Amy Adams, left, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jillian Bell in "The Master." (Phil Bray, The Weinstein…)
Much as last year was dominated and defined by the light/dark polarity of "The Tree of Life" and "Melancholia," this year again saw a pair of films reflecting off each other and in turn setting the lens through which much else could be seen. "The Master" and "Holy Motors" towered over this year with their explorations of the substance of identity and self-definition. In both films characters grapple with who they are and who they might yet be, striving for some idealized self they may never become.
And the very definition and identity of the idea of "indie" remained, as it long has, fluid, crossing boundaries of financing, production, distribution, exhibition and attitude. Throughout the year there were buoying hits such as "Moonrise Kingdom," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" that from this side of their success all seem obvious but were at one time or another uncertainties. Their identities were defined in part by audiences.
Similarly idiosyncratic yet potentially commercial films such as "Ruby Sparks" or "Damsels in Distress" failed to connect in the expected ways. Those fresh, worthy films, alongside others such as "Middle of Nowhere" or "Starlet," may still find their audiences in the long term, their lasting identity to be determined.
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There was also the emergence of what might be thought of as Staring Contest Cinema, a series of films that functioned as provocations, almost daring audiences to look away. Films such as the tense drama "Compliance," acerbic sibling comedy "The Color Wheel," generation deconstruction of "The Comedy" and the upcoming internalized thriller "Simon Killer" are all by their very nature divisive, so they will never earn consensus as critical favorites or year-end award earners, yet their confrontational intelligence make them defining recent works.
The wave of hype that preceded Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" proclaimed it a fictionalized expose of the origins of Scientology via Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, which was a reading of the film completely unaware of the shocking jolt that is Joaquin Phoenix's character of Freddie Quell.
Arguably the most original cinematic character and bracingly singular performance since Daniel Day-Lewis' turn in Anderson's 2007 "There Will Be Blood," with his primate posture and restless soul Phoenix's Freddie is like some undiscovered prototype of modern man, at once shockingly familiar and completely alien.
Dodd and Quell both see in the other all that he each is not. For Dodd it is a sense of true freedom, a self-contained, de-intellectualized, unfettered construction of self of which he is incapable, while Freddie instinctively recognizes and is drawn to Dodd for a control and purpose that his vagabond ways could never maintain.
One poster for the film that featured an image of Hoffman, Phoenix and actress Amy Adams repeated in a prismatic pattern seemed at first disorienting but in fact was a real key to understanding the film. Who between Quell and Dodd, alongside the wild card of Adams' character as Dodd's wife, was truly the Master, who was on top of whom, and could those roles rotate like the barrel of a kaleidoscope?
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While "The Master" moves further and further inward, a dark star imploding on itself, "Holy Motors" by French filmmaker Leos Carax is an exuberant explosion outward, blasting ideas in all directions. Denis Lavant plays some 11 roles in the film (depending on how you count/interpret them) as a man who works for a mysterious organization that inserts him into other people's lives, as beggar, husband or father, assassin, lover, businessman. Gliding through Paris in a white stretch limo, the man embarks on a long night of self-discovery, finding moments of his personal truth amid the realities of others.
From "Lincoln" to "Looper," numerous other films this year seemed to be grappling with similar ideas of how we all define ourselves to ourselves. (The pop psychology of election-year uncertainty is too tantalizing not to at least mention.)
In Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," behind the male stripper bump-and-grind was a bracing examination of how easy it is to define oneself via work. Giving voice to a dissolution of identity that could easily echo across any number of industries, star Channing Tatum at one point declares of his work, "It is what I do, it is not who I am."
Between the year's twin poles of "Holy Motors" and "The Master," identity is transformed across many scenarios into an act of self-creation, a process of striving toward an ideal self. In a long take recorded live during shooting, rivaling anything similarly done in "Les Misérables," in an emotional moment as "Holy Motors" rolls on Kylie Minogue sings a plaintive lament that asks, "Who were we?" The answer from this year's films seems to be a clear declaration that we are whoever we want to be, becoming whoever we must.
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