I was surprised. On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (a stately 74 episodes old), William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I had the honor of sharing the mic with the steel minds of Dave White of Movies.com and Alonso Duralde of The Wrap. Our goal was to recap the filmgoing year to date, and suss out what some of the best films were so far. This is a vital practice, as major film studios tend to pile up their “quality” films in late November and throughout December, usually making for biased Top 10 lists and Oscar ballots. It’s important to remember that the first six months of the year can yield quality product as well, so the half-year best-of can serve as an important reminder (to other critics, to Academy voters, and to you, dear reader).
I was surprised, however, that there were very few repeats amongst the four of us. I think only two films were mentioned twice. All the others were individually striking to only one of us. The film that had the most votes amongst the three of us was The Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike. I think the only other to get multiple votes was Moonrise Kingdom. We all had a different number-one film. Mine was Moonrise Kingdom. Bibbs was fond of The Avengers. Alonso hyped an unreleased documentary called How to Survive a Plague. And Dave White was perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the bleak apocalypse presented in Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse.
Sadly, something we glossed over in our (rather long) episode was the worst films of the year. The first few months of the year are infamously a studio dumping ground for low-end product that is expected to underperform. Kids are in school, it’s way too far away from awards season, and the glut of the summer has not yet begun, so chances are any film that comes out from January to March is going to be either forgettable, or downright horrible. I wish we could have discussed the worst films of the year so far. I’ve said this before: Great film can be agreed upon through a general consensus. Bad films are going to be intensely personal. A great film can elevate millions, but a bad one is attacking you and you alone.
So in that spirit, here’s a little sneak peek as to some of the films that may make my personal worst-of 2012 list. These films were more than mediocre. They hurt.
I hate to bring up obscure films just to bat them down; the little guys have enough trouble being recognized in this decadent marketplace. But in the case of this little Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie (again, I refuse to call it “SyFy”), I have to mention just how clunky and awful it was. There is a reason that much of American TV is seen as a vast wasteland of intelligence-free discourse, callow dating shows, and tragic, desperate grabs at barely edible chunklets of fame. Metal Tornado (which does, admittedly, have a cool title; it sounds like the name of a lost Swedish rock band) was a PG-rated, low budget disaster film to feature both Lou Diamond Phillips and a gigantic funnel of spinning metals shards created by an underground battery leak. I could go into more detail about the film’s horrid pseudo-science, but I don’t want to. The only thing of interest to emerge from a cheapie like Metal Tornado is the refreshing thought that cheesy bad 1950s disaster movies are still being made, complete with bad special effects, cheap sets, and cheesy acting. Technically Metal Tornado isn’t a 2012 film, but it hit video this year, it was the year in which I saw it, and it deserves a mention.
Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding
I mentioned this in a few reviews in the past: It’s odd that the low-budget indie scene is now making exactly the kind of treacly Hollywood schmaltz that indie films were once trying to eschew. Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding is a would-be feminist parable about a ball-busting city mouse played by Catherine Keener who is forced – due to an impending divorce – to go live with her ultra-hippie mom out in the ultra-hippie Woodstock, NY. Mom is played by Jane Fonda. Some of the usual bickering, hugs and teary confessions ensue. Also sex. Keener, along with her two teenage kids, finds solace in the beds of the local hippies. Keener herself ends up hooking up with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, clad in flannel. In a film that purports to be a feminist tale, I was frustrated at how much landing a man ended up being the solution to so many problems. The film is false and dumb and dripping with sap.
That’s My Boy
Just the scene where Donnie teaches Han Solo how to ride a bike made me want to throw up a little. I feel this film doesn’t need much description. I am baffled by the continued success of Adam Sandler, and his long string of pointedly bad comedies. Sandler seems entirely too hung up on the notion of masculinity defined by cruelty, bullying, beer-drinking, and fear of intellect. Ignoring, for the moment, That’s My Boy’s central plot points centering on statutory rape and incest, the film seems to lionize Sandler’s own character – an abusive, alcoholic father – while arguing that his abused son (Andy Sambuerg) – a neurotic bundle of upper-crust weakness attempting to flee his father and marry into money – is the one who needs to, well, just get over it and have a beer with pops. All of the jokes in the film are made at the expense of women, minorities, fat people, dorks, or old people. The only group of people that seems to get a pass in this joyful orgy of offensiveness is has-been celebrities. Perhaps Sandler, in his bizarre focus on ex-child stars, has been working on a career-long preparation for when he is himself a has-been. If garbage like That’s My Boy is all he’s going to do, it can’t happen soon enough for me.
Act of Valor
If you’ve ever wanted to see one of those completely ridiculous pre-movie commercials entreating ignorant youths to enlist in the Marines made into a feature film, now’s your chance. A horrifying and morally irresponsible film, Act of Valor is an action flick to feature real Navy SEALs playing essentially themselves, enacting imaginary rescue scenarios. There was a story in the film somewhere, but I’ll be dipped if I could tell you what it is. The villains, however, are dark-skinned scowlers who have no other motives than that they hate America. Even though the SEALs involved have seen real combat, the combat on display is just the usual, badly-choreographed action schlock we see in just about every summer film. Surely one of the Marines would speak up and say that’s not what combat is really like. But if they depicted what combat was really like, the audiences might actually see how horrifying wartime really is, and Act of Valor would cease to be the cheap, jingoistic, violence-fetishizing, military worshiping, piece of recruitment propaganda that it is. It’s bad enough that we have to see those horrible recruitment videos before movies as is, but must they also be the movie itself? Act of Valor made Battleship look restrained in comparison. This film made me so mad.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
Every film critic these days is expected to be a taxonomist. “Top Ten” lists aren’t just encouraged, they’re a full-time requirement. It makes sense, honestly. Every top ten list is, in its way, an attempt to start a fight. You see a list claiming to offer, I dunno, The Ten Best Car Chases Ever Filmed, and you click on it to see if your favorite car chase made the list. If not, or even if it’s not ranked highly enough for your tastes, you get mad and post a comment. If you agree with the list, you feel validated. Catharsis either way. Although, if you must know, most film critics just hope you their lists inspire you to watch a movie you’ve never seen before.
