As each movie year grinds to a close, film critics find themselves going through the five stages of grief: Denial. Anger. Depression. Acceptance. And the making of top 10 lists.
It isn’t easy. It requires accommodation. Resignation. Fortitude. And an acute awareness that the year-end Oscar follies can skew what’s otherwise perceived as the state of the art.
“It’s an emotional illusion,” says Joe Morgenstern, longtime critic for the Wall Street Journal. “From this vantage point, it looks rich — I have plenty of movies for a top 10 list. But looking back at the year, month after month when nothing was going on, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this a year-round business?’ It’s dismaying.”
Like most years, 2012 is ending with a handful of films poised to be honored, not just by the Academy but scores of critics groups and blogger consortia. But moreso than in many years, 2012 also seems to be ending on a divisive note, be it with the visual stylings of “The Hobbit,” the politics of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the austerity of “Lincoln” or the slipperiness of “The Master.” Naturally, what various critics liked was all over the map, while the hint of ennui seemed to be summed up by the veteran Richard Schickel. “I saw all kinds of things that were OK. And nothing that really stood out.”
“The films I most admired and enjoyed were mostly not major studio jobs,” says another vet, Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor, “and the ones that were, like ‘The Master,’ were uncharacteristically ‘personal’ and on-the-edge. I wish that film had done better business because it takes real chances in its approach to character and mood and narrative.”
” ‘Argo’ is terrific, very solid, a lot of fun,” adds the Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson, while noting that the spy thriller’s real-life plotline was nevertheless outlandish. “But in addition to ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ‘The Master,’ and ‘Lincoln,’ something I really love is ‘Magic Mike.’ I saw a Friday matinee; it was a great film to see with a non-critical audience, and in the first five minutes I thought, ‘I really feel like I’m watching a movie made for adults.’ There’s something funky, dirty and gritty about it, and it does not apologize for that.”
Wesley Morris, the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic agrees, at least about the film’s star.
“I don’t have many big ideas about the year,” Morris admits. “But I do know that I saw a lot of Channing Tatum, and I’m astonished to say that I never tired of seeing him, even a nothing movie like that high-school reunion movie ’10 Years.’ He’s finally reached that place where not many actors his age get to, that place where nothing scares him, not even looking as bad he does in ’10 Years.’ Right now we are bereft of young and youngish movie stars — ones who can come alive in a movie and draw you to them. Who’d have thought it?”
Most film critics are adults and movies for adults, not surprisingly, consistently drew praise from people who can easily see — between screeners, festivals and DVDs — 400 films a year.
” ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is sort of a phenomenon onto itself as the way it was financed and the genesis of it,” says Morgenstern, “but ‘Argo’ is the kind you wish the studios would make half a dozen of during the year, and then spread them out over 12 months. It’s also very heartening that Ben Affleck has turned into the extraordinarily competent director he is.
“But there are always reasons for hope: There was enormous pleasure in seeing an expert entertainment like ‘Skyfall’ and a little bitty movie like ‘Beasts (of the Southern Wild)’ which came out of nowhere, and the dazzling stuff in ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ imperfect as it may be.”
One question for critics is whether the developments of 2012 — the live singing in “Les Miserables,” for instance, or the understated CGI of “Skyfall” — portend anything for the future.
“The future? If 48fps is our future I’m not happy about it,” laughs the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan, referring to “The Hobbit’s” accelerated frame rate, which has drawn its share of catcalls. “When everyone saw ‘Avatar,’ we said ‘OK we get it, we’re going to have to deal with this.’ But this time it’s not really working.”
Can it be stopped? “Audiences can stop it,” Turan says.
Adds Eric Kohn of Indiewire: “Much has been made about the use of 48fps technology to shoot ‘The Hobbit,’ but while that particular step forward may still need some work, the appropriation of the homevideo aesthetic for narrative purposes continues to show potential.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times cites the proliferation of middle-budget movies as a positive: “Movies that would have been released by the kind of smaller specialty divisions that the studios have been pulling away from,” she says. “I don’t know how much ‘Argo’ cost but I was pleased with the number of thinking, adult movies that came out this year. That we actually had more than a handful of movies that didn’t insult our intelligence is pretty great.”
One film many seemed to agree on is “Amour,” voted the year’s best by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. Turan, a member of that org, points to Michael Haneke’s drama about an octogenarian couple facing death with dignity as a standout.
“That’s a film that stayed with me. It impressed me when I saw it, and when I saw it again recently there was no diminution of effect. The thing is, even people who don’t love it know how good it is.”
What critics want to see, several say, is fewer movies about movies — films whose only reference is other movies, or which have a disregard for any reality outside the entertainment industrial complex. As an example, Anderson points back to “Magic Mike.”
“There’s something rooted in its sense of place, its feel for Tampa,” she says. “It doesn’t have this generic quality that seems to permeate so many America films. If you’re going to have a major film set in a major city, the least you can do is give it a semblance of that city. I don’t know if the mandate is to be as generic as possible or ‘relatable’ but increasingly movies are going where they have the best tax break.”
On a more positive note, Rainer points to character demos. “It’s a good sign that more movies featuring oldsters are being made, and seen, although I wish they weren’t quite so quaint. I’m thinking of ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and ‘Hope Springs’ and ‘Quartet’ in particular. There’s a big older audience out there that isn’t being served.”
• Film experts rumble the titles