9 February 2010

Year-end lists: Worst and Most Disappointing Films of 2009

Here are my picks, 10 to 1, for what I saw as the very worst of last year's films. 2009, more than in previous years, didn't hold a great many major duds, but the ones that did irk, annoy and bore me all did it with bells on. Take a look below to see the extent to which these ten films rubbed me up the wrong way last year. And boy, did some of them ever appeal to my disgruntled side. But no worry, coming up after the negative swipes at the selections below, I'll be writing up my Best Films of Last Year. Things are a lot more rosy on that list. (Release dates are from January 1st to December 31st '09.)

I desperately tried to sleep during Michael Jackson's This Is It (10). To me, never a fan of Jacko, it was overlong and hard work to sit through all the practice concert footage and dance rehearsals. It was clearly a fan-only, totally financially-instigated release, and the footage should've ideally therefore been included as a DVD extra or re-edited and embedded into a more interesting and explorative documentary perhaps. It felt rather like a cheap ploy by his then forthcoming gig's sponsors to recoup some of their money back (i.e. a way to make fans shell out more cash for any last minute glimpses of the "real" Jackson). It seemed entirely pointless to me. And I only managed to doze off during one song. Now I want my money back!

I feel slightly reluctant to dish out the bad on a film like Helen (9). I'm all for championing small, low budget British debut features, but this one left me baffled in a bad way. After a young woman is killed the police recruit a girl to act out her last moments in a Crimewatch-style reconstruction of events. The girl drifts through day-to-day events and we seemingly pick up on details about her own troubled life. Many thought that this was a minor gem, a film that stood out for the understated way in which filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor depicted with minimum fuss the kind of story that emerges between the cracks of a significant event. I truly couldn't understand what it was that got so many critics excited by this film.

There's kind of a plot, and kind of characters, but the story is too obtuse; one inert scene follows another, each one tediously played out by the actors with a thudding dullness; everyone delivers lines as if they're being slowly fed them through an earpiece (this got more and more irritating as the film went on). Why not dispense with the half-hearted narrative and tell the story through imagery alone? The design of the film was over-styled (endless shots of the vivid red of school walls and the girl's bright yellow jacket being heavily dwelt upon within the frame), so much so that it came across as obvious artfulness for its own sake - and amateurish to boot. By the end I was stunned by Helen's energy-zapping abilities. (Good thing that low-budget British filmmaking got much better later in the year - see #2 on the 'best of' list.)

Isla Fisher finds it hard to choose which of her 150 pairs of shoes to wear whilst confessing her shopaholic tendencies

Confessions of a Shopaholic (8) stands in as whipping boy for a whole host of other mundane Hollywood romantic comedies that all bored me equally in 2009, as well as for its own sins. The Ugly Truth, He’s Just Not That into You and New in Town could be easily put in at #8 and it would make little difference. But Confessions was a particularly vapid variation on the likes of The Devil Wears Prada or the Sex and the City movie, and another in an increasingly tiresome line of clotheshorse movies. It tries to say something about modern spending excess in its dying moments, but after an hour-or-so of ditzy Isla Fisher forcefully grabbing at bargain Jimmy Choos and crawling around on the floor like a demented catwalk model for off-the-peg Valentino "pieces", it became clear that the appeal was directed squarely at Heat magazine junkies and Z-list-wannabe fashionistas. It's a shopworn mannequin parading as a movie.

I've already mentioned the good Clive Owen-globe-hopping film of '09, now here's the bad one: Duplicity (7). Owen and Julia Roberts are a couple of corporate spies and ex-lovers who are hired to sniff out the wrongdoing of their respective bosses. It has something to do with a revolutionary new make-up product and something to do with high-level deceit in the workplace. Or something. The plot's structure is a fudged-up mess (ill-positioned flashbacks, corporate jargon in place of actual engrossing dialogue), the comedy is smug and the banter between Owen and Roberts awkward. Tedium set in early and, to be honest, I had to look up a synopsis halfway through just to make it through the rest of the film. It thoroughly tested my constitution for this kind of frothy star vehicle that lazy studios trot out regularly. The biggest revelation, for me, was that Julia Roberts hasn't actually made a great, or even good, film in over a decade: America's Sweethearts (2001), Full Frontal (2002), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007) were all intolerable and stupefyingly smug vanity pieces (only Ocean's Eleven (2001) and Closer (2004) just pass muster). I've practically written her off as a screen presence who does anything worthwhile anymore. And it was a sad let down for Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy, too.

Since Uzak/Distant (2002) I've kept up with each successive film from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Leisurely paced and rather austere, Uzak took its time to make a full impact on me, but was worth the initial investment after some time. His follow up, Climates/Iklimler (2007), featuring the director himself in the lead role, was also a stark but engaging film. But last year's Three Monkeys/Üç maymun (6) was a turgid chore, despite a very promising opening ten minutes. Ceylan's signature gloomy overcast skies and general somnambulant visual fog seem par for the course here. They bore instead of evocatively illustrating the characters situations or moods in a constructive manner, as they have previously. The forced artifice of the photography adds little apart from simply making scenes look oh so artfully composed. Ceylan is much lauded for his visual style, but are we taking this style on blind faith? It feels as if he's stuck in a single visual mode to keep afloat his festival reputation.

