You have to be especially careful with the words “overrated” or “underrated.” Some people don’t like the terms, thinking that they’re condescending or snide, elevating your own opinions over those of the majority. And arguably they have a strong point, but the words do serve a purpose—how else is a writer meant to sum up their feelings when they’re swimming against the tide? And sometimes, that tide is among your own colleagues. See, we’re not a hive mind at The Playlist, though we might sometimes give that impression. Like any group of colleagues, we disagree from time to time. Scratch that, we disagree quite a lot, and it’s rare for a film to hit theaters without at least one member of staff bucking the consensus, when a consensus can even be reached.
Playlist HQ still bears the scars from the plate-throwing, wall-punching, blood-spilling arguments that resulted over films like “Stoker,” “The Place Beyond The Pines” and “The Hobbit,” and in the attempt to find a Christmas armistice of sorts, we have, as in past years, given staff members a chance to pick out the films on which they found themselves on the other side of received wisdom, and exorcise their demons here—the films they deem underrated and overrated, in other words. Read our picks below, please remember they are subjective and speak for the individual only and let us know what you thought were overlooked and oversung in the last year in the comments section (and if you’re throwing pies, please specify your direction).
Underrated: “Blue Caprice”
Taking on the Beltway Sniper, the man who terrorized the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area for nearly a month a decade ago, paralyzing anyone along Interstate 95 with fear, there is a sensationalist route a movie version of these events could take. But thankfully, director Alexandre Moors never goes there. Instead, he takes the script by R.F.I. Porto and weaves a nervy drama about the psychology that drove divorced, single father John (Isaiah Washington) to team up with a wayward youth named Lee (Tequan Richmond), forming with him a new sort of family unit, one that expresses its fidelity in only the most deadly of ways. Washington in particular is a revelation, an intimidating presence who finds dimension in an unlikeable character that, while not quite making him sympathetic, reveals a man who has internalized deep emotional pain and finds a twisted outlet with which to react to a life that has not gone according to plan. Meanwhile, Richmond finds the rights notes for a young kid who needs a male authority figure, and while he realizes their bond is dangerous and unhealthy, he’s ill-equipped to handle it, and not confident enough to be on his own. Together as the film’s center, they make a fascinating and fearsome pair in a movie that slow burns to the moment when the trigger is pulled on complete strangers, with the horrifying randomness of their actions allowed to register with a lingering hauntedness. “Blue Caprice” is a tight, economical and impressively accomplished film (particularly for a first feature) that finds depths even within its modest means, boosted with an evocative score by Arcade Fire member Sarah Neufeld and her husband (an accomplished saxophonist in his own right) Colin Stetson. Hitting Sundance and somewhat fading in the months after until its fall release, this is a picture that deserves a second glance and a bit more recognition for the work in front of and behind the camera.
Overrated: “Spring Breakers”
Here’s a shocking revelation: youth culture focused exclusively on sex, drugs, celebrity and partying can be pretty empty, soulless and even dangerous. While it’s easy to see why excitement built for Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”—hot young starlets prancing around in bikinis, waving guns and gyrating to dubstep sells itself—I’m positively baffled that the film has endured in any kind of conversation, particularly with the year winding down. While “Spring Breakers” was more audacious and daring than Sofia Coppola’s similarly themed “The Bling Ring,” it offered just as little substance. While there is a certain enjoyable lasciviousness to what is basically Korine’s 21st century take on a 1950s PSA about youth gone wild, this is the director at his most tame and mainstream (granted, a relative statement given the pornographic imagery the filmmaker suggests but doesn’t quite show in the film’s cleverer moments). As a peeling away of the facade of American culture, Korine has been here before in much better, more transgressive form: “Trash Humpers.” That outrageously wrong, flat-out hilarious movie took the notion of the suburbs as a haven of normality and turned it perversely upside down, never once pandering to an audience. “Spring Breakers” finds Korine in a more conciliatory mood, that while still offering just enough of his brand of surrealism to put an author’s mark on the work, covers it in a sheen of neon, sweat and skin to make it go down easy, but also forgettably.
