We understand that to many, underrated and overrated are potentially noxious terms thay may want you to punch us in the face. At the very least it’s deeply subjective and relative. What’s underrated to one person is fussed over to someone else. Essentially, it’s all about one’s perception of the narrative that forms around any given film. Some pictures are often undervalued or underepresented by certain sections of the critical cognoscenti and other pictures are lauded as the greatest thing sliced bread and writer’s often feel like they need to make some sort of corrective to that that narrative.
We understand it’s an often polarizing sentiment, but by bringing together the Playlist collective for our annual overrated/underrated piece, and identifying each writer in their subjective thoughts, we thought — for better or worse — each individual might illuminate a little bit about how they see film, and what their perception was of films that didn’t get their fair shake and or were overly praised. You'll undoubtedly think some of them are crazy or interesting, and two films that have contradictory takes from different writers (which serves to demonstrate how subjective the idea of something being "under" or "over" rated can be). Let us know which films you think have been overlooked and overblown in the comments section, and for all The Playlist's year-end coverage make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
Underrated – “Almayer’s Folly”
Once "Bridesmaids" made waves at the box office, the discussion of smart female movies and woman filmmakers got a lot louder: why were males so dominant in all aspects of cinema? It's a legitimate topic that needs to be discussed, and more people than ever were having it — but when the movies came ("Artificial Paradises," "The Loneliest Planet," "The Milk Of Human Kindness" to name a few), nobody cared. One of the more unfortunate films to get the short shrift this year is by the well-respected Chantal Akerman, whose heavy "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" is constantly name dropped among today's newest batch of slow-burn, minimalist directors. It's unclear why this terrific movie is so under-the-radar, especially because there's plenty to appreciate within. Taking liberties with the source material by Joseph Conrad, the filmmaker focuses on the relationship (or lack thereof) between a wealthy caucasian colonialist and his mixed-race daughter, the latter whom holds resentment of Pops for sending her away for a “white education” (big surprise: she becomes a victim of racism). Identity is a topic that Akerman constantly prods at, braiding all these ideas into a simple story performed with a subtlety that makes the inevitable emotional breakdowns incredibly stirring. Similar to her older works, the director continues to move at her own speed, playing with the temporal while capturing the lush-yet-unwelcoming jungle that most of the movie lives in. It’s an altogether astonishing work of art, and there’s no reason why the “slow and boring” (really wish there was another name for this niche, even if it ended in "core") advocates wouldn’t gobble this up. Thankfully it’s never too late.
Overrated – “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
The amount of pressure this film puts on its audience to break down into tears every ten minutes is utterly insulting. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic here, but this is the reaction you get when you’re expected to emote after a little girl strikes her father to the ground after accidentally burning her house down following a conversation she has with a shirt on a chair that is supposed to represent her deceased mother. That piece of clothing also speaks back to her, with a crisp voice-over of the matriarch’s voice. It’s just too aggressive, and when it’s not going for waterworks, ‘Beasts’ is convinced that you’ll find its wee protagonist engagingly adorable, with her chubby cheeks and loud proclamations coated in cute kidspeak. Basically, if it doesn’t get you in the first five minutes with any of this, there’s really nothing to pull from it — the landscape does indeed make for some admirable cinematography, but any allusions to real world events feel heavy-handed and not particularly insightful. I admit that this likely reads as a vitriolic rant, but know that I don’t feel “cooler” than anyone else for disliking the movie — I would’ve loved to be part of this Hushpuppy club — but the movie doesn’t have an understated bone in its body, and you can only nod along to Beirut and hope to be legitimately moved for so long.
