As we continue to celebrate 10 years of Spectrum Culture this week, we’re going to turn our attention to film. Throughout the past decade, our film staff has provided detailed analysis of the oeuvres of dozens of directors, plumbed the depths of streaming hell, processed the shock of influential films turning 20 and revisited and rediscovered films throughout cinematic history. But for this retrospective, we’re going to tap into one of our longest-running features, Criminally Overrated. So we’re taking a look back at the past 10 years and examining, year-by-year, the film that stands out as the most over-hyped, over-praised, or simply over-the-top.
Heath Ledger’s masochistic Joker is the wit, soul and flash of a movie that would otherwise be Gotham of Solace: ponderous, heavy-handed and almost devoid of style. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was met with such acclaim that it spawned a glut of “gritty” takes on superheroes, which still require ample suspension of disbelief despite their aspirations of realism. Its darkness is its overwhelming attribute, but compared to the grisly violence and baroque Metropolis envy of Tim Burton’s 1989 dark fantasia, this universe isn’t disturbing or alluring, just cold, remote and embarrassed. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy seems almost ashamed to be superhero movies: the Batmobile is the military-grade “Tumbler,” Selina Kyle can barely be considered a Catwoman and, in this film, Two-Face only gets a couple kills in before croaking unceremoniously, an anomaly rather than a supervillain. Perhaps if all the characters were played at Ledger’s wavelength the movie would be a mess, but the late Australian feels like an envoy from a better, fanciful film. The Joker’s catchphrase is too easy a critique. – Daniel Bromfield
Widely praised as a tough but realistic look at a side of American life you don’t often see in movies, Lee Daniels’ Precious—or, if you prefer, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire—also takes an uncomfortable approach to depicting tragedy. Daniels, alongside his screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher, lays thick the depths of the title character’s suffering, so much that they come across as pernicious in their overeager and overreaching attempt to wring any and all uplift from her story. The key issue seems to be their unwillingness (or their straight-up inability) to sympathize with her plight. The most horrific moments in the film are approached with a sense of stunned disbelief or gawking poverty-porn intrigue; others, like the infamous “fried chicken” scene, have tones of dark comedy, which doesn’t exactly pay proper respect to the struggles of people in the character’s position. It’s fair to say, perhaps, that the filmmakers are not required to show anyone in the film any compassion—if they set out to make an exploitation film, it’s safe to say they succeeded. But that’s clearly not the intention. (The stately, handsome style and awards season push by the studio are proof of that.) Precious confuses degradation with sympathy. It doesn’t ask audiences to ache for the character, but rather presents them reasons to feel better about their own lives. – Drew Hunt
When the haggard pro-wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) leapt from the turnbuckle for his signature finishing move—a jump implied to be his swan song in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film, The Wrestler—he did so as a tragic figure whose life only made sense when he was performing inside the squared circle. Two years later, Aronofsky returned with a similar climactic moment in Black Swan, ending his film with a troubled performer taking another lethal leap: Pro ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) throws herself off a faux cliff during her “perfect” performance in Swan Lake, before bleeding out from a self-inflicted stab wound incurred during the fight with her own dark side. Nina shreds her body and mind—destroying her feet and experiencing unsettling metamorphosis hallucincations—at the behest of her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who forces her to become more “uninhibited” in order to play the role, lest her rival, the brash, hypersexual Lily (Mila Kunis), get the Swan Queen lead. The film has aged horribly in the #MeToo era, as “uninhibited” is defined entirely through the male gaze, with Thomas taking liberties with his dancers and Nina’s torturous strive for perfection including literally destroying herself to achieve one moment of transcendent beauty. But simply from a cinematic standpoint, Aronofsky’s insistence on pulling the rug out from under the viewer with constant dream and hallucination fake-outs grows tiresome and contrived long before Nina finally kills herself for no other reason than the pursuit of subjective perfection. – Josh Goller
The impersonations of bohemian legends by actors like Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates are the big draw in Midnight in Paris, but I could see some schlub get paid to dress like a Gold Rush prospector at the San Francisco Dungeon for the same kicks. At least then I wouldn’t suffer through Owen Wilson putting his perfectly sensible wife through hell in pursuit of a quixotic dream as the camera brainlessly cheers on his individuality and the fortitude of his fantasy. Ultimately, the moral of the story is that virtually everyone romanticizes bygone eras and views them through rose-colored glasses, which is somewhat ironic given that Woody Allen has made a career of romanticizing certain aspects of iconic cities while ignoring whole other swaths of them. And that’s to say nothing of Allen’s penchant for humorizing the sleaze of philandering men. When Wilson tries to hide the earrings he stole from his wife to give to the French tour guide, we’re meant to laugh at his slapstick motions, and when he walks into the Paris night with the other woman at the end, we’re supposed to be happy for him. No wonder his wife fucked Paul. – Daniel Bromfield
Religion and survival come together in spectacular fashion in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, a visual marvel with a story that’s nevertheless as hollow as the hull of the lifeboat where much of it takes place. Following a shipwreck that sent his family and many of the animals from their zoo to their watery deaths, Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself stranded aboard the rickety vessel with a hyena, orangutan, zebra and, most notably, a tiger named Richard Parker. Even before the wreck, the adolescent Pi expresses wonder at virtually everything he experiences, considering himself equally a member of a handful of religions and treating their prophets “like superheroes.” But in the weeks he spends adrift, figuring out ways to survive by catching fish and trapping freshwater—all while avoiding becoming tiger chow—his survival is the result of his own fortitude and inventiveness and he experiences only nominal tests of faith. In this way, Life of Pi uses spirituality sentimentally, while embracing the good and completely ignoring the bad (or even the conflicts) of organized religion. And like religion, the whole tale ends up vague about what is fact and what is myth, treating naïve wonder as an inherent virtue in a lost-at-sea story that looks transcendent but ultimately has little depth. – Josh Goller
By 2013, film audiences—and film critics, especially!—should have been well versed in “Miramax-ing,” which essentially took an Oscar Bait campaign and turned the dial up to 1200. But apparently many had still not caught on, because Dallas Buyers Club was peddled as some transcendent, social-justice-y cinematic achievement so successfully that it not only triggered the McConaissance (for a guy who has since done what, exactly, beyond a few Lincoln commercials?) but actually managed to snag three Oscars.