Underrated: “In a World…”
“I think you’ll like this,” my gentleman said as he played the trailer for me for “In a World…” He’s far better than the Netflix algorithm; this movie about movies with a female director and a feminist message was admittedly right up my alley. Lake Bell’s debut feature is far better than its apparent pedigree. The actress’s own filmography isn’t exactly impressive, with credits like “What Happens in Vegas,” “Over Her Dead Body” and “No Strings Attached” peppering her resume. But despite those choices (maybe she’s learned what not to do), she’s written, directed, and starred in a remarkably funny and different film. In the self-obsessed business of Hollywood, films about films are as prevalent as baby-voiced blondes (often with as much variety). But “In a World…” takes a different approach, circling from the outside and giving an insider look at the little-seen world of voiceover artists. With that in mind, the movie manages to be about more than just Carol’s career as she tries to ascend the male-dominated ranks of voice actors. She’s a friend, a sister and the oblivious object of affection for an adorable oddball (Demetri Martin). For her first feature as both writer and director, Bell is incredibly assured, with the film boasting a witty script with fully realized characters. She also wins points for not making a film that revolves around romance and for rocking a pair of overalls without shame.
Overrated: “Room 237”
By that same token, I should love the movie-about-movies doc “Room 237.” If anyone’s work can be dissected ad nauseum, it’s that of notoriously detail-oriented Stanley Kubrick. “Room 237” dives deeply into the essential filmmaker’s 1980 film “The Shining,” featuring interviews with five overly analytical superfans. They share theories about the film’s real meanings, including the Holocaust, the genocide of native Americans and faking the moon landing. They go frame by frame, making giant leaps of logic that seem more suited to subway ranters than a college professor, an award-winning journalist, and a playwright. It’s ostensibly a film about being obsessed with movies, but it quickly goes from a cinephilic exploration to a movie reminiscent of an eye-rolling hour in class with a bunch of film students with no professor to direct the conversation. I should’ve been watching Rodney Ascher’s documentary at rapt attention, awed by exactly how far people go in their appreciation for film, but I just kept checking my watch and waiting for a dismissal.
Underrated: “The Invisible Woman“
I was struggling to get enthused about “The Invisible Woman” in the run up to seeing it a month or two back—I hadn’t been especially enthused by Ralph Fiennes‘ directorial debut, “Coriolanus,” found Abi Morgan‘s previous work a bit spotty, wasn’t particularly overjoyed to be facing another period literary biopic, and buzz had been muted at best when it premiered at Telluride and TIFF. That probably helped my reaction, but I like to think I’d have been knocked over by “The Invisible Woman” regardless, because it’s a beautifully made and acted film that I don’t think has had a fair shake yet. I’ve seen it dismissed it some quarters as another young-girl-falling-for-older-man tale, but I found the execution to be much more ambivalent and dark than that—it’s the story of how Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a mediocre actress with a pretty face, is essentially forced into becoming the mistress of Charles Dickens (Fiennes). She has a crush on him, certainly (who hasn’t gone starry-eyed when flattered by a genius), she might even love him at one point, but after she resisted him so long, it feels more like Stockholm Syndrome, and as soon as she relents, he uses her up and moves on. It’s borderline abusive stuff, and Fiennes doesn’t for a second hesitate to show Dickens as a hugely unsympathetic figure, even if you can understand the appeal at the same time. He gives one of his best performances in some time, but he’s overshadowed (appropriately for a film shining a light on ‘an invisible woman’) by the women: Kristin Scott Thomas‘ pragmatic, pained theatrical matriarch; warm, sweet performances from Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale as Nelly’s sisters; a scene-stealing, heartbreaking turn from Joanna Scanlan; and best of all, Felicity Jones as Ternan. It’s the fulfillment of the potential she’s been showing for so long, a performance that can go from the flighty, impressionable girl to the hardened, but thriving woman working as a schoolteacher years after the end of the affair. Like Morgan’s smart, complex script, and Fiennes’ confident direction, which feels closer to Wong Kar-wai than to Merchant-Ivory, it far exceeds expectations, and if you were thinking of skipping this one, I’d urge you to reconsider.
