2010 Look Back at the Year in Film

Scott Mendelson

hollywoodnews.com: Let us begin our look back at the year in film with a token acknowledgement of ten films whose reputations did not proceed them. For the record, not all of the films below are bad pictures. But they all generated critical and/or audience esteem that they perhaps did not entirely earn. There is nothing wrong with overpraising a good film. It often emanates from a hunger for quality that often causes we the critics to look at a merely solid and/or competent piece of cinema and hail it as a groundbreaking work of art. The following are in alphabetical order.

The Ghost Writer
The release of this film timed so conveniently with the arrest of director Roman Polanski that the reception of this film seemed to fall into two categories: ‘a triumphant thriller from a master artist’ and/or ‘the new movie by that kiddie-rapist’. Truth be told, the film is a well acted and genuinely old-fashioned would-be thriller. But far too much time is spent on the dull romance between Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams, at the expense of Pierce Brosnan’s terrific turn as ‘not Tony Blair’. Furthermore, the climactic revelations are not bone-chilling, but rather silly and comforting. Like most conspiracy theories, it provided a more melodramatic and reassuring explanation behind the last ten years of British politics. Tony Blair wasn’t really deceived/tricked/cajoled into following George W. Bush down the post-9/11 rabbit hole, was he? No, there is a far more sinister explanation afoot… right? The ideas offered are far more comforting than the notion that maybe, just maybe, Tony Blair agreed with George W. Bush. If you want a great thriller with Pierce Brosnan, check out The Tailor of Panama.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire
So desperate were critics and feminist pundits for a female role beyond the standard tokenism that they grasped onto Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and elevated her to icon status. They didn’t realize that, beyond the goth clothing, piercings, and funky hair, she was basically a variation of the ‘rape victim strikes back’ guest star in any given Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. And the plots for these two pictures (haven’t seen the finale yet) were straight out of a mediocre television procedural, with only the more blunt sexuality setting them apart from any episode of Without A Trace. That these films were embraced is yet more proof that television is a genuinely superior medium for intelligent mysteries and crime procedurals.

This is the first of the ‘good’ movies that nonetheless made this list. The Ben Stiller vehicle was perhaps overpraised as a reaction to the ‘paycheck roles’ that Stiller has taken over the years. Also puzzling was the obsession with the allegedly quite unlikable protagonist, which doesn’t bear out upon viewing the picture. Yes, Roger Greenburg has some serious unresolved issues, but he’s not the raging tool that pundits and critics made him out to be. In the end, it’s a perfectly good story about a troubled man forgiving himself for his ‘unplanned life’ that was hailed as the second coming of indie film. That is not the film’s fault, just keep your expectations in check when you rent the DVD.

Is it fair to criticize a good movie for not being uber-great? Perhaps not, but that’s the strange situation that I find myself in with Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape heist picture. It is intelligent popcorn entertainment, superbly acted, and gorgeous looking. But, especially on a second viewing, it is a shockingly conventional narrative, a tried-and-true caper picture guised up in brainy sci-fi trappings. It is not nearly the mind-bender that it believes it is, and it’s in fact quite easy to follow if you’re paying even a token amount of attention (that’s not a criticism, just an objective observation). And while the film lends itself to several interpretations, it is an almost shallow picture when taken purely at face value. I cannot ignore that the last half of the film is filled with suspense-less action where we are out-and-out told that there is no consequence to the violence. I cannot ignore how the film resembles a video game far more than a dream. And I cannot deny how un-invested I was on an emotional level. Chris Nolan is arguably the most exciting mainstream filmmaker working today. That Inception got made and was embraced by audiences is an encouraging sign for blockbuster filmmaking. I just wish it were as engrossing as Nolan’s knottier entertainments, such as Memento, The Prestige, or either of the Batman pictures.

