Movies - Lists postsMonday February 06, 2012
The Five Worst Movies of 2011
In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses almost seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also polarizes my feelings. The good become very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”
Now people say it of 2011.
I'll get to the very, very good movies soon but first here's the godawful: the five worst movies I saw in 2011. Your results may vary.
Keep in mind, as an independent reviewer, I'm not called upon to review just anything the studios put out. So I never saw the following: “Bucky Larson,” “Jack and Jill,” “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son,” “Abduction,” “Atlas Shrugged” and anything starring Nicholas Cage.
5. “Cowboys & Aliens”: The aliens are scouts after our gold, and they’re kidnapping our people to see what it takes to kill us, all of us, but that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem with the movie is this: When deciding between doing what’s true for the characters or what furthers the clichés of the genre, the filmmakers, director Jon Favreau and his six screenwriters, always opt for the latter. Always. They’re not interested in the perspective of their 19th-century characters; they’re only interested in the perspective of their 21st-century audience. Dolarhyde and Lonergan (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) are hard and selfish not because life is hard and selfish but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name, Absolution, is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Dolarhyde, a growling, racist cuss for the first half of the movie, has to bond with the orphaned boy; he has to come to an understanding with his half-Indian, bastard son (Adam Beach); and he has to save the Indian chief so the two of them, in the midst of battle, with death all around, can give each other a nod of understanding.
4. “The First Grader”: Would this have made my list if it hadn't opened the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival? I'm a member, and a fan, of SIFF, and love the fact that they resurrected the Uptown Theater, a block from my workplace, and are showing good movies there; but the organization also has a kind of upper-class, stupid liberal sensibiity that tends to trump, I don't know, aesthetics. That's how you wind up with “First Grader” on Opening Night. It's about Africans, in Africa, so it must be meaningful, even though the good in the movie are way good (and good-looking), and the bad are unjustifiably, incomprehensibly bad (and scowling), and the big reveal is no reveal at all. The movie focuses on an 84-year-old former Mau Mau warrior, Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who fights to go to first grade so he can read a letter on his own that the president of Kenya sent him. His teacher, Jane (a gorgeous Naomie Harris) backs him in the endeavor, but suffers from officials, who transfer her to another part of the country—until Maruge and the other students drive away the new teacher with stones and win Jane back. Yay! And after all this, Maruge has Jane read the letter for him anyway. OK. So what's in this letter we’ve waited the entire movie to hear? Well, the President of Kenya thanks Maruge for his service to his country; he also says Kenya is now independent because of people like him. Then Jane looks at him with proud, shining eyes, and he looks at her with proud, shining eyes, and the soundtrack gives us more generic African music, and we fade to a shot of the real Maruge, who died in 2009, and that’s the movie. To some of the honchos at SIFF this meant one thing: Opening Night. My thought: I got dressed up for this?
3. “War Horse”: Destined to go down as one of the worst movies to be nominated best picture. Detractors accuse Steven Spielberg of being “manipulative,” a criticism I've never really understood, since most directors are manipulative; that's what they do. Spielberg just tends to do it better. Not here, though. Let's look at the film's climax. The horse's true owner, Albert, has been gassed and blinded in the trenches of WWI, and Joey, the horse, after his magnificent gallop through the German trenches, has been injured and is due to be shot, and they’re like 50 yards from each other and don’t even know it. But the sergeant is given his orders and raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head. In that moment, before a familiar whistle is heard that startles Joey, that reminds him of Devon, England, a whistle that’s repeated twice more until the crowd of soldiers parts, miraculously revealing Albert, the man we already knew was there, and the music wells up, and Albert makes his case that the horse is his, that it has white hooves and a white diamond-shaped mark on its forehead, which can’t be seen for all the mud, but which is slowly, miraculously revealed even though we know that that, too, is already there; before all of this, in that moment when Sgt. Fry raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head, I had but one amused thought: I dare ya, Steven.
2. “Green Lantern”: Some movies have absurdly long backstories, but none are more absurd or longer than the one in “Green Lantern.” These are the first words were hear, in voice-over:
Billions of years ago, a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower. These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa. A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit. In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Together these recruits formed the intergalactic peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps.