Theres been a lot of talk of late about women in comedy, which felt like a pretty redundant conversation when it began: is the question “Are women funny?” really something we're asking in the 21st century After all the success of "Bridesmaids" last year, it seems, unfortunately, that the pendulum swung back the other way, with a backlash against women doing “gross-out humour." Unfortunately this kind of sentiment seemed to wash over into the reviews of Leslye Headland’s first film "Bachelorette" — which definitely features its fair share of gross-out moments, pavement licking and wedding dresses being used as toilet paper, but also goes beyond that. "Bachelorette" isn't funny like Judd Apatow films are funny, instead it's full of biting one-liners and black humour, it's a bit nasty and as smart as heck. You probably don't want to hang out with all the characters at a bar after the movie like I did after seeing "Bridesmaids," but the leads in "Bachelorette" ring truer than most female characters do in film these days, for better or worse. Headland has created the kind of female characters that are severely underrepresented, ones with actual problems, who aren’t always nice but also have shades of grey, are at least semi-functional and maybe talk to each other about something other than a dude once in a while. She also casts it brilliantly, with leads Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan, all committing to their roles as the "bitchelorettes" with gusto and putting in charismatic performances. The supporting guys aren't half bad either with both James Marsden and Adam Scott filling their roles with perfect panache. "Bachelorette" may not be a comforting feel good comedy, but that doesn't make it any less insightful, witty or entertaining.
Overrated: "Holy Motors"
Perhaps "Holy Motors" is only overrated in certain circles of cinephilia — its not likely to win any major awards nor make millions at the box office, but critical reception has been overwhelmingly glowing, with the film making decent showings in both the Sight and Sound and Cahiers du Cinema best of 2012 list. Yes, Denis Levant, the star, the lead, the one with the most screen time, is great, but a film this well reviewed should be more than just an actor's vehicle. Instead, Leos Carax's picture feels repetitive, pushing the same points about reality, fantasy, representation and viewership over and over — and to tell the truth they weren’t that insightful the first time 'round. Sometimes Carax makes his point in visually arresting ways, and in other scenes he comes close to being emotionally touching, but this is a film that feels all too pleased with its own cleverness, quietly laughing at the viewer for taking any of it seriously. "Holy Motors" ticks a lot of boxes in terms of intertextual references, which will surely make it great fodder for a Film Studies course, but grows tiresome over the course of the film. Its also full of obvious and unaffecting scenes that seem to appear purely for “shock value” — Levant’s green-suited, flower-eating devil, from his naked erection to bloody finger biting, feels tired and even dated, as do the out of place co-stars like Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, who both felt useless in this film, whether purposefully or not. To wrap the film up, Carax’s final scenes only further trivialise the last 100 odd minutes that the audience has endured. Its hard not to feel that one of these vignettes could have been an entertaining short, but as a feature, and a lauded one no less, it is simply tiresome.
Underrated: “The Dark Knight Rises”
Though my initial instinct was to use this opportunity to shine the spotlight one of many smaller film that didn’t get their due this year — “Sleepwalk With Me,” “Nobody Walks,” and “Smashed,” all made strong cases — instead I felt compelled to throw down for the most underappreciated blockbuster of the year: “The Dark Knight Rises.” But wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s epic final Batman film released to mostly positive reviews, you say? Well, yes. But in the months following the film’s release it seems like public opinion really began to turn on it. From Bane’s voice to the (perceived) plot holes to the lack of screentime for the title character, there was no issue too small for fanboys not to groan about. The anti-’TDKR’ sentiment grew so loud that I started to question my own admiration for the film. But months after Aurora, the hype and the backlash, I caught one of the film’s final showings in a nearly empty IMAX theatre and quite simply, loved the shit out of it. The little things that had bothered me on first viewing barely registered now and I wondered how I’d ever doubted it in the first place. It was never going to be possible for ‘Rises’ to top “The Dark Knight” — Ledger’s Joker was lightning in a bottle — but it’s not for lack of trying. While it’s typical for sequels to go big, this one is a true epic reaching almost operatic heights scene-after-scene. What I still can’t understand is how the film became a punching bag to begin with (being held to a standard of “realism” that Nolan never subscribed to anyway) while another superhero blockbuster gets a pass because its more “fun.” ‘TDKR’ may not have been the film most audiences wanted this summer but Nolan gave them the one they deserved. And it was one for the history books.
