2012: Year in Reviews, Part 1

A surprisingly bountiful year wherein expectations were exceeded and my opinions seemed to differ greatly from the consensus. This was the year 2012. I set out to write a year-end review article, something I had intended many times over the years, but seldom did. This time I succeeded, yet the end result was far longer than I anticipated. So, I am having to break down my article into multiple parts. This is the first of those parts.

Because I don’t live in a major metropolitan area, I have to ignore many of the press screening invitations I receive, forced to catch the new releases on my own dime. That restriction limits the number of movies I see every year and I do my best to avoid the utter crap. The few times I get stuck watching an awful movie is a result of my friends’ desires to see the film. While they don’t always invite me to ones they know I don’t want to see (or have voiced my distaste in seeing), a handful of clunkers like John Carter and Snow White and the Huntsman make it through. To be fair, though, I had wanted to see Snow White even though it starred expressionless Kristen Stewart.

Most of the films I saw this year were ones I chose to see, thus why my average rating for the year is much higher than for those who have the opportunity to see more features. That doesn’t stop some disappointments from making the cut, so as I go through my list of best and worst films of the year, I’ll have plenty to highlight on high end, but fewer on the bottom.

Today’s article looks at the absolute worst of the year in motion pictures. I’ll also cover the films that I felt were the biggest disappointments.

The Worst

It’s not that the film wasn’t cute and endearing in its own way, but Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax was every bit the children’s film that opponents of the genre declare all animated features to be. Its focus on environmentalism isn’t lost on anyone, which makes it a bit heavy-handed for any form of adult entertainment. The cutesy critters are as derivative as parts of the film itself. I respect what Theodore Geisel was doing with his book and think for what it’s worth, the adaptation fits perfectly in the framework of the Dr. Seuss history, but it’s just not a movie I would recommend for anything looking for something deeper, more cynical or more energetic.

I knew from the trailers that John Carter wasn’t going to be much of a success, but a group decision led us to a film that I found wholly incredible and not because of its visuals. The story about an American who gets pulled through a portal to the planet Mars lacks realism. Whether Edgar Rice Burroughs honestly believed there was life on Mars, the concepts at play in the film are anything but competent. As much as I love director Andrew Stanton’s Pixar work, his ability to handle the grand nature of material like The Princess of Mars and the other John Carter books, is too restrained, largely thanks to Disney’s heavy-handed influence. If there’s a reason adaptations like this cannot be made by Disney, John Carter epitomizes those problems even if its visually stunning in places.

I actually liked the remake of Total Recall, but its flaws are abundant. Colin Farrell works the Douglas Quaid character quite well and handles the action scenes beautifully, but the hollow performances of Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel exacerbate a flawed screenplay that’s over-manipulated by an uninventive director in Len Wiseman. The setting itself is compelling and fascinating, but the action set pieces are stringed together inefficiently and the potential social commentary is too often sublimated beneath a veneer of pomposity. Had an actual auteur taken the reigns, it might have been a far more interesting ride.

Everything that’s wrong with Snow White and the Huntsman can be summed up in two words: Kristen Stewart. Horrendously miscat, the Twilight heroine’s single-expression emotional range weighs down a film that’s grand, horrifying and frequently inventive. And while Stewart’s gape-jawed performance is the one of the reasons the film fails, the other is the utterly laughable performance of Charlize Theron. In her attempts at menacing, Theron tackles each phrase with venom as if she were performing a self-parody skit on Saturday Night Live. Were it not for the honest and grounding performance of Chris Hemsworth, the film would have been depressingly pointless. The visuals are indeed splendid, but having a hollow center doesn’t make this Tootsie Pop very tasty.

Nothing is worse than going into a movie expecting an Oscar calibre costume drama and getting a boring, self-important historical piece that lacks importance or relevance. Hyde Park on Hudson earns the prize as the year’s worst film, simply because it was intended to be one of the year’s best. Starring as the legendary American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Murray chews every bland bit of scenery he can find and does so without very closely approximating Roosevelt’s distinctive vocal style. Laura Linney seems like she’s trying to act in a more important movie, but her overall story arc isn’t developed enough to be interesting. Focusing on a rather silly engagement between England King George VI and the president as they attempt to find common ground ahead of England’s appeal to have the U.S. join World War II to help turn the tide. It’s a fascinating period of history that is treated like a overly calm parlor drama without the dramatic flare-ups that make those types of films so enjoyable. Attempting to create a flawed portrait of a great president only comes off as cheap and dinner-theatrical.

Disappointments

It’s easy to pick on films that were undeniably bad and we all tend to focus on the movies that failed miserably and noticeably, but seldom look at the movies we expected something entirely different. Walking into the theater, we often have pre-conceived notions of what we’re about to see. Whether we expect to hate it or love it, there will always be films that disappoint us. Below are six films that turned out to be major disappointments for me this year.

Three films were sequels or franchise entries that had a certain level of anticipation involved. Of these, none could be considered more disappointing than Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s Alien is quite simply one of the greatest science fiction/horror blends in film history. It’s a tight, psychological thriller that pits an unexpected group of space jockeys against a terrifying alien race that simply wants to kill them. Scott managed to create such an atmospheric film that it spawned a series of successful sequels and in the process became a legend. So when the film Prometheus was announced, rumors immediately emerged that it was a prequel to Alien. Although the producers attempted to prevaricate on that truth, in the end what we got was essentially a prequel. Unfortunately, years of glossy, big budget blockbusters dulled Scott’s ability to create a compelling film. The issues can largely be blamed on the poorly conceived script, but Scott had an obligation to do the material justice, something that didn’t occur, making it a sore disappointment for anyone who was a fan of any of the earlier films in the franchise.

