of-the-art technology; a potential billion dollar juggernaut for Warner Bros, thrice over. In terms of shelf life beyond the limelight, and as a means to so many ends, it begs the question whether The Hobbit, as a cinematic entity, has any intrinsic value at all.
The memorable experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year all have in common a sense of the unexpected—something The Hobbit, by virtue of its egregious overexposure, can never lay claim to. And the philosophy behind Moneyball—to persist with the baseball analogy—applies insofar as the best films to emerge were not big hitters or marquee names, but those that could be likened to quiet achievers and undervalued specialists. This was Beane’s theory for assembling a winning team, one shrewdly built around players regarded for their ability to find other ways of rounding the bases. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret fits the bill as the most unorthodox of homeruns: a movie flawed because its ambition and compromised by lengthy post-production disputes; a serious melodrama at once noisy, overheated, and histrionic throughout. And yet these faults somehow contribute to its brilliance. At the risk of equivocating, Lonergan has created a film that’s muddled yet distinctive, problematic yet remarkable. With its lurching tone justified by a singular central character—a full-blown, three-dimensional portrait of teen self-centeredness/righteousness, superbly performed by a then 23-year-old Anna Paquin—Margaret ultimately stands out as a film that exhilarates from moment-to-moment. If years gone by trying to summarize excellence in cinema are anything to go by, then there’s nothing remotely exciting about movies made by design and crafted towards perfection. Lonergan’s film may be imperfect and far from a complete picture, but what imperfection.
Then there are films, which on the surface at least, play to type, and yet are able to incorporate unique strategies and variables into a wholly conventional form. Moneyball, for instance, is an all-American sports movie turned inside out. Constantly undercutting the drama of professional sports, it diverts away from genre clichés without sacrificing the marvel of its true story. Similarly, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful I Wish functions impeccably as a ‘family film’ while being precisely balanced between joy and heartache; its home truths about loss, abandonment, and disappointment are every bit as crucial to the narrative as the playful innocence of its youngsters. I Wish’s enthusiasm for childhood adventure, fantasy, and bucolic wonderment is in many ways reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s output, where a depth of imagination is tempered by the weight of peril and pathos. But as artful as Ghibli’s films are at grounding the fantastical, they have traditionally struggled to convey subtle emotions and eschew sentimentality—two things I Wish succeeds at. I was astonished, then, to chance upon a Japanese animation genuinely committed to emotional veracity—a serious fantasy through which real human experience is sensitively explored.
On the face of it, Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, which recently screened as part of Madman’s annual Reel Anime Festival, panders to the current vogue for supernatural love stories. Its premise of a young woman who falls for a wolfman and gives birth to two children by him sounds awfully fey, but it is quick to downplay the mawkishness of the setup. With rare understatement and brevity, Hosoda establishes their relationship in the opening act through a series of ordinary still moments, and the minutiae of everyday life becomes an important motif as the film moves into its second phase. Unceremoniously, the woman’s lover is killed—well before the story can digress into a cherry blossom-laden romance—and the widowed mother must cope with raising the crossbred children on her own. Rather than delve into the mythology of werewolves or contrive a dramatic plot development around their existence in the world, the film modestly, but no less compellingly, turns its attention to simple realities: the challenge of pregnancy; the burden of single motherhood; the pain of growing up different; the grief of losing a loved one; the resilience required to move on.
I can’t say that I’ve seen another anime so invested in the emotional journey of its protagonists, and yet so restrained in the delivery of their emotional crests and troughs. When the young woman discovers her dead lover—the lifeless body of a wolf submerged in a flooded canal—the entire scene unfolds from a heartbreaking distance, where she watches, in horror, as two municipal workers retrieve the corpse from the water and load it onto a rubbish truck for disposal. At no point does the camera break from its stance into a heavy-handed close-up, even when she runs towards the workers, distraught yet unable to explain the significance of the wild animal’s death. Cell animation has always lacked the dimension to portray supple and muted facial expressions, which is perhaps what motivated Hosoda to shoot this, and other poignant moments, from tactful angles, often from behind, where the characters’ faces are appropriately obscured. Simultaneously, Hosoda is not shy about lingering, sometimes uncomfortably, on grave situations and near disaster. The result is a film at once tender and quietly devastating, couched in a naturalist aesthetic evocative of, if not more sophisticated than, the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Like I Wish, Wolf Children is sweet and exuberant when it needs to be—and it does not skimp on the cute quotient as far as its titular offspring go—but at all other times, is contemplative and matter-of-fact in its storytelling. Only the late Satoshi Kon has prioritized dramatic realism more as an animator, and both his and Hosoda’s films really do reject the argument that their stories would be better served as live action. Indeed, the seamless aging of the wolf children, from troublesome toddlers to troubled adolescents, proves how animation of this quality generates its own kind of verisimilitude, where real and imaginary experiences are rendered as one, and through which the continuity of the world it depicts is possible.
Veracity, on the other hand, is a noun I have great difficulty attaching to a film like Steve McQueen’s Shame. McQueen’s formal audacity, so arresting in Hunger, is again undeniable, and there’s much to admire in his spare cinematic language and judicious shot selection; particularly, his use of large windowed apartment interiors as a visual metaphor for the illusion of privacy and the transparency of the protagonist’s self-defeating behaviour. As a character study, however, Shame reveals some major shortcomings in McQueen’s intelligence as a writer. Some critics have accused the film of overly flattering its audience by giving us a handsome, well-hung, upwardly mobile protagonist who we can enjoy feeling superior to as he’s cut down to size, and yet that’s only part of the problem. What makes it so fundamentally insincere, I believe, is its failure to offer any real opportunities to sympathize with the sex addict—no fault of the quality actor who portrays him, Michael Fassbender. Shame is full of glib and calculated moments that make it hard to level with the character, but it also lacks courage when it matters most. As the logical extreme of the character’s downfall points disturbingly to a violent sexual assault, McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan script a ridiculous all-night sex bender, whereby the ‘nadir’ of his sex addiction is a blowjob in a gay nightclub (a throbbing, underground cliché straight out of Cruising or Irreversible), and a blubbering threesome with—gasp—two female prostitutes. Provocative, Shame is certainly not, although as a pity piece, it’s Grade A flagellation.
If Shame was the disappointment of 2012, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s incredible political and artistic statement, This is Not a Film, was the most galvanizing of all films, and a timely reminder that cinema can still evolve. My film of the year, however, might not be considered a ‘film’ at all, at least not as a traditional narrative feature or moving image work intended for consumption in cinemas or at home. Nothing can surpass the scope and intertexuality of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, an utterly addictive 24-hour assemblage of found footage sourced from the history of film and television, which I cite despite the unlikelihood of the video installation ever making its way to New Zealand (although I hope my assumption is proved wrong in the near future). Besides Holy Motors, the New Zealand International Film Festival delivered a number of exceptional features: Two Years at Sea, Neighbouring Sounds, Barbara, and Tabu are worth singling out from its programme, along with The Red House, which deserves special mention as an important breakthrough for art cinema in New Zealand. (The film’s recent accolade of “Best Self-Funded Feature” at The Moas was also a triumph for artistic merit and authorship over popularity.) Other highlights in the calendar have included documentaries Last Train Home and The Interrupters; The Color Wheel and The Raid, both astonishing films in their own unique way; and, from the vaults, two splendid golden age comedies in Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). Expect these, along with McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) and Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), to bring the house down during next year’s Film Society season.