And finally, Part Three of the 2011 Wertzies. This post includes not only my thoughts on the Best Pictures of the year, but a new section looking at the year’s Most Overrated films.
Most awards shows are solely invested in praising good work, as they should be. But, this being a film review blog, I’m not interested in just accolades. It’s important to give credit where it’s due, but it’s just as important to bring films back down to earth when they’re flying a little high. This is the motivation for adding a ‘Most Overrated’ component to the Wertzies. Not to denigrate, but to add some objectivity. To be clear, these are not bad films. They are simply the ones that, to me, feature the biggest disparities between quality of film and quantity of praise.
Like most antiquated technologies, silent film has become a novelty. It doesn’t matter that it was once the sole motion picture medium. It’s old news. And while a whole generation of filmgoers–with, let’s be honest, essentially no experience watching silent films–are falling over themselves to praise The Artist, isn’t it important to remember that movies are better with talking? Yes, The Artist is an achievement on a number of levels, including some great performances and some really nice visual moments, but it’s also, frankly, kind of boring. There aren’t any real twists or turns to the plot, which means you generally know exactly where the film is headed. That’s a bad thing for any movie, but for a film that’s already handicapped, not having some sort of dynamic element is a far more glaring omission. The Artist is a fun flick, and certainly a successful exercise, but in a time when dialogue and diegetic sound are not just commonplace, but ubiquitous and hugely influential, how could a movie without them ever truly compete?
Moneyball sort of reminds me of War Horse. Both are films composed of the stuff of “great” movies; moving scores and emotional moments and a central journey that feels hugely important…even if it’s not. We take it for granted that if a movie is being made about it, then it must be worth making a movie about, even as this is becoming less and less true. The story of Billy Beane and his “successful” Sabermetrics strategy is certainly an interesting one, and if the film hadn’t been so dramatized than it could have been a different, and much better movie. But somewhere along the line, in the shuffle of directors and talent and funds, this became a movie about one man and his “struggle” to “defy the odds,” and that is, frankly, horseshit. Beane’s story is engaging sure, but he’s no more hero than any GM who’s had success with a struggling sports franchise, and a film that suggests otherwise can’t be taken all that seriously.
For me, The Descendants is the perfect example of a wildly overrated movie. It’s not bad, but it’s not all that great either, yet for some reason it just keeps piling up the praise. The Descendants has enjoyed absurd word-of-mouth success, and because there’s nothing inherently offensive about it, people keep walking out of theaters with a smile on their faces. But when placed next to other great films from this year, Alexander Payne’s story about bad stuff happening to an ok guy ends up looking relatively humdrum. Sure, Clooney is fine, albeit one-note, and there’s a performance from Shailene Woodley that surely made her agent very happy, and Hawaii is really pretty, and there’s some funny moments, and so on and so on. But for those of you who saw this movie, and in particular those of you who loved it, what is this movie actually about? A guy reconnecting with his daughters? Sort of, I guess, but why all the land trust stuff? A man changing his definition of “family?” Eh. A man simply coming to terms with himself? Sure, but isn’t that, in and of itself, a pretty boring premise when the man in question is a rich, 40-something Hawaiian whose wife was cheating on him and whose daughters don’t like him very much? Obviously there are arguments against everything I just wrote, but what truly matters is that Alexander Payne, whatever his intentions, didn’t succeed in convincing me of anything. The Descendants is a film with some great things going for it, but it’s far from a great film. It is middling and emotionally cluttered, and for some reason, seems a safe bet to grab an Oscar nomination.
2011 was, in all fairness, a median year for film, yet I saw some truly inspired stuff. Like The Adventures of Tin Tin‘s thoroughly unprecedented approach to action, or Midnight in Paris and its vibrant, turn-of-the-century characters. Even Green Lantern, as lousy as it was, offered some moments of astounding visual artistry. The point I’m trying to make is simply this: while it’s easy enough to look at the world of film and see Hollywood, and celebrities, and poorly-justified sequels, and excess cash being put into undeserving films, these things obviously do not equal the whole. Film, despite being a cash-first industry, remains a world of unencumbered creativity and endless possibility.
And so, here are the films that, in my humble opinion, explored that possibility with the greatest success.
