Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Movies That Were NOT The Best of 2015

Over the past few days, I've been discussing some of the best movies of 2015 as I counted down my picks for the 30 best films of the year, and handed out my own awards recognizing the best of the year. But, among the movies I mentioned, there were lots of titles that some might feel were noticeably absent. These movies aren't my picks for the worst films of the year by any means (well, some are) but these are movies that I see on a lot of top ten lists, or which have received a hefty amount of critical acclaim, which I very distinctly chose not to include in my discussion.

That's right, it's time for me to complain about movies that everybody else loves! Everyone loves when I do that, right?! RIGHT?!These films range from the "it was good but not great" to the "it was disappointing" to "oh man it sucked." To be clear, these aren't the worst films of the year, but they're the ones that I feel have received acclaim far more than is warranted. Most of these aren't as bad as, say, Jupiter Ascending, but everyone acknowledges that that movie was a mess (albeit a truly spectacular one). So, let's dive in and see what I think were some of the more overrated offerings of the year.

The Revenant

Let's start with a big one: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant. This was easily one of the movies this year I was most excited for. I'm a big fan of all of Inarritu's films, especially last year's Oscar-winning Birdman. Plus, the early footage looked promising, and the all-star cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio, made it look like there was no way this movie could be bad. And then I saw it and was decidedly underwhelmed.

I will say it's an impressive film--one that I appreciate more than I enjoy. The Revenant overwhelmingly succeeds as a piece of technical filmmaking, and I would be totally fine with Inarritu receiving a Best Director nomination for his work. Plus, it does have some moments. The already notorious scene where Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is attacked by a bear is brilliantly done. But overall, the movie was incredibly unsatisfying to me. What I've always loved about Inarritu is his ability to tell a story through focus on character. His films rarely have a singular, identifiable plot, and yet remain focused and cohesive towards a final end goal. The Revenant felt aimless. There were many beautiful scenes depicting the brutality of nature, but they did nothing to actually advance the film. Even DiCaprio's performance fell into this trap--while he is certainly committed, the role is not really written to show off his acting chops. When his character is cold, he shivers. When his character is in pain, he winces. There's not really much interpretation going on here. In fact, I felt the entirety of the talented cast was rather wasted, with the exception of Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the only actor who had a chance to truly form a character. It's no coincidence that the best scene in the film involves Hardy. In the scene, Fitzgerald wants to murder the injured Glass, as he feels that keeping him alive will endanger their whole group. He tells Glass that if he wants to be put out of his misery, all he has to do is blink in agreement to show he's okay with this. When Glass doesn't blink, Fitzgerald continues to say this, until it becomes a perverse staring contest where Glass' life is on the line. It's a thrilling scene, but a sad reminder of the level of tension this lackluster film might have achieved if Inarritu had simply had a better editor.

45 Years

While not a huge commercial success, 45 Years has been one of the biggest critical darlings of the year, with heaps of praise being showered on stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. I thought the movie was fine--both Rampling and Courtenay made my list of the best performances of the year--but I couldn't figure out why people were SO excited about this movie. Rampling and Courtenay play Kate and Geoff Mercer, who are about to celebrate their 45 anniversary with a large party. However, just a few days before their big celebration, Geoff finds out that the body a former lover of his (from before he met Kate) who had gone missing had just been found. It's a fascinating premise--a love triangle where one side of the triangle is deceased--and has some nice moments, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying. The film is far more focused on Kate--it's her story--but she's never allowed to change throughout the course of the movie. Rampling is a wonderful presence to watch but, as written, Kate is always at the same level of calm. And while at first, her suspicion and edge hiding underneath her calmer exterior is interesting, it becomes repetitive after a while. Kate never breaks, she never gets a release. That anger is never allowed to burst through, and her story never feels resolved. Many have praised the film's ambiguous ending, but I hated it. I agree it was ambiguous, but I disagree that it was an ending. This movie doesn't end, it simply stops. And unfortunately, this lack of an ending undermines the entire film--no moments are strong enough to justify having sat through it. I wanted to like 45 Years, but it really felt a bit pointless to me. 45 Years is nothingness disguising itself as subtlety.

