The best moment in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (opening this week in New Zealand cinemas) is remarkably similar to the worst moment in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (opening January 31st).
With films like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo capturing the zeitgeist amongst a remarkably rich pool of Oscar films this awards season, it hasn't quite been the Django versus Lincoln showdown between Spielberg and Tarantino that some might've been predicting.
I wasn't predisposed to comparing the films, but the manner in which Lincoln's staid piousness repelled me perfectly complemented the way Django pulled me in close.
I am a massive fan of Steven Spielberg and I'll gladly see anything he makes, and Abraham Lincoln was obviously a great man who achieved a great deal, but boy oh boy is Lincoln the movie a giant pile of self-regarding twaddle. Albeit one with an amazing central performance by Daniel Day Lewis.
The aforementioned nadir occurs late in the film following a brief discussion between Honest Abe and one of his black servants in the main hallway of his house. As Lincoln wanders off towards the front door (and INTO HISTORY), the servant stops what he's doing, stands back and simply stares at the back of the President, projecting superlative amounts of respect and gratitude.
It's the "I could've saved more people!" breakdown from Schindler's List all over again. Maybe I would have a different view if I was American (or saw the film in an American context), but as it stands, it's a cloying moment of sappy overstatement that prevented me from taking the film seriously.
The corresponding moment in Django occurs when (minor spoiler alert!) the title character has just finished dealing to some white overseers and freed himself from shackles in one of the film's many changes in fortune. As Django heroically mounts a horse and rides off to save his beloved, a solemn slave who was until that moment in a cage with Django, stares at him in amazement, and the beginings of a smile start to slowly creep across his face...
It's a moment of considerable power in the film, and one the effectively embodies Tarantino's stated intentions in making Django Unchained - to create a mythological black Western hero.
Tarantino's film is far from flawless, but I think it's his finest work since Pulp Fiction. At almost three hours, it feels drastically overlong, but there's no denying what we are seeing on screen is exactly what Tarantino intended. The uncompromising nature of his vision comes through loud and clear, and made me embrace the film further, large misshapen beast that it is.
It's all too rare these days that a film inspires the elation of a mental fist-pump, but Django did at least five times for me. The comparisons made to Inglourious Basterds are not unfounded - it is another violent revenge fantasy set in the relatively recent past. But where Basterds felt like a series of vignettes with little connective threads, Django is more of a pure journey.
Plus it's just so much damn fun - the endless cameos are great, and watching Samuel L Jackson's Stephen bounce off Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie is ceaselessly amusing. These are the two actors who deserve Oscar attention for this movie. The nominated Christoph Waltz is fine and dandy, but if I ever hear him say 'Gentlemen, Gentlemen, Gentlemen" one more time...
It feels like both an advantage and a disadvantage to be able to perceive Django Unchained outside its intended context. We can view it more as a movie, but some of its power is muted. That said, the violence is so severe, some people have argued it's impossible to embrace the black humour that follows.
But Django is not a film that is trying to be liked. It's trying to make an impact, and it certainly does. Lead actor Jamie Foxx put it best when he told Empire magazine "This is a film that'll cut you if you pick it up". It's troubling and problematic, but in the tradition of the best baiting cinema.
Lincoln on the other hand focuses on an inherently un-dramatic political vote that we already know the outcome to. It's the least successful attempt to wring tension out of the political process since The Phantom Menace.
Day Lewis incorporates into his performance observations about Lincoln's manner apparently extolled in the film's source material - Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As I mentioned earlier, his performance is undeniably immersive, but the novelty of Lincoln telling a crude joke can only take the film so far. And of course there are some classically Spielbergian Daddy issues chucked in there for good measure.
Also, it's as boring as paint. The inflammatory aspects of Django have raised a lot of ire. But slavery is an inflammatory issue, and an inflammatory treatment feels appropriate.
Amped for Django? Amped for Lincoln? Comment below!