‘Lincoln’ and ‘Amour’ Top Stephen Holden’s Best-Of List

December 18th, 2012

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Some of this year’s films looked unblinklingly at reality. Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in “The Sessions,” directed by Ben Lewin.

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.

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