Reverse Shot’s 11 Offenses of 2009

Why do we put ourselves through it? Why relive those moments and movies that made us question our very livelihood? As usual, the most puerile, rancid films largely were not tepid genre flicks or bloat-budgeted blockbusters, but prestige pictures with inflated senses of their own (nonexistent) importance and cynical, audience-baiting hits that commentators and mindless critics like to claim really "tapped into the zeitgeist." So, here it is, our annual 11 Offenses column, which never fails to make our most devoted haters froth at the mouth and spout ad-homonym attacks on our character: “Why don’t you go out and make a movie yourselfs if you think your so smart. Their is no better movie this year then Up in the Air. Hahaha, critics are just disgruntelled directors. Or may be you’ve never loved any one. LOL, go get LAYED!”

Without further ado, here’s the doo-doo, with dishonorable mention going to Adam (Asperger’s syndrome is cute!), I’m Gonna Explode (French New Wave-cribbed teen rebellion is cuter!), and Observe and Report (date-rape is the cutest!). Capsules by Jeannette Catsoulis, Matt Connolly, Eric Hynes, Michael Koresky, Adam Nayman, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, Andrew Tracy, and Chris Wisniewski.

Ugh. Rob Marshall, following the epic catastrophe of Memoirs of a Geisha, returned to the genre that spawned his atrocity of a career, again taking a blind stab in the direction of his idol Bob Fosse’s defining Cabaret, and poking his audience right in the eyes. The difference between Marshall and Fosse is finally clear: one of these men understands how movies and musicals work; the other is a preening, talentless hack. In the wake of Nine’s colossal failure, folks have been blaming the genre, but who besides Harvey Weinstein thought Rob Marshall was a filmmaker anyway? Especially when paired with Maury Yeston’s weak source material, should we have expected anything less than utter disaster? With its dizzying editing, choreography by way of Hooters, celebrity-roast casting, and horrifying original songs (“Cinema Italiano,” in which Kate Hudson warbles her way through the nonsensical rhyming of “prism” and “neorealism” is especially atrocious), Nine is so weak it even makes Daniel Day-Lewis look clueless. Class acts like Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, and Sophia Loren sully themselves unexpectedly; throughout, it seems as though only Marion Cotillard might escape this mess with some shred of dignity intact—until her director literally strips it from her, in a fastidiously demeaning final number that sees her “liberating” herself from her clothes. As the credits rolled, I glanced around the packed theater and most of my fellow audience members looked as though they’d just been to a wake. They might as well have. Let’s hope 2009 won’t be remembered as the year the movie musical died for good. All hyperbole aside, Nine is not just among the worst movies of the year, it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. —JR

The Hangover
“Get over it, dude, it’s just a comedy!” come the inevitable voices of defense should I question the authoritative masculinity and dubious humor of such a film as The Hangover. As though comedies were somehow inherently resistant to ideological examination. Quite the inverse: it’s always easiest to map out a given era’s mores, ethical standards, and blind spots by looking at its comedies, even the most sophisticated of which isn’t free of contemporary pandering; recall the black cook’s monkey shines in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, which is often held up as an exemplar of the form. The Hangover, however, has no such illustrious auteur to fall back on; here we have Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Road Trip), whose only discernible talent thus far has been his ability to give mewling overgrown man-babies just the kind of movies they want—and deserve. His “surprise blockbuster” (read: future sequel spawner) The Hangover was barely taken to task for its casual gay-baiting (“Paging Dr. Faggot!” was just one of three homphobic jokes made in the film’s first five minutes), sexism (do I even have to say at this point that the women are either strippers/whores with hearts of gold or castrating devil-wives?) and racism (the only black character is a drug dealer; the villain is a limp-wristed Asian who flaunts his tiny dick on camera), presumably because it’s “all meant in good fun.” Well, I can’t recall having less fun at a movie last year than while watching this mean-spirited mess, which rather than craft genuine jokes lazily trots out one “shocker” set piece after another (Look, it’s a tiger! Look, it’s a baby! Look, it’s Mike Tyson!) while its slack-jawed protagonists simply look on from the sidelines. It’s movie as circus sideshow, appropriate for a paean to Vegas excess. —MK

