The 11 Offenses of 2008 were bad—really bad. While we might not decry the following motley bunch of films as truly horrific, they have received praise far outsized to their modest, negligible, or, in most cases, nonexistent achievements. Come on guys, get over it already.
[SPOILERS AHEAD:] The other day, a fellow Reverse Shot writer floated the question: if Gran Torino had followed through on its righteous-avenger set up—that is, if Clint Eastwood’s grizzled Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski had actually gone down guns blazing rather than sacrificing himself (Jesus Christ pose and all) so that the evil Asian gang-bangers menacing his new Hmong friends would go to jail on a murder rap—would we have liked it more?
Well, probably yes. Gran Torino is unaccountably entertaining in its early movements, which find the newly widowed Walt stalking around his suburban Detroit home, muttering racist epithets at his neighbors and literally growling at his family (his pot-smoking, belly-button pierced granddaughter, especially). This material plays, as one colleague suggested, like an episode of Dennis the Menace scripted by Paul Haggis—a not un-enjoyable proposition, provided that the viewer doesn’t confuse his or her cognitive-faculties-agog amusement with the belief that the patchily edited and flat-out-terribly acted proceedings (Eastwood’s one-take-and-lunch directorial style doesn’t fly with a bunch of teenage first-timers) are anything approaching “good” (or that the way Walt’s xenophobia is meant to gradually become adorable is anything but risible).
The amusement dissipates, however, once it becomes clear that Gran Torino is intent on being a serious drama about the futility of violence, etc. Eastwood the director resorts to the worst sort of manipulation (like, say, the violent rape of a minor) to justify a climactic whirl of carnage and then smugly holds back, with Walt dropping the gunslinger pose, turning the other cheek and getting shot up for his (and, I guess, by extension, the Greatest Generation’s) sins. Leaving aside just how fucking stupid this conclusion is—How did Walt know that all of the kids would fire at exactly the same time? Are we to believe that they’ll all receive identical sentences? Why did it take Thao so long to get to the scene if it’s just around the corner—it’s so high-handedly sanctimonious as to retroactively dull the film’s camp pleasures.
The fact that so many smart, discerning critics have fallen in line behind such an obviously terrible movie speaks to entrenched auteurist agendas: Eastwood’s consensus status as the last American “classicist” (to use a much-abused term) gives him a pretty long leash and leads to some remarkable feats of critical calisthenics—my favorite being the idea that Gran Torino is a seriocomic work of mischievous and pointed self-parody. Whatever it takes for you to look yourselves in the eye, guys—it’s your credibility. —Adam Nayman
For once, Darren Aronofsky has made a film that doesn’t completely suck. This is, admittedly, some cause for celebration, and so I can somewhat understand the enthusiasm for The Wrestler. Only a curmudgeon could deny the appeal of Mickey Rourke’s soulful comeback or Marisa Tomei’s appealingly weathered supporting turn. Aronofsky has ditched the bludgeoning aesthetic of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (ha! The Fountain) and replaced it with a restrained Dardenne-lite minimalism that often works here. So yes, The Wrestler isn’t bad; in fact, it could probably be described as good. Aronofsky’s aesthetic resuscitation is the second biggest comeback of the year (following Rourke’s). It's also mostly hype.
“I’m an old broken down piece of meat,” Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” tearfully tells his (angry, lesbian) daughter, played screechingly by Evan Rachel Wood. Later, to put too fine a point on it, he mutilates his hand with a meat slicer. (Get it? Meat?) “You really ought to see Passion of the Christ” Tomei’s Cassidy tells her “sacrificial Ram,” describing Mel Gibson’s orgy of violence in an exchange barely rescued by the actors' sly, playful line readings. Nevertheless, actorly grace simply can't save The Wrestler from its muddle of obvious clichés and mixed metaphors. Robert D. Siegel's script takes us exactly where we're expecting to go: an aging star, his body failing him, finds spiritual redemption not through fatherhood or love (after all, this is a masculine melodrama, folks) but through transcendent self-sacrifice. I'm not sure if that makes him Jesus—he's more of a huggable Jake LaMotta—but I know it doesn't make him all that interesting.
