So, if you're like us, you've had enough, enough, ENOUGH of the Academy Award pundits predicting the same prizes since September, studio shills vomiting "Dreamgirls" spittle all over the place, and seeing about one-hundred-and-seventeen different websites predicting, with self-satisfied, out-on-a-limb bravery, that an "edgy" indie like "Babel" might make it into the top five come Oscar time. In any case, many of the films that reap awards at the end of the year, thanks to literal half-wits like Tom O'Neill and David Poland talking them up for about 75 percent of the previous twelve months, often before they're even released, are irredeemably awful. And we're not trying to be contrarians. There were at least a dozen films, moments, characters, or performances in 2006 that made our flesh crawl, turned our faces beet red, or made us shudder in disapproval. So, with the official Reverse Shot top ten up and running, it's time to return to that other annual celebration: The eleven most deeply offensive things we saw at the movies this year.
At Reverse Shot, which is made up mostly of writers in their twenties and early thirties, Paul Greengrass's "United 93" only received one mention out of twenty-one staff writers who participated in our year-end poll; so we're a bit puzzled by the outsized acclaim from the critical community at large. Is it somehow generational? "United 93"'s appeals to realism felt outmoded and stale, and its steadfast refusal to be about actual people (any at all) in favor of the power of the collective, seemed to us needlessly impersonal. What the film does right (strictly technical) is so indistinguishable from the current trendy aesthetics of action filmmaking, and more specifically, TV shows like "24," with their direct-cinema cribbed shaky cams and zooms, that naturally the film was destined to be a critical success. This disagreement isn't just a question of differing ideology or taste. This is a question of telling propaganda from art.
"But it showed us what really happened! It's like we were really on the plane!" Well, no, it didn't, nor wasn't. Not even close. And why is that experience even valuable? Instead of asking a simple "Why?" "United 93" stood monolithic: "This Was." And instead of asking "What now?" Greengrass left us adrift. Furthermore, the oft-asked question of "Too soon?" was confused with "Is it time to move on?" This is a fine line, and a tough one for those so moved by its basic (and base) appeals to retribution. The film functions as an imaginary endpoint of our collective grief.
Had Frank Rich's column, which called out "United 93" for what it was (rank exploitation in summary), preceded the film's release, rather than hitting the New York Times a week after the film opened, maybe more critics would have been brave enough to buck the common wisdom that patriotism is a dish best served blind, and we wouldn't have to suffer through the supreme indignity of numerous Top Ten mentions and possible Academy Award nominations. Its year-end elevation is as unconscionable and gross as the film itself-isn't it obvious that both Greengrass's work and our current government administration operate on the same shell-game logic, where the obfuscation of global complexities through surface-depth concern with actualities create a Cliffs Notes master narrative of our times? After six years of this con, one that's been widely called out on all sides, if we critics aren't ready to tackle these kinds of assaults when leveled through the moving image, then who is? It's not surprising that Rich would get it so right: the Bush administration has been nothing but theater all along, and a film like "United 93" is little more than a natural outgrowth of this condition. If this was supposed to be a tribute to the fallen, then thanks, Paul. But no thanks. -MK & JR
Watching Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" - poised to win the hearts of theater queens and Oscar bloggers the world over - I was made to think of an article my friends circulated during gay pride a few years ago, which offered pointers to those fresh out of the closet. Rule one: "You are not a strong black woman." While we all chuckled, there's a disturbing truth in the humor, something vaguely suspect in the gay fetishism of black femininity, of which "Dreamgirls" is just the latest and most extravagant example (and not that it matters, but for the record, both the original Broadway show and the film were written and directed by white gay men). In "Dreamgirls," this fetishism reduces something vital and important in the history of American pop music to a camp spectacle. Troubling as all that may be, still, it would be forgettable, if not forgivable, were the film even modestly rousing. Instead, it churns through the decades, transforming the rise of Motown into a Broadway pageant, one endless, lousy showtune after another, without a hint of passion or a flash of inspiration. Whatever its appropriations or distortions, its pervasive dullness may be its most objectionable quality: most musicals soar on visceral pleasures, but "Dreamgirls," with the exception of one over-hyped moment, is unspeakably boring. -CW
The only thing keeping Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's "Babel" from being this year's "Crash" is that the filmmaking isn't as embarrassingly inept. Inarritu can at least stage a scene, allow a conflict to grow with burdensome intensity, and direct actors to gut-wrenching heights, even as we're rolling our eyes in immeasurable disbelief. Where Inarritu really shows his bluff (even more so than in the ridiculous Mexican nanny plotline) is in the Tokyo thread. Though it's been criticized for bearing only the most tangential relation to the rest of the film's interlocking tales of global woe, Chieko's story is problematic for far more significant reasons: How could anyone not call Inarritu out on his deathly combination of sexism and exoticism? What more simplistic, cynical, and vile way to exemplify the "heartache of miscommunication" (or something...the film's really not about communication at all) than to create as your lead a deaf-mute teenage girl who, in a desperate bid for connection, flashes her privates in cafeterias, puts her dentist's hand on her vagina, and, in her ultimate humiliation, strips naked in front of a much older police detective? Sorry, but this disgusting male construction (elevating schoolgirl-uniform fantasies to art-house pretension), complete with gratuitous beaver shots, reveals Inarritu and one-trick-pony screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga for the simple-minded provocateurs they really are. And if all that's not enough, when her father comes home, and finds her standing on the chilly, windy balcony, utterly nude, does he cover his daughter up with a blanket or coat? No, he just hugs her, and she stands naked, for one last titillation, as the camera pulls back, revealing the Tokyo skyline. Final director's words: 'For my children.' Gah, vomit! -MK
Directing 101, Final Project. Due January 1st. Extension requests must be accompanied by Sundance acceptance letter.