One of the biggest minuses here is that Three Monkeys, much more than in his previous work, takes a very myopic and perplexing view of women, which lends it an unpleasant tone. Ceylan never really gets to grips with his female characters in any explorative way - here the character of the wife, played by Hatice Aslan, appears to either just silently cry or wail uncontollably over the duplicity of men. Everything feels far too repetitive of each of his other films, too. 'Man in Crisis' movies have never been high on my viewing list - a list that Three Monkeys sits near the top of right now.

See No Joy and Hear No Joy having a wild old time in Three Monkeys

Although many people have said it's a '00s update of Annie Hall (1977), I see (500) Days of Summer (5) more as a Garden State (2004) or The Last Kiss on uppers. It retains the hyper-quirkiness of those films, and others like it, but does avoid for the most part their tedious self-analysis. Filmmaker Marc Webb cuts up the narrative and reassembles key moments in Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Zooey Deschanel's year-and-a-half romance to give it more pep. Narratively chopped up or not, it doesn't seem half as clever as the filmmakers think it is; the scenes we get to see of the relationship still feature annoying twentysomething hipster types venting left, right and centre about their woes. It's just all a bit more sunnier. If the story were left as linear it would still be a tiresome exercise in cool for the sake of it.

Ever since High Fidelity (2000) - a genuinely decent version of the 'alt-romance' movie, one with several moments of truthful realisation in it - directors started rushing to write characters who unashamedly wanted to state exactly what cool music they liked as shorthand for inner depth, and then use it as some kind of badge denoting their alternative personalities. (500) Days takes this idea and runs with it (well, it nonchalantly saunters with it). It's akin to scanning an über-fashionable mate's vinyl collection - filed unalphabetically, of course - and finding that each album is emotionally tied to a painful break-up memory (a bit like High Fidelity then, but more tedious and certainly less appealing). I don't think any film where the main characters openly profess their love for the Smiths is ever going to win my vote anyway. I say let Jean-Luc Godard get his hands on it - he might be able to reassemble it into something really worth watching. He could call it (95) Minutes of Bullshit.

The repeated acclaim Clint Eastwood has been getting of late for his directorial efforts has nonplussed me somewhat. Changeling (2007) sounded great in theory but in ol' Clint's hands it was dour and wretchedly over-melodramatic (so much so that I thought it was a shame that it didn't get made twenty years ago, with John Waters directing and Divine, instead of Angelina Jolie, as Christine Collins - imagine Divine screaming, "I want my son back! MY SON!!" and thumping her chest - for an idea of what a delight it could have been). Anyway, Eastwood followed that one up with what is reputedly his on-screen swansong, Gran Torino (4), where Clint's a grouchy racist who grows soft on his Hmong neighbours after a common enemy (pesky old gang hoodlums!) start bothering their street.

The idea of it sounded ok, but it perhaps would've been better had another actor-director made it. Clint seems to desperately want to put paid to any past accusations of, I don't know, too much right-wingedness? A lot of the film yells, Look how even-handed and ingratiating I am! I'll even make it extra mawkish so they'll hopefully throw Oscars at it. But in saying that, had Clint not got in front of his camera here we would've been deprived of one of the two best comedy performances of last year - the other being Meryl Streep, in Doubt (2008) - and the best worst closing credits song I've heard in ages. Maybe, like my never-gonna-happen dream of Waters remaking Changeling (though, hang on, Mink Stole is still with us), Abel Ferrara is the man to remake this tough little nugget. He might give us a bit more food for thought with the material. Anyway, for now Clint, here's a load of retirement home pamphlets. Give us your best narked old man grimace to camera...

Disliking Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (3) is an easy thing to do. It's garnered a lot of derision and hate already. But although some have tried to instigate a pro-backlash to the backlash. (Some folk, I've read, consider Bay to be a trash auteur... Paul Verhoeven is a trash auteur. Craig Brewer is a trash auteur. David Caruso is (maybe) a trash auteur. Bay? No.) It seems ridiculous to vainly attempt to see any deeper worth in something that sets itself up from the outset to merely be a cash magnet, made quickly and with little thought to coherence, directorial decision making or any real fun. A badly-made film is just that: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is rubbish and only rubbish.

None of this is any suprise whatsoever. But don't mainstream audiences young and old deserve something of a bit more quality to spend their money on? Case in point: District 9. The budgets for this Transformers sequel and director McG's near-equal timewasting exercise Terminator: Salvation (the two biggest summer event movies of '09) were both estimated at $200,000,000, and both received largely negative critical and public responses. Neill Blomkamp's rather nifty outsider District 9 cost $30,000,000 (again, estimated). Although all three recouped major box office, Blomkamp's film clearly had the best return and got a Best Picture nod and some inspired commentary/audience praise lavished upon it to boot. But considering the effects work, and refreshing plot turns and acting in District 9, I hope Michael Bay and McG came out of a screening of it crying. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is just unpleasant. It's like two-and-a-half hours of being fucked in the face by a tank whilst having a fit in a scrapyard.

