I saw 160 movies in 2013, 96 of which were assignments for my Movie Analyst job. (What is this fabulous Movie Analyst I speak of, you ask. Click here for details.)
Despite a lackluster summer for mainstream releases — surely we all read about Spielberg and Lucas’s doomsaying re: the future of blockbusters — 2013 turned out to be a very strong year for movies. In an upcoming post I’ll list my Top 10 for the year, but more important, my list of Honorable Mention candidates, also forthcoming, is a veritable embarrassment of riches.
But first, the smackdown: If you see 100 or so new releases in any year, inevitably some of them will fall into an unmemorable middle, and at least a few of them will be stinkers. Once in a while, even getting paid to see a film doesn’t feel like an adequate justification for the 90 minutes or two hours that could’ve been better spent doing almost anything else.
I hereby present, in alphabetical order, 2013’s worst offenders. In a year that offered so many rewarding movies — some almost universally hailed, like Gravity, and some too little known, like Beyond the Hills — no one should squander precious time on these:
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
In his 1975 collection of aphorisms Notes on the Cinematographer (an invaluable book for artists working in any medium), Robert Bresson wrote, “A whole made of good images can be detestable.” That captures what’s wrong with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — though I’d say the movie is more borderline-insufferable than detestable. This is a film that has been so smothered in artistry that it never gets a chance to breathe.
Texas Hill country in the early 1970s, a bank robber on the run, and the woman who loves him, all told in purdy pictures; director David Lowery leaves little doubt that he had a portrait of Terence Malick hanging on his wall while he was growing up. If he ever takes that picture down, maybe he’ll make a movie that’s based on something more than soft-headed conceits. (Between this and Malick’s own To the Wonder, it was a tough year for the Malick brand.) The fact that Lowery also edited Shane Carruth’s eerie Upstream Color — a tour de force of elliptical storytelling, released last spring — suggests that editing may be where his real gifts lie.
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco — or much of anything, really. I’m still smarting from what a colossal missed opportunity this was. You can read my full rant here.
During the last weekend in October, the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood were overrun with moviegoers venting about how they had just endured one of the worst films they’d ever seen. That movie was The Counselor, the sort of disaster that only very talented people can make.
As a Cormac McCarthy devotee and fan of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, I wanted to love this movie. After a shaky start (including a detour to Amsterdam, where Bruno Ganz cameos as the most loquacious diamond seller in the history of the world), The Counselor almost catches fire in its middle third. Almost. Along the way there are fine supporting turns by Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem.
But the absurdities keep piling up: a method of execution so baroque that it plays more ridiculous than sinister, and Cameron Diaz as a villainess so over-the-top that to call her “comic book-y” would do injury to perfectly good comic books. The character has a whiff of jejune misogyny about her. And of all the actors here, Diaz seems the most lost for what to do with Cormac McCarthy’s language; why anyone in Hollywood persists in mistaking Diaz for a dramatic actress, 11 years after her miscasting helped hobble Gangs of New York, is a mystery.
Perhaps with more careful handling, McCarthy’s stylized language might have worked on screen. But Ridley Scott’s slick version of naturalism was ill-suited to the material — perhaps a better choice for director would have been Gerardo Naranjo, of Miss Bala fame. And there’s no denying the problems with the script itself. The way one Latino character after another turns up to intone a portentous monologue about fate, doom, etc., stopping the narrative dead, cried out to become the basis of a drinking game. Eighty-year-old McCarthy has reportedly been working on several novels for the past few years; I hope The Counselor didn’t take too much time away from those projects.
A female agent (Brit Marling) for a private security firm goes undercover to infiltrate a band of eco-terrorists, only to find herself questioning her beliefs and loyalties. Both the premise and the cast had potential, but by the end I was shaking my head at how the promise had fizzled out.
The East is not so much terrible as depressingly mediocre, in a way that’s representative of a certain kind of patently bland “indie.” During the second hour in particular, the movie becomes so tepid and timid that it plays like an episode of a network TV show from 20 years ago.
This topped Criticwire’s survey of 2013’s Most Disappointing Films, and no wonder. Director Neill Blomkamp was handed a vastly bigger budget than the one he had for 2009’s District 9, but in every way he went bigger rather than smarter. And not just bigger, but louder and more stoopid, too.
The premise wasn’t terrible: a not-too-distant future where the one percent live on a luxury space station while everybody else rots on the postindustrial hell that is Earth. But while that setup might suggest a genre filmmaker cannily riffing on the present day, nearly everything else about the movie was overdone and over-familiar (if you’ve seen one futuristic Third World chop shop, you’ve seen them all). The novelty of seeing Jodie Foster chew the scenery as an evil mastermind — and boy did she look like she was having fun doing it — wore off quickly, and by the climax Elysium felt like a schlocky overblown Terminator remake. A noisy boondoggle that made me want to flee the theater and swear off moviegoing.
One of the worst movie posters of the year, with Kristen Bell’s head Photoshopped onto an Amazonian physique, and no attempt to make the result look convincing. It gets worse from there. As a Veronica Mars loyalist, I wanted to find something to admire about this; I’m glad Bell is venturing into indies rather than frittering away her talent on Hollywood rom-coms.
But The Lifeguard left me downright irritated by the time it was over. First-time writer-director Liz Garcia previously wrote for network TV (Cold Case and Dawson’s Creek), and it shows in the pat resolutions and overall glibness of the screenplay here. Also, even allowing for a steep learning curve in the editing bay, the film is weirdly insensitive in its presentation of a gay supporting character.
I’ll give the movie credit for showing the awkward attraction and eventual relationship between the 29-year-old female protagonist (Bell), who wants to take a break from being an adult, and a punk-rock dude (played by David Lambert) who’s still in high school. I couldn’t help noticing how many online reviews by male critics strenuously objected to the way Garcia’s camerawork presented Lambert as the object of attraction — as if a film could never represent the female lead’s sexual point of view. Do those same critics also profess outrage at every teen comedy that offers up half-clad starlets for the viewer’s delectation?
Back in June, I caught a free preview screening of this in Hollywood with co-star Lena Headey in attendance for a Q&A. It was the night after the infamous “Red wedding” episode of Game of Thrones had aired on HBO; far more people in the packed house seemed to want to talk about that rather than The Purge.
On the other hand, the audience ate up all the violence in the movie, roaring its approval whenever Ethan Hawke blew away the anarchist scum invading his suburban castle. Me, I was too busy puzzling over the many holes in the film’s premise, wherein all laws in the U.S. are suspended for a 12-hour period. A great idea for an exploitation flick, especially one with ambitions of surfing the “makers & takers” Zeitgeist. But writer-director James DeMonaco had no idea what to do with his own scenario, settling for an endlessly repetitive narrative of Hawke and Headey’s family being menaced in their home by mask-wearing psychos.
Perhaps incisive satire was too much to hope for; the script takes it for granted that the proles will go on killing sprees, while making no mention of what 12 hours of unpunished white-collar crime would do to the U.S. economy. (It’s a vision of the near future that would comfort Fox News viewers.) The Purge 2 is due out just six months from now, sans Hawke or Headey.
A Haunted House
The things a Movie Analyst has to endure for a paycheck.
Stand Up Guys
You would think a movie co-starring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken would be memorable. Or at least not this abysmal, sentimental dreck.