Inside Out

Okay, before I go any further, I should say: I LIKED THIS MOVIE PLEASE DON'T HATE ME! Really, I did like Inside Out. After I saw it, I told people how much I liked it and encouraged others to see it. I think it has a phenomenal message, and I think it's amazing how the film is being used by child psychologists to help their patients express their feelings. It's a good movie...but I do think it has some problems and is one of Pixar's weaker efforts (which isn't anything to be ashamed of considering some of the films Pixar has produced).

Pixar's best films are truly masterpieces--I wanted Up to pull an upset and win Best Picture, and felt Toy Story 3 absolutely merited its spot as a Best Picture nominee Plus I think that Wall-E should have been a Best Picture nominee, and probably would have been had there been ten nominees instead of five that year. So, I'm not biased against it because it's a kids movie, or because it's animated. But when people say Inside Out should be a Best Picture nominee, I'm left scratching my head. Many called it a return to form for Pixar, citing how original the premise is. And, yes, the idea is great. But original ideas aren't what makes Pixar movies great. Sure, Pixar films are really creative, but the reason I think their best films are masterpieces is because of the great storytelling on display. And this is where I think Inside Out disappoints in a major way.

For one thing, as creative as the idea is, it kind of fell apart the second I stopped to think about it (which, unfortunately, I did during the movie). For the small handful who don't know the movie's premise, the film takes place inside the mind of a twelve-year-old girl named Riley, and specifically focuses on the five emotions (Anger, Disgust, Fear, and especially Joy and Sadness) residing in her brain who are responsible for controlling how she feels. Whenever anything happens, these emotions take over and press buttons and pull levers, and we see the reaction reflected in Riley. And yet Joy, over the course of the film, experiences sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. So does Sadness. And it really bothers me because, given the premise of the movie, how is this possible? Are there also little people in the heads of the emotions who are in our own heads? And would those emotions that are in the heads of the emotions that are in our heads also have emotions in their heads? I know that for the film to work at all, these emotions have to have depth to them, which is hard to do if they're stuck on one emotion all the time, but given how complex and intricate the Pixar worlds usually are, this one struck me as distractingly implausible. And I didn't think all of the characters were well-served by the script. I actually found the character of Joy, ostensibly the protagonist, to be pretty unlikable--she was selfish and mean and arrogant and petty. And while this is certainly an interesting interpretation, it didn't really work for me if we're meant to accept this character as a true embodiment of happiness. Plus, I felt that the character of Riley was lacking. This character is important: she's not only a major character, but she's the setting of the movie, and all the stakes of the film rest in our emotional investment to her. But, while I didn't dislike Riley or anything, I also found her a bit bland and didn't find myself becoming invested in her story. I actually  think that the filmmakers painted themselves into a bit of a corner here. In order to show how the emotions were affecting Riley, she's only ever allowed to experience five emotions over the course of the film, and only ever one at a time. That's not how real people operate. Riley's never allowed to show a mix of happiness and sadness, or of sadness and anger. Instead, she'll be distinctly happy, and then have to be distinctly angry or distinctly sad one second later with no transition. And this prevents her from being fully realized to me. Someone recently made an edit of all of the scenes of just Riley. A lot of people seem to love it, but for me it just highlights that Riley seems inconsistent, and her story isn't that well-constructed.

Also, I just felt a lot of the rules of the world weren't explained. While some touches were great, I didn't get why some of her Islands of Personality were collapsing, or what would happen if they all vanished--wouldn't Riley have been braindead then?

