By The Playlist | The Playlist December 29, 2010 at 7:36AM
Contrary to popular belief, we're optimists here at The Playlist. Just as almost every filmmaker goes into a project genuinely wanting it to be the best it can be (“Grown Ups" being a major exception, it would seem), we genuinely hope that every movie released will be worthwhile. Unfortunately, movies are difficult things to make, with any number of things that are liable to go wrong, and more often than not, we come away disappointed. So, if we come across as being cynical when compared to other, more cheerleader-type sites, it's really more a kind of self-preservational realism at work. After all, you can only be disappointed so many times before you grow up about it and learn to manage your expectations.
Below is a list of films that we had high hopes for, and for various reasons, didn't match those hopes. They're also joined by a list of films that we didn't quite respond to in the way that our colleagues did -- what we deem to be the most overrated films of 2010. It's not that these films are truly terrible (although some are) -- some are thoroughly decent films that, for whatever reason, have been praised beyond their means.
You'll almost certainly disagree with at least one pick -- indeed, almost every film here has at least one defender on staff. And if you're feeling a little down with all this negativity, we've got our top films of 2010 coming in a few days.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
If 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' a suspense thriller involving a journalist of unimpeachable dignity and a bisexual fantasy girl superhacker, were shot in English, it would be discarded on the stack of fifth-rate “Kiss the Girls” copycats with a dollop of the worst parts of "The Da Vinci Code.” And yet, it will be in English next year, courtesy of a director (David Fincher) who can make a documentary about gathering moss interesting. Good luck to those guys. The Swedish originals, particularly the first one, were turgid, sophomore philosophy dissertations on rape and Nazi evil, the saving grace being the steely, diamond-out-of-coal performance from Noomi Rapace. But there’s a reason that first film had the laughably direct title “Men Who Hate Women.”
“Iron Man 2”
The first “Iron Man” was pretty much a wonderful accident. Rush, harried and shot pretty much on the run with the barest semblance of a script, it somehow turned out to be a lighthearted, fun antidote to the self-serious comic book film. So we had high hopes for the sequel, one that we hoped would keep the easygoing zip and tone of its predecessor. If only. A muddled mess of non-threatening villains, inconsistent special effects and endless exposition that was combined with an overabundance of “The Avengers” Easter eggs and eye winks, “Iron Man 2” was less about the adventures of Tony Stark and more a geek “Where’s Waldo” of Marvel clues with a loose and careless story thrown around it. Jon Favreau didn’t quite hide his dissatisfaction at Marvel’s constant meddling and obsession with making their cinematic superhero world whole, so no surprise then that the director has better things to do than make “Iron Man 3,” aka “The Avengers 1.5."
“The Ghost Writer"
We love the films of Roman Polanski as much as the next blog, but most of us on staff (the film does have some defenders here) have been baffled all year as to the critical love received by his latest film, "The Ghost Writer." Based on the airport thriller by British writer Robert Harris and put together in relative haste after the big-budget Polanski adaptation of Harris' "Pompeii" with Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson fell apart, it manages to serve as a decent adaptation of the novel, in that it's a thrill-free thriller with a deeply silly plot. The director at least delivers a lashing of atmosphere, but it can't disguise how clunky the script is, packed with laughable dialogue and contrived plot turns. Maybe, as with "Shutter Island," an A-list cast could have papered over the cracks, but sadly it's not the case: there's one top-drawer performance from Olivia Williams, but the rest of the cast range from barely adequate (Ewan McGregor) to the truly dreadful (Pierce Brosnan and Kim Cattrall). We'll have to cross our fingers for Polanski's next, the dark comedy "God of Carnage."
On the one hand, "Kick-Ass" was nowhere near as bad as we'd feared it might be, based on the juvenile Mark Millar source material and the patchy trailers for the film. Matthew Vaughn demonstrated he's one of the best action directors out there (with a number of the year's best set pieces in place), and Nicolas Cage turned in one of his better performances in recent years. On the other hand, it still wasn't very good, which makes the brief moments when it promises to be something interesting even more frustrating. The picture flirts with being a true deconstruction of the superhero movie, but doesn't have the courage of its convictions, reverting to rocket launchers and jetpacks in its finale and abandoning whatever loose connection to reality that it had created. This, plus the omnipresent, adolescent desire to shock, and the fact that Christopher Mintz-Plasse's character exists mainly to set up a (never-gonna-happen) sequel, and you're left with a movie that delivers for gore-hounds and comic book fans, but few others.
