Category Archives: Film

Death and All His Friends

Viva la Vida, so the Coldplay title goes. It’s a sentiment seldom expressed by artists of a certain brand—the kind who prefers to brood over loss, transience, and death. In a way it’s easier: sorrow and poignancy often go together in serious art, whereas happiness is considered trite, banal; there are many more types of sadness than joy. And with a subject like death—how not to be fatalistic? How to find happiness?

“Bring tissues,” a friend warned me before I saw Amour. Michael Haneke’s film, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, follows an elderly couple’s struggle against the final betrayal of the body. In it human expiry is a horrible spectacle, involving stages of decay and deterioration, disgraceful in the utmost. Amour confirms everything we know to be true about death, and amplifies it to an almost intolerable note. This impression is made all the more strongly by the film’s first scene, which shows a close-up of rows of theatergoers—a mirroring effect intended to tell us, This film is about you. The point comes across immediately—amusing at first, a fine trick—but the scene lingers on and on until it is no longer just uncomfortable, but something worse. Five minutes into the film, and already we’re faced with the certainty of our own demise. It’s an understated memento mori, full of artifice but at the same time utterly without; it is a relief to be able to look away.

Yojiro Takita’s 2008 film Departures takes a different approach. Masahiro Motoki plays the lead role of Daigo, a cellist-turned-encoffiner who has to cope with the social stigma around his new profession. Initially skeptical, he slowly comes to appreciate the role’s importance through his boss Sasaki (Tsutomo Yamazaki), but finds it difficult to communicate this newfound profundity to his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), who harbors the conventional biases of many Japanese. At the same time Daigo has to confront his own feelings about his father, whose early abandonment threads through his entire adult life.

Departures handles its subject the way its protagonists treat the dead: gently, carefully, with the utmost respect and sensitivity. Without being false, it lends dignity to the awful truth of our existence by couching it in love and tradition. There is love in Amour, of course, and Georges’ final act reflects the extent of his devotion toward Anne, but ultimately it is about resistance—human temerity in the face of death, where consolation comes only in the tiniest increments. Departures, conversely, tends toward acceptance. Spliced among numerous scenes of death are those of consumption, eating as evidence of life. As they share a meal of puffer roe, Sasaki tells Daigo, “The living eat the dead to survive.” Here death is not the enemy; it is the way of the world. We grieve and we move on.

In the end it turns out I didn’t need tissues for Amour. It’s a heavy film, extremely sad, and my eyes turned watery at one point, but I never did actually cry. Strangely, it is in the more uplifting Departures where I found myself unable to hold back the tears. The film offers so many trite moments (like cello-playing in the fields), but somehow it still works, cradled in an overall atmosphere of tenderness. Joe Hisaishi’s marvelous score abets this sincerity, as well as the seamless cinematography. The recurring shots of swans particularly resonated with me, as it echoes W.B. Yeats’ poem about nature, existence, and the passing of time.

The Wild Swans at Coole
W.B. Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Far from being a lament, most viewers’ tearful response to Departures is an acknowledgment that we see here is very human, an attempt to make death bearable through ritual, an attempt to give meaning to the incomprehensible. While watching it I let go of my critical self and saw it simply as a human being—frail, temporal, hopeful as we all are. This is, I suppose, the highest praise you can give any work of art.


‘Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.’


‘When I was a child winter didn’t feel so cold.’

‘Long ago, before writing, you’d send someone a stone that suited the way you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they’d know how you felt. From a smooth stone they might get that you were happy, or from a rough one that you were worried about them.’

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

The Hunt (2012)

There are just some things you don’t doubt. The horror of war, the importance of family, the innocence of children. I suppose it’s a primal tendency, this easy allocation of truths and archetypes. It’s a bitter irony to note that for all our insistence on human complexity, at the core of society lies simple values founded on assumed truths. After all, without anything to agree on, how can communities exist? Values are of course important, but sometimes in our blind fealty to them they can lead us to fixed conclusions, spawning fictions more convincing than reality. In The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg explores what happens when these values are challenged, and the irreversible consequences of a single idea.

Here’s how Inception, the ultimate movie about ideas, describes one: “Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” This aptly describes how a Danish village comes to view Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a nursery teacher whose life falls apart because of one child’s lie. The charge of pedophilia is not a light one to make; the severe punishment we exact on perpetrators is a testament to the weight we associate with the corruption of innocence. But what happens when our terrors get the better of us, when in our desire to protect children we end up corrupting them?