The most effective part of the story for me was Bing-Bong. This was a character who showcased what Pixar usually does so brilliantly. He was a creative character, yes, but he had genuine stakes and emotion. And, yes, I did tear up during (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT I'M ASSUMING EVERYONE HAS ALREADY SEEN THIS MOVIE BUT STILL SPOILER ALERT) his tragic sacrifice (btw, even though he's an imaginary character, does Bing-Bong also have little people in his brain controlling his emotions? That must be the worst job in the world, to be the emotions inside the head of an imaginary friend). But you know where I didn't feel emotional? When Riley returned home and cried with her relieved parents. The storytelling that Pixar applied to a supporting character--one who actually isn't all that crucial to the plot when you think about it--was not reflected in the main story. So, I enjoyed Inside Out, and I thought it had some really great points. But is it an incredible movie? No. It's one of Pixar's weaker efforts for me, and the near universal praise for it despite these flaws seems highly overblown to me given the storytelling. I also know it's unlikely, but I'm hoping that this film miraculously loses the Best Animated Feature Oscar to Anomalisa. Seriously, if you look at these two films side by side, I think it should be obvious which is the better effort.


 I actually already released a review of this, albeit a joke one consisting of pretty much just the words "pretty" and "bland" over and over again. Because that's what this movie was--it was pretty and bland. It was perfectly fine, but completely forgettable, lightweight, and unnecessary. So imagine my surprise when I find out that a lot of people not only liked this movie, but LOVED this movie. And I'm rather at a loss as to why. Look, I'm not saying that this story is off limits and can never be told again, but this movie doesn't attempt to put any perspective on any aspect of the story. With the amount of money that went into making it, there really should be more offered to the audience than pretty costumes.

Son of Saul

Son of Saul has been considered the frontrunner to win Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars ever since its debut at Cannes. The directorial debut of Laszlo Nemes, Son of Saul tells the story of Saul (Geza Rohrig), a Sonderkommando member who, while disposing of bodies from the gas chambers, discovers the body of a young boy who he believes to be his son. In secret, he tries to arrange for a proper Jewish burial for the young boy. Nemes keeps the camera focused on Saul's face almost the entirety of the movie, and brilliantly sets the horrifying atmosphere using primarily offscreen sounds and Saul's facial expressions. What is actually shown on screen is not as bad as the general sense of madness and horror that Nemes is able to convey. All of this is impressive, and like with The Revenant, there's a lot that I can appreciate about this film and I feel the individual achievements of both Nemes and Rohrig are strong.

But, also like The Revenant, this film was in desperate need of an editor. It's not boring by any means, but there's a lot of time that feels like padding. If this had been a short film--maybe a fifteen minute movie with the same filmmaking skill--it could have been brilliant. It's such a simple story, no more time is needed than that. But instead, we have a feature length that is about an hour too long (although at least it's less than half of The Revenant's runtime). To fill that time, Son of Saul decides to show us how brutal life in the camps was. But as I watched Son of Saul, I questioned the justification for such a demonstration of brutality. We don't exactly learn anything new--nothing presented made me rethink what life in the camps must have been like--nor does this movie make you question anything. The movie is disturbing without being profound. For such a powerful story and such an upsetting setting, nothing from Son of Saul particularly stayed with me. The violent nature of it didn't feel earned. In some ways it felt like no more than artsy torture porn, hiding behind its subject matter to feign relevance.

That being said, I know that many others found far more profundity in this movie than I did, and if this movie did make you reflect on this period of time or resonated with you emotionally, I sincerely hope my comments on this potentially volatile film don't offend. And I must say, I eagerly await first time director Nemes' next film--Son of Saul was smartly made even if I felt that it missed the mark in a big way.

Labyrinth of Lies

And now another holocaust movie. Labyrinth of Lies is Germany's official selection for the Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars (sadly my favorite film of the year, the German movie Phoenix which is also about the holocaust, was deemed ineligible for contention), and many think it is likely to get a nomination. It tells an important story, but does so in what I feel is a misguided way.

Labyrinth of Lies' hero is Johan Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a young, ambitious, and law-abiding German lawyer in post-war Germany. With the war over for more than a decade, the crimes of the concentration camps are not discussed, and mostly unknown, with many Nazi guards now living normal lives. After encouragement from a radical journalist (Andre Szymanski), Radmann decides to look into bringing charges against the guards at Auschwitz, which the more experienced attorneys at his firm think is ludicrous. But Radmann finds support from the head of his law firm, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), who was in the camps himself and who encourages him to pursue the case and warns him of how deeply it runs. Radmann discovers that what happened at Auschwitz was far more horrifying than anyone had realized, and eventually builds enough of a case to try the Auschwitz guards for murder. In doing so, the atrocities of the Nazis became a matter of public record, and assured that these crimes would not be forgotten, and hopefully never repeated.