Sure, The Wrestler is all about the handheld following shot, and I'm thrilled that Aronofsky has remembered how to hold a take for longer than five seconds. Beyond the faux-minimalism, though, he betrays the same fetishistic penchant for excess he has in the past: Male bodies are mutilated (here, with staples, barbed wire, and glass), while female bodies are put on sexual display. As he did in Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky seems to draw some sort of comparison between stomach-turning gore and sexual humiliation, but as in that film (remember “Ass to ass?” . . . shudder), it's all a little too lurid and hollow. What is he trying to say about men and women, bodies and aging, by showing us someone stapling a five-dollar bill to his face or a topless Tomei doing a pole dance? The answer, I'm afraid, is: not much, and he certainly doesn't indict us for wanting to look. There's something Mel Gibson–esque in The Wrestler's pornography of violence, and also something equally suspect about the performative nudity, in part because we've seen these things from him before. Maybe you can take the aesthetic out of Aronofsky, but it seems that you can't take Aronofsky out of the aesthetic. —Chris Wisniewski
Further musing on the replacement of serious dramatics with kitsch in American movies is too knotty a topic to waste on a time-waster like J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, but how else to explain the consideration of this canny, thoroughly unpleasant bit of exploitation as anything other than hokum dressed up in trendy shabby-chic duds? For me, this was little more than United 93 redux—co-opting 9/11 imagery with the deployment of cheap genre thrills—and surely the only reason it didn’t garner awards was because its monster-movie mayhem stands antithetical to the, ahem, principles of critics’ groups and official tastemakers. Expertly integrated visual effects do not a worthwhile movie make, especially when the resultant mise-en-scène has nothing more to offer than pummeling, repetitive, you-are-there verité.
Some recoupers heralded it as a “sick joke,” reveling in the spectacle of watching young, beautiful, empty-headed “hipsters” get what’s coming to ’em. Yet this defense only serves to take a shallow product to new and profound levels of frightening cynicism: so the young, white, and beautiful “deserve” to be annihilated in tableaux meant to recall 9/11? You certainly can’t then backtrack and claim “it’s only a monster movie,” which would contradict the entire project’s aesthetic vision, in which every angle and terrified scream is cribbed from home-video footage of that awful day. Yes, there are desecrated Manhattan monuments to hammer it home. I deeply resented having to go through that experience again, especially in the service of a Big Lizard movie. See also Diary of the Dead, The Dark Knight, and The Happening for more doses of desperately un-fun popcorn-movie medicine. —Michael Koresky
Diary of the Dead
There were certainly more obnoxious, more overrated, more hateful films over the past year than George A. Romero’s half-hearted run-through of his unwanted legacy, but there were fewer instances where the film/reception interface demonstrated such a drastic, and unintentionally condescending, disconnect. With apologies to Dickens, Diary is as dead as a doornail, and this must be understood if anything useful is to come of what follows. Atrociously acted by a cast of predominantly young unknowns (who are not really to blame for their uniformly dreadful performances), scripted in thudding, declarative theses, deriving absolutely zero stylistic benefit from its found-footage gimmick, Diary is a pitiful casualty of the critical feedback loop.
A resounding flop at the box office and among its horror-fan demographic, Romero’s latest has found its sole support from highbrow critics whose praise seems more a self-satisfied pat on their own backs for having “got” Romero in the first place than any realistic assessment of what is flickering across the screen in front of them. The decades since Dawn of the Dead have seen Romero’s cheekily amusing satirical impulses elevated to Balzacian heights by hyperbole-prone critics and slumming academics, and the poor soul has fallen unwilling victim to his own hype. With this film even more so than the thoroughly mediocre Land of the Dead, Romero is making the movies that he’s been told he was making all along—with the unavoidable stumbling block that he quite evidently does not possess the wit or prescience to actually make said movies.
