I haven’t yet seen Flight or a few documentaries that look interesting, but I have seen almost everything else released in 2012 that I wanted to; they’re ranked and rated on a 1-10 scale below. Rating scale is explained at the end.
How to Survive a Plague: 9 Devastating. Inspiring. It’s a documentary about AIDS activism, centered around the period between 1987, when ACT-UP was formed (and the year my father told me he was HIV positive) and 1996, when treatment breakthroughs dramatically increased survival rates (and the year my father died.) So I’m not going to pretend to be impartial here. But this is a remarkable film about a remarkable people fighting for respect and understanding and survival, for themselves and others. Incredibly, it was made by David France, a journalist who’d never made a film before; he watched a movie a day for two years to teach himself how. Rather than relying heavily on present-day interviews and voiceovers, the film consists largely of archival footage that puts the viewer in the middle of the action. It’s astonishingly well-crafted, and not just for a first-time filmmaker. It’s better-assembled, with fewer obvious flaws, than several Best Picture nominees. And only Amour comes close to matching its emotional impact. You probably can’t find it in theaters, but it’s available on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, VOD … there are lots of ways to watch. Please do.
Amour: 8.5: Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Wonderfully-acted.
Argo: 8: Just a really well made movie. Good script, good acting, good pacing… I’ve never understood the hostility & mockery long directed at Ben Affleck. He’s written, directed, and acted in some excellent films. Sure, he’s been in some clunkers. So has Robert De Niro. At least Affleck doesn’t keep making sequels to his terrible movies. … In 1999, American League managers awarded Rafael Palmiero the Gold Glove for being the best defensive first baseman in the league. He played only 28 out of 162 games at first base that season. Similarly, the Academy nominated Alan Arkin’s performance in Argo for best supporting actor despite the fact that he was on screen for approximately 12 seconds and played himself, basically. I like Arkin as much as the next guy, but this is a joke of a nomination, and a reminder that the Academy’s judgments aren’t due any deference.
Django Unchained: 8: Oh, just see it.
Skyfall: 8: Not flawless -- significant plot elements were fairly weak -- but maybe the best Bond movie ever, and one of the best movies of the year.
Silver Linings Playbook: 8: If you think of it as a romantic comedy, it’s an unusually good one. If it’s supposed to be something deeper, it falls short. I prefer to think of it as the former.
Looper: 8: Movies that prominently feature time travel are, almost without exception, train wrecks that trip over their own internal logic (see #3 in “What the ratings mean,” below.) Looper avoids this pitfall better than any movie I can think of. That alone probably earned it a 6.
Safety Not Guaranteed: 7: Charming. Amusing.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: 7: This rating is kind of a punt. I watched Beasts at home, and suspect that in a more immersive theater environment I’d have gotten more out of it. As it was, the film’s fantasy elements did little for me, the (lack of) character development less, and the too-precious-by-half name “Hushpuppy” actively bothered me. The latter is a small thing, but when invoked constantly by the film itself -- look at how quirky and charming and adorable! -- it’s a small thing the way a popcorn husk stuck in your teeth is a small thing.
Dark Knight Rises: 7: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is both the best superhero franchise ever and the most overrated. Discuss.
This Is 40: 7: Pretty much what you think it will be.
Magic Mike: 7: Overachiever of the year. Actually quite good.
The Master: 7: Like Magnolia, this felt for a while like it could’ve been a great film, then … wasn’t. Great acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (nominated for supporting actor, though I don’t believe his was really a supporting role) but this thing went off the rails and never got back on.
5 Year Engagement: 7 Funny, sweet, etc.
Avengers: 7: The first Ironman was, by a large margin, the best of this family of superhero movies. This was the second-best. Pretty much what you want out of a summer superhero movie.
The Hobbit: 7: Peter Jackson’s Hobbit is to Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of The Ring as Tolkein’s Hobbit is to Tolkein’s Fellowship. I didn’t want this to be made -- The Hobbit is such a vastly inferior book, it really isn’t necessary, and Jackson’s LOTR trilogy is so good, this felt like lily-gilding -- but knew I’d see it anyway. I was right on all accounts, and I’ll see the next two, but I have fairly tepid hopes for them.
Moonrise Kingdom: 6.5: Actual post-movie conversation: C: “Is that what ‘twee’ means? I feel like that was twee.” J: “Yes.” C: “OK, now I know what that is.”