As a film, it's fine. It has a nice style to it, but everything feels very generic and by-the-book. It also is not a subtle movie--its message is apparent because it's stated directly to the audience multiple times, and no matter how good that message is, it still feels preachy and heavy-handed when delivered from such a clumsy soapbox. But all of that is fine--they're flaws, but not enough to merit its inclusion in this list. Here's the worst part of Labyrinth of Lies: Radmann isn't real. This is a fictional character. And yet, his actions are all real. This trial happened, and it is one of the most important court cases in world history. But do you know who the prosecuting attorney was? Do you know which lawyer put the case together and did everything significant that Radmann does in the film? Fritz Bauer, who in the movie is demoted to being Radmann's boss. I find this decision, frankly, disgusting. Bauer is a hero--a Jewish concentration camp survivor, who against all odds, worked tirelessly to face his captors and make sure that justice was served. And even though this is a film that tells his story, even though this is a film that has him as a character, and even though this is a film that constantly speaks to the importance of his accomplishments, he is shoved to the side. And who do they put in his place? Radmann.

Look at this guy. He is the Aryan ideal. Radmann isn't Jewish, and is so absolutely the wrong face to put on such an important part of history. This year's Stonewall has rightfully been maligned for how it erased important historical figures in an offensive play to appeal to a broader audience. I see absolutely no difference between that film and how Labyrinth of Lies has replaced Bauer with Radmann. In fact, the only difference I can think of is that Stonewall was a critical flop, and deservedly so, but Labyrinth of Lies is seen as a likely Oscar nominee. And that's horrifying to me.


Okay, so this movie isn't exactly appearing on lots of top ten lists, but it was reasonably critically acclaimed. And more importantly, I hated it so much that I couldn't not include it on this list. I was so excited when this movie was announced. It's been years since we had a great Shakespeare movie (no, Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing was not great. It was fine) and I really thought this might be the one to do it. Macbeth is one of the best plays from one of the best writers of all time, and is especially ripe with potential for cinematic treatment. Plus, with a cast that includes overwhelmingly talented people like Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and David Thewlis, there was no way this could be bad.

And then I saw the movie, and it was one of the most unpleasant movies I've ever had to sit through.

Macbeth fails as a Shakespearean adaptation, but more than that, it fails as a movie in general. What becomes apparent from the beginning is that director Justin Kurzel has absolutely no interest in Shakespeare's text. He's a more visual director, which is fine, but not when you're dealing with a Shakespearean script, where the language is kind of the point. He cares so little about the text that he's instructed his cast to whisper just about every line of theirs (except at the end when everybody shouts really loudly!) Not only is the cast forced to whisper, but they appear to have been instructed to speak at a rate of maybe 3 words per minute. It's such a slowwwwww movie. Everything about this movie is depressing, from the somber performances to the ugly aesthetic, to the all-encompassing feeling of brooding. Kurzel wants to rely on atmosphere to make his movie work, but when there's no change in that atmosphere from scene to scene, it becomes monotonous really quickly. Macbeth isn't just bad, it's actively unwatchable. It feels like you're undergoing a court-ordered sentence by sitting through it.