Overrated: “World War Z”
There were a fair few films that I found myself out of critical step with this year, some of which have been covered here by other writers (“Captain Phillips,” “Spring Breakers,” “Out of the Furnace“). The biggest gap between consensus and my view probably came with Alexander Payne‘s “Nebraska,” but I’d hesitate to call that Overrated—I simply stopped clicking with Payne’s work after “Election,” and I’m glad for those who can find something to love there. But I’m truly baffled that anyone could really champion “World War Z,” a tepid and dull blockbuster that got a soft pass from most critics, and raves from a scattered view. I’d hesitate to go as far as to call “World War Z” a bad movie, because it’s more like a pretty good video game. Brad Pitt‘s hero, more superheroic and invincible than any other blockbuster lead this year, “Man of Steel” and “The Wolverine” included, is as blank as the first-person protagonist of some survival shoot-em-up, without a single characteristic to him other than ‘loves his family.’ He moves from level to level, set-piece to set-piece with a series of clear objectives: Level 1: Philadelphia—GET TO THE CHOPPER. Level 2: South Korea—GET TO THE PLANE. Level 3: Jerusalem.—GET TO THE PLANE. AGAIN, etc., etc. And if you were playing as Bradvatar (I’m sure he had a character name, but I’m pretty sure even Pitt won’t remember it until he gets the script for the sequel in the post), you’d probably have a good time—look over there, those zombies are climbing a wall! Out the window, there’s a nuclear bomb! Initially, the visceral, ground-level perspective feels like a good idea, but the taped-together-with-gaffer-tape script never makes the most of the geopolitics and details of the novel, and we’re given so little reason to care about Bradvatar, or, really, anyone. As such, the film adds nothing here we haven’t seen many, many times before, except perhaps this large a collection of actors given nothing to do. This isn’t a film I hated—there’s occasionally an arresting image, and the final sequence is the best budget-saving bottled episode of “The Walking Dead” so far. But “hey, this wasn’t the train wreck we were expecting” isn’t a reason to give something the thumbs up either.
Underrated: “Pacific Rim”
I know what you’re thinking and yes, I am aware that “Pacific Rim” ’s central conceit is kind of ridiculous, the script is built on cliches and Charlie Hunnam is a bland lead with a questionable Fauxmerican accent. But I just don’t care, because Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters epic was easily the most fun I had at the movies all year, which is ironic because prior to its release, I had not been especially been looking forward to it. I even questioned del Toro’s status as a Geek God whose reputation (in my opinion) outweighed the quality of his output and went into “Pacific Rim” fairly skeptical. But somewhere around the 40-minute mark, with a giant smile plastered across my face, I had an epiphany that put everything into perspective: maybe del Toro just isn’t an “A” filmmaker and maybe he never will be? Unlike some of his contemporaries who sought to elevate genre material into something more respectable, with “Pacific Rim” del Toro made one of the biggest “B” films of all time that just happens to look like the most beautifully realized “A” movie you’ve ever seen. Like a modern-day Mario Bava (“Black Sunday,” “Danger: Diabolik”), sometimes you have to look past shoddy acting or a juvenile script—which is why Bava’s films aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath with classics like “Alien” or “Rosemary’s Baby”—but you’ll never be disappointed by the craft on display. Similarly del Toro’s passion for the material, silly as it may be, bleeds through into every joyous frame which is what also separates “Pacific Rim” from something like the “Transformers” series. (Michael Bay is passionate about explosions but couldn’t really give a shit about robots that turn into cars.) And while I’m not generally a fan of CGI or 3D, this film proved to be quite the exception: a beautifully stylized world that I just wanted to spend more time in which may explain why I ended up seeing it three times in theatres, more than any other film this year. So while I can’t really argue with anyone who couldn’t see past their issues with the film, if you didn’t shriek with delight when that fucking monster sprouted wings, I just don’t know what to tell you.
