Since most of my reading in 2012 was work-related, I can’t talk about most of the books published last year. I can’t even offer a complete rundown of movies for 2012, but the ones I did see left a strong impression, for better or for worse. I write narrative history books, so I guess it’s to be expected that my two favorite movies of 2012 took on much-debated, ideologically contested chapters of the American story.
MY FAVES: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln can be nitpicked on this or that point, but the fact of the matter is that this chamber epic about Lincoln’s last months — and the bare-knuckled fight to win passage of the amendment banning slavery — got more good history on the screen than any other Hollywood film. Tony Kushner’s script was excellent, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln was astonishing, and the supporting cast kept every frame bursting with talent. Argo managed the impressive trick of balancing an exciting story (the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction rescue of several Americans from Tehran during the Iranian revolution) with unblinking acknowledgement of the political blowback that created the situation. A jingo movie this ain’t. Hooray for Canada!
RUNNER-UP FAVE: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Actually, it’s every bit as good as the two top picks: a fascinating companion piece to There Will Be Blood, about the strange relationship between a traumatized WWII veteran and a cut-rate cult leader loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson is the most original and adventurous filmmaker in America right now.
THE BEST MOVIE NOBODY SAW: Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, not advised for PETA members but highly recommended to anyone interested in a spare, moody survival tale about a man whose inner demons are almost as dangerous as the wolves pursuing a band of survivors through the frigid north. RUNNER UP: The Innkeepers began as a slacker comedy and ended as a gooseflesh-laden ghost story, short on gore but long on atmosphere.
THE WORST MOVIE EVERYBODY SAW: The Dark Knight Rises. Noisy, incoherent junk. Lame writing, indifferently staged action sequences, and a hectic, overstuffed storyline with too many plot twists and two few genuinely interesting setpieces. Bane was never going to be as fascinating as the Joker, one of the greatest pop-culture villains of all time, and Tom Hardy had to deliver his lines through a mask that made him sound like Darth Vader doing a Sean Connery impersonation. But any worthwhile ideas Christopher Nolan had for Batman were used up in The Dark Knight. RUNNER-UP NON-FAVE: Prometheus. Was it a prequel to Alien? A lateral sequel? Geeks who’ve gotten tired of debating whether Rick Deckard was a replicant can muse over the details of this handsomely made, brain-dead movie. There’s gonna be a sequel? Great — I’ll boycott it now and avoid the rush.
MOST OVERRATED: Even though hardly anyone saw Killing Them Softly, many who did praised it in John-the-Baptist terms because of fleeting moments that carried the gritty tang of its source material — Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the great forgotten American crime writer. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Domink never saw a thematic point he couldn’t pound with a Thor-sized hammer, and as a director he loved Tarantino not wisely but too well. (People who love to watch glass shattering in slow-motion will cherish the Blu-Ray.) The biggest disappointment of the year, for me at any rate. Because it was a leaden bore from start to finish, it edged out the wildly overpraised Looper, a moderately clever time-travel story that got dumber as it went along, but managed to be pretty entertaining along the way.
BEST MOVIE FOR TEENAGERS: After the twin fiascoes of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom showed Wes Anderson returning from the far frontiers of Tweedom without watering down his beguiling style. A charming movie about a pair of dreamy kids who raise all kinds of hell simply by being their unconventional selves.
BEST ARGUMENT FOR KICKSTARTER: Absentia, produced with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, was a character-driven indie with a strong Ramsey Campbell flavor, a monster story focused on the psychological wounds inflicted by a menace that remained largely unseen, though the few glimpses we got were plenty hair-raising.
BEST USE OF 3D: Vanessa Hudgens falling off the giant bee in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Can’t remember what else happened in the flick, though the sprout said she liked it.
BEST USE OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Marvel’s The Avengers would have been unwatchable without his Tony Stark. I’m glad Joss Whedon hit the jackpot, but I liked the story better when it was called the Season Five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
BEST IN-JOKE: James Bond threatening M with the ejector-seat button of the old school Aston Martin in Skyfall. Judi Dench’s delivery of the comeback line.
BEST PIXAR MOVIE RELEASED UNDER THE DISNEY NAME: Wreck-It Ralph was officially a Disney release, but its creation of a universe for video game characters, and the wit with which it showed them functioning within the rules of that universe, recalled Pixar’s Toy Story movies, even if it didn’t come anywhere near their emotional heft. Meanwhile, Brave, the official Pixar release, played like just another Spunky Princess story from the Disney mill. Since the founder of Pixar, John Lasseter, is head of both animation shops, the distinction may not amount to much. But still.
BEST ANIMATED MOVIE NOT RELEASED BY PIXAR: The Secret World of Arietty. I love Miyazaki movies, even when Miyazaki doesn’t direct them. And ParaNorman had a freaky intensity the trailers never hinted at.
WORST MOVIE I’M GLAD I SAW: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. All the tedium of a Tarkovsky film at only half the length. But I’m still glad I saw it because, after all, who else but Cronenberg would even think of making a film like that?
BEST REUNION: I haven’t seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, 48 fps, Imax, Smellovision, Feelie-rama, or any of the other formats of the future. The conventional 2D version was overlong, badly paced, too obviously padded, and loaded with too many dwarves that could be distinguished only by their hairstyles. (Tolkien didn’t do much better.) But the film came alive in its second half, and I was happy to be back in the Middle-earth Peter Jackson envisioned in his brilliant Lord of the Rings films. I’ve come to the conclusion that Jackson was put on this earth to show up Ralph Bakshi, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, the Beatles, and everyone else who took a run at Tolkien’s work and fell flat.
MUST CATCH UP WITH SOON: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Killer Joe, Rust and Bone, Antiviral, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Samsara, Damsels in Distress.
I’LL GET AROUND TO THEM SOMETIME: Django Unchained goes on the back burner because Death Proof was dull as dirt and Inglourious Basterds pissed me off. So does Zero Dark Thirty, because I don’t like torture porn.