And with that in mind, yes, we forced our esteemed brethren Alonso Duralde and Dave White from Linoleum Knife to stoop so low as to give their picks for the top five movies of 2012, so far at least. Like Witney, I was surprised at the lack of overlapping films, and like our listeners (I assume), I found out about some movies that had slipped under my radar that, now, have become “Must Sees.” This is Not a Film sounds particularly exciting, as depressing as the subject matter may be. (A documentary made by an Iranian filmmaker, while under house arrest and forbidden by law to make more films, smuggled out of the country in a cake.)
But the function of a film critic is also to warn you, damn it. Marketing departments spend millions of dollars convincing you that every movie is the best you’ve never seen, and for some reason they still allow (hopefully) impartial parties to have the last word on their campaign. I hope you go see Sound of Noise, The Kid with the Bike, and The Raid: Redemption, partly because it means that those dollars won’t go to films like Act of Valor or That’s My Boy, thus encouraging studios to make more drek just like them. But since Witney already singled out those two stinkers, it falls to me to fill my list with some of the year’s other embarrassments.
The Legend of Awesomest Maximus
Lots of movie comedies are sophomoric, but few feel like they were actually written by high school sophomores. National Lampoon’s The Legend of Awesomest Maximus is one such film. It’s a years-too-late parody of the briefly resurged sword and sandal genre with tons of boobs and a non-stop deluge of mostly homophobic humor that, honestly, is just really uncomfortable to watch. Awesomest Maximus (which is just plain hard to say) feels like a parody of a parody, or a history project that frat boys put together at the list minute, knowing they were going to fail and eager to sacrifice their grades for momentary attention by going for every cheap laugh possible. What few tawdry pleasures the film occasionally provides (there really are a lot of boobs) are undermined by the ugly tone surrounding them; imagine going to an otherwise excellent orgy, only to find out that it’s being thrown by Hitler, alive and well and spouting ugly rhetoric all night. Like Witney, I don’t like picking on little films like this one when talking about the worst movies of the year (they have enough problems as it is), but this is one hell of an exception.
Rock of Ages
Rock of Ages is in proper contention for “the worst movie of the year.” Honestly, I can’t imagine something worse coming along any time soon. It’s a shrill, frustrating motion picture that won’t shut up long enough to tell a damned story. Like most jukebox musicals, Rock of Ages struggles to incorporate existing songs into a traditional musical framework, and suffers because the songs in question weren’t written to propel a story forward. So every time the cast belts out another 80’s hair metal tune, the movie has to stop and wait for them. That’s bad enough, but sometimes the movie can’t go 90 seconds without getting sidetracked by REO Speedwagon again. It doesn’t help that the songs are uniformly worse, much worse, than the already questionable tracks that are being covered. Some hair metal songs are great, some are perfectly fun to listen to, and yes, some are awful, but what they all had going for them was a celebration of wanton decadence and borderline sexual deviancy. Rock of Ages insults that legacy by making a Disney-fied version of the brief musical movement. I felt physical pain during this movie. It’s an experience I recommend to no one.
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
Also in contention for “worst movie of the year,” Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is the long-awaited (for some) feature film spin-off of Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” My opinion of the movie version might mean little, since I’m not an existing fan of the show. I’ve seen an episode here and there, chuckled a bit, and immediately moved on with my life. The movie version, however, is a nearly laughless string of gross-out gags and meta-humor that falls flat because there’s nothing to contextualize it. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie exists in a narrative vacuum, wherein the context needed to appreciate the jokes can’t be found in the movie itself. If the movie is nothing but insanity, then insanity becomes the norm. Comedy depends on the unexpected, and without a halfway competent baseline of normalcy to deviate from, Billion Dollar Movie’s jokes fall uniformly flat. Two guys in my theater loved it. Everyone else walked out afterwards looking like they needed a hearty dose of Kaopectate.
I seem to be on the minority on this one, but despite its nearly immediate cult following I just can’t get behind The FP. The premise may be the funniest I’ve heard all year, an impressive feat with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter running around: it’s the post-apocalyptic future, and rival gangs settle their disputes with “Dance Dance Revolution” battles instead of shootouts. The film’s score is a pitch-perfect homage to 80’s genre flicks, but the movie surrounding it is plodding, awkwardly comedic and distractingly sexist. Every woman in this movie is meant to be used for sex, even the romantic lead, whose history of rape is a running gag. The rest of the movie is brimming with underdog sports movie clichés, but fails to either sell them straight or make the most of The FP’s central joke, that the sport is inherently ridiculous. The FP plays like a “South Park” episode without the cleverness or comic timing.
One for the Money
I honestly thought we were past movies like One for the Money, as a culture. Katherine Heigl stars as the bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, from the popular Janet Evanovich novels, which might be excellent for all I know. Unfortunately, all I know is that this movie wallows in a single joke, that a woman doing a man’s job is fundamentally hilarious. That’s bad enough, but the film’s leaden pacing and very, very odd asides – Plum’s boss is a cousin with an incestuous crush, she’s stripped naked and handcuffed and humiliated by not one but two potential love interests – make One for the Money a cinematic curiosity that almost has to be seen to be believed. Almost. It’s too boring to really recommend, even ironically.