One of the pecularities of our site is our insistence on writing in the first person plural, something designed to create the impression of a collective, a hive mind, and it's served us fairly well so far. But the realities of this are a little trickier; we're not all programmed the same way, and our beloved readers, understandably, can be puzzled to see a film derided in a review, and then ranking highly in our end-of-year features. But the truth is, we're not all cut from the same cloth; one person's treasure can be another's trash, and the debates around The Playlist's proverbial water cooler rage on year-round (for some reason, we continue to fight about Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," two years after it came out).
With all that in mind, we wanted to highlight where we differ, so below, as part of our ongoing celebration of the year gone by, each staff member has picked a film that they saw fall between the cracks, that didn't get the critical acclaim or audience celebration that it deserved, and another for which they find the praise wildly over-enthusiastic, or at least a little of out of control. You won't agree with many, if any of the picks; these are very much indicators of our own particular tastes, and trust us, we're making fun of each other as much as you are. But it's Christmas, and what's Christmas without a little medium-to-heavy arguing? Check out the picks below, in no particular order.
Overrated – “The Descendants”
I couldn't be a bigger fan of George Clooney. He makes consistently interesting choices, he works with interesting filmmakers, and his performances get better and better as the years go on. And true to form, he's excellent in Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," schlubby and put-upon and entirely convincing as a man who could be cuckolded by Shaggy from "Scooby Doo." Both his screen daughters are also terrific, particularly Shailene Woodley. Judy Greer's typically excellent. In fact, the cast in general is strong. The trouble comes with the film around them. The script is never especially funny, or especially moving, seemingly created in some kind of Fox Searchlight indie crossover hit generator with the 'glib generalization' dial turned up to full, but it might have been amiable enough if given to someone who cares about their characters. Instead, Alexander Payne, a man who's never pointed his camera at someone he couldn't sneer condescendingly at, is in charge. so the humor feels mean-spirited (Woodley's boyfriend is dumb!), and the emotion feels manufactured and studied (Woodley's boyfriend isn't as dumb as he looks!), like a robot that's learnt. how. to. feel. When Payne's got the right material ("Citizen Ruth," "Election"), his lack of humanism is perfect, but when he's making a movie because, seemingly, he wants to go to the Oscars, it leaves a sour taste. Photographed like a picture postcard (not a compliment), scored like The Enchanted Tiki Room (still not a compliment), and with a subplot resolution, over whether Clooney will sell his family's land, that will only come as a surprise if you've never seen a movie, ever, it's this year's Oscar contender that will leave me vigorously shaking my head throughout the ceremony.
Underrated – “Passenger Side”
The vagaries of release dates in the U.K. is puzzling. Sometimes we'll get big films, like "The Adventures of Tintin," months ahead of the U.S. Other times, we can wait months or years for something to come over, if at all (Fun Fact: "Say Anything" went straight to video in Britain). So it was particularly strange that of all the films to get a token one-screen release in the U.K., one was "Passenger Side," a tiny indie that never made it to U.S. theaters, and one whose most recognizable face, Mr. Adam Scott, stars in TV shows that have never been aired over here — we know, we're practically a third world country. But fortunately, it did get that one-screen release, because, while it's perhaps not a hall-of-famer, it is a charming, impeccably-acted little comedy/drama with a killer soundtrack. Michael (Scott) is a put-upon writer emotionally blackmailed into driving his no-good, recovering addict brother Tobey (Joel Bissonnette, brother of the film's Canadian director Matt Bissonnette) around Los Angeles to run various errands. Does Tobey want to reunite with an ex-girlfriend? Or has he fallen off the wagon? The story doesn't quite go where you're expecting, with a nifty little twist towards the end, but it's certainly one of those road trips that's more about the journey than the destination; Bissonnette and DoP Jonathon Cliff shoot LA gorgeously, and the soundtrack (curated by Superchunk''s Mac McCaughan), is a collection of immaculately picked '90s and '00s alt-rock classics, including Smog, Silver Jews, Guided By Voices, Dinosaur Jr, Islands, Evan Dando and Wilco. But more importantly, it's the warmth, the entirely plausible relationship between the brothers, the sparky, but never-overwritten back-and-forth between them, and the truthful, universal emotion of the whole thing that makes this a severely overlooked gem. Now, can we get "The Vicious Kind" in the U.K., please?
