This is the first of several year-end wrap essays detailing the year in film. First up, here are ten films that qualify as 'underrated'. Some of them are good, if not great films, that were unfairly maligned. Others were mediocrities that nonetheless did not deserve the level of scorn which they received and/or had content that was worth pointing out and praising within the flawed final product. As always, they are in alphabetical order, with one special mention at the end for the 'most underrated film of 2011'. I'm sure anyone who has been reading me this year can guess which film that is...
The Change-Up (review)
This Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds vehicle was a thoughtful comedy trapped inside an R-rated gross-out comedy. But while many called the film sexist or conventionally crude, they missed the nuanced and sympathetic performance from Leslie Mann as a justifiably-annoyed wife at the end of her patience, as well as the only film this year that let Olivia Wilde express anything resembling a personality underneath her unquestionable good looks. As always, Jason Bateman took a character that could have been a cliche and made him into a human being. The core problem with the film is its R-rating, which forced Ryan Reynolds to dive headfirst into needless vulgarity and the kind of anti-social behavior that would be considered mentally unbalanced in the real world. But, warts and all, the film has a real understanding about the double-edged sword of both being a working father and a single bachelor. Neither are sugarcoated and neither come off as automatically superior to the other.
Green Lantern (review)
Ryan Reynolds took it on the chin this year, mostly based on the idea that he was supposed to be some kind of 'open a movie all-by yourself' movie star. Nevertheless, let's not pretend that Ryan Gosling's Green Lantern would have opened any better than this film's $52 million debut. Moreover, the film was released in the middle of a whirlwind of comic book films, and this film's greatest sin was not standing outside its genre in any real way. Unlike X-Men First Class or Captain America, Green Lantern is a relatively standard comic book superhero film that doesn't have a foothold in any other genre. So those predisposed to not like comic book films had nothing else to grasp onto. Moreover, the film is indeed quite flawed, with a dreadfully-paced second act, a shoe-horned romantic subplot, and a protracted origin story that felt constrained by budget even as the final product cost $200 million. But hidden behind the green-screen work is a terrific performance by Peter Skarsgaard and the usual Martin Campbell standards: adult characters who act like adults and engage in adult conversations, a real-world environment that feels like the real world, violence that is never played for laughs, and action sequences that are shot and edited with an emphasis on coherency. Green Lantern may not be a great comic book adventure, but the fact that it is merely an 'okay' one doesn't make it a failure.
In a year overflowing with cartoons, this one pretty disappeared without a trace in about a week. While it's not quite as sharp as the shockingly witty original, it has most of the same elements that made the original such a treat: a lack of modern-day pop culture references (there are a few, but you've seen them in the trailer), truly weird and creepy villains, and a genuinely witty screenplay that will make the adults laugh while entertaining the kids. It may not be art, but I laughed far more than I was expecting, and it easily merits inclusion in the top half of the 43,000 cartoons that were released this year.
While most critics carped about this needlessly 3D-converted action picture in terms of its effectiveness as a horror film, most missed that it was clearly a western, a supernatural variation on The Searchers. As such, it is surprisingly effective. Violent and jolting when it needed to be (how this got a PG-13 I'll never know), and just short enough to not wear out its welcome, Charles Scott Stewart's Priest is the very definition of a down-and-dirty 'B' movie. It uses the iconography of the western to great effect and this 'cowboys and vampires' adventure is certainly more of a credit to its genre than that other much more expensive western hybrid. While I am always hesitate to recommend that viewers hold off on seeing a good movie in the theaters, some films are just made for a Saturday night Blu Ray rental.
Something Borrowed (essay)
Here is a film so unfairly maligned that I wrote a whole essay about it. Is this Kate Hudson/Ginnifer Goodwin romantic drama a good movie? Not really, it's too long and gets most of its storytelling out of the way by the end of the first third, leaving the rest to slowly draw out the emotional consequences and eventually get around to the resolution. But the level of vitriol directed at the female protagonists based on their actions, the sort of actions that any number of male characters have engaged in without raising an eyebrow, makes this film a classic example of how female characters are viewed on a different level of sympathy and morality than male characters. Not all films involving women are romantic comedies. And, on a slight digression, not all films starring Sarah Jessica Parker are riffs on Sex and the City. The characters of Something Borrowed engage in flawed and complicated behavior in what is clearly a drama. Whether the film works or not, their actions did not make them villainous and the film deserved a fairer read.