At the close of “Tron,” it was easy to imagine a sequel where Kevin Flynn let the computer world overtake him, turning him into a twisted Col. Kurtz, so the idea of a big budget sequel made sense to us. Years later, making his son a Willard-type character out to recover what was left of him in that world also sounded like a no-brainer. So why is it that after 28 years, the “Tron” sequel has so many undercooked ideas? We’re not completely against “Tron: Legacy” since we knew a “Tron” sequel would look good (it does) and when Daft Punk came on, we knew it would sound good (definitely). But we’re still wondering why we should care about the apparent brainwashing of Tron, Flynn’s mastery of ISOs being used against him, what kind of program Castor is, and what the deal was with that nonsensical ending.
Drowned in vast critical favor (along with some of the most cheesy and embarrassing critic quotes which make this writer want to take a xyster to the teeth), this third-rate micro-indie ripe with stilted acting, dry word-for-word line readings, Screenwriting 101 problems, and zero depth somehow went over our heads despite all of the hype and goodwill. What's worse is that it's just not funny. Director Lena Dunham stars in yet another baby of "The Graduate" as Aura, a girl with a liberal arts degree and not much else going for her. She struggles to find her place in the world, starting relationships with egotistical guys and attempting to bond with her mother and sister. At only 23, Dunham's inexperience in the medium (and in life experience) is blatant, with no eye for anything remotely visual or visceral and no ear to know when dialogue sounds believable or stale. Supposedly we're in the minority for thinking post-college malaise is not very fascinating or worth making a half-assed movie about.
“Toy Story 3”
We’re sure we’re going to get some heat for this one, a critical darling and a geek favorite that seemed to make every nerd who went to this thing weep. And while, yes, “Toy Story 3” was a hugely enjoyable installment in Pixar’s long running and successful franchise, it is not the Best Picture of the year. Not even close. And we’d go so far as to say it doesn’t deserve to be in the final 10 come Oscar time. The sequence that everyone talked about -- the dark, death accepting furnace scene -- is also one of the grandest pieces of emotional manipulation of the year (followed closely by the film’s closing bit with Andy passing on his beloved toys to a new generation). It also says something about North American culture that everyone pulled out their hankies as the fate of some anthropomorphic toys was determined. Really? We wonder how many of animation nerds and geek sites that turned into mush over a cartoon felt the same way about the much more real and powerful closing of “I Am Love” or the tender note of forgiveness closing “The Kids Are All Right.” We wonder if they even bothered sitting through them. Yes, “Toy Story 3” was probably the best kid’s movie of the year by a long shot but the film’s big emotional Hail Mary moments were about as honest and real as the special moments on your favorite sitcom.
Give Sofia Coppola some credit for her European arthouse balls -- perhaps best exemplified and announced in the opening shot of “Somewhere,” where A-list bad boy actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) drives around a race track over and over and over again going nowhere -- it takes big cojones to make a film this austere, stripped down and unadorned. But this experiment in minimalism goes wrong and it’s like the prettiest girl in school walking around naked with no make-up in a fog of narcoleptic drugs -- you’d think you’d love to see it, but in the end it’s just sad. “Somewhere” is about a man who has everything but cannot find fulfillment in anything. He ostensibly finds it in his little girl who gives him a sense of renewed purpose, but the journey there is like waiting in the most expensive and well-tailored elevator in the history of elevators. Ultimately, it’s shallow, hollow and an empty experience. Sofia, we’re not counting you out yet, but you know, maybe next time play to your strengths instead of running in the opposite direction.