Underrated – “Into The Abyss”
People were curiously mute when the first entry of Werner Herzog’s proposed multi-film series following death-row inmates reared its head; others could barely muster up any positive things to say about it. While no artist deserves a free pass because of their earlier work (or, in this case, an extremely likable personality), it seems like the film was castigated for not providing a thrilling murder mystery/whodunit by using routine interviews full of unnerving music and well-timed stock sound effects. In other words, it wasn’t a generic truTV offering. An adamant rejecter of the death-penalty, the filmmaker is less interested by the crime at hand and more intrigued by the little life moments of everybody involved in the case – the convicted murderer, his acquaintance, the victim’s family, etc. – in an effort to show not only the magnificence of being, but the itty-bitty complicated elements that make up the essence of life. Highlighting the story behind someone’s tattooed dedication to his significant other or the miserable canoeing trip an imprisoned murderer endured as a tween may feel pointless, but their inclusion in a subject like this is a particularly weighty, subtle conclusion concerning existence – a singular, terrible decision does not precisely represent the entirety of a human being and neither do their throwaway asides, but when we take them into account we can get the bigger picture with a bit more accuracy. The closer we get to that, the more preposterous the notion of taking someone’s life (in any manner) is.
Overrated – “Bellflower”
After hearing so much good word around the (figurative) office about this movie – including it being described as something like “Mad Max” and having a post-apocalyptic vibe running throughout – discovering that it was not much different than the barely digestible chitty-chatty micro-cinema that I’ve already come to loathe left me quite crestfallen. From the overuse of shallow depth of field and selective focus cinematography to its persistence in making me care for a bunch of completely unlikable people, there’s not much to appreciate in “Bellflower” aside from the occasional flamethrower and the fact that the title contains my entire last name. Shoddy acting and lack of presence is forgivable if there’s something interesting in the form or substance, but anything other than an extremely emotional response to witnessing an act of unfaithfulness is more or less absent. However, the amount of dedication to the project is nothing short of admirable – director Evan Glodell not only wrote and starred in his debut, but he also built two major props (the aforementioned blowtorch and the signature car) and the camera the entire movie is shot on. That’s some serious work ethic, and while there’s nothing at its core that is remotely important to me, it’s much too personal to fall into the digital-age encampment of young movie makers that shoot just to shoot. I can’t get behind this one but an eye is still following the future works of Glodell.
Overrated – “50/50”
OK, so Jonathan Levine’s “50/50” isn’t going to get nominated for Oscars or dominate many of the awards ceremonies (except maybe the Independent Spirit Awards), but what really got to me this year, and some of our staff too I think, is the fact that a certain faction of geek-friendly writers were over the moon on this film. I didn’t get that, finding it neither very funny or particularly emotional. It left me really flat — and one of our reviews said the same — so I felt pretty confused when the AICN crowd was flipping over how powerful and emotional the film was, but then they’ve been pretty quiet about some equal or greater dramatic performances that have arrived all year long. Not only that, but then they started championing Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a Best Actor Oscar. Is it because Seth Rogen appeared in “The Green Hornet” and Gordon-Levitt starred in “Inception” (clearly none of these guys missed those films) and that somehow is relatable? Is it a 20-something male thing? Does “The Wackness,” a good coming-of-age film that the geek crowd was similarly oddly besotted with, still hold a lot of sway? I didn’t get it or this chorus at all.
Underrated – "Meek's Cutoff"
Sure, you'll see the Film Comments of the world, and probably Playlist writer Chris Bell, put it on their top 10s, but by and large Kelly Reichardt's stark and minimalist Western "Meek's Cutoff" was greatly overlooked this year when it comes to the grander scheme of things (it’s not like audiences flocked to it either). Yes, it did get positive reviews too, but any discussion about the austere and haunting picture about settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 who find themselves deeply lost and stranded in harsh conditions seems to have vanished without much of a trace. Starring an exceptional cast including Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood, shot in an old school 1.33:1 aspect ratio, 'Meek' is slow and drowsy, but meditative and haunting. As the settler’s situations get more bleak, the conflicts get more agitated and a hollow pang of desperation sets in that is simply eerie to watch. Observant and controlled, it’s a picture that may never burn very brightly, but creates a similarly hypnotic effect to that of staring at low, flickering flames. Major kudos as well for Jeff Grace's disqueting and sparse score, which is also quite unnerving and adds another layer of foreboding to the proceedings.