Overrated: “Moonrise Kingdom”
For a filmmaker as divisive as Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom” is probably as close as a film the auteur has come to making something universally beloved. It's the director’s second highest grossing film to date, has a 94% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has recently been cropping up on countless Best Of 2012 lists. However this former Anderson devotee finds it not only one of the most unjustly praised films of the year but also the filmmaker’s weakest live-action effort to date. (And yes, that includes “The Darjeeling Limited”). Wes Anderson fans, I completely understand your outrage at yet another critic taking a shot at your favorite director but until this film, I was one of you. Yes, this is the same writer that voluntarily wrote a 2200+ word analysis of the trailer. Continuing on the downward slide that has befallen his work for the past decade, Anderson has lost his grip on character, story and even humor with his latest strained effort. Despite some clever casting, the jokes fall mostly flat and characters amount to not much more than window dressing. (To paraphrase Red Letter Media, it would be difficult to describe the personality of one of the characters in the film without describing what they look like or what their profession is.) The most frustrating part is knowing that Anderson is content to keep making the same movie over and over to diminishing results for as long as he keeps getting patted on the back by critics and fans for doing so. His idea of artistic growth is changing the setting of his films (New York/Italy/India/the ‘60s) without altering his highly affected style. Sure, “Moonrise Kingdom” is pleasant enough, but for someone who has invested so much in a filmmaker who showed such promise, it’s an incredibly frustrating thing to watch idly.
Underrated – “Ruby Sparks”
Every year, critics get out their knives for rom-coms that deliver the same tired formula, gender stereotypes and stories, and sigh and lament about the lack of originality in the genre. But it boggles the mind that when something as truly unique and special as “Ruby Sparks” came along, critics and audiences mostly shrugged their shoulders. It’s a shame because the fresh voice and perspective of screenwriter and actress Zoe Kazan is one we could use more of. On the surface, the film is a Charlie Kaufman-esque lark about a struggling, neurotic writer who one day literally conjures up the the girl of his dreams with a few keystrokes on his old school typewriter. It’s at first bliss, and this seems to be where most people turned off their brain and threw lazy “manic pixie dream girl” comparisons at the picture. But it’s the second half where the film truly matures, turning this fantastical romance into an incisive and insightful exploration of the vulnerability relationships put us in, the power we try to exercise over them in order to maintain some sense of security and what happens when it falls apart. It’s really about learning how to love someone for their flaws instead of their perfections, and it’s all wrapped up in a lovely script, smoothly handled by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Here’s hoping on home video it takes on a second life and finds more fans. Along with “Take This Waltz,” it’s one of the best relationship movies of the year.
Overrated – “ParaNorman”
It seems that we’ve become so desensitized to the usual animated schlock churned out year by year from studios, that even the appearance of something different sends folks into a tizzy, particularly if its the kind of fare aimed squarely at fanboys. It’s undeniable that “ParaNorman” had a great concept — a stop motion zombie movie for kids? Awesome. It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t take that creative thinking and apply to the characters or even the basic structure of the story. It’s same old thing, with a outsider kid as the protagonist, coupled with a quirky chubby sidekick (who is kind of a ripoff of the much more engaging lead from “Up”), with an annoying sister and her dumb jock boyfriend along for the ride (though admittedly, the late reveal about the latter character is a nice touch). And let’s not forget the parents who are oblivious to what’s going on with their kid. Once the novelty of the aesthetics wear off, and you quickly realize the 3D doesn’t add much flavor, you keep waiting for the story become as alive as its surroundings. But instead, it plays the the safe and familiar beats of every animated movie, overpunctuating every emotion, taking our hero on a predictable journey from beginning to end with very little to make it compelling or truly memorable aside from that Jon Brion score.
