2008 YEAR IN REVIEW
1. Uncertainty. A young man and a young woman on the Brooklyn Bridge. So far so good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who on last year's list I referred to specifically as an actor "worth mentioning," is the guy. Ok I'm with it. The couple talk cryptically about something they plan on doing. "Are we really doing this?" "I'm up for doing this thing if you are." At this point you're not really sure where this is going. It isn't clear. Difficult to tell where this is all leading, and whether or not we'll enjoy ourselves on the journey (there's a high level of uncertainty is what I'm getting at.) But by the end there is no doubt whatsoever that this is one of the worst movies ever made. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the writing-directing team behind the promising The Deep End, set up a sliding door scenario wherein the lovers each run to opposite ends of the bridge, magically meet another version of their partner, and thereby launch two consecutive storylines (one taking place in Manhattan, the other confined to Brooklyn.)
It's hard to say which of the two plots is more retarded. Is it the one where they find a mysterious smart phone and become the target of...people who chase them? Or the one where they attend a barbeque at the home of the girl's family, and absolutely nothing happens? There's no way to tell what McGehee and Siegel were going for, what they thought the connection between these two random plots might be, why they needed to exist in the same movie played out as two different realities featuring the same two unlikable hipsters – literally nothing makes sense. To say the filmmakers lacked a sense of basic storytelling skills would imply that they somehow had a story in mind when they rented the cameras, put film in them and hired people to operate the equipment, which I'm not sure is the case.
It would be safer to guess that these guys were trying to find the meat in little moments: what could be more aesthetically pleasing than watching characters constantly texting and writing emails? Seriously, there are no less than three scenes where these two idiots set up a new google account. Ooh, which password will they choose this time? All of the dialogue sounds improvised and Gordon-Levitt clearly gets fed up with the whole thing by the end, but the one joy to be had watching this timewaster is just how stupid the "intrigue" section of the film gets. I won't spoil it for anybody. I'll just say these two come up with a brilliant plan to blackmail a hitman without being murdered.
I guess it might seem harsh for me to come down on this little movie that's clearly not going to see much in terms of distribution, but I couldn't justify placing any other movie this year above it in terms of pure, unabashed shitty-ness. And because it was such a great year, what film would be more appropriate to top the list of worst films than a harmless, witless, hopeless mess like Uncertainty? I'm not sure.
2. Burn After Reading. "Jesus what a cluster-fuck." Confused and frustrated CIA frontman JK Simmons speaks for us all in the Coen Brothers' colossal belly flop of a fiasco. This time the filmmakers go beyond cynicism into what can only be described as a kind of unfocused, out-of-touch surliness. What do you expect people to think when you have a character announce one hour into the movie that the story is stupid and confusing? Listen Coens if you don't want us coming to your movies anymore just let us know or rather just keep making them like this, we'll stay away. What ostensibly plays as a broad parody of...something (Syriana? Breach? The Bourne movies?) revolves around the lives of the most disgusting collective of nitwits in movie history.
As in Uncertainty, there's a vaguely-realized, dimly-executed blackmail scheme over something that is probably nothing: an obtuse MacGuffin used only to symbolize the stupidity of anyone who thinks it may actually be important (like the audience.) I can't remember the last time the performance of an entire cast could be considered a miscalculation: every character from George Clooney's paranoid exercise-crazed moron to Frances McDormand's fitness club opportunist determined to "improve" herself through cosmetic surgery, is so underdeveloped they couldn't even be considered flat caricatures: not one of them registers as an actual person. The brothers return to many of their most uninteresting obsessions (the legalities of divorce, awkward dates) and somehow manage to perpetrate more excessive meanness towards their despicable characters than in any of their previous efforts. The Coens, who found such amazing imagery in the empty plains thanks to Roger Deakins in No Country for Old Men, here waste Emmanuel Lubezki by having him film Washington DC like a concrete swamp. I know we should have expected this sort of thing after last year's return to form, but it's still quite depressing.
