The good, the bad and the ugh

Another year, another seemingly bottomless cache of films to review. Working as a professional movie critic isn’t for the faint of heart—we don’t know how SN&R film scribes Jonathan Kiefer and Jim Lane manage to do it and not turn bad.

Seriously, how many Adam Sandler films must one sit through before the brain cells revolt and retreat? How many Keira Knightley films does it take to kill off one’s last shred of hope for humanity?

And yet they soldier on and even find themselves rewarded with the occasionally great—or even masterful—film.

The following are Kiefer and Lane’s picks for 2012’s best flicks—with a few rotten tomatoes thrown in as well, just to keep it real.

Crowd-pleasers, Scarlett Johansson and tigers, oh my!

Holiday deadlines and last-minute releases of the movie-award season being what they are, this “best” list must be considered tentative, since several promising movies have yet to open (a few examples: Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty). So with that caveat, and reserving the right of revision, here are my top five for 2012 (so far), in alphabetical order:

Argo: The operation that smuggled six Americans out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis was already halfway to a James Bond adventure. Director (and star) Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio simply took it the rest of the way in high style, playing up the once-classified CIA-Hollywood connection—and playing down the contribution of the Canadian ambassador, to the consternation of some of our neighbors to the north. That cavil aside, Argo was one of the year’s biggest crowd-pleasers, with the CIA cast as the good guys for a change.

The Avengers: Director Joss Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn put the fun—and plenty of it—back into the comic-book movie with this summer blockbuster. It was high-spirited and exciting, a welcome relief from the morose, brooding gloom of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Amid all the flashy CGI, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow all but stole the show.

Life of Pi: It comes third alphabetically, but this adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel was the best picture of the year by a long mile, an instant classic among adventure movies and a dazzling parade of astonishing surprises, one after another. From director Ang Lee, writer David Magee and young newcomer Suraj Sharma in the title role, right down to the people who staffed the catering truck, everybody connected with this movie will probably never work on a better one as long as they live.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: With a title that sounds like a boring documentary short, this collaboration between director Lasse Hallström and writer Simon Beaufoy (adapted from Paul Torday’s novel) was one of the year’s most delightful surprises—a smooth blend of romance (from Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt), middlebrow mysticism (Egyptian actor Amr Waked) and wry political satire (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The Sessions: Iron-lung-bound quadriplegic (John Hawkes) seeks carnal knowledge from a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt): The bare synopsis sounds like a recipe for either sniggering lewdness or indigestible sentimentality. But no, writer-director Ben Lewin (recounting a true story already filmed in an Oscar-winning documentary) avoided all the pitfalls, and the movie brimmed with warmth and wit. Lewin also got one of the best performances of the year from Hawkes, and from Hunt, the best of her career.

And at the crummy end of the stick, a couple of “worsts”:

The Raven: Narrowly edging out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in the horror-Americana category, by virtue of a thoroughly illiterate script by actor Ben Livingston and one Hannah Shakespeare (definitely no relation).

That’s My Boy: Adam Sandler has been making one of the year’s worst movies —sometimes more than one—almost every year since 1995; this was 2012’s.

Finally, a special (dis)honorable mention for:

Wuthering Heights: Actually a 2011 movie, this British import didn’t hit the United States until last January’s Sundance Film Festival. It was hopelessly bad, so sub-YouTube incompetent that you often couldn’t hear or see the actors—which may have been a blessing. J.L.

Worldly sophistication—and Channing Tatum, too

My disclaimer—aside from the usual one, that I more easily say “favorite” than “best”—is that I’ve only just seen Zero Dark Thirty, and although I suspect it’ll be hailed as a film of the year, I also know I’ll need time to think it over, working out my reservations. Speaking of time, I can’t bear to waste any more on Cloud Atlas, so I’ll just quickly call that a worst for all its squandering sprawl. For some bests—well, favorites—try these:

Amour: From the elegantly pitiless Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, here’s a chamber play of sorts about the most basic human stuff: love and death. (Significantly, love alone is what the title comes down to.) It stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as an elderly Parisian couple coming to terms with the end of their life together, along with Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert as a vexed daughter. Maybe no other living filmmaker can so frankly assay the buildup to bereavement—that universal terror of lost companionship and certainty and consolation. It’s not just because the leads are elderly that this movie makes so many others seem like trite juvenilia.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Not quite the neo-spaghetti western its title might imply, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s lengthy, stately brooder does at least supply some rough justice, wide vistas and bantering dudes with big, amazing faces. Technically, it’s a procedural: A doctor, a lawyer, a killer and some cops drive around the steppes all night, trying to figure out where a body’s buried. They become exhausted and strangely self-revealing, subject to the inexplicable movie juju by which Ceylan makes gradual disillusionment seem so exhilarating.

Oslo, August 31st: Although freely adapted from a 1931 novel that also inspired a Louis Malle film in 1963, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s sophomore feature feels effortlessly contemporary. It’s a day in the life of a sad young literary man, fresh from drug rehab, who revisits his city and his own squandered potential. Such heavy stuff needs a light touch, and Trier has it. All of Oslo’s essentials—writing, design, acting, shooting, cutting—merge into an alertly cinematic support system for lead actor Anders Danielsen Lie, who haunts the proceedings with heartrending desperation.

This Is Not a Film: Banned from making movies and under house arrest in Tehran, Iran, Jafar Panahi can’t resist getting back to work—not on a film, per se, but merely an “effort,” by which the prisoner of conscience testifies to his experience. Obviously a sly rebuke to police-state censorship, Panahi’s funny and personal project is presented with affecting humility, less a matter of rebellious defiance than of basic creative problem solving. It’s amazing.

21 Jump Street: Sure, I’m serious. Has not my seriousness been sufficiently established by all the worldly sophistication described above? Well, sometimes movies should just be fun, right? Take this lark with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as hapless undercover cops on the high-school beat. Duly reconsidered in view of what else the year brought (including Life of Pi and Django Unchained and The Hobbit and Les Misérables and the lot of it), this might be the film that surprised me the most. Certainly it’s the year’s most improbably enjoyable, unnecessary regurgitation of lame ’80s TV. J.K.