The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

More driven than the meandering first episode, but still hampered by uneven pacing and far too much plot, much of which still feels inconsequential two films in. As in the first film, the abundant action too often looks like a video game – not so much in the special effects as in the ridiculous actions that characters are performing onscreen. (One sequence has them Chun-Li-stomping on heads one minute and Mario-hopping into barrels the next.)

The dragon Smaug is impressive, as are the cavernous underground vistas (enough almost to make me wish I’d seen it in 3D). And the ending does set the stage for a climactic conclusion. Whether Jackson can provide that in the third and final film remains to be seen, but judging by these first two episodes I’m guessing not.

Gravity

“127 Hours” in space. Both films focus almost exclusively on a single character in life-threatening circumstance; both would have never worked without a talented actor in front of the camera and a great director behind it. In place of the orange desert hues of the former movie we get the deep blacks of space, immersive special effects (with excellent 3D) and the trademark long, extended shots of director Alfonso Cuarón. Absolutely see it in a theater, and give good consideration to 3D or even Imax.

The World’s End

Quite possibly the greatest British sci-fi-action comedy ever made. Despite a slow start and an incredibly annoying protagonist, the comedy is good for several silly laughs, and the action – even with its cast of pasty forty-somethings – is more impressive than almost every big-budget Hollywood flick of the summer. Best viewed with as little prior knowledge of the peculiar proceedings to follow as possible.

The Wolverine

A solid Wolverine solo story spoiled by a stupid ending. By taking Wolvie out of his element and into modern Japan, the movie starts strongly with some interesting scenarios and some pretty exciting action (if a bit tidy even by PG-13 standards). After a slow but tolerable second act, however, the film implodes in a mess of Hollywood excess and stupidity, including a shockingly misguided take on a classic villain, a ridiculous villainess, some awkward copycat scenes of movies ranging from The Matrix to The Lord of the Rings, and about three inexplicable and unneeded story turns too many.

Altogether it’s still far more watchable than the first Wolverine movie, but it could have been so much more. The Blu-ray release reportedly will offer an unrated edit; I’d recommend waiting to see if that version at least has a little more bite.

Pacific Rim

Guillermo del Toro’s ode to anime is faithful to the genre in every way, both good and bad. For the good we have giant robots fighting giant monsters, and it looks damn cool when they do. The massive sense of scale and city-smashing destruction is impressive, and Del Toro nicely pays tribute to classic anime while keeping the look modern and somewhat realistic.

For the bad we have cliched characterizations, mediocre acting, and juvenile comic relief.

Did I mention there’s giant robots?

World War Z

One category of movie that should never be average is the zombie flick. Better wickedly good or delightfully bad, but not average.

World War Z is decidedly average. It never gives the sense of epic catastrophe that the zombie epidemic in its premise is made out to be, nor does it offer the smaller-scale scenes of tension that I Am Legend accomplished so well. And just as the film begins to pick up with a couple of impressive action set pieces, it promptly falls apart with a strange change in tone, painfully simplistic storytelling and the most anticlimactic of anticlimactic endings. (It was widely reported that the studio spent huge amounts of money to re-shoot the third act. Good to see that money was well spent.)

For cheap zombie thrills you could do worse but you could also do better, starting in the B movie section.

Man of Steel

Easily the most palatable Zack Snyder action movie to date, for what that’s worth. The cast of characters as written and acted are solid, from Amy Adams in the hard-to-pull-off role of Lois Lane, to Michael Shannon as the surprisingly sympathetic villain Zod, to Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe as alternating father figures. As for the Man himself, Henry Cavill very much has that essential noble quality of the classic hero (not to mention the square jaw and astounding physique). Writers David Goyer and Chris Nolan neatly pack an origin story, a coming-of-age story and some city-smashin’ action all into one briskly moving film, along with one of the more poignant scenes from a movie in recent months.

That said, Snyder still has difficulty filming action and effects that don’t look like a video game (aside from the prologue, where he’s clearly copying Avatar). Even that most staple of Superman effects – that of our hero levitating in the air – looks like a cutout of Cavill plastered over a background. There’s a good deal more superhero action than the last Superman reboot, but while seeing characters zip across the screen too fast for the eye to follow until they’re walloping someone upside the head looks cool at first, it loses its zap the fifteenth time around.

Despite the respectable attempts at installing human drama, come the end of the film it still just feels like an action movie. And an average one at that.

Iron Man 3

As far as comic-book movie second sequels go, this is the most solidly built to date. That said, the plot takes some extremely questionable turns, the small attempts at new character development add little, and the bad guy is the least memorable of the trilogy, as are his henchmen. (Certainly there are some good action sequences, but seeing Iron Man battle incandescent street thugs just isn’t the same as seeing him bust some metal.)

Less silly than the second Iron Man but at the same time less fun, and well short of that almost perfect mix of drama, spectacle and Tony Stark attitude in the first. The next time around they need to shake things up.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Has all the qualities of the fantastic first reboot – the great cast of characters, the fan and non-fan friendly balance of sci-fi story and action, the uber-polished look, and the generous sprinklings of humor. The action may go overboard on occasion (not uncommon in movies these days), and a couple of favorite supporting characters feel like they’re on auto-pilot, but still I was happily entertained.

Silver Linings Playbook

Impressive that a movie about such dysfunctional personalities can have you so invested in them. Even with all the shouting and awkward interactions, it’s plausible enough to be believable and clever enough to be entertaining. Only when the silver linings do appear does the movie briefly feel contrived, but one of the better “I love you” lines from a movie makes up for it nicely.

Shame

The NC-17 movie about sex addiction featuring rising star Michael Fassbender. ALL of Michael Fassbender. Aside from that it’s a fairly average movie. Unusual framing and long, lingering shots abound, but for every scene that makes an impact there are another two are three that feel plain or strangely domestic. At its end the film leaves some intriguing, ambiguous hints about the character’s affliction, and like any such decadent affair it certainly draws you in when events reach their gruelling climax, but unlike the best of them it doesn’t leave you with anything substantial when it’s done.

Django Unchained

Everything great about a Quentin Tarantino movie – the cinematography, the wit, the irreverence, and that scene or two of crazy high tension – without as much of the excess as some of his other films. Even the ’70s meets spaghetti western meets hip-hop soundtrack somehow works.

Life of Pi was beautiful and Argo was extremely solid filmmaking, but this is where we’re talking movie of the year.