Underrated – "Brave"
It feels odd to be in the position of having defend Pixar, a company who, for most of their existence, couldn't move for rave reviews and awards. But they're generally deemed to be going through a creative rough patch, with last year's "Cars 2" being followed by this summer's tepidly-received Scottish fairy tale "Brave." The film wasn't savaged like its predecessor, but most found it a middling-to-mediocre entry for the company, another sign that the honeymoon was over. But, while it might fall short of the transcendence of "The Incredibles" or "Up," it's a lovely, beautifully crafted film that seems to have been underestimated by many. Billed as the first film from Pixar to feature a female lead (as well the first from a female director, until Brenda Chapman was controversially replaced midway through production), "Brave" was dismissed by many as just another Disney princess movie, but part of the film's brilliance is the way it subverts it so completely. It really is a women's film in the best possible sense, focusing not on romance, or even adventure, but the difficult, complex relationship between a daughter (Kelly MacDonald), and a mother (Emma Thompson). And what was the last film you saw that took that narrative route at all, let alone in such a nuanced and moving way? The give and take between Merida and Queen, the way that they talk but don't listen, the way they gradually come to see each other's point of view, is worthy of a tiny indie rather than a huge Disney tentpole (thanks in no small point to vocal turns from MacDonald and Thompson, as well as a scene-stealing Billy Connolly, that number among the best in any Pixar film). It's a consistently surprising and unexpected film (indeed, we suspect the way it buried the lead in the marketing is one of the reasons it got such a hostile reception), with many, many pleasures, from the Miyazaki influence to the wonderful character design. It might feel quite modest in scale and scope compared to some animated films, but over time, I think it'll age much better than most.
Overrated – "Rust And Bone"
At the risk of being fired by my editors, who both count "Rust And Bone" among their favorites of the year, I never quite connected with Jacques Audiard's latest. My anticipation levels are perhaps in part to blame; Audiard's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is one of my favorite films of the '00s, and I adore his "A Prophet" too, albeit with a few more reservations. And don't get me wrong, it's not that I hate "Rust And Bone" — the leads, especially Matthias Schoenaerts, are terrific, Audiard shoots the hell out of it, has a great use of music, and a handful of truly memorable scenes. But despite all of that, I was disappointed. Given that his strengths have so far laid in depicting bruised masculinity (see previous leads Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim), it's no surprise that Schoenaerts is the stand-out, with Cotillard's Stephanie feeling underwritten, the character never really developed beyond "she lost her legs." Like "Silver Linings Playbook" (which I came close to picking for this slot), it's a familiar story given surface off-beat trappings that hint at something more interesting, but which ultimately give way to the more conventional backbone again (it's essentially the "fuckbuddies fall in love" tale we've seen more than a few times on screen of late). Here, it's more egregious, because Audiard and Thomas Bidegain's writing feels that much more contrived. The director's humanism is still intact for the most part, but the plotting — the split between Ali and Stephanie, Ali's side gig installing security cameras getting his sister fired, and the near death of his son in the ice — feels inorganic and, in the latter case, even somewhat callous (I'm always wary of a film that starts going to the lazy nerve point of putting a child in danger in order to show how much its characters have learned ). Ultimately, I walked away feeling manipulated and cheated. Perhaps I wouldn't have minded so much if so much of the rest of the film was so good, but as it stands, it feels like a minor misfire from one of my favorite working directors.
Overrated – "Safety Not Guaranteed"
Every year, there’s a film like “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Audiences (and critics, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) were happy to give it a pass, because it’s “cute” or “quirky” or other such bullshit. But it's story and characters come off like like the lifeless creation of some Sundance Lab robot, strong evidence that too many American indies have become as factory-produced as big budget blockbusters. And that ending, oh boy, where to begin? How about, what the hell was that? Director Colin Trevorrow really goes for it in the climax, but damn if it doesn’t undermine the few strengths in the film. I thought I was watching a movie about a young woman (played by Aubrey Plaza, in danger of becoming a one trick pony) falling for a guy (Mark Duplass, admittedly solid) despite his being a little crazy. Everything seems to be going that way, until that god damn ending destroys what had been built up. Beyond the just plain stupid finale, there’s cliches around every corner of the script, and sub plots that come out of nowhere and never feel earned. I love a good low budget attempt at genre, but ‘Safety’ is a ruse through and through, showing how difficult it is to pull off.