The Dark Knight Rises was likewise disappointing. Coming off the solid first chapter of Christopher Nolan’s new Batman trilogy and the exceptional second film, everyone expected the final film to be an unrivalled masterpiece. However, like all great and miserable superhero franchises, the gravitation of third features towards an overabundance of characters marred much of what happened in Rises. In addition to our regular allotment of characters from the first and second films, another half-dozen were introduced, making an unwieldy and twisting narrative that lacked the intrigue and gravitas of the second film. I’ll give credit to Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy for creating compelling characters with limited resources, a lack of editorial control and director’s line-item override of the script made for an entertaining, but disappointing feature.

The third franchise film that merits inclusion on this list is one that others seem to have adored. For me, though, Skyfall was a disappointment. Part of that blame can rest on those who declared it the best of the franchise, but much of it lays squarely in the script of the film. Sam Mendes has yet to direct a film that handled sexuality well. Herein, the villain was obviously gay, a lisping, aggressive, mama’s boy who critics seem to have declared a brilliant incarnation of the classib Bond villain. Yet, Mendes plays his scene with Bond in a manner meant to make the audience uncomfortable. When you use homosexuality as a method of creating seat-wiggling tension, you’re relying on prejudice more than talent. That Javier Bardem’s performance is only slightly more human than his turn in No Country for Old Men only exacerbates the problem. It may have been a better film than the execrable Quantum of Solace, but it wasn’t better than the first Craig entry in the franchise, Casino Royale. The other issue is how they finished the film, but that involves a spoiler, so I’d quit reading this paragraph here if you haven’t seen the film yet. Not only did they kill off my favorite character from the franchise, Judi Dench’s M, they di so without realizing what an interesting bit of foreshadowing Bond’s discussion of his faked death with M would have been for a graceful exit from the MI6 program. This callous disregard for a character I thought was oftentimes better than our central hero, aggravated me more so than did almost anything else in the film. It’s that level of disappointment, I hope to avoid. It may have seemed like an emotionally resonant scene, but I didn’t feel anything other than seething anger.

But what of films who don’t have a prior film with which to compare. These are movies whose trailers or source material make for interesting possibilities, but as the film rolls, you realize that the missed opportunities are greater than the successful ones. Nothing can be more exemplary of this than The Cabin in the Woods. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard created the film to be both a loving homage and a critique of the horror genre. The laundry list of hints and knocks at classic slasher films is exciting, but ultimately the film leaves its audience hanging with perhaps the most cliched conclusion in all of horror history. When trying to criticize a genre for its tropes even in clever ways, you can’t obey the rules every step of the way. There are several segments where events occur that seem to break the long-held expectations of horror film progression, but then the exact conclusion one would have expected is delivered and every creative bit that preceded it seems like self-serving filler. I won’t say that I hated the film, because there were some great things about it, but Scream remains the best self-aware horror film made to date.

A film that many hoped to love going in, simply because it dealt with one of history’s undeniably great film directors, Hitchcock was a major disappointment. The makeup effects, which were shockingly nominated for an Oscar, are painfully bad. Anthony Hopkins looks very little like the man he portrays and his performance is equally dissimilar. Helen Mirren comes off much better as wife Alma, but the only actor to really peg a recognized character with any degree of accuracy was James D’Arcy who briefly portrays the very recognizable Anthony Perkins. There are some very loving gestures towards film, including a fun, albeit silly scene where Hitch is orchestrating audience reaction to the infamous shower scene outside a packed movie theater; however, the end result is a film that stops short of insightful commentary and leaves us wanting to know instead of what happens next, but what we might have gotten from a director with more experience.

The last of my disappointments this year was Cloud Atlas, a film based on a novel that I never read. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer were an unlikely combination of directors for the film, which may have contributed to the frequently uneven style of the piece. While Hitchcock‘s makeup work was shoddy all around, the work on Cloud Atlas was completely uneven. For every good effect (think a white Halle Berry), there was an utterly awful one (Doona Bae as an overweight Hispanic woman). Yet, the makeup isn’t the most disappointing. It’s the vignettes that didn’t seem to fit into the story. While most of the tales involve social injustice throughout past and future history, some of the tales are only about love. Yes, the movie is about love persisting across many generations as if it’s being reincarnated at regular intervals, it’s the stories about society mistreating those of differing personalities. The passions are real and several of the stories have strong emotional elements, but too many just feel like brief encounters that are easily forgotten, a troubling thing if a film needs to have its whole taken as such.

That rounds out my first review article. Tomorrow, you’ll get my next set which will look at individual achievements from the year 2012.

2 Comments

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  1. Wow, two films on here that were on my best of list (Skyfall & Cabin in the Woods). I guess we took different things out of them. I’d defend the villain of Skyfall and the ending of Cabin in the Woods, but I might get pretty long winded.

    1. I don’t remember if I went into my primary issue with the villain, but when you use homosexuality in your villain to make the audience uncomfortable, I take offense at that.

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