Most film critics are absorbed in best-of lists and awards screeners in the final weeks of any ordinary year. I spent that time in a different frame of mind: one of reflection and meditation, not just over the movies that I saw, but also over the inspiration that encouraged me to return to the keyboard after a lengthy absence in the review world. Between the years of 1998 and 2004 I was under the spell of some sort internal discipline that kept my output consistent; in the years that followed, other life objectives took over, and my commitment to writing was seen only in brief intervals. 2013 marks a comeback that is the stuff of personal miracles, and as I look back I can barely fathom where this new energy came from, or how it managed to stay so consistent after eight years of false starts and wavering objectives.
Significant contrasts exist between most movies about the holidays and Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story,” but the key to its endurance over the years probably comes down to a certain cheerful self-awareness. Here is a movie where characters are not so much born from a script as they are molded within a tangible frame of reference, and through their sense of innocence, patience, imagination and ability to pass through situations with scarcely a shred of confidence, an image of the most bolstering movie family emerges. This, we quickly realize, creates a commodity of alarming clarity: for anyone who has ever experienced the childhood wonder associated with the festive traditions of Christmas (or the agonies of familial impatience), many of the scenes scattered throughout the picture seem to exist as projections, as if the movie camera is reaching into the scrapbook of the mind and drawing on specific memories for reference. Directors by nature look to their own lives for such inspiration, but this is an approach that is impeccably informed and organic, and Clark not only comprehends the emotions associated with suburban households in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, but somehow finds a universal elation in them.
The regal, contemplative Peter O’Toole played a great many characters in his ambitious screen career, but none nearly as arresting as an eccentric British army officer in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” which became the primary launching point of his illustrious life in the movies. Classically trained in the ways of theater well before he caught the attention of Hollywood, the part of the flamboyant T.E. Lawrence came to him purely by coincidence; in the weeks leading into production, the offer had gone to Albert Finney, who turned it down because it involved a lengthy contractual commitment. Flustered, Lean saw a quality in the unknown O’Toole that fit painstakingly into the characterization: an ability to deliver lines and gestures with all the nobility of the British etiquette, yet offbeat enough to suggest fascinating undertones beyond what was seen in the frame. The performance is widely accepted as one of the finest captured in that era of “cinemascope” studio epics, inspiring the first of several Oscar nominations and other accolades that would follow him for well over 40 years.
In the colorful but convoluted landscape of movie adventures in which youthful heroes face ominous predicaments, “Ender’s Game” scampers off the screen with something quite distinctive: an approach that demands well-drawn characters to carry the narrative as opposed to audacious visuals or action scenes. All indications of the premise certainly point towards something of formula; in a futuristic era where insect-like aliens invade Earth, are pushed back with military force and then hunted in an elaborate government plan designed to prevent all future retaliation, viewers are ingrained with the prospect of overzealous explosions dominating two hours of screen time. What a remarkable prospect to find the ideas rooted entirely in the faces of ordinary kids, many of whom carry the burden of fate on their shoulders but learn quickly and intuitively that their actions require the strategy of the mind as opposed to the impulse of the heart, otherwise uncertain outcomes risk the future of their very civilization.
The greatest mystery of man often lies in the choices he makes, and Timothy Treadwell created perhaps some of the most ambitious riddles one could imagine. For thirteen consecutive summers, the shy and offbeat nomad left the human world behind and went to live in the company of the wildest of animals: large and dangerous grizzly bears in the Alaskan peninsula, many of which had spent their existence so far outside of human contact that he seemed to occupy space in their unrestrained existence as a lone alien. Social awkwardness made him an outcast, while the seeming peace and tranquility of the wilderness inspired buried passions. But what was the purpose of his consistent desire to distance himself from human interaction? What did he see in the grizzlies that gave him purpose? What do hours upon hours of video documentation show us, other than the dogged dreams of one who fell victim to a false idealism about ferocious predators that exist only to feed and survive?
Movies continue to provide colossal snapshots into worlds that stretch beyond the frame of imagination, and the realm of Asgard in the “Thor” movies is certainly one of the most inspired of recent times. Amidst vast open spaces that seem stirred by Greek mythology rise pillars and towers that jut from a planetary surface like protests to nature, and characters seem to wander through their polished spaces as if insects inside a boundless hive of overreaching hallways and arenas. No wonder, perhaps, that its citizens are immortal beings; for this kind of utopian empire to exist, those that created it must obviously command a power far greater than what man can wield, much less understand. Observing “Thor: The Dark World” in which gods and demons adopt the primary roles of heroes and villains, I was struck not just by how fully realized the realm is, but also by the underlying notion that we as moviegoers have now seemingly exhausted what is palpable in our heads as creative environments to wander through in the movies. It is a fascinating paradox to find yourself in when the imaginative cityscapes of “Blade Runner” and “Dark City” now seem like half-forgotten relics in the celluloid scrapbook. Now what remains beyond the high pearly gates of the world of gods?
The six women at the center of “Steel Magnolias” are the embodiment of a social class that went extinct in the trenches of current cultural standards. Their audacious impulses carry the undercurrent of flamboyant storytellers, and when they engage in gossip or berate one another with colorful insults and euphemisms, their convictions are solely from a place of virtue. Sometimes their honesty is laced with a bravado that invites outright dismay, and hurt feelings are only momentary to the shock of a cold truth splashed in one’s face. What ties them together goes to the root of all perceptions of human compassion, but they are not dependents whose lives only mean something with one another filling in a void. They have formulated an unending series of friendships because, basically, their depth is enriched by those who share the same capacity for love, and that capacity is a refreshing sentiment in the hands of a world too busy to stop and smell the flowers.