Underrated – "The Loneliest Planet"
If you trust The Playlist at all for off-the-radar film recommendations, then just stop here and go watch this gem. Avoid any information about it if possible. Throughout this slow burn relationship study, about a couple (wonderfully brought to life by Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) on a trip in the Georgian mountains, there’s an undeniable sense of tension. Something bad is going to happen. And when the moment comes, it’s unexpected, hilarious and changes everything. Director Julia Loktev gets the most out of the stunning landscapes and intimate character details, so when things go awry, the punch to the gut hurts, and lingers far after the credits roll. She takes her time, letting the film breathe. The moment I speak of is nothing more than 5 seconds of screen time, but it adds many layers to the film while also never falling into melodrama. It’s a simple film on the surface, but dig deeper and there’s a wealth of fascinating insights to chew on, most deliciously the roles of men and women in these modern times. Have things really changed all that much?
Overrated – “The Raid: Redemption”
After playing SXSW, Toronto and a number of other festivals to critical rapture, Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” landed with far less power than one of its epic punches when it came to my quiet post-release viewing. Though its masterfully choreographed fight scenes had the fanboys pumping their fists, the rest of the film–which admittedly isn’t much of its running time–had me shrugging my shoulders. My jaw dropped at the numerous fights as a small SWAT team takes on a high rise full of criminals, but I didn’t ultimately care. Seeing our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) kiss his pregnant wife goodbye just wasn’t enough emotional ammunition to keep me invested in what could have been the best fight scenes from YouTube edited together into one movie. Apparently, this Indonesian action film is meant to be seen in an excited, deliriously sleep-deprived crowd at midnight, which is fine, but that doesn’t take away its needs to survive on its own merits. A comedy seen in a packed house can be buoyed by the laughs of the audience, and horror films do best when seen in a silent, darkened theater occasionally peppered by shrieks and gasps, but the theatrical experience should merely heighten a film, not justify its existence.
Underrated – “2 Days in New York”
What’s that sound you hear? Julie Delpy’s real-life father delightfully keying a car on the streets of New York? Her sister Rose (co-writer Alexia Landeau) likening the name of Chris Rock’s Mingus to a sex act? The buzz of an electronic toothbrush being rendered forever unusable? No, that sound is me literally shrieking with laughter at Delpy’s sequel to her own “2 Days in Paris.” As a Francophile living in the Big Apple, perhaps I’m predetermined to like “2 Days in New York,” but it wasn’t the culture clash between the visiting French family of Delpy’s Marion with her adopted city and live-in boyfriend Mingus that had me nearly gasping throughout the film. Instead, it was the authentic chaos of a family visit and the interactions between Marion and Mingus that range from sexy to antagonistic, but always remain entirely natural. Delpy’s style as a writer and director follows Woody Allen’s at his lightest, and “2 Days in New York” is wispy as a feather. However, there’s a frenetic energy here that echoes the craziness of a family visit, and it doesn’t remain low-key like so many of its indie comedy brethren are content to do. This isn’t a groundbreaking or perfect film, and it’s unlikely to please Nora Ephron devotees with an entirely happy ending, but it’s an enjoyable diversion that will make you feel that much better–or that much worse, depending–about your familial relationships.
Underrated: "Sleepwalk With Me"
The undervalued films in 2012 list is long and includes Ry Russo Young’s “Nobody Walks,” “Ruby Sparks” (see above), “2 Days In New York" (also see above) and a lot of documentaries that people didn’t see. Regardless, I’m going to pitch my tent for Mike Birbiglia’s awesomely funny, sharp and well-observed relationship comedy “Sleepwalk With Me.” Thoughtful, hilarious and also low-key and melancholy, the stunted growth and rite of passage from adultlescene to actual adulthood is quickly becoming its own subgenre, but Birbiglia’s wry and self-deprecating semi-autobiographical tale of his commitment-phobic lost years is just so damn appealing, heartbreaking and also laugh-out loud funny with all its spectacular moments of failure. Yes, “Sleepwalk With Me” fared pretty well with critics, but damn, was it generally overlooked by moviegoers. Brilliantly mixing the comedian's REM Sleep Behavior Disorder anxieties with his sinking relationship and his ailing career, Birbiglia may be the next Louis CK in the way that he leverages the painful truth to be painfully funny.
