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Zero Dark Thirty & Beasts of the Southern Wild

They are arguably the two most acclaimed American films of 2012, so I sat to watch them with great trepidation. Could either possibly live up to the hype? Were critics over-inflating their quality and importance? Would I really be impressed with the performance—in the case of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”—with the acting of a six-year-old child(little Quevenzhane Wallis…possibly on her way to an Oscar nomination Thursday morning). Was it possible that I would find “Zero Dark Thirty” to be pro-torture(as many politicians and observers have accused the filmmakers)? I had the luxury of viewing both at home, and for the most part, in one-full sitting each on two consecutive days. There’s a lot riding on both of these babies come Academy Awards time. And, thankfully, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Twice. “Zero Dark Thirty”, the follow-up to red-hot director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Oscar winner for picture and director(among others), “The Hurt Locker”—is a tense, heart-racing knockout about the hunt for, and capture of, Osama Bin Laden. And “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is the fantastical, touching, micro-budgeted wowser of a film debut for 30 year-old Benh Zeitlin from Queens, New York. They are both in the “highly probable” category for my Top Ten Films of 2012 list(as usual, expect that final ranking by January’s end). As far as I’m concerned, it’s mission accomplished for both of these directors. Will AMPAS follow suit this week?

“Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”. Remember that line of dialogue. My belief is that you’ll hear it repeated an awful lot in the coming weeks. It has a way of sticking with you. Remember, “Mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates”? Same kind of thing, only not as annoying. But Hushpuppy(Ms. Wallis)isn’t a shrimp boat captain, but an adorable young girl living a life of poverty(and happiness!)in a destitute Louisiana bayou community labeled “the Bathtub”. “The Bathtub” is so named due to the fact that it is cut off from the big city by a levee. So, if the area gets slammed with a whopper of a storm, the city is protected—while “the Bathtub” fills up with water. And that giant storm is coming(allusions to Katrina, without ever giving it that name). Hushpuppy is being “raised”(some of the time, anyway)by her gruff, alcoholic, highly unconventional father called Wink(an intense Dwight Henry). Wink is not only stubborn and fiery-tempered, but he seems to be suffering from some sort of heart ailment. But he doesn’t intend to evacuate his home—storm or no storm. Anyway, the deluge arrives, the community floods, and Wink and some neighbors enact some desperate(and illegal)measures to save their homes. Then the authorities take everyone out of “the Bathtub” by force. And the motherless(is Mom dead or did she run away?)Hushpuppy rapidly watches her entire world change. And she imagines she’s being watched and threatened by the mythical “Aurochs” throughout her ordeal.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a documentary-style chronicle of the successful attempt to catch last decade’s world’s #1 terrorist. And even though we know what is coming by the finale, it is easily the finest half hour of the 150-minute running time(sans credits). That ending is a pulse-pounding, night-visioned peek into bin Laden’s Pakistan compound. And what was a very good film up until that point becomes an excellent one. Jessica Chastain(acting nomination number two on the way, although I personally didn’t find her to be as incredible as I thought I would…maybe on the second go-round?)as Maya, is the young CIA officer who oversees it all. Jason Clarke(highly effective)as Dan, is the fellow officer who we see enacting the “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”(aka: torture)against several Saudi prisoners. And the deck is stacked throughout a process-filled opening two hours before we culminate with the daring night raid. The impressive script by screenwriter Mark Boal(Best Original Screenplay winner for “The Hurt Locker”)is peppered with key scenes of excitement and brutality to give this story its visceral feel. And the last act helicopter compound invasion is so expertly handled that it instantly feels like it consists of “found-footage”. It is an awesome achievement. And it might just win this film the Best Picture come Oscar night(oddly enough, I sense no clear favorite for that award just yet! Imagine that!).

I am extremely fond of both of these movies. And “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is certainly one that I envisioned might be too cute and sentimental for me. Hardly. Benh Zeitlin deftly manages to get that whimsical tone and pacing just right. And Quvenzhane Wallis has a long time to go before we can determine whether or not she is a super-talent vs being a kid that simply responds very well to instruction. But, for this experience—she is perfectly cast. She’s indispensable here. You will respond to her emotionally. And that’s worth something, regardless of Oscar recognizing her, or not. A scene of her dancing with a young woman in the third act nearly broke my heart—be ready for the tears to flow. And am I being naive by not recognizing “Zero Dark Thirty” as taking a pro-torture stance? I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve been around the block a few times. My filmic sense dragged me in a different direction, is all. Include me in the camp that found the film to be more of an expose of torture, as opposed to an outright approval of it. But I’ve read at this point plenty of viewpoints of learned people who have taken the opposite view. No matter. Maybe the “Rashomon” theory is in full force her. It could be that certain forces simply see what they want to see. No matter. Because I know that I have seen two of my favorite motion pictures of 2012.    Grades:  A, for both

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