What's the Matter with This Movie Season?

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Thanksgiving is a mere week away, meaning we are more than halfway through this fall movie season, aka Big-Time Awards Movie Season. Are you detecting what we're detecting? Meaning, a faint whiff of disappointment and unrealized potential? In plain terms, this has been a pretty underwhelming movie season so far, and we're wondering if the second half of the fall will be able to save it. There's a lot that needs doing.

For some context, let's flash back to last year. By this point in 2011, we'd had the releases of Warrior, Drive, Moneyball, 50/50, Take Shelter, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Like Crazy, Melancholia, and The Descendants. Not to mention not-so-good Oscarbait like J. Edgar and The Ides of March. And that was just September to mid-November releases. Earlier in the year we'd had a ton of strong indies that were either courting awards attention or were at least destined to make it onto a few Best of the Year lists. Movies like Win Win, Jane Eyre, Hanna, Meek's Cutoff, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Beginners, and, yes, The Help. Sure the year's Best Picture Oscar-winner, The Artist, had yet to come out, but the year was already chock-full of good movies.

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Compare that to 2012 and the difference is disheartening. Going all the way back to January, what have we really seen that could be best-of-the-year material, whether by the Academy's standards or those of the pretentious film snobs among us? (Ahem.) Not much. Maybe Rampart. Some might go for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for their ornate titles alone, perhaps. Whit Stillman's anticipated Damsels In Distress was mostly a flop, as were Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator and the long awaited Prometheus. Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom was a definite bright spot. We would put the tiny gem Your Sister's Sister on our list if we had to write it today, same for the beguiling Beasts of the Southern Wild. But there's little else. To Rome with Love was not this year's Midnight in Paris, and the traditional late-summer comedy for adult women this year was the low-key Hope Springs as opposed to last year's big, crowd-pleasing, and ultimately Oscar-winning The Help. And let's go from late summer into fall and look at films that had buzz but ultimately didn't connect at the critical moment: Killer Joe, Cosmopolis, Robot & Frank, Lawless, The Words, Arbitrage (which was good, but not great, and was certainly not as strong as last year's similarly themed Margin Call), Won't Back Down (that at least had some momentum in the acting categories), The Paperboy, Cloud Atlas, and even Looper. That doesn't leave much that actually delivered.

What we're seeing in response to this dearth of sterling quality is, we suspect, films like Argo and Silver Linings Playbook (which we'll review tomorrow), both certainly good films, elevated to a higher level of praise than would be normal in order to fill the void. Silver Linings especially, being that it's a kindhearted crowd-pleaser featuring likable actors, is getting lionized as some Great Movie of 2012. While it's for sure a good movie of 2012, it's not, say, The Descendants, which whispered with a lot more wisdom and subtlety than David O. Russell's ultimately fairly blunt film. This fall has not been without good movies, those two and other fare like The Sessions among them, but the general state of the year in cinema feels less than spectacular based on our position in the middle of November. Lincoln is the strongest Oscar contender right now, and it certainly has the heft and rumble of a traditionally strong Academy choice, but it's also a deceptively slight film that's really emboldened by a mesmerizing central performance. Take Daniel Day-Lewis out of the equation and you have high-gloss Masterpiece Theatre, not an awards tent-pole feature film.

Looper is a canny sci-fi action picture but doesn't quite have the tricky depth of something like Inception to push it into the hallowed "next level" of awards shortlists. The Paperboy could have been trashy art but was instead just trashy, and Cloud Atlas — which we were really, really hoping was going to be mind-expandingly good — landed with a squish and a frustrated sigh. Speaking of high expectations being met with frustration, the first half of the fall season's greatest white hope, Paul Thomas Anderson's eagerly awaited The Master, certainly had its share of fans, but was largely met with shrugged shoulders and dismissal when it opened in September and seems all but forgotten now. It could still be a contender for acting prizes come the awards season, but it's looking less and less like the potential corrective for There Will Be Blood's Oscar loss that it once did. All told, this first part of autumn hasn't given us much of anything substantial to work with.

Looking ahead, there are some potential bright spots and some possible letdowns. On the latter front, Joe Wright's Anna Karenina opens in limited release this Friday, and while we'd hoped, and the trailers seemed to indicate, that Wright would build on the artistry of last year's terrific Hanna, he's instead reverted back to the pretty-but-bland technique that made his Atonement such a hollowly elegant bore. (We'll have a full review of that tomorrow as well.) Another heavily laden costume piece is Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, which has an outside chance of being a stirring, well-executed bit of corn, but trailers hint at a pretty-looking disaster. The Impossible, the Naomi Watts/Ewan McGregor drama about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, could be an expertly made tearjerker, but we're guessing it's going to be more of a manipulative tearjerker. Bill Murray's shameless Oscar ploy Hyde Park on Hudson, which has him playing FDR, seems already dead in the water after a chilly reception in Toronto, while This Is 40 looks even more self-indulgent than Judd Apatow's last effort, Funny People, which we didn't think possible.

It's not all gloom and doom, though. We're curious about Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, as we're curious about all of his movies. Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly sounds great based on everything we heard from Cannes. While Kathryn Bieglow's Osama bin Laden caper comedy (or, y'know, intelligence thriller) Zero Dark Thirty is almost as shrouded in mystery as the actual operation was, it still seems promising on its pedigree. Maybe The Hobbit will stir in us what The Lord of the Rings did so many years ago, and maybe Gus van Sant's fracking drama Promised Land will be a genuine rabble-rouser. That's kind of it for English language releases and scripted fare. We're seeing Michael Haneke's Alzheimer's tale Amour tomorrow and are hoping to be bowled over, while all the dreamy imagery in the Rust & Bone trailers has us anticipating another bracing French drama from the director of A Prophet. On the documentary front, we weren't as taken with Searching for Sugar Man as others seemed to be, but at least there is How to Survive a Plague to fondly remember and West of Memphis to look forward to. (Meanwhile we've been remiss in not yet seeing The House I Live In.) But even in that typically sparse category, the pickings this year seem particularly slim. This summer's First Position was cute, but not much more than that, for example.

So that's how we see this year in movies so far. There's some potentially good stuff coming up, but a lot of disappointment behind us. While we've no doubt that the Oscar voters and list makers (including us) will be able to scrape together ten or so credible choices for the best of the year, will they really measure up to years past? Right now it's not looking likely. So what happened? Some years are just off years, we suppose. There have been good, entertaining big-budget blockbusters like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and Skyfall this year, but on the artsier side, this is largely a bum crop. That might make all the awards stuff this winter kind of a downer to watch, or it could make it all the more exciting; it'll be scrappier and more uncertain. Sure Lincoln will probably come loping through and crush many things in its path, but right now we still see lots of room for curious surprises. And, though the movies weren't great, that sounds kinda good to us.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.