I’ll say this. I sort of hate the term “overrated,” but whatever, let’s get on with it. With only a 55% RT score (whatever that means), one could argue loathsome girls-gone-wild comedy, “Bachelorette” was neither poorly or amazingly received in 2012. But a lot of noise came from the picture. It leapt onto the iTunes movie chart upon its release in September and broke some kind of indie record by racking up digital sales of $5.5 million. Clearly audiences were flocking to this movie at home to see what what the fuss is about. The fuss is that it’s abysmal, ugly and forgets that “raunchy” humor is also supposed to be entertaining, engaging and come with a least a modicum of a pleasing nature to work (see every popular and worthwhile raunchy comedy to date). But the unpleasant and nasty “Bachelorette” is bitter and acidic way that has zero substantive bite other than showing audiences that females too can be emptyheaded shitheads without much of a conscience. It's girls behaving badly and that’s it. PR for the film at Sundance insisted that calling it “The Hangover” of female comedies was doing it a huge disservice when in actuality, any comparisons to even the mediocre “The Hangover Part II” would be generous. How do you make the usually likable Lizzy Caplan, Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher seem like miserable/horrible people that you want to run screaming from? Put them in “Bachelorette.” 2012 in general was pretty dismal for the rom-com, especially those masquerading with a faux poignancy to them — “Friends With Kids” and “Save The Date” were all almost equally shallow. But truthfully “Bachelorette” would be on my worst list if it weren’t for that fact that I haven’t really seen so many of the truly presumably piss-poor films of the year (the “Paranormal Activity” films, etc.)
Underrated – “John Carter”
Pixar titan Andrew Stanton's sci-fi epic "John Carter" was one of those movies that was doomed before it ever even opened. It was persistently plagued by bad buzz, with reports of an ever-ballooning budget and creative hot-dogging by a director more used to manipulating pixels than actual human performances, to the point that most of the reviews evaluated the production history as much as the finished film. This is terribly unfair, especially when those reports were, in all likelihood, wildly exaggerated. In a year over-stuffed with big budget product that was notable only for its anonymousness, "John Carter" is an expansive, earnest, emotive and, above all else, singularly weird, piece of full-throttle pulp entertainment. The fact that it doesn't wink or nod at the audience, that it isn't clever-in-quotes, cemented its fate – being genuine is never looked upon as an asset these days, especially when it's housed inside a $200 million labor of love based on a series of yellowed, hundred-year-old paperback novels. This is a movie with not one but two wraparound stories; a phallic dog-monster named Woola; Tim Riggins as a haunted confederate soldier; an audacious sequence that intercuts a monster massacre with a man burying his wife and child; and a climax that plays like the space opera version of the ending of "The Graduate." Stanton is nothing if not ambitious, and "John Carter" is directed like a kid who's finally able to let loose with all the toys at his disposal. It's messy, for sure, but it was a big budget spectacle that looked and felt like nothing else this year (you could practically pull the grainy sands of Mars out from underneath your fingernails). Edgar Rice Burroughs' original "John Carter" tales were so problematic that they were deemed by many to be "cursed." This still might be the case.
Overrated – “Amour”
The response out of Cannes (where it picked up the top prize) was rapturous – Michael Haneke had crafted yet another masterpiece, this time built around two people (the genuinely legendary Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose love refuses to die even as one of them suffers from failing health. And when I showed up to a screening of "Amour" a couple months after its Cannes triumph I was ready to have my heart broken – to be put through the emotional wringer in a way that only Haneke can muster. But instead, "Amour" proved to be one of those movies that was easier to admire than to actually, well, love. Technically, it's brilliant – restrained and beautiful at the same time. Performance-wise, too, it's virtually unparalleled; to see actors so late in their career dazzle so thoroughly isn't just a triumph of their profession, but something close to theatrical transcendence. It's just that there is still something aloof and removed about "Amour," like watching it through a thick block of ice. The one time the movie really comes to life is a surreal moment when the movie dips into a dream-world fantasy. That's when Haneke's prowess as a filmmaker comes to the forefront, and the disturbing implications of "Amour" take on added dimensions. The rest of the movie is as impressive a piece of filmmaking as anything released this year, but one that doesn't break your heart as much as it tests your patience. Powerful? Yes. But also kind of sleepy. And please, for godsakes, get that pigeon out of here.
