Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2011 Year in Review: Biggest Disappointments

There is some crossover here between this and my worst of list, but these films are necessarily terrible, or even bad. But none of them are as good as we should expect from filmmakers who have proven they have talent, or interesting ideas that are blown. I also could have included: Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebsman), The Hangover Part II (Todd Philips), Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh), The Mechanic (Simon West), Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock), Red State (Kevin Smith), Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder), The Woman (Lucky McKee), but already at 15 films, I decided not to.

15. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
I love Pedro Almodovar, and I actually liked The Skin I Live In. But coming on the heels of Talk to her, Bad Education, Volver and Broken Embraces, The Skin I Live In proved to be underwhelming. This revenge story, as twisted as any seen in recent Korean films (and they are truly fucked up) is well made, but seems hollow, and Antonio Banderas is bland as the “evil scientist”. I liked The Skin I Live In, but I expect to love an Almodovar film.

14. The Help (Tate Taylor)
I felt I had to address one of the biggest audience hits of the year – which is an Oscar player this year as well – somewhere in my year end wrap up, and since I didn’t much like it, this seemed like the place. I must say, the performances by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard and to a lesser extent Emma Stone are actually excellent. But The Help has such a retrograde view of race relations that it was off-putting to me, as was the fact that even in 2011, when Hollywood makes a movie about the Civil Rights Movement, it has to center on a kind hearted white person. This film doesn’t feel like it’s about the 1960s, it feels like it was made in the 1960s, when Sidney Poitier could still shock audiences by slapping a white man, or marrying a white woman. Also, how many times did the filmmakers need to completely and totally humiliate Howard’s racist house wife, as if she is the worst human being on the planet? Certainly not an awful film – and I do understand why some love it so – but to me it just wasn’t good enough.

13. Restless (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant has spent the last decade making films where death hangs over every frame – whether it’s Gerry with its friends lost in the desert, Elephant, with its high school shooters, Last Days with his Kurt Cobain stand in, Paranoid Park with his aimless skater kids or even the more mainstream Milk about a politician, his films lead to death. And Restless is no different, as it centers on a young woman with cancer and her first romance. But unlike those other films, Restless is a fantasy film, trying to make us believe that cancer really is like this, and while we may want to believe it, we don’t. Good performances, and great cinematography by Harris Savides, is wasted in this film that is far too lightweight – and tries too hard to be hip.

12. The Ward (John Carpenter)
I may the only person in the world who likes Carpenter’s previous theatrical film, Ghosts of Mars, but like it I did. After spending a decade languishing in TV work, he returns to the big screen with a film that seems right up his alley – a horror film set in a mental hospital inhabited by only beautiful young women. And yet The Ward seems so by the numbers and lacks Carpenter’s horror signatures. It’s like he’s trying to be Eli Roth, when Eli Roth can never even dream of being as good as Carpenter. If he’s not going to be John Carpenter behind the camera, than what the hell is the point?

11. Outrage (Takeshi Kitano)
In the 1990s, Takeshi Kitano seemed like the lone savior of Yakuza films, with great ones like Violent Cop, Sonatine and Fireworks. He kept the genre going when no one else seemed willing to. After a foray into comedy and samurai films, Kitano returned to the Yakuza genre after more than a decade. And while Outrage is appropriately violent, and is fairly well directed, I have to wonder why he bothered. Outrage is not any better than the myriad of copies of Kitano’s work that has sprouted up in the last 10 years. If he wanted to return to the genre, shouldn’t he have brought something better to the table?
10. Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan)
Jake Kasdan has made some good comedies before – most notably the underrated Zero Effect – and the idea behind Bad Teacher is a good one. I, for one, am tired of seeing movies about saintly teachers who better their children, so I was looking forward to seeing a movie about a truly awful teacher. And, to be fair, Cameron Diaz really does seem to throw herself into the role. Unfortunately, there really is not a whole lot else here. The writing lets her down a great deal, nothing is quite as funny as it should be. It isn’t awful, but it isn’t very good either.
9. In a Better World (Susanne Bier)
I don’t share Lars von Trier’s feeling about Susanne Bier (if you recall, it was a joke gone awry about Bier that lead to Trier’s infamous Nazi comments at Cannes), but I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed with her Oscar winning film In a Better World. The whole movie seemed so simple minded and clichéd – Crash in Denmark if you will – and the stuff in Africa felt completely out of place. Normally, Bier is a great filmmaker – see Brothers or After the Wedding or her underrated American effort Things We Lost in the Fire. But this film is her worst one, which makes it sadly ironic that she won Best Foreign Language film at last year’s Oscars.