Lord, save me now. And half of it's a lie! Hal Jordan is told he reeks of fear but this turns out to be his strength: the ability to admit fear and act anyway. So we start out with a point of view that isn't ours (who is truly without fear?) only to arrive at one that is (admitting and overcoming fear is a good thing, etc.). Meanwhile, the longstanding heroes of the movie, the Green Lantern Corps, guardians of the universe, are actually like little Nazis: all willpower and no professed fear and shooting their beams into the sky during some kind of intergalatic bund rally. They've spent a billion years searching for the fearless to wear powerful rings when, as Hal Jordan is told during his training: “The ring creates only what you can imagine.” So why don't they choose someone with imagination? Wouldn't that be better? I suppose the same can be asked of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures.
1. “Sucker Punch”: There's a rogue group of critics out there who are trying to elevate this movie into, in Kim Morgan's words, “one of the most misunderstood, feminist, wildly experimental, anti-patriarchy pictures this year.” A critic named Nordling on the Ain't It Cool site seems to agree with her. He writes:
“The film becomes an opportunity for [director Zack] Snyder to wear his influences on his sleeve — from a World War I trench warfare sequence where anime mech meets clockwork zombies to a medieval siege complete with orcs and a really big dragon — think Vermithrax, not REIGN OF FIRE — as our heroines do battle using a World War II Flying Fortress. I imagine everything Zack Snyder ever said 'Cool!' at in passing is in this film in some way or another.”
Question: Aren't they praising the film for opposite reasons? She thinks Snyder is involved in deconstruction, he thinks celebration. Or is he deconstructing on one level (Fantasy I) and celebrating on another (Fantasy II)? A bigger problem is that everything Snyder and Nordling think is cool, I think is crap. “Where anime mech meets clockwork zombies” makes me think: “Mech.”
Both Nordling and I agree that the movie is like a video game but for him this is a huge positive and for me it's a huge negative. He's a gamer, I'm not (STE at Xbox circa 2000-2003 notwithstanding). What he doesn't tell us is why a movie that's like a video game—that tells its story vertically rather than horizontally—is actually worth watching. Isn't the point of a video game to play it? To have some measure of control? To me, there are few things more boring than watching someone else play a video game.
Switching metaphors, Nordling writes:
“You're basically watching Snyder riff on his guitar for two hours. That's okay if you like that sort of thing, because Snyder's one of the best in the business. But if you can't stomach the way Snyder spirals, jazzlike, through the film's setpieces, you're going to be fairly miserable.”
Lord save us from jazz metaphors. The world is full of people who think they can riff, jazzlike, on musical instruments, just as it's full of people who think they can write great free-verse poetry. Most can't. Most need structure and discipline. Snyder is like that. He's the guy who thinks he's a great free-verse poet when nothing he says is close to profound or beautiful.
Bottom line: “Sucker Punch” is a movie in which there's violence without consequence, titillation without release, and a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen. Tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie—either to deconstruct the worst aspects of our culture or to celebrate them—doesn't change the fact that Snyder is in fact tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie. He's created a shit sundae. To critics like Morgan and Nording, words like “meta” are the cherry on top of this sundae. To me, it's still a shit sundae. Who's hungry?
My Top 10 Movies of 2011 (January-August)
I meant to do this in June, the halfway point of the year, but I was scrambling with work, reviews, and prep for a week's vacation in Minnesota and never got around to it. The end of July passed, too, without an attempt. But the beginning of September is actually a good place for this. Awards season is starting, all the critics with inside knowledge are predicting the nominees before they've seen the films (and sometimes before we've heard of the films), and the first 8 months, the ones we just lived through, are dismissed as fun but inconsequential.
But not all were inconsequential.
