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Scott Mendelson

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2011 Year-end Wrap-up: The Overrated Films of 2011

Posted: 12/30/11 11:46 AM ET

 This is the second of several year-end wrap essays detailing the year in film.  This time, we're dealing with 'overrated' films.  Here is the hardest one to write, merely because it's simply a list pointing out why ten films you all loved are actually either not-that-great or actually pretty terrible.  Most are what I would consider 'bad movies' that are being hailed elsewhere as greats, while a few are merely mediocre movies that are inexplicably being given a critical pass in most circles.  Again, if you've been reading me this year you'll probably be able to guess a few of these.  As always, these will be in alphabetical order. 


The Adventures of Tintin (review)
As I said the night I saw this picture, I cannot and will not begrudge anyone who enjoyed this Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson action adventure film more than I.  And that still remains the case.  But despite the top-notch animation (I'm actually a fan of motion-capture technology) and one all-time great action sequence in the third act, the film suffers from a fatal lack of interesting characters.  Jamie Bell's Tintin is a blank slate onscreen, Daniel Craig's villain is relatively rote, and there are almost no colorful supporting characters to pick up the slack.  Andy Serkis's Captain Haddock is the only character with depth.  Truth be told, any film involving humans where the most entertaining character is a dog surely deserves a gentle knock for not bothering to develop the humans.  Perhaps I expected too much from two of the finest 'big' directors of my lifetime, but this is a relatively unengaging trifle that skates by on its technical merits and one absolutely superb set piece.  It lacks the old-school swing for the fences zeal of Jackson's truly awesome King Kong, or even Steven Spielberg's flawed-but-impressive War Horse.  If you enjoyed it as much as I wanted to, then you have not my scorn but my envy.

The Artist (review/essay)
The probable best picture winner is basically a 1920s-style silent film.  It offers no commentary on the art form nor insight about its time period.  It is one of several major films this season that deal with nostalgia and how we deal with the glory days of our would-be peak years.  Yet this picture, charming as it occasionally is, offers no wisdom or constructive commentary on its subject matter, and it exists as testament to the whole 'gosh, everything was better back in the day' nostalgia that is infecting mainstream entertainment at all levels of production.  Viewed apart from its (perhaps unintentional) implications of our current culture, it is a feather-light trifle of a picture, some that, had it been actually been produced in the time period when it takes place, would have been a solidly B-level (if that) silent picture.

Drive (review/essay/essay)
For better or worse, I became the poster child this year as 'critics who hate Drive'.  As I've written several times, the film is a relatively lousy action drama.  Only the supporting characters (Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston) and the paper-thin coating of 'cool' give it anything resembling a spark of life past the admittedly terrific opening scene.  Ironically, the refreshingly specific Jewishness of the two villains inspired the year's dumbest lawsuit, but I digress (as a Jew, I want more Jewish villains!). The two dull-as-dishwater leads (Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan) are supposed to be among the most romantic couples of the year, yet they have so little chemistry or even dialogue together that it's not unreasonable to presume that much of their courtship is in "Driver's" imagination.  It is yet another 'boy's adventure' where we are supposed to romanticize with a violent psychopath purely because he's handsome and has token feelings of lust for a pretty girl who happens to be in his midst.  It is not exciting, it is not romantic, and it is not artful enough to justify the absence of any other entertainment value.  It is, quite simply, a glorified straight-to-DVD thriller (complete with extended scenes of characters doing next to nothing in complete silence to pad out the running time) that somehow got hailed as the future of action cinema.  And if you take Albert Brook's expository monologue at face value,  Nicolas Winding Refn knows he's pranking the critics. 