Overrated – “Drive”
There’s a sickness running through Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Even at their most intriguing and bewitching, his perverse sense of humor keeps audiences on their feet, but never really engages them in traditional ways. But this never seemed more like empty provocation as much as it did during the finger-quote-heavy “Drive.” Ostensibly a genre subversion of sorts, “Drive” never seems to be exploring, or parodying anything, only calling attention to hoary genre cliches. Even knowing the expectations of the genre, William Friedkin and Michael Mann could make a “To Live And Die In L.A.” or a “Thief” because they were fully committed to their stories and characters. But aside from some marvelous performances (particularly a slimy treasure by Albert Brooks, and a wonderfully unsung turn from the compelling Oscar Isaac), “Drive” only uses its extreme gore and joyless violence to call attention to its single-minded thematic underpinnings. By the time the sociopathic, nameless (of COURSE he’s nameless) driver wears his “iconic” scorpion jacket and the heavy lidded nightmare mask over his face to dispatch of his enemies, “Drive” is self-consciously what Refn called a “superhero” movie, selling iconography through the pursuit of empty nihilism. Every wrongheaded criticism thrown Quentin Tarantino’s way accurately applies to the chin-scratching mock-sophistication of this stylish slice of genre trash, a woozy fever dream powered by fantasies of crushed skulls and mute, murdering psychopaths.
Underrated – “Another Happy Day”
The Oscar race, as usual, features several American films this year that directly deal with the pressures and ugly decisions that are a part of being in a family. And yet, none of them carry quite the distinction of the pain in oversharing, or reluctantly biting your tongue, quite in the manner of “Another Happy Day.” Critics railed against this family drama distributed for Phase 4 Films (a shingle that lacks the capital to compete in this year’s Oscar race), leading to the film receiving a 43% Rotten Tomatoes score on the strength of complaints regarding the characters’ likability. Which is almost always a ridiculous complaint, because it’s besides the point. Let’s face it, most movies, whether they aim for believability or not, present idealized views of what we hope people would be. And the family that populates “Another Happy Day” is intolerable. Much of that stems from Ellen Barkin, giving the best performance of the year as a harried single mother who couldn’t respond to adversity in any way other than milking it for sympathy points. She’s the martyr we all have in our family, someone drawn to negativity because it gives them the attention they crave, and pulls them out of a pit of loneliness. Barkin’s frustrated single mom is not without tragedy – her three children have devastating dysfunctions, and she still suffers from the abuse of her ex-husband – but she’s not helping anyone when she descends upon her oldest, estranged son’s wedding with hurtful baggage in tow. She’s like a keyboard without a protective layer, and when she gets into arguments, her self-destructive tendencies almost beg others to push her buttons. “Another Happy Day” doesn’t begin or end with any calming hugs, because the sincerity, and humanity, of this piece is that in spite of our past struggles, some of us just beg for the abuse, because the pain gives us something completely unique to our own lonely experience, something that can never be shared.
Overrated – “The Adventures of Tintin”
Steven’s Spielberg’s 2011 two-fer is not the double punch of 2005 that delivered “Munich” and “War Of The Worlds.” His overwrought Family Channel movie in “War Horse” was pretty painful outside of the 3rd act WWI trench war sequences, and “The Adventures of Tintin” left me scratching my head. Reviews from the U.K., including our own, were fairly glowing and even a few of our IndieWIRE colleagues like Eric Kohn were calling ‘Tintin’ Spielberg’s best film in a decade. Apparently I wasn’t watching the same film they were. To me, “The Adventures of Tintin” was like a video game with no soul. All style, no substance. Made in the spirit and tone of “Raiders of The Lost Ark”? Sure, but whereas Harrison Ford was the charming, wisecracking, unintentional hero, Tintin as motion-capture played by Jamie Bell was inert wood. When the most endearing and interesting character of a film is the dog (Snowy), you know your movie is in trouble. Yes, the set pieces are dazzling and bolstered by the freedom of the 3D animated technology with which Speilberg’s imagination was left to run unfettered, but great action only a movie does not make, and how some people saw this film on par with any of the ‘Indiana Jones’ films (aside from maybe “Crystal Skulls’) was disconcerting to say the least. Even less exciting (and perhaps even more annoying to writers like myself) was a plot totally driven by chance, fortuitousness, luck and fate. Tintin is supposed to be a great investigative journalist and detective, but if happenstance didn’t occur around every corner, the charm-free character might have never left his block.
Underrated: “J. Edgar.”
