The year began with horror dreck like “The Devil Inside” and wrapped with a film flirting with a 0 percent rating at Rottentomatoes.com, “Playing for Keeps.”
In between, the industry rebounded with films that took advantage of technological wonders as well as filmmakers eager to push the medium in fresh directions. A group of super-powered heroes who don’t play well with others gave audiences the most bang for their entertainment buck.
- “The Avengers” – The year’s most entertaining film hasn’t a prayer come Oscar night. And that’s a shame, since not only did “The Avengers” haul in the most green in 2012 it proved a marketing-driven Hollywood product can also dazzle as brightly as any auteur-driven fare. Writer/director Joss Whedon took a near-impossible challenge – assemble a film out of Marvel’s disparate superhero franchises – and churned out a near-perfect comic book movie brimming with humor and action. Whedon turned the freshly thawed Captain America, a character other filmmakers would have mocked for being hopelessly square, and let him lead the Avengers and prove patriotism isn’t always a punchline. The “Dark Knight” trilogy offers richer themes, but “The Avengers” is the new benchmark for comic book features.
- “Argo” – One of the toughest assignments facing a director is telling a story with an ending known to all. The real story behind “Argo” may not be nearly as familiar as the related Iranian hostage crisis, but director Ben Affeck still had to sustain tension through the story’s final minutes. Mission more than accomplished. Affleck manipulates both history and audience expectations with a master’s touch, adding humorous asides courtesy of Alan Arkin and John Goodman. The film’s only weaknesses? Affleck’s perfunctory lead performance and a brief, left of center history lesson in the first act.
- “The Dark Knight Rises” – Did anyone doubt Christopher Nolan would end his Bat trilogy in grand fashion? Well, yes. “The Dark Knight” is an impossible act to follow. Yet “Rises” nearly matches its brilliance, integrating the rebirth of the Bat, a calculated swipe at Occupy Wall Street and a crush of great new franchise players (Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). And that ending, a series of satisfying sequences to satiate the whims of both rabid fans and mainstream audiences alike.
- “Silver Linings Playbook” – A smart, sophisticated romance that ignores the rom-com formula at every turn, “Playbook” is a gift for anyone who suffered through the year’s romantic clunkers like “The Vow” and “This Means War.” Jennifer Lawrence delights as a woman who may inspire Bradley Cooper’s tormented character to be a better person. Fine supporting turns by Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and the bruising city of Philadelphia
- “Flight” – Forgive the marketing bait and switch which had audiences expecting a nail-biting thriller rather than a treatise on addiction. Denzel Washington shakes free from his recent paycheck roles to play a troubled airline pilot burying his weaknesses in the wake of a calculated crash landing. Director Robert Zemeckis balances the moral and emotional layers befitting an artist in serious need of creative redemption, and Washington walks a line between pain and pity until we don’t know what ending his character deserves.
- “The Sessions” – It sounds like boilerplate Oscar season material – a disabled man seeking physical love with the help of a surrogate. Touching, heartfelt and utterly depressing, right? John Hawkes won’t allow it as the main character, a wonderfully self-aware man careening out of his comfort zone. Helen Hunt is blunt, beautiful and rigorously open to anything as the sex surrogate who gives Hawkes’ character what he’s been missing all his adult life. “The Sessions” is haunting, hilarious and utterly affecting.
- “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” – Finally a film that deserves a place alongside the great teen stories from the mind of John Hughes. But “Perks” isn’t trapped in ’80s amber like Ferris Bueller and Amanda Jones. The setting is wonderfully blurred, but performances by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller are crisp and commanding.
- “Les Misérables” – Over the top? Yes. Overwrought? At times, undoubtedly. It’s still a gorgeous, emotionally potent adaptation, powered by Anne Hathaway’s turn as the story’s damaged heart and soul. Director Tom Hooper of “The King’s Speech” fame never met a swooping aerial shot he didn’t adore, but he otherwise captures the gorgeous production in a way befitting the power of the silver screen. Russell Crowe’s vocal range can’t match co-stars like Hugh Jackman, but his ability to make the hiss-worthy Javert human helps Hooper’s vision come alive.
- “ParaNorman” – Stop-motion animation is all the rage this time of year, as Rudolph, Santa Claus and the Miser Brothers dominate small screens. This similarly animated wonder tells a smart, rollicking story of a lad who can speak with the dead. “ParaNorman” pays loving tribute to ’80s era horror movies while offering the year’s best, brightest vocal performances.
- “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” – The year’s most absorbing documentary trumpets the freedom-touting dissident whose work keeps Chinese officials on constant alert. The artist/activist boldly thumbs his nose at his government’s cruel machinations, inspiring millions to dream of a China where expression isn’t just illegal but robustly encouraged. The filmmakers behind “Never Sorry” do more than show an activist in his prime. They offer a fascinating look at a man whose moral complications (he fathered a child outside his marriage) can’t overshadow his life’s work and unbridled heroism.
Honorable Mention: “Ted,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Arbitrage,” “Act of Valor,” “2016: Obama’s America” and “This is 40.”