With my year-end Top 10 done and dusted, it’s time to engage in some good old-fashioned negativity, and reveal my least favourite films of the year. Before I continue, I should say that while there were probably plenty worse films out there (in terms of technical quality etc, not to mention all the stinkers I mercifully avoided) this is a completely personal take. What follows is an account of the films that particularly irritated, bored or offended me (or in some frightful cases, all three). Who let the dogs out?!
Cabin In The Woods (dir., Drew Goddard)
In stark contrast to screenwriter Whedon’s sprightly Avengers Assemble, this clever-clever novelty was slathered in a suffocating sheen of smugness; it was almost as though the film kept pausing itself to explain to us – the poor audience – how awesomely intelligent it was. But it fell at every hurdle: not scary enough to work as a horror, not funny enough to work as a comedy, and not smart enough to provoke thought. The film that fell between all these stools was, in its own repellent way, the real stool.
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Damsels in Distress (dir., Whit Stillman)
When critics wrote effusively of Whit Stillman’s “light, frothy” campus comedy, I wondered if they’d watched the same film as me. On the contrary, I saw an airless, smug, joke-free mess with precisely as much respect for its characters as its audience: zero. One of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema – I couldn’t wait for it to end.
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The Darkest Hour (dir., Chris Gorak)
Had the filmmakers been honest, they’d have called it The Darkest 89 Minutes. This desultory sci-fi shambles about hungry electrical monsters (I know, I know) was a thrill-free ordeal.
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The Dictator (dir., Larry Charles)
Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest was an ugly, flat, mean-spirited shambles full of lame jokes, pathetic toilet humour and hapless, dated attempts at satire. Another bad sign was the reliance on the celebrity cameo for chuckles; a conceit which underlines the nagging feeling that Baron Cohen – now a major league Hollywood player – is part of the smug, self-congratulatory gang he purports to lambast.
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How I Spent My Summer Vacation (dir., Adrian Grunberg)
“Mad” Mel Gibson’s comeback as an action star was a noxious, derivative blast of casual racism (when will we live in a world where filmmakers will refrain from shooting Mexico through sulphurous filters?), gratuitous, nasty violence and beyond-retrograde sexual politics: ‘spicy’, brutalized Latina maidens were so 1985, guys.
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The Imposter (dir., Bart Layton)
Was there a more appropriately titled film released this year? Sure, Bart Layton’s film had a great story to work with (it’s explored brilliantly in this New Yorker article), but the director completely failed to trust said material, smothering it with pointlessly slick formal jiggerypokery. Worse still, I got the strong feeling that the filmmakers didn’t really give a toss about any of the characters they were dealing with. Contrast the humane way in which the New Yorker article treats the people involved with the cold calculation of the film. A real missed opportunity.
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Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (dir., Rob Heydon)
This ridiculous low-budget Canadian adaptation of an Irvine Welsh short story fused the production values of Hollyoaks with the clarity of insight and intellectual rigour of Hollyoaks. A spectacularly misconceived fiasco bereft of a single redeeming feature.
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A Man’s Story (dir., Varon Bonicos) | full review
Varon Bonicos’ deeply boring and hagiographic effort was less of a documentary than an extended electronic press kit. Its biggest crime was to make its fascinating subject (fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, who became the youngest, and first black man to open a shop on Savile Row) seem like a total dullard.
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Red Tails (dir., Anthony Hemingway)
When watching this cheese-sodden, horrendously inept would-be epic about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. There’s a tough dilemma at the heart of the act of responding to the George Lucas-produced Red Tails: should we be simply happy that this important story is being highlighted for a mass audience, or dismayed that it’s been handled so badly? There’s room for both emotions, but it’s little short of a tragedy – and an indictment of Hollywood’s racial mores – that a film this poor had to fight so hard to get made.
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The Sweeney (dir., Nick Love)
I maintain that, despite the critical opprobrium he’s always received, there’s a decent filmmaker lurking somewhere within the bowels of Nick Love. His debut Goodbye Charlie Bright was a truly decent effort, and the first half of The Business showed a hitherto undiscovered lightness of touch. Sadly, his witless, crass, pointless remake of the 70’s TV cop standard reminded us of the reasons for his current standing. Further minus points for wasting some great London locations.