Overrated: “Blue Is The Warmest Color”
Look, I’m not a monster. I will admit that there is a lot to admire about “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the 3-hour Palme d’Or-winning sensation that made waves for its raw intimacy as well as for its extended, graphic sex scenes. I think the performances by co-leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are magnificent, the IFC Center’s decision to allow teens to see the film was a brilliant fuck you to the MPAA and admittedly for the first hour or so, I was completely under the film’s spell. In fact, I think everything leading up to the first consummation of Adèle and Emma’s relationship was emotional, intimate and pretty perfect. Unfortunately the problems begin with that oft-discussed 10-minute sex scene whose main problem is less about length and more to do with point of view, which switches jarringly from Adèle’s to the director’s. Up until that scene, everything in the film had been about experiencing first love from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl and all the excitement and weirdness that goes with that but when they finally get together, all the sexual tension that had been building deflates in an instant because they’re just straight fucking. This moment should be thrilling for Adèle, instead it feels like it was constructed for the audience’s (or the director’s) stimulation—like Tyler Durden slipped in a scene from a different film—and while excuses have been made for Adèle’s “voracious appetite,” I just don’t buy it. There was no thrill of discovery there and if the scene had done right by the characters, there is literally no way it would’ve elicited snickers from audiences (as was reportedly a common occurrence). Unfortunately that was only the beginning of the film’s problems as the remaining two hours nearly drain any goodwill built up by the first. Again, the problem is not so much with length as to how it chooses to spend that screen time. Rather than focusing on large dramatic developments like showing us say, SPOILERS the indiscretion that leads to an irreparable rift between the couple END SPOILERS, instead we’re shown endless scenes of Adèle munching down on more spaghetti (not a euphemism). We get it, she has a voracious appetite! Now can we please spend a little more time with these characters while things are actually happening to them? Apparently not. By the time the film ended I was frustrated that it had squandered such promise. Its actresses and audience deserve better.
Underrated: “Touchy Feely”
It’s bananas that “Touchy Feely,” the most recent feature from auteur Lynn Shelton feels totally slept on. With the success of her previous gem “Your Sister’s Sister,” which garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Rosemarie DeWitt, it’s crazy that “Touchy Feely,” which is larger in scope and feels like a step forward for Shelton, hasn’t received the same attention. Josh Pais (whom we mentioned briefly in our “For Your Consideration: Actors” piece) gives a precise yet revelatory performance as Paul, an uptight dentist who discovers he has a magical healing touch. At the same time, his sister Abby (DeWitt) a massage therapist, loses her ability to touch others, which sends her into a tailspin, emotionally and professionally. Scoot McNairy is perfect as her bewildered younger hipster boyfriend, who just wants to please her but can’t, and Ellen Page also does fine work as Paul’s daughter and dental assistant, who is learning to stand on her own. And never forget Allison Janney, the MVP of everything she touches, doing damn delightful work as Reiki master and guru-of-sorts Bronwyn. For all the funny and touching characters and moments, the film achieves transcendence during the interaction between Abby and ex-boyfriend Adrian (Ron Livingston, DeWitt’s real life husband, and boy, can you tell because their chemistry is like woah, off the charts). In an almost dreamlike, possibly fantasy sequence, Abby and Adrian confront their past together, their emotional scars, and Abby achieves the closure that she needs in order to move on from her crippling bodily anxiety. The whole end of the film is set to a gorgeous live performance by Tomo Nakayama who also plays one of Paul’s patients and if you aren’t just melted into a puddle on the floor by the end of it, well then, I’m sorry to say you have no soul. Shelton’s films take up the subject area of the everyday extraordinary, injecting a bit of magical realism into intimate stories of family and love, and this one is no different, though it feels more expansive, a treading of new ground, and she truly demonstrates her storytelling chops, as well as emotional intelligence, and lets her performers shine, each in their own way. It’s just fantastic, see it immediately.
Overrated: “The Spectacular Now”
SPOILERS THROUGHOUT: So, I recognize that “The Spectacular Now,” is a “good” movie—well-acted, well-directed, solid, quality work. But unfortunately, the story they choose to tell resides in overly well-trodden territory. All of the characters are stereotypes from teen movies that have been around since the dawn of time: charming asshole, pretty girl who doesn’t know she’s pretty, popular bitchy blonde girl, etc. And not much is done to change up their genre-established arcs, except for one notable twist (alcoholism!), which still manages to feel old hat, somehow. As soon as Miles Teller’s Sutter busts out the flask at work, my only thought was “oh, OBVIOUSLY.” My second thought was, “James Ponsoldt, you okay buddy?” because he’s now got three features under his belt, and all three of them are about alcoholics. I sort of felt the same way about “The Spectacular Now” as I did about “Smashed,” his previous film, which is that I felt too old for both of them. Had I seen ‘Now’ at 17, or “Smashed” at 23, they might have been extraordinarily moving. But at 30, nothing about these films seem fresh or original or revelatory. I know that this statement glosses over the real skill from all parties involved in the film (and my ability to assess cinema at 17 and 23), but if you’re skillfully telling a very trite and stereotypical story, well, it’s still trite and stereotypical. I kept wanting the film to escalate even more, just to have something different and unpredictable happen. One should not be hoping that the female love interest (Shailene Woodley, fine) dies or is paralyzed in a drunk driving accident just because it might make the proceedings that much more interesting and dark. The film seems like it might go there, and then it doesn’t, resting instead on an ending that’s cliché and safe (and crowd-pleasing to teenagers who probably aren’t even watching this movie). “The Spectacular Now” tries to pull off authentic real-world problems in a high school setting, but it just ends up feeling too clean and too pat. Unfortunately, a very special episode of “90210” contains more complex emotional and moral heft than “The Spectacular Now.”
