Rick Kisonak: It’s that time again. Time to look back and ask those eternal year-end questions: What is the state of film as an art form? What technological changes did the past 12 months bring? And how can it be that people still pay Eddie Murphy to make movies?
It’s also time to recognize the trends that defined 2012. At the top of my list: old movies retrofitted with 3-D, Scottish action figure Gerard Butler’s weird bid to dominate mainstream American cinema and the way so many motion pictures seemed to come in pairs. There were two movies about Snow White; two movies about Abraham Lincoln; two movies about Alfred Hitchcock; two movies about comical retirement communities (both featuring Maggie Smith — what are the odds?); two movies dealing with slavery; and two movies depicting American secret missions, to name just a few examples of the phenomenon.
Margot Harrison: Hey, you forgot the two movies about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sexual shenanigans. And Gerard Butler was only in two movies this year, while Bradley Cooper headlined four (more on that later). The biggest trend I noticed, though: The compulsory digitization of theaters is making their cash-strapped owners reluctant to program films that aren’t 3-D action spectacles or part of a franchise.
On the plus side, those spectacles are getting smarter, their makers more self-aware. For each couple of Battleships this year, we got a thoughtfully crafted entertainment such as Skyfall or The Avengers. On the downside, those spectacles, smart or not, are reducing our theatrical choices and driving “small” movies to On Demand. We’re lucky still to have a handful of art houses in Vermont, and we should support them.
RK: I admired a number of performances. Emmanuelle Reva was heartbreaking in Amour; John Hawkes was a revelation in The Sessions; Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis was precocious as hell, and, in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix was so good you almost forgot that just two years ago he was pretending to have retired from film to pursue a career in hip-hop. But, in my book, only one piece of acting transcended, and that was Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln.
MH: I was riveted by Naomi Watts’ terror in The Impossible, Denis Lavant’s quick changing in Holy Motors, Jack Black’s unexpected subtlety and sweetness in Bernie, and Michael Fassbender as the most human character in Prometheus — the android. But I’m also going with Day-Lewis. He made what might have been a ponderous hagiography into something surprisingly light on its feet — with the help of a stellar supporting cast.
RK: I guess Eddie Murphy’s goes without saying. Which seems appropriate, since the character he played in A Thousand Words was mostly mute. Also awful were Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator, a mumbly Tom Hardy in Lawless and Russell Crowe’s singing in Les Misérables. But the winner had to be everybody in The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
MH: Tom Hanks as six different reincarnations of the same guy in Cloud Atlas. His over-the-top stylings in every role made me laugh, but most of the stories weren’t supposed to be funny. Halle Berry earns an honorable mention for sleepwalking through her parts.
RK: Ruby Sparks, 21 Jump Street and Casa de mi Padre have special places in my heart, but I absolutely loved This Is 40, Judd Apatow’s free-form meditation on marriage and middle age.
MH: If you like your humor dark, as I do, The Cabin in the Woods and Bernie deserve your attention on video. Goon is sweet and hilarious. But Silver Linings Playbook is the first good romantic comedy I’ve seen in ages.
RK: Woody Allen has a long history of following his most masterful creations with misfires, so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that his first film since Midnight in Paris — the biggest hit of his career — was the most feebleminded, forgettable movie he’s ever made. But it did. I didn’t watch To Rome With Love; I gaped. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was so stilted, haphazard, meaningless and borderline amateur hour. Not to mention almost never funny.
MH: American Reunion. I think this franchise’s comic inspiration petered out a couple dozen straight-to-video sequels ago, and not even Eugene Levy could save its tired gags.
RK: Taken 2 was a bitter disappointment, but let’s be honest: We weren’t expecting great art, were we? Lawless was a different story. The latest from Australian-born director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) didn’t so much fail to live up to the standard he’s set in previous work as just plain fail.
MH: Both Argo and Sleepwalk With Me were word-of-mouth successes, and more power to them; it’s great to see proof that people can enjoy movies sans explosions. For me, though, they fell pretty flat. Mike Birbiglia’s sheepish charm seemed disingenuous. And I love the trend of international thrillers set in the 1970s, but European filmmakers have been doing this for a few years now — better than Ben Affleck.
RK: That Ridley Scott’s Prometheus came as close as it did to making it into that last category.
MH: Bradley Cooper. Acting. He floated through The Words like a blanker version of Michael Fassbender’s pretty-eyed android, then delivered a funny, disturbing, extremely human performance as a screwed-up character in Silver Linings Playbook. What did director David O. Russell do to him?
RK: Hmm, does it get more unnecessary than Red Dawn? It may. Remakes are planned for The Birds, Mad Max, Poltergeist and Scarface.
MH: Total Recall.
RK: The correct answer, no doubt, would be The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, but I’ll go with Ted. Seth MacFarlane’s tale of a foul-mouthed teddy with a weakness for weed has seriously grown on me since its release.
MH: Perhaps we should remove comic books from this category. Even if you’re sick of Spandex — and I am — you can’t deny that superhero movies are the modern epics. Toys and video games still tend to be pretty poor inspirations, but this year brought us the clever, heartfelt Wreck-It Ralph.