The crux of the film’s issues is its hackneyed plot mechanics. It takes one of the darkest tales in recent US history and reduces it to the classic, you’ve-seen-this-a-thousand-times-already narrative about a scumbag gaining redemption through overcoming personal adversity. That is rather boring storytelling and does not do the crime of the Reagan regime ignoring the AIDS epidemic justice. But the real moral failing of Dallas Buyers Club is not that it uses worn-out film tropes, but rather that it utilizes them perniciously. Jared Leto—whose only acting triumphs are when David Fincher has him get his ass kicked—plays a trans woman who must die in order to complete the redemptive character arc for McConaughey’s insufferable bigot/protagonist. There it is: a powerless minority—the real victim of the systemic injustice the film is patting itself on the back for bringing to light—dying so that a straight white dude can realize he used to be an absolute shit. That is literally the plot of Dallas Buyers Club. And it’s great? – Ryne Clos
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a total celebration of technical proficiency. The backstage comedy-drama, noted for Michael Keaton’s famous central performance, features some of the most dexterous camera movements and complex set pieces you’re likely to ever see in movies, and it all unfolds, somehow, in a single shot. It’s easy to come away with a sense of awe after witnessing the considerable talent on display, but when the effect finally wears off—or, if you’ve managed to avoid being beaten over the head by the relentlessly intrusive score or catchpenny dialogue enough to see beyond all the formal wizardry—you’ll realize that there isn’t much happening in Birdman at all. Ultimately, the film is little more than an indulgent flex, and it’s really only valuable if you see cinema as a form of showboating. If film schools had frats (some of them basically do), they’d be playing this one every night, high-fiving each of Iñárritu’s “aesthetic choices” like they’re a Tom Brady touchdown. Things might be different in a film with a more married approach to form and content, but the film’s stylistic techniques are at a distinct remove from its thematic ideas; eventually, they overpower anything even resembling a theme or an idea. Even if Birdman is a movie where style is the idea, it’s still nothing more than catnip for the easily impressed. – Drew Hunt
With Prometheus, Ridley Scott made the bold statement to no longer really need characters in his movies. Instead, he populated his Alien prequel with barebones archetypes, including one character that simply identifies himself as a geologist. Scott bravely continued this trend with The Martian. No argument can be made against Scott’s visual expertise. All of his films are feasts for the eyes and The Martian is no exception, yet it defies credulity that one would be able to name a character outside of Matt Damon’s Mark Watney, and even that is arguable. Characters have been replaced by stars whose filmographies act as a shorthand for their function onscreen: Michael Peña is the wisecracking Latino; Jessica Chastain is the commander who has to be harder than her male colleagues but has terrible taste in music; Donald Glover is the quirky genius, etc. This lazy exercise in character-building lends itself to a two-dimensionality near parody. There are no stakes or even expectation of stakes when the filmmaker is telling us everything will unfold exactly as it always does, so what is supposed to be a drama about the ingenuity of the American spirit languishes as a paint-by-numbers mashup of Apollo 13 and Castaway. The Martian supposedly marked a comeback for Scott. It made a lot of money but continued a streak of high-end mediocrity. – Don Kelly
Deadpool is less a film and more a joke—granted, a decent joke—told several dozen times over the course of 108 minutes. Yet, the film was heralded and beloved—mostly because many saw Deadpool as proof of the cinematic blackhole of Marvel acknowledging that it was over-saturating the market with boring products that were less works of film and more money-printing operations. It was the superhero movie that also hated superhero movies, so if a viewer identified herself as someone who hated superhero movies, this was the superhero movie for her! With Deadpool, there was now a superhero film for everyone! Well, except black people, the LGBTQ+ community, women, Asian-Americans and people with any sense of taste.
Beyond its obviously-wrong-yet-still-effective marketing, Deadpool sucks for the same reason that all the other Marvel films suck: the setting remains a nondescript North American metropolis whose blandness of appearance is meant to say that the film could be set anywhere; the action pieces are horrifically framed, shot and edited and all the “humor” is aimed at 24-year-old straight white men who still think and act like they are 15. It is pointless to lambast Deadpool with zingers, as Nick Pinkerton roasted it so beautifully that no more could be said (those who can read that without laughing may actually enjoy Deadpool, the edgy and self-aware film from Marvel), but it is still tempting, because the film so thoroughly deserves our collective derision. – Ryne Clos
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the kind of film that screams to have its relevancy noticed, but despite whatever message writer/director Martin McDonagh hoped to adhere to, his audience gets lost in the film’s essential cruelty. The Irish auteur creates a narrative that is all sharp edges and plot twists so outlandish that it is impossible to believe that his two lead characters wouldn’t be in jail an hour or so into the movie. One character assaults a man and throws him out a window in broad daylight and the other is the most likely suspect in the arson of a police station, yet they’re both breathing free air while they drive off to possibly commit murder at the end. The superstar cast led by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell make this endeavor a tolerable watch and the awards for their work are understandable, but its acclaim is overdone. McDonagh has offered a keen sense for the dark impulses and humor of the human condition in his past work, yet Three Billboards offers little more than veneer. – Don Kelly