Underrated: “The Lone Ranger”
One of the joys of being a film journalist is the blissful ignorance with which you can occasionally watch a movie. I saw “The Lone Ranger” (with Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the titular hero) a while before it came out, in a midtown movie theater with two other journalists (who happen to be a couple of my best buds) and we had a perfectly wonderful time with the movie. I was more outspoken in my appreciation for all of its borderline surrealist pleasures (its wonky tone, its sudden bursts of hyper-violence, the bizarre framing device), but we were in agreement that it was one of the more solid, handsomely produced summertime confections we’d witnessed that year. Flash forward a few weeks and the movie actually opens and critics take a tomahawk to it, scalping it alive. Which is a shame. In a few years, I’ll bet there will be a widespread reappraisal of “The Lone Ranger,” and the same critics who trashed it initially will bemoan the lack of outspoken acclaim for the movie the first time around. The movie has faults, for sure; it’s way too long and too crammed with stuff (ideas, themes, characters) that clog up what could have been a more streamlined and pleasurable narrative. But the movie also has personality, something that was sorely lacking in big studio tent poles this year. Gore Verbinski, the mad genius behind the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and the Oscar-winning “Rango,” fearlessly shifts between tones and genres, offering up a dab of horror movie here, a little bit of historical drama there, all encased in what is literally the biggest western ever made. It leads, of course, to the much-ballyhooed train chase, a mindbogglingly complicated action set piece that remains one of the most peerlessly cinematic sequences all year. When we talked to one of the film’s costars, Helena Bonham Carter about it a couple of months ago, she compared the film’s reaction to one of her other cult classics that got an initial critical drubbing, “Fight Club.” While it will one day undoubtedly reach that status, it’s a shame more people didn’t get to see it where it was meant to be seen—on the biggest screen you could find.
Overrated: “12 Years a Slave”
On a technical level, “12 Years a Slave” is unimpeachable—it’s one of the most rigorously gorgeous, historically meticulous recreations of a specific era that any of us are ever likely to see. (Not that we want to see this kind of thing again, ever.) And yes, the journey of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejofor), who goes from free man to wrongly imprisoned slave, is a harrowing experience for sure. But, ultimately, the movie is more formally impressive than it is emotionally involving. And that’s a big problem. Slavery is one of the worst atrocities of humankind and yet director Steve McQueen, with his languid tracking shots and artfully composed brutality, approaches everything with the calculated detachment of a sociologist. In all of his films, McQueen seems interested in humanity, but at a distance, encased in a series of beautiful tableaux. And the filmmaker found his perfect entry point therefore in the character of Northup, since he too is continually kept at arm’s length from actually engaging with the senselessness around him. When the movie begins, there is a shot of a paddleboat, with a particular emphasis spent on the paddles as they slam into the water (accompanied by a menacingly grinding Hans Zimmer cue). “Oh,” I thought. “This is great. It’s like McQueen is focusing on this amazing machine because America is a machine and slavery is a machine.” But then that didn’t happen at all. There are some thematic concerns that are brought up and dabbled in, stuff about freedom and how we define our own experiences, but nothing all that grand or profound; for the most part it’s almost shockingly straightforward. “12 Years a Slave” has had praise heaped upon on it for no apparent reason, other than its unflinching roughness, and even as a likely Best Picture winner it seems a little safe (although its saccharine ending, seemingly airlifted from another movie altogether, should warm voters’ hearts). At least “Django Unchained” had the guts to turn slavery into an abstract, blood-splattered comic book. Here, it’s like someone reading to you from a stuffy history book. Of all the things I expected a Steve McQueen movie about slavery to be, dry was never one of them.
