It sure was easier picking a list of the best films of 2012 than it was in franchise-heavy 2011.
This is encouraging, given that Hollywood always favours the familiar to the surprising. In this list, a few good filmmakers demonstrate they will not be deterred from creating something new and different... even in a Bond movie.
Best Drama: The Master
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson was not as interested in Scientology as he was in the loaded dynamic between an L. Ron Hubbard-like would-be prophet named Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his would-be apostle Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix). The performances yield a beautiful harmony, particularly in a scene in which the two men find themselves in adjoining jail cells, acting according to their opposite instincts. The film's final encounter between Dodd and Freddie yields to the happiest ending you'll ever get in a P.T. Anderson movie: real carnality trumps fake spirituality.
Best Superhero Blockbuster: Marvel's The Avengers
This big-budget blast is a superhero movie elegantly punctuated with knee-slapping moments, whether a deft one-liner from Robert Downey's cynical Tony Stark/Iron Man or a hilarious bit of comic-book slapstick courtesy of The Hulk. Writer-director Joss Whedon actually pulls off an impressive orchestration here, assembling the heroes of no fewer than four existing Marvel franchises and putting together a comic-book symphony.
Honourable Mention: The Dark Knight Rises
Best Adaptation of a Classic: Coriolanus
Ralph Fiennes both stars in and directs of one of William Shakespeare's more obscure classics about an arrogant military leader, adroitly adapted by John Logan in a contemporary setting. Barely released and haphazardly promoted, this felt like one of those best-kept-secret movies, but it's thoroughly fascinating and also a rare opportunity for Gerard Butler to show he is still making movies worth seeing. (See: Worst films of the year.)
Best 'toon: ParaNorman
This superbly animated feature mocks horror movie convention, yet delivers thrills of its own, utilizing some jaw-dropping stop-motion technology. It's also great fun, and please note that even going up against old goth hand Tim Burton (Frankenweenie), it triumphs.
Honourable Mentions: Wreck-It Ralph, Brave.
Best Horror Movie: Cabin in the Woods
It was a great year for Joss Whedon (The Avengers) who produced and co-scripted with director Drew Goddard a film that simultaneously provokes chills of dread even as it hilariously deconstructs the horror movie sub-genre by sub-genre. The upsetting dynamic of youth put through hell by blasé middle-aged technocrats is certainly more infuriating here than it was in The Hunger Games.
Honourable Mention: The wooze-inducing Brit thriller The Kill List.
Best Action Movie: The Raid: Redemption
While Hollywood is still churning out the same old same-old action (literally, in the case of Expendables 2), a Welshman named Gareth Evans went to Indonesia and blended an astonishing mix of martial arts action, political intrigue and a touch of psycho horror into a piquant, bloody stew.
Honourable mention: End of Watch, writer-director David Ayer's cop movie evokes favourable comparisons to Joseph Wambaugh's reality-based cop stories.
Best Franchise Blockbuster: Skyfall
In the 50th year of the franchise, Bond manages to be realpolitik-pertinent while paying discreet homage to the films of the past. It also comes as close as possible to taking Bond into the realm of a family drama, with Bond (Daniel Craig) and designated villain Silva (Javier Bardem) acting like feuding brothers battling over the recognition of a withholding parent (Judi Dench's M). It's all gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins and directed by, of all people, Sam Mendes (American Beauty).
Best comedy: Moonrise Kingdom
Director Wes Anderson offers up a drily funny, storybook-pretty tale of pre-teen runaways, and the adults who hunt for them. In the foreground, the movie is a celebration of youthful passion and purpose, but lurking behind that, the adults in the cast offering a wistful, sad forecast of estrangement, doubt and compromise to come.
Honourable mention: Safety Not Guaranteed, an eccentric comic meditation on second chances starring bad (mood) girl Aubrey Plaza; and Goon a raw, raucous hockey comedy that was also the best locally shot film of the year.
Best Horror-Action-Comedy Whatzit: Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino finally tackles the western genre and creates a runaway stagecoach of a movie, suspenseful, shocking and grimly funny, playing off the violence and horror of slavery in the antebellum South. As usual, the multiple references to other movies add up to something entirely unique.
Honourable mention: Local film collective Astron-6's hilarious/grisly B-movie double bill Father's Day and Manborg.
Best Canadian Drama: Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley's drama is an intelligent, sensitively rendered dissection of a dissolving marriage, with the added value is its on-the-money rendition of the heated erotic landscape of Toronto in summer.
Worst films of the Year
Playing for Keeps
The premise -- a divorced soccer star dad tries to reconnect with his son by coaching his soccer team, only to find himself the object of prurient attention by assorted soccer moms -- screams to be treated as a saucy adult sex comedy. Instead we get an insipid PG drama. Argh!
A literary drama by people who don't apparently read, shot like a gauze-lensed lifestyle commercial sustained over 96 minutes.
This down-market sequel to the infinitely more inventive 2010 film Piranha chews up all the rude glee out of the original. Crass and stupid -- in a bad way.
What to Expect when You're Expecting
This is an example of a Hollywood movie attempting to pretend familiarity with the movie-going public by playing up the common experience of first-time parenting. Unfortunately, the end product is so manipulative and so false, it ends up an exercise in sheer alienation.
A nifty idea -- a proto-serial killer at work in mid-19th century Baltimore is inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and it falls on the drunken, dissolute author to help track him down -- is unconscionably botched by director James McTeigue. If you think a director can't phone it in, watch this movie.