RK: Critics continue to include Flight in best-of-2012 conversations, and I continue to be baffled. If you’ve ever seen an after-school special on the perils of alcohol abuse, this story offered few surprises. Denzel Washington was solid, but the guy’s won two Oscars, so you’ve got to figure playing a drunk didn’t rank among the greatest challenges of his career. After that hair-raising first-act crash, the movie didn’t just go downhill — it went dull, preachy, sappy and predictable.
MH: Now that it’s over, can I just say the entire Twilight series?
RK: Check out Box Office Mojo’s ranking of the past year’s releases, and you’ll come upon the very definition of inexplicable: No. 108, with $16 million in receipts, is The Raven; No. 109, with $15 million, is The Master. The former deserves to be there. The latter deserves a place among the year’s most challenging and provocative screen creations.
MH: True, but I can’t imagine a universe where The Master would set the box office on fire. John Carter, on the other hand, cost about a trillion dollars to make and was pure silly popcorn fun, with creative visuals. It bombed.
RK: I’m thinking 2001: A Space Odyssey would be a trip.
MH: “Fake” 3-D looks pretty fake, making it better suited to camp classics than real ones. I wonder if it would actually improve the strange debacle that is David Lynch’s Dune. Giant, phallic 3-D sand worms? Why not?
RK: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth Taylor is scary enough without the extra D.
MH: Anything else by David Lynch.
RK: The fact that the postapocalyptic-ish premise of Beasts of the Southern Wild no longer seems all that farfetched. A decade ago, that movie would have looked like something in the Mad Max series. Today, not so much.
MH: And it was a trend that extended from the art house to the multiplex. The only thing more ominous than the sheer number of doomsday-themed movies made in the past two years is the fact that one was a big-budget romantic comedy starring Steve Carell.
RK: Beasts of the Southern Wild, though one cast member may not remain obscure for long. There’s buzz that the film’s star, Quvenzhané Wallis, who snagged the role of Hushpuppy at the age of 5, may become the youngest actress ever to take home an Academy Award. If that doesn’t happen, there’s a consolation prize: In her next movie, she’ll costar with Brad Pitt.
MH: The harrowing Mexican thriller Miss Bala, which wasn’t released in the U.S. till 2012. Also the equally harrowing (but quieter) Compliance.
RK: There was no shortage of star-studded duds this year. Battleship, Savages, Dark Shadows, Trouble With the Curve, Prometheus, Rock of Ages, The Dictator and Cloud Atlas, to name just a few, all blew big-time despite having big-time A-list casts. But, for me, none of those blew half as much as Darling Companion, in which Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest and Sam Shepard helped Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) reimagine Lassie Come Home as a mindless, meandering boomer dramedy.
MH: Rock of Ages, a film that should eternally embarrass Tom Cruise, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Paul Giamatti but did give us a priceless clip of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand declaring their love for each other in song.
RK: Bully, The Gatekeepers, The Invisible War and The House I Live In, among many others, took on serious social issues, but Searching for Sugar Man told one of the most amazing and heartwarming true stories I’ve seen on screen in years.
MH: The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the military, was the rare advocacy doc that riled me up. The filmmakers have a lot of witnesses, and they’re diverse, credible and compelling.
RK: Michael Haneke’s Amour, easily the most depressing great movie ever made. But, hey, are we stunned they’re not rushing a French-language rumination on old age and death into cineplexes for the holidays? More surprising is the time it’ll probably take for Vermonters to get a peek at Promised Land. It’s a wonderful film in the tradition of Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, directed by Gus Van Sant and cowritten by and costarring Matt Damon and John Krasinski. I would have expected the studio to want it out for the holiday season.
MH: I will be amazed if Vermonters get to see Holy Motors in a theater. I had to watch it on a laptop screen (yes, legally). This is a French flick from Leos Carax in which bizarrely beautiful CGI creatures do X-rated things, Eva Mendes is abducted by a wild man and Kylie Minogue sings a musical number in an abandoned department store. It makes no sense and tons of sense. I loved it.
RK: It’s not even close — The Odd Life of Timothy Green. The latest from writer-director Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life) was 104 minutes long and didn’t contain a single believable moment. I hated this movie. Lots of pictures are contrived, mindlessly sentimental and cynically manipulative, but few are also as infuriatingly stupid as this shameless heap of hokum about a couple that triumphs over infertility by growing a child in their garden.
MH: The Words was the most boring, lifeless movie I saw this year, while Hit and Run was the most frenetically stupid. They both starred Bradley Cooper and, after loving Silver Linings Playbook, I can’t wait to see his fourth film of 2012 out of pure curiosity.
RK: Lincoln was always going to be a significant film. Its central character, after all, is among the most mythologized human beings who ever lived. Its director is responsible for some of the biggest, most popular movies ever made. And its star is arguably the finest actor on the face of the earth. By no means, though, was it guaranteed to be a great film. But it is.
MH: I really liked a lot of movies this year, among them Lincoln, Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom, Looper, Sound of My Voice, Silver Linings Playbook and your not-so-favorite, Rick, The Deep Blue Sea. With their daring and theatricality, Anna Karenina and Les Misérables gave me hope for adaptations of classic novels. But what will I remember best 10 years from now? Holy Motors. Hands down.