Underrated: “Gangster Squad”
When Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) announced his latest film was a 1940s gangster movie starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone, it was as if the Hollywood heavens opened up and made a movie just for me. According to my friends, that explains why no one else likes it. Really, Fleischer did his homework with “Gangster Squad,” and created a truly legitimate 1940s B-movie. Everything about the movie is true to the time period of the movies referenced; it isn’t a movie about the 1940s or set in that period, it wants to be a movie released during that time period. If you went to the movies during that era, you’d see something similar; more “G-Men” than “White Heat.” As a classic film lover, I applauded Fleischer’s attention to detail. He truly created and attempted to immerse audiences in every facet of Los Angeles during the period, right down to filming on location in places like Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He could have stuck to set design and costume—base elements necessary for creating a period drama—but Fleischer went further. Yes, the dialogue is hokey because the actors aren’t versed in how to make words like “tomato” sound as fluid as in movies past, but you have to applaud them for trying. Yes, other elements like the bare-knuckle brawl finale, and a character’s wife giving birth at home whilst being shot at have an air of camp and ridiculousness exemplified in the more ham-fisted movies of the era it seeks to represent, and the “messages” were less than subtle: a character dies then we cut to a scene of a hamburger being grilled. But the real issue appears to lie in audiences’ belief, at the time, that this would be another “L.A. Confidential” or “The Untouchables,” which it isn’t, or nor does it feel as such. It isn’t a neo-noir, nor is the intention to use a modern lens to look back at noir tropes. It seeks to reinvigorate and recreate the aura of a 1940s movie in tone, characters, and narrative. And then the last-minute reshoots in light of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting cursed the movie and prevented it from getting a fair shake; it’s far from perfect, but its reverence and adherence to classic film ideals warms the cockles of my heart and makes it worthy of a second look.
Overrated: “Captain Phillips”
The final ten minutes of “Captain Phillips,” particularly the eponymous character’s breakdown at the end showcases an exemplary performance for which Tom Hanks should be applauded. However, the rest of the movie is too basic and uninspiring by comparison. I remember when Phillips’ boat, the Maersk Alabama was hijacked back in 2009, so where’s the desire to see a recreation of events four years later? I could just as easily go back and watch the original story on YouTube. Yes, director Paul Greengrass is well known for rapidly capitalizing on world events; his own “United 93” came out five years after the events of 9/11. On top of that, director Kathryn Bigelow was inserting history as it happened in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” so I understand the need to produce recreations; however, is this an event which necessitated a movie? The incident happened and people moved on; it never attained the historical significance of Greengrass’ prior work. Greengrass attempts to show balance in his movie, especially humanizing the Somali pirates, but it wears its “America!” heart on its sleeve. It doesn’t help that the movie has fallen under attack for authenticity issues, which I’ve heard about since the events happened in 2009. I don’t begrudge either Hanks or Barkhad Abdi’s performances, because they’re phenomenal, but the movie is a victim of its own hype. It’s well-performed, but the impact of the events is negligible and I don’t feel enough time has passed to make me say “Yeah, remember four years ago?”
Underrated: “The Last of Robin Hood”
Full disclosure, I am a big Errol Flynn fan (carry around a swatch of his clothing for good luck; may or may not own a pair of pants he wore in “The Prince and the Pauper,” etc.). So when I walked in to see “The Last of Robin Hood” this past September, I was ready to pounce at anything inaccurate or inauthentic or generally offensive to his memory. Based on Flynn’s last affair with teenage wannabe starlet Beverly Aadland, the film was overshadowed and written off out of the gate when it premiered at TIFF, but that overlooks one of the best performances of 2013—Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn, a role every critic noted he was clearly born to play. Even before Kline’s face appears onscreen (the first shot being of his hands and torso accepting an award), I was taken aback by the voice, a remarkable facsimile of the star’s. And it wasn’t the young, dashing, bounding-for-life Flynn, but the aged-beyond-his-47-years, world-weary Flynn you can see on his “What’s My Line?” appearance, which by the end of the film turns into the even more aged and bloated, bordering on decrepit, Flynn of his last interviews. Then, as the camera revealed Kline regaling the women’s auxiliary league with stories of “Cirrhosis by the Sea” (the Hollywood playboy bungalow he shared with David Niven) and his dear old friend John Barrymore, the waterworks began. I was sold—hook, line and sinker. Kline brought Flynn back to life and for that, I will always be indebted to him and directors/screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceanera,” “Fluffer”). Maybe I went in with too subjective and appreciative an eye, but this film deserves to be seen beyond film festival and classic film fan crowds. Although there are many more redeeming qualities to the film, the most pressing is Kline’s jaw-dropping, heart-melting performance that neither mimics nor impersonates but brings my hero back to life for a brief, all-too-fleeting 92 minutes.