All of the picks in this feature are obviously very subjective, but this one is also highly relative. As someone who generally doesn’t like Clint Eastwood’s films of late, and has felt almost all of them outside of “Mystic River” and (most of) “Changeling” (up until the 3rd act) are extremely overrated (2010's anemic "Hereafter" being one of my least favorite films of the last five years, to say it nicely), I was surprised at how good “J. Edgar” was. Now, let’s not get it twisted. Ultimately, the film is like a C+, it’s far too long, it runs out of gas and doesn’t say much about the impenetrable J. Edgar Hoover. It’s two and a half hours long and it putters around in the last 45 minutes and kinda goes nowhere, I won’t argue there. But critics had their knives out for this one and ripped it to shreds. The first act is probably the most engaging 35 minutes Eastwood has made in at least five years and the first two hours (more or less) are fairly absorbing. The make-up is probably some of the best age make-up you’ll see (it’ll win the Oscar this year, mark my words), the set design, art direction and overall aesthetics are impeccable. I’m slightly annoyed that the predictable choice of Leonardo DiCaprio getting a SAG nomination will likely mean someone far superior like Michael Fassbender in “Shame” won’t be nominated for an Oscar, but it is a good performance and there’s really no denying that. Maybe all I’m saying is, of all the Clint Eastwood films you’re going to hate in the last five years, you pick on this one?
Overrated – “Ides of March”
"The Ides of March" had a lot going for it; a stellar cast with an irrefutable mix of hot young up-and-comers (Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella) and respected old hands (Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marissa Tomei). They also had "King" George Clooney directing and starring, in a role he seems born for, as a Presidential candidate, and "political thriller" is a genre which Clooney is far better suited to direct, than the ill-advised screwball comedy of "Leatherheads". It seems like most critics bought the hype and drank the Kool-Aid as well with positive reviews flooding in from all corners after its red carpet turns at both Venice and Toronto. So yes, the cast lived up to its promise, they are great, though it feels that everyone but Gosling gets little to no screen time; perhaps the downfall of an overstuffed star cast? "Ides of March" comes in at just over 90 minutes so its hardly overlong, and yet, it feels it. The strange blend of cynicism and naiveté that makes up Gosling's Stephen, paints his actions as stupid and headstrong, rather than those of what is meant to be a seasoned campaigner. In fact Clooney has managed to give every character a distinct sour note, lending the end of the film a nobody-wins-in-this-cut-throat-world feel, that feels like an easy out. The worst part of the film though is that it clearly aims (or at least sold itself) as a tight little thriller, but there is nothing thrilling about it. Sure, there is sex (Evan Rachel Wood and Gosling's chemistry is off the chain) and a whole lot of double crossing, but every plot twist feels simplistic and cliched, and the motives behind them feel illogical and often counter intuitive. Then there are the obvious plot holes of relying on poor police work to get-away-with-it. Though the actors do what they can with the script, it all ends up sounding like Sorkin-lite. In fact its hard to watch 'Ides of March' and not want to go and watch almost any episode from "The West Wing" instead.
Underrated – “Submarine”
“Submarine” copped a lot of flack this year for being overly derivative, of "Harold and Maude," Wes Anderson and to a lesser extent Noah Baumbach, as if there was a patent on neuroticly precocious youngsters, as well as a deadpan delivery and a self-conscious shooting style. The directing debut of British comic genius Richard Ayoade brought a distinct darkness and reality to the quirk of Submarine – as opposed to the style over substance route – the character's not only look like real people, to an extent they act like it – petty, mean, selfish, cowardly, foolhardy. It would all be uncomfortable stuff if it wasn't counter balanced by the effective over-stylization of almost every scene. The slightly cartoonish nature of all the adults from protagonists Oliver's milquetoast dad and neurotic mother (played brilliantly by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) can be accounted for by the fact that the entire film is seen exclusively through Oliver's eyes, who also has a typically teenage sense of his own importance. Ayoade had a great team behind the scenes as well – the grey rundowness of the town, contrasted with the rough beauty of the Welsh seaside both owe some of their cinematic grandeur in this picture to cinematographer Erik Wilson, while Alex Turner's lyrically driven downbeat acoustic numbers work harmoniously, and to brilliant effect, with both the dialogue and narration. The fact that this coming-of-age film is Ayode's first stab at feature filmmaking, is, as it often is, super exciting and one can only hope that his authenticity, sly humour and heart-on-sleeve cinematic reference points are as apparent in his sophomore effort.
Overrated – “Midnight in Paris”
When all the rave reviews came out of Cannes for “Midnight in Paris” this summer, it was easy for even the most wavering of Woody Allen fans to get excited. It’s been years since he’s done something great, even though he keeps popping films out at an alarming rate. Many people have been calling it kaput on the Allen love for years now. There was a little surge of re-appreciation a few years ago for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but this critic found it completely unwatchable unless Penelope Cruz was on the screen (in a well-deserved Oscar-winning performance). So, when “Midnight in Paris” hit screens, and it actually made money in a limited release, it was exciting. Until actually seeing the film. The script, one of the dullest Allen's ever written, follows a rote formula of “Are you [insert ‘20s historical character here]? Really?! Really?!” for over an hour and a half. An interesting idea has none of the magical realism that films like “The Purple Rose of Cairo” carried before it. There’s also almost no character development to be spoken of, including Owen Wilson’s protagonist (other than the fact that he’s an unhappy writer). Rachel McAdams’ villainous Inez is a tragedy, especially compared to some of Allen’s fully fleshed-out female character in previous films, and Marion Cotillard’s Adriana, while beautiful, does absolutely nothing for the entire film. It’s not even that funny or witty, and one thing that Allen fans can usually count on is a laugh or two, no matter how awful the material. The fact that critics were calling this the first sure Oscar nod is absolutely appalling.
