The Best Films of 2012

What a smashing year. No less than six of these films get 5-star ratings from me, instead of the usual one to three films.
1. Django Unchained. 5 stars. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.

2. The Divide. 5 stars. It’s fascinating how this was made independently of The Grey (see below) and released the same time, neither having any knowledge of each other. Both are survivalist stories and both, weirdly, are tuned around haunting piano themes that recur at just the right moments. (Listen to The Grey’s and The Divide’s.) But where the former locates “evil” as external and impersonal (the cruel forces of nature), this one looks within. It’s set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment where nine strangers have gathered after a nuclear holocaust. They start out okay until cabin fever and radiation sickness — and their own base humanity — take over, and the cellar becomes a claustrophobic nightmare of torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

3. The Pact. 5 stars. This is way underrated. It’s about a haunted house but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.

Film focus: Zero Dark Thirty | South China Morning Post4. Zero Dark Thirty. 5 stars. Part of me is astonished by the vitriol being hurled at this film, but then nothing really surprises me anymore. After all, Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained‘s supposed racial insensitivity, so it only follows that Zero Dark Thirty must be (wait for it) an apologia for waterboarding and other forms of torture used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. The torture under the Bush administration is simply shown for what it is. It wasn’t the magic key to unlocking Bin Laden’s hideout, and even if it was, the film doesn’t imply that the ends would justify the means. By far the most impressive feature is Jessica Chastain, who since Tree of Life has become for me a new Cate Blanchett, an understated actor who compels with subtleties. Zero Dark Thirty is a lot like United 93, devoid of political bias and never preaching.

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5. The Grey. 4 ½ stars. First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is, like The Birds. Demonic wolves, like Hitch’s pterodactyl-birds, are effective devices in showing our helplessness against primal and savage forces. Like the great survivalist films rarely seen anymore, The Grey has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about (an even more impressive feat given the rather unlikeable group aside from Liam Neeson) before they all go down in carnage.

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6. Flight. 4 ½ stars. I wish there were more films where an opening scene of heart-stopping terror becomes the base for a slow-paced introspective character film. Washington plays an exceptional air pilot who is also an alcoholic, and on one of his typically drunk mornings suffers an aircraft malfunction but manages miraculous maneuvers and softens the plane’s crash landing. The genius of the film relies in putting the moral spotlight on his addiction even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the plane crash, nor even the cause of the six deaths (out of 102 passengers). The story makes clear that if any other pilot had been flying, everyone would have died. Washington’s character must come to terms with his disease despite his savior-like status which only fuels his pride and denial and the horrible way he treats those around him.

7. Killer Joe. 4 ½ stars. It’s hard to watch some of the scenes in this sadistic black comedy, and trust me, I don’t squirm easily. Friedkin has made a raging comeback this past decade with Tracy Letts scripts (Bug was the other film), and I hope the two men continue collaborating. Killer Joe essentially functions as a parable of white trailer trash. Opposite ’80s films which saw hope in the nuclear family, this film kills that fantasy with cruelty, but with Fargo-like comedy so you get filthy sick laughing at things which are far from funny. The story: a gambler can’t pay his debts and so hires a hit man to kill his mother for insurance money; because he can’t front the advance payment, he loans Killer Joe his sister for sex; the mother gets bumped off, but it turns out she left her money to someone else; things careen out of control to an outrageous climax involving a forced blowjob with a chicken leg, and a brutally unforgettable “last supper”.

Related image8. Perks of Being a Wallflower. 4 ½ stars. I was surprised by this one, expecting the cliches of high-school angst, but getting a genuinely moving drama about teen alienation. It’s amusing how David Bowie’s “Heroes” is used so effectively, despite the preposterous premise of kids so into alternative music like The Smiths never even having heard of the damn thing. But it’s the perfect tunnel song, because “Heroes” is as futuristic sounding today as it was back in the ’70s. And this is a forward-looking film, unlike so many teen flicks which savor the high school milieu. Charlie wishes he could fast-forward through his four years, and his senior misfit friends are just as impatient to graduate. Even the subject of Charlie’s sexual abuse as a child is treated well, sans melodrama.