Overrated: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
Knowing full well that this hasn’t been a total critical darling, certainly round these parts (here’s our review), I still believe Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is, given its generally warm reception, deserving of some balancing out. After its premiere at NYFF, whispers began around Oscar nominations, but I thoroughly hated it, spending two hours hoping for a punchline that never came, with each superficial reflection feeling like an insult to the intellect of not only the average filmgoer but also the general American public. First among its sins: an onslaught of promotional tie-ins and product placement that goes from obnoxious to downright offensive. You’ve probably seen the eHarmony tie-ins during a few of the film’s TV promo spots, but there’s also the deeply crude use of Papa John’s. SPOILER, Walter Mitty (Stiller) loses his father as a teenager and has to give up his dream of skateboarding to work at a Papa Johns. With the blunt knife of doltish symbolism already stabbed in, they decide to twist it a bit more and sprinkle some salt on the proceeding wound with his mother (played by an underused Shirley MacLaine, actually come to think of it, all of the women involved—Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Hahn—were woefully underutilized) commenting on that connection and how hard it must have been for him working somewhere with the name Papa in it after losing his father. Presumably meant to be some profound, heart-tugging moment, it was my last straw. It’s simply outright manipulative to tie the loss of both father and childhood to a shameless, clumsy plug for a pizza company. I may be too sensitive, but for a film trying so hard to tug at the heartstrings and draw on the notion of making your dreams come true if you will it hard enough (cue Arcade Fire and some “exotic,” but samey locations), the film doesn’t think too hard about the actual hearts and minds of its audience. It’s an insult not only to the original James Thurber-penned short story and the Danny Kaye-starring 1947 escapist delight of a film, but to daydreamers everywhere, especially to those who actually put some serious thought into their daydreams.
Underrated: “The To Do List”
When it comes to girl coming-of-age comedies “The To Do List” is no “Whip It” or “Easy A”; Aubrey Plaza may be a thinking man’s pin-up but she doesn’t quite have the left-of-centre charm of Ellen Page or Emma Stone. However that doesn’t make her any less perfect (in my eyes at least) playing the competitive, goal-driven, Hillary Clinton-admiring over-achiever on a mission to de-virginize herself—usually viewed as a male concern, societally and cinematically. Reviewers have complained that film is confusing because it’s unclear whether it is a criticism of enforced promiscuity or a blast of the feminist horn for sexual empowerment, which is an unfortunate black-and-white lens through which to the view the story, as is so often the case with a female-led cast with a female writer and director. Critics want to know “What’s your agenda lady?” To be honest I like a gross-out comedy as much as the rest, but I enjoyed the character of Brandy more, who Plaza deadpan-delivers perfectly. She’s a girl who is less phased by “the virgin-whore dichotomy” than by getting what she wants (or at least thinks she wants) and maybe also learning along the way that you can be too goal-oriented. “The To Do List” is yet another female-led film (in our post-”Bridesmaids” era) that feels realer and more relatable. Sidenote: all the supporting cast also bring the lulz, so more of Alia Shawkat, Andy Samberg and Donald Glover et al. in 2014, please!