Arbitrage: 6.5: Pretty good. I’ve seen it compared to Margin Call, I guess because both have finance-industry terms for titles. Otherwise, they have little in common, but the lazy comparison gives me a chance to recommend Margin Call, the best movie of 2011. UPDATE: Arbitrage is more like a 5.5. I should really edit these things before posting.
Zero Dark Thirty: 6 or 2: If I treat this solely as a piece of entertainment, removing any questions of accuracy or social responsibility or anything else, this is a 6. If I assess it more broadly, it’s a 2. I’ll put it in with the sixes because you won’t read down to the twos. There’s precious little character development, the filmmaking at times seems slapdash (example: the distracting and inconsistent use of segment titles like “intelligence failure” that are then conspicuously spoken by actors minutes later), it’s overlong, and, incredibly, it just isn’t that good a story, largely because if you’re going to portray something this massive as the work of one Relentless Hero, it’s more interesting if you actually tell us something about her. On the other hand, the actual raid is a compelling scene, and the whole thing is a reasonably-entertaining popcorn flick. Entertaining, that is, except for the dubious morality. I won’t dwell on that, because if you have an opinion already I probably won’t change it and because whatever I have to say on the topic of the film’s handling of torture has already been said better by others.
But why was this movie made? I have no idea, and I suspect director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t, either. The movie begins with the claim that it is “based on first hand accounts of actual events.” But once critics began arguing that the film inaccurately portrays torture as having played a key role in locating Bin Laden, the filmmakers began insisting it isn’t a documentary. That’s technically true, of course, but when you make a movie about a real manhunt for a real person responsible for the real deaths of thousands of real people and begin the film by saying it depicts “actual events,” deflecting criticism of its accuracy by noting that it isn’t a documentary is simply absurd. It’s either transparently disingenuous, or a reflection of genuine confusion on the part of the filmmakers about what the film is supposed to be. Either way: Not encouraging. And either way, even those who have no problems with the movie’s accuracy should be troubled by the filmmakers’ approach to accuracy.
So Zero Dark Thirty is, or is not, supposed to be a portrayal of real events, depending on when you ask, I guess. Again: Why was it made? The filmmakers and many of the film’s defenders insist that it doesn’t take a position on torture. Let’s stipulate for a moment that they’re right. It doesn’t raise, even for a moment, the question of whether Bin Laden should’ve been taken alive if possible. It doesn’t grapple with, or force the audience to grapple with, any questions of morality or policy, really. And that appears to have been intentional: “I don’t want this to be an agenda movie,” Bigelow says. What does that even mean? That she isn’t trying to say anything with the movie? Then what is she doing? Just trying to entertain people with a movie about the killing of a man responsible for so much killing? Entertaining an audience is a perfectly legitimate approach to filmmaking, but a surprisingly frivolous approach to the subject matter.
The Impossible: 6: The fact that Naomi Watts doesn’t have an Oscar but Sandra Bullock does is one of the great injustices in modern Academy voting. She should’ve been nominated (and perhaps won) for Mulholland Drive; instead, Renee Zellweger earned a nod for Bridget Jones’s Diary. Seriously. That happened. Should’ve been nominated for The Painted Veil instead of Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada. (Yes, yes, she’s Meryl, and the role was enjoyable. Fine. But it wasn’t Best Actress caliber.) Should’ve been nominated for We Don’t Live Hear Anymore; instead Natalie Portman was nominated for a vastly inferior performance in the vastly inferior Closer. So the Academy owes her. And I, obviously, am a fan. But she shouldn’t win this year; it was a fine performance, there just wasn’t enough of it -- for the second half of The Impossible, Watts’ character is just kind of there. As for the film itself: It’s fine. The emotional intensity you’d expect isn’t really there, though, mostly because a third of the way through the movie, you pretty much know how it’s going to end, and the film runs out the clock from there.
Ted: 6: Inconsistent, but very funny at times -- probably the funniest movie of the year, at its high points. A strong live-action debut for Seth MacFarlane.
21 Jump Street: 6: Lower highs than Ted, but higher lows.
Hunger Games: 6: Summer Fun Movie Was Fun, film at 11.
Not Fade Away: 6: We saw this in my favorite movie theater anywhere: Cinemapolis in Ithaca, NY. Great popcorn with real butter (or parmesan or, if you like, nutritional yeast.) Comfortable seating. Red Zinger iced tea. Independent films you can’t see in another theater within 50 miles. And it’s a non-profit. The movie was OK, I guess; I barely remember it. The theater experience, as always, was great.