8. The Beaver (Jodie Foster)
The idea of casting Mel Gibson as a bat shit crazy person was genius. The problem with The Beaver is that it never lets Gibson go far enough. It shoves his character – who starts talking through a beaver puppet of all things – into a clichéd dysfunctional family drama, thus blunting the films power. A truly off the wall, pitch black comedy about a suicidal Mel Gibson and a talking beaver puppet? Genius. This movie, nowhere close.

7. Cowboys and Aliens (Jon Favreau)
The idea of combing cowboys and aliens in one movie sounds like it should make for one of the most entertaining films of the year – especially with Jon Favreau at the helm, having made two damn good Iron Man movies. But this movie is surprisingly dull and lifeless. Why combine two of the most well known movie genres into one package unless you’re going to do something with it? Play with the genres a little? Or at least, make a decent guilty pleasure movie. Instead, we’re stuck with this one, which was just lame. Can someone tell Harrison Ford if he isn’t going to try anymore than he should give up acting?

6. One Day (Lone Scherfig)
Lone Scherfig made an excellent debut movie with An Education. David Schultz’s book One Day is a touching examination of friendship changing over time. Bring the two of them together and you get this thudding bore of a film, in which Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess have to age 20 years in less than 2 hours, have their complex characters stripped to the bone, and be forced into one cutesy routine after another. This one had so much potential that was simply squandered.

5. The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Perhaps it’s my own fault for thinking that the director of Mamma Mia could make a competent movie, but I was highly looking forward to The Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep. Streep is, as always, brilliant in the lead role. But the movie itself provides no insights into who Thatcher was as a politician or as a person. It seems much more interested in showing her as an old lady losing her marbles than anything else she did in her life. This is not the biopic one of the most powerful and controversial women of the 20th Century deserved.

4. Your Highness (David Gordon Green)
David Gordon Green was at one point one of the best young filmmakers in the world. George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels were all great indie films. I assumed when he crossed over to Hollywood to make Pineapple Express (also wonderful) that it was to get himself more freedom to make the types of movies he wanted to. But he followed that movie up with this stinking turd (and apparently, the late year comedy The Sitter isn’t any better). Does he really not give a shit about anything other than money? Please, come back from the dark side soon.

3. The Future (Miranda July)
This one was truly disappointing because I thought that July’s first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was so quirky and offbeat and charming. But this film is nothing other than navel gazing by self involved hipsters. Good god was this movie a pain to sit through – and I’m still pissed off about the damn cat!

2. Miral (Julien Schnabel)
Julien Schnabel is an immensely talented filmmaker as his first three films – Basquaint, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – can attest. Unfortunately, he tries to use the same technique that made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly so successful in a completely different story – and the style doesn’t fit. The Diving Bell was a subjective story, told almost entirely from the point of view of one man trapped in his own mind. Miral is a decades spanning, multi-narrator story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The effect is off putting confusing. For all the controversy the films politics spawned, they are never really clear – as the film is little more than a jumbled mess. I have faith that Schnabel will make a great film again, but Miral was far from it.

1. Cars 2 (John Lasseter)
Cars 2 is precisely the kind of animated film that Pixar doesn’t make. It is loud, fast moving, action packed and pays little attention to character or story. Sure, it fits and starts, they film can be entertaining – and I am sure that little boys loved it to pieces – but when I go into a Pixar movie, I expect something more – something not just for kids, but something adults can enjoy as well. Although the original Cars was one of Pixar’s weaker efforts, there are still many things to recommend it – especially it’s nice sense of nostalgia. Cars 2 moves so damn quickly, and has such an inane plot, that it has no time for anything else. Far and away the worst film Pixar has ever made.

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