Here are the movies from the first 8 months of the year I'm glad I saw:
10. Captain America: The First Avenger: Cap was my second-favorite Marvel character in the mid-1970s, after Spider-Man, and Joe Johnston and all of his screenwriters did Cap right. They improved upon him, as you need to do, since comic book origins were often pretty lame back then. They gave Steve Rogers a backstory here. They held so long on the skinny, asthmatic Steve Rogers (a mere blip in the comic books), that even when he turns into the real Chris Evans, muscles both huge and baby-smooth, we never lose sight of the scrappy, scrawny dude he was. Is. Only the ending of the movie is a misfire. Review excerpt:
Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is a soldier and wants a soldier—a real soldier, not some 98-pound asthmatic—to be the first super-soldier. The back-and-forth between Phillips and Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is wonderful—particularly in the scene where Phillips lets loose a dummy grenade amid the candidates and only Rogers falls upon it—because Jones and Tucci are so good. The amused warmth in Tucci’s eyes; the hardened authenticity in Jones’ face. We should, in fact, pause to contemplate Tommy Lee Jones for a second. Time and again, he is asked to play the guy tracking or getting in the way of the ostensible hero, yet we love his character all the more for it. Because his character has character? Because he’s a man with a strict adherence to his job but not to his point-of-view? Because if you give him enough evidence, he’ll change? Worth an essay, one day.
9. Win Win: I think of quiet and calm, as with most of Tom McCarthy's movies, along with a touch of Hollywood (the winning Hollywood wrestling scenes), and an attempt at getting at the ordinary lives of folks in the middle of the global financial meltdown. What ethics will you give up in order to make financial ends meet? But McCarthy doesn't get it quite right: Review excerpt:
The ethical lapse is confronted personally but not penalized professionally, while the solution Mike feared in the beginning—getting a second job as a bartender—is the solution he embraces in the end. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending but there are Hollywood elements to it. The economic crisis in the film world means having to take a second job; the economic crisis in the real world means being unable to find the first.
8. Buck: The documentary isn't as good as its subject, Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer, and the ending is again a misfire. Why was the spoiled horse put down? What did Buck think of this? Why wasn't he interviewed about it? But Brannaman himself—the abused boy who becomes an empathetic communicator with animals most of us can't fathom—makes it all worthwhile. Excerpt:
He “starts” horses, he says, he doesn’t break them. His approach is discipline without punishment, empathy without sentimentality. Horse people come to his seminars skeptical and leave stunned. Their tough love doesn’t work. Their soft love doesn’t work. But Buck gets in the ring and in five minutes their horse is following him around like a dog. He takes an unfocused horse and focuses him. He takes a skittish horse and calms him. The advice he gives goes beyond horses.
7. Tabloid: A Love Story: The creepiness of Errol Morris' latest documentary hasn't left me. It's about some of the worst aspects of our modern culture. It's about a kind of massive self-delusion. It's also about the way female power diminishes with time and age and weight. Excerpt:
Once upon a time she was a beauty queen, blonde with an OK face and a good body, and she used that to her advantage. She got men to do things for her because of that advantage. But time took it away. Yet there she was, still talking, still presenting her case, as if she still had that power. And it’s her very insistence that she still has that power that reminds us of the shallowness of that power. If it had been Angelina Jolie outside the SIFF screening, we would’ve been captivated and maybe even sympathetic. That’s awful... what he promised you... what he did to you... Instead some short, fat, dumpy woman was yakking away. About something. As if we cared. In a way, nothing reveals how nuts she is more than this fact: She thinks we still care even though she looks like she does.
6. The Housemaid: The film begins in almost cinema verite fashion, becomes a sexy thriller, with the inevitable subsequent violence and death and search for revenge, and ends in almost David Lynchian fashion. But it's the sexiness, the heavy sexiness of the film, that has stayed with me. Excerpt:
We know what’s going to happen, of course. We’ve seen the poster—Eun-yi crouched before a bathtub, all bare legs and apron, something breathless in her face—and we’ve read the synopsis, full of words like “erotic” and “steamy.” That’s what draws us in. That’s why we’re in the audience. But those adjectives are slightly misleading. At a mountain resort, yes, Mr. Goh enters the servant quarters with a bottle of wine, demands Eun-yi reveal her body, feels her up, demands and receives oral sex. But nothing is particularly “steamy.” This is a cold thriller. It’s filmed cold, its people are cold, they live in a cold mansion. Dark blues and steel dominate. The first words in the movie, in fact, are “It’s cold, where should we go?” Only the revenge at the end is served hot.
