A small collection of my yearly contributions to The Playlist's controversial year-end Underrated/Overrated feature.
2014 Underrated: “The Raid 2: Berandal”
“The Raid 2: Berandal” currently sits at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is actually really good for an action film and probably even better for a sequel. But sometimes “underrated” is a matter of perspective, because “The Raid 2: Berandal” is not being discussed as one of the best films of the year, and what I’m saying is “The Raid 2: Berandal” is one of the best films of the year. Where the original was arguably the leanest and meanest action film since “Die Hard,” ‘Berandal’ is a sprawling, 2 ½ hour epic. While the original’s video-game structure (our hero climbs levels of bad guys before getting to the big bad on the top floor) allowed for a nearly exposition-free 101 minutes of non-stop bone-crunching fights, the sequel admittedly has some issues with pacing and the exposition gets a little thick trying to keep all the alliances straight. But these issues are like a few scratches of paint on a brand new Jaguar.
While the reach of ‘Bernadal’ admittedly exceeds its grasp, its highs are higher than nearly anything else you’re likely to see in 2014. Instead of simply rehashing ‘Redemption,’ writer/director Gareth Evans expands the scope and then some, introducing warring gangs, crooked cops, and at least a dozen characters with comic-book silhouettes (like Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl) and staging the jaw-dropping fight sequences in prison yards, nightclubs and spilling out into the streets in a highway chase that will undoubtedly go down as a hall-of-famer. On a technical level, the film is a marvel, and digital squibs aside, you just don’t see films like this anymore. The film’s fluid long takes with wide compositions showcasing the performers balletic feats of physicality make it an endangered species in 2014. At the film’s Sundance premiere, the audience burst into applause after every fight scene like they had just witnessed a big musical number at a Broadway show. I haven’t experienced anything quite as electric in theatres in almost 11 months. Bring on Part 3.
2014 Overrated: “The Theory Of Everything”
“The Theory of Everything” isn’t terrible. It’s fine. But that almost makes it worse, because if it were terrible, it would just go away. Instead it’s absolutely mediocre and the embodiment of the type of film seemingly engineered to waste everyone’s time during awards season when they could be talking about so many more interesting films released during this spectacular year for movies. For the next few months, countless experts, blogs (including this one) and other publications will speculate about whether ‘TTOE’ has what it takes to go the distance at the Oscars. And the ingredients all seem to be in place: Biopic. Disabled. British. Genius. Period Piece. Etc. Yes, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are good, but what exactly is the film about? I have no idea. What it tells us is that Stephen and Jane Hawking had a difficult marriage and, oh yeah, he was also a genius. But a film based on someone’s life shouldn’t just be “here are some things that happened,” it needs to be about something to resonate beyond the value of a Wikipedia entry, which is essentially what ‘TTOE’ boils down to. Take away the fact that this is a “true story” and you’re not left with much of a film. Fast forward 12 months, let alone 12 years, and tell me if you think anyone will remember “The Theory Of Everything.” I think they will not. If we recognize that films like this one are essentially prestige junk food, why do we waste our breath year after year?
2013 Underrated: “Pacific Rim”
I know what you’re thinking and yes, I am aware that “Pacific Rim”’s central conceit is kind of ridiculous, the script is built on cliches and Charlie Hunnam is a bland lead with a questionable Fauxmerican accent. But I just don’t care, because Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters epic was easily the most fun I had at the movies all year, which is ironic because prior to its release, I had not been especially been looking forward to it. I even questioned del Toro’s status as a Geek God whose reputation (in my opinion) outweighed the quality of his output and went into “Pacific Rim” fairly skeptical. But somewhere around the 40-minute mark, with a giant smile plastered across my face, I had an epiphany that put everything into perspective: maybe del Toro just isn’t an “A” filmmaker and maybe he never will be? Unlike some of his contemporaries who sought to elevate genre material into something more respectable, with “Pacific Rim” del Toro made one of the biggest “B” films of all time that just happens to look like the most beautifully realized “A” movie you’ve ever seen.
Like a modern-day Mario Bava (“Black Sunday,” “Danger: Diabolik”), sometimes you have to look past shoddy acting or a juvenile script—which is why Bava’s films aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath with classics like “Alien” or “Rosemary’s Baby”—but you’ll never be disappointed by the craft on display. Similarly del Toro’s passion for the material, silly as it may be, bleeds through into every joyous frame, which is what also separates “Pacific Rim” from something like the “Transformers” series. (Michael Bay is passionate about explosions but couldn’t really give a shit about robots that turn into cars.) And while I’m not generally a fan of CGI or 3D, this film proved to be quite the exception: a beautifully stylized world that I just wanted to spend more time in which may explain why I ended up seeing it three times in theatres, more than any other film this year. So while I can’t really argue with anyone who couldn’t see past their issues with the film, if you didn’t shriek with delight when that fucking monster sprouted wings, I just don’t know what to tell you.