Underrated – “We Bought a Zoo”
Yes, the reviews have been quite positive for this one after the Thanksgiving weekend sneak peek (which was a splendid idea). However, most of the reviews focus on the sappy aspects of the script (and no, it isn’t perfect), rather than the fact that this is one of the most heartfelt movies this year. Cameron Crowe has poured his heart into this tale of a family coming back from the loss of their matriarch. When critics say that Crowe used “We Bought a Zoo” to merely get back into the game after the failure that was “Elizabethtown” — which this critic didn’t despise like all the others — it’s quite puzzling. Why would Crowe waste so many years between projects to pick one that he didn’t really care about all that much? The film combines Crowe’s expert taste in music with his love for saccharine personal relationships, and is particularly elevated by the complex performance put in by Matt Damon (one that isn’t getting all the attention it deserves). He goes from being overwhelmed to funny to depressed to uplifting throughout the span of the movie, and Crowe never takes advantage of his situation to wring tears from the audience (although they do come quite naturally). The dialogue is quite snappy, as expected from Crowe, and all of the actors handle it with aplomb, even in situations where the dialogue could have come out incredibly cheesy. And yes, the script isn’t perfect (we all know nothing is going to ruin the zoo’s opening, so stop throwing obstacles in the way at the last minute), but who cares? For any animal lover, it’s the movie of the year.
Overrated – “Tree of Life”
I can imagine this is going to be an especially unpopular opinion on the site whose critics poll just awarded this as the best film of the year, but I did not love “The Tree of Life.” Far from it. I found Terrence Malick’s latest to be frustratingly uneven, and at times, a bit of a slog. I can see why so many critics have fallen for the film — well, in addition to the fear of having their film nerd licenses revoked — the ambition, scope and breathtaking cinematography are all worthy of high praise. But there is a mile wide gap between ambition and accomplishment and to take in the film’s pleasures you’ll also have to trudge through long stretches of whispery New Age narration and a WTF afterlife set finale that not even the film’s most ardent admirers can defend. Which is a shame because it features some of the most stunning images I've ever seen captured on film and hints at what might have been the role of a lifetime for star Brad Pitt, had the director been interested in exploring that. (And that’s not even mentioning poor Sean Penn’s performance, reduced to utter scraps in the finished film.) It seems the further Malick wanders out into the wilderness, capturing every beautiful butterfly and beam of light, the further he wanders away from his human characters and anything resembling a compelling arc. I’m still convinced in all those hours of footage, there is a great film in there somewhere but Malick either couldn’t find it or maybe just wasn’t interested in telling that story. Instead we get a middle section that hints at that greatness sandwiched by a beginning and ending that reaches for the cosmos but doesn’t get anywhere close.
Underrated – “Super”
Sitting at a lowly 46% on Rotten Tomatoes and receiving a barely passable C+ from our own genre hound Gabe Toro, the same guy who loved "Hobo With A Shotgun," I did not go into “Super” with very high hopes. But the film, like its misfit characters, used my underestimation to its advantage. Weirdly personal and just plain weird, James Gunn’s superhero satire wasn’t the cutesy comic book spoof many expected it to be, which might explain why it died at the box office. Or perhaps just no one wanted to see Dwight from “The Office” playing a depressive geek who, after being left by his wife, starts bashing in criminals’ skulls with a giant monkey wrench. The film goes from darkly hilarious to thoroughly disturbing faster than you can say, “Shut up, crime!” Though it shares some incidental DNA with last year’s superhero sendup “Kick-Ass,” its rough edges make that film look as polished as the latest “Spider-Man” installment. And let me not forget to mention that Ellen Page delivers a maniacal, possibly career best performance as a psychotic little ball of energy with a major superhero fetish. Gunn throws a lot of shit at the wall and not all of it sticks but you can’t fault him for trying. No, it’s not perfect, but “Super” has a rough-around-the-edges charm that makes it far more interesting than most of the big budget superhero films that were trotted out in 2011 and is definitely one that deserves another look.
