I wrote an article for the Rant Pad a few months ago, explaining that Ridley Scott's Prometheus was my favorite movie of 2012. I loved it, but the amount of problems with its script made it clear to me that it couldn't have actually been the best movie of the year, the most well-crafted. And I wouldn't claim it as the best film of the year when I hadn't even seen most of the Oscar-nominated films for Best Picture.
Now that we are well into 2013, I would like to change my answer on both counts. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is the best film I've seen in years.
My colleagues at Buried Cinema discussed Zero Dark Thirty on podcast 134, and their views were barely charitable at best. None of them said that the movie belonged on their respective Top 10 lists. I would like to defend the film largely as if I were present to respond on the podcast, but a general defense is also appropriate, in light of the amount of hate thrown at the film under shaky pretenses.
Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden from the perspective of CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain). Through tough times in Pakistan and bureaucratic barriers, Maya never gives up on the chase, even when her favorite lead seems to fall dead. The film leaves Maya behind at the climax, as the evidence, followed through to her conclusion, leads Seal Team Six into bin Laden's compound with a kill order.
On the podcast, there was a complaint about of a lack of emotional impact in everything leading up to the raid. This is only true in the sense that this is not a drama about the effects of terrorism and war on individuals and families. But the film's tie to reality, its most powerful aspect, is what provides the emotion for the audience during the first 90 minutes. Bigelow recreates terrorist attacks from the past decade, presenting them from an angle other than what the news media has. And so the viewer feels a sense of dread and anticipation when the titles pop up on screen: Khobar, May 29, 2004; London, July 7, 2005; Islamabad, September 20, 2008, and so on. Also, our identification with Chastain's character affects us when her life is suddenly threatened or when she loses a friend to a terrorist bomb.
Buried Cinema also echoed the most common complaint leveled against Zero Dark Thirty, its morality. This was presumably in reference to its depiction of torture used by CIA agents on terror suspects. I can't even begin to cover the amount of hate thrown at Zero Dark Thirty because of the torture scenes it contains, but I would like to point out that one of the main catalysts for the controversy was this December 2012 article in the left wing UK newspaper The Guardian, in which Glenn Greenwald bashes the film without ever having seen it.
Watch the film (again). At no point does Bigelow suggest that torture is a positive thing, or that torturing suspects will solve all of the United State's problems. Yes, it is rough to watch, but it is supposed to be, and the torture Maya is involved in barely yields any clues. The film's realism dictates that it show you what happened; it doesn't endorse a viewpoint on it. The morality of that is beyond refute.
The whole film is intense, including the ending raid, which evokes the tone of a very tense action film. The dark, grainy images of fully geared-up soldiers moving through the concrete compound, as unstoppable as a tide, are truly chilling. At no point does Bigelow's style draw attention to itself. She wisely avoids the shaky-cam, found-footage style that has Hollywood inducing motion sickness left and right these days. Instead, her camera stays out of the way and puts the audience in the drama. The cinematography by Greig Fraser, likewise, goes for realism rather than comment.
It has harrowing realism, stunning production values, and amazing performances. I have never seen a film like Zero Dark Thirty. And neither have you. Think of it what you will, but think.