Excluding malevolent little devils (as in Looper, as well as many horror movies), children do not often appear as antagonists in films. But little Klara doesn’t fit the standard mold of the antagonist either. In fact, no character does. As Mikkelsen says in an interview, “Nobody’s trying to do something out of maliciousness. Everybody’s doing it out of love and fear.” Which makes the story all the more chilling, because in our minds a tragedy on this scale requires a face, a malign intent, to pin it down on. But as we come to realize, often that’s not the case. We see what we want to see. We create our own fictions.

There are easy choices, in life as in art. With The Hunt, it would have been very easy to slip into a black-and-white portrait of a community gone mad, incensed by its own conjectures. It would have been just as easy to paint Lucas as simply the poor victim. But the village we see here is much more nuanced than that, and a feeble, whining Lucas never appears on the screen. Mikkelsen portrays him as a man of obvious pride, who must reconcile his conviction of his innocence with an admission of his predicament. Mikkelsen’s performance singlehandedly carries the film, but The Hunt involves such a high-tension act that even the tiniest snag would have dispelled the effect altogether. Fortunately the movie comes with a superbly chosen cast, down to the most minor character. Thomas Bo Larsen and Lasse Fogelstrøm give commendable performances as Lucas’ best friend Theo and son Marcus.

Ultimately, The Hunt is about the fears that plague us and the measures we take to protect ourselves, sometimes at the expense of truth. It is an exploration of human weakness, how easy it is to unravel lifelong friendships, how little it takes to mark a person with the permanent stain of doubt. Most importantly, it invites us to examine ourselves, at the way we see and interact with other people. For even as we feel righteous anger against characters on screen, our accusations are offset by a haunting uncertainty: Would I not have done the same?

This careful balance results in a film that is cinematic yet social, emotional but not maudlin, satisfying but also disquieting. With all this going for it, about halfway through I feared that the movie might end on a wrong note—with too happy or sentimental a conclusion. But I need not have worried. Vinterberg’s capabilities are manifest in one delicate scene between Lucas and Klara. The conclusion that follows is brilliant. Raw and unsettling, The Hunt ends on a perfect pitch.

‘You want to tell me something? The whole town is listening.’

‘What do you see? Nothing. There’s nothing.’

Rust and Bone (2012)

That the soul carries weight is hardly a new thought. From the Bible to Titanic (“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets”), art has long affirmed that the soul accrues scars over time, grows heavier with pain. That the body is also a repository of secrets, not as much. In The Gathering Anne Enright declares, “What is written for the future is written in the body.” This finds an echo in Alvin Yapan’s Sambahin ang Katawan, which locates human experience—fear, ambition, desire—in the flesh. This same intertwining of sentiment and physicality lies at the core of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.

Touted as “a love story that begins when two worlds fall apart,” the film chronicles human experience of pain, how it leaves marks on the body, which heals in time but never fully recovers. All tragedy brings with it scars, some more visible than others, some cutting deeper than most. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give excellent performances as Stephanie and Ali, unlikely lovers brought together by chance and tragedy. Human life takes the forefront in Rust and Bone, but here we are depicted as the most vulnerable of creatures, the most interdependent and at the same time solitary—pitiful when compared to the casual grace of orcas, the constancy of ocean waves. But out of this existence can arise a fragile beauty, a dented fortitude that comes only with pain and loss, which the camera captures beautifully in scenes too many to enumerate.

In this film all human experience is sensory, corporeal. Scenes alternates between the brutal and the sensual, often combining them into a single image. So we see rippling folds of flesh, stocking rolling down a thigh, spittle flying, blurry nipples, a lone tooth whirling in a splatter blood. Naturally, viewers feel disoriented. We don’t want to look, but we don’t want to tear our eyes away either. Violence is difficult to confront because through it we see the tenuous threads that tie us to life—risk, accident, love, the ineradicable need for connection. It is a tension that Rust and Bone handles splendidly, no matter how contrived.

In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann posits that art also makes its marks on the body. Even with a plot far removed from ordinary experience, Rust and Bone nonetheless inflicts a universal pain on its viewers, the simultaneous burden and joy of life. It is a transcendent feeling that apparently even commercial spaces like movie theaters now recognize. At the end of the screening, the lights did not go on immediately at Cinema City. Viewers were given a few minutes to wipe their eyes as the credits appeared on screen. Soon people would begin standing and putting on their coats, but in the immediate aftermath of the film nobody moved from their seats. It was a small moment of humanity.

‘Don’t leave me.’ ‘I won’t.’