The painfully banal “commentary” on our dread Media Age is not only hackneyed in its expression, it misses the two things that even the opportunistic, ideologically icky, and admittedly much-higher-budgeted Cloverfield understood: that personal digital technology has become more the texture of our (North American) daily life than the moral and existential determinant thereof; and that that same technology can be an effective suspense gimmick when used smartly. Romero, in these latter days bound to ideas that are not truly his, does not use it smartly, and that is his failing; but the inexplicable, covertly narcissistic praise directed his way regardless is still far more worthy of scorn than his eminently disposable and ultimately forgettable Diary. —Andrew Tracy
Shine a Light
Quality rock ‘n’ roll has been dying a slow, painful death in popular culture for decades now, but in 2008 it had its funeral fittingly presided over by the Rolling Stones, once the self-proclaimed Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World. Shine a Light can’t even be called a Stones concert performance because a performance has to take place in the present, in the unpredictable, nervous moment always containing the potential, no matter how little, for disaster. Instead, Shine a Light is a museum exhibit—for all its spontaneity and live reinvention of the band’s music it might as well be one of those Pink Floyd laser light shows or House of Blues veterans showcases. Bill Clinton introduces the boys (nothing like governmental authority to rev up the crowd), contemporary hacks Jack White and Christina Aguilera provide cameos to slightly offset the average on-stage age, and cellphone-waving models are unabashedly positioned at the front of Beacon theater stage to show the Glimmer Twins can still bring the ladies.
These pathetic displays may not arouse ire anymore—the Stones have been a touring nostalgia trip since Tattoo You—but I’d been unconsciously avoiding the truth for years until forced to confront it on the big screen with the help of number one fan Martin Scorsese’s contrived backstage drama and overcompensating fussy camerawork and MTV editing. There were far worse films this past year, but I can’t think of any more unintentionally depressing than one of the Rolling Stones at the height of their soullessness, further convincing audiences via money-making prowess and age-defying spectacle that the music itself need not be taken seriously, or even entertainingly. —Michael Joshua Rowin
Really? Jokes about vapid movie stars, grotesquely vicious (and hairy) Jewish studio bosses, ditzy mimbo publicity agents, Vietnam War flicks, egomaniacal British directors . . . this is “cutting-edge” industry satire circa 2008? Pleasantly broad at times, but more than a touch too much enamored of its own coyly self-mocking machismo, Tropic Thunder might have stood out from the comedy crowd this year by virtue of its not featuring man-children playing with toys, flashing their cock-and-balls, and falling for eminently patient and lifeless women, but more often than not Ben Stiller’s super-sized SNL sketch played like a stale comedy holdover from the Eighties.
And with the exception of Robert Downey Jr.’s black-faced ham Kirk Lazarus (though he is, let’s face it, rather one-note, however intentionally), the cast members do the utterly expected: Stiller has buffed his own personal brand of hesitant, deceptively self-effacing shtick to such a fine sheen he’s become nearly invisible onscreen, so his role as a neurotic Hollywood megastar is at this point redundant; Jack Black, fitfully amusing, once again does his best Chris Farley, this time as a coke-fiend with a bloodhound sense of smell; Nick Nolte is sadly wasted as a grizzled war vet (you don’t say!) meant to lend the film-within-the-film an air of authenticity; Steve Coogan continues to prance and flounce and act with his teeth rather than create a full character; Matthew McConaughey shows off his patented wide-eyed naiveté and cocky jocularity as a smarmy agent, etc. etc.
Comedy should ideally spring from the unexpected, and Tropic Thunder has less surprises in store than any five minutes of 30 Rock, whose own insider-y humor completely transcends “satire”; it purposely abstracts its behind-the-scenes behavior into surreal anecdotes. Even Tropic Thunder’s trump card, Tom Cruise in a fat suit, screaming expletives and gyrating his hips, is too hopelessly literal a conception to shock (plus, white guys dancing awkwardly to hip hop: never funny). Once one gets over the image of the movie star/punching bag dolled up in Jewface, there’s nowhere to go. Despite most beliefs to the contrary (most fueled by Cruise’s contrary set of beliefs), this is hardly the actor’s most “animated” or “loose” performance in years. Rather, it’s his desperate genuflection to his haters, and for that fact, a true disappointment. —MK
Carlos Reygadas is one of the most talented aesthetic opportunists currently working, and the very fact of his talent makes his opportunism hard to parse. There is a certain quaintness in stressing “sincerity of purpose” in our quick-hit, fast-return cinematic age, where impact alone often seems to be the accepted barometer of achievement—but the stress thereon (even when sincerity travels in the guise of irony) has always been one of the primary measures of art, and Reygadas’s admittedly striking manipulation of the frame, use of duration, and emphasis (or exploitation) of sensuous bodily textures are, at this point, simply the fractured qualities of a gifted charlatan.
