Cinematic Shame: Worst of the Year

Posted by julian On 9:57 AM
year in review part 5 of several

I thought it would be tasteless to drop this lump of coal on Christmas so I saved it one day. It's naughty, not nice. But before we get to the unsatisfying trends, performances, and movies of the year, some caveats. I didn't see everything and am not, generally speaking, paid to attend terrible movies. Even when I'm doing freelance gigs, nobody has ever said to me "Nathaniel, we'd love for you to write a 3,000 word essay about Yogi Bear." [Editors of the world take note: I would totally do this for money.]

Most Repetitive Actor or Actress Dear Leonardo DiCaprio, you have now done three movies in a row where you're a tortured soul with an emotionally unstable dead wife. This is an even more specific brick-wall niche then when Jodie Foster kept getting trapped in small places or when Julianne Moore kept losing her children (imaginary or otherwise).

DiCaprio's new franchise!

It's time to shake things up. Throw us anything at all that's different than this. Love, a former fan who is bored of your worryface.

Unbest Actress This one was hard to choose as no one pled for the title. I didn't quite understand what Diane Lane was doing in the gold-hued Secretariat. She alternated between stiff and overemphatic playing which conjured mental images of someone trying to both be an Oscar and mime the actress winning one. While it's true that Christina Aguilera is no natural in Burlesque, she acquits herself better than some pop divas have in the past and the bulk of her role is singing (which you may have heard she does well). So if she's nominated for Razzies soon, that'll be just mean spirited. Therefore the prize must go to Katie Holmes who played a beautiful intellectual who loved nothing but poetry, philosophy and Josh Duhamel in The Romantics. Only the "beautiful" part was played convincingly.

Duhamel & Holmes: just your average poetry-quoting
post-graduate intellectuals.

Unbest Actor
Aaron Johnson was mildly charismatic in Kick-Ass but in Nowhere Boy, the performance just didn't work and not only because he didn't look right for the part. He kept delivering a decent rendition of an arrogant semi-talented teen ... but where was the future John Lennon in that generic teenager? It's not easy to play a legendary charismatic performer. You've got to bring your own blazing showman's charisma along to function as a makeshift doppelganger.

Unbest Supporting Actress Early in the year I thought this might go to Ellen Page who was too listless in Inception as if she hadn't found any notes to add to an underwritten part but watching the film again, she was better than I remembered. Perhaps I expected a Juno or a Whip It level performance every time out? Still, this character was too much like the one she plays in the Cisco commercials. In both "Ellen Page" enters a room, exhibits curious disbelief about some new technological marvel and says something like  "neato. explain that to me again."

But the choice is clear. Frankly I don't know how you do what Melissa Leo did in The Fighter (best!) and also do what Melissa Leo did in Conviction (worst!) in the same calendar year. In the sports drama she plays a real character, in both senses of the word, with dynamic energy and insight. In the legal drama she plays a real character but as a character-free cartoon.  In scene after scene she was practically twirling an invisible mustache as the reprehensible cop who hates on Sam Rockwell. A lack of recognizable human nuance isn't always a problem if you're willing to go big-bigger-biggest, but she didn't. That's a huge problem when you're in a film with  a showboater (Juliette Lewis), a hard worker (Hilary Swank), a warm presence (Minnie Driver) and a natural (Sam Rockwell).

Unbest Supporting Actor Geoffrey Rush was so far over the top in Bran Nue Dae he was practically acting via satellite from an orbiting space station. But then, that's Rush's M.O. and judging on the rest of the insane musical film, they didn't hire him for subtlety.

But in the end, this came down to a death match between two young men who one presumes weren't hired for their thespian skills. Runner up is Reeve Carney in The Tempest. A block of wood could've out-acted him provided someone carved windpipes for it to sing with. But we're willing to give Carney a pass because he was brave enough to follow up the Tempest gig with another scary Julie Taymor project: Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. The winner is Cam Gigandet who has never, one presumes, been hired specifically for acting skill. It's not that he doesn't have any. It's just that his musculature has often been the chief requirement, whether that's role-mandated or expected window-dressing. Inexplicably he must have been hired for his acting in Easy A and we also presume there was no audition. Or the casting director was stoned. May he never ever do comedy again! This story has a happy ending, though. Cam redeemed himself in Burlesque later in the year giving his most charming performance to date.

The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Charisma I've already asked "How do you solve a problem like Christina?" so I shan't go there again. But post After.Life, one hopes that Ms. Ricci resurrects herself with her old sparkle.

Pearls Before Swine (Great performance in a lesser movie): Kirsten Dunst is so aching and intuitive in All Good Things that you desperately hope the movie will jettison all its other myriad parts (way too many parts) and focus on what's working: her. She's even doing the heavy lifting opposite Ryan Gosling who is weirdly undynamic this time, even with a role that begs for scenery-chewing dynamism in a "whoa, this dude is fucked up" kind of way.

Pearls Before Swine (Great scene in lesser movie): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1 is, as previously stated, less a movie than a bookmark. But the actual 'Deathly Hallows' scene is an inspired use of storytelling within storytelling and the gorgeously stylized animation haunts. Too bad that scene wasn't released as a stand alone short film to tide you over between Half Blood Prince and a compact two hour Deathly Hallows movie.

Are you Terrible or Great?
Edward Norton acts his ass off in Stone. But w-h-a-t is he doing or should he even be doing it at all?

Tasteless (Tone)
[tie] Red & Kick-Ass. Killing people is HI-LAR-IOUS. And it's especially funny & cool when little kids or old people do it.