9. The Imposter. 4 ½ stars. I’m still reeling from this one. It’s a true story about a young Frenchman who fooled everyone in America about his identity, and a sharp lesson about the power of deception — and self-deception. For a documentary it levels more suspense and thunderbolt twists than many fictional dramas. No one is saying anything bad about The Imposter, for the simple reason that there’s nothing bad you can say about it. It blends interviews, archive footage, journalistic reports, and in psychological-thriller fashion tells how a Texas child went missing then was successfully impersonated by the (much older) Frenchman. The hows and why’s of bamboozling the FBI and immigration officers are stunning enough, but the question as to how the boy’s own family could have accepted the impersonation is much darker… and not so cleanly resolved.

10. The Dark Knight Rises. 4 stars. The weakest entry in the Batman trilogy is still good, though I admittedly try to like it more than it deserves. Batman Begins was a drilling look at the hero’s origins, focusing on the politics of fear; The Dark Knight examined nihilism, destroying our hope through chaos. This third installment takes on the theme of pain, and not as profoundly as the other two. The problem with Bane is that he’s not autonomous like Ra’s al Ghul and Joker; in fact, he’s the former’s henchman, which reduces him in a major way. Still, he’s a fearsome piece of terror, and filled with an almost supernatural strength that crushes bones and (infamously) breaks Batman’s back. Certainly compared to most superhero films, The Dark Knight Rises is a work of art.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018.)

Inferno: Dante’s Vision in a D&D Context

Geoff Dale’s Inferno (1980) is a brilliant adaptation of Dante’s classic that I count among the best D&D modules of all time. The most amazing thing about it is that it’s still a work in progress. The module covers the first four circles of Hell; an online magazine published the fifth and sixth circles just a few years ago (Fight On, issue 3, 2008); and Dale’s full-blown Gazeteer of Hell will be released this year or next. I haven’t looked so forward to a gaming accessory since Gorgoroth (Mordor). Perhaps, after 33 years, Dante’s staggering work of the imagination will finally become the official basis for RPG Hell.

For it was not Dale’s module, but rather Ed Greenwood’s Dragon magazine articles in 1983, which provided the design for D&D’s Nine Hells. Inferno, like most Judges Guild products, became an obscure footnote. James Maliszewski applauds this move, mistrusting Inferno‘s reliance on Christian source material:

Inferno is a strange melange that’s neither truly Dante nor wholly compatible with ‘standard’ AD&D (unlike, say, Ed Greenwood’s articles on the same subject in the pages of Dragon)… It presents us a gaming version of an elaborate medieval imagination of Hell and yet does so without reference to the single most important source of this imagination: Christianity. Now, I understand why this is the case, but it doesn’t make it any less problematic. D&D has long suffered as a result of Gygax and Arneson’s personal scruples regarding the depiction of Christianity in the game. Much of the time, this isn’t a huge problem and can easily be handwaved away. That’s just not the case when you’re dealing with Dante’s Inferno, a work of art that simply doesn’t make much sense if it’s ripped from its proper context, as it is here.”

But Dante’s scheme of Hell can be easily modified so that it does make sense in a pagan mythology. Some tweaking of the infernal punishments is in order, and I’ll get to that in due course.

As I see it, three issues need to be resolved in order to make Dante’s vision of Hell “work” in a D&D context: (1) Which souls qualify for consignment to Hell? (2) How do the Christian-like sins (which are punished on each circle) relate to being so qualified? (3) Why exactly do the devils torment souls?

The first edition Manual of the Planes (1987), while a great product, doesn’t help much on questions regarding souls. It provides detail for creatures who are native to the Outer Planes (the Nine Hells being one of seventeen; click on the left diagram), only mentioning in passing that the Outer Planes are also a resting place for the souls of mortals who died on any of the Prime Material Planes. The fourth edition Manual of the Planes (2008), while on whole a terrible product, offers more helpful guidance. Discussing the Nine Hells in particular:

“Devils delight in claiming mortal souls… The Nine Hells are filled with the wretched spirits of mortals. Some deliberately gave themselves to the service of the Nine Hells in life, some did the devils’ work unwittingly, and some had the misfortune to fall under fiendish power. The damned appear much as they did in life. They are reborn in the Nine Hells in a form of flesh and blood, although they are gaunt and frail. Through the tormenting of the damned, devils harvest the power inherent in the mortal soul — power to fuel infernal rites, to animate infernal constructs, to strengthen archdevils, or to fortify defenses. Although most damned souls are imprisoned until expended, a scant few — those who served the Nine Hells with particular ability in life — are rewarded with transformation into lesser devils so that they may continue to serve the Nine Hells throughout eternity.” (pp 98-99)