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Dishonourable mentions go to: Christopher Nolan’s bombastic, self-regarding and stupid The Dark Knight Rises – thank God that trilogy is over; Oliver Stone’s laughable Savages (only a man with the hubris of Stone would try and get away with one of those pretend endings in this day and age); Cameron Crowe’s nauseating We Bought a Zoo – the moment where the director’s giddy optimism crossed the divide from heartwarming into terrifying; rubbish Canadian comedy Starbuck, which wasted a great premise with slack, cartoonish execution; and Michael, a shallow and repugnant Austrian film which played like a bankrupt man’s Michael Haneke remaking Misery after reading about Josef Fritzl. I found its ending (I won’t spoil) particularly unpalatable.
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A quick round-up of disappointments
Perhaps 2012 found me in a particularly crotchety mood, but I was largely unimpressed with a vast swathe of the year’s biggest critical darlings. The two films I’d most been looking forward to – Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (feature) – both ended up being my least favourite films to date from their respective directors. I found the former to be a disjointed (no pun intended, Marion) and manipulative – if well-acted and occasionally powerful – affair, replete with weirdly dated sexual politics and hilariously fetishized notions of masculinity.
Anderson’s film, meanwhile, looked and sounded great, but after a superb opening, simply disappeared in a feeble puff of ineffectuality. I was compelled enough to watch it twice (not least so I could further bask in Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged performance), but was even more bored and confounded the second time round. I think Anderson is a visceral and propulsive filmmaker rather than a cerebral one, and The Master betrayed signs of its creator either lacking ideas or simply failing to communicate them adequately. However, it deserved serious credit for refusing to spoonfeed its audience, and for being such a genuine oddity in the oft-restrictive context of mainstream American cinema. It also inspired some truly outstanding writing, not to mention some lively pub discussion.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was another critical favourite which, despite its undeniable energy and originality, left me cold. I found it hokey, shallow and not a little patronizing. Another film to depend heavily on young actors – Wes Anderson’s ever-so-precious Moonrise Kingdom (full review) – felt like a serious case of diminishing returns even though it looked gorgeous. Early stills and teasers of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly had me hot under the collar, but the end result – a hectoring, gratuitous and self-satisfied mess – poured ice down my trousers.
There was plenty of praise for Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, but I found this broken-backed film hard work, and seemed to be alone in preferring the austere first half to the colonial-era second. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I watched it on a laptop on a timecode-inscribed DVD screener – hardly optimal conditions for a film which many described as one of the year’s most visually lush. If it’s playing on a big screen near me any time soon, I’ll make sure I give it another go.
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I managed to keep a complete record of everything I watched on every format this year, so I thought I’d whack together a couple of (alphabetical) Top 10s of some great stuff I saw for the first time:
2001: A Space Odyssey | dir., Stanley Kubrick, 1968 | BFI Southbank
Faces | dir., John Cassavetes, 1968 | BFI Southbank
Hyenes | dir., Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1992 | IFI Dublin
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie | dir., John Cassavetes, 1976 | Prince Charles Cinema
Ordet | dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1955 | BFI Southbank
Ornette Coleman: Made in America | dir., Shirley Clarke, 1985 | IFC Center, New York
The Passion of Anna | dir., Ingmar Bergman, 1969 | BFI Southbank
The Purple Rose of Cairo | dir., Woody Allen, 1985| Arsenal, Berlin
The Spook Who Sat By The Door | dir., Ivan Dixon, 1973 | BFI Southbank
Yeelen | dir., Souleymane Cissé, 1987 | IFI Dublin
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould | dir., Francois Girard, 1993
All That Jazz | dir., Bob Fosse, 1979
The Bad and the Beautiful | dir., Vincente Minnelli, 1952
Blue Collar | dir., Paul Schrader, 1980
Chameleon Street | dir., Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989
The Hit | dir., Stephen Frears, 1984
Safe | dir., Todd Haynes, 1995
Sisters | dir., Brian de Palma, 1973
Spider | dir., David Cronenberg, 2002
Wonderland | dir., Michael Winterbottom, 1999
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Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for the final part of PPH’s end-of-year round-up.