Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Worst of 2010?

After the unbridled positivity of my Top 30 Films of 2010 list it is now time to take a look at the reverse. What were the worst films of 2010?

The likes of 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3' may not have lived up to my very high expectations, but neither are bad. 'Inception' was the year's most over-hyped, exposition-laden behemoth and 'Toy Story 3' was the film that most disappointed me (being a huge Pixar fan) - but they are both well made films and far from terrible. There were also (by definition) a lot of quite average films over the summer, such as 'Knight and day' and 'The A-Team'. Some were more fun than others but most were nevertheless passable. This list, a "top 10" (if you can call it that), is reserved strictly for the year's most risible wastes of celluloid.

10) Monsters, dir Gareth Edwards, UK

What I said: 'Monsters' is suffocated by constant exposition with people saying things like "so let me get this straight: we have 48 hours to get to the coast" and when we aren't having things we have just seen and heard simplified for us we are forced to spend our time in the company of a couple of morons. Andrew has, he tells us, seen the corpses of the aliens before on several occasions. The creatures are also on the television news or caricatured by informative children's cartoons whenever we see a television. The duo are aware they are heading through the infected zone, as a great many sign posts tell them so. They see the destruction of areas affected by the so-called monsters. Yet when confronted by them they are forever shouting (and I mean shouting) "what the hell is that thing", over and over and over again... The shouting doesn't stop even when their armed guards - who by the way are asked several times "why have you guys got guns?" (gee, I wonder why) - tell them to be quiet during one attack sequence. The pair just can't shut up... When they pass through a destroyed town they ask aloud "all these people's homes. But where are all the people?"

"Argh! So infuriating!" is the expression that best characterises my experience of watching Gareth Edwards' roundly lauded road movie 'Monsters'. The endless stupid questions and the pseudo-mumblecore intensity of its boring lead actors as they meander on an "emotional journey" that feels horribly contrived. We know that they have been profoundly effected by their trudge across alien-infested Mexico because they tell us so, but what they are supposed to have learned is not exactly clear. That humans are the real monsters? Yawn. The film was dubbed "Film of the Month" in the January issue of Sight and Sound, but it seems to me that a great deal of the attention it has received (in the UK press especially) has been owing to its director being British and operating on a very low budget (doing his own computer effects from home). The latter is laudable and exciting, but the film itself is boring, as are the hordes of dullards who cack on enthusiastically: "it's good because it's not about the monsters." Whatever that means.

9) La solitudine dei numeri primi, dir Saverio Costanzo, ITA

What I said: "I found the film extremely uninvolving for most of its 118 minute running length. It was greeted with a chorus of boos when it ended [in competition in Venice], and I may have been tempted to lend my voice to them had I not been lulled into a dazed stupor by that point... La solitudine was boring and its characters irritating. The first few moments of tension are interesting, but they come to nothing and you quickly realise that they never will. And with nothing to keep you involved, this unhappy jaunt through the world of two young depressives, becomes a chore."

I have managed to almost entirely erase having watched this from my mind. Whilst in Venice I saw over 30 films in a two week period and so some of them have become a bit of a blur. What I can remember is that it was beautifully lit, but uninvolving and it seemed to go on forever. I didn't really understand the characters or care for them and I was tempted to walk out (which I never do). There may be something here that I'm missing. After all, Nick James wrote in Sight and Sound magazine that it was "the one Italian film [he] saw with imagination" (I found 'La pecora nera' to be much more imaginative, personally). Likewise, one reader at Obsessed With Film commented on my review that "It was a beautiful, sensible film. Alice and Mattia are intrinsec [sic] characters, not to be tagged by social stereotypes like you do so lightly" and made light of the film's robust running time and slow pace saying that "it takes time and thought to truly say something about anyone." Fair point well made, but it didn't resonate with me at all.

8) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, dir Michael Apted, USA

What I said: "Michael Apted has stepped in for the third film [in the 'Narnia' series] and made something much blander. He isn't aided by the fact that a lot of this story takes place at sea and not amidst sweeping vistas, but even when action does take place on terra firma, many of the locations are much more obviously the result of CGI than in the other two films. The result is that even though the set pieces are on a grander scale - with a dragon battling a huge sea serpent around an elaborate galleon on a tempestuous sea at the film's finale - they actually feel smaller and less tangible... The film's pacing is also amiss, as the characters are each presented with moral trials which are overcome far too quickly and easily, the film just jumping from event to event without conveying any feeling of significance or genuine peril along the way... Narnia, as a concept and as a literary world, isn't a place I want to take my imagination... [But] even if you are one of the 468,916 people that "like" God on Facebook (correct at the time of writing) and worship the Narnia stories, 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is a tedious telling of this story."

The tedious dogma of the Christ-lion saga reached its nadir in 2010 with 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'. Uninvolving and with ropey visual effects, it has exactly nothing to recommend it other than the fact that it's not one of the following seven films. I don't like this series of films, but even so 'Prince Caspian' was much better in every way.

7) Robin Hood, dir Ridley Scott, USA/UK

What I said: "[Russell] Crowe has less charisma than a hellish lovechild of Gerard Butler and Shia LaBeouf. He grunts and mumbles his way through the film, never really raising a smile, flattening any line which might be humorous as he marauds the English country side looking like a huge, bearded potato on horseback. Flynn might not have played a Hood mired in psychological concerns (“who was my father!?” etc etc), but he was watchable and charming, bringing the character to life in your imagination. Children could (and did) aspire to be Flynn’s Robin Hood, swinging on chandeliers and besting his enemies with his wit as well as his arrows. I can not conceivably imagine anybody growing up wanting to mumble there way through Sherwood Forest as Russell Crowe... Ok, so maybe that’s the point here: this Robin Hood is not for kids. It’s an adult version, with a tough, wilful Maid Marian played by Cate Blanchett (far from the courtly and mannered presence of, say, Olivia de Havilland) and a rugged “manly” hero in Crowe. Yes, I can see that Crowe is more convincingly a man who could have fought in the Crusades than Flynn or Costner or Elwes ever were. But is that an excuse for boring me with his mumbling presence? To paraphrase Benjmin Franklin: those who would give up essential entertainment to purchase a little temporary realism, deserve neither entertainment or realism."

Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood' was a cynical attempt to do for Mr."of Locksley" what Christopher Nolan did for Batman. It's a re-boot and, with it ending at the point where Hood becomes the vigilante woodsman of folklore, a tentpole for a series of these "gritty" and "realistic" movies. However, the differences between 'Batman Begins' and 'Robin Hood' are many. For one thing Russell Crowe is here at his mumbling worst and Scott is at his most flashy cheesiest (with lots of silly slow-motion action). It's the heart-rending story of a bunch of affable lords angry with the high taxation they are being levied (the world's biggest evil). Hood is their champion rather than that of the poor in this telling of the story. It's also full of allusions to the American Dream and the American Constitution, despite its setting in medieval England. Boring, self-important nonsense.

6) The Ghost, dir Roman Polanski, FRA/GER/UK

What I said: "Perhaps ‘The Ghost’ will age quite well as audiences grow more distant from the recent political past. Then the Blair references will seem more obscure and may add colour to the picture in giving it an interesting historical context. But as a film for this political moment (the upcoming 2010 UK election) the film’s cynicism about politics and its practitioners is at best unhelpful and at worst irresponsible. Many will say that artists have no responsibility other than to their own creative whims and they would probably be correct. But I still find ‘The Ghost’ a little distasteful all the same."