Looper (2012)

Delay of gratification is hardly fashionable these days. In 2044, even less. So working as a looper makes sense, offering clean murder services to crime syndicates whose hands are otherwise tied by extensive body tagging. Instant cash, never mind what happens 30 years later. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains the premise:

In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. When they need someone gone and they want to erase any trace of the target ever existing, they use specialized assassins like me, called loopers. The only rule is: never let your target escape, even if your target…is you.

Therein lies the crux of the plot. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) travels back in time to hunt down a certain child and prevent a disastrous future, in the process endangering Young Joe’s life, whose looper contract forbids such a dichotomy. The two Joes struggle against each other, culminating in a final face-off at a Kansas farmhouse owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), whose son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) just might be the feared Rainmaker.

With all this going on, it’s not surprising that the film projects an Inception-like feel. Director/writer Rian Johnson makes his own mark on the sci-fi genre though. The movie handles information well, and it is a clash of motives that drives the conflict, not external antagonists (although we have those too). Looper owes a lot to its impressive cast. Gordon-Levitt delivers as usual, and Willis reprises a role he’s practiced to perfection: shooting down bad guys in the name of love and leather jackets. It is Blunt who surprises us with a highly emotional scene—which she pulls off without a hitch. And Gagnon gives new meaning to creepy child prodigy when he goes past mere precocious to ultra-powerful. Also, although these hardly alter the overall effect, I appreciated little touches like Gordon-Levitt’s make-up and Blunt’s tan. While they can be distracting, I recognized the added effort to lend authenticity to the movie.

Time travel is always a tricky territory to navigate. But Looper provides a caveat early on, and one that we readily agree with at the film’s conclusion. “This time travel crap,” Abe says, “just fries your brain like an egg.” This might seem like a cop-out, but it’s not. The film plays out so elegantly, so neatly (it’s a “closed loop” after all) that one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better solution. It’s not so much that there are no plot holes, but that the film holds you in thrall so effectively that you don’t want to find them, you don’t want to spoil it by thinking too much. Sure, Looper makes leaps of logic (what sci-fi movie doesn’t?) and characters make lousy decisions, but that’s part of the act. And it’s all synchronized so well that you don’t feel the need to look behind the scenes and dispel the magic. Those of you who want to take up the challenge and fry your brains, go ahead and try. As for me, I don’t need to make heads or tails of this. I’m happy with this violent, ambitious, splendid mess.

‘I’m from the future. Go to China.’

‘I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.’

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

There are storylines, and then there are variations. Season after season, we see movies harking back to their predecessors: targeting the same audience and using the same time-tested tropes, with varying degrees of critical and box office success. But every so often there comes along a work that is not content with playing by the rules, that changes the game altogether. Off the top of my head: The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix—trilogies that changed the platform for all that came after. For the superhero genre, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight series is one such game-changer.

I spent almost six hours preparing for the finale last Saturday. Several hours before the 8:10 PM screening, I saw Batman Begins for the first time and re-watched The Dark Knight. I walked into the theater drugged with Batman information and fortified by an NYFD sandwich. It had been an adrenaline-packed day. By midnight I was dragging myself, but the marathon did give me a 20/20 view of the whole trilogy.

At least for the first half-hour, Batman Begins underwhelms. Although it’s an origin story, it handles Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma carelessly, using terrible sequencing. The repeated flashbacks don’t work, and the sudden introduction of Ra’s al Ghul (who basically just goes, “Come, I’ll to train you to be badass”) seems too convenient and hard to believe. The story gets progressively better though, picking up when Bruce returns to Gotham. From that point on the plot unfolds gracefully. Bruce’s childhood terror of bats comes neatly into play when Scarecrow unleashes his panic-inducing psychedelic drug. This paves the way for the film’s most poignant moment, which occurs when a heavily-gassed, hallucinating Batman clambers onto a rooftop and rasps into a cellphone, “Alfred, help me.” The scene barely lasts a minute, but it shows Batman at his weakest, his most vulnerable, and he calls out to his oldest friend and says, “Help me.” After an unexpected twist, the conflict escalates into a familiar climax: mentor and mentee fight for the greatest city in the world. It’s not particularly astounding, but as far as superhero movies go, it is gratifying. Undoubtedly the film’s worst decision involves casting Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She and Christian Bale have zero chemistry together. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t really embody the character either, but she’s definitely an improvement.

Actually, with The Dark Knight, everything is an improvement. Since its release, the sequel has received worldwide acclaim, overshadowing its precursor by a wide margin, and for good reason. The Dark Knight goes well beyond what a good film should be. As an action movie, it does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, thrilling, and thoroughly captivating. In exploring dark moral themes, it is also thoughtful and fiercely intelligent, offering not black-and-white answers, but motley shades of gray. The ingenious interplay and overlap of the characters’ values creates a spectacle both difficult and incredible to watch.