The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (review)
If the original Swedish film had not been subtitled and contained moments of somewhat sensational violence, it would have been correctly written off as a solid but unremarkable B-movie thriller with an interesting supporting character in Lisbeth Salander.  But, as Robert Rodriguez will tell you, subtitles do a funny thing to audiences, making them find art where only pulp exists and deeper meaning where only thriller mechanics can be found.  But this big-budget remake by David Fincher actually manages to diminish whatever appeal the original film (or the original book too, I suppose) had.  Drained of any real suspense and with much of the infamous violence toned down, the film comes off like a bloated and drained-of-all-life episode of Criminal Minds.  Rooney Mara is sensational as Lisbeth Salander, and the film is engaging whenever she is onscreen.  But she is truly a supporting player, with token story changes that make her feel even more at the service of her male companion that in the original.  Rooney Mara's performance is certainly worth watching, and the character is fun to watch (if not the pioneering feminist icon she has been held up as).  But the rest of the film is a drab and outright boring mystery thriller that fails to thrill and a mystery that, thanks to boneheaded casting choices, would have been solved by any television sleuth (Adrien Monk, Olivia Benson, David Rossi, Bobby Goren, etc) before the second commercial break.

Hanna (review)
Joe Wright earned my ire by trashing Sucker Punch while promoting HIS ass-kicking female action picture, which is both bad form and fraudulent since the theoretical prurient appeal of watching Saorise Ronan (in top form, as always) ruthlessly dispatching foes pretty much proves one of the big points Snyder was trying to make.  There is much to admire in this pulpy and often brutal re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood, including a single-take action sequence involving Eric Banna and Cate Blanchett reminding me why she was my #1 celebrity crush in high school (yes, she's terrific, but that goes without saying at this point).  But the film is so detached and cold that there is no real viewer investment in any of the major characters and the film comes off as a pure exercise in style.  If anything, you'll feel bad for the many innocents who get slaughtered as young Ronan's Hanna makes her way across Europe to track down Blanchett.  Moreover, the film often feels hollow and empty behind the stylish visuals, making it almost as junky as the b-movie action pictures that Wright is clearly trying to upstage.

The Ides of March

This film is a classic case of 'telling instead of showing', as the entire film hinges on the idea that Ryan Golsing's high-level political operative is a master of the game and a wide-eyed innocent, neither of which are on display in this half-hearted political drama.  There is no more political insight in this George Clooney-helmed picture that can be found in a mediocre episode of The West Wing, and the overriding narrative becomes a sexed-up and dumbed-down variation on Primary Colors.  Whatever insights Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring to the table (oh what a film it would be if they were the main characters...), the second half degenerates into a moronic 'Uh oh, the hot girl is going to wreck everything!' melodrama that has as much relevance to today's political climate as The Lion King.  Oh, and this is the second major film this year where Marissa Tomei's primary purpose is to be humiliated for attempting to act like an adult in a sea of overgrown children (the other one is... spoiler alert, on a different list).

Like Crazy
This film is a classic example of how alleged independent cinema is often treated differently than mainstream cinema of a similar nature.  This romantic drama, told in a not-entirely linear narrative, deals with the ups and downs of a young couple (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) and theoretically highlighted the ickier, more complicated parts of a long term relationship.  But the execution feels so much like a standard indie romantic drama that it threatens to tip into self-parody (there is another film this year that fell headfirst into that pool, but that's a later list).  Purely on the strength of a decent performance, a British accent, and the idea that critics often fall over themselves to praise any attractive young woman who comes out of the indie scene, Felicity Jones is now 'the next big thing'.  I hope she lives up to the hype and I am a fan of Yelchin (he stole The Beaver from Mel Gibson earlier this year), but this film offers little in the way of insight.  If this film had been a wide release with a major star at its center (say, the neither better nor worse One Day with Anne Hathaway), it wouldn't have gotten a second glance or would have been eviscerated.  It's not a horrible film, and it's certainly not an evil or hateful picture, but it's a shining example of how independent cinema is often graded on a curve compared to similar genre entries that happen to be studio pictures.



