Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Best Films of 2012: #2

Quentin Tarantino gives the lie to such sanctimonious Oscar bait as the staid, stale, lumbering "Lincoln" with his own sprawling slavery saga, the thrillingly fresh and hilariously funny "Django Unchained," a joyous jolt from the moribund complacency of would-be prestige pictures that all but choke on their piety. The contrast is nothing short of embarrassing.

Here from the new master - a few years after "Inglourious Basterds" - is another gift to film lovers, refuge from the safe and risk-averse, a film of true artistry and epic grandeur, of bracing, fearless wit born of profound cultural literacy. It takes Tarantino to come along every so often and remind us why we love movies, how much more daring and reckless and willful and genuinely exciting they can be than other filmmakers realize.

Jamie Foxx plays Django, introduced on a slaveowner's chain gang in antebellum Texas. Into the picture drives a curious carriage with a giant replica of a tooth, bearing Dr. King Schultz, a dentist (Christoph Waltz), who purchases Django after learning he comes from the plantation where three wanted criminals work, under pseudonyms, as overseers. Dr. Schultz, it turns out, hasn't practiced dentistry for five years; he's now a bounty hunter, and he offers Django one-third of the reward money to accompany him and identify the "Brittle Brothers." Django, incredulous at the chance to kill white people for money, accepts.

This odd couple work well together, and before the winter has passed they've become friends. Django's wife (Kerry Washington) is named Broomhilda, a moniker of special significance to the German-born Schultz, who relates the legend of the Ring to Django and feels both respect and an affinity for him. (He tells Django that though he plans to use "this whole slavery thing" to his advantage, at least he feels badly about it.) Despite the vagaries of award-season advertising, Waltz's role is the true lead; as Schultz pointedly reminds Django several times, he's to do all the talking when they encounter hostile white folks (which is just about all the time, as the mere sight of a black man on a horse induces astonished double and triple takes). His work here is as good as in "Inglourious Basterds" and the character of Dr. Schultz equally indelible.

Their search for Broomhilda eventually takes them to the notorious plantation Candy Land, owned by the vicious Francophile "Monsieur" Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The extended "business meeting" among Schultz, Django and Candie is a set piece every bit on the order of those in "Inglourious Basterds," delicious in its comedy of manners, eventually operatically violent in Tarantino's Grand Guignol style, and so well written throughout that those of us who love words can simply sit back and lap it up. Samuel Jackson plays Candie's "house nigger" Stephen, at once an obscene cartoon of Stepin Fetchit obsequiousness and a canny self-preservationist; although it's not saying much, Jackson's never been anywhere near this good. He had me laughing so hard I came out of my seat a couple times.

"Django Unchained" clocks in 15 minutes short of three hours. It flies by. It's a film of great specificity, uniquely American, yet somehow international in feel. You come alive in this film like you rarely do at the movies, your senses heightened, your brain fully engaged. You don't want to miss a word of Tarantino's dialogue. With "Django Unchained," he stakes uncontested claim to supremacy among major writer-directors in the American current cinema.

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