The Runners Up
Admittedly Jane Eyre, with its verbosity and antiquity, is not for everyone. In the same way that reading the book in high school was a serious drag, Jane Eyre the film can be garrulous nearly to a fault. That said, if you have the patience for it, this iteration of the Brontë classic is hugely rewarding. The film gets miles of traction out of its two phenomenal leads, but it is the work of relative newcomer Director Cary Fukunaga that ultimately deserves praise, because Jane Eyre‘s successes go well beyond its performances. The film features a beautifully melancholic portrayal of the English countryside, and a general injection of style that very few classics are lucky enough to receive. Fukunaga and Co. have taken what could have been a forgettable adaptation, and given a venerable but timeworn story a second life.
The hype surrounding Drive is doing it a disservice. Too many people are way too excited to talk about this film like it’s doing something they’ve never seen before, and that kind of conversation is bad for any movie. That said, Drive is exactly the kind of movie that should be able to successfully sidestep the pitfalls of massive expectation, because Drive is superficially flawless. The first thing one gets from Drive–i.e. the look, the sound, the overall sensorial experience–is also the best thing about it, which means finding fault requires some digging around. On the surface, Drive is an example of a director doing some superb showboating. There are times in the film when the excessive style is almost distracting, but that’s only because it’s SO GOOD. Somebody once said to me that the sign of a good director is when you forget that he’s there. Nicolas Winding Refn is making a serious case otherwise.
The hardest pill to swallow regarding the success of Bridesmaids is the incessant implication that the film is special “because girls did it!” This estimation is obviously shallow, as is the notion that this is somehow a chick flick. Bridesmaids is not only a film for everybody, it’s one of those rare comedies that’s also capable of dealing with the darker stuff of life, without leaving its audience hanging out to dry. Sure, Bridesmaids is the funniest film to come out this year, and that’s no small accomplishment, but it’s also a sensitive film about friendship and love and the fear of being alone. You could call this a “woman’s touch,” and you might not be wrong, but that seems like a cop out to me. Loneliness and jealousy are hardly gender-specific issues, and though Bridesmaids tells a story about women, it remains a film for pretty much everybody.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Remember when Return of the King won Best Picture, and it was understood that the award was going to the trilogy, and not just that particular film? Well, if Return of the King deserved that sort of recognition, than the final Harry Potter film does too. Never before has a franchise had this sort of longevity, while remaining both engaging and high quality. And not only are the Harry Potter films of a high caliber nearly all the way through, but they’ve brought to life one of the most cherished stories ever told, none having done so with the depth and emotional satisfaction of the eighth and final film. Though it should always be viewed back-to-back with Part 1, the last film still works on its own, having the advantage of encompassing nearly endless action, as well as essentially all of the character resolutions. As a film and a final chapter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows : Part 2 is a timeless success.
Sometimes the movies that are easiest to love are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously, happily breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience. The Muppets, like many other films in this iconic franchise, is happy to do just that. In fact, it is this sense of self-awareness that makes connecting to The Muppets as easy as it is. With a fanboy script from Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, the film is an exercise in pure nostalgia. It joyfully reintroduces the most fun-loving cast of characters ever assembled, and it does so without patronizing old fans or ignoring new ones. Thrown into that equation is a horde of fun cameos, and a phenomenal musical soundtrack built of old standards and new successes, like the endlessly hilarious “Man or Muppet,” which seems guaranteed to nab an Oscar nod. This is not your standard Best Picture nomination, but The Muppets deserves recognition. It is, simply, the most fun I had in a theater all year long.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I remember seeing David Fincher’s teaser trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which intersperses insanely quick cuts of the film–too fast to process, really–with a long, ominous shot of a house at the end of a driveway, slowing coming closer and closer. And as I watched this trailer for the first time, set to a Trent Reznor/Karen O cover of “Immigrant Song”, I remember thinking, “Holy. Shit.” Not just because the trailer was so wildly mind-blowing, but because, yet again, David Fincher had made a film I felt I had to see. And Fincher’s iteration of Dragon Tattoo does not disappoint. Like other David Fincher films, it is raw and bloody, and incredibly cool. This is a director whose films aren’t stylish for styles’ sake, but simply meant to inform the tone of the story unfolding before you. Put another way: this is a director who knows exactly what he’s doing, and has proved it once again.
