Did American cinema make the grade in 2012?

Throughout 2012 I found myself drawn more toward world cinema–particularly European films–and less to American ones. Reasons are numerous, among which the number of rote big-budget efforts, repeated from one movie to the next, totally predictable, with nothing to surprise viewers, let alone engage them.

Full disclosure: I don’t live on the planet where audiences flock to the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises, nor Pixar-created “Brave” or “The Incredibles,” I’ve never seen any of these. As serious disappointments, I would mention the pathetic “Expandables” or “Skyfall,” touted as a more thoughtful, intellectual version of James Bond (seriously?). Boom! Blast! Villain dead, good guy or an older version of same at the top of his game, then boom! Blast! Repeat—is the only explanation for the sizable box office returns that the video-game brain-adled public is sinking into stupor?

As for indie films, they try too hard to come up with original, quirky tidbits—how many weird characters and unexpected situations does it take for us to realize how insubstantial it all is? I’m not sure I understand this. If American cinema lacked talent, we wouldn’t have the exceptional television series we’ve seen over the last few years: “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “The Killing,” and “Damages.”

As I said in my end-of-year for 2011, I have my own grading system, from 0 to 20. My only 0, this year, would be “Prometheus.” 20, on the other hand, is how I grade the perfect film, the rare one that doesn’t have a single off-moment, the soufflé that never falls, though the analogy with a light and fluffy culinary specialty may not apply to some of the heavier films this year.

Top of the list, “Rust and Bone,” my favorite director’s latest. Jacques Audiard, author of the tremendous “A Prophet” has done it again, giving us a violent story, that of a woman who loses both legs to an orca in the aquarium where she works. The story has so many layers, most sensed rather than stressed, that I literally stumbled out of the theater. Marion Cotillard’s performance is splendid and her partner’s, the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts (“Bullhead”) quite remarkable in its understatement.

Then “Farewell my Queen” by Benoît Jacquot, as far removed from Sofia Coppola’s absurd “Marie Antoinette” as possible. As seen through the eyes of the queen’s reader, Versailles is a crumbling palace filled with clueless royal family and their agitated courtiers in the last days before the storming of Bastille prison, July 14th, 1789. Rumors fill the humming corridors, the kind, portly Louis XVI, ill-equipped to understand popular anger, doesn’t recognize the harbingers of a storm soon to turn into revolution but he is. As for Marie Antoinette, played by beautiful Diane Kruger (pictured during the photocall for the U.S. premiere in Hollywood this past July), she is much more in thrall to her bosom friend, the haughty Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) and to her moods to pay attention to the disturbance. The old order will soon fall to a historic event of the first magnitude, one after which the world will never be the same, yet these people twirl about in their brocade and satin finery, unable to see the writing on the wall. A superb film.

Read a review of “Farewell, my Queen”

Coincidentally, another film which I graded 20 with no hesitation tells the story of another queen and takes place only a few years before the French Revolution. This is “A Royal Affair,” by Nikolaj Arcel, about a British princess married to the half-crazy king of Denmark. Plunged in deep melancholia, boredom and helplessness by the primitive court where the intrigues of the queen mother are the order of the day, she takes as lover a German physician, Dr. Johann Struensee, played by the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen (who also appears this year in the excellent “The Hunt”) [read the review].

Struensee is steeped in Enlightenment ideas and, supported by the half-wit king, undertakes far-ranging social reforms, provoking the ire of the establishment that will make him pay dearly.

Special mention to Michael Haneke’s second Cannes Palme d’Or award in three years, the heart-breaking “Amour” with film icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, perfect in this end-of-life story. I gave it 18—something about the inevitable descent into decrepitude had me floundering at times.

And, finally, “Lincoln,” [review] certainly magnificent but also deserving an 18 rather than a 20 as I would have preferred some tempering of the rhetoric and the soaring music. The battle for the abolition of slavery as played by a bickering Congress and a president both depressed and determined is certainly an extraordinary moment in American history. Lincoln, our tormented and hallowed sixteenth president, perhaps the most important figure that ever was in this country, is magnificently portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. But Spielberg, not the most subtle director, could have used a page from the filmography of the directors mentioned above and pulled everything down a notch or two. Still, his “Lincoln” belongs to the ages, as does the film’s namesake.

The numbers are in:

Rust and Bone (20)

Farewell my Queen (20)

A Royal Affair (20)

Lincoln (18)

Amour (18)