Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

"Cloud Atlas" Character poster for "Lloyd Hooks", 2012

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“While I will readily admit that Cloud Atlas is not for everyone, I look forward to defending this masterpiece for years to come.”
-Me (2012 Glennies, #1)

I KNOW. Where I normally excerpt a segment of first-person voiceover (and there is plenty to choose from in this film), I just quoted myself lauding this movie. But in the insipid words of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), what is a critic but one who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely? Just as with Birdman, I reacted to a group of creators showily condemning their haters in advance with a dutiful and masochistic, “Thank you, folks, may I have another?” And Cloud Atlas went even further, pitching its knighted critic Felix Finch (Alistair Petrie) straight off a hotel balcony, before delivering on every bit of cocksure brilliance that moment promised was still to come. After 10 years, I still greet a viewing of Cloud Atlas like a reunion with an old friend, and I have not wavered in that opinion since the moment I saw it. I’ve spent years swimming in Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil‘s wondrous, symphonic score for the film, which I’ve listened to so many times during so many activities that I need only put it on to become tangled in a semi-coherent yarn of my own interconnected memories of the past decade (it’s a thing – try it sometime if you have the memories and repetitive media consumption for it). I’m listening to that score right now, the very same Cloud Atlas Opening Title that plays as Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) approaches Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) on a 19th century beach in the Chatham Islands as we are introduced to the first of six sets of characters and parallel timelines spanning hundreds of years, covering the technological rise and fall of humanity as they struggle against their baser demons, represented initially by humans volunteering to uphold the “natural order” (this always means racism, slavery, and genocide) and eventually by a hallucinated devil figure named Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving), who cackles into the ear of post-apocalyptic Big Island goatherd Zachry (also Hanks) trying to persuade him that being racist and violent is a more important priority than evading Cannibal Hugh Grant (Hugh Grant) and the impending creep of global radioactive demise. Does this premise have your attention yet? Because that’s maybe 25% of it. We also meet Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a “fabricant” (a cloned or manufactured human) who works as a server at a fast food restaurant called Papa Song’s, in the 22nd century megacity of Neo Seoul, the seat of a dystopian government called Unanimity, a rebellion called Union, and doomed to be “deadlanded” by the time Zachry and Cannibal Hugh Grant are picking their way through Earth’s remains.

Papa Song’s is so thoroughly automated that it’s clear the synthetic servers are not necessary, except to make the consumers feel like kings surrounded by disposable human-shaped playthings as they eat 3D-printed garbage (which looks tasty at least). We learn that the fabricants get a star on their neck for each year of service. When they reach twelve stars, that means it’s time to get recycled into chum – known as “Soap” – to feed the baby-synths. Sonmi explains to us that each 24-hour Papa Song day is the same as any other, which makes it even more disturbing when Seer Rhee (Grant) awakens another fabricant, Yoona-939 (Xun Zhou), the closest thing to a friend that Sonmi has in this place. He awakens her for sex (of the sort she tolerates, but can’t meaningfully consent to), and to get soused on Soap. After Rhee has passed out in a puddle of his own sick, Yoona takes advantage of the hours of freedom that it affords her to poke through the lost and found and see a bit more of the world outside – in this case, via a broken and absurdist movie rendition of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, in which an actor (Tom Hanks again) plays Cavendish as a rugged hero – “equal parts Sir Laurence Olivier with a dash of Michael Caine” – telling a corrupt proprietor (whose name and context we don’t even know yet), that he “will not be subjected to criminal abuse”. As 19th century Moriori slave Autua (played, somewhat bafflingly, by Black British actor David Gyasi) recounts to Adam Ewing aboard their ship in the Pacific, a slave who has seen too much of the world is no slave at all, as Yoona learns anew 300 years later. That’s the hopeful version, anyway. It can be interpreted just as readily that humans have a particular adeptness at reciprocal violence, with aggression and enslavement being answered with the same, always pointing back to some original sin to justify whatever excesses we feel like engaging in. As Cannibal Rob Corddry (not really, but I couldn’t tell you this actor’s name) puts it while trying to murder Zachry, “You kill Chief. Now you meat,” before failing, and also getting murdered, just as Yoona gets murdered.