 Midnight In Paris
Yes, the 20 minutes or so set in 1920s Paris were charming, fun, and offer a helping on insight.  Corey Stoll gives a break-out turn as Hemingway just as Law and Order: Los Angeles (where his character was affectionately referred to as 'Thumb') was cashing-in.  But the surrounding picture is exactly the sort of badly-written and generically contrived romantic comedy that would have been crucified if it starred Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston.  Woody Allen writes Owen Wilson's would-be in-laws as simplistic cartoons, using their conservative political views as cheap fodder for alleged comedy (Kurt Fuller played this role to far funnier and richer effect on the unjustly cancelled Better With You).  Rachel McAdams is forced to play the simplistically villainous 'wrong woman' and Michael Sheen's character is mocked and condemned for being proud of his obvious intelligence.  Owen Wilson tries his best to wring sympathy out of a character who's biggest problem is the possibility that he might have to take script-doctor gigs to make extra money.  His ridiculous whining about a situation that he could easily fix is an epic drama of pointless self-pity (free tip - when you're rich and have no dependents, it's that much easier to indulge most of your pursuits).  The film eventually has more to say about nostalgia for theoretical perfection than the likes of The Artist.  But pretty much all of the substance and entertainment value is crammed into one specific portion of the film, leaving the rest to wither like the one-note romantic comedy-that makes romantic comedies look bad- it is.  Just like Home Alone (the popularity of which hinged mostly on the climactic Wet Bandit stand-off), the charms of the 1920s segments cannot make up for an almost painfully trite shell which surrounds it.

Source Code (review)
It seems almost petty to pick on this ambitious bit of science fiction, as Duncan Jones surely meant no ill intent in its construction and it's an honest attempt to create an original science-fiction thriller.  But once you get past the first reel, which sets up the Quantum Leap/Seven Days-ish premise, the rest of the film is a giant waiting game, as we watch the same eight minutes or so over and over again, knowing that nothing of major consequence is going to happen until the last reel.  While I'm not sure there was any way around that problem, the film also loses major points for basically inventing new rules right at the last minute for a relatively unearned (and arguably kinda-creepy) 'happy ending'.  I will gladly await whatever Jones follows this up with, but Source Code has fine performances in service of a hamstrung narrative and a giant cheat of an ending.

Super 8 (review)

The film was supposed to be 'the great original picture that saved us from a summer of mediocrity'.  Problem is, the summer started out quite strong and J.J. Abrams's Super 8 wasn't all that good.  Fashioned as an homage to Steven Spielberg, the film comes off as someone else doing a spin on the prototypical Steven Spielberg film that never actually existed.  Sure Spielberg directed ET and produced The Goonies, but he was also producing (directing?) Poltergeist and directing Empire of the Sun and The Colorful Purple during that same period.  But the film itself, powered by a hazy glow of alleged nostalgia, fails both as a character drama and as a supernatural thriller.  The supporting kids aren't developed in the least, the film pulls out an unseen dead mother purely for cheap emotion, and the lone female character (Elle Fanning) spends the entire film as merely the romantic object and the entire third act as a damsel in distress (even The Goonies had two females, one of which was not the least bit romanticized).  And the film absolutely falls apart in the third act with a dramatic arc that makes no sense as it's clearly the lead's father (Kyle Chandler) who is emotionally wrecked by Mrs. Lamb's death, not his son.  This was a film with no other purpose than to mimic the template of a handful of 80s would-be classics (I'm not the world's biggest fan of The Goonies) purely as a technical exercise.  This isn't the work of Steven Spielberg, it's the work of Señor Spielbergo.


And that's a wrap. Now have your say, which I'm sure will have many of you calling me an idiot and/or a bully, which is the price one pays for doing an 'overrated' list in the first place (good -- lots of traffic  bad -- lots of name calling).  Next up, the 'Good films you missed,' which is a list of ten good or great films that slipped under the radar.  And yes, I do enjoy highlighting the good movies far more than highlighting the whiffs, but everything has its place.

 

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