"Overrated" is something of a dirty word. But while most dirty words are drifting further and further away from their original meanings (or from having any meaning at all), "overrated" seems to be slowly coming into focus. I mean, when in the history of our species have things been more obsessively rated? The Romans only had two scores: Thumbs up you live, thumbs down you die. There was only one critic, and he was Joaquin Phoenix. That system worked for thousands of years, Siskel and Ebert predicating their influential show on that harsh binary scale. But then the Internet happened, opinions stratified to the heavens, and the gloriously carefree days of the "good / bad" divide seemed at an end.
But, as they so memorably said in that prequel to The Lost World, “Life finds a way.” People, perhaps motivated by an unconscious desire to return to a two-opinion system, began splitting themselves up into tribes of thought. Contentious talkbacks showed us the need, Twitter hashtags showed us the teams, and the holy Tomatometer showed us the score.
Witch hunts formed ("I saw Goody Armond trashing I Saw the Devil!"). And while one’s feeling on whether the consensus on a given movie is too high or too low will always remain a decidedly subjective thing, it seems increasingly easy to decipher where the consensus is. And a lot of times this year, I was looking up at it.
There were a lot of great movies in 2011. It was such a great year for movies that Tim Burton didn't even release a new one. There was a ton of stuff to love, but sometimes people love things more than they should (see: Pugs, The Tron Guy, cream cheese cupcake frosting, etc...). Even worse, sometimes people love things more than I think they should. What harm is there in enjoying a movie to an extent that exceeds my personal opinion? Well, I'm not really sure, but it's a menace and I'm here to put a stop to it. So here’s a list of the year’s 10 most overrated films, ranked by how undeservedly over-praised they were to me, with the #1 spot occupied by the movie which I know I thought enjoyed the greatest disparity between its perceived quality and its actual merits. Feel free to expression your rage in the comments below. Oh, and BEWARE SPOILERS.
10.) Attack the Block
Why People Liked It: Because it’s pretty great. I love that the ending is practically identical to that of Seven Samurai, except for here that film's resigned noble warrior is replaced with a smug and self-satisfied teenage jerkbag (who we love).
Why It’s (Barely) On The List: Because it’s not that great. I can’t shake the feeling that a bunch of really solid SXSW films got lost in the hype vacuum this fun bit of popcorn left behind. Also, as neat as the aliens looked, they never felt particularly tangible or distinct. And before you’re all “Oh, so every giant shadowy alien with glow-teeth looks the same to you?”, you should know that my best friend is a giant shadowy alien with glow-teeth.
9.) The Adjustment Bureau
Why People Liked It: Matt Damon. Honestly, Matt Damon is just the greatest. The most unbelievable thing about The Adjustment Bureau -- a movie about evil moleskins that conspire to keep Damon and Emily Blunt apart at all costs -- is that Matt Damon would ever lose an election.
Why It's On The List: Because if I wanted to see a movie about all-powerful hats, I’d go watch Meet The Robinsons. And if I wanted to see a movie in which Matt Damon’s life is put back on track by a black guy with supernatural powers and some sharp outfits, I’d watch The Legend of Bagger Vance (it was a Robert Redford movie starring Will Smith? You lost your swing? No... nothing? Eh, never mind). This is the kind of stuff that made for a great Philip K. Dick short story, but feels stretched into nonsense as a feature film. It’s neat how director George Nolfi gives faces to the forces that typically conspire to keep rom-com lovers apart, but it’s kind of unsatisfying when the film ends with said forces essentially just saying “ah, screw it.”
Why People Liked It: Because at 942 minutes for the price of a single movie ticket, Bridesmaids was perhaps the year’s best value. Also, this provided a convenient response to the impossible morons out there who still needed further proof that women can be funny so long as there’s not an NBC sitcom bearing their name. Honestly, there have been genocides funnier than Chelsea Handler. Not many, sure, but that’s really the kind of thing where one is a lot. Oh, and it’s nice to see the world finally get hip to Melissa McCarthy.
Why It’s On The List: Because Paul Feig directed this thing with all the flair of an episode of Family Matters. It’s not that comedy can be visually interesting, but that to hold my interest for more than two hours it has to be, particularly when it’s saddled with an increasingly dopey romantic subplot after another. Also, seriously, Bridesmaids is so over-long it feels like The Ring Cycle of ensemble comedies -- Judd Apatow’s directorial efforts more than justify their durations with ever-deepening emotional complexity, whereas Bridesmaids stalls for time by covering Melissa McCarthy in puppies (okay fine, that bit was great).