Underrated: "This Must be The Place"
First impressions are everything in the film world. So if you’re releasing stills that immediately seem dubious, as “This Must Be The Place” did in showing off Sean Penn as an aged, androgynous retired rocker, the initial resistance is going to be met with hostility. So too goes the knee-jerk responses at film festivals, where comedies never go over well unless they’re from an established name — it usually helps if they’re arch and sarcastic. That’s not the case with Pablo Sorrentino’s boldly warm comedy where Penn plays a faded Robert Smith-type who has aged roughly into being a grandma. Soft-spoken to a fault, he’s unplugged himself from the outside world to an extreme extent since retiring two decades earlier. But he seeks a reconnection by learning that his distant father spent his final days seeking the Nazi who tormented him during the Holocaust. Still glammed up in cakey makeup and ruby red lipstick, he sets out on the most unlikely Nazi-hunting quest imaginable, toting along a single suitcase on wheels behind him as if it were the world’s most cumbersome boulder. Ostensibly a road movie of sorts, Penn’s wryly funny rocker remains soft-spoken as if to appear alien, greeted by locals and taken in as a gentle eccentric; one who is secretly thrilled, for the first time in his life, to be completely out of his element.
The material is there for “Argo” to be a savagely funny satire that resonates with the pulse of a political thriller. But as a director, Ben Affleck is a sure hand more than a clever one, and the true story of American citizens hidden in hostile Iranian territory remains stuck in uplifting pro-government pablum mode. It’s a procedural, one that would probably have more Oscar heat had it not been shown up by the similar, and more outwardly upsetting “Zero Dark Thirty,” which proved you can be a procedural with unabashed genre leanings and bleak moral shadings. Instead, “Argo” remains ambivalent about its Hollywood worship, casting the movie-within-a-movie’s table read as a garish collection of wannabes desperate for a piece of the “Star Wars” pie, bizarrely cross-cut with torture footage in the Middle East. Furthermore, a late-film climax that piles on every Screenwriting 101 contrivance allows suspense to be built from whether two big-time producers can cross a Hollywood backlot filming what looks like a bargain basement actioner. It’s not a problem that “Argo” openly mocks Hollywood, but rather that it’s toothless prodding, providing no insight into Tinseltown nor the relationship between the glamour of moviemaking and the actions of the government (insight ironically found in the behind-the-scenes story of how “Zero Dark Thirty” came to the screen). By the time Affleck’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus” abundance of group hugs set to swelling orchestral music overwhelms the film’s garish scenes of crowd-pleasing brown panic, “Argo” has positioned itself as one of the most insincere movies of the year.
Underrated: "Beware of Mr. Baker"
The fiery, wholly original documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker” was a shot in the arm at this year’s SXSW. In a rather uneven year for the film conference, where Sundance darlings dominated the field, the doc about wacko drumming genius Ginger Baker was a much needed energy boost within the lineup, and it was handsomely rewarded with top documentary honors. Featuring a plethora of intimate and honest star musician interviews, as well as compelling subjects in both Baker himself and filmmaker Jay Bulger (a former boxer turned writer who swindled his way onto Baker’s compound, only to befriend the curmudgeonly recluse, a few bumps along the way notwithstanding) it’s a creatively rendered piece that fuses film form and storytelling to emcompass the the tale of this outlaw’s rollicking ride through life. That it received only a fall run at the IFC in New York seems criminal, not just because it’s a film that would appeal to so many music fans, but because it’s an example of damn great filmmaking. No Oscar shortlist? Insane. The trouble is, it’s not an “issue” film in a year of so many good ones— the riveting “How to Survive a Plague,” Eugene Jarecki’s war on drugs film “The House I Live In,” military doc “The Invisible War”— and it seems that political content outweighs aging rockers this year. Still, the level of filmmaking of “Beware of Mr. Baker” is expert (especially from a first time filmmaker). See this film, if you can, it’s been vastly overlooked in a year of top notch docs.
