Worst Of 2009: A Baker’s Dozen

I admit to pangs of guilt whenever I publish my list of least favorite films.  Having written and directed films myself, I know the hardships filmmakers face.  Anyone who can get any film made has already achieved something quite difficult.  However, the filmmakers below have been mostly well paid and when you factor in the celebrity perks they also receive, I wouldn’t cry too many tears for them.  So while I may feel some small twinge of guilt, I still have to call them the way I see them because if I am not honest, I am useless as a critic.  Here are the films of 2009 that I liked least; in alphabetical order:

1.   12

I love Russian films.  I love courtroom dramas.  So, a Russian remake of the 1957 film 12 Angry Men sounded like it had possibilities, especially since it was made by Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar winning director, sometimes referred to as the Russian Spielberg.  But, increasing the run-time of the 90 minute original to a Siberia sized 160 minutes by giving each character an extended back-story just makes this film drag.  And, there might be something about Russian jurisprudence that doesn’t translate to my American brain, because I was completely unable to understand exactly how returning a verdict of guilty for this obviously innocent defendant was going to benefit him.  However, if Nikita Mikhalkov was trying to replicate the Soviet Gulag experience by making us feel trapped with people we don’t know, for an indeterminate time period, for crimes we didn’t commit, then he succeeded.  Available on DVD.

2.  2012

There are people who believe the alleged Mayan prophecy that the world will end on December 21, 2012.  For me, since the Mayans were unable to predict their own demise at the hands of European invaders, this automatically calls their abilities as prognosticators into serious question.  But, if the end does come in 2012, I am certain it will NOT look like the film 2012.  It’s not so much the breaches in physics or logic that bother me (they are part of the disaster film genre after all), it’s the mind-numbing stupidity regarding the human elements of 2012 that really annoy me.  When actors the caliber of John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor can’t save your dialog, something is very, very wrong.  Plus the special effects in this film are so annoyingly digital and fake looking, I fairly wanted to scratch my eyes out.  Director Roland Emmerich ladles on digital effects for the same reason incompetent chefs pour on a thick sauce.  They are simply trying to cover over inferior ingredients.

3.   Avatar

It’s been said that Hollywood no longer makes cheap “B” pictures; not true, they still make them, only now they spend $300 million dollars on them.  My disappointment with Avatar is that for all the technical advancements in  3D and CGI, it is still nothing more than a sci-fi remake of Dances With Wolves, with a touch of Tarzan.  The story follows a Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) sent to learn the ways of the Na’Vi, the peaceful indigenous people on the planet Pandora.  Since they are super tall and blue, Jake appears to them as an “avatar”, a kind of bio-robot that he controls remotely.  Amazingly, the elongated blue CGI characters look pretty cool (and tantalizingly sexy) and their faces are able to register complex expressions, even in close up.  On the minus side, the Na’Vi characters don’t seem to have any heft to them and they move like the Pink Panther.  To offset this visual discrepancy, the forests of Pandora have been filled with luminescent plants that light up whenever they are stepped on, but this just reminded me of the sidewalk in Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video.  A big narrative failing in Avatar is the one-note villains.  The Marines (previously the heroes in Aliens)  are now presented as gun-toting jarheads only too happy to shoot women and children.  It says something when the most emotionally complex bad guy ever to appear in a James Cameron film was the iceberg in Titanic.  But, since the primitive Na’Vi, using only their bows and arrows manage to defeat the Marines despite all of their high tech weaponry, it would seem that the real message of Avatar is that those who embrace high technology and ignore the interconnectedness of trees (or some such green-chic nonsense) are doomed.  Is it me, or is that just a weird message to be coming from James Cameron?  So, I am conflicted about Avatar.  Yes, the use of 3D and CGI in this film is remarkable and must represent a giant step forward in film technology, on the other hand, like director Raoul Walsh (White Heat) once said, “If you haven’t got the story, you haven’t got anything.” and Avatar does not have the story.

4.   Cheri

This sounded good; director Stephen Frears re-teaming with writer Christopher Hampton and star Michelle Pfeiffer to make another bawdy tale about louche French people after a 20+ year hiatus from their last hit Dangerous Liaisons.  But, while lightning can strike the same place twice in the physical world, it rarely does so in the movie world.  This film about a young man nick-named Cheri (luscious Rupert Friend, Johnny Depp’s boy-toy in The Libertine) who is sent to learn the secrets of love making from an old courtesan founders on the rocks of believability when the retired courtesan is played by the stunning Michelle Pfeiffer.  Let’s be real, even though Pfeiffer is past 50, she has lost none of her beauty or charm.  And we’re supposed to believe that Pfeiffer has been forced into retirement because men no longer consider her attractive?  That is more unbelievable than the digital effects in 2012.  Available on DVD.