I didn’t see Hugo in 3D, and as I watched the opening sequence, for the first time ever in a movie theater, I thought to myself, “I really should have seen this in 3D.” Admittedly, this is a wholly separate discussion from the film itself, but it speaks volumes about Martin Scorcese as a director. Since the beginning of the resurgence, I’ve been firmly opposed to 3D, considering it (among other things) superfluous and distracting. Yet Martin Scorcese decides to try his hand and suddenly I see the light. Hugo is wonderful for a million reasons, nearly all of which can be traced back to its iconic director, but we’re talking about a man whose career has been a model for individual success and it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s made another great film. His ability to suddenly grasp 3D technology however, and use it not just to his advantage, but in a way that it hadn’t really been used before, is astonishing. It says so much about Martin Scorcese, and on how many fronts he is capable of creative brilliance. More than a magical adaptation or Scorcese’s first kid’s movie, Hugo is a prime example of a creative mind with a remarkable bag of tricks at his disposal, and evidence of what a tenured career can mean for a director with integrity and talent.
From a distance, Warrior positions itself as an underdog movie, taking a scenario we’ve seen a hundred times and inserting it into the world of MMA. This probably has something to do with its poor box office, as the MMA niche isn’t all that big to begin with, and the crossover of people excited about MMA and into sensitive movies dealing heavily with emotion is probably pretty slight. But seeing is believing, and Warrior is a movie that needs to be seen. Built on the stellar triumvirate of Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte, this is as close as a film has gotten to Rocky since Rocky, and that’s not even to suggest that Stallone’s classic flick is untouchable. There’s a serious case to be made for Warrior outshining the work that clearly inspired it, as the latter film is simply more emotionally complex than Rocky. Without a doubt, one of Warrior‘s most striking achievements is the way it pulls you between the two brothers from the beginning of the film to the end. By adding a second hero, everything about the film is amplified, and more importantly, the audience is invested, whether they want to be or not. Unlike a lot of other great films I’ve seen this year, Warrior feels almost lucked into; it’s not a terribly complex story, and Writer/Director Gavin O’Connor has done little else to suggest he will be a successful director for years to come. But even if this is simply a case of kismet, Warrior is genuinely a triumphant cinematic experience.
I’ve always been a sucker for love stories, but the ones that get me the most tend to be objective about love, giving as much time to the good stuff as the bad. Beginners walks that line perfectly, ending up as much a melancholic story about death as it is an affirming story about life. Though there’s a performance from Christopher Plummer in Beginners that will rival any other actor’s work you see this year, the film is almost always built on the sum of its parts, and hardly ever outshone by them. It is an admittedly quirky film, with stylistic choices that won’t work for everybody, but allowing touches of surreality to dot your film can ultimately be an efficient way of separating it from everything else. And Beginners is wonderfully unlike anything you’ve seen this year, not only stylistically, but emotionally as well. It is a film about both the worst and best time in a man’s life, just after his father died and just as he sparks with a charming and beautiful woman. The man is an exposed nerve, and as he embarks on this journey for balance, narration and intimate storytelling reveal every last emotional nuance. It’s a heart-wrenching experience, watching Beginners, but it is also supremely satisfying.
The Tree of Life
If The Tree of Life works on you, if Malick’s magnum opus gets into your head, then you’re lucky. Plenty of people won’t get that far, which is understandable. Malick has made a film firmly disinterested in catering to anybody but himself, and he was already a director that required patience and practice in viewing his films. The Tree of Life is, to date, the least accessible of his films, at least narratively. It is convoluted and vast in a way that can be supremely confusing. It’s also the rare confluence of magnificent ambition and astonishing achievement. It is, superficially, the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years. Though Malick has for the first time in his career allowed computers to bear some of the load of his expansive mise en scéne, there remains the trademark respect for nature and its inherent magnificence. But where this devotion to natural beauty has always been “just part of the scenery” in his other films, Malick now treats the world as a character. As he should in a film dealing so extensively with the origins of life. While much of the film focuses on the complexity of humanness, ample time is given to broader considerations, like, for instance, the beginning of our universe. And in all of this visual storytelling it becomes clear how closely science and God are tied together for Malick, and how much beauty he sees in the world. Which, perhaps more than anything else about him, is what contributes to his talent. Terrence Malick is a director whose one definitive through-line is gorgeous cinematography, but if you look closer, it goes far deeper than that. Malick is a storyteller eager to find divinity wherever he can, and while he hasn’t made this quest his exclusive purview, he has certainly raised the bar for everyone else.