Over: "The Dark Knight Rises"
I could go on at length about how the appallingly conservative Randian politics of “The Dark Knight Rises” render this film the worst of the year. That hardly anyone questioned the irresponsible handling of these issues by the Brothers Nolan worries me about the way in which crazed fan boys and certain bloggers/critics alike blindly consume films that play fast and loose with representational politics without enough salient commentary to justify their free pass (other notable 2012 culprits include "Skyfall," "Django Unchained," and "Killer Joe"). But aside from my questioning why I might want to watch a whiny rich white asshole beat up a deformed former political prisoner, "The Dark Knight Rises" was just one hot damn mess. There's something uniquely enraging and simultaneously boring about the way Nolan structures the plots of his Batman films; it feels like an out of control carousel that I'm ready to get off after 90 minutes, and then it just keeps going, scene after scene of exposition, circling and cirling making little to no sense at all. The plot holes in this thing were also completely laughable from the jump: the police trapped in the sewer for three months emerging clean and ready to stomp some anarchist heads being the foremost example (of many). Matthew Modine was laughable, Gary Oldman boring and useless, Joseph Gordon-Levitt forehead-slappingly corny (nice Brooklyn accent, Joey). Anne Hathaway was pretty much the only energizing thing about this two-and-a-half-hour slog, and she was cast aside after two mildly interesting introductory scenes. Superhero movies often struggle with the stakes; they are either way too high or way too low, and the Nolan Batman trilogy is one of the worst offenders. That Nolan relied on such cheap narrative tricks like the ol' school bus full of orphaned moppets just shows what a gimmicky hack he is. And that ending… he negates any semblance of drama and gravitas he was able to drum up and just shoots himself in the foot. Fanboys should have risen up in anger at this film, and not at the critics who called it like it is. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Underrated – “The Grey”
Joe Carnahan matures with survivalist tale “The Grey,” and delivers a film that is miles away stylistically from his prior pictures. The remaining members of an oil team post plane crash band together to outlast the unsparing wilderness and the pack of wolves tracking them. Among them is John Ottway (Liam Neeson), initially hired to protect the workers as they drilled in Alaska, and now taking up the mantle of impromptu leader, attempting to keep the peace even as animals and elements haunt the men mercilessly. Carnahan strives to marry the questions that arise from facing down death, a seemingly inevitable extinguishing of your flame, with an old-fashioned tale of survival. It’s a wonder that the philosophizing works as often as it does, theism weighed against a reality with no evidence of a higher power pulling strings to safety. Carnahan balances the thrills of a man vs. nature entry with emotional heft, especially as Ottway flashes back time and again to a few unforgettable moments with his wife. It’s his life raft and perhaps ours, as “The Grey” proves to be a memorable picture, a bracing portrayal of the will to live and the lengths we go to keep breathing.
Overrated – “Skyfall”
The latest and most successful Bond outing has had goodwill heaped upon it by both critics and audiences. It’s puzzling to this journalist, since the film he saw in a packed house one Sunday morning had only mere shades of the praise granted. It’s certainly a beautiful film, with clean, large-scale action sequences and the requisite moments of Bond swagger. But beyond the technical consideration and the necessary homages, “Skyfall” falls far short of a satisfying picture. The pacing is particularly poor, with the longest Bond film to date making its length thoroughly felt, especially as Bond returns to the MI6 fold and attempts to regain his physical and emotional footing. At worst, it feels like a reboot, with foundation being laid down for future installments. When Javier Bardem’s Silva enlivens the picture a bit, he soon propels the film into a direction that seems to crib story beats from Nolan’s trilogy. Silva is a compelling protagonist but the overbearing theatricality of the performance is distracting, as is his exceptionally poor strategy for assaulting Bond at his childhood home. It’s a serviceable Bond film, though it lacks the moving romantic connection that drove “Casino Royale” and carried on through to the significantly lesser “Quantum of Solace.” Overall, the film feels devoid of any real tension, settling for an overlong collection of set pieces strung together by characters that inspire little sympathy. Occasionally enjoyable, but clearly unworthy of the near-universal acclaim that suggests a feature successful in all respects.
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