QUESTION: What are the most overrated and underrated movies of 2013?
Overrated: The Wolf of Wall Street
I pondered deeply what film I should give the short shrift here, because no year comes with just one overrated experience. I’ve found myself less convinced than others of Spring Breakers’ allegedly radical elegy for those lost in the MTV generation, unmoved by the honeydew Sundancey sweetness of Short Term 12 (which still has my favorite movie music moment of 2013), or utterly indifferent with the plain one-dimensionality of Nebraska. For a time I felt I’d settled on Fruitvale Station as the year’s most overrated, but that feels like old news in comparison to what’s by all means “the film of the moment”, and rather obnoxiously so. I mean that less as a jab against The Wolf of Wall Street than the conversation that’s blurted out in the film’s wake. I’m perfectly fine with people being in active conversation about a film as a result of its unfounded controversy, in this case accusations that Martin Scorsese’s film is glorifying its lead characters, not condemning them. It ought to be clear that he’s doing both, condemning this kind of grotesque behavior only after acknowledging how it’s emulated and idolized in the real world. I get this, and so do a lot of the film’s detractors.
That still leaves the argument of how potently it works as a film, and it took barely an hour before I started checking my watch. The moment we’re cued into an intrusively dull slo-mo shot of Jonah Hill freaking out on Quaaludes, I wondered if Scorsese was perhaps taking too much of his precious time indulging these knowingly grotesque antics. Yes, I understand that’s the point. We’re supposed to be suffocated by this behavior. We’re supposed to be disgusted with how morally repugnant these wall street creatures are. I don’t imagine, however, that we’re supposed to be so bored, and after a reasonably potent first hour, that’s the feeling I felt during the entire last two hours of the film. The scenes become diluted by their own monotony and repetition. Even the so-called comic highlight of the film, where Leonardo DiCaprio writhes his way slowly to his car while tranquilized on Quaaludes, felt devoid of life.
Maybe this is a significant enough shift for Scorsese, implementing his usual tools to achieve the inverse effect of his past films, which have often had an intense kinetic pulse to them. The goal may have been it use the kineticism to emphasize how inert the actions of these characters are, but instead the film itself came off as inert, which is no easy cross to bear for three hours. I totally understand why some are passionate devotees to it, as it’s Scorsese’s most socially daring work in years, but The Wolf of Wall Street felt like my Hanukkah. I thought it would last three hours and it ended up lasting eight whole days.
When it comes to underrated films, I’ve already championed quite a few of this year, mostly from the blockbuster circuit. Beautiful Creatures, White House Down, and The Lone Ranger are all genuinely stunning pieces of mainstream entertainment, each of which bombed at the box office and received oppressive critical ire. In retrospect I may also stick up for Man of Steel to some small degree, as a reluctant revisit revealed it as, if still incredibly stupid, quite entertaining in that, and even somewhat devastating in its third act carnage, something conveyed totally by Zack Snyder’s death metal visuals, though emotionally vaporized by David Goyer’s ridiculously dumb script. When it comes to great films being just carelessly dismissed, however, I’m just hopeless confused as to why Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder has been given the shorthand by so many critics.
Maybe it’s the high peak many perceived him to have reached with The Tree of Life that made To the Wonder feel like a trivial step down in comparison, but as somebody who wasn’t remotely moved by Tree of Life, a film less pretentious than it is cartoonish, I suppose I was already tailored to the smaller wonders of his latest. I should still expect critics to be more inquiring than they were, calling out Malick’s flourish for fields of grain and women dancing giddily with their arms stretched out, perhaps failing to suss out the themes he was trying to convey with them. Some joked about Malick’s markedly classical style wandering into a Sonic drive-through, but To the Wonder is perhaps his most radical film highlighting how abrasively his style rubs against a contemporary backdrop. His soaring emotion and spirituality, much like that of Olga Kurylenko’s character, cannot thrive in the harsh modernity we live in so easily. No wonder Malick is so rarely seen in public, since he’s perhaps too petrified to leave the comforts of the past. To the Wonder is him taking that risky plunge into the new world, but if we’re just going to greet him by mocking him as pretentious, don’t be surprised when he doesn’t resurface for another five years.
