Yes, many people are already writing their Top 10 movie lists for 2012. We're saving ours for the last week of the year, but while we wait for this full, rich, and weird movie year to end, we're going to start looking back at certain highlights. Today, it's our favorite individual scenes.
Cheyenne and the tattoo artist, This Must Be The Place
You'd be hard-pressed to recall a stranger movie from 2012 than This Must Be The Place. It features Sean Penn, dressed up with a ridiculous wig, hoop earrings and lipstick, playing a Robert Smith-esque aging former goth rocker who, upon the death of his estranged father, drives across America in a pickup truck in search of Nazi war criminal. Oh, and the movie is a comedy. (Other highlights: Frances McDormand as a London fire fighter, David Byrne showing up as himself for no reason, and the indelible image of Penn, all glammed, riding a mall escalator while drinking a Slurpee.)
The movie isn't entirely a success, but it certainly doesn't deserve some of the pans it received when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year. It's director Paolo Sorrentino's goofy, loopy, gorgeous little travelogue through America, seen through the eyes of a foreigner (through the eyes of an alien being, really), tied together with historical outrage, bewildered remorse and a healthy dollop of the ridiculous. Well, nothing in this movie holds together, but it's compulsively watchable and satisfyingly insane. Plus, watching Penn lisp and mumble for two hours, wearing lipstick, is worth the price of admission itself.
But my favorite scene, sadly not yet available online, is a quiet one, lasting about 90 seconds, that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. Cheyenne, in the midst of his voyage, stops in a random bar somewhere in the Midwest. Sucking down an orange soda, he sits down next to a man covered in tattoos, including a massive one of Jesus Christ on his chest, and they spring up the unlikeliest of conversations. They look at each other like outsiders, like they can't believe they both live in a world large enough to contain the both of them, and then just start talking, like strangers do.
The man, noticing the drink, asks if Cheyenne used to drink—it's clear he knows many who have had such struggles. Cheyenne says, "Enough to decide to stop." The man asks Cheyenne if he likes tattoos, and we wonder if this is going to turn menacing, we wonder if the man is going to pummel the fruit who wondered into his bar. Cheyenne, whose signature characteristic is almost self-destructive honesty, says he doesn't know, that he'd just been looking at the man's tattoos and asking himself whether or not tattoos looked stupid. The man says he makes tattoos for a living. No: He does it for art.
What follows is a weirdly moving conversation I don't want to spoil but is like countless short, otherwise meaningless conversations you have in your life when you're searching, when you're wondering what service you provide the world. The two men have both experienced and caused pain, it's obvious, but they grasp for good, they grasp for what they have given. They say none of this explicitly, of course. They just roam around in conversation until they find it. By the end, they've stumbled on some sublime understanding of beauty, and even of hope. Then they leave each other, and the conversation is never referred to again. I bet in a year it's the only scene of the movie I remember. It's possible it's the only scene of this year I'll remember.
The last scene of The Grey
(Note: If you haven't seen The Grey and don't want to know how it ends, don't read this.)
Released back in January, which tends to be a dumping ground for studios, The Grey seemed like a throwaway genre flick starring Liam Neeson squaring off with wolves. But it's actually a very thoughtful, moving drama about survival, faith, masculinity, grief and death—Life of Pi in the Alaskan wilderness. Still, the film's best trick is how it manages to be a gripping action-adventure movie while building these deeper levels to Neeson's character, a heartsick sniper named Ottway working on an oil rig who's so distraught over his wife leaving him that he's considering suicide. It's entirely possible to enjoy The Grey as a rugged man-versus-nature thriller, but Neeson and director Joe Carnahan give the story a deeper resonance that grows stronger as the film rolls along and more of Ottway's colleagues are killed by the freezing temperatures or a pack of ravenous wolves hot on their trail.
But it's not until the last scene of the movie—my favorite scene of the year—that Carnahan really punches us in the stomach. A lot of movies end ambiguously, but The Grey does those one better, leaving us with a new way of understanding what we've been watching for the last two hours.
Throughout The Grey, Ottway has been bedeviled by happy memories of his wife laying in bed with him—a glimpse of his life before things fell apart. Other times, he'll reference a short poem his brutal, uncommunicative father wrote:
"Once more into the fray ...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day ...
Live and die on this day ..."
For most of the film's running time, those two elements seem unconnected—just some backstory hints into who Ottway is. But when we come to the ending, Carnahan and co-writer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers (who wrote the original short story) connect the dots brilliantly. Ottway is alone, the rest of the survivors of his crashed flight have been killed along the way. Shorn of all hope, he lays down in the snow, apparently ready for his own death when, suddenly, he realizes he's surrounded by wolves and being eyed by the alpha male. Only then do we see a new glimpse of Ottway's flashback to his wife, which reveals a crucial new bit of information: They're not at home in bed but, rather, in a hospital room. She didn't leave him; she died.
In other hands, this would qualify as a cheap, Shyamalan-like twist, but in The Grey there's an organic explanation for this reveal: Ottway's adventure with these vicious wolves, in some ways, has really been about him finally coming to terms with his wife's death, which was still so painful that he couldn't quite fully visualize it in his memories. And then he stands, preparing to do battle with the alpha while intoning his father's poem once last time. The movie ends, the outcome left uncertain. (There's a small moment after the credits that teases a possibility but is far from definitive.)
The Grey's ending could be considered a letdown or a copout, but I don't think it could have resolved itself any other way. All along, without us really noticing it, the movie has been about how we all tackle the unimaginable problems associated with living: the father we never knew, the loss of those close to us, our own mortality. So it really doesn't matter who survives this battle between man and wolf—The Grey argues that, in the end, the wolf is always there, and it's how we choose to face that moment that matters. Ottway, finally at some sort of peace about his wife's passing, is ready for what might be that last good fight. There's something incredibly beautiful and inspiring in that moment that requires no concrete resolution: In a way, this is his happy ending.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.