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2012 in Film: Smaller Movies Rose to the Top

FILE - This undated publicity image released by The Weinstein Company shows, from left, Christoph Waltz as Schultz and Jamie Foxx as Django in "Django Unchained," directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film centers on a slave trying to rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation. (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Andrew Cooper, SMPSP, File)

FILE - This undated publicity image released by The Weinstein Company shows, from left, Christoph Waltz as Schultz and Jamie Foxx as Django in "Django Unchained," directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film centers on a slave trying to rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation. (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Andrew Cooper, SMPSP, File)

What happened to the movies of 2012?

While a stirring, imaginative fantasy adventure like John Carter was critically reviled and a big money loser, vacuous popcorn blockbuster The Avengers didn’t deserve its massive box office and rave notices. The good went underseen and unsung and the bad vaulted to the top. Consider this column an attempt to poke holes in the over-celebrated and celebrate the ones that got away, in a year so poor that a top five sums it up. No need for a top 10.

In 2012, big studio films Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises and Flight were supposed to make it safe for adults to return to the multiplex, but instead insulted intelligence levels of all ages with shallow characterizations and bloated runtimes. Moonrise Kingdom charmed the art house crowd in spite of (or maybe because of) writer-director Wes Anderson’s painful assault of neurotic whimsy. Fabulous early intentions in indie tearjerker Beasts of the Southern Wild foundered in its manipulative second half. Silver Linings Playbook, for all its delightful optimism and cheer-worthy ending, was ragged and unfunny in key stretches.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s too-personal The Master suggested that his massive talents may have outstripped his accessibility. Actor-director Ben Affleck turned in a wooden performance and a gratuitous shot of his hairy torso in Argo, a film populated with chess pieces rather than real people. German filmmaker Michael Haneke lensed the French Amour with such unflinching cold detachment that it was hard to see the love in the film’s pitiless treatment of a dying woman. Steven Spielberg’s mighty Lincoln, peerless when focused on the political maneuverings to pass the 13th Amendment, lost its procedural momentum in a meandering closing argument better suited to a life-and-times biopic than a ticking-clock snapshot event movie.

In an effort to appear dispassionately factual Zero Dark Thirty tried to have it too many ways. The film controversially depicts torture as sometimes working (though other times failing) in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but the torturer played by Jason Clarke sure was funny and cool. It felt great when Americans kicked ass to get bin Laden but stung when one Seal “smoked” a relative innocent.  The procedural laser focus on facts over character development occasionally clashed with director Kathryn Bigelow’s need to portray her CIA agent protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) as a desk job superhero with an attitude. When Leon Panetta asks who “the girl is” in the room in which they discuss the fateful Pakistan compound, Maya’s reply could double as rallying cry: “I’m the mother$*%#@! who found this place, sir.” The uneasy mixture of feminism, jingoism and introspective second-guessing troubled an otherwise meticulously assembled film.

Django Unchained shackled often brilliant writer-director Quentin Tarantino to a massively self-indulgent mistake of his own making. Incapable of cutting down his rambling scenes, the once-great director moved further away from the genre-expanding strengths of Jackie Brown and into his own narcissistic universe of inside jokes that draw laughs only from his fellow film geeks. Still worse than the film was its enthusiastic critical reception. Why should an artist be rewarded for arguably his worst work, and arguably the year’s worst film?

Thankfully, the year also featured a handful of movies unburdened by colossal stars or big commercial ambitions. Here are my nominees for the best films of 2012 .

1. The Grey: Joe Carnahan’s (Narc) lean, philosophical survival tale is so much more than angry Liam Neeson punching wolves as shown in the film’s trailers. The surprise here is not the tough guy dialog or gut-snaring fight scenes, but the despairing and lovely haiku-like meditation on grief and depression that The Grey becomes. Neeson draws on his own family tragedy — the 2009 death of his wife, the actress Natasha Richardson — to etch emotion into the fissures of his wall-of-ice movie star face, while rising character actor Frank Grillo’s conversion from bad seed to loner with modest dreams memorably provides the movie’s moments of humor and heartache. Stay past the end credits for one last melancholy sigh of grey (nothing about the movie is black and white) revelation.

2. Rust and Bone: French writer-director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) continues turning out powerful works that defy characterization. An orca trainer played by Marion Cotillard loses her legs in a freak accident and falls in love with beast-like boxer Matthias Schoenaerts. Brutal and blunt, yet shimmering with romanticism, love stories don’t get less traditional than this one-of-a-kind.

3. Monsieur Lazhar: This Canadian production cleverly avoids the sappy pitfalls of the teacher-with-a-heart-of-gold cliche, showing us what happens when an Algerian immigrant replaces a Montreal middle school teacher whose suicide shakes the school. A subtle, gradually rewarding picture that courageously stays away from any hint of excess — by the time it ends, you marvel at how gently the time has passed in the company of these richly human characters.

4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: A Turkish crime drama that follows an investigative team charged with finding a murder victim’s body in the middle of the night in the vast desolation of Anatolia. One of the slow-burning discoveries of this study in existential relationships is that who did what to whom and why is less important than the revealing private conversations between the prosecutor and the doctor who are investigating the murder. Peopled with characters who will do anything to conceal their true identities, the film demands close watching and positions viewers as psychological sleuths. My candidates for the most evocative images of the year are the shots of a slow-rolling, supernaturally resilient apple and of a beautiful girl’s candlelit face appearing as a moral beacon to a group of lonely men.

 5. Goon: Canada’s trump card to Slap Shot is a lewd, blood-soaked treasure of comedy and heart. A dimwitted bouncer, played by Seann William Scott, becomes a minor league hockey enforcer, setting the scene for a climactic smackdown with legendary Ross “The Boss” Rhea, played by Liev Schreiber with such twinkling charisma it is astonishing he isn’t headlining more movies. Gets funny right, gets sports right, and even has time for a sweet streak.

Runners-up: The House I Live In; Declaration of War; How to Survive a Plague; Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present; Pitch Perfect; Take This Waltz; Smashed.

Also Recommended: Zero Dark Thirty; End of Watch; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Lincoln; Barbara; The Island President; The Queen of Versailles; The Central Park Five; John Carter; Jeff, Who Lives At Home; The Imposter; The Invisible War; For a Good Time, Call...; Looper; Turn Me On, Dammit!; Anna Karenina; Natural Selection; People Like Us; The Hunter; The Flat; Elite Squad: The Enemy Within; Sound of My Voice; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry; The Kid with a Bike; The Deep Blue Sea; Life of Pi; Dredd; The Cabin in the Woods.

 Aaron Beatty has seven years of professional experience as a film critic and holds a film degree from Vassar College. He lives in Boston and spends many weekends with family in West Lebanon.