3. The Noteworthy Existence of Benjamin Bratt. "Jesus what a cluster-fuck." Not an actual quote from the movie, just what I thought while watching it. In one of the five or six prologues to this Very Long And Important Movie That Sit Down Son Is Gonna Teach Ya'll Somethin Bout Life, Elias Koteas plays a man commissioned to build a clock for the New Orleans train station, a man who has recently lost his son in the war. He sets the clock to run the wrong way, and explains to the initially perplexed crowd: "I thought if time went backwards our boys would get up and come back to us again." One person starts to clap at this, then another – soon the entire station is a mixture of tears and applause. Koteas slowly, sadly exits the platform. Yeah but – wait a minute! Your clock doesn't work! Are you going to you know, fix it? I mean besides this whole gimmick (complete with reverse shots of soldiers magically rising from the dead on the battlefield) being a clear lift from a passage of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, it's symbolic of the film itself: it expects people to react with awe and wonder (and for the most part they have, hence its inclusion on this list) just because it's different. Who cares whether it actually works?
The second worst movie of the year to feature Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton, this sloppy overdose of whimsy fumbles an idea borrowed from a story F. Scott Fitzgerald essentially wrote as a put-down to Mark Twain. Written by Eric Roth, it's like Meet Joe Black strolled into Forrest Gump as it wanders from one plastic Hollywood artifice to another. A submarine thriller. A spy romance. Oh yeah, and the guy's growing young instead of growing old, get it? I actually can't believe David Fincher directed this and not Robert Zemekis: I wasn't a huge fan of last year's Zodiac, but compared to this dreck – which also features an estranged father, a magic negro named Queenie (I'm not kidding, the actress was nominated for an Oscar!) and most offensively, Hurricane Katrina as a place setter – that film was a masterpiece. Benjamin Button (did I mention he owns a button-making company?) comes up with all sorts of embarrassing vignettes that service only vague themes: time should be cherished, experience is good, love's good too, life's a box of chocolates etc. It's all empty corners of a shadowbox put together to bedazzle. If you're trying to show how well you can light Cate Blanchett, or make a wrinkled-midget version of Brad Pitt, congratulations David Fincher you win the prize. But what's the point? Do us all a favor next time Fincher*: set the clock right.
* I'm curious to know what Fincher fans think of this. When I saw it, my reaction was "Man this is like his Big Fish – this embarrassingly out-of-touch adult fantasy coming late in his career, he's going to have to avoid mention of this one in the future." Now that he's likely to win an Oscar for this thing, I suppose there have to be some fans of Biggie Buttons out there but are they the same people who liked Seven and Fight Club?
4. Speed Racer. Printed proof you can never trust anything Time Magazine says. This charmless adaptation of the charming Japanese cartoon "Mach-Go-Go-Go" is Hollywood's most expensive attempt to induce brain aneurysm, hemorrhage and/or seizure in its audience using over-stimulating visuals as well as some good old-fashioned horrible filmmaking ever made. I suppose that's appropriate for a summer movie trying to capture the bubble-gum boyishness of a dearly loved piece of pop culture, especially when you factor in the Wachowski brothers and their overeager effects team. What's really a let down is that the $80 million pixilated confetti is in service of such shameless crap when its execution is just as superlative and cutting-edge as anything in The Matrix. If someone were given these same resources to make a 2-hour experimental film about racecar drivers I'd be psyched: what I really want is Kenneth Anger's Speed Racer (the title in that case would probably take on a whole new meaning – the movie would probably need to be called Racer on Speed.)
But the Wachowskies have inserted little razor blades in their eye candy. It's all a trap; a contempt for the viewing minds of its audience in the recent tradition of "actors against green screen" manipulation (Sin City, 300 etc.) For all the light and color and actor-wipes and flying zooms from the cockpit of one car to another, the effort just exacerbates the brothers' masturbatory tendency to spray paint over any sense of actual craftsmanship, and to a truly offensive extent that's nearly indescribable. That would be enough, but as a final sideswipe (that's a car analogy there in case you didn't catch it) they cast Emile Hirsch, whose lack of looks, talents or appeal is rivaled only by Shia LaBeouf, as the underdog racer going up against the greed and shallowness of corporately financed entertainment. No irony there. Perhaps I'm being overly cruel to something that was already a huge commercial bomb. I just expect more responsibility from a movie in which a monkey pulls down a ninja's pants.
