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Commentary: Reeling through 11 months of best, worst movies of the year so far

Courtesy of MCT

The year’s end is upon us and, for my money, 2012 has been perhaps the finest year for film since 2007. With just less than a month of new releases left, let’s look back at some of the best and worst movies of the previous 11.

January: The first month of the year tends to be a little rough film-wise. Studios dump their minor horror films (“The Devil Inside,” “The Divide”) early, and prestige pictures are nowhere to be found. “The Grey” received strong buzz early on, but this writer found the Liam Neeson survivalist tale to be more tedious than tense. Luckily, Steven Soderbergh’s taut spy thriller “Haywire” redeemed January with its punishing close-quarters fight scenes.

February: Starring a post-“Potter” Daniel Radcliffe, “The Woman in Black” offered some legitimate scares but failed to fully capitalize on its spooky setting. “Wanderlust” was a typical David Wain comedy, with equal parts heart and raunch – Justin Theroux and Joe Lo Truglio were hysterical.

March: While the success of “The Hunger Games” and failure of “John Carter” dominated the film discussion, the criminally under-seen “Friends With Kids” slipped through the cracks. Jennifer Westfeldt’s fantastically written romantic comedy is a real gem and worth catching on DVD. “21 Jump Street” seemed like a potentially terrible idea, but the comedic pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum was so strong that the film turned into one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

April: “The Five-Year Engagement” was a major disappointment, a rare miss for pretty much everyone involved, and we will all probably forget that “The Three Stooges” movie ever happened. “The Cabin in the Woods” proved to be worth the wait (the film was shot in 2009, and shelved by MGM due to the studio’s financial problems), and was as hilarious as it was scary. Zal Batmanglij’s “Sound of My Voice” announced a major new voice in American independent cinema and featured a stunning performance from Brit Marling.

May: May gave us “Moonrise Kingdom,” Wes Anderson’s first film since 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The charming comedy featured great turns from Bruce Willis and Edward Norton and was Anderson’s best-reviewed film to date. “The Dictator” was a soulless, one-joke satire from “Borat”-creator Sacha Baron Cohen, and “Dark Shadows” proved to be another in a long string of failures from Tim Burton.

June: Oh, “Prometheus.” Ridley Scott’s sort-of “Alien” prequel was gorgeous to look at but was overstuffed with ideas, not many of which were good. Mark Duplass was the unofficial king of the month, starring in both “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” two of the best independent films of the year.

July: July brought the half-baked “Savages,” Oliver Stone’s return to the kinetic action genre. Despite some ace supporting turns, the film failed to connect. “The Dark Knight Rises” was the epic conclusion in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy that we’d come to expect from the smartest of all the tentpole directors. William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” proved to be a nasty dark comedy, anchored by a fantastic lead performance by Matthew McConaughey.

August: The gorgeous 3-D, stop-motion animated “ParaNorman” was a breath of fresh air in the family film arena. David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” hit like a limousine, revealing a heretofore unseen range in “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson’s acting abilities. Similarly, Shia LaBeouf shed his “Transformers” smarm and gave an excellent performance in John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era gangster film “Lawless.”

September: Despite Rian Johnson’s excellent “Looper” and Steven Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which some folks liked but some couldn’t stomach, September belonged to “The Master.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s crushingly intimate epic actually did what critics claim any number of films in a given year can do ­- it restored one’s faith in the power of cinema. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give two of the best performances of this or any year, and some have been heard declaring “The Master” the best American film in more than a decade.

October: Ben Affleck’s “Argo” was another solid, if unremarkable, flick from the actor-director but brought nothing particularly groundbreaking to the table. “Seven Psychopaths,” from “In Bruges” director Martin McDonagh, was like a cinematic shot of adrenaline, just bursting with clever ideas, witty dialogue and crazy performances. “Sinister” rested on the strength of a few good scares, but was never quite fulfilling.

November: “Skyfall” was a gorgeously shot, tremendous bore, and I’ve already written about my love for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” at length in these pages, so I’ll use my remaining words to recommend everyone give Andrew Dominik’s lean, mean thriller “Killing Them Softly” the chance it deserves. Don’t buy the ads selling it as a shoot-’em-up action film – this smart, wordy, gut-punch of a film has more in common with the great crime films of the 1970s than something you’d find Jason Statham starring in.

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