‘‘Zero Dark Thirty" is the most important film of 2012. By far. Nothing else comes remotely close.
In its final weeks on newstands, Newsweek magazine devoted a cover story to calling it a predictor of the future. Senators practically lined up to condemn its brutal scenes of torture in its first hour.
So why then, in a 2012 film of such significance, will Buffalo not see it until it "opens wide" nationally on Jan. 11? It's almost always that way with some of a year's best movies – that they open nationally in January.
Because the end of December is a mixed-up season in Movie World. Two things are happening:
1.) Movies are opened in major cities to qualify for the Award Derbies to come – Oscars, Golden Globes, SAGS, what have you; and
2.) Movies are opened to snag huge audiences on vacation – particularly of the family persuasion.
What "2" is after so often, in the irrationally prized "youth demographic," is a healthy chunk of the young and family audience ready to queue up to fill the coffers of a needy Entertainment Industrial Complex. Hence you have those all-star movie teams attempting to cross generations: Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann with Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler and a house full of fictional grandkids.
Some 12th-month movies try gamely to fit into both end-of-year categories simultaneously – "Les Misérables," for instance, practically a Christmas blockbuster-under-glass for permanent exhibit. Nevermind how much it fails. It shouts "prestige blockbuster" at the top of its capacious lungs.
So, without further ado, here are my 10 Best Movies of 2012, as defined by award season calendar, not the pokey national opening calendar. They are not listed in order of preference, but alphabetically by title, followed by the director.
"Argo" / Ben Affleck
The great historic rarity of the movie year 2012 is how well Hollywood figured out that politics be damned, there was an immense well-spring of patriotic DNA in the American movie audience. Add here a frequently delicious absurd comedy of intelligence operatives pretending to be a movie company to free Americans evading capture in Iran and you've got a major winner. A bit overrated, perhaps, but feel-good films don't usually feel quite this good.
"The Dark ?Knight Rises" / Christopher Nolan
A great film but one inextricably bound to the terrible story of gun violence by which 2012 will long be remembered. At its opening in Aurora, Colo., one of America's dangerously deranged young men opened fire on the audience. It would be nice if the antisocial bravado of Nolan's "Batman" films – with villains so eager to make a joke of society itself – were completely irrelevant to that terrible slaughter, but it's not. Nolan, in these films, has touched America' deepest darkness. The cost was truly terrible. It is no longer metaphorical bravado to call our popular art "dangerous."
"Flight" / Robert Zemeckis
Terrific film, one of the ?year's best with one of the year's best performances by Denzel Washington and another in a supporting role by John Goodman as a gonzo coke dealer. Its premise was something like this: What if Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger had been revealed in all his heroism to be a cokehead alcoholic? Zemeckis' film takes off from there to make a ?great film about addiction and recovery. Washington's performance, in any other year, would ?be the award season ?minesweeper.
"Frankenweenie" / Tim Burton
The short version of this got ?a young Tim Burton thrown out of Disney. So why not go back and make a full-length black and white version? Here is Tim Burton telling us he's still a perversely inventive artist and not a financially ?reliable corporate "brand."
"Life of Pi" / Ang Lee
The finest bit of magic ?realism ever put on screen. Lee's version of Yann Martel's novel is simultaneously about religious belief and the power of narrative. But mostly it's a whimsical and terrifying story about a wildly resourceful boy trapped by a shipwreck to keep company with a hungry tiger out on an open sea. Magnificent to look at and scary as hell at times. Both CGI and 3-D rise ?to new levels.
"Lincoln" / Steven Spielberg
An almost-great film ?distinguished by a great performance by Daniel ?Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, a performance so good that from now on in our heads, his is probably the voice we're going to be hearing as Lincoln's. No one else in award-ville stands a chance against him.
"The Master" / Paul Thomas Anderson
The year's second-most controversial great film (after "Zero Dark Thirty"). It's a bore and a bummer to some, a stark and terrifying tale of dangerous alienation to others. Its much vaunted-origins in Scientology's early days proved to be a red herring, as Anderson tells a story about the terrifying symbiosis of a fraudulent leader with a deeply unstable follower. The year's greatest performance, by far, is by Joaquin Phoenix, but it is so wrapped up in what seems to be the actor's very real alienation that his fellow actors refused to even nominate him for a SAG Award. He is too "other," even for them.