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 Super-Dullified Edition. Special effects have been a staple of movies for a long time, and often threaten to outshine the piece of shit movie they've been designed for. With this, the worst remake in a year of truly terrible remakes (see also #8), not only do they drown out every other aspect of the movie, the stretch of tape the on-set effects team placed on a giant board to give Keanu a reference point to react to would probably have made a more compelling lead. At first this seemed like obvious junk: the science-fiction equivalent of remaking Citizen Kane. You can't just pick that title off the floor and slap it on a new script and give it to the guy who directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Then again, they did they last year with 3:10 to Yuma and the guy who directed Identity and against all odds that turned out pretty great. Let me strongly stress that this is not a successful remake. It's exactly what it seemed like, an attempt to force a timeless story into one that reflects the current time and tells us all a little something about ourselves.
The movie it most resembles in this is last year's The Invasion, which despite enlisting an interesting filmmaker stuck so close (and straight-faced) to the original B-movie premise that it ended up intrinsically silly. But this new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still* goes above and beyond that, and is a serious contender for most boring movie ever released. I was literally unconscious in five minutes, and every subsequent scene put me right back to sleep. Nothing happens in this movie: no sense of time or geography is established, no feeling of suspense is generated in any scene, character relationships and motivations are completely phony, and to round it off every actor appears completely disinterested. Keanu Reeves** doesn't have a bad track record with science fiction (although I've never seen Johnny Mnemonic – I understand it features a drug-addicted dolphin?) but uses the stoicism of the character as an excuse to completely disappear into his personal exercise of non-acting, giving the character not a trace of Michael Rennie's compassion from the original. I actually can't believe they didn't get Will Smith to play Klaatu. In his place however we have his spawn Jaden, a cute kid who manages to give the most obnoxious performance of the year. If aliens really did sit in judgment of humanity, this particular kid would get us all fucking killed. His character's involvement in earth's redemption is particularly nonsensical ("Oh you're sad because your dad died? I guess that means humanity can change." Huh??)
As for those special effects that would offer slight restitution? They are horrible: Weta screwed the pooch on this one, only adding to the already-distracting fakeness of the world this movie tries to create (just look at that digital rain superimposed over dry actors awful.) Also distracting is Kathy Bates, who for the record is pretty hard to look at. That point might seem like an abrupt end to this summary, but that's pretty much in keeping with the movie itself.
*I think there should be a rule: if you want to remake a movie using the original title, fine. But then a panel of judges gets to vote on whether or not the film you made is worthy of that title. If not, too bad: we change the name. This one would be rechristened A Big Wad, after the giant energy sphere in Central Park of course. The original story is called "Farewell to the Master," I guess that would work if the master is Robert Wise, Edmund H North, or Michael Rennie, or Patricia Neal, or Bernard Herrmann. The tagline could be "Yeah, no shit."
**Also let me extend a hearty "WTF??" mention to Kenneth Turan, who in his review gave thumbs up to "Keanu Reeves, the movies' greatest stone face since Buster Keaton." That's funny, I totally think of Buster Keaton when I see Keanu in action.
6. Wendy and Lucy. I don't get it – you felt bad for her?? That's crazy. I was solidly on the fence with Kelly Reichardt (whom I now understand is not a boy but rather is of the girl persuasion.) River of Grass and Old Joy weren't great by any stretch of the imagination, but they both told a story and displayed confident filmmaking. Now after Wendy and Lucy I gotta call foul: being a low-budget arthouse filmmaker does not make it ok to not tell a story (it's even based on a short story!) It certainly doesn't make it ok to write such a selfish, stupid heroine.
Michelle Williams plays a girl (the Wendy of the title) who has a dog (can't remember the name of the dog), and from there it's the old tale of girl loses dog, girl wanders around, checks to see if her car's been fixed, it hasn't, girl wanders around some more, girl spews out insults at random person, wanders some more, sleeps in woods, girl finds dog, girl leaves town. Supposedly this is all meant to symbolize the epic struggle of day-to-day life, what we give up to survive in this modern economy etc but come on man this Wendy character is an idiot. Don't have any money? Get a job. There's never a scene to suggest that finding work is an impossibility for this person: she's young and healthy and good-looking enough (but not enough for the next movie on this list) that she shouldn't have a problem getting by.