The Lovely Bones
For a while, you think Peter Jackson’s turgid adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestseller will only be an aesthetic failure—the all-over-the-place performances, the lumpy pacing, the assaultive camerawork and editing, the tone-deaf montage of “drunk Grandma’s household follies.” Even Jackson’s celebrated CGI wizardry feels off; his color-saturated vision of the afterlife has all the visual dexterity and emotional weight of an iTunes screensaver. Pushing this mess into the offenses category, though, are its bogus claims of empathy toward its grieving characters. Yes, we’re technically following both murdered 14-year-old Susie Salmon’s (Saoirse Ronan) posthumous journeys through the “in-between” and her parents’ (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) various stages of mourning back in the realm of the living. But these scenes are all shopworn histrionics, quickly shoved aside for what truly gets Jackson’s rocks off: Susie’s squirmy, suspiciously mustachioed killer, George (Stanley Tucci). He’s the rapt object of tawdry directorial fascination, every eye twitch and sweaty palm captured in luridly lit close-ups that seem to leave a film of grease across the screen. The point isn’t to shed light on George’s twisted psyche; the film’s level of investment becomes clear enough when the character is literally thrown off a cliff after serving his narrative purpose. Rather, he provides the perfect conduit through which to exploit the titillating details of child murder, no more so than in a truly repulsive sequence in which Susie gazes upon the moldering corpses of George’s other young victims as she learns the details of their gruesome demises. That Jackson dares to swaddle this slop in the blanket of pseudo-spiritual uplift (no really, it’s all about healing!) reveals how profoundly disingenuous his project is: a moist-eyed gaze that cannot hide the leer within. —MC

Up in the Air
If the mainstream response to Jason Reitman’s spare-a-tear-for-the-corporate-shark tale has been predictable (laughs + heartbreak + topical relevance = boffo!), what’s more worrisome is that some thoroughly estimable critics, in responses ranging from lukewarm to mildly positive, have recommended that we go easy on the thing—that despite the pretensions to penetrating social commentary strewn throughout this sleek trip through the white-collar wasteland of Depression II, all in all it’s a tidy little job of studio carpentry. But its aesthetics (such as they are) are thoroughly bound up with its core ideological premises and insulated, pandering perspective. All of the supposed jabs at downsizer-for-hire Ryan Bingham (Clooney)—his Bond-like efficiency at navigating the gauntlet of airline protocol, the encyclopedic knowledge of acronymic courtesy services he displays in his verbal sparring with his distaff mirror image, Alex (Vera Farmiga), their synchronized postcoital duet for laptop—carry an undertone of admiration. It is the film's attempt to apply star-driven glamour and rote romantic comedy maneuvers to a raw and urgent economic reality, however, that truly destines Up in the Air for its particular circle in the netherworld. The need to keep Clooney this side of charmingly rakish leads to some particularly repugnant rhetorical acrobatics: when Bingham calms J.K. Simmons’s angry downsizee by reminding him of how his white-collar drudgery diverted him from his youthful passion for (no kidding) French cuisine, we’re clearly supposed to applaud the “human” touch he brings to an inhuman process. Worse than this, though, is that the grim spectacle of mass unemployment is used only as backdrop for Bingham’s wholly self-directed epiphany, the yearning for hearth and home that lies dormant beneath his praise of perpetual rootlessness. As always in Hollywood fare, the world’s troubles extend no further than the obstacles to our own personal happiness—and by rubbing this navel-gazing ethos so blithely up against some of the most endemic problems of our North American society, Up in the Air is not only inadequate, but insulting. —AT

An Education
What, you might ask, could possibly be offensive about An Education, the touted coming-of-age drama directed by Lone Scherfig and featuring the crowned “breakout performance of 2009” by Carey Mulligan? Certainly, Mulligan isn’t the problem—the button-cute 24-year-old won us over, despite being nearly ten years too old (and wise) for her role. And Scherfig’s atonal directorial choices—that literal last-minute introduction of voiceover, the incongruous handheld camerawork in the Parisian interlude—distracted more than they offended (by contrast, see Precious). No, the real problems with An Education rested with its screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby, adapted from Lynn Barber's memoir. In a year when sensitive critics scrutinized the ideological appropriateness of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man to death, An Education got a free pass. But next to those expertly assembled, intellectually searching films, Scherfig's is an ideological mess. What, exactly, does Mulligan's Jenny learn over the course of An Education’s 95 minutes? As far as I can tell: Don't question authority, not in the form of your anti-Semitic father (Alfred Molina) when he insists that you go to Oxford so you can make a good living (happiness be damned!); not in the form of your anti-Semitic head-mistress (Emma Thompson) when she ridicules you for valuing life experience over an ostensibly worthless degree. Oh, and whatever you do, never trust a Jew, especially one with a lousy British accent (sorry, Peter Sarsgaard). Because Jews will steal your maps, your virginity, and your innocence. This wasn't even subtext. An Education was, however unintentionally, the anti-feminist, anti-Semitic retro-Sixties conservative screed of the year. —CW

