Conventional wisdom says movies get lousier and lousier every year. Or, more likely, we get older and older. It's true, mainstream movies are louder, faster and more violent, are often created as "properties" and "franchises" by corporate brand-management teams, and anyone who's missing the intelligence of movies from the 1960s to the 1990s can hardly be faulted.
And yet, 2012 was actually a pretty great year to go to the movies.
(OK, maybe not to go into movie theaters, where audience etiquette is at an all-time low, digital projection further cheapens the experience -- think about those letterbox black bars on the top and bottom of the screen when you watch coming attractions; the theater could simply expand the screen to the proper ratio, but that takes time and money -- and prices are steeper than they've ever been.)
Some year-end surgery has kept me from seeing Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and Barbara, three films high on my to-do list, but of the films I did see in 2012, here are my selections for the best ... and two booby prizes as the most miserable experiences I've had in the dark during the past 12 months -- not counting my sleepless post-surgery night!
#10 - Skyfall
James Bond hasn't been this fun for decades. Skyfall combines the easy humor of Connery and Moore with some of the finest action scenes in recent memory. OK, so the ending goes on a little long, but I didn't mind one bit. Fine performances by Daniel Craig and Judi Dench clinch the deal, as does a coda that blends pathos with a sly, knowing wink. It's a given that 007 can't die ... but for a few minutes there, they had me going. A brilliant title montage doesn't hurt, either.
#9 - Beasts of the Southern Wild
A memorable filmed tone poem, and more visually splendid than the overrated Tree of Life, anchored by waht has to be one of the most stunning performances of the year -- which happens to be from a 6-year-old. Her name is Quvenzhane Wallis, and if I can't pronounce it, I certainly won't forget it. Her Hushpuppy is the most brash, brazen, feisty, staunchly independent and emotionally complex character you'll see on screen in many a year. Hushpuppy's journey through the backwaters of Louisiana before and following a devastating hurricane is engrossing and heartfelt, even in its most obtuse moments. This isn't a mainstream studio film, and though it is demanding of its audience, neither is it what most moviegoers fear when they hear the words "independent cinema." We need more movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild.
#8 - Chronicle
The best super-hero movie of the year. It's original and brave, made to please the filmmakers and please the audience, not to cross-promote theme parks and consumer products. Simultaneously dark and funny, moody and exhilarating, Chronicle is, let me say it again, the best super-hero movie of the year ... maybe the decade.
#7 - The Queen of Versailles
No one could have planned it this way, but what starts out as a sharply satirical jab at the selfish excess of the late 2000s turns into one of the best filmed explorations of the pain inflicted, intentionally and not, by the people who caused the collapse of the housing market ... and that doesn't just mean the bankers and real-estate investors, it means everyone who was trying to live beyond his means. The Queen of Versailles will amuse you, anger you, shock you and, surprisingly, move you. Any movie that can do all of those things with this kind of flair has to be one of the best movies of the year. It's available now on VOD -- watch it.
#6 - Life of Pi
Though I remain flummoxed by its lack of success to meaningfully mesh its spiritual first half with the grand, lonely adventure of its second half, a shortcoming it shares with the novel, Life of Pi contains some of the most arresting, complex, daring, beautiful, memorable, astonishing images of any movie this year. It aims incredibly high and mostly succeeds. It's a movie that will make even the most jaded filmgoer sit up and take notice. Director Ang Lee seems giddy to take cinema places it hasn't gone before, and that more than makes up for its faults.
#5 - The Impossible
Only at the end does it succumb to bathos, but for most of its running time The Impossible is a grueling, rewarding experience. What happened to this family in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami shouldn't have been filmable, yet here it is -- a film that never lets its jaw-dropping technical accomplishments overpower the emotion. It may not be quite as ultimately "uplifting" as its marketing wants you to believe, but The Impossible is a film that delivers searing, indelible images, underscored by powerful central performances.
#4 - Safety Not Guaranteed
True joy is an emotion that many movies aim for but few succeed (and even fewer live-action films). Safety Not Guaranteed ends with a scene of pure joy. How it gets there is something I wouldn't dream of ruining. If it's not the best film of the year, it's certainly the best slacker-time-travel-comedy-action-adventure-science-fiction-buddy-movie-romantic-fantasy. You say you like movies? Then this is one you cannot miss. (For instant gratification, it's also available now on VOD.)