Overrated – "X-Men: First Class"
Here follows a self-serving dialogue (it worked for Plato) as to why “X-Men: First Class,” contrary to the opinion of almost everyone, kinda sucks.
Almost Everyone: What a refreshing take on the comic book genre!
AE: It was set in the sixties!
Me: Yeah. Neat decade. Can’t decide if that makes it better or worse that none of the minority characters are remotely developed and pretty much all the female characters appear next-to naked at some point. Even Rose Byrne’s FBI agent, who goes on a stakeout wearing sexy underwear identical to that of a high class prostitute?
AE: But then later, in the boardroom the sexism is so blatant that it clearly shows the whole thing is actually a comment on sexism.
Me: So being really sexist is really not sexist at all? Phew! But besides thematic issues, didn’t it seem like the whole thing was really amateurishly put together?
AE: It was a very hurried shoot.
Me: Why does that get it a pass? Surely the lack of focus or characterization should have been caught at script stage?
AE: But, but… Michael Fassbender hunts Nazis!
Me: That is a cool ten minutes. And the relationship between Magneto and Xavier is good too but only because two great actors are playing the parts (Fassbender gets the props, but I think McAvoy is the standout).
AE: So what the hell is your problem?
Me: Every single other part of the film – from Kevin Bacon’s hammy villain (which would be fine elsewhere, but occupies a different universe from Magneto/Xavier) to the terrible short shrift the actual “first class” gets, to Oliver Platt getting a chump’s death, to January Jones’ glassy-eyed stare and the fact that her period-inflected outfits just look cheap and ill-fitting, and she’s lit all weird so that she looks like she was shot on video and then spliced into the film in post.
AE: No fair! Judging 'X-Men' on January Jones is like…
Me: Like judging an ensemble movie on an integral member of that ensemble who, if the epilogue is to be believed will be back for the sequel?
AE: Damn you! You have bested us once again with your ferocious logic and impeccable taste.
I bask in glory and rectitude, whereupon my boyfriend Tom Hardy pulls up on his motorbike and together we solve Fermat’s last theorem.
Underrated – "The Guard"
Yes, I am Irish, but this is not some local pride bollocks. Irish movies start off on the back foot with me: like a Vietnam veteran meeting an accountant who wears combat gear to his neighbourhood watch meeting (simile stolen from Terry Pratchett), I generally come to them with too much knowledge/baggage, and am, if anything, over-critical. Which is what made “The Guard” such a surprise. In Garda (Irish for “guard” — it’s what we call the police — adorable, no?) Gerry Boyle, the great Brendan Gleeson creates an exaggerated but recognizable portrait of a character I’d swear to God I’ve been drunk with on many occasions. Foulmouthed but quick-witted, erudite yet full of shite, and as institutionally racist as he is individually, grudgingly, humanist; he’s the embodiment of a whole lot that’s both wrong and right about the country (please don’t revoke my passport). Most of the kudos have to go to writer/director John Michael McDonagh: while his brother Martin may have found a wider audience with the excellent “In Bruges” (also starring Gleeson), ‘The Guard’ has fully as much wit, probably greater verbal dexterity, and can even match Ralph Fiennes’ turn as a bald, English bad guy, with one from Mark Strong, as a bald, English bad guy. The difference is that “The Guard” is more firmly ‘of Ireland’, and the fish-out-of-water conceit lies with Don Cheadle’s slick and professional visiting FBI agent. There are huge flaws: the finale feels amateurish rather than lo-fi, and at times the action lags far behind the brio of the lyrically profane wordplay. Still, I’ll take “The Guard” over Glen Hansard any day. As Gerry Boyle might say, “he can take his fucking guitar and his fucking songwriting Oscar and…” wait, there’s no way we’re going to print that.
At this point in time, it's futile to try and watch a Lars von Trier film without getting caught up in the von Trier back story: depression, phobias, and plagued by a constant foot-in-mouth compulsion. So sure, why should we separate the man from the movie? But when a director’s heavy hand is all you can think about, something’s gone wrong here. "Melancholia" has been praised for its portrait of depression, and truly, Kirsten Dunst gives a beautiful performance, especially in the lovely Part 1, which was an interesting treatment in exploring internal suffering. But the over the top Part 2 spins off into some ridiculous universe (literally), climaxing with a WTF clunker of an ending. Von Trier sets up the planet Melancholia as a metaphor for the uncontrollable forces in life that have the power to devastate everything we know and love, but the film would have been much more successful had he stuck with interrogating the choices that people make in these situations, rather than trying to beat a ham-fisted point about the bleakness and beauty of life and death. As Melancholia nears, none of the characters' choices seem realistic or even particularly interesting, as von Trier gets caught up in the impending doom-iness of it all. Lars, we get it, but the problem is that we spend most of the movie thinking about your choices and not the choices of the characters within. And at the end of the day, I’m still wondering, “why?”