5. The Trip: I saw this a month ago (two months ago?) but never wrote the review. Will soon. It's a documentary, but the fictional kind, a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” type of documentry, in which Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan, on a road trip with a friend, Rob Brydon, played Rob Brydon. Coogan is the fussy, lonely egotist while Brydon is the friendly everyman—we get that at the get-go—but by the end it's Coogan we identify with. He may be a successful actor and star, and a prick, but there's this sense that life is passing him by and he'll never be able to do what he wants to do. Brydon keeps trotting out a popular character he does on the BBC, the “small man in a box.” That's Coogan. That's all of us.
4. Bridesmaids: Funniest movie of the year. Hands down. My fear is that its success ($162 million, 9th-best box office of the year so far) will either lead to nothing, no new female-centered comedies, or they'll make dopey versions and then give up when they don't succeed. A reminder, Hollywood: The key to the comedy is in the relationships. I could watch, for example, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudoph riff over breakfast for an entire movie. “My Breakfast with Maya.” I'd pay to see that. Excerpt:
She’s her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Ted), keeps ignoring the right guy, Irish cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). She loses her job, is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman), and winds up crying on the couch to Tom Hanks in “Castaway.” We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake, one assumes, but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
3. Midnight in Paris: Welcome back, Woody. How I've missed you. There's a kind of love story here (with Marion Cotillard's character) and an anti-love story (with Rachel McAdams' character) but the true love is with art and literature; with things that matter in a world where little does. It's about finding your club—the people with whom you belong. And in Owen Wilson, Woody has finally found the protagonist best able to replace himself. Wilson is west-coast Woody. He's able to do Woody and still be himself. Excerpt:
It’s not until they go to another bar and meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that ... It’s less the other shoe dropping than the jaw dropping. It’s giving in to the fantasy, which Gil does when he asks Hemingway to read his manuscript. This Hemingway is a fully formed version who talks as Hemingway writes. When Gil praises his book—most likely “In Our Time”—Hemingway responds, “It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it's not only noble but brave.” Hemingway talks moveable feasts and Fitzgerald calls Gil “old chap,” as if he were Gatsby, which not only makes sense—since, you could argue, all of this is in Gil’s head, so he’s not dealing with the real Hemingway and Fitzgerald but his versions of them—but it’s fun, too.
2. Des hommes et des dieux: This 2010 Cesar winner for le meiuller film is a monastic movie that transcends the world. It's about the beginning of what feels like the fundamental battle of our time, extreme Islamism vs. the rest of us. It's also based upon a true story: a group of Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the mid-1990s, who are caught in a civil war between religious extremists and a corrupt government but refuse to leave. It has a humble, day-to-day feel, then somehow expands in an existential manner. Excerpt:
Luc (the great French actor Michael Lonsdale) is gentle with patients and impatient with government officials questioning his patients. “I’m not scared of death,” he tells Christian at one point; then adds with a smile, a touch of monastic jocularity perhaps: “I’m a free man.” In an early scene, he sits on a bench in the winter sun talking to a local girl about love. She wonders what it feels like, and we, or the romantics in us, suspect she’s in love. When he gives her a description of love that is both simple and beautiful—“Something inside you comes alive...” he says, “but you’re in turmoil, especially the first time”—she responds, No, she’s never felt that, and certainly not with the boy her parents want her to marry. “Oh, c’est ca,” Luc answers. She asks Luc if he’s ever been in love and he answers, yes, several times. “Then I experienced an even greater love and I answered that call. Sixty years ago.” It’s such a beautiful scene I didn’t want to leave it. It shows us not only how much these Christian monks are part of the life of this Muslim village but why. They don’t proselytize about Jesus’ love; they quietly demonstrate it.