Reygadas’s Dreyer-aping with his latest conversation piece takes inspiration/homage to both its extreme and its null point by quite literally copying Ordet’s unforgettable conclusion—minus the philosophical and spiritual rigor upon which Dreyer built his aesthetic foundation, instead substituting arbitrary art-house enigma in its place. Beyond the fraudulence of the film entire’s conception, moreover, Reygadas’s gorgeous compositions and self-contained visual sequences are the reductio ab absurdum of sinny-matick byoo-tay. Nearly every shot, from the spectacular, book-ending dawn and dusk to the self-consciously “austere” framings of the Mennonite households to the flagrantly show-off track in from a brightly sunlit exterior to a dim garage pit, insists upon its supremely isolated monumentality; each is designed as a stand-alone segment to showcase a specific Mood or display a specific Effect or get a particular Rise out of the audience. It would be disingenuous to deny the impressiveness of Reygadas’s assorted ploys, but like so many of his contemporaries north of the border, he is still more intent on impressing his prospective viewers than in creating an integral and committed work. —AT
Surely, you say, only the most miserly soul could balk at Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh’s ramble through north London’s blue-collar neighborhoods. True, it’s difficult to summon invective against such a slight and blithely intentioned bit of fluff, for fear of seeming a miserable curmudgeon. A woman slogging through lower-middle-class drudgery and all its attendant disappointments, frustrations, and inequalities with dogged cheer: who could find fault with that? Perhaps us same people who thought Wall-E’s second half was a blot on the landscape, compromising its rapturous first. Pixar’s treatise on consumerist culture was sweetly mordant, beautiful, and beautifully restrained as that wee robot compacted and stacked human detritus—poignant because its efforts were ultimately Sisyphean, struggling futilely to clean up after a culture that has abandoned its responsibilities. But then Wall-E ran aground as it shifted focus to a human race gone to seed; like the satire on those bulbous, post-apocalyptic ark-dwellers floating lazily through space, Happy-Go-Lucky wants for a goodly dose of nuance and subtlety. And Leigh is just as fat-fingered in his inability to find scraps of the sublime amongst the refuse.
A crack in the facade would be most welcome here, any suggestion that Sally Hawkins feels something akin to complicated emotions, any hint that she encounters folks who are more than one-note reverberations inside empty vessels—most piercingly, Eddie Marsan’s hollow xenophobic cipher. Hawkins’s turn feels unbelievable, through no fault of her own, because she’s asked to be oblivious to the most transparent social cues and become a character who blocks out pain, rather than one who assimilates and chooses to sublimate it. In that difference inheres a measure of humanity. People are capable of feeling multiple emotions simultaneously. I’ve seen them do it. More importantly, I’ve seen Leigh deftly demonstrate just how fraught and beautiful negotiating those contradictions can be, and therein lies the great chagrin when reflecting on Happy-Go-Lucky. It’s a trifle that strives to achieve staggeringly little in the way of complexity, and can’t even be bothered to attain its meager ambitions. This is not Naked’s cheery verso, because it gives such short shrift to the social problems embedded in the film’s setting, to the extent that Leigh becomes a tourist of conscience, borderline offensive by his half-hearted overtures at ethical sensibilities. Witness, for instance, the spectrum of social problems flatly (and perfunctorily) glossed over during cocktail hour between Hawkins and her friend. When these ills are discarded and forgotten as soon as they are raised, how can Leigh be comprehended as anything other than a white-wine welfarist? He dabbles with pathos so as to lend his puffball trifle some moral credentials before getting back to the cloying business at hand: Hawkins Gumping through the city’s depressed outer reaches as the syrupy, chirrupy lass with a child’s exuberance and a saint’s forbearance. –James Crawford
Rachel Getting Married