Underrated: "Jane Eyre"
"Jane Eyre" is remarkable simply for the 180 that filmmaker Cary Fukunaga took from his first feature, the visceral, violent, sun-splashed "Sin Nombre." Transplanting himself into the misty moors and candlelit estates of the English countryside, Fukunaga took on a literary classic, giving it his own dark, gothic touch. His sensitivity in manipulating darkness and silence creates something captivating, compelling and real. Mia Wasikowska is a revelation in a quiet, sensitive performance, and Michael Fassbender once again gives a measured, steady, spot-on turn, one that should have received more attention in this breakout year of his. The stillness and quiet of the film may have read as boring to some audiences, but the simmering, seething emotion below the surface is conveyed expertly by the actors, and the director not only captures it all but weaves it into an astonishingly tender and compulsively watchable film. What’s really the story here is how versatile a filmmaker Fukunaga is. Oh, and this is his second feature. We can't wait to see what he does next.
Overrated – "Hugo"
As one of the first to see "Hugo," as a special "secret" presentation held at this year's New York Film Festival, I was ready to be dazzled by a visionary departure for Martin Scorsese. A 3D kids movie by the guy who turned the creative way of killing gangsters into a kind of Grand Guignol performance piece? Yes please. Sign me up. But then the movie started unfolding, and everything fell apart – the plotting is clunky and slack, the lead kid seems more mechanical than the automaton that figures, so crucially, into the airy plot, and by the time the movie finally springs to life, with a call-to-arms for film preservation, I had already checked out emotionally. Unable to muster much support, I just watched the admittedly beautiful 3D images glide by, helpless to stop them but hardly captivated. The fact that critics (and to a lesser extend, audiences) have so openheartedly embraced this film is more than a little mystifying. It seems like a combination of misplaced nostalgia, ego-driven recognition (hey! He made a movie about important figures in cinema! We love that!) and willful ignorance. How else to explain the reluctance to talk about the characters' iffy British accents even though it's set in a Parisian train station? Or the completely unnecessary love story between Sacha Baron Cohen and Emily Mortimer? This isn't "Amelie" for fuck's sake. As an oversized stylistic exercise, it's occasionally fascinating, but as a movie, it barely registers.
Underrated – "Fright Night"
You would have thought that the enthusiastic support of the "Twilight" franchise would mean that a vampire movie, set in high school (but actually funny and sexy and scary), would have been able to drum up some decent business. You'd be wrong. "Fright Night," a terrific remake of an equally terrific 1985 film by Tom Holland, came and went at the end of the summer, earning less than $20 million in its entire theatrical run. Woof. This new version, starring Colin Farrell as a villainous neighborhood blood sucker, and Anton Yelchin as the teen who stands in his way, traded the original's twinge of homoeroticism with commentary on the current economic climate and a seasoned dash of feminism (thanks largely to the script, written by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" vet Marti Noxon). A mad amount of props have to be given to director Craig Gillespie. After seeing "Fright Night" it was easy to understand how he became one of the "go to guys" whenever Hollywood was trying to attach creative talent to some buzzy property. From the title card on, I was absolutely hooked, and repeated viewings cement the film's greatness. It's sly and funny and scary and stylish and 2011's best horror movie by a considerable margin, undone by a lackluster marketing campaign and the fact that it was released in 3D at the height of the format's late-summer fatigue. There's hope that one day "Fright Night" will become a cult classic, shared at slumber parties all over the country, but for right now it's just some studio oddity that never made its modest budget back.
Underrated – “Project Nim”
What happened? How did James Marsh’s (“Man On Wire”) terrific new documentary, a critical darling (98% on RT, the final word) open to a paltry box office ($411,000, less than a quarter of Marsh’s earlier Oscar-winner, which most certainly aided that picture’s box office) and fade away despite lesser films highlighted as the awards season gets up to speed? Perhaps underrated is the wrong term for “Project Nim” – let’s call it underseen, underappreciated, criminally so. The fascinating story of Nim Chimspky, a chimpanzee migrated from the jungle to a brownstone populated by a particularly liberal family in the '70s; Nim was an experiment, an opportunity to raise a chimp in completely human surroundings, integrate him into a family and attempt to teach him a way to communicate. Did it work? See the film – I’m certain you'll enjoy yourself as Marsh dispenses incredible documentary footage of the experiment and intercuts it with scene recreations that never upset the tone of the picture. Interviews with Nim’s “mothers” and the man who shepherded the experiment lead to illuminating portraits of the human relationships that may have shaped the young chimp. The animal’s the subject here, but it's our humanity on display, and Marsh elegantly weaves an involving, thoughtful tribute to an attempt to bring the jungle home that ended up humanizing the very people who thought to upgrade Nim.