OK, we gave this one a good review, it’s a pretty thrilling experience, but the longtail resonance of Paul Greengrass’ Iraq war film starring Matt Damon, not to mention the repeat-viewing factor value is low. While propulsive with lively clipped editing that induces nail-biting suspense, in retrospect, “Green Zone” suffers from a cliche script that points a lot of fingers and offers no solutions. Bad guys are painted black with all but twirly mustaches (Greg Kinnear) and the 'Bourne'-like freneticism seems to be in place to mask the narrative lapses in the film. Yes, it throbs in the theater, but once you’re passed the dazzling electrics and ‘Bourne’-like aesthetics (while we like them, now might be a good time for a change), you’re left with hollow grandstanding and a film that some could interpret as Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass saving the Iraq-war day thanks to one super hero. Sorry, but that’s just not complex enough for the situation at hand.
While many writers and sites are saying that Martin Scorsese’s psychological drama was overlooked, this writer thinks it landed exactly where it should have -- i.e. it was never an awards contender to begin with and those who ever thought that (and clearly there were many) can justly be convinced now that an indie like “Winter’s Bone” has a better shot at the Oscar 10 than “Shutter Island.” Overlooked suggests, the film deserved better and this writer contends “Shutter Island” was vastly overrated and not that great to begin with. Overly long (2 1/2 hours that feels like 3), overwrought and with little to anchor itself on emotionally outside of surrealist dream sequences that never quite worked, “Shutter Island” can be admired for its craft and Hitchockian notes -- but ultimately, it’s an empty exercise. Go back to da "Depahted", this didn't feel very different from Scorsese’s soulless early-aughts era (“Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”).
Yes, Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is also on our Most Underrated list. Different strokes for different folks. Some of us were dying for another Noah Baumbach film and the Playlist team in general are huge fans -- even the unfairly maligned “Margot At the Wedding” has tremendous value that most critics missed thanks to a prickly (but awesome and no punches held) Nicole Kidman. Greenberg’s biggest mistake is Ben Stiller. He just cannot compete and or compare to Baumbach’s past protagonists and frankly his dramatic skills have never been proven. Let’s not forget what could have been: the original version of “Greenberg” which was supposed to star Mark Ruffalo in Stiller’s part (a faaaar better actor) and Amy Adams in Greta Gerwig’s role (the same). While it’s not a terrible film by any means, for those of us that see a Baumbach film as another great Jewish holiday, “Greenberg,” was surely a disappointment. Sadly, Baumbach's puzzling fascination and collaboration with one the least textured comedians out there seems like it will only continue in 2011 (see "While We're Young").
“Never Let Me Go”
Based on a celebrated novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and featuring a trifecta of the hottest young Brit actors (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) “Never Let Me Go” was yet another beautifully shot but emotionally barren outing from Mark Romanek. Though based around a sci-fi conceit, the film is essentially a wrenching story of a decades long and ultimately tragic love-triangle. While all three actors are great, they are forced to contend with a script that relegates their characters as one-note constructs. Mulligan’s face is contorted into a pained expression for much of the film, Knightley is a horny bitch while Garfield, the central figure of affection, is one of the least compelling love interests (and most ineffectual) to hit the screen in a while. The film is a wonder to look at, gorgeously shot and framed at every moment and impeccably put together, but much like the eventual fate of the organ donors in the film, it feels decidedly lacking in a vital organ to make it pulse.
Hall of Shame Section No One Agrees With
“The Social Network”
Heresy! Yes, it’s everyone’s favorite film of the year, it’s probably going to win Best Picture at the Oscars -- and or yes, it’s got a really great shot, but this writer -- the EIC -- is just not feeling it. And look, I went to go see it twice just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. A lot of my issues with ‘TSN’ I’ve already articulated in this piece, but IMHO, there’s little at stake, the friendship that the movie’s major betrayal on is sorely underdeveloped and the entire thing feels like a longer, more expensive and beautifully shot episode of “Law & Order” minus the BONG, BONG gavel sounds. The script always read like a pretty typical courtroom drama told in flashbacks and that’s what the film feels like. Yes, the techniques, the score, the meticulousness of it all is grand and Fincher does an amazing job making pretty dull scenarios -- coding on a computer and creating Facemash -- like a thrilling spy game, but to this writer there’s very little soul to it. Don’t get it twisted, it’s a decent movie with strong performances and lots to admire, but ultimately, it does not move some of us (or just me, maybe).
-- Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Chris Bell, Kevin Jagernauth, RP