The countdown speeds toward its inevitable end:
7. Amazing Spider-Man. I’ve gone on record multiple times with my reservations about unnecessary reboots. On the other hand, after Spider-Man 3 became the series’ answer to Batman and Robin, it’s hard to argue with the corporate decision to enact damage control and give the series its very own Batman Begins. Director Marc Webb avoids Sam Raimi’s fondness for Lee/Ditko/Romita ambiance in favor of transplanting the cast to a less timeless setting. The results reinforce the same moral without chanting it at us, thrill and thrive on their own terms, and recapture the trademark Spider-sarcasm that was my favorite part of the first few hundred Spider-comics I read in my youth, but regrettably in short supply in Tobey Maguire’s earnest, anxious portrayal.
6. Avengers. The first time I saw it, it was Best Super-Film Ever and my instant #1 for the year. The second time I saw it, with the elements of surprise and spontaneity removed, the glamor had worn off and I found myself staring at the movie equivalent of a major-event crossover. As is the case when comics employ such marketing tactics, the creators involved must reconcile several different aesthetic sensibilities as harmoniously as possible so that fans of every single participating property will feel compelled to purchase the same story and drive dollar share through the stratosphere. Just as it works in comics, so did it work wondrously for Marvel here, thus guaranteeing that all super-hero movies made hereafter will no longer be allowed to stand alone as self-contained viewing pleasures, but will have to be designed as inextricable chapters in tightly interconnected, never-ending product lines, where “The End” is a four-letter word. What all of this means: when you’re watching a Joss Whedon project and thinking about corporate strategies instead of laughing at the snarky one-liners, something’s gone wrong. I’ve knocked this movie down a notch every time I’ve reflected on it. As long as I keep my mind blank, The Avengers still rocks.
5. Life of Pi. I may not be in the same place spiritually as the elder Piscine Molitor Patel, but I was enraptured with the tale he wove of his harrowing transpacific odyssey and the spiritual truths to be found between a boat, a hungry tiger, Job-like oceanic tribulations, and the first fully stocked, fully intact disaster survival kit in cinema history. Woven among the despair and the triumphs is one of the year’s most unusual lessons: the storytelling of one’s journey can be as important and as life-changing as the journey itself.
4. Skyfall. I’ve seen only a handful of Bond films, but my new all-time favorite is Sam Mendes’ jubilant blend of respectful homages, crackling stunt sequences, indirect origin story, memorable villain, and tearful farewell to a dear old friend. A couple of my previous Bond experience weren’t total letdowns, but none of them attempted any resonance beyond the primitive gunfights-is-awesome level. For the first and possibly only time in my experience, Our Hero finally felt like part of a real family, not just an armed, drunken gigolo on the prowl.
3. Argo. Like Life of Pi, director Ben Affleck’s best film to date is a tale of lives changed through the power of storytelling, whether in the fabricated cover for the trapped Americans, in Scoot McNairy’s seat-of-his-pants monologue that sketched eloquent parallels between their party’s fake sci-fi flick and the self-styled heroes of the Iranian revolution, or in the gifted souvenir in the film’s final shot, signifying the fulfillment of a promise and a reminder of heroism in multiple forms.
2. Wreck-It Ralph. One of the best Disney films released in this hyper-competitive era of Pixar and ever-improving DreamWorks. The Easter eggs are expected and not unwelcome, but its key strength is the depth of its core characters — the put-upon antagonist who yearns to transcend his bad reputation, the sickly-sweet outsider who’s blissfully unaware of her predicament, the military disciplinarian with a heart of gold, and even half-sized extra-stubborn Kenneth the Page. The full backstory keeps shifting and revealing new levels like all the best games and some of the best movies, while an act of noble sacrifice near the end drew an unexpected emotional response and helped lift Ralph head and shoulders above the crowd.
1. Chronicle. It’s the worst-named film of the decade. It was released during the downswing of the found-footage fad. Its arguably most famous costar was a child actor from The Wire. The director was an unknown first-timer. The pre-release posters I saw were fuzzy and inscrutable. Its super-powered characters had no costumes that would lend themselves to a toy line. It’s a miracle my favorite film of 2012 even earned a theatrical release. In an unkinder world, it would’ve been consigned to share space in a five-dollar direct-to-DVD multi-pack with Quarantine 3 and Son of the Blair Witch.
I can understand how moviegoers who forced themselves to watch all previous found-footage flicks (this does not include me) would be quick to write it off, especially if they’re jaded enough to have no patience or sympathy for stories about the child abuse, bullying, and psychological isolation that fosters the sort of young man’s rage generally unleashed in the form of the worst possible school shootings or other despicable acts of violence. Chronicle imagines replacing one such young man’s arsenal with Kryptonian super-powers and follows the results to their logical, wrenching, horrifying conclusion, a startling reminder that the sweetest of boys can harbor the most sorrowful of dark sides if left unchecked. Josh Trank’s demanding feature debut requires use of our imagination to connect the missing links when time skips forward from one camera to the next, asks us to trust a philosophical stoner jock as Our Hero, and sears the conscience when poor choices send innocent lives spiraling out of control. After Andrew, Matt, and Steve spend so much time hanging out as believable best friends, watching their world self-destruct was nothing short of a heartbreaking tragedy.
So. 2012, then. See you next year!