While clearly the weakest of the Spy Kids films, this fourth entry is a fascinating film when viewed in the prism of the deteriorating family life of its director. While the initial three entries depicted a pretty standard nuclear family, with the reassuring message that all will go well if families work together, the world of Spy Kids 4 is a darker, more pessimistic one. Sometimes mothers die and the step-mother has to try to fill the void. Sometimes villains are merely doing what they do in a futile attempt to undo a mistake that cost them everything. Playing like a kid-friendly version of the Saw franchise, Spy Kids 4 is a fascinating look at the meaning of family from a director whose personal behavior very-nearly wrecked his.
Straw Dogs (review)
Unfairly maligned in most circles for daring to remake a Peckinpah film that was never among his best, Rod Lurie's revamp of Straw Dogs works as a stand-alone drama which amps up the 'clash of cultures' parable. Aside from the fact that it's a remake, Straw Dogs is just the sort of thoughtful, character-driven, and socially-conscious dramatic thriller that we claim we want out of Hollywood. For what it's worth, Lurie's Straw Dogs is every bit as good as Peckinpah's.
It was a film that critics were itching to tear apart, and the following week's gay-slur controversy involving director Brett Ratner (essay) basically killed the film on any conversational level. But lost amid the anti-Ratner mob and the ensuing hysteria was a perfectly good comedic drama that featured strong performances from Ben Stiller and Alan Alda and a screenplay that respected the reality of its narrative and mostly respected the intelligence of its audience. The film loses some steam in the overlong third act, but the first third works as a thoughtful and engaging drama that notes its social topicality without reveling in it. It also earns points for an uncommonly satisfying epilogue. Brett Ratner may not be among the great directors, but he respects the reality of his films and knows how to cast top-notch actors and stay the hell out of their way.
Your Highness (review)
Another film that isn't quite 'good', but nor is it the glorified war crime that it was treated as upon its release. David Gordon Green's comic homage to 1980s sword-and-sorcery films suffers from too much pot humor, wasting the comic talents of Zoeey Deschanel, and letting Danny McBride improv a bit too much, but I admired the film's genuine originality and the supporting cast's commitment to their comparatively 'straight' characters. James Franco is a sympathetic heroic lead and Natalie Portman earns real laughs by indulging the bloodthirsty nature of what could have been a stock 'hey look, it's a hot girl who can kill stuff!' cliche. Your Highness is not a successful comedy, but it tries for something a little different and I admire the attempt, if not quite the execution.
And the most underrated film of the year...
review, essay, essay)
Flawed and compromised as it is, Zack Snyder's angry feminist action fantasy is a brutally critical look at how culture (especially geek culture) accepts wanton misogyny against half the planet as a matter of course. It dares to ask whether it is even possible to have empowered females in action/fantasy films, since the very image of attractive women doing action is so often judged as titillating whether it is or not. The sheer willingness of so many critics to ignore the painfully obvious subtext and focus not on the movie itself but arguably the way in which it was advertised showed a shocking lack of even token effort on the part of the very people who are supposed to dissect cinema and/or look below the surface. It is the very thing we say we want in our blockbuster films - Imaginative and original fantasies that offer real ideas and potent criticisms of social norms while also containing a flurry of jaw-popping cinematic eye-candy. Hell, even if you don't want to give Snyder credit for the subtext, he has given us three of the best action sequences of the year, all edited for maximum clarity and larger-than-life opulence. Sucker Punch is what we say we want, and the fact that we so brutally and thoughtlessly rejected it sends a dangerous message to those who would add a little nutrition to our cinematic candy corn.
And that's a wrap. What were your picks for the year's most underrated films, and what are your thoughts on my personal choices? Next up, the 'overrated' list, where I basically tell you why movies you thought were great were actually not that great if not outright terrible. Yes, it's a somewhat arbitrary task, but so be it.