Yet she makes the decision to drive to Alaska (WHO drives to Alaska from Indiana???) with not enough cash and no idea how a car works and in addition subjects her poor dog whatsername to the same ridiculous, infinitely controllable fate. I'm no animal hater. I could fill this page rattling off a list of movies involving a character's relationship to a dog that are absolutely moving: A Boy and His Dog, My Life as a Dog, Hotel for Dogs, Umberto D. Vittorio De Sica's film (alternative title Bicycle Thieves With a Dog) featured a protagonist you can care about because he has no power over his sad destiny: he's an old man who can't draw pensions. The scene where he realizes he has to kill his dog to spare him starvation on the streets is heartbreaking, whereas the scene where Wendy leaves her dog behind because she realizes she's a fuck up (*spoiler*) is just a damn good idea. It's the correct thing to do, so I don't feel bad about it. Have fun being raped and murdered hitchhiking to Alaska nimrod.
Williams does an ok job, there's just nothing to bring to this character to make her sympathetic at all, and Reichardt's worked this territory before. I cared about Will Oldham's loser in Old Joy and felt upset when he set out for life on the street at the end of that movie. Did I also mention the film's absolutely humorless, the lighting is drab and the camerawork's nothing to write home about? Upon re-reading I realize this criticism sounds defensive, and maybe that's because I'm fed up with crap that just barely qualifies as a movie getting loads of attention based on the sole prerequisite that it's a small film without Nic Cage (see below.) These indie kids and mumblecorers (see further below) had better start making actual movies before all that's required to get every critic's stamp of approval is that your movie features a canine of some kind, all the better if it can do a cool youtube trick. Wendy and Lucy is not the worst movie ever (all things considered, it's much better than Into the Wild for example) – it just doesn't cut it.
7. Deception. I gotta say: while I was watching this movie, I never would have guessed it would only make it to #7 on this list. It seemed a shoe-in for the top slot. But the truth is, I completely forgot about it until reviewing titles in December. Therefore Deception has not only the distinction of being a terrible fucking movie back when I actually watched it: it's officially the only movie I've ever seen about a society of high-ranking business people who phone each other up for anonymous sex as part of a super-secret sex club (Rule #2: You do NOT talk about super-secret sex club!) that is 100% unmemorable in every way. And we're talking about a secret sex club whose members include Hugh Jackman and Ewan MacGregor, two dudes who even I'll acknowledge would be on the short list for my ideal super-secret sex club. This could have been the new Wild Things, but it never acknowledges its sleaziness enough to lapse into brilliant lusty trash: just imagine these two actors in the same territory as Dillon and Bacon at the end of that classic. A missed opportunity there.
To be fair, Deception does feature the most mind-boggling villainous plot of 2008 (sorry Transporter 3.) Jackman's entire con is based on MacGregor falling head over heels in love with Michelle Williams, who is by far the least appealing of any of the partners Ewan gets hooked up with (Natty Henstridge, Charlotte Rampling, Maggie Q.) If MacGregor and Williams hadn't been instantly, miraculously compatible (who falls in love in a super-secret sex club anyway? "How'd you meet mom and dad?"); if she hadn't been so absolutely successful in her seduction that he was willing not just to give up the super-secret sex club but to risk his life and freedom to save her; if Williams' character had the slightest tinge of guilt over the way she's playing Ewan earlier than when it happens in the film, Jackman's entire investment in the plan would have been shot before it even went into effect. I love Hugh, but he's got to think this kind of thing through. Also he still needs a new agent: he's talented enough to play different roles, but too darn lovable to be a skeezy bad guy, although he does pull off Jordanna Kalman's favorite line of the year: "That was just foreplay, and now you're fucked!"
8. Bangkok Dangerous 2008 Super Sweaty Nic Cage-ified Edition. Nicolas Cage almost ended up playing Randy the Ram when it looked like no studio would back Mickey Rourke. Anyone who's seen The Wrestler knows how horrible it is to look at Rourke panting, sweaty and shirtless and grasping his side after an intense match, but anyone who's seen the Pang Brothers' remake of their 1999 action hit Bangkok Dangerous knows that's nothing next to watching Nic Cage eat spicy Thai cuisine. If he can manage to look this disgusting sitting down eating food, just think how much more gross he would have looked in The Wrestler! We dodged a bullet there. Cage has become the new Mark Wahlberg, seeking and destroying as many classics as he can (he'll continue next year with Bad Lieutenant – he's also making Season of the Witch, apparently not a remake of the Romero film which ironically could use a remake.) The kid's a loser, and the least convincing Hollywood star to pull off the world-weary assassin who questions his assignments even as he philosophizes on the "song of the bullet" or some shit.