Guidelines: There is a blanket moratorium on movies professing to expose the rot beneath the suburban facade. Unless you're David Lynch, and you're probably not, this topic is far beyond your capabilities and your characters are in danger of becoming mere pawns in your moral Monopoly. As a cautionary example, may I point you to Todd Field's "Little Children," a movie hoping to conceal its arthritic narrative and screaming misanthropy beneath a scramble suit of widescreen artiness and stellar performances. Remember Week 1: An omniscient and ironic narrator is not an acceptable substitute for characters who speak for themselves. While nothing says "respectable" like a PBS-credentialed voiceover, do you really want to be that simplistic and obvious? Were you asleep during the Justin Lin seminar? Also, creating a smidgen of sympathy for a pedophile is not edgy; "Law & Order" does it at least once a season.
Extra credit: Create a warm, sexy, conflicted female character - like, for instance, Mr. Field's Sarah - and resist the impulse to punish her. -JC (Catsoulis)
"Little Miss Sunshine"
The so-indie-it-hurts "Little Miss Sunshine," hits the road in search of America only to find a country that sucks out loud. Let's run it down: here, being young sucks, being old sucks, dying sucks, health-care bureaucracy sucks, beauty pageants suck, being middle-class sucks, being homosexual sucks more than you could possibly imagine, dysfunctional families suck, of course our obsession with bodily aesthetics sucks because true beauty is more than skin deep. With the exception of its hateful depiction of Steve Carell's suicidal gay university professor - whose wrist bandages are emblems of his sexual self-loathing - there's nothing in "Sunshine"'s pasteboard characters and sitcom complexity that any reasonable human being could possibly disagree with. Which is superficially fine: but in its consensus-building, the film doesn't hazard anything even mildly novel, shamelessly name-checking Marcel Proust to gloss over a staggeringly facile thesis and dupe folks into believing that this comedy has a backbone of Substance. Audiences starved for profundity will glom onto anything with even a hint of art-house pretension; the intellectual arbitrage perpetrated by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is so canny let's just call them the directors of the year. -JC (Crawford)
Buoyed by the insistent mediocrity of Edward Zwick's direction (like James Mangold with a social conscience), "Blood Diamond" manages to commit a whole handful of cardinal sins: it finds another way to exploit the passion and beauty of actor Djimon Hounsou; it reduces a legitimate historical and still relevant political moment to a bombastic, sensationalist, and self-righteous action pic; and, worst, and most predictably of all, it once again purports to unveil African turmoil through the eyes of gorgeous white people. The pluses: Jennifer Connelly, as a cynical photojournalist who preaches about America's ignorance of Sierra Leone's horrific civil war, before being reduced to moony-eyed love interest, gets to talk about "big stuff" when she does the talk-show circuit, and Leonardo DiCaprio, looking attractively rumpled in wife-beaters and cargo pants, sexes it up as best he can. Leo's blond highlights are lovely, but Hounsou, reduced to spittling, naked cage-rattling, his privates politely blacked out by strategically placed shadows, is once again used and abused for his "otherness." Its heart may be in the right place, but that place certainly shouldn't be a Hollywood popcorn flick. -MK
"V for Vendetta"
Please no one think the midterm elections had anything to do with the success of the vilely vacuous "V for Vendetta." If you want truly subversive Hollywood agitprop, try "Fast Food Nation" or even "V"'s seemingly similar but radically different cousin "Children of Men," films that seek connections between politics and the world actual people inhabit (or might potentially inhabit). "V" instead offers a pastiche of revolutionary history and sloganeering perfectly in line with screenwriters the Wachowski Brothers' and protege director James McTeigue's cartoonish logic (Bush Administration : future totalitarian dystopia :: resistance to Bush Administration : an eloquent vigilante in a Guy Fawkes mask???) but unsuitable for incisive or relevant political critique. But it's based on a graphic novel, one argues. Exactly. Stop using source material easily pliable to inappropriate generalization and maybe we'll stop receiving these misinforming underdog fantasies that conflate mass awareness with lemming-like rebellion. Anyway, it would save us from yet another gratuitous "bullet-time" action sequence. -MJR
Now with five or so little "experimental" tchotchkes under his belt, Steven Soderbergh has made it abundantly clear that, the relative cheapness of his debut sensation aside, he should fully embrace his inner studio filmmaker wholeheartedly. Whereas a rousing, earthy Hollywood charmer like "Erin Brockovich" persuades with its tuned moral compass and smart use of its actress's star power, a wretched ill-conceived mess like "Bubble" goes the exact opposite route, purporting to elevate everyday Americans (nonactors) to the level of stardom, by putting them in their own turd-sized narrative. Yet it's like watching bugs squirm under glass: condescending, creepy, and wholly unedifying spiritually or aesthetically. As with his other 2006 trick, "The Good German," the photography (here hi-def video) is quite nice, giving a working-class industrial town an eerie glow. Unfortunately the stilted, inhumane murder mystery awkwardly grafted onto it reduces everyone onscreen to grotesques. -MK
