As a fan of The Hurt Locker I feel strange closing out my list for the year without having seen Zero Dark Thirty, a top contender which would likely have ranked high in my Top Ten.
However I'm also a Spielberg fan and I hated Lincoln, except for Daniel Day-Lewis, the year's surest Oscar bet. I also disliked The Master, except for Joaquin Phoenix, the year's second-best actor; so I'm not exactly in lockstep with a lot of my colleagues.
Maybe I shouldn't have seen Lincoln a week before the election, when I was thoroughly sick of politics; but I'm surprised the rest of the country recovered fast enough to make it a huge boxoffice hit.
Here's what I liked of what I saw:
1. Life of Pi — Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) is one of the most versatile directors working today, and he excels in almost every genre he attempts. This visually superb adventure of an Indian youth shipwrecked with a (mostly CG) Bengal tiger combines visceral excitement with spiritual nourishment. I was enchanted from the get-go.
2. Argo — Another two-fer: one of the year's most suspenseful films and one of the best Hollywood satires in years, the latter thanks to Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin and his trusty sidekick, John Goodman. Ben Affleck becomes an A-list director while also starring in the "truthy" story as the leader of a CIA attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran while disguised as a Canadian film crew.
3. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — The AARP movie of the year is fun for all ages, as a passel of England's (and thus the world's) best actors retire to India for various reasons and stay in Dev Patel's overhyped accommodations while sorting out their lives. You can't go wrong with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson (playing gay), Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton et al; but who thought they would go so right!
4. The Hunger Games — Director Gary Ross also exceeded expectations while starting a new franchise based on Suzanne Collins' teen novels. Jennifer Lawrence is a perfect Katniss Everdeen, defending herself and her district in gladiatorial combat. She makes the bow and arrow sexy while providing a firm emotional base so you don't realize you're not seeing much of the violence the story's about.
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower — Secondary education gets a first class treatment unequalled since John Hughes' heyday as Stephen Chbosky brings his novel to the screen, with new kid Logan Lerman joining siblings Emma Watson and gay (onscreen and off) Ezra Miller's merry band of outcasts.
6. Looper — Rian Johnson's loopy sci-fi thriller develops its absurd (in a good way) time travel plot with enough intelligence that its pleasures are hardly guilty ones. The makeup that transforms Joseph Gordon-Levitt into a 30-years-younger version of the Bruce Willis he travels to the future to kill is extraordinary.
7. Headhunters — While I have eclectic tastes (in case you can't tell from this list), I'm a sucker for a good film noir, and this Danish entry is one of the best in years. It's about an art thief who steals from his wife's lover, then can't tell why the man is trying to kill him.
8. A Separation — Iran should give up on nukes and stick to making movies. They do it so well. This drama about a couple divorcing because the wife wants to move abroad and the husband won't leave his old father, already won the Foreign-Language Oscar but didn't open in U.S. theaters until this year. If Facing Mirrors, which played a few LGBT festivals, gets distribution it will represent Iran on this list next year.
9. Ted — I enjoy a good dirty joke as much as any middle-schooler, and Seth McFarlane's comedy is one good one after another. Despite the similarity of the concept to the Wilfred TV series (another personal favorite), this story of Mark Wahlberg and his best friend, a teddy bear that came to life and interferes with his relationships, is fresh, funny and filthy. The appearance of Flash Gordon's Sam J. Jones is a campy touch and there's a gay surprise at the end.
10. Skyfall — Best. Bond. Ever? Quite possibly. The world has changed too much in 50 years to make a direct comparison with the early efforts, but Skyfall is even better than Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's debut as 007. Judi Dench's M and Javier Bardem's gay, villainous Silva are meaty supporting roles. Hiring Sam Mendes to direct seemed like overkill but turns out to be just enough kill.
HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical)
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Declaration of War
Friends with Kids
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Silver Linings Playbook
21 Jump Street
BEST ACTOR Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Runners-up: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Richard Gere, Arbitrage
BEST ACTRESS Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Runners-up: Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz; Leslie Mann, This Is 40
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Alan Arkin, Argo
Runners-up: Javier Bardem, Skyfall; Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Runners-up: Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Ann Dowd, Compliance
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Runners-up: Argo, Skyfall
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Runners-up: Ben Affleck, Argo; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Looper, Rian Johnson
Runners-up: Hope Springs, Vanessa Taylor; The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY Argo, Chris Terrio
Runners-up: Life of Pi, David Magee; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
Runners-up: Samsara, Ron Fricke; Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ben Richardson
BEST DOCUMENTARY Searching for Sugar Man
Runners-up: The Queen of Versailles, The Other Dream Team
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
Runners-up: A Separation, The Other Son
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Runners-up: A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita
OK, cover your nose as we dive into the sewer to find the year's worst movies. These 20 come from my "short list" of 34 titles, and I didn't even see Wrath of the Titans. Some wasted tremendous resources, others just a couple hours of my time. Some were hugely popular while others faded so fast I can barely remember them and you probably never heard of them — lucky you!
1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
2. The Loneliest Planet
3. Festival of Lights
4. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
5. One for the Money
9. Mirror Mirror
10. Parental Guidance
DISHONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical)
The Dark Knight Rises
The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Rock of Ages
Snow White and the Huntsman
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part Two