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The five worst movies of 2012

Disclaimer: I haven't seen all the movies that were released in the year 2012. Indeed, like most people, I watched almost exclusively movies that, to me, looked good - and of course they didn't always turn out to be good, but this practice probably yielded a better-on-average batch of cinema than I would have gotten if I'd watched every single movie given a theatrical run this year. I likely didn't see the really bad stuff. So why am I writing this piece?

I'm writing it because there are, in fact, professional movie critics who watch everything, and they too will occasionally produce a Worst Movies list - and it's nearly always full of stuff like "That's My Boy" and "Battleship." They had to watch these, and I'm sure they're terrible, but they were never supposed to be anything else. No one over 12 - not even the people who paid to see them - thought they'd be great cinema, and pithily mocking them generally doesn't make for a very interesting article.

So what happens when you limit this list (perhaps by necessity) to movies that actually wanted to be good, had some potential to be good - movies that, within the current cinematic landscape, sort of mattered? Well, here are my picks in alphabetical order:

1. "The Avengers"
How can a movie this boring be beloved? The only answer is that its fans signed over their hearts before it was even made. Its advertising campaign resembled a mass brainwashing: along with the usual action figures and lunchboxes, it was preceded by four different two-hour commercials, all of which were themselves released in theaters under the guise of actual movies, bearing titles like "Iron Man 2" and "Thor"  - I don't think this had ever happened before. But, in and of itself, "The Avengers" must be the most generic superhero blockbuster ever made. Joss Whedon was handed four of Marvel's finest characters, and somehow the best storyline he could come up with consisted of having them bicker for two hours and then realize that if only they could work together as a team they'd be unstoppable - a revelation worthy of Saturday morning cartoons. An enormous, triumphant battle scene follows: snore. (And why can't we have better female superheroes? ScarJo is just embarrassing here.)

2. "The Comedy"
Of all the ridiculous anti-hipster thinkpieces that have link-baited us over the past couple years, this is the longest and the most self-serious. Starring Tim Heidecker, in his first dramatic role, as a pot-bellied, trust-funded, improbably repulsive Brooklynite so crippled by white privilege that he can attempt to "connect" to the world around him only through irony, prankishness, and abuse, "The Comedy" plays like a lazy improvisation, a series of underwritten shock-value skits that never capture in any truthful way the demographic it wants chastise (and psychoanalyze). It's an "incisive critique" only for those to whom contempt qualifies as criticism, and it's "great, transgressive filmmaking" only for those to whom a critique may qualify as art. There is, it's true, a hint of "Five Easy Pieces" here, and a suggestion of the abyss that lies below the whole comedy of human life - but, in locating its victims, it looks trendily outward, not inward. Do hipsters even exist? They're always somebody else.

3. "The Dictator"
There always was, I thought, something a bit indelicate about Sacha Baron Cohen - from his smothering gross-out humor to his hit-you-over-the-head social satire - but there was something admirable, too, about his performances on film and on TV: his fearlessness, yes, but also his amazing technical skill as an improvisational comedian - he would anticipate variables, react, adjust, push forward, and always stay in character, no matter how crazy the situation. "The Dictator" simply doesn't work as hard as "Bruno" or "Borat." The pseudo-documentary aspect has been dropped; it's just another dumb Hollywood scripted comedy. Without any forays into the real world, all we're left with is the ugliness of Baron Cohen himself - a stale sense of humor, a taste for the disgusting, and a smug, potent hatred for the Arab world. Padded though it is with "equal-opportunity offensiveness," the movie makes its message clear: the aforementioned hatred is the reason it exists, just as hatred of a different sort was probably responsible for "Bruno" and "Borat." Baron Cohen's motives were bound to catch up with him.

4. "Friends with Kids"
Lends some credence to the notion that film is steadily getting worse - "Annie Hall" became "When Harry Met Sally," which became this. Bantering Manhattanites used to be clever; now they're worse than a sitcom, and in fact their whole lives seem to have sprung from one of those relationship-advice magazine articles designed to frighten unmarried women. This "smart," "indie" rom-com - an unpleasant fusion of old East Coast genteelness and Apatow-era crudity - is smart only in the same glib, repugnant sense of those articles. Its privileged leads are predictably destined for each other, and everybody but them can see it: the only ones more clueless than these characters must be the filmmakers themselves, so shielded by their own privilege that no one told them what a dumb, shallow movie this was, for all its maddeningly trivial, aggressively pitched "insight."

5. "The Master"
The biggest disappointment of the year, and Paul Thomas Anderson's first real directorial misstep. From "Boogie Nights" to "There Will Be Blood," his movies have been so grandly conceived, so capacious and multipurpose, that we should have expected to see something like this from him eventually: a film without a center. What is "The Master" even about? Scientology? Well, no, not really - no sign of Tom Cruise. The postwar male American psyche? Maybe, but the particular psyche in question - that of Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie - is so unchangingly violent, from beginning to end, that the movie just doesn't work as a character study. The result is the empty shell of an art film, containing some technical virtuosity, shades of big ideas and historical insights, and (I think) an enormous greatness that got lost somewhere along the way.