My distaste for Roman Polanski's "political" thriller - fancied by many as a possible nomination for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards - operates on many levels. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, I didn't find it thrilling or involving and I found the performances to be woeful (with the possible exception of Olivia Williams). It is slickly made, but totally conventional and not the sort of film you'd associate with one of the world's most highly rated auteurs. My other (more passionate) objection is ideological and possibly hypocritical (given my love of disputed biopic, 'The Social Network'). I hated the way it perpetuated received wisdom about former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, working as an elaborate, thinly veiled, character assassination. Pierce Brosnan played a sleazy, sinister Blair analogue who (last minute plot twist aside) is a puppet of the American government. I am not much of a fan of Blair, but this all seemed in bad taste to me. I am all for a serious film tackling the Blair years, but the use of the popular perception of the man within a fiction framework seemed at best cowardly as a way of making criticism. Worse still, in an election year it felt like a propaganda film seeking to discredit the Labour Party in general. I don't mind polemical films - in fact I quite like them - but making this attack with innuendo and half-baked conspiracy theories really bothered me. Especially as all dialogue relating to politics was so simplistic and unnatural.

5) Alice in Wonderland, dir Tim Burton, USA

What I said: "None of Carroll’s trademark wit and wordplay is evident in Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, which is an especially great shame, as that is clearly the highlight of the original stories. It seems that when Burton starts re-imaging older properties, such as Wonka, ‘Planet of the Apes’ and this ‘Alice’ film, he invariably diminishes them. I very much hope his next film is smaller in scale and harkens back to his earlier days, when he seemed like a relevant (possibly even great) filmmaker. For now we can only sit back and mourn his artistic decline, whilst he and Disney laugh all the way to the bank."

The above video demonstrates everything you need to know. Tellingly it features two CGI enhanced Matt Lucases (Lucasai?) and they aren't the worst thing on screen. It was a moment (like the mid-battle wedding in 'Pirates 3') that literally made my jaw drop as it followed my thinking "this film can't get any worse can it?". Oh yes it could and it did, with Johnny Depp's embarrassing Mad Hatter celebration dance. Congratulations Johnny Depp and Tim Burton: you are now totally rubbish. One of the most interesting American directors of the early 90s and one of the best actors of his generation have well and truly hit an all-time low. First 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' and now this? Jesus wept.

4) The Millenium Trilogy, dir Niels Arden Oplev ('Dragon Tattoo')/Daniel Alfredson ('Played With Fire' and 'Hornet's Nest', SWE

What I said: On 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest': "Lisbeth Salander has been through some truly horrible events: beaten up by gangs of armed men; repeatedly raped by her legal guardian; and incarcerated in a mental institution at the age of twelve as the result of a shady government conspiracy. Yet she is still a manifestly unlikeable creation. She is a charmless psychopath and when she is forced to defend herself against charges that she is mentally unstable it is hard not to feel like her despicable, paedophile assailants at least have a bit of a point - although their reasons for making it are obviously not on the level. Again, like [Uma] Thurman's Bride character [from 'Kill Bill'], Lisbeth is hellbent on bloody, callous revenge in a film which thinks old testament "eye for an eye" justice is for wishy-washy Guardian readers. It is true that the film always totally convinces you that these balding, sinister Vince Cable-alikes deserve every bit of what Lisbeth gives them, but therein is the reason I hate these films so much."

I am so glad to see the back of this whole wretched, hateful trilogy - if only for a year before David Fincher's own adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestselling books is realised. They are black-hearted, right-wing, vengence fantasies of the worst kind, with horrible acts of sexual violence inflicted upon the central character so as to make us even angrier with the film's villains for whom anything goes. But aside from that, these three films are blandly made by a Swedish television unit and look like gritty ITV detective serials rather than films. Noomi Rapace is good as Lisbeth Salander, but that isn't enough to stop the whole enterprise from feeling so horid.

3) Miral, dir Julian Schnabel, ISR/FRA

What I said: "It’s hard to argue with in terms of politics and sentiment: Israelis and Palestinians should live side-by-side peacefully and atrocities have been committed by both sides (though the film, perhaps reasonably, shows rather more perpetrated by the Israelis). But the thing is, Miral is just so contrived, so false, so cravenly seeking out approval, that it lacks impact and says nothing that isn’t either obvious or trite. The fact that the majority of the cast are speaking (at least what sounds like) their second language, only makes things worse. It is a far cry from the Wire-esque likes of 'Ajami', with a complete lack of authenticity. The sets look cheap, the make-up used to age actors – as the film spans the decades – is wholly unconvincing and the non-Arabic actors speak with hammy accents, reducing their parts to caricature."