1. The Tree of Life: The ending doesn't work but it's still the best movie of the year. That's how powerful the rest of it is. That's how grand Terrence Malick's ambition and vision is. For him, it's not enough to give us the tale of a boy growing up in Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, caught between the love of his mother and the demands of his father, caught between good and bad, between the way of grace and the way of nature. No, Malick has to bracket this story with the beginning and end of time. He has to give us the earth forming and life beginning and moving to land. He has to remind us, as he reminded us with the film's epigraph, of God's response to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Malick, who deals in immensity, wants to remind us of the immensity of those lines. And does. Excerpt:
When the father (Brad Pitt) returns, excited by his trips to China and Germany, things get worse. It’s a clash of the ways of nature. Jack sees his father flirting with a waitress, keeping the dollar bill just out of her grasp, and it’s like an earlier scene at school, where Jack had done the same with a pretty girl correcting his paper. He sees his father working under his jacked-up car, and he knows how easy it would be to kick the jack away. He actually looks around to see if anyone is watching. Even his prayers are now the way of nature rather than the way of grace: “Please, God, kill him. Let him die.” Then his father’s plant closes and his father returns diminished and the family is forced to move. The father calls Jack his sweet boy but Jack says, “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her.”
What about you? What did you see this year that was worth it?
My Top 10 Movies in a Word Cloud
Next week I'll finally get around to posting my top 10 list. Yes, of 2010 movies. Yes, I know it's February. But since I couldn't be the first to post such a list, I aim to be the last. I'm nothing if not thorough.
In the meantime, here's a word cloud, or Wordle, of the 200 most common words, minus your “the”s and “and”s, from my reviews of my top 10 movies. How many can you name? (Click on the word cloud for a bigger version of same.)
The Best Movies of the Decade
I began this decade with my first professional movie review, of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's “The Flowers of Shanghai,” published in The Seattle Times on January 28, 2000, and am ending it with amateur—that is, non-paid— reviews on my Web site. Kind of sums up the decade. More and more of our activities are moving online, for which we're getting paid less and less. Or nothing.
But it means I've been writing about movies for 10 years now—first with The Seattle Times, then with MSNBC, and with sidetrips to MSN, The New York Times (Op-Ed), and The Believer—and yet I'm still wary of compling a list of the best films of the decade. I know if I'd done something similar 10 years ago I would've left off what I now consider my two favorite films of that decade—“The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The Insider” (1999)—because, even by December 1999, I hadn't seen either one. That's the main reason the movies below aren't listed in any particular order. I want a discussion more than anything. Maybe I'm hoping that, in that discussion, something better will shake loose.
Each poster is linked to a good review or analysis of that movie. Many of the links are self-serving (they're mine) and many are not (Roger Ebert, Scott Foundas, David Edelstein). Warning: The New York Observer seems to have a problem with paragraph breaks. Or Andrew Sarris does.
Some of the movies below make it because they're just fun (“Kung Fu Hustle”; “X-Men 2”; “Riding Giants”). Some make it because I happened to fall in love with certain scenes (the “Me and Julio” montage in “Tenenbaums”; the silent film in “Talk to Her”). The best work slowly and leave us with a kind of existential amazement (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”; “Spring Summer Autumn Winter...and Spring”; “L'Heure d'ete”). Interesting to note: there's only one best picture from the Academy in the bunch: “No Country for Old Men.” Meanwhile, if I had to choose my best picture of the decade, I'd probably go with Roman Polanski's “The Pianist.” Thus far.
A lot of war here. The decade began with “Black Hawk Down,” a sober tale of attempted nation-building in Somalia in 1993, and it ends with “The Hurt Locker,” a sober tale of attempted nation-building in Iraq in 2004, and in-between we got cartoons and superheroes. How have we changed? “Black Hawk Down” was releaed into 3,000 theaters, was no. 1 at the box office for three weeks, and it made over $100 million domestically. “The Hurt Locker” never rose above 535 theaters and never made more than $13 million domestically. Apparently we don't want to know about it anymore. Not when we can watch giant space robots battling each other for the primacy of our sun.
But that's the bad stuff. Here's the good. Discussion welcome.
Jackie Chan's Top 10 Stunts
Everyone who knows me knows I love me some Jackie Chan and this guy on YouTube does a nice job with his personal take on Jackie's Top 10 Stunts. I've never written a top 10 list without someone, somewhere (and usually many people, in many places) telling me what I missed, or, in the parlance, “forgot”, as in, “You forgot The Banana Splits!” So I feel a little abashed admitting I didn't think much of his No. 1, which always seemed like a crazy, rather than cool, stunt. I probably would've put the helicopter ride around Kuala Lumpur higher, too. Would that be my No. 1? Maybe. But it's a fun video. Nice commentary, too. Check it out.