Still from "Cloud Atlas" featuring Doona Bae and Xun Zhou

Much like Sonmi herself, Timothy Cavendish never set out to deliver a message of liberation, and yet he becomes the Moses to Sonmi’s Jesus, espousing concepts of the innate rights of humanity that only feel obvious and automatic to us because we’ve had the privilege to grow up in a society that allows us to learn about them. This is about as hopeful as Cloud Atlas gets, suggesting that even as we destroy our planet, kill and eat most of ourselves, and ultimately have to call for rescue from the rich tech bros who peaced out to the offworld colonies, that even if humanity forgets how to be decent to each other for a while, we’ll always reinvent the concept. Just like evolution keeps inventing crabs, humanity’s evolution, at least until we destroy ourselves for good, will keep producing both suffering and compassion. Cain and Abel. Yin and yang. Romulus and Remus. And anyone seeking to make assertions about which represents the most fundamental nature of humanity will find plenty of evidence to support their position.

Does this all sound a bit silly to you as I describe it? Truly, some of the stories openly invite derision and laughter, with Hanks, Broadbent, and occasionally Weaving collectively engaging in a competition of who can be the most ridiculous villain at one time or another. The entire far-future storyline uses a nearly incomprehensible pidgin version of English (if you know one thing only about Cloud Atlas, it’s the phrase, “that’s the true-true”), which is actually quite comprehensible if you pay attention and also never stop rewatching the movie as I have. And there is, of course, all the makeup, which I openly mocked even in 2012, referring to it as “intolerably bad”, and describing the ease with which I could spot a recurring cast member – even in minor, superfluous parts – by just keeping an eye out for the camera lingering on someone with a fucked-up face. We have white and Black actors playing Koreans (including lead Jim Sturgess playing 22nd Century Union Commander Hae-joo Chang), we have black and Korean actors playing whites, and we have some truly baffling choices (like Halle Berry playing an Indian woman in a cameo in 2012). There are broadly two questions to ask about this that I can personally relate to. The first is, “Does the overall effect work for me or not?” The answer to this is yes, but about as well as seeing Star Trek actors in facial prosthetics playing aliens with minor cosmetic nose and forehead differences. It feels theatrical, much like the ensemble casting overall, but it’s playing at a vague enough theme of recurrence and reincarnation that it can keep the significance of that recurrence nice and loose, with Luisa Rey (Berry) reading old letters from Rufus Sixsmith (played in two doomed, lovelorn ages by James D’Arcy) and pondering aloud why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And yet, I can imagine (and just watched a featurette which confirmed) that the directors and makeup crew must have pondered aloud, “Okay, we have nothing for [main actor] to do in this timeline – how can we fuck up their face and bring them into it?” Which is how we get Broadbent playing a street musician or Zhou playing a bellhop. Each of these oddball appearances (which clearly took a great deal of time and effort to produce) is a bit distracting individually, but as a whole, the entire effect feels like a drama department running around a stage, executing costume quickchanges and inviting their audience to use their imaginations and see the larger world they’re trying to create. In tonight’s show, the part of sleazy hotel clerk will be played by Tom Hanks, and it’s only his third-sleaziest character of the night, so get excited.

The second question is…is this okay? Is racebending okay? Is yellowface okay? Truthfully, I dismissed the quality of the makeup in 2012 because it was easier than engaging with this question in any serious or self-critical way. Can I recommend Breakfast at Tiffany’s as long as I caveat it by saying that Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney) is an atrocity against both Japanese people and cinema? Am I just being a typical see-no-evil white dude when I do this? I struggle with this question. And I have no definitive answer. Cloud Atlas contains an incredibly diverse cast, but all of its principal creators (including the Wachowskis, Tykwer, and book author and co-screenwriter David Mitchell) are white, as am I. When I’ve discussed this question with friends over the years, I’ve gotten no singular answer for how this aspect of the film makes them feel, and there is (of course) no singular answer to what Asian and Asian-American critics have to say about the film. It would be reductive and insulting to try to sum up the opinion of an entire multiracial cohort to how they feel being…impersonated? Caricatured? Made into a costume to serve some loose metaphysical purpose? If you’d like to see one critic’s biting take on this question, I’d recommend the inimitable Walter Chaw‘s two-star review of the film from 2012. But if you came here to hear mine, all I can do is admit my incapacity to answer this question. If I found the movie insulting or dilettantish when it came to issues of race, I wouldn’t like it as much as I do. But at the same time, I recognize that someone may be personally so bothered by actors playing characters of a different race, no matter what fantastical, theatrical framing is used for it, that they will not and cannot enjoy the film in any meaningful way. Or they may feel so accustomed to being made the butt of this particular joke in a white-dominant monoculture that the argument itself is exhausting for them (an argument I’ve personally heard as well). I can try to understand someone who feels this way. But I can’t feel what they feel.

