Disclaimer: I haven't seen all the movies that were released in
the year 2012. Indeed, like most people, I watched almost
exclusively movies that, to me, looked good - and of course they
didn't always turn out to be good, but this practice probably
yielded a better-on-average batch of cinema than I would have
gotten if I'd watched every single movie given a theatrical run
this year. I likely didn't see the really bad stuff. So why am I
writing this piece?
I'm writing it because there are, in fact, professional movie
critics who watch everything, and they too will occasionally
produce a Worst Movies list - and it's nearly always full of stuff
like "That's My Boy" and "Battleship." They had to watch these, and
I'm sure they're terrible, but they were never supposed to be
anything else. No one over 12 - not even the people who paid to see
them - thought they'd be great cinema, and pithily mocking them
generally doesn't make for a very interesting article.
So what happens when you limit this list (perhaps by necessity)
to movies that actually wanted to be good, had some potential to be
good - movies that, within the current cinematic landscape, sort of
mattered? Well, here are my picks in alphabetical order:
1. "The Avengers"
How can a movie this boring be beloved? The only answer is that
its fans signed over their hearts before it was even made. Its
advertising campaign resembled a mass brainwashing: along with the
usual action figures and lunchboxes, it was preceded by four
different two-hour commercials, all of which were themselves
released in theaters under the guise of actual movies, bearing
titles like "Iron Man 2" and "Thor" - I don't think this had
ever happened before. But, in and of itself, "The Avengers" must be
the most generic superhero blockbuster ever made. Joss Whedon was
handed four of Marvel's finest characters, and somehow the best
storyline he could come up with consisted of having them bicker for
two hours and then realize that if only they could work together as
a team they'd be unstoppable - a revelation worthy of Saturday
morning cartoons. An enormous, triumphant battle scene follows:
snore. (And why can't we have better female superheroes? ScarJo is
just embarrassing here.)
2. "The Comedy"
Of all the ridiculous anti-hipster thinkpieces that have
link-baited us over the past couple years, this is the longest and
the most self-serious. Starring Tim Heidecker, in his first
dramatic role, as a pot-bellied, trust-funded, improbably repulsive
Brooklynite so crippled by white privilege that he can attempt to
"connect" to the world around him only through irony, prankishness,
and abuse, "The Comedy" plays like a lazy improvisation, a series
of underwritten shock-value skits that never capture in any
truthful way the demographic it wants chastise (and psychoanalyze).
It's an "incisive critique" only for those to whom contempt
qualifies as criticism, and it's "great, transgressive filmmaking"
only for those to whom a critique may qualify as art. There is,
it's true, a hint of "Five Easy Pieces" here, and a suggestion of
the abyss that lies below the whole comedy of human life - but, in
locating its victims, it looks trendily outward, not inward. Do
hipsters even exist? They're always somebody else.
3. "The Dictator"
There always was, I thought, something a bit indelicate about
Sacha Baron Cohen - from his smothering gross-out humor to his
hit-you-over-the-head social satire - but there was something
admirable, too, about his performances on film and on TV: his
fearlessness, yes, but also his amazing technical skill as an
improvisational comedian - he would anticipate variables, react,
adjust, push forward, and always stay in character, no matter how
crazy the situation. "The Dictator" simply doesn't work as hard as
"Bruno" or "Borat." The pseudo-documentary aspect has been dropped;
it's just another dumb Hollywood scripted comedy. Without any
forays into the real world, all we're left with is the ugliness of
Baron Cohen himself - a stale sense of humor, a taste for the
disgusting, and a smug, potent hatred for the Arab world. Padded
though it is with "equal-opportunity offensiveness," the movie
makes its message clear: the aforementioned hatred is the reason it
exists, just as hatred of a different sort was probably responsible
for "Bruno" and "Borat." Baron Cohen's motives were bound to catch
up with him.
4. "Friends with Kids"
Lends some credence to the notion that film is steadily getting
worse - "Annie Hall" became "When Harry Met Sally," which became
this. Bantering Manhattanites used to be clever; now they're worse
than a sitcom, and in fact their whole lives seem to have sprung
from one of those relationship-advice magazine articles designed to
frighten unmarried women. This "smart," "indie" rom-com - an
unpleasant fusion of old East Coast genteelness and Apatow-era
crudity - is smart only in the same glib, repugnant sense of those
articles. Its privileged leads are predictably destined for each
other, and everybody but them can see it: the only ones more
clueless than these characters must be the filmmakers themselves,
so shielded by their own privilege that no one told them what a
dumb, shallow movie this was, for all its maddeningly trivial,
aggressively pitched "insight."
5. "The Master"
The biggest disappointment of the year, and Paul Thomas Anderson's
first real directorial misstep. From "Boogie Nights" to "There Will
Be Blood," his movies have been so grandly conceived, so capacious
and multipurpose, that we should have expected to see something
like this from him eventually: a film without a center. What is
"The Master" even about? Scientology? Well, no, not really - no
sign of Tom Cruise. The postwar male American psyche? Maybe, but
the particular psyche in question - that of Joaquin Phoenix's
Freddie - is so unchangingly violent, from beginning to end, that
the movie just doesn't work as a character study. The result is the
empty shell of an art film, containing some technical virtuosity,
shades of big ideas and historical insights, and (I think) an
enormous greatness that got lost somewhere along the way.