What’s the difference between a great year at the movies and one that sucks? The measure has nothing to do with box office receipts. For you and me and anyone other than bean counters, a good year can be gauged, I think, by two far more interesting standards: How often were we surprised — by storytelling that feels fresh, energized, funny, deep? And how often were we satisfied — even by stories as familiar as one about a cop and his partner, a spy and his nemesis, a princess and her mother?
And by those measures, 2012 was a standout. (The consensus on 2011? Fail.) The answers to why, though, are harder for me to come by. My EW pal Owen Gleiberman has a theory that the year was notable because more filmmakers embraced the real and gritty, beating back the encroaching menace of the loud and calculated to anesthetize at the multiplex. Fellow critic A.O. Scott over at The New York Times suggests that heroines saved 2012 — not only Katniss and her quiver full of arrows in The Hunger Games and Merida the feisty lass in Brave, but also Jessica Chastain’s bin Laden-hunting CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty and the little spitfire played by Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both are good explanations. Why not? Maybe.
Myself, I’m more of the random-universe school of thought: What makes a year rich or poor is the luck of good filmmakers who (1) have something worthwhile to say, (2) have distinctive ways of saying it, (3) have completed their projects in time for release in the calendar year, and (4) have a means of distribution. To put it another way: Lincoln and The Sessions, the former by a studio titan, the latter by a relative newcomer, were years in the making. The stunning drama Flight is Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action movie in 12 years. Three years went by between the smart and twisty sci-fi action pic Looper and filmmaker Rian Johnson’s previous movie, The Brothers Bloom; three years also elapsed between Humpday and Lynn Shelton’s intimate and perceptive little relationship study Your Sister’s Sister. And Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater each stuck to their visions to make the excellent Moonrise Kingdom and Bernie. Sometimes, too, a well-placed vote of confidence makes all the difference. Without Jake Gyllenhaal’s participation, who knows if we’d ever have gotten to see the indie End of Watch, the best cop drama of the year?
Size doesn’t matter, not when it comes to good movies. While Beasts of the Southern Wild is as tiny as a bathtub, two of the year’s finest releases were expensive studio rigs built around characters known by just one name: Bond and Bourne. Skyfall and The Bourne Legacy are both familiar and surprising — a double delight. Hey, an audience knows a good movie when we see it. So, 2013, do your best. I mean it, your best.