Runners-Up: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine), The Angels Share (Ken Loach), Black Rock (Katie Aselton), Broken City (Allan Hughes), Bullet to the Head (Walter Hill), Byzantium (Neil Jordan), The Call (Brad Anderson), Dead Man’s Burden (Jared Moshe), Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood), The Family (Luc Besson), The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon), Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer), A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore), The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino), The Heat (Paul Feig), John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli), Kick Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow), The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie), Love is All You Need (Susanne Bier), Lovelace (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Freidman), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick), Now You See Me (Louis Letterier), Parkland (Peter Landesman), Phil Spector (David Mamet), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mira Nair), The Secret of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), Shadow Dancer (James Marsh), V/H/S 2 (Various)
While all of those films left me want much more than they delivered, they still cannot match the level of disappointment I felt when leaving the theater after watching these 10 films. They are all made by directors who have had films on or near my annual top 10 lists over the years, but this time out they left me wanting a whole lot more.
10. Oz: The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi)After Raimi finished his Spider-Man trilogy, I hoped that he may return to making smaller, more personal films – either in the horror vein or something like his masterful crime thriller A Simple Plan (1998) – which is my favorite of all of his films. When he made his last film – Drag Me to Hell (2009) – I thought that just may be what he was going to do. That film remains one of my favorite horror films of recent years. Then he had to go and make Oz: The Great and Powerful, and completely let me down. It isn’t the fault of the cast – James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz have all been good in the past, and I have no doubt will be good in the future – but the screenplay lets them down quite a bit. What’s worse is that the Oz series is one of the few that have always had strong female characters at its core – and this film has a womanizing asshole as its main character. Perhaps worst of all is that this doesn’t feel like a Raimi film at all – he managed to slip a few idiosyncratic moments into each of the Spider-Man films, but he doesn’t do that this time out – the film looks and feels like every other fantasy film out there. Raimi is a gifted filmmaker – but I do wish he’d scale it back and allow himself to make the smaller films he really excels at. After three Spider-Man's and now this, he has to have enough money, right?
9. After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan)I don’t think that any recent American filmmaker has had their stock drop so fast and so completely as M. Night Shyamalan. After The Sixth Sense, people thought he may be the next Spielberg. After Unbreakable, I know I thought he may well become the next Hitchcock. And after Signs, it seemed like there was no stopping him. Then came the ill-conceived The Village. Well, everyone makes mistakes. Then came Lady in the Water – a film I like more than most, but was still probably a bad idea. Then came the utterly and completely ridiculous The Happening. Shyamalan seemed to realize after that film that he should switch gears – unfortunately the gear he switched to was The Last Airbender, which was even worse than what he made before. I had high hopes for After Earth – even after being burned by Shyamalan in the past, I still think he can regain his form. You cannot fake the level of skill that was present in many of his earlier films – even ones generally regarded as failures like The Village and Lady in the Water. The problem was the screenplays far more than the direction. But After Earth was a dull, lifeless sci-fi thriller, with one of the most charming actors on the planet (Will Smith) seemingly convinced that he needed to eliminate that charm for this performance – and Will Smith without charm is nothing – and a lead, Jaden Smith, who just isn’t up for the role – it requires much more from him than The Karate Kid did. There is one shot in the forest where I saw the old Shyamalan lurking, but the rest of the movie is utter and complete crap. Yet, I still hope Shyamalan regains his form one day.
8. At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani)Ramin Bahrani was a favorite of the late, great Roger Ebert – I know I heard about the filmmaker first from his reviews. His first three features – Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008) – marked him as a filmmaker to watch. Rare for an American Indie filmmaker, he not only attempted to use the neo-realist style of old Italian filmmakers like Rossellini, or newer filmmakers like the Dardennes, he actually pulled it off. His first three films were so exciting in part because they felt so different than what other indie filmmakers were doing. And that’s the reason why At Any Price was such a letdown for me – Bahrani abandons his signature style, which wouldn’t be a bad thing except for the fact that he doesn’t really replace it with anything. At Any Price tries too hard to cram too much into its running time – it’s about corporate agriculture, fraud, adultery, fathers-and-sons, racing, rivalries and murder – and none of it really comes off. Dennis Quaid is very good in the lead role, but other than that, there isn’t much to recommend the film at all. It’s not a horrible film by any means, but from Bahrani it certainly counts as a disappointment.
7. Trance (Danny Boyle)
At his best, Danny Boyle directs films with more energy and style than most other filmmakers. He’s one of those rare filmmakers who jumps genres and makes whatever he feels like at the time – a kind of British Steven Soderberg if you will. For his latest, Boyle directed this art heist thriller, with three immensely talented actors – James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassell – which should at the very least be a guilty pleasure, what with all the sex, nudity and violence on display. Yet strangely, Trance feels rather dull and lifeless – the plot meanders, the characters are shallow and one note, and the film tries to trick the audience far too many times by adding one plot twist after another to the proceedings. It’s been a while since Boyle made a film this bad, and that to me, makes it one of the year’s biggest disappointments.
