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?