The Kids Are All Right
Kim Voyner at Movie City News beat me to the punch, with a fine essay that runs down most of my problems with this wildly overpraised sub-par sitcom. Point being, the film got a huge pass over the fact that it proclaims to treat lesbian parents as being as normal as heterosexual parents. That’s nice, but the movie still stinks. Leaving aside how cruelly the Mark Ruffalo character is treated in the finale (once again we have a film where a man and a woman commit an indiscretion, and the man takes the full rap), leaving aside the offensiveness of the idea that a lesbian would have an affair with a straight male (so, is being gay a choice after all?), leaving aside the fact that this allegedly progressive film hides its gay sex under the covers while explicitly showing off heterosexual sex, one cannot escape the fact that there is more intelligent and recognizable insight about families gay and straight in but a single episode of Modern Family.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Sorry folks, as visually dazzling and amusingly written as this pop-culture geekfest remains, it has serious issues as a film. The latter half of the film drags to a crawl, with three out of the seven ‘evil ex’ duels being completely unnecessary. The protagonist starts the film as an unsympathetic jerk and remains that way almost until the end credits, leaving us to squirm as he abuses and exploits his friends. The film remains adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy, where an unlikable nerd gets the girl of his dreams through no apparent display of charm, self-esteem, or charisma. Furthermore, whatever insights the film has to offer about relationships is flushed down the toilet for a literal and pandering ‘rescue the princess from the devious villain’ finale that completely undercuts what little creditability the film might have achieved. That director Edgar Wright literally didn’t know which of the two main female leads Scott should end up with until the last minute is a sign that he had no idea what he was trying to say amidst the video game nostalgia.

Shutter Island
Just because Martin Scorsese directed it and just because it looks fantastic doesn’t make it good (and I’m the guy who liked Bringing Out the Dead). The problem for this one is pretty simple. Since we’re clued in almost immediately that ‘nothing is as it seems’, and we’re pretty darn sure that we’re going to eventually discover that much of what we’ve seen doesn’t mean what we think it means, we have no investment in the onscreen action as it unfolds. Since we can’t take any moment of this picture at face value, we simply wait two long, boring hours for the big revelation only to confirm that we were right not to believe our lying eyes.

The Social Network
I’ve complained over the years about studios (usually Universal, ‘home of the bull-shit biopic’) altering the truth to make the main characters appear more audience friendly/sympathetic. This is the rare case where writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher altered the truth to make Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg look like more of a tool/less sympathetic than he arguably was in real life, all in the name of making a generic ‘woe is him, he’s a social introvert who can’t get the girl’ story. Sorkin even admitted that the film wouldn’t have been that different if it had been about a guy who invented a random gadget, making the whole ‘this film is about who we are now’ line utter nonsense. All of the film’s alleged insights are based on lies, and those alleged insights are no deeper than, well, a nine-year old episode of Futurama. As far as the film’s gender issues, Sorkin’s would-be apology (where he doesn’t seem to realize that it’s okay for consenting adult women to engage in random sexual encounters) and the inexplicable omission of Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones from the SAG-eligible cast list kills any defense I could offer up. The Social Network is entertaining, but shallow, movie with witty dialogue and strong acting, but nothing more alas.

The Town
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a thoughtful and challenging moral thriller that failed to truly find an audience. So it was not a little disappointing to see critics and audiences falling all over themselves to praise Affleck’s ‘newfound’ directorial skills upon the release of this conventional and generic little potboiler. It has solid performances from most of the supporting cast (Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper) and a genuine sense of place. But in the end, it’s just a ‘but he cries at opera’ melodrama where we are asked to excuse a violent criminal because he looks like Ben Affleck and treats his new girlfriend (a former hostage from a previous bank job no less) like a princess. The suspense-less (because ‘noble’ Affleck can’t kill anyone) heist narrative is straight out of Heat, while the virgin/whore dynamic between Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively is almost laughable. This was a classic case of audiences being so desperate for water that they were willing to drink the sand.

True Grit
There is nothing particularly wrong with this crowd-pleasing and character-driven Coen brothers adaptation. But let’s be honest and admit that if (for example) F. Gary Gary or Philip Noyce had directed this straight-forward western, no one would be talking about Oscars for anything other than Roger Deakin’s cinematography and Hailee Steinfeld’s commanding lead performance. It’s a good movie and a solid western, but it’s not one of the best films of the year. As for Jeff Bridges, I might have loved his performance if I could have understood what he was saying more than half the time. It’s a classic example of a critical community that feels so starved for excellence that they will champion anything that’s slightly above competent. True Grit is a good, but not great.

And that’s the list for this year. Hopefully (if time allows), I’ll crank out the year’s most underrated films tomorrow. Feel free to share your picks for ‘the overrated’ of 2010.

To read more about this article go toMendelson’s Memos

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