Still from "Cloud Atlas" featuring Ben Wishaw as Robert Frobisher

Speaking of people I can’t exactly feel like, let’s talk about composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw), who begins his tenure as a disaster bi with a flight through the window from his lover Rufus Sixsmith (D’Arcy) after a romp in a hotel that’s threatening to call the police for their mere existence – a theme of presumed, systematic oppression that begins here as an artifact of a period piece taking place in an English era in which war hero and computing pioneer Alan Turing was chemically castrated for the crime of being gay, and which has become horrifically more relevant in the intervening years as the far-right has apparently made a strategic decision to brand the entire LGBTQ community as a band of pedophiles. Frobisher also announces that he’s alone and about to shoot himself with a Luger belonging to his boss Vivian Ayrs (Broadbent), and pronounces suicide an act of “tremendous courage”, which is the closest thing to a coherent message that we can wrest from the doomed love story and short, bright life of this emblem of the Bury Your Gays TVTropes page. And yet I love this story. I find it beautiful and deeply touching. I lap up every absurdist detail as Frobisher and Sixsmith smash up a china shop (in Sixsmith’s dream) as the former proclaims in voiceover that all boundaries are conventions, any of which may be transcended if one can first conceive of doing so. As this voiceover and music swells, the couple a few hundred years on in Neo Seoul just gets to have some regular hetero sex about it. As I wonder about what the Wachowskis – both trans, but one not quite as far along – could have been thinking here, the answer is once again…I can’t feel what they feel, nor can I presume they told this novel-adapted story in this way because it was something they personally found relatable. But as Frobisher skulks around the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, watching Sixsmith, a man he loves dearly but has already decided never to see again, climb those same stairs in a doomed effort to save his life after watching his final sunrise, I weep. Every time. Frobisher even told Sixsmith that he’d be there (a detail I only picked up in this viewing). All he needs to do is cry out, and he’ll get the embrace and solace that he so desperately needs. Sturgess and Bae get it, as Adam and Tilda Ewing, embracing each other desperately in the past as their souls could never manage permanently in the future. Hanks and Berry get it, finding their own better natures, and eventual friendship, duty, and even romance with each other as the dregs of humanity shamble into their next adventure. But the queer men get to be sad and stay sad and die about it. D’Arcy returns as an Archivist, and as much as I enjoyed the performance (and was taken out, as ever, by the weird-ass facial prosthetics), his mystified stare at Sonmi as she explains her ideology for the benefit of future Unanimity historians comes with a hefty dose of irony, as they’ll only have about 70 more years to discuss it before they annihilate themselves. It hardly feels like a fair ending for a character who has known nothing but pain in his lives and soul. Ditto Wishaw, whose happiest ending seems to be in a brief appearance as Georgette, managing to have a brief, offscreen affair with her brother-in-law, Timothy Cavendish, finally consummating the never-was romance between Wishaw and Broadbent’s previous characters in 1936.

