Our critic's favorite dozen movies of 2012

9. ANNA KARENINA Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy

9. ANNA KARENINA
Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy -- by way of Tom Stoppard -- is a terrific blend of art-house symbolism (elaborate staging, fourth-wall-breaking) and Hollywood costume drama. Keira Knightley is radiant, though it's a shockingly dowdy Jude Law who impresses most as her cuckolded hubby.
Read the review.
(Credit: Focus Features)

This year was a mixed bag for the movies, but instead of ranting like a grouchy critic I'm going to invoke the words of my father, who taught me a Zen approach to moviegoing. Years ago, he and I settled into a theater with my wife, who wondered aloud whether the film would be any good. My father's contented reply: "I don't care if it is or not."

Ditto for me. Whether I'm sitting through an abysmal comedy like Eddie Murphy's "A Thousand Words" or a brilliant film like "The Master" -- my top pick this year -- I'm pretty much happy to be watching a movie, any movie. I've always felt It's a joy and a privilege to be entertained (before I got paid to do it), even when things aren't as entertaining as they could be.

That said, filmmakers worked darned hard to hold our attention in 2012. It was a year of big ambitions and new ideas. Many directors challenged themselves, and us, by filming books that seemed unfilmable, from the multi-plot, cast-of-thousands extravaganza "Cloud Atlas" to the stripped-down drama "Life of Pi," whose central stars were a first-time actor and an animated tiger. Joe Wright shot Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" partly on a stage, cleverly straddling three formats -- book, movie and play -- at once. And Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," a kind of literary white whale that has eluded filmmakers since its 1957 publication, finally appeared in theaters earlier this month.

Movies this year also tended to go epic. You might expect the big-budget musical "Les Misérables," to run nearly three hours, but so did Kathryn Bigelow's terrorist thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" and Quentin Tarantino's comedy-western "Django Unchained." Even the latest James Bond film, "Skyfall," clocked in at 143 minutes. Not all of this footage seemed necessary, but at least Hollywood tried to give us more bang for our 11 or 12 bucks.

The year's most radical idea came from Peter Jackson, whose new Tolkien adaptation, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," is the first movie ever to be shot and projected at 48 frames per second (the industry standard is 24). The result is an ultrasharp, hyper-clear image that looks like no movie you've ever seen. Unfortunately, it also looks cold, unnatural and unmagical -- somewhere between a high-definition sportscast and a video game -- but Jackson deserves credit for experimenting with the medium of film itself.

Oops -- I said "film," a term that's quickly becoming obsolete as major studios embrace the digital future. What will these new movies look like? Will they be any good? I don't know, but I'll be happy to watch them.

First, some sub-categories:

 

Biggest Disappointment

THIS IS 40 Judd Apatow's semi-sequel to "Knocked Up," with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann returning as a couple suddenly slamming into middle age, could have been a generation-defining comedy. Instead it's a lazy throwaway full of rehashed jokes and family-film cliches. An opportunity squandered by a usually savvy filmmaker.

Guilty Pleasure of The Year

SPARKLE

It should have been dreck: A Supremes-inspired soap-opera starring "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks. But the snazzy costumes, lively score (including some Curtis Mayfield gems) and a showstopping gospel number from Whitney Houston in her final on-screen appearance made this frothy musical an unexpected treat.

The Absolute Worst

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN I gave lousier reviews to other movies, but this unnecessary reboot still stands out in my mind. Andrew Garfield's whiny Spidey and Marc Webb's confused direction -- are we going for "The Dark Knight" or "Iron Man"? -- have made an iconic superhero franchise look like just another late-arriving, clueless cash-in. It's the sight of Hollywood eating itself.

And now, the Top 12 of 2012.

1. THE MASTER. Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology-inspired story of a dubious shepherd (Phil Seymour Hoffman) and a lost sheep (Joaquin Phoenix) isn't an indictment of any church but an attempt to understand the religious impulse. It's beautiful, funny, compassionate and ultimately forgiving.

2. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES. This documentary focuses on a billionaire timeshare mogul humbled by the events of 2008, for which he -- and perhaps many of us -- can share the blame. Many films have tried to explain how the financial collapse happened; this movie shows why.

3. FLIGHT. Denzel Washington brims with rock-and-roll energy as a pilot with a drinking problem, and he's so much fun that you never want the party to end. When it does, you'll realize there's more to this slick entertainment than meets the eye.

4. ZERO DARK THIRTY. Kathryn Bigelow's gripping dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden -- including brutal scenes of torture -- seems destined to become the popular version of events. It's also rankling both the right and the left, which is reason alone to see it.

5. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. This drama about dirt-poor Southerners surviving a Katrina-like storm isn't a grinding downer but a shot of pure joy. The film's first-time actors, grade-schooler Quvenzhané Wallis and baker Dwight Henry, are absolute magic.

6. MAGIC MIKE. Director Steven Soderbergh mines Channing Tatum's stripper past for material and comes up with solid gold. It's funny, sexy and completely authentic, a "Saturday Night Fever" for the new millennium.

7. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. This elaborate spoof from director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon is basically an extended joke aimed at horror-movie geeks, but it's still one of the freshest and funniest movies I saw all year.

8. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. David O. Russell's romantic crowd-pleaser benefits from surprisingly strong acting (Bradley Cooper -- who knew?), but gets by mostly on sheer heart. When people ask me what to see, this is the one I recommend.

9. ANNA KARENINA. Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy -- by way of Tom Stoppard -- is a terrific blend of art-house symbolism (elaborate staging, fourth-wall-breaking) and Hollywood costume drama. Keira Knightley is radiant as Anna, though it's a shockingly dowdy Jude Law who impresses most as her cuckolded hubby.

10. ARGO. Director Ben Affleck is three for three ("The Town," "Gone Baby Gone") with his latest, a wildly implausible (but true) story about Americans who flee revolutionary Iran by posing as a film crew. It's part thriller, part Hollywood satire, and totally entertaining.

11. THE IMPOSTER. Bart Layton's documentary about a con artist who impersonates missing children is such a ripping good detective story that you'll almost swear it's fiction. Steel yourself for an ending that will knock you sideways.

12. RUBY SPARKS. Potential powerhouse Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the great filmmaker Elia) wrote and stars in this story of a novelist (Paul Dano) who invents a fantasy girl -- but this time we get the fantasy's viewpoint. Kazan is a charmer, and so is this deceptively lighthearted romance.