It's just about Oscar-bait time, so before the race for the gold begins in earnest, here's my look at my five favorite films of the year so far. One truth about the Oscars: The Best Picture winner is usually not the film, looking back, that most people would consider to be their favorite -- and this year is not likely to be different.
Still, here are five films that are my favorites to date in what has been an undeniably mediocre year. Not included: John Carter, a movie I admired greatly -- and that almost did make the cut. I admired its determination to create a full world, to tell a swashbuckling adventure story, and as much as I thought its harsh detractors were wrong (and ultimately, I believe, will be disproven in time), I liked these five movies even more. In reverse order of preference:
#5 - Hope Springs
The actors are the draw here, not because they are big names (and they are -- you don't get much bigger than Meryl Streep) but because they play such small characters, people with troubles as commonplace as anyone in the audience. Hope Springs has the knack of understanding why we are so mean to the people we love most, and finds warm-hearted sympathy in the plight of living a life filled with dashed dreams and diminished expectations. Even there, in the place that life deposits you, there is beauty and laughter. Hope Springs is a tonic for a weary heart.
#4 - Chronicle
This year has been so overloaded with mega-budgeted super-hero movies that Chronicle's feat is doubly astonishing: It is among the very best super-hero movies ever by its simple decision to tell a crackling good story about what might happen to a modern teenager if he were embued with super powers. Somehow, this tiny-budgeted independent film has more soaring visuals and sweeping, identifiable emotions than the last dozen Marvel or DC films combined. It's a captivating, delightful surprise.
#3 - End of Watch
This cop drama starts out in iffy territory, trying to graft the "found-footage" trend onto a gangland crime thriller. But once you get into its visual, violent, profane rhythm, it becomes virtually impossible to stop watching. It's been a long time, indeed, since I found myself as invested in the action and, more importantly, the characters as I was in End of Watch. It's a stunning achievement in filmmaking.
#2 - Beasts of the Southern Wild
You'll remember two things: Hush Puppy and the way you feel. Like the best art of any kind, Beasts of the Southern Wild will incite different feelings in different people. Driven not by narrative but by emotion, it's an odd, vibrant, exciting and beautiful movie about strength and resilience -- as demonstrated by a plucky 6-year-old. The Academy had better think about reinstating that old "Young Performer of the Year" award it used to give to Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, because no child has blazed across the screen in recent memory, possibly ever, with the sheer force of Quvenzhane' Wallis.
#1 - Safety Not Guaranteed
More like "film not classifiable" -- it's a genre-busting blast of pure movie joy. Do yourself a favor: Don't read a synopsis, don't do research, just see it. Give it your full attention (ideally in a movie theater). Two hours later, you'll come out feeling like you were hit by a bolt of happiness. If the Academy were honest with itself, they'd admit: There's unlikely to be a movie this in love with being a movie anytime this year -- or who knows when, for that matter. A sheer, utter blast of fun.