Attempting to plot a coherent path for the other actors as reincarnated souls is frankly a doomed enterprise. Keith David and David Gyasi begin as slaves and become commanders of the most dominant surviving and well-meaning faction of humanity. Susan Sarandon is and ever shall be, as much herself in each of these timelines as she was in The Banger Sisters. Which is fine. There are some actors I don’t prize for their range, and Sarandon is right there in a huddle with Dwayne Johnson, trading on bare charisma alone. Weaving begins as a slavery apologist and beneficiary and becomes…the literal devil. Grant – whom I haven’t discussed much outside of his performance as Cannibal Hugh Grant (one of the first and best things I mention about Cloud Atlas to anyone who hasn’t seen it) – is simply outstanding as an irredeemable piece of shit in every era he exists in, including as oil lobbyist and would-be nuclear saboteur Lloyd Hooks above, whose pronunciation of “Mssssss. Rey” somehow becomes more insufferable with each recitation, as does his ever-evolving American accent. Grant’s characters are sublimely vile, and the actor must have had an absolute hoot playing them. Yes, a bunch of them had star marks on them, just like the fabricants in Neo Seoul. And that means…something. But fundamentally, some of the reincarnations tell a coherent story, and others do not, and aren’t trying to. Editor Alexander Berner is the unsung hero of the show, because even as this film was making multiple simultaneous filming units and impromptu bits of casting and makeup happen, Berner was the wizard who got to stitch it all together, making a chase in one era continue to another. A bullet fired in one era fly past the shoulder of another. The editing is as fundamental to this film’s narrative and thematic coherence as the musical score, and Berner deserves every accolade he has received (including Saturn, OFCS, and Lola awards).

Still from "Cloud Atlas" featuring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry

I could go on. I haven’t said much at all about the 1973 Luisa Rey mystery (a paranoid thriller whose plot bears an amusing resemblance to a 2005 Doctor Who episode), or about The Self-Serious and Self-Inflicted Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish in 2012, because if ever there were a pair of stories which do exactly what they say on the tin, it’s these two. And yet to the extent that these offer a zany tonal balance to the more serious storylines, I must also confirm these two stories – little more than goofy, pro forma genre exercises – still utterly riveted me. Broadbent plays up Cavendish’s self-dealing narcissism with such a total lack of self-awareness (I can see why he made such great casting for Horace Slughorn) that you can’t help but feel compassion for the character, even as he’s getting – and then getting away from – precisely what he deserves. As Luisa Rey’s neighbor kid Javier Gomez (Brody Nicholas Lee) – the author of a diegetic text summing up this timeline for any far-future readers – prods and then kicks through the fourth wall by telling her that she has just said exactly what a character in any decent mystery would say right before getting killed, you’ll roll your eyes. But then you’ll leave your balcony door unlocked so he doesn’t get stuck out there after jumping onto it after you asked him not to, because like any decent kid noticing a cliche for the first time, Javier fundamentally means well, and sincerely feels as if he’s invented something new. And so it goes with Sonmi herself, who spouts a stream-of-consciousness sermon worthy of a first-year philosophy student about what we owe to each other (The Good Place did this better), which nonetheless becomes humanity’s last great theology, elevating Sonmi herself to godhead status right before she gets crucified. Eternal recurrence.

One thing I have done in the last 10 years is read a lot more sci-fi. To name a few (in addition to Mitchell’s novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks), I’ve checked out Walter M. Miller Jr.‘s A Canticle for Liebowitz, a 1959 novel which examines cycles of future history as humanity destroys and renews itself in turns (a recommendation from FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel Koch, who hated Cloud Atlas then and ever since), and the only concept that feels dated in retrospect is when humanity invents a room-sized supercomputer whose sole function is translating languages. Cixin Liu‘s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy begins as a tale of distant, nebulous alien invasion, and becomes a tale about humanity taking grand steps into the stars and merging with the fate of the entire universe. Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake begins with a narrator positing that humanity’s grand experiment with civilization is always one generation away from permanent extinction (and making it clear from the jump that this generational extinction has already happened), because we’ve already mined all of the near-surface metals that exist on Earth, and the technology to mine deeper ones cannot be rebuilt from scratch once it is lost. And N.K. Jemisin‘s Broken Earth trilogy, perhaps the bleakest of all, used similar cycles of destruction and renewal to seal humanity’s fate as not at all worth saving. Sci-fi/fantasy always exists somewhere on this spectrum, both making a guess or an exploration into possible futures, and inviting the reader to ponder how likely we are to experience them. Or to deserve to. Cloud Atlas still has a place in that line of grand ideas for me. Despite all of its peril, doom, and death, its slavery and cannibalism, and its wholesale, self-induced destruction of humanity, it is fundamentally a hopeful story about the power of love and humanity’s better nature. And it’s one I expect I’ll keep coming back to, if only because I still desperately wish to believe it’s true.