This passage addresses our questions (1) and (3). Regarding the first, it is typically lawful-evil mortals, or other aligned mortals who behave (“sin”) excessively, or without repentance, in a way that devils approve, or other-aligned mortals who somehow unwittingly play into diabolical hands — any of these are Hell-eligible. So, many of the souls in Hell are lawful-evil oriented, though certainly not all. Good souls can also go to Hell, as we’ll see especially on Circle 1.

Question (3) may seem irrelevant. Surely the devils torment souls simply because that’s what devils do — they enjoy it. While that’s true, it’s not enough in a D&D context. Torturing your own population undermines your power base, and the devils are constantly warring against demons of the Abyss, the forces of Hades, and other powers. One would think that fashioning souls into shock troops or special servants would be more economical than subjecting them to eternal sadism. The passage above implies that the reward of being transformed like this is exceptional. But it also explains that torture has a pragmatic use, as if it feeds a dark magic that can be harnessed for devilish use. It’s a concept I rather like, and can be left vague enough to serve as a credible explanation for soul torture that occurs in any of the lower Outer Planes.

Question (2) is the murky one, and lies at the root of Maliszewski’s objection. In the D&D game, a soul’s “resting place” (or place of torment, in the case of the lower planes) is determined on the basis of alignment and/or allegiance to one’s deity (the above left diagram shows the alignment parallels). But in Geoffry Dale’s Inferno, as in Dante, souls end up in Hell for particular sins, some of which don’t make much sense in D&D’s pagan mythology. For instance (and now click on the diagram to the right), there’s a place on Circle 7 reserved for suicides and homosexuals; general lust is even punished on Circle 2, and gluttony on Circle 3. These “sins” obviously derive from a world shaped by medieval Christianity more than worlds taking inspiration from pulp fantasy, though I suppose they could align fairly in the pre-Christian Middle-Earth.

Circle 1 is to me the most fascinating. Unlike the other circles it isn’t a place of torment, but a state of shadowy bliss for virtuous atheists: “they are the just and good peoples from the Days Before the Gods and live in relative bliss and comfort” (p 21). That’s a wonderful translation of Dante’s Limbo (see again to the right), which is the resting place for the virtuous unbaptized — those who simply had the misfortune of not knowing Christ, such as righteous Old Testament figures who predated Christ, or noble pagans from any time. Dale’s version is basically the same thing in a pagan context, filled with souls who are so old as to predate the knowledge/existence of any gods, and perhaps even younger souls who consciously rejected any form of divine authority. People like Maliszewski may decry good-aligned souls being consigned to the Nine Hells, but frankly I love the idea, and the Noble Castle is one of my favorite parts of the Inferno module. There’s something incredibly haunting about this pocket paradise stranded in an ashen wasteland, with its own gardens, trees, clean water, benign wildlife, and music, and the benign hospitable souls forced to dwell here for eternity — happy for the most part, yet also aware that their fate is somehow blighted. Above all, it underscores how weird Hell is, unpredictable and (to us) unfair.

We can wrap up by saying that the Nine Hells implied by the classic (though obscure) Inferno module are the tormenting grounds for souls guilty of sins that gratify devils; many are lawful-evil oriented, but plenty are not; in life they were deemed Hell-worthy for either knowingly or unwittingly serving diabolical causes; in death they suffer for their sins to gratify devilish sadism and feed Hell’s power.

Ed Greenwood’s version of the Nine Hells is the one I knew and loved as a teen. It took at least some inspiration from Dante, and the circles were fleshed out with nasty and compelling environments. But Geoff Dale’s version, which I discovered long after my gaming years, is better — and far more harrowing. In depicting the torture of souls, Dale gave us Hell not only in terms of the way most of us think about the place, he was able to align it with a supreme work of literature, just as Ravenloft was made out of Dracula. The Christian baggage isn’t an obstacle to those (like Dale) who are willing to put some effort into the workarounds.