If you like watching affectless twenty-or-thirty-somethings mill about, not-quite working at their unstressful jobs, take baths whilst wearing kooky goggles and a snorkel, sit about a bit - then a bit more - or hanging out at uneventful yet exclusive parties, then Hannah Takes the Stairs (2) should be a veritable treat for you. For me though, notsamuch. Before this, I hadn't yet seen a Joe Swanberg film, but I had watched a couple of previous flicks from other Mumblecore filmmakers, namely Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski/2002), The Puffy Chair (Mark and Jay Duplass/2005) and Quiet City (Aaron Katz/2007). Each of these, despite several annoying factors, contained some nice observations on the lives of drifting post-college, pre-career folk, even if they were a bit too hip and vacant to be truly engaging.  

Hannah Takes the Stairs was near insufferable. Hannah chooses one guy over another, then chooses another over the second guy. And a lot of not very much else occurs in between. But they do all take turns throwing a ball around an office at one point: the ennui was palpable! There's a lot of "real" and "natural" dialogue, but, due to the obvious slim difference between actor and character personas, it could be read simply as what they decided to say at any particular point the camera was rolling; it's less improvised (as this clearly requires some thought) as, er, just words spoken that may trigger conversation. It's like watching Cloverfield (2008) without having the monster ever turn up. And that's no fun. Why would anyone outside of that exclusively close-knit Mumblecore hipster collective (and their inevitable audience hanger-ons) want to watch what they do, day in-day out? This is the point that I give up on this inanely labelled Mumblecore lot. Hannah might take the stairs, but I'll take the exit, thanks.

8 out of 9 acting legends prefer Cabaret every time

Simply put, Nine (1) was utterly horrible. It's possibly the worst film musical I've seen. Terrible acting by everyone: Penélope Cruz (whiny, in knickers - see below); Judi Dench (asleep, but chain-smoking); Kate Hudson (barely bothered from the neck up, but furiously dancing from the knees down); Sophia Loren (seemingly wheeled in using the same upright gurney Hannibal Lector entered a room on); Marion Cotillard (bored); Fergie (made up to look freshly dead by the looks of it); Nicole Kidman (so beyond bored she's re-bored anew); and worst of all a hilariously hammy Daniel Day Lewis with an accent from the 'Allo 'Allo training school of Daft Ways to Talk All Foreign-Like™ - he plays, per the film's flimsy MO, one of those whinging, frustrated, irritatingly tortured artist-filmmakers who wafts about doing nothing, moaning about everything, then doesn't actually make a film out of all that nothing (but then, at the last minute, decides to make an impromptu film about a whinging, frustrated, irritatingly tortured artist-filmmaker).

The songs in between all the moping around are terrible, too. It's evident that director Rob Marshall is desperately trying to pull the same trick he did with Chicago (2002), but that did actually have one or two memorable songs in its favour. Watching all these famous actresses shunted on, wearing little but the embarrassment on their faces, for their five-minutes-at-a-time musical interludes made me think about how people may have responded to Nine had it been of an entirely different genre. Indeed, those who regularly moan about the prominence of nude women in horror films should take a second look at this pile of dishonest, misogynistic rubbish. Although, because it's a "frothy" Oscar-hungry Hollywood musical it'll likely get away with nary a comment on its dim view of women. (But, to me, just having Extraordinarily Big Female Names in the cast doesn't relieve the film of its barely-cloaked sexism).

Now, I'm in no way being puritan with my take on the film (my preferred genre of choice, above others, is after all horror), and surely it has been already noted, but it seems too easy to let the film slink away with its content unquestioned. And Hollywood does indeed sometimes like its double standards. For example, Penélope Cruz - a tremendously talented actress when she's working with Pedro Almodóvar - has recently received her third Oscar nomination for this, after winning one last year for playing a character (in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) incredibly similar to the one she plays here. It baffles me why, in a film year which has seen a massive surge in female filmmaking, a role such as hers is so widely recognised. Cruz performs a forgettable song, mopes, cries, flings herself at Day-Lewis, then attempts suicide because he spurns her (after this she's barely onscreen again). I have little time for a film featuring a group of talented women (plus Fergie) who wait around for a self-involved man. Nearly 38 years ago Liza Minneli strut her stuff on stage and film as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (Bob Fosse/1972). She grabbed an Oscar, set new standards, dallied, danced and deconstructed the men in her life, and did it all with a funny, fierce intelligence. She should've had a word with all nine involved here.

Also not for me, in no order (these weren't all necessarily terrible in my view, just either dull, bad in places or simply disappointing):

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee / Funny People / 2012 / Knowing / Away We Go / The Ugly Truth / Blackout / X-Men Origins: Wolverine / A Perfect Getaway / Joshua

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