Or true-true.

FilmWonk rating: Still 9 out of 10, still my #1 of 2012, and still a masterpiece.

2012 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2012)

#11: The Five-Year Engagement

Poster for "The Five-Year Engagement"

Directed by Nicholas Stoller, written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel

Per usual, I’m cheating a bit with my Top 10 and placing a film in the #11 slot that simply begged to be included. What started as a simple numbering error in 2009 has become a means for me to include a film that spoke to me personally in a significant way – to split hairs between the films that are somehow, empirically “the best” (a dubious distinction) vs. simply being the ones I enjoyed or identified with the most. While this is certainly one of the more well-made romantic comedies I’ve seen (almost reaching the level of Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel‘s previous collaboration, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the film also benefited from perfect timing. As it happens, I saw it two weeks prior to my wedding, when both my future-wife and I were taking a well-deserved night off from wedding planning (and incidentally, each other’s company). Planning a wedding is a stressful affair, and as happy as you end up on the day, at a certain point you just need to take a break from it all.

And it was on this level that The Five-Year-Engagement spoke to me directly. The film sits firmly in the camp that while everyone probably has someone who can be called the love of their life, it is supremely naive to assume that the person will be 100% perfect for you. Or even close to it. What happens between Segel and Emily Blunt is solid chemistry and believable romance. But it’s not a fairy tale, even if it gets a bit silly in its pursuit of a fairytale ending. Their relationship feels incredibly true-to-life, bumps and all. While Forgetting was primarily about the allure of moving on after a bad relationship, Five-Year is about finding happiness with the closest thing to your soul mate that you can manage. As perspectives on love go, this could come off as incredibly cynical. But Segel manages to bring the same staggering amount of heart and earnestness that he’s done over and over again in his acting roles. Actor and film alike both wear their heart on their sleeve, and the result is both endearing and hilarious.

#10: The Raid: Redemption

Poster for "The Raid: Redemption"

Written and directed by Gareth Evans

Congratulations, Gareth Evans, you may have ruined me for other action films. I’m not going to summarize the plot here. See the poster above for an adequate summary. In fact, the plot bears a staggering – and apparently coincidental – similarity to this year’s Dredd, and story is hardly the film’s biggest selling point anyway. This film contains the most intense, balls-to-the-wall martial arts action I have ever seen in a theater. It is immaculately shot, intensely paced, and doesn’t lose steam for an instant.

#9: Bernie

Poster for "Bernie"

Directed by Richard Linklater, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on the article by Skip Hollandsworth

Jack Black gives a bravura comedic performance as mortician’s assistant Bernie Tiede, in this true-life tale of an incident in a small-town in Texas. Because it is based on a true story, Bernie makes the bold choice to reveal very early on in the film that something dire, if not lethal, has happened to both Bernie and wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), using its most persistently hilarious storytelling device: on-camera interviews with the “townspeople”, who constantly refer to the two of them in the past tense. The film sits somewhere between The Office and Best in Show with its sense of realism. This is not the first time I’ve seen this method, but in a straight-laced drama like Frost/Nixon, the technique was a complete distraction, whereas in a dark comedy and portrait of small-town life like Bernie, it actually works rather well. The film abandons its pseudo-documentary format whenever the storytelling requires it, and yet the constant cross-cutting to supposedly real-life townspeople reveals the extent to which they are all involved in each other’s personal business. They gossip constantly about community, church, sex, money, and every combination thereof, and the resulting town feels very lived-in. When the crime finally happens, the townspeople are aghast. Bernie brilliantly portrays the cognitive dissonance that occurs when someone you like has done a bad, bad thing to someone you don’t like. The relationship between Bernie and Marjorie is wonderfully complex and twisted, and what ends up happening between them mingles somewhere between family drama, legal thriller, and hilarious dark comedy.

As of this writing, Bernie is available on Netflix streaming. Check it out today!

