By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 17, 2012 at 2:15PM
We understand that to many, underrated and overrated are potentially noxious terms thay may want you to punch us in the face. At the very least it’s deeply subjective and relative. What’s underrated to one person is fussed over to someone else. Essentially, it’s all about one’s perception of the narrative that forms around any given film. Some pictures are often undervalued or underepresented by certain sections of the critical cognoscenti and other pictures are lauded as the greatest thing sliced bread and writer’s often feel like they need to make some sort of corrective to that that narrative.
We understand it’s an often polarizing sentiment, but by bringing together the Playlist collective for our annual overrated/underrated piece, and identifying each writer in their subjective thoughts, we thought -- for better or worse -- each individual might illuminate a little bit about how they see film, and what their perception was of films that didn’t get their fair shake and or were overly praised. You'll undoubtedly think some of them are crazy or interesting, and two films that have contradictory takes from different writers (which serves to demonstrate how subjective the idea of something being "under" or "over" rated can be). Let us know which films you think have been overlooked and overblown in the comments section, and for all The Playlist's year-end coverage make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
Underrated - “Almayer’s Folly”
Once "Bridesmaids" made waves at the box office, the discussion of smart female movies and woman filmmakers got a lot louder: why were males so dominant in all aspects of cinema? It's a legitimate topic that needs to be discussed, and more people than ever were having it -- but when the movies came ("Artificial Paradises," "The Loneliest Planet," "The Milk Of Human Kindness" to name a few), nobody cared. One of the more unfortunate films to get the short shrift this year is by the well-respected Chantal Akerman, whose heavy "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" is constantly name dropped among today's newest batch of slow-burn, minimalist directors. It's unclear why this terrific movie is so under-the-radar, especially because there's plenty to appreciate within. Taking liberties with the source material by Joseph Conrad, the filmmaker focuses on the relationship (or lack thereof) between a wealthy caucasian colonialist and his mixed-race daughter, the latter whom holds resentment of Pops for sending her away for a “white education” (big surprise: she becomes a victim of racism). Identity is a topic that Akerman constantly prods at, braiding all these ideas into a simple story performed with a subtlety that makes the inevitable emotional breakdowns incredibly stirring. Similar to her older works, the director continues to move at her own speed, playing with the temporal while capturing the lush-yet-unwelcoming jungle that most of the movie lives in. It’s an altogether astonishing work of art, and there’s no reason why the “slow and boring” (really wish there was another name for this niche, even if it ended in "core") advocates wouldn’t gobble this up. Thankfully it’s never too late.
The amount of pressure this film puts on its audience to break down into tears every ten minutes is utterly insulting. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic here, but this is the reaction you get when you’re expected to emote after a little girl strikes her father to the ground after accidentally burning her house down following a conversation she has with a shirt on a chair that is supposed to represent her deceased mother. That piece of clothing also speaks back to her, with a crisp voice-over of the matriarch’s voice. It’s just too aggressive, and when it’s not going for waterworks, ‘Beasts’ is convinced that you’ll find its wee protagonist engagingly adorable, with her chubby cheeks and loud proclamations coated in cute kidspeak. Basically, if it doesn’t get you in the first five minutes with any of this, there’s really nothing to pull from it -- the landscape does indeed make for some admirable cinematography, but any allusions to real world events feel heavy-handed and not particularly insightful. I admit that this likely reads as a vitriolic rant, but know that I don’t feel “cooler” than anyone else for disliking the movie -- I would’ve loved to be part of this Hushpuppy club -- but the movie doesn’t have an understated bone in its body, and you can only nod along to Beirut and hope to be legitimately moved for so long.