6. I’m So Excited (Pedro Almodovar)Pedro Almodovar has been on a downward trajectory for a while now – he hit his high water mark with Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004), and since then each of his films – Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2008) and The Skin I Live In (2011) – have all been slightly less satisfying than the last. But all three of those films were still good movies – just not up to the level Almodovar normally hits. With I’m So Excited, his farce set on an airplane circling high above Spain, waiting for a runway where they can safely crash land, Almodovar has made perhaps the worst film of his career. I suppose one could argue that it’s appropriate for a moving about a plane in a holding pattern to have a plot that goes around and around in circles and never gets anywhere, but that doesn’t make the film any more entertaining, the characters any less one dimensional, and the comedy any more funny. Almodovar was once one of the great European art house directors of his generation – and maybe he will be again one day – but for now, I’m So Excited represents the nadir of his career.
5. The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes)Actor Ralph Fiennes made his directing debut in 2011 with Coriolanus – which to me in the type of Shakespeare adaptation I love. He took one of the Bard’s lesser known plays, moved into the modern day, but kept the wonderful language, and made the whole movie feel new – in part because of his great central performance (and an even better one by Vanessa Redgrave – who was robbed of an Oscar nomination that year) and in part because he takes chances with the storytelling and direction. That is what makes The Invisible Woman, his follow-up, such a disappointment to me. This movie, about the long standing affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and a much younger woman (Felicity Price) feels like a standard issue costume drama – and not even a very good one at that. I never felt any real connection between the two leads, which leaves a gaping center at the heart of this romance. The only performance in the film that works is by Joanna Scanlon, as Dickens long suffering wife, who is quietly heartbreaking. The rest of the movie is something you’ve seen before, and done much better. Fiennes has undeniable talent both in front of and behind the camera – but The Invisible Woman didn’t work for me at all.
4. The Canyons (Paul Schrader)As a writer, Paul Schrader has been involved with some of the greatest films ever made – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ to name just three. As a director, Schrader has also made some great films – Blue Collar, Hardcore, Mishima, Auto Focus to name a few. The news that he was teaming up with author Brett Easton Ellis for a micro-budgeted erotic thriller, starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen – had me excited, feeling like perhaps Schrader could become relevant again by working so small. Unfortunately, the resulting movie is rather dull and lifeless. Shockingly, the best thing about the movie is Lohan’s performance – there is a reason why she became a star in the first place, and it’s on full display here. Unfortunately the two men in the film are dull and boring throughout, with little to no acting ability, and Ellis’ screenplay is shallow and superficial. There are some interesting things in The Canyons – but far too few of them for a movie that boasts this much talent.
3. The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)
2. The Past (Asgard Farhadi)Farhadi’s last film was A Separation – which rightfully won a Foreign Language Film Oscar just two years ago. That film was a layered, complex look at a shocking incident, which looked fairly at all sides, and only gradually revealed the whole truth. It worked so well for him once, he must have decided to give it another go – and that’s part of why The Past feels more than slightly warmed over. This time, the action is in France, not Iran, and revolves around an Iranian man coming back to France for the first time in a while so he can get a divorce from his French wife, so she can marry another Arab man – even though he’s still married, though his wife is in a coma following a suicide attempt. The cast tries gamely – especially Berenice Bejo, who won the Best Actress Prize at Cannes – but this time as Farhadi gradually peels back the layers of his story, it felt increasingly false to me. He tries very hard to make every revelation explode off the screen and completely change our perception of the central event – but this time, I was expecting it, so it didn’t really work for me. Instead what we got was a long, slow film that I didn’t think really led anywhere. He’s still a talented writer-director – and I do seem to be in the minority on this film – but I couldn’t help but walk away disappointed in the film.
1. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Just two years ago, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up to make one of my favorite films of the year – Drive. In fact, I think Drive may well be on my top 10 list for the decade so far. Only God Forgives therefore ranked extremely high on my most anticipated films of the year list. However, I have to admit – the film was, simply put, awful. Gosling may have been largely silent in Drive, but his character was no less complex for it – here he’s practically comatose for the whole movie, and does nothing of interest. The true lead of the film is Vithaya Pansringarm, as an insane Thai cop, who loves to sing karaoke – for some unknown reason – and he’s also devoid of interest. At least Kristen Scott Thomas, as Gosling’s insane mother, adds interest to the film by being wildly over the top. The plot – about Thomas ordering Gosling to get revenge on the men who killed his brother – and Gosling not sure if he wants to, because his brother raped and killed a teenage girl which led to his murder is drawn out and pointless. The violence is sickeningly over-the-top. In short, Only God Forgives is precisely the film that many of Drive’s detractors claimed it was. I still love Drive – but Only God Forgives is easily my biggest disappointment of the year – and also one of the year’s worst.