Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 in Review - The Worst Films of the Year

10 – Prometheus

For months the hype was deafening, so perhaps Prometheus was always destined to be a disappointing experience, but even if the film had snuck in under the radar I'm sure plenty of viewers would have felt let down by this shoddy and redundant Alien prequel. Ridley Scott's return to the series set out to explore the origins of the Space Jockey glimpsed in his 1979 film (a sighting surely more effective because of the mystery surrounding it), but the film's screenplay is a shocking mess that wastes a more than capable cast. From an ambitious opening section that suggested an attempt to explore mankind's genesis, Prometheus rapidly devolves into a series of grisly encounters and dull chases through corridors, with the characters paying the price for stupid decisions dictated by the screenwriters' half-considered whims. As I watched the film's rickety foundations collapse in the tired, effects-driven climax, I longed for a summer film with the intelligence, suspense and craft of...well...Alien, but few people are capable of making films like that anymore, least of all Ridley Scott.

9 – Albert Nobbs

Every actor has his or her passion project, the one story they're desperate to tell, but what on earth motivated Glenn Close to spend thirty years attempting to bring this tale to the screen? In Albert Nobbs she plays the title character, a woman posing as a manservant in 19th century Dublin. She dreams of owning a tobacco shop (we know this because she starts muttering about it in every idle moment) and she also appears to have vague dreams about marrying Mia Wasikowska. In truth, it's hard to know what exactly the perennially confused and tight-lipped Albert wants, and when a film has been in development for three decades, one might expect the lead character to be a little better defined. Ultimately, Close is overshadowed by Janet McTeer, who gives a commendably barnstorming turn as a fellow woman-in-disguise who happens to find work at the same establishment as Albert, while simultaneously making us wonder if any men in Dublin at this time were really men. McTeer reveals her secret to Albert and the audience by flashing her massive breasts in the film's second funniest scene, pipped only by a later sequence in which the pair wander clumsily out onto the streets wearing ludicrous dresses. I fear I may be making this dreadfully misguided film sound a lot more entertaining than it is, but don't be fooled. Aside from those brief comic highlights, it's a dreary and baffling picture.

8 – Seven Psychopaths

After making an impressive debut with the flawed but hugely entertaining In Bruges, Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths exposes all of his weaknesses and few of his virtues. Like Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, the film is very much about its own construction, with Colin Farrell's boozy screenwriter repeatedly getting sidetracked as he attempts to work on a script called Seven Psychopaths, but it lacks Adaptation's organic or heartfelt qualities. The film is built upon a series of cocky, rapid-fire gags but the impact of McDonagh's often sharp dialogue is undermined by the nastiness of the film's violence and a dismaying misogyny (poor Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe - all wasted) which is hardly excused by McDonagh spoofing his own inability to write female characters. Seven Psychopaths continues to try and top itself scene on scene with increasingly outlandish fantasy sequences and bloody confrontations, but it never feels like more than a collection of underdeveloped ideas in a self-consciously clever postmodern package; the kind of movie that belongs in the late-1990s and feels very tired now. The smart and talented McDonagh is capable of much better than this, and so is his cast, of whom only Christopher Walken seems to know exactly what he's doing and why.

7 – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

People asked if it was "too soon" for a film like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is built around the tragedy of 9/11, but that wasn't the right question to ask. The question should have been whether or not the film was good enough, smart enough, subtle enough to earn the right to incorporate those real-life events into its narrative, and on those terms it completely fails. The story involves a 9 year-old autistic boy who attempts to make sense of his father's death in the World Trade Centre by traversing New York on a quest to find the meaning behind the word "Black", found in an envelope in his father's personal effects. All of this is drawn from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, but to make sense of such a ridiculous tale in a two-hour film would require a skill and sensitivity that appears to be far beyond Stephen Daldry's capability. He milks every moment for mawkish effect, as if determined to extract tears from the audience through sheer force, but because every development feels so forced and phony, its emotional pull remains easily resistible. Ultimately, however, it's the misuse of 9/11 that amplifies the film's many flaws and turns a bad film into an offensive one. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the kind of film that needed to be handled with great tact – instead it's the kind of film that makes a visual motif out of Tom Hanks falling from the burning towers in slow-motion.

6 – The Raven

The Raven begins with a potentially interesting idea: in the last few days before his mysterious death, Edgar Allen Poe is forced to investigate murders that have been inspired by his own writings. Unfortunately, potentially interesting is as far as this idea goes, thanks to the lousy execution by the consistently terrible James McTeague. Taking on a role that really required a crazed Nicolas Cage-style energy to enliven the whole production, John Cusack brings a dour seriousness to the film, which makes the sight of him frantically running around and shouting "EMILY!" at the top of his voice unintentionally amusing. Beneath the Poe hook, The Raven is nothing more than a familiar serial killer tale, with one nonsensical clue leading to another until the inevitable "surprise" twist reveals the true villain of the piece as someone both (a) entirely unsurprising and (b) entirely uninteresting. The Raven is a cheap-looking production, from the bland sets and lighting to the poorly conceived CGI blood that spurts unconvincingly across the screen throughout. Given how fascinating Poe was in reality, there's something particularly depressing about the appropriation of his image for such cack-handed, straight-to-video fare as this.