Here’s the funny thing about the much-storied kerfuffle between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins: in this rare instance, I’m largely on the side of the soulless, blood-sucking corporation. And I don’t mean this in the sense that Disney made a masterpiece of a film adaptation, and that Travers found herself on the wrong side of history. I mean that I believe both in the sovereignty of the artist’s vision, and the spectator’s interpretation. I have always believed one of the more obtuse things you can say is that a film adaptation is somehow capable of ruining the essence of the source material. In a movie age where countless properties are being sold for profit, and much of our cultural conversation is all but reserved for contrasting Adaptation against Source, I feel like the tension between Travers and Disney – a feud between two artists, between a creator and her creation’s spectator – would make for a superb kind of pop-culture polemic.
But Saving Mr. Banks, the movie about that feud between Disney and Travers, is admittedly more about the business of storytelling, and not really the artistry of it. And in that sense, the movie almost becomes a David-versus-Goliath parable, of one individual going up against a conglomeration too used to getting exactly what it wants to lose. Only in Banks, the parable has a twist: Goliath sits on David’s face until he asphyxiates. But with an 80% TomatoMeter rating and Oscar Buzz abound, many would mistake (and have already mistaken) this modest box office success as a sweet-natured peek behind the scenes of a Disney favorite.
Alas, for poor Mrs. Travers, she never really had a chance in Saving Mr. Banks. Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith never give her one. The character, played by Emma Thompson in a way that can only be described as overly mannered stridence (her performance is more overpraised than even the movie surrounding her), enters the movie as an ever-perturbed shrew hellbent on being unpleasant for the sake of unpleasantness. Even if every mannerism is true to Travers’ real-life disposition, there is little humanity in it – only the bitterness of Disney’s most frigid evil queens. The movie sets us up against Travers well before her first encounter with Tom Hanks’ unflappably benevolent performance as Disney.
The explanation for Travers’ impertinence is unforgivably trite psychoanalysis, perfectly aligning her emotional arc at Disney Studios with a series of tragic flashbacks involving her father. The idea that she somehow saw Disney’s vision of Mary Poppins as an eminently bad vision never enters the equation, not least because the movie (produced by Disney’s studios) would rather preserve Walt’s legacy as a steward of childhood wonderment than explore the story’s more interesting facets. Banks is more unfair to Travers as a person than Mary Poppins ever is to Travers as an artist. It shirks the idea that “when writing conflict, everybody should be right.” She never even gets a chance to be right.
I’ll never argue for the unimpeachability of James Mangold’s The Wolverine. Certainly, it has its share of significant problems. There are far too many side characters worth keeping track of, especially when it comes to the film’s villains. With little humor to inject, it is often too dour, and tonally monotonous. The flashbacks involving Jean Grey are atrocious and entirely unneeded. The climax is a bloated, ugly marriage of CGI and art direction, and Logan totally ends up with the wrong woman in the end. (Frankly, I’d have gone with Yukio over that bore Mariko.)
So where was I? Ah, Yes… Here is the reason why The Wolverine is underrated: scale. This might be the smallest-feeling comic book movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By the standards set by this movie’s more expensive (and higher-grossing) contemporaries like The Avengers and Man of Steel, that’s damn refreshing change. Most of the storytelling is modestly disciplined, staying within the limits of Logan’s perspective. (It’s telling that when the movie falters, it’s usually because the movie shifts to those many side characters I care so little about.) Many of the action sequences – particularly one involving Yukio sparring with a villain as Logan lies incapacitated on a hospital bed – are staged as well as they’re scaled.
Most importantly, and again, by superhero movie standards, the individual arc for the heartbroken and healing Logan is refreshingly clear and defined. For once this summer, there was a blockbuster hero I actually cared about a little bit. The Wolverine is not great, and it’s far from perfect. But it’s the first X-Men movie I’ve liked in a very long time, and the first superhero movie in years not to feel like an endurance test for my senses. it might be one of the few blockbusters in ages to feel, for lack of a better term, like an actual movie.
Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 is one of those films that works better in concept than execution. The film brings together various individuals who have differing theories about Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining and allows each person to deliver their thesis while clips from the film are played. The film offers the perspective of six narrators whose faces are never revealed. Instead of presenting each theory as its own stand-alone segment, Ascher combines them into nine thematic segments with each narrator presenting their ideas scattered throughout. This made everything blend together as it was often difficult to differentiate who was speaking and which theory was being discussed at any given time.