5.   The Cove

The Cove is a documentary exposé that sets out to film the annual round up of bottle-nose dolphins in Taiji, Japan where most get sold to aquariums or dolphin research facilities and the rest are herded into a shallow cove where they are killed for their meat.  Since the killing occurs in private away from public view, the filmmakers break into the titular cove under cover of night and ring the area with digital cameras camouflaged as rocks.  And yes, the hidden camera footage of the dolphins being killed is not pretty.  But the fact remains, the Japanese fishermen are killing the dolphins for food.  The filmmakers are against this because according to them, dolphins are intelligent animals and should not be eaten.  Well, pigs are also intelligent animals and lots of people think they should not be eaten either.  Furthermore, the film makes its questionable case by using vague anecdotes, scientific misinformation and demonstrable lies.  The Cove anthropomorphizes dolphins all out of proportion, we see numerous interviews with dipsticks who wax poetic about the “love” they feel from dolphins, but this is simply their own inflated egos turning a dolphin’s innate curiosity into some kind of “spiritual” connection.  But, whatever you may feel personally about the Taiji dolphin harvest, it is still just hard working Japanese fishermen doing something completely legal in Japan which has been surreptitiously captured on film by arrogant, self-righteous Americans using highly illegal and unethical methods.  To me, encroaching upon another countries sovereignty simply because you don’t like their choice of diet is just plain wrong.  Available on DVD.

6.   Invictus

I found this film insufferable.  The real Nelson Mandela is a thoroughly inspiring man, but as played by Morgan Freeman, he comes across as Yoda-like nit-wit spouting off a philosophy so simple minded it would embarrass even the flightiest of New Age adherents.  Invictus is nothing more than a two hour plus scolding lesson full of inspirational haranguing that has the ultimate effect of pummeling you into brain dead, but laudatory submission.  Don’t be fooled, the people who praise this film are simply praising the idea of the film, so they can pretend to be a better person than you because they have not gone to the movies for any selfish reason like personal enjoyment or fun, but because seeing a medicinal film like this serves to prove their moral superiority and makes them feel better about themselves.  As for the actual movie, Invictus is inept and sloppily made.  Nelson Mandela deserves better than this.

7.   Julie & Julia

This was a disappointment because the film is so profoundly out of balance.  The two stories told here should complement each other, but they don’t.  The story of Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in Paris with her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) and her growing interest in classic French cuisine is fascinating.  The second story following office drone Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her boyfriend (Chris Messina) doesn’t amount to anything.  The real Julia Child made a noteworthy addition to American culture with her cooking show on PBS and her Mastering The Art Of French Cooking cook-book.  What did Julie Powell do other than cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s book (something any number of American housewives have already done), and write a blog about it?  The two stories don’t add up.  Perhaps Julie Powell did find meaning in her life by cooking Julia Childs recipes and if she did, great.  But that doesn’t make for much of a movie.   Available on DVD.

8.   The Limits Of Control

This was my single biggest disappointment all year.  As a fan of Jim Jarmusch, the idea of him making a shambling European road movie with the elegant Isaach De Bankole (Manderlay, Casino Royale) as a mysterious stranger who always orders two espressos in two separate cups wherever he goes while on some undefined mission sounded intriguing, especially when the film promised supporting roles for John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Gael Garcia Bernal among others.  But it all went wrong somewhere along the line.  To some fans of Jim Jarmusch, The Limits Of Control represents him stripping down a films narrative elements to their barest outline in order to make an artistic point.  But for me, this film just goes nowhere, achieves nothing, means nothing and takes a long time to get there.  Available on DVD.

