This is the season when movie critics look back on the year behind us — Was it good? Was it bad? Is it over yet? — seeking the diamonds that glittered ever-so-briefly in the vast landscape of car chases, computer-generated monsters, marathon fantasies, Adam Sandler films and all the other dross that makes this such a specialized profession.
We soldier on, 3D glasses at the ready, archeologists of light. Often, though, it isn’t the movies you remember — it’s the moments.
The scene in the overly dark James Bond film Skyfall, for instance, when Silva, the villain played by Javier Bardem, ties Daniel Craig’s Bond to a chair and purrs seductively, or the surprise in the closing credits of Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell, a movie that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise of invented histories but does a marvellous job of evoking the past using the sleight-of-hand of filmmaking.
Even special effects can be used to further the art, rather than just bury it. A great moment from 2012 was the first appearance of the tiger in Life of Pi, for instance, a marvellous concoction that elevates what had been a ponderous meditation on religion and faith into the breathtaking imagery of magic itself.
The tiger on the boat, floating in the moonlight, is what I’ll remember from Ang Lee’s movie long after the symbolism has faded away (actually, it faded away before the closing credits).
There were also computers involved in the re-creation of the lethal South Asian tsunami, as depicted in The Impossible, but they were invisible.
The movie itself is one of those true-life tear-jerkers that has you wondering about the disasters it doesn’t show — we follow one family’s tragedy while thousands of dead and homeless walk past in the background — but director Juan Antonio Bayona creates unforgettable images of monstrous waves, floating debris and chaos.
And then there were things the computers wiped out, such as Marion Cotillard’s legs in Rust and Bone, a film about a whale trainer who loses her limbs in an accident.
A scene where Matthias Schoenaerts, playing a brutal street fighter, carries her into the sea for a swim was an astounding moment of emotional pull, mixing pity, envy and surprise into an unforgettable tableau.
Silver Linings Playbook became a romantic comedy that swung on a dance contest, of all things, but for a while, it was a beautifully skewed portrait of dysfunction.
The scene where Bradley Cooper, as an obsessed and estranged husband with bipolar issues, and Jennifer Lawrence, as a grieving widow, meet at a dinner party was a high-wire act of sexual chemistry and mental illness.
Director David O. Russell couldn’t keep the balance for the rest of the film, but that scene provides the momentum that at least keeps us interested.
The crime drama Killing Them Softly was overly explicit in its connection between ordinary street toughs and the Wall Street kind, but it had some of the best dialogue of the year.
The scene in an airport hotel between Brad Pitt’s efficient assassin and James Gandolfini’s worn-out old hitman was a talky encounter that packed more punch than all the monsters descending on The Avengers.
Often it’s all about the feelings: the twisted chronology of the Portuguese drama Tabu gave it a melancholy romance, a bittersweet edge that was more than you might think could come from a story of thwarted love.
Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was a strangely beautiful film that felt just out of reach, but somehow thrilled me with the symmetry of its design.
Everything was in balance, including a stylized New England home that was funny in its dollhouse intricacies: the quirky humour of precise architecture is an Anderson trademark.
I was more impressed than moved by Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, but the movie leaped to life every time Tommy Lee Jones was on screen. His natural crankiness — also used to comic effect in the romantic comedy Hope Springs — was like a bracingly caustic breeze blowing through the ambiguities of the fight against slavery.
Watching Jones, as Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, berate his fellow congressmen with his rat-a-tat aggression helped pull Lincoln into action. Daniel Day-Lewis will probably get the Oscar, but my vote for a man to remember goes to Jones.
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