I always like coming up with lists of the best films of the year. It gives me a chance to reminisce on all the good times I had at the movies in the last year. It’s when it comes down to the actual ranking that I get a little stymied. Everyone wants to know about your #1 film, but after that, it doesn’t much matter. Does it matter, for instance, which of the films is #6? The top-10 best films of the year lists are always more academic ways of talking about great movies many have seen, or strenuously recommending films to people. But when it comes to the worst films of the year, well, those films always stand out, perhaps a little more vividly. I’ve said this before, and I’ll repeat it: Great films are kind of universal, and can often be agreed upon. Bad films are deeply personal, and can feel like a specialized attack.
If you listened to the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast here on CraveOnline (which was episode #49, if you can believe it), you would have heard William and I discussing, at length, some of the most horrible films of the year. Listen to our voices. You’ll find a level of passion and energy that, well, may not have even been in our year-end top-10 lists. We have a special place in our hearts for the greats, but we’ll never forget the wounds of the worst. It was in a few disagreements, however, where the real drama comes in, and it’s there that I’d like to jump off from. For instance, William listed Evan Glodell’s first feature Bellflower as one of the worst films of the year. He cited its misogyny and hopeless characters as culprits to its quality. I found the film to be daring and dark. I found Transformers: Dark of the Moon to be a thudding assault on my sense of good taste. William thought it was the epitome of popcorn cinema.
I always like hearing these disagreements, and it can be fun to argue. It gives one a chance to hone one’s opinion, or perhaps (provided you’re in the right state of mind) be tempted to re-think certain films. We all have those one or two minority opinions that we feel we can defend, despite powerful opposition from a peer, or sometimes from the status quo at large.
And it is on minority opinions I’d like to opine briefly this week. And not the kind of opining wherein I’m going to recommend obscure films to you (I do that pretty much every week on the podcast), and it’s not the kind where I will defend a maligned film (my enjoyment of Super Mario Bros. is a matter of public record). No, this week, I shall be listing a few films that are widely considered to be classics, and that I find to be, well, perhaps not so classic. Yes, friends, I’m afraid the time has come for me to attack something you love. Here are a few films I don’t like all that much:
I saw this film for the first time in college, and I felt kind of offended. I mean, here I was working my butt off to learn about dramaturgy, the Battle of Thermopylae, Cartesian dualism, and Latin verb forms, and into my academic idyll burst “Bluto” Blutarsky in all his crassness. I found the heroes of this film to be abrasive, filthy, deliberately offensive, and just as detestable as the snotty rich kids they were railing against. I felt incredibly put off by the film’s insistence that we sympathize with such horrible human beings. And then, at the end, the film gave us brief histories of each of the kids, and how they were to end up. I spent so much of the film hating those kids, and recoiling from their drunken debauchery, I felt further affronted by seeing how they die. Fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, and it’s no way to make a movie.
It took me a while to come around to Federico Fellini, mostly because my first exposure to him was this 1963 classic pseudo-autobiography. While many praise the film for its bold surrealism, playful carnival egotism, and avant garde imagery, I was perhaps, at age 18, too young to really understand what Fellini was trying to do. As a result, I didn’t give Fellini much of a chance. I watched 8 1/2 a second time, thinking that perhaps I missed something, but by then, I was too resolved to enjoy it. I just didn’t understand, and was alienated. It wasn’t until I saw La Dolce Vita about a decade later that I really began to look at Fellini in earnest. The Italian master, though, was for many years the one corner of European cinema that I felt to be one toke over the line. And this is from a guy who loves Last Year at Marienbad.