5 – Rampart

A dirty LA Cop written by James Ellroy, a second collaboration with the director who helped him win an Oscar nomination – it's easy to see why Woody Harrelson jumped at the opportunity to play Dave "Date Rape" Brown. He seems to be having a whale of a time at the centre of this movie, but where's our reward for spending time in this loathsome character's company? After his understated collaboration with Oren Moverman on The Messenger, the first striking aspect of Rampart is how unrestrained everything is. Both Harrelson's oversized performance and Moverman's unspeakably ugly direction (canted angles, garish lighting, 360 pans, fish-eye lenses, the lot) are constantly calling attention to themselves, but perhaps they're only attempting to distract from the emptiness at the film's heart. Rampart fails as a character study because its protagonist is an empty vessel and we gain no insight into his behaviour for all of the shouting, womanising and vomiting we bear witness to; and it fails as a drama because the murky plot grows less interesting with every layer of corruption and every additional character. Finally – mercifully – the film just ends in an abrupt manner that suggests everyone involved realised they had wasted enough of our time already.

4 – Where Do We Go Now?

I suppose you have to give Nadine Labaki points for ambition. After making a charming debut with the modestly scaled Caramel, the Lebanese filmmaker's second feature is a lively musical comedy that suggests sectarian conflict would become a thing of the past if women were in placed in charge. Sadly, Labaki's reach has exceeded her grasp to an embarrassing degree, and Where do We Go Now? is a excruciating failure. Set in a small, remote village, the film consists of a series of wacky set-pieces through which the village's female inhabitants hope to quell the religious tension driving its Christian and Muslim menfolk to acts of tit-for-tat violence. The notions include, damaging the village's only TV so they can't watch the news, drugging them into subservience with hash cakes, creating fake miracles and even commandeering a troupe of travelling Ukrainian strippers to keep them occupied. Labaki plays it all as broad as possible, but every comic sequence hits the ground with a resounding thud and her treatment of the thematically thorny subject matter is too glib for the jarring segues into tragedy to work. This irksome film quickly becomes almost intolerable, and even the appealing presence of Labaki on screen (the one place she always seems comfortable) can't mitigate for such an accumulation of disastrously misconceived ideas.

3 – 360

Positioned late in the year as a potential 2011 awards contender, with a Toronto premiere and the London Film Festival's opening night slot, 360 finally limped into UK cinemas this August having been quickly forgotten by all the unfortunate souls who endured it. A preposterously tedious and bloated update of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde (already immortalised onscreen by Ophüls), Peter Morgan's screenplay traverses the globe to tell a number of bland stories that occasionally cross paths with the kind of subtlety that involves two characters actually driving around Vienna's Ringstraße to reemphasise the circular nature of the narrative. The cast hardly seem engaged by such mundane material and most of them sleepwalk their way through the picture, with the exception being Ben Foster, who sweats up a storm as a twitchy sex offender trying to resist temptation in the film's most ludicrous segment. The filmmakers even seem to forget about Jude Law and Rachel Weisz's unhappy marriage halfway through the picture, and who can blame them? If you'd said ten years ago that City of God director Fernando Meirelles could turn in a film as listless and hollow as this, few would have believed it, but he is a man on a seemingly irrevocable downward slide. One can only hope that 360 is rock bottom.

2 – Ted

Seth McFarlane didn't tinker with a proven formula when he made the transition from television to cinema this summer. Ted's blend of taboo humour, pop culture references and non-sequiturs will be familiar to anyone who has seen McFarlane's Family Guy, and the character of Ted himself (voiced by McFarlane) even sounds like Peter Griffin. In fact, if often seems as if Ted exists solely to house a number of gags that McFarlane couldn't get into his TV shows, and so the film plays like a series of one-liners and references loosely connected by a threadbare, unimaginative narrative. The fact that none of this is amusing (I know humour is subjective, but the setup and delivery of many jokes here is objectively bad) is one thing, but the most dispiriting aspect of Ted is how cheap its humour is. The film trades in homophobia, misogyny and racism, and while McFarlane may claim to be an equal opportunities offender, I think the lack of satirical purpose or thoughtfulness behind his jokes (in comparison to that displayed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, for example) is extremely troubling. He attacks gays, women and ethnic minorities for the same reason he randomly throws in jokes about Brandon Routh or Taylor Lautner – not because he's "brave" or "subversive" but because it's easy. Many comedies are unfunny, but few are as mean-spirited and ugly as Ted.

1 – Project X

Party plans going awry are a staple of the teen comedy and it seems Project X set out to be the last word on the matter. It begins with three unpopular teens throwing a party intended to earn them the respect of their peers, and it ends with widespread destruction, the event having quickly spiralled out of control. That's about all there is to it, though, numerous scenes of idiotic teenagers partying and getting drunk before they start to destroy property; and if that doesn't sound unpleasant enough, consider the fact that this is a "found footage" movie. Much of the footage is shot by an offscreen character enlisted to record this momentous night, and the rest is drawn from various mobile phones carried by the partygoers, but this unnecessary and distracting contrivance is handled with astonishing incompetence. But the most repellent aspect of Project X is its trio of leading characters, who are astoundingly obnoxious and whose responsibility-free antics play out with little or no consequences. The film has no wit, no charm, no humanity, no narrative development, no point. Enduring 90 minutes at this party is a truly hellish experience and one that makes me despair for America's youth if this is the standard of entertainment being set for them. Project X opens with a fake apology aimed at the residents of the neighbourhood we are about to see being ruined, but by the end of the film I felt like the audience deserved a real apology.

Dishonourable mentions Coriolanus; The Dark Knight Rises; The Descendants; Elles; Gambit; Grassroots; The Hunger Games; Love Crime; This Must Be The Place; Trishna