#8: The Cabin in the Woods

Poster for "The Cabin in the Woods"

Directed by Drew Goddard, written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon

The Cabin in the Woods might well have succeeded as a straight-laced horror film, if only because it features an ensemble of intelligent, likable, and persistently sympathetic characters (played by age-appropriate actors), which already puts it about ten steps ahead of your average backwoods slaughterfest. But Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take it a step further, placing the entire film into an elaborate Skinner Box whose carefully controlled circumstances manage to elevate the stakes beyond the mere survival of this merry band. On the off-chance you don’t yet know the central premise of this film, I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice to say, all is not what it seems, and the film’s puppetstrings are pulled brilliantly by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. This film exists in a wonderfully dark-comic grey zone, simultaneously reveling in the slaughter that it perpetrates while slowing down just enough to call the audience out for liking it quite so much. This is a film for horror fans who don’t mind seeing the worst parts of their beloved genre dragged to the surface for ritual slaughter. The horror standard has been driven inexorably upward by this film, and while there was at least one other solid contender this year, it has yet to be unseated.

#7: Lincoln

Poster for "Lincoln"

Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Politics! That’s what this film delivers, and that should tell you in a word whether you’ll enjoy it or not. There is a scene in this film in which the indispensable Daniel Day-Lewis sits in a chair as President Abraham Lincoln and explains, in detail, exactly what a legal, political, and constitutional clusterbomb the Emancipation Proclamation really was. Freeing all the slaves in the rebelling Confederate states by executive order was an unprecedented act in muddy legal waters, and it is precisely these waters that the film wades into as it explores the backdoor dealings behind the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The specter of the amendment’s passage, the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln’s imminent assassination hang over the film at all times, and it is to the film’s storytelling credit that it manages to present these three events as the high-stakes historical standoff that they really were. Despite the audience knowing full-well how the political fight will be resolved, it’s clear at all times that any of these three events has the potential to derail the others. In Spielberg and Kushner’s vision of history, it could only have happened precisely the way that it did, because anything less would have been disastrous for the nation.

To serve this predestined vision of history, the film lionizes Lincoln to an almost absurd degree, and the illustrious executive is constantly interrupting scenes with quaint little anecdotes about his lawyering past that bear some oblique relevance to the present conflict. He is essentially a Christ figure, always ready with a parable or pearl of wisdom to sate the hungry masses – and ready to be sacrificed for the sins of his beloved Union. I’m at a loss to explain why this works so well. It should have been incredibly heavy-handed, but Day-Lewis’ magnificent performance keeps it grounded in the historical circumstances at all times. Lincoln was neither a flawless politician nor a flawless man, and Lincoln never tries to convince us otherwise. The film is also bolstered by a magnificent ensemble cast. I could end this description by naming at least a dozen outstanding supporting players, but I’ll just mention the strongest here: Tommy Lee Jones gives his finest performance in years as the staunch and ailing abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

#6: Looper

Poster for "Looper"

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson’s Looper sets up a complex (and paradoxical) time travel story in which older and younger versions of the same character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are out to kill each other. Well, kinda. It’s wonderfully elaborate, and it makes just enough sense to comprise the most polished entry in this genre since the Terminator franchise. It also features a brilliantly transformative performance from Gordon-Levitt, who takes his impression of Willis to a staggering degree of authenticity.

From my review:

The film sets up a clever time travel mechanic wherein Future Joe – whose mere presence is altering his own timeline – doesn’t know the outcome of every situation involving his younger self, but he does remember it once it happens. It’s an action-oriented version of Marty McFly fading away from a photograph, and the film explains it with just the right amount of technobabble and disturbing imagery, punctuated by Willis telling his younger self (and perhaps the logic centers of the audience’s brains) to kindly shut the fuck up and stop wasting time slogging through the murky waters of time travel.

This bit of hand waving makes for an extremely haunting and effective ending, as we’re left to consider the full and lasting impact of Future Joe’s presence in this timeline. Looper dares to present us with high personal stakes for both versions of its protagonist, set them in opposition to each other, then force us to consider whether the future of this despicable person should be saved.

#5: Moonrise Kingdom

Poster for "Moonrise Kingdom"

Directed by Wes Anderson, screenplay by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

From my review:

Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Roman Coppola), meticulously crafting a rich and memorable world in the fictitious island of New Penzance off the Atlantic Coast. The film takes a bit of time to find its footing, owing to the bizarrely precocious dialogue of its young, first-time leads. But as their chaste and cordial romp gets into full swing, the two actors somehow find an accord. These kids are determined to skip ahead to grownup life, bidding farewell to their erstwhile families and making a life for themselves in the wilderness. They are the embodiment of “us against the world”, even if their oppressive world is like something from the mind of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling.