Overrated: “Only God Forgives“
I wasn’t sure if “Only God Forgives” actually was overrated (boo-ed at Cannes, savaged by critics, ignored by U.S. audiences) until I saw the Foreign Box Office for the film sat at just under $10 million, and realised just because everyone I know hates “Only God Forgives” doesn’t mean everybody else does (obviously). I mean I don’t know anyone that voted for crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, but he still got elected, didn’t he? Prior to watching “Only God Forgives”, I thought I was a fan of the Ryan Gosling x Nicolas Winding Refn combo—I mean I liked “Drive “at the time—but on reflection I think I just loved the opening scene and the soundtrack. “Only God Forgives” doesn’t have the soundtrack or a dynamite opening, all it has are pretty lights (courtesy of Bangkok) and Gosling’s face staring blankly. And it turns out when he doesn’t have a really cool jacket on, his face is a pretty boring one, and won’t carry a movie, even if it is only 90 minutes. “Only God Forgives” crawls along and for a film with almost no dialogue, the script that exists is incredibly awkward and stilted. Winding Refn even makes veteran Kristin Scott Thomas look like a hack, and all his efforts at shock e.g. making her say “cum-dumpster” come off as forced in context, which is a shame because I’ll admit “cum-dumpster” is something I’ve found myself saying more than I expected after the screening. So there’s that.
In an unpopular move, I’m electing to cover an “Underrated” pick and a “Disappointing” rather than “Overrated” pick. Reasons below.
Underrated: “The Past”
Follow-ups to great pieces of art are difficult to reconcile for audiences and critics alike. And while Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is far from his second film, since the beloved and Academy Award-winning “A Separation” it was the first of his films to really pop internationally, “The Past” gets saddled with the sophomore album-slump, thematically and emotionally touching upon similar issues (“A Separation” is about a marriage coming to an end, “The Past” is about a divorce about to be finalized), and yes, “The Past” is not quite the A+ shot of cinema that its predecessor is. And yes, there’s a bit of an overly-involved mystery in the third act that’s arguably a bit overcooked, but Farhadi’s movie has tons of value. It’s a moving, memorable and powerful film about family, secrets and lies and perspective. It also features some terrific performances from its cast—not only the three leads, Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, but its lead children Pauline Burlet and Elyes Aguis who have to depict the trauma of being at the center of this marital maelstrom. Never shrill, “The Past” is emotionally messy, but don’t look at that as a knock. It’s a plus given the extreme situation of a wife and her new lover trying to briefly live together with an ex-husband. Part of “The Past” being overlooked is a function of following the aforementioned “A Separation,” but also having to compete for attention at the crowded Cannes Film Festival. Yes, Bejo took the best acting prize, but more noise was made about the polarizing “Only God Forgives” due to its divisive nature. This happens at every festival and to be fair, “The Past” is only hitting theaters this month. But the conversation for it has cooled off since Cannes and I believe the picture deserves more love, and a second look.
Disappointing: “Out of the Furnace”
Anything that’s “overrated” or “underrated” is so subjective because the terms mean so many different things to so many people (just see this feature). And yes, “disappointing” generally falls under this same rule. But to me, Scott Cooper‘s “Out of the Furnace” isn’t disappointing because of expectations (a crime drama from a sharp director with a stellar cast) but because the characters, themes and narrative themselves hold so much promise that’s never fulfilled. Modeled in the vein of “The Deerhunter” or even “The Godfather,” via its brooding meditation on brotherhood, moral absolution and spiritual journey into darkness, Cooper understands the lost art of subtext which earns him innumerable points these days. And there are so many impressive emotional choices in the movie, so many moments left unsaid (and understood) rather than spoiled with words, because Cooper understands the power of expression and the moving well of unspoken body language; it takes a perceptive director to not only write this kind of material, but to pull it off as well. And for the entirety of the movie he pulls it off with terrific internalized performances by Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and especially Christian Bale. But what the movie can’t do is coalesce these themes and reconcile them with a third act that instead becomes a rather generic revenge movie. It’s not even that the movie can’t stick the landing; its problems lie deeper. The movie tries to say so much about things like socio-economic class, poverty, salt-of-the-earth struggle, but does very little with those themes. Through Casey Affleck’s character, the movie paints a rather bleak portrait of a post-traumatic stress-afflicted Iraq war veteran with few options, but other than presenting his issues, the movie says very little about these issues. And that’s kind of “Out of the Furnace” to a tee, a movie with a lot of thematic texture to it, but one that rarely says anything meaningful or moving about it. Which in many ways makes the ultimate outcome of this otherwise auspicious movie a real shame, and certainly a disappointment.
Please keep in mind once again, that these are individual choices, so before you mash your keyboard in fury (or agreement), remember who to point your feedback toward.