#3 - Silver Linings Playbook
At his best in the 1980s, James L. Brooks couldn't have made a better romantic comedy about damaged people. Silver Linings Playbook is a rarity, putting its emphasis on empathy and compassion, presenting "crazy" people as ordinary as anyone else, burdened with the depth of their passion and emotion. These are not easy people to like, but like them you do because the movie loves them so much. I already felt a special warmth for Silver Linings Playbook and its richly felt, fine performances by Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and (surprise, surprise) Robert De Niro, but then the audience broke into spontaneous applause at a climactic moment that could easily have come across as cheap and trite, and that settled it.
#2 - Argo
Taut and sophisticated, suspenseful and funny, uncommonly intelligent and spectacularly well-made, Argo makes relatively recent history feel powerfully alive and vital. Every moment of this film crackles with intensity. The only pity is that studios seem to believe audiences will only accept a movie with the smarts of Argo during awards time. If we had only one other film this good each year, we'd all be better off, and thankfully in 2012, we did ...
#1 - End of Watch
By every reasonable measure of expectation, End of Watch shouldn't be as good as it is. It combines the hand-held ShakyCam of Blair Witch Project days with a tooth-rattling hip-hop soundtrack and a police procedural that has become so familiar to TV watchers. But End of Watch defies those expectations with an authenticity to its story and central performances that is riveting from beginning to end. There's not one false move, and it becomes a harrowing, mesmerizing experience that, despite its small-camera origins, demands to be seen on the big screen. Easily dismissed as another cop thriller "from the director of Training Day," it turns out End of Watch can't be dismissed at all. It's the one film this year that has stayed with me -- for all the right reasons -- like no other.
And then there were these two, which also stayed with me ... for exactly the wrong reasons.
I've spent time wondering why these two movies incite such ire in me, why they stand out as the most miserable six or so hours I've spent in movie theaters this year, and it boils down to this: They can't exist on their own. Each needs immense explanation from its director, who insists that there is more than meets the eye. In both cases, my eyes were bugged out and tired at the end (and I'll admit to letting them rest for a few minutes in one of them). Worse, unlike, say, Battleship, What to Expect When You're Expecting or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (movies I wouldn't dare pay to see), these at least had the pretense of being auteur-driven, serious-minded films. I list them here in alphabetical order, not in the order I disliked them, for in that regard, they are basically equal.
The Master -- Paul Thomas Anderson's plodding, lugubrious, puzzling examination of the cult of religion (Scientology or otherwise) is a liquor-sodden bore. The only thing more inexplicable than the way it's still-born on screen (with apologies to Hitchcock for that quote) is the praise heaped upon it, which may well by repeated by the Academy. Could it be that any film from an important director will be regarded as a masterpiece even before it's seen? As the movie heaves from one endlessly protracted, lifeless scene to the next, I admit to nodding off momentarily. If there are merits, and there well may be, they escaped me completely -- though not for long, which allows me to say in childlike astonishment to those around me, "Did you happen to notice that the Emperor has no clothes?"
Prometheus -- It was not, the director and screenwriters insisted, a prequel to Alien. Except it was, and not a very good one. When it wasn't heaping unanswered questions upon unanswered questions, it was blatantly defying both logic and good judgment: Why wouldn't those women run sideways to escape a giant rolling wheel? Why would scientists scamper off to an unexplored planet without checking, oh, you know, anything first? Why would an android watch Lawrence of Arabia to learn how to be human? Was it the only film he brought on board? But why do I think Prometheus is one of the worst movies of 2012? Because it took 33 years of equity and goodwill built up by the original (in every sense of the word) Alien and squandered it on stupidity. Despite ravishing design and photography -- which gave it more to recommend than The Master -- it proved that even if you're Ridley Scott, you can't go home again ... and 3-D really does add nothing to virtually every film it's used on. (Notable exception: Life of Pi.) Prometheus is a science-fiction shaggy dog story, endless setup with no punchline.
You'll no doubt disagree. Or not. In any event, feel free to let me know how right or wrong you think I am. I can take it. After all, it's only a movie ... or 12.