Hit Girl and hitwoman. "I kill people, dear."

Tasteless (Look)
Practically everything in Alice in Wonderland. It's as if "more" always always always equalled "not enough."

Edited with a Chainsaw
(3-way tie!) The Tempest triumphs in the "we can't find a rhythm other than 'all' rhythms" division. Stone wins in the "confusingly-artful" category. Finally, Kites wins the "too-eager-to-please but wrongheaded" division. "We're going to cutaway from this dance sequence that just started because we think you might get bored. We've heard Americans don't like that. Here's 17 more dewy close-ups. Oh wait, no, that'll bore you too. How about some action and a few dissolves? Dewy close-ups intermingled? A shoot-out? Flashback? Flashforward? What else you want? You like this movie, right?"

Special Prize for Audacious Randomness in an Opening Scene Secretariat opens by quoting the Biblical story of Job, who famously had it real tough. My favorite film review of the year is probably Andrew O'Hehir's review of Secretariat in Salon which is itself audacious and random but also insightful, provocative and hilarious. This is one of my favorite bits casually referencing that opening monologue.
This long-suffering female Job overcomes such tremendous obstacles as having been born white and Southern and possessed of impressive wealth and property, and who then lucks into owning a genetic freak who turned out to be faster and stronger than any racehorse ever foaled. And guess what? She triumphs anyway!
Worst Opening Never Let Me Go and Shutter Island, both spring from twist novels and strangely both clue you in immediately as to the twists that aren't coming for some time. Never... does this with maudlin voiceover and adult closeups "This will be tragic and sad but very handsomely made starring Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield," it whispers and then starts again as extended prologue with unknown child actors. Shutter Island starts with Leonardo, our hero?, already at sea both literally and emotionally. "Look at him. He's a mess," it warns. "And this is going to be extreme," it adds with a close-up on Leo's extremely wet anguish-face with isolating shots of a tiny ship in the vast seas. In both cases, wouldn't it have been better to let the story and emotional content develop organically and allow us to be undone by the gradual reveals of purpose and identity?

Worst Ending
Two good movies that didn't stick their landings: Salt and The Town. The Angelina Jolie actioner was a fun cartoon but it just ran out of steam and closed awkwardly with the unstoppable diva running through a nondescript landscape. One half expected a "next time on..." preview to play alongside the credits. But this isn't a television series and unless you paid Angie a ton of money in a sequel clause, we're not seeing that one. The Town, an often tense drama ends with a weirdly soft/happy conclusion. What's with the borrowing from The Bourne Identity... or am I remembering that film wrong? Plus there's that magic fruit which doesn't rot and the idea that he's atoning for his crimes... by hanging out in luxury with ample money in a far off location? Tough life! It as if we ended an intense workout and the instructor, fearing those heart-rates he egged on, demands a lengthy cool down period.

Hell's Multiplex: The Worst Films of the Year
Or worst that I personally happened to see. It's very likely you saw different "worsts".

Josh, Woody & Naomi meet a long red carpet.

Woody warns you away from his movie straight away by quoting Shakespeare. It's the 'told by an idiot. full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' bit. These new characters do mostly behave like idiots but the sound and fury aren't particularly fulsome. Here is only the ambient noise of second rate Allen dialogue and unshaped less-than-cathartic misanthropy. This is not the first Woody Allen movie to feature an important subplot about an unpublished manuscript but this may be the first Woody Allen movie to feel like an unfinished manuscript come to life; it wobbles around on two paper legs, poorly bound, unedited, a thin approximation of the humanity it observes with its ink eyes.

09. AFTER.LIFE [previous post]

You'd think a movie about Helen Mirren running a whorehouse while sexing up a virile younger boxer and bossing Gina Gershon and Bai Ling around while Joe Pesci swears at everyone would have to be entertaining and frisky and shocking and dangerous, exciting to look upon, superbly-acted and alive. You'd be wrong. You'd be so wrong.

07. THE ROMANTICS [review]

Needlessly sadistic, grimy-looking and strangely insufficient if not entirely devoid in the chemistry department despite the good actors milling about. P.S. If you're going to plagiarize another movie, like say Oldboy (2003), try not to be so obvious about it or at least, only sample it. Don't lift an entire scene!

05. THE WOLF MAN [review]

Feels constructed on an assembly line, with no one ever thinking (or daring?) too put a personal stamp on the material, or even a loving idiosyncratic flourish on any scene. Tell us humans had a hand in making this, please. Footsteps vanish in the sand, and this movie blows away, too. Can you recall any detail?

I'd be happy to read a defense of this because, I'll be totally honest, I have no idea what this movie was on about. (I loved John Curran's last picture The Painted Veil so would like to extend the benefit of the doubt.)

Having twenty-four visual ideas is not the same thing as a possessing strong visual storytelling skill. Assembling a group of famous actors is not the same thing as directing them. Attention grabbing gender-blind casting is not the same thing as saying something about character or gender. And so on.

run away... run away...  from The Tempest

I've literally seen all of Tim Burton's work (there's not a ton of prolific auteurs who I can say that about unfortunately). I've seen the shorts, the films, the gallery showings. I've taken to obnoxiously referring to this movie as Eyesore in Wonderland but I could safely call this Tim Burton's Nadir because I've seen it all. That isn't as catchy a title and it's also hella depressing. I'd rather watch Planet of the Apes on loop than ever go near this one again. [Long-winded hatred for this movie here.]

Which movies made you desperate for the closing credits this year? And which moments in good movies were surprisingly bad?


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