Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers has squeaked onto a few Top 10 lists so far this year, but no one's made as emphatic a case as Tom Carson in The American Prospect.
It features bare breasts galore, surreally goofy robberies and mayhem, and an all but unrecognizable James Franco wearing what look like brass knuckles on his teeth as a white rapper/wannabe gangsta named Alien. Will you believe me when I go on to tell you it's the funniest, brainiest movie about our national character -- which, this being America, means our national fantasy life, otherwise known as the pursuit of happiness -- I've seen in I don't know how long?
As you'd expect from Carson, a two-time National Magazine Award winner, it's a delightful read, the moreso if you imagine the Prospect's audience -- who are, let's just say, somewhat outside Spring Breakers' target demographic -- spewing their herbal tea and dropping their monocles as they read it.
Spring Breakers isn't one of my Top 10, or even 15 or 20, all of which I've been asked to submit to various publications and polls. But I think that Spring Breakers is unquestionably the movie of the year, in the sense that Pope Francis is Time's Person of the Year -- not the best movie of 2013, but the most 2013 of them. If you want to show future generations where the United States of America was at in 2013, plug Spring Breakers right into their skulls.
Harmony Korine's movies always walk the line between genius and fraud, and Spring Breakers wobbles more than some. It's his most "professional" film, beautifully shot by Enter the Void's Benoit Debie, but also one of his glib and least personal. It's easy to love, and also easy to underestimate. Korine's playing a double game, exploiting the images of nubile young women and hip-hop-inflected excess while putatively critiquing them -- though it's easy to see the latter as a smokescreen for his not-so-covert indulgence.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a screed attacking the "critical inflation" of the year-end pileup, called Spring Breakers "another let-them-eat-cake and ultimately unthreatening (if doggedly puritanical) provocation crossed with kiddie-porn," a statement that shows his age more than his taste. Neither the young co-ed characters or the actresses who play them are children; hell, Selena Gomez is even old enough to drink. But there aren't many American movies that confront just how fast and how hard young people, especially women, grow up these days. One moment Gomez's character is a fully sexual adult, the next she's on the phone to her parents like a lost child. It's ugly and weird and uneasy-making, and unquestionably meant to be all of those things.
In his six-way tie for 10th place, the New York Times' A.O. Scott links Spring Breakers with The Bling Ring and The Wolf of Wall Street, all of them movies that some critics have dismissed for being in poor taste (the latter in vague terms since the studio embargo holds until December 17). But perhaps good taste isn't the best way to represent a country, and a culture, that no longer seems to have much interest in it.