In the original movie, the hitman is deaf and mute so it's profound that he can't hear people plead for their lives before he blows them away. In this version the only ones with that problem are the brothers Pang, deaf to every bad decision made in this re-imagining, which had the potential to translate well to American screens. So did The Eye, which they also decided to ruin in the same year with Jessica Alba filling in for Nic Cage. Come to think of it this was a bad year for brother-directing teams. Although the Coens and Wachowskis came up with worse products, I think the Pangs are still the most shameless of the lot. Oh well. They do make the love interest a mute – they don't make her blind, so she has to suffer the sight of a sweat-drenched Cage stuffing his oily face.
9. Jumper. I know people love doing "worst of" lists because they enjoy tearing into clearly terrible movies. But honestly, what's the point of that? I don't get any enjoyment out of being the six billion-eth person to point out how shockingly bad the movies that top the Razzie nominations are. I try to focus on movies that are getting away with being watchable, and in their own way are much more offensive than another one of those Disaster Movie parodies. In all honestly, Jumper does not need my help in establishing its reputation as an early-year release It's just more obvious junk, but you know what? I love obvious junk. Obvious junk is a treat for me. So how is it that Hollywood can't even manage to make blissfully dumb franchise-hungry dreck anymore?
There were exceptions this year (Death Race, The Spirit) but for the most part they gave us boring shit like Jumper, which despite the involvement of a legit hack director, a serviceable pseudo-superhero premise, and Michael Rooker – the Rook! – couldn't find an exciting moment if it magically appeared before it. I only partially blame a typically wooden performance from Hayden Christensen, whose character is a giant selfish prick (but not enough of one! That would have been too interesting!), more of a whiny coward and a thief than a badass superhero. You wouldn't mind seeing killed by Samuel L Jackson. But wait – who is Samuel L Jackson supposed to be? Where does he come from? Does anybody care? Do we need this dreck in the year of A Christmas Tale, Happy-Go-Lucky, The Edge of Heaven? The answer is yes we do, but let's at least put some effort into it fellas. I'm trusting my boy Chris Evans to bring it in the upcoming Push, and leave all memories of this atrocious crap.
10. Nights and Weekends. "Look at all your pretty colored hats!" Seriously I thought we were done with this mumblecore nonsense! This is the kind of shit that cuts it at SxSW? Pretty sad.
P.S. I haven't seen Hell Ride, but I can't imagine it's worse than Death Proof.
In a league all its own
The Happening. Don't blame M Night. Obviously, he's been poisoned by trees to commit career suicide. Same thing happened to the bees: they kept stinging folks, really just annoying the hell out of them, so nature decided to force them into extinction. For Mister Night, the same thing is happening (<-hey!), but it's more gradual. First he made Signs, but they still let him make The Village. He made The Village, but they still let him make Lady in the Water. He made Lady in the Water, but they still let him make The Happening. So this time he had to make sure the movie was so amazingly bad that nobody would give him a pass on this one. Just to give an idea of scale: in his last film, the ass-awful Lady in the Water, Shyamalan modestly cast himself as a writer whose words and ideas would some day inspire someone to become the next messiah. So that's a horrendously bad movie which he still thought enough of to include himself in as a savior of sorts. In The Happening, he's just a voice on the phone - that's right, he's too embarrassed to even show up in this one! In all fairness, he was probably too busy behind the directors seat shouting out his perfected acting method at his cast: "More confusion! More blankness! Scrunch your face up!"
The Happening is beyond out of touch. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that feels the way you do after you've hit your head really really hard - for 85 minutes! We know he's not joking because there are actual attempts at humor (the guy obsessed with hot dogs) that fall completely flat. Taking that into account we have to assume that he was trying for real scares (beware the hole in the canopy!) and true emotion when characters ask things like "What color is love?" The Wall-E of bad movies: terrifically, transcendently terrible. Rated R for scrunchy faces.
(continues on next page with the The Most Over-rated of 2008)
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