I feel for the actors in this movie because, again, I know how talented they are, but they've really been put in an impossible situation. It's clear that they understand what they're saying, but they've all been directed to speak in the same, dull delivery. As a result, the characters on the screen are nothing like the vibrant and iconic characters Shakespeare had initially created. There's no passion or love between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth--two characters who should be utterly devoted to them. Yet Fassbender and Cotillard are never allowed a single tender moment. Speaking of Cotillard, I was looking forward to her performance at the end of the play, when Lady Macbeth famously goes mad, because I thought she would finally be given a chance to just let loose. But even in this scene she speaks in the same rhythm and tone as everyone else has throughout the entire movie. She seems detached and distant, sure, but no more so than she has the whole film, so you are left not really understanding the extent of her madness in this moment, and her untimely death feels perplexing. But the character worst served by the film is Banquo, played by Paddy Considine. I've liked Considine in other things, but his portrayal of Banquo isn't just bad, it's entirely unmemorable. In many productions of Macbeth, Banquo is a standout character. He and Macbeth are friends, and he basically represents the good person that Macbeth was before he became corrupted. Killed early in the play, it is imperative for the emotional stakes of the play that Banquo be likable. Here, he makes absolutely no impression. The entire point of the character is lost.

More like McBlech, am I right? Yeah, I'm right.
When you're directing an adaptation of a previously written script, you are of course welcome to make changes. It is, after all, an adaptation, and a change isn't in and of itself bad. As an example, the film The Mist has a drastically different ending than the book it is based on. But the new ending is justified and consistent with what came before it, so much so that Stephen King, who wrote the book The Mist, has gone on record saying he likes the movie's ending more than the one he came up with. Kurzel has made significant changes to the text, but none of them make any sense. If you're familiar with the play, here are some changes that were made and let me know if any of these make even a little bit of sense to you.

  • Malcolm walks in on Macbeth as he kills Duncan and wipes blood off his dagger, fleeing because Macbeth threatens to kill him to. Macbeth chooses not to kill Malcolm for absolutely no reason.
  • Instead of hiring assassins to murder Lady Macduff and her children, Macbeth burns them at the stake in front of everybody.
  • The porter--a character who would have broken up the overbearing and plodding mood of this movie--was removed entirely.
  • Instead of Macduff's army using the trees of Birnam Wood as camouflage, they burn the entire forest down. For some reason. Apparently because the smoke blows towards the kingdom, that makes it fulfill the prophesy, but I fail to see how this is a better visual image than an entire forest uprooting itself.

At best, these changes--and others that Kurzel made-- are pointless and don't really add anything. But at worst, they completely alter part of what makes Macbeth so effective. Much of the story is about how everyone trusts and likes Macbeth--he's supposed to be a great guy who no one believes would commit regicide. Kurzel instead portrays Macbeth as your standard-issue tyrant. Even from the first scene, it's hard to believe he hasn't murdered MORE people. By having his crimes way out in the open, Macbeth's brutishness is on full display. He's not trying to hide his misdeeds, which makes the inner guilt he feels about covering up his crimes feel misplaced and nonsensical.

Lastly, for all the emphasis Kurzel placed on visuals, he missed multiple opportunities to capitalize on the parts of the play most ripe for cinematic potential. When Banquo's ghost appears, those who are unfamiliar with the play might find it hard to realize he's a ghost--they just sort of have Paddy Considine standing there with nothing supernatural about him. I've seen stage productions that make a more convincing ghost out of Banquo. Similarly, a film version of Macbeth has a chance to create an effective floating dagger in a way that a staged version does not. But, for some reason, Kurzel opts to have no floating dagger. Instead, he brings back a soldier from the first scene in the film (a battle scene which is not in the play) and simply has the soldier holding the dagger out to Macbeth. It's an odd disparity--I felt that the parts of this play that needed to be more traditionally handled were made far too cinematic, but the parts of this play that most lent themselves for a cinematic rendering were completely shrugged off. There were so many parts of this play that Kurzel didn't take advantage of, and I can't help but feel this might have been rooted in his clear misunderstanding of the text.

To sum up, I think that this film of Macbeth can be summed up by quoting Macbeth himself. It is a film directed by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

You just got Shakespeared!

I'd initially planned to include all of my picks for the most overrated movies of the year in one post, but then I got to the final film on this list and my thoughts on it got so wordy that I felt the need to make it its own post. While I hated the Macbeth more, the amount of acclaim that this movie has received makes it my pick for the single most overrated movie of the year. And you can find out what this movie is, and read what I disliked about it so much, here.

Here's a hint: my nickname for this movie is The Big Shit.

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