YEAR IN FILM: Cheryl Eddy assesses 2011's cinematic contributions and wonders if the apocalypse isn't already upon us
YEAR IN FILM As everyone and John Cusack knows, 2012 is it. And not in a "billboard-buying Alameda radio preacher Harold Camping's bungled Rapture predictions" kind of way. This is an all-in situation. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, a complicated and ancient system most enthusiastically explained by conspiracy theorists, winds up its 13th 144,000 day cycle on December 21, 2012. TL; DR: we're toast.
Though pesky, facts-knowing Latin American archaeology scholars have suggested that this doesn't actually mean the end of the world is nigh, good luck dissuading zillions of bloggers, survivalists, religious fanatics, super-volcano watchers, and people who lie awake at night, biting their fingernails over the Large Hadron Collider. Imminent catastrophe awaits! Are you ready?
Enter Hollywood, which in its 100-plus year history has never had any qualms about exploiting society's extant feelings of fear and dread. In 2009, 2012 prophesized global destruction ("Mankind's earliest civilization warned us this day would come!") as only a film with a lavish special effects budget could. Yet it offered last-act hope, a preferred tactic of master of disaster Roland Emmerich — who, having ice-aged, Godzilla'd, and alien-invaded the planet in a succession of go-boom films over the past 15 years, switched gears in 2011 with Shakespeare mystery Anonymous. (Last-ditch artistic atonement, perhaps?)
The apocalyptic films of 2011 took a different approach, opting to emphasize existential terror instead of fireballs, with no happy endings in sight. Lars von Trier's Melancholia inspects the one percent by peering into the lives of two privileged sisters: depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and anxious Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film's first half unfolds at Justine's lavish wedding reception — held at Claire's horsy estate — which devolves into a mini-disaster movie of its own. The stretch limo carrying the newlyweds is too bulky to navigate the property's narrow, curving driveway, until the bride slides behind the wheel and gets the tires pointed in the right direction. It's Justine's last moment of glee, as her marriage-jinxing erratic behavior soon gives way to crippling malaise.
As it turns out, a newly-discovered planet, conveniently named Melancholia, is heading toward earth. A collision course is not guaranteed, but it's pretty obvious where things are heading, and this is not the kind of movie that sends Bruce Willis into space with drilling equipment to save the day. As Claire whips herself into a panic, clicking through fear mongering websites (Melancholia's only evidence of a world beyond the mansion's well-manicured grounds), Justine accepts the impending apocalypse with cool detachment. "The earth is evil," she tells her sister. "We don't need to grieve for it."
Though there's no looming threat from outer space, the sky looks plenty ominous to Curtis (Michael Shannon), troubled protagonist of Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter. Nightmares of the I-wake-up-screaming variety have become a regular thing, and though Curtis desperately needs the health insurance provided by his construction job — his daughter (Tova Stewart) is about to get an operation to restore her hearing — he's become obsessed with upgrading the storm shelter in his backyard. Friends and neighbors, initially supportive, become angry and confused. A public meltdown is inevitable: "There is a STORM coming like nothing you have ever seen, and not A ONE OF YOU is prepared for it!" he bellows at a community dinner, spewing fire like a small-town Cassandra.