Here I am once again, landing just past the sell-by date for final considerations of the year in movies past, when all the Oscar hype and grist for the mill of 10-best lists everywhere gets recycled into enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for next year’s offerings and some burning incense to ward off the faint whiff of defeat in the air already in the wake of the year’s early offerings. (Who’s got "Identity Thief" and "A Good Day to Die Hard" already penciled in on that best-of list for 2013?) One more day, and no one will officially care about, much less even remember who won all those awards everybody’s been in a twist about since October (or earlier), to say nothing of all the sorry also-rans coming soon to a Netflix queue near you.
And whether or not you are surprised to hear it, many of the winners, but even more of those also-rans, were worth talking about in 2012. If my own list of movie pleasures means anything, it’s a signifier of the gratitude I feel that any one of the creations found below came along during the calendar year. I find it ridiculously difficult to seriously complain in general about the relative quality of any movie year which brought me the ecstatic highs of "Holy Motors," the blissful cinematic catharsis of "Life of Pi," the humanizing outrage of "How to Survive a Plague," the blasts of transgressive shock and choking laughter of "Killer Joe," the disorienting joys and fears of "Cloud Atlas," the almost hallucinatory clarity of "Looper," the overwhelming quiet of "The Secret World of Arriety" and, speaking of quiet, the welcome return of an atmosphere of artfully conjured dread in "The Pact."
Much ink has been spilled and many pixels have been electronically designated this past year in service to hand-wringing about the End of Cinema As We Know It. But the presence of these movies, as readily available (and I’ll get to that notion of that availability in a second) alternatives to the usual menu of aggressively marketed sound and fury that gluts the American Cineplex on a weekly basis, the fact that they’ve somehow managed to bubble up through the cracks in the armor of corporate controlled pop culture, is in itself a healthy dose of encouragement.
The difference is that even in major metropolitan areas many of these movies only play theatrically for a couple of weeks, if that -- "Holy Motors" was around for about a month, in dribs and drabs, here in Los Angeles, and another movie on my list, "Perfect Sense," didn’t run in the movie capital of the world theatrically at all, only managing to secure one week on one tiny screen in New York City. But if you’re not in a major urban center and you hanker to see even a relatively high-profile foreign language movie like Amour, odds are you probably won’t get the chance to see it or anything other than the most heavily marketed fare on a big screen.
So while the mere against-all-odds existence of demographically uncharted movies like the ones Leos Carax or Terrence Davies or the Dardenne brothers make would seem to be evidence that cinema is doing perhaps better than expected in a world where it ain’t really a movie unless it’s got a Happy Meal or a YA book tie-in, it’s the cinemas themselves where these films could be shown that might in fact be dying.
The picture is even bleaker for small-town theaters which live and breathe on only the most broadly appealing Hollywood fare, home-owned and operated businesses which can’t sustain more than one screen and/or can’t afford to pay for the costly conversion to digital that the studios are basically forcing upon them. For places like the town where I grew up, which has had its own keen, if perpetually rundown little art deco movie palace since about 1940, the coming year brings with it the distinct possibility of those doors being shuttered once and for all, signifying the end of seeing movies the way they were always meant to be seen for whoever is left there that might actually want to go out to see a movie.