In a year that saw a spectacular Olympics in London, a devastating hurricane in the Northeast and a closely contested presidential election that turned out to be not so close after all, Hollywood provided its usual respite from the real world. So without further exposition, let's turn off the lights, rewind the projector and revisit the films of the last year of human existence (or so a Mayan calendar maker once conjectured).
Getting the bad news out of the way first, I offer two choices for the year's biggest disappointment. After five critically praised projects, Paul Thomas Anderson tried to fulfill his dream of making "the great American movie," but, unfortunately, the 70mm film canister filled with The Master landed with a confused thud, albeit a beautiful one. At least it's still worth a watch, which is more than can be said for the overly violent, overly long The Dark Knight Rises, which managed to suck every ounce of joy and magic out of the Batman franchise, despite boffo box office.
But for every letdown, there is a pleasant surprise, and in 2012 those came in the form of The Avengers, a tantalizingly tight, fun film and the year's top grosser, and Wreck-It Ralph, arguably the best digital-animation feature that doesn't begin with a hopping Pixar lamp. It's also worth mentioning that, despite the criticism of Peter Jackson for turning two films into three (and his questionable use of 48 frames per second), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was actually an enormously impressive accomplishment, as was the fiercely original Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Marooned somewhere between pleasure and pain is the just-opened Les Misérables. Though it contains moments of greatness – most notably Anne Hathaway's jaw-dropping voice in "I Dreamed a Dream" – fans of the stage musical may be disappointed, considering Russell Crowe's laughable performance and director Tom Hooper's overabundance of close-ups and frenetic camerawork.
Now let's get to the really good stuff – my top five films of the year. At No. 5 is Argo, the taut thriller that proves again Ben Affleck is a better director than actor. (And he's a pretty good actor, too.) Next is Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, featuring Oscar favorite Daniel Day-Lewis in a towering turn that more than makes up for some of the TV-movie predictability. Tim Burton's vastly underrated stop-motion gem, Frankenweenie, comes in at No. 3, with Life of Pi washing ashore in the second spot thanks to Ang Lee's remarkable merging of mysticism and visual magic. Only Anna Karenina, a unique marriage of style and substance, can top it. In by far the bravest adaptation yet of Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece, director Joe Wright combines literature and theater with dance and design to weave a bold, ambitious cinematic tapestry worthy of the title of year's best.
Yet that's by no means the end of the story, for this article doesn't include all the late-December releases. Waiting in the wings for possible inclusion in a more complete year-end summary are The Impossible, Zero Dark Thirty and a slew of foreign-language goodies that are just now beginning to gain attention in this country. (Hint: Amour may prove the easiest to, um, fall in love with.) So do your movie homework, book the baby-sitter, and bring your best cinephile buddy with you to your nearest cineplex. You've got a lot of films to get through by Oscar time!
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