"Moonrise ?Kingdom" / Wes Anderson
The year's other piece of ?magic realism, the tale of two pubescent kids who discover their puppy love when they run away and turn their island home upside down with worry. In its wonderfully odd way, one of the loveliest films about puppy love you're ever likely ?to see.
"Skyfall" / Sam Mendes
In his 50th anniversary ?year at the movies, James Bond found a director and some writers who could make an affecting and dazzling real film, and not just a genially smutty, gag-filled stunt fiesta, out of the mythologies he's condemned to carry around forever.
?"Zero Dark Thirty" / Kathryn Bigelow
Bigelow's film of the War on Terror and the Hunt for Osama bin Laden is singular in American film history. It is:
1.) an edge-of-your-seat action thriller and suspense film almost three hours long;
2.) a fictionalized piece of reportage about the female analyst whose insights were the key to finding bin Laden and
3.) a fearless probe in the deepest heart of darkness in the American movie audience that requires every viewer to decide individually what we're ready to have done in our name. ?Some senators have gone on record loathing the scenes of Bush-era waterboarding and torture in its first hour. It isn't often that American movies offer up a mirror that shows so darkly ?who we are and then leaves us alone to deal with it. Bigelow is, at the very least, one of the greatest action film directors in the entire landscape of American film.
For those films that didn't make my Top 10, a few other awards:
Close but No Cigar: Ben Lewin's deeply affecting "The Sessions" with John Hawkes and a fearless Helen Hunt; David Ayers' underrated "End of Watch;" Ridley Scott's badass, visionary but undramatic "Prometheus;" Lasse Hallstrom's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen;" and Yaron Silberman's "A Late Quartet," one of the truest films about classical music ever made.
Rescue Operation of the Year: Jennifer Lawrence, who saves "Silver Linings Playbook" from whirling off from dysfunction into pure pathology.
Pointless Cinematic Boldness of the Year: Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard turning Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" into a stylized, quasi-Brechtian, theater-bound production to explore the theatrical artifice at the heart of social convention. The great critical one-liner of the year belonged to Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, who said they had made the first version of "Anna Karenina" where you root for the train.
Pointless Cinematic Boldness of the Year, Part Two: "Cloud Atlas" proved conclusively that all the gifted directors, actors and techies in the world can't make an impossible novel to adapt anything other than an impossible novel to adapt.
Great Performance Out of Nowhere: Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
All Teen Smashes Should Be This Good: Gary Ross' "The Hunger Games."
How a Filmmaker Turned Into a Fatuous Idiot, Especially Compared to a Great Film Critic: Despite fine performances by Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren, Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock" was almost total and insulting B.S., especially in comparison with David Thomson's genuinely dramatic study of Hitchcock and the making of "Psycho" called "The Moment of ‘Psycho.' " At the same time that "Hitchcock" in its narrative dismissed "Vertigo" as being a foolish commercial miscalculation, the film critics of Sight and Sound voted it, at long last, to replace "Citizen Kane" as the greatest film of all time. (It's too bad Beethoven wasted all that time and effort writing his Ninth Symphony, don't you think?)
Hey, It Wasn't That Bad, I Swear: OK, "John Carter" was hopelessly ridiculous, but in its overmonied narrative incompetence, it was kind of fun.
Worst Major Film of the Year That Wasn't "Cloud Atlas": Adam Shenkman's "Rock of Ages" – and don't anybody even think of trying to pin that on Tom Cruise. He was the best thing in it, by far.
Studio Heroism of the Year: Faced with the gaudily hopeless mess of "Cloud Atlas," Warner Brothers didn't bury it in the catbox a la Disney and "John Carter," they doubled down on the publicity and marketing and pretended it was a visionary masterpiece that its audience just needed to be smart enough to appreciate. A truly great moment in Hollywood industrial chutzpah and a film-world bluff for the ages.