2013 Overrated: “Blue Is The Warmest Color”
Look, I’m not a monster. I will admit that there is a lot to admire about “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the 3-hour Palme d’Or-winning sensation that made waves for its raw intimacy as well as for its extended, graphic sex scenes. I think the performances by co-leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are magnificent, the IFC Center’s decision to allow teens to see the film was a brilliant fuck you to the MPAA and admittedly for the first hour or so, I was completely under the film’s spell. In fact, I think everything leading up to the first consummation of Adèle and Emma’s relationship was emotional, intimate and pretty perfect. Unfortunately the problems begin with that oft-discussed 10-minute sex scene whose main problem is less about length and more to do with point of view, which switches jarringly from Adèle’s to the director’s. Up until that scene, everything in the film had been about experiencing first love from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl and all the excitement and weirdness that goes with that but when they finally get together, all the sexual tension that had been building deflates in an instant because they’re just straight fucking.
This moment should be thrilling for Adèle, instead it feels like it was constructed for the audience’s (or the director’s) stimulation—like Tyler Durden slipped in a scene from a different film—and while excuses have been made for Adèle’s “voracious appetite,” I just don’t buy it. There was no thrill of discovery there and if the scene had done right by the characters, there is literally no way it would’ve elicited snickers from audiences (as was reportedly a common occurrence). Unfortunately that was only the beginning of the film’s problems as the remaining two hours nearly drain any goodwill built up by the first. Again, the problem is not so much with length as to how it chooses to spend that screen time. Rather than focusing on large dramatic developments like showing us say, SPOILERS the indiscretion that leads to an irreparable rift between the couple END SPOILERS, instead we’re shown endless scenes of Adèle munching down on more spaghetti (not a euphemism). We get it, she has a voracious appetite! Now can we please spend a little more time with these characters while things are actually happening to them? Apparently not. By the time the film ended I was frustrated that it had squandered such promise. Its actresses and audience deserve better.
2012 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.
2012 Overrated: “Moonrise Kingdom”
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.
2011 Underrated – “Super”
Sitting at a lowly 46% on Rotten Tomatoes and receiving a barely passable C+ from our own genre hound Gabe Toro, the same guy who loved “Hobo With A Shotgun,” I did not go into “Super” with very high hopes. But the film, like its misfit characters, used my underestimation to its advantage. Weirdly personal and just plain weird, James Gunn’s superhero satire wasn’t the cutesy comic book spoof many expected it to be, which might explain why it died at the box office. Or perhaps just no one wanted to see Dwight from “The Office” playing a depressive geek who, after being left by his wife, starts bashing in criminals’ skulls with a giant monkey wrench. The film goes from darkly hilarious to thoroughly disturbing faster than you can say, “Shut up, crime!” Though it shares some incidental DNA with last year’s superhero sendup “Kick-Ass,” its rough edges make that film look as polished as the latest “Spider-Man” installment. And let me not forget to mention that Ellen Page delivers a maniacal, possibly career best performance as a psychotic little ball of energy with a major superhero fetish. Gunn throws a lot of shit at the wall and not all of it sticks but you can’t fault him for trying. No, it’s not perfect, but “Super” has a rough-around-the-edges charm that makes it far more interesting than most of the big budget superhero films that were trotted out in 2011 and is definitely one that deserves another look.
2011 Overrated – “Tree of Life”
I can imagine this is going to be an especially unpopular opinion on the site whose critics poll just awarded this as the best film of the year, but I did not love “The Tree of Life.” Far from it. I found Terrence Malick’s latest to be frustratingly uneven, and at times, a bit of a slog. I can see why so many critics have fallen for the film — well, in addition to the fear of having their film nerd licenses revoked — the ambition, scope and breathtaking cinematography are all worthy of high praise. But there is a mile wide gap between ambition and accomplishment and to take in the film’s pleasures you’ll also have to trudge through long stretches of whispery New Age narration and a WTF afterlife set finale that not even the film’s most ardent admirers can defend. Which is a shame because it features some of the most stunning images I’ve ever seen captured on film and hints at what might have been the role of a lifetime for star Brad Pitt, had the director been interested in exploring that. (And that’s not even mentioning poor Sean Penn’s performance, reduced to utter scraps in the finished film.) It seems the further Malick wanders out into the wilderness, capturing every beautiful butterfly and beam of light, the further he wanders away from his human characters and anything resembling a compelling arc. I’m still convinced in all those hours of footage, there is a great film in there somewhere but Malick either couldn’t find it or maybe just wasn’t interested in telling that story. Instead we get a middle section that hints at that greatness sandwiched by a beginning and ending that reaches for the cosmos but doesn’t get anywhere close.