9.   Red Cliff

This is an incomprehensible film about some huge battle that took place a long time ago in China.  But, because of the minimal differentiation in the costumes, I found it quite impossible to figure out who was fighting whom at any given moment.  The action sequences are uneven, choppy and edited with all the grace and attention span of a hummingbird on speed.  This film is even more annoyingly digital than 2012; something I would have thought impossible.  Truly, I’ve seen more believable backgrounds on pinball machines.  And there were parts of this film that made me laugh out loud when I don’t think they were meant to, like during a tender post-battle moment between a warrior who has been bandaged by his wife.  He looks at her solemnly and says, “You wrapped me up like a rice ball”.  I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my Milk Duds!  I’ve been told that the version of Red Cliff I saw has been edited down from a four-hour plus original and that is why it may have seemed incoherent.  Perhaps that’s true, but nothing, and I mean nothing in this world will ever get me to see the longer version of Red Cliff.  Life is just too short for that.

10.   The Road

I understand the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road is an excellent read, full of allegory, symbolism and the transubstantiation of ideas into characters and all of that is fine.  But while a book can leave things to your imagination, a movie has to show you things and The Road never explains in any coherent manner just what has happened to the world to send its surviving inhabitants scrounging along the titular road.  Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter either, because everything from the sets, costumes, locations, cinematography and special effects are contingent upon the type of disaster that has befallen the Earth.  I mean, a nuclear holocaust would look quite different from say, massive flooding.  Too many extraneous questions kept occurring to me during the film when I should have been caring about the protagonists.  For instance, we see massive evidence of wildfires, but how is that possible when there is a drenching rain almost every day?  We see predatory humans keep weaker humans locked up as a cannibalistic food source.  OK then, so what do they feed the captive humans to keep them alive until they can become dinner?  Trying to make sense out of this film will only make your brain hurt and you know something, it’s just not worth it.

11. Seraphine

I have been given a lot of grief for not liking this film.  Apparently, since I find this bio-pic shallow, uninteresting and dull, this somehow means I hate women painters and want to see all of their notable achievements erased from the history of art.  I know this film won seven Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) including Best Picture and I thought the performance by little known actress Yolanda Moreau as the female painter Seraphine de Senlis was compelling, but what else does this film offer?  Does it provide any inkling as to who Seraphine was, or what made her tick, or why her art was worth serious collecting?  My point is this, it is because women painters have been ignored by art historians over the years that you should demand a lot more from filmmakers whenever a female artist is portrayed in a movie.  Get mad at the filmmakers who did this half-assed job with Seraphine, not me the critic for pointing it out.

12.   Watchmen

It’s not like we needed another super-hero movie!  I am not familiar with the graphic novel this film was based on, but it could not be as badly paced, disjointed or as ridiculously predictable as this film was.  I knew nothing of the story, yet I identified the villain within the first 15 minutes.  I would have thought it impossible to make Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley and Matthew Goode uninteresting, but they were.  So the lesson here is that even with the most expensive sets, costumes, cinematography and special effects money can buy, if you don’t have an interesting story or interesting characters, none of that other stuff matters.  So, if the 300 “auteur” wants to take the credit for another “Un Film de Zack Snyder”, he should also get the blame when the film doesn’t work.  And Watchmen doesn’t work.  Available on DVD.

13.   Wendy And Lucy

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman attempting to drive across Oregon on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find work in the salmon canneries, when her car breaks down.  Why she is making this long trip is not explained except for some vague hints at family problems.  Lucy, her dog, is a cheerful brown mutt who is ten times more likable and infinitely smarter than her human companion.  I know Wendy is facing tough times but Wendy somehow manages to exacerbate her bad luck by being aggressively stupid and a total jerk.  When she ran out of dry kibble for Lucy, why did she attempt to shoplift a can of dog food when she had the money to pay for it?  And she didn’t help her case by getting mad at the clerk who caught her thieving or the police who arrested her.  What did she think the mechanic at the garage would do after she lied about having enough money to pay for her car’s repairs?  Why does she sleep outside in the open where she can be hassled by any creep who happens by?  While Wendy And Lucy may seem like the polar opposite of films like 2012 and Watchmen because it doesn’t have any digital effects or expensive production design, in many ways it is just like them in that it also has no interesting story nor any interesting characters, except maybe the dog.  Available on DVD.

Dishonorable Mentions:

35 Shots Of Rum, Antichrist, The Brothers Bloom, Ciao, Departures, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of The Cobra, Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, Humpday, Hunger, The International, Little Ashes, The Merry Gentleman, Nine, Oh My God, Revanche, Sherlock Holmes, Spread, State Of Play, Still Walking, Summer Hours, Tetro, Trucker, Up In The Air, Whatever Works

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