I understand that the 2002 Spider-Man feature film ushered in the superhero trend in earnest, and pretty much dictated what blockbusters were going to look like for a decade. It brought comic books to the fore in a way heretofore unseen, and ushered in an explosion of geek culture that we are still living in. I saw it with a bunch of friends on opening night, wearing my Spider-Man t-shirt, thrilled that one of my favorite superheroes finally got a feature film (up until that point, only the X-Men had been given blockbuster treatment, and many have their beefs with those movies). At the end of the film, though, I was disappointed by the flat, unbalanced and sloppy actioner I had just seen. Was it supposed to be campy? Serious? An action film? Why was Peter so boring? Why did the costume look so bad? My friends liked it so much, they talked about rushing across town to another theater to see it a second time that night. I was embarrassed to admit how character-free I thought the film was. Luckily, Spider-Man 2 came along a few years later, and actually got everything right that the first film flubbed. There was finally a balance between the comedy and the action.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
I have to admit, I have something of an aversion to westerns. I am kind of afraid of horses, and when I see grizzled frontier heroes, riding boldly across the halcyon sagebrush of the nation’s lawless territories, all I can think is how much I’d like to drag those men from their horses, pull them to a New York hotel, and bathe them until all the stink, deer ticks, and other frontier-dwelling maladies have been blasted from them. Westerns, to me, always seemed to be about cold-hearted, ignorant criminals who get involved in dumb plots that ended up in them murdering one another. I had trouble sympathizing with violent, filthy criminals. Well, maybe not entirely. The samurai films that inspired a lot of the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, including Sergio Leone’s masterpieces, hold a great deal of my interest, and I love seeing Toshiro Mifune gallivanting about in his glorious criminal fashion. Perhaps my aversion to westerns is merely a matter of aesthetic. But the westerns I like are few and far between, and I still have yet to really feel the big deal about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is.
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
I’ve got something of an advantage over Witney here, since I write my half of B-Movies Extended after he does, and he doesn’t get a chance to respond. Mwa-ha-ha. Suffice it to say, I’m in fervent disagreement over his treatment of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, think he’s being a little unfair to Animal House and Spider-Man, and couldn’t agree more on 8 1/2. I’ve seen Fellini’s supposed masterpiece several times and, despite the obvious wealth of talent involved, I still can’t get past its gross indulgence. I suspect Witney’s going to have similar beefs with my picks for Great Movies That Suck, and I look forward to being berated on this week’s podcast on Friday.
Yes, I hated Bellflower. I realize I focused on a lot on the film’s “message,” which I found particularly ugly, in last week’s episode. Witney argued that the film was about ugliness and misogyny, but I just don’t buy it. I don’t mind a message that disagrees with my own worldviews if it’s presented well, but Bellflower, for all its great reviews (it’s got a respectable 72% on Rotten Tomatoes), seemed like it wasn’t aware of its own agenda. It’s trying so hard to make its heroes seem like cool slackers that it doesn’t pay any real attention to what chauvinistic, violent jerks they are. I felt similarly about Young Adult, a film with primo Oscar prospects, which on a surface level seemed like a daring about-face from traditional Hollywood “indifference-to-concern” storytelling, but in fact – thanks to a blunt, reductive monologue – reaffirmed that very same clichéd message, despite its rather downer ending. It’s like Ebenezer Scrooge decided on Christmas Day to not bother changing, even though the story itself clearly judged him for his previous behavior. Young Adult ends in a rebellious way, but its conventional, judgmental message is unchanged. It makes it seem like the storytellers were so invested in doing a different kind of ending that they forgot to make the rest of Young Adult the kind of movie that would have supported it.
There’s a lot of critically-acclaimed movies I don’t particularly care for. Sometimes I just think they’re a little overrated, and I’m going to try to avoid those here for the sake of getting to the point. I happen to think The Godfather is better than The Godfather Part II, for example, if only because the flashbacks – brilliant as they are on their own – aren’t organically edited into the rest of the film. (A minor quibble perhaps, but it distracts me.) The Matrix gets too bogged down in exposition for my tastes, and by the time it came out I’d already enjoyed too many proper sci-fi stories and real kung fu movies, respectively, to consider it revolutionary, but it’s a damned good flick anyway. I don’t actively dislike either of those examples. These next movies, on the other hand, pretty much turn me off no matter how many times I try to rewatch them, and no matter how great everyone else says they are.
SUPERMAN & SUPERMAN II
I’m going to admit two things: 1) when Richard Donner’s first Superman movie came out in 1978 it must have been magical, and 2) I wasn’t around at the time, and as such have no particular nostalgia for its release. So yeah, I feel the same way about the Superman movies, even the supposedly good ones, that future critics will probably feel about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (and that Witney, forward-thinker that he is, already does). They’re a nice effort, clearly a labor of love, and have damned impressive visual effects for its time, but they’re pretty clunky. I’m with Superman for about half the movie, and even in that second half Christopher Reeve is fantastic, but its version of Lex Luthor is one of the lamest movie villains around. Motivation is a key factor here: Heath Ledger’s Joker, for example, had a philosophical compulsion towards acts of violent chaos, which contrasted beautifully with Batman’s arguably ironic need to preserve social order. Superman, an even greater paragon of righteousness, gets a narcissist with a real estate fetish. See my problem? This Luthor is not a threat, nor is he even a real character thanks to his cartoonish mugging. He’d bring the whole movie down if his sidekick Otis (ugh… Otis) hadn’t already done so with just his first, awful scene. Superman II is a little better (it certainly has a better villain), but it suffers from weirdness across the board. Donner’s director’s cut was a mild improvement, but the damage had already been done. We’ve still never had a great Superman movie, I don’t care what anybody says.
HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR
On the artier side of things, I present to you Hiroshima mon amour, considered one of the greatest and most significant films of the French New Wave, which used a daring story structure to illustrate the relationship between a French woman and her Japanese lover against the already backdrop of their experiences in World War II (a much fresher wound at the time). I can’t stand it. There, I said it. Man, it’s good to get that off my chest. I can’t stand Hiroshima mon amour. Time works against it, definitely, since the crux of my annoyance is that Hiroshima mon amour feels like a running tally of all the clichés that came to plague the American perception of pretentious French cinema. It’s ponderous (even if it’s pondering important things), the central relationship is so detached that I can’t become involved, and the message is so blunt that I can’t appreciate the purportedly brilliant way in which it’s framed. Like Witney, I admire director Alain Resnais’ follow-up feature, Last Year at Marienbad, and I love many other French New Wave films as well, but Hiroshima mon amour just rubs me the wrong way. Whenever I even think of it, this clip from Animaniacs pops into my head in its place.
A newer film this time. Slumdog Millionaire came out of nowhere – heck, it almost went straight-to-video – to dominate the 2009 Oscars, winning eight awards out of ten nominations. I was excited to see the film, being a fan of director Danny Boyle since his debut feature Shallow Grave. He’s not infallible (oh, The Beach, let us not speak of you), but he’s a major talent who brings a lot of verve to this tale of a young Indian man (Dev Patel) who tries to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for the sake of his long-lost love (Freida Pinto). It starts well, making the most of a clever storytelling device in which flashbacks explain how the hero – an uneducated member of the lower caste – came upon the knowledge that makes him a real contender on the show. Where it falters is in the endgame, when the filmmakers seriously overplay their hand. He’s separated from the girl he loves for years, and she’s shockingly abused by gangster that whole time. They don’t have time to really reconnect as adults, but we’re supposed to root for them to end up together anyway, even though, rationally speaking, they’re probably no longer compatible. Worse, the hero's story is awkwardly infused with “greater significance” as his game show performance gives hope to the nation. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s extremely tacked on. The final blow comes during the credits, when the cast of this serious drama reunites, regardless of their differences, for a big happy Bollywood musical number, as if to say “Sorry about the movie, you weren’t supposed to take it seriously.” It’s not an awful flick, but it’s just so flawed that I don’t care for it at all. So there.
SCHOOL OF ROCK
Not a classic? Maybe, but every time I tell someone that I didn’t like School of Rock you’d think I’d just punched their pregnant wife or something. They seem to have a strong emotional reaction. But here’s a movie where I’ll admit, much like Witney did with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that the problem is my own. He’s not a fan of horses, so he doesn’t like westerns. Fair enough. I’m the son of two lifelong educators (and myself an accredited substitute teacher, not that I’ve ever done anything with that), so movies about the profession walk a thin line with me. When they get it wrong, as frankly most of them do, they piss me off in the same way that I suspect a movie like Biodome would piss off an actual ecologist. Clearly it wasn’t made with me in mind, but seriously? Jack Black plays a failed rocker who lies to get a gig as a substitute teacher, and proceeds to improve his student’s lives by teaching them about rock and roll. I’m almost okay with that, except that he teaches them nothing else. For months! Schools are based, admittedly far too rigidly, on a strict curriculum and his students – portrayed as prodigies, probably to diffuse this very criticism – are going to fall hopelessly behind in their education. If they don’t all pursue a career in rock, and heck, even if they do, they’re going to be at a serious disadvantage for the rest of their schooling and possibly even their adult lives, and they’re going to develop serious trust issues after they learn that their teacher was some psycho stranger who deceived them for months. I just can’t get past that. Those who can, and admittedly that’s most people, will find a delightful light comedy that doesn’t concern itself with such “minor” logical inconsistencies. I can’t ignore them, but hey, that’s just me in this case.
What great movies do you hate? Let us know in the comments!