I never want to see this again. Ever. It is well-meaning in its sympathetic depiction of the life of Palestinian people living in Israel, but it is far too simplistic and manipulative an account. The dialogue often feels as though it has been written for an educational programme for schools rather than for a feature film, as characters tell each other very basic things that they should probably be expected to know already. The acting is hammy and the film looks cheap. Schnabel's last film, 2007's 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly', saw him nominated for a Best Director Academy Award. He can be certain of no such honour this year.

2) Sex & the City 2, dir Michael Patrick King, USA

What I said: "Carrie is a relationship columnist of international renown and acts as a sort of female version of the James Bond wish fulfilment fantasy. At one point she walks into a “wardrobe” bigger than most people’s bedrooms (and full of expensive designer clothes) and I distinctly heard two disparate ladies in the audience say “cool!” ‘Sex & the City’ is to women what ‘XXX’, ‘Fast and Furious’ and Danny Dyer movies are to men, in that they are not really for women at all: just for stupid people. If Samantha is deluded and slightly nauseating, then Carrie is just downright hateful. She makes her husband go out with her to a party, ditches him for her friends and then drags him home when she sees that he is starting to have fun (talking to Penelope “why am I here?” Cruz). For their anniversary her husband buys them both a flat screen television for the bedroom (getting a derisive chuckle from the ladies in the audience) but his intentions are decent and even romantic: he wants to lie with her and watch “old black and white films” in bed. She is indignant and, in the manner of an ungrateful child, says “a piece of jewellery would have been nice”. What a horrible person (but then Bond isn’t much better as a role model for male behaviour). Carrie and her friends feel like the subjects of an MTV reality show."

If you've seen the above clip you'll know that "culturally insensitive" isn't really an adequate description of 'Sex & the City 2'. Neither is "bad taste". But that is not why it's so high up this list. It's on this list because it promotes a hateful set of stereotypes about relationships, both sexual and Platonic. The "girls" are materialistic and bitchy to the extreme and the film itself is tacky and garish. The only reason it isn't number one is because there are times when I wondered whether or not the whole thing was intended as a satire of itself. I'm fairly sure it isn't and that we are supposed to love these characters and their antics, but the thought kept me entertained regardless. There is little left to say about 'Sex & the City 2' that isn't said by the above clip or my earlier review, so I'll leave it at that.

1) The Expendables, dir Sylvester Stallone, USA

What I said: “Take it off!” bellow Sylvester Stallone and Mickey Rourke, pleading with Jason Statham to remove his shirt. Earlier, in the same scene, Rourke tells a topless Stallone he has a body of steel. “Why don’t we both just stop jerking off?” Bruce Willis suggests to Stallone a few scenes later before testosterone levels reach their peak as Arnold Schwarzenegger enters the room and begins eyeing up his one-time rival. They trade flirtatious manly banter for a few minutes before Willis takes exception, saying “you guys aren’t going to start sucking each other’s dicks are you?” Welcome to The Expendables, a faintly homoerotic ode to all things macho and a poignant elegy to the 80’s action picture: a time when a man was measured by the size of his biceps and where… well, as Rourke asks one girlfriend, “what’s your name again sweetheart?”

The delicate blend of homoerotic knob-gags, manly punching and heart-rending pathos seen in the above clip typifies 'The Expendables'. It is the male version of 'Sex & the City 2' as it plays to the very worst, basest elements of humanity and to the grossest of cultural, racial and gender stereotypes. My original review earned me a lot of angry comments earlier this year (being called a "human cancer" is still my favourite) which lead me to write an article explaining the tone of my review for those bereft of a sense of humour. But whether or not it's right to insult a film's potential audience as I did in my review, 'The Expendables' remains a film for hardened dunces everywhere.

Dishonorable mentions go to the following films: 'The Way Back', 'Round Ireland With a Fridge', 'Showtime'. 'Clash of the Titans' (which was guest reviewed by David Bierton) and 'Le Concert'.

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