This film is a sweet and nostalgic chronicle of the wondrous worlds that we create in childhood, and even manages to delve into the dire consequences of growing up, without ever losing a bit of its charm.

#4: Seven Psychopaths

Poster for "Seven Psychopaths"
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

I could summarize the plot here, as I often do, but here’s what you need to know. This is the film in which Martin McDonagh thoroughly beat Quentin Tarantino at his own game this year. Seven Psychopaths is pure, bloody-minded, un-PC, hilarious filmmaking, and manages to deconstruct and reflect upon the genre much better than a vapid bloodbath like Django Unchained could manage.

From my review:

Seven Psychopaths seizes on the fundamental truth of storytelling that no idea is completely original. You may think it came from a serendipitous muse that squirted it into your brain from the collective unconscious, but we are the inexorable products of our surroundings, our culture, and most importantly, our stories. Stories we’ve been told, stories we’ve forgotten, and stories we’ve subsequently retold and passed off as our own work. This is a bloody-minded Adaptation. Hugo without the whimsy. It is sickeningly self-aware, and could have felt like a lesser parody of either of those films if not for such a perfect ensemble cast.

#3: Life of Pi

Poster for "Life of Pi"

Directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel

Pi Patel (played for most of the film by Suraj Sharma) is a fascinating character, but even more fascinating is how much time the film spends setting up his backstory. The first 20 minutes of Life of Pi are as much of a visual feast as the rest of the film, and yet they feature little more than a series of extended dialogue scenes as we get to know Pi and his family, and more importantly, his various thoughts on religion. Pi dabbles in a variety of faiths, and this character setup pays off marvelously when the film abruptly becomes a one-man show after the first act. Once Pi is stranded on a raft in the South Pacific with a Bengal tiger (I relish the absurdity of those words!), Life of Pi becomes a taut survival thriller, but remains a fascinating character piece. Whether emoting opposite a CGI tiger or trying to defeat the elements and survive, Sharma – who has no prior credits on IMDb – is equal to the task, demonstrating the proficiency of a much more experienced actor (specifically, Tom Hanks in Cast Away). The film tackles a variety of themes with impressive clarity, and unlike my #1 film below, Life of Pi‘s treatment of religion is essential to its appeal. While I tend to think that the film’s liberal, inclusivist take on religion is unlikely to win many converts, it still makes Pi a fascinating and sympathetic character. At times, he seems naive – likely to be disappointed by the imperfect world in which he lives. And yet, by the film’s end, the grownup Pi (played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan) seems far more savvy and wise than the average religious dilettante. The effectiveness of the film’s ending lies in its ability to be interpreted in a variety of ways, with each viewer’s individual experiences and beliefs informing their perception of it. And theists and atheists alike will certainly have a take on one of the film’s most absurdly poignant questions: Can a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker possibly be your friend?

Beyond the absurdity of the film’s premise lies an earnestness and zeal that is so often lacking in the cynical cinematic world we live in these days. Life of Pi is excited to explore the world it inhabits, and every visual detail (including some of the best 3D that I’ve seen since Avatar) bears this out.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss this film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #29 – “Life of Pi” (dir. Ang Lee)

#2: The Imposter

Poster for "The Imposter"

Directed by Bart Layton

I don’t dare reveal too much about The Imposter. But you will not find a more shadowy or charismatic figure this year than Frédéric Bourdin, con-artist extraordinaire, whose machinations comprise the bulk of this documentary. The film cross-cuts between interviews and impeccable reenactments (similarly to Man on Wire), and leaves you constantly wondering what’s going to happen next – or indeed, how we’re even seeing these interviews. What really happened with Bourdin and this small-town Texas family? All I can offer you is my absolute certainty that you will find it much more engaging if you don’t know the full facts in advance. Don’t Google this one. Don’t let anyone jokingly spoil it for you. Like Catfish, you’re better off seeing this magnificent documentary before its subject ends up on CNN.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss this film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #22 – “Safety Not Guaranteed” (dir. Colin Trevorrow), “The Imposter” (dir. Bart Layton) (SIFF)

