I haven’t seen many of the year-end film releases. Well, it’s only January 3rd. But looking at the Top Ten lists that are starting to appear, I note a few points of contrast, the most glaring being, perhaps, between Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonlight Kingdom.
Both films draw us in to a stylized world of their own making. Both are films about childhood, in one way or another, set in watery locales where storms are likely to erupt, and do. Beasts is a pretty good film. Moonlight isn’t.
I say this, not because chaos and violence have more aesthetic merit than stasis and cliché. Well, come to think of it, maybe that’s it, after all. Everything in Beasts is more or less unexpected, powerful, disturbing, and also somehow “right.” Half way into the film, we’re still not sure where it’s going, or who to like. On the other hand, everything in Moonlight is one-dimensional, unfunny, and unilluminating.
People will say, “That’s the point.” They’ll say, “Either you like Wes Anderson (who directed Moonlight) or you don’t.” But that isn’t true. I liked Darjeeling Limited quite a bit. Most of Anderson’s others are duds.
Both films establish parameters of imagery and stick to them. That’s good. Beasts of the Southern Wild, set on a god-forsaken island in the Mississippi Delta south of New Orleans, seems like a vivid nightmare of childhood trauma transformed into courage and love. It’s a world of poverty and squalor and imagination. Houses catch on fire, floods obliterate communities, booze is ever-present, and giant, pre-historic pigs appear from time to time.
The world of Moonlight is one of wealth and tradition and sentiment. It takes place at a Boy Scout camp, and it seems like a long Boy Scout skit with a very big budget. (Yes, I was a Boy Scout; I made Star, if you know what that means, but was never elected Order of the Arrow.) Like moonlight itself, the film is pale, the characters are stereotyped and entirely predictable; it’s a pleasant film, but it fades from the memory almost instantly.
If you’re looking for some agreeable Saturday night entertainment along these lines, let me recommend a film that was on no one's Top Ten list: We Bought a Zoo.