Tuesday, January 17, 2012

BEST OF THE YEAR: The Descendants

Choosing the best film of the year is no easy task. Sometimes the best film of the year can be sitting there staring you in the face, and yet you overlook it.

That's not to say that there was ever any doubt about The Descendants being a great film. As soon as I saw it, I knew it to be one of only a handful of movies to get an A+ grade.

And yet, I vacillated. Did I go with Midnight in Paris, which made me happier because I identified with being more into old things than new things? Did I go with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I found so hypnotic that I saw it three times in three weeks? More obviously, did I go with Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a joyous film from my favorite director about the formation of movies themselves?

Then I saw The Descendants a second time. And it surprised me. In some ways I shouldn't be able to relate to it. I tend to prefer visually driven films, and as smart as Alexander Payne is, he's not what you would call a visual stylist. I'm not a father, so I can't identify with struggling to raise two kids like George Clooney's character does.  Heaven forbid I've never had to deal with a living will, as Clooney has to when his estranged wife clings to life support after a boating accident. And I'm certainly not an outdoorsman of any stripe, so Hawaii doesn't appeal as much to me as it does to many people.

Then Clooney's voice over started: "Paradise can go fuck itself."

And right away the movie grabbed me again, not because it slams the outdoors, but because more than any other movie in recent memory, The Descendants makes it plain that paradise is in the things you can't see.  And paradise evidences itself over and over again in this film, filled with so many moments that feel exactly right. I could nitpick  Midnight in Paris (some thin, abrasive characters)  Hugo (too many subplots) or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (ending too long). I can't nitpick The Descendants. And it moved me even more than those great films did.

What I saw in The Descendants was a lot of what I saw in Young Adult. Both films show that people and situations are never what they seem at first glance. We make snap, superficial judgments all the time but such judgments never tell the whole story.

Clooney's Matt King is at heart a decent guy, but it could be said he gets a little too obsessed with tracking down the man who had an affair with Clooney's wife. One of the most revealing moments of the film comes when Matt rages at his unresponsive wife in the hospital  - but reacts very interestingly when his older daughter (Shailene Woodley) does the same thing.

Among the supporting characters, many people have focused on Matt's daughters, but upon a second viewing, I found one of the most interesting characters to be Sid (Nick Krause), the daughter's stoner boyfriend. At first glance, he seems to be about as deep as a birdbath, but a heart-to-heart talk with the kid shows Matt that maybe the kid knows more than he lets on.

What I most strongly related to was Matt's conflicting feelings for his wife. As was the case in Young Adult, it's easy to rail against an unsympathetic character like the wife who cheated on Matt. But damn it all, Matt still has feelings for her, and it's not wrong for him to do so. Sometimes you can love someone in spite of the horrible things they do to you.

And it may not even be that simple. As one friend of mine astutely pointed out, Matt's feelings toward his dying wife probably aren't all forgiving. He told me: "On some level, he probably knows that he's not the love of (his wife's) life, and he's probably not the person she would've preferred to have been at her side when they pulled the plug. But Clooney's character on some level is saying, "You know what? Fuck you. It's not about you right now - *I* need this. *I* need a moment to tell you I love you and say goodbye and be there for you one last time, and after all you've done to me, I'm going to take that moment, whether you like it or not."

That's what makes The Descenedants so rewarding - that scenes can be read in more than one way, and both readings can be right. Howard Hawks once said a successful movie has three great scenes and no bad scenes. The Descendants outranks and transcends that rule.


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