Theres been a lot of talk of late about women in comedy, which felt like a pretty redundant conversation when it began: is the question “Are women funny?” really something we're asking in the 21st century After all the success of "Bridesmaids" last year, it seems, unfortunately, that the pendulum swung back the other way, with a backlash against women doing “gross-out humour." Unfortunately this kind of sentiment seemed to wash over into the reviews of Leslye Headland’s first film "Bachelorette" -- which definitely features its fair share of gross-out moments, pavement licking and wedding dresses being used as toilet paper, but also goes beyond that. "Bachelorette" isn't funny like Judd Apatow films are funny, instead it's full of biting one-liners and black humour, it's a bit nasty and as smart as heck. You probably don't want to hang out with all the characters at a bar after the movie like I did after seeing "Bridesmaids," but the leads in "Bachelorette" ring truer than most female characters do in film these days, for better or worse. Headland has created the kind of female characters that are severely underrepresented, ones with actual problems, who aren’t always nice but also have shades of grey, are at least semi-functional and maybe talk to each other about something other than a dude once in a while. She also casts it brilliantly, with leads Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan, all committing to their roles as the "bitchelorettes" with gusto and putting in charismatic performances. The supporting guys aren't half bad either with both James Marsden and Adam Scott filling their roles with perfect panache. "Bachelorette" may not be a comforting feel good comedy, but that doesn't make it any less insightful, witty or entertaining.
Perhaps "Holy Motors" is only overrated in certain circles of cinephilia -- its not likely to win any major awards nor make millions at the box office, but critical reception has been overwhelmingly glowing, with the film making decent showings in both the Sight and Sound and Cahiers du Cinema best of 2012 list. Yes, Denis Levant, the star, the lead, the one with the most screen time, is great, but a film this well reviewed should be more than just an actor's vehicle. Instead, Leos Carax's picture feels repetitive, pushing the same points about reality, fantasy, representation and viewership over and over -- and to tell the truth they weren’t that insightful the first time 'round. Sometimes Carax makes his point in visually arresting ways, and in other scenes he comes close to being emotionally touching, but this is a film that feels all too pleased with its own cleverness, quietly laughing at the viewer for taking any of it seriously. "Holy Motors" ticks a lot of boxes in terms of intertextual references, which will surely make it great fodder for a Film Studies course, but grows tiresome over the course of the film. Its also full of obvious and unaffecting scenes that seem to appear purely for “shock value” -- Levant’s green-suited, flower-eating devil, from his naked erection to bloody finger biting, feels tired and even dated, as do the out of place co-stars like Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, who both felt useless in this film, whether purposefully or not. To wrap the film up, Carax’s final scenes only further trivialise the last 100 odd minutes that the audience has endured. Its hard not to feel that one of these vignettes could have been an entertaining short, but as a feature, and a lauded one no less, it is simply tiresome.
Underrated: “The Dark Knight Rises”
Though my initial instinct was to use this opportunity to shine the spotlight one of many smaller film that didn’t get their due this year -- “Sleepwalk With Me,” “Nobody Walks,” and “Smashed,” all made strong cases -- instead I felt compelled to throw down for the most underappreciated blockbuster of the year: “The Dark Knight Rises.” But wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s epic final Batman film released to mostly positive reviews, you say? Well, yes. But in the months following the film’s release it seems like public opinion really began to turn on it. From Bane’s voice to the (perceived) plot holes to the lack of screentime for the title character, there was no issue too small for fanboys not to groan about. The anti-’TDKR’ sentiment grew so loud that I started to question my own admiration for the film. But months after Aurora, the hype and the backlash, I caught one of the film’s final showings in a nearly empty IMAX theatre and quite simply, loved the shit out of it. The little things that had bothered me on first viewing barely registered now and I wondered how I’d ever doubted it in the first place. It was never going to be possible for ‘Rises’ to top “The Dark Knight” -- Ledger’s Joker was lightning in a bottle -- but it’s not for lack of trying. While it’s typical for sequels to go big, this one is a true epic reaching almost operatic heights scene-after-scene. What I still can’t understand is how the film became a punching bag to begin with (being held to a standard of “realism” that Nolan never subscribed to anyway) while another superhero blockbuster gets a pass because its more “fun.” ‘TDKR’ may not have been the film most audiences wanted this summer but Nolan gave them the one they deserved. And it was one for the history books.