Deep Blue Sea: 5.5: Well-acted -- Rachel Weisz’s performance was better than that of several actors who received Oscar nominations -- but the1950s melodrama style feel didn’t do much for me, and didn’t hold my attention. I might’ve liked it better had I seen it in a theater, without the ability to flip through a magazine while watching.
Snow White & The Huntsman: 5: Charlize Theron was apparently instructed to deliver her lines like Cate Blanchett in the Fellowship of The Rings, only evil. I saw this movie about 10 days ago, and don’t remember anything else about it.
Bourne Legacy: 5: The three Bourne films staring Matt Damon were among their genre’s best of the past two decades. This was barely watchable. It wasn’t Jeremy Renner’s fault; he’d have been perfectly serviceable in the role had the writing and direction not been such a huge step down from the three previous installments.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: 5: Emily Blunt saved this from a 4, but barely. Ewan McGregor was quite good in Beginners, but … well, he’s done a lot of really mediocre work in mediocre movies.
Life of Pi: 4.5: I was expecting a mediocre but well-made family-friendly movie redeemed largely by gorgeous visuals. Instead: A tedious and heavy-handed mess of a movie with bad pacing that didn’t look nearly as good as it should have. Lee, Bigelow, and Spielberg are undeniably accomplished directors, but all three did their jobs badly this time around. Add Peter Jackson to that list, and it was a notably bad year for top-shelf filmmakers.
Les Miserables: 3.5: I’m 90 percent sure this was a terrible movie. The 10 percent uncertainty stems from my disinterest in and unfamiliarity with musicals in general and film musicals in particular. I guess there’s a chance that this is what a really well-done musical-on-film is, but I’d be shocked. Basically no redeeming qualities, as far as I could tell. I’ll put it this way: As bad as Russell Crowe’s singing was, it really didn’t drag the movie down.
Lincoln: 2: A bad movie and worse civics lesson.
The dramatic climax is a 20 minute scene depicting a House roll call vote, the result of which is known in advance to every audience member. The son-who-wants-to-enlist subplot is rote. The numerous characters are poorly developed and/or one dimensional. The score accomplishes the impressive if dubious trick of being even less subtle than Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln. (Field’s performance isn’t bad; the role is.) The dialogue sounds like a play, which is understandable given the script’s origins, but the film often looks like someone simply filmed a play, too: More than once, we spend what feels like a full minute watching Abe s-l-o-w-l-y walk out of a room, as though Daniel Day-Lewis is giving stagehands time to get in place for a scenery switch when the curtain closes. (Speaking of DDL: Yes, he was very good, but not extraordinary, primarily because he was given dialogue that was more monologue. There wasn’t much reacting or range required. He did the job asked of him about as well as possible, but not enough was asked for me to support his Best Actor candidacy.)
And while I’m the furthest thing from an expert on the era, I found the film thematically troubling. It glorifies dissembling and compromise on the question of whether African Americans are in fact equal -- the one character who is portrayed as a longtime advocate of emancipation is presented as an impediment to progress until he is willing to renounce his belief in fundamental equality, as opposed to mere equality under the law. The contributions of the abolitionist movement (and black people in general) in ending slavery are ignored in favor of a Great Man view of history. The film’s screenwriter blames post-Civil War Southern oppression of blacks on the North’s “abuse” of the South, rather than on persistent racism.
What the ratings mean:
10: A truly extraordinary, Annie Hall-level film. I don’t see many 10s.
9: An excellent movie that I’m happy to see win major awards. Most years, the 1-3 best films I see will be 9s.
8: A very good film and a legitimate Best Picture nominee (in a 10-nominee field) but not something I think should win
7: Usually a good, well-made movie of modest ambition, or ambitious, generally good movie with significant flaws.
6: An adequately enjoyable time-waster but not worth going out of your way to see.
5: Worth watching on a long flight, but that’s about it.
4: A bad movie, to be avoided even on long flights.
3: An awful movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities. May involve Keanu Reeves or time travel.
2: An awful movie that has pretensions of greatness and depth.
1: Vanilla Sky.
Finally, my preferences for four major awards -- without limiting myself to actual nominations -- in order (though subject to change):
How to Survive a Plague
Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Ben Affleck (Argo)
Michael Haneke (Amour)
Sam Mendes (Skyfall)
Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)
David France (How to Survive A Plague)