Room 237 tackles some interesting themes like the subjectivity of perspective and the open nature of film criticism. However, I think that the conversations that the film inspired on various websites was far more interesting than anything Ascher gave us. Ultimately, I would rather watch the entirety of The Shining with one of these “critics” providing commentary than the jumble of segments that are put together for Room 237.
In 2013 films like Captain Phillips, Dirty Wars, and Iron Man 3 all directly investigated U.S. military intervention. However, the film that offered the best metaphor for American foreign policy is Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Hugh Jackman’s overzealous father shoots first and asks questions second when his daughter goes missing. As his cruelty escalates, his family and close friends watch from a distance and refuse to intervene, instead standing at a disapproving distance. It’s not until he is way over his head that Jackman realizes the real terror might be himself and his wrath is directed towards an innocent victim.
The film is shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins who captures a world that slowly gets darker, wetter, and more vile. The most unnerving feeling is the internal struggle I had as a viewer watching Jackman’s violence escalate and asking myself: even if he turns out to be right, was this torture worth it? Paul Dano is perfectly cast as the slimy victim of Jackman’s abuse and Jake Gyllenhaal gives a great performance as the morally conflicted detective who feels so torn between the powers of good and evil that he literally twitches. The ending is the film’s one major fault, as it feels like a happy ending that was unsatisfyingly tacked on by studio influence (although Villeneuve swears it was all him).
G Clark Finfrock
This is an easy one. Great documentaries are great despite their subject matter, never because. The film I hold up as perfectly representing this standard is Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. That is not a movie I remotely wanted to see; having developed over the years a marked distaste for Ms. Rivers and her red carpet showboating, I would much rather have seen a documentary about an anonymous stranger who had been dead for five hundred years in another country. But by the end of Ricki Stern’s riveting documentary on the ancient entertainer, not only had I learned more about Ms. Rivers than I thought possible, I actually liked the woman, had grown an enormous amount of awareness and empathy for her, and never once felt tricked or manipulated into doing so. A great documentarian can make any subject interesting to anybody.
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is quite the antitheses of Ms. Stern’s. Concerning itself with an affair her mother had shortly before Sarah’s conception, Polley’s ostensible premise involves how memory obscures history, causing gaps and fissures in personal narratives and relationships. Despite her film’s stated themes, Polley sure does her best to nail everything tidily into place. She grills the talking heads of her family members for the minutest details of their affairs, all the while maintaining a safe distance from the fray behind her camera. The results, despite the high praises of some critics, are less than compelling; such dispassion does not serve such a personal story. Indeed, the most egregious offense of her film is to remove herself from it entirely. It is rather difficult making a revealing documentary on a person without their estate’s participation or consent (see: Dear Mr Watterson, Salinger), but downright surreal when the filmmaker themselves is largely the subject, and absent.
In the end, we learn a lot about Sarah Polley’s family, but nothing at all as to what she thinks about them and the miniature narratives they constructed around themselves. That elision undermines most of the film, and I felt cheated after having watched it.
The problem with releasing a masterpiece in the first quarter of the year is that people will forget about it by the fourth. Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore flick is fuller, more ambitious, more complete, than his debut Blue Valentine. Cianfrance isn’t simply trying to tell an engaging story this time around, although his film certainly does that, but he is using a narrative to illustrate a larger, grander theme. Cianfrance’s characters are faced with a plethora of moral choices, and he examines how those choices pass to subsequent generations, parents to children, and then branch out. Some critics make the faulty claims that the plot is filled with coincidence, or that the left-turns and narrative shifts unwarranted, but these critics betray a shallow reading of the film. And I am still perplexed by these criticisms, as even a shallow, plot-deep reading of the film still gives the viewer a cracking good yarn—one that had me fascinated, guessing, and in its thrall until the final, haunting image.
