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Disappointments of the Year : 2009 Edition

December 28, 2009

While I have seen a lot of films this year, I have been relatively lucky as far as avoiding stinkers is concerned.  Following disastrous trips to the cinema to see films like Jumper and Quantum of Solace on the grounds that I had a card that allowed me to get in for free, I have resisted seeing rubbish.  The only exception being District 9, the film that effectively cured me of action films for good.

However, while I have avoided seeing terrible films, I have been lured to the cinema with high hopes only to see those hopes brutally crushed by terrible film-making.  These are my five most disappointing films of the year.

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1 – Synecdoche, NY (2008)  : Charlie Kaufman writes and directs a film so huge in scope and ambitious in production that it is effectively meaningless.  In a way, the film is almost a zen riddle as the meaninglessness of the film is reflected in the fact that the protagonist attempts to stage his own life only to realise that there are no meaningful narrative or hidden themes.  But to say that this is kind of the point of the film is, it seems to me, to engage in the same kind of apologism as you get for Michael Bay films : “Of course it’s dumb and badly written but that’s part of the fun!”.  I’ve now seen the film twice and while there are some decent scenes and ideas, the film left me feeling deeply dissatisfied both times I saw it.  A glorious failure but a profound one nonetheless.

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2 – The Cove (2009)  : This film arrived at British cinemas with a mountain of glowing reviews behind it.  Critics went on about how moving and how exciting this documentary is but I found it both dull and dishonestly preachy.  The dullness comes from the fact that the film does not deliver the goods.  The bulk of the narrative is devoted to a heist-type structure reminiscent of the equally over-rated Man on a Wire as a bunch of professional activists and tech people try to grab footage of a Japanese dolphin cull.  However, after much sneaking around, the footage is of nothing but some red water.  I was expecting a fucking charnel house!  To build up expectations and not deliver left me with the impression that, actually, the killing of dolphins might not be all that brutal at all, and after all, there are bigger problems in the world.  This dishonesty also leaches into many of the factual claims made by the film including some suspicious slight of hand where they go “in instance X, dolphin meat was poisonous” and then assume that all dolphin meat is poisonous and that the Japanese government are forcing Japanese people to eat tainted meat in order to keep some fishermen in a job.  While I can believe that the Japanese government is turning a blind eye in order to protect its fishing industry, the over-statement of questionable facts only diminishes the impact of the truth.

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3 – Thirst (2009)  : As a huge fan of the Vengeance trilogy, I was hoping for a return to form from Park after the disastrously sickly I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay.  What I got instead was a vampire film that never felt like anything more than a mess of clichés.  Firstly, at well over two hours, the film is self-indulgently long.  Secondly, the central relationship is not only entirely predictable, it is also almost identical to one explored in the grand-father of modern vampire films, Interview with the Vampire.  Oh they’re both blood-sucking fiends!  Oh one is more moral than the other.  The decision to make one of the vampires a priest turned out to be a complete waste of time as it served only to allow the script to rehash a load of clichés about temptation and faith.  On paper, this should have been a winner.  On screen it was a mess.

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4 – From Time to Time (????)  : I attended the world premiere of this film and had high hopes for it.  Not only is it directed by the man who wrote the screenplay for the upcoming adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but it is also the first film to be made out of Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe books which I adored in the wake of the 80s BBC adaptation.  This film (yet to be released I note) is an absolute catastrophe.  The plotting is horribly clunky, the decent cast are saddled with weak and under-written characters and the entire film is enclosed within a vomit-inducing fog of horrifyingly cloying sentimentality.  That and the bloke playing Tolly has lips like bruised vulva.

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5 – Up (2009)  :  Pixar have something of a hit-or-miss record as far as I am concerned.  I either adore their films (Toy Story, Monsters inc, The Incredibles, Wall-E) or I loathe them (Ratatouille, Cars).  I went to see Up with an open minded but I found a film that was poorly directed, poorly written and conceptually flawed.  On a conceptual level, the film wants to both have its cake and eat it.  It opens with an image of a couple growing old together and living well.  Then it tells the story of a member of this couple who has to realise that he doesn’t need to live great adventures because his life was one anyway.  So the film builds up to a conceptual breakthrough that the audience were aware of from the first 10 minutes of the film.  It’s as though The Crying Game had been called “She’s a Tranny!”.  This issue aside, I felt that for a film that was supposedly all about the exoticism of far-away places, the far-away place it travels to was actually quite empty.  Talking dogs and a giant bird? Hardly worth risking your life for.  The sub-plot about the insane adventurer also annoyed me as it clearly existed only in order to justify endless chase sequences.  For fuck’s sake… it’s a bird!  If he wants to kill the bird then let him!  Up also rubbed me the wrong way by being in 3D, a technology that continues to inspire headaches and cinema ticket price hikes with very little to offer in return.

  1. December 31, 2009 12:04 am

    I agree with you about Up. The intro was the only really worthwhile portion. And what’s with Pixar and women? Not one of their films passes the Bechdel test.


  2. December 31, 2009 9:28 am

    I’m glad someone else agrees about Up :-)

    As for the Bechdel Test, I’m sceptical about it. I think it’s useful in keeping track of genres and bodies of work that systematically ignore female characters but a) it doesn’t test for how those women are depicted and b) I’m not sure where the implied but not present ‘ought’ comes from out of the ‘is’ of Bechdel failure.

    Pixar’s a good case in point actually as while its films may well fail the Bechdel test (and I’m sure they do thinking about it) I’m not sure that one could really describe Pixar’s output as in any way sexist.


  3. January 2, 2010 5:07 am

    The third postulate of the Bechdel test covers your part a: The women in the film must have a conversation about something else besides the men (that is, they’re not there merely as vanity furniture).

    Pixar “disappears” women by omission, rather than by commission. They don’t mistreat female characters; they just don’t have more than the obligatory one per film (except for The Incredibles) and in all their films they have them do nothing but take care of their men.


  4. January 2, 2010 9:27 am

    Yes, but not talking about men does not preclude the indulgence of other stereotypes. Sex in the City is a load of vacuous ninnies talking about shoes, that compares unfavourably to someone who has something interesting to say about men.


  5. January 2, 2010 11:38 am

    Also I think the Bechdel test flows from a vision of female emancipation that is very much about ‘presence’ and the idea that the simple inclusion of women is enough to drastically alter the politics of an institution or cultural product.

    It’s the kind of idea that leads, in Britain, to all-female short lists for parliamentary seats.

    Frankly, I’m sceptical. I don’t think that complying or failing to comply with the Bechdel test means anything of consequence regarding sexual politics or the depiction of women.

    I also think that engaging with culture in terms of how many women are in something and what they’re talking about is a symptom of an over-indulgence in certain kinds of media.


  6. January 2, 2010 7:56 pm

    Why is women talking about shoes more vacuous than men talking about rugby?


  7. January 2, 2010 8:06 pm

    Also, the simple inclusion of more than a token female presence does change the dynamics (and, sometimes, the outlook) of a group. But it’s true that a critical mass is needed if such changes are to be more than transient and cosmetic.


  8. January 2, 2010 8:14 pm

    It’s not. But women talking about shoes can be more fatuous than women saying interesting things about men. Which is why the Bechdel test fails IMHO.


  9. January 2, 2010 8:28 pm

    Well, like all tests, theories, etc., the Bechdel is a précis of a larger issue. But it goes a long way towards illuminating the primitive state/status of women in most Hollywood films.


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