The best and worst of 2012 at theater

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman star in "Moonrise Kingdom." SOURCE FOCUS FEATURES
December 30, 2012

The fact that you are reading this means you were not devastated by the horrible 2012 apocalypse and/or raptured up to the sky in any of the world-ending events that marked the last month of this year.  As one who has emerged unscathed too, I thought this might be the opportune time for reflection. Not on my life, so much, but rather all those hours this past year spent in the dark (literally, not figuratively, wiseass!), to recall the friends and foes I’ve encountered on screen this year. And so begins the post-cataclysmic best and worst list of 2012 in film (note, this was written before the release of “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables” and “Parental Guidance,” any of which could end up on either list):

The bottom feeders

Battleship. The epitome of creative bankruptcy in 2012: an action film based on a board game submerged in an ocean of cliches, stilted performances and a story flatter than the pin-holed Hasbro diversion on which it was based.

American Reunion. Wondering what happened to the old “American Pie” gang after their last theatrical outing, “American Wedding” way back in 2003? Me neither. That didn’t stop them from trotting out the cosmetically enhanced cast for another sequel that is only marginally more tolerable than their direct-to-video sequels released in the interim.

The Watch. Putting the E.T. in “wretched,” this spectacularly unfunny alien-invasion “comedy” showed no signs of intelligent life.

That’s My Boy. Reassuring children of deadbeat dads that it could be worse: you could have Adam Sandler as a father.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. Thankfully, Abe’s true retribution came via Steven Spielberg before year’s end, because this squandered opportunity to turn him into a stake-wielding tough guy proved that the only worthy bearer of that title is a girl named Buffy.

A Thousand Words. But it only takes two to review it: It sucked.

Wrath of the Titans. No amount of cheap CGI could make a silk Perseus out of this sow’s ear.

What to Expect When You're Expecting. What do you know? They were actually able to put to film the cinematic equivalent of morning sickness (or so I’ve been told).

John Carter. Thank you, NASA, for landing the “Curiosity,” which provided infinitely more thrills on the red planet than this cinematic black hole of entertainment.

Playing for Keeps. Gerard Butler must be singlehandedly trying to sabotage his career, as he served as star and producer of “Keeps” as well as his other recent flops “Law-Abiding Citizen,” “Machine Gun Preacher” and “Chasing Mavericks.”

Dishonorable Mention. Bring on the hate mail, but despite having one of the most compelling performances of the year (courtesy of Joaquin Phoenix), “The Master,” to me, represented the apex of hubristic, unchecked filmmaking. I will be the first to advocate progressive filmmaking (and director Paul Thomas Anderson), but at least give me characters about whom I care or something to cling to aside from a few decent scenes and/or structure over the course of its three-hour runtime. It’s a film that art-house lovers felt obliged to love despite having no clue as to why it exists.

Top of the mountain

ParaNorman. Deserving to be shown as a double feature right alongside “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” this textured stop-motion achievement in the best animated film of the year.

Skyfall. Time will place this atop many best Bond lists, but it was so much more. Not only did it reinvent the superspy for the 21st century, but it gave Bond’s world a depth that has seldom been explored with its characters.

Lincoln. Spielberg pulled away from all the grandstanding that can interrupt an otherwise fine flick (see “War Horse” and “Crystal Skull” as two of his most recent examples), and creates an intimate, resonant historical drama that is elevated even further by Daniel Day Lewis’ embodiment of the former prez.

Argo. Big Ben Affleck, who spent much of the late '90s and early part of this century as a punchline, has the last laugh in this, his third and most accomplished directorial outing. Hilarious and hard-hitting, with a pulse-quickening ending that successfully threaded it through multiple narratives and eras.

Looper. For those who lament the lack of intelligent sci-fi flicks amidst the bombast of junk like “Transformers,” “Looper” will restore your faith. Cut from the same cloth as early stories of sci-fi authors such as Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein, “Looper” uses its science fiction elements to tackle heavy moral and ethical issues. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as its leads, its accomplishes its directives with skill and substance.

Moonrise Kingdom. I realize I may have used this analogy in my initial review, but it’s so damn fitting: Director Wes Anderson’s films unfold like novels, and “Moonrise Kingdom” is his pop-up book. Scene after scene of synchronized sweetness and insanity make this ode to adolescent love his best work since “Rushmore.”

The Avengers. This film should not have worked as well as it does. Tying together three already-established films, providing the launching pad for a few more and starting its own franchise in a brisk two hours (take that, Peter Jackson), "The Avengers" lived up to its Marvel namesake. The newest installment (coming summer 2014) could not arrive soon enough.

Cabin in the Woods. This subversive homage to horror films stands head and shoulders above mere referencing and shout-outs. It was a master’s-level thesis on film’s ability to scare and why audiences keep coming back for more, despite its cliches and well-traveled roads.

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