2012 in review: Thank God I got paid to see these movies…

Every bit as good as you’d expect!

…because there would have been no reason to see them otherwise.

Your humble freelance Movie Analyst saw a whopping 212 films during 2012, 150 of which were assignments (i.e., I got paid to see ’em). Among those movies were some great films — both high-profile releases and unsung gems, more on which in a future post.

Contestants in Panem are forced to watch this.

And among those 150 assignments, there was a vast middle category of mediocrity, films that were competently made and/or starred talented actors, but for whatever reason — like a weak third act in the screenplay, or a simple lack of originality to begin with — proved unmemorable. I keep track of my assignments in a journal, and as I scanned the listings for 2012 this week, there was no shortage of titles where I had to concentrate to remember a single thing about the movie.

And then there was another category, of movies that unfortunately were memorable due to their sheer awfulness. I could list a dozen films that were uniquely painful to sit through, but even there a handful stand out. Consider the following films as entries in the ‘almost fascinatingly bad’ subcategory:

Living in a material world, and how.

1) The worst, bar none:

W.E.

Madonna’s revisionist take on the Edward and Mrs. Simpson story. In Mads’ version of this oft-told tale, Wallis Simpson is the great misunderstood heroine of the 20th century, and never mind that business about her and Edward being Nazi sympathizers. The dubious politics  are of a piece with a movie that takes a nakedly fawning attitude toward wealth and aristocratic mores.

Art-directed to such an extent that it doesn’t have a breath of dramatic life, W.E. plays like an endless commercial for luxury goods.  One of the most fatuous movies I’ve ever seen.

2) The evil of teachers’ unions

Won’t Back Down

This movie’s very existence disproves the lazy received wisdom about Hollywood being a bastion of liberal sentiment. The story follows an honest single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as she takes on a smug, corrupt teachers’ union to get a better education for her grade-school daughter. Typical of how calculating the movie is, the filmmakers are careful to give her an African-American ally in the burned-out teacher played by Viola Davis. The political agenda of beating up on public school teachers isn’t made any easier to bear by the leaden didacticism of the storytelling.

It’s funny to see how Hollywood can apparently only conceive of a working-class white woman through the paradigm of Erin Brockovich: ‘Jamie Fitzpatrick,’ the heroine here, is blunt-spoken, frazzled,  strapped for cash, but always sexy, in flattering, form-fitting clothes. And always ready to speak truth to pinhead bureaucrat bozos.

There’s an unacknowledged paradox at the heart of the movie. Jamie is determined to get her daughter a good education, and yet everyone who stands in her way is well-spoken, well-coiffed, and conspicuously bourgeois… like they all went to college, in other words. Jamie even spits out the term “intellectual” as a disparagement. Wait ’til the kid grows up and comes home from college tossing around a lot of fancy jargon and theory!

3) Believe it or not, people are STILL doing Quentin Tarantino ripoffs

How careers die hard?

Catch .44

Did writer-director Aaron Harvey dream of being a one-man Quentin Tarantino cover band when he was in film school? Harvey’s crime drama Catch .44 is quite a curiosity piece — everything about it mimics Tarantino so precisely that it’s a milestone of cinematic karaoke. Circuitous monologues, streams of profanity, fractured chronology? You bet. Protracted Mexican standoffs, aggressive use of trashy pop songs, bad-boy ‘tude? All present and accounted for. Watching this movie is the 1990s flashback you never wanted.

Every storytelling beat, every punchline, every act of over-the-top violence plays like Harvey spent years holed up with the DVDs of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof, and yet somehow still learned nothing about how to creative genuine narrative surprises or memorable dialogue. If movies are routinely hyped with the adage, “You’ve never seen anything like it!”, here’s one movie where the only appropriate tagline would be, “You’ve seen something EXACTLY like it!”

Catch .44 ends with a long face-off between Bruce Willis and Forest Whitaker, which made me a little wistful. Once upon a time, seeing those two actors square off against each other might have been something to see.

I saw some other duds as part of my Movie Analyst gig during 2012, but it’s probably best to banish them from memory. Here’s hoping for a 2013 that’s light on cinematic stinkers…

Actual freelance Movie Analyst contemplates ending it all after watching “Act of Valor” and “Machine Gun Preacher” in the same week. © Copyright The Criterion Collection.

Feel free to weigh in