Perhaps “The Artist” was doomed by the high hopes handed down to me. Perhaps it was the hope that a non-traditional film would walk off with the grand prize on Oscar Night. Could this be the first, again mostly, silent film to be nominated for Best Picture in the last 80 years? The foreign-language “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a note-worthy nomination. As was “Beauty and Beast.” Perhaps now we’ve reached a time to nominate a truly extraordinary film this year. A film unique not just in genre but in content and context, scope and intimacy. I want to argue the best film of 2011 was not the remake of “Footloose” (close one, I know) but was actually the documentary “Life in a Day.”
“Life in a Day” demonstrated what I had only hypothesized years ago, that the most realistic film would have to be a two-hour long montage of all humanity. While on a visceral level I might enjoy many, many others, I’d be fine with this one film being presented to our future alien overlords when they ask to understand mankind in under two hours.
Yes, there is some structure to it. And yes, some people included clearly present themselves in a controlled way. But that is us all the same. Putting on makeup or pretending is just another form of authenticity. Are people gross, sure. And yes, we kill animals, steal and occasionally trample one another for no discernable purpose. But coming to grips with reality is our own responsibility; it’s no filmmakers’ responsibility to shield us from ourselves.
Beautifully shot in every variation of beauty that can be described, I could not have felt bored for two minutes in the entirety of the piece. “Life in a Day” does not challenge in the audience in any confrontational tone that seems to coat the dreariest of indie films. Instead, the audience can just watch and be awed by the culmination of humanity’s own understanding. Granted, the film does not contain the grandeur of the Great Pyramids nor does it contain the everlasting mysteries of other, physical, art. However, I think this simple documentary, reaching to the farthest ends we, as all civilization can reach, means more to more people (viewers or not) than any other traditional piece of art or entertainment.
“Life in a Day” does not require viewers to better understand their own lives during and after; but if new questions and appreciation are not stirred from within, then I fear all hope is lost. Admittedly, this quasi-religious association with humanity—and by some extension, the film about humanity—is entirely my own and should not act as a deterrent to the scientists, misanthropes and devilishly good-looking people who read my reviews. “Life in a Day” is simply a cinematic Rorschach test. See what you will, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
As is, “Life in a Day” is a tough sell and the inaudible “The Artist” has a safe, generational gimmick for middlebrow moviegoers. There is a chance for the Academy, and America, to acknowledge and applaud a unique, entertaining and vivid film in the dark days of February, but I can’t help but think we’ll all be looking in the wrong direction.