New Films for the New Year

The past year, 2012, has been an unusually good year when it comes to the realm of film. I found a surprising number of movies released to theaters that I consider to be true works of storytelling art, those rare films that satisfy both my objective and subjective standards for a truly great motion picture. I also discovered films previously released that impacted me greatly. I humbly offer a few of my suggestions for films to watch in 2013 that I discovered in 2012.

A brief note before I continue: my personal taste in film typically leans toward depictions of grand-scale conflicts between good and evil. Conflicting spiritual and philosophical ideas to me are best expressed through physical, tangible battles between forces and individuals representing those same ideas. I have romantic tendencies in my artistic tastes, so I often enjoy conflicts to be larger than life, or at least, larger than normal. I believe that such large scale conflicts can work wonders in informing our personal lives and sense of right and wrong, as heroic and villainous figures illuminate similar struggles in our own lives. The films that I enjoy most, and most of the films that make up this brief suggestion list, generally fit this classification. Also, feel free to share in the comments below any films you discovered in 2012. One of the greatest things about art is sharing it with others. Now, on with the list.

4. “Lincoln” (2012)Lincoln
Steven Spielberg’s take at bringing possibly our nation’s single most important President to the big screen thankfully turned out to meet most all expectations. For the first time Abraham Lincoln is presented as a true, genuine man. The film takes a few liberties with historical details, but does not shy away from portraying Lincoln as a flawed, but also a noble, idealistic figure. Politics is shown as the unfortunate and messy business as it is, and the political intrigue and maneuvering is quite interesting. It is the cast performances, particularly by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, that make this film such a standout. The actors bring true sympathetic humanity to these historical giants, and prompt the audience to reflect on just what a trying and overwhelming task the Presidency is, particularly during a time such as the Civil War. “Lincoln” is most powerful when it provokes the viewer to contemplate how one can make noble ideals into tangible realities, while also shedding light on the sacrifices that have to be made and endured.

3. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012)An Unexpected Journey
It is rare to find a movie in Hollywood that leaves one feeling genuinely happy in the purest sense of the world. It is also rare to find a film adaptation of a work of literature that leaves one satisfied. It is rarer still to find a film that accomplishes both of these. Peter Jackson captures marvelously both the sense of fantasy and content of Tolkien’s beloved precursor to “The Lord of the Rings”. As in the previous film trilogy, the character of Gandalf is a sheer pleasure to watch onscreen, and the film shines brightest when he is given center stage. The tone of the film is one of lighthearted adventure, in which the lines between good and evil are starkly drawn, but thankfully never simplified to the point of trivialization. The film captivates the imagination with a bright and wondrous visual world that fits the story like a glove, complete with colorful characters, compelling music, and a reverence for the source material that pays dividends. Definitely a film to catch while still in theaters.

2. “The Last Samurai” (2003)The Last Samurai
I first was led to this film through my appreciation for the music of Hans Zimmer, whose beautiful and contemplative score for the picture I had discovered earlier this year. The story is a deeply profound and touching tale of redemption and reconciliation. A former United States Cavalry officer, Nathan Algren, is dispatched to Japan not long after the Civil War to help train the new Imperial Army as it modernizes and Westernizes. Haunted by atrocities committed by himself and his outfit during campaigns against Native Americans and sinking deeper and deeper into alcoholism, the tortured Algren is captured by the leader of the rebel Samurai, Katsumoto, whose people refuse to submit to the forced modernization. Taken into the community, Algren begins to see merit to the simpler, agrarian, and spiritual ways of Katsumoto’s Samurai. The friendship between Algren and Katsumoto, a joining of the new and the old, is an inspiring and impactful picture, as Algren shares the better aspects of Western culture with Katsumoto and his people, while the Samurai in turn show Algren the values of their ancient rituals, tradition, and way of life.

The film has been accused of overly romanticizing the Samurai, but the virtues that the film holds up are sound, and the portrayal of these virtues is so moving and so obviously absent from modern artistic expression that such romanticizing can easily be forgiven. Algren, the broken and disenchanted result of the modern age, finds his redemption in looking to the ordered virtues of the old age. The film is a bold portrait of a by-gone time (if such a time ever truly existed) in which virtue was not a matter of what seems pragmatic and profitable at a given moment, but rather is an absolute standard that must be adhered to at all times, even unto death. A fitting film for our own times, in which morals are not even considered in our relentless drive for profit and progress.

1. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)The Dark Knight Rises
The best film I have watched this year, and the movie that I recommend most highly for the upcoming year, also happens to be my absolute favorite movie. “The Dark Knight Rises” had quite a bit to live up to, as the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy of Batman films. Some may argue that “The Dark Knight” is technically the superior film, but “Rises” easily has the edge because of how it transcends the genre of superhero-action into the realm of epics. Nolan did what arguably no filmmaker has done since “Star Wars”: he crafted a modern epic of mythic proportions. The aspects in which “Rises” succeeds are numerous: production values are near flawless, acting is spot on, story-writing is superb, action sequences are thrilling, characters and development are compelling, ideas are thought-provoking, the score aligns the emotions with the action onscreen, and the scale and gravity of the stakes are important on both the personal level for the characters and on the greater scale of the city of Gotham.

For those who may not have seen the film yet, I shall proceed carefully, attempting not to spoil any essential plot details, for otherwise this film itself could take up several articles. Suffice to say that the conflict between Bruce Wayne as Batman and Bane is the most emotionally compelling hero vs. villain conflict I have ever seen in a motion picture. Each man is utterly convinced that he in fact is the defender of true justice, and these two heavyweights live out their driving philosophies in magnificent fashion. Bane drives Gotham to its knees, using the deceitful revolutionary promise of freedom to prove to the world the utterly corrupt nature of unrestrained and anarchic humanity. Batman rises to fight against him, maintaining his belief that true justice cannot be had without mercy: that the city deserves a second chance to be good. These themes, and various others, echo the film’s predecessors, and this bold climax concludes these stories in truly fantastic fashion. The film is dark, and descends to the darkest places before its ascent, but once the film begins that ascent, it races upwards towards the light of hope in an invigorating fashion. One could not ask for more from a conclusion to a series of films, and to see morality and virtue lauded in such a well-produced, thrilling, and inspiring way is an experience that cannot be missed.

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