This kind of ambition is sorely lacking in American cinema lately. Cianfrance reaches for a similar grandiosity one sees in The Godfather Part 2. Now, I’m not suggesting that The Place Beyond the Pines hits highs quite that lofty—only a handful of films ever have, of course—but that the film reaches and largely succeeds in its aims is cause for great celebration. Add to all this one of the best ensemble casts of the year, including a career-best performance from Bradley Cooper, and you have a minor masterpiece that is, sadly, getting lost in the current sea of awards-show hopefuls. Just because Pines came out months ago doesn’t mean it’s not awards-worthy. If you haven’t had a chance to view this gem yet, I strongly encourage you to seek it out.
I entered the experience of watching The Hunt hoping to have my biases challenged, to be unsettled by the consequences of mob mentality, especially when the mob is pursuing something as unimpeachable as justice for an abused child. I was prepared for discomfort and complication. Skeptical that the “but what if he’s innocent???” line of inquiry would yield a satisfying narrative, I nevertheless looked forward to having my assumptions about molestation and its perpetrators upended and entangled.
Yet there is little complexity here. Despite widespread praise, Oscar buzz, and a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Hunt does its best to blunt the film’s potential with simplistic plot contrivances, weak characterizations, and a clumsy hunting metaphor (it’s a witch-hunt, get it? Did you… did you get it?) that is particularly galling in light of the predatory nature of many sexual crimes.
The Hunt would be a fairly forgettable and ham-fisted tale of hysteria if it didn’t have such a representation problem. The opening shot, of men laughing and flinging themselves, naked or in their underwear, into a lake, as our protagonist Lucas jovially rescues one of his drunken buddies flailing in the cold water, suggests that this is a film about men saving each other when they’re drowning. The film confirms its reverence of the boy’s club over and over again – a club infected with the accusations of a mislead girl and a group of female co-workers (of which Lucas is the sole male) – and finds salvation only in the judgment of one of its own, the girl’s father and Lucas’s best friend. The women in the film function only to advance the plot and are then typically dispensed with; their reaction to events is never sought, including that of the reasonable girlfriend who’s thrown roughly out of the house for seeking Lucas’s confirmation of his innocence and yet reappears on his arm at the film’s conclusion.
Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg’s script avoids saying anything of substance about pedophilia, the manipulation of children, or even the court of public opinion and instead employs the accusation of molestation to conjure a nightmarish assault of do-gooders that feels artificial and disingenuous. Lucas’s final uncertainty that he’ll ever truly feel safe again is supposed to unnerve us, but The Hunt’s disproportionate focus on its merry band of men – and how above reproach they are – makes it impossible to take it seriously.
Despite a generally positive critical response, I nevertheless feel that Leviathan, whether it’s praised or scorned, is typically written off as a kind of novelty – a genre castoff and film snob curiosity. While certainly not the first of its kind in terms of form and ethnographic function, Leviathan is most commonly and short-sightedly linked by reviewers to the work of Stan Brakhage purely on the basis of its visual artfulness and lack of “narrative,” or perhaps because he was similarly yoked with that meaningless word, “experimental.”
Unlike Brakhage’s films (which were mostly silent), Leviathan pulses and rasps with sound. And far from being “abstract” and “distant” as critics are eager to describe it, the film is incredibly grounded in intimate, overwhelming reality. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel are placing viewers into the real, plunging us into the experience of a commercial fishing vessel, from not only the fishermen’s perspective but also of the fish, the birds, the machinery, the sea itself. It is sensory on a par with Gravity, a staggering achievement unaided by three-dimensional enhancement or marred by unnecessary and tedious dialogue.
Detractors will lament Leviathan‘s length (a short 97 minutes), its inaccessibility (show me a film less reliant on conceptual artifice), or the fact that they can’t discern “what the point is” (how sad that they can’t experience something as direct and embodied as being tossed by the ominous sea without being told how to feel about it).
Not only is Leviathan a documentary in the truest sense of the word, it is also biblically and consciously epic – it opens with a quote from the Book of Job – and its shots are by turns breathtakingly kinetic, inventively playful, full of dread and humor at the same time. Its titles nearly wink at you, with their comically exaggerated gothic font, listing the species of fish and birds among the film’s cast. A particularly humorous scene features one of the fishermen falling asleep in the galley while watching Deadliest Catch on the ship’s television. It is an evocative moment; after an hour of being so immersed in this world I could feel the briny spray on my skin, the show’s overheard narration and non-diegetic music had never seemed so artificial.