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Now and Then: In Harmony, 'Life of Pi' and 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Are the Best Films of the Year

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! December 4, 2012 at 4:25PM

One is a grand, sea-borne spectacle, a master's first glorious foray into 3-D. The other, like its breakout star, is a furious miniature whose impact far outweighs its size. But both "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" are fervently alive to the world of nature, of spirit — two halves of the same double helix.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" has come in for criticism as "disaster tourism," a valorization of poverty and a dangerous paean to those who court death and then need the government to help them pick up the pieces. But this is wrongheaded. The film doesn't celebrate poverty — it celebrates autonomy, whether in a community's choice to rebuild against the odds or a young girl's desire to let her hair grow out, untamed.

Happiness, at its root, may be cracked crab and cold beer, not well-kept lawns and big televisions. What The Bathtub lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in spirit. Remember, Hushpuppy and her fellow Delta denizens are no more responsible for hurricanes and floods than Pi is for the sinking of his ship. They are not the ones who drive the cars, fly the planes, and keep the A/C on 65 throughout the Southern summer; they are not the ones who do all these things and then demand that gas stay below $4 and vote out the congresspeople who support a tax on carbon. We are.

In the end, it is her own encounter with bureaucracy, the relief workers who try to make her fit their image of a little girl, pigtails and all, that sends Hushpuppy on her final journey. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," she says. Or, as Pi puts it, "I had to get back to the world, or die trying." And so she and her brethren march homeward, the score's soaring trumpets bearing them against the current. It is a moment no less miraculous than Pi's rediscovery of the world.

Other films this year may have been more tightly scripted, more fluidly framed, more realistic in their content, politics, and emotional bent. But "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will share the first spot on my year-end top ten list because none made me feel more deeply cinema's ability to magic into existence that which we can only believe in, or doubt.

Because Pi and Hushpuppy, survivors of shipwrecks great and small, never achieve, and never strive for, the power to tame nature, to know God. Instead, they test the waters of their own courage, and in the process bring together the layers of lived experience — animal, human, spiritual — into something that sounds like harmony.

"Life of Pi" is now playing in theaters nationwide. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is available today on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD. Catch TOH!'s interviews with Suraj Sharma and Benh Zeitlin here and here.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, DVD and VOD, 3-D, Genres, Independents, Directors

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.