Tony Manero
Quite an achievement, this: Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain manages to implicate twentieth century demon Augusto Pinochet in crimes for which the vile dictator was not guilty. Through broad-stroked subtext, Tony Manero implies a connection (spiritual? metaphoric? sartorial?) between the systemic despotism of Pinochet and a weaselly, shock-spontaneous murderer of those who stand in the way of his John Travolta impersonation. I’m not asking for literalism. You want historical license? Take it. Want to serrate your blunt work of genre with satire? Go for it. But please, think your metaphors through; or at least concoct a less tired and bankrupt conduit than an obsessive, Bickle-blank antihero. For all I know, Pinochet was just as disappointed when Grease replaced Saturday Night Fever at the old movie house (indeed, the former can’t compare with the latter), but I’m reasonably sure that Pinochet, in his wildest disco dreams, never personally rammed a man nose-first against a steel movie projector in response. Or maybe it was the culture of Pinochet’s Chile that made him do it. Because in those days, it would seem, things were so effed up that a man could escort an old woman home, fist-bludgeon the life out of her, steal her television, and then serenely feed the cat. Sorry, but the Pinochet regime’s very real record of sanctioned torture, murder, and other physical and civil crimes against humanity aren’t successfully evoked by the spectacle of a man petulantly shitting on another’s leisure suit (forget politics—that’s just impolite). And sticking a TV in the corner of the frame, blaring military pomp and circumstance, doesn’t either; it’s just plain lazy, and draws attention to a relevancy that’s not being achieved. Like 2009’s other import of bad faith, Aleksey Balabanov’s Cargo 200, Larrain’s film is rank exploitation lightly perfumed with (and wholly unjustified by) supposed context. —EH

(500) Days of Summer
In most criticism, the cliché is king; writers will use a word without truly considering the meaning of that word or whether it applies to the work at hand. As an example, the term “inventive” was thrown around willy-nilly to describe 2009’s designated date movie, (500) Days of Summer. But what does Marc Webb’s proudly anti-romantic comedy do differently? A nasty opening dedication (“Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”), which comes from a place of ill will, however ironically it tries to cloak it, firmly situates the film as a look at the fairer sex from a distinctly male point of view. Nothing new there, if one is to only consider, say, the past century of cinema. Indeed, (500) Days of Summer (oh, and parenthetical note: I hate including the title’s stupid parenthetical) is all about a mysterious, vacant, unattainable female object of desire, named Summer (typecast Zooey Deschanel), from the pain-wracked gaze of her puppy-dog paramour, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who just wants to be given the time of day. If throughout, you get the nagging suspicion that Summer is more a concept than a complete character, Webb assures you at the film’s climax that the feeling is mutual: the deus-ex-machina love interest who might help Tom finally move on from Summer is named . . . Autumn. That’s right, women are not just women: they’re seasons. Forces of nature. What else does (500) Days of Summer “invent”? Oh, right, an out-of-sequence love affair that was perfected way back in 1977, when it was called Annie Hall. —MK

District 9
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 might have gone down as the fanboy film of the year if not for James Cameron raising the bar in the ain’t-it-cool? sweepstakes with that other radicalization sci-fi narrative. That I’ve chosen to single out District 9 for scorn should not be taken as an endorsement of Avatar, which has correctly been taken to task (at least in some quarters) for its lazy Iraq allegory and condescending racial politics. But if Avatar’s equations (trees = good; 99.9% of humans = bad) are stupid, District 9’s coded evocation of apartheid—with nine-foot-tall insectoids standing in for South African blacks—is downright offensive. Blomkamp, whose much-YouTubed Landfall trilogy—a series of shorts set in Halo’s video-game universe—impressed enough people (including Peter Jackson) to land him a feature filmmaking deal, may have been born in South Africa, but his understanding of the country’s post-Soweto history seems facile at best. For starters, are we really supposed to believe that anything—even the arrival of an alien mothership in the skies over Johannesburg—could constitute a clean slate for the country’s whites and blacks? (You’d need a World Cup rugby game for that, eh, Clint?) Even if we buy this conceit (derived from The Outer Limits’ episode “The Architects of Fear”), Blomkamp’s usage of brutal, menacing Nigerian gang bangers as secondary villains—gun-runners who antagonize both the country’s “Prawn” population and bumbling Afrikaner pencil pusher turned alien mutant Wikus van der Mewe (Sharto Copley)—suggests he’s not above the propagation of stereotypes. And it would be easier to take Wikus’s symbolically loaded transformation into the Other (which begins when he’s accidentally sprayed by some bug fluid during a ghetto raid) seriously if it wasn’t ultimately a pretense for his being able to operate the aliens’ biochemical weaponry—a development that allows District 9 to abandon its thin veneer of social commentary (and erratically deployed faux-documentary textures) to become the live-action Halo shoot-em-up its creator wanted to make all along. —AN

