Thursday, January 28, 2016

2015 Year End Report: Most Disappointing Films

This is not a list of the worst films of the year – that will come later, and yes, there will be some overlap. This is a list of the films that I had hoped would be better, than ending up leaving me wanting some more – or something different. The ones that I thought could be great, but weren’t. In many ways this list is more painful than the “worst of” list, which has many films that never really had a chance to be great, but these ones did.

I could have included the following films in the Top 10, but I just didn’t have the room: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon) was still fun, but given the original, a little bit of a letdown. Blackhat (Michael Mann) looked fantastic, but lacked a story or characters that usually are in Mann films. Black Sea (Kevin Macdonald) should have been so good – a great cast and director, and it’s a heist movie on a freaking sub – but was really quite dull. The Face of an Angel (Michael Winterbottom) from the once reliable Winterbottom, is another misfire, which given the cast and subject matter, is a letdown. Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg) seems to be loved by many, but other than the beautiful cinematography, didn’t do much for me. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II (Francis Lawrence) ended a very good series with a thud. Insidious Chapter 3 (Leigh Whannell) just wasn’t able to scare like the first two did. Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow) was just so by the numbers, that as fun as it was didn’t quite deliver. Lost River (Ryan Gosling) looked great, but had nothing else going for it. Manglehorn (David Gordon Green) was another weaker effort for Green – who did at least seem to be trying something different here. Minions (Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda) was uninspired and just not funny. The Nightmare (Rodney Ascher) was not as gonzo insane nor as entertaining as his last doc – the great Room 237. Paper Towns (Jake Schrier) was a real missed opportunity to make something slightly different for teens. Pawn Sacrifice (Edward Zwick) was too safe even by Zwick standards. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson) proved there is a limit to just how effective Andersson films can be. The Revenant (Alejandro G.Innaritu) looked amazing, and had much to admire - but was also a long, grizzly journey to nowhere. Secret in Their Eyes (Billy Ray) took what should have been a can’t miss remake and missed it wildly. Ted 2 (Seth Macfarlane) was truly lazy, which the original was not. True Story (Rupert Goold) took what should have been a good premise, and offered no insight. Truth (James Vanderbilt) could have been better if it wasn’t trying so hard to deify its protagonists. Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor) once again showed why this series should stay dead.

And now, onto the top 10 most disappointing of 2015.

10. Good Kill (Andrew Niccol)
Occasionally, a filmmaker comes along and makes an immediate impression – and then never quite follows through on that promise. I’m thinking about directors like Alex Prays (The Crow and Dark City), Tarsem Singh (The Cell and The Fall), who never quite seem to live up to that initial promise. Andrew Niccol is like that. His debut film, Gattaca, remains one of the best sci fi films of the 1990s – it didn’t get the respect it deserved at the time, but its reputation has grown since. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to make a film nearly as good since – as much as I enjoyed Lord of War way back in 2005. His latest, Good Kill, has a promising premise – an Air Force pilot (Ethan Hawke) no longer gets to fly real planes – but instead, has to fly drone, from a base in Nevada. The reality of what he does is destroying his marriage and everything else in his life. This could work – but Niccol doesn’t really know where he’s going with the film, which just kind of circles for most of its running time, before its ridiculous ending. Hawke is fine in the lead role, but nothing, but not a lot else is. Niccol still has talent – but I’m still waiting for him to reach that potential, that was so clear in Gattaca.

9. Joy (David O. Russell)
Personally, I still want Russell to go back to making films as inspired and original as Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees – but even if I don’t think his recent string of movies isn’t quite as good, there is no denying that The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and even American Hustle (which I thought was a mess, but had some excellent individual moments, performances and scenes) were pretty damn entertaining. Joy on the other hand is just a mess – and one that even the ever charming Jennifer Lawrence cannot completely save (it doesn’t help that she is far too young for the role). All the QVC stuff is gold, but the family stuff is stale and uninspired, and Lawrence cannot play levels that the movie doesn’t ask of her. Russell once again tries to channel Martin Scorsese with his direction – and once again shows that he isn’t Scorsese. I wish he would stop trying – his early career promised originality – and I wish he’d get back to that.

8. Chappie (Neil Blompkamp)
There has certainly been a law of diminish returns on director Neil Blompkamp. I loved District 9 – an intelligent sci-fi allegory, with a terrific action sequence at the end, and real humanity laced throughout. But he hasn’t been able to find the right balance since – I liked Elysium more than most, but there’s no denying that the film is more than a little bit of an inconsistent mess, even if it is kind of fun. Chappie isn’t even that – it’s all mess, no fun (okay, Hugh Jackman is a little bit of fun). Blompkamp’s story a robot, who becomes the first real artificial intelligence should be a lot of better than it is. But once he establishes his premise, he really doesn’t know what to do next – and decides on the most annoying path imaginable. The ideas aren’t as good, the action isn’t as good as District 9 – or even Elysium. Blompkamp is still a promising director – but he better make a good film again next time out.

7. Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
I think we all keep hoping for Cameron Crowe to make a comeback. True, we’re going on 15 years since his last truly good movie (Vanilla Sky) and a little longer since his last masterpiece (Almost Famous) – but writer/directors of his talent don’t just simply forget how to make movies do they? Apparently, they do, because Aloha is the worst film yet from Crowe – yet it is also undeniably his movie – something that his last film, We Bought a Zoo, didn’t really feel like. This has all the Crowe trademarks – and yet none of it works. Part of it is that Crowe works best when writing teenagers – who can be forgiven for some of their more insipid speeches, because, well, they give them. But this movie is mainly about people who are middle aged, and still haven’t come up with anything interesting to say or think. The saddest thing I can say about Aloha is that no matter how bad Crowe’s next film is – I don’t think it will make a future installment of this list – because I’ve stopped expecting anything from him to be good.

6. Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel)
I loved Craig Zobel’s last film – Compliance – which made my top 10 list a few years ago, and was shocking and engrossing, and brilliantly acted. This meant, I could not wait to see his follow up – Z for Zachariah. Unfortunately, this dystopian sci fi film, in which three people – all of whom may have believed at one point that they were the only one left alive in the world gradually come together. First it’s just religious Margot Robbie (usually so electric on screen – here dull and one note), then along comes Chiwetel Ejiofor, and finally Chris Pine. Even with only three people, jealously, violence and revenge are still in the offing. The film, although it looks beautiful, never really leads anywhere though, and takes a long time to get there. I think Zobel and his cast are going for quiet and understated – when for me, the film just came across as dull. I couldn’t stop think about Compliance for months after I saw it. I don’t think I’ve thought about Zobel’s follow-up since the credits rolled.

5. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed Mistress America – at least marginally. However, considering the last two collaborations between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig were Greenberg and Frances Ha (the latter of which they co-wrote together, as they did with this one), the result was still rather disappointing. The first half of the movie seems to be bidding its time – building to something, and I was intrigued. The second half, tries very hard to go full screwball mode – but Baumbach never finds quite the right tone, the dialogue doesn’t snap the way it should. Gerwig is, as always, a delight – and newcomer Lola Kirke is perhaps even better. Yet, this could have been one of the best comedies of the year, rather than a middling effort for a talented director – and his extremely talented collaborator.

4. Irrational Man (Woody Allen)
I have never been as hard on late period Woody Allen as many critics have been – even though I fully admit that he lacks all consistency anymore, and has made more than his share of stinkers in the last 20 years. Still, when he ventures into his more dramatic murder oriented stories, I usually quite enjoy them – I am really starting to think that Crimes and Misdemeanors is his best film, and Match Point is one of the best of his output in the last 10 years. And him teaming up with Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey, should have yielded great results. But as good as those three are (and the two women in particular are in fine form – Stone doing it without much to work with). But the film itself is lazy – it almost seems like self-parody at times – and yet it’s all played straight, which becomes deadly as the story becomes more outlandish. As with many late period Woody films, the film probably could have used another rewrite or two to hone it into something much better – which it could have been,

3. Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)
We need filmmakers the Wachowskis to keep trying to do something interesting with large scale moviemaking. Their last film Cloud Atlas had its flaws – but it was fascinating, and for the most part worked for me. Their latest film Jupiter Ascending wasn’t nearly as ambitious – then again, trying to create your own, original space opera, rather than just adapting another comic book or YA novel, should be commended – at least in part. Then again, there is very little to actually recommend this film – and even though the film is an original, it’s a fairly generic one from the creators of The Matrix. I still want someone to give the Wachowskis a lot of money to make their next film – I just don’t think it will happen.

2. Spectre (Sam Mendes)
The last Bond film – Skyfall – may well be my favorite of the entire series – with its brilliantly staged action, amazing cinematography, and actual performances and characters, Sam Mendes and his team delivered a masterwork of the genre. Their follow-up was bound to disappoint somewhat – but this much was unthinkable. The film does have a few great sequences – in particular a one shot wonder in Mexico, but it gets worse as it goes along. The cast is good – but they aren’t given anything to work with, with Lea Seydoux a seemingly great choice to play a Bond girl, but is given nothing to do – Christoph Waltz was born to play a Bond villain – but the screenplay is so heavily indebted to the past Bond movies that it forgets to re-create the character for a new generation. As with a few other films on this list, I didn’t hate Spectre – I kind of liked it actually – but given what came before, this qualifies as a massive disappointment, especially given the fact that it may be Craig’s swansong as Bond.

1. Tomorrowland (Brad Bird)
Until Tomorrowland, Brad Bird had a pretty much perfect batting average as director – The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille were brilliant animated film, and his live action debut – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was massively entertaining. Tomorrowland was one my most anticipated films of the year – but the result was massively disappointing. The film has a lot of ideas –too many in fact, as none of them seem to be all that thought through. Add this to the fact that all the best scenes in the movie were in Tomorrowland itself – which is quite impressive – but then the movie spends almost all of its time on boring old earth. The film doesn’t really know what it wants to say, and it wraps up this confusion in a rather bland, dull package. Brad Bird is still an immensely talented director – and I’m sure he will bounce back – but this time out, and made the year’s most disappointing film.

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