Michael C here to make sure memory one of 2012's masterpieces isn't washed away in a flood of Oscar bait.
The more I think about the final moments of Moonrise Kingdom the more it feels like the saddest thing I’ve seen at the movies all year.
At first glance it feels like the ending couldn’t be much happier. The young lovers are reunited, the storm has passed, and even if things aren’t perfect life is left in greater balance than when the story began. Yet on repeat viewings a nagging feeling of loss rises to the surface. Sam and Suzy are together but it’s not accidental that the last thing we see them do is say goodbye to each other. We first meet Suzy as a raven and now the soundtrack sings of birds flying away in the changing seasons. In film’s closing moments we see Suzy pause to acknowledge Sam’s painting of their beachfront camp. Their stolen adventure sits there, already frozen in the past.
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It brings to mind Ben Johnson’s legendary monologue from The Last Picture Show where he sits on a similar beach and remembers when he and his girl would skinny-dip there when they were young and wild. I can imagine Jared Gilman’s character (also named Sam) looking out over his “Moonrise Kingdom” decades down the road and thinking much the same thoughts.
If you’re familiar The Last Picture Show you know making this comparison is strong praise indeed, but Moonrise Kingdom earns it. The unadorned simplicity of Bogdonavich’s classic may be the polar opposite of Wes Anderson’s carefully composed world but underneath the heightened style the emotional power is the same. Anderson's film captures the first blush love with as much warmth, humor and complexity as any film I've seen. It surely deserves to be included among the year's best when Best Picture nominations are handed out. Yet from the perspective out here in mid-November the odds are looking long.
I suspect there is a large swath of voters standing between Moonrise Kingdom and Oscar who view Best Picture as a sort of advertisement to the world in which the nominated films are the ones that best live up to some vaguely noble cinematic ideal. According to this group, Anderson’s films – though enjoyable – are considered too slight, too idiosyncratic, too lacking in gravitas to be placed on the big pedestal.
I confess to being baffled when I encounter this mindset. For one thing, how anyone can point to Anderson’s unique aesthetic as anything but an argument in his favor is beyond me. If there are any merits to the idea of handing out awards for artistic achievement surely they would include elevating an artist who has managed to carve out such a distinct body of work in a commercial medium. Should Anderson's considerable achievement to be discredited because of guilt by association with a shallow hipster aesthetic which is fashionable to mock?
And let’s not skip too quickly over those surface charms either. Every review mentions Wes’s trademark style but such lip service doesn’t do justice to this level of mastery. Every detail of production design on Moonrise, every costume, every choice of the photography is both objectively beautiful in its own right and pulling together in the same direction towards Anderson’s vision. It may not scream importance like the imagery of Les Misérables or Lincoln, but mark my words, Moonrise will go down as one of the essential visual achievements of 2012.
Speaking of mastery, is there anyone working who writes and directs with greater precision than Wes? There is not a wasted frame in the film's compact 90 minute running time. Screenwriters would benefit from studying the wealth of exposition contained in the brief pen-pal correspondence sequence. And don’t we know all we need to know about Ed Norton’s character after he tells his scouts he is a math teacher before amending his occupation to “Scoutmaster, Troop 55. I’m math teacher on the side.”
One need only look at all the films currently emerging as modern masterpieces which didn’t get anywhere near Best Picture - Groundhog Day, Dazed and Confused or Anderson’s own Rushmore - to see that those films that appear “important” at first glance don’t overlap all that strongly with those that best stand the test of time. I suspect if voters could take a mulligan on those years we would see a few of those titles find their way onto the big list. Now this year there is a queue of prestige pictures waiting to snag all the Oscar glory while Moonrise Kingdom is a distant memory from last May. I don’t have a crystal ball but I'm willing to bet that if it’s left off the Best Picture ballot future film lovers will be left wishing they could get a do-over on 2012.
I'm pleased to report Focus Features is getting behind Moonrise. Click Here to check out the fan art competition they are running to promote the film. Follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm. And read his blog Serious Film.