Overrated – “Hanna”
Joe Wright’s latest, a definitive departure for the already subject and genre hopping director, is yet again a tussle between art and artifice. Let me explain – “Hanna” is a film that flaunts its set design and cast in a feature-length chase powered by a Chemical Brothers score that gleefully churns dark beats and massive bass. The two key moments that deserve immediate singling out are the container park chase and the one take faceoff that sees Eric Bana take on a couple of goons. Saoirse Ronan's excellent performance is also a notable and necessary departure for the young Hanna. Now that we’ve listed the obvious artistic merits, let’s talk about artifice – Wright directs the film with such a slavish devotion to background and style that “Hanna” completely shatters its emotional anchor, leaving behind a film that's lots of bombast (a particularly silly digression into a third-act playground mortal combat carries the stink of pretension), hushed tones and hissed or steely dialogue, but little emotional grounding. You can appreciate the technique and even float on as a captive viewer, spellbound by the propulsive pacing and inherent adrenaline, or you sit back, numbed to the spectable and tired of films that mistake style for substance.
Overrated – “The Muppets”
Before anyone gets all huffy-puffy and wants to burn me at the stake for saying — gasp! — “The Muppets” isn’t one of the greatest gift to cinema of 2011, let me be clear: I liked it, I laughed and had a very good time at the movies. And that’s about it. After I left the theater, I moved on, and the next few films I caught at the theater (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”; “Pariah”; “Young Adult”) had a much more lasting impact. And, frankly, it’s not even the best family/kids movie released around this time of the year. That would go to Scorsese’s truly magical and heartwarming “Hugo,” a film that’s been unjustly ignored by audiences. Sure, there’s some good laughs, and it’s great to see the Muppets on screen again in a clever story that serves them well amidst a new, overstimulated youth audience, but let’s not forget the movie has a few moments that I can politely classify as a bad idea. The most egregious: Chris Cooper is a lot of fun as the movie’s sniveling, arch villain, but why is he reduced to the long-outdated cliche of an old white guy rapping? I was cringing throughout that sequence, and wanted it to end as soon as it started. If Bret (who wrote many of the songs) and Jermaine of Flight of the Conchords performed that song on their show, it would’ve worked much better. “The Muppets” is a good, albeit forgettable, movie being touted by most as a great one.
Underrated – “Red State”
For this writer, Kevin Smith has long been forgotten as a filmmaker of interest and instead I prefer him in the medium that’s better suited to his talents, podcasts. His Smodcast has been a favorite of mine for many years. Anyone that listens to Smith and co-host/friend/producer Scott Mosier discuss anything that comes to mind is most likely quick to realize how gifted a speaker the once interesting, but never great, filmmaker is. His podcast empire has become his main artistic focus, and it’s a wise move by the early-’90s indie darling. However, upon seeing “Red State,” I have to admit that Kevin Smith does have some directorial chops. Sure, he still can’t resist having nearly every character speak inane and unrealistic dialogue that cracks the world he’s built in the film (“patriot act bitch”), but those moments were few and far between in his religious horror/action/thriller. Amidst all the Sundance hubbub and critical backlash this year against @ThatKevinSmith, it appears as though many were focusing on what “Red State” isn’t and not what it is. It is, essentially, another entry in the modern ‘Grindhouse’ canon, fitting comfortably with “Death Proof,” “Planet Terror,” “Hobo With a Shotgun,” “House of the Devil” and “Black Dynamite.” But the most impressive feat that Smith pulls of here is keeping the audience on edge. “Red State” is the rare film these days in which I did not know what was going to happen from scene to scene, and not one single character is safe. While he can’t quite jump between genres as smoothly as some South Korean filmmakers (they are the best at it after all), Smith is wise to keep the pace breakneck. Though the climax is admittedly a bit of a letdown, I was left thrilled and occasionally shocked by “Red State.” And let’s not forget Michael Parks gives one of this year’s great performances as Abin Cooper.
And that's a wrap. Editor's note: Kevin Jagernauth did not contribute because his picks (overrated: "50/50," and underrated: "Fright Night") were already represented. Now let's roll up those sleeves and leave some verbal shiners on some of these nincompoops.