QUESTION: Which are the most overrated and underrated movies of the 2012 Calendar year?
Overrated: Lincoln – I’m almost certain Steven Spielberg’s latest will take the Oscar for Best Picture this year, and I lament that it will be both the worst film he’s won for and the worst performance Daniel Day-Lewis has won for. There’s little arguing that, even to those who love the film. While I do appreciate Day-Lewis’ rich attempts to imbue Lincoln with humanity, everyone else involved idolizes the historic figure and the actor portraying him with blinding importance. It denies them the chance to say something honest and not particularly glorious about the man, and it drains the weight of these events by refusing to show us the cruelty they’re fighting to end. It’s avoidance in favor of historical lavishment, and honestly read as a ridiculous costume drama, in spite Spielberg’s “quietest” direction. I mean, those ghastly dregs Sally Field wears, not at all lifting the year’s weakest and irritatingly self-aware depiction of mental illness.
Underrated: Lawless – Without overlapping my own Best of 2012 list, where Mirror Mirror would be the clear and honest choice from me, one film that was ignored unfavorably was John Hillcoat’s prohibition-era crime drama. While it rarely raises tension to a point of imminent destruction, that’s arguably not the point of this hard-boiled genre flick. It’s more of an anti-gangster film, where the lawbreakers are honest working members of the country society, and the law was led by a sociopathic effeminate poof played hysterically by a high-camp Guy Pearce. For the similarly wimpy Shia Labeouf, the film offered a role worthy of his specific talents, and maybe his backdoor out of the frantic squabbling of his former work such as the Transformers films. It’s also filled to the brim with fantastic music, courtesy of Nick Cave and The Bootleggers (real band, you think?). This certainly wasn’t an Oscar film, but it’s a good time audiences ought to have paid notice to.
Overrated: The Avengers – Let me preface this by affirming that I am a nerd steeped in the works of the Whedonverse, and I’m happy that Joss is getting work of a blockbuster magnitude. Unfortunately, his Superhero megahit lacks the empathetic characters and transparent motivations that make his other work so appealing in its charming, campy way. From the script level up it’s clear that the main reason these characters are together on screen is so that these characters can be together on screen. The plot is hamfisted and inelegant, the We-Can’t-Work-Together conflict feels outrageously contrived and easily solved, and Whedon’s trademark quips (which usually strike me as idiosyncratic and genuine) read as vain attempts to buy laughs as the film struggles its way toward the bloated, reason-this-movie-was-made climax. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. gets some great one-liners, and Mark Ruffalo made me smile, but replace the easily-replaceable dialogue with some racist robots and girls in cutoffs and The Avengers would look a lot like a Michael Bay movie. The Editing Room, a humor site that publishes “Abridged Scripts,” made this point hilariously with their Avengers spoof, in which character “Jeremy Renner” asks what makes this movie any different from other spectacles-over-substance like Transformers, which nerds decry for (among other things) sodomizing their childhood. To which “Mark Ruffalo” responds, “JOSS WHEDON IS ONE OF US!” Perhaps that’s why I was especially disappointed by this business-as-usual franchise film, because One Of Us should know better. But it’s ok, Netflix has enough Buffy, Angel, and Firefly on Instant to keep my nerd-rage at bay (and like Joss, my puns are always intended).
Underrated: Ruby Sparks – This atypically thoughtful romantic comedy has nearly as many couples behind its creation as on the screen – its writer, film-family heiress Zoe Kazan, stars opposite her boyfriend Paul Dano, and it’s directed by the husband and wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Kazan’s script takes aim at the male ego and its fragility, the idealization of love, and attempts at control when a brooding writer named Calvin (played with wan and uncomfortable rightness by Dano) discovers his latest character (and the girl of his dreams) has manifested as a real-life person. Though Kazan hates the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” for being reductive and applied too broadly to quirky, original female characters, her Ruby Sparks invokes all the tropes one associates with the likes of Garden State and (500) Days of Summer. Calvin’s brother Harry, the entertaining and excellent foil Chris Messina, responds to the draft of his brother’s new book with surprising sensitivity for a tanned gym rat, essentially stating the film’s mission statement: “You haven’t written a person, ok? You’ve written a girl…Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing aren’t real.” While the second half of the film falters with a distracting sidetrip to Calvin’s hippie parents (cue unnecessary cameo appearances by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas) and a lukewarm ending, the film succeeds in skewering a tired formula with feminist zeal, and it has a lot of fun (including a hilarious lampoon of the “quirky” falling-in-love montage) while seriously considering the consequences of reducing a woman to an idea.