What props up the movie’s ambition is its stellar cast. Christian Bale gives a consistent performance throughout the series, defining Batman in a way that will affect generations. Aaron Eckhart also delivers as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, rendering his rage-driven insanity credible and at the same time repulsive. Heath Ledger gives his best (and sadly, last) performance as the Joker, often stealing the spotlight from Batman. The Joker has already solidified his status as one of the greatest villains of all time, but through Ledger he becomes even more sinister, even more enigmatic. Thrice he asks would-be victims (including Batman), “Ever wonder how I got these scars?”—hinting, “Ever wonder why I turned out this way?”—and gives different answers, implying that there is no reason, that evil can exist sans cause.

Without a doubt, The Dark Knight marks an industry milestone, by superhero genre standards or any other. Coming on the heels of such an acclaimed movie, the third film was not poised for success. But even with lowered expectations—and as much as I do not want to admit it—the finale disappoints. Whereas The Dark Knight posits questions on meaning and morality, the third installment mostly provokes questions about plot. Its convoluted enemy storyline feels hastily patched together and shows holes in many places. Take just one point: Batman’s return. How did he re-enter Gotham from the Pit? How did he get back all his gear? And, for that matter, why hasn’t Bane destroyed his equipment yet? Five months is a long time to spend waiting around to fail.

Despite his bulging muscles, Bane (Tom Hardy) fails to command respect as a villain because of his lackluster terrorist-thug image. So we’re actually relieved to discover he’s not the mastermind—only to find out that it’s someone even more unimpressive, whose role until then had only been to provide Bruce Wayne with support, financial or otherwise. Uncharacteristically, Marion Cotillard gives a flat performance (maybe her role just isn’t compelling enough). Her final speech falls on deaf ears; we don’t really care about her father issues. What fans feel strongly about, even before production began, is Catwoman. Given Nolan’s previous female lead miscasts, fans had a right to worry. But Anne Hathaway gets to slap all haters in the face when she undergoes an exquisite transformation as the super-hot and versatile Selina Kyle. She easily proves herself one of the best cast choices in the franchise, right up there with Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s batman.

Hathaway aside, the finale still holds a lot of room for disappointment. Its clear division between good and evil may be fine for a regular superhero movie, but we’re not talking about a regular superhero movie. We’re talking about the conclusion to The Dark Knight series! We’re talking about the follow-up to the one film that changed the rules! Unfortunately, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the much-anticipated finale finds a hard time reaching the high standards it set for itself.

Let me make this clear: The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad movie, far from it. It still attempts to ask big questions, but instead of soaring the way its predecessor does, it kind of flops and sputters along the runway. The film spends a long time cultivating a classist undercurrent, but it never really takes off because we don’t get the sense that things change after the riots. Presumably, order resumes, and up stays up, down stays down. Not like in The Dark Knight, where the Joker shakes Gotham to its core. I at least found one gem in a conversation between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), when the latter admits the former’s point about structures becoming shackles and relinquishes his badge in favor of a more…unorthodox crime-fighting path.

If The Dark Knight Rises fails at setting up a convincing conflict, it nonetheless succeeds in wrapping up the series. And it does so admirably, doing justice to each of its characters. Thematically, the conclusion of Batman echoes several points in his life: his emotional struggles, his failures, his parents’ vision, their subsequent death, Rachel’s death. All three scripts reflect this cohesion. Even Selina’s chilling whisper of “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne” from the 2012 trailer recalls a scene two films earlier, when Batman tells then-Sergeant Gordon, “Storm’s coming.” Subtle, but shows just how much care was put into the making of these scripts. No wonder Nolan was so damn protective of them.

“Haven’t given up on me yet?” “Never.” In Batman Begins, we see Bruce and Alfred regularly exchanging these lines. During their final confrontation, under different circumstances, Alfred gives a different answer—heartbreaking, but necessary all the same. This argument sets the audience up for the conclusion, which, in hindsight, seems to be what trilogy has been heading towards all along. From Rachel’s letter to Alfred’s ultimatum, the finale makes it clear that the story no longer belongs to the symbol, but to the man—that the day has finally come “when [Bruce] no longer needs Batman.”

