This has been a fertile year for people to lament the decline of movies. In fact, two of the most distinguished critics around—Davids Denby and Thomson—more or less proclaimed in 2012 that the jig was up for film as an art form. Since one of them is 69 and the other is 71, the "Après nous, le déluge" side of this might strike skeptical readers as a mite self-involved.
Nonetheless, if they're talking about Hollywood's output as opposed to very-much-alive-and-well world cinema, they don't lack for circumstantial evidence. Between endless iterations of durable comic-book franchises and ever dumber, more ineptly made comedies, no wonder lots of people who used to love movies now prefer HBO and Showtime when they want their intelligence massaged. All but the worst hack reviewers dread the paucity of recommendable commercial movies for grown-ups until Thanksgiving's arrival starts coughing up the usual Oscar fodder. And then a lot of the Oscar fodder—e.g., Silver Linings Playbook—just hopes we'll mistake corn for cornsilk.
What makes the death-of-movies argument more awkward, however, is that 2012 has also been the year of Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, and Beasts of The Southern Wild, to name only the obvious home-grown contenders on most crits' Top 10 lists. Even Ang Lee's Life of Pi, whose technical virtuosity I admire while not thinking much of it otherwise—sorry, but statements about capital-L Life are forever at odds with my fondness for lowercase—was hardly a conventional project, certainly not considering its reported $120 million price tag. And even the obvious Likable Lightweight on plenty of critics' lists, mine included—Ben Affleck's Argo—did awfully well by a tricky true-life story about the 1979 Teheran hostage crisis, not what you'd call an obvious crowd-pleasing subject.
As the terminal writhings of a moribund art form go, even Denby and Thomson might grant that the titles I've named don't stack up too badly. Among them, at least on paper, Spielberg's Lincoln was by far Hollywood's most conventional idea of foolproof 2012 gold: Oscar-winning Unca Steven on Honest Abe, how can you miss? Yet the movie itself is essentially perverse in how it violates audience expectations, not only by focusing on a single, not all that dramatically promising episode of Lincoln's not uneventful presidency but by showing him as a master of duplicity and calculation who'd eat Jimmy Stewart's mush-mouthed Mr. Smith for breakfast and be hungry for a meatier senator an hour later. It might have qualified as the gutsiest big movie of the year if Kathryn Bigelow's clear-eyed dive into the muck beneath our joy in getting Osama bin Laden hadn't turned a no-brainer feel-good story into an arrestingly brainy feel-bad one.
As if to prove that—yes, Virginia—Movies Still Matter, both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty crossed over into being controversial in Op-ed Land. The case that Lincoln was just another movie falsely depicting old white men making history while people of color passively waited for the good news had some merit. Much as I admire the thing, just one scene between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass—and where was Morgan Freeman's agent, out on the golf links?—wouldn't have come amiss. The stupid idea that Zero Dark Thirty was somehow validating the Bush administration's torture policies, on the other hand, was impossible to stomach for anyone sentient about how movies work. Though Bigelow can be—and, lord knows, has been—criticized for futzing with factual accuracy in implying that torture played a part in getting Osama bin Laden, only by morally debased logic is that equivalent to endorsing torture as a method. She was dramatizing its atrocity without caring any more than Goya would have whether it got "results" or not, and Zero Dark Thirty's real point is that torture tarnished the whole endeavor—a bleak conclusion, not a propagandist one.
Then there was The Master, which was the movie people expected to be controversial. The early-bird word was all about how Paul Thomas Anderson was going to expose L. Ron Hubbard as a fraud, not only a coals-to-Newcastle job if ever I heard of one but a task definitely beneath Anderson's talents. Instead, rather more provocatively, The Master's theme was that all leaders are essentially cult leaders—doesn't matter if they're politicos, religious nuts, or just rich—and something sick in most of us in born to follow once the right formulation of gibberish pushes our buttons. The only reason The Master wasn't among the more hotly debated movies of the year is the simple one that it didn't sell enough tickets to feel like part of public conversation.
Since selling tickets is Hollywood's bread and butter, and that's not much of a putdown—they don't call it show business for nothing, after all—the counterpart to cinephiles' chagrin that The Master flopped ought to be elation that it got made. Even in these infantilized, rubber-stamped times for the movie biz, someone like P.T. Anderson can still attract backers and far from unknown actors—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix—to something that intransigent and get a wide release. True, he is P.T. Anderson, and getting The Master financed probably wasn't easy even so. Still, who among us would deny the achievement a hosanna or two?
A number of other movies kept my day job unusually pleasurable this year. Though the Little Indie Flick That Could is now less fluke than genre—ever since Juno, projects have been expertly packaged to fit that bill—Beasts of the Southern Wild was the genuine article, enchantingly original not only visually but in how its storytelling approach stayed confined to the six-year-old heroine's eccentric perceptions and vague sense of linear time. As for Moonrise Kingdom's Wes Anderson, it's pretty clear he'll never reach a wide public—and so what? His niche audience is so devoted that he can probably go on intently fashioning his Swiss-watch fairy tales until doomsday. Even comic-book summer blockbusters keep getting more interesting, thanks in large part to being directed by people who grew up on them and don't see why they can't be as eloquent as any other kind of movie. Whatever else it was, The Dark Knight Rises could hardly be faulted for lacking either ambition or social complexity, and Joss Whedon's The Avengers was simultaneously rousing and funny in ways that could give all-American optimism a good name again.
To say all this leaves me unconvinced that movies are dying is a considerable understatement. My elders and betters will just have to forgive me for suspecting that their downbeat takes are basically generational in origin, since whatever makes movies an art form has metamorphosed a good deal in the past decade or two and it's always easy for old hands to mistake transformation for decline. While I'm no spring chicken myself, I generally mistrust obituaries except when they're of people. The one time I succumbed to the impulse and wondered in print if TV sitcoms were going the way of the dodo, Modern Family, Parks and Rec, and a bunch of others promptly bounced up and kicked my sorry butt all around the block. Down the road, Denby and Thomson may well end up looking almost as silly as I did, which I don't wish on them, exactly. But I'd be a lot more interested if one of them had seen fit to wonder whether movies might be in the birth throes of a renaissance instead.