Once upon a time (say, five years ago), a movie like Rachel Getting Married would hardly be worth noting upon release, and it'd be odd to find any mention of it come January. That it's become some sort of a rallying cry for critics enamored of “character-driven,” “small” (dare I say “independent”) movies is less a testament to any brilliance on its part than to the paucity of the field around it. For most of its length, Demme and his cast of well-knowns and unknowns manage a fine, if utterly expected take on familial dysfunction brought on by nuptials. Tears, drug abuse, sex, sex in the basement, dark secrets bubbling to the surface—it's all here (though, to be fair, the central closet-skeleton is pretty stunning in its overheated offensiveness). The narrative starts to sputter a bit when it breaks for an impromptu concert film during the rehearsal dinner. It falls apart during Anne Hathaway's terrible, gratingly performed toast to her sister—can we please henceforth leave the so-painfully-really-awkward-it-hurts to those truly capable of handling it? And then, when it turns out that the rehearsal dinner performances were merely an opening act for the who's-who lineup of wedding performers, Rachel Getting Married shudders to a screeching halt. For a nearly endless twenty or so minutes.
How is it that the dude with dumb glasses from TV on the Radio manages to comport himself the best amongst all the firepower that Demme has on offer? Perhaps it’s because he’s wise enough to stay largely out of the way of the train-wreck minstrel show happening around him. And I mean “minstrel show” literally—there are so many beardos jamming throughout the film that for a second I though I might have flashed back to Rohmer’s Perceval, minus the Lego trees. Though at least in Rohmer’s artificial Renaissance Faire pageant we might have crossed paths with some shred of recognizable humanity. The brief upswing of romance and reconciliation at the finale pulls a few salvageable bits from the fiery wreckage, but it's hard to shake the fact that we've been treated to a movie improvised around a cool-kid concert rather than the other way around. It's obvious that Demme’s striving for a rich utopian multi-culti stew, and his goal is admirable enough, but his narrative choices leave audiences choking down aging hipster porridge. —Jeff Reichert
Courtney Hunt’s acclaimed first feature boasts any number of serious-Amerindie prerequisites: a hardscrabble milieu (the snowbound stretch of New York state right along the 49th parallel), an unvarnished visual style (what Armond White calls “smudged doorframe cinema”), and a relatively urgent, complex social issue (illegal border crossing) at its center. And yet Frozen River is ersatz all the way, a drab morality tale spackled together out of the sort of lives-on-the-margins clichés that its Sundance ’08 brethren Ballast elides.
Certainly, there’s finesse in Melissa Leo’s lead performance: this marvelous actress, so good during her stint on Homicide: Life on the Street (and somehow credible in Iñarritu’s ludicrous 21 Grams) brings concentration and an utter lack of vanity to the role of Ray, a struggling single mother trying to keep her family afloat after the departure of their deadbeat dad. Their poverty-line existence is rendered with telling details—Ray hoards miniature soaps from her convenience store jobs and resorts to giving the kids popcorn and Tang for breakfast—but the calculated effects quail in the face of logic: why doesn’t Ray steal some cans of tuna from work, too?
Circumstance—a.k.a. “contrivance”—brings her together with Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who supports herself by aiding human traffickers (for which she commandeers Ray’s car). That this mutually distrustful duo will come to understanding at some point during their ostensibly nerve-wracking adventures is a given, but their epiphanies feel imposed rather than spontaneous. Hunt’s directorial eye is reasonably sharp, but her proclivities for dead-obvious symbolism (as in a Christmas Eve miracle that rivals Crash’s “magic cloak” in audience-goosing manipulation) and screenwriting-class metaphors (one character is able to literally “see clearly” after getting a new pair of glasses) mark her not as a vital new talent but a distaff Haggis. —Adam Nayman