For a filmmaker as divisive as Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom” is probably as close as a film the auteur has come to making something universally beloved. It's the director’s second highest grossing film to date, has a 94% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has recently been cropping up on countless Best Of 2012 lists. However this former Anderson devotee finds it not only one of the most unjustly praised films of the year but also the filmmaker’s weakest live-action effort to date. (And yes, that includes “The Darjeeling Limited”). Wes Anderson fans, I completely understand your outrage at yet another critic taking a shot at your favorite director but until this film, I was one of you. Yes, this is the same writer that voluntarily wrote a 2200+ word analysis of the trailer. Continuing on the downward slide that has befallen his work for the past decade, Anderson has lost his grip on character, story and even humor with his latest strained effort. Despite some clever casting, the jokes fall mostly flat and characters amount to not much more than window dressing. (To paraphrase Red Letter Media, it would be difficult to describe the personality of one of the characters in the film without describing what they look like or what their profession is.) The most frustrating part is knowing that Anderson is content to keep making the same movie over and over to diminishing results for as long as he keeps getting patted on the back by critics and fans for doing so. His idea of artistic growth is changing the setting of his films (New York/Italy/India/the ‘60s) without altering his highly affected style. Sure, “Moonrise Kingdom” is pleasant enough, but for someone who has invested so much in a filmmaker who showed such promise, it’s an incredibly frustrating thing to watch idly.
Underrated - “Ruby Sparks”
Every year, critics get out their knives for rom-coms that deliver the same tired formula, gender stereotypes and stories, and sigh and lament about the lack of originality in the genre. But it boggles the mind that when something as truly unique and special as “Ruby Sparks” came along, critics and audiences mostly shrugged their shoulders. It’s a shame because the fresh voice and perspective of screenwriter and actress Zoe Kazan is one we could use more of. On the surface, the film is a Charlie Kaufman-esque lark about a struggling, neurotic writer who one day literally conjures up the the girl of his dreams with a few keystrokes on his old school typewriter. It’s at first bliss, and this seems to be where most people turned off their brain and threw lazy “manic pixie dream girl” comparisons at the picture. But it’s the second half where the film truly matures, turning this fantastical romance into an incisive and insightful exploration of the vulnerability relationships put us in, the power we try to exercise over them in order to maintain some sense of security and what happens when it falls apart. It’s really about learning how to love someone for their flaws instead of their perfections, and it’s all wrapped up in a lovely script, smoothly handled by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Here’s hoping on home video it takes on a second life and finds more fans. Along with “Take This Waltz,” it’s one of the best relationship movies of the year.
It seems that we’ve become so desensitized to the usual animated schlock churned out year by year from studios, that even the appearance of something different sends folks into a tizzy, particularly if its the kind of fare aimed squarely at fanboys. It’s undeniable that “ParaNorman” had a great concept -- a stop motion zombie movie for kids? Awesome. It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t take that creative thinking and apply to the characters or even the basic structure of the story. It’s same old thing, with a outsider kid as the protagonist, coupled with a quirky chubby sidekick (who is kind of a ripoff of the much more engaging lead from “Up”), with an annoying sister and her dumb jock boyfriend along for the ride (though admittedly, the late reveal about the latter character is a nice touch). And let’s not forget the parents who are oblivious to what’s going on with their kid. Once the novelty of the aesthetics wear off, and you quickly realize the 3D doesn’t add much flavor, you keep waiting for the story become as alive as its surroundings. But instead, it plays the the safe and familiar beats of every animated movie, overpunctuating every emotion, taking our hero on a predictable journey from beginning to end with very little to make it compelling or truly memorable aside from that Jon Brion score.