I confess that I'm continuing my trend of seeing fewer and fewer new movies with each passing year. This is not because I am growing older or less interested - on the contrary, I'm as passionate about film as ever - but because the output really has gotten stinkier. That said, even though I've seen fewer than fifty 2012 releases, there were still plenty of standouts. Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom, and Holy Motors deserve their acclaim. I enjoyed populist offerings like The Hunger Games and The Avengers. And I agree that Hitchcock and To Rome With Love were disappointing. But the following nine movies are those which I think did not deserve the reception that they received, good or bad. I'm not focusing merely on critics' responses - many "underrated" titles on this list got great reviews, and many "overrated" ones were rightfully panned - but also on audience attendance, media buzz, and general popular attention.
- Overrated: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. I really liked Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. They were bold, smart films that elevated their source material out of the superhero genre. But Christopher Nolan's trilogy-ender plopped it right back into comic book hokum. The fault lies entirely with the script, which is full of plot holes, tin-ear dialogue, sloppy character motivations and ridiculous contrivances. Audiences and critics disagreed with me, of course, but I found it a real dud.
- Underrated: CLOUD ATLAS. I liked Cloud Atlas so much that, although I first had to see it for work, I actually paid to see it a second time in the theater. That's rare for me! This film has so much going on that transcends the surface gimmicks of casting actors in multiple roles and cross-cutting between six storylines. I'll grant that I never expected it to be a box office hit, as it's just too damn weird for mainstream audiences, but American critics collectively rated it the worst movie of the year. Really, guys? I think it's one of the best.
- Overrated: THE MASTER. This same critical aggregate named Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master the best film of the year. And it is beautifully shot, with some strong performances and an interesting viewpoint. But its presentation is so cold and oblique that to me, the overwhelming critical response has a ring of "the emperor's new clothes" about it. I suspect that Anderson doesn't actually have as much to say with this film as people think he does. But I won't fight you over it.
- Underrated: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. Whit Stillman is a twee indie filmmaker who was a critical darling in the '90s. But despite the 14-year-wait for this, his fourth feature, the response was tepid. Reviewers didn't care, moviegoers didn't care. Perhaps Wes Anderson gobbled up all of Stillman's old fans. Still, Damsels in Distress is loaded with creative little ideas and memorable images, and Greta Gerwig is charming in it. I think it's Stillman's funnest movie yet.
- Overrated: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. I should have been suspicious when critics were falling over themselves praising this film even before it came out. Silver Linings Playbook is little more than an average, if kinda cute, romantic comedy tacked on to an hour or so of tiresome ranting from Bradley Cooper, who's not very believable as a man suffering from bipolar disorder. Thumbs down for suggesting that major psychological issues could be cured with the love of a good woman and some time on the dance floor. But otherwise, this will go into that "Why was this bit of fluff considered awards-worthy?" box along with Oscar winners like As Good As It Gets and The Sting.
- Underrated: FRANKENWEENIE. Tim Burton's lovely animated horror movie is on several Top Ten lists. So why didn't it connect with audiences? Was it the black and white? The stop-motion animation? Was it perceived as too scary for kids and too juvenile for grown-ups? ParaNorman, a fine film which covers much of the same ground as Frankenweenie, fared far better at the box office. Gee, maybe it was the black and white that turned the crowds away. But this is Burton's best and most personal film in years.
- Overrated: TED. Believe it or not, I do like to laugh. I admit that Hollywood comedies usually leave me cold, but most can still wring at least one or two mild chuckles out of me. The sleeper hit Ted, however, couldn't even make me crack a smile. I just don't get Seth MacFarlane. He seems so smug, and his humor is so frat boy-ish and uninspired. I guess I've seen a handful of amusing Family Guy moments, but I find MacFarlane himself insufferable. (And now this guy's hosting the Oscars? Oy!) As for Ted, it's poorly plotted, with stale jokes and a self-congratulatory attitude about its own wackiness. The only good thing about it is that the CG teddy bear is nicely animated.
- Underrated: RUBY SPARKS. It's a mystery why the husband-and-wife directing team who delivered the indie phenomenon Little Miss Sunshine would fail so greatly with their well-reviewed follow-up Ruby Sparks. It could be that the film's talented leads Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (who wrote the script) just aren't perceived by the public as star material. Too bad, it's a clever little movie.
- Overrated: THE INTOUCHABLES. One of the only foreign language successes of 2012 (have you noticed the dearth of foreign films in U.S. cinemas these days?), France's The Intouchables drew flocks of art house grannies, but this trifle about a rich white quadriplegic whose life is changed by his poor black assistant reeks of those hoary "Magical Negro" cliches that Hollywood is famous for, wherein a "noble savage" exists mainly to improve the lives of prissy, stuck-up whites by teaching them to dance, encouraging them to smoke marijuana and have sex with each other, etc. The Intouchables may provide surface entertainment, but its soul is manipulative and racist.