Every year, Slate invites a handful of critics to take part in The Movie Club, a week of lively discourse and debate about the highs and lows of the previous twelve months in the world of cinema. 2013’s all-star lineup of contributors features Film.com’s Stephanie Zacharek, former A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps, Grantland’s Wesley Morris, and Slate’s own Dana Stevens. The new Movie Club kicks off with a intro from Stevens, who first dismisses the notion of trends or themes from a year in film (like, say, feeling like there was something in the air about the fear of travel) before finding her own potential connective tissue between many of 2012’s most important movies:
“This year there actually was perhaps not so much a theme as a kind of emotion, a craving or longing, that seemed to return in movie after movie. It was a longing that, in a presidential election year, felt particularly poignant: a hunger for greatness, for a moment of triumph that would coincide with a moment of justice. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Lincoln’ are explicitly about that very longing and openly seek to invoke it in the viewer. But many other big releases this year — ‘Django Unchained,’ ‘Les Misérables,’ ‘The Master’ — seemed obsessed with enacting symbolic displays of justice, be it personal or political, revolutionary or retributive.”
Stevens is absolutely right about the absurdity of picking out a half a dozen titles from the hundreds released in a calendar year and declaring them exemplars of some grand, overarching pop culture narrative. Still, these themes — like the one Stevens astutely observes — do seem to appear anyway. They’re impossible, yet strangely inevitable.
For example, several of the movies Stevens cites, including “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln,” and others she doesn’t, like “Argo” and “Amour,” are intensely interested in process; the step-by-step unfolding of an event from point A to point Z. How does a single piece of information from a terror suspect eventually lead, ten years later, to the killing of Osama bin Laden? How do you pass a divisive Constitutional amendment in the middle of a brutal war? How do you smuggle a bunch of diplomats out of a hostile foreign country? How does an elderly woman succumb to a series of strokes? And so on.
Did Michael Haneke, Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, and Steven Spielberg get together in some Los Angeles restaurant and all swear a blood oath to make their movies that way? Of course not (though it would be kind of cool if they did). Nevertheless, their movies all bear this striking similarity. The interesting question to ask is why.
In his response to Stevens’ entry, Phipps praises “Zero Dark Thirty” and offers one possible motivation: the chance to dive into the “moral murk” of tough decisions:
“Part of what makes ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ work is the way the actions and attitudes of its CIA characters reflected the national mood in the decade between 9/11 and the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. The interrogation techniques in which they engage are repellent and immoral — and, as Glenn Kenny’s analysis of the film nicely articulates, the cinematic language used is anything but heroic — but they deem it necessary and, for a while at least, we as a country let that happen. I’m anti-torture and I spent those years feeling as if I was living in an era that had suddenly regressed several centuries by even entertaining a debate over its use (even now, it feels weird to have to say, ‘I’m anti-torture’). But, if I’m honest with myself, in the back of my mind at the time I thought, ‘Well, if it stops the next 9/11…’ The whole film takes place in a space where that kind of morally adrift thinking can become horrific practice.”
“Lincoln” presents another murky view of American government: Lincoln abolishes slavery, but in order to do it he and his allies bribe and conspire and compromise their own morals. As a husband watches his wife slowly die from complications of a stroke in “Amour,” she makes him promise not to take her back to the hospital; he reluctantly agrees. All of these film end with a certain amount of success — and with a certain amount of sacrifice as well. Does that make 2012 the year of “moral murk” at the movies? Probably not. But it’s kind of interesting anyway, don’t you think?