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Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Movie Year That Was

As I reflect on the 2012 movie year, I find that I'm a lot more enthusiastic than I was this time last year, looking back at 2011. It's a bit strange to be saying that, given that there is no film from this year about which I feel even remotely as passionate as I did last year's top 2 picks, but taken as a whole I feel like 2012 was a more satisfying movie year than 2011 - perhaps even the most satisfying since I started blogging in 2007 (which was, incidentally, an unusually great year for movies).

Though there are admittedly few films from 2012 that I would describe as "great," there are a number of films which I think come achingly close to that distinction and an abundance of films which I would describe as "good." If I had to pick one word to describe 2012, it would be "consistent." It was a consistently good year for movies.

There are still a couple of movies that I need to see before I start making my top ten lists (chief amongst them Zero Dark Thirty and The Impossible), but I've seen enough to offer a few notes on the year that is coming to a close:

Favourite Performance That Won't Be Recognized by Oscar: James Spader in Lincoln

This is not the best performance of the year. It isn't even the best performance of this particular film. What it is is a highly entertaining performance, judiciously used by director Steven Spielberg to ensure a bit of comic relief and bring some air into what might otherwise have been a too stuffy drama.

Most Surprisingly Delightful Movie: Robot & Frank

There's an old man who has a robot friend and he teaches him to crack safes (and break into houses). With a premise like that I guess I shouldn't be "surprised" at how delightful Robot & Frank is, but it must be said that it builds on that premise in ways that are both funny and touching.

Worst Movie I Saw All Year: Snow White and the Huntsman

Perhaps not the worst movie of the year full stop, but certainly the worst one I saw. There was so much potential here and it was completely wasted. A sequel is in the works, to which I ask: why, when the only character worth watching gets killed off at the end of this one?

Most Underrated Movie: Cloud Atlas and Anna Karenina

Both of these movies took some big chances and neither was really given its critical due (though the latter can at least be said to have received "mixed" reviews, compared to the drubbing that the former took). Neither film can be said to have burned it up at the box office either, but hopefully in time each will find the audience it so richly deserves.

Most Overrated Movie: The Master

I know that a lot of people love this movie and that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our sacred cows, but this one just left me so cold. Great performances? Yes, without question. A great film? We'll have to agree to disagree about that.

My (Movie) Wish For 2013: The Death of the Term "Oscar Bait"

This is one of the most overused and misused terms amongst people (professional and amateur) who write about film and pop culture. There is a difference between a film that is destined to receive Oscar nominations due to the quality of the project and the artists involved, and a film which exists for the sole purpose of gaining Oscar nominations. "Oscar bait" is the latter, a film which games the system and which is constructed around and driven by Oscar trends rather than genuine artistry or passion for the subject.

By contrast, a film like Lincoln (for example) is not Oscar bait. Yes, it is all but assured multiple nominations (and likely a few wins), but if film awards did not exist, there would still be a wealth of reasons to tell the story that Lincoln tells and the notion that the film was made for the purpose of winning awards is belied by the obvious passion of those involved for the subject. "Oscar bait" is a factory product; something formulaic and of largely surface quality. Lincoln is a meticulously made film right down to the smallest details, and one of great cultural and cinematic value. While it does hit many expected notes (particularly in its third act), it also offers some surprises (when was the last time Spielberg made a movie with this much talking?).

Just because a film is good, does not mean that it is "Oscar bait." It's an increasingly reductive and dismissive term, too often pronounced before a film has even been seen, and we should stop throwing it around so liberally.

The 5 Movies That Define 2012
Note: This is not a "best" list, but merely a list of the films which I believe tell us the most about where we were at culturally this year, listed at random

The Avengers: The highest grossing film of the year (by a wide margin) and the third highest grossing film of all time. This was the movie event of 2012 and may very prove to be the apex of the superhero genre. The success of a film like this would have been inconceivable a decade ago and the amount of patience and planning that went into setting the stage for it (including, but not limited to, taking two kicks at the can with the Hulk) should be applauded.

The Dark Knight Rises: The other high grossing superhero movie of the year. This one makes the list both for what it actively does - bringing to a close the trilogy that redefined a genre previously written off as too "goofy" to be taken seriously - and for what was out of its control. Namely, the senseless violence that greeted its opening weekend. As the year comes to a close on the heels of a series of similarly gruesome and incomprehensible acts, it's difficult not to think of Aurora as one of the defining events of the movie year.

The Queen of Versailles: Want to understand why the developed world is in decline and the middle class is being eaten alive? Just watch this movie. The greed, vanity, and, above all, the surprise and lack of preparation for the inevitable bursting of the bubble is all gloriously depicted in this documentary about the Florida husband and wife who set out to build America's largest single family dwelling. This movie is the financial crisis, which in turn makes it one of the defining movies of the world as it is right now.

Cloud Atlas: Battered by critics and poorly received at the box office, this ambitious collaboration between the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer nevertheless managed to become one of the most debated films of the year and gained a passionate following amongst filmgoers. Consider this: Metacritic shows that the film received positive reviews from 46% of critics and 85% of users - pretty big difference, right? For the sake of comparison, the last Twilight film, critically panned to the tune of a 32% positive reaction from critics, boasts positive user reaction of only 38%. Given how, um, "passionate" Twilight fans tend to be about defending their franchise, that's kind of shocking. Cloud Atlas is a film that I believe will come to be better appreciated as time goes on and receive the critical reassessment it deserves.

The Hunger Games: The first big monster hit of the year and a film which seemed to transcend the usual demographic barriers. Whether audiences' embrace of the film's strong and active female protagonist can be read as a response to four years spent with cinema's most bankable female character being a vapid cipher is perhaps debatable. But at a time when political talk revolves around debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs, and reality television has reached its nadir with the likes of Honey Boo Boo, the film's depiction of a dystopian society populated solely by the very rich and the very poor, the latter of whom fight to the death for the entertainment of the former, seems frighteningly prescient.

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