Wednesday, February 11, 2009

2008: Most Disappointing


I do this list every year, but this is the first year I have posted the list on the blog. I think it is, honestly, just as valuable a list as the Best and Worst lists...The Top Ten Disappointments of 2008.

In many ways, this is a more tragic list than the Worst list, simply because of all that potential...could have been great, should have been great, but just wasn't. This space is reserved for some of the most ambitious and anticipated--and in a few cases, some of the most widely celebrated--films of the year, films that had everything going for them, yet left me feeling empty...half-full at best.

Here they are, 2008's Most Disappointing films:

Spielberg's lamest directorial effort in years, a film that is really all about a one-note in-joke,  peppered with distractingly cheesy special effects.

Clooney's lamest directorial effort ever, this was a screwball comedy that mastered the 'screwball' but left out the 'comedy.' Clooney is a brilliant guy, so why didn't he learn more than silly tone from working with the Coens?

Certainly not as bad as that other Eastwood movie, but bad enough to appear on this list. A great performance from Angelina Jolie highlights a film that tells an important true story, but does so with such mannered old-fashioned-ness that the film sheds any true emotion in favor of cloying artifice. And...anyone who thought Lord of  the Rings had too many endings, wait till you get a load of this.

Morgan Spurlock is awesome. But this film gets lost searching for the damn point. Where Super Size Me used humor, style, and a potentially-gimmicky setup to create an endlessly engaging quest probing a fascinating subject, Where in the World... pretends it is a no-frills documentary when, in fact, its entire premise is based on a joke. No, Morgan Spurlock will not be able to hunt Osama bin Laden down. Yes, many Middle Eastern citizens have fascinating viewpoints. But this film adds nothing to the conversation.

DiCaprio and Crowe co-starring in a film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Departed mastermind William Monahan. Golden, right? Not so much. Where is the visual subtext Scott has done so well in the past? Where is the razor-sharp dialogue from Monahan? Where is a story that resonates beyond a typical espionage procedural? I'm still searching for the answers...maybe I'll find them in a newer, better film in the future.

Never got to discuss this one earlier in the year, but here it is, in a nutshell: this is the most promising horror concept I've seen in years, and it is squandered by lowest-common-denominator filmmaking choices. Here is a film that preys on legitimate fears--home invasion, alone in the middle of nowhere, hunted by motive-less killers--and betrays a quiet, haunting first act with telegraphed shocks, cliched set-pieces, and pounding music so distracting that the film might as well be just another cookie-cutter teen slasher flick. For an antidote, see Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which would torture this film into submission just for fun.

Possibly the most sanctimonious film of the year, and the most annoying in its desperate desire to be a Great Movie. One of Dennis Quaid's best screen performances gets trampled on by a boring screenplay that tries so hard to be Sideways that it should've been titled Upside-Down. This was 2008's first object lesson for wannabe filmmakers: great movies come out of honest ideas, not copy-catting great films of the past.

Here is 2008's second object lesson for wannabe filmmakers: great films have a touch of unexpected magic, and such magic cannot be conjured simply by mounting an epic-scale production with a melancholy storyline. And it's so true: all of the elements are in place--ambitious director, Oscar-winning screenwriter, Forrest Gump-style makeup effects, big name actors giving showy, "gimme-the-awards" performances, and a brilliant literary pedigree. Ben Button has all the makings of a landmark film...except that it is cold, calculating, and all-too-aware of how good it should be. If the film were less pristine, less desperate to be the next Forrest Gump, it would have likely been a masterpiece. But there is the difference between getting the most Oscar nominations and actually winning more than a couple modest technical categories.

Fernando Mereilles is one of the best filmmakers working today...probably in the top three, actually. And his latest film is harrowing...but is it really all that important? Yes, it is an ambitious fable. Yes, it comments on the human condition with brash symbolism. But what, really, is it saying? What message is especially new or unique about the film? Other than the gimmick of its construction and the oddity of its high concept, I would submit, not much. I am hoping this is a mere blip on Mereilles' radar, and that he will soon return to top form.

Why is this the most disappointing film of the year? Because it had the most to offer. More than this year's Eastwoods. More than this year's Mereilles. WAY more than Ben Button. Here is a film that cuts right to the core of a family's humanity, that reveals human truths in a more honest, no-frills manner than many other 2008 films would even dare. It features spectacular performances and is led by Anne Hathaway's career-best performance. Jonathan Demme is a brilliant filmmaker and does great work here. There is greatness in Rachel Getting Married...and then there's a lot of other stuff surrounding it.

This film was among the year's most hotly debated. Either you went along for the ride, or you didn't. For me, usually the first in line to go on any ambitious ride the cinema wants to take me on, I just wasn't feeling it. There is really no other way to put it. I even went along with a far steeper, riskier ride in Synecdoche, New York, and loved every second. And yet this film just didn't click the way it should have.

I don't blame the film. I blame myself. But I was still disappointed.

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