With "The Fountain" Darren Aronofsky has fully emerged as nothing less than the closest cinema has come to approximating the Nineties middlebrow alt-rock bounty offered up by former radio mainstays Live. Consider: introductory film "Pi" and album "Mental Jewelry," searching earnestly, painfully for some kind of spiritual order to the universe, were both stripped down, ambitious, and rampantly copycat. Arrivals "Requiem for a Dream" and "Throwing Copper," portentous, pretentious, anthemic, overly praised statements about the horrors man inflicts upon himself - the similarly maudlin worldviews come closer together. Then, "The Fountain" and "Secret Samadhi" (note the matching Hugh Jackman/Ed Kowalcyzk shaved pates), and it's a full-on gonzo spiritual assault - we're off the rails on our way to Shambhala entirely. What next? I jest a bit, but in a year filled with utter disasters, no filmmaker may have gone off as laughably half-cocked. A handful of bitter partisans and genre aficionados found transcendence amidst the carcass of what was apparently once a terrific script, and they certainly made themselves heard. But then, I once owned "Throwing Copper," too, and after wearing it out for a few months, listened closely one day and realized: "Wow, this really isn't very good at all." Lightning crashes, indeed-hopefully all "The Fountain" lovers come across something truly mind-expanding in 2007, and abandon their dreams of a man's love floating endlessly through the ages in a giant snow globe. -JR
"Notes on a Scandal"
Richard Eyre's pulpy British secrets-and-lies-a-thon plays like primo trash for most of its running time - but just because it nearly calls itself out as garbage with every screechy, implausible twist doesn't mean that we should accept its elevation as Oscar-time awards-reaper sitting down. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are so bronzed in thespian credentials that no one seems to notice that this nauseating little spectacle is the year's most misogynistic, homophobic head-spinner. Sure, Dench's wizened, face-tight-as-a-fist schoolmarm crone and Blanchett's lip-tremblingly conflicted, sex-starved teacher are fun routines, but these actresses can do this stuff in their sleep. Instead of extolling the obvious, how about pointing out the insidious underlying themes: molesting fifteen-year-old boys is bad news, but only if you're caught and blackmailed by a nefarious, twisted old lesbian. The degrees of boneheaded moral relativism are staggering, the headache-inducing, cranked-to-eleven screenwriting (overflowing with cheap coincidences and pointless bellowing) is sloppy, and the outmoded sexual politics make Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" look downright progressive. Just because it must have been a kick for Dench and Blanchett to tear off the period garb and undo those corsets doesn't mean that they shouldn't be ashamed of themselves. -MK
"Ultraviolet," "Apocalytpo," "Let's Go to Prison," "The Illusionist," "Unaccompanied Minors," "Eragon," "Infamous," "Mission: Impossible III," "The Notorious Bettie Page," "Fearless," "Running with Scissors," "Hoot," "Stick It," and assorted other shit I saw to pass time.
A motley crew to be sure, but all these 2006 films share a certain commonality in that they will forever remain burned in my mind as movies I (a) purchased a ticket for so as to sneak into a more appetizing selection following or (b) used as an intermediary stepping stone for a multiple-film Saturday. The most pleasantly memorable of the bunch would probably have to be "Hoot" for its subconscious junior-"Brokeback" stylings (watch it, I'm serious), "Unaccompanied Minors" for its raft of cameos from performers featured in "The Office," "The State," and "The Daily Show," who thankfully distract from the uniformly awful child actors, and "Stick It," even though a poor man's "Bring It On," it features a terrific Jeff Bridges. I'm sure I'll always remember "Apocalypto" (for the record, not nearly artful enough to be worthy, not nearly artless enough to reach B-movie delight, so it's all havarti), the ultra-vapid "Ultraviolet," a nadir for the medium, and "Let's Go to Prison" which fails even more miserably at comedy than "Ultraviolet" does at science fiction. But wait, what about "Eragon"? In truth, there's probably some small glimmer of goodness in each of these films (I only keep going in the hopes of finding some unexpected small pleasures), but whatever it is has been far outweighed by ineptitude, illuminating what may be the hidden culprit behind sagging box office in recent years. There will always be movies good and bad, but the problem has not been so much that "good" movies aren't good enough; it's just that the "bad" ones have gotten much worse. Here's to better cinematic garbage in 2007! -JR
Capsules written by Reverse Shot staff writers Jeannette Catsoulis, James Crawford, Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, and Chris Wisniewski.