Precious: Based on the Novel ''Push” by Sapphire
A catalogue of humiliations in search of a narrative, this punishing survey of incest, ignorance, and over-ingestion seems more concerned with putting the ‘boo!’ in taboo than with any meaningful social inquiry. Precious: Based on the Novel ''Push” by Sapphire is a hymn to excess, from its calorically inflated star all the way to its bloated title. Set in 1987 Harlem—the better to ensure no white people wander into the frame and distract us from the literal and metaphorical blackness of the heroine’s plight—the film wallows in the hellish life of a pregnant, obese teen for whom the question “Who’s your baby-daddy?” is especially fraught. Gingerly navigating an adjectival minefield of racism, sexism, and sizeism, doughty critics (still mostly white and male, if not all svelte) focused on acting over avoirdupois, turning with relief to Mo’Nique’s monstrous performance as a ghetto Joan Crawford to fill their word count. Meanwhile, director Lee Daniels drenched the screen with sizzling trans-fats and bubbling cholesterol, forging the link between obesity and poverty—and between fried eggs and sweaty testicles—with significantly more relish than purpose. From its hopelessly over-the-top fantasy sequences to its abundant faith in the curative powers of benevolent lesbian schoolteachers, this urban horror movie deserves a new MPAA rating: XXXL. —JC

Cold Souls
Last night I had a dream about Sean Penn—anybody interested in funding my first film about it? That's not far from the story behind Sophie Barthes’s feature debut, Cold Souls, “inspired” by a dream the French director had about the physical embodiment of Woody Allen's soul. Not the worst foundation for a movie, perhaps, but Barthes made the terrible decision to filter what might have been the oneiric result of an unagreeable midnight snack through her opportunistic pilfering of the Charlie Kaufman screenwriting formula. Woody Allen became the far less interesting and far more annoying personage Paul Giamatti (Allen declined to participate in the project, busy as he is making his own bad films), Giamatti played himself, and the result was the most shamelessly derivative effort of the year. Confused, anemic, and utterly unfunny, Cold Souls pretends to raise philosophical and spiritual issues with a stilted meta-critique of the creative artist's painful labors, but instead unintentionally displays the worst of thespian vanity—would Giamatti or anybody else agree to star in such a boring and imitative film like Cold Souls if they had to play a fictional star suffering a spiritual crisis? Highly doubtful. —MJR

New York, I Love You
It’s almost shocking that this omni-bust’s biggest problem isn’t its unapologetic racial and sexual gentrifying (zero African-Americans or queers amidst all of its many romantic couplings meant to stand in for the marvelous melting pot that is Manhattan?). No, that would be the endless string of inanities that make up its wretched 103-minute running time. Rather than concise short fictions, the directors commissioned to work on this alleged love letter to New York instead farted out a bunch of risible anecdotes about “contemporary living” that managed to be both disposable and histrionic. The cast was a mix of the unforgivably bland (thespians on hand include Orlando Bloom as a greasy downtown musician; Christina Ricci as his saucer-eyed muse; and Natalie Portman, going bald as an Orthodox Jew bonding with a Jain diamond merchant) and the dazzlingly, hilariously bad (Shia LaBeouf limping like Igor as, it’s true, a Russian bellhop serving a lusciously suffering Julie Christie; Hayden Christensen playing tough as a sneaky thief with a faux-gruff smoker’s voice). Rarely have the various segments of an anthology film been so uniformly unwatchable; even the mostly ghastly Paris je t’aime had its moments, and in the Sixties, when these things were in vogue, directors like Godard, Marker, Pasolini, and Varda were sometimes found on their rosters. Who do we have in 2009? Fatih Akin, Yvan Attal, Shekhar Kapur, Allen Hughes, Brett Ratner—the language of hackery is universal. —MK