#1: Cloud Atlas

Poster for "Cloud Atlas"

Written for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas has been the subject of much contention (even on our very own podcast), but dammit if any other film stuck with me as thoroughly as this one did. I saw it twice back in October, and haven’t stopped thinking of it or intermittently listening to Tom Tykwer‘s magnificent score since. You can listen to our podcast for detail on just how thoroughly this film resonated with me, but the gist is this: you don’t need to buy into the film’s relatively simple religious or metaphysical message in order to appreciate the intensely interconnected narrative that is at work here. Basically, you can take the religious aspects or leave them. The most poignant and effective connections between these characters are narrative and thematic above all else. These six parallel storylines are woven precisely in an epic that spans multiple centuries. This film’s ambition is surely to be admired, but only because it delivers so thoroughly on its promise. It’s a tour de force of editing, with editor Alexander Berner brilliantly cross-cutting and completing shots even with hundreds of years and completely different visual styles separating them. A character might begin to turn in one time period, and another character (perhaps – but not always – the same actor) will complete that turn without interruption. An escape sequence in the 22nd Century darts back and forth with a slave leaping through a ship’s sails in the 19th, and at all times, the same level of intensity is maintained, whether it is high or low from moment to moment. By the end, none of the characters (except perhaps that of Tom Hanks in the 1970s) feels shortchanged in the least. In an achievement rarely matched in parallel storytelling, every last character in the film’s sprawling and incestuous cast list is given adequate screentime to establish an emotional connection with the audience.

Even the film’s most batty choices, such as the devilish (and apparently disembodied) Hugo Weaving in the distant future only serve to amp up the stakes. The film even goes so far as to craft a language – a tricky “future-speak” that has enough respect for its audience to force them to pay close attention – even in the very first shot of the film, featuring a grizzled future-Hanks that probably made some viewers wonder if their theater’s sound system was malfunctioning.

And yes, most of the race and age makeup in this film is intolerably bad. But still I marvel that such an elaborate and visually magnificent film managed to emerge from outside of the studio system. This is by far the biggest indie film I’ve ever seen. Despite a few missteps, which I counted as minimal compared to its triumphs, I spent the entire film rapt with attention, respected as an audience member, and exhilarated by the outcome. Whether you’re looking for romance, adventure, sci-fi action, or a thoughtful message, this cinematic feast has something to offer you. While I will readily admit that Cloud Atlas is not for everyone, I look forward to defending this masterpiece for years to come.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #27 – “Cloud Atlas” (dir. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Argo (directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman)
  • Compliance (written and directed by Craig Zobel)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (written for the screen and directed by David O. Russell, novel by Matthew Quick)
  • Killer Joe (directed by William Friedkin, screenplay by Tracy Letts based on his play)
  • Les Misérables (directed by Tom Hooper, screenplay/book/lyrics/novel by a lot of people)
  • Sound of My Voice (directed by Zal Batmanglij, written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling)
  • The Avengers (written for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, comic book and characters by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon)
  • Fat Kid Rules the World (directed by Matthew Lillard, screenplay by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin, screenplay by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on a play by Lucy Alibar)
  • Promised Land (directed by Gus Van Sant, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, story by Dave Eggers)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #27 – “Cloud Atlas” (dir. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)

Poster for "Cloud Atlas"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel explore the sprawling epic from Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell. And while everything might be connected, only one of us connected with this film – tune in below to find out why! (55:03)

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 9/10 (Glenn), 4/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • The sequences in Cloud Atlas are named and directed as follows:

    • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski)

    • Letters from Zedelghem (Directed by Tom Tykwer)

    • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (Directed by Tom Tykwer)

    • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Directed by Tom Tykwer)

    • An Orison of Sonmi-451 (Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski)

    • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski)

  • CORRECTION: I mistakenly stated that The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were directors of photography on this film – they were not. The film’s cinematographers were Frank Griebe (who likely worked with Tom Tykwer, based on his filmography) and John Toll.
  • Music for this episode comes from the film’s magnificent, sprawling score, written by director Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, with assistance from Gene Pritsker and Gabriel Mournsey on various tracks.

Listen above, or download: Cloud Atlas (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).