Why People Liked It: Because it’s the rare film to confront cancer head-on, and it does so with an immediacy and humor that most movies on the subject are afraid to broach. Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt share a disarmingly believable and lived-in rapport -- you can feel the entire history of their friendship, and it underscores the extent to which the fight against cancer is a mutual effort between both the victim and their loved ones. Oh, it also features Philip Baker Hall, and that man is a total boss. I’ve done the math, and it turns out that New Year’s Eve was just one Philip Baker Hall away from being a watchable movie. Drats!
Why It’s On the List: Because cancer is some seriously messy business (something the guy who wrote the movie knows all too well), but 50/50 is so schematic that it completely undercuts its rare emotional realism. The protagonist is a wet noodle, and the supporting characters who orbit around him exist only so far as they can serve a simple, single-serving function. None of the film’s key relationships play because their purpose is so explicitly obvious, the most damning example of which is Anna Kendrick’s painfully didactic psychologist. The way in which she’s forcibly taught to stop living by the textbook and treat her patients as people would be less repugnant if the film ever bothered to practice what it preaches.
6.) The Muppets
Why People Liked It: Because nostalgia is fun, or else it wouldn't be called nostalgia. Because The Muppets is sweet, good-natured, and motivated by Jason Segel's genuine love for the property, an undying passion so strong that he spends most of the movie staring googly-eyed at his co-stars, trying his best to get out of their way. It was a shot of the past, inspiring waves of emotion from certain viewers because these characters are so deeply felt.
Why It's On The List: Because The Muppets is so enthralled with its own myth that it effectively becomes a 90-minute infomercial for itself. Walter is a neat idea for a proxy protagonist, but he quickly becomes wallpaper, and the movie stalls whenever it tries to be more than fan-service, and the self-referential humor that fills the void of a lead character feels similarly anonymous. Also, I always figured that Amy Adams’ “Me Parties” were a bit more exciting. And yes, Chris Cooper, an older white dude known for bringing the menace, is rapping! Classic! If only the words that were coming out of his mouth were the least bit amusing. Honestly, he was funnier in American Beauty. *Homicidal Laugh* I’m not sure if I’m a man or a muppet, but whatever I am I’d rather be watching a “Dracula musical!!”
5.) Red State
Why People Liked It: Because they were participating in an elaborate, year-long Improv Everywhere stunt. Either that, or they are Kevin Smtih. Those are the only two reasons I can fathom as to how someone could possibly enjoy Red State. Okay okay, fine, I’ll also allow for the fact that Smith cast the supporting roles in such a way that that if you squint really hard while someone repeatedly punches you in the face, it’s almost like you’re watching an impossibly terrible episode of Breaking Bad. So... there’s that. Actually, odds are that you didn’t even like Red State -- it’s “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes -- but the fact that people weren’t going into full-on Gigli mode about this is reason enough to consider it wildly overrated.
Why It's On The List: Because Red State was the worst film of a year that saw the release of a Uwe Boll film called Blubberella (it’s about an obese superhero who kills nazis unless they feed her sandwiches -- Boll plays Hitler). Smith’s self-satisfaction with his premise and the performances he wrings from it are at a fever pitch, his scorn towards fundamentalist culture righteous but presented without a wit of novelty or nuance. The worst thing about Red State* is that Smith finally gave the folks at Westboro Baptist Church something reasonable to protest against.
*This isn’t even close to being the worst thing about Red State.
Why People Liked It: Because it was damn refreshing to see a relatively gifted and idiosyncratic filmmaker get behind the reins of an ass-kicking action movie. There’s the Chemical Brothers’ score, which completely justifies the film’s existence in and of itself, and you can’t argue with the scientifically accurate chemistry of the fact that little girls with guns + techno music = joy. Also, it’s amazing that someone convinced Cate Blanchett to do an entire performance as Renee Zellwegger’s from Cold Mountain.
Why It’s On The List: There’s nothing even remotely interesting about Hanna’s relationship with her father, Cate Blanchett’s villain is all cliché and no concept, and the narrative’s cringe-inducing grasps at meaning are as garish and unsightly as any of the locations it uses to frame them. Joe Wright didn’t stuck to his guns. The man loves the long take, which is a rarity in this day and age, and a boon for producers who are looking to squeeze more action out of fewer set-ups. That big subway fight is great, but every other action beat in the film is chopped into nonsense, enervated by chaos precisely as Hanna is starting to make sense of her world.
3.) Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Why People Liked It: Because it’s Harry Potter and you’re a living human. Also, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (HPATDH:P2, to make things easier) featured what was easily the best “giant bubble-shield” scene since The Phantom Menace.
