The Year of the Body Vulnerable
So many of the year’s best films have broken ground in their depiction of the realities of war, disability, aging, illness and death that I would call 2012 the year of the body. Not the body beautiful, which Hollywood has exalted for decades, but the body vulnerable. Even the male strippers in “Magic Mike”, Steven Soderbergh’s unsexy beefcake parade, are tarnished deities with feet of clay.
Realistic movies about the vulnerable body paradoxically reflect humanity’s quest to turn people into permanently happy, perfectly functioning machines. That quest may be a futile enterprise, but it has shattered the wall of propriety, allowing matters that only a few decades ago were not considered topics of polite conversation to be discussed endlessly.
Nowadays police procedurals, medical television shows and pharmaceutical advertisements are crammed with clinical data and explicit language. The camera no longer shies away from the most visceral displays of violence and surgery. Truth increasingly lies in forensic evidence.
In the age of replaceable body parts, gender reassignment, steroids, erectile dysfunction medication, cosmetic surgery and antidepressants, there is less and less room for squeamishness and mystery. I can envision an era of post-“Survivor” television competitions in which medical teams peer into the contestants’ bodies to determine which players have the healthiest innards and the greatest chance to live forever.
On the psychic front chemical palliatives promise a more effective shield against soul sickness, which has been atomized into an ever-lengthening catalog of symptoms and disorders. Now the very notion of a soul threatens to become quaint. Who, after all, wants longevity without pleasure?
The movies, as always, are playing both ends against the middle. Popcorn entertainment glorifies the man-machine ideal with ever more spectacular superhero fables and high-tech science fiction. On the other side are art films that address the truth about life in the present day with rare candor.
Consider Michael Haneke’s film “Amour,” which unblinkingly examines the declining years of devoted, married octogenarian music teachers living in Paris, exquisitely portrayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. As Ms. Riva’s character, cared for by her husband, suffers strokes and worsening dementia, there is no question that he loves her to the end. But that love is not filtered through tears and weepy music. And as the movie reaches its finale without the bolstering of religious faith, it poses deep, unanswerable questions about the relation of the body and the spirit.
Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” has harrowing scenes of rendition at so-called “black sites,” including waterboarding, that are almost unbearable to watch. The 6-year-old girl at the center of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is told early in the movie that “everything is meat.”
David France’s documentary “How to Survive a Plague” relates the story of how militant gay activists led the struggle to develop an effective treatments for AIDS and saved themselves and countless others. Kirby Dick’s documentary “The Invisible War” addresses the epidemic of rape within the United States armed forces with graphic testimony from victims about their ordeals. In Ben Lewin’s “Sessions” a man paralyzed by polio from the neck down hires a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” is the love story of an extreme fighter and a whale trainer who loses both her legs in a water-park accident. These movies remind you that, whether we like it or not, the body vulnerable is the one we inhabit.
These are my Top 11 movies of 2012:
1. LINCOLN Steven Spielberg’s noblest film is one of his least sentimental. Daniel Day-Lewis’s astonishing portrayal of Abraham Lincoln closes the gap between the monumental and the folksy. And Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay closes the gap between contemporary and 19th-century politics, all the while evoking how primitive 19th-century American life was, even in the White House.
2. AMOUR In his most humane film Mr. Haneke resists his tendency to play diabolical games. This is one of the most powerful and moving fictional explorations of the end of life ever filmed. Mr. Trintignant and Ms. Riva’s portrait of a long-married couple facing death affirms the kind of love that transcends the physical without a trace of mawkishness.
3. ZERO DARK THIRTY Ms. Bigelow’s episodic portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is a cold, hard quasi-documentary. Its depiction of rendition is as uncomfortably ambivalent as Jessica Chastain’s chilly lead performance. Not even her strategically placed tear at the very end can begin to thaw this icy examination of the fruits of terrorism.
4. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD The feature film debut of Mr. Zeitlin is a magical potpourri of fantasy and earthiness set in a primitive Louisiana community known as “the bathtub.” Its folkways are viewed through the eyes of a curious and resilient 6-year-old girl (Quvenzhané Wallis). The last movie to find such a brilliant fusion of reality and phantasmagoria was Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
5. ARGO The political thriller about the Iran hostage crisis tells a great espionage yarn that happens to be true. Ben Affleck’s seamless direction catapults him to the forefront of Hollywood filmmakers turning out thoughtful entertainment. Its portrayal of the relationship between Hollywood and Washington recalls Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog,” with Alan Arkin’s mogul, Lester Siegel, a hilarious descendant of Dustin Hoffman’s Stanley Motss.
6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA This Turkish police procedural, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, follows a prosecutor, a doctor, police officers and gravediggers as they comb the desolate Anatolia region for a buried body with the help of the murder suspect. Their conflicting stories about what happened make it impossible to reconstruct what really did or didn’t, and the film becomes a searching reflection on the elusiveness of truth.
7. ELENA Set in contemporary Moscow, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s noirish melodrama portrays post-Soviet Russia as a Darwinian moral vacuum simmering with class resentments. Its antiheroine is the former nurse of a wealthy man whom she married and through whom she supports her poor family living in the city’s crumbling industrial fringe. In this quasi-feudal social environment avarice and blood ties trump all other values.
8. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE Mr. France’s inspiring documentary is a history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as Act Up, which pressured government agencies and drug companies to develop new treatments for AIDS and speed them into market. Its sidebar celebrates the Act Up offshoot organization, the Treatment Action Group.
9. THE INVISIBLE WAR Mr. Dick’s devastating exposé of rape in the United States military estimates that one in five women endure sexual assault. The victims’ graphic firsthand accounts of incidents for which they are often blamed and punished are as infuriating as the conclusion of an investigation that dismissed rape in the military as “an occupational hazard.”
10. THE SESSIONS John Hawkes and Helen Hunt bring an astonishing sensitivity to the true story of Mark O’Brien, a seriously disabled poet, writer and journalist in his late 30s, and Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate who guides him to his first experience of intercourse. This profoundly sex-positive film is the unusual movie that equates sex with intimacy, tenderness and emotional connection instead of performance, competition and conquest.
11. RUST AND BONE Surging with blood and adrenaline, Mr. Audiard’s compelling portrait of the relationship of a fighter and an orca trainer who loses both her legs below the knee is a visceral meditation on the lives of intensely physical people, ferociously portrayed by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard. Transcending disability-movie clichés, it is an unsentimental celebration of human vitality.
"The New York Times"