G Clark Finfrock
Overrated: Silver Linings Playbook – It’s hard to pick just one overrated film in a year with Les Misérables, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Zero Dark Thirty, The Sessions, etc, etc. So, I’ll pick on The latest David O. Russell, not least of all because he should know better. For the first half of Silver Linings Playbook, I was dazzled by Cooper, De Niro, and Weaver, and impressed that the intense verisimilitude Russell conjured with The Fighter was carrying over. But there is a scene in the film, one very specific scene, involving a crucial bet, where everything deflates, and the entire affair descends into predictable, audience-pleasing pandering. What we’re left with is a film that lacks anything important to say about mental illness, family dynamics, romantic relationships, or ballroom dancing; just a romantic comedy, pleasant and well-made, with an interesting hook. Nothing worth 8 Academy Award nominations, or 6 or 4 or even 2. Maybe just one.
Underrated: The Secret World of Arrietty – I think people were disappointed in this film the same way they were disappointed in Brave—a famous studio with a track record for excellence delivers a film that is good, really very good, but just short of great. I think this led too many filmgoers away from Arrietty, which is a real shame. The production design, music, character animation, and direction are all top-notch Ghibli. The only real disappointment is the story, which feels far too familiar than what we expect from Japan’s premier movie studio, but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a rough among diamonds. I think Arrietty stands proudly beside Ghibli’s best output—including this year’s From Up on Poppy Hill.
Overrated: End of Watch – When I praised Cabin in the Woods earlier this week as the 10th best film of 2012, I made it a point to say that “enforcing rules, for the sake of it, is bullshit.” While I stand by that statement, I would propose the caveat that “rule-breaking” directors should at least have some kind of artistic or critical impetus behind their decision to transgress. Otherwise, it’s hard not to dismiss the qualities of your film as anything more than masturbatory. That David Ayer’s found footage wank-fest is more than just an overrated flick; it’s a legitimately bad one. Incapable of holding itself to the rules of the found-footage movie (a subgenre I’ve sort of come to respect after Chronicle), all Ayer seems to care about is slapping together random elements of bad-assery and simpleminded “good-cop/bad-Latinos” antagonism. Watch is such a betrayal of a director’s self-established terms within his own movie universe, that not even the admittedly superb chemistry between Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal could convince me to overlook how brazenly sloppy this whole production is. That so many critics and audiences were so convinced, is perhaps my biggest “WTF” sentiment of 2012.
Underrated: Turn Me On, Dammit! – Perhaps Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Norwegian teen sex comedy is better characterized as “under-the-radar” than “underrated.” After all, it currently holds a strong 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, with forty reviews on file. And sure, it’s a short, waify-feeling comedy of minimal narrative bombast, which makes it understandable that even the positive reviews call the movie “slight.” But I think many critics who were in a position to champion this little-seen gem truly failed to give due credit to the gently radical sexual politics at play in Turn Me On, Dammit!. The film sympathetically depicts the sexual desire of a teenaged girl with a libido as big as her heart, and therefore facilitates a dialogue on young desire we so often are too petrified to discuss. That Jacobsen successfully confronts these issues in a manner that is sweetly provocative – not willfully incendiary – shows the movie’s subversively transgressive, yet woefully untapped, discursive potential.
Overrated: Argo – There was nothing particularly bad about Ben Affleck’s suspenseful movie about the rescue of 6 Americans from Iran, but it is not nearly as good as major awards bodies seem to think (Golden Globes, Critics Choice). Affleck’s film focuses only on the Americans and glosses over the Iranian people who perpetrated the hostage takeover. The result is that all Iranian people in the film, not just the soldiers and terrorists, come off as intimidating foreigners who should be feared. There were also some issues with the dialogue in Chris Terrio’s screenplay that was meant to sound naturalistic, but often sounds over-written even when delivered by actors who are more than capable of infusing the film with realism.
Underrated: Mirror, Mirror – The better of the two Snow White movies to come out this year, Mirror Mirror has a lot going for it. On top of the magnificent production design and costumes, the film also has a nice Looney Tunes style rhythm to it that makes the whole affair a lot of fun. This may not be the definitive Snow White film, but I hope it gets a new life in years to come as families discover this little gem that was unfortunately maligned by critics.