Why It’s On The List: Listen, I like Harry Potter as much as the next guy (especially if the next guy has only a casual interest in Harry Potter), but The Deathly Hallows never really did it for me -- it’s a somewhat miserable read, all wheel-spinning and unsatisfying fan-service save for that one killer moment between Harry and Snape. The movies split the book in half so as not to lose an iota of that precious stuff, and yet the eminently capable David Yates botches the most pivotal moment of that whole bloody series, glossing over the history shared between Snape and Lily Potter in favor of needlessly protracted and emotionally hollow junk like Harry and Voldemort touching color beams. In fact, the entire battle for Hogwarts was too disjointed, poorly balancing the macro and micro struggles of our favorite boy wizard and all his silly friends. I know the .GIFs tell me that I’m supposed to squee over Neville’s every reaction, but like... what’s Cho Chang up to, these days? To paraphrase Ron, “This film needed to sort out its priorities.”
2.) X-Men: First Class
Why People Liked It: Because it rebooted a narratively rich superhero franchise in a way that was both fun (it’s the swingin’ sixties!) and of mythological significance (these costumed characters shaped American history!). Michael “Penis” Fassbender delivered what is arguably the best performance to be found in any superhero film this side of Daredevil (and he did it while hunting nazis!), and we finally got to see January Jones’ true form.
Why It’s On The List: Oh, the humanity! Honestly, I didn’t know that Marvel movies could be this hideously dysfunctional without Lt. Colonel James Rhodes around to obliterate narrative momentum, but Matthew Vaughn is always defying my expectations. You’d think that the film takes the relationships between Xavier, Erik, and Raven back to square one in order to isolate the drama away from the stolid amber of its own mythology, but it’s so recklessly obsessed with connecting the dots that it never bothers to explore why they matter.
There’s enough material here for an entire trilogy of films, but First Class squeezes it into a vice and spins the lever until all that’s left is the DNA of a great franchise. I mean, here’s the rare superhero saga that actually deserves to wallow in its origins, but it does so via an impossibly dull collection of X-kids (the girl who vomits! The boy who screams!), a laughable villain who never seems remotely capable of achieving his diabolical intentions, and at a breakneck pace that makes the movie feel like an illustrated Wikipedia page. The 60s setting is ultimately there only to underscore some lame spy riffs, the social conditions of the time relegated to an offensively blatant cut-away to the film’s only black character when someone says the word “Slavery.” First Class is so apathetic towards race relations that it makes The Help look like Do the Right Thing -- I was almost relieved when they killed off Darwin, assured that he wouldn’t be forced to spend the entire third act driving the X-Wing. And don’t even get me started on First Class’ depiction of women, hyper-sexual totems who are powerless to resist the suggestions of the dominant male forces around them. In retrospect, I don’t think I cared for this film.
1.) The Artist
Why People Liked It: Because it’s the feel-good movie of the year! Unless you didn’t like it, in which case it’s the “feel completely baffled movie of the year” (sorry, Sleeping Beauty). Michael Hazanavicius’ ode / flagrant exploitation of the silent cinema is undeniably charming stuff, adorable from start to finish (or so I’m told by people who were able to stay conscious during the interminable second act). Jean Dujardin is irresistible as George Valentin, a silent star whose career is threatened by the sweeping popularity of talkies, and it’s hard not to root for his success. The lustrous black-and-white cinematography is a pleasure, and it’s always nice to see that James Cromwell hasn’t aged a day since the late 80s (...when he looked like he was in his late 80s).
Why It’s On The List: Because an 100-minute movie probably shouldn’t be an hour too long. And because The Artist has the gall to name its insufferable ingenue “Peppy Miller” despite the fact that it stars Penelope Ann Miller in a completely different role (although it must be mentioned that Hazanavicius mercifully refuses to inflame this complication with distractions like subtext and plot). Or maybe because The Artist, for all of its charm, is the Michigan J. Frog of silent films, so eager to keep shaking them jazz hands that it soars right over golden opportunities to explore the crevice between image and identity, or even the extent to which the culture of the past is devoured by the promise of the future. The Artist doesn’t merely patronize the aesthetics of the silent era (Hazanavicius has zero patience for the less mobile camera of the 1920s), it ignores all of its details, treating early cinema as if it could only serve as reason to smile, whereas Scorsese’s brilliant Hugo argues that it gave us reason to dream. The Artist is no more of an ode to the silent cinema than 300 is a tribute to the glories of ancient Greece -- it’s less likely to point nascent cinephiles towards the work of Pabst and Murnau than it is the “black and white” filters on their iPhone apps.
A gossamer thin wisp of entertainment that ultimately feels as if it’s wordless only because it has nothing to say, The Artist is your inevitable Best Picture winner. Hooray.