Although obviously an action franchise, Nolan’s series is invigorating in more ways than one. While remaining strikingly original, it calls to mind other landmark works that develop the same themes. Ra’s al Ghul’s insistence on becoming “more than just a man” finds similar incarnations in V from V for Vendetta and Zero from Code Geass. And Bane’s point about the Pit, about there being “no true despair without hope,” calls to mind a line from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Among its achievements, the trilogy’s greatest feat lies in how it pushes boundaries. It shows us the philosophical possibilities of superhero movies, a genre until now largely confined to entertaining but safe productions like the recent Spider-Man reboot.

But, as the Joker would say, “Why so serious?” For all its intellectual high-wire twists, the series triumphs because it works on a more basic level: it knows how to please an audience. All three films come out generously sprinkled with action sequences featuring top gear from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), among other visual spectacles (“Anne Hathaway on a motorbike? So worth it!” my friend TJ avows). It also doesn’t hurt that the movies weave key truths and emotions into their storyline, creating more than a few tearjerkers. “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Nolan’s trilogy is not perfect, but even with the worst of its warts, it still comes extremely well-recommended, even for non-geeks like me. It remains the best superhero series out there, and one that is not likely to fade from memory.

Batman Begins

‘A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.’

‘Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate or fair! And make no mistake: here, you face Death.’

‘Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.’

‘Haven’t given up on me yet?’ ‘Never.’

‘Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.’

‘It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.’

The Dark Knight

‘You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’

‘If you’re good at something, never do it for free.’

‘Tonight you’re all gonna be a part of a social experiment.’

‘That’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.’

‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.’

‘Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people need more.’

The Dark Knight Rises

‘There can be no true despair without hope.’

Intouchables (2011)

There are movies that challenge the mind, and there are those that nourish the heart. Of the latter, we have no dearth, but it is the rare nugget that manages to outshine all other dregs that exit film studios by the bulk. This is not to say that a film can’t be both heartwarming and intellectually stimulating (as Hugo proves), but only that we have come to expect certain things from certain films. Reading TIME’s piece on Intouchables, I expected a poignant story of an inspiring friendship, of working-class racial prejudice, and how a genuine bond can overcome such differences—which is exactly what I got, except realer and a lot more fun.

It can feel too contrived: a poor black man enters into a wealthy tetraplegic’s service and changes both their lives. But it’s true—at least up until that part. Based on a real-life story, Intouchables stars Omar Sy as the brash, loud-mouthed Driss and François Cluzet as the disabled and lovelorn Philippe. Both of them are “untouchable” in the sense that one is a social outcast and the other is detached from normal life. But it is not merely this similarity that binds them together. Beneath the bets and gags, you can see that there’s something genuine there, that the two have formed a bond that—incomprehensible as it may seem—remains wholly palpable. The paragliding scene encapsulates all this splendidly. Thousands of meters above ground, neither Driss nor François are impeded by any limitation. Up there, they experience momentary freedom—from societal expectations, bitter histories, physical restrictions. Up there, they are simply two friends gliding in the wind.

Cluzet plays his part capably, but the spotlight undoubtedly falls on Sy. Exuding natural charm, he delivers in all his scenes and shines where it matters. It’s a pleasure to watch him because he enjoys himself tremendously. It’s hard not to get caught up in that energy. Despite its obvious potential for melodrama, Intouchables chooses a different direction: fun. Not the good, clean Marley & Me kind (of which we have seen enough, but always fall for anyway). Driss and François are regularly seen sharing marijuana joints, hiring Asian hookers, and exchanging borderline offensive jokes. In between, they take time to venture into each other’s worlds. Driss listens to classical music and Philippe lip-syncs to groovy hits from Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s an astonishing friendship.

While Driss and Philippe’s relationship strays from the usual, banlieue residents apparently earn a more stereotypical approach. As far as we know, Driss’ family includes a breadwinner, a delinquent, a good daughter, and several younger children. It bothers me that the setup is too formulaic, but at the same time I acknowledge that real life offers many such situations. Either way, Intouchables possesses enough merits to attract a wide audience, and that it has. Buoyed by a wave of good humor, it became the highest-grossing film in a non-English language, breaking the previous record set by Spirited Away (my favorite Miyazaki). Although I’m skeptical about its success, I understand the movie’s appeal. Along with its feel-good quality, I appreciate Intouchables for taking a much-abused subgenre and spinning it into a success. At the very least, that’s much more than we can say for other contenders.

‘Tell me Driss, why do you think people are interested in art?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s a business?’ ‘No. It’s because it’s the only thing one leaves behind.’

‘Listen to this. Where can you find a tetraplegic?’ ‘Where can you… I don’t know.’ ‘Where you left him.’